Wednesday, May 26, 2010

That Green Conversation

I am an avid follower of Build blog and once again they always seem in sync with my way of thinking.

I was recently asked how I can be a "Green" Consultant and not be a LEED AP. As I have written I prefer to use USGBC as a resource and educational tool not as some sort of prize awarding deity that forces my clients and me to adhere to when I know in my heart is not necessarily a guarantee of greenness.. its just an adherence to a point system.

But tonight I received this blog entry and I reprint it here. They state many of the same concerns I have stated over the years and in this blog as well. I have been to many "green" properties and found that green is just a word and a color and nothing more.

Its tough because it put me at odds with many colleagues who feel that its all green and by questioning it it puts green build entirely at risk. Well I disagree, bad build is bad build and when its called green that is what puts green at risk. But oh well I am a contrarian I guess..

No doubt, the term “Green” can represent sustainable practices in the design and construction industry but the word has been abused and exploited to such an extent that, without an explanation and data, without looking at the whole picture, the term doesn’t really mean much. We’ve been designing and building houses for over 15 years in the northwest and when we hear the term “Green” without any supplementary information, we have no idea what it actually means. Ask 10 architects and builders for the definition of “Green design” and you’ll most likely get 10 different and vague answers.

We’ve all heard the stories…

–the 15,000 square foot house built with “green construction practices”. When a house of this size is occupied by a family of four (or sometimes less) there’s nothing green or sustainable about it.

-the building praised as “green” by the city because the windows exceed the insulation values of the energy code. Never mind that the stone façade was shipped from a rock quarry in Italy using enough fuel via boats and trucks to easily negate the energy savings.

-the condominium building marketed as “green living”. Despite the recycled materials, it was designed and built so poorly that the entire skin will need to be discarded and replaced within 10 years.

-blocks and blocks of “green-built” homes. But because of their shoddy, short-sighted construction, their lack of life-span makes them disposable.

Do a Google search for “green construction” and you’ll find a roster that includes everything from legitimately sustainable projects to completely bastardized marketing spins. How do we move forward with such a murky and sometimes contrasting definition of green? We all want a better built environment; no one truly wants diminishing returns in the sustainability of our built environment. At its core, green design is a solid idea. Yet now that the schlock developers and marketing scheisters have fully learned to manipulate the concept, the term in-and-of-itself is meaningless. How do we, as architects, homeowners, or just a conscientious public distinguish the authentic from the untrustworthy? How do we move forward?

We’ve been scratching our heads here at the BUILDblog and we’ve got two checklist items for architects and two for homeowners which will help us all keep the train from falling off the tracks.


1. Create a statement of green/sustainable/sensible design. It might not be entirely comprehensive or complete but it gives potential clients, possible employees and admiring students an idea of where you’re coming from. For a departure point, you can check out our sustainability statement here.

2. There are a handful of professional evaluation organizations in the design and construction industry like LEED and FSC. While these organizations have a solid mission statement and good intentions, they are gradually being manipulated by lobbyists and other interest groups that will eventually negate the very purpose of these organizations. It’s our job as architects to keep these groups in check. Visit links like this to keep the math legitimate and register your opinion here to stay in the conversation. Be involved, matter.


1. Use the litmus test of good old fashioned sensible design. If it says it’s green but it just doesn’t seem sensible, then it’s probably not green or sustainable. A single family “green built” house with a 4 car garage is not sensible design. Nor is it green, we don’t care what the garage doors were recycled from.

2. Do your homework when selecting an architect and hunt down their statement of green/sustainable/sensible design. If they don’t have one, that should be a red flag.

Share your thoughts on avoiding greenwashing and maintaining design integrity by hitting that comments button.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Risky Business?

I found an older article from the Daily Journal of Commerce on Green Building risks and issues.

I have to agree with many of the points made and don't think they are any less significant today. I value the move to fully integrated and sustained designed and built buildings. Looking to the long term to conserve resources, utilize them appropriately, minimize waste and finally and more importantly be energy efficient.

It puts a great deal of stress on a design team particularly when they are all disparate businesses and industries trying to serve a client and meet the standards of the varying Green Certification process.

That is the risk in ANY building assuring that it is solidly built and is meeting the needs and promises while also maintaining current standards and codes if not exceeding them... while "adding" green features.

Excitement, zeal and the ambitious have shown that when it works it really works but when it fails it equally fails. So what does it mean with regards to litigation and "fault"

I reprint the article below . And while I have my conclusions I let you find your own.


Expert: Green projects risky for contractors
Journal Staff Reporter

Ujjval Vyas, an expert on risk management, said green building is fundamentally changing the construction industry in ways that bring new risks and liabilities to contractors.

Vyas is a principal at the Alberti Group, a national consulting firm that helps clients define sustainability goals, manage risk and improve the performance of their buildings. He is also anattorney and a professor.

Vyas was in Seattle recently to address the Associated General Contractors' Future
Leadership Forum and give a public talk about what he called the myths and realities
of green building.

More construction is going green, with some cities requiring green certification and
owners hiring teams specifically to create LEED buildings. But green building means
using new systems and technology, and is changing the traditional relationship
between team members.

Vyas said contractors need to better understand how these changes affect them. “People are afraid to have the hard conversations because they're afraid to beagainst something that everybody's for,” he said. “You don't have to be against it at all. You can love sustainability. Just do what you always do (and remain skeptical).”

Vyas said it's important to know who's responsible if things don't perform as
promised. Contractors, he said, need to be careful because owners often consider them
the financially responsible party. The best way to proceed, he said, is to ask
questions. “If you don't remain skeptical, you significantly increase the risk and
liability on the product.”

Legal risks

Vyas said he has been involved in lawsuits when a team's aspirations didn't match a
building's performance. He said he sees lotsof legal risk connected to green buildings.

For example, if a tenant requires LEED space and moves into a new building that
later fails to get certified, it's going to be costly for the owner to lose that tenant, andit could end up in court. If a building fails to perform as promised,
Vyas said, the owner will sue the contractor,not the architect. “(The architect) isn't worth going after. You are, and your insurance carriers are worth going after.”
Vyas said there are other legal questions about green projects. With a typical
building, contractual requirements end at substantial completion. But with LEED, a
building is not complete until it has received certification, which can take an extra year.

Vyas said this can compromise warranties associated with substantial completion. To
avoid problems, teams should write into contracts when their responsibility ends. An attorney can lead a team astray if he or she is not experienced in sustainability
issues and construction, he said. Teams should also never guarantee a level of LEED certification or imply that a project will reach a high level of performance until
it does, he said, and they should also be careful about claims they make in press

Vyas said contractors need to be much more actively involved from the beginning to
avoid suits. Owners often speak most with architects, so the image they get of a
finished product is what the architect envisions. Vyas said contractors need to
communicate often with the owner about what is and isn't realistic.

“Architects believe that owners should pay for their dreams. Their zeal can become your performance requirement,” he said. “Unless you say differently, the owner will think you agree with what the architect says.”

Contractors should see all the contracts, he said, because another firm's contract could require something they did not agree to. They also need to be up to speed on green building and contractual risk, and limit their role by clarifying the scope of their work in contracts. Vyas said contractors should make it clear to owners that they are happy to install new systems or technology, though they are unclear about how they will perform.

“I'm suggesting you be the first person that says, ‘this is our scope and our role.'
The architects often just have no idea what they're talking about,” Vyas said.
If a contractor is installing a confusing piece of equipment, “issue (the architect) a blizzard of RFIs.”

Too often, he said, these discussions don't happen.

Some solutions

One of the great myths of green buildings, Vyas said, is that they perform better than others. He said there just is not enough good data: “The information stream is seriously polluted.” A building that is sustainable can also be high quality, depending on the motivation of the team. “Sustainability is a great location for you to really establish that you are a quality enterprise, not that you are a sustainable enterprise. That's a big, big difference.”

If you're doing it for the marketing benefits, then you need go no further than LEED, Vyas said.But a team that wants to reach the highest level of quality needs to go beyond LEED and start thinking about how it can provide the highest quality building. To create a truly high performance building, Vyas suggests entering into a design/build contract and a performance contract, and requiring commissioning at the beginning of a project. These actions, he said, get everyone at the table early and help ensure that a building meets their goals. “I see no better way than to engage in a design/build contract and a performance contract.”

Failing that, teams need to do more research on the performance of products and tools. Focus on quality rather than just green, he said. Owners will recognize the level of quality brought to the table and will “hopefully discriminate in the marketplace and choose you.”To get team members working together, Vyas suggests contractors buy local architecture firms. A medium-sized construction company, he said, could easily buy the hottest architecture firm in town, creating a design/build firm that offers owners a single source for both services This would combine client pools and push competitors out of the market, while allowing team members to plug holes that occur when developing sustainable projects in a traditional way, he said.

“I would argue right now, every contractor should be going out there and just buying,” he said. “This is the time to just purchase them.”

Jeff Robinson, general superintendent at John Korsmo Construction, said the talk resonated with him, especially the idea of having architecture and construction firms combine forces. Vertical integration, he said, is key. “That is clearly the direction that a lot of firms are heading and the GC/CM procurement method is
one of the positive ways that we're working with our clients to be involved in design upfront... and helping them wash out the problems,” he said. “I think it's a good idea.”

Vyas said owners need to be more clear about what they expect from projects. Owners should send clear signals to the architect and contractors that they are looking for real solutions and a truly high performance building. Contracts should specify that any product or design solution used will be considered fully vetted.
“If you have to have 17 sub consultants, that's the case. It's your duty,” he said. “Just because they saw it in a magazine, they don't get to spec it.”

Friday, May 21, 2010

It Runs Hot and Cold

More notices from the front.

I got nice Email from Rebecca at Cool Runnings.

Cool Running Hospitality Supply specializes in air conditioning equipment for residential and commercial settings. From top brand air conditioners, stove tops, refrigeration units and more.

They are are a great resource for any newly constructed or recently renovated residential or commercial space - a great site for construction crews who have a big project on hand.

Love their site and they have free curbside delivery and no sales tax for those outside the NYS area!

With summer on the horizon (well maybe) looking for a new air conditioner that you don't have to pick up (that would be me!) that is affordable and easy to install may be a great way of keeping cool this summer.

For readers who have an interest in their products they are offering a discount.

Use the code "link2us" for $25 any order over $500.

Retrofitting and being a Live Wire

Houston Neal, a Director of Software Advice, sent me an interesting email...

I thought you'd like to know about an article I wrote on "5 Green Retrofits Electricians Should Be Pitching to Drive Business"

Numerous reports forecast retrofitting to become a multi-billion dollar market over the next three to four years. So I put together this guide on 5 retrofits contractors - and homeowners - should implement.

He thought it would inspire an interesting discussion regarding current technology in lighting. LED's are increasing in their technology and with that a decrease in costs.. such a preferable option than the current option of CFL's.

Other points are of course the use of daylighting and renewables in design.

Something also worth noting from my blog regarding the LEED editorial there is going to be a real increase I believe in Energy monitoring and Management systems as a way to truly see where the energy is going and if it is being reduced, renewed or simply wasted.

For future and current Electricians I think this is a must read. For those interested in what it means to build and design there are also important points.

Feel free to review the current article at Software Advice, The Construction Blog.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Another LEED View

After quite some time being a "detractor" to the obsession with LEED credits as some type of superior standard that suddenly designates a buildings superiority over all others there are those who in principle agree.

Many greenies - those in fields less about building science and more about Green marketing often tout, brag and blog endlessly about the varying LEED projects across country. Anyone speaking against LEED is seen as a heretic challenging all things good and perfect.

Well there are many professionals in the buidling fields that have taken issue with LEED among other certification processes as onerous, expensive and excessive in truly meeting performance standards and function.

Today a great editoral in the New York Times brings the issue to light about what LEED's real purpose was and that in the zeal to be green we are not really seeing what it means and what the purpose of the certification is and should be.

I have reprinted it below and bolded what I think are valid points, many of which I and my mentors have been talking about for quite some time.

Again we are not being critical towards LEED but its promise should be educational and informative not as something to be just another marketing tool.

Don’t LEED Us Astray
Published: May 19, 2010

TODAY Al Gore is expected to join some of the city’s top developers and bankers for the grand opening of the luminous office tower known as 1 Bryant Park — the second-tallest building in New York City and, with a handsome foyer and a roster of prominent tenants, a ray of hope in a gloomy commercial real estate market.

But beyond its height and tenancy rates, 1 Bryant Park is slated to be the only office tower in the nation to draw the United States Green Building Council’s highest level of certification — platinum — in its Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design program, the most widely used green-building measure in the country.

The LEED program, which awards points for incorporating eco-friendly material and practices into buildings’ design and construction, has led to a sea change in the industry, introducing environmental awareness into everything from regulatory processes to rents.

But while the standard is well-intentioned, it is also greatly misunderstood. Put simply, a building’s LEED rating is more like a snapshot taken at its opening, not a promise of performance. Unless local, state and federal agencies do their part to ensure long-term compliance with the program’s ideals, it could end up putting a shiny green stamp on a generation of unsustainable buildings.

To be fair, the council never meant for its system to be a seal of green approval. Rather it was to be a set of guidelines for architects, engineers and others who want to make buildings less wasteful. However, developers quickly realized that its ratings — certified, silver, gold or platinum — were great marketing tools, allowing them to charge a premium on rents.

Such market-driven motives wouldn’t matter — if LEED in fact measured energy performance. But it can’t: some certified buildings end up using much more energy than the evaluators predicted, because the buildings are more popular than expected or busy at different times than developers forecast, or because tenants ignore or misuse green features. Bike racks merely encourage cycling to work, and operable windows merely offer the opportunity to use less air-conditioning.

The Green Building Council reformed the system last year to reflect actual energy use by having owners report annual performance data. But that’s not enough detail to measure energy consumption accurately, and there’s no clear way to repeal certification if tenants or owners miss their energy-saving targets. As a result, a five-year-old building can turn into an energy hog and still carry its LEED designation.

The solution, though, isn’t to replace the system, but to supplement it. A number of local, state and federal agencies require LEED certification for their new buildings — so why not have them institute follow-up requirements as well?

Government agencies could establish incentives to promote the proper and sustained use of eco-friendly building characteristics. Buildings that get a rating above the most basic level of LEED should qualify for subsidies. Buildings that efficiently generate on-site power, as 1 Bryant Park does, should be able to claim tax credits. Tenants who reuse paper or install efficient lighting could claim rebates.

At the same time, agencies should conduct regular energy-use checkups to ensure that landlords and tenants live up to the promise of their LEED certification — and those that don’t should lose their subsidy.

The result wouldn’t just mean fulfilling the promise of LEED. It would also mean unleashing innovations in building management, as landlords seek out new ways to lower taxes through environmentally friendly measures. Vornado Realty Trust, a rival to 1 Bryant Park’s owner, places monitors in tenants’ offices to track, and then reduce, energy use.

There are plenty of buildings that boast of being “built to LEED standards” but might then leak excessive carbon once in operation. With so many developers, municipalities and federal agencies embracing environmental awareness, the government needs to make sure that a green building doesn’t go gray after its grand opening.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Aussies Only Drink Tea

My mother was from Australia. My extended family on her side still live there and I have had many great travels and experiences in the land down under.

Something that has always impressed me and may explain my character is the shared value of a strong middle/working class (that and a love of the story and a laugh.. they are predominately an Irish descent). I loved that waitstaff were paid a sufficient wage to not need tips, that in cabs you sat in the front with the driver, that unions were powerful and supportive of the workers and they of it. That Australia was very much an advocate of the "tall poppy syndrome" meaning that if you got too big for your britches you needed a reality check.

Australia has its issues but in overall it has weathered this economic tsunami like Canada thanks to a strong public sector, strong regulation and a willingness to work on the global front independently.

This article in our local, Crosscut, stresses why the success of Australia's policies have left them largely immune to the plagues of Wall Street and the collapse of the Euro.

As you can see all the FEARS and LABELS that are often used in Tea Party lingo is actually an anathema to the Aussies. Of course the Aussies are better Educated and informed, two states of reality that are lacking in our Tea Party members. But then again I get their pain its hard to have that when you struggle to make ends meet and are largely the beneficiaries of the policies of the Wrecking Crew these last 30 years.


No Tea-Party frenzy: Why Australia escaped U.S-made downturn

The old saying: "When American sneezes, we catch a cold." Now, Australians are thankful that they escaped the Great Recession's virus through wiser banking and a more robust public sector.

By Anthony B. Robinson

In Australia, as in Canada, they have a wry bit of proverbial wisdom that goes, "When the U.S. sneezes we catch a cold." In other words, the economies are so linked and the US economy so dominant, that a sneeze in the bigger one will set off a real sickness in the smaller one.

But a strange thing has happened, while the U.S. has experienced a kind of devastating viral pneumonia, a.k.a. the Great Recession, Australia (where I am at present) has actually fared much better than the U.S. The economy here remains strong, unemployment is around 5 percent, and the banking and financial industry is healthy.

Why the difference? Why did our way-more-than-a-sneeze downturn not give Australia (and Canada) comparable or worse fits?

As I have talked with Australians, there seem to be two reasons given for Australia's relative economic health and ability to resist the virus of our Great Recession. One has to do with more conservative banking and financial practices. The other with a more robust public sector.

With some few and limited exceptions, Australia's banking and financial industry did not venture into the world of sub-prime mortgage loans and packaged derivatives. They stayed the more traditional route. A full 10 percent of the purchase price was required as the down payment on a home mortgage.

Moreover, the banks continued to examine real income figures for mortgage applicants, assuring themselves and their clients that their income would allow them to make their mortgage payments. Not rocket science, just old-fashioned banking (the kind that Kerry Killinger and WAMU decided was passé.) That was one factor in the capacity of Australia to resist our infection.

While the U.S., beginning, in the 1980s went ga-ga for banking deregulation, and the idea that "the government is the problem," Australia didn't. The idea of govenment oversight of the financial services industry still seemed like a good thing here, as in Canada, where few if any banks have failed.

The other factor is that Australia (and Canada) didn't drink the Kool-Aid of anti-government, slash-the-public-sector privatization as always to be preferred in the way that the U.S. has. Again, beginning in the 1980s and carrying on for 30 years now, this has been the received wisdom for Republicans and Democrats in the United States alike. For some reason, the idea that there is a proper sector for public funding and a role for government seemed to persist here in Australia.

Kieran Davies, chief economist, Royal Bank of Scotland discusses the performance of the domestic economy and the short-term outlook.

So, health care has long been a government responsibility. Everyone I've talked to seems to regard that as normal and effective. It relieves employers of a huge burden. Moreover, public funding for higher education is the norm, resulting in an affordable university system. A third sign of a balance of the public and private sectors is a robust public transportation system. Trains, boats and buses are all effective parts of the overall public transportation system. Again, all of this seems to be accepted and regarded as normal. In Brisbane, the "City Cat" ferries ply the Brisbane River, taking students to school and commuters to work, as well as providing a nice experience for tourists. Seattle could learn something from this small fleet of water bound buses. Imagine such a fleet running from Renton to Alki?

One doesn't hear, in Australia, the frenzied calls for "less government." I'm sure people here aren't anymore thrilled than we are to pay their taxes, but they do seem to see that taxes fund valuable services that make society work better for everyone. A fourth element of a funded-public sector we've noticed is that there are no admission charges for national parks, of which there are many, nor are there admission charges for museums and like. This means that the ordinary person is probably much more likely to avail herself or himself of such cultural amenities and of a shared civic sector, which is seen as a shared birthright of all citizens and not something that only those with money get to enjoy. In the U.S., almost all such civil sector institutions have become subject to user or admission fees.

The market, it turns out, isn't all-wise, all-knowing, all-competent (note the way market enthusiasts have imputed divine qualities to the market).

True, the federal budget is a matter of concern and debate here, as elsewhere. But the debate is a civil and seeming reasonable one. No apoplectic Tea-Parteriers that I've seen. The federal budget, currently facing a deficit, is projected to be running at a surplus in three years, and unemployment is expected to fall to 4 percent.

While traveling, I've read the recent book-length essay of historian Tony Judt, Ill Fares the Land. Judt makes the case that it has been the wholesale embrace in the U.S. and the United Kingdom of the rhetoric and reality of privatization and deregulation that accounts for our present economic meltdown and cultural decline. It's a matter of balance, says Judt. The market, it turns out, isn't all-wise, all-knowing, all-competent (note the way market enthusiasts have imputed divine qualities to the market). Left to itself the market, like most anything else that isn't checked and balanced, will consume even its own children.

Can the U.S. learn from Australia and Canada the virtues of such balance between the public and private sectors? Maybe it is true, after all, that there are some things that can't be done best, or even well, as for-profit ventures. Perhaps we are all better off when there is a civil society that we share, regardless of our income level, and in which we are together emotionally and philosophically invested? Such seems to be a lesson from Down Under.

The "Nanny" State

This morning I awoke to a story about Japan's increasingly aging population and their need to recruit workers from other countries to help them maintain the status quo and particularly the needs of the aged. But in that scenario the Japanese have very stringent requirements to maintain a working visa - language is required, a not so easy feat and a three year window in which to attain it.

Europe has faced this issue with declining birth rates and our own country suffers from a population boon and bust cycle that has our current Government concerned about the longevity of said "entitlement aging" programs... Medicare and Social Security. Without a vibrant young workforce there will be a serious need to consider how these programs are funded for the long term.

But on that note China and India's birth rates are astronomical and they are looked upon as the serious contenders to economic powerhouses as a result. China's Government certainly with its singular control (Communism) is posing the largest threat to becoming the country as the world's superpower in this Century.

But what about the issues of overpopulation? Are we truly addressing this as a problem that has long term environmental affects? Reading this entry in the American Prospect this morning it asks the questions about what it means to have responsible population control. But on that note can you really at all consider it when you look at current efforts to control Global Warming, Financial Reform and Nuclear Arms. This is one issue that has no chance.

The Population Debate Gets Personal

It's time to take a hard look at the environmental ramifications of First World procreation.

Courtney E. Martin | May 17, 2010 | web only

Let's be honest, babies aren't known for being camera-shy, but they've really been hogging the spotlight as of late. There's that new Focus Features film, Babies. And then last week The New York Times Sunday Magazine explored their morality in a cover story chock-full of images of cartoonishly big-eyed infants.

But don't be fooled by their innocent appearance. While fertility rates have been consistently dropping worldwide over the last 10 years, we're still way over budget when it comes to those chubby little humans. Last year, according to the Global Footprint Network, 6.8 billion of us consumed the renewable resources of 1.4 Earths.

Overpopulation is a controversial topic for a slew of reasons, not the least of which is that those who've taken up the cause have often been racist, classist, xenophobic, and sexist. I won't belabor the history here; Mother Jones' recent cover story, "The Last Taboo," and related online forum (of which I was a part) are good places to find a more comprehensive background.

But another, less discussed reason that conversations about overpopulation are so explosive is that they're inherently very personal. This topic is one of the most extreme reminders that some of our most private decisions have real and lasting public consequences. Even when a Prius-driving, bottle-recycling, Sierra Club-donating woman is deciding whether to have a baby, she is rarely focused on the environmental consequences, and yet, an American baby born today adds an average of 10,407 tons of carbon dioxide to the carbon legacy of the mother -- according to Oregon State University statistician Paul Murtaugh.

This kind of personal-political dynamic is different than individual moralizing or religious values. This is not the stuff of the culture wars -- Is it wrong to have an abortion? Is it right to censor sexually explicit art? These are, ultimately, questions that are interpretable and value-driven, the stuff of philosophy classes and religious sermons. My yes may be just as defendable as your no.

The question of overpopulation is different. While one may quibble with Murtaugh's calculations, one can't really argue that it's environmentally sound to birth another child into our resource-depleted Earth. In fact, author Bill McKibben argues that we've changed the quality of the planet so drastically that we can't even call it Earth anymore. We're now living on Eaarth, as he calls it in his latest book, Making Life on a Tough New Planet, and our job is to figure out how to not screw this one up, too.

Of course there are big-picture, non-coercive solutions to overpopulation. Improve girls' education, and fertility rates automatically drop (an approach dubbed "the girl effect"). Make sure that contraception is cheap, abundant, and culturally acceptable. Give women economic opportunities. These are libratory, First World answers to Third World problems. Educate a girl and, voila, the world is saved!

But what about Americans? As of 2005, women in 18 of the 24 wealthiest nations were having more babies than in previous years. No one has posited any big theories on why this trend has reversed in countries where women are largely well educated, the U.S. included, but there's no question that babies born in wealthy countries consume a disproportionate amount of resources.

So where do we draw the line in our own procreating and consuming habits? No self-respecting environmentalist drinks out of disposable plastic water bottles, but does she unapologetically have a few kiddos? Murtaugh told Mother Jones environmental correspondent Julia Whitty: "The ecological costs of that child far outweigh even the combined energy-saving choices from all a mother's other good decisions, like buying a fuel-efficient car, recycling, using energy-saving appliances and light bulbs. The carbon legacy of one American child and her offspring is 20 times greater than all those other sustainable maternal choices combined."

I haven't yet been faced with the ecological realities of my own capacity to procreate, but I can only imagine that the prospect of co-parenting, funding diapers and a college education, and losing my long, lazy Sunday mornings will loom far larger in my mind than Murtaugh's calculations. Perhaps this is the inevitable selfishness of human nature, or maybe I -- like so many privileged Americans -- let myself off the moral hook too easily.

I've already made smaller-scale versions of this calculation. I've held off on buying a new iPhone, for example, until my old BlackBerry dies. Part of this is thrift, but part of it is also a general environmental value -- I try not to replace anything that isn't irreparably broken. When I make this decision, I don't imagine the trash pickers of Rio hiking over the discarded whims of wealthy folks, but I do have a general sense that I'm making a choice that's better for my budget and better for everyone else, too.

An iPhone, as coveted as it may be, is not a baby. I get it. But in terms of personal choice, consumption, and global interdependence, the two are on a relevant continuum. Americans, most of them anyway, live in a time of relative abundance, even in this economic recession. We are faced with daily choices that impact the rest of the world in very concrete ways, and this new reality requires what Daniel Goleman calls "ecological intelligence" -- the capacity to analyze what we consume so as to make the most sustainable decision.

Thus far, consuming via baby-making has been a no-judgment zone for most Americans, even the most "green" among us. Babies sure are cute. And creating a family is a complex, highly personal art. Many mothers I know say that having a child is the most miraculous experience they've ever had. Turns out, harsh as it sounds, that it's also one of the most environmentally irresponsible.

It's easy to understand why we don't weigh these public ramifications in our procreation decisions, but it doesn't make it right.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Housing Boon or Bust v2010

I read this this morning in the New York Times about a re surging housing boon in Las Vegas and Arizona and parts of Florida. The very states with the most housing foreclosures, walk aways, short sells and values underwater.

Suddenly in the middle of this is a new type of carpetbagger who has moved into these areas and bought the land that was left and starting a mini boon. Naturally appealing to first time home buyers - the most ill informed and the opportunists who are sure to think that this will pay off if they hang in there long enough. Well I hope 10 years is not too long as that is the current estimation on when housing will return to a stable value.

I am no soothsayer but having made money during the boon time rehabbing luxury properties I had a built in market and I was careful with regards to the value and more importantly resale value. My biggest concerns was maintaining the value of the property I was doing in line with adjacent homes; in other words not thinking because I spent a million on the property that the house was worth a million when the neighboring homes were not.

I met many Realtors or as I like to call them Used House salespeople who tried to convince me to overpay on a property because the house down the road sold for the same price. My comment was: What are the comparable? Square foot, amenities, appliances, lot size, etc? Well they could never actually answer that with facts the usual response is "well go for it now as it will only rise further and you will be priced out."

Ah yes the FEAR response. This is the mantra for the 21st Century. FEAR. We are afraid of everything. Don't say or do anything for fear you will lose your job, not get a home, go to war, go into debt. Whatever the situation it is almost always prompted by fear. We still do it... we have this whole Internet disclosure thing from MySpace, to Facebook, Twitter an blogs and we ask everyone to participate, share and reveal and then of course the privacy issues, the hacking issues, identity theft, etc all playing upon FEAR.

I had a conversation with a fellow yogini at class. She is my age and she said to me "everyone is afraid and we have no one to blame but ourselves." Its true. The boomers those over 60 who protested wars, joined groups, dropped in and out and turned around a became Investment bankers, Technology Gods and Oligarchs became the very thing they feared.. Autocrats. They worked so hard to get there and then they became very afraid to lose it. Go to my earlier blog with regards to the Citibank memo and the entire rationale behind maintaining the status quo - use FEAR.

Fear should NOT be a motivator in buying a home. Fear should not be a motivator in anything. I heard Glenn Beck say that anyone who has empathy should not be a position of decision making as it clouds rational judgment. I would say in reality FEAR is more likely the problem. (But as he works on promoting fear I would say that he can't actually go there with any legitimacy)

When I asked what motivated the last housing boon across the board it was FEAR that you would not be able to afford it or that rates will go up or simply the supply will eventually run out. Interesting to all of that as you have to wonder why going into a lifetime of debt for a home is something to promote as good. Isn't the real problem wages and why one cannot afford a home. Affordable housing ironically is actually needed and with the current recession is one area most at risk. We have nothing in place to establish rental properties and residential homes for sale that are AFFORDABLE. Wages are declining once again and without safe, affordable and maintained apartments and homes we will have even further contributed to another crisis. Rising homelessness.

I never understood why people were so willing to put their financial security on the line to own a home. Its why I did only work on luxury homes because even I had ethics. I saw the insanity and have had friends put themselves in dire financial straits to own property. They often asked why I don't. I said I am not my clients. So I have no guilt about my efforts and profits during that time. But there are others who cannot say the same.

This current crop of builders and developers are in for profit. The homes I noted are not green, Eco friendly and probably not even well built. In Arizona, Nevada and Florida there is really no excuse to look at installing solar energy, serious water conservation and consumption in those regions where there is plenty of one and not enough of the other. And where are the jobs? Is there work there that will sufficiently fund the mortgages and validate the prices of these homes? Is there public infrastructure available and other services to maintain their existence?

You see when you are afraid and when you manipulated you don't ask those questions. Well now you should. We have millions of vacated properties that need upgrading. We have many cities and towns where the schools are suffering due to the lack of tax revenues via property taxes. Should we really be building new?


Building Is Booming in a City of Empty Houses

LAS VEGAS — In a plastic tent under a glorious desert sky, Richard Lee preached the gospel of the second chance.

The chance to make money on the next housing boom “is like it’s never been,” Mr. Lee, a real estate promoter, assured a crowd of agents, investors and bankers. “We’re going to come back like you’ve never seen us before.”

Home prices in Las Vegas are down by 60 percent from 2006 in one of the steepest descents in modern times. There are 9,517 spanking new houses sitting empty. An additional 5,600 homes were repossessed by lenders in the first three months of this year and could soon be for sale.

Yet builders here are putting up 1,100 homes, and they are frantically buying lots for even more.

Las Vegas is trying to recover by building what it does not need. It is an unlikely pattern being repeated in many of the areas where the housing crash was most severe.

“There’s a surprising rebound in the hardest-hit markets,” said Brad Hunter, chief economist with the consultant Metrostudy. “People are buying again.” From the recession’s lows, construction has nearly doubled in Las Vegas, Phoenix and Tucson. It is up 74 percent in inland Southern California and soaring in Florida.

Some of the demand is coming from families that are getting shut out of the bidding for foreclosures by syndicates that pay in cash, and some is from investors who are back on the prowl.

Land and labor costs have fallen significantly, so the newest homes are competitively priced. Some of the boom-era homes, meanwhile, are in developments that feel like ghost towns. And many Americans will always believe the latest model of something is their only option, an attitude builders are doing their utmost to reinforce.

In Phoenix, a billboard for Fulton Homes summed up the builders’ marketing approach. “Does your foreclosure have tenants?” it asks, next to a picture of a mammoth cockroach.

Brent Anderson, a marketing executive with another Southwest builder, Meritage Homes, said it bought 713 lots in stricken Arizona last year, and was on the verge of starting construction in a new Phoenix community called Lyon’s Gate.

“We’re building them because we’re selling them,” Mr. Anderson said. “Our customers wouldn’t care if there were 50 homes in an established neighborhood of 1980 or 1990 vintage, all foreclosed, empty and for sale at $10,000 less. They want new. And what are we going to do, let someone else build it?”

All of this goes contrary to the conventional wisdom, which suggests an improved market for builders is years away. Nationwide, new home sales at the beginning of this year plunged to a level below any recorded since 1963, when the figures were first officially tabulated.

Simply put, the country already has too many houses, the legacy of wide-scale overbuilding during the boom. The Census Bureau says there are two million vacant homes for sale, about double the historical level. Fewer new households, moreover, are being formed as families double up for economic reasons, putting a further brake on demand.

Even some builders agree with the pessimists when it comes to Las Vegas. Meritage Homes, for example, has largely withdrawn from the city. “We don’t think it will come back for a long time,” Mr. Anderson said.

American West is betting the opposite is true. The developer, which is privately held and is based here, builds nowhere else.

The evening under the tent with Mr. Lee was the official start of American West’s new community, called Reserve at Coronado Ranch. Before it opened, buyers began putting down money for the houses, which sell for under $300,000. “For the first time in three or four years, we have pent-up demand,” said American West’s vice president for sales, Jeff Canarelli.

Disregard what you may have heard about how hard times may usher in an era of restraint. “With our buyers, they always want bigger,” Mr. Canarelli said. An American West home introduced during the recession comes equipped with an elevator.

One of the initial buyers at Reserve is Josh Snider, a surgical technologist who decided a year ago he wanted to buy his first home. He sought out a foreclosure, deals that were supposedly plentiful and cheap. “What a nightmare that was,” recalled Mr. Snider, 38. “I put in five or six offers and was always outbid.”

He didn’t see any homes that were being sold by buyers in the traditional way. The price declines in Las Vegas have been so brutal that most homeowners with a mortgage owe more than their home is worth. If they must sell, their only option is a so-called short sale done with the approval of the lender, which can be a lengthy and frustrating process for all concerned.

Worried the market was going to turn around before he bought, Mr. Snider started checking out the new developments. He liked the floor plan, size and price of Reserve, which ultimately will have 310 houses.

A final incentive sealed the deal, this one courtesy of the United States government: he got a loan insured by the Federal Housing Administration, which meant his down payment was much smaller than a private lender would require.

The house, to be done in September, cost $273,500. “It’s not a bargain for everyone,” Mr. Snider said, “but it’s a bargain for me.”

He plans to live in the house with his girlfriend, Cindy Rojas, and his 12-year-old daughter.

Another early buyer is Irving Hallman, an investor from Hawaii. “I understand Vegas has its ups and downs, but we did the numbers and this house will hold its value,” Mr. Hallman said.

There is a benefit to the seeming madness in places like Las Vegas. Building homes is the traditional fuel of a recovery.

“Housing is construction. It’s tables. It’s paint. It’s couches. It’s toilets,” said Sally Taylor, a specialist in liquor and gambling establishments who attended the American West festivities. “If we build more houses, we’re creating more jobs.”

Across the street from Reserve’s three model homes is a new strip mall. Only one building is occupied, a gambling parlor. Others will start to be filled when more buyers join Mr. Snider and Mr. Hallman finds a renter.

Analysts have calculated that it could take as long as a decade for inventories to return to their precrash levels and for demand to once again exceed supply. That is a grim prospect for any owner who hopes to accrue equity through rising prices.

A few experts, however, are starting to think the path to a better market will be much shorter. Stephen F. Auth, chief investment officer at the financial services company Federated Investors, is a housing bull. He says he does not believe that many extended families will end up all living in one place, like the Waltons in the 1930s.

“That’s an unsustainable environment — Grandma coming home, Johnny moving back in with his new wife,” Mr. Auth said. “They’re going to move back out. The great housing depression is nearly over.”

New-home sales in March rose 27 percent. But most analysts attributed the jump to the pending expiration of yet another government incentive, a tax credit for buyers, and said sales would quickly slump again.

Even in Las Vegas, a community built on the willingness to be lucky, belief in a housing turnaround — and Mr. Lee’s portrait of a resilient city on its way to being a global “meetspace” — is provisional. Agents at the party said they had their hopes but were chastened by the horrors of the last three years.

Afterward, packing up his video equipment, Mr. Lee said the party itself heralded a recovery. “We used to do this every two weeks, starting in the 1990s,” he said. “But this is the first time in 18 months. Believe me, it’s been famine around here.”

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Women and Compensation

As a woman who has had to work primarily for myself or in temporary/contract work I was lucky when I was married as I did not have to ultimately worry about the financial compensation. I knew as someone who elected to pursue non-traditional or mainstream employment my income would reflect that choice.

This last year when my business collapsed I faced new challenges other than simply being a woman... I also faced what I believe serious age discrimination in the workplace. I don't believe I had gender issues working in construction and as I said that I found you could easily circumvent any of that if you handle yourself appropriately but with regards to age I found it more insidious and actually quite distressing.

I have written that I believe this type of discrimination is probably going to be the greatest fallout of the current recession and until health care reform is appropriately dealt with I am not sure we will see the end boomers returning to the workforce in sufficient numbers. And while I do think that this is one element the issue of profitability at the expense of salary is still the easiest and most sought out means by any employer. And frankly anyone willing and able to work for less will be the one hired. Its really that simple

Women have long been paid less.. by design and by intent but after reading this article today in the New York Times discussing why women are less likely to receive compensation comparable to their male counterparts I had to laugh.. the primary reason was that women who asked for raises were seen as "less attractive." Good to know it falls to the obvious. Yikes.

I will let you read the article to see the factors and methods suggested as to how women can find themselves in better financial situations when it comes to their work and value. But in reality much of this could easily be negated by increasing transparency when it comes to salary, looking to unions as a way of negotiation (always the most effective in both gender and equality across the board) and simply the need for women to mentor and support one another. I do think women overall fail each other in that regard and without supporting your own you are in turn not supporting yourself. No one knows the true worth and work of a woman than another woman.

But in this climate and with the last 30 years of the notion of making it on your own and pulling yourself up by your own bootstraps that might be the hardest to overcome.

A Toolkit for Women Seeking a Raise

“When a woman negotiates persuasively for higher compensation, she clears the path for other women to follow,” says Hannah Riley Bowles an associate professor at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government.

Published: May 14, 2010

Even now, when women represent half the work force, they’re still paid considerably less then men — and part of that pay gap may be a result of what happens at the salary negotiation table.

That’s assuming that women make it to the table, since research shows that they are less likely to ask for raises. Even when they do, their requests may be perceived as overly demanding or less agreeable.

“We have found that if a man and a woman both attempt to negotiate for higher pay, people find a women who does this, compared to one who does not, significantly less attractive,” said Hannah Riley Bowles, an associate professor at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, who has conducted numerous studies on gender, negotiation and leadership. “Whereas with the guy, it doesn’t seem to matter.”

So what’s a woman to do if she feels her work merits a raise?

A new study concludes that women need to take a different approach than men. Women, it suggests, should frame their requests in more nuanced ways to avoid undermining their relationship with their boss.

You may be asking yourself, as I did, whether negotiating in ways more favorable for women means that we’re just succumbing to stereotypes — or whether the ends justify the means.

“People associate men with higher pay because men tend to hold higher-paying and higher-level positions than women,” Ms. Riley Bowles said. “When a woman negotiates persuasively for higher compensation, she clears the path for other women to follow.”

Even though working women tend to be more educated, on average, than working men, females who work full time only earn about 77 cents for every dollar that men earn annually, according to the Institute for Women’s Policy Research. That’s up from about 59 cents in 1965.

Part of the pay gap can be easily explained away. Women are more likely to leave the work force to care for children, for example, so they end up with fewer years of experience. Men also tend to work in higher-paying occupations and industries.

“But what you find is that when you pull out all of those factors, you still have about 40 percent of the wage gap — or 9.2 cents — unexplained,” said Ariane Hegewisch, a study director at the institute.

Academic research on gender and negotiation suggests that part of the unexplained gap may be tied, at least in part, to the negotiating process itself. It may be that some women have lower pay expectations. Men, on the other hand, have been found to be more likely to negotiate higher starting salaries.

The work by Ms. Riley Bowles and her peers suggests that women in the work force can use specific advice. Here are some of their suggestions:

BE PROACTIVE If you believe you deserve a raise, don’t sit around and wait for someone to notice. “A lot of women, and this is quite commonly found, think, ‘As long as I work really, really hard, someone will notice and they will pay me more,’ ” said Karen J. Pine, a psychology professor at the University of Hertfordshire in Britain and co-author of “Sheconomics” (Headline Publishing Group, 2009). But “people don’t come and notice.”

You also want to think about the best time to approach your boss. It may make sense to approach him or her after an annual performance review, said Evelyn F. Murphy, president of the WAGE Project, a nonprofit organization, who runs negotiation seminars for women. “Or, if you just took on a major responsibility or won an award.”

BE PREPARED Doing your research pays, literally. A study found that men and women who recently earned a master’s degree in business negotiated similar salaries when they had clear information about how much to ask for.

But in industries where salary standards were ambiguous, women accepted pay that was 10 percent lower, on average, than men. “In our experiments, we found that with ambiguous information, women set less ambitious goals,” said Ms. Riley Bowles, who ran the study. “They asked for less in a competitive negotiation and got less.”

That theory also holds in other areas where there aren’t set expectations, like executive bonuses and stock options. “You get bigger gender gaps in those less standard forms of pay,” she added.

That’s why you need to be prepared. Informational Web sites like and can help uncover what people are being paid for a particular position in your geographic area. And and provide intelligence on pay inside a company — employees share their salaries online.

Part of your preparation may also include talking to peers. But remember that women tend to be less connected to male networks in the workplace and are more likely to compare themselves to people they think are similar, Ms. Riley Bowles said. That means they may be comparing their salaries with other women.

“If a woman asks her girlfriends how much they are paid and a guy asks his guy friends, Jane and Jim will come up with different numbers,” Ms. Riley Bowles added.

TAILOR NEGOTIATIONS This is where the women may want to use a different strategy. A new study by Ms. Riley Bowles shows that women are more likely to be successful if they explain why their request is appropriate, but in terms that also communicate that they care about maintaining good relationships at work. “The trick is trying to do both of these things at the same time and in a way that feels authentic and fits within the norms of the company,” she added.

Using this approach, the study found, women were more likely to be granted a raise without harming relationships, at least in an experimental setting. The results were consistent for women negotiating with other women and with men.

Some of the language used in the study provided an explanation on how to explain why you’re making the request now — “My team leader advised me to do this” — while at the same time communicating that you are taking the boss’s position into account: “What do you think?”

The study doesn’t suggest specific language, but offers some general outlines.

Instead of explaining why you deserve a raise directly, for instance, frame it in terms of why it makes sense for the organization or the person you’re trying to persuade. “Make the company the focus,” she said.

And if you’re thinking about using an outside offer to help negotiate a raise, take heed. It’s effective, but Ms. Riley Bowles said her studies have found that it tends to leave a more negative impression on women. “Women may need to be more strategic than men about how they raise an outside offer so that it doesn’t put them in a negative light,” she added.

ANTICIPATE Try to envision what kinds of objections your boss may have, Ms. Murphy said, and think about what your response might be. “There is no single way through this,” she added. “It’s largely reactive once you start the process.”

If you’re unsuccessful, ask your boss for recommendations on what you could do to move to the next level in your job. That way, “you are still in control and are still being constructive,” Ms. Murphy said. “If you trust your own language and your own ability to perceive these potential roadblocks or damaging outcomes, then you will find your way through them.”

NEGOTIATE AT HOME Before you even start negotiating for a raise, or a promotion, consider how it might affect your life at home — but don’t assume that one has to come at the expense of the other. Working women who double as caregivers still carry a disproportionate load of household chores, even as men have begun shouldering more responsibilities. Try to re-examine some of these roles and think about how new divisions of household labor may help each partner’s situation at work, Ms. Riley Bowles suggested.

Some people believe the negotiations at home may be more challenging then those in the workplace. “That is the big secret in our culture,” said Paula Hogan, a Milwaukee-based financial planner who works with a career counselor in her practice. “The workplace has become increasingly gender-neutral and at home there is still a lot of old thinking.”

BE CREATIVE If you have family responsibilities, it helps to consider alternatives like flexible work schedules. “Be sure you are thinking as creatively as possible for win-win solutions,” Ms. Riley Bowles said.

And remember that it’s your responsibility to suggest these solutions (or to seek out companies known for considering them). “They are not going to come to you and say, ‘Gosh, I notice you have three kids now. Would you like Tuesdays off?’ ” said Ms. Hogan. “It’s your job to present the business plan.”

Friday, May 14, 2010

The Trade of Being Green

I just finished the book, Green Gone Wrong, by Heather Rogers.

This is the kind of book all greenies should read. There is no question that in the zeal to go green the analysis and understanding the complexities must be done or in this case the change is not any more of improvement over the status quo.

Ms. Rogers makes a great case for Green Building visiting a passive house compound in Germany and discovering for herself how living moderately can be quite effective in establishing energy conservation.

Her other visit to BedZed in England is less successful. Many of the problems and complaints are ones that are often found here with regards to a move towards alternative renewable sources of energy. And that is because simply the people, the technology and the skills needed are not available. Here there was widely publicized Green Build home constructed with all the latest greatest in green options. Half of which go unused or are not working correctly due to installation issues and mechanical failures.. the most common with regards to geothermal heating.

But this is the risk when you are adding features to a home that are done for no other reason but to earn "credits" or "points." When you have a pursuit of a program at the expense of home's overall performance and purpose you have the secondary problem of budget and making the idea that green is not affordable. It perpetuates the negative image that accompanies alternative ideas and can lead to the inevitable backlash and resistance to do the new thing as it is believed its just "not worth it."

She also discusses the same attitude when it comes to alternative vehicles. This certainly has been played out in the press since it was written with the Big Three Automakers ultimate bankruptcy and bailout. Shocking to think that they refused to move towards something new simply because it was "different" and therefore difficult to do.

The most significant discussion centers around food - both for eating and for fuel production. The concept of "organic" is perhaps the most interesting of essays as she meets with several small farmers whose livelihoods are at risk with the ever increasing and confusing regulations centered on defining "organic" and ultimately our own resistance in paying for food that is simply more expensive to produce.

In turn the profits made from bio-fuels has also contributed to not only food shortages but to further destruction of forests and the environment. Countries eager to get onto the green bandwagon are doing so as it raises their standard of living but more importantly the profits of the larger corporations exploiting them and their country in the process.

Do we really know what "organic" means or what "free trade" is. I met a student recently who was in Guatemala working on coffee plantations that were touted as free trade. She learned first hand who really was profiting and it was not the growers but it does look nice when touting your compost able cup of java to the bus everyday.

A small chapter is also devoted to venture capitals foray into India to bring renewable energy to small poor villages and people as a means of allowing for modernization. But even there the costs are being passed onto the people and the success of the project is mired in corruption, duplicity and a lack of transparency that questions the validity of said efforts. Shades of Enron with a green logo.

This is why I struggle with the green community. I see great hope with the push to pursue more venture capital when it comes to green ventures. With the gulf accident (irony not lost) a realization that we cannot go drill baby drill without a cost. The realization that energy is not invite it is finite in our current state and while we may argue about the concept of "global warming" we cannot deny that our water, air and soil.. the things that allow us to live and breathe are tenuous at best when it comes to being clean and safe.

We may not agree on many issues but we have to face the truths and when we make decisions to go solar, wind or whatever we have to have a shared definition, shared expectations, trained individuals, reasonable costs and more importantly a committed Government that is keen to move us into a new Greener age without trade offs that do more harm than good.

I always think of this tenet of medicine: First Do No Harm. It seems applicable in most/all situations.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

The Powerless and the Unemployed

While the debate rages about regulation on the banks, immigration and the EU bailout of Greece, a quiet number came out a few days ago - the Unemployment number. It rose. After a small decline it was offset by another small uptick. Again putting us close to the dreaded 10% number that we seem to just manage to avoid - OFFICIALLY.

Once again as someone struggling in this economy and my attempt to either find meaningful work or remain working marginally until well something improves or I die... seriously there are few options for those of us over 40 who are highly intelligent, skilled and hard working.

Today the NY Times profiled that once again the idea that many jobs dissolved during this recession may not return. And what is really troublesome is that these are many jobs that allowed many people to live middle class lives. If this is true we are further eroding an entire class and generation to live in ways not seen here in decades.

It is this issue that is yes close to my heart as it affects me personally but also one I share in empathy. I have seen of late so little compassion, so little empathy I wonder what is the real imperative behind this anger. Just looking at the 8 Fold Path of Buddha there is one tenet - Right Way to Earn a Living. We seem to embrace many of those in our own daily life but when it comes to this tenet of Social Justice its the concept of redistributing wealth or NO!!! Socialist to think that perhaps working together to see all living quality lives is anomaly in our current society. With that I remind myself of this idea "there by the Grace of God go I."

Reading today's article I have to wonder if really the Admin job is that outdated or again is this another form of age and sex discrimination evident in her inability to find meaningful work?


In Job Market Shift, Some Workers Are Left Behind
Published: May 12, 2010

Many of the jobs lost during the recession are not coming back.

For the last two years, the weak economy has provided an opportunity for employers to do what they would have done anyway: dismiss millions of people — like file clerks, ticket agents and autoworkers — who were displaced by technological advances and international trade.

The phasing out of these positions might have been accomplished through less painful means like attrition, buyouts or more incremental layoffs. But because of the recession, winter came early.

The tough environment has been especially disorienting for older and more experienced workers like Cynthia Norton, 52, an unemployed administrative assistant in Jacksonville.

“I know I’m good at this,” says Ms. Norton. “So how the hell did I end up here?”

Administrative work has always been Ms. Norton’s “calling,” she says, ever since she started work as an assistant for her aunt at 16, back when the uniform was a light blue polyester suit and a neckerchief. In the ensuing decades she has filed, typed and answered phones for just about every breed of business, from a law firm to a strip club. As a secretary at the RAND Corporation, she once even had the honor of escorting Henry Kissinger around the building.

But since she was laid off from an insurance company two years ago, no one seems to need her well-honed office know-how.

Ms. Norton is one of 1.7 million Americans who were employed in clerical and administrative positions when the recession began, but were no longer working in that occupation by the end of last year. There have also been outsize job losses in other occupation categories that seem unlikely to be revived during the economic recovery. The number of printing machine operators, for example, was nearly halved from the fourth quarter of 2007 to the fourth quarter of 2009. The number of people employed as travel agents fell by 40 percent.

This “creative destruction” in the job market can benefit the economy.

Pruning relatively less-efficient employees like clerks and travel agents, whose work can be done more cheaply by computers or workers abroad, makes American businesses more efficient. Year over year, productivity growth was at its highest level in over 50 years last quarter, pushing corporate profits to record highs and helping the economy grow.

But a huge group of people are being left out of the party.

Millions of workers who have already been unemployed for months, if not years, will most likely remain that way even as the overall job market continues to improve, economists say. The occupations they worked in, and the skills they currently possess, are never coming back in style. And the demand for new types of skills moves a lot more quickly than workers — especially older and less mobile workers — are able to retrain and gain those skills.

There is no easy policy solution for helping the people left behind. The usual unemployment measures — like jobless benefits and food stamps — can serve as temporary palliatives, but they cannot make workers’ skills relevant again.

Ms. Norton has sent out hundreds of résumés without luck. Twice, the openings she interviewed for were eliminated by employers who decided, upon further reflection, that redistributing administrative tasks among existing employees made more sense than replacing the outgoing secretary.

One employer decided this shortly after Ms. Norton had already started showing up for work.

Ms. Norton is reluctant to believe that her three decades of experience and her typing talents, up to 120 words a minute, are now obsolete. So she looks for other explanations.

Employers, she thinks, fear she will be disloyal and jump ship for a higher-paying job as soon as one comes along.

Sometimes she blames the bad economy in Jacksonville. Sometimes she sees age discrimination. Sometimes she thinks the problem is that she has not been able to afford a haircut in a while. Or perhaps the paper her résumé is printed on is not nice enough.

The problem cannot be that the occupation she has devoted her life to has been largely computerized, she says.

“You can’t replace the human thought process,” she says. “I can anticipate people’s needs. Usually, I give them what they want before they even know they need it. There will never be a machine that can do that.”

And that is true, up to a point: human judgment still counts for something. That means some of the filing jobs, just like some of the manufacturing jobs, that were cut during the recession will return. But a lot of them probably will not.

Offices, not just in Jacksonville but all over the country, have found that life without a secretary or filing clerk — which they may have begun somewhat reluctantly when economic pressures demanded it — is actually pretty manageable.

After all, the office environment is more automated and digitized than ever. Bosses can handle their own calendars, travel arrangements and files through their own computers and ubiquitous BlackBerrys. In many offices, voice mail systems and doorbells — not receptionists — greet callers and visitors.

And so, even when orders pick up, many of the newly de-clerked and un-secretaried may not recall their laid-off assistants. At the very least, any assistants they do hire will probably be younger people with different skills.

Economists have seen this type of structural change, which happens over the long term but is accelerated by a downturn, many times before.

“This always happens in recessions,” says John Schmitt, a senior economist with the Center for Economic and Policy Research. “Employers see them as an opportunity to clean house and then get ready for the next big move in the labor market. Or in the product market as well.”

Economists like Erica Groshen at the Federal Reserve Bank of New York have argued that bigger structural job losses help explain why the last two economic recoveries were jobless — that is, why job expansion lagged far behind overall growth.

But there is reason to think restructuring may take a bigger toll this time around. The percentage of unemployed workers who were permanently let go has hovered at a record high of over 50 percent for several months.

Additionally, the unemployment numbers show a notable split in the labor pool, with most unemployed workers finding jobs after a relatively short period of time, but a sizable chunk of the labor force unable to find new work even after months or years of searching. This group — comprising generally older workers — has pulled up the average length of time that a current worker has been unemployed to a record high of 33 weeks as of April. The percentage of unemployed people who have been looking for jobs for more than six months is at 45.9 percent, the highest in at least six decades.

And so the question is what kinds of policy responses can help workers like Ms. Norton who are falling further and further behind in the economic recovery, and are at risk of falling out of the middle class.

Ms. Norton has spent most of the last two years working part time at Wal-Mart as a cashier, bringing home about a third of what she had earned as an administrative assistant. Besides the hit to her pocketbook, she grew frustrated that the work has not tapped her full potential.

“A monkey could do what I do,” she says of her work as a cashier. “Actually, a monkey would get bored.”

Ms. Norton says she cannot find any government programs to help her strengthen the “thin bootstraps” she intends to pull herself up by. Because of the Wal-Mart job, she has been ineligible for unemployment benefits, and she says she made too much money to qualify for food stamps or Medicaid last year.

“If you’re not a minority, or not handicapped, or not a young parent, or not a veteran, or not in some other certain category, your hope of finding help and any hope of finding work out there is basically nil,” Ms. Norton says. “I know. I’ve looked.”

Of course, just as there is a structural decline in some industries, others enjoy structural growth (the “creative” part of “creative destruction”). The key is to prepare the group of workers left behind for the growing industry.

“You can bring the jobs back for some of these people, but they won’t be in the same place,” says Thomas Anton Kochan, a professor of management at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

The White House has publicly challenged the idea that structural unemployment is a big problem, with Christina D. Romer, the Council of Economic Advisers chairwoman, instead emphasizing that stronger economic growth is what’s needed. Still, the administration has allocated dollars for retraining in both the 2009 stimulus package and other legislation, largely for clean technology jobs.

Ms. Norton, for her part, may be reluctant to acknowledge that many of her traditional administrative assistant skills are obsolete, but she has tried to retrain — or as she puts it, adapt her existing skills — to a new career in the expanding health care industry.

Even that has proved difficult.

She attended an eight-month course last year, on a $17,000 student loan, to obtain certification as a medical assistant. She was trained to do front-office work, like billing, as well as back-office work, like giving injections and drawing blood.

The school that trained her, though, neglected to inform her that local employers require at least a year’s worth of experience — generally done through volunteering at a clinic — before hiring someone for a paid job in the field.

She says she cannot afford to spend a year volunteering, especially with her student loan coming due soon. She has one prospect for part-time administrative work in Los Angeles — where she once had her own administrative support and secretarial services business, SilverKeys — but she does not have the money to relocate.

“If I had $3,000 in my pocket right now, I would pack up my S.U.V., grab my dog and go straight back,” she says. “That’s my only answer.”

With so few local job prospects and most of her possessions of value already liquidated she has considered selling her blood to help pay for the move. But she says she cannot find a market for that, either; blood collection agencies, she said, told her they do not buy her blood type.

“Sometimes I think I’d be better off in jail,” she says, only half joking. “I’d have three meals a day and structure in my life. I’d be able to go to school. I’d have more opportunities if I were an inmate than I do here trying to be a contributing member of society.”

Monday, May 10, 2010

And the news gets better

I just read this report and thought this isn't surprising. Dealing with global warming and the belief that man is the greatest danger to nature is like herding cats. We have many people who are intent on doing right by the planet and still be responsive to successful business models.

In the current book I am reading Green Gone Wrong it discusses the massive problems associated with pursuing a green economy. But at some level without it we will have much more of this...

U.N. report: Eco-systems at 'tipping point'
By Matthew Knight for CNN
May 10, 2010 1:33 p.m.

(CNN) -- The world's eco-systems are at risk of "rapid degradation and collapse" according to a new United Nations report.

The third Global Biodiversity Outlook (GBO-3) published by the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) warns that unless "swift, radical and creative action" is taken "massive further loss is increasingly likely."

Ahmed Djoghlaf, executive secretary of the CBD said in a statement: "The news is not good. We continue to lose biodiversity at a rate never before seen in history."

The U.N. warns several eco-systems including the Amazon rainforest, freshwater lakes and rivers and coral reefs are approaching a "tipping point" which, if reached, may see them never recover.

The report says that no government has completely met biodiversity targets that were first set out in 2002 -- the year of the first GBO report.
Executive Director of the U.N. Environmental Program Achim Steiner said there were key economic reasons why governments had failed in this task.

"Many economies remain blind to the huge value of the diversity of animals, plants and other life-forms and their role in healthy and functioning eco-systems," Steiner said in a statement.

Although many countries are beginning to factor in "natural capital," Steiner said that this needs "rapid and sustained scaling-up."

Despite increases in the size of protected land and coastal areas, biodiversity trends reported in the GBO-3 are almost entirely negative.

Vertebrate species fell by nearly one third between 1970 and 2006, natural habitats are in decline, genetic diversity of crops is falling and sixty breeds of livestock have become extinct since 2000.

Nick Nuttall, a U.N. Environmental Program spokesman, said the cost of eco-systems degradation is huge.

"In terms of land-use change, it's thought that the annual financial loss of services eco-systems provide -- water, storing carbon and soil stabilization -- is about €50 billion ($64 billion) a year," Nuttall told CNN.

"If this continues we may well see by 2050 a cumulative loss of what you might call land-based natural capital of around €95 trillion ($121 trillion)," he said.

"If we start putting these figures on the table, then governments might actually wake up to this. We've had a financial crisis. We've also got a natural resource scarcity crisis looming fast."

The GBO-3 is a landmark study in what is the U.N.'s International Year of Biodiversity and will play a key role in guiding the negotiations between world governments at the U.N. Biodiversity Summit in Nagoya, Japan in October 2010.

U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon urged governments to give biodiversity a "higher priority in all areas of decision making and in all economic sectors" and called for a "new vision for biological diversity."

The CBD -- an international treaty designed to sustain diversity of life on Earth -- was set up at the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro in 1992.

Black Gold v 2.0

The recent announcement by President Obama to expand offshore drilling was met with irony in the recent BP rig explosion in the Gulf of Mexico.

Much now is being made that this incident is Obama's Katrina. Far from the truth and frankly interesting that the right side of the fence had been using DRILL BABY DRILL as a mantra for their party and mocking Obama's careful approach to the controversial methods as time wasting.

Well if that is the case - comparing apples to oranges- a natural disaster that the Bush Administration neglectfully responded to versus a man made one - which is being dealt with as quickly an appropriately as possible. The long term affects are not yet known and the resolution to this well has Katrina like effects if it goes neglected but it is not Katrina nor is it appropriate to compare. Just simply there is nowhere near the chaos, loss of life or property damage to even remotely see a connection.

But the comparison is valid when it comes to neglect and oversight. Years of dissemination since the years of Reagan with the emphasis on free-market economics and the disinclination over regulation and oversight has led to several massive failures in our current Government to successfully provide assistance, relief and in some cases prevent and/or stop illegal and/or dangerous actions. The dot com bubble, the housing bubble, the varying foods and water crisis, the failure to handle the natural disaster of Katrina and the most recent the Gulf incident.

Without a strong regulatory body, quality staff who are both trained and educated on their respective fields activities and business, the lack of cohesive policy what we have here is a "failure to communicate."

Paul Krugman in the NY Times today writes a powerful column espousing why he believes the failure is a large reflection of exactly that - the disintegration of Government. No wonder many tea partiers - those in their in their 40s-50s feel greatly disconnected from the success of what good Government means. They had some positive moments but as one who came of age in Reagan its easy to fall behind the misguided notion that "you can pull yourself up on your own." Hell we had to.

What we don't see is how it worked and more importantly why. The good stuff gets forgotten and when a crisis happens and it fails it serves to prove that there is nothing capable about what Government does.

Well we have to change that philosophy and way of thinking. We have to start to realize that a haphazard set of State laws and local enforcement is insufficient to allow the country to grow and more importantly provide the people with the kind of lives they deserve. Trusting business to do this well is leaving the fox in the hen house. It just doesn't work.

I give you Krugman's column for review....

Sex & Drugs & the Spill

Published: May 9, 2010

“Obama’s Katrina”: that was the line from some pundits and news sources, as they tried to blame the current administration for the gulf oil spill. It was nonsense, of course. An Associated Press review of the Obama administration’s actions and statements as the disaster unfolded found “little resemblance” to the shambolic response to Katrina — and there has been nothing like those awful days when everyone in the world except the Bush inner circle seemed aware of the human catastrophe in New Orleans.

Yet there is a common thread running through Katrina and the gulf spill — namely, the collapse in government competence and effectiveness that took place during the Bush years.

The full story of the Deepwater Horizon blowout is still emerging. But it’s already obvious both that BP failed to take adequate precautions, and that federal regulators made no effort to ensure that such precautions were taken.

For years, the Minerals Management Service, the arm of the Interior Department that oversees drilling in the gulf, minimized the environmental risks of drilling. It failed to require a backup shutdown system that is standard in much of the rest of the world, even though its own staff declared such a system necessary. It exempted many offshore drillers from the requirement that they file plans to deal with major oil spills. And it specifically allowed BP to drill Deepwater Horizon without a detailed environmental analysis.

Surely, however, none of this — except, possibly, that last exemption, granted early in the Obama administration — surprises anyone who followed the history of the Interior Department during the Bush years.

For the Bush administration was, to a large degree, run by and for the extractive industries — and I’m not just talking about Dick Cheney’s energy task force. Crucially, management of Interior was turned over to lobbyists, most notably J. Steven Griles, a coal-industry lobbyist who became deputy secretary and effectively ran the department. (In 2007 Mr. Griles pleaded guilty to lying to Congress about his ties to Jack Abramoff.)

Given this history, it’s not surprising that the Minerals Management Service became subservient to the oil industry — although what actually happened is almost too lurid to believe. According to reports by Interior’s inspector general, abuses at the agency went beyond undue influence: there was “a culture of substance abuse and promiscuity” — cocaine, sexual relationships with industry representatives, and more. Protecting the environment was presumably the last thing on these government employees’ minds.

Now, President Obama isn’t completely innocent of blame in the current spill. As I said, BP received an environmental waiver for Deepwater Horizon after Mr. Obama took office. It’s true that he’d only been in the White House for two and half months, and the Senate wouldn’t confirm the new head of the Minerals Management Service until four months later. But the fact that the administration hadn’t yet had time to put its stamp on the agency should have led to extra caution about giving the go-ahead to projects with possible environmental risks.

And it’s worth noting that environmentalists were bitterly disappointed when Mr. Obama chose Ken Salazar as secretary of the interior. They feared that he would be too friendly to mineral and agricultural interests, that his appointment meant that there wouldn’t be a sharp break with Bush-era policies — and in this one instance at least, they seem to have been right.

In any case, now is the time to make that break — and I don’t just mean by cleaning house at the Minerals Management Service. What really needs to change is our whole attitude toward government. For the troubles at Interior weren’t unique: they were part of a broader pattern that includes the failure of banking regulation and the transformation of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, a much-admired organization during the Clinton years, into a cruel joke. And the common theme in all these stories is the degradation of effective government by antigovernment ideology.

Mr. Obama understands this: he gave an especially eloquent defense of government at the University of Michigan’s commencement, declaring among other things that “government is what ensures that mines adhere to safety standards and that oil spills are cleaned up by the companies that caused them.”

Yet antigovernment ideology remains all too prevalent, despite the havoc it has wrought. In fact, it has been making a comeback with the rise of the Tea Party movement. If there’s any silver lining to the disaster in the gulf, it is that it may serve as a wake-up call, a reminder that we need politicians who believe in good government, because there are some jobs only the government can do.

Green Energy

Today there are a couple of articles about investment into Green Energy Ventures.

There is no way America can compete on the renewable energy front without private investment. That said without larger Government involvement and comprehensive plan of action it will be a piecemeal effort with little impact on the wider front.

America simply lags way behind our Asian counterparts, particularly China and Korea when it comes to embracing alternative means of energy production. China is already pushing aggressively to become the next big solar producer and when you have country that has a strong centralized Government and eager (if not cheap) workforce it makes this a difficult venture on which to compete.

I find it fascinating that once again its a non-American, Richard Branson and his Virgin Green Fund to fund those companies that are in their sophomore years which need additional capital in which to push past financial barriers common to the industry.

This is because Clean Tech companies require more money over longer periods than say other tech/web start ups. A good example is Bloom Box. Recently profiled on 60 Minutes the company is a long way from becoming a single brand company and in reality the likelihood of success will come from the R&D of the product for ultimate sale to a larger more profitable company that can take this inventive product wider.

Without capital and commitment I fear that a lot of these clean tech companies could go the way of Great on paper not much more.

Google has also committed to green energy in a big way. From PVC panels on their roofs they too have employed Bloom boxes as energy providers. Google has also invested directly into two wind farms. Through a tax credit they will earn a return on the investment. This investment is in fact NOT for there use but instead to accelerate the use and deployment of renewable energy.

We have a LONG road ahead of us. The current political climate says there are two schools of thought - one for less Government and one for "more" or as I like better Government. Size does not necessarily mean a bad thing but the idea that States could somehow manage to coordinate and cooperate to find a massive Continental speed train, develop cleaner air and water plans, stronger and solid infrastructure projects WITHOUT Government incentives and cohesive plans is absurd.

Many of the Green Tech companies that are struggling, moving overseas or shutting down are doing so because of the lack of clear Federal plans and investment. When foreign countries are providing the resources, the support and the workforce - all of which we have - then you have to wonder is it really about profit or about inconsistency.

Business - private and public - can succeed if they are collaborative. The zeal for profits at the expense of country has shown what the result can be and that is not green or good on any count.

Monday, May 3, 2010

The Plutocracy Never Loses

As so many Americans (myself included) find themselves struggling to get our of the morass of financial stress, under/unemployment, increasing debts and finding work that will not be in our skill set or provide earnings comparable to what once earned, comes the article in today's NY Times discussing the top earners in the Media fields this last year.

It appears while the closing of newspapers, media outlets and the systemic laying off of reporters/journalists and support staff were part of the bottom line the rise in salaries of the Executives rose in equal comparison.

Looking again at the memo by Citi discussing the unparalleled growth of Executive pay, the anger at salaries towards the bankers as Main Street burned and Wall Street earned makes one wonder why tea baggers are so adamant about the whole notion of taxing the rich and the belief that a redistribution of wealth is a bad thing. I have to wonder why they are so vested in protecting this small small group? Misguided belief that they will somehow be a part of it or the belief that if they are good little boys and girls it will somehow "trickle down to them" without force or invitation.

This ridiculous discrepancy and outlandish increase in salary is even more outrageous as there is no way any one rank worker would ever find his/her salary increased by any percentage close to these Execs. And what is more absurd is the notion that they are some how a rare breed, special and must be paid accordingly for their "gift." To that I simply say BULLHSIT.

Big Paydays for the Chiefs in the Media

The media industry may be going through some rough times, with the landscape changing day to day, but at least one aspect is business as usual: big paydays for the people at the top.

Top executives at the country’s largest media companies continued to reel in multimillion-dollar pay packages in 2009, a year of widespread cost-cutting throughout the industry. In several cases, the packages even increased from the year before.

At the top of the list is Leslie Moonves, chief executive of the CBS Corporation, whose pay package in 2009 totaled almost $43 million, more than twice what he made in 2008, according to an analysis by Equilar, an executive compensation research firm.

Not far behind was Viacom’s chief executive, Philippe P. Dauman, who was paid nearly $34 million, a 22 percent increase over 2008. Sumner M. Redstone, who controls CBS and Viacom, was paid more than $33 million from the two companies combined.

“Anybody who reads the business section knows the margins are being squeezed at media companies, so the fact that there are these huge packages makes no sense,” said James F. Reda, the founder of James F. Reda & Associates, a compensation consulting firm with offices in New York and Atlanta.

At Comcast, the two highest-paid executives, Brian L. Roberts and Stephen B. Burke, were paid $25 million and $31 million. Mr. Roberts’s pay was essentially the same as the year before, while Mr. Burke’s increased about $12 million, much of it because of one-time bonuses related to the company’s purchase of NBC Universal.

For several executives, it was more lucrative to be running a media company in 2009, however wobbly it might be, than a large financial firm, where many boards cut executive pay after the federal financial bailout.

John G. Stumpf, the head of Wells Fargo, was the highest-paid financial executive, earning an $18.8 million package, according to an analysis by Equilar. Lloyd C. Blankfein, the head of Goldman Sachs, made $41 million in 2008 and less than $1 million in 2009, Equilar said, not including a $9 million payout he received this year that was deemed to be for work done the year before but is not included in Equilar’s calculations.

The bankers’ pay will most likely return to past levels if financial reform passes, Mr. Reda said, as Washington’s spotlight will shift elsewhere and the banks will have less incentive to stay in the public’s good graces.

Mr. Reda said, “What is the government going to do after financial reform? Take away their birthday?”

Despite the hard times at many media companies and the uncertainty of maintaining revenue in the digital future, investors did not shy away last year. The stock of CBS jumped 74 percent in 2009, and Viacom’s stock rose 56 percent.

In the case of many of the media executives, including Mr. Dauman at Viacom, most of the compensation is based on the company’s performance. Mr. Dauman’s base salary in 2009, $2.5 million, was unchanged from the year before.

The media industry did rebound in 2009 after a particularly tough 2008, but for many companies that largely meant cutting expenses, including labor costs. Overall revenue declines remained commonplace, but in many cases profits rose.

At Viacom, revenue in 2009 declined 7 percent compared with the year before but the company’s profit rose to $1.6 billion, a 29 percent increase, not far off from Mr. Dauman’s 22 percent pay raise. CBS returned to profitability in 2009 — $227 million — after a huge write-down in 2008.

“Right now, the executive compensation is not what’s driving people to invest or not invest in these stocks,” said Rich Greenfield, a media analyst at BTIG in New York. “Shareholders are more focused on the underlying growth prospects of the companies than executive compensation.”

The pay packages for executives at public companies are made available in corporate filings. Equilar’s calculation includes base salary, discretionary and performance-based cash bonuses, the grant-date value of stock and option awards and other compensation.

Pay increases extended beyond the handful of large media conglomerates to some of the largest newspaper companies as well.

Craig A. Dubow, the head of Gannett, the country’s largest newspaper publisher, was paid $4.4 million in 2009, up 17 percent from the year before.

At The New York Times, Janet L. Robinson, the chief executive, was paid $4.9 million in 2009, 26 percent more than the year before, and Arthur Sulzberger Jr., the chairman, made $4.8 million, a 171 percent increase. Gary B. Pruitt, the chief executive of McClatchy, was paid $2.6 million last year, up 61 percent.

But pay did not increase across the board.

Both Rupert Murdoch and Roger Ailes at the News Corporation had declines in pay, 40 percent for Mr. Murdoch — to about $18 million — and 21 percent for Mr. Ailes, the head of Fox News, who was paid $14.6 million.

Other top executives’ pay fell, too. Robert A. Iger, head of Disney, was paid $21.6 million in 2009, 58 percent less than the year before, and his counterpart at Time Warner, Jeffrey L. Bewkes, earned $19.4 million, a 10 percent drop.

Several analysts said the shifting marketplace and uncertainty surrounding the media business could actually contribute to the large payouts, making companies even more determined to hold on to people they see as gifted executives.

“When you have an industry going through so much tumult, it puts upward pressure on pay because so many people are moving around,” said Don Delves, the president of the Delves Group, a compensation consulting firm in Chicago. “People are looking around a lot, people are moving around and there’s a concern about losing talent.”

He added that big compensation figures were “one of the difficulties in the whole business model.”