Monday, November 24, 2014

Community broadband is a great job creator and a great utility

Hardly anyone seems aware that the City of Los Angeles is working on a community broadband network. I certainly didn't see that in the news, did you? The plan? To connect every house and business within the city of Los Angeles with fiber for up to gigabit access. They got started on the idea in 2013. I learned about it by accident while searching for videos on the topic of community broadband. During my search, I found videos of city council meetings with discussion of this idea. I hope they succeed in doing this because LA can set a national trend for community broadband like no other city can.

There seems to be some cognitive dissonance in Congress on two topics: net neutrality and community broadband networks. Net neutrality is the idea that every packet that passes through an ISP must be treated equally to avoid creating an environment that allows a carrier to block or hinder communication with any business, organization or person on the internet. Net Neutrality is about freedom of speech. Net Neutrality enjoys wide support among Democrats and Republicans, liberals and conservatives. But you would not know it by listening to some very vocal members of our Congress. Why? The majority of both houses take big money from the incumbent carriers and are in the pockets of the likes of Comcast, Time-Warner, Verizon and ATT.

In terms of public policy, community broadband networks and municipally owned networks have a similar problem. The chairman of the FCC has stated that he will seek to preempt state laws that prevent communities from building their own networks, but Congress has threatened to defund the FCC if such attempts are made. When asked directly, incumbent carrier executives have a real hard time explaining their opposition to community broadband networks and continue to falsely assert that they tend to fail, when in fact, the vast majority of community networks have been successes.

The amazing success of community owned networks like those in Chattanooga, TN and Wilson, NC prove the point. Those networks deliver gigabit service for the very reasonable price of $70 a month, have brought thousands of jobs to their cities and keep the money in the the city rather than allowing that money to go to New York or Philadelphia to finance the CEO's vacation home on the coast of Spain.

I see in community owned networks, a solution to the problem of net neutrality. First, the community owned network sets the interests of the community they serve as the highest priority. They answer to the community first, not a distant board of directors or shareholders intent on seeing greater dividends at the expense of their customers. Community broadband providers must answer to local governments that must answer to local citizens, rendering the issue of net neutrality moot.

Community networks have been shown to create or attract thousands of jobs. Graduates with big ideas are choosing Chattanooga over San Francisco for that great gigabit connection. Companies are relocating to places that offer a gigabit from a community owned network for one simple reason: they don't have to worry about a private monopoly pricing them out of the market or throttling their connection. People are staring to see that the incumbent carriers are imposing a tax and unnecessary regulation on their communities by distant bureaucrats in corporations like Comcast and Verizon.

So, on the one hand, we have Congress threatening the funding of the FCC when it comes to preempting laws that prevent communities from building their own networks. On the other hand, several conservative communities in Colorado have passed resolutions to reclaim local control so that they can build their own networks.

Colorado isn't the only state that allows communities this option. Many states are starting to understand that communities need to be able to escape from recalcitrant incumbents who make promises to build out, but never do, by building their own networks.

It should also be noted that in Comcast's quest for a merger with Time-Warner, many cities are noticing that they can prevent Comcast from taking over properties held by Time-Warner if the merger goes through. They are actually voting NO on Comcast and making a very public statement that they do not want to let Comcast in.

It seems to me that community broadband is part of something much bigger, an anti-monopoly movement. The problem with dark money in politics grew from the growth in monopolies in the US. Monopolies are too big to fail, too big to jail. They are massive concentrations of political power and will always, always, always, seek to promote their own survival and profits even when the laws they promote really don't support the communities they serve.

Community broadband represents a shift away from private infrastructure, private monopolies and the graft, bribery and corruption that they can promote. There are many things that private enterprise can do better than government. We get that. Unfortunately, infrastructure run by self-interested private corporations doesn't work very well. That's why we've had much greater success with public water and electric utilities, and internet utilities like Chattanooga's Electric Power Board.

Our infrastructure works better when it's a tightly regulated public monopoly than a privately held monopoly that consistently works against the interests of the people they serve. Broadband is no longer a luxury, it is a necessity and as such, it is infrastructure, it's a utility and it's a public interest that should be managed by a public utility company that answers to voters and local government.

If there are private interests who think they can do better, let them try, but a public option is a requirement to set a level playing field for the consumer and the service providers. A public network will keep the private networks honest and limit the ability of the private service providers to grow beyond a point where they can be held accountable.

Friday, November 21, 2014

Monsanto is dumbing down America with glyphosphate

If you have a garden, you might be familiar with RoundUp, Monsanto's famous weedkiller. If you follow agriculture and GMOs in general, you know that Monsanto developed and sells seeds for corn and soy that are "RoundUp Ready". But what you might not know is that there is a definite correlation between the use of glyphosphate, the active ingredient in RoundUp and autism. See the chart below:

Sorry, Jenny McCarthy. Autism shows a stronger correlation with glyphosphate than vaccines.

When asked about the safety of their products, Monsanto will routinely point to the FDA, which is conveniently staffed with former Monsanto employees and executives. But what they can't get around is the science. The FDA will then tell us that we need to ask Monsanto about the safety of their food. Perhaps we need to frame that inquiry in a class action lawsuit.

Monsanto says their data proves the safety of their products, that 30 years of using RoundUp and GMOs proves their safety. Yeah, if you want to use Americans as lab rats, you could say that's science, but their methods are very unscientific when it comes to food safety. Fortunately for the rest of us, there's a really cool thing about science. Science learns from being wrong. It's self-correcting. This data used in the chart above, is not only conclusive, it's alarming. This trend has been confirmed by Dr. Stephanie Seneff, a research scientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

This is the price we pay for Monsanto to have their patents, and the royalties that accrue from them. The patents create perverse incentives to create, build and defend monopolies to the point where Monsanto now pays millions to lobby against labeling of genetically modified foods to state and federal legislators. They not only want to keep their monopoly profits as the owner of 90% of the seed market, they want protection from liability for their products. That's why at the federal level, you're just not going to see a law that requires the labeling of GMO food any time soon. The money is just too good for any Congressperson to pass up (save for Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren).

GMO apologists and lobbyists say that GMOs are safe. Maybe that's so, but the research on the topic has never really been done. All that we hear when we ask about GMO safety is this, "Hey, we've been using it for 30 years, so what's the big deal?"

Here's the big deal: for years we've been told that artificial sweeteners were safe. Now we are learning that they change the environment in our gut and increase our tendency to gain weight. When artificial sweeteners were introduced, no one even looked at the effect that they might have on our gut bacteria. Until recently.

The problems with glyphosphate have been known for some time, but now hard data is starting to show up, proving that there is a real health issue building. But don't worry, the elite in Congress know what's best for us and they will try to hide or ignore this issue for as long as they can. This isn't a Republican or Democrat issue. Both parties have been feeding at the Monsanto trough.

If Congress won't help, there is something you can do. Buy clearly labeled organic products.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

The US is a nation built on illegal immigration

Considering the hyperbole flying across the social media space regarding which president took the most unconstitutional action, it is easy to forget that many of our ancestors came here as "settlers" and "immigrants". But it is well documented that Christopher Columbus intentionally gave blankets that were used by the sick among his group of explorers to the native Indians in the hopes of killing them off. That was just the start.

Had the native Indians any notice of the plans of the early settlers of this country and the power to stop them, most surely, they would have prevented the settling of the US by white invaders. If they had newspapers, and an advanced government, almost surely, the white men they saw on their shores would be "illegal immigrants", "invaders" or worse, "white trash".

It should be noted that in recent years, this country hit a 25-year low in birth rate. If we don't let enough immigrants into the country, we're going to be looking to Japan for ideas on how to manage and care for a fast growing elderly population. The solution in Japan is not all that surprising. They want to build robots that will care for their aging population.

Japanese immigration policy is stricter by far than ours. As a result, they have a low birth rate, a slow economy and projections show that they are poised to lose at least 30% of their population within 50 years. Is that where we want to go?

Does anyone remember what it says at the base of the Statue of Liberty?
“Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed, to me:
I lift my lamp beside the golden door.”
Those people come here to the land of opportunity for a reason. To make their lives better, and in so doing, they find ways to make the lives of others better, too. It is a basic principle of life that when you make your life better, the best way to do it is to help others and make their life better. I know this from personal experience.

The current immigration policy and debate suggests that we are being very selfish to the point of self-destruction. There is no evidence that Mexican immigrants are taking jobs that Americans want. They are picking the produce we see at the market, they are keeping house at work and at home where people can afford it, they are doing the menial labor that most Americans don't want to do. Unless of course, you're working on a post PhD thesis, then there is real competition for the janitor space. By the way, I also note that in the landscaping space, white men dominate in Utah. I know this because the landscaper I hired to keep my lawns for the last few years was white. Even his crew was white.

(If you want to bring jobs home, deal withe strong dollar first.)

This country was built by immigrants, from top to bottom. It is not white, black or brown. It is a wonderful mix of everything from everywhere, providing the greatest possibility for our survival. The diversity of our nation is essential to our survival.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

America ignores thorium at their own peril

Last night, I happened to have found the time and opportunity to listen this podcast, featuring Kirk Sorensen. I was looking for recent news on thorium molten salt reactors and this one came up.

There were a few topics in that podcast that caught my attention that I wanted to bring to yours. First, China is investing hundreds of millions every year into research in this technology. Compare that to American interest: one or two government committees and a handful of private companies actively researching it. You almost certainly won't hear of any news of debate over this topic because there are entrenched carbon fuel interests who don't want us to consider it yet. They'd rather wait for peak oil, peak gas or peak coal to hit for maximum profits.

Fortunately, there is building American interest in molten salt reactors (MSRs). Just a couple of months ago, Forbes ran this article about the growing interest and investment in thorium MSRs and provided some great history on the topic, too. Like Mr. Sorensen, the article expressed concern that we will be left behind as other lead the charge to build a commercial MSR for civilian power production. A young startup from MIT has just scored $2 million in seed money and that is encouraging.

China wants to have an operational MSR by 2017. India claims to have one in operation in 5 years. The Czech Republic and Russia are also working on MSRs. We had two running, one in the 1950s and one built by the Oak Ridge National Laboratory that ran for 4 years with no problems. We started it, but other countries are taking the lead.

Another concern raised by Mr. Sorensen is that there are 23 power plants in the US that are built on the same design as the one that blew in Fukishima. GE, the company that designed the plant says that since then, the plants have been modified based on experience from Fukishima and from decades of experience worldwide. But the bottom line is that all nuclear power plants today use a highly pressurized containment vessel, up to 160 atmospheres of pressure, to contain the water that keeps the core of the reactor cool. This is what we're really worried about, a rupture of that containment vessel.

Thorium MSRs don't have that problem because the fuel is already a liquid. There is no worry about a meltdown and even if there were an accident, the fuel can be safely drained away into a holding tank to stop the reaction. It all runs at one atmosphere of pressure, too. So there is nothing to explode in an accident.

It's good to see that some American companies and investors are taking notice and building the power plant of the future. There are numerous benefits to thorium MSRs which are discussed in the Forbes article. Hopefully, someone in Congress is noticing that for a long time, we've been using a very inefficient nuclear power plant and that we're ready for a change.

But given the composition of the next Congress, we might have to wait until 2016 to see people in Congress who are not funded by carbon fuel interests and are willing to make more rational decisions about energy policy.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Changing the terms of the debate between Congress and Obama

While it may not seem like it, President Obama is actually in an excellent bargaining position with Congress. Sure, he's facing solid Republican majorities in both houses. In January, every committee will have Republicans chairing them, which means that almost certainly no bills authored by Democrats will ever see the floor of either house for a vote. Especially if Obama supports that bill. But he still has something Republicans don't have. Veto power, or the power to sign a bill into law.

Unfortunately for the Republicans, they still have to show that they're making a good faith effort to negotiate with the president (they haven't). They will also have to show the nation that president is not playing ball (they haven't). Once Obama casts the Republicans as extreme, unreasonable and offering completely unpalatable and unworkable solutions, just to tease the president, life could get really unhappy at the next major election for the Republicans. Of course, people would have to take time out of their very busy day to notice what's going on.

Republicans may think they have the upper hand in the debate on the economy, but they sure have a hard time explaining what happened to the loss of more than $900 billion in annual economic demand since 2008. Republicans have been keen to point out problems in the economy, but have failed to account for the improvements since the start of Obama's term. Perhaps they aren't as focused on inequality as Obama is.

Some pundits are saying that Obama now has nothing to lose as a lame duck president. While that may seem apparent, he is acutely aware of the prospects for his colleagues in the Democratic Party and is doing what he can to improve them. But he won't have the cooperation of the majority Congress to do it. Who can he turn to for help?

I would say that his biggest ally is his pick for chairman of the Federal Reserve, Janet Yellen. Yellen is, by many accounts, more concerned with unemployment than with inflation compared to her predecessors, Alan Greenspan and Ben Bernanke. She is a Keynesian economist and seems to understand that when demand falls, government can take up the slack and make up demand in the form of government spending. She would be in direct opposition to the position held by many conservative members of Congress: that when government gets out of the way, the private sector will create demand.

Anyone familiar with the history of this country since the Reagan Administrations, can see that the empirical evidence simply isn't there to support the majority in Congress. We've tried their neoliberalism for more than 30 years and it simply hasn't worked. All it has done is given us a bubble economy where wages remain flat for workers while income rises for professionals and capitalists (the people who own most of the capital). If conservatives were right, the wealthiest of us would be spending money to enjoy their wealth and that would increase employment. But that is not what happened now, did it?

There are some economists who have figured out that biggest problem to solve is the trade deficit, not the federal budget deficit. They may have even noticed that China buys our debt to support the dollar, and to support the trade deficit we are running with China. At least one economist has noticed that bringing the value of the dollar more in line with other currencies, to the point that the trade deficit disappears, will bring home about 6-7 million jobs. That is probably enough to fill the $900 billion hole left by the collapse of the housing bubble in 2008.

Obama can change the terms of the debate by showing us how all of this fits together. He can work with Yellen to show how the trade deficit works to send jobs overseas, keeps wages flat and allows CEOs to profit from the delta between the dollar and currencies around the world. Together they can show us that diminishing or eliminating the trade deficit by cutting the value of the dollar will bring jobs back home and increase demand here, at home.

I believe that Yellen is well positioned to act on such a strategy. When demand returns, unemployment falls, and when unemployment falls, employers have to pay more to keep workers around. When unemployment hits 4%, the lowest paid workers will get a raise, whether employers like it or not. You see, I don't think the debate in the minds of Republicans is so much about keeping what you earn. I believe it's about keeping or increasing the distance between the 1% and everyone else.

Once trade balance is restored, if they act on the plan described above, all that Obama has to do is point to a do-nothing-Congress full of Tea Party conservatives who exhibit nary a concern for unemployment, but who will protest, gnash their teeth and whine about how their plan would have worked if we had just given it a try. We did that for more than 30 years. It's time to go the other way. Obama could lead the way in that direction, toward even trade and full employment. Without the help of Congress.

Monday, November 17, 2014

It's time to make corporate political contributions public information

This caught my eye this morning. Maryland is working on a bill that requires among other things:

  • Corporate contributions to any political campaign must be posted on the corporations website within 48 hours of the contribution.
  • Corporations must show that a majority of shareholders approved the contribution.
  • Corporations must show that a majority of their shareholders are permitted to make political contributions.
Such a law would make anonymous political contributions by corporations illegal. Publishing information about political contributions from corporations would allow their customers to see if they're making a purchase that works against customers' interests. It would also allow the employees working for that company to see that management has an interest aligned with theirs, and if not, workers are free to work somewhere else or strike.

Such a law would also subject every political contribution to a vote by the shareholders. This is a big part of corporate governance that is often ignored. Why should the board of directors be the sole arbiters of the value of a political contribution? Everyone who has skin in the game gets a voice in the ultimate fate of the business. Besides, board members have been shown to make mistakes and sometimes, they need parental supervision. You know, better corporate governance.

The last bullet point is very interesting. As the article notes, in most Fortune 500 companies, the majority shareholders are institutions and those institutions are not allowed to make political contributions.

It is telling that Congress refuses to pass any meaningful election reform, particularly with Obama in office. It is also telling that during the last midterm election, many states passed very liberal initiatives while increasing a conservative majority in Congress. Several states raised the minimum wage and legalized marijuana yet returned or added conservatives to Congress. This suggests that gerrymandering played a significant role in building and maintaining a conservative Congress.

90% of Americans believe there is too much corporate money in politics. If big conservative ideas have such broad political support, then having a fair election, without corporate money involved, or even making corporate contributions public information wouldn't be a concern. Unfortunately, for many in Congress, it still is. Imagine what would happen if every state passed such a law as the one being considered in Maryland.

Saturday, November 15, 2014

Wasting the land for fun and profit with fracking

I note with supreme disappointment some of the abysmal images of what the land looks like after oil and gas companies are done with fracking the land (just do a search for images of land after fracking and you'll see what I mean). It's just as bad or worse than mountain removal mining, something that's all the rage here in Utah.

Fracking is a process of using water to force oil and gas out of the ground for collection. Fracking allows oil and gas companies to get at hard to reach, hard to extract, but very large deposits of gas and oil. According to some sources, fracking has increased oil production here in America by 50%.

Unfortunately, fracking is wreaking havoc across our land. Fracking is polluting our water supplies, leaving square miles of wasted land where nothing will grow, land that is ugly, and far beyond remediation. It will take centuries for nature to reclaim that land. Perhaps it's no coincidence that the remake of the television series, Battlestar Galactica used the term "frack" in place of a well known four letter word.

Oil and gas companies defend their practice of fracking and are happy to see a Tea Party Congress not only ready to defend them, but just chomping at the bit to reward them with a regulatory environment that lets them walk away with the profits without cleaning up their mess. To put it differently, the Tea Party is working hard to allow oil and gas companies to privatize the profits of their activities while socializing the costs.

It is unfortunate to see President Obama supporting conservative efforts to allow fracking to continue in the United States. This is particularly vexing when even the the most favorable evidence shows that US domestic oil production pales in comparison to world production and demand, with negligible effects on energy prices.

The natural resources extracted from our land will be sold at a profit and the profit will see very little taxation. Just ask Exxon. The best estimates place their effective tax rate at just 17%.

But I don't think it's just a question of taxation and reparations. After looking at the tremendous abuse that fracking does to the land, I don't think there is any amount of money that can be paid to rebuild the land as it once was. The damage is so horrific that many small towns, cities and even one state have all banned fracking.

We might not be having this conversation save for one president Nixon. In 1971, Nixon gave a speech to Congress to address energy policy in the United States. His speech directed our efforts towards a fast breeder reactor, the same reactor we still use today for producing energy from nuclear fission.

Had he turned another way, we could have had a far more efficient and safer molten salt reactor that runs on thorium and is at least 200 times more efficient in energy production, produces 1% of the waste of uranium and requires a fraction of the mining and processing effort. One ton of thorium can replace about 31 billion barrels of oil. Why? Nuclear fission has an energy density one million times greater than the carbon bond.

If the free market is so rational, why did it pick and stick with two of the most inefficient methods for producing energy, carbon-based fuels and the fast breeder reactor?

There is one more question to ask: who will pay for all of the mess? The Koch Brothers? They have every intention of extracting their profits without cleaning up their mess. Just ask the Tea Party. Lucky for them (and others like them), their anonymous contributions allow them to buy public policy without being responsible for their mistakes. Not so great for the rest of us.