Category Archives: Politics

waterfall

What Price Clean Water?

The Cuyahoga River last caught on fire in 1969, but had burned uncontrolled on numerous occasions dating back to the latter half of the the nineteenth century. The river flows north through northern Ohio and Cleveland into Lake Erie. Numerous industries discharged wastes into the river to the extent that at times the river was coated with several inches of highly flammable sludge.

Cuyahoga on Fire

Cuyahoga on Fire

The 1969 fire along with a growing environmental movement resulted in the passage of the Clean Water Act in 1972. The waters of the nation have benefited from the laws, but problems still exist, especially when it comes to our demand for cheap energy in the form of fossil fuels and even cheaper food.

In one of the ironies of our time, a chemical used to clean coal means that the drinking water of Charleston, West Virginia is not so clean. In January 2014 several thousand gallons of an industrial chemical leaked from a Freedom Industries storage tank on the banks of the Elk river, just upstream of the drinking water intake for several hundred thousand people. To this day, some residents of the area refuse to drink the water as it still smells faintly of licorice.

In North Carolina, the Dan River has recently been contaminated by a pipe failure from a coal ash containment pond owned by Duke Energy. The river and even groundwater are now polluted with sludge that is highly contaminated with Arsenic, a heavy metal that is both toxic and carcinogenic. There are fears that the massive 40,000 ton spill is not over as another pipe may be leaking.

What these Clean Water Act violations have in common is that both were easily preventable. Had the responsible corporations taken care of business, the spills would never have happened. And had the responsible regulatory agencies done their job the problems that caused these spills would have been prevented. But no, businesses don’t want to spend extra money and taxpayers don’t want to properly fund the agencies that provide oversight.

A similar disaster is brewing in Arkansas. In our case it is not the result of industrial use of fossil fuels but the industrial wastes from a confined animal feeding operation (CAFO.) The hog farm, the first of its type in the watershed of the crown jewel of Arkansas, the Buffalo National River, was permitted by a deeply flawed process. The Arkansas Department of Environmental Quality granted a general permit for the operation. It did not consider the sensitive location in the Buffalo watershed, nor consider the uniquely porous limestone geology of the Ozarks.

CAFO

CAFO

Thousands upon thousands of gallons of liquid wastes, urine and feces, are contained in two ponds. The permitted design required only enough free board to contain a 25 year rain event. When the dirt bank ponds are breached, they will likely fail catastrophically, releasing the wastes into Big Creek and a few miles downstream, the Buffalo River National Park. Even during times when the banks hold, the clay lined ponds are allowed to leak wastes through the soil. Because of the Karst topography, the wastes can make their way rapidly to pollute the nation’s fist national river. Its not a matter of if but when.

Why do we continue to set ourselves up for these kinds of disasters? Because of short sightedness. Because we just can’t seem to learn that proper regulation of industry takes careful oversight, and the funding to provide for it.

Affordable Care Act

Disincentivizing Work

The Republicans have a bright and shiny new word they’re using to bash the Democratic Party in general and Obamacare in particular — Disincentivize. As in Obamacare disincentivizes Americans to work.

This characteristically disingenuous attack on The Affordable Care Act (ACA) comes from a purposeful misinterpretation of a recent Congressional Budget Office report titled “The budget and Economic Outlook: 2014 and 2024.” About 30 pages out of 175 addressed the ACA.

The point the Republicans tried to exploit was a couple of lines that said “The ACA will reduce the total number of hours worked, on net, by about 1.5 percent to 2.0 percent during the period from 2017 to 2024, almost entirely because workers will choose to supply less labor — given the new taxes and other incentives they will face and the financial benefits some will receive.”

See, ensuring access to healthcare takes away jobs! No, not really. What the report said is some people who previously had to keep a full-time job just to be insured may not need to. The ACA ensures that affordable insurance is available to individuals regardless of pre-existing conditions or income.

People who can now get insurance on the open market can decide to work less, or retire a little earlier than they would have. If a person retires early, this opens up a job for another worker — a far cry from taking away jobs.

Once it was clear that jobs weren’t being taken away, the Republicans switched to the disincentivise mantra. This is their argument: If a person doesn’t have to work to maintain access to expensive health insurance, then they won’t work. Access to affordable healthcare makes us lazy. Really, that’s what they think.

Republicans have traditionally resisted just about everything which contributes to the quality of life. People are lazy because they would like to be able to spend more time with their family? People are lazy because after working long and hard, and saving their money, would then like to retire a little earlier? People are lazy because they would rather not work two jobs if they didn’t have to? Really?

Americans already work the longest hours among workers in the industrialized world. That means we have less time to be with our families, less time to enjoy time with friends, less time to volunteer for our church or club. What is wrong with this picture?

You know what else disincentivizes people to work? Those things that contribute to the enjoyment of the American dream — the 40-hour work week, overtime pay, Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, and now the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act.

Should we get rid of the mortgage deduction for home ownership and the dependent allowances on our income tax? Saving money disincentivizes work? Meanwhile, the Republican controlled House of Representatives will be taking the next two weeks off, on our dime. What’s that about disincentives to work?

wind turbine

Windy Arguments

The internet can be a veritable fount of information, but also a source of of disinformation. It is easy for an industry to hire bloggers to write confusing, disingenuous, and even deceptive posts about other industries to gain a competitive advantage in the marketplace. No where is this more obvious than the struggle between the fossil fuel industries and sustainable energy supplies such as wind and solar.

Wind generated power has taken a lot of derision, mostly undeserved, from the flacks for the fossil fuel industry, so let’s talk about wind energy.

Wind is expensive due to the production tax credit? Although the current production tax credit (2.3 cents per kWh) has expired, it may be reinstated. So, yes taxpayers are subsidizing wind power, to the tune of about six billion dollars a year. How does that compare to the subsidization of the fossil fuel industry? Just the health care costs due to burning fossil fuels is estimated to be the equivalent of 8 to 30 cents per kWh, or several hundred billion dollars a year.

Wind Turbines kill birds? Estimates are the wind turbines kill about 25 thousand birds a year, about 90 per cent songbirds, and the remainder raptors such as hawks and vultures. But is this rate of bird deaths important compared to other human caused bird mortalities? Total human caused bird mortalities are a billion birds a year. Collisions with buildings cause close to half a billion deaths. Cats, both pets and feral, kill about a 100 million. Cars, trains and planes cause another 100 million. When one considers total bird deaths, wind turbines would hardly rate a foot note.

What about human deaths? One can compare just how deadly wind turbines are by comparing the death rate per unit of electrical energy used. Wind deaths are 0.15 deaths per TeraWatt-hours per year. Competing technologies such as electrical energy from burning coal are 15 deaths per TWh/year and for Oil 36 deaths per TWh/year. Burning fossil fuels produces hundreds of times as many deaths.

And Jobs? Here we compare jobs created per million dollars spent on energy. Oil and gas, one job; coal, two jobs; wind five jobs. Interestingly building retrofits to save the same amount of money on energy is the winner with eleven jobs.

Wind turbines are noisy?

wind noise

wind noise

But just how noisy? Modern turbines have incorporated features that reduce noise from the swooshing blades and squeaking generators. The noise level at a distance of only three turbine blade lengths is rated as acceptable. The noise from a turbine a few suburban lots distant would be no louder than standing near a humming refrigerator, about 45 decibels.

But they’re ugly?

Nantucket site

Nantucket site

A large off shore wind project in Nantucket Sound will supply much of the electrical energy of Cape Cod, MA. It has been resisted by some local residents as unsightly. Not surprisingly Bill Koch, a coal and oil magnate, has provided 1.5 million dollars to lobbyists and a group called the Alliance to Protect Nantucket Sound.

Global Warming and Geopolitics

There is no doubt that humans are transforming the atmosphere. It is impossible to explain away the fact that burning fossil fuels and deforestation result in the considerable increase of heat trapping gases in the atmosphere. The planet is getting warmer and the oceans are becoming more acidic directly as a result of human activities. Further complications are shifting rainfall patterns, and more severe storms.

A secondary consequence of global warming is political instability. Some scientists have suggested that the “Arab spring”, the uprising in North Africa and the Middle East, was driven at least partially by food instability.

Arab Spring

Arab Spring

The cost of a loaf of bread rose steeply following a severe heat wave and drought in Russia in 2011. The political instability in the region has give radical groups such as Al Qaeda a wedge to further disrupt society and gain power.

Bangladesh, with a population of over one hundred-fifty million, depends on glacial melt in the Himalayas for fresh water much of the year. As glaciers recede, the slow metered flow of melt water changes from a somewhat constant flow to major rivers to alternating flooding torrents and droughts.

bangladesh

bangladesh

Further exacerbating the situation is the fact that much of region is at or near sea level. The combination of droughts, floods, and salinity from sea level rise could cause famine, driving the predominately Muslim population into predominantly Hindu India. Ethnic conflict would be likely.

The newest country in the world, South Sudan, came about after years of civil war in Northern Africa. The region has been stressed by an extended drought. Sudan is currently constructing a pair of dams on the Nile. Nearby Ethiopia is also constructing a dam on the upper Nile,

nile

nile

which has greatly increased political tensions with Egypt downstream. Filling the lakes behind these dams could take years and severely reduce the flow in the Nile downstream. Again the strife in the region is driven in part by a long term climate change in the form of droughts.

The loss of sea ice at the North Pole could also be a political game changer. Asian countries, principally china, are actively developing fleets of cargo ships designed to sail the polar regions, and will increase if not solidify their hegemony over international trade.

The CIA and other intelligence agencies recently commissioned a study by the National Research Council. The conclusion: climate change presents even more risk in an already unstable world. Not only is the pentagon studying the mitigation of global warming, they are also studying the relationship between climate, climate change, and political strife.

Buffalo National River

The Buffalo National River

Yet another fight to “save the Buffalo” is brewing near Mt Judea in Newton County. The first fight ended when the Corps’s of Engineers plans to build a dam near Gilbert Arkansas were abandoned. In 1972 Republican Congressman John Paul Hammerschmidt sought federal protection and the nation’s first national river was created.

The Buffalo National River is is a national park which consists of a narrow band of land surrounding about one hundred thirty five miles of the river from Boxley at the upper end to its confluence with the White River. The land within the park boundaries, about one hundred fifty square miles, is managed as a natural environment.

Waterfall on a tributary of the Buffalo Rive

Waterfall on a tributary of the Buffalo River

The problem is that the park is only eleven per cent of the watershed, some one thousand four hundred square miles. Both Air and water pollution in the watershed but outside the park can easily enter the park, so preserving the natural environment becomes a much greater challenge.

The most recent challenge now comes from a Confined Animal Feeding Operation (CAFO). C and H Hog Farm has be granted a general permit to maintain a six thousand five hundred animal feeder pig operation near Mt Judea. Issuance of a General Permit as apposed to a Individual Permit, is easier as it doesn’t have stringent requirements for public notice, or environmental impact assessment. There is also no consideration of local geology or proximity to public places such as parks or schools.

The farm is operated for Cargill, the largest privately held company in the United States. The farm, really an industrial operation, consists of the hog houses, lagoons for temporary containment of the liquid wastes, and several hundred acres of spray fields where the raw urine and feces will be dispersed.

And there is a lot to be dispersed. Each hog produces over a gallon of manure per day. The factory farm produces close to ten thousand gallons of waste a day, several million gallons per year. To put that in perspective it is equivalent to two times as much waste that is produced by Atkins and Dover combined.

The farm and spray fields are near Mt Judea public schools, and in the watershed of Big Creek, a tributary of the Buffalo.

Morning Fog on a Gravel Bar

Morning Fog on a Gravel Bar

Rainfall after application of the manure, or failure of the lagoons can cause bacterial contamination, including multiple drug resistant strains.

Exacerbating the risk of pollution reaching the Buffalo National Park is the local geology, referred to as Karst Topography. This limestone rich subsurface is laced with caves, sinkholes, and underground streams that could rapidly transport wastes to the river.

Cave demonstrating Karst Topography of the region

Cave demonstrating Karst Topography of the region

Regardless of weather and geologic conditions the nutrients such as Nitrogen and Phosphorous will pollute the Buffalo, leading to increased algal growth.

Funding for the factory farm was aided by loan guarantees from the Farm Services Agency and the Small Business Administration. Four environmental groups are suing the United States Department of Agriculture which oversees the agencies that provided the loan guarantees. They are the Buffalo River Watershed Alliance, the Ozark Society, the Arkansas Canoe Club and the National Parks Conservation Association. Earth Justice is the law firm representing the coalition of the four groups.

ObamaCare

Republican Irresponsibility

The real irony of Republican pique over Obamacare is the fact that it is a Republican idea. The final form of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (PPACA) relies on Americans to take personal responsibility for their healthcare. It is not a complex formula; buy insurance that covers for the eventualities we all face, be it accident or illness. For those who can’t afford it, costs are subsidized by tax payers according to a sliding income scale.

What conservatives now seem to be saying is that personal responsibility is an onerous burden and purchasing insurance which covers the full cost of accidental injury or illness shouldn’t be necessary. Conservatives think that cheap policies with limited coverage, high deductibles, large co-pays or caps on payments are just fine.

But what happens when these inferior policies fail to pay the cost of care? Then who pays? Currently very close to half of all bankruptcies involve medical costs. That’s no way to run a healthcare system. And conservatives know it, at least knew it. Even before President Clinton proposed a single payer “medicare for all” type of healthcare system, the Heritage Foundation proposed an individual mandate for the purchase of insurance, just like Obamacare. It included a minimum standard of coverage, just like Obamacare. It even included a mandate to insure those with pre-existing conditions, just like Obamacare.

Whether we’re talking about Romneycare, Obamacare, or the Heritage Foundation policy, they all keep the private for profit insurance market alive. They all reduce costs because greater coverage increases access to preventive care, the cheapest and most effective expenditure. And they all mandate that personal responsibility is the centerpiece for healthcare in the United States.

We collectively provide for our national defense, isn’t our national health just as important? We have a single payer military, where everybody, through income taxes, pays their share. We don’t get to choose just how much defense we want, we are mandated to buy the same military. And single payer courts, and single payer disaster relief, and on and on and on. It’s the personal responsibility to our general welfare. E Pluribus Unum – from many, one.

The focus of the Republican party has been to avoid any collective action on healthcare. Democrats since at least the Truman administration have tried to make healthcare more inclusive. To the point of adopting a Republican approach. They’re still not happy.

The Death of a Child

December 23, 2012

I originally wrote this brief piece right after President Obama’s speech earlier in Newtown. The community is rather affluent so I don’t know how I could help them other than with my deepest empathy with the loss of those children.  In all honesty, I also wrote it for myself, for my own catharsis. Our son Kane, 17 years old, died in an automobile accident over five years ago.

Tonight president Obama made a heartfelt speech in Newtown to the parents and community that lost so many children in a senseless violent attack on an elementary school. My heart goes out to them and the pain they are feeling.

I know a thing or two about that pain, the loss of a child. Any death, be it a stranger, neighbor or even a relative is painful. Most all of us, whether we want to think of it or not, will suffer the loss of our parents. We will bury them or deal with their death as we can. It is the natural order of things and somehow embedded in our DNA. It is hard and it hurts, but even harder, even more painful is the loss of a child. kane2

The death of a child is completely different. I don’t think how a child dies matters, be it illness, accident or homicide. Dead is dead. But losing a child is different fundamentally than any other death. The death of a child is the death of the future. You don’t get to see him grow up, rather he is frozen in time. She doesn’t grow up, he doesn’t go the prom, she doesn’t graduate, he doesn’t marry, she doesn’t have children. They don’t because they aren’t.

A dear friend commented “the Newtown parents have joined us in a club we would have given our lives to avoid belonging to. We know what they are feeling and we are sad for them and angry on their behalf. And we can honor them and our own lost children by staying that way.”

When your child dies, the future dies, and it hurts in a way that can’t be imagined. Tomorrow we can talk about how to work as a society to reduce these deaths. Tonight we grieve.

ObamaCare

ObamaCares

Quality health care in the United States has until recently been a luxury; that is, something only for those that can afford it. This should change over the next few years as the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act – more colloquially known as Obamacare – rolls out.

healthcare costs

healthcare costs

Currently our system of “every man/woman/family for themselves” has resulted in total health care costs which are on the order of twice the rest of the industrialized world as measured as a fraction of the gross domestic product.

Sadly, because of our past approach, we’ve end up with poorer health care outcomes such as higher infant mortality rates and shorter life expectancies. There are several reasons why we pay more but get less compared to the rest of the world. First and foremost is the lack of preventive care for the poor or those that think it is unnecessary.

infant mortality

infant mortality

When it comes to health care, the old saw “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure” rules. An example or two should suffice: The absolutely most effective health care dollar spent is the dollar spent on vaccinations. Horrible diseases such as small pox and polio have been eradicated. Other diseases that caused high infant mortality rates such as diphtheria and pertussis in the past have been drastically reduced.

Yet much preventive care is unachieved. Consider heart attacks and stokes as a cost factor. Either of these conditions can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars to treat after the fact, but literally pennies a day to prevent with blood pressure medication.

Over a million families file for bankruptcy every year. Medical bills are the principle cause or contribute to these filings over sixty per cent of the time. Obamacare will reduce bankruptcies by abolishing lifetime benefit limits and price discrimination for pre-existing conditions, thus lowering out of pocket costs for families.

What is cheaper to you personally? Assisting the poor (and mandating those who can but refuse to) obtain health care? Or picking up their tab through higher premiums for your health care? The rest of the world has the answer and it is the former. That is why Obamacare will lower costs overall by adopting policies which favor preventive care and full participation in our common care.

Considerably more savings in health care can be had if we control costs via even more collective action. A Titanium alloy hip joint costs about 350 bucks to produce yet insurers are charged close to ten thousand dollars, a markup of three thousand per cent! Why? Because they can, and we pay unnecessarily. In Belgium, on the other hand, the national health system takes a bid for the same joint. The resultant cost is less than a thousand dollars, a tenth of the cost we pay for the exact same item.

There are many things that benefit us collectively such as education, police and fire protection, national defense, infrastructure for commerce, scientific research, and the list goes on and on. It is time we recognize that our health care should fall into the same category. The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act is a step in the right direction but there is still more that can be done to lower costs further and improve care.

My Fifteen Minutes of Blame

My fifteen minutes of blame

Blame the Republican house, blame the Republican party, Blame the Republicans. Yesterday evening Steve Womack – Republican representative for the third congressional district came to Russellville, Arkansas for a townhall meeting. A small crowd of about thirty folks listened quietly for about a half an hour as he politic-ed. From the nature of his presentation it was obvious that he worried more about his right flank.

He explained how shutting down the government over Obamacare was a bad idea. Not because it would harm the public welfare, but rather because it was politically unwise – it would turn the public away from the party. He staked out the traditional republican position, railing against spending, the Affordable Care Act, and the senate position on immigration. This kind of republican is actually more dangerous than the buffoons of the tea party.

A couple challenges from his right, shutting down the government and deporting all 12 million undocumented people were deflected. The real fun came from his left. A local pastor who happened to be sitting next to me made an eloquent and sensible argument for passage of the senate immigration bill. She spoke of how two of her parishioners, brothers, risked their lives (and their mothers life savings) by riding on the tops of trains for three weeks to get to the United States for a job. She was taunted somewhat by the crowd about lazy Mexicans, even though she had previously said that they had traveled for three weeks and risked life and limb FOR A JOB. I suspect those brothers have a stronger work ethic than most of the people in the room.

Then I got a few bites at the apple. On one of his slides (there’s an anachronism) he included a bullet on health savings accounts. [ME] OK, consider a guy with a health savings account who gets really, really sick; cancer, heart attack, or stroke with extended hospital care. He runs up a tab that is twice his savings. Who picks up the remainder of his costs? Somebody needs to pay for the drugs and reimburse the nurses and aides and janitors who cared for him. Bankruptcy is about his only alternative. I’ll tell you who pays, we do through our insurance premiums! [HE] ummm. He gave no real answer, he just went off on how if you have this savings and you don’t use it for healthcare, then you have this nice little savings account to use for other purposes. The long and short of it: he wouldn’t or couldn’t answer the question.

Probably my favorite encounter of the evening is when I asked another simple question: [ME] I understand why we all have an obligation to our common national defense, why not a similar obligation to our common national health? [HE] uhhh. Then he gestured by holding his hands in the air as if he were trying to measure the relative weight of a couple of objects. [HE] The two aren’t the same, providing for the national defense is in the constitution! [ME] So is providing for the general welfare! Then he said something about having skin in the game, but provided no real answer. He tap danced around the subject for a while, only to make his case worse.

He said something which I still don’t understand about do I pay to get my teeth cleaned. Maybe he was leading to a discussion of preventive care. [HE] I’m proud that while mayor of Rogers, AR we built a taxpayer-funded Adult Wellness Center. A lot of people benefit because of the center, why one gentleman I talked to said that he paid over 2000 dollars a month for some medication but since he started coming regularly to the center, his costs for the medication have been cut in half!

My jaw-droppingly obvious answer: [ME] My point exactly. If we taxpayers act together we can save ourselves some money. If we provide preventive care for the poor we will save money overall. Ten cents a day spent on the front end for a generic blood pressure drug can save us hundreds of thousands dollars in the prevention of just one hear attack or stroke. And that is a big part of the Affordable Care Act! [HE] We’ll just have to agree to disagree! He made my point, what else could he say?

One final egotistical riff. Another participant there who knows me commented on something about caps on payments for physical rehab. He said “as Dr Allen said…” while gesturing towards me. Womack swung his gaze at me and his eyes got just a little bit bigger. I guess titles still impress some people. It was just a funny moment.

Biofuel is Inefficient

The United States attained the position of a superpower to a very large degree by our ability to utilize fossil fuels. Our way of life requires burning massive amounts of those fossil fuels. The wastes released by burning these fuels is leading to global warming and ocean acidification. If we want to preserve any semblance of a natural environment on this planet we must stop.

To maintain our lifestyle we have to adopt energy production systems that are free from carbon pollution and have long term sustainability. Direct solar, wind, and biofuels derived from crops are three strategies being exploited on a small scale already.

These three energy sources all derive from the sun but are they of equal efficiency? The short answer is NO, in capital letters. Not only are biofuels very inefficient in terms of land use, but also compete with food crops for acreage, fertilizer, and water.

Although the direct tax credits for biofuels like Ethanol and Biodiesel have been discontinued, we continue to subsidize these energy sources by crop price supports and mandates for biofuel use. This is certainly good for agribusiness, but is it good for society?

Consider the productivity of Ethanol from corn. In the United States, we use about half the corn we grow for ethanol production, roughly 50 million acres per year. For this we get 3 billion gallons of gasoline equivalent from ethanol. The problem is that we use over 130 billion gallons of gasoline a year. If we put every arable acre of land in the country in corn (580 million acres), we still would only be able to produce less than half of the fuel we need.

And we would have nothing to eat! The problem with biofuel is that photosynthetic efficiency is very low. That’s why it took hundreds of millions of years to accumulate the fossil fuels were are now consuming.

Of course, there are alternatives to biofuel.

wind turbines

wind turbines

If that same land area is used for wind turbines, solar thermal or photovoltaic applications, much more energy can be harvested. The 60 gallons gasoline equivalent per acre from corn ethanol represents less than 2000 kilowatt-hours per acre per year. Dedicate that same land mass to wind turbines with “good” winds and you get 130,000 kilowatt-hours per acre per year. And the land beneath the wind farm is still available for crops or pasture.

Photovoltaic systems are even more productive.rooftop_PV Virtually anywhere in the US, 800,000 kilowatt-hours per acre per year is attainable with current technology, That is 400 times as efficient as corn ethanol. We don’t need cropland, we can do it on our roofs. We get to eat.

In summary, photosynthesis is a very poor choice when it comes to energy production because it is so inefficient and it competes with food crops for land and water. Solar energy production methods such as photovoltaics and wind with current technology can sustainably power our future, now.