Friday, December 26, 2008

Learning from the Collapse of Chesapeake Bay

The news in late 2008 cites the impending collapse of Chesapeake Bay after a generation of unworkable, non-binding agreements.
After 25 years Bay authorities now call for:
* Changing development patterns to reduce sprawl.
* Reducing agricultural pollutants.
* Improving fishery management to improve bay health.
* Requiring pollution reduction on a river-by-river basis.
* Reducing individual pollution loads.
But they wonder where they will find the funds.

Just when the environment reaches the tipping point, we wonder if we can afford to help it survive. Ironically, as Jared diamond points out repeatedly in Collapse, without a healthy, functioning environment, no economy survives.
The D.C/Baltimore/Virginia watershed has over 5 million inhabitants, plus the effluent from industrial sized pig farms (an apt metaphor for some of the behaviors in D.C.) .

Western industrial society is self-destructive in ways Marx failed to observe, but ways fortunately that Paul Ehrlich has identified for us, and Jared Diamond has adroitly chronicled. The total weight and diverse forms of toxic pollution from that disperse from that large and technologically reliant a population reshape everything in the environment. How far they reshape nature we continue to discover.
The consequences of 5 million people polluting a watershed have been predictable from Rachel Carson onward. Actually predictable from Semmelweis onward, as Semmelweis may be the original observer of how toxic pollution disseminates and what must be done to limit it.

In a political analogue, consider the rule of law as the environment that makes possible the function of a democratic government, the underlying necessity on which government relies. .
Then consider how blind we will be (how blind in fact Nancy Pelosi has been) to ignore the need to prosecute the breaches of the law and the constitution by Republican public officials sworn to uphold the laws and the constitution. Congressional Democrats have argued the pragmatism of passing needed legislation instead of dealing with the collapse of the rule of law under W. Two years after recapturing their Congressional power, Democrats have little to show for having been in power. They fail to observe that like Chesapeake Bay, what is necessary for survival, the rule of law, has eroded and risks collapse, perhaps passing a critical tipping point.

The precautionary principle has to operate in democratic politics the way it is supposed to operate in science. Otherwise we should not expect a functioning democracy to survive. The history of democracy shows it always in danger of collapsing into autocracy combined with chaos. So we are rowing against the current, but row we must. Like the environment, democracy has tipping points that must be observed.

And in passing, it appears that a non-binding agreement turns out to be an oxymoron, a euphemism for no agreement at all.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Should We Bail Out the Big Three Autos?

The auto bailout probably should include public hangings of the CEO's and board chairs of all the Big Three.
Imagine the TV viewing and ad revenues; part of the latter could be used to bail out the firms.

No one is discussing that:
A. a Big Three bailout won't get buyers to buy cars in a depression with no loans available;U.S. sales will drop to 10+ million cars or fewer from 17 million. Why assume that we need 17 million new cars a year? What does that mean for global warming?
B. It takes three years for the Big Three firms to produce model changes, better mileage, electric cars running on solar energy, etc. Ironically Ford has a 40 mpg car in the Fiesta due out in 2010, but they are still headed for bankruptcy.
C. the Big Three are transnational corporations owned around the world, with stock selling and held around the world. Buicks are made in China. Must we bail out a Chinese-based luxury auto manufacturer? Why do U.S. taxpayers still consider these as American car companies? Ford owns part of Mazda. Do we bail out Mazda workers in Canada and Mexico?
D. in a global economy, the bail out of foreign GM/Ford/Daimler workers in Germany, etc., creates a whole new model for a U.S. global socialism -- government funds borrowed from China, invested partly in domestic jobs, partly in overseas jobs. Clearly the Chinese sovereign wealth fund is not investing in GM, but we would with Chinese money on bonds we would issue.
E. the business models of these auto companies are manifest failures and not amenable to "restructuring".
F. we ought instead to invest in auto companies that are not asking for bailouts --Toyota, Honda, Hyundai, all with factories and some suppliers in this country. Increase their sales and jobs.
H. government has no idea how to run or regulate auto firms, much less to determine what equity at what risk taxpayers will receive for their investment.
I. No one is talking about the huge federal debt service an auto bailout will require, and how much more in bailout funds will be sought as the firms inevitably go bankrupt and the first $25 billion vanishes into the auto sinkhole.
J. Bankruptcy allows companies to deal with their creditors under court conditions transparent to all.
K. Will the Big Three Autos continue to spend money on professional car racing, i.e., put taxpayers in the role of subsidizing a gigantic waste of gasoline, pit crews, and multiple car crashes described as a sport?
L. Car companies have gone out business since cars began selling. Where are Studebaker, Packard? As car companies move further into oligopoly, quailty descends, prices rise, competitive advantage ebbs, and taxpayers become at risk for a too-big-to-fail bailout socializing the costs of private enterprise mistakes. Why not have the FTC stop oligopolies long before we reach that stage?
M. Re: private investments, the U.S. government needs to look for the best long term return financially and socially. Allowing bankruptcy in the Big Three would free workers to produce something else better designed and more useful -- windmills, solar panels, bicycles, buses running on hydrogen, an improved national electrical grid -- with a few remaining at work on the GM Volt , which promises 100 mpg in two years.

What is your solution to the great American auto crisis?

Monday, November 10, 2008

The Basketball of Politics

Wa have a new president who plays pickup basketball games, the first in history to bring what players call round ball to the White House. His partner Biden confines his sport to riding the train and trying to rid pro sports of anabolic steroids. The just exiting occupants are a runner and an old man who goes fishing, and shoot birds and an occasional friend .

Threw him a curveball, slam dunk, third and long -- sports metaphors have a major place in the American lexicon, but we need to delve into the argot and practices of pickup basketball if we want to understand the man who becomes president January 20, 2009.

In a pickup b-ball game, players have no referees, so everyone is expected to call his own fouls, i.e., if you foul someone, you have to call it on yourself. Now try to imagine an American politics where players call fouls on themselves, where John McCain says, "Wait, Barrack, my foul when I said you were a Marxist who hung around with terrorists. Stop, I admit I screwed up, rewind, take the ball out of bounds, and lets get the game going again."

Try to imagine a game where everyone understands the limits of bad behavior, and everyone abides by an unspoken gentleman's agreement to knock it off. Pickup basketball is a collaboration, and we should expect our roundball playing president to understand the value of playing with the best guys he can find on his side, to respect the talents of his opposition, and even when it costs him an advantage, to call his own fouls. Imagine that. Nov. 10, 2008

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Coal: Think About It

History. Shortly after the Moana Hotel opened in 1901, the coal ship Helga rounded Diamond Head in the night, mistook the hotel's lights for those of the harbor, and ran aground on Waikiki's reef. The Moana became the first hotel ever to sink a ship. For years afterward people canoed out to harvest the coal, which was what Honolulu used then to create electricity. And we still do.

Now leap ahead to the promises you hear from both 2008 presidential candidates, endorsements of clean coal. Both are chasing coal state votes, but before you vote, let's examine what both coal and so-called clean coal involve.

Some data.
Half the rail traffic in the U.S. consists of coal trains. The nation has over 600 coal burning electrical plants that produce 52% of all U.S. electricity, including one coal plant on Oahu that produces 18% of Honolulu's electricity. All of Honolulu's coal -- 222,000 tons a year of it from Indonesia presently at $70 a ton -- has to be shipped in, requiring a sizable life cycle carbon footprint -- mining and shipping by train, loading, shipping by sea, and unloading in Honolulu, then burning it.

Clean coal requires injecting its CO2 emissions into the ground, but Oahu has no geological depositories for CO2 available. Hence, we're stuck with dirty coal. Moreover, CO2 sequestration is an experimental, all but untried, expensive process, requiring massive new infrastructure to transport CO2, for many coal burning plants are not close to geology that allows injecting CO2 underground. CCS (Carbon Capture and Sequestration) raises the cost of coal burning by 40% to 60%. Coal experts and investors also signal a wariness about liabilities associated with CO2 capture. Once sequestered underground, CO2, a killer gas, may escape from its storage and cause a disaster as it engulfs unwitting humans above ground. Coal plants like ours in Honolulu also emit sulfur, nitrogen oxide, and mercury. The latter causes serious neurological and developmental problems in humans.

Here's the scorecard on clean coal so far. Of $5.2 billion invested in 13 clean coal projects, the U.S. General Accounting Office says eight have serious delays or financial problems -- six of them 2 to 7 years behind schedule, and two are now bankrupt. As for submerged costs(bad pun, I know), communities where coal is mined suffer significant environmental degradation and pollution, and mine workers face great risk of death, injury, and work related diseases. So clean coal or dirty, miners and their families in Indonesia are likely suffering on behalf of all electrical users in Honolulu, you and me.

Nearly one kilowatt out of five of all the electricity that you and I use in Honolulu. comes from dirty coal. So while claims about clean coal won't help you sort out Obama versus McCain, fortunately clean coal won't be coming to paradise. Lucky us. Maybe we all ought to ask HECO to replace Oahu's dirty coal with clean, renewable energy, send HECO a note with that suggestion in your next electric bill payment. I will. Think about it.

Friday, October 10, 2008

Schools versus HTA advertising?

What's wrong with this picture?
Just as the State Board of Education cuts $46.5 million from our schools, the state announces it will add over $6 million to the ad budget of the Hawaii Tourist Authority. That's on top of $50+ million already assigned to visitor industry advertising.
If it is going to cost us what our young people learn -- a long term cost to them and our society -- then HTA needs to show us exactly what we can expect to get for our money before taxpayers invest another nickel in visitor ads.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

What Would You Like to Know

If you could get both of Honolulu's mayoral candidates to tell you anything you wanted to know about them or their plans, what would it be? Here's my version. Add your own.

M Hanneman, fess up the absolute truth about why the city has delayed showing us
  • what it will really cost to run all of those trains, you know, not your low ball 2006 guess to sell the idea, but the truth?
  • what it will actually look like with rail lines 30 feet to 70 feet above streets, stations 60 to 110 feet high and 90 yards long? Come one, show us. Don't hide the drawings. We paid for 'em.
  • where you'll be hiding when the rail bankrupts Honolulu ?
Ms Kobayashi, can you tell us the truth about
  • how fast you and Panos can get us HOT lanes, what they'll cost, and why they beat the rail?
  • what you're going to do with all of that trash without shipping it off island?

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

21 Reasons to Reject Rail and Its Proponents

21 Reasons to Reject Rail and Those Proposing it.
Code: R = Rail as CCH has proposed; MH=Mayor Hanneman; PB = Parsons Brinkerhoff, city R contractor-advisor; EIS –Environmental Impact Statement; CCH=City and County of Honolulu.

1. CCH's own PB studies show it won't change road congestion, it won’t solve our traffic problem. Per PB, when complete , R will take take 1.3% of cars off the road. Per MH at the KGMB forum, 11% off -- for $6+ billion or more!!
2. Fed Funds are in no way assured. The EIS must compare alternative possibilities.
3. Why has MH delayed presentation of the EIS for some 6 months, possibly until after the election? Suspicious?
4. R will be ugly (80 feet and higher in a neighborhood you use), noisy (next to your place?) and running 20 hours a day – empty most of the time. Noisy visual blight.
5. MH refuses even to try traffic options proven elsewhere --road congestion pricing (rush hour), which succeeds in cities all over the world. In the U.S. Minneapolis, Seattle, Miami, and San Francisco are all introducing congestion pricing using millions in federal funds. Why not in Honolulu, MH?
Why no serious look first at more elevated triple HOT lanes, one way into town in the AM. The opposite in the PM. It works beautifully in Orlando. Add far more buses, and multiple occupant vehicle incentives. Why ignore other options? What's the rush?
6. A study of 258 R and bridge projects over 70 years showed that 90% of them have cost overruns(, September issue, Derailing the Boondoggle), drastically over budget costs. U.S. DOT says rail costs average 40% more than budget.
7. CCH budgets $70 million to buy all the land needed for R. They must be kidding.
8. Construction Inflation. An expert study of the 2006 PB planning for Honolulu R shows there’s no way R costs $3.7 billion. More, construction inflation rose 8% in 2006, and over 4% this year, not including steel and oil costs rising. That balloons $3.7 billion to $4.2 billion before construction even starts! Already half billion dollars beyond what MH advertises. Add 5% a year for design changes and construction inflation, and you get $5.5 billion not counting delays, rises in materials costs and wages, and greater real estate costs. And that doesn’t count R legs to Waikiki and UH.
PB ran the Big Dig in Boston, which started at $3.7 billion (sound familiar?) and ended at $14.6 billion? Are we next?
9. Why haven't we seen any operations costs? CCH Transport Director says these costs must come from Property Taxes. How Much?. Why the mystery about operations costs? Where’s the transparency with taxpayer dollars? It's your $.
10. Why repeated contracts to the same few bidders who kick into MH's campaign?
11.CCH has not added buses since the mid 1990's, trying to force us into R. Why not more buses now running on hydrogen? A much lower carbon footprint, and far more flexibility in routes to serve more people.
12. MH hasn't added left turn lanes and more bus pull-offs to
speed traffic. Why? Why not 4 day work weeks to cut traffic?
13. By the time the swollen R. tab arrives, we'll have ruined the
CCH bond rating for many of our other needs, like sewers and more buses.
14. Judge Ezra warns us that we need sewers first to avert public health disasters with 6 major lines that have, per a CCH study, "Outlived their useful life." CCH fought to delay fixing them and $6 million of your tax dollars later, lost in federal court. Sewers and sewage treatment will run in the billions. The Waikiki sewer break at $48 million showed us what to expect from MH with sewer maintenance. Will MH end up having R cost us needed sewers?
15. The National financial crisis = fewer visitors = a drop in
business = less in CCH tax receipts -- just when CCH incurs
huge, open-ended R. costs for a no-solution. Does that pass the common sense test?
16. MH says he loves Honolulu, but suggests he won't stick it out past 2010 at CCH, as he sees greener pastures. But he will stick us with the R. tab when he moves on. If R is that important, and MH loves Honolulu, why won't he promise to stick around?
17. Engineering studies indicate that R will have a huge carbon footprint, bigger than all the cars-buses-trucks combined. State law now requires that we cut emissions to limit global warming. As engineers have pointed out, R fails on the global warming requirement.
18. Your Electricity bill is up 56% in the past 12 months. Imagine R electricity costs in 2018 for 20+ stations 24 hours a day, lights, escalators, elevators, plus empty cars running 20 hours a day? As Mayoral Candidate Ann Kobayashi has pointed out, we cannot afford this huge boondoggle. The MH plan will end up as your expensive tab.
19. At 25 mph with 20 plus stops, R is not rapid transit.
20. Rising R costs and shrinking CCH tax revenues may very well threaten CCH bankruptcy, driving out other much needed city services that we rely on, forcing us to raise property taxes significantly in an uncertain or down economy. It may even require raising the excise tax again. Does a noisy, ugly R that does not solve the traffic problem warrant higher property taxes?
21. R won’t serve East Honolulu, Windward Oahu, the Leeward Coast, or the North Shore, and it won’t unclog the routes to and from rail stations in Ewa, Kapolei, and Waipahu that lack parking.
R is about you, your money, your city, and your family’s need to get where all of you need to go. R will not cut traffic in any significant way, but it will cost us our better transit options and threaten the entire city financial system. And face it, we do have better, more flexible rapid transit options and better leadership available -- Kobayashi with Panos Prevedouros providing rail guidance.
Please add it all up, weigh the pros against the cons, and vote what you think is best for all of us.
Well, what about it?
Rail versus HOT lanes in Honolulu?
The Hawaii Clean Energy Initiative?
Global warming?
Living Sustainably?
Our common future?

What do you think about any of these and more? We have a future to consider,
and we need to do what we can to shape it so those who follow can look at us
and say, "At least they were thinking about it."

I invite you to join me here on PNTV in commenting on the issues we must resolve.
I'll comment, and hope you will respond. Maybe together we can think it through and answer
Well, what about it?
Doc Berry