Tuesday, March 31, 2015

“Trees Can’t Run… Trees Can’t Hide”

If you believe in neither global climate change nor evolution, today’s blog is definitely not for you. But let’s just say, the future of the rich, thick forests that cover much of Canada and the Western United States (and, of course other vast regions of North America) is very much in doubt. It seems that as trees experience drier, warmer climate, perhaps reflecting the reaction of other other species, many lose their ability to resist disease and insect infestation, becoming increasingly vulnerable to a rather clear death. Most prominent among these assaults is the rather dramatic rise in bark beetle attacks of these forests (the dry, brown trees among the green above).
“These tiny winged beetles have long been culling sickly trees in North American forests. But in recent years, they've been working overtime. Prolonged droughts and shorter winters have spurred bark beetles to kill billions of trees in what's likely the largest forest insect outbreak ever recorded, about 10 times the size of past eruptions. ‘A doubling would have been remarkable,’ [Entomologist Diana] Six says. ‘Ten times screams that something is really going wrong.’…
“Mountain pine, spruce, piñon ips, and other kinds of bark beetles have chomped 46 million of the country's 850 million acres of forested land, from the Yukon down the spine of the Rocky Mountains all the way to Mexico. Yellowstone's grizzly bears have run out of pinecones to eat because of the beetles. Skiers and backpackers have watched their brushy green playgrounds fade as trees fall down, sometimes at a rate of 100,000 trunks a day. Real estate agents have seen home prices plummet from "viewshed contamination" in areas ransacked by the bugs. And the devastation isn't likely to let up anytime soon. As climate change warms the North American woods, we can expect these bugs to continue to proliferate and thrive in higher elevations—meaning more beetles in the coming century, preying on bigger chunks of the country.”
“A healthy tree can usually beat back invading beetles by deploying chemical defenses and flooding them out with sticky resin. But just as dehydration makes humans weaker, heat and drought impede a tree's ability to fight back—less water means less resin. In some areas of the Rocky Mountain West, the mid-2000s was the driest, hottest stretch in 800 years. From 2000 to 2012, bark beetles killed enough trees to cover the entire state of Colorado. ‘Insects reflect their environment,’ explains renowned entomologist Ken Raffa—they serve as a barometer of vast changes taking place in an ecosystem.” MotherJones.com, March 19th.
Responses to bark beetle attacks have ranged from cutting down swathes of trees to stop or slow the encroachment of the winged beetles (but they can fly) or to open massive new logging operations to allow harvesting before what many believe is an inevitable and massive loss of timber. There is one little, tiny problems with that approach. It seems that trees are evolving a natural resistance to both drought and the beetle, and there appear to be new varieties of several species of trees that repeatedly withstand their environmental attacks, related diseases and, surprisingly, bark beetles. So when these massive harvesting or preventive measures are applied indiscriminately, the number of “evolved” trees, ready to spread their seeds, are culled along with the more vulnerable members of their species.
“…Six believes that the blitz on the bugs could backfire in a big way. For starters, she says, cutting trees "quite often removes more trees than the beetles would"—effectively outbeetling the beetles. But more importantly, intriguing evidence suggests that the bugs might be on the forest's side. Six and other scientists are beginning to wonder: What if the insects that have wrought this devastation actually know more than we do about adapting to a changing climate?...
“But Six has a different way of looking at the trees' plight: as a battle for survival, with the army of beetles as a helper. She found compelling evidence of this after stumbling across the work of Forest Service researcher Constance Millar, with whom she had crossed paths at beetle conferences.
“Millar was comparing tree core measurements of limber pines, a slight species found in the eastern Sierras of California that can live to be 1,000 years old. After mountain pine beetles ravaged one of her study sites in the late 1980s, certain trees survived. They were all around the same size and age as the surrounding trees that the beetles tore through, so Millar looked closer at tree ring records and began to suspect that, though they looked identical on the outside, the stand in fact had contained two genetically distinct groups of trees. One group had fared well during the 1800s, when the globe was still in the Little Ice Age and average temperatures were cooler. But this group weakened during the warmer 1900s, and grew more slowly as a result. Meanwhile, the second group seemed better suited for the warmer climate, and started to grow faster.
“When beetle populations exploded in the 1980s, this second group mounted a much more successful battle against the bugs. After surviving the epidemic, this group of trees ‘ratcheted forward rapidly,’ Millar explains. When an outbreak flared up in the mid-2000s, the bugs failed to infiltrate any of the survivor trees in the stand. The beetles had helped pare down the trees that had adapted to the Little Ice Age, leaving behind the ones better suited to hotter weather. Millar found similar patterns in whitebark pines and thinks it's possible that this type of beetle-assisted natural selection is going on in different types of trees all over the country.
“When Six read Millar's studies, she was floored. Was it possible, she wondered, that we've been going about beetle management all wrong? ‘It just hit me,’ she says. ‘There is something amazing happening here.’” MotherJones.com. So as amateurs elect to mess with Mother Nature, she has an uncanny ability to punish the perpetrators. As legislatures think they are fighting infestation by increasing the acreage in public lands available for timber harvesting, they actually many be dooming masses more forestland to extinction.
I’m Peter Dekom, point out those ”little stories” that just might change your life in a big way in the not-too-distant future.

Monday, March 30, 2015

Meanwhile, Back at the Mountain Ranch

As the world feels the slings and arrows of ISIS assaults in Syria, Iraq and now Libya, as suicide bombers in Yemen wreak havoc, as Boko Haram inflicts its murderous mandate in Nigeria and extreme opinions in Israel (backed in our own majority in Congress) stymie peace accords with Palestine and Iran, it easy to miss what’s happening in Afghanistan… perceived by too many Americans as “yesterday’s news.” Nothing more than a side show today. Taliban attacks continue, corruption and dependence on opium production still dominate the economy, and hope for a better elected government are fading.
Last fall, in a bitter election (with highly contested results) to replace one of the most corrupt leaders on earth, President Hamid Karzai who was constitutionally termed-out, Secretary of State John Kerry (right above) brokered what was termed a “unity government” – a power-sharing coalition – between the two main factions. “The agreement forming the new government… makes Mr. [Abdullah] Abdullah [chief opposition candidate, left above] or his nominee the chief executive of the government, with the sort of powers a prime minister normally has. While reporting to the president, the chief executive will handle the daily running of the government. At the same time, [then President-elect Ashraf] Ghani [center above] keeps all the powers granted to the president by the Afghan Constitution.” New York Times, September 21, 2014.
Eight months later, things… well… didn’t work out that way. Ghani’s approach to bringing corruption under control, at least his justification for the consolidation of power under his personal aegis, was to require all major policies and economic deals at each ministry to run completely through him. “And staff members under Mr. Ghani’s authority are even directly writing and carrying out policy for the government, leaving some ministry officials wondering what their jobs are anymore, some officials say, speaking on the condition of anonymity to avoid angering the president.
“All that, and other consolidation measures, are happening as the completion of the American-backed plan for a unity government shared by Mr. Ghani and his rival, Abdullah Abdullah, remains hung up in delay and dissent, leaving many cabinet posts and governorships unfilled. It is one of the pressing issues hanging over Mr. Ghani’s first presidential visit to the United States, scheduled to begin Sunday night.
“There is growing concern, however, that cooperating with Mr. Abdullah is not high on Mr. Ghani’s list. Some critics of the president believe that he sees the continuing deadlock as a useful chance to consolidate power before Mr. Abdullah’s side can settle in — and that the president’s desire to single-handedly reshape Afghan politics could take him down a more authoritarian path.
“Mr. Ghani’s aides deny those accusations, insisting that there is no purposeful effort to centralize powers or cut out the ministries. Instead, they say that they are simply doing the work that no one else appears willing to do, and that they would welcome others’ sharing the load. They add that many of the measures are critical to cutting down on the corruption that has become endemic in the Afghan government.” NY Times, March 20th.
It’s not as if the countryside is stable and under the central government’s control. Between local warlords and Taliban territorial gains, the elected government seems to be able to count only on their hold on the capital Kabul and the environs with momentary shifts in other territories depending on the military focus du jure. And it’s not as if Abdullah, who actually may have had the majority of votes before the negotiated unit government took effect, is squeaky clean. Heavily associated with too many war lords, and unable to explain how he amassed major wealth, Abdullah seems to have engaged in some pretty flagrant domestic abuse.
Ghani, on the other hand, is an academic, formerly a frequent commentator on the BBC, PBS, CNN, etc. and served stints with both the World Bank and the UN. “His academic research was on state-building and social transformation. In 1985 he completed a year of fieldwork researching Pakistani Madrasas as a Fulbright Scholar.” Wikipedia. Does that change your view on all this? But does focused power lead inevitably to corrupt dictatorship?
“Some former officials who worked in the administrative offices of the palace, where a majority of the changes are taking place, support Mr. Ghani’s promises of change. But they worry that if left unchecked, the consolidation of power in the presidency could destroy any hope for building a functioning democratic state.
“‘Centralization can be to the benefit of Afghanistan, because you need to lead from the center,’ said Najib Amin, a former high-ranking member of the administrative offices under former President Hamid Karzai who considers himself a friend of Mr. Ghani’s. ‘But if you do it in the wrong way, it’s a recipe for a dictatorship.’” NY Times. The United States has messed with this country, imposed an American view of democracy with every touch, in a highly fractured, rugged nation where literacy is low and tribal practices haven’t really changed life for most Afghanis (except for the rather large growth of opium poppy cultivation) for centuries. But nothing the U.S. has done has actually worked or improved the lives of the locals.
I’m Peter Dekom, and the American track record for “fixing” governments following U.S. military actions over the last half century is nothing short of abysmal.

Sunday, March 29, 2015

War on Big Coal is Killing Us?

If you base all your decisions on assumptions that fly in the face of well-over 97% of qualified scientific findings and research, then you can take all kinds of outrageous positions and, when questioned, respond with syllogistic slogans and conclusions like, “Well, I’m not a scientist,” or “The Bible just wouldn’t let that happen,” or hold a snowball in your hand to prove that the planet cannot be getting hotter.
But just here in the United States, without addressing even more disastrous results in other parts of the world, we are facing horrific and unprecedented storm surges, water shortages in Western and Midwestern states that drag on for years, raging and frequent forest fires in Colorado, California, Arizona and New Mexico, coastal erosion plus flooding and impaired fallow farmland that may never grow crops for decades, perhaps centuries or even longer.
Global warming is real, notwithstanding the eastern cold flow from shunted arctic air the last couple of winters. Most of the temperature increases are directly attributable to greenhouse gasses trapped and growing in the atmosphere generated from humanity’s massive burning of fossil fuels. The worst offender is the use of coal to generate electricity, which, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration (a federal agency), is used to generate 39% of this country’s electricity (I’ve seen other government agencies put the number at 44%). I’ve discussed the mythology of “clean coal” in past blogs, so it is completely unnecessary to reproduce that information again. See my February 16thblog, Clean Coal is Dirtier than Ever.
We could make a big difference reasonably quickly, if there weren’t so many special interests not remotely concerned with health or safety. “The United States could eliminate all carbon dioxide emissions from coal-fired electric power plants [by 2030], according to a recent article in Environmental Science & Technology, a publication of the American Chemical Society.” Calfinder.com. And it is interesting to note how much of the underlying fossil fuel is extracted from taxpayer-owned land.
 “Taxpayer-owned coal is the single biggest source of greenhouse gas emissions in the United States, according to a new report from the Center for American Progress and The Wilderness Society… The report, released [March 19th], finds that emissions from coal, oil and gas that is mined or drilled on federal lands and waters could account for 24 percent of all energy-related greenhouse gas emissions in 2012 [in the U.S.]. The report also concludes that more than 10 percent of all U.S. greenhouse gas emissions result from the combustion of coal extracted on public lands in Wyoming and Montana, primarily in the Powder River Basin (PRB), where 40 percent of all U.S. coal is produced.
“The report was released as coal companies operating on federal lands in the PRB are coming under increasing scrutiny for allegedly evading royalties by selling coal to their own subsidiary companies at depressed prices. With [the March 19th] report, it appears Americans are not only missing out royalty payments that are owed for publicly owned coal, but are also footing the bill for high pollution costs that result from fossil-fuel extraction on public lands.” ThinkProgress.org, March 20th.
Getting back to letting ignorance justify increasingly stupid policies, myth-mongers who collect substantial campaign contributions from the pesky, petulant purveyors of polluting products and processes, seem to think that satisfying greed-needs trumps providing a safe and productive world for the rest of us to live and work in. “Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky has begun an aggressive campaign to block President Obama’s climate change agenda in statehouses and courtrooms across the country, arenas far beyond Mr. McConnell’s official reach and authority.
“The campaign of Mr. McConnell, the Senate majority leader, is aimed at stopping a set of Environmental Protection Agency regulations requiring states to reduce carbon pollution from coal-fired power plants, the nation’s largest source of greenhouse gas emissions.
“Once enacted, the rules could shutter hundreds of coal-fired plants in what Mr. Obama has promoted as a transformation of the nation’s energy economy away from fossil fuels and toward sources like wind and solar power. Mr. McConnell, whose home state is one of the nation’s largest coal producers, has vowed to fight the rules…
“[On March 19th], Mr. McConnell sent a detailed letter to every governor in the United States laying out a carefully researched legal argument as to why states should not comply with Mr. Obama’s regulations. In the letter, Mr. McConnell wrote that the president was ‘allowing the E.P.A. [federal Environmental Protection Agency] to wrest control of a state’s energy policy.’…
In addition to stopping state-level enactment of the climate rules, Mr. McConnell’s strategy is intended to undercut Mr. Obama’s position internationally as he tries to negotiate a global climate change treaty to be signed in Paris in December. The idea is to create uncertainty in the minds of other world leaders as to whether the United States can follow through on its pledges to cut emissions…
Mr. McConnell opened his campaign on March 3 with an op-ed article published in The Lexington Herald-Leader in Kentucky with the headline, ‘States should reject Obama mandate for clean-power regulations.’ Mr. McConnell urged governors to refuse to submit climate change compliance plans to the E.P.A., citing the arguments [that EPA regulations are unconstitutional].
“Mr. McConnell contends that the Obama administration has bypassed Congress and stretched the boundaries of existing law to impose climate change regulations — and that he intends to step outside of Congress and use creative legal methods to push back.
“‘The E.P.A. is bypassing Congress and the American people by unilaterally proposing these crippling regulations that would wreak havoc on our economy and are clearly unprecedented,’ he said. ‘I have used and will continue to use all of the tools available to protect families and jobs, whether that be in Congress, or outside of the legislative process.’” New York Times, March 19th.
Mitch McConnell and his ilk have coined the catch phrase of Obama’s War on Coal, to them a job killer and economic growth destroyer. But coal producers and power generators do not remotely pay for the damage they cause. The medical bills, the farmers who cannot grow crops, the loss of valuable timber from burned forests, the homes and infrastructure lost from flood and storm surges, etc., etc. are all hard-dollar costs that “others” – from taxpayers to those who suffer unreimbursed damage – must pay. That damage eclipses the value of all the potential lost coal-related jobs and profits… but somehow those who inflict that damage and the politicians they have bought and paid for never seem to run those numbers. Coal is killing us, our quality of life, too many farms and coastal properties.
What is the President doing in this area that is, once again, drawing the ire of the Republican Party? “President Obama signed an executive order on [March 19th] to set new goals for reducing the greenhouse gas emissions of federal agencies, his latest use of his executive authority to address the root causes of climate change and press private companies and foreign governments to follow suit.
“Mr. Obama’s directive orders federal agencies over the next decade to cut their emissions by an average of 40 percent compared with their levels when he won office in 2008, and to increase their use of electricity from renewable sources by 30 percent.
“The goals are in line with a commitment that he announced in November as part of a climate agreement with China. In the deal, Mr. Obama said the United States would reduce its emissions of the heat-trapping gases that are warming the planet by 26 percent to 28 percent below 2005 levels by 2025.” NY Times. Who’s fighting which war against whom? Are the American people the victims or the victors? Guess! Money in this country trumps just about every other value we hold dear.
I’m Peter Dekom, and either we care about our world, the quality of our lives and perhaps our survival… or we lie down and slowly see our lives crushed.

Saturday, March 28, 2015

The Islamic Bomb

Dr. Abdul Qadeer Khan is the father of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons capacity, with the first detonation test on May 28, 1998 (pictured above), all designed to counter India’s earlier nuclear arms capacity. His major contribution to Pakistan’s weapons development came primarily in the improvement of the centrifuge technology necessary to generate and enrich the level of fissionable material required to support a substantial and powerful nuclear weapons program. Today, Pakistan has a lot of nuclear warheads (over a hundred by many estimates).
Nominally once placed under some lax form of “house arrest” for sharing nuclear weapons technology methodology with both North Korea and Iran, A.Q. Khan is a hero to the entire Islamic world for his efforts. Today, when there are hints of Pakistani instability and the potential for radicals to take down the government, there is always the fear that Pakistan could thus release its nuclear weapons and nuclear weapons knowhow to the entire radical Islamic movement.
Noting that Pakistan’s nuclear program was the product of their ongoing feud/battles with neighboring India – bomb envy with a desire to keep the playing field level – it is interesting to note how the various factions in the great Sunni-Shiite divide are reacting to Iran’s clandestine development of a nuclear weapons capacity. American journalists have focused on Iran’s potential to nuke Israel, but there is a much deeper issue across the entire Middle East.
Although Shiites are a distinct minority in the overall Islamic world (at about 15% of all of Islam), they are heavily present in Iraq (60%) and Iran (90%+). And while Sunnis and Shiites might have lived gently side-by-side before the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, as Shiites were allowed “democratically” to dominate the U.S.-imposed government, they generated massive Shiite discrimination and retribution of Sunnis who had ruled Iraq during Saddam Hussein’s dictatorship. It was one of the issues that allowed Sunni-extremist ISIS to rise, a force mandated to protect Sunnis against marauding Shiites.
If you recall from prior blogs, Shiites represent a world where the Qur’an is a mystical book that only the holiest clerics can interpret, while Sunnis find that interpretation heretical since they believe the Qur’an must itself be read by all faithful Muslims to make their direct connection with God. Hence, today Shiite and Sunni nations are facing off in surrogate wars across the region.
As Shiite rebels have wreaked havoc in Yemen of late, sending the Sunni government into exile, they have provoked a rare military attack in Yemen by the neighboring Saudi Arabian Air Force. It seems rather clear that there is an increasing element among Sunni nations to contain this rising Shiite “threat” and, in particular, to begin to build a defensive shield over what is seen as unbridled growth of Iranian support of these Shiite “terrorist” groups, from Hezbollah to Yemeni Houthis. Many in the Sunni world see Iran’s nuclear weapons aspirations as unstoppable. Some of these Sunni nations fear Iranian nuclear weapons as much as does Israel… maybe even more.
We are watching Sunni Arab nations generating a thought-to-be-impossible coalition against militant Shiite expansionism, particularly and initially focused on the Iranian-backed Houthis in Yemen. “A meeting of Arab foreign ministers in Sharm el Sheikh, Egypt, on [March 26th] endorsed the idea of a combined Arab defense force, a longstanding proposal given new impetus by the crisis in Yemen.” New York Times, March 26th. Indeed, military forces from Saudi Arabia, Egypt and eight other regional Sunni states have been coordinating a military response to the Shiite Yemeni threat. A pan-Arab military force is the hot topic at the Arab League, as Egypt is demanding a permanently-assembled military response to allow incumbent nations aggregate force to combat insurgency. Given that these Sunni nations have never been able to get onto the same page before now, this is rather huge news. Iran, meanwhile, is telling these Sunni powers to butt out of Yemen.
Yet this new consolidation of Sunni regional power is only a part of the shifting politics of Middle Eastern sludge. The other side of this nasty equation is the deepening fear of these Sunni nations of Shiite Iran’s nuclear weapons ambitions and of a nuclear arms containment treaty to which they are neither negotiating parties nor particularly trusting in the results (regardless of lip service to the contrary). The subtext may be the ultimate undoing of Western efforts to contain Iran by treat: a nuclear arms race across the entire spate of regional powers.
The Saudi Ambassador to the United States would not rule out the possibility of the Saudis creating their own nuclear bomb to counterbalance a nuclear-armed Iran in an interview with CNN's Wolf Blitzer on March 26th… ‘This is not something we would discuss publicly,’ Ambassador Adel Al-Jubeir said on ‘The Situation Room.’ Later, when pressed, he said, ‘This is not something that I can comment on, nor would I comment on.’
“‘But the kingdom of Saudi Arabia will take whatever measures are necessary in order to protect its security,’ he added. ‘There are two things over which we do not negotiate: Our faith and our security.’… Al-Jubeir said, however, the details disclosed by the Obama administration to the Saudis about the developing nuclear deal with Iran were ‘positive.’… ‘I can't say that we like it, because we don't know the details,’ he said. ‘The assurances we have received from the administration have been positive but we want to see the details before we can make a judgment.’” CNN.com, March 27th. The Saudis have the money, despite the fall in petroleum prices, to buy their way into the nuclear club, but you can rest assured that more than one of the other non-nuclear Sunni nations are also exploring a path to nuclear weapons as well.
If we think things are bad now, all of these machinations could make things a whole lot worse. When we took down Iraq’s former government, the rules of unforeseen consequences went on steroids, and the blowback has been nothing short of catastrophic. Our Middle Eastern policies since 2001 seem to have been designed by the worst combination of the Three Stooges and Laurel & Hardy. Our Department of State always knew that our military policies would be destabilizing for the region; they tried to speak, but they were muzzled by ignorant politicos elected for reasons other than their intelligence, education or understanding of the facts that actually do govern the world.
I’m Peter Dekom, and when you elect sloganeering less-than-the-best-and-brightest to public office, you get what you pay for!!!

Friday, March 27, 2015

Wishing We Really Were Underwater

São Paulo is one of the world’s most populous cities, Brazil’s commercial hub, their counterpart to New York City. In fact, São Paulo is second, behind New York, in the levels of compensation paid to most senior corporate and financing managers. São Paulo is also the first major city in the world to face a catastrophic water shortage that is making life in this impenetrable megalopolis downright miserable.  
“In São Paulo, drinking water is used to flush toilets, bathe and, until very recently, to wash cars and even hose down city pavements, as porters use jets of crystalline water to shift those last specks of grime. In Brazil, a land of immense natural riches and home to around 12% of the world’s fresh water, the very idea of a water shortage is hard for people to conceive of. Yet despite the state government’s prevarication over possible imminent rationing – consisting of two days of water followed by four days without – in reality, millions are now getting just a few hours of water per day, with many struggling with none at all for days on end.
“The São Paulo water crisis, or ‘hydric collapse’ as many are calling it, has left this city of 20 million teetering on the brink. Though domestic use accounts for only a fraction of the water consumed in the state of São Paulo – where extensive agriculture and industry places intense pressure on available resources – for paulistanos, as the city’s residents are called, learning to use water wisely is suddenly the most pressing need of all.
“The sudden nature of the crisis has left people struggling to cope with the reality of the taps running dry. The state governor Geraldo Alckmin has insisted repeatedly that the water will continue to flow as usual, and no state of emergency has yet been declared, though some experts believe such a declaration well overdue. In the meantime, residents of São Paulo are making their own arrangements: storing water at home, and in some cases drilling homemade wells. In part a result of badly stored water, instances of dengue fever spread by mosquitoes almost tripled in January, compared with the previous year.” theGuardian.com, February 15th.
Indeed, global climate change has introduced sustained (seemingly permanent) drought all over the globe, wreaking political and economic havoc just as other sections of the planet find themselves flooded from excessive rainfall or facing storm surges that are wiping out coastal land by millions and millions of acres. As sustained drought loosed well over a million devastated Sunni farmers into open rebellion, at first against the brutal Syrian Assad regime and then as the backbone of ISIS’s genocidal mayhem, less-violent realities have also foment a new harshness in too many other formally rich agricultural areas everywhere and ultimately in many large urban areas that are facing a water shortages that may soon mirror São Paulo’s catastrophe.
Even as the grain belts in Kansas and Texas stagger under dusty remains of once productive farmland, as Colorado and New Mexico see massive fires raging through their forests, the focus on water-shortage policies is now on California, where catch-basins and reservoirs are averaging water levels at between 25% and 50% of normal, reflecting a general notion that the state has no more than one year of water reserves “on tap,” with no serious expectation that rainfall and stored snowpack will have any material impact on such reserves at any time within the foreseeable future. In fact, the sustained drought all over the Western and many Midwestern states is expected to last decades if not longer.
There is a mixture of conservation measures, recycling retrofits and technology measures that are in process or in the planning stages in the Golden (brown?) State. As any Los Angeles resident can attest, we are often shocked that so much rainwater is shunted to the sea though a system of canals and waterways designed in the 1930s to stop excessive flooding in many parts of the city. Even the concrete used to flush the excess outward was designed with a slick surface to accelerate that process. And if you have recently driven the highways and byways between northern and southern California, you have witnessed the acres and acres of dry fallow farmland and the signs from angry farmers begging for water.
We also are puzzled at the utter lack of progress in building desalinization plants all along our coastline, although until very recently, the electrical power needs of such plants seemed to put brakes on that process. A drop of good news on that front. The city of Carlsbad is now the host to one such modern desalinization plant under construction (the largest in the Western Hemisphere), costing a billion dollars, that is expected to provide 7% of San Diego’s water needs (50 million gallons a day). It’s a start, not remotely at the level of Australia’s recent efforts (spending north of $13 billion to build five desalinization plants), but at least the latest reverse osmosis technology is vastly more energy efficient. The dumping of salt back into the ocean is an unfortunate side effect that we truly do not year understand, however.
California’s administrative and legislative bodies are now hyper-focused on this water emergency. In mid-March, the California Water District passed new restrictions on how often and when lawns may be watered, threatening even more limitations if they do not see results anytime soon. The state is prioritizing solutions to the water shortage rapidly. However, we still have our heads the sand on the vulnerability to earthquake damage to the levees (many still made of dirt, built between 1850 and 1870) in the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta, from which Southern California currently draws about 30% of its water needs, but it clearly is a mega-disaster waiting to happen.
“In the face of a continuing drought, Gov. Jerry Brown and legislative leaders introduced emergency drought legislation [on March 19th] aimed at expediting $1 billion in water-related projects… ‘We need to get the money out the door now for shovel-ready projects and existing water programs that only need funding to get started,’ said Senate President Pro Tem Kevin de Leon, D-Los Angeles. ‘No delay. No red tape.’
“The emergency action announced at a Sacramento news conference includes a pair of bills -- one to appropriate $1 billion from a pair of voter-approved water-related bonds and another to expedite contracting and create an office to ‘help disproportionately impacted communities respond to their water challenges,’ de Leon said… ‘Taken together, this package provides a major boost to our state’s efforts to manage our water crisis and strengthen our current infrastructure,’ he said…
“The legislative package would advance $128 million to directly assist workers and communities most impacted by the drought, according to the governor’s office. It would also direct $272 million from the Proposition 1 water bond approved in November for safe drinking water and water-recycling projects and advance $660 million from the 2006 Proposition 1e for flood protection in urban and rural areas.
“This marks the second consecutive year in which the Legislature has acted on emergency drought relief. In 2014, Brown signed a $687.4 million drought package that offered aid to communities facing acute water shortages and food and housing assistance to those harmed by the drought… The Legislature also crafted a $7.5 billion water bond that was approved by voters last November, with most of those funds earmarked for longer-term projects to bolster the state’s water infrastructure… The latest move comes amid growing concern about the drought, now entering its fourth year.” Beverly Hill Patch, March 19th.
We will face water wars with adjoining states over the dwindling supply of water from the Colorado River, and those lovely aquifers under much of California are screaming out for regulation. Even northern and southern California are staring each other down over water resources.
But for so many in the United States, smug in their belief that “it can’t happen here” or “God will fix it” or “there’s nothing we can do about it,” the price for allowing inadequate or decaying infrastructure in order to support lower taxes for the rich in the false hope of the creation of good jobs (that never materialize) is that “it is happening here… NOW,” “God has not intervened,” and there is “a ton of stuff we can do about it,” from addressing the seemingly unbridled release of greenhouse gasses through indiscriminate burning of fossil fuels (as we prioritize looking for more carbon-based resources at the expense of alternative energy) to out-and-out water projects on a massive scale.
I’m Peter Dekom, keeping it real and telling it like it is!

Thursday, March 26, 2015

More Tea Leaves in the Job Market

My Friend Dennis Duitch is a pretty astute management consultant, who has a weekly RSS feed. His latest feed drills down below the much-touted non-farm unemployment rate published by the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The latest numbers, for February, provide a 5.5% rate that would appear absolutely miraculous, until you delve deeper. And when you do, you realize how completely meaningless that number is. Add in the long-term unemployed who want to work but have just given up looking. Throw in part-timers with lousy jobs, no chance for advancement, no benefits and terrible pay. Add in those contract workers, pretty much in the same boat, whose work ends when they’ve completed their limited contracted services.
The negative statistics are staggering and suggest that the United States is mired in not only in a muddied recovery that really only benefits those who invest as their primary source of income (and, of course those who provide services to these well-heeled individuals) but an economic engine incapable of generating sufficient good jobs with a solid future. Sadly, only 10% of America owns 90% of its traded stocks, so the calculations of who benefits from a top-end stock market are rather obvious.
So here are two of Dennis’ most interesting recent findings on the subject: WHOOPDEEDOO. THE U.S. UNEMPLOYMENT RATE FELL THIS MONTH to 5.5% – “TOP END OF THE RANGE CONSIDERED NORMAL by most Federal Reserve policymakers” despite the reservation of Chairwoman Yellen who reported to Congress that “while the labor market has seen improvement, too many Americans remain unemployed or underemployed.” Reality is that employment ‘Recovery’ statistics are bogus. The facts are that: (1) Since 2008, actual full-time jobs have decreased by 140,000; (2) The primary counting flaw is that government now considers nearly 93 million of ‘long-term unemployed’ workers over age 16 to be “not a part of the labor force”; (3) Add in the 8.7 million officially unemployed and that means over 100 million not working – hardly fitting the definition of ‘full employment’; (4) Of those who are employed, well over half only work part-time (below 30 hours/wk) with, according to Social Security Admin, around 40% making less than $20K/yr and 60% making below $40K/yr.  While politicians and mainstream media pronounce that all is well, “if the unemployment rate was calculated honestly, the real rate is currently above 23% according to shadowstats.com.  [WALL ST. JOURNAL – Mar 6, and ECONOMICCOLLAPSEBLOG.COM – Mar 8, 15]
MILLENNIAL UPDATE:  Some 92 million people aged 15 to 35 now comprise the biggest generation in U.S. history and their impact is huge – on their parents as well as the country’s economy. Having come-of-age during years of dramatic economic disruption, technologic change and globalization, the experiences, expectations and behaviors of millennials are quite different than those of Gen X (now 36 – 50) or Baby Boomer (51 – 70) parents. With instant access to product info, pricing and peer reviews, they shop differently; with focus on life balance & wellness, they eat and exercise differently (generally better); less than a quarter now choose to get married and live in their own households. But the biggest societal change is that around a third of adult millennials still receive regular financial support from their parents, including up to 25% still living rent-free at home and/or parents paying for groceries, clothing, cars, vacations, and more. A growing problem is that “even affluent Boomers are putting their retirements at risk by drawing down Retirement funds to subsidize” their kids and the big societal question is whether those kids will be in a position (or willing) to return the favor in their parents’ senior years?   [BLOOMBERG BUSINESS WEEK – Mar 9, 15]
How about this further Millennial Update: “The commonly held belief is that with hard work and a good education, a young person in America can get a good job. But despite falling unemployment, college grads age 22 to 27 are stuck in low-paying jobs that don't even require a college degree. The percentage of young people languishing in low-skill, low-paying jobs is 44%, a 20-year high.
“Only 36% of college grads have jobs that pay at least $45,000, a sharp decline from the 1990s, after adjusting for inflation. Perhaps most depressingly, the percentage of young people making below $25,000 has topped 20%, worse than in 1990. In other words, those with a bachelor's diploma were better off before the digital revolution.” CNN.com, March 18th.
What’s more, the growing income gap between the top earning classes and everyone else in the United States threatens to tear our country apart, perhaps even resulting in a violent armed insurrection, a fracturing of the United States into smaller nations seething with hate. God knows that under the misguided and misinterpreted provision of the Second Amendment, there are enough guns around to make this a very hefty threat.
Hedge-fund billionaire Paul Tudor Jones (Forbes net worth estimate: $4.6 billion) broke ranks with the stupor-inducing lie that having a small coterie of mega-rich at the top of society, receiving special tax and regulatory breaks not available to the masses, is good for job creation (read Dennis’ contributions above to satisfy yourself that the jobs that are being created are truly crappy).
In a recent TED talk, Jones called that income inequality gap possibly “disastrous” for the United States, noting that the quest for profits in the financial/corporate world has changed so dramatically that it threatens the very fabric that holds our nation together. The March 20th CNBC.com extracted some of his best quotes: “‘The gap between the 1 percent and the rest of America, and between the U.S. and the rest of the world, cannot and will not persist… Now here's a macro forecast that's easy to make, and that's that the gap between the wealthiest and the poorest, it will get closed. History always does it. It typically happens in one of three ways—either through revolution, higher taxes or wars. None of those are on my bucket list…
“Jones said that he is a proud capitalist ‘because of the successes and opportunities it has afforded me and millions of others… Capitalism has driven just about every great innovation that has made our world a more prosperous, comfortable and inspiring place to live,’ he said… But he said capitalism has shifted in recent years to become too hyper-focused on short-term quarterly earnings, profits and stock prices.
“‘I've seen a lot of crazy things in markets... And unfortunately, I'm sad to report that right now we might be on the grips of certainly one of the most disastrous, certainly in my career… It's like we've ripped the humanity out of our companies and reduced them to a set of numbers,’ he said… ‘Higher profit margins do not increase societal wealth. What they actually do is exacerbate income inequality, and that's not a good thing.’”
But we now have a majority in Congress, bought and paid for by the richest of the rich, who espouse maintaining the special status, that legislatively-passed protective layer, for those who need protection the least, the richest people in the land. The lessons of history have never, never, never allowed such wealth-gap inequality to last, and most of those societal rejections have been very violent. Bottom line, wealthy folks, history really doesn’t care if you’ve read enough to understand the past or simply do not believe it can happen to you. History just is. We could try to equalize our society… or, as philosopher George Santayana once said: “Those who do not remember their past are condemned to repeat their mistakes.”
I’m Peter Dekom, and as our public educational system erodes by the day, I think I am living in a country that is only capable of learning its macro-lessons the hard way.