Another Big Hairy Audacious Lie – That Failed Stimulus

In follow-up to an earlier post and on the eve of our two major political party conventions, I thought it would be good to provide some context on another big hairy audacious lie, the one that is in many commercials – that gosh darn “failed stimulus.” Let me begin with a question – what do Macroeconomics Advisors, Moody’s Economy.com, IHS Global Insight, JP Morgan Chase, Goldman Sachs and the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) have in common? They all agree that the Obama stimulus bill increased GDP by at least 2 percentage points. The stimulus bill saved the country from a second depression and per the above six economic forecasters, made the difference between contraction and growth saving creating over 2.5 million jobs.

In a very well written article on this subject by Michael Grunwald, a senior national correspondent at Time magazine, he notes the stimulus was much more effective than Obama was given credit for and it in fact,as time passes, will be viewed in much more favorable light. Grunwald does note the $787 million stimulus has been a political failure, in that the effort has been viewed negatively because it was not a panacea and the opposing party has shined a spotlight on this fact. Yet, from an economic standpoint it did much more than that.

Per Grunwald, “For starters, the (American Reinvestment and) Recovery Act was the biggest, most transformative energy bill in history, financing unprecedented government investments in cleaner coal, energy efficiency, advanced biofuels and the refineries to brew them, and factories to manufacture all that green stuff in the United States. The stimulus was also the biggest and most transformative education reform bill since the Great Society, shaking up public schools with a “Race to the Top” competition designed to reward innovation and punish mediocrity. It was a big and transformative health-care bill, too, laying the foundation for Obama’s even bigger and more transformative reforms a year later. It included America’s biggest foray into industrial policy since FDR, the biggest expansion of anti-poverty initiative since LBJ, the biggest middle class tax cut since Ronald Reagan, and the biggest infusion of research money ever.”

That does not sound like a failed stimulus to me. Could it have been better? Absolutely. Did it focus too much on some less worthy projects that were “shovel ready?” Yes. Did it fail? Per these six economic forecasters, no it did not. I mention the number six as on “Real Time with Bill Maher” on Friday night, a Romney advisor discredited the forecast when Maher rebutted his “failed stimulus” assertion. Maher correctly noted the stimulus package worked and that the use of “failed” was a campaign ploy. In politics, if you do not like the message, shoot the messenger. Yet, we are talking about six economic forecasters not one messenger, one of which is the CBO. The CBO is interesting in that they do their absolute darndest to be non-partisan in their projections. The only time their work comes into question is when one political party does not like their answer. Yet, when they do like their answer, the CBO is the greatest thing since slice bread.

I have said in earlier posts, one of the President’s key mis-steps has been not managing expectations. Housing based recessions on average take six years to run their course. That is based on a study of housing based recessions over time in multiple countries. On average, we should see the light at the end of the tunnel at the end of 2013. Yet, the impact of Europe’s crisis and China’s slowdown continue to dampen our recovery which has been a slow climb. So, it could be a little longer than the average. Pollsters ask the question are you better off than you were four years ago? Well, if they have any equity assets, the market is about 80% higher than it was back in October, 2008 when the banks mismanagement brought the house down on many. There are about 3 million jobs more than there were at the time of Obama’s first budget in October, 2009 and homes are beginning to sell better.

People tend to have short memories about when and how things transpired. We are not out of the woods and people are still hurting. We have to get more people back to work and keep them in their homes. Yet, over all the US is in a much better place than it was when the President took office on January, 2009 irrespective of what people say and believe.  As an independent voter who votes for Republicans and Democrats, we need to give our imperfect President some kudos where they are deserved. There are many that did not agree with the GM and Chrysler bailouts, but both companies are with us today and hundreds of thousands of their and supplier jobs are still intact. There has been an increase in jobs, but more is needed.

What we need is for honest dialogue with the American people. We need Congress and the President to work together and discuss openly the real facts of the situation. I have provided my view of the Independent Voter’s Platform in an earlier post. It is not perfect, but at least it tries to ignore the political bullshit and the lobbyist and funders efforts to define our future. To be honest with you, I could care less what the GOP position is on abortion, birth control, gay rights, same-sex marriage, etc. We need to move beyond those issues because America has moved beyond those issues. I feel like we have some extreme parts of the GOP that are like acting like those in “The Crucible.” This is one of the reasons I left the GOP back in 2006. So, whether Romney or Obama carry the day, the President needs to focus on the economy, eco-energy and education more than anything.

So, when you hear the word “failed stimulus,” remember two things. First, very smart, non-partisan economists would beg to differ. Second, think of that woman on the commercial where her Ragu loses in a taste test to Prego and she wonders what other bad decisions she has made in her life? Maybe, just maybe what she has been told about global warming being a hoax is a lie. Maybe, just maybe what she has been told about being taxed enough already is a lie. And, maybe, just maybe what she has been told about reducing taxes on the top end will trickle down to her is a lie. Folks, we need the facts and we need collaborative solutions.

The Dot Connectors and a Few Shout Outs

Our American blog friend Jenni of newsofthetimes.wordpress.com is the ultimate dot connector who at a party would be the one introducing you to everyone else in the room. Yet, she has a twin sister in Australia named Judy of raisingthecurtain.wordpress.com, who would be doing the same at a party Down Under. They both play this role online as well, where they find someone whose words, pictures and efforts they like and think you may like him or her as well and make the connection. Both truly bring sunshine to our little blog world, which is not so little because of folks like them.

Both have been very generous with me and  have paid forward some of the many justifiable honors they have received. Kudos to both as they are informative, entertaining and likable. Jenni has for the second time flattered me with an acknowledgement – The Booker Award. Earlier this year, she was kind enough to include me on a list for The Sunshine Award, both awards she has received among others. Judy, was awarded  a triumvirate of awards – One Lovely Blog, Very Inspiring Blogger and Beautiful Blogger Awards. She also included me on a list of bloggers to receive these accolades. I am presuming the latter award has nothing to do with my looks, but one can hope. These acknowledgements, especially with the company of bloggers who were so awarded in their paying forward, are truly are an honor. I am just delighted someone actually takes the time to read what I write, so I am truly humbled by their kindness and engagement with my blog, both reading and commenting.

To honor their dot connecting, I am asked to pay it forward as well by telling a few more things about myself, naming some additional great bloggers and noting some of my favorite books – hence the name of The Booker Award. Let me start with the last two items and come back to the first. I will leave off their blogs, but they should be on everyone’s “go-to” list as they are on mine. Please forgive those I leave out on my list, as when you make lists there is someone you leave off that you wish you had not.

Bloggers to Take a Peek At

– hughcurtler.wordpress.com – Jenni included him already, but a must read. I learn something new every time I stop by.

– mountainperspective.wordpress.com – Barney writes an excellent blog on topics of import and does a nice deeper dive with data without being a data hound. That is an art.

– diatribesandovations.com – a new friend and truly a well-rounded blog. I am just getting to know her and have enjoyed her writing.

– thebrabblerabble.wordpress.com – Amaya is a must read. She covers mainstream as well as topics we should be discussing.

– roseylinn.wordpress.com – she keeps it brief, funny and informative. Crossword and Scrabble lovers must take a look.

– carrpartyoffive.wordpress.com – a very informational, natural, storytelling blog. Lisa has a way of taking the reader along for a nice ride.

– simplepolitiks.wordpress.com – an excellent political blog without going off the deep end. The topics are teed up for the commenter and the comments are very good. Same goes for Hugh and Barney.

–  dje1231.wordpress.com – Donna, the infamous, Momma E is worth the visit. I want to hang out with her as she shows me around New England. I guess the Viking can come along too. If you don’t know about the Viking, check it out.

– powerpoliticsblog.wordpress.com – this is one is different and I encourage others to read Varun Bindra’s writings. He will discuss very eloquently non-US topics or a different spin of the US global activities. I am always learning with Varun.

I have several others I frequent, so please forgive the omissions. The best thing about this process is finding other cool blogs at the recommendations of others.

Books to read

This process is harder than the above as I am book reader. I like the feel of a book in my hands, so tend to only do research online, but pleasure read handheld books. I could not limit them to five books, so let me categorize them as follows:

Serious Non-fiction Reads

“How America Fell Behind in the World it Invented and How it can Come Back” – by Thomas Friedman and Michael Mandelbaum – a must read to see what problems the US faces and how to solve them.

“Raising Elijah” and “Living Downstream” by Dr. Sandra Steingraber – every parent must read these (I would start with the latter one) as it will scare the crap out of you. And, on the environmental crock pot we have cooking, we need the crap scared out of us.

“Outliers” by Malcolm Gladwell (or “The Tipping Point” or “Blink”) – they are all good and apply to many of things we do in society. It is hard to pick a favorite, but they are short reads, so you can read them all.

“Toxic Charity” by Robert Lupton – written by a hands on minister who advocates empowering people in need rather the typical charity model which is more for the giver than the receiver.

Fictional Reads

“To Kill a Mockingbird’ by Harper Lee – if you have not read this book, it must be read.

“The Prince of Tides” by Pat Conroy (or anything by him) – the book has more characters than the movie and is a great glimpse of Conroy.

“Pillars of the Earth” by Ken Follett – a long, great book about a cathedral builder. This one made a comeback when Oprah pulled it off the shelves.

“The Stand” by Stephen King – I had to throw one of his in there. I started to say “The Dead Zone” which is excellent and not about what you think. “The Stand” shows how quickly a virus can become an epidemic and why we must guard against such.

Other Non-fiction Reads

“Caddy for Life – The Bruce Edwards Story” – by John Feinstein – Edwards was Tom Watson and Greg Norman’s caddy and that contrast in styles is worth the read even if you are not a golf fan.

“When Pride Still Mattered’ by David Maraniss – this is the story about Vince Lombardi, one of the most acclaimed football coaches ever. Even if you are not a football fan, you may enjoy it.

Well, I said I would end with some personal stuff, which is hard as I must remain incognito due to the kind of business I am in. Some of my opinions may cause others to blow a gasket, so I don’t need any more obstacles to trying to be successful. I have three kids with my second off to college next week, meaning I have two tuition checks to write. Hence, the need to be successful per above. My two boys are the oldest and I have a daughter in high school. They are similar, but different people. My wife is easily the best half of the family and is a lot like Jenni and Judy. She is the best of listeners and, as a result, collects people who need someone to listen. There is a Gordon Lightfoot song called “Rainy Day People” which defines my bride. There is also a line in “Danny’s Song” by Kenny Loggins that Anne Murray also made famous – my wife is the “girl who holds the world in a paper cup.”

Some have accused me of not being an Old Fart at 53. I chose that title as to all kids we are old farts, but to my age groups peers – we are not old farts as we still have a lot to see and do. Middle age is defined as 15 years older than you are at any moment. My passion is helping homeless families. Unlike the image that many of my conservative friends have that all homeless people are like the panhandlers on the street (who we must also help), the significant majority of homeless people are and can be temporarily homeless if we help them climb a ladder.  If I can ask one favor of all of you, follow your passions and volunteer to help somewhere – homeless, kids, elderly, disabled, pets, etc. – that is the greatest gift you can give to others, but don’t do for them what they can do for themselves. Help them climb the ladder, but they must climb it. And, in so doing, both you and they will soar.

That is enough from me. Jenni and Judy, thanks for including me on your list. I treasure your recognition. A heartfelt thanks to you both.

An Independent Voter’s Platform

With the major party conventions soon upon us, each will be confirming its party’s platform or vision of our troubles and how its solutions are better for America. As a member of a growing body of independent voters, I would like to offer my set of views on the troubles we face and some potential solutions. My goal is to brief, as I mentioned in greater detail some of my thoughts in two earlier posts – “Independent Rebuttal to the State of the Union” back in January and “My BIll is Better than your Bill” in July. I have also been influenced by many wonderful bloggers, who if I started to name would invariably leave off a key influence to my thinking. So, for what it is worth, here is an Old Fart’s Independent Voter Platform.

Economy and Budget

We must make long term changes, but we cannot cause the slow recovery to fall off the cliff at January 1, 2013. We also have 45 million Americans in poverty and the highest by far ratio of CEO pay to the average worker pay at 475 to 1 as compared to Great Britain at 22 to 1, Canada at 20 to 1 and Germany at 12 to 1. These are not misprints. (thanks to http://www.hughcurtler.wordpress.com for his blog “The Rich Get Richer.”)

– Extend the ill-conceived, but still with us Bush Tax Cuts for one more year ending them December 31, 2013. The price for the full extension is to increase the minimum wage requirement to the single person Living Wage in each region (just under $10 an hour in many places). If you do not like this idea, please refer to the 475 to 1 ratio again.

– Extend the 2% FICA payroll tax reduction one more year ending December 31, 2013.

– Adopt the Simpson-Bowles Deficit Reduction Plan effective January 1, 2014, with limited if any changes. This will increase tax revenue (critical) and address spending cuts to defense (critical) as well as social programs (this includes Social Security, Medicare changes). As noted in earlier posts, we are one of the least taxed countries in the world and dwarf others with our defense spending.

– Be mindful of what and how far we cut. For example, Planned Parenthood helps many people in need and increased family size is a highly correlated with poverty.

– Let Simpson-Bowles replace the sequestration due to the Congressional Committee’s failure to reach compromise, but let the agreed upon defense and other cuts in the budget go through as they were agreed to.

– Finally, continue to incent the movement of manufacturing jobs back to these shores. The Stimulus Bill worked per America’s top economic forecasters saving us from a free fall, in spite of what one party likes to say (see Michael Greenwald’s article in Time magazine called “Barack Obama’s New Deal”) and if we could provide further stimulus, so much the better.

Education

This is a major area of concern for our country. If we do not get this right, we will be like Grisabella, the tattered old cat in “Cats.”

– Advocate for the use of year round schools. The models can allow for sufficient vacation breaks for the families, but there is too much memory loss from one school year to the next and data shows this affects impoverished kids more as they have less access to camps, trips, etc.

– Enhance the emphasis on the STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) classes along with a heavy emphasis on reading and writing. We are 23rd and 27th in math and science in the world rankings.

– Give license to principals and teachers to devise tailored flexibility in our curriculum. Give power to the principals to govern ineffective teachers and help them improve or exit them. And, let’s pay our teachers better – this our children we are talking about.

Energy and Environment

Of all my fears, this is the greatest one. If we do not get this right, the other stuff will not matter. I cannot shout this loudly enough, but the data is overwhelming from independent scientists – global warming is here and it is man-influenced. So, we must do something about now, or per a former Shell President, the US will be a third world energy power in ten years. Germany and China dwarf us in eco-energy plans. The US is only as high as third in alternative energy because of a confederation of local and regional efforts, coupled with the mpg standards and some alternative energy incentives put in by Obama.

– We must have a bi-partisan plan to address our Eco-energy solutions. It has to be bi-partisan as it must be a living document that lasts beyond the terms of the incumbents who pass it. Germany will be 80% alternative energy powered by 2030.

– The plan must reflect water usage. Water is the new oil and will become even more dear. Certain energy retrieval processes take a huge amount of water – fracking for natural gas, e.g., so we have to factor this in (note the frackers and farmers are fighting over water in Kansas as of this writing).

– The plan must embrace the movement away from fossil fuels and include the immediate, interim movement to cleaner versions of fossil fuels such as “Cleaner Coal” (note: there is no such thing as “Clean Coal”). This must be a phase out measure, though. The plan needs to embrace multiple solutions, as we should take advantage of our resources in a clean, efficient manner.

– Wind energy is being done in 38 states with Texas, Iowa, Minnesota and California leading the pack. Wind is in abundance here and is a key part of the future. Let’s incent this and disincent fossil fuels, unless it is a move to cleaner versions.

– Solar energy is critical and continues to get cheaper down from $9 a watt to $3 a watt. There are exciting stories in the US, Portugal, Morocco and Germany that are replicable. A Morocco solar initiative will power 20% of Europe in the foreseeable future. Again, let’s incent solar along with wind and other measures such as biomass, tidal and river currents, etc.

Healthcare

This is a major issue with 45 million uninsured Americans pending full implementation of the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare).

– Let Obamacare continue with targeted and select changes regardless of who wins the White House. To repeal it would be a disservice to Americans. It also would avoid the GOP being hypocritical as Obamacare is largely a Republican idea.

– We must come to grips with Medicare, so changes are in need as the cost is not sustainable. There are some good and bad things about the Ryan proposal, but we need to come up with a bi-partisan solution that wraps around continuing Obamacare.

– Let Michelle Obama keep on focusing on eating healthier and exercising more. The defense department has said American obesity is a threat to national security and we are the fattest country in the world according to the World Health Organization.

Gun Control

We have more guns and kill more people than any other country. We have 20 times the gun deaths than the 22 next wealthiest countries combined. We have 87% of all the gun deaths of children of the top 23 wealthiest nations.

– We need to reinstate the Brady Law which expired in 2004. This will disallow the use of assault weapons and require five days for background checks.

– We need to follow a law enforcement recommendation to encode all bullets to make them traceable. This will help solve crimes, but the NRA is against it.

– We need to listen less to the NRA as they have one purpose – perpetuate the sale of more guns. With 300 million guns in a country of 260 million people, how many guns do we need?

A Permanent Mixer for Congress

An easy set of ideas mentioned by former Congressman Mickey Edwards makes total sense and will force the mixing of ideas. His new book which is encouraging the political parties to “Be Americans First” has a few quick changes that may make a world of difference.

– Take the separate lecterns away and have one for all parties.

– Co-mingle the seating of the party members – when you walk in the room, you are an American first.

– Eliminate separate cloak rooms for the parties. When you are in that building, you are Americans first. You can make your party specific phone calls outside.

He had other changes, but these could be done tomorrow. The idea sharing would be leveraged further and we could eliminate all of this across the aisle bullshit.

Well, that is all I had for the Old Fart’s Independent Voter Platform. I would love to hear your ideas and comments. You will note, I purposely did not include social issues with the exception of funding for Planned Parenthood, which I view as an organization helping low-income people in need with family planning, birth control, mammograms, etc. This organization gets a bad rap by Conservative groups, which is very unfortunate.

It’s Good to be the King

In his movie “The History of the World: Part I” Mel Brooks chooses to play the role of Louis XIV and does so in a magnificently over the top manner. Throughout his scene where he plays the lecherous ruler, he would frequently look at the camera and utter “It’s good to be the King.” After reading the series of excellent posts on the lack of corporate ethics by my eloquent blog friend, Barney, who offers his “Views from the Hill” at http://www.mountainperspective.wordpress.com, I chose this title to illustrate some of the true stories I have witnessed or read about where the CEO of a company truly acted in a regal manner, not too dissimilar from Mel Brook’s French King. Through my consulting and work in corporations I have encountered many fine leaders of organizations. Yet, I have also seen some of the greediest people you will ever want to meet. It is for people like these that we need regulations. Where information is not public knowledge, I will not use any names, but all of these stories are true.

Let me begin with CEO #1 the $20 million man, a phrase I coined from the TV show, but if inflated to today’s dollars, we would likely need another decimal. This CEO would never use his own money, when he could tap company money so easily. For example, the company paid for his daughter’s wedding because he invited a few customers. And, when a colleague of mine was explaining a new benefit for employees he felt should be offered, the CEO stopped him and asked “what’s in it for me?” The CEO had every perquisite and if he read about a new one, he wanted it added to his list. He had to get a second chauffeur as his wife used the first company one too much for shopping.

Then there is the case of CEO #2 who was too cheap to buy his own light bulbs. I chose this example, as it was more meaningful than all of his other excesses, not too unlike the traits of CEO #1. Like CEO #1, CEO #2 had every perquisite imaginable, but he had the more interesting expense reports which required scrutiny.

CEO #3 seemed to have a little gambling problem. By the time it was discovered, he had embezzled $38 million from the company Treasury to pay off his debts. The funds he needed grew so large, that it finally showed up in an audit and he was caught.

There are new rules under the Dodd-Frank bill which governs executive compensation for publicly traded firms. That is the one and same Dodd-Frank that the some of our GOP friends would like gutted due to the limits it places on banks. You might find of interest the first two CEOs above were bank CEOs. Yet, there is also some legislation for non-profit organizations which evolved in response to the “kingdom” that was maintained by the national head of the United Way in the 1990’s. These requirements were under the Taxpayer Bill of Rights signed by Bill Clinton and were designed to make sure that donated money did not unduly go the key officers of the organization.

I mention this as greed is not restricted to for profit entities. One of my favorite lines every uttered was by Reverend Jim Bakker (CEO #4) of The Praise The Lord (PTL) Club who went to jail for misusing money from his donors. He said in an interview with Ted Koppel, “The Lord wanted me to have nice things” as reference was made to his solid gold faucets. A local DJ used to reference the PTL Club as the “Pass The Loot” Club before Mr.Bakker’s demise. Yet, other religious leaders wanted nice things as well.

CEO #5 was a minister of a large church. He told a colleague of mine who was designing a compensation package for him in response to my colleague’s question as to whether he should include all employees of the church in the assignment. The minister responded, “Your duty is to look after the shepherd; the Lord will look after the flock.”

CEO #6 is our good friend Reverend Franklin Graham. Graham was none too happy when it hit the papers he was taking a very nice salary from the Billy Graham Evangelical organization in addition to the very nice salary he was getting from Samaritan’s Purse. The funders were not too happy with him either.  To his credit, he quickly took action to remedy this dreadful oversight.

CEO #7 works for a regional Alcohol Beverage Control (ABC) Board in North Carolina. There are far too many ABC Boards in NC, which is a huge waste of dollars. Yet, this CEO down in Wilmington was not only overpaid, but had his wife and son on the payroll. Plus, he had a Supplemental Executive Retirement Plan (SERP) to retain and reward him. My question is why would he ever leave?

My final CEO #8, Gloria Pace King, gained national notoriety for her excessive compensation and benefits as CEO of the United Way of the Central Carolinas. Her compensation was high, but that was not the biggest problem. What got her cross ways with the community was her advocacy for a lucrative SERP that hit the accounting books in a major way. Plus, when she traveled she traveled well, while her subordinates who went along on the trips stayed in cheaper hotels. What is most disappointing is the community’s trust was broken. After she was let go, the United Way funding dropped from $41 million to about $15 million the next year. Who suffered? The people in need did, as the agencies had to do more with less.

I have only singled out eight CEOs from a list which includes names that you may have heard, but cannot remember from where. I would encourage you to Google the names – Dennis Kozlowski (Tyco), Richard Scrushy (Healthsouth), The Rigas Family (Adelphia), Kenneth Lay (Enron) and Wallace Malone (retired from Wachovia after his bank was purchased). I threw Malone into the mix, not because he did anything illegal, but because of his $119 million severance package due to the sale of the bank he ran. The other stories will make you ill.

There are many fine CEOs out there successfully running their companies or navigating them through this poor economy. If CEO pay is aligned with performance and the organization and shareholders do well, the CEO is deserving of good pay. Unfortunately, there are CEOs who are more narcissistic than we would like for them to be. I included the religious examples, as of all people, we need our faith leaders to be even more above board. When they are not, it seems to hurt worse as we believe they are answering a higher calling.

I have often said we need our leaders to be better than we are. We are asking them to be stewards with our money, jobs, faith and future. Their job is demanding, so it is OK for them to make a nice income. With that said, we do need accountability as we do not want or need them to live like kings or queens either. We need regulations like the two I mention above and more to keep things fair for all. Business leaders do not want regulations. Yet, very clearly from the above, but even more so from my friend Barney’s writings, we desperately need them.

So, when you hear people say regulations are holding business investment back ask them to think through that statement. Especially when businesses have breached our trust like our banker friends, regulations are needed. Always remember what history has revealed – the “haves” tend to take advantage of the “have-nots.” Rational capitalism is good; unfettered capitalism can be ugly. The regulations let us keep a handle on things whether they govern compensation or to keep people from polluting our environment or our bodies. The “haves” can still make money, they just cannot become regal. And, they need to play by the rules.

A Campaign Metaphor on our Eco-Energy Future

Earlier this week, a comparative news story on the Presidential campaign was presented on the PBS Newshour which provides one of the best metaphors for what this campaign is all about. Governor Romney was speaking in front of a group of coal miners in West Virginia, while President Obama was in Iowa talking about the wind energy success of the second most prolific state behind Texas on this clean energy source.  Romney was talking about the veracity of coal while Obama was espousing on the growing success of wind energy as one of the alternative energy solutions we must embrace.

While in abundance in the US, coal energy has historical been one of the worst contributors to toxins in the environment and has hastened the impact of global warming. Coal energy in the US is about 50% of our energy sourcing and the US is responsible for 1/4 of the greenhouse gases in the world. EPA passed additional limitations in 2011, which will tighten the requirements around mercury and other toxic emissions, which will save an estimated 17,000 lives per annum. Since coal is still such a huge part of energy delivery, we cannot divorce ourselves quickly from it, but we need to deminimize coal as a solution. To the industry’s credit, it has developed an enhanced coal gasification process, which does not burn the coal, but converts it into a synthetic gas (syngas) of carbon monoxide and hydrogen which is then burned to create steam to turn the turbines and generate the electricity. Some of the by-products of this gasification process can be used in other products.

The industry calls this “Clean Coal,” yet a better name would be “Cleaner Coal.” Coal still has to be mined, cleansed and transported, so that process will create toxic emissions, use an abundance of water and cause leakage. Plus, mountain top mining, is horrible for the environment and aesthetics for the region. On the back side, emissions are captured, but containment of the by-products not used or being stored for future use are not a perfect science and issues result. However, compared to the older forms of burning coal or previous methods of coal washing or scrubbing, gasification is a much cleaner approach. So, we clearly need to migrate in that direction as we diminish the use of coal altogether.

However, other countries are far ahead of us on their cleaner eco-energy strategies. China and Germany lead the pack, with the US a distant third. The US success has been more a confederation of good ideas, but we truly need to do something similar to what China or Germany has done. China has had a series of five-year plans to move toward “Cleaner Coal” and alternative energy sources like wind and solar. Coal is in abundance in China as in the US. Germany is ten years ahead of the US and plans to be 80% alternative energy fueled by 2030 and that does not include nuclear energy. Countries like Brazil, Spain and Denmark also have definitive alternative energy success based on plans that have lived beyond the terms of office of the original leaders.

Per John Hofmeister, the former President of Shell and Director of the Citizens for Affordable Energy in Washington, if the US does not formalize a long term eco-energy plan, we will become a third world energy power. That is a bold statement and is a call to action. We need a plan that will be bi-partisan and based on unbiased data. As an example, the clean coal websites advocate their model over the natural gas developers who advocate their model over the oil companies who want to drill baby drill. These industries are at best subjective and at worst biased. They each have a vested interest in the outcome. So, we need to move forward with what is in the best interests of the country and planet, which provides eco-friendly and cost-effective energy. When jobs are thrown in, in the documentary “Powering our Planet” narrated by Dr. Richard Alley, a noted climate change and glaciologist at Penn State, there are quite a number of jobs to be had in alternative energy delivery. So, jobs need not be an either/ or issue, as it is more about the types of jobs than the number.

As noted earlier, the US has had success at the community and regional level, which is justified by its third place ranking on alternative energy use. Texas provides 1/3 of the wind energy in the country and could do more. In addition Iowa, California, Minnesota, Washington and Oregon all are significant contributors. In total,  there are 38 states which provide wind power. And, 1 megawatt of wind energy provides 2600 fewer tons of carbon dioxide emissions than 1 megawatt of traditional coal energy.

And, solar energy is on the rise. In addition to Germany’s success, in Seville, Spain, there are three solar plants powering 20,000 households. In Morocco, a company called DesertTech is moving in a direction to power 20% of Europe by 2050 with solar power. The cost of solar power has become even more efficient being reduced from $9 a watt to $3 a watt. There is a belief it can be reduced to $1 a watt in the near future. In the US many of the solar successes are very targeted and local, yet the technology is replicable. NC is the third most prolific solar state and companies that can retrofit houses and businesses are growing rapidly.

Steven Chu, our Secretary of Energy, is correct to say our strategy need not be limited to one avenue – there is wave/ tidal power and biomass in addition to wind and solar and other forms. However, we need both political parties to sit down and develop a long term plan. This plan has to live beyond the terms of the incumbents. We need to move away from fossil fuels in a strategic, but accelerated fashion. Cleaner Coal is not a panacea, but it is much better than the alternative. Natural gas is a short-term option, but fracking is known to cause issues and uses a bucket load of water. I mention the use of water as our plans must be holistic, as water is the new oil and we have to be very careful about how we use it. There are fights in Kansas over water between farmers and frackers as of this writing.

I have been very clear in earlier posts about my greatest concern if the GOP carries the White House. The GOP is being heavily funded by these aforementioned fossil fuel industries, so their data and judgement are in question. To continue to deny global warming is an example of this questionable judgement. Obama, while having success with better mpg requirements on cars and advocating alternative energy, could do even more. So, the metaphor of the campaign paints a very clear picture – we can get in bed with the coal and other fossil fuel industries or we can look to the best path forward which is one that increasingly is powered by alternative energy, but is ever mindful of the role cleaner coal and natural gas play as they are diminished as sources. And, we should embrace the key role energy conservation plays in our overall strategy.

Another Day in America – 16 year old kills 13 year old friend

The recent shooting tragedies in Colorado and Wisconsin are terrible events. These tragedies heighten our fears and concerns about safety in our country. Yet, the greater tragedies in America occur every day, when someone who has access to a gun kills another. It is even worse when the victim is a teenager or child and the perpetrator is also a teenager or child. Yesterday, a 16-year-old killed someone he knew that was only 13. I mention the teenager and children homicides as this seems like something we adults should be so repulsed by that we try to fix it. Yet, we do not as there is too much money to be made by gun sales and the people who sell them invest so much money through the NRA in the politicians to have it their (the sellers’) way.

Let me say upfront I do not own a gun and will likely never own a gun. With that said, I realize that guns have a place in our society and there is data that shows where responsible gun laws are in place, there is less crime. Yet, the data also shows that place is not the United States as we can lay claim to being number one in the world by dwarfing the gun death rates when measured against the 23 wealthiest nations. We have 20 times the gun murder death rate of the next 22 wealthiest nations combined. Per the Journal of Trauma and Acute Care Surgery and Medicine.net, the US has the following alarming statistics on top of the claim made above in bold:

– Among the wealthiest 23 nations, the US can lay claim to 80% of all gun deaths.

– The US can also lay claim to 87% of all gun deaths of children.

– In the last 44 years, over a million people have been killed in domestic gun related deaths. That is more than died during the Civil War where only Americans were involved in the conflict.

– The US gun death rate is over 14 per 100,000 people (we’re number 1). Compare that to Mexico at under 13, Canada around 4, Ireland around 1 and Great Britain under 1/2. And, let’s throw in Japan at under 5/100 per 100,000.

– We have 300 million firearms in the US, with 4 in 10 households owning a firearm. The average number of guns per owner is seven.

To avoid being a statistical report, those key data points should suffice. But, let me hone in on a comparison to Canada as Canadians have a similar feeling (as a people) about gun ownership as we in the US. Canadians also permit gun ownership with 3 out of ten households owning at least one gun. Yet, the Canadian gun death rate of 4.3 is about 30% of the US rate of 14.2 per 100,000. If we flip the ratio, the US has over three times the rate of gun deaths than Canada.

These statistics bother me and should bother all Americans, even the gun owners. I also recognize it is more than about guns, but having easy access to guns is a huge factor. To say it is not, is an insult to our intelligence. People who have access to guns kill people. Yet, the US has others factors that are leading to more guns deaths than the next 22 countries combined and over three times that of Canada our most kindred spirit and neighbor.

Our culture through movies, TV, and video games is more violent than other cultures. More of the movies and TV shows are made in America, so this art is imitating life and perpetuating that culture. It was back in the 1970’s when TV crime shows started moving away from the bad guy being led off in handcuffs. The more sizzling way to capture a crook was to kill them, as it is a cleaner end to the show. Now, you would be hard pressed to see the bad guy led away in handcuffs.

Another key reason is poverty in America is atrocious with 50 million Americans in poverty. That is 1 out of 6 for those of you keeping a scorecard. There is a level of disenfranchisement in these impoverished areas that lead youths to be attracted to criminal elements and businesses. Gun possession is a rite of passage to some of these youths. And, with average male not truly maturing until their late 20’s and with brains of teenagers not yet fully developed, we have poor judgment occurring. The lesser percentage of two parent family in impoverished settings (and in general) is also a factor as the male role models are fewer. I would note that this poverty is not present only in the cities. Rural America is seeing some of the worst poverty and the reference to criminal activities has grown outside of cities due to the above coupled with the fewer police and authorities to address this rise.

So, we need to address these collaborating issues, but very clearly we need to address our gun ownership requirements. A NRA influenced Congress let the Brady Law expire after ten years in 2004. The NRA sends 88% of its donations to GOP members and 12% to Democrats, but ironically, the Democrats are just as scared of them as some felt they Democrats lost Congress following the passage of the Brady Law. And, the NRA can talk all it wants about our current President, but one of my pet peeves about him is his record on gun control is very poor.

At this point, we need to make this the important issue it is. We need to reinstate the Brady Law which did two basic things – require a five-day waiting period on gun purchases and banned assault weapons. I personally think we need to make it longer than five days as this is not a fishing license. We need thorough background checks. Also, I believe no one should own an Uzi or an AK47. If you have one, then in my mind, you are up to no good. I believe more Americans would agree with that point than don’t. But, let me add one more key point that police officers have said would be a way to reduce crimes. Make sure all bullets are clearly identified, so that the killing instrument can be traced back to a purchase. The fact that our law enforcement cannot get the support for this is beyond me.

Children and teenagers are dying every day by guns. We need to stop this. It is wrong. The NRA is arguably the first or second most powerful lobby in the country. Their voice is heard. I personally do not need to hear more from them, as we know they want to facilitate the sale of as many guns as possible. We need our politicians to hear the voice of reason. Mr. President, Governor Romney, please make this an issue. It is that important.

 

A Sense of Recognition and Belonging

One of my favorite columnists and weekly guests on the PBS Newshour, David Brooks, authored an interesting read called “The Social Animal.” In essence the book tells a story of two people from their childhood to when they meet and their travails as a couple, offering some social science input on why we do the things we do. It is more than a novel, but less than a textbook, so it is indeed an illuminating read. In the book, one of his characters discovers a Greek word called “thumos” which seems to identify in one word a need to be both recognized and belong to some sort of affiliation. Per Brooks, we don’t have an English word that wraps both of these human needs into one. Yet, the word thumos explains so much when we look at our society and why we do the things we do.

We all have a need and desire to be recognized. We want and need others to recognize the effort or gesture we made. As a quick example, as blog readers and writers, think of how your spirit is uplifted when someone recognizes a post you have made. The fact that someone else is taking the time to read and acknowledge what you wrote is meaningful. Yet, the word thumos takes it a step further. People have a need to belong to something, be part of a group whether it is a high school, religious, political, community, sports or some other group of people.

The example from Brooks’ book is the male character discovers in high school the need to be recognized for how he leads his life, while still having a sense of belonging. In high school, with hormones raging and communication filters not fully developed, kids can get ostracized quickly for not being part of a group of people, whether it be the popular, athletic, academic, band, anti-establishment, etc. crowd. The ones who tend to avoid this belonging tend to get ostracized by all groups, whereas if they belong to at least one group, have a home base.

I mention this now as we have a heightened sense of grouping in this country and abroad which has created an unhealthy tension of “we/ they” finger-pointing. The high school example is a good one, as some of the behavior is very high school-ish, even middle-school-ish, while other behaviors are even criminal. Recognition is very important and is a great motivator and validator in all our lives. Yet, we can be recognized for good behaviors as well as bad behaviors. As a parent, one of the key lessons I have tried to teach my kids and try to live by each day is “your name is the most important thing you have.” When people say your name, what do you want people to say about you – is he a decent, honorable person or is he a jerk? One of my favorite movie lines is from “Rob Roy,”  where the title character says “honor is a gift you give yourself.”  That is the best code to live by. In today’s debates over issues between people of different political persuasions, the best thing that can be said about anyone is he or she listens to the arguments of others whether he or she is in agreement. Their conduct is both civil and honorable.

The need to belong is also important. It should not define us, as we are usually an amalgamation of different groups we belong to, yet it often can be taken to either a healthy or unhealthy extreme depending on the group. A healthy extreme might be a woman who is so devout she becomes a nun. She is taking a vow to live her life devoted to God and helping others. On the unhealthy side is when the group is arguably called a hate group, be it some form of White Supremacist, Al Qaeda or youth gang, where the groups recruits impressionable people who have some level of disenfranchisement with society. These impressionable people are taught to blame others for their lot in life and to hate. As social science has told us clearly, we are not born racist or bigoted; we have to be taught.

Using Al Qaeda as an example, for adult men to be able to convince a teenage boy to strap on a hidden, suicide bomb to become a personified weapon is absolutely criminal and horrifying. These youths are given the penultimate brainwashing of belonging saying if you commit suicide and kill other infidels you will earn your place in heaven. This is one area where we need women to gain a greater voice in a male dominated religion so that they can tell these men what they are doing is wrong. Unfortunately, we have this behavior elsewhere with other affiliations. So Muslim extremists like Al Qaeda are not the lone set of criminal groups.

The recent shooting that occurred in the Sikh Temple in Wisconsin is the latest example of a hate crime by a group where the shooter had a sense of recognition and belonging. The shooting in Norway of the youths on the island along with the bombing at the downtown government office is another. These killers and others are led to believe their victims are different from you and are the cause of your problems (or society’s problems) and should be eliminated. Or, the groups can become so unhealthy in a cult like way, where rational reasoning is squelched. How else could a group of people be taught to drink the cyanide laced Kool-Aid by Reverend Jim Jones? How could a gang member be taught he has to commit a litany of severe crimes to be a member?

With our innate need for recognition and belonging, how can we encourage people to have a sense of right and wrong about all the decisions they make alone and in a group? I certainly don’t have all the answers, but have a few thoughts. I would love to hear the thoughts of others, as I see this as a broader problem. For conversation starters:

– We must ground our children, leading by example, with a sense of right and wrong. The aforementioned quote from “Rob Roy” is one example. Yet, we need to openly discuss behaviors that are wrong that we witness or that they might do. The minister who want to put gays behind an electrified fence is an easy lesson of inappropriate behavior. The ministry I was taught would look to the Golden Rule as the greatest rule to live by.

– We need to be civil to one another in our daily interactions and expect the same from others. In fact, if someone refuses to be civil after you asked him to do so, exit the conversation. Yet, with that said, remain civil and you will be heard. My grandmother used to say, “The louder you shout, the worse your argument.” You could modernize this with those who are called “trolls” as they intentionally upset blog conversations. When you see inappropriate blog discussion write “This is inappropriate discussion.”

– We need to continue to teach children (and adults) to think critically. They need to ask questions and have a healthy sense of skepticism about what they read, hear and witness. Group-speak is a powerful mechanism, so people need to see things for what they are. Just because someone is a minister does not make them right on all counts. Political parties can stridently convince people that they are 100% correct and the other side is 100% wrong. As an Old Fart, I have never seen a one-sided communication problem.

– We need to shine a spotlight on hate groups. Make as many people aware that they exist and here is what they believe. The best thing to come out of the Sikh Temple shooting is a greater awareness that the Sikhs are a peaceful, hard-working spiritual group. Talk about the hate groups and other groups with your children. Show them you do not condone the former behavior and note we each have different ways of being devout, so we need an open mind to all religions.

– As members of society and with an eye toward “it takes a village” to raise a child, if you witness a child who is at risk on any issue, talk to the child and see if there are problems. Maybe you know the parent or a teacher or principal who could help. When you witness hateful group-speak, intervene. Dr. Wayne Dyer uses the term “defend the absent.” If someone or some group is being run down, he would defend the person not there.

These are a few ideas borrowing from the many mentors I have had and books and movies I have enjoyed. I have noted in earlier posts becoming a mentor, tutor, big brother/ sister, volunteer, etc. may be a way for us to place ourselves in these conversations with children and others in need. The recognition and belonging affiliated with helping others is the greatest gift to yourself and others. Please share your thoughts and ideas.