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Ten Turkeys for Thanksgiving

by Brent Blackwelder

This Thanksgiving is a good time to spot the Golden Fleece Turkey, a bird that epitomizes economic irrationality and environmental destruction. This remarkable breed pollutes air and water and wastes tax dollars, while scamming the public in the process. Although known for its camouflage, especially its ability to hide wrongdoing, the Golden Fleece Turkey regularly treats birdwatchers to astonishing displays of stupidity. Such birds could not exist in a sustainable economy, but the present economic climate provides an ideal habitat, and they’re spreading like many other invasive species.  Below are 10 recent sightings of the Golden Fleece Turkey.

(Note: Wisconsin Senator William Proxmire presented Golden Fleece Awards in the 1970s and 1980s for taxpayer boondoggles.  This Daly News entry is dedicated to his memory.)

1. Animal Factory Slums

Sometimes masquerading under the name of Confined Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs), these gigantic lots keep thousands of animals in filthy, cramped quarters. They produce over 500 million tons of manure annually, some of which spills because lagoons leak and pipelines break. The spills cause massive fish kills downstream and spread dangerous bacterial contamination. Up to 70% of the antibiotics in the US are used on animals in CAFOs, thereby aggravating antibiotic resistance and jeopardizing one of the miracles of modern medicine. Emissions from these animal slums, tainted with putrid sulfur dioxide, sicken rural neighbors.  “Cheap” food from CAFOs isn’t such a bargain when you add up all the health costs.

2. Continued Subsidies for Nuclear Reactors

In the wake of the Fukushima disaster in Japan (a tragedy that’s still unfolding with more bad news each month), there is a real possibility that damages could top a trillion dollars. Despite such concerns, the nuclear industry keeps fleecing America. The US Congress and the Obama Administration continue to support loan guarantees for new nuclear reactors and to provide liability insurance for nuclear reactor accidents. If reactors are as safe as the industry alleges, one would think that private insurance companies would be eager to make some money here. As we have seen from Japan this year, there is a lot we are not being told, and there’s still a high potential for accidents.

3. The Keystone XL Tar Sands Pipeline from Canada to the Texas Gulf

The extraction of oil from tar sands takes a lot of energy and leaves behind a polluted landscape that native people of Alberta have to live with. The pipeline would pose a threat to every river it crossed en route to the Texas coast. Embarrassed by revelations of shady dealings at the State Department and the announcement of an Inspector General investigation, the Obama Administration has just delayed a decision on whether to approve the biggest pipeline fleece in history.

4. US Automobiles That Travel 200 Miles Per Hour

Ford and Chevrolet have announced their intentions to produce super-fast cars, capable of speeds between 180 and 200 mph. So much for the goals of saving lives, preventing injuries, and conserving fuel. For the past half century 30-50,000 people have died annually in auto accidents, and hundreds of thousands more have been injured.

5. Offshore Tax Havens

It is estimated that the US Treasury loses $100 billion annually as a result of offshore tax havens. This is about the same amount of money the desperate “Supercommittee” of Congress is scrambling to find for deficit reduction by the November 23 deadline ($1.2 trillion over a decade = $120 billion a year). The two biggest bank recipients of taxpayer bailouts are Citicorp and Bank of America. Citicorp operates subsidiaries in 427 tax havens, and Bank of America does so in 115.

6. Tax-Dodging Corporations

Corporate income taxes provided 35% of federal revenue in 1945, but today that total is just 9%. Some of the world’s best known and most profitable companies (e.g., General Electric) play a variety of accounting games and avoid paying any corporate income taxes. Such companies protest that they are obeying the law, but they don’t say that they are lobbying intensively to keep all the loopholes in place. As a result, the American public is told that it will have to endure massive budget cuts to avoid further increases in government debt.

7. Corn Ethanol Subsidies

75 cents of every tax dollar spent on renewable energy goes to corn ethanol. US taxpayers are shelling out over $6 billion in subsidies each year for the corn ethanol program. Corn is an energy-intensive crop to grow, and it often involves the use of the carcinogenous herbicide atrazine (banned by Italy and Germany in 1990). The Volumetric Ethanol Excise Tax Credit is a shameful subsidy (45 cents per gallon blended) that should be cut. On top of that, life-cycle studies show that corn ethanol fails to ameliorate greenhouse gas emissions.

8. Clean Development Mechanism (CDM)

The United Nations administers the world’s largest carbon offset program, the CDM, created by the Kyoto climate agreement. The objective is to provide credits to projects that offset greenhouse gas emissions. The idea is to develop useful projects that would not be built without such a subsidy. But there’s a problem: the UN is awarding credits worth billions to projects that are already built or being built — large, environmentally unsound dams provide perhaps the most egregious example. The Clean Development Mechanism is better labeled the Filthy Scam Mechanism. As of October almost 2,000 dams (2/3 in China) were in line for billions in tax credits with no guarantee of compliance with standards of the World Commission on Dams.

9. Leaf Blowers

Doesn’t anyone rake leaves anymore or sweep a sidewalk? Throughout the year, leaf blowers spew dust, debris, and noise in neighborhoods all across America. Of the 220 million tons of carbon dioxide emitted by off-road vehicles and equipment, power lawn mowers and leaf blowers generate a surprisingly large amount — 12% or 26 million tons. Often powered by dirty engines, these leaf blowers can be a serious source of air pollution. And with unpleasant noise, sometimes exceeding 85 decibels, they can make sitting on the porch seem like sitting at the end of an airport runway.

10. Corporate CEO Pay

CEO salaries are now a whopping 325 times higher than the average US worker.  And the Institute for Policy Studies found 25 companies that paid their CEOs more than they paid in federal income tax.

Decent citizens everywhere should be looking to carve up a Golden Fleece Turkey or two. Happy Thanksgiving!

The Great Energy Rethink: Lessons from Japan and the Neighborhood

by Rob Dietz

As if we really required more prompting, the unfolding nuclear accidents in Japan are confirming what we must do.  When a disaster strikes, the most urgent response is to help those who are suffering, prevent further calamities, and clean up the messes—it’s a time to get busy.  But the next critical step is to figure out what we might do differently—it’s a time to take a step back and contemplate how we got where we are and where we might go from here.  With each passing day, it is becoming increasingly clear that we need to rethink where and how we get our energy supplies.  We can call this Phase 1 of the Great Energy Rethink (GER).  But just as important, and much less considered, is the need to rethink what we do with the energy we generate.  Although it probably ought to come first, let’s call this Phase 2 of the GER.

Hopefully we'll pay attention to Fukushima's lesson.

I find that I am profoundly shaken by what is happening in Japan.  For several years, I have been on a self-prescribed media blackout.  My family doesn’t have television reception, so I never watch the news.  I do glance at the New York Times occasionally, but I’ve been focusing more and more of my gaze on local issues. Given the large amount of time I spend on the job considering what’s wrong with the way we manage our economic affairs, I don’t want to flood my mind with negative images of national and global dysfunction.  But I have found it impossible to black out the triple disaster (earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear accidents) in Japan.  The devastation and suffering are beyond description.

The earthquake and tsunami were unpreventable.  After all, we live on a planet where such things occur.  We’ve seen similar devastation recently in Haiti, Sichuan Province in China, Pakistan, and Indonesia and other Indian Ocean nations.  But the venting of radioactive steam and the threat of nuclear meltdown were utterly preventable.  A New York Times article provides an astonishing description of what happened at the Fukushima nuclear power plant where the backup generators failed to cool the overheating reactor:

The central problem arises from a series of failures that began after the tsunami. It easily overcame the sea walls surrounding the Fukushima plant. It swamped the diesel generators, which were placed in a low-lying area, apparently because of misplaced confidence that the sea walls would protect them.

The key phrase in that description is “misplaced confidence.”  Misplaced confidence sums up how we got to this point in history when it comes to selecting sources of energy to power our ever-expanding economy.  Regardless of what smooth-talking P.R. professionals say, a nuclear power facility has been the site of a serious accident about every 10 years: witness Three Mile Island in the U.S. in 1979, Chernobyl in Ukraine in 1986, Tokaimura in Japan in 1999, and now Fukushima in 2011.  “Safe nuclear power” is an offensive oxymoron.

Misplaced confidence also describes our failure to take big strides on phasing out fossil fuels.  We have misplaced confidence that we’ll find a technological solution to climate destabilization, that the market will take care of the problem, and that Mother Nature will continue to warehouse the emissions from our economy with no consequences.

If we can stop misplacing our confidence for a moment or two, we can get on with the task of selecting sane sources of energy.  We can start the comprehensive conversion to renewable resources, a massive makeover that will surely include a process of powering down.  This process of powering down, in turn, will require a re-prioritization of what we actually do with the energy we generate—this is the very moment to take a step back and contemplate how we got where we are and where we might go.

In my own neighborhood, folks are realizing the need to change the sources of energy.  We have a decent start on Phase 1 of the GER, but we are still struggling with Phase 2.  I witnessed the evidence on a recent bike ride.  My friend Bruce and I were cycling on a street that is flanked by an unusual mix of farmland and industrial buildings.  As we were coming up on a factory, we saw workers setting up a huge array of photovoltaic solar panels.  We both wanted to stop and take a closer look for two reasons: (1) the array was by far the biggest we had seen in town, and (2) we had recently embarked on our own process of installing solar panels at our own households.

We rode up  to the array where two men were setting up racks to hold the panels.  One of them approached us, and we began a cheerful conversation.  He was happy to answer our questions, and he was genuinely proud of his work, and rightfully so.  The owners of this factory were taking an important step to switch to a safe and emissions-free power source.

I asked the worker what the factory made.  He said it made advanced rubber compounds.  I was thinking how great it would be to purchase locally made bike tires from this place when he went on to explain that the factory was producing sheets of rubber armor for Humvees in Iraq.  That new knowledge abruptly terminated my thoughts of local sustainability.  I was baffled by the oddity of:

  • using solar panels to generate energy…
  • to outfit military vehicles that were deployed in an effort to secure oil interests in the Middle East…
  • with the ultimate goal of keeping a cheap and reliable flow of oil available to the U.S. economy.

We have misplaced confidence in our ability to make good decisions about our precious energy supply.  Even if we’re successful in making the transition to a renewable energy economy (Phase 1 of the GER), we have to come to grips with Phase 2.  What do we really want to do with our energy supplies?  We’ll regret it if we waste them on a doomed effort to keep the economy growing.

The tragedy in Japan will require action on the ground for some time to come.  For those of us who are not there on the ground, we can do our part to help by getting on with the Great Energy Rethink.