Another Good News Eco-energy Story

As noted in earlier posts, there are a great number of good eco-energy stories going on in the US and abroad. Many of these stories are grass-roots efforts or small in scope, but they are replicable elsewhere. I read about one yesterday in my home state of North Carolina (NC) which marries two of my favorite passions and concerns – alternative energy and helping those in need. A non-profit group called NC WARN (NC Waste Awareness and Reduction Network) has been around 24 years and is a huge proponent of alternative energy, climate protection and energy conservation. They have been a vigilant watchdog over the misuse of energy and have been a driver behind the push in NC to become the third most prolific state in solar energy development.

As reported in the Raleigh News and Observer earlier this week, NC WARN has donated solar panels, technology and installation services to another non-profit called Freedom House Recovery Center in Chapel Hill, a group that helps people address mental health issues and recover from substance abuse addictions. Freedom House provides services in addition to housing clients in a facility designed for both short and long term rehabilitation. NC WARN has worked in concert with a private, anonymous donor and two separate solar power installation companies – Yes!Solar Solutions and Solar Consultants. The two solar firms helped install solar panels for power and solar hot water heaters. NC WARN notes that non-profits who have significant water use are ideal candidates for such a program.

Trish Hussey, the executive director of Freedom House Recovery Center said ” This is a gift that truly keeps on giving. We anticipate that these solar energy systems will save the agency thousands of dollars each year…..and will allow at least 10 clients with severe and persistent mental illness and/ or addiction disorders to receive ongoing treatment….” A similar system installed in May at another agency is saving about $250 per month.

This is part of an overall campaign to donate solar power to non-profit facilities providing services for people in need in NC. By working with local solar installation companies, the group is promoting solar power as a solid, affordable investment for most homes and businesses, and a key element of the much needed statewide shift to climate protecting renewable energy economy. NC WARN is donating rooftop solar systems and energy efficiency upgrades to a number of service organizations including homeless shelters, group homes and rehabilitation centers.

NC WARN says high quality solar photovoltaic systems are now powering NC homes for a net investment of $6,000 to $10,000 – about the price of a used car. They note the solar hot water systems are even more affordable. And, with federal and state tax incentives the systems can be paid off in 5 to 8 years while benefiting owners for 20 to 30 years while helping the environment by decreasing greenhouse gases. With their donations of the systems and installation labor to other non-profits, they can establish several demonstration projects as well as helping the recipient agencies use more of their dollars to help their clients. You can learn more about their efforts at http://www.ncwarn.org.

I have heard people say solar power is still too expensive, but as the usage of solar energy expands, the industry continues to show cost reductions. I read earlier this year the cost of solar power has declined from $9 a watt to $3 a watt over the past few years. And, it is very conceivable to be down to $1 a watt in the near future. This is a key component of Germany’s efforts to become 80% alternative energy powered by 2030, without the use of nuclear power and Germany is ten years ahead of the US in its efforts.

I recognize the US cannot divorce itself from fossil fuels, but we need a strident plan to lessen their use beginning yesterday. There is a huge oil/ gas industry push on fracking to harvest natural gas as a solution. Fracking causes more issues than the industry lets on and, as we are seeing in Kansas, a major debate is occurring between the frackers, government and farmers over water usage during the drought. Fracking takes 4 to 6 million gallons of water per fracking well. So, more rationale debate with all of the facts and constituents needs to occur on the veracity of this approach. The fuel for solar energy is free and harnessing it continues to become more cost-effective. The same is true for wind energy, which blows heavily in many regions in the US and off its shores.

Yet, we need to enter the use of water into the debate on any approach. Water is the new oil and the impact on global warming is leading to longer and more severe droughts, which was predicted by the scientists. Solar and wind energy, as well as others energy solutions, do not require water and do not cause greenhouse gases. Any energy source, that use irreplaceable water in its efforts needs to be discounted. I use the term “irreplaceable” in that water is used in many fossil fuel approaches which burn to create steam to turn the turbines which turn the generators creating the power. Yet, that water can flow back into the system as it is not polluted. Other measures such as fracking, the water is toxic as it loaded with fracking chemicals, so it cannot and must not be intermixed into the water system.

NC WARN’s demonstration project is timely and demonstrative. We need louder voices to help share their and other like stories. And, we need to join Germany and the rest of the world in moving down the cleaner, less water intensive and less problematic energy paths.

 

Healthcare is more than a pawn, it is a problem

On the heels of the Aurora shooting tragedy there has been a fundraising campaign to raise money for the uninsured victims, some who are facing significant healthcare costs. In a time of crisis, Americans tend to rally to help those in need. This happens on a routine basis in communities around the country where a child gets an unusual disease or cancer and his or her parents are uninsured or woefully under insured. We witness campaign drives around golf tournaments, BBQ picnics, musical events, etc. that lift your spirits to help a child in need. Yet, we need to step back from this and see the bigger problem – these folks could not afford to be insured or had some form of limited insurance plan. This is a huge problem in America with over 45 million uninsured people of all shapes, sizes, colors, ages, religions and political affiliations.

The Affordable Care Act (ACA, which is referred derogatorily by naysayers as Obamacare) is an attempt to address this issue. After the first two years of its staggered implementation, we have added well over a million (I have seen 2 million used) young adults to coverage through staying on their parents’ plans, we have seen pre-existing condition restrictions for children go away, we have seen lifetime limits eliminated and we have seen preventive care opportunities increased. As I have said before ACA is not perfect and needs further tweaking before the majority of its roll out in 2014. I find it overly complex in many instances and it will be hard for the average Joe and Josephine to understand.

However, it has become a pawn in a political game. It has become a wedge issue that the GOP is hanging their hat on. Yet, the irony is the ACA is largely a Republican idea. Its roots spawned out of the Heritage Foundation and Senator Bob Dole posed a variation in the mid-1990’s as an alternative to the National Health Care Proposal recommended by the Clintons. I use the plural, as First Lady, now Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton was a huge, vocal proponent. Not surprisingly, opponents called it HillaryCare. Our legislators are not too original. While both measures failed, Governor Romney saw a variation of the ACA made total sense for Massachusetts. And, with much effort and politicking got the mandate requiring coverage passed. The MA Healthcare Law is working reasonably well. So well that Senator Jim DeMint recommended it in writing to President George Bush advocating the personal responsibility of the mandate. He was joined by other GOP senators as late as 2009.

However, this is not game. We have people in America who are dying because of lack of healthcare. They are not able to raise money like select few have done. For every golf tournament to raise funds for little Sarah, there a thousands of people who just die. Or, they get some indigent care, but their parents file for bankruptcy. Some readers may say that is sounding an undue alarm and that does not happen very often. According to The American Journal of Medicine in 2009 (as reported in an excellent piece in Readers Digest – “Why a Hospital Bill Costs What It Costs” in their September, 2012 edition):

– 62% of bankruptcies in the US are due to medical costs,

– there has been a 50% increase in the number of medical cost bankruptcies between 2001 and 2007,

– 75% of the people whose illnesses caused bankruptcy were insured (meaning under insured), and

– 38% of families with an illness had someone in the family lose or quit a job because of a medical event.

By getting more people insured be it through an employer’s plan, a healthcare exchange or Medicaid under ACA, people will have access to coverage when an event occurs, but also to garner preventive care services. If we are going to manage costs in any way, preventive care – wellness visits, screenings, mammograms, colonoscopies, etc. have to be part of the equation. No health care solution can solve our biggest driver of costs – we are a nation of overweight people who would rather medicate than exercise – but preventive care can help in that battle. Cancers detected early can be curable and not kill. Future train wrecks – which occur when someone hits his or her mid-forties and has not been taking care of his/ her health – can be avoided.

Plus, by having more people covered, the providers of healthcare are paid in a more upfront manner through a spreading of insurance risk. We pay for their coverage now, indirectly, through indigent costs. Insured individuals, direct users of the care and taxpayers pay for the uninsured and under insured through mark-ups on hospital services. If you get a chance to read the aforementioned Readers Digest article it will show evidence of the significant variability in costs. It will also show you other means of recouping costs through inflated incidentals. Key message – get an itemized bill for a hospital stay and shop around beforehand. This last point is key. Borrowing from Dwight D. Eisenhower, we have a “Healthcare Industrial Complex” in the US. There is so much money tied up in this business, and it is a business even if an entity is a non-profit, every measure will be undertaken to maintain profit margins. Unfortunately, some of these measures are not altruistic and the quality care is a lesser part of the equation.

This is the primary reason a national healthcare system cannot make it through. And, as someone who has worked closely with healthcare consultants in my career, a national healthcare system would be the better solution for us. It works too well in many other countries, yet the Healthcare Industrial Complex has done an excellent job of demonizing its consideration. The countries who have national healthcare kind of chuckle at the US and our healthcare troubles, but that seemingly is unimportant. But, national healthcare is not going to happen here. So, ACA was and is a reasonable compromise and will move us down the path of getting more people covered. Throwing it out the door would be poor stewardship on the part of the GOP should they carry the White House. And, the irony of all ironies, Governor Romney would be doing one of the greatest flip-flops known to man. He would overturn his greatest idea in public service.

Healthcare is not a pawn. There are many Americans needing the ACA to continue, including a great percentage of Republicans. When you look at the demographics of the GOP party and get out into the more rural regions of our country, there is a level of poverty that exists that is hard to believe it occurs in America. Rural healthcare is hemorrhaging. There is so much indigent care in rural hospitals (sometimes 2/3 of a hospital’s budget) that they cannot survive. The healthcare providers in these regions are much needed as key responders to the basic healthcare needs of a community. By covering more people, access to insured healthcare will be better for the patients and these and other hospitals. The GOP governors who are grandstanding saying we won’t accept the Federal Medicaid money need to go talk with their hospital and medical constituents. They will tell these governors this is a better path forward than the status quo.

So, the next time someone says they want ACA repealed ask them why. Many who say this don’t know why. They have been told that the ACA is a demon and must be defeated. That man over there passed this law and he must be defeated. Folks, this is not a pawn. People are dying and going bankrupt. The US is rated the most costly healthcare system in the world by the World Health Organization and the 38th in overall quality. I am all about Return on Investment. Under my calculations, that is a pretty crappy return. So, don’t let our healthcare be a pawn in some political game.

If God were American, which side was He on in the Civil War?

I have been watching the re-run of Ken Burns’ extremely well done series on the Civil War, one of the darkest times in our country’s history. So many people died, that it amazes me we were able to survive as a country beyond it. One of the interesting points from watching the series is how devout the military leaders and enlisted men were and how both sides knew God was on their side guiding their victory. Their faith is all these embattled men had during this time of violence and mayhem.

Their faith got me thinking about the strident belief that the US began and is a Christian nation, founded on Christian principles and God is truly on our side, the side of right and might. As a Christian believer, I have noted in an earlier post my position that “God is not an American.” I wanted to use the sensational title to say what should be a basic belief. God is bigger than America and it is an insult to other nations to believe we have the keys to the kingdom and know God’s infinite mind and mercy more than other nations. Yet, let me take this Civil War concept a bit further to illustrate this key point.

If we do have a divinely inspired nation back when Thomas Jefferson, John  Adams, Benjamin Franklin and George Washington helped craft our independence and set our governance in motion, then when our country split apart in the Civil War, which side curried God’s favor the most? Being born and raised in the South, I am well aware the percentage of Evangelical Christians is larger than in other places. Where I live, there is a church on many corners and sometimes two at an intersection. With that as context, the ancestors of these folks would likely have been devout as well. So, with great certainty, these southern ancestors would firmly believe God was on their side.

Yet, if you look across the battle lines, you have people who were fighting to end slavery. In my biblical interpretations, God was not too keen on slavery and sanctioned Moses to get the Egyptian pharaoh to release the Jewish slaves. My guess is God probably did not change His mind by the time of 1861. If I digress, He probably was not too keen on slavery being included in our constitution or the three-fifths a person rule for each slave to give southern states better national voting power. Focusing on the Civil War, though, if God were American, He clearly would have been on the side of the Union meaning all the Confederates were fighting an uphill battle against God. And, I have not even entered the voice of the slaves, as I am sure they were praying God was on the Union side.

So, back to my larger point from my earlier post which will save face for the ancestors of some southern Evangelicals. God is not an American – he is bigger than we are. The prayer that would have best been heard during the Civil War would be “Dear God, please end this horrible conflict, so that the awful killing can stop.” That is a prayer that members of both sides probably did make. This was a terrible tragedy that needlessly killed multiple hundreds of thousands of men, women and children.

Yes, we were basically founded as a nation by great, but imperfect Christian men. Jefferson was actually a Deist, which means he supported the wind-up-the-clock belief in God. In other words, God set this world in motion, but let’s us live our lives. Yet, our founding fathers were born to people who left religious persecution or left themselves. So, when they spoke of the separation of church and state, they did it with purpose. Religion can be a wonderful thing, but when married with governance has produced more tragedy and killing than any other belief system. Our founding fathers knew that, so they wanted to separate the two in our construct.

Our country has many Christian ideals in its foundation. Yet, in every great religion, there are similarities to basic themes of justice, fairness and treating others well. The greatness of America is we can celebrate many religions here. It does not make one religion better than another. In fact, we have so many versions of Christianity, these different sects each lay claim to being the “one true” religion. Is a Catholic better than a Baptist? Is a Southern Baptist better than a non-southern Baptist? Is an Evangelical Lutheran better than a non-evangelical one? In my simple way of thinking, we need to stop being divisive and be more inclusive. Worship together, celebrate together and do good deeds together. Don’t segregate people into different “we/ they” columns. To be honest with you, that takes too much work and is tiresome. It is also wrong. Religions are at their finest when they include. They are at their worst when they exclude.

God is on all our sides, even the SOBs that don’t deserve His love. Maybe in His eyes, they need it more than anyone else. I was intending on writing this before the terrible tragedy in Wisconsin, as I don’t know the motivation of the killer. I am hoping the Sikh group was not targeted. If it turns out to be the case, we all need to pray for two things – first, the victims and their families which should be done irrespective of why, but second, for ourselves to stop these senseless we/ they categorizations. We are Americans – the Muslims, the Jews, the Christians, the Sikhs, the Buddhists, the Agnostics, the Atheists, etc. We should not condone and speak out against group hate. And, even if a group was not American, killing people in the name of a religion is wrong. God has said so much.

America – Haven’t We Learned Anything?

I have been struggling to write about a confluence of events where we seemed to have lost our perspective on right and wrong. Last week, I expressed my kudos to Senator John McCain for his standing up against the new McCarthyism of the Bachmann Five, but it did not accomplish what it needed and the Bachmann Five has doubled down on making accusations without supporting evidence. Not to be outdone, Senator Harry Reid decided to make accusations toward former Governor Mitt Romney about what is and isn’t on his tax returns without ever having seen them. He is relying on innuendo and hearsay. There is no doubt Romney has done himself and his constituents a disservice by not releasing the returns, but Reid’s comments cannot be condoned without supporting evidence.

Unfortunately, these are just examples of what routinely transpires in today’s American culture and its version of leadership. You would think we would have learned our lessons based on unsubstantiated claims of the past – where the Nazis got away with saying the Jews were an inferior race until it was too late, where Religious leaders turned a blind eye, or worse, perpetuated the belief African-Americans were inferior to whites even into the 1960’s, where the US Marine Corps denied and  misled the public about claims the water at Camp Lejeune in NC has been harming people for decades, where Penn State turned a blind eye and facilitated predatory sexual behavior of one of its coaches, where the Catholic Church lied to everyone about the misconduct of its priests and those who perpetuated their criminal behavior and so on.

On a daily basis, we witness business leaders making claims that an issue is not a problem when it is in fact far worse than even they know. We see them create an environment where it is OK to cut corners and push the envelope and when illicit or unethical actions are discovered, say they had no idea that was going on. For example, Rupert Murdoch is most guilty of creating a culture that perpetuated misbehavior. He may not have bugged the phones, but he created an environment where it was OK. The same could be said for the leaders at many financial institutions who are too many to name.

We witness religious leaders make outrageous claims using their written word as a weapon rather than a welcome. When people say some Christian evangelicals are using the same tactics with the LGBT community as they did with the African-American community, they are not incorrect. What was done to the African-American community was far worse where many were killed and imprisoned, but there are many of the same elements in the accusations. When religions exclude they are at their worst. When they are inclusive, they are at their finest.

We need people to call people out for stances that are obviously inappropriate or based on contrived evidence. We also need to call out the people who are rallying behind them and cheerleading these poor behaviors. Michele Bachmann and her cohorts (Louie Gohmert, Lynn Westmoreland, Trent Franks and Thomas Rooney) are doing a disservice to America and should be called out even more. When asked for evidence supporting their claim, they will hedge a little, but their finger-pointing is pretty clear in their written word. The fact that Rush Limbaugh and Newt Gingrich are in support should be very telling there is not a lot of substance behind their claims.

I must confess I have always felt Harry Reid was a grandstander, so when he made his claims about knowing what is on Romney’s tax returns without evidence, it was not a total surprise. This follows on his making a ruckus over the US Olympic uniforms. Yet, in this case, he deserves any criticism since he is making claims without knowledge. If we are going to be critical of the Birther crowd, we should be critical of others who are making unsubstantiated claims. Unlike the Birther claims, there may be some interesting things on Romney’s unreleased tax returns, but we do not know that. We can all speculate, but that is all it is at this point – speculation.

We need to call out behavior that is inappropriate. When the Maiden, NC minister said in the pulpit on video that we should put gays behind an electrified fence and let them die off, people in the church should vote with their feet and leave that church – his comments represent bigotry and should not be condoned. When the entire panel of GOP Presidential candidates let an audience boo a gay soldier without repercussion, both the booing and the silence of the candidates was shameful and should not be condoned. When politicians, in general, let people in their audience say hateful or terribly wrong things, that is also inappropriate.

We should expect more from our leaders. We need them to be closer to the ideal of exemplary behavior. When they fall short, it is worse than when Average Joe falls short. It could be argued from many fronts that Bill Clinton, Ronald Reagan and Richard Nixon had successful presidencies. But, each of them lied to the American people – Clinton about the Lewinsky affair, Reagan about the Iran-Contra issue and Nixon, of course, about Watergate. Even George W. Bush, who few would claim had a successful presidency, lied to the American people (and United Nations) about the reasons for going to war with Iraq.

Unfortunately, it takes a great deal of effort to understand the real stories underneath the public relations stories. As a result, we desperately need our leaders to know more than we do and act with judicious stewardship. When the Bachmanns and Reids of the world make claims like they have, we are ill-served. If we cannot trust our leaders, then we will need to look to each other in the vacuum they have created. Let’s hold our leaders and each other accountable. Whether they are up to it or not, we still need to make sure they know we are watching.

 

 

 

My Bill is Better than your Bill

In the movie “Hunt for Red October” about a Soviet era defection of a submarine captain and his sub – the Red October –  there is scene where the Soviet subs in pursuit are “pinging” or sending a sonar echo to ascertain the whereabouts of the Red October. The observation is made that the pingers were not listening as they were moving too fast to hear anything. They were “driving” the Red October to an area where they could sink it with waiting Soviet subs. I use this analogy as this is what is transpiring and has transpired in Congress over the last year and a half. Everyone is pinging, but no one is listening.

We have serious problems in this country, but rather than work together, we have strident politicians pinging each other with legislative bills that cannot pass both houses or survive a President’s veto. The bill creators are not listening to each other or the American people who want some semblance of action. You would think being downgraded by the S&P last summer as a financial steward would have awakened people, but it has not. What is happening is positioning for the election. So, while Rome burns, we have too many Neros fiddling away.

We have a deficit problem that was largely created by the unneeded Bush Tax cuts, two wars, a financial bailout and economic stimulus package. We were last balanced when Bill Clinton left office, before the Bush tax cuts. And, according to the Paris-based Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), we were still less than 5% below the global average of 34 countries on tax revenue vs. GDP. In 2009, after the Bush tax cuts, we were almost 10% lower than this same global average and in the 32nd place out of 34 countries in taxes/ GDP.

We also have a slow economic recovery that should have been highlighted at the outset. While I think the President has done a commendable job (with over 3 million jobs created from his first budget to the end of the last budget), this lack of management of expectations is an Achilles’ Heel. Housing based recessions take six years on average to work their way out. That would put us, on average at, the end of 2013 for a recovery. The President should have highlighted this and focused on infrastructure planning. Contrary to the commercials, the economists said the stimulus package worked. It was not enough, though. So, we need to make strides against the deficit while not throwing water on the slow recovery.

What we do not need is the political posturing of “my bill is better than your bill.” You can sing along with the popular childhood tune. We need to address issues today in a collaborative fashion. The Taxed Enough Already crowd needs to read the OECD report which shows very clearly with unbiased data that we are one of the least taxed countries in the world. Let me repeat that – we are one of the least taxed countries in the world (32nd out of 34). 

We cannot resolve our budget issues with spending cuts alone. The math does not work. We must have tax increases, but we need to be mindful of the recession. Yet, we also need spending cuts as well, so here where I mention another big issue. We cannot gut programs for those in need as we have 50 million Americans in poverty and many more who are living paycheck to paycheck. We have a huge income and wealth disparity in this country. We cannot just give more to the “gated community” crowd (I like that better than the 1%) and let it trickle down as that policy did not work according to economists and people like David Stockman who was one of Reagan’s advisors. Just the name, “trickle down” sounds inappropriate as we need more of the opportunity to pour down.

As an Independent voter, I have the vantage point of seeing the good and bad of both points of view of each party. I can also see the hypocrisy of many of the extreme points of view, especially those which will not address our problems. To the chagrin of my conservative friends, I don’t see many good answers coming from your end, but we need your perspective at the table. We need politicians who signed the Grover Norquist pledge of no tax increases to pull the pledge out and tear it up. We need people to read the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration report on man-influenced global warming and stop listening only to the data provided by the Oil/ Gas Industry who has a vested interest in decisions. To my more liberal friends, we need to stop grandstanding (Harry Reid, Nancy Pelosi, but the same could be said for Mitch McConnell – the poster child for what’s wrong with Congress) and start listening. We need Returns on Investment in every thing we do. We do need to look for spending cuts, but let’s be smart with them. We need to plot a course forward of what we need to do. And, to all of you, we need to cut defense spending.  We spend so much more than anyone else it is mind-boggling. Like taxes, we cannot balance the budget and pay down debt without tax increases and defense cuts – these are the two of the biggest lies that the GOP is telling people.

Yet, we have solutions to work from rather than this “bill pinging exercise.” The Gang of Six tried this last spring and were not given sufficient voice, but they had the answer. Here is your idea already grounded.

1) Adopt the Simpson-Bowles Deficit Reduction Plan as a working draft to work toward an effective date of January 1, 2014. I would suggest that the draft require good reason not to do something therein. I would suggest we not chip away at it to protect “sacred cows.”

2) Let the Bush Tax Cuts continue for one more calendar year along with the 2% FICA tax cut, but there is a price to pay for the GOP in item 3.

3) Increase the minimum wage and let ACA continue with only targeted changes to make it more workable. ACA is not perfect, but it is moving the ball forward and guess what – is a largely GOP idea who Senator Jim DeMint recommended in writing that we do (following the Romney MA Health Care law) in a letter to President George W Bush. 

These are few thoughts from an Independent voter. Call me crazy, but I think they can work and be accomplished before the election. Of course, they won’t but I can at least make a collaborative set of suggestions that will serve a greater good. I would love to see a definitive stimulus bill to create more infrastructure jobs and alternative energy jobs. On this latter point, there are many alternative energy success stories out there, yet we do not celebrate them enough. This scares the Oil/ Gas and Coal Industries to no end, which is why the nice commercials with less than forthcoming data on how safe things are. There is no such thing as Clean Coal, e.g. and Germany is ten years ahead of us on alternative energy and will be 80% alternative energy powered by 2030.

So, let’s stop pinging and start listening and making better decisions. You may just find out the other folks have some ideas worth hearing.