Sunday, June 28, 2009

Change Don't Come Easy

The word CHANGE has so much relevance now. It was the promise Obama made to the American people, the idea and notion that change can be a good thing. Its a shame not everyone feels that way.

I just returned from the Gay Pride Parade and while part of me thinks its dated now and really Gay people have been accepted and acknowledged the ugliness of it is that with headway we still have issues. Electing a black President certainly does not mean that Racism and Prejudice are things of the past. And despite the fact that even Iowa has Gay Marriage the most liberal of states in the United States, California, does not. We have come a long way baby when it comes to seeing Women in the workplace but we still are not representative in the boardrooms. Our Congress has few minorities of color and gender and the CEO's and the Executives of America are still largely white men. And we still face a tremendous amount of ageism in this country and add to it one's sexuality, one's color and you have a real problem finding work and meaning in life. We disregard people so easily and readily here. Talk about a disposable economy we are in desperate need of learning how to re-use the most precious of resources - our people.

I think about how difficult it is to get Climate Control, Health Care and Financial Reform and wonder when and if CHANGE is really possible. We really seem fearful, we look for the easiest way out, we pretend things are not as bad as they are and we condemn those willing to stand up and fight for rights that seem so simple and so part of being human. Aren't we all human and have the same needs to live a healthy productive life? Can we just address those common grounds and find how to work together.

This is the same with regards to Green Build. All cities, etc need to immediately review their codes for building and update them to include: Appropriate insulation, HVAC systems, Optimal Framing, windows with a minimal of dual pane, proper land protections during build, low flow faucets, toilets and design bonuses and tax credits for appropriate recycling and deconstruction practices, adding HRV systems, pex plumbing, solar hot water and other modern green building materials that use less resources such as engineered lumber, SIPS, ICF's etc. Simply making some code with a bonus structure to encourage added use would make it all much simpler and reduce the silly debates and power struggles of varying Green Build groups.

And on the heels of my condemning the Farrah documentary for truly discussing the real issue: She had HPV contracted anally which was not discussed and had to go to Germany to find "alternative" treatment. And while it did not "cure" her they were at least options to having her colon removed and living that same last year with a shit bag attached to her. At least she was allowed to make a choice - a choice which was available to her because of her income and status.

The point is that Health care is not equal and even growth and progress in Cancer is certainly nothing to shout out. Richard Nixon in '71 declared a war on it and much like the war on drugs it failed. Most research and grant money goes little to progress the knowledge and treatments for Cancer. Today's NY Times had an article discussing the issue.

I reprint it here with the note that in Australia they are breaking ground. Once again the innovations, the pushing the envelope is found elsewhere. Even Thomas Friedman in his column to day urging the need for further innovation and ingenuity if we are truly going to come out of this recession/depression with our world and country in tact. I just don't see it but maybe I need new glasses. Shame I don't think they are covered on my plan.


Grant System Leads Cancer Researchers to Play It Safe

Published: June 27, 2009

Among the recent research grants awarded by the National Cancer Institute is one for a study asking whether people who are especially responsive to good-tasting food have the most difficulty staying on a diet. Another study will assess a Web-based program that encourages families to choose more healthful foods.

Dr. Otis W. Brawley, chief medical officer at the American Cancer Society, said the cancer research effort remained too cautious.

Many other grants involve biological research unlikely to break new ground. For example, one project asks whether a laboratory discovery involving colon cancer also applies to breast cancer. But even if it does apply, there is no treatment yet that exploits it.

The cancer institute has spent $105 billion since President Richard M. Nixon declared war on the disease in 1971. The American Cancer Society, the largest private financer of cancer research, has spent about $3.4 billion on research grants since 1946.

Yet the fight against cancer is going slower than most had hoped, with only small changes in the death rate in the almost 40 years since it began.

One major impediment, scientists agree, is the grant system itself. It has become a sort of jobs program, a way to keep research laboratories going year after year with the understanding that the focus will be on small projects unlikely to take significant steps toward curing cancer.

“These grants are not silly, but they are only likely to produce incremental progress,” said Dr. Robert C. Young, chancellor at Fox Chase Cancer Center in Philadelphia and chairman of the Board of Scientific Advisors, an independent group that makes recommendations to the cancer institute.

The institute’s reviewers choose such projects because, with too little money to finance most proposals, they are timid about taking chances on ones that might not succeed. The problem, Dr. Young and others say, is that projects that could make a major difference in cancer prevention and treatment are all too often crowded out because they are too uncertain. In fact, it has become lore among cancer researchers that some game-changing discoveries involved projects deemed too unlikely to succeed and were therefore denied federal grants, forcing researchers to struggle mightily to continue.

Take one transformative drug, for breast cancer. It was based on a discovery by Dr. Dennis Slamon of the University of California, Los Angeles, that very aggressive breast cancers often have multiple copies of a particular protein, HER-2. That led to the development of herceptin, which blocks HER-2.

Now women with excess HER-2 proteins, who once had the worst breast cancer prognoses, have prognoses that are among the best. But when Dr. Slamon wanted to start this research, his grant was turned down. He succeeded only after the grateful wife of a patient helped him get money from Revlon, the cosmetics company.

Yet studies like the one on tasty food are financed. That study, which received a grant of $200,000 over two years, is based on the idea that since obesity is associated with an increased risk of cancer, understanding why people have trouble losing weight could lead to better weight control methods, which could lead to less obesity, which could lead to less cancer.

“It was the first grant I ever submitted, and it was funded on the first try,” said the principal investigator, Bradley M. Appelhans, an assistant professor of basic medical sciences and psychology at the University of Arizona. Dr. Appelhans said he realized it would hardly cure cancer, but hoped that “it will provide knowledge that will incrementally contribute to more effective cancer prevention strategies.”

Even top federal cancer officials say the system needs to be changed.

“We have a system that works over all pretty well, and is very good at ruling out bad things — we don’t fund bad research,” said Dr. Raynard S. Kington, acting director of the National Institutes of Health, which includes the cancer institute. “But given that, we also recognize that the system probably provides disincentives to funding really transformative research.”

The private American Cancer Society follows a similarly cautious path. Last year, it awarded $124 million in new research grants, with some money coming from large donors but most from events like walkathons and memorial donations.

Dr. Otis W. Brawley, chief medical officer at the cancer society, said the whole cancer research effort remained too cautious.

“The problem in science is that the way you get ahead is by staying within narrow parameters and doing what other people are doing,” Dr. Brawley said. “No one wants to fund wild new ideas.”

He added that the problem of getting money for imaginative but chancy proposals had worsened in recent years. There are more scientists seeking grants — they surged into the field in the 1990s when the National Institutes of Health budget doubled before plunging again.

That makes many researchers, who need grants not just to run their labs but also sometimes to keep their faculty positions, even more cautious in the grant proposals they submit. And grant review committees become more wary about giving scarce money to speculative proposals.

Philanthropies, which helped some researchers try outside-the-box ideas, are now having financial problems. And advances in technology have made research more expensive.

“Scientists don’t like talking about it publicly,” because they worry that their remarks will be viewed as lashing out at the health institutes, which supports them, said Dr. Richard D. Klausner, a former director of the National Cancer Institute.

But, Dr. Klausner added: “There is no conversation that I have ever had about the grant system that doesn’t have an incredible sense of consensus that it is not working. That is a terrible wasted opportunity for the scientists, patients, the nation and the world.”

A Big Idea Without a Backer

For 25 years, Eileen K. Jaffe received federal grants to run her lab. As a senior scientist at the Fox Chase Cancer Center, with a long list of published papers in prestigious journals, she is a respected, established researcher.

Then Dr. Jaffe stumbled upon results that went against textbook explanations, suggesting that it might be possible to find an entirely new class of drugs that could disable proteins that fuel cancer cells. Now she wants to find chemicals that might be developed into such drugs.

But her grant proposal was rejected out of hand by the institutes of health, not even discussed by a review panel. She had no preliminary data showing that the idea was likely to work, something reviewers always want to see, and the idea was just too unprecedented.

Dr. Jaffe epitomizes the scientist who realizes that if she were to single-mindedly pursue her unorthodox idea, her “career may be ruined in the process,” in the words of Dr. Brawley of the American Cancer Society.

Dr. Jaffe is just conceiving her project; it is much to soon to know whether it will result in a revolutionary drug. And even if she does find potential new drugs, it is not clear that they will be effective. Most new ideas are difficult to prove, and most potential new drugs fail.

So Dr. Jaffe was not entirely surprised when her grant application to look for such cancer drugs was summarily rejected.

“They said I don’t have preliminary results,” she said. “Of course I don’t. I need the grant money to get them.”

Dr. Young, chancellor at Fox Chase, said Dr. Jaffe’s situation showed why people with bold new ideas often just give up.

“You can’t prove it will work in advance,” he said. “If you could, it wouldn’t be a high-risk idea.”

It is a long haul, Dr. Jaffe knows. And she has already had to downsize her lab. But, she said, she will persist.

Angels Outside Government

At the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston, Dr. Ewa T. Sicinska knew she would have a similar problem with her research. She wanted to grow human cancers in mice. Unlike Dr. Jaffe, though, Dr. Sicinska did not even apply for government money.

It is not that the project was unimportant.

“Rather than have to start a human clinical trial to test new drugs, we want to test them first in mice with real human tumors,” said Dr. George D. Demetri, who leads the research group supporting Dr. Sicinska.

Researchers have studied mouse cancers but, they acknowledge, they are just not the same as human cancers — they are much easier to treat, and drugs that cure mice often do nothing in people. So, over the years, scientists have tried to implant human cancer cells in mice, but with little success.

“Everyone told us that if you take tumors out of patients and put them in mice, they don’t grow,” Dr. Demetri said. The tumor cells usually were put in a plastic dish before being implanted in mice. “We said — wait a minute. The cells are not growing in the plastic dish. They probably are dying. What if we bypass the dish?’”

With that idea in mind, Dr. Demetri, convinced it was too speculative to get federal money, tapped an unusual source, the Ludwig Fund. Endowed by Daniel K. Ludwig, one of the world’s richest men in the 1960s and 1970s, the fund supports unfettered cancer research at six medical centers in the United States, including Dana-Farber, to be used at the institutes’ discretion. That put Dr. Sicinska in a very different position from that of Dr. Jaffe. She could try something chancy without a grant.

Dr. Sicinska used a quarter of a million dollars of Ludwig money for this project, buying mice without immune systems, which meant they could not reject human tumors, and housing them in a germ-free basement lab. She spent months learning to implant tumors in the mice and enlisted geneticists to study the implanted tumors, making sure they did not mutate beyond recognition.

She spends her days in the lab, using a miniature ultrasound machine to scan the mice, hairless creatures with prominent ears. Four types of sarcomas — cancers of fat, muscle or bone — are growing in them and look genetically identical to the tumors removed from patients.

Dr. Elias A. Zerhouni, former director of the National Institutes of Health, said he was not sure that a grant for the project would have been turned down. The N.I.H., he said, does finance research on mouse models for human cancer.

But Dr. Demetri said he did not apply “because we have lots of experience in what’s fundable.” His mouse work, he said, is exploratory, and he cannot predict what he will find or when. He certainly could not lay out a road map of what he would do and promise results in a few years.

Studies With a Different Goal

Researchers like Dr. Appelhans, who is studying weight control and tasty foods, do not expect to change the outlook for cancer patients anytime soon. But, they say, that does not mean their work is unimportant.

Dr. Appelhans will study 85 overweight or obese women, measuring how much the tastes and textures of food drive their eating. Then they will be given a weight loss diet and nutritional counseling. Dr. Appelhans will ask whether those who are most tempted by the tastes and textures also have the most trouble following the diet.

As for the grant to assess a Web-based program to improve food choices, it is predicated on studies indicating that what people eat in childhood and adolescence may have an impact on cancer risk in middle and old age, said the grant recipient, Karen Weber Cullen, associate professor of pediatrics at Baylor College of Medicine. Some studies have found that people who reported having eaten fruits and vegetables when they were younger and maintaining a healthy weight were less likely to have cancer.

Of course, it would not be feasible to follow participants for 30 or 40 years to see if their cancer risk was altered, Dr. Cullen noted. But, she added, “we try to achieve improvements in diet and physical activity behaviors that become permanent and will make a difference in later years.”

In the study asking whether a molecular pathway that spurs the growth of colon cancer cells also encourages the growth of breast cancer cells, the principal investigator ultimately wants to find a safe drug to prevent breast cancer. She received a typical-size grant of a little more than $1 million for the five-year study.

The plan, said the investigator, Louise R. Howe, an associate research professor at Weill Cornell Medical College, is first to confirm her hypothesis about the pathway in breast cancer cells. But even if it is correct, the much harder research would lie ahead because no drugs exist to block the pathway, and even if they did, there are no assurances that they would be safe.

Dr. Howe said she hoped that she would find such drugs, or that companies would. Then she wants to develop a way to selectively deliver the drugs to precancerous breast cells. If it all works and the treatment is safe, women with precancerous conditions could avoid developing cancer.

Dr. Howe has reviewed grants for the cancer institute herself, she said, and realizes that, among other things, those that get financed must have “a novel hypothesis that is credible based on what we know already.”

Trying to Change the System

The National Institutes of Health has started “pilot experiments” to see if there is a better way of getting financing for innovative projects, its acting director, Dr. Kington, said.

They include “pioneer awards,” begun in 2004 for “ideas that have the potential for high impact but may be too novel, span too diverse a range of disciplines or be at a stage too early to fare well in the traditional peer review process.” But only 3 percent to 5 percent of the applicants get funded. Now the institutes have decided to set aside up to $25 million for “transformative R01 grants,” described as “proposing exceptionally innovative, high risk, original and/or unconventional research with the potential to create or overturn fundamental paradigms.”

About 700 proposals have come in, but only a small number are expected to be financed, according to Dr. Keith R. Yamamoto, a molecular biologist and executive vice dean of the school of medicine at the University of California, San Francisco, and co-chairman of the committee that reviewed the proposals last week.

“From reading the applications so far, there are really some fantastic things,” Dr. Yamamoto said.

There also is new money from the federal economic stimulus package passed by Congress, which gives the National Institutes of Health $200 million for “challenge grants” lasting two years or less.

But the N.I.H. has received about 21,000 applications for 200 challenge grants, and researchers who have applied concede there is not much hope.

“I did submit one of these challenge grants recently, like the rest of the lemmings,” said Dr. Chi Dang, professor of medicine, cell biology, oncology and pathology at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. But, he added, “there are many, many more applications than slots.”

Some experienced scientists have found a way to offset the problem somewhat. They do chancy experiments by siphoning money from their grants.

“In a way, the system is encrypted,” Dr. Yamamoto said, allowing those in the know to wink and do their own thing on the side.

Great discoveries have been made with N.I.H. financing without manipulating the system, Dr. Klausner said.

“But,” he added, “I actually believe that by and large it is despite, rather than because of, the review system.”

Saturday, June 27, 2009

Getting REAL estate

I have been watching the Real Estate Market with great interest and seeing some properties go quickly while others languish. The total fixer upper on my corner and the one nearby sat for months, one is off the market the other languishes. Meanwhile the smart home further down on a better corner is sold only after a few weeks. The final sale price I do not know but I thought it was over priced at over 700K but who knows what prompted the purchase and I hope that the home retains its value and equity in the years ahead. But that is something still for debate.

Today's Washington Post has an article about the luxury market on a decline. This does not surprise me as I mentioned that the lakeside here is dotted with for sale signs.

When this market suffers a downturn it should be duly noted that these are people who are not as greatly affected by the economy, or are they? Which again this morning Bob Herbert's column discusses the denial of how severe the current situation is. I really want to caution people when they are looking to purchase a home in the near future about the reality of who you are listening to. The Board of Realtors should be the last, if ever. Be it a "green" or other home that value is only what you are willing to pay for it and what you can afford. Do not fall pressure to belief that rates are going up and/or the market will be back tomorrow. These are sales pitches and nothing more.

I am all for home ownership but not at the current prices. Apologies to those who have lost their homes, at risk of or simply needing to sell for other reasons, the reality is that the value of your home regardless of what you paid for it is not the same today. Its that simple.


For Sale, Still: Grand Homes In Gracious Neighborhoods
Down Market Leaves Area Sellers in Lurch

By Dina El Boghdady
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, June 27, 2009

When Natalie deWolf and her husband listed their District home for about $1.2 million in April, they were competing with roughly 25 similarly priced houses in their Chevy Chase neighborhood.

"Only four houses had gone under contract in that price range in the previous four months," said deWolf, who sold her home last week. "It was a little nerve-wracking." Many of the homes, she said, are still for sale.

While entry-level homes are getting snapped up by bargain hunters across the Washington region, pricey ones are languishing. This excess supply is a setback for some pockets of this area where single-family homes listed for $1 million or more make up a sizable chunk of the offerings -- about 85 percent in Cleveland Park, 73 percent in Great Falls and 55 percent in Potomac, according to research firm Delta Associates.

Even in the best of times, high-end homes take longer to sell because there's thinner demand for them; this down market has exacerbated matters.

That's because pricey homes are the province of move-up buyers, many of whom have watched their home values decline, their financing options shrink and their net worths erode as the economy soured. For trade-up buyers, the $1 million-plus homes that were within reach a few years ago are no longer an option. These prospective buyers are reluctant to take on debt even if they can afford it. And as they retrench, high-end sellers are left in a lurch.

In the Washington area, nearly 16 percent of single-family homes listed for $1 million or more were under contract as of this week, compared with 44 percent of homes listed for less than $1 million, according to Delta Associates, which analyzed data from the local Multiple Listing Service.

"I keep saying to these [high-end] sellers, do you really have to sell right now?" said Michael Briggs, vice president of professional development at McEnearney Associates, a local real estate brokerage. "It's not hopeless, but it may be more difficult to sell than anyone ever imagined, and none of these regions are immune."

The toughest challenge is for sellers in outlying suburbs, he said. In Howard County, three out of 130 high-end homes for sale went under contract from mid-May to mid-June, said Briggs, who pulled data from the local Multiple Listing Service. In Loudoun County, six of 107 homes went under contract and only one of 64 did in Prince William County.

Real estate agent Jane Fairweather, who has done her own number-crunching for homes in the close-in Maryland suburbs, said the market for "glamour houses" -- those listed for $2 million or more -- is at a standstill in Bethesda, Chevy Chase and Potomac.

"More than one-third of the homes that went under contract had at least one or more price reductions," Fairweather said. "And about 10 percent of the sellers have pulled their house from the market. People just gave up."

Among them was Anson Smith, a developer who listed a home he built in Bethesda for $2.6 million in September. After receiving only one low-ball offer, he decided to rent the place, convinced that too many psychological factors were holding buyers back.

"People are not comfortable that they're getting value, because they're not sure what the house will be worth in a few months or a few years," Smith said. "Even people that can afford that price bracket won't buy because they feel it's the wrong statement right now."

Financial issues are in play, too.

Real estate agents say that lenders, eager to protect themselves against further losses, are imposing stringent requirements even on credit-worthy borrowers looking to buy high-end homes.

In the Washington area, mortgages that exceed $729,750, or "jumbos," carry higher interest rates than smaller loans and require heftier down payments -- typically 30 percent. Once the loan amount gets past $1.5 million, the down-payment requirements can go up to 40 percent or more.

"They may also need eight to 12 months worth of mortgage payments in reserve to qualify for the best rate," said Steve Calem, president of Capital Funding Group, a mortgage consulting and advisory firm. "It's a market for cash buyers right now, and that's really impacted the sale of bigger houses."

It's not as if many people who own those homes are in dire straits. A healthy share of them have equity and are not under tremendous pressure to sell.

But that does not mean that the high-end market should be ignored, said Lawrence Yun, chief economist of the National Association of Realtors. Getting the real estate market back on track means that all segments of it need to function.

A recent survey by the Realtors group found that the No. 1 reason people are not buying high-end homes is because they are unable to sell the homes they own, in part because they are competing with aggressively priced foreclosures.

"If first-time buyers are buying vacant homes, that does not create trade-up buying activity," Yun said. "They are not freeing up any move-up buyers."

To help remedy the glut, Tom Kunz, chief executive of Century 21, descended on Capitol Hill with some of his real estate agents. They urged lawmakers to expand a temporary $8,000 tax credit for first-time homebuyers to include anyone who is buying a principal residence. Kunz and other real estate firms also are lobbying to boost the credit to $15,000, as proposed in recent legislation.

"We need to focus on the supply side of the equation versus looking only at the foreclosure side of it," Kunz said. "By doing this, we can help the economy out of the doldrums we're in."

Deborah Johnson didn't want to wait that long. She remembers the 1980s, when home values plummeted and stayed there for years. With that in mind, and knowing that she will want to move out of the area in the near future, she put her Bethesda home on the market for slightly less than $2 million. Six weeks later, she sold it for $50,000 less than the asking price and a few thousand dollars less than she and her husband paid for it nearly five years ago.

"It was like: 'What? Depreciation? How can that be?,' " Johnson said. "But sellers have to suck it up. Price is the number one factor. After that, the property has to be exceptional from every angle, cosmetically and functionally, to sell. Many sellers can't wrap their minds around that."

What a Week

I have absolutely no idea or care about the state of Green Build this week. But this week the environment got a reprieve with the passing of the Energy Bill.

I take this from the NY Times..

The vote was the first time either house of Congress had approved a bill meant to curb the heat-trapping gases scientists have linked to climate change. The legislation, which passed despite deep divisions among Democrats, could lead to profound changes in many sectors of the economy, including electric power generation, agriculture, manufacturing and construction.

The bill’s passage, by 219 to 212, with 44 Democrats voting against it, also established a marker for the United States when international negotiations on a new climate change treaty begin later this year.

At the heart of the legislation is a cap-and-trade system that sets a limit on overall emissions of heat-trapping gases while allowing utilities, manufacturers and other emitters to trade pollution permits, or allowances, among themselves. The cap would grow tighter over the years, pushing up the price of emissions and presumably driving industry to find cleaner ways of making energy.

So we are moving forward with a Greener policy. Now if Obama could do more with regards to financial overhaul and single payer I might just give him a reprieve.

And this week seems to have also brought the 70s to a new shining light with the passing of Ed McMahon, Farrah Fawcet and finally Michael Jackson. It also appears that Walter Cronkite is not to make it much longer, further distancing ourselves from the past that we always think was somehow better than now.

Well the good old days at that time were as much as fallacy as the decade before and the ones since.

For me Ed McMahon was the classy sidekick to the classy talk show. It was the time in my life when I would stay up late and sit in my mom's bed or next to her on the sofa and feel grown up and sophisticated. I really believe that my taste in humor came a great deal from the guests and Carson himself. Bawdy, smart and snarky in ways that Ed's laugh made me realize the jokes were more than surface. That laugh and later that voice echoed as he introduced to new stars of his own on Star Search. No doubt many careers began there and thanks to he and Dick Clark we have new icons to mock, admire and treasure.

Then there was Farrah. Watching the documentary on her I was surprised that the discussion about her anal cancer was passed over. The lack of discussion on the HPV virus and subsequent treatments and preventions ignored. As well as the alternative treatments pursued here and in Germany. As we face the largest debate in Health Care I wonder how many others in similar circumstances would welcome just one more year in private chalets and planes and attentive Doctors so focused on your recovery. There was some revelation that despite it all this icon of the infamous poster still retained her beauty, her once equally glorious companion of the same decade showing signs of wear, his own cancer pushed aside as we watched this obviously complicated and tragic sole retain one last moment in a dimming spotlight. All to spend what was the last part of her life simply just trying to save her life. A life filled with pain, desperation and sadness. Was that worth it? I have no answers on that for that is one best decided by those most closest to it.

And lastly Michael Jackson. Like Farrah, his most famous times, his career and memories of his success were decades ago. In his prime he was admired, treasured, emulated and lastly reviled. Whatever his ills, paradoxes and peculiarities he was too an Icon whose talent and skills transcended any other pop star of the time and really of the future for they all are imitators at some level.

At the end of the documentary Farrah asks relevant and poignant questions about Health Care and Cancer. The death of Michael Jackson undoubtedly will open other questions about well about many things.

With the passing of Mr. Cronkite that will bring another era of the Newsman to an end. Many imitators, admirers and those who never really understood the power of the Anchorman, Walter Cronkite was of another era and time when News was not made it was reported with integrity and with value. I always found reassurance from Walter Cronkite with no matter how bad the news he would be there again to remind us that tomorrow was another day. I wish I could find someone now who could bring that reminder to me now.

The world is not the same. It will never be as it was and that is a good thing and a bad thing. We have no answers, we have no solutions, we have no hope and we have no ideas. We have potential, we have dreams, we have smarts and we have people who do give a damn. Celebrities are not us they have long passed us but they came from us and we made them and with that we destroyed them. Our world is like us, fighting from dying. We have to continue the fight even if it does seem futile. Even Farrah Fawcett seemed to have figured that much out.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Green Shoots?

Much has been made of late of the economy starting to reboot and showing "green shoots" of recovery. I can tell you from this field its not green grass that surrounds me. We are in serious economic meltdown and it will not get better for quite some time.

If you do not believe me read this interview with Warren Buffett and determine for yourself who is more wise about this matter. I have not been satisfied of pleased with much of the Obama administration's attempts at repair. This is because I do not believe any of those individuals have the citizens at the heart of the matter. They are too enmeshed in the banking system to disengage themselves from it. When the regulations proposed mirror the ones given to them by the lobbyists of the financial industry then that provides you with an indication of where we are with regards to "change." NON-EXISTENT.

In addition the talk of homes rebounding. Also false. Lennar homes posted a loss and it will not get better in regards to that soon either. And while I see homes selling here I have to wonder about the kind of homes and the prices that are selling. The view homes of a Million or more here dot Lake Washington with many many For Sale signs blocking those views.


Warren Buffett doesn't see the "green shoots" Ben Bernanke and other bullish investors have spoken of in recent months. In fact, the billionaire investor believes that the economic picture will grow darker before things improve.

"Everything I see about the economy is that we have had no bounce," Buffett told CNBC anchor Becky Quick in a televised interview Wednesday. "There were a lot of excesses to be wrung out and that process is still underway, and it looks to me that it will be underway for quite awhile. In the annual report I said that the economy would be in shambles this year and probably well beyond, and I think that is true."

Unemployment, said Buffett, will continue to drag the economy down. He told Bloomberg news that unemployment is "very likely to go above 10%." About 9.4% of the population – about 14.5 million people -- was unemployed in May, the last month for which statistics are available. High unemployment will continue to depress consumer demand for everything from energy to cars and homes, Buffett said.

Wednesday's news about new home sales supported Buffett's argument. New home sales fell 0.6% in May, dashing the hopes of many bullish investors who believed the economy and credit markets had turned around enough to fuel big ticket purchases.

Buffett has had bad luck too. Buffett himself has not been unscathed by the economic downturn. His company, Berkshire Hathaway (BRK.A), reported its first loss this year since 2001.

Before things get better for investors, Buffet believes that the government will need to continue to take steps to reduce unemployment.

"It looks like we're going to need more medicine, not less," he said in an interview with Bloomberg news, adding that the country may need a second stimulus package to pull out of the current spiral. "The recovery really hasn't gotten going."

Buffett cautioned that some of the "medicine," though crucial, may have adverse side effects down the road. Inflation, he believes, could become a big problem. But, it will also likely push investors to buy stocks since rising prices would erode the value of cash.

"We have done things that raise the probability of high rates of inflation at some point," he told CNBC.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Greeen/Blue whatever the collar the jobs exist

I have said for awhile now that the Green Job economy is largely a mythic one and a newer fancier name for what is ostensibly blue collar jobs reconfigured into newer trades but the experience and skill set the same.

As cautioned by my last post and again yesterday morning in a webinar with Energy Star the jobs for those looking to move into do not exist. You must have a minimum of 5 years experience to get into the types of engineering and construction work associated with the stimulus package. Our economy has been largely moved into a paper and service economy with disparate wages as a result. Those businesses that need $10/hr people still do and those who don't don't. There has been a great deal of wage and age discrimination that resulted from the boon but now in some odd turn of events age and experience is needed.

This morning the NY Times covers some of the trade jobs needed at the present and as I have said, take a tour of Monster, Craigslist, the jobs that pay well need experience and that means getting over the age issue as for the one's that don't well 20 year olds and 50 year olds find themselves in a bad situation that all the green jobs promises will not work.


Despite Recession, High Demand for Skilled Labor

Published: June 23, 2009

Just as the recession began, Chris McGrary, a manager at the Cianbro Corporation, set out to hire 80 “experienced” welders. Only now, 18 months later, is he completing the roster.

With 10 years of welding experience, Keelan Prados was able to pass an employer’s test and quickly begin a new job.

With the unemployment rate soaring, there have been plenty of applicants. But the welding test stumped many of them. Mr. McGrary found that only those with 10 years of experience — and not all of them — could produce a perfect weld: one without flaws, even in an X-ray. Flawless welds are needed for the oil refinery sections that Cianbro is building in Brewer, Me.

“If you don’t hire in a day or two, the ones that can do that,” Mr. McGrary said, “they are out the door and working for another company.”

Six million jobs have disappeared across the country since Mr. McGrary began his quest. The unemployment rate has risen precipitously to 9.4 percent, the highest level in nearly 30 years, and most of the jobs that do come open are quickly filled from the legions of seekers. But unnoticed in the government’s standard employment data, employers are begging for qualified applicants for certain occupations, even in hard times. Most of the jobs involve skills that take years to attain.

Welder is one, employers report. Critical care nurse is another. Electrical lineman is yet another, particularly those skilled in stringing high-voltage wires across the landscape. Special education teachers are in demand. So are geotechnical engineers, trained in geology as well as engineering, a combination sought for oil field work. Respiratory therapists, who help the ill breathe, are not easily found, at least not by the Permanente Medical Group, which employs more than 30,000 health professionals. And with infrastructure spending now on the rise, civil engineers are in demand to supervise the work.

“Not newly graduated civil engineers,” said Larry Jacobson, executive director of the National Society of Professional Engineers. “What’s missing are enough licensed professionals who have worked at least five years under experienced engineers before taking the licensing exam.”

While these workers might be lured away by higher offers in a robust economy, they should be more plentiful when overall business demand is as slack as it is now.

For these hard-to-fill jobs, there seems to be a common denominator. Employers are looking for people who have acquired an exacting skill, first through education — often just high school vocational training — and then by honing it on the job. That trajectory, requiring years, is no longer so easy in America, said Richard Sennett, a New York University sociologist.

The pressure to earn a bachelor’s degree draws young people away from occupational training, particularly occupations that do not require college, Mr. Sennett said, and he cited two other factors. Outsourcing interrupts employment before a skill is fully developed, and layoffs undermine dedication to a single occupation. “People are told they can’t get back to work unless they retrain for a new skill,” he said.

None of this deterred Keelan Prados from pursuing a career as a welder, one among roughly 200,000 across the nation. At 28, he has more than a decade of experience, beginning when he was a teenager, building and repairing oil field equipment in his father’s shop in Louisiana. Marriage to a Canadian brought the Pradoses to Maine, near her family. And before Mr. Prados joined Cianbro, an industrial contractor, he ran his own business, repairing logging equipment out of a welding and machine shop on the grounds of his home in Brewer.

The recession dried up that work, and last December, he answered one of Mr. McGrary’s ads. “I welded a couple of pieces of plate together for them and two pipes, and they were impressed,” Mr. Prados said. In less than two weeks, he was at work on Cianbro’s oil refinery project, earning $22 an hour and among the youngest of Mr. McGrary’s hires, most of whom are in their mid-30s to early 40s.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics does not track how often Mr. Prados’s experience — applying for a job and quickly being offered it — is repeated in America in the midst of huge and protracted unemployment. A bureau survey counts the number of job openings and the number of hires, but the data is not broken down by occupation.

The Conference Board, a business organization in New York, comes closer. In a monthly count of online job openings — listed on and more than 1,200 similar Web sites — it breaks the advertised openings into 22 broad occupational categories and compares those with the number of unemployed whose last job, according to the bureau, was in each category. In only four of the categories — architecture and engineering, the physical sciences, computer and mathematical science, and health care — were the unemployed equal to or fewer than the listed job openings. There were, in sum, 1.09 million listed openings and only 582,700 unemployed people presumably available to fill them.

The Conference Board’s hard-to-fill openings include registered nurses, but the shortage is not as great as it was before the recession, particularly in battered states like Michigan and Ohio, said Cheryl Peterson, a director of the American Nurses Association.

“Until the downturn, it was easy for experienced registered nurses to find employment right in their communities, in whatever positions they wanted,” Ms. Peterson said. “Now it is a little more difficult because the number of job openings has fallen and we have more retired nurses, in need of income, coming back.”

That does not hold for nurses who have a decade of experience caring for critically ill people, particularly in hospital recovery rooms, said Dr. Robert Pearl, chief executive and chairman of the Permanente Medical Group, a big employer of medical professionals. “There are probably more nurses recently trained than there are jobs for them,” he said, “but for those with the highest level of skill and experience, there are always openings.” And at $100,000 in pay.

That is also the case for geological engineers like Diane Oshlo, who was hired last month by Kleinfelder, a professional services firm headquartered in San Diego that takes on big projects, like the environmental cleanup work Ms. Oshlo is doing in Corpus Christi, Tex., at the site of an inactive oil refinery. Engineers like her, skilled in petroleum, are in short supply, and those who are also professional geologists are even rarer.

That made Ms. Oshlo, 50, a hot prospect when she decided to relocate from Chicago,
where she had lived for years, doing similar work for a similar firm. Margaret Duner, a Kleinfelder recruiter, spotted her résumé when it arrived in the spring in response to a job ad, and quickly brought her into the hiring process. “Diane stood out,” Ms. Duner said.

Two other firms to which Ms. Oshlo sent résumés also quickly offered work. What swayed her was not the $65,000 salary — there will be raises and bonuses soon, Ms. Duner said — but Kleinfelder’s willingness to pay to move her to Corpus Christi.

“I told the two others I couldn’t wait,” Ms. Oshlo said. “They offered roughly the same pay, but they weren’t sure about the relocation package.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Pre Fab may now be Post Fab

I was a great advocate of pre-fab housing. I had stumbled upon Michelle Kaufman's office in Oakland one day and was completely fascinated with her designs, approach and concepts with regard to pre-fab housing.

She had established her MK Design manufacturing here in Lynnwood area and my long term dream of living in one and eventually building them was founded a great deal in my return. When I got here and realized that this would not be as easy and as affordable as I originally believed.

I went to the Pre-fab design show at MOMA and found the most absurd concepts imaginable and in my WHAT THE FUCK awards I even cited one firm who had the most outrageous costs associated with what is really just manufactured housing on steroids.

When I got tonight's Build Blog I realized that my greatest fears were most likely a reality and I have to agree with their points which I will reprint here. Its a tragedy really but with the ever increasing need to make homes truly energy efficient and affordable, pre-fab concepts just cannot work in mass production. SIP panels offer the same idea with better insulation and just as easy for mass or individual build designs.

I also found an article in USA Today that while touts the "benefits" of pre-fab what is interesting are the comments that follow that confirm much of what the Build boys say. Sorry but the "hidden" costs and logistics of this type of build is really unrealistic at this time. I have also reprinted the USA article for review as well.

I was sorry to learn that Michelle is also stepping out of it for if it was anyone who understood and had a clear vision on what prefab was to be it was her. But I was glad she made that effort. I have no doubt Dwell among others who entered the field will also be shuttering doors, the economy and the limitations of these homes will most likely be relegated to custom and vacation properties.


Pre-fab houses don’t work
Posted: 23 Jun 2009 01:02 PM PDT

When we heard the news that famed architect Daniel Libeskind is now in the prefab home game, we knew that something has gone terribly wrong with the idea of cost-effective prefabricated, mass-produced, delivered-to-the-site housing. This isn’t a criticism of Libeskind mind you; we have made numerous pilgrimages to admire his projects, including the Jewish Museum in Berlin and his recently completed Royal Ontario Museum Extension in Toronto. His entry into pre-fab home design, however, represents the last nail in the coffin as far as we’re concerned. Like it or not, BUILD is officially declaring the pre-fab home movement dead, at least this round anyway. Here’s 10 reasons why:

1. There are several requirements of pre-fab homes that have never been less expensive than custom construction. Despite the fact that a prefabricated house shows up at the site, it’s not ready to be lived in. The site factors still need to be dealt with like any other home and the costs aren’t any cheaper. The site still requires excavation and a foundation still needs to be poured. Unfortunately a prefab home is not ready to go like a Ford Taurus; pre-fab homes are connected to the site though concrete, electrical strikes, sewer lines and plumbing lines; each of which requires trades and materials unique to the place.
2. Here in the Pacific Northwest the remaining vacant sites are rarely flat and bare. Typically there are topographic issues (steep slopes) and geotechnical considerations (variable soil) that only increase the costs through additional consultants, materials and labor.

3. In difficult economic times (like our current one) it is precisely this type of housing that should prosper. The current movement of pre-fab homes (yes, we know there have been others) has been ramping up for about a decade now. The model should have been primed and ready to go for the current recession. Much to everyone’s disappointment (including our own), the front-runner of the pre-fab movement, Michelle Kaufmann Designs, recently announced that they are closing shop.

4. There is a unique psychology between housing and customization. While most people seem happy to purchase an automobile with a limited set of options, that discipline seems to disappear when it comes their home. From what we’ve seen in the residential market, most people want much more customization than the pre-fabs offer (even though it costs much more).

5. Like any other mass-produced product, prefabs need to sell at a certain volume to pencil out financially. While we don’t know what that tipping point is, we’re guessing that there just aren’t enough consumers with a modern design philosophy to support the formula. Buckminster Fuller and Jean Prouve designed and built successful models decades ago that provided cost-effective, mass-produced, pre-fab housing. One of the main reasons that these models didn’t work is because they didn’t look like little bungalows with white picket fences. As a society, we may not be evolved enough yet for well designed pre-fabs.

6. Architects tend to overdesign pre-fab homes. They become trendy, architectural statements rather than simple methods of solving the issue of cost-effective housing for the masses. We’re not suggesting that the correct solution to pre-fab housing is the ubiquitous double-wide model that has spread like cancer, but there has to be a more sensible balance between architectural design and conventional utility. Pre-fab homes need to be designed in a timeless manner.

7. The pre-fab concept is misrepresented by institutions that we trust. The recent MOMA prefab exhibit hindered the pre-fab movement by decades. The five pre-fab models, constructed in the empty lot adjacent MOMA, couldn’t perform the very basic functions of home; like keeping the heat in and the rain out. They were art projects that you could walk through. It would have been a different scenario had it been presented as “Artistic Impressions of Prefab Homes” but it wasn’t, the exhibit was titled “Home Delivery: Fabricating the Modern Dwelling”. Tens of thousands of museum visitors have a completely skewed and unrealistic understanding of pre-fab homes because of an exhibit which does not address the fundamental principles.

8. There is very little true innovation in current pre-fab home construction methods. The homes are built in a factory much the same as they are built on site. Ideally the pre-fab method would employ mechanical assembly lines similar to industrial design or automobile production. But the reality is that a crew of framers is still slapping studs together – they’re just doing it in a warehouse.

9. Despite our research, we’ve been unable to find much information about how many pre-fab homes have actually been produced and sold on the market. To us, this indicates numbers so low that they are insignificant in comparison to other types of housing.

10. There is a perceived altruism around pre-fabs. The current pre-fab movement aims to make people feel good about buying a pre-fab home. But if pre-fabs aren’t more cost-effective, more timeless or a better overall solution, then it’s just clever marketing.

This is just our take, and we’d love to be proven wrong on any or all of it. As an operation of architects and builders, we think a great deal about effective forms of housing models; these are just the issues we see as barriers with the recent pre-fab movement. As conventional as it is, a better solution for cost-effective housing for the masses is condominiums and townhomes. The cost of earthwork, concrete and utilities are shared between several units thereby making the work much less expensive per home. The size of typical single family lot (~5,000 sf here in Seattle) can easily support 6 homes. One could argue that a primary benefits of pre-fab construction is that you can put it anywhere and that it allows the homeowner to have as much land around their home as they like… but is that really cost-effective, sustainable and sensible?

Prefab homes sprout green designs, improve affordability

By Wendy Koch,

Michelle Kaufmann couldn't find an affordable, eco-friendly home in the San Francisco area in 2003, so she built her own.

Construction took 14 months. "This needs to be easier," the architect recalls thinking. To make green homes more accessible, she says, she "stalked" factories until she found some that agreed to build her modern designs.

She built dozens of prefabricated homes, including several identical to her own, each taking four months at 15% less cost. She won an innovation award this month from the National Association of Home Builders and became a sort of rock star of sustainability.

Last week, however, she began closing her firm. "We have tons of work," she says, but her clients can't get financing and two factory partners went out of business. She will continue her work as a consultant.
FIND MORE STORIES IN: California | San Francisco | Colorado | Oakland | McCarthy | Waltham | Sears, Roebuck and Company

Kaufmann is one of a growing cadre of architects and builders who, with varying luck, have turned to factories to build green. The homes range from simple cottages, available for less than $100,000, to high-end showpieces at $1 million or more.

These are not mobile homes, known as "manufactured" housing, but rather "modular" homes built to local codes and set on permanent foundations. They often consist of several customized modules that are placed together at the property.

"It's the future," says David Johnston, Colorado-based author of Green From the Ground Up. In the past year, Johnston has held green-building workshops at factories in several states.

Despite Kaufmann's experience, other companies report widespread interest from customers and expect orders to pick up once the economy recovers.

"We're already seeing the boom," says Maura McCarthy, co-founder of Blu Homes in Waltham, Mass. The green modular builder, which has its own factory plus partners in three other states, launched its website in July. It has four homes nearing completion and a dozen more in the pipeline. Elsewhere:

•All American Homes, one of the nation's largest modular builders, began last fall to offer super-insulated, passive-solar homes. The homes, available in 36 states, generally cost less than $150 a square foot.

•LivingHomes, a California-based green builder, will begin to make its modular homes available nationwide next month, says CEO Steve Glenn. The modern homes, some with floor-to-ceiling glass windows, range from $200 to $325 a square foot.

Building in a factory is "inherently greener" than building on-site, says Nate Kredich of the U.S. Green building Council. He says there's less construction waste and greater efficiency, and because materials aren't exposed to bad weather, better quality.

There's no national data on the number of modular homes certified as green. Dozens of certification programs exist nationwide, many of which award points for factory-built modules and panels.

Modular building may be catching the green wave, but it's hardly new. In 1908, Sears Roebuck & Co. began selling kit homes through its catalog.

The new green homes vary widely in style and cost, says Sheri Koones, author of Prefabulous, a book about factory-built houses. For an upcoming book, she profiled 25 eco-friendly homes nationwide that were partly or entirely prefabricated.

"Most of the houses do not have geothermal power or solar panels," she says. Rather, they rely on well-insulated walls and windows, site orientation to maximize sunlight as well as efficient appliances, dual-flush toilets and low-flow faucets.

"You can build green without going to great expense," Koones says. "That's important for people to realize."

McCarthy says her Blu Homes, which use spray-foam insulation and a high-efficiency HVAC system, cost a total of $135 to $175 a square foot.

Kaufmann's stylish homes cost at least $250 a square foot. "It really takes the biggest developers" to make the homes affordable, says Kaufmann, who plans to sell her designs. She says developers are interested in green modular because the homes are finished quickly and offer consumers lower energy bills.

Kaufmann says she and her husband have a zero energy bill for their three-bedroom, 1,560-square-foot home near Oakland, which has solar rooftop panels.

"We use one-third the water, sometimes less, than the average household," she says. "We produce twice as much energy as we use."

Are Green Jobs a Myth?

I have commented many times with regards to the great promise of Green Jobs being the saving grace of the current economic tsunami. I have one such green job and I can assure you as I have said my rescue has yet to occur. As for the ones in Wind, Solar, Geothermal and Energy they are slim to none and require a great deal of experience which is a Catch 22 given that these fields are growing, new and supposedly an opportunity for workers to become trained and versed in them. This little caveat is not a shock.

Last night I received a notice from a Voc Tech college where I go to expand my own knowledge and there message was bleak and honest with regards to where we are in relation to Green Jobs. I really respect that they are trying to caution people that this is not a plan for those looking for a "new" career. I have to agree and second the motion that unless you are currently working in a related profession going into an expensive program with no guarantee of a job is unfortunately a bad plan. The truth is that hard and severe. Job Training unless jobs are available are another myth that is often used by Government to convince the population that its just a matter of "education."

I wish I could offer positive comments regarding the industry but I am afraid I must agree with the statement below:

We are still awaiting instructor availability for the Residential Energy Auditing class as well. This class prepares the participant to take both the written and the field exam for BPI certification. It will not be scheduled until August or September, but I will email everyone as soon as it is scheduled. Our auditors are extremely busy as the Federal money begins to show up at the local level. In addition, they have been reluctant to train when the jobs just are not there. How many energy auditing jobs have you seen advertised on Craig’s List lately? Very few. I believe, however, that many careers related to construction would benefit from this knowledge; architects, the trades, contractors, retrofitters, etc. This training might be called upskilling rather than training for an energy auditing job. An energy auditor, to be proficient in the field, requires months of on the job training to understand the complexities of the job.

Energy Efficiency is in my opinion the most significant element in Green Building. I am right now sitting through a webinar with Energy Star discussing the new EPA Guidelines for new buildings Energy Star certification. It is very similar to LEED and NAHB guidelines that embrace higher HERS ratings, better water efficiency and use and overall performance of the home, including indoor air quality. This has been a real deficiency in the current Energy Star program so I am glad to see more stringent move in this direction.

Now if we can become as stringent with Wall Street.......

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Yes Chicken LIttle the Sky is Falling

I cannot always devote my blog to the latest and greatest Green Build as there are plenty of others who seem to take delight in announcing the erection of each green project as something they have a stake in. Perhaps they get erect at the mere thought of another LEED building dotting our landscape.

Meanwhile back in the real world some of us are simply trying to survive the best we can. I am on day three of not sleeping wondering when I will have enough money to cover my debts. I have not had a client in three months nor do I expect one soon. I have had to return to substitute teaching as a way of generating income and that as of Friday came to an end. Apparently, I do not qualify for unemployment despite paying in to it as I have "reasonable assurance" of going back to work in September. Well with over 100 teacher on layoff and more retirees going back to subbing and therefore taking priority over lesser subs I wonder when that reasonable assurance will kick in. That and the fact we are on a monthly payroll plan that could ostensibly put me not seeing a paycheck until November I have to wonder how reasonably assured I am in making rent and paying just the regular bills in the interim. I had to take out a no interest loan for 4 months to make rent and that is only for two months of rent. I fear that if this summer is like last which was the collapse of my construction business and other disasters that occurred, I know I will be in serious trouble.

In abject honesty I have to wonder why people are not taking to the streets, why this has gone on for so long that people who are Educators full or substitute are forced to live on nothing while being placed in the responsibility of trying to develop an educated workforce. Gosh, all my degrees and experience cannot help me find work, what is it saying to those in school with regards to making it work? It says have connections, be white and upwardly mobile, go the "right" schools, become a Master of the Universe and direct those below into further desperation and destitution.

This is what our economy is the Predator State. I am reading a book with the same name by John K. Galbraith a respected son of an Economist and one in his own right that discusses how Free Trade and Capitalism are myths at building a strong economy and in turn democracy. Far from it we have seen the systematic destruction of equality and parity when it comes to access to power and success.

When I speak of my fears I often hear "you are right and we need change" or I hear "you are bumming me out with your downer talk." The truth is I am in trouble, we are in trouble and there is NO ONE at the gate to help us. Frankly Obama whom I respect is not strong enough of either an individual or politician to stand up to special interest. His guardians of the financial system Geithner and Summers are lords and disciples of it and Rubin is there I am sure making sure that banks don't feel the pain at any level we have felt. Let's face it that group is insidious, incestuous and incompetent. And frankly Obama if he was an advocate of change would never have included them in his cabinet or advisers. A real disappointment. There plans SUCK and BLOW and not in a good way.

We must stop with our heads buried in the sand. We must get all of our elected officials out of office who are slaves to the system and to business. I urge you to read Galbraith and start finding candidates who are willing to go this road alone. They are there but they need financing and that is the problem. But we have the numbers and let us not have the destiny of the majority controlled any further by this predatory minority.

Look for the Union Label

I have to admit I was thrilled to see Unions re surging in their attempt to move into protecting workers and making headway's into the Green Jobs we feel are going to "rescue" America's working class. Yes they will, IF they pay livable wages and have clear plans in place to not only save the environment but build on it. We have already come to realize that business has no intention of monitoring itself in any way that benefits the greater good. Government free of special interests, the general population and the groups and advocates of those directly involved stand a better chance of keeping us on track and honest when it comes to moving into the green future.

The NY Times posted this article (below) about how unions are affecting permitting and the like when Renewable Energy is establishing businesses in California. Of course they have the "usual" arguments that it will cause delays and add costs... well wrong because if you delay we have already realized that that alone adds costs and the legal requirement to mandate this change is in place so paying people decent wages, having a union group should not be the issue. It should be the COST OF DOING BUSINESS and so your profits may be less but who really gives a shit.. oh yeah - management and shareholders who reap that profit while the line workers don't. The same old same old even in the new order.

I am applauding the unions and wish them success. We need more of this activism for us to return to finding real jobs with real wages.


A Move to Put the Union Label on Solar Power Plants

Published: June 18, 2009

SACRAMENTO — When a company called Ausra filed plans for a big solar power plant in California, it was deluged with demands from a union group that it study the effect on creatures like the short-nosed kangaroo rat and the ferruginous hawk.

By contrast, when a competitor, BrightSource Energy, filed plans for an even bigger solar plant that would affect the imperiled desert tortoise, the same union group, California Unions for Reliable Energy, raised no complaint. Instead, it urged regulators to approve the project as quickly as possible.

One big difference between the projects? Ausra had rejected demands that it use only union workers to build its solar farm, while BrightSource pledged to hire labor-friendly contractors.

As California moves to license dozens of huge solar power plants to meet the state’s renewable energy goals, some developers contend they are being pressured to sign agreements pledging to use union labor. If they refuse, they say, they can count on the union group to demand costly environmental studies and deliver hostile testimony at public hearings.

If they commit at the outset to use union labor, they say, the environmental objections never materialize.

“This does stress the limits of credibility to some extent,” a California energy commissioner, Jeffrey Byron, said at one contentious hearing, “when an attorney representing a labor union is so focused on the potential impact of a solar power plant on birds.”

Union leaders acknowledge that they make aggressive use of the environmental laws, but say they do it out of genuine concern for the sustainability of California’s power industry, not just as a negotiating tactic. And they contend they do not abandon valid environmental objections to a project just because a company signs a labor agreement.

“We’ve been tarred and feathered more than once on this issue,” said Marc Joseph, a lawyer for California Unions for Reliable Energy. “We don’t walk away from environmental issues.”

At proposed fossil-fuel power plants, the union group has long been accused of exploiting environmental laws to force companies into signing labor agreements. The tactic is a subject of perennial discussion in the California legislature, which has considered, but never passed, bills to strip labor of its right to participate in environmental assessments.

What is new is that California Unions for Reliable Energy, a coalition of construction unions, appears to be applying this approach to new-age renewable energy projects, especially solar power plants, which are being fast-tracked to help meet the state’s green power target.

Lawyers for the union both negotiate labor agreements with solar developers and participate in the environmental review of the projects.

California Unions for Reliable Energy insists it is pursuing the long-term interests of its members. If energy projects are held to high environmental standards, the group says, more of them will ultimately get built, and that will mean more union jobs.

Nationwide, as billions of dollars in public and private investment flow to renewable energy projects, the environmental and labor battles being fought in California could prove to be the opening skirmishes of a larger fight over the emerging green economy.

Should Rust Belt factories converted to making solar components and wind turbines be union shops, gateways to the middle-class for a new generation of workers in the green economy? Or will the green economy look more like the service economy, with low-paid employees installing rooftop solar panels and retrofitting buildings?

For the labor movement, green jobs represent an opportunity to regain relevance after years of declining membership.

“Unions are trying to get a foothold in solar, wind and other new green occupations,” said Philip Mattera, research director for Good Jobs First, a labor-oriented research group in Washington.

“We’re at a turning point that will have an impact on the future of the whole economy, and a lot of unions are gearing up.”

But skeptics fear that union control of renewable energy projects will saddle the nascent industry with high costs and undermine its competitiveness.

“These environmental challenges are the unions’ major tactic to maintain their share of industrial construction — we call it greenmail,” said Kevin Dayton, state government affairs director for the Associated Builders and Contractors of California. “The future of solar energy is jeopardized by these unions holding up construction.”

In California, project labor agreements can raise costs on a project by about 20 percent, Mr. Dayton estimated.

The fights of the moment center on solar farms proposed for tens of thousands of acres of desert and agricultural land.

When the utility giant the FPL Group ignored entreaties from California Unions for Reliable Energy to use union labor on a planned 250-megawatt solar farm, it was hit with 144 data requests, demanding details on things like “the engine brand, model, and horsepower rating” of a water pump engine, “the number of man-hours devoted to focused tortoise surveys, by location” and “the role of each individual that participated.”

In filings with the California Energy Commission, Ausra has accused the union group of abusing environmental laws in a bid to extract a labor agreement. FPL’s lawyers accused the group of trying to stall the company’s solar project.

Bob Balgenorth, chairman of the labor group, makes no apologies for pushing hard for union jobs from solar developers while scrutinizing the environmental impact of the projects. “You only have so much land that can accept solar power plants,” said Mr. Balgenorth, who has cultivated strong ties with conservation groups.

“So the question is, should that land be used for low-paid jobs or should that land be used for high-paid jobs?”

Some solar developers say that signing a labor agreement is simply an unavoidable cost of doing business.

“Let’s just say that it is clear to us from experience that if we do not enter into a project labor agreement, the costs and schedule of the project is interminable,” said Douglas Wert, chief executive of Spinnaker Energy, a San Diego company hired to build two solar farms for Portuguese developer Martifer.

After Stirling Energy Systems filed plans with California regulators to install 30,000 solar dishes on 10 square miles of desert land, its executives got a call from Mr. Joseph, the union lawyer. Sean Gallagher, a vice president for Tessera Solar, the development arm for Stirling, said the company declined Mr. Joseph’s request to commit to using union labor.

California Unions for Reliable Energy subsequently filed 143 data requests with the company on the final day such requests could be made, and later intervened in a second, 850-megawatt Stirling solar project.

It was a different story after BrightSource Energy pledged to hire union-friendly contractors to build its Mojave Desert solar power plant complex. Despite questions raised by environmental groups about the project’s impact on wildlife, the union group took no action, according to commission documents.

Mr. Joseph said that the labor group wants to mediate between environmentalists and BrightSource, which is based in Oakland, Calif.

“We’re actually hoping that we can help resolve these issues in a way that allows that project to go forward and gives maximum protection to the desert tortoise,” he said.

He said he sees “absolutely no conflict of interest” in seeking labor agreements from solar developers while challenging the environmental effect of the projects. “It is in the interest of construction workers to have good middle class jobs — and to have conventional and renewable power plants that are sustainable,” Mr. Joseph said.

The union group’s strategy drew plaudits from environmentalists when the group was winning agreements from developers to cut pollution from fossil fuel power plants. But as some conservation groups ally themselves with business interests to push for a rapid rollout of renewable energy, strains are showing in the so-called blue-green alliance.

Some environmental groups are worried that the labor tactics will delay green energy projects and cause a backlash, but they are reluctant to go public with criticisms of the labor movement.

Others, like the Natural Resources Defense Council, are trying to steer clear of the controversy.

The council “hasn’t taken a position on whether union labor should or shouldn’t be used in these projects,” said Sheryl Carter, the group’s co-director of energy programs.

And still others defend the labor group’s role.

Carl Zichella, the Sierra Club’s director of western renewable programs, said California Unions for Reliable Energy had been effective at extracting concessions that aid the environment.

“It’s not a warm fuzzy thing they are doing; it’s a very self-interested thing they’re doing,” he said. “But it has a large ancillary public benefit.”

This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:

Correction: June 20, 2009
Because of an editing error, an article on Friday about union efforts to gain a foothold in green energy projects misstated the title of Jeffrey Byron, who questioned union motives in objecting to some projects on environmental grounds. He is one of five members of the California Energy Commission; he is not “the California energy commissioner.”

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

The "debate" over "referral" services (LGC's)

I have long complained about lead generation or referral networks, companies or websites that tout their screening ability to find you a qualified service professional. These are paid for service paid by the "service professional" and the screening is usually how fast does the check clear.

My other favorites have been the HRN (Homeowner Referral Networks) where a woman has a business "matching" Contractors to Clients. Again the screening largely relies on the Contractor giving her the information and some basic license checking. To truly vet someone you need a much more comprehensive background check, contacting the bank for their financials (if you wonder why a Contractor seems to be delayed, etc. its usually for this reason... not enough credit or money in the bank to cover down times, between jobs or buying materials for current jobs so they run several at a time in a sort of Ponzi scheme), contacting vendors and trade professionals to see how they are at paying bills, managing and the like. This is why I DON'T REFER and also I don't do the same to my trade partners. As clients need equal vetting... are they legit, is this tire kicking, will they be good clients, etc. Its a two way street and one I prefer to drive around.

There is currently a raging debate regarding the subject and its made its way to Remodeling Magazine. I reprint that here along with some comments to see why as either a Contractor or Home Owner you should seriously avoid using them.

Hot and Bothered

by Leah Thayer
Remodeling Online

Remodelers, what do you think about lead-generating companies – speaking broadly, the multimillion-dollar industry of the likes of ServiceMagic, Angie’s List, and so many others that claim to (and often do, say many remodelers) match “qualified” and/or “pre-screened” homeowners with contractors, usually at a cost to the latter?

A) Indispensable marketing tools;

B) Shams that take advantage of homeowners and contractors alike;

C) Something in between, depending on the type of work you do, the type of leads you want, the LGCs you use, and how aggressively you go after the leads they deliver.

Lately, the topic of LGCs has been steaming up the remodeling discussion boards on professional networking sites. Most remodelers that have used the services do seem to have pretty strong opinions about them. For instance, of the 266 comments (so far) in a LinkedIn thread about “the unscrupulous tactics of lead generation companies,” here are a few excerpts:

“…lead generation companies are the new telemarketers of our time…”
“… good ROI from a lead generation company is an old wives’ tale….”
“… we have tried lead generation companies before and they weren't for us. Were we mad at them? No. I was mad at myself for spending the money….”
I can’t say that there’s one easy answer to my question above. I’ve written about LGCs in the past, and it’s a topic that is sprawling and may be virtually inexhaustible. (Anyone have a good friend at 60 Minutes who can give the industry full investigative scrutiny?) In the meantime…

Ringing Off the Wrong Hook

One remodeler who IS frustrated by LGCs, for a few reasons, told me some of his experiences using them. Two anecdotes:

1. Fairly affluent older homeowners, a doctor and his wife, began their major remodeling project with a large LGC. Using the automated system, the couple checked most of the "boxes" for the different types of projects for which the service provides leads – bathrooms, kitchen, addition, countertops, cabinets – because their big project would encompass all those types of work.

“Within 24 hours, they were getting hundreds of calls” from contractors that the LGC had sold their lead to, my source told me. “They couldn’t answer their phone for a month.” That poor couple, the remodeler speculated, probably generated up to $5,000 in leads (paid by those scrambling contractors) for the LGC.

2. Curious about how much screening LGCs really do, this same remodeler pretended to be a homeowner in need of a remodeler. He contacted a large LGC (one that his own company had signed up to receive leads from) with “a bad lead, something like $20,000 for a second-story addition.”

Within a half-hour, his remodeling company got a call from that very same LGC about that very same impossibly unqualified lead. “I think they sold it to seven to nine other contractors too,” he said.

Investing in Education

This remodeler doesn’t much care for the LGCs with which he’s dealt, clearly, but he feels that in this economy he needs to have as many feelers out as possible. His experiences make a reasonable case for all remodelers to closely examine how and whether to invest marketing dollars in the services.

Some remodelers say poor LGC results are just a risk of bargaining for good LGC results. And that LGCs are simply better-suited to specialty contractors and small projects than to full-service and/or design/build companies.

And others say the solution is to invest more effort and marketing dollars in doing really good work for your existing client base, educating them about the value of your service, and asking them for referrals, to the extent that your excellent professional relationship perpetuates personal referrals, community-wide goodwill, and a steady book of business.

Take this comment, from another remodeler on that LinkedIn thread:

Remodelers should learn “how to build healthy companies with solid referral bases so they don't even need to acknowledge the existence of [LGSs]. Stay true to the mission: Education, education, education…. Lead generation companies hardly register in my consciousness....never used 'em...never will.”

Said another, in an email to me yesterday:

"In my mind, if we educate people and they make an informed choice, unless they are prone to self-mutilation, they should make the best choice for themselves."

What about you, remodelers? What’s your advice to other remodelers on using LGCs cost-effectively in these marketing-critical times? Or on getting really good referrals the old-fashioned way? Be constructive on this public forum, please. What's worked for you?

Leah Thayer, senior editor

The LGC's are offering consumers the opportunity to get the best price by having companies pursue them. Most professionals are not selling on price. Therefore, by nature, not a good fit for most. Look at, product of Service Magic. After you complete a survey, you are informed about getting a great, low price--not in these words exactly, but close. I entered a project for 2 baths, and a kitchen. The estimate of costs for all, 62 or 67K. This sets the anchor price in the consumers mind. This doesn't seem helpful to our industry, and certainly not fair to consumers. In my mind, there is much wrong with the LGC's system.

I have been following this thread on LinkedIn as well as here. It's interesting that at the bottom of the blog there are five ads for LGCs. I never have used them but agree with most of the others, the public needs to be made aware of their likely outcome if they sign up.

I have been following this thread on LinkedIn as well as here. It's interesting that at the bottom of the blog there are five ads for LGCs. I never have used them but agree with most of the others, the public needs to be made aware of their likely outcome if they sign up.

I think Leah has brought to light all lot of the points that have been addressed during the thread on LI and this article. The bottom line is for the most part remodelers that have been in business for a while have tried LGS' and not been happy for the most part. Our obligation is to educate the rest of the contractor's and the newbies so they don't make the same mistakes (just like you would teach your children). Bottom line - just as your kids will do - these contractors will need to make their own decisions; right or wrong!!!! We need to combat these vipers through education 0 there is no alternative. If they use an LGS they will undoubtedly lose money, have a bad experience or feel abused - in any effect at some point, if they look at the process autonousmly they will determine they are being taken advantage of.

Regardless of whether the LGS's are abusing clients and consumers I would rather opine that since our industry already suffers from unqualified and disreputable pretenders we cannot enforce standards on, lets at least require legitimate companies to follow ethical guidelines when they sell a service to our industry. As far as "Never used em, never will so it's not a problem for me" well I see that as a sad and selfish statement that shows a lack of support for our industry in general. As far as getting people on board to join this discussion, I say bring it on. Paul Lesieur/ Silvertree Construction

I find every LGC I have dealt with to be unethical. They sell their products by making promises they have never delivered on. I've never considered Angie's List to be an LGC, but I do lump them in the same basic category of questionable ethics. Angie's List should take money from homeowners ONLY and stop all the pay to play(by Advertisers) crap and make their service what it is supposed to be: an honest peer review.

With regard to LGC's, I will never use them, again. My experience has been far less than positive. With all of the leads that I purchased over the years, approx. 50, I sold two jobs that produced about $20,000 in revenue. Most leads never even answered their phones within 15 minutes of receiving the leads. The company that I worked with would give credits for bad leads, for a period of time, but then even quit doing that. I have read most of the posts on the LinkedIn discussion, and read all of the buyer beward comments, but regardless, I should have had a much better close ration than 1:25. What have I learned through all of this? Do your own work. If something looks to good to be true, it probably is. We are using a multi-faceted approach to our marketing. We have found a radio station that hits a large portion of our target market. We have a very nice website that shows up on the first page of remodelers in our area. We are involved in our local builders association. We are involved in the local Chambers of Commerce. We have made ourselves available to reporters for quotes on articles that they are running on the industry. We are involved in our local home shows, whether we get a lot of leads or not. In other words, we are out in the marketplace creating our own momentum. Yes it takes time and lots of work. But, my leads are far more qualified than any lead that I ever received from one of the LGC's. My close rate on call in's is about 1:7 and on referrals is 1:2. I will spend my money where it does the most good. Thanks, Leah for opening this thread here. Hopefully it stays along this vein. ;

I agree with the need to educate homeowners about what a remodeling job takes. The best way to do so is to provide as much information regarding pricing, pictures and reviews from previous customers. When a new customer meet with you after seeing samples of your work and he is aware of your pricing range, there is a better chance he will know and appreciate the difference between a good and bad remodeler.

Green is Good (in small doses like medicine)

I hammer a lot about the obsession with "Green Building" being that of a fad that allows most builders/remodelers to eschew as such. But as I have written in the past that Green build and Energy Efficiency are very different aspects about the very same thing. As my Company says, "Find Your Right Shade of Green."

Coming off a conversation last night with a retail owner who is considering adding ratings to products to clear up misconceptions and lend more ideas to what is considered Green, I was relieved to know that many people are interested and want to make the right decisions now based on knowledge and information rather than impulse or belonging to a movement.

In that vein a new book is out about Green Building and I look forward to reading his views on the subject. From what I can tell they are very similar to my own and says much of what I have tried to say time and time and time again to those in the Remodeling Industry.

Below is the brief article taken from Remodeling Magazine Online which gives a basic idea of what the book discusses.


Building Green Via Collaboration
By:Leah Thayer

Green building doesn’t have to cost more than other building approaches, and green buildings can, in fact, achieve significant cost savings by making their inhabitants more healthy and productive. These and other “truths” about sustainable business practices are explored in The Truth About Green Business, a new book by Gil Friend, founder, president, and CEO of Natural Logic, which offers sustainability consulting to corporate clients such as Coca-Cola, General Mills, and Hewlett-Packard.

The book is listed at $18.99 and is available from and other booksellers. The publisher is FT Press.

From accounting to information technology to “green procurement,” Friend’s book explores 52 “truths” in all. In the realm of green building, it explores the LEED rating system and argues that integrative design -- essentially, a well thought-out team approach -- is essential to creating truly green, high-performance buildings. While this approach is most relevant to large developments, residential remodelers might find it enlightening as well.

Five tips for putting integrative design into action:

Kick off the integrative design process with a "design charette," an intensive, collaborative design session involving various stakeholders and every aspect of the project. See the charette as an opportunity to communicate and clarify green goals for the project and transform a group of specialists into a team with common goals. The charette should generate a compelling, shared story to guide the design team and client.

Assess the site and the needs of the building and the people who will occupy it. How will you use water, energy, living systems, and materials to meet those needs?

Set initial goals for the green building -- not just a shopping list of features and technologies, but also performance goals, including energy and water benchmarks. Let the list follow the process, not drive it. Research other green building case studies for inspiration. Strive to go beyond "doing less harm" to building a structure that enhances natural capital.

After the charette and buy-in from decision makers, have the design team discuss how to approach the actual building process. Provide continual, active communication to ensure that the building is properly calibrated for all systems.

Schedule frequent team workshops.

The book does not come with worksheets or checklists to help with items such as tip 2 (needs assessments); the author, in fact, is “very wary of a checklist-driven approach to design,” as it often “results in a sub-optimal design,” according to a publicist. “That said, the LEED rating system provides one level of checklist,” and many more guidelines are widely available.

--Leah Thayer, senior editor, REMODELING.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Its Warm in Here

This morning I read this article with regards to global warming. As I have mentioned there is little we can do to stop what is the oncoming train, however, there is a great need to slow it down some and perhaps give us the time to make the necessary life adjustments needed to remain a sustainable populace in a different world.

In this case we need to continue to push and push again municipalities to pursue renewable energy means, we as citizens need to conserve and by that I mean get rid of the gas guzzlers, reduce our water use, conserve on how we heat/cool our homes. We can still be active without needing to completely retrofit our homes with greywater systems and solar/geothermal energy. We HAVE no choice but to change our behavior and use immediately and the argument that it costs to much is absurd as the costs, financial and environmental, are too great to not.

Government Study Warns of Climate Change Effects


WASHINGTON — The impact of a changing climate is already being felt across the United States, like shifting migration patterns of butterflies in the West and heavier downpours in the Midwest and East, according to a government study to be released on Tuesday.

Even if the nation takes significant steps to slow emissions of heat-trapping gases, the impact of global warming is expected to become more severe in coming years, the report says, affecting farms and forests, coastlines and floodplains, water and energy supplies, transportation and human health.

The study was prepared by the United States Global Change Research Program, a joint scientific venture of 13 federal agencies and the White House. Under a 1990 law, the group is required to report every 10 years on natural and human-caused effects on the environment. The current study, which began in the George W. Bush administration, builds on the findings of the 2000 one.

The study, overseen by the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, will be posted at

Some of the effects being seen today and cited in the report are familiar, like more powerful tropical storms and erosion of ocean coastlines caused by melting Arctic ice. The study also cites an increase in drought in the Southwest and more intense heat waves in the Northeast as a result of growing concentrations of carbon dioxide and other climate-altering gases in the atmosphere.

Reduced mountain snowpack means earlier melt-offs and reduced stream volumes across the West and Northwest, affecting residential and agricultural water supplies, habitats for spawning fish and reduced hydroelectric power generation, the study found.

But the speed and severity of these effects in the future are expressed with less certainty in the report and will depend to some extent on how quickly the United States and other nations move to reduce emissions.

“What we would want to have people take away is that climate change is happening now, and it’s actually beginning to affect our lives,” said Thomas R. Karl, director of the National Climatic Data Center at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and a principal author of the report. “It’s not just happening in the Arctic regions, but it’s beginning to show up in our own backyards.”

Dr. Karl said that unless the country acted soon to reduce emissions and to adapt to inevitable effects of a changing climate, the costs would be severe.

“Our destiny is really in our hands,” he said. “The size of those impacts is significantly smaller with appropriate controls.”

Dr. Karl said the section of the 188-page report dealing with human-health effects generated the most discussion and uncertainty among the agencies. The study said rising average temperatures would cause more heat-related illnesses and deaths, along with some reduction in deaths from extreme cold.

The study also showed that higher temperatures combined with air pollution would cause a higher incidence of asthma and other respiratory ailments.

Michael C. MacCracken, a leader of the 2000 study and a principal outside reviewer of the current one, said in an e-mail message that the new report was a useful overview of the state of current climate science in the United States, but “there is not much that is new.”

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Brother, Can you Spare Million?

I am not sure what the point the NY Times was making this morning with their articles on Ruth Madoff (Bernie's wife), the Harvard Students seeking aid, the former owner of the exclusive Yellowstone Club now reduced to millions (in debt), the man who lives with his mother desperately seeking work, any work, or Barbara Ehrenreich editorial recounting her eponymous work, Nickel and Dimed. I wasn't sure who I was supposed to feel sorry for.

Well let's begin with our good friend Ruth. She is described in the article as such...."the public reaction to Mrs. Madoff has been white hot and vitriolic. Rightly or wrongly, she is viewed as an unrepentant beneficiary of ill-gotten wealth, a petite and well-dressed embodiment of the collective, bloated greed that helped topple the stock market and the housing industry." Apparently so tainted both her hairdresser and florist have discontinued serving her. Where will Mrs. Madoff go to get her roots done? Supercuts or try Clairol at home. Either way she will be joining the great unwashed in downgrading their services.

Then there is the Harvard Yard. Times are tough even for those well connected and financed. Harvard grads have established a fund to aid those in need. Unithrive, which made its debut last month, matches alumni lenders and cash-strapped students, who post photographs and biographical information and can request up to $2,000. The loans are interest-free and payable within five years of graduation.

The nonprofit site is the brainchild of three recent Harvard graduates, who hope it can help ease the crisis in paying for college, especially if it is one day rolled out to other colleges that cannot afford to be as generous as their Alma mater, which already awards scholarships to all students with demonstrated need. And by demonstrated need apparently going to Japan critical..

A Unithrive request does not have to be purely academic. Ricky Kuperman, a student borrower who just finished his sophomore year at Harvard and is an accomplished dancer, said in an interview that he wanted the $2,000 no-interest loan to visit Okinawa, Japan, in 2010 to spend time in the birthplace of karate. “If I don’t get the money, I will have to work longer next summer or during the term,” he said. “It will allow me to stay in shape and make getting cast in films or in dance projects that much more possible.”

I wonder if Sally Struthers is available to do the advertisements, maybe even Angelina Joile would be willing. I mean this is Harvard after all.

And finally my personal favorite is the former owner of the Yellowstone Club. Her story really breaks one heart. If I could manage sympathy, it would most likely take the form of empathy.

Edra Denise Blixseth, age 55, is tiny, barely 5 foot 3, but she is at the center of a huge financial mess. According to personal bankruptcy papers her lawyer filed in March, she owes $500 million to $1 billion and has assets of barely half that, almost none of them liquid. Earlier this month, the court approved the sale of one of her most prized possessions — the private ski resort in Big Sky, Mont., known as the Yellowstone Club — to the private equity firm of one of its members for $115 million. Just a year ago, that same buyer, Cross Harbor Capital Partners, had been willing to pay $400 million for the club.

She sounds like she and Ruth would get along, as Ms. Blixseth has been described as someone who “spent millions like money grew on trees” and accuses her of being involved in “a pattern of untruthfulness and dishonest tactics.”

Times are so tough that her current boyfriend had to sell his Bentley to assist in paying off her debts. Wow what is next, self hair color? Move over Ruth.

But thankfully the NY Times redeems itself by having an article only two pages away about the man who has moved home with his mother and sister the result of losing his job. Still unemployed he would welcome a job that pays $10 hour. He admits living large but in comparison to the ladies club I would say not large enough. Maybe they could hire him to color their hair or help them move their things from their mansions.

And lastly the article written by Barbara Ehrenreich who wrote Nickel and Dimed. Her reminder that the secret shame of our country, the largely ignored, the working poor continue on, worse than ever and yet seemingly unchanged as things can't get worse from worse. A reminder that the ever tenuous hold on middle class become further at risk as many our simply one accident, one job loss or one crisis away from joining them at the bottom of the tier. This is the secret shame of America that we have done little to address.

This article is reprinted below with noted sections bolded for your review.

Too Poor to Make the News


THE human side of the recession, in the new media genre that’s been called “recession porn,” is the story of an incremental descent from excess to frugality, from ease to austerity. The super-rich give up their personal jets; the upper middle class cut back on private Pilates classes; the merely middle class forgo vacations and evenings at Applebee’s. In some accounts, the recession is even described as the “great leveler,” smudging the dizzying levels of inequality that characterized the last couple of decades and squeezing everyone into a single great class, the Nouveau Poor, in which we will all drive tiny fuel-efficient cars and grow tomatoes on our porches.

But the outlook is not so cozy when we look at the effects of the recession on a group generally omitted from all the vivid narratives of downward mobility — the already poor, the estimated 20 percent to 30 percent of the population who struggle to get by in the best of times. This demographic, the working poor, have already been living in an economic depression of their own. From their point of view “the economy,” as a shared condition, is a fiction.

This spring, I tracked down a couple of the people I had met while working on my 2001 book, “Nickel and Dimed,” in which I worked in low-wage jobs like waitressing and housecleaning, and I found them no more gripped by the recession than by “American Idol”; things were pretty much “same old.” The woman I called Melissa in the book was still working at Wal-Mart, though in nine years, her wages had risen to $10 an hour from $7. “Caroline,” who is increasingly disabled by diabetes and heart disease, now lives with a grown son and subsists on occasional cleaning and catering jobs. We chatted about grandchildren and church, without any mention of exceptional hardship.

As with Denise Smith, whom I recently met through the Virginia Organizing Project and whose bachelor’s degree in history qualifies her for seasonal $10-an-hour work at a tourist site, the recession is largely an abstraction. “We were poor,” Ms. Smith told me cheerfully, “and we’re still poor.”

But then, at least if you inhabit a large, multiclass extended family like my own, there comes that e-mail message with the subject line “Need your help,” and you realize that bad is often just the stage before worse. The note was from one of my nephews, and it reported that his mother-in-law, Peg, was, like several million other Americans, about to lose her home to foreclosure.

It was the back story that got to me: Peg, who is 55 and lives in rural Missouri, had been working three part-time jobs to support her disabled daughter and two grandchildren, who had moved in with her. Then, last winter, she had a heart attack, missed work and fell behind in her mortgage payments. If I couldn’t help, all four would have to move into the cramped apartment in Minneapolis already occupied by my nephew and his wife.

Only after I’d sent the money did I learn that the mortgage was not a subprime one and the home was not a house but a dilapidated single-wide trailer that, as a “used vehicle,” commands a 12-percent mortgage interest rate. You could argue, without any shortage of compassion, that “Low-Wage Worker Loses Job, Home” is nobody’s idea of news.

In late May I traveled to Los Angeles — where the real unemployment rate, including underemployed people and those who have given up on looking for a job, is estimated at 20 percent — to meet with a half-dozen community organizers. They are members of a profession, derided last summer by Sarah Palin, that helps low-income people renegotiate mortgages, deal with eviction when their landlords are foreclosed and, when necessary, organize to confront landlords and bosses.

The question I put to this rainbow group was: “Has the recession made a significant difference in the low-income communities where you work, or are things pretty much the same?” My informants — from Koreatown, South Central, Maywood, Artesia and the area around Skid Row — took pains to explain that things were already bad before the recession, and in ways that are disconnected from the larger economy. One of them told me, for example, that the boom of the ’90s and early 2000s had been “basically devastating” for the urban poor. Rents skyrocketed; public housing disappeared to make way for gentrification.

But yes, the recession has made things palpably worse, largely because of job losses. With no paychecks coming in, people fall behind on their rent and, since there can be as long as a six-year wait for federal housing subsidies, they often have no alternative but to move in with relatives. “People are calling me all the time,” said Preeti Sharma of the South Asian Network, “They think I have some sort of magic.”

The organizers even expressed a certain impatience with the Nouveau Poor, once I introduced the phrase. If there’s a symbol for the recession in Los Angeles, Davin Corona of Strategic Actions for a Just Economy said, it’s “the policeman facing foreclosure in the suburbs.” The already poor, he said — the undocumented immigrants, the sweatshop workers, the janitors, maids and security guards — had all but “disappeared” from both the news media and public policy discussions.

Disappearing with them is what may be the most distinctive and compelling story of this recession. When I got back home, I started calling up experts, like Sharon Parrott, a policy analyst at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, who told me, “There’s rising unemployment among all demographic groups, but vastly more among the so-called unskilled.”

How much more? Larry Mishel, the president of the Economic Policy Institute, offers data showing that blue-collar unemployment is increasing three times as fast as white-collar unemployment. The last two recessions — in the early ’90s and in 2001 — produced mass white-collar layoffs, and while the current one has seen plenty of downsized real-estate agents and financial analysts, the brunt is being borne by the blue-collar working class, which has been sliding downward since deindustrialization began in the ’80s.

When I called food banks and homeless shelters around the country, most staff members and directors seemed poised to offer press-pleasing tales of formerly middle-class families brought low. But some, like Toni Muhammad at Gateway Homeless Services in St. Louis, admitted that mostly they see “the long-term poor,” who become even poorer when they lose the kind of low-wage jobs that had been so easy for me to find from 1998 to 2000. As Candy Hill, a vice president of Catholic Charities U.S.A., put it, “All the focus is on the middle class — on Wall Street and Main Street — but it’s the people on the back streets who are really suffering.”

What are the stations between poverty and destitution? Like the Nouveau Poor, the already poor descend through a series of deprivations, though these are less likely to involve forgone vacations than missed meals and medications. The Times reported earlier this month that one-third of Americans can no longer afford to comply with their prescriptions.

There are other, less life-threatening, ways to try to make ends meet. The Associated Press has reported that more women from all social classes are resorting to stripping, although “gentlemen’s clubs,” too, have been hard-hit by the recession. The rural poor are turning increasingly to “food auctions,” which offer items that may be past their sell-by dates.

And for those who like their meat fresh, there’s the option of urban hunting. In Racine, Wis., a 51-year-old laid-off mechanic told me he’s supplementing his diet by “shooting squirrels and rabbits and eating them stewed, baked and grilled.” In Detroit, where the wildlife population has mounted as the human population ebbs, a retired truck driver is doing a brisk business in raccoon carcasses, which he recommends marinating with vinegar and spices.

The most common coping strategy, though, is simply to increase the number of paying people per square foot of dwelling space — by doubling up or renting to couch-surfers. It’s hard to get firm numbers on overcrowding, because no one likes to acknowledge it to census-takers, journalists or anyone else who might be remotely connected to the authorities. At the legal level, this includes Peg taking in her daughter and two grandchildren in a trailer with barely room for two, or my nephew and his wife preparing to squeeze all four of them into what is essentially a one-bedroom apartment. But stories of Dickensian living arrangements abound.

In Los Angeles, Prof. Peter Dreier, a housing policy expert at Occidental College, says that “people who’ve lost their jobs, or at least their second jobs, cope by doubling or tripling up in overcrowded apartments, or by paying 50 or 60 or even 70 percent of their incomes in rent.” Thelmy Perez, an organizer with Strategic Actions for a Just Economy, is trying to help an elderly couple who could no longer afford the $600 a month rent on their two-bedroom apartment, so they took in six unrelated subtenants and are now facing eviction. According to a community organizer in my own city, Alexandria, Va., the standard apartment in a complex occupied largely by day laborers contains two bedrooms, each housing a family of up to five people, plus an additional person laying claim to the couch.

Overcrowding — rural, suburban and urban — renders the mounting numbers of the poor invisible, especially when the perpetrators have no telltale cars to park on the street. But if this is sometimes a crime against zoning laws, it’s not exactly a victimless one. At best, it leads to interrupted sleep and long waits for the bathroom; at worst, to explosions of violence. Catholic Charities is reporting a spike in domestic violence in many parts of the country, which Candy Hill attributes to the combination of unemployment and overcrowding.

And doubling up is seldom a stable solution. According to Toni Muhammad, about 70 percent of the people seeking emergency shelter in St. Louis report they had been living with relatives “but the place was too small.” When I asked Peg what it was like to share her trailer with her daughter’s family, she said bleakly, “I just stay in my bedroom.”

The deprivations of the formerly affluent Nouveau Poor are real enough, but the situation of the already poor suggests that they do not necessarily presage a greener, more harmonious future with a flatter distribution of wealth. There are no data yet on the effects of the recession on measures of inequality, but historically the effect of downturns is to increase, not decrease, class polarization.

The recession of the ’80s transformed the working class into the working poor, as manufacturing jobs fled to the third world, forcing American workers into the low-paying service and retail sector. The current recession is knocking the working poor down another notch — from low-wage employment and inadequate housing toward erratic employment and no housing at all. Comfortable people have long imagined that American poverty is far more luxurious than the third world variety, but the difference is rapidly narrowing.

Maybe “the economy,” as depicted on CNBC, will revive again, restoring the kinds of jobs that sustained the working poor, however inadequately, before the recession. Chances are, though, that they still won’t pay enough to live on, at least not at any level of safety and dignity. In fact, hourly wage growth, which had been running at about 4 percent a year, has undergone what the Economic Policy Institute calls a “dramatic collapse” in the last six months alone. In good times and grim ones, the misery at the bottom just keeps piling up, like a bad debt that will eventually come due.

Barbara Ehrenreich is the author, most recently, of “This Land Is Their Land: Reports From a Divided Nation.”