The Appeal – a book with relevance today

With the pandemic, I have been catching up on the many unread books we still have on our shelves. Recently, I finished a book John Grisham published in 2008 called “The Appeal,” that was #1 on The New York Times bestseller list back then.

Even though it is twelve years old, the theme is relevant today. Without giving too much away, a married couple law team in a small town in Mississippi win a court case for their client against a company who had been proven to dump poisonous waste chemicals that made it into her community’s water supply. Their client lost both her husband and son to cancer as did many others in the county. She was awarded $41 million including punitive damages.

While others awaited to file suit, the verdict gave them reason to hope. The verdict was expected to be appealed, so no money traded hands. The CEO of the holding company for the chemical company decided to be proactive at the behest of a senior Mississippi Senator known for his wealth amassed through lobbyist funding. So, the CEO hires a secretive consulting firm whose expertise will help to unseat a less-friendly (to companies) judge running for reelection. Most of the $8 million fee is off shore and never declared.

The consulting firm recruits a young lawyer, with a young family and no baggage or judicial experience. So, he has no rulings that could be highlighted in a negative way. Once on board, they quietly fund his campaign commercials and strategy before announcing his candidacy. In essence, they use a surprise attack and overwhelm the sitting judge who thinks she is unopposed and has not raised funds.

I will stop there. The scary part is how easily this could be done. People were convinced to vote for this young, photogenic judge with a nice family, not knowing he was going to severely limit liability for companies who screwed people like these voters. He was supposed to be their judge.

So, when I see the stated reasons why judges are running, it makes me want to dig further. The true reason for a well-funded campaign is money. What judge will be the most friendly to companies? I have said this earlier, whether it is a supreme court seat or appellate court or some other court, lip service is given to issues that interest the voters. But, what interests the lobbyists is counting on a reliable vote in their industry’s favor.

There she blows

Per an article in Power Technology in April, 2019 by Jack Unwin called “Top ten US states by wind energy capacity:”

“Donald Trump’s well-known hostility towards wind power and what he believes is its cancer-causing abilities wind energy is a well-established source of power in the US.

In fact, the US is the second largest producer of wind energy in the world with an installed capacity of over 96GW, and it has six of the world’s top ten onshore windfarms. But progress still needs to be made as a number of states in the southeast from Arkansas to Florida don’t have any wind turbines installed at all.”

Using updated statistics at the end of 2019, the top five states for wind energy are:

Texas (28,843 MW)*
Iowa (10,201 MW)
Oklahoma (8,172 MW)
Kansas (6,128 MW)
California (5,973 MW)

It should be noted, since they are smaller states, the top three by percentage of electricity generated by wind energy are: Iowa (41.7%) Kansas (36.4%) Oklahoma (31.7%). Saying it differently, more than 1/3 of the electricity produced in these three states combined come from wind energy.

The upside remains huge, especially referencing the two states that have no wind mills. The cost of wind energy is compelling and it is does not have the environmental degradation and cost of coal or does not leak methane or use water to acquire like natural gas. And, this does not reflect the huge growth in solar energy that has occurred and will occur.

I take pride that we are moving forward in spite of the efforts of the US president to play up fossil fuel. I would listen to the counsel of deceased oil tycoon T. Boone Pickens, who said almost ten years ago, natural gas will buy us time, but the future of energy in the middle of the country is wind energy. It should be noted, Exxon Mobil was just removed from the Dow Jones as its capitalization has fallen.

Please remember Pickens’ words as he noted the wind blows across the plains states. And, the sun also shines across the country. More on that source later.

Note: Oil rich Texas has made a concerted effort to build wind energy. The following paragraph comes from wfaa.com’s website earlier this year.

“In Texas, the wind blows hardest in the West side of the state. But most people live in the central and eastern parts. So, Texas built 3,600 miles of electric transmission lines to carry power out of the most remote parts of the state. The legislature called it Competitive Renewable Energy Zones.Feb 16, 2020”

A sad party run by sad people

As a fiscal conservative and social progressive, I left the Republican Party about twelve years ago. My main reasons for becoming an independent were the Republican stance on climate change, an unhealthy focus on evangelicals and guns, and a tendency to make things up. These reasons still exist twelve years later.

The Grand Old Party is no longer grand and it really is no longer Republican. At the recent RNC convention, they did not vote on a platform, so as one reporter said, “the platform is whatever Donald Trump says it is.” In and of itself, this is the final takedown of the old flag and raising of the new Trump Party banner.

Further, evidence of the dissolution, is an Alternate Republican convention was held the same week. This convention brought together several groups of Republicans bent on the defeat of Trump in November. They include The Lincoln Project, Republicans for the Rule of Law, and Republican Voters against Trump. Two additional groups of former Republican governors and intelligence leaders have also come out against Trump.

The Trump Party is a sad group led by sad people. Here are a few things that seem to be the major tenets in of the Trump Party:

– Truth, decency and empathy are not valued
– Protecting Americans against the COVID-19 pandemic is less important than winning the election. Not informing Americans of known risks is inexcusable.
– Civil rights of non-whites is less important and protestors of all races seeking equality for blacks are “thugs.”
– Soldiers who fight for America are “losers” and “suckers” and if captured, not heroes. It is OK that a country can put bounties on our soldiers without pushback.
– Using the presidency for profit is acceptable and it is OK to extort and use other countries for personal gain.
– Any Inspectors General, whistleblowers or those who testify under oath over legitimate concerns about wrongdoing can be removed without questions.
– Finally, it is OK to say absolutely anything to further the cause. It is OK to malign the voting process without doing a darn thing to make it secure. It is OK to blame any person or group for things that are caused by the president. It is OK to name call any critic. Trump called two-time Pulitzer Prize winner Bob Woodward a “wack job,” but it was the president’s own words that are causing the furor.

These words make me sad for our country. It makes me more sad to know sycophants, rationalizers, and enablers have allowed this to happen. Names like McConnell, Graham, Cotton, Johnson, Nunes, Cruz, Jordan, McCarthy, Meadows, Miller, Kushner, et al should be remembered along with the Trump name as people who led to the demise of the Republican Party, our democracy and our planet. If this corrupt and deceitful person wins again, America will move even more toward an autocracy run by a sad person.

The biggest lie – “I created this economy”

The incumbent president likes to take credit for all things good and blame others for all things bad. This is true regardless of the extent of his role in the outcome. He boasts that he created this great economy before the pandemic and will help us get back to it. Although the economy continued to do well, to say he created it is not truthful. Given his loud chest beating on this one issue, it qualifies as his biggest lie, although other lies are further afield from the truth.

When he took the oath to his office in January, 2017, the US was on its third longest economic growth period in its history at 91 consecutive months of GDP growth. That translates into just longer than 7 1/2 years. It should also be noted for the six previous years, we had 2 million plus in annual job growth and the stock market more than doubled under his predecessor. To Donald Trump’s credit, the economy continued to grow for 36 more months, the stock market continued to climb and job growth continued until it fell with the pandemic. The recession officially started in February of this year.

Now, I wrote during Barack Obama’s presidency that presidents get too much credit and too much blame for the economy. They can provide headwinds and tailwinds, but that is about it. The “headwinds and tailwinds” remark is courtesy of conservative pundit David Brooks. The same goes with the current president. But, if people want to lay wreaths at Trump’s feet for the economy before the pandemic, they must also do the same for Obama. Obama actually inherited an economy in recession due to the housing crisis in late 2007 through mid 2009. He was sworn in January, 2009.

The incumbent president has provided some headwinds and tailwinds to help keep it going, sometimes at the same time. Here is a look at a few of these wind currents:

Tailwinds

The economy got a temporary boost from the December, 2017 tax cut that increased the debt by $1.5 trillion over the next ten years. At a time when we should have been decreasing the deficit, we increased it. So, in essence, we borrowed from our future to make our economy a little better for a little while. One economist referred to it as a sugar rush. Before the pandemic, we fell back to growth at the same level as before the election. Overall, this growth period has been the longest, but the rate of growth under both presidents has lagged other periods. It has been a slow and steady climb, again before the recession caused by the pandemic.

Cutting through some regulations also provided some stimulus for businesses, but as noted below, these will cause future headwinds. People often mix bureaucracy with regulations. We need to constantly review regulations to see if they are working and how they can be improved or rescinded, if need be. So, regulations are not necessarily bad. Bloating bureaucracy is what we must guard against. I recall a story of Erskine Bowles, who eventually became Bill Clinton’s Chief of Staff. When Bowles headed the Small Business Administration, he reduced the application from 42 pages to one.

Headwinds

We must guard against debt. Dipping into debt to stimulate the economy dragging from COVID-19 is one thing, but the 2017 tax cut needed not be so severe that it increased debt. Note, many said this before it was passed, not just now. By the end of this decade, we should be beyond $40 trillion in debt on an annual revenue budget (during 10/18 – 9/19 FY) that is currently just less than $3.5 trillion, with expenses around $4.5 trillion. With the pandemic stimulus, the annual 2019-20 deficit will be around $3.7 trillion. Eventually, interest cost will rival the biggest budget items if we do not remedy this growing problem. Some poor president and congress will have to make some hard decisions as revenue is too low and costs are too high.

Letting polluting industries skate on fewer regulations will come back to haunt us. Chemical spills, polluted water and nuclear waste causes major environment concerns to people, animals, carbon eating trees/ plants and food crops. Even the best of developers and manufacturers would like someone else to pay for their shortcuts. Industries go to great pains to hide their dirty laundry. The laundry is there, it just needs to be more cleaned up. Relying on a company’s altruism is not an effective means of controlling pollution.

Tariffs on all partners cause echo tariffs from our trading partners. And, no one wins a tariff war, regardless of what the president might say. As we have become harder to deal with, buyers and sellers find other markets. The increase in farmer bankruptcies has been significant since the tariff wars started, increasing dramatically over previous levels. One farmer said, other countries sought out other sources of farm goods, so we lost a future pipeline for sales. And, just today, I read in conservative George Will’s editorial that trust in America to do the right thing has fallen to 24% and preference to America as a trading partner has fallen.

One of the business lessons I learned over the years, is if you become difficult to work with, your customers and clients will be forced to find other providers of services and products. It does not get any plainer than that. One of the best things a president can do is create new markets – Reagan, Clinton, Nixon, and Obama all were good at creating new avenues for trade. It is not surprising that Clinton had the most jobs created on his watch, with Reagan having the most jobs as a Republican president. And, Nixon for all his corruption, should be remembered well for opening up relationships with China. Trump should get credit for renewing a refined NAFTA agreement, but he hindered his efforts to compete with China when he pulled the US out of the Trans Pacific Partnership which went on without us and backtracking on deals with Cuba, Iran and the Paris Climate Change Accord, has placed the US at odds with others.

Global trade builds revenue. A country cannot shrink to greatness. And, what we are seeing today is other countries not wanting the hassles of dealing with the US as much as before. And, this is before the mishandling of the pandemic that has left the world aghast.

God gave us a brain

God gave us a brain. Now why would he do that if he did not want us to use it? He also told us humans have dominion over the land and animals, so would it not be logical that a reason would be the brain he gave us? He would want us to use that brain to solve problems.

Like any parent, we want our children to learn to make their own decisions after we teach them right from wrong and lessons to keep them safe, healthy and prosperous. My guess is we would become annoyed if our children continued to ask us questions that they should know the answer to. And, yet we pray for miracles or guidance when we have the power in our hands or the hands of a skilled surgeon. Maybe the surgeon’s skill is the miracle for which we pray.

The minister John Pavlovitz writes a blog worth reading regardless of the relative faith you may possess. He breaks things down in simple terms. The attached link is a good example of his writing and guidance. I encourage you to take a few minutes to read this piece.

https://johnpavlovitz.com/2020/08/18/christians-opposing-science-is-opposing-god/

Robert Redford, actor and environmentalist, speaks loudly

In an article by Zack Budryk of The Hill called “Robert Redford backs Biden, warns of slide toward autocracy if Trump wins,” the following three paragraphs paint the appropriate portrait of the election.

“The reelection of President Trump, Redford wrote, would ‘accelerate our slide toward autocracy. It would be taken as free license to punish more so-called ‘traitors’ and wage more petty vendettas – with the full weight of the Justice Department behind them.’

Redford predicted ‘untold damage’ to the environment under a second Trump term, citing the president’s withdrawal from the Paris Climate Agreement and rollback of Obama-era energy and environmental regulations.

In contrast, he wrote, ‘Biden leads with his heart. I don’t mean that in a soft and sentimental way. I’m talking about a fierce compassion – the kind that fuels him, that drives him to fight against racial and economic injustice, that won’t let him rest while people are struggling.'”

I can already hear the dissenting voices say Redford is just an actor, why should his opinion matter more than mine? It doesn’t. But, here is a man who has spent a life of trying to protect the environment, whose voice has a little more gravatas. Plus, any public figure who is paid based on consumers buying his product, risks more by making statements such as this.

Finally, while my opinion is just one voice, I agree with everything that Redford write above. So, that is at least two like minds on this issue. The full article can be linked to below.

https://www.msn.com/en-us/news/politics/robert-redford-backs-biden-warns-of-slide-toward-autocracy-if-trump-wins/ar-BB16uSyj?ocid=msedgdhp

Trump Environmental Protection Agency makes it easier to harm infants

The dramatic headline is designed to get your attention, so please forgive the theatrics. Yet, while the president distracts us with his chaotic, incompetent and untruthful actions and words about more headline issues, his misnamed Environmental Protection Agency has struck again.

Amanda Mills penned the following article on June 23, 2020 in the online publication “Nation of Change,” “Trump’s EPA rolls back regulation of chemical linked to brain damage in infants that can be found in drinking water.” I will include her entire brief article below.

“Last week, Trump’s EPA decided to roll back regulations of a chemical that causes brain damage in infants. This chemical, perchlorate, is found in rocket fuel and can also be found in public drinking water.

Environmental experts and Health professionals have been fighting this deregulation that was created during the Obama Administration.

EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler claims this move ‘fulfills President Trump’s promise to pare back burdensome ‘one-size-fits-all’ overregulation for the American people.’

According to Associated Press, perchlorate from runoff contaminates the drinking water of as many as 16 million Americans, the Obama administration said in 2011 when it announced the EPA would act to set maximum limits for perchlorate for the first time.

Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) senior strategic director for Health Erik D. Olson says this decision is ‘illegal, unscientific, and unconscionable. The Environmental Protection Agency is threatening the health of pregnant moms and young children with toxic chemicals in their drinking water at levels that literally can cause loss of IQ points. Is this what the Environmental Protection Agency has come to?’

According to Common Dreams, the NRDC plans to challenge the order in court, claiming the consent decree did not allow for deregulating the chemical.”

I truly wish I were making these things up and kids will not be harmed by the president, but as evidenced by previous EPA actions and his blatant lack of empathy for COVID-19 victims, this is not really a stretch. As conservative pundit David Brooks has said, the president “lacks a sense of decency or empathy.”

These roll back of environmental regulations have been deliberate efforts to make it easier for industry to not worry about pollution. Environmental protections cost money. Sadly, when industry has not been permitted to get away with harming people, animals and the environment, it becomes a major motion picture as “Dark Waters” was last year or “Erin Brockovich” years before.

And, the troubling part is people who live in more rural or town areas near these facilities are the ones who get screwed or killed. These hard working folks make up some of Trump’s voters. The ecologist and biologist Sandra Steingraber has testified in front of Congress and the European Union parliament. She is has authored several books, her first being “Living Downstream” and her second “Raising Elijah.” In these books, it shows how industry outguns and outspends local people harmed by their pollution. It takes a Herculean effort to fight this injustice, hence the heroic movies when it does happen.

One thing Steingraber points out is our pollution metrics tend to measure the impact of pollution on a 50 year old man. That is the wrong metric. Kids have developing brains and lungs, mouth breathe more than adults, put their hands in their mouths more frequently, play outside more and are lower to the ground. They are more susceptible than adults are to chemical pollution. Plus, pregnant women are caring for two lives (maybe more), so we need to be extra careful with them.

So, this is why the Trump EPA’s decision to permit easier pollution is so over-the-top callous. Please question this move. Make people stand up and explain why this is a good idea. As I have mentioned before, I knew of Trump’s negatives, but what I feared most is what Trump would do to our environment and climate change actions more than anything. This is just one more example.

Pandemic accelerates renewable energy surpassing coal energy in US

In an article by Brad Plumer of The New York Times (see below) called “In a first, renewable energy is poised to eclipse coal,” the growth of renewable energy has been further fueled by the pandemic. This year, renewable energy (solar, wind, bio-mass, geothermal and hydroelectric), will surpass coal as the second largest energy source.

Per Plumer, efforts by the current president to keep propping up coal-burning plants have proven ineffective against market conditions. He notes “Those efforts, however, failed to halt the powerful economic forces that have led utilities to retire hundreds of aging coal plants since 2010 and run their remaining plants less frequently. The cost of building large wind farms has declined more than 40% in that time, while solar costs have dropped more than 80%. And, the price of natural gas, a cleaner-burning alternative to coal, has fallen to historic lows as a result of the fracking boom.”

Plumer adds the impact of COVID-19 which has reduced electricity usage with fewer stores and restaurants open is hastening this trend. “And because coal plants often cost more to operate than gas plants or renewables, many utilities are cutting back on coal power first in response.”

Further, “Coal is the dirtiest of all fossil fuels, and its decline has already helped drive down US carbon dioxide emissions 15% since 2005. This year, the (Energy Information Administration) expects the US emissions to fall by another 11%, the largest drop in at least 70 years.”

Coupled with people driving less and avoiding traveling by airplanes, an upside to COVID-19 is 2020 will be an impactful year on less carbon usage which will help in cleaning air (which is noticeable from satellites) and addressing climate change. As the economy slowly recovers with the majority of people being cautious in their movements and spending patterns, at least this positive impact will continue for more than 2020. And, hopefully with the coal plants being used more and more in the bull pen for extra need, more may be retired.

Still, some folks are surprised by the news of the decline in coal. They should not be. About eight years ago, oil tycoon T. Boone Pickens was on “60 Minutes” and said the future energy source in the windy plains states is wind energy. He added fracking for natural gas will buy time until the cost of wind is more economical. Now, oil rich Texas bears that out with wind energy surpassing coal by itself this year. While Texas produces more wind energy than any other state, Iowa gets over 40% of its electricity from wind and most of the top states in percentage of electricity are plains states.

Not only has coal become relatively more expensive due to the cost declines in other sources, its costs and risk continue beyond the life of the fuel and the plant. Duke Energy and TVA have had to clean up messes from coal ash that have bled into the water systems. And, Duke’s Dan River spill was from a long-ago retired coal plant.

The people I feel for are the coal miners whose hopes have been propped up by politicians who have not been forthcoming. I have known about coal’s demise since that Pickens’ interview and through other news and reading sources. My guess is so have the politicians, yet rather than be truthful and help them plan for new careers, they kept feeding their hopes. And, last time I checked, the wind blows and sun shines in those coal producing states. So, these miners are owed long-time-coming truths and help to find and train for new jobs.

Letter to a Republican Senator

Senator, I hope you are staying safe in these challenging times. As a former Republican and Independent voter, I want to share with you I fully support the efforts of The Lincoln Project and Republicans for the Rule of Law. They see what I see in the incumbent president, a level of corruption and deceit that is harmful to our country, planet and even the Republican party.

If the president would listen to me, I would give him the following comment to digest. Mr. president, if you do not have anything of value to add, please refrain from talking. To me, he missed a golden chance to actually be presidential when he was briefed on the pandemic risk back in January. Instead of being the leader we needed, he whiffed at the ball on the tee and resorted to modus operandi of misinformation.

These Republicans have political courage. I applaud and support their efforts. Please know, when asked in a recent RNC survey, I sent in a similar response. Former VP Joe Biden is not perfect, but he is a decent man and will attempt to return us to a bipartisan way of governance which is sorely needed. I encourage you to support Biden to preserve our democracy.

Thank you for your service.

The Fifth Risk – a must read by all legislators

Michael Lewis has authored several books that lay out a practical lens of major issues. They include “The Big Short,” “Moneyball,” “Liar’s Poker,” “The Blind Side,” and “The Undoing Project.” His latest book is called “The Fifth Risk,” and it is as much historical as it is alarming of missed risks.

The book is based on his review of largely unread briefing materials that were prepared for the incoming Trump administration by officials describing what the various departments do, their concerns, their successes, etc. Since the president was surprised he won the election and had fired his transition manager, Chris Christie, candidates to take over the various departments were not identified, much less in place. So, materials were not read and meetings went unattended. Lewis even interviewed people that prepared such reports after he read the non-confidential portions of the reports. They were more than happy to share their stories.

The above paragraph is not made to be political, it just presents a fact that the folks who eventually took over these departments missed a huge opportunity to learn how things worked from the people who oversaw the departments. As a result, our country is at risk of things that the leaders of many departments do not fully understand. And, what makes it more concerning, is many never took the time to understand or were even qualified to do so. The DOE was previously run by a nuclear physicist. After the election, until he recently resigned, it was run by a former governor without a science degree.

The book is actually a quick read, much shorter than it could have been. Yet, it is something every legislator should read, as they likely have a poor understanding of the risks at hand and what is not being done.

Lewis summarizes the general concerns of a key contributor from the Department of Energy, who greatly worries about things like exposure risk to radioactive waste product from nuclear energy that still exists and attacks on our energy production and distribution system, by saying:

The fifth risk is “the risk society runs when it falls into the habit of responding to long-term risk with short-term solutions. ‘Program management’ is not just program management. ‘Program management’ is the existential threat that you never really imagine as a risk.”

And, later he identifies the not knowing risk. “Here is where the Trump administration’s willful ignorance plays a role. If your ambition is to maximize short-term gain without the regard to the long-term cost, you are better off not knowing the cost. If you want to preserve your personal immunity to the hard problems, it’s better never to really understand those problems.”

To this point, the DOE contributor said when he saw the budget, “All the risks are science-based. You can’t gut science. If you do, you are hurting the country. If you gut the core competency of the DOE, you gut the country.”

There are so many things that these various departments do that benefit American people and industry that are misunderstood or simply not known. Could they be more efficient? Of course, and that should be the goal of any administration. Yet, these hard working people, scientists, engineers, Ph.Ds, etc. do yeomen’s work, and are ridiculed by some as the “deep state.” After speaking with many of these people, Lewis concludes the deep state are folks that actually know what they are talking about. They do not boast on themselves and get little notoriety.

One example is of a Coast Guard scientist who is the foremost authority on where people who fall over board might drift. He is actually acclaimed in other countries more than he is here, because he did not brag on his efforts. Previous to his efforts, falling over board usually meant the death of the person. Yet, he studied patterns, currents, sizes of people, what were they wearing, and other data points over years, even going on board as part of search and rescue missions. He developed an easier to use software tool that heightened the Coast Guard’s ability to pin point people. And, it is successful, but he is now retired with no obvious successor.

But, let me leave you with a final example, one of many. A business leader in rural America was bragging on getting a loan all on his own. The bank had a press conference where the leader was going to say this is how it should be done, with no government involvement. When someone from the Department of Agriculture introduced herself, he asked “what are you doing here?” She said, “we are the ones who lent you the money you are talking about.” He had no idea. Most Americans don’t, even legislators. After one complained about the Department of Agriculture sucking, she told the state official something he did not know, we invested more than $1 billion in your state last year.

I have written before about “The Invisibles.” These are the folks who show up at work each day and make things run well, without bringing attention to themselves. There are numerous examples in this book. And, when they are not allowed to do the things that are needed, we are the ones who suffer.