Archive for June, 2012

06/14/2012

Coal: Why Don’t Republicans Discuss It?

During the Republican debates, aside from Gov. Romney’s comment that he would promote coal, and Sen. Santorum’s disclosure that he served on a coal company board, the other conservatives simply encouraged oil and gas drilling, criticized clean energy like solar and wind, but said nothing about coal.

Although Republicans argued in favor of repealing regulations that interfere with energy, expressed a desire to eliminate the Energy Dept., and repeatedly demanded that the Environmental Protection Agency get out of the way, they were not specific.

So what would their coal policy be? The question is important because coal remains a major energy source. Large quantities of it are sold to electric power plants, as over half of all electric power in the U.S. is generated by coal. As coal is burned, it heats water in boilers, creates steam, spins turbines, and generates electricity.

The U.S. has one-third of the world’s coal supply, enough to mine for another 350 years. The U.S. started burning coal around 1850 and its use eventually turned America into a strong industrial nation. Most U.S. mining has been located in West Virginia and Kentucky, as well as other parts of the Appalachians, from Pennsylvania to Alabama.

Only Russia has greater coal reserves. Germany’s deposits are in the Ruhr River Valley, Britain’s are in Wales, and China’s are in Manchuria. Historically, coal fields were so important, nations fought wars over them. Germany and France, for example, battled over Alsace Lorraine, Saarland, and the Ruhr many times.

But what are the political issues in the U.S.? One issue concerns mine safety and the rights of coal miners, as coal mining is potentially dangerous. Most coal miners in the U.S. descend about 260 feet underground. Mines must be constructed properly and ventilated constantly. If the pillars in mines supporting their roofs collapse, cave-ins can be fatal. If the air flowing into the mines is interrupted, gases such as carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide, and methane can build up, catch fire, and explode causing death.

Another issue is the air pollution generated from burning coal. While some equipment eliminates some smoke and soot, there remain many environmental costs from using coal.

The two progressive forces that have protected workers regarding safety, and the public as to pollution, namely the unions and the Environmental Protection Agency, are being attacked by the Republicans.

Although the United Mine Workers Union contributed greatly to mine safety laws, such as the Coal Mine Inspection Act, the Republicans have declared war against all organized labor, and cannot be trusted do anything about mining safety complaints.

Although the Environmental Protection Agency has been the watchdog for the public as to air pollution generated by power plants, Republicans have pledged to abolish it, and our air will not be as safe, if the right-wing gains total control.

Although the Republicans have not clearly stated a coal policy, what they have said about destroying unions and dismantling the Environmental Protection Agency is all we need to know to figure out the rest. We should be concerned that if the right-wing takes total control, the coal industry will become more dangerous to workers, and the purity of the air will decline.

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06/12/2012

Autos: Replace Gas Engines with Electric

There is no doubt autos with gasoline-combustion engines are by far the dominant mode of transportation in the U.S., but how long will that continue? For those who think gas-propelled cars will remain indefinitely, they should be reminded of the horse-and-buggy, which was once considered a permanent institution.

The question is not whether the gas-combustion engine will become a thing of the past, the only issue is: When will it be replaced, and by what alternative source of energy?

It may be surprising to many, but electric cars were manufactured by 54 different American firms between 1893 and 1928, and were once widely used. 300 electric taxis were operating in New York City in 1900. The next year, an electric ambulance took President McKinley to the hospital, following his assassination in 1901.

Although electric cars had the advantage of being quiet and clean, as they emitted no poisonous gases, their top speed was only about 20 MPH, and they could only go about 50 miles before their lead-acid batteries needed replacement. To complicate the problem, new batteries were expensive. As gas-propelled vehicles became easier to operate in 1910, the electric car faded from the scene, and they were eliminated completely in 1928.

Another predecessor to gas was the steam engine, known as the Stanley Steamer, which was first marketed in 1896. They remained through 1925, when again gas-combustion took over.

The gas-combustion engine got their boost in Germany in 1885, when Gottlieb Daimler and Karl Benz built vehicles. In the U.S., Henry Ford and Ransom Olds started in 1896. Olds took the first step towards an assembly line, as he increased production from 425 cars in 1901 to 2,500 in 1902. Using Ford’s conveyor belt in 1913, they were able to make one Model T every 93 minutes.

Following WWI, the gas-propelled auto became the major means of transportation in the U.S. Its use increased many times over in the subsequent decades of the 20th Century.

To make the auto dominant, the government invested billions in federal, state, and local highway systems, beginning in 1921. As tax dollars were spent, millions of miles of roads were added during the 20 years through 1941. Suburban communities exploded, particularly after WWII, as many were invented in places not previously serviced by rail or water.

Now, the era of the gas-engine has had a long 90-year run, during which many improvements were made to the car, but many problems also surfaced. Gas engines have given us air pollution, congested highways, urban sprawl, a foreign oil addiction, automobile accidents, as well as a host of other problems.

When considering their cost, we must keep in mind not only the price of the car, but the taxes spent by the government to build and maintain roads, military spending to keep the sea lanes open for oil shipments, and environmental harm to the air we breath.

Political leaders should be pushing scientists and engineers to bring back the electric car, since they are quieter, cleaner, and need not rely on foreign oil. The government invested heavily in roads to help gas-powered car get off the ground. Now, we need the same to help electric cars become our primary form of transit.

06/11/2012

High-Speed Rail: Why Opposed by Right?

It’s always surprising when high-speed rail projects are rejected by people who call themselves conservatives, since they are, when compared to cars, a much more efficient mode of transportation.

In an effort to stimulate jobs, President Obama proposed high-speed rail for Florida, between Orlando and Tampa, and from Milwaukee to Madison in Wisconsin, but right-wing Gov. Rick Scott of Florida rejected his plan, and Wisconsin’s Tea Party Gov. Scott Walker likewise pushed away the Badger State blueprint.

To wealthy Republicans like Florida’s Rick Scott, transportation is no problem, for he has always had his own private jet, and can go wherever he wants without delay. Money is no object for him. The problem with Scott Walker of Wisconsin is he examined only one part of the equation, the start-up costs, while failing to consider the international risk of oil and gas embargoes, the plight of youthful or impoverished people who don’t own cars, and the many environmental costs created by gas-combustion engines.

Europe has always been a much easier and efficient continent, when compared to the U.S., in terms of transportation and travel. Trains generally run on time and connect all the major cities in the Old World. One can connect on buses at train stations, without all of the hassles or expenses related to cars. A little walk or bike ride now and then in Europe keeps them from becoming obese, like their overweight American counterparts.

So what happened? When did the conservatives in America stop caring about conservation? In the early years, it was the Republican Party in the industrial north that expanded the network of railroads. The Union Pacific, started in 1865, was connected to the West Coast in 1869. Businesses needed trains to remove lumber from the forests and resources from the mines. They hauled coal, livestock, and machinery, just to name a few items.

The advent of the electric subway and elevated trains around 1895 was a major source of efficiency for our major cities, as they provided a relatively cheap way for millions of ordinary people to travel in places like Boston, New York, Philadelphia, Baltimore, and Chicago.

While the airplane has replaced the train for some purposes, and the mail for example can be delivered more efficiently by air, trains still have a purpose, and they should be used in the U.S. much more than they are at present. They are not obsolete.

America would be a much more efficient and better place if all of our major cities had subway systems, and if our national passenger trains were improved so they could enter the class of high-speed lines used in France, Japan, or China, for example. The first step in moving in the right direction, would be to elect people from the left, who have a vision of what the U.S. could be.

06/07/2012

Wisconsin: How to Win Badger State

People scratch their heads upon learning Wisconsinites blew away Sen. John McCain by 14 points when supporting President Obama in 2008, but then gave right-winger Scott Walker 52% of the vote in the 2010 governor’s race, and an even slightly larger margin of 53% in the 2012 gubernatorial recall.

The distinction between the Presidential and Governor’s race is relatively easy to understand, because the issues were different. Since the state’s dominant German-American population was sent to Europe in World War I to fight an unclear battle against the Kaiser, the Badger State has had an antiwar tilt. When Sen. John McCain visited in 2008, he found no friendly military bases at which to push his endless idea of war, and as the articulate Sen. Obama delivered a message that Iraq was a mistake, it was well received. While it is no surprise McCain lost in a landslide, the Democrats must be mindful, the next contest will be much closer, as Romney has none of McCain’s military baggage.

The other factor in the governor’s election and recall survival was the focus on economics. Wisconsinites also have a very deep-seated German-American work ethic. Whether they are socialists, willing to spread the wealth, or hard-core capitalists, they all share the same belief that government must be run efficiently. They do not like seeing or hearing about waste, fraud, or abuse. Since the governor’s contest involved economics, instead of foreign affairs, the race was necessarily much closer than the 2008 contest.

The third factor has to do with political science and understanding it is generally difficult to win a statewide contest using a Madison or Milwaukee-based strategy. While Illinois, with a population of 13 million, can be won by turning out votes in greater Chicago, where 8 million reside, Wisconsin, with a total of 6 million, is not dominated by greater Milwaukee, as it only has 2 million. It was a fundamental mistake to hope Madison or Milwaukee could single-handedly carry the day. It was also a major error to have pep rallies at the end with Jessie Jackson, as he may have unintentionally triggered heavy white turnouts, in Republican dominated Waukesha, Washington, and Ozaukee counties.

Democrats have to remember winning Wisconsin means playing in all 72 counties, not just Madison or Milwaukee. In the past, with the notable exception of Jim Doyle of Madison, whose father was a federal judge, governors have come from small towns in the northern or western areas. The fact Walker was elected even though he was a Milwaukee County Executive, was because his opponent Tom Barrett, was Milwaukee Mayor, and the voters had no choice.

In the past, Republican Tommy Thompson (1987-01) came from little Elroy, in Western Wisconsin. Democrat Tony Earl (1983-87) was elected from Wausau, in the north. Republican Lee Dreyfus hailed from nearby Stevens Point, in the north. Democrat Patrick Lucey (1971-77) crawled out of tiny Gays Mills, a poor little Crawford County town, four hours from Milwaukee, near the Mississippi. Republican Warren Knowles claimed New Richmond, in the northwest. Democrat John Reynolds (1963-65) hailed from Green Bay, in the northeast. Democrat Gaylord Nelson (1959-63) came from little Clear Lake, in the northwest. Republican Vernon Thompson (1957-59) was from the farming town of Richland Center, in the southwest.

It is too easy to divide and conquer against a Milwaukee mayor. People in little white towns, who have never met anyone like Jessie Jackson, certainly were not even going to listen to his chants. They tend to think all big city people want to do is take their guns away. To neutralize the prejudice, next time, Democrats need a guy like Tom Barrett, only one without the Milwaukee or Madison label, or in other words, one from a small town. If the Republicans slander machine had not had all the problems of Milwaukee to unfairly dump on Barrett’s head, the election may have favored a Democrat.

06/06/2012

Why Would Republicans Cut Agencies?

During the Republican debates, lightweights like Gov. Perry of Texas argued government regulations are killing America. He advocated a complete elimination of the departments of Commerce, Energy, and Education. As others singled out the Environmental Protection Agency for extinction, Gov. Romney characteristically used vague terms, while he promised to cut a whole series of federal programs.

The media of course failed to ask follow-ups like: Why were Commerce, Energy, and Education slated for elimination? Why not Agriculture, Health and Human Services, Housing and Urban Development, Labor, Interior, Transportation, or Veterans Affairs? Don’t they all promulgated regulations? Why advocate just partial anarchy? Why not jump forward into total anarchy?

Can you imagine a country without federal regulation of any kind, where corporations did whatever they wanted, without any check on their behavior? Even though such a society would be an insane place to live, this is really what the Republicans want. Their goal is to abolish as many agencies as possible, because they simply don’t believe government has ever done or can do anything right.

But unlike the hardcore Republicans, rational people fortunately still believe the federal departments and agencies serve a purpose.

As to agriculture, we need agencies to inspect animal and plant health and safety. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) must continue protecting us from harm.

As to commerce, the Consumer Product Safety Commission determines if products are unsafe. The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) should do more to regulate deceptive advertising and unfair trade, not less.  The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) should keep the airwaves from being owned by just a few.

As to energy, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission has no choice but to deal with nuclear security and waste disposal.

As to government, the fairness of elections needs monitoring by a Federal Election Commission (FEC) empowered to remove the corrosive influence of money.

As to health, we want an active Center for Disease Control.

As to housing, we still need equal opportunity and fairness.

As to air and water, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is essential. They must monitor our endangered species, fish and wildlife, forests, migratory birds, and protect the national parks.

As to justice, we need stronger, not weaker, antitrust enforcement, to break up banks and other corporations “too big to fail.”

As to labor, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration has reduced a countless number of injuries in the workplace. They have eliminated chemical hazards. Mine safety and health is not an outdated chore. The National Labor Relations Board monitors union elections, and hears grievances regarding unfair practices.

As to transportation, what rational person would abolish the Federal Aviation Administration? The National Transportation Safety Board looks into plane crashes, to improve air travel. We need a Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration to insure truck safety. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has saved a great many lives by improving road conditions.

If retirement funds are going to be invested in the markets, the public must have an active Securities and Exchange Commission and a Commodity Futures Trading Commission. The new Bureau of Consumer Financial Protection is a welcome sight, but it needs even more power to check bank and credit card company abuse.

Fortunately, the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation was created by Democrats in the 1930s, and when the banks failed this time, deposits were insured. We obviously must keep the FDIC, and maintain a strong Federal Reserve System.

Those who recklessly advocate abolishing agencies have not thought through their positions. In the modern age, people need government to regulate. Since the Republicans have been on the wrong side of this issue, and have no explanation as to why they would eliminate agencies, except that they apparently prefer an anarchistic world, they should be defeated in November.

06/04/2012

Regulating Commerce: What Can We Do?

The Supreme Court will soon be deciding if all or part of the 2010 federal health care act went too far under the Congressional power to regulate interstate commerce. The question is to what extent does the “commerce clause” give Congress the power to regulate?

Art. I, Sec 8 (3) of the Constitution provides: “Congress shall have power…to regulate commerce…among the several states.” The first significant “commerce clause” case involved a challenge to a state law in Gibbons v Ogden (1824), where Chief Justice Marshall held Congress has the power to regulate every aspect of commercial intercourse, including every transaction not wholly carried out within the boundaries of a single state.

During the nation’s first 100 years, despite a federal power to regulate commerce, Congress passed no significant law in that regard, and instead most legislation was at the state level. Congress first used the “commerce clause” in 1887 to create the Interstate Commerce Commission (ICC) to regulate the railroads. Three years later, they added the Sherman Antitrust Act (1890).

An activist conservative Supreme Court however went right to work limiting any federal expansion of the power to regulate commerce. They held in 1895, while Congress could control railroads and common carriers, manufacturing conducted wholly within the confines of a single state, was outside their reach. In Hammer v Dagenhart (1918), Congress tried to eliminate child labor by establishing a minimum work age, but a conservative Court held the act exceeded their constitutional powers, because manufacturing was outside the reach of the “commerce clause.”

The interpretation of the “commerce clause” changed significantly during the Great Depression, when a new Court held in NLRB v Jones & Laughlin Steel 301 U.S. (1937), Congress could regulate manufacturing, even if it is based within one state. The Court abandoned the old distinction that kept manufacturing beyond the reach of federal regulation. The new test was any activity “affecting” interstate commerce could be subjected to regulation. In a challenge to the 1938 Fair Labor Standards Act, which regulated wages and hours, a progressive court in U.S. v Darby (1941), finally overruled the old 1918 Hammer decision above.

In Wickard v Filburn 317 U.S. (1942), the Court upheld the power of the federal government to regulate local farmers, who never did any business outside their state, on the grounds their production nevertheless affected aggregate national supplies and prices. In Heart of Atlanta Motel v U.S. 379 U.S. (1964), a local motel in Georgia that discriminated against blacks was subjected to the federal Civil Rights Act of 1964, because they accepted guests from out-of-state, and therefore engaged in interstate commerce.

The question now is whether the Supreme Court will limit the national power to regulate health care providers, businesses that provide health insurance to workers, as well as the powerful health insurance industry. Will they exclude the “individual mandate” from the reach of the commerce clause? The answer is there are five conservative votes on a 9-member Supreme Court, and though we have no crystal ball, at least 4 or 5 of them will vote to overturn at least part of the new law.

06/02/2012

Health Care in U.S.: Hostile to Consumers

Would you buy a car, and drive it off the lot, not knowing its cost, just hoping for the best when the bill arrived in the mail? I didn’t think so. But that is exactly what the U.S. medical community seriously expects you to do when consuming health care.

American medicine operates within a totally dysfunctional economic system. Patient accounts do everything possible to avoid price quotes. If consumers are patient enough to wait on line to speak to an actual human being, many of whom are impatient, condescending, or just downright rude, they will at best hear only vague meaningless “estimates.”

If a written letter is issued, and it actually states an “estimated” price for a procedure, the following paragraph will qualify the cost, and make it totally meaningless, through additional language that states: “this does not include any potential facility fees, anesthesia fees, lab or pathology fees, or supply charges.”

Don’t they realize “estimates” followed immediately by language that allows billing for of a whole host of additional expenses, renders them absolutely worthless? How is the consumer to know even a ballpark cost? What is the reasonable consumer to think?

But let’s not accuse the relatively well-off medical community for creating this terrible American system we have. Let’s keep the blame where it belongs, on the consumer, for they are the ones who deserve ridicule. How dare they even seek price quotes in the first place? Just who are these peons with the audacity to request information on costs? Don’t they realize they’re addressing the medical community? Don’t they know those in medicine simply don’t dirty their precious hands with costs, that is, until it is time to collect, and the wretched consumers are fully expected to pay every nickel, under a one-way highway billing system.

Personally, I was priced out of the private health insurance market long ago. No, I am ok. I can walk, talk, and get around just fine, but my parents had diabetes and heart disease, so on the assumption I would also succumb, my premiums started galloping upward with each payment, until the private carriers finally got what they wanted, and pushed me away without insurance. So, now I pay cash for health care, and must shop around.

Although the online price for a cataract procedure was an average of $3,300 and up, when I tried to nail something down this week, I was unable to do so. The Dean Clinic gave me an “estimate” of $5,686 with all the qualifying language mentioned earlier in this article, which amounted to no price quote at all. Anderson and Shapiro started at $2,999, “with no hidden costs,” but then after I was switched to the next operator, I was told I needed a physical and EKG, since I was over 55, even though I was symptom free. The “estimated” cost online for the unnecessary EKG was around $2,000. So, I was left with truly no idea what the cost of a relatively simply out-patient 10-minute cataract procedure would be, except that it would be starting somewhere above $5,000.

I don’t mean to single out just two clinics, as almost all of them have created problems over the years. When I set up an eye exam at the University of Wisconsin Eye Clinic earlier this year, I was quoted $246, but when the bill arrived, it was $358, which was $112 more than the quote. I just laughed, because I knew they would not honor their own quote. Since their ophthalmologist “estimated” cataract surgery at around $6,500, I definitely didn’t return there, due to their history of billing more than their quotes.

There is no reason the government could not simply order health care providers to post their prices for each procedure, somewhat like those visible at gas pumps. Yes, each patient is unique. We all know that. But while treatment may differ slightly from one to the other, there is no reason we could not mandate a public disclosure of all-inclusive singular prices, so consumers could be informed, and could begin shopping in a competitive market. For the uninsured, the current pricing system is totally dysfunctional.