These truths should be self-evident, but many are not

This Monday we get a day off to create a nice long weekend. Memorial Day is a wonderful celebration, but is one where we should honor those who have given the ultimate sacrifice for our country. We tend to promote jingoism, which is an ugly term, to beat on our chests and talk about how mighty we are. Yet, I believe we should honor our valiant soldiers who died fighting our battles, by being truth seekers. We owe it to them to do so.

I believe the following truths are self-evident. If you disagree, I welcome your comments. I am not looking to blame anyone, but learn from our mistakes and realities of the situation. In my view, we cannot address our problems, if someone is telling you the problem is not real and we are so great that we can make any problem go away. In no particular order.

– We went into Iraq with insufficient troops and hardware and without a clear-cut plan for success. General Shinseki actually resigned because of this initial failure. The later “surge” is what Shinseki had argued for in the first place. Winning battles is easier than maintaining the peace, which is what Shinseki noted to his bosses.

– We overreacted to 9/11 and as a result underreacted to Syria and pulling out of Iraq, so says a military historian. Al Qaeda was small in number and now we have a much greater enemy. We are a war-weary country and made many mistakes from the outset and along the way. We had the Iraqi police force fired, many of them later became part of ISIS. This concern was noted at the time of their firing ten years ago.

– Torture of prisoners has made us less safe, because we have grown larger, multi-generational groups of people who do not hold America in high regard. What little intelligence we have gained is dwarfed by this continuing animosity and mistrust.

– The Middle East is a hard to solve conundrum. America cannot win a war that will solve this problem, as proven in Iraq. Again, winning battles is easier than maintaining the peace. We have been fighting in the Middle East for over thirty years and spent trillions of dollars – what do we have to show for this asks another military historian and Vietnam veteran. He noted we did not learn the lessons of Vietnam.

– While many are grandstanding with chest beating opinions, it is good to be negotiating with Iran over limiting nuclear development. The non-diplomatic options are not worth considering as they could lead to a deadly result for many. In any situation, we owe to our troops and to their families to exhaust all other means before we send them to die.

– The same is true for Ukraine which gets lost in the news these days. Vladimir Putin is not a trustworthy individual. We need to continue to hold his feet to the fire as an international pariah. We need to help Ukraine be stronger, but also continue a joint effort to call Putin on the carpet.

– We also owe it to our troops to protect them and their families from predators here at home. Pay-day lenders and expensive and ineffective for-profit colleges have had a license to steal from our military families. The former will get our families into a 1000% annual effective interest rate pretty quickly. The latter spends more money marketing than teaching and graduation rates are in the low teens if that high. Also, the diet supplement business which is largely unregulated (due to some well-funded senators), has led to deaths of many soldiers who bought diet supplements (from on-base stores to aid with their training). You cannot support troops and screw them over like this. It is not right.

We owe it to our troops and their families to make sure we have exhausted other means, before we send them into battle to risk their lives. We owe it to them to have a clear-cut plan for success and a reasonable end strategy. We owe it to them to learn from our mistakes and not placate political egos to gain favor with voters. Finally, remember the quote from the movie “Troy,” when Achilles is consoled by his cousin – war is old men talking and young men fighting. Let’s honor those young men and women and treat them and their families well.

 

 

 

Which energy approach is more cost effective?

Our legislators in North Carolina are debating whether to continue a state solar energy tax credit that has helped fuel our growth in solar power. NC is now the fourth most prolific state in solar energy. The solar boom has also helped with job creation, which is often used to support the arguments for fossil fuel. Yet, with this debate comes the argument we should be agnostic to the energy method and let the market gravitate to the cheaper approach.

I have a couple of thoughts on this. First, the cost of solar production has continued to decline along with its expansion, and will actually rival the cost of fossil fuel energy production. I have read that a cross-over point is 2018. I find that very exciting, as when that occurs, the cost on a production basis, may favor this renewable energy source.

Second, the above speaks to a comparison of production costs. I have long believed that a true cost comparison has yet to be done which will show the comparative costs of energy options. What has happened with major coal ash spills is a good metaphor as any for what I am talking about. When the residual costs over the lifetime of the energy source are factored in, the cost of using the cheaper production source, may be the more costly source.

A few costs to consider in this equation are as follows – the cost to clean up messes caused by the energy source (coal ash spills, oil spills, e.g.), the added healthcare costs due to a more polluted environment, the cost of water utilization, the costs of environmental degradation, the lawsuits due to the economic havoc wreaked on people and their land, etc. The bad part about this equation is the costs are borne by different people. Oftentimes, the developers get in and out with their profits, leaving the added costs for others. So, often we taxpayers or utility customers are left holding the bag.

Yet, the biggest risk is how much water must we use for each source.  The cost of water utilization is one factor, but the threat of running out of a dear water supply is the greater risk. This is not a pie in the sky concern, as water loss from our water supplies are factored into models for utilities like Duke Energy.

So, let’s look at the real cost of energy production, not just the current cost. My hypothesis is we may be pleasantly surprised that the cheaper cost is the one best for us and our health. With climate change and water utilization being major concerns, I would strongly argue the need to incent the migration to more healthful and environmentally sound renewable energy

The Wizards of Oz

One of the most telling scenes from the movie “The Wizard of Oz,” is when Dorothy and friends discover that the wizard is not all that he is cracked up to be. “Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain,” says the very mortal wizard through a distorting microphone. This scene is indicative of what is happening with great ease in our society much to our detriment. The “wizards” behind the curtain are people of great wealth who constitute an oligarchy of individuals and companies that are actually dictating the information we receive and who we should vote for. The distorting microphone and frightening wizard persona is, in essence, represented by their Public Relations (PR) people.

These PR people are well paid because of their ability to influence consumers like you and me. We tend to buy what they are selling. This has always been the case, but now it so easy for them as they are funded by industry or individuals through super-PACs or corporate marketing budgets. There is an excellent movie on the havoc that can be wreaked by PR people in the movie “Merchants of Doubt.” A link to an article in a San Antonio online news is as follows: http://www.sacurrent.com/sanantonio/americans-revealed-as-willing-suckers-in-merchants-of-doubt/Content?oid=2423641

In short, these well paid PR people are paid liars. There really is no better way to put this. They are often given the more politically correct term of “spin doctors,” but that does not do justice to what some of them do. I am more than OK with public relations people who do their best to tell a positive story based on factual information. In other words, helping companies put their best foot forward. As a business person, I have actually engaged people to help my company tell our story. But, we did not ask them to lie or distort the truth as that would have been a disservice to our clients. Yet, the folks I am referencing care little about the underlying message and the detriment it causes.

A dilemma we face is with our smaller attention spans, limited news budgets and conflicts of interests, news agencies that seek out and report verifiable truths are few in number. Some even rely on these PR agents to be subject matter experts, as presented in “Merchants of Doubt.” These PR people can contrive a more understandable story to countervent a scientist who has spent a lifetime on an issue, but cannot break his or her message into a sound bite. One of the more troubling things about the movie “Merchants of Doubt” as highlighted in the San Antonio article is one of the PR people actually brags on his ability to defeat scientists in arguments because he says they are “boring.” A sad truth is also shown in the movie is some of these scientists actually receive death and harmful threats at the directions of “paid liars” like this guy.

How do we combat these highly effective PR people and their underlying “Wizards of Oz” who pay for their services.

– Watch, read or listen to credible news sources – PBS Newshour, BBC World News America, NPR, The Guardian, Al Jazeera News et al are reputable sources who discuss issues in-depth and often with subject matter experts. Also, read editorialists you do not agree with as they will help confirm or shape your beliefs. I have changed an opinion or reconfirmed an opinion by reading someone who shares the opposite view.

– When a politician, pseudo-news person, or leader uses labels (Nazism, Socialism, Tree-Huggers, Apartheid, Slavery) in an attempt to discredit something or limits debate over a topic (as Governors Scott and Walker did in Florida and Wisconsin over the use of the terms climate change or global warming), dig further into argument. These tactics are generally used when the labeler or squelcher’s argument is not sound.

– Ask questions of politicians. Politicians know less than you would think and hope, plus they are beholden to funders who tell them how they should vote. Why did you change your vote or opinion? Why do you believe that when more people do not? Do you expect us to believe what you just said? Remember the words of Senator Jon Kyl, when caught in a lie when he responded “You should not confuse what I am saying with the truth.”

– Get involved. We have major issue facing our planet and country around climate change and eco-energy issues, poverty issues, and corruption issues to name a few.  There are more corrupt places than in the US, but we have monied influences that dictate what they want. These Wizards of Oz are akin to the Robber Barons that President Teddy Roosevelt fought so hard against.

– When you hear something inane in conversation or on Facebook, ask the person do you really believe that? Or, maybe you could say, “that is an interesting viewpoint. I personally do not share that opinion.” Be civil in your discourse, but it is more than OK to counter an argument. I do my best, but fail sometimes, to focus on the argument or issue. I use Senator Kyl’s name above as an exemplar as this line is on the public record.

We all need to channel our inner Dorothy, Scarecrow, Tin Man and Cowardly Lion’s and seek the truth. That is the only way we can countervent the “Wizards of Oz,” and their well-paid “Merchants of Doubt.”

America is one big pothole – stupid is as stupid does

In January, 2014, I wrote the blog “America is one big pothole” after seeing former Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell and former Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood, on PBS Newshour. They have joined together for a bipartisan effort to promote much needed investment in our crumbling infrastructure – roads, bridges, railways, ports, etc. and have been in front of Congress to discuss these needs. Fifteen months later, not much has been done about the growing problems, and at the end of this month, our stop-gap funding of the Highway Trust Fund will expire one more time.

The Amtrak accident has caused people to recognize the need, but to be honest politicians do not need anymore wake-up calls. They are fully informed of the problems, but choose not to do anything about it. Their lack of stewardship is not a surprise, but in this case, people have died and will die from their failure to act. The interesting sidebar to this is any investment in infrastructure will create jobs and, as you may recall, that was supposed to be the number one mission of this and previous Congresses. These jobs will dwarf the jobs that could be created with a Keystone Pipeline, for example, and certainly deserve more attention than many of the items discussed in the chamber of Congress.

As reported on a repeat episode on “60 Minutes” last night, this is one issue that the leaders of the US Chamber of Commerce and AFL-CIO labor union agree on. Both were in front of Congress last fall to plead with them to invest in our crumbling infrastructure. Yet, the leaders of these Congressional Committees refused to be interviewed and will not act. And, fifteen months after the following post and six months following these pleas by the US Chamber and AFL-CIO leaders, not much has happened.

The Speaker of the House has reacted with criticism over linking the Amtrak train derailment with a lack infrastructure investing. He even stated the question as “stupid.” I recognize, as do many, that this accident is likely due to excessive speed. But, one of the investments would have added a breaking system that may have kicked in. One thing is for certain, a question about failing to invest in our infrastructure is not “stupid.” What is “stupid” is failing to act when the information to do so is so compelling and business and labor are pleading for action.

Just a quick example from the “60 Minutes” episode re-aired last night. A key railway bridge has 500 trains per day crossing it, the most heavily used railway bridge in the western hemisphere. This bridge is on the most traveled rail line in the country from Boston to New York to Philadelphia. If this bridge goes, it will not be an accident. It will be an accident waiting to happen that could be prevented.

There are other arguments noted in the attached post. Please join with me and write your Congressional representatives and ask them to act. In fact, we should tell them to act as their lack of stewardship is beyond poor. Using the Speaker’s word, their failure is “stupid” and we will be the ones who pay for their stupidity.

https://musingsofanoldfart.wordpress.com/2014/01/10/america-is-one-big-pothole/

This is not a rehearsal

One of the anthems of the 1980s is “It’s My Life” performed by Bon Jovi and written by Richard Sambora, Jon Bon Jovi and Max Martin. While the ladies are quite fond of Mr. Bon Jovi, his group would not be as successful without great songs. This one should resonate with all, as evidenced by the first few lyrics.

This ain’t a song for the broken-hearted
No silent prayer for faith-departed
I ain’t gonna be just a face in the crowd
You’re gonna hear my voice
When I shout it out loud

It’s my life
It’s now or never
I ain’t gonna live forever
I just want to live while I’m alive
(It’s my life)
My heart is like an open highway
Like Frankie said
I did it my way
I just wanna live while I’m alive
It’s my life

Folks, this is not a rehearsal. Yes, there may be an afterlife but we won’t know for sure until the time comes. My suggestion is living a life that is worth living. That does not mean partying hard all the time, but as David Brooks has noted in his recent book on “The Road to Character,” live a life for what they will say at your eulogy, not on your resume. Please do have your fun, but I have discovered that a life where I try to help people, gives me back so much.

In the documentary movie, “I AM,” the punchline is money does not create happiness. Having some money does alleviate unhappiness as it shelters, feeds and clothes you and your family, but amassing a lot of money has a diminishing return on happiness. Per the interviews with countless psychologists, sociologists, faith leaders, etc., the key to happiness is reaching out to others and interacting with them. The psychic income from that effort is huge.

Yet, whatever you decide to do, live your life. Take some chances. You will fail from time to time. Don’t worry. Learn from it. Pick yourself back up, dust yourself off and move forward. Travel somewhere beyond your boundaries. Meeting fascinating people is a wonderful experience. When our family took a vacation to Ireland, I remember meeting Oola from Belgium in a café near the Cliffs of Moher. What a delight she was. I remember the advice from a cabbie who told my son who wanted to start a tavern, to be sure not to “drink away your profits.”

Live your life. It is not your parents’ life. It is yours. Of course, listen to what your parents have to say, as they tend to know a thing or two, but stretch your wings. But, remember to be generous of your self. Your time and interest for others can mean a great deal to them and you. I mentioned living for what is said at your eulogy.

A good man and friend died the other day. His funeral was well attended by many as he was as generous a soul as you will find. His kids’ friends were always welcome at his house and his son said he treated them like he was interested in them. His colleagues had many wonderful stories about this kind man. I guess if I had to sum up his life, he was generous with his time for others. He was a wonderful and devoted husband of over 50 years. And, he died well-loved and remembered.

Affordable Care Act continues to get undue criticism

Reading letters to the editors in various newspapers on the Affordable Care Act (ACA), while a few concerns have merit, there is much undue criticism. The ACA is working pretty well in expanding coverage to uninsureds and is actually dampening costs per the Congressional Budget Office and PricewaterhouseCoopers. When its components are surveyed (guaranteed issue and renewability, preventive services, elimination of lifetime limits, capping profit margins baked into premiums), it actually polls favorably.

As noted before, the components poll better than the whole ACA, which in turn polls better when the name Obamacare is used. Yet, more people like the whole ACA than do not, which is a recent trend. However, even the recent polling is sloppy, as a solid 15% of people want the ACA to do more and be replaced by National Healthcare which is working well in other countries. So, these detractors are different from detractors who oppose it for political or free market reasons. While I would support elements of National Healthcare here in the US, that is not likely to happen, so the ACA is a good step forward down that path.

Regarding the subsidies, what many don’t realize is insured buyers were already subsidizing costs in hospital price increases to cover the uninsureds.  Absent a move to National Healthcare, this was a reasonable approach to gain access to many in need with affordable prices. The argument to do away with the subsidies to have a free market care system, would fail as many people could not afford coverage and we would be back in the same boat as before. What is also forgotten is the Chief Financial Officers of companies were asking for more consistent healthcare costs as rising costs were harming their profit/ loss statements. The ACA has actually helped accomplish a dampening of cost increases per the above two sources.

As a retired benefits professional and actuary, I am encouraged by the progress made by the ACA. Getting people access to coverage will help them get treatment in advance of worsening conditions. Its success is also in spite of twenty some odd states who have not expanded Medicaid. The states who did so are seeing better results in cost dampening and hospitals are more secure in funding. It would be nice to see the impact of ACA when fully implemented with all states expanding Medicaid.

I personally do not anticipate the Supreme Court to do away with the subsides in the national exchanges for the states who punted. I have always seen the court case to challenge the subsidies as narrow-minded and not looking at the context of what the law is trying to do. Also, running the national exchange for the states who asked was helpful to those states, so to now belittle those states and screw millions of people over, is cold-hearted. But, stranger things have happened. If it does happen, it is an easy fix, but hopefully it will not come to that given unnecessary politics.

What we don’t need is people who are against this law for political reasons to continue to find different ways to hammer it. Which is a shame as it is working pretty well and is ironic as it is based on a largely Republican idea. Let’s improve where needed, but do not do away with it.

Income inequality per a Nobel Laureate in Economics

On the good side, we finally are beginning to talk about income inequality. We are a nation of “haves” and “have-nots” with an increasing number in the middle class that are living one paycheck away from poverty. On the bad side, are the overly simplistic assessments of blame, reasons and solutions, most of which do a disservice to this complex topic.

Some lay blame on the policies of LBJ’s “Great Society,” yet that trivializes the last fifty years. In fact, LBJ’s “War on Poverty” was hugely successful with those over age 65 with the introduction of Medicare and Medicaid and improvement to Social Security. Yet, positive movements for those under age 65 have been waylaid by other factors over the last fifty years. Some lay blame on the issue with respect to African-Americans with too many children born to unwed mothers. Again, that is an issue, but overly simplifies that as a cause, and it does not reflect that most Americans on welfare are white.

The best place to look is the advice of Nobel Laureate in Economics, Joseph Stiglitz, who wrote the book “The Great Divide: Unequal Societies and What We Can Do About Them.” In his view, this Nobel Laureate feels the decline is due to a multiple of factors, some of which can be traceable to the failed Trickle Down economic policy set forth at the start of the 1980s. Significant reduction in tax rates under President Reagan set us on a course where the “haves” added greatly to their wealth and income, while the “have-nots” stayed flat, even while productivity climbed.

This echoes what I have read elsewhere which can be described by placing two arms out in front of you, one at an upward angle, with the other straight out. The straight out arm reflects what has happened in income to the significant majority of people, while the upward arm shows what happened to the upper-end earners. So, while a few of have done very well, many have not participated in the economic growth.

When this trend is coupled with deteriorating inner cities, the lack of targeted investment to rehabilitate areas of plight due to budget restrictions, the continued fall in education rankings which has occurred over time, the continued maltreatment of African-Americans where opportunity is denied and the introduction of crime as economic enterprise, the problems are exacerbated. If you season this, with the segmenting of society into market segments to sell products, services, news and politicians, we do not see the forest for the trees. We must also understand that poverty is the absence of money and is not due to being less virtuous, less hard-working or more prone to substance abuse.

Rather than belabor my opinions, please read more about Stiglitz’s thoughts as reported in the Business Insider: http://www.businessinsider.com/nobel-laureate-joseph-stiglitz-2015-4. Here is someone who should be listened to rather than people giving pat solutions to complex problems.