Saturday, July 31, 2010

Rise Up.

In line with an earlier posting about how Corporations are recording record profits and savings not by production and sale but my reduction in force. Simply laying people off to artificially inflate the bottom line and with no end in site this practice will continue I guess until well bankruptcy or sudden resurgence in demand.

I had two bizarre discussions yesterday - one with a fellow at my local coffee shop who looked over my shoulder at my newspaper and said "how can we have a recession when we are still producing things and recording a GNP?" I responded that we can when we have a certain baseline expectations to maintain a reasonable level of unemployment followed by a reasonable level of demand for goods and services. Right now we have a total imbalance and soon we could enter deflation which would mean serious economic long term depression in our economy for a decade or more. Think Japan. He still said eventually though you can only grow so much and how much is really expected. I go again its a parallel figure. You always need food, medicine, housing, and hopefully luxury items and upgrades. If there is no money to buy them businesses further collapse and people starve/homeless/etc. There is a economic balance that must be maintained its corporate profits that are the issue not the GNP. When business serves only the need of business it becomes a very odd pyramid with only the top small percent controlling and dominating the economy.

He was a Realtor and a Contractor so he knew what I meant so at one point I thought this is another example of the Seattle Passive Aggressive I have come to know well. But in the course of our conversation I realized he was curious as to someones opinion on this complex dance of Economics.

Then I had another conversation with a friend whom I have known for 20 years. I don't see that friendship continuing for another after our exchange. He was in denial about the recession saying it did not exist and that it was those who refused to live in their means with responsibility that are the ones who are in trouble and deservedly so. I found it not only lacking in common sense, rationale but in compassion. I also find it ironic as he is a retail sales clerk in a luxury boutique that thrived on that mentality. He has no health care insurance and cannot afford it, recently divorce and the first thought was "oh god he has angry white man syndrome." He spoke of his own ability to live within his means while for years he lived predominately because of his wife's work, family income and generosity. Denial is a tough reality to face. He is 45 and will unlikely reap any benefits of his support of his wealthy clients and if they so valued his support they would have long ago offered him a job or work that would certainly validate his beliefs. It was almost tragic when I parted thinking how far we have gone.

Then this morning Bob Herbert in the New York Times addresses what I had earlier adding his own elegant expressionism to the issue of what it means in this economy to have a sustainable economy - the people.

______________________________________

A Sin and a Shame
By BOB HERBERT
Published: July 30, 2010



The treatment of workers by American corporations has been worse — far more treacherous — than most of the population realizes. There was no need for so many men and women to be forced out of their jobs in the downturn known as the great recession.

Many of those workers were cashiered for no reason other than outright greed by corporate managers. And that cruel, irresponsible, shortsighted policy has resulted in widespread human suffering and is doing great harm to the economy.

“I’ve never seen anything like this,” said Andrew Sum, an economics professor and director of the Center for Labor Market Studies at Northeastern University in Boston. “Not only did they throw all these people off the payrolls, they also cut back on the hours of the people who stayed on the job.”

As Professor Sum studied the data coming in from the recession, he realized that the carnage that occurred in the workplace was out of proportion to the economic hit that corporations were taking. While no one questions the severity of the downturn — the worst of the entire post-World War II period — the economic data show that workers to a great extent were shamefully exploited.

The recession officially started in December 2007. From the fourth quarter of 2007 to the fourth quarter of 2009, real aggregate output in the U.S., as measured by the gross domestic product, fell by about 2.5 percent. But employers cut their payrolls by 6 percent.

In many cases, bosses told panicked workers who were still on the job that they had to take pay cuts or cuts in hours, or both. And raises were out of the question. The staggering job losses and stagnant wages are central reasons why any real recovery has been so difficult.

They threw out far more workers and hours than they lost output,” said Professor Sum. “Here’s what happened: At the end of the fourth quarter in 2008, you see corporate profits begin to really take off, and they grow by the time you get to the first quarter of 2010 by $572 billion. And over that same time period, wage and salary payments go down by $122 billion.”

That kind of disconnect, said Mr. Sum, had never been seen before in all the decades since World War II.

In short, the corporations are making out like bandits. Now they’re sitting on mountains of cash and they still are not interested in hiring to any significant degree, or strengthening workers’ paychecks.

Productivity tells the story. Increases in the productivity of American workers are supposed to go hand in hand with improvements in their standard of living. That’s how capitalism is supposed to work. That’s how the economic pie expands, and we’re all supposed to have a fair share of that expansion.

Corporations have now said the hell with that. Economists believe the nation may have emerged, technically, from the recession early in the summer of 2009. As Professor Sum writes in a new study for the labor market center, this period of economic recovery “has seen the most lopsided gains in corporate profits relative to real wages and salaries in our history.”

Worker productivity has increased dramatically, but the workers themselves have seen no gains from their increased production. It has all gone to corporate profits. This is unprecedented in the postwar years, and it is wrong.

Having taken everything for themselves, the corporations are so awash in cash they don’t know what to do with it all. Citing a recent article from Bloomberg BusinessWeek, Professor Sum noted that in July cash at the nation’s nonfinancial corporations stood at $1.84 trillion, a 27 percent increase over early 2007. Moody’s has pointed out that as a percent of total company assets, cash has reached a level not seen in the past half-century.

Executives are delighted with this ill-gotten bonanza. Charles D. McLane Jr. is the chief financial officer of Alcoa, which recently experienced a turnaround in profits and a 22 percent increase in revenue. As The Times reported this week, Mr. McLane assured investors that his company was in no hurry to bring back 37,000 workers who were let go since 2008. The plan is to minimize rehires wherever possible, he said, adding, “We’re not only holding head-count levels, but are also driving restructuring this quarter that will result in further reductions.”

There can be no robust recovery as long as corporations are intent on keeping idle workers sidelined and squeezing the pay of those on the job.

It doesn’t have to be this way. Germany and Japan, because of a combination of government and corporate policies, suffered far less worker dislocation in the recession than the U.S. Until we begin to value our workers, and understand the critical importance of employment to a thriving economy, we will continue to see our standards of living decline.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Climate Bill - Check Please

As for now the Climate Bill is "dead in the water" no pun intended and no offense to our good friends in the Gulf.

On the fact that Tony Hayward joins the ranks of former disgraced CEO's with big payouts and Golden Parachutes its good to know that its not just for bankers anymore. You can be a total asshole, mishandle the entire situation both publicly and professionally and be well compensated. No, life isn't fair Mr. Hayward on that we can agree. But now you have your "life back."

In the meantime BP appoints a CEO who well is as ineffectual as the last and that change don't come easy.. period. And BP will be seeking Tax Credits of 10 Billion for the clean up costs. Once again America pays.

And due to the overwhelming divisiveness in Congress, Harry Reid has shut the door on a Climate Change bill. And while Robert Gibbs the Press Secretary has intimated that this may not be so it once again falls to Obama to lead the charge here and like Health Care and Financial Reform I assume it will be late in the party and any "reform" will be lacking much like its predecessors. But as I said on both of those its better than nothing and it seems to set the Conservatives on edge so for that I say go for it.

We are so politically divided, so enraged and entrenched in our views and perspectives, we have no ability to discuss how serious the problems are in this country and how to even remotely resolve and repair the damage done - well even if it can be repaired.

Like the Banking Industry there really has been no true investigation into the fraud and deception that contributed to the collapse of 2008 and the mortgage meltdown, I suspect the long term violations and malfeasance of BP and their inability to regulate themselves will also go ignored.

We are sure that market forces, self regulation and less government will solve it all. And we have had that - indirectly - for the last 30 years and what has resulted is well all of this. I don't see any resolution on the horizon for years to come.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

All Pain, No Gain

I normally write an introduction. Right now I simply can't. I am in the process of selling long term valued items and some not so valued and the challenge of well letting go of things is one thing its another to hear that the current glut of things, both good and bad, is so severe right now that Appraisers and Estate Sales consultants are working overtime. Well that is someone I guess...



Long-Term Economic Pain
By BOB HERBERT
Published: July 26, 2010


The pain coursing through American families is all too real and no one seems to know what to do about it. A rigorous new analysis for the Rockefeller Foundation shows that Americans are more economically insecure now than they have been in a quarter of a century, and the trend lines suggest that things will only get worse.


Rampant joblessness and skyrocketing medical costs are among the biggest factors tearing at the very fabric of American economic life so painstakingly put together in the early post-World War II decades.

The analysis was done by a team of researchers led by Professor Jacob Hacker of Yale University. They created an economic security index, which measures the percentage of Americans who experience a decrease in their household income of 25 percent or more in one year without having the financial resources to offset that loss. (Major medical expenses were counted as a decrease in available income.)

The team’s findings were grim. Simply stated, more and more families are facing utter economic devastation: completely out of money, with their jobs, savings and retirement funds gone, and nowhere to turn for the next dollar.

Economic insecurity has been increasing for at least a generation and perhaps longer, with very dangerous levels being reached in this latest recession. Professor Hacker discussed the ominous trend lines in an interview.

In 1985, at a time when the unemployment rate was 7.2 percent, the portion of American families that would be counted as economically insecure by the terms of this new index was 12 percent. Professor Hacker explained that the percentage would naturally tend to rise or fall with improvements or a deterioration in the economy.

But what has happened over the past few decades is that the percentage of insecure Americans relative to any given level of the economy has tended to steadily rise. So in 2002, coming out of a mild recession, there was a 5.8 percent unemployment rate, but the percentage of economically insecure families had jumped to 17 percent.

All of the data for 2009 are not yet in, but the research team projects, conservatively, that more than 20 percent of Americans experienced a 25 percent or greater loss of household income (without a financial cushion) over the prior year — the highest in at least a quarter of a century.

A decrease of this magnitude in available income is a heavy blow. As the study points out, “The typical individual who experiences a decline of at least 25 percent in household income requires between six and eight years for income to return to its previous level.”

“What we’re seeing, basically, is what we’re calling ‘the new normal,’ ” said Mr. Hacker. “We’re slowly ratcheting up this level of economic insecurity.”

Put another way, the bottom is falling out for increasing numbers of Americans, and with the national employment situation stuck in an extended horror zone there is little to stop the free fall. In addition to tracking the percentage of Americans suffering household income losses of 25 percent or more, the index also shows that families are suffering steeper income declines than in previous decades.

According to the study, “Between 1985 and 1995, the typical (median) drop among those experiencing a 25 percent or greater available income loss was about 38.2 percent; between 1997 and 2007, it was 41.4 percent.”

Only the very well-to-do are out of the range of this buzz saw. “The fact that Americans are facing a very real and growing risk of large-scale economic loss is true across the spectrum,” said Mr. Hacker. “It’s true of blacks more than whites, but it’s true of whites, as well. It’s true of less affluent people more than more affluent people, but it’s true of the more affluent as well.

“If anything, we’re understating how bad things are out there right now.”

Policy makers seem bewildered by the terrible economic state of ordinary working Americans, including those once considered solidly in the middle class. Despite warnings back in 2008 that we were on the verge of another great depression, the big financial institutions and corporate America seem to be doing just fine now. But average Americans are hurting with no end to the pain in sight.

More than 14 million people are out of work and many more are either underemployed or so discouraged they’ve just stopped looking. Big corporations, sitting on fat profits even as the economy continues to struggle, have made it clear that they are not interested in putting a lot more people back to work any time soon.

Policy makers have dropped the ball completely in terms of dealing with this devastating long-term trend of ever-increasing economic insecurity for American families. Long-term solutions that have to do with extensive job creation and a strengthening of the safety net are required. But that doesn’t seem to be on anyone’s agenda.

Monday, July 26, 2010

Sustainable Business?

I have blogged a great deal that business greatest sustainability is in its people. Having a quality, trained, motivated and properly compensated workforce is key to building business and building the economy.

Well Business found new ways to circumvent that. From outsourcing, to 1099, to simply using illegals as a way of reducing costs and growing productivity and therefore profit. Well in this downturn times the only way to build is to cut and that is by cutting labor costs.

Time and time again I read about how businesses are using labor as their bottom line and their red line. Today's New York Times article on the subject confirms that is how business stays in business. Get immediate profits and pay the shareholders and then worry about well how to build business when the time comes. The time may never come and this way of thinking I am afraid will have long and huge effects on all of us to come.

When you speak of "sustainability" I am sure looking at the eroding Middle Class in fact eliminating it altogether is probably the long range reality. And the simple fact is we are becoming a two class society - working and elite. There is no "middle road"

This is an article from a site called "Business Report" I suspect of course its a conservative site and the intent was to smear Liberals but this has been happening for over 30 years not the last two.

The rich are getting richer and the poor are getting poorer at a staggering rate. Once upon a time, the United States had the largest and most prosperous middle class in the history of the world, but now that is changing at a blinding pace.

So why are we witnessing such fundamental changes? Well, the globalism and "free trade" that our politicians and business leaders insisted would be so good for us have had some rather nasty side effects. It turns out that they didn't tell us that the "global economy" would mean that middle class American workers would eventually have to directly compete for jobs with people on the other side of the world where there is no minimum wage and very few regulations. The big global corporations have greatly benefited by exploiting third world labor pools over the last several decades, but middle class American workers have increasingly found things to be very tough.

Here are the statistics to prove it:

• 83 percent of all U.S. stocks are in the hands of 1 percent of the people.
• 61 percent of Americans "always or usually" live paycheck to paycheck, which was up from 49 percent in 2008 and 43 percent in 2007.
• 66 percent of the income growth between 2001 and 2007 went to the top 1% of all Americans.
• 36 percent of Americans say that they don't contribute anything to retirement savings.
• A staggering 43 percent of Americans have less than $10,000 saved up for retirement.
• 24 percent of American workers say that they have postponed their planned retirement age in the past year.
• Over 1.4 million Americans filed for personal bankruptcy in 2009, which represented a 32 percent increase over 2008.
• Only the top 5 percent of U.S. households have earned enough additional income to match the rise in housing costs since 1975.
• For the first time in U.S. history, banks own a greater share of residential housing net worth in the United States than all individual Americans put together.
• In 1950, the ratio of the average executive's paycheck to the average worker's paycheck was about 30 to 1. Since the year 2000, that ratio has exploded to between 300 to 500 to one.
• As of 2007, the bottom 80 percent of American households held about 7% of the liquid financial assets.
• The bottom 50 percent of income earners in the United States now collectively own less than 1 percent of the nation’s wealth.
• Average Wall Street bonuses for 2009 were up 17 percent when compared with 2008.
• In the United States, the average federal worker now earns 60% MORE than the average worker in the private sector.
• The top 1 percent of U.S. households own nearly twice as much of America's corporate wealth as they did just 15 years ago.
• In America today, the average time needed to find a job has risen to a record 35.2 weeks.
• More than 40 percent of Americans who actually are employed are now working in service jobs, which are often very low paying.
• or the first time in U.S. history, more than 40 million Americans are on food stamps, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture projects that number will go up to 43 million Americans in 2011.
• This is what American workers now must compete against: in China a garment worker makes approximately 86 cents an hour and in Cambodia a garment worker makes approximately 22 cents an hour.
• Approximately 21 percent of all children in the United States are living below the poverty line in 2010 - the highest rate in 20 years.
• Despite the financial crisis, the number of millionaires in the United States rose a whopping 16 percent to 7.8 million in 2009.
• The top 10 percent of Americans now earn around 50 percent of our national income.

Giant Sucking Sound

The reality is that no matter how smart, how strong, how educated or how hard working American workers are, they just cannot compete with people who are desperate to put in 10 to 12 hour days at less than a dollar an hour on the other side of the world. After all, what corporation in their right mind is going to pay an American worker 10 times more (plus benefits) to do the same job? The world is fundamentally changing. Wealth and power are rapidly becoming concentrated at the top and the big global corporations are making massive amounts of money. Meanwhile, the American middle class is being systematically wiped out of existence as U.S. workers are slowly being merged into the new "global" labor pool.

What do most Americans have to offer in the marketplace other than their labor? Not much. The truth is that most Americans are absolutely dependent on someone else giving them a job. But today, U.S. workers are "less attractive" than ever. Compared to the rest of the world, American workers are extremely expensive, and the government keeps passing more rules and regulations seemingly on a monthly basis that makes it even more difficult to conduct business in the United States.

So corporations are moving operations out of the U.S. at breathtaking speed. Since the U.S. government does not penalize them for doing so, there really is no incentive for them to stay.

What has developed is a situation where the people at the top are doing quite well, while most Americans are finding it increasingly difficult to make it. There are now about six unemployed Americans for every new job opening in the United States, and the number of "chronically unemployed" is absolutely soaring. There simply are not nearly enough jobs for everyone.

Many of those who are able to get jobs are finding that they are making less money than they used to. In fact, an increasingly large percentage of Americans are working at low wage retail and service jobs.

But you can't raise a family on what you make flipping burgers at McDonald's or on what you bring in from greeting customers down at the local Wal-Mart.
The truth is that the middle class in America is dying -- and once it is gone it will be incredibly difficult to rebuild.


And here is today's article from the NY Times discussing the great profits of 2010.



Industries Find Surging Profits in Deeper Cuts
By NELSON D. SCHWARTZ
Published: July 25, 2010


Motorcycle sales are falling in 2010, as they have for each of the last three years. The company does not expect a turnaround anytime soon.

But despite that drought, Harley’s profits are rising — soaring, in fact. Last week, Harley reported a $71 million profit in the second quarter, more than triple what it earned a year ago.

This seeming contradiction — falling sales and rising profits — is one reason the mood on Wall Street is so much more buoyant than in households, where pessimism runs deep and joblessness shows few signs of easing.

Many companies are focusing on cost-cutting to keep profits growing, but the benefits are mostly going to shareholders instead of the broader economy, as management conserves cash rather than bolstering hiring and production. Harley, for example, has announced plans to cut 1,400 to 1,600 more jobs by the end of next year. That is on top of 2,000 job cuts last year — more than a fifth of its work force.

As companies this month report earnings for the second quarter, news of healthy profits has helped the stock market — the Standard & Poor’s 500-stock index is up 7 percent for July — but the source of those gains raises deep questions about the sustainability of the growth, as well as the fate of more than 14 million unemployed workers hoping to rejoin the work force as the economy recovers.

“Because of high unemployment, management is using its leverage to get more hours out of workers,” said Robert C. Pozen, a senior lecturer at Harvard Business School and the former president of Fidelity Investments. “What’s worrisome is that American business has gotten used to being a lot leaner, and it could take a while before they start hiring again.”

And some of those businesses, including Harley-Davidson, are preparing for a future where they can prosper even if sales do not recover. Harley’s goal is to permanently be in a position to generate strong profits on a lower revenue base.

In some ways, the ability to raise profits in the face of declining sales is a triumph of productivity that makes the United States more globally competitive. The problem is that companies are not investing those earnings, instead letting cash pile up to levels not reached in nearly half a century.

“As long as corporations are reinvesting, the economy can grow,” said Ethan Harris, chief economist at Bank of America Merrill Lynch. “But if they’re taking those profits and saving them, rather than buying new equipment, it hurts overall growth. The longer this goes on, the more you worry about income being diverted to a sector that’s not spending.”

“There’s no question that there is an income shift going on in the economy,” Mr. Harris added. “Companies are squeezing their labor costs to build profits.”

The trend is hardly limited to Harley. Giants like General Electric and JPMorgan Chase, as well as smaller companies like Hasbro, the toymaker, all improved their bottom lines despite slowing sales in the second quarter. Among the S.& P. 500 companies that have reported second-quarter results, more than one in 10 had higher profits on lower sales, nearly twice the number in a typical quarter before the recession, according to Thomson Reuters.

“Whole industries are operating at new levels of profitability,” said David J. Kostin, chief United States equity strategist at Goldman Sachs. “In the downturn, companies managed to maintain higher profit margins than ever before.”

Profit margins — the percentage of revenue left over after expenses — crumble in most recessions, as overall sales fall but fixed costs like infrastructure, commodities and rent remain the same. In 2002, during the recession that followed the bursting of the technology bubble in addition to the Sept. 11 attacks, margins sank to 4.7 percent. Although the most recent downturn was far more severe, profit margins bottomed out at 5.9 percent in 2009 and quickly rebounded. By next year, analysts expect margins to hit 8.9 percent, a record high.

The difference this time is that companies wrung more savings out of their work forces, said Neal Soss, chief economist for Credit Suisse in New York. In fact, while wages and salaries have barely budged from recession lows, profits have staged a vigorous recovery, jumping 40 percent between late 2008 and the first quarter of 2010.

Harley-Davidson’s profit gain last quarter was helped by a turnaround in its financing unit, as well as more efficient production, but the company is still cutting.

Harley has warned union employees at its Milwaukee factory that it would move production elsewhere in the United States if they did not agree to more flexible work rules and tens of millions in cost-saving measures.

Even if sales do improve, a surge in hiring is unlikely.

“The last thing we’re worried about is when are we going to have to add more capacity, because what we’re really doing is reconfiguring our entire operational system for greater flexibility,” Keith Wandell, the company’s chief executive, said on a conference call with analysts last week.

Harley’s evolution is part of longer-term shift in American manufacturing, said Rod Lache, an analyst with Deutsche Bank.

At Ford, revenue in its North American operations is down by $20 billion since 2005, but instead of a loss like it had that year, the unit is expected to earn more than $5 billion in 2010. In large part, that is because Ford has shrunk its North American work force by nearly 50 percent over the last five years.

“These companies have cracked the code of a successful industrial turnaround,” Mr. Lache said. “They’re shrinking the business to a size that’s defendable, and growing off that lower base.”

To be sure, sales are rising for many companies, albeit at a much slower pace than the increase in profits. Among the 175 companies in the S.& P. 500 that have reported earnings for the second quarter, revenues rose 6.9 percent on average while profits jumped 42.3 percent, according to Thomson Reuters.

Still, even at corporations where both the top and bottom lines are expanding, the focus remains on keeping profits high, not rebuilding work forces decimated by the recession.

When Alcoa reported a turnaround this month in profits and a 22 percent jump in revenue, its chief financial officer, Charles D. McLane Jr., assured investors that it was not eager to recall the 37,000 workers let go since late 2008. “We have a tight focus on spending as market activity increases, operating more effectively and minimizing rehires where possible,” he said. “We’re not only holding headcount levels, but are also driving restructuring this quarter that will result in further reductions.”

Michael E. Belwood, a spokesman for Alcoa, said more than 17,500 of the former workers were employed at units Alcoa has since sold, but added that the company “had to be resized to match the realities of the recession.”

“We’re keeping a close eye on costs because there is still uncertainty about the stability of this recovery,” he said.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Gambling Does Pay! House loses.

This morning I read the current 2008 IRS reports about current income levels and earnings.

While some of it was not surprising, those reporting 1 million or more in earnings declined by 22% there were over 13K reporting incomes of 10 million or more. What was fascinating was that of that number only 12,480 (19%) reported earnings from wages and salaries. So while Wall Street was imploding it wasn't doing so when it came from investments. And many of them reported income from Gambling earnings (I assume they mean the old fashioned kind) averaging 6.6 million from 546 returns.

And what really fascinated me was the earnings from Unemployment Insurance. 17 filings reported an average of over 5K each. Interesting well you need time off to gamble.

And this makes me wonder why the ire to those seeking Unemployment Extension benefits. The claim is that it is an "entitlement" making those too lazy to seek a job when they get money for well not working. Again with over 5 individuals for every job that seems to be a challenge. Job share anyone or maybe use those benefits to head to Vegas or Atlantic city.. there is your redistribution of wealth.

In the meantime the GOP demand an extension of the soon to be lapsing Bush Tax Credits. The ones that contribute to the deficit and well are supposed to generate the economy. Well those credits/breaks whatever have been in place from 2008 when the entire meltdown began and have been in place this entire time and I have sure not seen any trickle down here.

The GOP frequently claims "I want America back" I think they mean 19th Century with child labor, unregulated industry, free markets and privilege for the few and rich. Add to that the isolation of America from anyone not white or wealthy and lets just roll back civil rights for anyone who may be "different" than the status quo. That status quo however is severely in challenge where being the "majority" is a hard pressed issue. Perhaps that is why they also feared the Census as it may confirm what we have already suspected that "white" America not so white anymore.

I reprint the article from the NY Times showing exactly how wealth is "redistributed" in this country... to Casinos and Wall Street (difficult sometimes to tell them apart) apparently.

Its easy to say that the rich and so forth are holding back as they fear socializing the country and they are waiting for Obama to leave office before they kick in but in reality they didn't before this and the numbers don't lie, however, Fox News does.



In ’08 Downturn, Some Managed to Eke Out Millions
By FLOYD NORRIS
Published: July 23, 2010


A newly released report by the Internal Revenue Service shows that, for Americans as a group, total income fell at the fastest pace in decades in 2008, and that the number of tax returns reporting at least $1 million in income plunged by 22 percent as the Great Recession took hold.

But even with all the bad news, there were still 13,480 tax returns that reported income of more than $10 million in the year.

Among them were 462 returns that reported some income from gambling. Their total income from that source was $2.6 billion, for an average of $5.6 million per return.

The report, based on a survey of tax returns for 2008, states that Americans reported $8.4 trillion in total income, down 4.6 percent from the previous year. After considering inflation, the real decline was 8.4 percent, the sharpest decline in total American income since at least 1990.

That decline was largely caused by falls in investment income and sharp drops in capital gains. Despite the recession, total wage and salary income in the United States rose by 1.9 percent in 2008, the I.R.S. said. But after adjusting for inflation, that became a decline of 1.9 percent. The real decline in wage and salary incomes was also the largest since 1990, which was as far back as the I.R.S. report covered.

For some Americans, that decline was partly offset by the availability of unemployment insurance benefits. The number of tax returns reporting such benefits was 9.5 million, up 25 percent from the year before, and the total of reported unemployment benefits was $43.7 billion, up 48 percent.

Most of those benefits were reported on tax returns showing total income of less than $40,000 a year, and 90 percent of it was reported on returns that showed total income under $100,000.

The number of tax returns that reported at least $1 million in annual income fell by 22 percent, to 321,294, while the subset of that group reporting at least $10 million in income was 36 percent smaller.

On the other end of the spectrum, the number of tax returns on which taxpayers reported negative income — because their realized losses were greater than their total income — leaped 31 percent, to 2.5 million.

The report reflects the number of tax returns, not the number of people. Most returns are filed by individuals, but nearly a third are joint returns filed by married couples.

While there were fewer returns reporting $1 million incomes, they collectively still reported income of $1.08 trillion. Those returns accounted for just 0.2 percent of the returns filed, but reported taking in 13 percent of all income.

That proportion was down from 16.1 percent in 2007, however, and was the lowest since 2004, reflecting the impact of the collapse in asset values on those who owned the most assets.

The I.R.S. disclosure of combined tax return information for the wealthiest taxpayers — those with annual incomes of $10 million or more — provides glimpses into the lives of the super-rich.

Some of them, it turns out, know what it is like to stand in line at the unemployment office. Seventeen of those returns included income from unemployment benefits, averaging $5,765 each. The service had not broken out that detail in previous years.

Of those tax returns of $10 million or more, 20 reported receiving alimony payments, averaging about $5 million, while 455 reported paying alimony averaging $455,588.

Most people in that rarefied group are there because of their investments, not their work. Of the $400 billion in income reported on those 13,480 returns, only 19 percent of it came from wages and salaries, much less than came from capital gains, even in such a bad year for stocks.

It turns out that there were fewer superlucky people in 2008 as well. In the previous year, 546 returns showing total income of at least $10 million reported gambling income, and those returns showed average gambling income of $6.6 million.

Friday, July 23, 2010

I Am Angry Too But I Drink Coffee

I am unabashedly liberal. And its funny people assume that all people involved in Green Building or the movement are. Um no. You can be Conservative in politics but understand the need for conserving and maintaining resources. Lindsey Graham, Senator from South Carolina was an early proponent of a Climate bill (sadly politics got in the way there but his early words are worth noting).

Right now this issue like anything regardless of the intent and purpose is seen as "Us" vs. "Them" and that is it. No compromise, no resolution, just impulse, anger and resistance.

And this anger is rightly generated: We are in severe economic crisis, the unemployment rate is hitting well past 20% (the real number), the Gulf will have long term damage, the Trade Center and New Orleans are still just symbols of our failure to rebuild; our schools are a disaster of another kind and we are slowly falling apart in our place in the world from manufacturing to wars we have become the faded giant of yesterday.

In that anger came the Tea Party. They are largely former members of the Christian Coalition and their ilk who have declined do to a lack of leadership. Instead they have sort of morphed into disparate groups with a similar agenda "to take America back." Their de facto leaders are equally disparate - from Dick Armey an invisible organizer using Koch money to fund Freedom Works, to Glenn Beck's insane 9-12 movement and Andrew Brietbart a self professed Libertarian who alternates between drugged out insane ramblings and threats to equally incoherent excuses and of course Rush Limbaugh and others on Fox who profess to speak for the American people. Of course all of them have a personal agenda which is to make them more exceedingly wealthy and sell their shit to the great unwashed who believe them without lack of inquiry or question.

I read a quote from of all places,Seth McFarlane, creator of the Family Guy. He recently had another controversy surrounding the show and in response he said the following:
“People in America, they’re getting dumber,” Mr. MacFarlane said. “They’re getting less and less able to analyze something and think critically, and pick apart the underlying elements. And more and more ready to make a snap judgment regarding something at face value, which is too bad.”


When you are afraid you see all change as a threat. Anyone different threatens you because when you vest yourself in that way of thinking this would mean you are wrong/bad/stupid pick your adjective and that has to be upsetting. You see when you have opportunity to learn and accept it as information and constructive criticism you are less prone to anger. But admitting your wrong is never easy.

And that is the same approach when dealing with a green movement or anything that shakes up the status quo. But the anger and malicious nature that has transpired of late has certainly changed the tone of discourse.

And on that note I read on Mother Jones this morning an essay asking the same question. You have to ask yourself if anything can really get done when you are angry.


Help Me Understand the Right. Really.

— By Kevin Drum
| Thu Jul. 22, 2010 10:33 AM PDT


The fantastic outpouring of conservative resentment following the Shirley Sherrod case (miscellaneous example, one of many, here) is remarkable. In one sense, it's nothing new. We all know that conservatives have felt for a long time that an omnipresent liberal media is stacked against them; that race hustlers have made an industry out of accusing them of bigotry; that coastal elites sneer at them; that Hollywood forces its liberal social agenda on them; that their kids are indoctrinated every day with liberal shibboleths by politically correct schoolteachers and university professors; that global warming is a hoax designed to give liberal technocrats control over the economy; that multicultural cabals hate heartland Christians; and that, just in general, liberals operate in a relentlessly bullying, thuggish manner and conservatives just sit there and take it.

On an intellectual level, I can sort of get this. If I were a conservative Christian I'd be unhappy with the increasing secularization of society and the 60s-era Supreme Court decisions that largely removed religion from the public square. If I were a white guy stuck in a sucky job and heard stories of blacks being given preference in promotions and school placements, I'd be pissed. If I were socially traditional and my school district insisted on a curriculum that endorsed tolerance of gay lifestyles, I'd be horrified. If I only heard the Fox News version of Climategate, it would seem like truly terrifying proof of a massive global conspiracy and fraud.

But on an emotional level, it just seems nuts. So I wish that I could figure out a way to feel it. To understand it. I wish I could somehow do the "Black Like Me" thing. (Explanation here if you're too young to remember this.) But how? What would it take to somehow enter this world and actually try to feel what so many conservatives apparently feel? Since I almost totally lack empathy I probably couldn't do it in any case, but could anyone? What would it take to truly understand what's going on here? Because, if anything, it seems to be getting even more virulent and I find myself increasingly unable to understand it.

I don't know why I'm writing this. I'm just feeling increasingly estranged from the political world these days, as if it's some kind of nightmare that's taken over our national psyche and refuses to let go — and I'm forced to participate and can't wake up no matter how hard I try.

I dunno. I'm burbling. Just getting something off my chest that I can't really explain. Sorry. Maybe I just need a vacation. Anyone know of any nice spots?

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Take this Rebate and Shove It!

A lot was made of the recent Tax Credits for New (and existing) Home Buyers which expired in April. It may have contributed to a slight uptick in housing but not enough to warrant an extension and in fact may not have really made any difference at all.

Recently I read an editorial comment in the NAHB newsletter asking for this credit to be permanently discontinued. Because of the inconsistency of offering tax credits(in other words the quixotic nature of Congress), rescinding them or altering them the belief is that it actually discouraged buyers and lent to a confusing message. Is this credit coming back? Will there be a better one around the corner? among other issues that led to what the NAHB believes a hesitance in home buyers ultimately making a decision prematurely then leaving a glut of houses remaining the rest of the year. That leads Builders to have problems planning accordingly and further contributing to longer economic problems.

The current tax credits for energy efficiency while are great are fairly small as well. Let's be honest 1,500 dollars is nowhere near sufficient to make any great retrofits other than some small adjustments to water heaters or to moderate insulation improvements. A true energy retrofit is well above 50,000. And frankly the alternative or renewable tax options are useless. Any solar installation is well over 25,000 and that doesn't seem to be declining in the near future. So how do you make a decision on what to improve and what will have the greatest impact for the dollars spent?

Lastly the Cash For Caulkers and the Appliance rebates are stalled or so haphazardly applied and done regionally and with varying requirements, restrictions and competitive energy companies with their own rebates it leads once again consumers having to research which is the best for them and often with limited information and time frames in which to do so.

This morning I read this article in Mother Jones as reprinted from Grist an excellent source on Sustainable issues. I think the points they also make are very applicable as we wade through the tax credit programs available.

_________________________________________________


How To Make Energy Programs Work Better (for Free!)

— By David Roberts
| Wed Jul. 21, 2010 4:21 PM PDT

I've written before (more than once) that energy reformers should pay more attention to behavior. Instead there is an almost universal obsession with technology and economic cost, narrowly construed. If you think of people as rational interest maximizers, as per reigning economic folk theory, price is all that matters. You want to change behavior, you change prices. Want to change prices, make technology better. Thus the techno-obsessed American energy discussion.

No one behaves in their day-to-day life as though they or those around them are rational interest maximizers. We all recognize one another as flawed and complex, but for some reason when we talk economics or policy, we assume greedy robots. It's baffling.


Anyway, today brings yet more evidence that Behavior Matters, from the smart folks over at Energy Savvy. Background: all 50 states have what are called "Cash for Appliances" programs, which offer rebates to people who buy energy efficient appliances. Each state had a roughly similar level of funding, around $1 per resident. Yet some states ran through their money quickly, while others took much longer, as this chart illustrates (click for larger version):Click for Larger Version

What's up with that? Why were some state programs so much more in demand than others? Energy Savvy crunches the numbers, looking for variables that determine whether programs work. You might think the obvious answer is energy prices—maybe people who pay more for power want more rebates—but that turns out to yield almost no correlation. Nor did the size of the rebates. What predicts success?

The number one predictor of whether a state rebate program sold out quickly didn't have anything to do with how generous the rebates were. It actually turned out to hinge on the program's design. Virtually all the "fast" states required consumers to pre-reserve a rebate application before making a purchase. These states set up websites and call centers that "opened" at a certain date and time, creating an "event" that turned into a feeding frenzy of activity, before closing down within days, or even hours.

In his book Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion, Robert Cialdini lists six "weapons of influence." Two are relevant here.

The first, commitment and consistency, has to do with ...

... our nearly obsessive desire to be (and to appear) consistent with what we have already done. Once we have made a choice or taken a stand, we will encounter personal and interpersonal pressures to behave consistently with that commitment. Those pressures will cause us to respond in ways that justify our earlier decisions.

Having pre-reserved rebate applications—a formal, if non-binding, commitment—people will subsequently be much more likely to actually apply for the rebates.

The second is scarcity: the more rare something is (or is seen to be becoming), the more valuable it will appear. As Cialdini notes, "people seem to be more motivated by the thought of losing something than by the thought of gaining something of equal value." That's why retailers try all sorts of tricks to give the impression of scarcity, from limited-time sales to "fewer than 100 left!" electronics deals.

When rebates are offered at "events" or available only at certain prescribed times, it creates the impression of scarcity, that there are a limited number and the opportunity to get them will soon pass by. That creates a powerful incentive to act.

Two things to note:

1. The more efficacious program designs do not cost more. They advertise and distribute rebates differently, but use the same level of funding. These kinds of boosts in performance require only one thing: an understanding of human behavior. In that sense they are free, since a better understanding of human behavior can be gained for very little and shared at no cost.

2. There are four more weapons of influence (reciprocity, social proof, authority, and liking) that could be deployed to drive even faster adoption of clean energy and efficiency. Properly brought to bear, they can achieve further low- or no-cost performance improvements in energy programs. All that's necessary is for policymakers and analysts to learn the rudiments of social psychology; it needs to become part of the policy vocabulary, just like technology and economics.

This post was produced by Grist for the Climate Desk collaboration.

David Roberts is a staff writer at Grist.org

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Random Musings

Its been a busy time as I prepare for an Estate Sale to unload many of my Antiques, Furniture and other shit I have been storing for quite some time. Its stuff and while much of it beautiful I realize that yes I could use the money but also frankly its weighing me down personally.

My lovely dog, Emma, is 17 now and getting to that stage in life well where we are ending life. I need to downsize and move into a smaller more affordable space. Frankly I want to move out of Seattle to a city where I could find work and a larger social pool. I don't want my life to be one of Twitter posts and Facebook to connect me to the world at large. Since relocating to Seattle it has been one hardship and frustration one after the other. But its true you really can't go home again. I came here with hope but this is not the city for me.

I find myself much at a professional and personal crossroads. This is not unlike most of Americans who are truly struggling to find work, make ends meet and make sense of a world that just seems well nonsensical.

I find a great deal of like minds on Twitter and the other night we got into a discussion that Twitter is more a social media form of communication and not really one for marketing or professional purposes - unless your profession is media (in one form or another). I have to agree I have no interest in some advertisement nor do I pay attention to the ones on Facebook. Like the Google ads I don't think I have ever clicked on the highlighted link in fact I usually peruse down a few pages to see all search results. Sometimes the ones at the top are not the greatest; case in point finding an appraiser I called the one at the top and like many Seattle business people I never heard back.

This brings me to the notion that in this age where we are Smart phoned and Ipadded to death we are never NOT hooked to some type of communication 24/7. So why is it that people do not return calls or emails in a reasonable amount of time? I am frequently responded to with "we are very busy but will get back to you" Well that is great and I am all for the positive message but in this day and age there is no excuse for not responding to the call/message even to say that you are one of the lucky ones and are not taking clients. Then offer a referral. I do. Yes I send people to my competitors. Why? I may not offer the service, I may not feel I connect with the client on the phone, I may think this job is not in line with my skill set. Whatever the reason I get back to people immediately and with alternatives (if available and I feel that referral is also a good one).

I am not sure if its just a "Seattle thing" as I notice here an almost disdain for aggressive seeking of opportunity and work ethic. The long standing Swedish concept of this city has been replaced with a slacker attitude that I was told is a liberal idea that work and capitalism are disdainful. I find that hard to believe because well growing up here that was the opposite. What has happened to the City demographics is that 60% of the population has migrated here. Many from smaller towns and cities so I am presuming that is their value - lack of awareness on how to conduct business. I have no idea but my frustration has led me to simply shut down my business and wait to move on to where my work will be a better fit. Unfortunately where in this economy is the major concern.

But the next time you are seeking professional assistance and you see everyone on their blackberries working away - wonder what they are working on? If its Twitter or Facebook its likely not real work.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Green Growth Forecast

This is a recent article from Fast Company. And if the forecast is accurate this would go in line with other articles I have read where Investors are looking for REIT's and other real estate deals that focus on Green Building in the Commercial sector.

And again there seems to be a sales pitch for LEED it is not the only game or way in town to build green.

________________________________________

Report: U.S. Green Building Market Will Balloon to $173.5 Billion by 2015
BY ARIEL SCHWARTZ
Fri Jul 2, 2010


Think the trend of businesses making green office renovations is just a passing fad? Not according to the latest issue of EL Insights, which reports that the U.S. green building market value will balloon from $71.1 billion now to $173 billion by 2015. Commercial green building is expected to grow by 18.1% annually during the same time period from $35.6 billion to $81.8 billion. In this case, green building is defined as building with resource use and employee productivity in mind.

The explosive projected growth can be attributed both to a growing recognition of green building's potential cost-savings as well as incentives from the government (i.e. the multi-million dollar Sustainable Communities Challenge Planning Grant program and the Sustainable Communities Regional Planning Grant program). Green renovation will also comprise a significant portion of future green building, thanks in no small part to government projects like then Recovery through Retrofit initiative, which offers $80 billion energy and environmental retrofits for federal buildings.

The growth in green building will lead to a number of changes in the larger building market, according to EL Insights: Construction workers will increasingly seek out green training programs, companies will spend more cash on green building technology (GE is already doing with its ecomagination initiative), and homes touting green building features will do better on the real estate market. All of this will result in cost savings for building and home owners, who will reap the benefits of lower energy and heating bills.

So if you haven't been paying attention to the U.S. Green Building Council, now is the time to start--the non-profit offers virtually endless amounts of information on green building studies and LEED certification.

PEX vs California

This is an interesting issue currently being debated in the Courts of California regarding the use of PEX plumbing being included in the residential building codes.

PEX which is common in green build and well used in Europe for its ease of use especially in renovation has hit a wall in California due to the debate of its safety.
The arguments that PEX leeches a chemical that has potential hazards is one I have heard before yet not seen substantiated in any lengthy manner. And if that is the case I would like to see a comparative to what metal, copper or PVC leeches over use of life. Anyone who would believe that PVC both in use and manufacturing is preferable to PEX piping might have a vested interest in the industry.

Valid or not, I see a real problem here if in fact the naysayers get their way. As goes California goes the nation when it comes to green and this could seriously handicap the use of what is a highly successful plumbing product.

The article below is from Remodeling Magazine discussing the current legislation.
_________________________________________________

Cailfornia’s PEX Battle Continues
By:Lauren Hunter



A years-long battle between the PEX plastic plumbing pipe industry and its opponents is continuing in California. A win for the industry was short-lived when a court order on June 17 directed the California Building Standards Commission (CBSC) to cancel its approval of the material for residential construction.

Despite its best efforts, the cross-linked polyethylene (PEX) industry has been unable to have its products added to California’s plumbing code for very long. Opponents of the products, including environmentalists and construction unions, have repeatedly filed lawsuits impeding the industry’s progress.

“Up until August 2009, PEX was not in the California plumbing code, and contractors had to rely on their local jurisdictions to approve use of the product,” says Dale Stroud, business strategy manager for PEX manufacturer Uponor. “We know plumbers and their customers have been looking for a product that’s safe, clean, and environmentally friendly, but there’s been resistance against putting it into the state code.”

PEX Battle Timeline

While arguments about the approval of PEX in California have been going on for years, the last 18 months have been particularly volatile.

To illustrate the safety of PEX products in residential construction, the industry performed a detailed Environmental Impact Review (EIR) in accordance with the California Environmental Quality Act. The CBSC certified the EIR in January 2009 and directed that PEX be adopted into the state’s plumbing code effective August 1 of that year.

Opposing groups filed a lawsuit in February 2009 claiming the EIR was improperly performed, and a judge issued a court order for the repeal of the PEX approval to the state code. The PEX industry won a stay of the judge’s order, allowing the initial August 1 date to stand; the use of PEX in residential applications was added to the building code that summer as planned.

In December 2009, another opposing lawsuit was filed. “Ultimately, the judge’s original court order stood, and the CBSC had no choice but to vote under threat of contempt of court to abide by the repeal,” Stroud says. “The use of PEX reverted back to the way it had been, in which only local jurisdictions had the power to approve the use of PEX.”

Amid the lawsuits and court arguments, a revised EIR has been published with a comment period through July 19, 2010. Industry manufacturers expect the CBSC to recertify the new EIR in August or September, thereby re-approving PEX for the state code.

Opponents Fight Approval

Builders and plumbers are of the opinion that PEX is easier and faster to install than copper piping, and that third-party testing has shown that the material is safe for consumers. On the other side of the issue, pipefitters unions and environmentalists disagree, claiming that chemicals used in the manufacturing process could be a health hazard.
Groups such as the California State Pipe Trades Council (CPTSC) call the repeal a “victory for Californians,” suggesting that a specific chemical called methyl tertiary-butyl ether (MTBE) can leach into drinking water from plastic pipes.

“Evaluating the risks from exposure to MTBE-contaminated drinking water is particularly important to protect the health of construction workers” says Rod Cameron, CSPTC executive director. “Construction workers are often the first people to consume water from newly installed pipe, and because they move from one jobsite to the next, construction workers will be repeatedly exposed to this contaminated water over the course of their work career.”

Industry manufacturers have voiced their disappointment over the course of the California PEX battle. “Viega, as a long-time manufacturer and seller of PEX, is obviously is disappointed in the continued efforts to derail approval of PEX in California by groups that have historically opposed the use of any plastic pipe in plumbing systems,” says Bill Seiler, chief of staff for Viega. “PEX is a proven product with many advantages, particularly in remodeling applications. It has successfully undergone extensive testing and listing procedures, to include ANSI/NSF 61 on health effects, and Viega will continue to vigorously participate in getting California to join the other 49 states in giving persons a full choice of plumbing materials for their applications and local conditions.”

Indeed, across the United States, California is the lone hold-out for adding PEX to its state plumbing code. Stroud estimates that 60% of single-family homes are currently plumbed with PEX, with the balance falling to copper and CPVC piping. He adds that PEX has been a useful product in repiping applications as well, making it an attractive choice for remodelers.

“PEX has been used in North America for 20 years and in Europe for 40 years,” Stroud says. “The arguments over PEX have made it more difficult for residents of California to enjoy the benefits of a safe, long-lasting plumbing system.”

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Food Glorious Food

As someone who loves the local farmer's market - in fact today is mine - I know that this is seen as elite, predominately white and upper class activity. Well they haven't been to mine. They are all over the city and many come. The prices are no less costly than a trip to the supermarket, here they do take food stamps and the product is superior. Also chatting with vendors and talking about ways to prepare food and eat well (I call it that but it means healthy) should be inspiring.

The problem is that people don't see food and cooking as joyous. Its a chore. You wonder how and why there are so many cooking shows, competitions and networks devoted to food. Vicarious eating through observing I guess. A reflection of a larger societal behavior perhaps.

My city has a permanent Farmer's Market in the Pike Place Market. But few locals shop and go there. I used to but during the summer its packed with tourists and difficult to maneuver through. Most of the stalls are corporate or long term vendors who buy their produce from wholesalers - it is not any less expensive, fresh or organic than what I can get at any large scale grocer but many seasonal vendors are there upon occasion. However, most of them do better at the local markets as its simply more profitable and easier. Although "profit" and small organic farm are usually oxymoron's.

How we GET our food and EAT our food are some of the largest contributing factors to environmental pollution. Even Australian cattle farmers are working on ways to harness cow burps into usable methane. Cheap food = fast food and that equation just doesn't work anymore.

I reprint an article from the American Prospect about current legislation regarding this issue. Like everything it will a loooooong time before we see an improvement but like everything its a start. Seriously that is about all we can ask for at this point.


Beyond a One-Size-Fits-All Approach to Food Safety

The effectiveness of new regulation is limited by our reliance on a food system easily overwhelmed by bad practices.


Monica Potts | July 14, 2010 | web only



Among the many bills the Senate may take up before the August recess is one that would update food-safety standards for the first time in more than 70 years. The bill passed the House a year ago, in the wake of several outbreaks of food-borne illness. The bill, the Food Safety Modernization Act of 2009, does many commendable things, including making producers and growers more responsible for ensuring food safety before produce is shipped and giving the Food and Drug Administration itself recall power over fresh produce. (Recalls are now voluntary after a problem has been identified.) It would also give the FDA access to shipping records, so that it is easier to tell where illnesses start and where they have spread.

But part of what's holding up the bill is that it treats all producers the same. While a slew of special-interest groups -- including the Grocery Manufacturers Association, the American Frozen Food Institute, the American Farm Bureau, General Mills, and Kraft -- have signed on to support the bill, opposition is coming from coalitions of small and organic farmers and the American Grassfed Association. Their concern is over the bill's record-keeping requirements and its emphasis on "science based" contamination removal; they believe requirements that make food more traceable and sterile will overburden the small and local producers who sell directly to consumers.

This is where two progressive goals in food politics butt up against one another. Giving the government more power to regulate and recall bad food is a needed update to our outdated food-safety system. But the new food-safety legislation is a reaction to a system that is easily overwhelmed by bad practices; it fails to encourage the sorts of best practices currently found in smaller-scale, lower-volume production.

Those opposing the original bill are lobbying for amendments introduced by Sen. Bernie Sanders and Sen. Jon Tester, among others. The Sanders amendment would help narrow the definition of what "processed" means, since the current FDA definition is so broad that it could include cutting the tops off carrots or boiling maple syrup as processing that needs to be regulated. "It's been sort of a translation problem between the byzantine details of current FDA regulations," says Ferd Hoefner, policy director for the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition.

Other provisions included in an amendment introduced by Tester, and supported by Sen. Kay Hagan, would exempt small farmers from some of the bill's new requirements for produce, specifically the "science based" standards that the FDA determines minimize the risk of problems. As Jill Richardson writes in La Vida Locavore, "The government tends to think that something sterile that has been sprayed with every pesticide in the book is safer than something organic if the organic item has been touched by human hands or grown with manure as fertilizer." Indeed, after the 2006 E. coli outbreak in spinach, many producers and sellers, including Wal-Mart, increased the emphasis on sterilization of produce rather than regulating the types of farming practices that increase the risk of contamination. That can be an extra cost burden to smaller producers who grow fewer acres of produce, and, in the case of the spinach contamination, lead to an overly hostile environment for wildlife in California.

Under current rules, small farms that sell more than half their products directly to consumers are exempt from many of the FDA rules, and Hoefner says the Tester amendment would extend this exemption. The problems comes, of course, in defining what qualifies as a small farm. Tester's amendment uses an income threshold of $500,000, and that is why many food-safety advocates think it is a bad deal. Food Safety News writes that the threshold would include 95 percent of domestic producers. A more nuanced approach would take into account not only size as measured in sales but also acreage, processing methods, and distribution reach as well.

For now, it looks as if small-farm exemptions will be included in the final Senate bill. But even if they pass, there is still a lot of work to be done to reconcile the Senate version with the very different House version, which doesn't include considerations for small, local farmers. Rules that don't take farm size and processing methods into account have plagued local slaughterhouses and meat processors. As Heather Rogers wrote in the most recent issue of the Prospect, the Department of Agriculture rules for meat-processing are meant to address the threats that come from large, industrial-scale slaughterhouses, but many of those issues are averted simply by slaughtering fewer animals more slowly and carefully.

Exemptions for smaller farms are keeping the bill in the Senate for now. (The bill is also being held up due to an amendment introduced by Sen. Dianne Feinstein that would ban the use of bisphenol-A that is drawing industry ire.) It's hard to argue against increased food safety, but the current legislation does little to address the bifurcated regulatory system. Meaningful food-safety reform involves addressing the way we produce meat and vegetables as well as the scale at which we produce them.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

The LeBron Conundrum

I was going to say I was shocked at the hoopla surrounding LeBron James but until it began I had never heard of him; I no longer follow sports. Well I admit to occasionally attending a baseball game but not with frequency and frankly I don't even know most of the players I just like going to baseball games in general.

I quit following sports about 10 years ago. I found that the industry is one that exploits many young men by taking them out of school or exempting them from participating fully in Education and putting them to work in an job with outrageous salaries, little to no supervision and frankly raking off their lack of knowledge a tremendous amount of money. I have often equated it to Pimping and Slavery. Yes that seems extreme but given that most sports stars are young black males from the "ghetto" it seems to be an worthy analogy.

Of course any young man of any color given that much money, freedom and celebrity is going to crash and burn and they have not disappointed on that count. How many of these men have been accused of being numerous baby daddies, raping women, participated in gun violence, drugs - steroid scandal included, gambling and even dog fighting rings? Not to mention the numerous extra-marital affairs that dominate our headlines? How many Kobe's, Michael Vick's or Tiger Woods do you need to see to realize that this is an industry where the men are truly out of control.

Then to add insult to injury the price of tickets to attend these events are so outrageous its near to impossible for a family to go on a regular basis with most seats taken up by Corporate sponsors there to make sure their million dollar "investments" are covered. It certainly gives the appearance that they don't want or need my money.

So watching this disturbing gratuitous ogling over another overpaid, overindulged athlete makes this wrenching "decision" while millions of Americans are unemployed, the country is at war, the gulf spilling oil it just seemed salacious and disturbing on many levels. Perhaps we are so immune now to the "LOOK AT ME" world where every single moment of our lives can be broadcast on the Internet and television like Big Brother that sensitivity and compassion are lost.

The fans of Cleveland were right in their outrage. The thought of loyalty and commitment was illustrated down to the very way this change occurred. In public and not even in the town which created that career. Wow whoever orchestrated that had to be the same idiot who felt compelled to do the Tiger Woods media apology. Distasteful and tacky are two words that come to mind.

I know its asking a lot of anyone including sports stars or other media/public figures to be and act like Mother Teresa. Even she had her down days no doubt. But if you are expected and purported to think of yourself as a role model then at those times when is expected conduct yourself as one. Tony Hayward take note.

No one can live up to the expectations of what it means to be a public figure. Ultimately you are human and we have the failings and qualities of all that. Just recalling the Michael Jordan debacle when he accepted his Hall of Fame award and all that ego and vanity came dripping out definitely had an effect but his star was not as bright but his legacy has been diminshed. But at least when he was at the peak of his career he hid most of it and came off at the time as loyal, savvy and an outstanding TEAM player as well as LEADER.

Sports provides so many good elements in building a character. Leadership, sportsmanship, physical health and team building. Communities rally behind their teams and they provide an identity and a chance to relate and share with others. Watching World Cup soccer at my local coffee bar these weeks with many others gave me a sense of another time and world, a sense of town hall that we don't have much of sitting behind our desks and computers.

I appreciate those moments of sports. I wish that we could all share them but when its about the money and the fame it just somehow gets lost.

Friday, July 9, 2010

The Rich, Not So Different Apparently

In my travels with the political right I am frequently reminded that free market and business are better gauges of what it means to stimulate the economy. America has had a long term love affair with the rich - with the belief that they are the keepers of the gate and as they have their best interests at heart they are in turn are our best interests. As a result we capitulate to their desires to keep taxes low, eliminate the estate tax and basically kiss the ass of Warren Buffet or whomever is deigned sage of the Oligarchic Universe. Another Ayn Rand victory!

Well I don't know how less than 10% of the population has any idea of what is best, let alone care, about the rest of us but thinking you are on the side of the winners makes you one or that they will throw you a bone thanking you for your support or may give you comfort it is far from the truth. But of course how they are handled and treated by banks and mortgage companies and other major institutions in which they are vested are entirely different.

If anyone really believes that Philanthropy is the result of altruism and the kindness of strangers done so willingly and with ease think again; there are always strings attached and "charity" is done with reason and purpose. Ordinary people don't even want their taxes going to another individual in the form of food stamps, welfare or unemployment insurance or want them to spend that money with restrictions, so please don't think the rich are all that "different." Its just that they dress well, live well and drive better cars that doesn't make them better people.

This morning the New York Times found that Mortgages by those deemed "rich" (1 million) are defaulting at faster rates than the average mortgage. So when the argument comes that "I am not paying for a bunch of deadbeats who bought houses they couldn't afford..." you may want to provide them with this information.

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Biggest Defaulters on Mortgages Are the Rich
By DAVID STREITFELD
Published: July 8, 2010


LOS ALTOS, Calif. — No need for tears, but the well-off are losing their master suites and saying goodbye to their wine cellars.

The housing bust that began among the working class in remote subdivisions and quickly progressed to the suburban middle class is striking the upper class in privileged enclaves like this one in Silicon Valley.

Whether it is their residence, a second home or a house bought as an investment, the rich have stopped paying the mortgage at a rate that greatly exceeds the rest of the population.

More than one in seven homeowners with loans in excess of a million dollars are seriously delinquent, according to data compiled for The New York Times by the real estate analytics firm CoreLogic.

By contrast, homeowners with less lavish housing are much more likely to keep writing checks to their lender. About one in 12 mortgages below the million-dollar mark is delinquent.

Though it is hard to prove, the CoreLogic data suggest that many of the well-to-do are purposely dumping their financially draining properties, just as they would any sour investment.

“The rich are different: they are more ruthless,” said Sam Khater, CoreLogic’s senior economist.

Five properties here in Los Altos were scheduled for foreclosure auctions in a recent issue of The Los Altos Town Crier, the weekly newspaper where local legal notices are posted. Four have unpaid mortgage debt of more than $1 million, with the highest amount $2.8 million.

Not so long ago, said Chris Redden, the paper’s advertising services director, “it was a surprise if we had one foreclosure a month.”

The sheriff in Cook County, Ill., is increasingly in demand to evict foreclosed owners in the upscale suburbs to the north and west of Chicago — like Wilmette, La Grange and Glencoe. The occupants are always gone by the time a deputy gets there, a spokesman said, but just barely.

In Las Vegas, Ken Lowman, a longtime agent for luxury properties, said four of the 11 sales he brokered in June were distressed properties.

“I’ve never seen the wealthy hit like this before,” Mr. Lowman said. “They made their plans based on the best of all possible scenarios — that their incomes would continue to grow, that real estate would never drop. Not many had a plan B.”

The defaulting owners, he said, often remain as long as they can. “They’re in denial,” he said.

Here in Los Altos, where the median home price of $1.5 million makes it one of the most exclusive towns in the country, several houses scheduled for auction were still occupied this week. The people who answered the door were reluctant to explain their circumstances in any detail.

At one house, where the lender was owed $1.3 million, there was a couch out front wrapped in plastic. A woman said she and her husband had lost their jobs and were moving in with relatives. At another house, the family said they were renters. A third family, whose mortgage is $1.6 million, said they would be moving this weekend.

At a vacant house with a pool, where the lender was seeking $1.27 million, a raft and a water gun lay abandoned on the entryway floor.

Lenders are fearful that many of the 11 million or so homeowners who owe more than their house is worth will walk away from them, especially if the real estate market begins to weaken again. The so-called strategic defaults have become a matter of intense debate in recent months.

Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, the two quasi-governmental mortgage finance companies that own most of the mortgages in America with a value of less than $500,000, are alternately pleading with distressed homeowners not to be bad citizens and brandishing a stick at them.

In a recent column on Freddie Mac’s Web site, the company’s executive vice president, Don Bisenius, acknowledged that walking away “might well be a good decision for certain borrowers” but argues that those who do it are trashing their communities.

The CoreLogic data suggest that the rich do not seem to have concerns about the civic good uppermost in their mind, especially when it comes to investment and second homes. Nor do they appear to be particularly worried about being sued by their lender or frozen out of future loans by Fannie Mae, possible consequences of default.

The delinquency rate on investment homes where the original mortgage was more than $1 million is now 23 percent. For cheaper investment homes, it is about 10 percent.

With second homes, the delinquency rate for both types of owners was rising in concert until the stock market crashed in September 2008. That sent the percentage of troubled million-dollar loans spiraling up much faster than the smaller loans.

“Those with high net worth have other resources to lean on if they get in trouble,” said Mr. Khater, the analyst. “If they’re going delinquent faster than anyone else, that tells me they are doing so willingly.”

Willingly, but not necessarily publicly. The rapper Chamillionaire is a plain-talking exception. He recently walked away from a $2 million house he bought in Houston in 2006.

“I just decided to let it go, give it back to the bank,” he told the celebrity gossip TV show “TMZ.” “I just didn’t feel like it was a good investment.”

The rich and successful often come naturally to this sort of attitude, said Brent T. White, a law professor at the University of Arizona who has studied strategic defaults.

“They may be less susceptible to the shame and fear-mongering used by the government and the mortgage banking industry to keep underwater homeowners from acting in their financial best interest,” Mr. White said.

The CoreLogic data measures serious delinquencies, which means the borrower has missed at least three payments in a row. At that point, lenders traditionally file a notice of default and the house enters the official foreclosure process.

In the current environment, however, notices of default are down for all types of loans as lenders work with owners in various modification programs. Even so, owners in some of the more expensive neighborhoods in and around San Francisco are beginning to head for the exit, according to data compiled by MDA DataQuick.

In Los Altos, Los Altos Hills and the most expensive neighborhood in adjoining Mountain View, defaults in the first five months of this year edged up to 16, from 15 in the same period in 2009 and four in 2008.

The East Bay suburb of Orinda had eight notices of default for million-dollar properties, up from five in the same period last year. On Nob Hill in San Francisco, there were four, up from one. The Marina neighborhood had four, up from two.

The vast majority of owners in these upscale communities are still paying the mortgage, of course. But they appear to be cutting back in other ways. The once-thriving Los Altos downtown is pocked with more than a dozen empty storefronts in a six-block stretch.

But this is still Silicon Valley, where failure can always be considered a prelude to success.

In the middle of a workday, one troubled homeowner here leaned over his laptop at the kitchen table, trying to maneuver his way out from under his debt and figure out the next big thing.

His five-bedroom house, drained of hundreds of thousands of dollars of equity over the last 13 years, is scheduled for auction July 20. Nine months ago, after his latest business (he has had several) failed in what he called “the global meltdown,” the man, a technology entrepreneur, said he quit making his $9,000 monthly payments.

“I’m going to be downsizing,” he said.

The man spoke on the condition of anonymity because, he said, he did not want his current problems to interfere with his coming reinvention. “I’m a businessman,” he explained. “I have to be upbeat.”

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Physician Heal Thyself

In these very interesting turbulent political times with calls for austerity, conservation and deficits I see the anger directed to Government and agree. I just don't agree on the methods and options for resolution.

But this morning I read this article in the New York Times regarding how the Energy Department is an energy hog. Obama had made part of his mantle of his Presidency Hope and Change and as we move along into year two there is so little of that its easy to see why many both right and left are frustrated. And with the BP Oil spill reminding us again that our dependence on finite non-renewable energy sources are the real problem to this crisis we have to wonder why our Government over the years hasn't simply tried to model themselves as paragons of restraint, virtue and modernization. Regardless of the party in power you are to believe that both Democrats and Republicans have the best interest for the American people and are acting accordingly.

Well figures and numbers speak for themselves and are accepted and/or rejected accordingly depending on who you believe or don't. But when you see simple dollars regarding consumption by a Department that is advocating conservation as a means or option to accomplish reduction in use then why isn't it being done there to show how simple and easy it is?

Well that is the big problem. Talk is cheap, energy is cheap and action well that takes a committee.

As long as we see waste we are encouraged to participate in it. We HAVE to look to our behaviors and not just buy some gadget and not use it properly to see what we are doing. I look to my bills. Its that easy for me and when I see my use go up I take an inventory of what I did that past month and then I try to change my behavior. Its that easy or hard. It depends and there are times when it is simply what it is.

So now ask yourself what are you doing PHYSICALLY first that reduces waste and consumption and then ask yourself what you then actually NEED to do it?

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Energy Department Lags in Saving Energy
By MATTHEW L. WALD
Published: July 7, 2010


WASHINGTON — Like flossing or losing weight, saving energy is easier to promise than to actually do — even if you are the Department of Energy.

Its Web site advises that choosing new lighting technologies can slash energy use by 50 to 75 percent. But the department is having trouble taking its own advice, according to an internal audit released on Wednesday; many of its offices are still installing obsolete fluorescent bulbs.

And very few have switched to the most promising technology, light-emitting diodes, which the department spent millions of dollars to help commercialize.

Many of the changes would generate savings that would pay back the investment in two years or so, according to the report, by the department’s inspector general.

In one case, the Department of Energy made most of the investment by installing timers to shut off lights at night when it moved into a new building in 1997. But it got no benefit: as of March of this year, it had not bought the central control unit needed to run the system.

“We are requesting people in the federal sector and the private sector to do the cost-benefit analysis and make the investment,” Gregory H. Friedman, the inspector general, said in a telephone interview. “We should do it ourselves.”

Asked about the report, a spokeswoman for the Energy Department, Stephanie Mueller, said, “We can acknowledge there’s more work that needs to be done.”

The problem is not ignorance, the report suggests. For example, the department helped develop a technology called spectrally enhanced lighting that gives off light at wavelengths that mimic the sun. Officials at the Argonne National Laboratory near Chicago told the auditors that that they could reduce energy consumption by 50 percent by switching to the new technology from old fluorescents.

But of seven sites, with 96 buildings in all, that the auditors visited, only two used the enhanced lighting. In many cases buildings were using fluorescents introduced 40 years ago.

Energy Department offices gave a variety of explanations for why they were unable to update their lighting. Some said the lights were in high-security areas. And in some cases, the lighting that needs replacing is on very high ceilings and hard to get to, auditors were told.

In February 2008, the department adopted a new policy for taking its savings from energy conservation and reinvesting them in new conservation measures. But the auditors found that “there was no departmentwide system in place to track or calculate reinvestments of energy savings.”

Of the seven sites visited, only one had a system in place for even identifying the savings, the auditors said.

Nationally, the department has 9,000 buildings and a huge electric bill, $190 million a year, of which about $76 million goes to lighting, the report said. The auditors said more efficient lighting would save American taxpayers $2.2 million a year and free up enough electricity to meet the needs of 3,200 homes.

Ms. Mueller said the department’s headquarters, the Forrestal Building, which sits a few blocks west of the Capitol and near the Smithsonian’s “castle” building, would soon become a showcase for lighting innovation.

Its 600 outdoor lights will be replaced with light-emitting diodes, she said, saving 475 megawatt-hours a year. A typical house uses about 12 megawatt-hours a year.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Suburban vs Urban - the Green Dilemma

Although I have only perused the LEED for Neighborhoods plan as I don't need to - its the same retread information regarding urban development only with points.

The strongest argument for Urban Development is the idea that density uses less resources, builds stronger thriving cities...yada yada. We have been using that Concentric Zone theory of development since the Industrial Revolution. Its not exactly ground breaking.

What happened was that people in post WWII wanted space and grass and bigger homes and all that was treasured and promoted as a quality lifestyle for the burgeoning Middle Class. Well that led to sprawl, tremendous traffic, destruction of wetlands and you know the rest. Again nothing that has been debated and discussed for years.

Not being dismissive as I have always been an Urban dweller. Very urban. One I hate driving and don't mind using public transport. I even taught in our City schools for a brief period (and sadly now do as a substitute to make ends meet but that is for another blog entirely) and I have lived in cities here and abroad so I have much to compare.

So when I hear that Seattle has approved further density build and look to the over development of condos in our city today I do laugh and think I can't get out of here fast enough.

Crosscut a local blog here reprints some findings from a new book...

Joel Kotkin, author of The Next Hundred Million: America in 2050, and a steady doubter of the claims of fading suburbs and rising cities. He lays out his case in a Wall Street Journal article. Among the points he makes:

* Multifamily housing peaked at 40 percent of all new housing in 2008, but has since retreated to 20 percent of the total, where it was in 2000.
* Polling consistently shows over the past decades that 13 percent of Americans prefer living in an urban environment, compared to 33 percent who prefers suburbs and 18 percent who covet exurban living.
* While well-educated people in their 20s and early 30s are strongly drawn to urban settings, the millennial generation as a whole "is even more suburban-centric than their boomer parents." Those who do prefer cities tend to think of it as a phase, moving to suburbs when children are ready for schools.
* The real growth in urban population has come from ethnic immigration, but that tide is now shifting to suburbs.


I also have to agree with the conclusion Crosscut defines as an major issue here in Seattle but also something I have seen in cities that were deemed as "hot" to live in the past decade.. Portland, Austin, San Francisco, etc. (btw lived in all of them)

One is that cities are not doing enough to attract and hold a mobile population. That would require much more emphasis on such things as creating jobs, improving schools, building parks, repairing infrastructure, getting more productivity for tax dollars, and making cities safer. Such matters in Seattle are distinctly second-tier compared to youthful amenities like bike lanes and more nightlife.


In San Francisco the population is largely under 35 and 75% are renters. They are highly mobile, transplants and are not as committed to the City in the long range so you see very quixotic politics and issues that cloud the long range picture and are often the reflection of youthful progressive but also divisive attitudes. And in that PC environment you have what you have here in Seattle LOTS AND LOTS of talking and very little real decision making and concrete solutions to issues that are not about the superficial - such as public transport and schools.

And in the current economic climate Seattle was funded on false dollars that are now biting us in the ass. Tax Revenue was made on the constant flux of housing and the what we can now say false assessments on property taxes and the excise taxes collected on the sales. Much like Proposition 13 in California of the 80s the tax dollars needed are frozen and cannot be adjusted to reflect the loss of that income. And in turn the dollars needed to do all these fantastic green changes and needed improvements will go undone.

So what do we offer to attract more financially solvent families with better incomes and attitudes to move to the city? Sorry but as a resident who lives here there really isn't much incentive for any family let alone a solo resident over 35. The jobs and infrastructure just aren't there. Its why I left San Francisco and its why I will leave Seattle.

So if LEED really wants to Green the hoods they need to do so by finding jobs and the money first.

Monday, July 5, 2010

Rated R

As I said in an earlier blog commenting on specifics of Green Build is not something I do as there are many sites that are available that do. And as I don't get paid for my blog I am reticent to put out information for free and then turn around and charge clients for the same. So I try to seek a balance of more opinion based on information and experience to demonstrate credibility and professional expertise which was the whole purpose of the blog to begin with.

But in line with my discussion on what is Foam Insulation and the distinction between Open and Closed cell foam I realized that some people don't know what "R Factor" is.

So on that note I am providing a brief tutorial on the whys and wherefores of R Rating when in comes to insulation.

R-value is the measurement of its resistance to all three heat-flow mechanisms — conduction, radiation, and convection — it is a useful way to compare insulation products. The higher the R Value the better it is at resisting the flow of heat. EX: R15, R30. That simple.

Another factor that affects the value - air leakage. So in the case of a say a fiberglass batt or denim one vs foam... batts provide more leakage or air circulation around it meaning less effective; foam simply reduces the amount of leakage in the walls - that simple. Foam as the ability to cover the entire space/frame/studs not just part of it as a batt does.

R-value is a useful measurement. But R-value alone does not mean you know everything necessary to predict heat flow through a wall or ceiling. R-value is just one factor among many to be considered when deciding which insulation to use.

Insulation like anything is there to slow down the flow of heat and that is its purpose to stop heat from leaving the home. Hot to cold that is how it works. But the amount of insulation and the type of insulation you use can slow down that flow.

So what R levels should you use in your home. Well Energy Star and the EPA have guidelines that provide a useful tool to determine what your needs are in your region. Local building codes must also be used to determine base levels but again those are the MINIMUM and usually are insufficient to truly slow the loss of heat down.

And I cannot stress this enough - with insulation you should always do your research first then have two different sources of professional information available when seeking an insulation upgrade. The way insulation is added must also be considered when addressing issues such as moisture management and ventilation in the home. These two are critical to making a home efficient and performance ready.

The Cool Cool Breezes

I read this article this morning in Salon debating the issues surrounding the Air Conditioner. As someone who grew up in the Northwest having air conditioning was not part of our landscape. And today, as yesterday proves - drizzling, cool overcast, we really need it about 4 days a year if that.

But last summer during an unseasonably HOT MONTH, yes we had over 3 weeks of jaw dropping hot temps here, even I was ready to get one. But I managed with three fans, careful window and curtain use, ventilation and a bathtub full of water. I think I have lived with air conditioning available to me only twice in my life in Texas and in a loft in San Francisco. I have also lived in extremely hot climates in Australia, which introduced me to the ever popular swamp cooler and in Spain. And I managed there by following the lifestyle protocols that residents advocate.

And while I think the value of Air Conditioning is essential especially in public environments I cannot help but remember several years ago in France where little air conditioning available thousands dying. It has happened here and will do as we struggle to find the green solution to keeping cool when you can't afford to do so mechanically.

That is why DESIGN and VENTILATION are essential to reducing a need for air conditioning in homes. Understanding how to utilize them and extra fans when needed may be sufficient in some situations. And zoning the air conditioning to rooms where one can retreat in isolation to minimize use and capacity are all ways to incorporate the system and have it effective and affordable while environmentally supportive.

I reprint the article below as it makes salient points regarding our love of all things easy and mechanical.

_________________________________

"Losing Our Cool": The high price of staying cool
How air conditioning changed the American landscape, transformed our politics, and is endangering our health

By Ryan Brown

In the last half century, air conditioning has joined fireworks, swimming pools and charred hamburgers as a ubiquitous ingredient of an American summer. It’s no exaggeration to say it has changed the way this country functions, shaping everything from where we’re willing to live (Las Vegas, anyone?) to the amount of sex we have (more: It’s never too hot to get it on when the A.C. is blasting). Nine out of 10 new homes in this country are built with central air conditioning, and Americans now use as much electricity to power our A.C. as the entire continent of Africa uses for, well, everything. It has so thoroughly scrambled our way of life that when the National Academy of Engineering chose its 20 greatest engineering accomplishments of the last century, A.C. not only made the list, it clocked in ahead of spacecraft, highways and even the Internet.

But as science writer Stan Cox argues in his new book, "Losing Our Cool: Uncomfortable Truths About Our Air-Conditioned World (and Finding New Ways to Get Through the Summer)," the dizzying rise of air conditioning comes at a steep personal and societal price. We stay inside longer, exercise less, and get sick more often — and the electricity used to power all that A.C. is helping push the fast-forward button on global warming. The invention has also changed American politics: Love it or hate it, refrigerated cooling has been a major boon to the Republican Party. The advent of A.C. helped launch the massive Southern and Western population growth that’s transformed our electoral map in the last half century. Cox navigates all of these scientific and social angles with relative ease, providing a clear explanation of how A.C. made the leap from luxury to necessity in the United States and examining how we can learn to manage the addiction before we refrigerate ourselves into the apocalypse.

* Continue reading

Salon spoke to Cox about our jonesing for cold air, how A.C. lands Republicans in the White House, and why Congress should be forced to meet outside in the summer.

Something like 85 percent of Americans now have air conditioning in their homes — and we now completely expect it when we go to work or the grocery store. How did we get so dependent on A.C. anyway?

Air conditioning is one of those technologies that are very good at generating more demand for themselves. The most obvious way that it’s doing that now is in adding to greenhouse emissions, which will mean even hotter summers in the future and even greater demand for air conditioning. Whether or not that has happened already, we do know already that in the '90s and the 2000s we’ve had some of the hottest years ever.

Also, we get into a downward spiral with air conditioning, because science shows that our biological tolerance for the heat is eroded if we spend almost all of our time in climate-controlled bubbles. And it’s suspected of being a factor in weight gain because we tend to eat more when we’re in cool conditions. Plus, one thing that all commuters are familiar with is that it’s necessary now on city streets and freeways to run the air conditioning in even slightly warm weather to be able to keep the windows rolled up against the exhaust from other cars.

What would the U.S. look like today without air conditioning?

It’s pretty much unanimously believed that if we had not had air conditioning, we could not have had this huge migration of population from the North to the Sun Belt, and we certainly wouldn’t have seen 70 percent of all economic growth happening in the South since 1960. This has had major political implications by shifting electoral votes to predominantly red states in the South and West. In an imaginary world where air conditioning hadn’t been invented, it could easily be the case that many of the big Republican victories in the '90s and 2000s would not have happened.

You write that there’s something really peculiar about the way we use air conditioning in the U.S., basically how we devote so much energy to cooling spaces instead of people.

Exactly. If you look at how we use our air conditioning, it’s shocking. Take a 3,000-square-foot house on a summer day — only about 3 percent of the cooling power from the central air conditioning is going for people cooling. That is to say, 3 percent is being used to help remove heat from people’s bodies. The other 97 percent is going to cool the structure of the house, all the tens of thousands of cubic feet of air that aren’t even coming in contact with these people. So all that energy is not being focused where it’s needed, and this is assuming that people are home all of this time, when really they’re probably out working for most of the day. But the air conditioning stays on because it would be too difficult if they turned it off and then came back in the evening and turned it on. The central air wouldn’t actually get the whole place cooled off until late in the evening.

Does it help at all if you use a more efficient A.C. unit?

The A.C. equipment today is about 28 percent more efficient than it was 15 years ago. But the average air-conditioned house is much bigger and using 37 percent more energy to cool it, so there’s no real gain there.

You met people who live in some of the hottest climates in the U.S. and have chosen not to use air conditioning.

Yes. I met one couple without air conditioning in their home in St. Petersburg, Fla., a city that in the summer is like a huge outdoor steam bath. And they both say that people say to them, "Wow, you must have some secret trick." But they told me it’s actually pretty much just the old-fashioned advice that people used to follow. They will close windows to keep the cool air in and only open them when they need to. In the evening they have a house fan to draw the cooler air back in, but a lot of the time they don’t even use that. The day I visited them it was the second-hottest day of 2009. It was 114 outside and 100 in their kitchen. They go through a lot of ice water. In that environment there are very few people who would be willing to do it.

You’re one of the proud few without A.C. Do you find it’s possible to be comfortable in the heat of the summer without it?

Yes, I think so. A couple of weekends ago it was in the high 80s here in Kansas. I was in my living room with the ceiling fan going, and I thought, man, it’s really nice in here, so I went and got a thermometer, and it was 84 in the living room. I had an aunt who was always trying to economize and would keep her windows shut up and her air conditioning on 80 degrees, and that was utterly stifling. You just couldn’t exist in that kind of environment, but if you have no air conditioning and plenty of ventilation and air movement, it’s comfortable. Warmth in and of itself is not bad at all. It can even be quite enjoyable.

There have been some positive health consequences from air conditioning — making it safer for people during heat waves, for instance. How do you reconcile this with wanting to ratchet down our A.C. use?

Yeah, it does have a Jekyll-and-Hyde character in that respect. But I think we need to look at it is as a fail-safe mechanism and recognize that a lot of the health problems that we need A.C. to solve, it may have contributed to in the first place. We need to look at the conditions under which people die in heat waves, the harsh life conditions that they’re enduring more generally. That’s the real root of the problem.

Also, a lot of people run air conditioning because they’re concerned about their allergies or asthma, but we need to consider the hypotheses that say that the current epidemic of those conditions is partly caused by lack of outdoor exposure to soil and friendly organisms. Maybe if children were out in the yard making mud pies instead of in a cool, sterile environment all day long, they might have a lot more defense against those problems.

I feel like the hardest place to convince people to stop using air conditioning would be in their office buildings, because they feel like they need to be cool to be productive. Is that true?

There have been a number of studies of satisfaction in the office, and they tend to find that far more people are dissatisfied with their office environment than are satisfied, and that far and away the biggest complaints are about the thermal conditions. What is strange about this is that in the summer there are as many people who complain that it is too cold as say it is too hot. But I think that won’t surprise people to hear, because most of us are familiar with this tug of war at the thermostat and with people in July having to take sweaters and space heaters to their offices.

Besides people changing their individual habits, do you feel like the government needs to intervene in the way we use air conditioning?

I think that we need to be changing a lot of the features of our society that have helped make us dependent on air conditioning in the first place. In the end, someone will have to put some very hard limits on energy consumption and emissions overall. However the truth is, people could give up refrigerators or stoves or drive 9,000 miles less a year or stop using electric lighting, but none of those things would cut emissions as much as eliminating air conditioning.

I have a theory that if we could require Congress to meet two days per week during the summer session out under a canopy on the Capitol lawn, that they might want to deal with ecological reality a little more straightforwardly than when they are sitting in the air-conditioned rooms inside.

I have to ask, is the room you’re in right now air-conditioned?

Yes, it is.

How do you feel?

I’m a bit cold, actually. I would prefer to just open the place up, but you know, we all have co-workers. I was working outside all morning, and when I came in, the air conditioning felt good as it always does when you first go indoors, but now that I’ve been sitting here talking to you, it’s starting to get uncomfortable.