Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Portrait of w:Dean BakerImage via Wikipedia

The Public Option Is Nothing To Fear

Republican opponents of a public option for US healthcare are defending the insurance industry, not conservative principles

by Dean Baker

Back in the good old days, the conservatives were the folks who favoured individual choice. Not any more. In the current healthcare debate, the top priority of the so-called conservatives is to deny people choice. They want to make sure that Americans do not have the option to buy into a Medicare-type public healthcare plan. These alleged conservatives have come up with a variety of arguments against allowing people the Medicare-type option, but the only one that makes sense is that they work for the insurance industry.

The argument against a Medicare-type option always begins with the assertion that the government can't do anything. This is a peculiar claim given the popularity of Medicare, but it also makes no sense as an argument against giving people a buy-in option. Suppose the government gives people the option to buy into its really bad plan. Everyone would just stick with the good private plans we have now, right?

The so-called conservatives then tell us that people will end up buying into the bad Medicare-type plan instead of the good private insurance options because the government will subsidise the Medicare-type plan. A little bit of arithmetic is sufficient to dismiss this argument.

How much money would be needed to get people to choose a bad healthcare plan rather than a good one? This would have to involve some serious subsidies. People are not going to sacrifice their health and the health of their families for another cup of coffee at Starbucks.

Suppose it took a subsidy of $1,000 a year to get people to choose the bad Medicare-type plan over the good private sector plans. With a non-Medicare population of more than 250 million, this would imply government subsidies of more than $250bn a year, if the Medicare-type plan was to fully replace private sector plans, as the so-called conservatives warn.

Is it really plausible that Congress will approve $250bn a year in subsidies ($2.5tn over a 10-year budget window) for a Medicare-type plan that everyone thinks is awful? Is there another altogether wasteful programmes that gets public subsidies even one-tenth of this size?

This one just doesn't pass the laugh test. If conservative politicians don't think they can prevent such an enormous waste of taxpayer dollars being perpetuated year after year for the indefinite future, they should probably consider another line of work.

In short, there is no genuine conservative argument against allowing people the option of buying into a Medicare-type plan. If the plan proves to be inferior to private insurance plans, as is often argued, then the consequences will be relatively minor. Some number of people who choose to sign up with this plan will find that they don't like it, and then will switch to a better alternative. In time, a bad public plan will soon flounder, since few people will buy into it. There may be some effort to provide subsidies to even a bad public plan, but it is not plausible that the subsidies could be large enough to displace private plans.

It is also clear that the opposition to a Medicare-type public plan does not stem from townhall-type mass opposition. A recent New York Times poll found that by an overwhelming majority, 65% to 26%, the public favours giving people this option. If there is a member of Congress that risks defeat by supporting a public plan, it is not because of their constituents' views.

The opposition to a Medicare-type option is not based on public sentiment or the fear that the plan will be bad. Rather the opposition is based on the fear that the plan will be good and that people will choose to buy into it. This will cost the insurance industry tens of billions of dollars in profit over the next decade and could mean the end of big paycheques for the industry's CEO's and other high-level executives.

But the people who oppose giving the public the opportunity to buy into a Medicare-type plan should not be called conservatives. Honest conservatives would have no objection to giving the public a choice. The people who oppose a Medicare-type plan are doing the bidding of the insurance industry - there is no conservative principle at stake. And we all know what Joe Wilson has to say about people like that.

Dean Baker is the co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research (CEPR). He is the author of The Conservative Nanny State: How the Wealthy Use the Government to Stay Rich and Get Richer ( www.conservativenannystate.org) and the more recently published Plunder and Blunder: The Rise and Fall of The Bubble Economy. He also has a blog, "Beat the Press," where he discusses the media's coverage of economic issues. You can find it at the American Prospect's web site.

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Saturday, September 26, 2009

This image depicts the Three Mile Island nucle...Image via Wikipedia

Tom Friedman's Idiocy Atomique

by Harvey Wasserman

France's atomic power industry is a failed radioactive flame. Its 58 reactors are unpopular, unsafe, uneconomical, dirty, direct agents of global warming, weapons proliferators and major generators of atomic waste for which there is no management solution.

But self-proclaimed "green advocate" Thomas Friedman seems to think otherwise. In his just published New York Times op ed "Real Men Tax Gas" Friedman applies the term "wimp" to those who fail to fight global warming. But in true corporate style, he can't face the hard truths about France's industrie atomique. To wit:

1) In denial verging on psychosis, Friedman says France has "managed to deal with all the radioactive waste issues without any problems or panic." In fact, France's unsolved waste problem has thousands of ultra-hot fuel rods building up at reactor sites, just like here. Its hugely expensive attempts to reprocess spent fuel cause devastating radiation releases into the English Channel and elsewhere, prompting continual demands from around Europe that they stop.

2) Friedman says "France today generates nearly 80 percent of its electricity from nuclear power plants." But he ignores "wimpy" French public opinion that has turned decisively against building new reactors while strongly approving new wind production. The big "Non" to new nukes stems in part from massively inefficient, unreliable reactors, some of which have recently been forced shut because they are overheating the rivers meant to cool them. Is this Friedman's "macho" solution to global warming?

3) Friedman complains that the US has "not been able or willing to build one new nuclear plant since the Three Mile Island accident in 1979, even though that accident led to no deaths or injuries to plant workers or neighbors." Friedman misses those 2400 "wimpy" central Pennsylvania families who sued for widespread death and disease they suffered after TMI's radiation releases showered their homes and fields. The utility responsible quietly paid out more than $15 million in secret settlements.

Friedman has also missed important new findings by nuclear engineer Arnie Gundersen and epidemiologist Stephen Wing indicating far more extensive TMI radiation releases and far more widespread health impacts than previously believed.

4) Friedman complains that "we're too afraid to store nuclear waste deep in Nevada's Yucca Mountain — totally safe — at a time when French mayors clamor to have reactors in their towns to create jobs." But Yucca's ability to store anything except rusting rail lines is as yet untested. The earthquake fault that runs through it is tangible and visible. So is perched water that threatens to rain down on any radioactive waste stored there. Yucca is surrounded by dormant volcanoes---and by 80% opposition from "wimpy" Nevadans angry for a wide variety of economic, health, safety and geological reasons. Nobody in France is planning on storing high level radioactive waste in their town squares and nobody else---here or there---wants it.

5) Friedman says "the French stayed the course on clean nuclear power, despite Three Mile Island and Chernobyl, and we ran for cover." France's first shot at a "new generation" reactor---in Finland---is an engineering, economic and ecological catastrophe. French taxpayers are enraged about funding an Olkiluoto project that's years behind budget and billions of Euros over budget. Anne Lauvergeon, the chief of AREVA---France's nuclear front group---told me (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=v43ahQHvObI) she blames Finland's regulatory framework for her woes. But a parallel project at Flamanville, France, isn't faring much better. AREVA's fortunes have plummeted, throwing the government-controlled agency into deep financial crisis.

6) Friedman goes on to laud "Little Denmark" for imposing "a carbon tax, a roughly $5-a-gallon gasoline tax." He fails to credit its "wimpy" but fiercely effective No Nukes movement, which has kept Denmark totally free of atomic reactors, while moving it further into wind power percentage-wise than any other nation on Earth. Angry Danish opposition has helped force neighboring Sweden to shut its Barsebaeck reactors, upwind from Copenhagen.

Friedman's bizarre reactor advocacy reflects a corporate mindset too wimpy to embrace the true Solartopian solution to our energy crisis. Mycle Schneider, Paris-based author of WHAT FRANCE GOT WRONG (http://www.neimagazine.com/story.asp?storyCode=2053958) in NUCLEAR ENGINEERING INTERNATIONAL, gets it right: "For least cost and greatest security, the energy future lies in affordable, distributed, superefficient technologies, smart grids and sustainable urbanism. France's centralised, autocratic nuclear policy symbolizes the opposite."

The true green technologies of a Solartopian Revolution are proven, ecologically sound and economically essential. They are also ready for rapid installation.

But they are decentralized and subject to community control rather than corporate domination. While Friedman and his moneyed elite continue to grasp at the failed, centralized straw of atomic energy, technology and history have passed them by.

"Real men"---and women---know we will never get to a green-powered Earth by trying to ride a dead radioactive horse---even if it's French.

Harvey Wasserman's SOLARTOPIA! OUR GREEN-POWERED EARTH, A.D. 2030, is at www.solartopia.org. He is senior advisor to Greenpeace USA and the Nuclear Information & Resource Service, and writes regularly for www.freepress.org, where this article first appeared.

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Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Cover of "Swim against the Current: Even ...Cover via Amazon

'Local' Goes Loco

by Jim Hightower

In "Through the Looking Glass," Humpty Dumpty declared, "When I use a word, it means what I choose it to mean, neither more nor less."

Mr. Dumpty would have loved living in our era of corporate-speak, when even a plain word of obvious meaning can be dumped down the semantical rabbit hole to be swirled and twirled by marketing meisters.

Then — sproing! — out it pops, looking like the same word, but now burdened with a convoluted connotation that is the very opposite of what the word appears to mean.

This corporatization of language is presently being applied to the common term, "local" — as in: right here, in the immediate vicinity, this neck of the woods, hereabouts, our backyard, etc.

In the past few years, "local" has become an important commercial term, as small businesses have proudly attached it to their products, services and presence in the marketplace. The term differentiates them from the gigantism, plasticity, aloofness and frequent abusiveness of faraway, big-box, chain operations. The message conveyed by these local enterprises is that "we are your neighbors, you know us and we know you, we share a community bond beyond just taking your money."

"Local" is a growing movement in American commerce. Some 30,000 small businesses have organized themselves into "local business alliances" in more than 130 cities. The movement is phenomenally popular with consumers, who like the personality and uniqueness of homegrown enterprises and prefer to buy from people who keep consumer dollars moving through the local economy.

As a result of the movement's financial success, many more businesses are joining the local push. For example, such down-home outfits as Barnes & Noble, CVS, Frito Lay, HSBC, Starbucks, Unilever and Wal-Mart are trying to get in on the action.

Believe it or not, these giants are using TV ads and other promotional outlets to hawk their centralized, standardized and globalized brands as "local." Here are a few of the twists they've made in the straightforward definition of the term:

— HSBC, a sprawling, British-based financial conglomerate, has thousands of branch banks in localities across the globe (from Boston to Brazil), so it has labeled itself, "the world's local bank."

— Barnes & Noble, the biggest bookseller in the world, is trying to scale its image down to mom-and-pop level by proclaiming that "all book-selling is local."

— Hellmann's, a division of the Dutch-owned Unilever conglomerate, is claming that its mayonnaise is a local product because most of its ingredients come from somewhere in North America — a 9.5 million square mile stretch of "local."

— Starbucks, the ubiquitous 16,000-store caffeine purveyor, has been losing market share to cool, local shops that are the opposite of cookie-cutter chain stores, so the giant is opening a series of pretend-funky shops designed by corporate headquarters to present a "local vibe" — a consumer hoax that includes no display at all of the Starbucks name and logo.

These examples are closer to loco than they are to local!

Stacy Mitchell of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance notes that the corporate pretenders are often boosted by economic development officials.

She recently reported on a "buy local" campaign in Fresno, Calif., in which county authorities sold out the true locals (as well as the English language) by proclaiming, "Just so you know, buying local means any store in your community: mom-and-pop stores, national chains, big-box stores — you name it."

This "ya'll come" perversion of reality is supported by PR consultants for giant marketers. As rationalized by Michelle Barry, an executive of the Hartman Group: "There is a belief that you can only be local if you are a small and authentic brand. This isn't necessarily true; big brands can use the notion of local to their advantage as well. ... It's a different way of thinking about local that is not quite as literal."

Wow, Humpty Dumpty would be proud of her! By that definition, "Made in China" could be local.

To connect with the "literal" world of local business, contact the Institute for Local Self-Reliance: www.ilsr.org.

National radio commentator, writer, public speaker, and author of the book, Swim Against The Current: Even A Dead Fish Can Go With The Flow, Jim Hightower has spent three decades battling the Powers That Be on behalf of the Powers That Ought To Be - consumers, working families, environmentalists, small businesses, and just-plain-folks.

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Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Why Not Take the Train

An ICE 3 high-speed train on the Ingolstadt-Mu...Image via Wikipedia

A revolution needed in American rail travel

©2009 Daniel A. Brown

If you look at airline magazine ads currently, you’ll notice a disturbing new trend. All of them are geared for those lucky first class passengers with $10,000 to blow. The photograph shows what resembles a miniature flying penthouse, with a horizontal bed, private computer and entertainment system. All the privacy and luxury you need for yourself and your significant other.

As for the rest of us flying in Steerage? They don’t even bother to entice us anymore because they know we’re a captive audience, so to speak. All the former amenities are now gone. No more legroom, no more movies on some lines, no more food (I might be the only mammal on the planet who actually liked airline food) or drinks, unless you’re willing to pay, of course. It’s not that the food or the films were any good. It was the sense of being pampered that made flying fun. Now it has all the glory of a Greyhound bus with wings.

So, why not take the train?

If you’ve traveled abroad, you’ve no doubt noticed the superb condition of the various national railroad systems, especially in Europe. For them, high speed service means exactly that. You can zip between European cities at nearly 180mph in comparative luxury, sitting in wide comfy seats, watching a movie and enjoying a ride so smooth, you can walk down the aisle balancing a drink and not worry about it landing on your shoes. High speed railroads have been in place for so long that Europeans are a bit complacent about them.

By comparison, the state of American passenger trains would; - to borrow from the narrator in the documentary, “The End of Suburbia” - embarrass Bulgaria. The only high speed rail in this country is Amtrak’s Acela which only covers the Northeast corridor and rarely at top speed because of the inferior rail beds in most areas. Why this potential zephyr isn’t cruising across the flat heartland of the United States at 250mph (the speed of Chinese high-speed rail) is a mystery to me.

It wasn’t always this way. Before they were crippled by the interstate highway system and jet airliners, American passenger trains were the envy of the world with such examples of efficiency and luxury as the Super Chief, The Empire Builder, and my favorite, The Broadway Limited, run by the mighty Pennsylvania Railroad. And high-speed trains used to be an American trademark when, as far back as 1893, New York Central’s Engine #999 was clocked rampaging at 112 mph. During the early 1970’s United Aircraft experimented with the Turbo Train which attained 140 mph. Although several lines experimented with it, by then the damage had been done by cheap jet travel. To date, the fastest thing on rails in North America was the M-497, an experimental machine fitted with two jet engines that roared down the line at 184 mph during a test run in 1966. Needless to say, it never reached production.

World War II saw the height of American railroading as soldiers and materiel were hustled coast to coast in a never-ending flood. In 1944, American passenger trains logged over 95 BILLION passenger miles. New York’s Penn Station handled over 100 million passengers alone the following year. Obviously, such extreme overuse put a severe strain on the system and luxury travel was relatively non-existent. On some lines, boxcars were converted to passenger service with the predictable results in terms of comfort. When the war ended, the rail lines had to invest billions to replace worn out equipment and add shiny new streamlined passenger cars to their long-distance route. All to no avail. The auto and oil companies, flexing their power, had other plans in mind for the American traveler who didn’t complain at all. Why should they with gas a quarter a gallon.

They’re complaining now, of course and wondering which forces allowed our once proud and efficient rail service to unravel over the years. We citizens must assume part of the blame, preferring speed and privacy.

But imagine a train that zooms along at 350 miles per hour, getting you from Boston to Chicago in roughly four hours. It’s almost as fast as and a lot more comfortable than flying cattle-car service on some cynical airline. Add time consuming factors like check-in and delays and you’re almost spending as much time as traveling by air. Such a train is not imaginary; the technology for magnetic levitation trains (Maglev for short) not only exists but is in operation in other parts of the globe. But even with updated conventional technology, the French are about to field the new AGV super-train that will hit the 200mph mark. Why not here?

The reason, of course, is money which is a function of will. Take for example that Germany alone spends over $10 billion annually on their rail system while we’re only planning to shell out a quarter of that amount. One wonders if we could scrap any number of unnecessary pork-ridden defense systems and put that money into a rail infrastructure that serves the American people. One further wonders if Americans will give up their car mania to go along for the ride.

Still, the idea of a train that will take you from Greenfield to New York City, or beyond, especially one that has some zip to it, is wonderful to contemplate. And anyone who thinks that railroads are some kind of obsolete anachronism, ought to go to the annual model railway show at the Big E every winter. The place is packed with tens of thousands of people, of all ages. Deep in their American core, they must know that riding the rails is not only a pleasure, but has now become a necessity that can no longer be ignored.

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Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Cider Day Returns to Colrain

By Tony Polumbo

Mike & Tony's Pizzeria at Green Emporium
4 Main Road on the Common Colrain Ma. 01340

It all began 15 years ago for people who love apples. Cider Day was born by Judith and Terry Maloney. In the early 70's this couple were producing apple wine in their basement of their home in Colrain. Apples reign supreme in our neck of the woods in Western Massachusetts. We live in an area noted for it's numerous orchards. Even our home, which was featured on Home and Garden TV was once a former Cooperage or “The Kelley Barrel Shop” as most people called it in those days, where all the barrels for apple cider were produced.
From the beginning of it's inception, Cider Day filled the streets of Colrain with 100's of people. Heirloom Apples once again were shown and tasted to the delight of the crowds.
While the Brick Meeting House put on Cider Demonstrations the Green Emporium Restaurant in Colrain was busy with food demonstrations featuring apples and hard cider. Dinners included culinary delights like Roasted Pork and Hard cider, Chicken cooked in a cider cream sauce with shallots and apples, Thai Spy Curry made with Northern Spy Apples (This recipe was featured in Paul Correnty's Recipe book “The Art of Cooking with Cider”)
When Cider Day became a Franklin county event, people still came to Colrain but the streets were not as full .People were now all over the county visiting other orchards.
Last November Mike & Tony's Pizzeria at Green Emporium reopened at the former Green Emporium Restaurant. Chef Michael Collins returned once again to create magical culinary delights, working months on his recipe for pizza dough. When he was ready he began creating all types of artisan pizzas. Pizzas such as roasted red peppers and artichokes, Greek pizza with feta, kalamata olives and spinach, a Colrain spring pizza featuring local marinated asparagus and mozzarella, and The Margaretta featuring local fresh tomatoes, basil and garlic.
For Cider Day 2009, Chef Collins has created his Apple & Extra Sharp Cheddar Pizza, with Northern Spy apples from Pine Hill Orchard and Extra Sharp Cheddar Cheese from Cabbots. The magical combination of the apples and cheddar cheese is something special that has to be tasted to be believed. And with it's new full liquor license Mike and Tony's Pizzeria will be featuring Apple Martini's as well.
Once again the streets of Colrain will be filled with people.
Cider Day will be on November 7th and 8th this year
The Pizzeria will be opened for lunch 11:30am till 2pm and from 5 till 9 for dinner featuring a special Apple and Cider Dinner Entrée
If you should miss this event, all of the above will be repeated the following weekend November 14th and 15th for the Crafts of Colrain Studio Tour which runs from 10am till 4pm.
As the expression goes “The apple never falls far from the tree.”
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Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Some Serious Biomass Concerns

What happened in Maine can also happen here.

Although Mayor Martin deserves credit for setting up a fact-finding board for the proposed biomass plant in town, I hope it isn’t staffed by industry types who will sell their product under the guise of truth. Experience is an equally valuable commodity and Martin would have been well served had he attended a lecture which documented what happened to several towns in Northern Maine that went the biomass route and might serve as both an example and a warning. This information was brought to a small meeting in Greenfield several weeks ago in the person of Hillary Lister, a well-informed Down East activist whose parents live in our town. What made Lister’s presentation so memorable was her calm, un-dramatic demeanor which only intensified some of the uglier facts behind the biomass industry and how vigilant we Franklin County citizens need to be. Her audience was made up of concerned adults. There were no howling cries about saving Mother Earth, no Cassandra like doom-saying or self-indulgent clownishness. Just the facts, Ma’am, soberly presented. Not surprising seeing that the biomass plant in her hometown, Athens, Maine, also came with rosy promises but actual misfortune.

Biomass has been falsely presented in two forms. One is that it is a green form of renewable energy. The other is that it will benefit the town by adding corporate tax revenue to our depleted coffers which will then lower property taxes and save the average homeowner a bundle of money. While the second point has some apparent truth to it, there is much that is unsaid that will counteract any supposed benefits we might expect.

The concept behind biomass being green is that plants only burn clean unadulterated wood chips or forest debris. Supposedly, this is what is written into the town’s contract with Madera Energy. However, according to Lister, it is common for these large energy companies to sell themselves to others once they amass a substantial profit whereby the new owner “amends” the contract and the rules. At which point, up to half their burning materials can (and often do) consist of construction and demolition debris (or CCD), not to mention other questionable items like tires and carpets. All of these materials, which can contain lead, arsenic, PVCs and various carcinogenic toxins, are not only included in the smoke plume which will descend on downwind residents, but will also form a bulk of the mountains of ash that the incinerator will inevitably produce. In April 2007, a biomass plant in Bradley, Maine covered parts of the town with a blanket of black soot that, when tested, yielded high levels of lead as well as killing two pet dogs. Lister related an unsettling observation of the stack emissions hanging low over her town on misty, overcast days, adding to the smog and painting the sky a sickly bright orange on cloudy nights.

And where does all that ash go? To begin with, it will fill some of the up to 120 trucks that will rumble through town daily at the rate of one every twelve minutes. Besides increasing road reconstruction costs (which will come out of the Greenfield taxpayers’ pockets), these trucks are known to overturn, spilling their toxic debris on some unlucky resident’s lawn. Even without the capsizing, Lister related their experience of having the ash dumped in local landfills (where they can leech into neighboring water supplies) and given to farmers as compost without telling them what toxins that compost contained.

It should come as no surprise that asthma rates have been known to skyrocket in the vicinity of bio-mass plants and that the American Lung Association has come out condemning them. Not to mention our own Greenfield Board of Health. Therefore, if you like to breath clean air, you should be worried about this.

Of course, the biomass industry has conducted their own safety test but their method is to move the testing area further and further away from the plant where the dioxin levels are the highest. These rigged findings are then offered in the official study.

As far as benefitting the town and its homeowners, Lister addressed these points with some common sense advice. While it’s true that Greenfield homeowners will reap an initial reduction in their property taxes. But as the health and environmental hazards generated by Madera become more evident, outsiders will be reluctant to buy a home in Greenfield, especially if they are anywhere within a few miles of the plant. That reluctance will devalue the worth of everyone’s home in town and therefore counteract any tax benefit. Maine homeowners in towns where these plants have been located have all had a difficult time selling their homes, even before the decline of the housing market. And when housing values decline, the towns suffers reduced revenue which completes the vicious cycle. Not good for Greenfield homeowners, businesses or the town itself.

There’s that old adage, which says if something is too good to be true, it probably isn’t. Biomass, a huge industry poised to take advantage of some serious Federal energy policy funds, doesn’t tell the entire truth, according to Lister, and has yielded deficiencies in her own town that make its value dubious at best. While I know that the lure of easy money is a strong temptation for those who manage Greenfield, they better make sure they aren’t entering into a devil’s bargain that will eventually ruin our town and our county along with it.

Daniel A. Brown has lived in Franklin County for 40 years and is a frequent op-ed contributor to the Greenfield Recorder newspaper as well as a guest on the "Local Bias" show on GCTV. He is a professional landscape painter (www.danielbrownart.com), photographer and writer as well the de facto historian of the Renaissance Community.
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