Monday, December 28, 2009

Smile When You Call Me That

“Smile when you call me that,” said the The Virginian with his six gun drawn and cocked in Owen Wister’s famous novel about the West. The author lamented that the outsider could not discern why one cowboy calling another a “SOB” sometimes resulted in laughter and at other times led to gun fire. As the story progresses, the outsider learns that there is an unseen bond among cowboys and an unwritten code of ethics.

There are certain things that form a bond among different ethnic groups or tie generations together. There are formative events or cultural icons that transcend any other differences of opinion that may exist within a particular group.

For cowboys, it was the shared experience of driving large herds of cattle across vast and fenceless landscapes that are harsh and unforgiving. There is also the bond between a cowboy and his horse. Over long and lonely days of riding herd, the cowboy gains understanding of the unique attributes of each horse in his remuda, the different personalities, characteristics, and needs of individual horses. Through this study of horses and horse behavior, the cowboy gleans an insight into the social behavior of humans. But, owing to the lonely nature of the job, his observations and understandings are seldom spoken. The cowboy observes and acts with a suddenness and certainty that is confusing to the outsider, at least, until the outsider goes through the same experiences and acquires the same understanding.

There are events that serve to unite different people groups. The Civil War by its very nature established a bond that transcended the war between the North and South. The Civil War pitted Americans against Americans, family members against other family members, but in the end, the United States of America was reunited in order to form a more perfect union.

Certainly each of the World Wars had a similar effect on Americans fighting overseas to protect the freedoms and liberty of other nations against the aggressors.

And, then the Viet Nam War established a unique bond among baby boomers, but for a completely different set of reasons. There was deep division within the United States about our involvement in Southeast Asia, a schism largely between the World War II generation and the baby boomers. It was our first experience in a guerilla war with a loosely organized enemy that did not wear uniforms and the dangerous cohabitation of combatants with women and children. Moreover, the conflict in Viet Nam was as much psychological and spiritual warfare as it was conventional. The psychological assault continued when returning soldiers were spit upon by baby boomers and rejected by World War II veterans.

But even between the World War II generation and the baby boomers there are those events, movements, and things that serve to form that common unifying bond that makes us all American.

Events like the assassination of President Kennedy or Martin Luther King, Jr., or Neil Armstrong walking on the moon, or the explosion of the space shuttle Challenger, or the terrorist attacks on American soil on September 11, 2001, all serve to unify Americans of all generations, of all political persuasions, and of all ethnicities.

Social movements can have a similar effect. Who does not share some memory of, link to, or affinity for the Civil Rights Movement and how it changed America?

Generations remember Love Canal, or the Santa Barbara oil spill, or the Cayahoga River catching fire in Ohio, or Rachel Carson’s book, Silent Spring. These were the events that led to the modern environmental movement which has so impacted our culture today.

Americans love affair with food also seems to exhibit the capacity to transcend all other divisions. Most of us put aside our differences and join together to enjoy the roast beast of our choice at Thanksgiving or Christmas dinner each year.

And what about music? It sooths the wild beast. A young King David played the harp to help calm down then King Saul’s horrible moods and headaches. Music forms a link between generations, across ideological divides, and reminds us of our common heritage. The same music may affect each of us in a unique way. The fact is that certain lyrics or a series of notes and chords can trigger memories for all of us, and while the memories may be unique, it is that special song we all identify with that can unify us as well.

When I served at the Department of the Interior under President Bush, I was a political appointee. There is always a dynamic tension between political appointees and the career civil service employees. Some career employees agree with the philosophy of governance of the sitting President and some do not. While most of them serve the administration without political rancor, there are parlays between politicals and careerists while each tries to feel the other out. I remember one such meeting when I related a story about misdirected emails. I had been trying to send regular monthly reports to an individual whose email address was name@bbhc.org, but was inadvertently using the email handle of @bbhc.com. I kept getting the most curious replies from the unknown recipient. In the process of identifying the problem of the misdirected emails, I began corresponding with the owner of bbhc.com who as it turns out is none other than the drummer from Janis Joplin’s first band, Big Brother and the Holding Company. We had a wonderful exchange about the history of rock and roll and the San Francisco genre of the same. Well, by telling that story to this career federal employee, who was particularly challenged by my political persuasion, he suddenly could identify with me. We were able to work well together after that and advanced several productive policy changes as a result of having first established the unlikely common bond of rock and roll.

As we all celebrate the Christmas and New Year holiday season together, let us take a little time to refresh our memories about the things that unite us as a people. I believe this country may be as divided today as it was during the Civil War. And I believe those divisions are real and significant. I am as deluxe a partisan as anyone out there, and as you have no doubt noticed, I have very definite opinions about issues and policies. But, in the end, the things that bring us together are much greater than what divides us. For our collective mental health and the future of the United States of America, let us from time to time lay down the sword and focus on those unseen bonds that make us E Pluribus Unum, a people united.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

The Nuclear Option

If you have read my columns in the past, you probably know that I am not convinced that humans are the principal cause of climate change. Moreover, the policies under consideration such as Cap and Trade and the UN Copenhagen Treaty will likely do nothing to alter the earth’s climate, but could very well result in a lot of people freezing in the dark.

But, the question that keeps coming back to me is why doesn’t the United States of America go nuclear? Whether or not you believe in human-caused climate change, nuclear power has the potential to be a full-time, zero-emission, safe, reliable, and significant source of electric power. And because we have a lot of uranium ore here in the United States, like coal, it can be a power supply that decreases our dependence on foreign oil. And with about half of the world’s supply of uranium ore residing in Canada and Australia, going nuclear significantly reduces the number of dollars funding terrorist sponsoring countries in the Middle East.

Nuclear power currently provides the United States with about 20% of our electric supply. In France, it supplies about 80% of the electricity.

Nuclear power can provide abundant electrical supplies and it does not stop when the wind stops blowing or the sun stops shining. It does not result in development phenomena called energy sprawl nor does it require extensive new transmission line development.

Contrary to current American mythology, nuclear power is safe. I remember the rather blunt message on a bumper sticker back in the height of uranium production in the early 1980’s in Wyoming. “More people have died in the back seat of Ted Kennedy’s car than have died from nuclear accidents in the United States.” While albeit a bit nasty, it makes the point—no one in the United States has died from a civilian nuclear accident in the last 40 years.

America virtually stopped constructing nuclear power plants after the infamous Three Mile Island plant’s partial meltdown in March of 1979. Though only a partial meltdown, some radioactive material escaped the confines of the facility resulting to doomsday predictions of higher cancer rates and deaths to be associated with the accident. However, a report released by the presidential commission, appointed to investigate the Three Mile Island accident, concluded that "there will either be no case of cancer or the number of cases will be so small that it will never be possible to detect them. The same conclusion applies to the other possible health effects." Several epidemiological studies in the years since the accident have supported the conclusion that radiation releases from the accident had no perceptible effect on cancer incidence in residents near the plant.

Of course, the facts about the benign nature of the accident were overshadowed by the hype and hysteria of anti-nuclear activists. This anti-nuke mood was exacerbated by Hollywood which had coincidently released a nuclear power accident thriller “The China Syndrome” just weeks before the Three Mile accident.

Then came the reactor explosion at Russia’s Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant in the Ukraine. There was a massive release of highly radioactive material and a radioactive plume traveled over Eastern Europe eventually resulting in radioactive rain as far away as Ireland. This horrific accident was not a complete surprise to observers of the USSR’s nuclear program. Safety was never a priority for the Soviets and one has to wonder about the capacity to construct safe nuclear power plants in a country that could not even make a toilet that flushed properly.

Nonetheless, the 2005 report prepared by the Chernobyl Forum, led by the International Atomic Energy Agency and World Health Organization, attributed 56 direct deaths and estimated that there may be 4,000 extra cancer deaths among the approximately 600,000 most highly exposed people. While any loss of life is tragic, by comparison, deaths resulting from Chinese coal mine accidents numbered nearly 37,000 from 2000 to 2005, averaging 6,151 dead miners per year!

Even if we get past the red herring of nuclear accidents, the anti-nuclear folks will tell us that the nuclear waste disposal is too hot to handle, no pun intended. Currently, nuclear power plants in the United States produce about 2,000 ton of nuclear waste each year. Compare that to the 230 million tons of municipal waste disposed of each year, a staggering 4.6 lbs. per person per day. This is arguably not toxic waste, or is it? Have you ever thrown out old paint cans, pesticide bottles, household chemical containers, or perhaps worst of all, unused pharmaceuticals?

By applying existing nuclear fuel rod reprocessing technology, the United States could reuse the 2,000 tons of annual nuclear waste, generate more energy, and greatly reduce the amount residual waste as well as significantly reduce the time the reprocessed waste remains radioactive. The remaining waste can be safely stored in steel/concrete containers. I will always remember when a company proposed constructing a temporary spent fuel rod storage facility near Moneta, Wyoming, back in the 1990’s right in the heart of some of the richest uranium deposits in the country. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission expressed concerns about the project because the naturally occurring background radiation levels exceeded their allowable standards.

Since 1987, proponents and opponents to the Yucca Mountain nuclear waste repository have argued about the safety of nuclear waste storage. Through the loyal opposition, future nuclear power plant construction has been stifled until the United States addresses the issue of nuclear waste disposal. During this same twenty year time frame, nuclear power plants having been storing their nuclear waste on site, often in or near urban areas, and without any detected leakage, harm to humans, or any other life form. In the meantime, we wonder if the most studied mountain on the planet and should be developed at all. Yucca Mountain, the United States’ only Congressionally designated long-term repository for nuclear waste, is composed of geological material that is suitable for long-term nuclear waste storage. It is part of an Air Force operations area that includes the site of 904 atomic bomb tests between 1945 and 1992, and is 80 miles from the nearest population center, Las Vegas, Nevada. In order to address the long-term storage of nuclear waste, we need to move forward with the development of the Yucca Mountain deep geological repository.

Nuclear power is the only non-carbon-dioxide-emitting method of generating electricity that could ever come close to replacing coal, oil, and natural gas in the United States. Wind and solar will never generate the amount of electricity that America needs to power our homes, businesses, and industry, nor will it ever be as reliable as other more traditional sources of power. America needs to get past Three Mile Island, the nuclear waste issue, and utilize zero-emission nuclear power to generate electricity. I say this because America needs safe, diverse, reliable, and stable supplies of energy. I do not support the vain and anti-human agenda that attempts to address a naturally occurring climate cycle that most likely cannot be stopped anyway. But, if the climate change debate is to serve any good purpose, it should be to shock us out of our nuclear phobia and back into the Atomic Age.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

How Did We Get Here?

Many people across this great land of ours are expressing deep frustration about how far and how fast this country seems to be heading into an economic abyss. People feel as though we have abandoned the principles of free enterprise and rewarding individual work and achievements. People are burdened by how much they have to pay in taxes. People are concerned about the proliferation of entitlement programs that cannot possibly be sustained as our population ages and more people become dependent upon the government largess. People don’t like heavy-handed government interference in their private lives. And people are worried about the accumulation of U.S. debt that has interest on the debt alone potentially bankrupting our federal government.

“How did we get here?” we ask ourselves.

We are witnesses to what happens to a representative form of government when the people realize that they can vote themselves a stipend from government programs. This is what you get when more than half of the electorate receives more from the government than they pay in taxes.

And when the liberal policy wonks in Washington suggest that we just raise the taxes on the “rich” to solve our problems, they have ignored basic tenants of human nature and rational decision making.

When I was in the fifth grade and my teacher was extolling the virtues of Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society, I had the temerity to tell the class, “Yeah, just wait until you make a buck.” This resulted in a note from the teacher to my parents, who as Goldwater Republicans, reveled in the afterglow of my words for years.

Then along came college when I was certain that I was smarter than a fifth grader. I was an economics major at the University of California at San Diego. The Negative Income Tax was the latest fad among economic policymakers. Instead of complicated and administratively burdensome entitlement programs, there would be a tax policy put into place that would have people below a certain income level actually receive money from the federal government. Not just a refund, actual income from the federal government over and above what they have paid. As part of our macro economics class, each student had access to a computer that had a sophisticated model of the US economy. We were told to establish our own parameters for a negative income tax, plug them into the computer model, and watch the resulting impact on the economy. Being a na├»ve and vintage 1970’s liberal, I proceeded to set a very generous policy for negative income tax and, fully expecting a Utopian-like outcome, I began to watch the results. Very soon after my policy went into effect, the economy experienced an increase in inflation and a drop in productivity. As time went on, the inflation began to spiral out of control. The last inflation rate I recall was in the neighborhood of 1200%! In the end, the computer spit out a punch card with a sobering message to this effect, “The incentive to work is so low that the workers have all quit working, your economy has collapsed, and your country is in revolt.” Seriously, according to the computer, I had precipitated the failure of our economy and revolution!

I believe we got where we are because we ignored history and the warnings of the founding fathers. Thomas Jefferson said, “A wise and frugal government, which shall leave men free to regulate their own pursuits of industry and improvement, and shall not take from the mouth of labor the bread it has earned - this is the sum of good government.” Another time he fore shadowed the current debate about health care reform when he said, “I predict future happiness for Americans if they can prevent the government from wasting the labors of the people under the pretense of taking care of them.”

According to the Internal Revenue Service, in 2007, the top 10% of Adjusted Gross Income earners paid 71.2% of the income taxes for that year. The bottom 50% of earners paid a piddling 2.9% of the total US income tax. But, don’t say somebody didn’t tell us so, because Alexis de Tocqueville warned Americans, “A democratic government is the only one in which those who vote for a tax can escape the obligation to pay it.”

This all makes me wonder if I missed some major event that got us to this point in history. Did I sleep, like a Rip Van Winkle, through a violent overthrow or a bloodless coup d’etat in America? The Cold War is over, so we must have stopped the march of the Communist Revolution. The Domino Theory did not work. Every nation in Southeast Asia did not fall to a communist overthrow after South Vietnam was defeated by Ho Chi Minh. Cuba was not able to export Che Guevara’s style of gorilla warfare and Fidel Castro’s brand of communism to the United States.

In fact, in what has become one of the strangest twists of fate, the former USSR and Red China are now the bastions of capitalism and free enterprise. The Chinese government owns $1 trillion of US debt and they never miss an opportunity to tell us to get our fiscal house in order.

The history lesson that we have all overlooked and failed to heed is that prediction made in 1848 when Karl Marx and Fredriech Engels wrote The Communist Manifesto. In their now infamous treatise, Marx and Engels postulated that communism would be a byproduct of democracy. Classical Marxism is not about bloody revolutions such as the Bolshevik Revolution of Russia in 1917. Nor, does it support Chairman Mao Tse-Tung’s Little Red Book that says “All political power comes from the barrel of a gun.”

So, once again, how did we get here? We are where we are because “we” have voted ourselves into this mess. This is representative democracy at its worst. Taken as a whole, Congress has approval ratings in the mid-20% range, yet we continually re-elect our representatives and senators. It is time for all Americans to take a longer view when they step into the voting booth. We must stop decrying pork barrel spending while praising our members of Congress when they bring it on home. We must recognize that there will be a straw (tax) that will break the camel’s (taxpayer’s) back (economy). And paying it forward should bring shame to us all and will result in fear and loathing from our children. Fortunately, there is a way forward and that is through the same democratic process that got us to this point. Let us not forget the principles put forth by our founding fathers, that free enterprise and personal liberties are strengths and enduring values to be cherished and protected. Moreover, let us remember that in America, revolution comes through the ballot box and that is where we need to go.