Attracting Talent

Governor Hutchinson’s proposed budget for the next fiscal year contains a rather unusual tax cut. The top income tax rate currently is 5.9 percent but the governor proposes to cut it by one percent to 4.9 percent for new residents for 5 years. The idea is to recruit talent for the state’s tech and manufacturing industries from out of state.

The cost of the tax cut is estimated to be a modest 1.5 million dollars in the first year and 4.6 million dollars by fiscal 2023. This is a pittance in a multibillion dollar budget, but any tax cut means fewer services for the public. If this particular tax cut passes it conceivably could do more harm than good. That it passes is unlikely as leadership in both parties question the propriety of the cut.

So what can be done to attract talent in the tech area? How about rather than the “everybody gets a tax cut,” consider the other side of the balance sheet. How about use the funds not removed from the budget to provide additional opportunities for our residents? Education and recreation are two things that come to mind.

On the educational front, the rise in the cost of higher education, at least as a national average has been considerably outstripping inflation. Many students graduate with near-crushing debt. Rather than cutting taxes should we be cutting tuition? This would allow more of our residents to acquire those tech skills so needed for competition, not just with the tech industries in other states, but globally.
What are we up against education-wise? In Denmark, not only is higher education free, students are paid to attend for up to six years. It’s per capita gross national product is among the highest in the world. Such is the horror of socialist policies.

Another way of attracting or more importantly retaining tech talent is the quality of life issues. Outdoor recreation should be at the top of our list for youth in our state. That means taking care of, even nurturing our title as the Natural State. Our national parks and forests need protection and preservation for recreation. Many of our rivers, especially in the western part of the state are national treasures that deserve protection, most notably the Buffalo National River.

The park encompasses about 135 square miles, the boundary of which is only a half-a-mile or so on either side of the river. To preserve and protect the river requires actions watershed-wide which much larger, some 1388 square miles. After a long and public struggle, lead by the Buffalo River Watershed Alliance, the state bought out a hog CAFO which threatened to pollute the river. Making a temporary moratorium against medium and large hog CAFOs permanent would go a long way to protect this recreational treasure.

Additional recreational treasures are the Ozark Highlands Trail and the Ouachita National Recreation Trail. With a combined length of over 400 miles, they provide an inexpensive and healthy recreational experience.

Increasing both educational and recreational opportunities will go a long way to attract talent from out of state and retain our homegrown talent.

Dr. Bob Allen is Emeritus Professor of Chemistry, Arkansas Tech University.

A Vaccine? Not so fast

Currently, Covid-19 has killed slightly over a million people worldwide, close to a quarter of that here in the United States. This is about equal to the annual death rate from Tuberculosis which is the most lethal infectious disease worldwide. Interestingly both are airborne respiratory diseases. The recent announcement of a ninety percent effective vaccine has buoyed hope world wide. The vaccine is being developed by a collaboration between Pfizer, an American drug manufacturer and BioNtech, a German Biotech company.

Whereas the initial data is encouraging, it is only initial data. What is yet to be determined is will the vaccine be durable, that is will its effectiveness to prevent the disease last more than a few months? Will it be effective in groups not tested? Pfizer has done a good job of including a mix of ethnic, racial, and age groups in the Phase III trial but will it work with neonates, or pregnant women, or as yet unknown variables?

Its distribution is also problematic as it requires that the vaccine be maintained at nearly minus 100 degrees Fahrenheit. That requires special equipment, way beyond a home or commercial freezer, which isn’t commonly available.

A real unknown is its adoptability. If and when an effective vaccine is available, will the public actually get the shot, actually two separated by two weeks? In terms of global human health, vaccinations are second only to good sanitation in improving the life and health of humanity. That said, we are living in a time of distrust in authority in general and in this case distrust in vaccinations.

Although anti-VAX (opposing vaccination) movements have waxed and waned since the time of Edward Jenner and the inception of vaccinations, the current movement began after outright fraud by Andrew Wakefield. He published a since retracted paper claiming that the Measles, Mumps, and Rubella (MMR) vaccine caused autism. It turns out that he was paid by an attorney to fabricate data that would be to his advantage in suits by parents with autistic children against drug manufacturers.

Several entertainment personalities promoting the anti-VAX position have apparently had an inordinate influence on the public. Actress/model Jennifer Biel testified against a California bill meant to limit medical exemptions for vaccination of school children. Jim Carrey and his one-time girlfriend Jenny McCarthy, Robert Kennedy Jr, Mayim Bialik of “Big Bang Theory” fame, and others with no relevant medical experience drive the anti-Vax train.

Our current environment of anti-intellectualism and anti-authoritarianism acts to combine with the anti-Vax movement to provide a big impediment to defeating Covid-19. The announcement of preliminary positive results with a vaccine is encouraging but we have a long physical and psychological way to go before life can return to normal. At the earliest, this is estimated to be the third quarter of 2021 or later. Until then we will need to continue to – you guessed it – wash your hands, wear a mask, and maintain a proper social distance.

Dr. Bob Allen is Emeritus Professor of Chemistry, Arkansas Tech University.

Energy Jobs and the Future

In the most recent and final presidential debate Joe Biden commented, “I would transition away from the oil industry, yes,” in response to Trump’s accusation that he wanted to wreck the oil industry and force an end to the use of fossil fuels.

By the next day, campaign ads were running in fossil fuel-rich states lambasting Biden’s promotion of renewable energy over fossil fuels. Texas comes to mind. Oops, already 61 % of energy-related jobs in Texas are in renewable energy industries as opposed to oil and gas – 254 thousand renewable energy jobs versus 162 thousand jobs in oil and gas.

If you want to see the future of fossil fuels, look no further than coal. Trump campaigned on revitalizing the coal industry. Several regulations via executive orders favored coal production and use yet the industry is in its death throes. Coal-fired powered plants are rapidly closing around the country not because of governmental largess but rather from simple economics. Wind, solar, and natural gas are all a cheaper way to produce electricity.

An argument has been made that the oil industry is important for transportation but the cost to move an electric vehicle down the road is some one-third to one quarter the cost of moving a vehicle powered by an internal combustion engine fueled with gasoline or diesel fuel.

There is no question that transitioning from one form of job within an industry to another will cause a loss of jobs, but at the same time, new job categories will be created. When the horse and buggy were displaced by the automobile, buggy whip makers were thrown out of work. As far as I have been able to determine, no great effort to preserve those jobs occurred. The country moved on with the new technology and new jobs.

The use of fossil fuels is unlikely to go away completely for a long, long time. Lubricants and chemical feedstocks will continue to be made from oil. Useful and recyclable plastics will continue to be made from natural gas. Even coal has a limited utility in smelting ores for industries such as steel manufacturing. Burning a fossil fuel to produce bulk power however, is on the way out. And for good reasons.

First and foremost is economics. Wind and solar are already the cheapest source of electric power if you don’t need storage, and we are a long way from needing storage. Balancing sources on the electric grid can handle up to about thirty percent penetration before storage becomes an issue. Right now we are at slightly less than ten percent of electricity production from wind and solar and vigorous research and development programs are rapidly dropping the cost of storage.

Then there is the continuing existential threat to the planet of global warming and the forcing of climate change. The only way to avert this crisis is to stop loading the atmosphere with greenhouse gasses and ending the use of fossil fuels is the cheapest and fastest way to achieve this end.

Dr. Bob Allen is Emeritus Professor of Chemistry, Arkansas Tech University.

Tax and Regulate

A dislike of taxes and regulations are the hallmarks of those with a libertarian bent. These concepts are somehow subsumed in the socialism is bad, capitalism is good rubric. The problem is this is a gross oversimplification that fits well on a bumper sticker but is a terrible way to determine ones voting preferences.

Taxes come in several flavors: regressive sales taxes, property taxes, progressive income taxes, et al. Although you hear lots of complaints about taxes, few complain about the services they provide: National defense, police and fire protection, highways, schools, etc. Supreme Court Jurist Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr famously said: “I like paying taxes, with them I buy civilization.”

Before you reject voting for or against taxes, consider how the tax is structured. Sales taxes lean most heavily on those least able to afford them, whereas progressive income taxes rely on those that need the services the most. Police protection is a little like insurance, the more you have to protect, the more you should pay for the protection.

In a similar vein, regulations are important tools for civilization. They protect us in ways that are impossible to do individually. Clean air and water, climate stability, highway safety, and food and drug safety are just a few.

Another oversimplification is the capitalism-socialism dichotomy. The two are complexly entangled. Generally, I would agree that capitalism is a noble ideal, Adam Smith’s invisible hand can guide a market – but not without oversight. Unfettered capitalism is really anarchy. A perfect example is the black market for heroin. A lot of money can be made, so what if people die from violence and the use of the drug itself?

A capitalist needs to recognize that there have to be constraints to trade that preserve societal goals. Laws and regulations are a necessary evil of capitalism, necessary to civilization. If we can democratically agree on those laws and regulations then capitalism is the bee’s knees.

A little more difficult discussion is the value of socialism. The strict definition for socialism is an economic policy where the means of production are owned collectively, where collectively can refer to the government or simply organized groups, from workers to shareholders. Ironically the hallmark of capitalism, the corporation, can be publicly owned and therefore constitute a socialist enterprise.

If you want to consider socialism where the government is the collective, look no further than police protection. Here the state employs the “workers.” Even here it doesn’t disallow capitalist alternatives such as mall cops and bouncers. Even at the federal level where national defense is involved, we have private contractors participating.

Closer to what folks may call socialism is government management of some aspects of society. Medicare and Social Security come to mind. These are wildly popular and effective entitlement programs – the recipients are entitled to benefits by way of previous payments into the system.

At or near the top of making America great is our public education system. We could do better by increased funding and more equitable distribution, but all in all we would be much worse off without it.

The long and short of it is that the arc of civilization is cooperation. As long as we democratically determine what kind of taxes pay for what kinds of regulations, we have civilization, and civilization is a good thing.

Dr. Bob Allen is Emeritus Professor of Chemistry, Arkansas Tech University.

Why We Require Immigration

Even though fertility is significantly below the replacement rate our population maintains modest growth because of immigration. This shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone as we are, with the exception of much-abused Native Americans, actually or ancestrally immigrants.

Immigration has come in waves from various locales but the one common feature is that immigrants come here to seek a better life for themselves and their families. The most recent wave of immigration is driven largely by those fleeing violence in Central America.

Our current policy, President Trump’s policy has been clear since he first ran for office in 2015 – isolationism. He has referred to immigrants from the south as murderers and rapists that must be prevented from entering the country. His iconic rally cry, build the wall (and Mexico will pay for it,) was little more than an anti-immigrant screed. Now almost four years later the wall is nowhere in sight and has had little to no impact on immigration.

Other actions by President Trump have had harmful effects on immigration. Draconian policies such as separating parents and children have been invoked punitively. Many of these immigrants, separated from their children, are here legally as asylum seekers.

To reduce the number of asylum seekers President Trump created a “safe third country” policy which allows the forced return of asylum seekers to any country they passed through on the way here. Many of these countries are as violent as their home countries. A migrant from El Salvador might pass through equally violent Nicaragua and Guatemala.

To further retard immigration President Trump lowered the total number of refugees allowed in the country from eighty thousand to eight thousand. In addition to migrants from Central America, President Trump set his sights on those from predominately Muslim countries with outright immigration bans.

He sought to eject from the country the so-called dreamers, individuals who were brought to the United States as children. Imagine you are a child brought here as an infant. Later as a young adult, you are forced out of the country back to a home country you never knew, where you don’t even speak the language.

Immigrants have traditionally taken those dangerous, bottom-rung jobs unacceptable to citizens. At the other end of the scale, many immigrants are talented professionals. Close to forty percent of Nobel prize winners in the life and physical sciences since 2000 are immigrants.

This is no time for xenophobia. Immigrants, documented or otherwise, have lower rates of criminal behavior than citizens. Second-generation immigrants – their children are essentially fully integrated into society. They have similar family incomes and college graduation, and homeownership rates. Si se puede.

Dr. Bob Allen is Emeritus Professor of Chemistry, Arkansas Tech University.

Healthcare Must Include Everybody

A sure-fire way to lower the cost of health insurance for those willing and able to buy it is to let people die on the curb in front of the hospital. Yep, give up your humanity and you too can save on health insurance. When the motive for healthcare is profit and there is no profit in free riders, what else?

If you opt for humanity and take that person into the hospital, it can cost you, and likely cost you a lot. That person without health insurance will incur costs that the hospital must absorb. The only way for a hospital to stay in business if they accept indigent care is to charge paying customers, usually insurers, more to offset the unreimbursed care.

If we are to be humane and provide care for the free riders, is there a better way? If we wait for high blood pressure to cause a heart attack, treatment of that one event can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. Alternatively, drugs to manage high blood pressure can be had for pennies a day. To not provide for the blood pressure medication is just the sort of thing that Ben Franklin spoke of when he said “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.”

The reason President Trump and the Republicans struggle to produce a health plan to replace the ACA, even though they have had several years now, is there is no plan that actually works if it doesn’t include everybody, at least humanly. There are two ways to do that – make sure everybody has access to affordable care through private insurers or go to a less costly single-payer, not for profit, universal healthcare system like just about every other country in the world.

Government managed systems work and work well. We currently spend much more per capita on healthcare with poorer outcomes. There are over 40 countries with lower infant mortality rates, greater life expectancies, and lower costs.

President Trump said his replacement healthcare plan would cover everybody and cost less. So where is it? I can predict immediately that any plan from the Republican party will not mandate coverage with a complete, effective policy. This guarantees free riders and uncompensated costs. Another promise is to lower spending by the elimination of subsidies for the poor. It will lower or eliminate healthcare for the poor.

For those middle-income folks there are now cheaper insurance policies available, but only because of substandard policies. Lower costs mean less coverage. The ACA policies required a minimum standard of coverage which included preventive care. Cheap policies are available which allow you to pick your coverage limit – lower coverages mean lower policy costs. This however, can leave the taxpayer on the hook for catastrophic costs.

The real winners with a conservative healthcare plan are the rich, no surprise there. Taxes will go down while at the same time subsides not previously available to the rich will go up.

Conservatives continue to try to view healthcare as subject to the same market forces as buying unessential commodities, but it just doesn’t work that way. We are alone in the world with our failure to make that recognition. In these times of a debilitating even lethal pandemic, it is unconscionable to not provide quality healthcare to everyone in the country.

Dr. Bob Allen is Emeritus Professor of Chemistry, Arkansas Tech University.

Coal is not coming back – Trump fails industry

The world has run on fossil fuels for a couple of centuries but that is changing. Coal was the first of the fossil fuels to be widely exploited. Coal formed during what is called the carboniferous period about three to four hundred million years ago. At the time the planet was especially warm and wet which favored plant growth. Interestingly, this also meant much higher atmospheric levels of Oxygen which allowed for the growth of giant insects – dragonflies with three-foot wingspans as just one example.

The abundant plant growth accumulated first as peat, which over millennia of heat and pressure resulted in the formation of coal, essentially Carbon with a little Hydrogen smushed together in a solid form. And there it sat, until the English started running out of trees, or at least trees close by Iron smelters.

To produce iron from its ore requires something called a reducing agent. Wood works perfectly well but the process uses a lot of it. In merry olde England, a smelter would be built and then woodcutters were sent out to start bringing in the fuel. The longer the smelter operated the farther the woodcutters had to go while clearing the surrounding forests. When the expense of retrieving fuel got too high, coal was determined to be an economic alternative.

Utilization of coal for making iron lead to the understanding of its value as a fuel. It became the leading source of fuel for industrial power production and has dominated for over two hundred years. Of late the major use of coal has been for electricity generation but as of 2013, coal is no longer king and its use appears to be in free fall.

It is rapidly being replaced by a surge in the production of natural gas from hydro-fracturing and more recently wind and solar. Coal’s replacement is obvious and beneficial. Obvious because the other sources are cheaper and beneficial because they are cleaner in terms of the local environment and global warming.

A plank in President Trump’s campaign platform of 2016 was to reinvigorate the coal industry and save coal miner jobs. He has failed to deliver with this plank. Coal use during the first three years of his term is down over twenty percent, this despite several actions that would favor coal use.

President Trump has ordered the rollback of regulations that prevented much water pollution from coal ash. Another deregulation allows increased particulate emissions, along with toxic atmospheric pollutants like Mercury and Lead. He has ordered the removal of an Obama era regulation that required greater efficiency to reduce carbon emissions from coal-fired power plants which could actually reduce the cost to ratepayers.
In a fox-in-the-chicken-coop move, President Trump has appointed a coal industry lobbyist, Andrew Wheeler, as administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency. He rejects climate change and is a staunch opponent of any limit on greenhouse gases.

These regulations were meant to improve health, save lives, and help stabilize our climate. President Trump’s deregulations are endangering lives and destabilizing the climate and have been done in a futile attempt to prop up a failing industry.

Dr. Bob Allen is Emeritus Professor of Chemistry, Arkansas Tech University.

Politics and Statehood

Congress has the power to create new states and the bar is not high, at least according to the constitution:

“New States may be admitted by the Congress into this Union; but no new State shall be formed or erected within the Jurisdiction of any other State; nor any State be formed by the Junction of two or more States, or Parts of States, without the Consent of the Legislatures of the States concerned as well as of the congress.”

That’s it. In practice, things have been more complex. Several statehood applications have been rejected. Sequoia would have been a state, basically to give statehood to Native American tribes in what is now Oklahoma. Deseret would have been a state encompassing much of the inter-mountain west but was likewise never approved by congress.

Congressional approval of statehood requires only a simple majority vote, no supermajorities, no participation by other state legislatures, just a simple majority vote in congress. Of course, the president could veto the enabling legislation which would require an override vote requiring two-thirds majorities in both bodies.

In the past, the Republican and Democratic parties have worked to some degree to compromise on objectives but in our current political environment that doesn’t seem to be the case. So why a discussion of statehood now? Raw political power, in particular control of the majority in the Senate.

Currently, a minority of voters in this country wield power over the majority. This is an undeniable fact of our electoral system. The current administration received about three million fewer votes than the opponents in 2016 and the current elected majority in the US Senate represent about seventeen million fewer voters than are represented by minority members.

I’ve done no polling but I don’t think it’s a stretch to believe that most in the United States truly believe in democracy. It is a simple concept: everybody gets a vote and each of those votes is worth the same. Current polls show a majority favor abandoning the electoral college, up from polling in the past.

Currently, a minority of voters in this country wield the power over the majority. This is an undeniable fact of our electoral system. President Trump received about three million fewer votes than Clinton in 2016 and the current elected majority in the US Senate received about seventeen million fewer votes than were received by the minority.

If new states were created such as Washington DC and Puerto Rico, this could tip the balance of power in the Senate and electoral college. This is hardball but it is the game as it is played today. It needn’t be. Comity could prevail because the Senate makes its own rules. If the Senate dictated, they could simply require that passage of a bill would require enough votes in the Senate to actually represent the majority of voters.

Equity in the electoral college could be managed via a compact where the electors pledge to cast their votes for whomever wins the popular vote.

Perpetuation of the this system will only get worse if the current demographic changes continue to move people out of rural areas into more urban environments. When will “enough be enough?” How disparate will the system be before reform is recognized as necessary?

Dr. Bob Allen is Emeritus Professor of Chemistry, Arkansas Tech University.

Fire and Floods

So far, this is the worst year ever for fires in the western states of California, Oregon, and Washington. The climate type for California lends its self to annual fires but global warming is making it worse because it is hotter and this time of year hotter is drier.

At the same time this is the worst season for hurricanes in the Gulf of Mexico and for the same reason – warmer air means warmer water means more energy to fuel storms. So far this year is bearing out NOAA’s prediction of an extremely active season.

Over four million acres have burned so far this year in the aforementioned states. Scores have died and more missing. Three million acres are on fire now and toxic smoke blankets thousands of square miles.

The result of global warming amplified weather damage here in the United States is annually hundreds of lives and billions of dollars of crop loss and property damage, far negating any minor improvements in a longer growing season and amplified CO2 for plant fertilization. Without serious effort, these costs will become insurmountable.

Of course, the real problem is the name – Global warming. For example, because of an extended heatwave in the northern climes, the ice north pole is melting faster than ever and the nearby tundra is thawing rapidly. At one point it was thought that a warmer tundra would promote moss growth which would form peat bogs. This could moderate the rate of climate change by removing large amounts of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and thus slowing atmospheric heat accumulation.

Ah. but life is not so simple. In parts of Siberia, the thawed, warmed, tundra is now burning. Fires in the Arctic are now the largest ever in recorded history. The Siberian taiga, what we call the boreal forests in the western hemisphere are burning and north of them the actual peat of the tundra. Underlying the tundra is permafrost of normally frozen organic-rich soil. As it thaws from the fires above it releases methane which may or may not catch fire as it is released. Regardless, methane itself is a greenhouse gas.

The release of the methane and carbon dioxide from the burning peat above the thawing permafrost will act in a vicious cycle known as positive feedback – as more greenhouse gasses are released, more heat is produced which causes the release of even more greenhouse gasses. All this of course increases the rate of climate change.

Global tropical storms, especially in the central and western pacific have had a somewhat average season with the exception of Cyclone Amphan which hit the Bay of Bengal, killing over a hundred and causing the greatest amount of damage, in excess of one hundred billion US dollars worth of damage in Bangladesh.

Obviously most eyes have been on the Covid-19 pandemic but the relentless planetary degradation due to global warming is marching on and cannot or should not be ignored. Heating of land magnifies the number of deadly heat waves and fires just like heating of water can produce more deadly storms.

Dr. Bob Allen is Emeritus Professor of Chemistry, Arkansas Tech University.

The Anthropause

Scientists, especially those who deal with long time scales, tend to demark the passage of time that somehow defines a chunk of time. Eons are the longest time spans. The first is described as the Hadean, the first 600 million years defining the formation of the earth. Eons are divided into Eras, then Periods, Epochs, and Ages.

The Carboniferous Period as just one example is a roughly 60 million year period during which the planet was very warm and resulted in the formation of much of the coal on the planet due to photosynthetic removal of carbon from the atmosphere.

The time of dinosaurs is known as the Jurrasic Period, divided into three different Epochs. Our current Epoch is the Holocene which incorporates the time since the end of the last glaciation about 12,000 years ago. The current Age within this Epoch has come to be called the “Anthropocene” which roughly means the period of human influence.

Now, due to the global pandemic and resultant slowing of human activity, some have described our current time as an “Anthropause. “

Global tourism has been radically reduced not just in cultural centers such as cites but also in parks and natural areas. Locales normally frequented by humans have recently been left to wildlife as shown by both urban cameras and trail cams in rural areas. As a result, many wildlife scientists are scrambling to study the movements and actions of life in the temporary absence of humans.

A number of unique experiments are in progress. In Manitoba, Canada ornithologists are studying birds near now much quieter airports. Also, studies are examining low flying birds near highways to see if behavior is changing, albeit for short periods.

Ecologists at the Galapagos Marine Reserve are studying the movements of shy fish that now can move about in the absence of tourists engaged in diving and snorkeling. In the French Polynesian Islands, the impact of extended darkness near seaside hotels is being examined.

Even the open oceans are ripe for study. Reduced tourism and shipping may have an impact on whales. A research group off the coast of Monterrey, CA is collecting samples of whale blubber via specially designed crossbows. The blubber will reveal among other things the amount of cortisol in the animals, an indicator of stress.

Endangered species such as large mammals; rhinoceros, elephants, etc. may be at greater risk from poaching due to the absence of tourists. Although this research is happening during a time of great expense to both human life and the global economy, it is a once in a lifetime pause or at least hopefully so.

Dr. Bob Allen is Emeritus Professor of Chemistry, Arkansas Tech University.