Sunday, February 28, 2010

McCain Wouldn't Have Done Any Better: McCain-Dorgan Will Expand FDA Power

While the Republicans co-opt the inchoate Tea Party movement for their own purposes and pretty much defeat whatever good purpose the movement had, prominent Republicans are working alongside their Democratic rivals to increase the size and power of our government and assist its corporate overlords in making life more expensive and difficult for our citizens, and further constricting their liberties while funneling what remains of their wealth into corporate coffers.

Anybody who thinks that Obama's rival, Sen. John McCain(R) of Arizona, or any other Republican, would have done any better than Obama in protecting us from further encroachments on our freedoms or back pockets, need only consider some of the dangerous legislation now being introduced, notably the McCain-Dorgan Act, introduced last month, which will vastly expand the power of the FDA to regulate vitamins and other over-the-counter supplements.

The pharmeucetical industry and medical profession are using every legal tool at their disposal to prevent people from controlling their own health care, and have lobbied for years for more regulation of supplements, often advocating making them available by prescription only. The justification for this new bill is the existance of small amounts of "performance-enhancing" substances in some over-the-counter supplements, causing some sports figures who used these products while innocent of their contents, to be in violation of the NFL's anti-doping policy. Why the use of such supplements by sports players to give themselves a competitive edge is considered to be a matter of public concern is difficult to understand - why can't this remain a matter between the players and the NFL?

More regulation of supplements will mean much greater costs to manufacturers and higher prices for consumers. Worse, the bill is one more step along the road to total control over every substance we put in our bodies by government authorities. As it is, the ongoing war on drugs has triggered more restrictive regulation of pain-killers, with harsh punishments for physicians found in violation of draconian restrictions on the use of addictive or narcotic pain relievers, resulting in greater misery for people suffering great physical pain who cannot now obtain pain relief in the dosages necessary for real relief.

Obama has taken a tentative first step toward expanding personal liberties and ending the destructive, no-win war on drugs by ending federal raids on suppliers of medical marijuana where permitted by state law. Let's hope he takes the next step and vetos this destructive bill.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

The Death of the Space Program: Are We Squaring With Reality or Are We Volunteering to Die as an Advanced Society?

I'm sure that most of the people who share my views regarding our country's financial condition and energy outlook won't concur with me, but when the death of our space program was announced, I felt an overwhelming sense of loss at what seems like the final capstone on forty years of national decline, during which this country has lost its lead in almost every branch of technology, and has become an impoverished debt addict and de facto colony of China.

The news that President Obama has canceled the funding for Constellation program was no doubt applauded by many people as a victory for common sense and fiscal restraint, and seems not to have registered at all among most of our citizens. In many quarters, the space program is regarded as a costly,wasteful, ecologically unjustifiable boondogle of little immediate utility and doubtful future benefit that consumes gargantuan quantities of fossil fuels and siphons massive amounts of tax revenue from projects of more immediate utility, such as our vast military apparatus and the ongoing efforts to re-inflate the housing and credit bubbles so that our top banksters can justify their multimillion dollar bonuses and the rest of us resume flipping houses and generating loan fees.

To many other people, notably the doomsayers of the Peak Oil community, it was only inevitable that this Promethean endeavor, with its massive energy and financial requirements, would be the first of our advanced technologies to be triaged on the descent from the absolute peak of our energy production, wealth, and technological advancement- a long, steep, wrenching path down hill that, many predict, will end with the death of any technology more advanced than wood-powered steam engines and water-driven mills. Damien Perrotin, of The View From Brittany, states in his post, Farewell to the Moon: "This pattern is likely to repeat itself as the decline in net energy available to our society makes keeping an advanced technology more and more difficult. There won't be any technological cliff, no abrupt return to the Middle-Age. Technologies will just lose momentum as the resources needed to advance them become scarcer and scarcer."

We will be reaching that point very soon, and there is considerable evidence that we might already have reached it. Yet what is more obvious is that the United States has passed its own peak of scientific achievement and advancement , and has lost its former lead in almost every field that matters, just as it has destroyed its manufacturing base and relinquished its economic lead to China and India in the process. More ominously, we have sat idly by as China moves aggressively to lock in its claims on a massive portion of the world's future oil production. At the same time, we have deliberately retarded development of nuclear power, an industry this nation pioneered and once led, and are stalled at the starting gate in the development of more advanced nuclear technologies, such as the molten salt and liquid fluoride thorium reactors, that could provide us with abundant clean energy for many generations going forward, while other nations, notably India, are not waiting for our blessings and are aggressively developing them.

Now, we are relinquishing to other major powers the chance, slender though it may be for anyone, of achieving a human landing on Mars, and developing the rich mineral resources that reside there and on Triton, a moon of Saturn thought to possess vast hydrocarbon reserves. These extraterrestrial mineral resources may well be the only way we will be able to fuel our technology in the coming century. The window of opportunity for developing the technology necessary to send humans to Mars and there build a small settlement from which to conduct extraction operations is narrow, being the brief interval between the present time, and the hour in which we reach the point on the downslope of fossil fuel production at which liquid fuels become so expensive and scarce that any effort that doesn't pertain directly to production of bare life necessities will be off the table. That window is closing very quickly. Moreover, as the grieving Charles Krauthammer points out in Closing the New Frontier, the Ares booster and Orion capsule are essential basic steppingstones along the arduous path that leads to a successful landing of humans on the red planet, and without those stepping stones, our hopes of ever attaining this are crushed. How will we ever make it to Mars and succeed in building a mining settlement if we can't even get to the moon, or into low orbit?

An alert reader might note a certain logical inconsistency in my position here, given my frequently-stated opposition to large-scale, multi-decade government programs that rely on the taxing authority we've granted the federal government, and whose effects cascade and amplify down through generations and produce unforseen consequences that we never bargained for, and that divert money away from private development and enterprise, which tends to be more sustainable and appropriate, to massively overscaled projects that not only cannot justify themselves economically, but destroy the fine-grained economic networks that support large-scaled private enterprises. The space exploration program would seem to be that, and on steroids- a vast  undertaking that oftentimes seems more about national vanity and the daydreams of science fiction writers than about anything that we need to continue as an advanced nation, and that to many is absolutely unjustifiable in a period in which we are increasingly challenged in staying housed, fed, and warm.  Obama himself, in announcing the decision to eliminate $3 billion for the Constellation project from the 2011 budget, framed it as a victory for free enterprise, stating that the private sector is welcome to pick up where NASA is leaving off.

That would be all well if even we still had a significant private sector. Would it be that our most successful and adventurous entrepreneurs, people like Elon Musk or Bill Gates, could organize a concern that might be capable of running even a rudimentary space program.But we no longer have a strong, confident, independent private sector that is capable of raising the gigantic amounts of capital required for such an undertaking. Most of all, though, we no longer have the business and political climate in which it is feasible to make plans that take up to a half-century or more to develop and implement, and in which investors feel secure enough to venture massive sums of money  in highly speculative enterprises with massive capital requirements and multi-decade paybacks.

What we do have is a tower of unrepayable debt created by the financialization of our economy, and the most uncertain business climate in two hundred years. The uncertainty created by capricious changes in regulation and taxation, and the mounting costs of servicing government debt, have elevated the risk involved in long-term enterprises requiring massive capital outlays to levels unacceptable to most investors, and the result is that capital has fled heavy industry in this country, and gone into enterprises with a short payback period and immediate results-hence the decline of manufacturing and the flood of money into casino-type financial instruments where the payback is more rapid and the risk is perceived as being more manageable. The result of this process, of course, is the complete destruction of our heavy industry and the perversion of our financial markets, which were created to facilitate industry and commerce, into casinos that have enriched only a relative handful of players who belong to the financial cartel, while impoverishing the country and destroying our ability to finance the productive enterprises that could rebuild our economy.

As a result, the only entity with the wherewithal to support really large and speculative enterprises is the federal government, with its unlimited taxing authority. This would not have been the case a century ago, when people like Vanderbilt and Carnegie built the giant industries that made America not only the richest country in the world, but the most advanced and the one in which the incredible benefits spread to the greatest number of people, elevating our common citizenry from dirt-floor rural poverty to the most comfortable mass living conditions in the world, and offering them opportunities for advancement in a variety of fields that did not exist just 30 years before, just as it created the richest and most successful entrepreneurial class ever to exist at that time.

The result is if any major speculative venture is going to happen, it will be the government or nobody to finance it, and the process of determining just what will receive how much money, or any at all, will be driven not be consideration of the costs and benefits, or long-term needs, but by a purely political considerations, most of all by lobbyists and pressure groups. And as it happens, the most influential pressure group is the financial cartel, who as a group are not much concerned for the ongoing well-being and access to the decencies of life for the 98% of the population that doesn't get paid $40 million dollar bonuses for destroying our financial system. The Wall Street bonus babies won't be the ones suffering as our technology withers and our population spirals down into the poverty, filth, and degradation that was the lot of the majority prior to the industrial revolution, and is still the rule for most of the world's population, but will find a way to profit from our destruction, if only because they'll be able to recruit armies of poorly-paid household servants for a pittance.

Most of all, though, it will mean the end of our aspirations as a people. The greatest gift of the great thinkers and doers of past centuries was what they aspired to, and their passionate belief in the ability of humans to fulfill those dreams. A person might fall considerably short of his goals, but he surely won't exceed them, not even by accident. As Theodore Sturgeon once remarked, if you aim for 100, you might get that or you might get 50, but if you aim for 0, that is exactly what you will get. Now is the time to ask ourselves just what we aspire to- to greater knowledge and whatever advancement is possible to us, or to the life that was lived in the days of hand plows, childbirth on the kitchen table, and streets slimed with horse-droppings. There's no question of which manner of life is more easily attianable, and the human-haters are applauding every step backwards to it we take. Which will we choose?

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Gas Explosion Kills 5 at Power Plant Site: Is Natural Gas the Best Bet for Safe, Clean Power Generation and Transportation Fuel?

Strange how little public reaction there has been to the catastrophic natural gas explosion at a Connecticut gas-fired power plant this weekend, which killed at least five people and completely destroyed the plant, which was under construction. The explosion occurred while workers were clearing out a gas pipeline, and could be felt several miles away.

If a comparable disaster, with like loss of human life, had occurred at one of this country's 104 nuclear power plants, there would by now be multi-page articles published all over the globe on the presumed monstrous hazards of nuclear power, and thousands of activists and NIMBYs would be mounting demonstrations at plants and at state capitals across the country to demand that all the nukes be shut down and decommissioned immediately. The event would provide fodder for several years worth of anti-nuclear campaigns. There would be congressional hearings and state legislatures would be busy at work hatching legislation to stop further nuclear development. As it is, a minor fire or mechanical problem necessitating a temporary shutdown at a nuclear plant is enough to generate considerable yowling on the part of anti-nuke activists..

And if such an event as that in Connecticut occured at a commercial nuclear event in this country, there would be no chance of getting a new nuclear plant licensed in the U.S. within our lifetimes. As it is, the partial meltdown at the Three Mile Island plant over thirty years ago, in which no one was killed and no injuries were ever proved, cast a pall on the nuclear industry in this country that has set this country back several decades in the development of nuclear. That event, and the explosion at the Soviet-built Chernobyl plant, are brought up at every public discussion regarding the expansion of nuclear power and the development of newer, safer, and cleaner nuclear technologies. These technologies are being aggressively developed by poor, developing, overpopulated nations who have not enjoyed our past abundance of cheap energy and so are not so complacent as we are regarding their ability to power their economies in the future.

Natural gas has been used for so long and is so commonplace in this country that most people, including environmentalists who now strangely favor natural gas as a fuel for autos and trucks, are blind to the health and safety hazards of this volatile, dangerous fuel, and the massive environmental costs of producing it and consuming it. Most people here in Chicago take in stride the numerous gas explosions that have occured in this areas over the past couple of decades, even though they have leveled houses and mult-family buildings and killed a large number of people.

Because of its extremely low density and volatility, natural gas is even more dangerous to transport than gasoline, which is something to consider before we push for the widespread adoption of gas-fueled vehicles on the premise that their fuel burn is "cleaner" than gasoline or deisel. One expert remarked that he would not want his daughter sitting atop a gas fuel tank. Gas extraction and production are major environmental hazards affecting all areas of the country, including the Great Lakes region. According to the Energy Justice Network:

"Natural gas is a fossil fuel that is often promoted as "cleaner" than coal, but which has its own serious environmental hazards. Natural gas extraction threatens ecosystems from northern Alaska and Canada to the Gulf of Mexico, including drilling on farms, public lands, forests and parks, in the Rocky Mountains and other coal-field communities, off of U.S. coastal waters and possibly even under the Great Lakes. Deep drilling technologies such as "hydraulic fracturing" or "fracking" have recently opened areas of the U.S. to drilling, leaving a legacy of groundwater pollution. Hydraulic fracturing is the process of injecting water, salt, and a cocktail of hazardous chemicals deep underground to break open rock formations from which natural gas is extracted. Hydraulic fracking techniques threaten communities facing drilling operations and downstream communities, including communities near "frac" wastewater treatment plants. This wastewater can contain radioactive materials, high levels of salt that affects aquatic life, and carcinogenic elements and compounds such as arsenic and benzene. [1, 2] 
Pipelines and compressor stations add to the harms, crossing all sorts of ecosystems. Even water bodies like Lake Erie and the Long Island Sound have faced proposals to bury pipelines in underwater trenches that involve stirring up toxic sentiment accumulated on lake/sound floors."

Natural gas is a major indoor polluter, as well as a major fire and explosion hazard. Those who are concerned with air quality in their homes, or who suffer from asthma and other respitory ailments or who have babies or young children, urgently need to consider disposing of their gas cooking ranges and getting an electric stove. According to Agnes Malouf and David Wimberly, in The Health Hazards of Natural Gas:

     "Thinking of cooking with gas? Think again.With natural gas rolling ashore in Nova Scotia, it is tempting to believe industry and government promises that if only we could plug into this rich new local resource we could see our fuel bills drop and free up money in the budget for the nicer things in life.

     But would we still feel the same way if we were to learn that, in trying to save those hard-earned dollars, we were undermining our health by polluting the air we breathe in our very homes? It may be discouraging to hear, but now is the time to listen to what the experts have to say before we make what may be the wrong decision for us and for our families.

     Living with natural gas can be a health hazard both for people who are healthy and for those who are already ill. It is especially risky for people who have weakened immune systems, including those who are asthmatic, allergic, or chemically sensitive.  Gas appliances create a constant low level exposure to gas which can cause or increase illnesses.  Natural gas is a sensitizer, which means that exposure can lead to intolerance and adverse reactions both to
it and other substances in our environment."

In view of the multitude of safety, health, and environmental hazards attendent on the consumption, production, and extraction of natural gas, environmental activists and interested citizens might do well to be skeptical not only of the claims of those who are promoting the use of gas for power generation and in preference to nuclear, but the claims of  solar and wind power advocates, who go to pains to downplay the dependence of these "renewable" and "clean" forms of energy upon fossil fuel backups. Promoters of wind and solar admit that these forms of power generation are too intermittent and unreliable to stand on their own without being backed by coal, gas, or nuclear. 



Monday, February 1, 2010

Will Making Everyone Poor Help the Poor?

More and more of us every day are losing the War on Poverty.

You might have heard of the $5000-range tax bills confronting the less-than-affluent owners of $40,000 shanties in neighborhoods like Englewood and Garfield Park, while Streeterville condos costing $1M or more pay no more than $5000 or $6000, or maybe $8000 at the most in property taxes. You have to wonder why there has been no outcry from the poor and near-poor homeowners who are being robbed of their last little bit of wealth, and who don't have the resources at their disposal to combat this assault.

The suburbs aren't any better. Last week, I was talking to one of our firm's clients, a nice Hoffman Estates man who occasionally makes a tiny stock trade in penny stocks he researches himself, as a hobby. He and his wife are solid in their jobs, have savings, and have had no problems making the payments on their $240K house. But they recently received their new tax bill for $8,500, which is more than double their previous bill, which itself had represented a massive increase over that of a year before. The house might now sell for $180K, which in itself is not a problem for my friend, for he bought it to keep and live in, not to "make money". But the new tax bill will mean an additional $400 a month in payments, which will force this man and his family of four out of their home, especially since his wife was recently laid off her job. My customer is protesting through the usual channels, even though he is so blindsided by this that he can barely cope. The reason for the draconian hike is that the Village is in a bad financial bind due to large mistakes in the allocation of revenues over the past few years, and many of their bets went badly. We can only ask how the village will cure its situation if my friend and about 1000 of his neighbors are forced to walk away from their houses for inability to pay these utterly unanticipated bills, and the city is forced to take possession of their houses, that are often worth less than the mortgages outstanding. There comes a point when people just cannot pay anymore, and the upward-trending line of expenses and taxes is now crossing the downsloping line of personal incomes and employment.

Against this backdrop, the taxpayers of Chicago are being forced to spend $447,000 per unit for "affordable" housing at Wilson Yards, to house 150 very select tenants. Given that there are hundreds of condos all over Uptown, Edgewater, and Rogers Park, many in "move-in" condition, languishing on the market for months on end at price points far lower than this, and many more hiding in the "shadow" inventory, whole developments nearly emptied and unsold, but not showing on the listings, you'd really think that our leaders could mate need with need, and purchase a couple of hundred of these orphaned units to offer as "affordable" housing. While many of these units have suffered from neglect and abuse and surely need substantial work in order to be habitable, an expenditure of $30k-$50K per unit to replace broken plumbing and missing fixtures is pretty small potatoes relative to the cost of the Wilson Yards project. Desperate sellers and foreclosing lenders would benefit, and the neighbors would be no worse off with a "low income" tenant than they are saddled with yet another "low income" housing development in the area, or with the liability for unpaid utilities and assements for neighboring units in their condo buildings that are in default or foreclosure, and are deteriorating into slums through sheer neglect as pipes break in unheated units, and departing foreclosure "victims" strip fixtures and inflict other damage on their units.

It's a good bet that the poor homeowners of Englewood and the middle-class dropouts of the suburbs won't be able to score an "affordable" apartment at Wilson Yards. They will just have to move in with relatives, or maybe find a box under a freeway somewhere. Somebody has to pay for projects like that, and these are the people who are doing the paying. Nobody has ever done a precise calculation on how many people have to sell their houses for inability to pay rapidly escalating taxes, for every "affordable" apartment built at the taxpayers expense.

Will taxing our poor and middle class homeowners into homelessness help house the poor? Why are we dispossessing our working poor of what few assets they possess, such as their little homes they struggled to buy, in order to build "affordable" housing, and destroying the struggling remains of our middle classes to subsidize evermore redundant Big Box retail in the name of "economic development"? The tax revenues lost to TIF districts, tax abatements, and other corporate "gimmes" must be offset by raising property taxes to confiscatory levels, and on the national level, the few trillion dollars committed to TARP, TARF, HAMP, and the rest of the alphabet soup of housing and financial bailout programs, as well as the immense subsidies committed to keeping housing prices levitated beyond affordability to a population whose incomes are falling, is taken from the taxpayers at large, and from other desperate needs. Someone out there remarked that the money committed to housing and financial bailouts as of the end of 2008 would pay for electrified rail service to every city and town with more that 5,000 inhabitants in the country. Aside from the sheer cost to the public treasury and the increasing danger of a treasury default, as the deficit swells and the tax revenues drop because of reduced incomes and business activity, there is the unbelievably twisted thinking of a president who believes that the best way to provide "affordable" housing is to spend our tax money to prop up housing prices at levels that are still above affordability.

In any case, you have to pretty naive and deluded to believe that our local and federal governments have any solutions to the economic problems we're dealing with, or any help for any of us out here. So let's stop asking these people to come up with "solutions". Our authorities are the problem, not the solution. Any "solutions" will be of our own devising, with our own money and effort; and the more of our resources our parasitical and theiving authorites skim from us, the less we'll have to help us deal with the problems our authorities have created and that they're inflicting on us.