Thursday, January 27, 2011

Dirty Energy

They say that Christmas comes but once a year. Walking my Los Angeles neighborhood it seems that Christmas has either come again or has never left. Nearly every block has disposed Christmas trees sitting on the curb, abandoned. The traditionalist in me would like to think that the City is waiting for Candlemass (Feb 2) when decorations for Christmas should come down. I doubt that the pick-up schedule aligns with this ancient religious custom.

Thanks to one of the (many) quirks of Los Angeles Sanitation Department, the trees can only be picked up if they have been chopped up and fit within the Green bins. One of my neighbors is trying to comply in the photo above. The result is that for months the trees sit. Last year the last one disappeared the week after Easter.

Dry and decayed trees are not only a visual blight and potential fire risk – but is symptomatic of American’s addiction to trash. On average each American generates 4.5 pounds of waste per day. That’s 1,642.5 pounds of trash per year…just short of a ton. Per person.

Trash is a huge industry ($52 billion) and is a problem around the world. CNBC recently aired balanced and insightful look at the issue “Trash, Inc. The Secret Life of Garbage.”

80 percent of all products that are produced in the United States are used only once and then discarded, and 95 percent of plastic and 50 percent of all of the aluminum beverage cans that are thrown away never get recycled.

More effective recycling seems to be the “no brainer” solution. Instead of burying something in the ground to decay over hundreds of years we could convert it into something else today. Back at the turn of the century I was engaged by a Waste Management company to write a business plan for a genius that they were in business with. I went to his office to meet him, understand the process in order to calculate the financial projections and write the plan so that it was presentable to investors.

I arrived at a broken down RV sitting on the edge of a dump. The stench was palpable. The stereotypical genius was everything you’d imagine: brilliant, scattered, hair every which way, disheveled, passionate and one of the nicest people you could ever hope to meet. And brilliant. He had developed a technology that took household trash and distilled it down to its molecular basis and sorted it so all materials could be recycled.

Recycling today happens when consumers sort. Broken glass is often not able to be used as the pieces get too small. Nails are hard to recycle because they’re small and difficult to sort or require effort to extract from wood. This technology analyzed each piece of trash no matter how large or small and did something to distinguish what it was based on its particle/molecular basis and reduced the remnant off to a bin which could then be recycled into another item. I never did fully understand the physics, but I loved the concept.

This technology not only excited me because I had a paying client, but also because if adopted on a widespread basis people wouldn’t have to have 3 or 4 trash bins in their homes – multiple trash trucks wouldn’t have to circle neighborhoods helping congestion and saving gas. Most importantly the biggest problem with accumulating trash could be addressed.

We raised some money, got the program going, but to be viable many more millions would be needed to build a properly scaled machine and from what I know it never went further. It may not have emerged as the solution – there are many ideas to be explored. A BMW plant in South Carolina receives 60% of its energy from fuel generated by the dump next door.

What about converting trash to energy on a more widespread basis? Denmark does it as do many other European countries.  China is doing it. 20 years ago there were fears about the toxins that the fumes created. Those issues have been solved: the Federal Government (EPA) and 24 states now classify waste that is burned for energy as a renewable fuel.

At this week’s State of the Union address, President Obama promised $150 billion in government spending in the next ten years for clean energy. It’s the same promise he’s made since he began running for the job in 2007.

Instead of spending $15 billion per year for the next 10 years – let’s use the technology that already exists to convert dirty trash into clean energy. Instead of charging homeowners a flat rate per month for waste, how about charging based on the amount of trash that is picked up each week, by the pound? That would be a fair economic incentive to recycle (where there wouldn’t be a fee). Then let’s convert the trash that is collected to energy. It reduces our dependence on foreign oil, which is the single most effective thing America could do in the interests of National Security.

It’s innovative. It’s cost-effective. It’s entrepreneurial. It’s good for the environment. It’s good for security issues. It’s never going to happen, is it?

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Popular News

You can feel the change of seasons in the air. Awards season is upon us. It’s when our attention turns to fashion, celebrity and statuettes. Sure, we Angelinos may not have more conventional weather-based seasons, but this is the time of the year that the world watches Hollywood.

Awards season is big news and big money. Tens of millions of dollars are at stake with viewers opting to see one movie over another based on the pile of awards that are given. In a Company Town like Los Angeles it is appropriate to cover the events as many people’s lives and livelihoods are impacted by the awards.

In other areas of the country, though, the awards and related coverage is pure entertainment. It’s a chance to peer into the world of celebrity where the industry pats itself on the back. It’s all glamour and glitz. There’s nothing wrong with it and it’s a nearly billion dollar a year industry. Coverage of the industry has gone mainstream where the weekly box office grosses are newsworthy stories.

Determining what is newsworthy falls to a select group of people. “If it bleeds it leads” is a well known barometer for what is likely to lead the broadcast, carry the top-fold, be the top story. Just a few years ago you could go to any of the three major cable websites (,, and the lead stories would largely be the same with a slightly different take on them. Today there are usually three different stories leading the sites.

The traditional definition of news: Information about current/recent events that mean something to people that is distributed via newspaper, broadcast, internet or the media. Each distribution outlet – be it the New York Times, TMZ or BBC – makes its own determination about whether an event or issue applies to its audience. This distinction – targeting events and issues towards an established audience – is a tweak to the journalism standard I was taught at Syracuse University’s Newhouse School of Communications a generation (or two) ago.

Wikipedia celebrated its 10th anniversary this week. Wikipedia is the online Free Encyclopedia that is supported by grants and donations (not advertising dollars). Wikipedia is written collaboratively by largely anonymous Internet volunteers. Anyone with Internet access can write and make changes to Wikipedia articles and there is a structure in place for researchers and scholars to edit any posting.

The model of community contributed content has manifested itself from Wikipedia to more traditional news outlets. Most major news gathering and distribution outlets have opportunities for the reader to comment or contribute content further diluting what is considered newsworthy versus what is popular.

Americans have more access than ever to news and events that happen world-wide yet it seems that our focus is ever more narrow and focused. With a more limited exposure to events we run the risk of ignorance.

Ignorance is the result of lack of knowledge. A lack of knowledge results in news organizations choosing to provide coverage of stories or issues that it knows its audience is predisposed to like or be comfortable with. Concurrently we are also now seeing public figures who choose which journalists or news outlets are worthy to communicate with. This evolution permits people to only hear from people they agree with, see events framed in ways that they are comfortable with and experience world events through a prism that is singular in focus.


Context seems to be missing. Sarah Palin is a former Governor of Alaska who was the Vice Presidential nominee for a losing Presidential ticket who didn’t complete her term of office in order to give paid speeches, write books and host a reality show about her life. She has a legitimate following and her views are newsworthy. 0.008% of Americans (2.5 million out of 300 million) watched her on Fox News this week…the highest rated showing she’s had in some months.

35 million watched President Obama give his address last week. 48 to 50 million will watch the President this upcoming Tuesday when he gives the State of the Union address.

The coverage of Mrs. Palin should not equal the coverage of Mr. Obama. It’s not that I like one’s policies over the other – I don’t. NOBODY should be censored. It is appropriate that the coverage be proportionate to influence and impact.

One of the largest and most consistent complaints that my fellow Libertarians have is how little news coverage the Party receives. It is the third largest political party in the U.S.. The party runs a full slate of candidates at every election. There is news coverage and it seems to be rather consistent to the 1% of the vote that the Party generally gets nationally.

Would I like to see more coverage? Of course! The more people hear and learn about the Party, it’s principals of liberty, freedom and economic justice for all then the more people will vote and the party grows, etc. That’s not how it works. It seems unreasonable to expect that the media would give 10% or 20% of its coverage to a party that gets 1% of the vote.

It would be fair and balanced to see proportionate coverage actually applied to the news – but that goes against the targeted audience focus that the news has evolved to and what most viewers are comfortable with. Popularity trumps context and impact. To make a difference, shift the focus and get public support smaller voices must become louder and more explosive to garner attention. To that end: Ahem. [Clear throat.] “My fellow Americans: I’d like to thank … ”

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Mad as Hell…or as a Hatter?

“I am so angry I could spit.” That’s one of my grandmother’s expressions that I remember. The angry rhetoric in political discourse could fill a spittoon these days.

Being of Irish descent I’ve been known to have a bit of a temper on occasion. I was that adorable tyke who would fall down face forward on the floor pounding hands and feet into the ground and screaming at the top of my lungs.

In adulthood the pendulum has swung and I’m generally very even keeled and unflappable. My own journey is filled with potholes where I’ve said or done things in the heat of the moment and regretted it. Experience has taught me that time provides perspective. It’s an incredible gift.

Last weekend’s melee in Arizona has delivered a wrath of commentary, insults, accusations and recriminations that has been immediate, vile and as scattered as the gunshots. Many have opined on the vitriol already without recognizing the irony in hate speech condemning hate speech. So far most of what’s occurred has been in the “said” – which has certain consequences – but can be digested or ignored with relative ease. It’s in the “doing “where I get concerned.

45 days after the attacks of September 11th the U.S. Congress passed what is commonly known as the PATRIOT Act. (It’s real acronym is USA PATRIOT Act: Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism Act of 2001.) The Act made fundamental changes to law enforcement agencies’ authorities, financial transactions and immigration issues, amongst others. It passed nearly unanimously with virtually no debate and certainly no perspective. At least Congress did something after the attacks. This action has had serious and lasting consequences on the nation and the world. The Act was reauthorized in 2005 and 2006 and some of the most draconian elements were revised, but the bulk of the changes to two centuries of legal precedent stayed in place.

We generally feel helpless after one of these excruciating nonsensical events like a shooting or a terrorist attack. The world seems out of control. To have a sense of purpose, control and order means legislating against such actions. No matter that there are plenty of laws on the books already. There may be merit to some of this legislation, but the expediency of “doing something” seems to outweigh a thoughtful, deliberate evaluation of the issues.

The Tuscon AZ shooting spree has already spawned suggested legislative solutions. Rep. Robert A. Brady (D-PA shown here with boxing gloves from his website’s home page) has drafted legislation to ban the use of symbols or language that could foster violence. Rep. Jim Clyburn (D-SC) has called for a reassessment of the parameters of free speech. ““Free speech is as free speech does,” Clyburn said. “You cannot yell ‘fire' in a crowded theater and call it free speech, and some of what I hear, and is being called free speech, is worse than that.” While there may be some tangential merit to the reasoning behind these proposals, taking immediate action exemplifies the dangers of acting in haste and emotionally.

We don’t have the facts yet. From most media reports Jared Loughner (the alleged shooter) appears from many media reports to have significant mental health issues. I’m rather simple-minded on this: anybody who sets out to shoot, kill, maim others is nuts...and, yes, that’s my technical term. I’m not saying everybody who has mental health issues is violent, but some are. No question that gun policy and access is relevant. Political discourse too sets the tone on all sides. But both of those are minor compared to the monumental failure of our approach to health-care.

Mental health issues are largely verboten in mainstream press discussions. It is prevalent in all areas of society. Any sustained contact with the homeless community exposes severe mental health issues, especially amongst those who are haunted by their service in the military. These patriots aren’t getting the care they deserve from their healthcare provider: the VA (Veteran’s Administration).

In all of the brouhaha over “Obamacare” there wasn’t much, if any, discussion about mental health issues. “Obamacare” as signed into law isn’t actually about Health Care – it’s about access to health care via the existing private insurance system. It doesn’t address the cost side of patient care. Despite the misinformation campaign this law doesn’t allow people to walk into any health care provider and just get care. That idea, commonly known as Universal Healthcare, seems to be what is most needed for those who are unstable.

We see how difficult it was with Jared Loughner to get help – the budget cuts to mental health services in Arizona had to have played a role. Here’s somebody who has a family, participated in society and had a notable resume of mental instability. With all of that he didn’t or couldn’t get the care he needed and the nation has suffered as a result.

We as a society do not provide basic healthcare, let alone mental health care for our fellow Americans. We cannot be surprised when there are consequences of not addressing symptoms. We can, however, in our anger, in our hurt and in our fears respond by figuring out a way to help those who can’t help themselves. Let’s try.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Longing for Y2K

The 2010 Census data was released just before Christmas.  A friend worked for the Census for most of last year I’d ask him regularly: “So…what are we up to?” The official answer is that there are 308,745,538 of us. Hi there, nice to meet you!!! That’s 27,323,632 more Americans than in 2000, or 8.85%. Last week we marked the end of the 00’s, which I refer to as the “owes” decade, and I got to thinking about the last decade.

“Survivor” didn’t debut until May 31, 2000 – bringing with it “reality television” which of course isn’t real at all. “Mission Impossible II,” “Gladiator” and “Cast Away” were the top three movies based on box office and “American Beauty” won the Oscar. Nokia had the best selling mobile phone. Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg was in high school and Google was in its infancy, just 2 years old.

The U.S. Budget in 2000 was $2 trillion with a surplus of $236 million. In 2010 the U.S. Budget is $3.1 trillion with a deficit of $1.6 trillion.

California’s Budget, including General, Special and Federal monies was $137.6 billion in 2000. For 2010 the same budget is $216 billion.
The U.S. grew 8.85% in population and the budget grew 36% with an average annual inflation rate of 2.5%.  California’s population grew 10% but its budget grew 36%.

Any business that had a large increase in budget would indicate to me that the demand for their products and services had proportionately increased. Government is not a business and shouldn’t be considered one. Its function is more complex and more akin to a charitable organization whose mission is to deliver services to its constituency. There is no reason, however, that common-sense financial practices shouldn’t be utilized, as they are in business and non-profits alike. Business uses debt as do individuals, and that is often a good thing.

Debt allows a business to invest in research, development and have a longer-term vision than being just cash based. Similarly individuals use debt to finance large purchases such as houses and cars – items that have long investment value and likely couldn’t be obtained with short term cash flow. Government too incurs debt.

The U.S. incurred its first debt to pay for the Revolutionary War: $75 million in 1791. Only under President Andrew Jackson in 1835 did the U.S. ever not carry any debt whatsoever. The U.S. debt in 2000 was $5.6 trillion and represented 58% of the GNP of the country. Today the debt has nearly tripled to $14 trillion and in 2011 will represent 100% of the country’s GNP – a feat never reached before in American history. Once our debt exceeds our income the nation gets closer to insolvency.

The debt is held by many different entities, and the majority is still U.S. held. (This too is likely to change in 2011 where the majority of the U.S. debt will be held by non-U.S. entities.) The current debt ceiling is $14.3 trillion – which is the limit that can be borrowed. Over the past decades the debt ceiling has been regularly increased with an occasional blip of publicity. In the next weeks the debt ceiling will have to be increased again – or the U.S. will lose its ability to borrow money which would be devastating to the U.S. and the global economies. I fully expect a more vociferous resistance to an increase than in the past. This will make for good television and punditry but won’t change the fact that it will be increased.

These first few weeks of January most of us are receiving our Christmas credit card statements. Wouldn’t it be nice if we could just increase the credit line and keep on spending? That’s essentially what the debt ceiling is: an increased line of credit. At some point our creditors will say: enough – you actually have to pay us back. The U.S. will be unable to borrow more nor pay its bills will mean a form of insolvency which will be the War of the Millennium.

Avoiding this war means making choices. It won’t be a war between Republicans and Democrats for which program to shave or cut – it will be a war between those of us who believe that we must put our fiscal house in order and those who merely provide lip service. Fiscal order starts and ends with a balanced budget. Terribly boring and simple: spend what you bring in. Period. Note that having a break-even budget would simply freeze the debt at the current level and not begin to pay it back. It’s a start.

It’s a drastic departure from the recent Democratic approach of more debt in the short term with the belief that long term economic growth will resolve the short term issues. Republicans this week proposed a tweaking of the Democratic approach, with a series of program changes that would “save” $300 billion. Under the Republican plan the U.S. would still run a $1.3 trillion dollar deficit each year.

Where would I find $1.6 trillion in “savings”? President Obama’s deficit commission couldn’t find a way to balance the budget for some 35 years and even then they couldn’t agree.  The devil is in the details and fodder for future blogs! Before we look at the details we as a nation must agree to a balanced budget – and we are a very long way from that agreement. In fact that’s not even part of the discourse. I never thought that I’d be longing for those halcyon days of Y2K.