Friday, February 27, 2009

A eulogy for America

From the 02 March 2009 Greater Niagara Newspapers

By Bob Confer

Life is fragile. Its brevity is inescapable; there is not one of us who can live forever. No matter how virile, how powerful we once were, we cannot prevent the inevitable. We may be able to delay it, but, alas, when our time has come we will pass on. The sudden onset of illness or the gradual and overwhelming decay of old age will sap us of the invincibility we once thought we had much earlier in life.

Even though we understand this and know that we can’t prosper for all eternity, it still shocks us when Death unleashes his steely grip upon our loved ones. In a way we expect death but then again we never do.

Maybe that’s why the death of our dear friend America is so difficult to fathom. We all thought she would outlive us, but she hasn’t.

Surprisingly, many of her children are oblivious to her passing, her life coming to an end with so little fanfare. There are those of us, though, who knew what she stood for and we know now that her time has come and gone. She is, for all intents and purposes, dead. And, that is sad.

America was old, older than any of us could possibly dream of being. But, she was doing so well; just a few years ago we thought the old girl could go on forever. As a matter of fact, even in her twilight years she was stronger than she had ever been. She was fruitful and vibrant and all of her peers strived to be just like her.

In those remarkable golden years America had a lot to live for. Her children were prosperous, thriving amidst the liberty she gave them. And, oh, what a Liberty it was! She gave her children the freedom to do what they wanted and make of their lives what they wanted. She gave them a dream to dream and then she stayed out of their way and allowed them to get it. America believed that her children were better off assuming responsibility for their actions and reaping the rewards that were yielded by their hard work, risk, and morality. She was right. Her family achieved things once thought impossible.

Yes, America was such a unique mother, one quite unlike all others. But, children can turn on even the very best of mothers. And many of America’s children did. Basically, they never grew up, so, into adulthood, they leaned on Mother America. They didn’t like the freedom she gave them and they found greater value in security than they did in liberty. They didn’t want to assume any responsibility for themselves and they instead begged their Mother for a bailout to save them from the risks they assumed. They didn’t want to work hard and earn the best life that they could, it was too risky for them. Rather, they wanted the best life that their mother could give them out of her pocket. Too many of them came a-begging and - because there was only so much she could give - the best life that she could award them paled in comparison to that which her children could once achieve on their own. Things became so bad that America herself had to lean on someone: Her prosperous children were forced to pick up the slack for the children who took her gifts for granted.

And that’s what killed America. Her health suffered under such emotional and financial strain. Never before did she have to give as much as she did and it drained her life force. She died penniless because of it. And, she also died heartbroken because of it, for it hurt her to see that her lessons failed, that her children chose to ignore them. Could they ever go back to the way they were? No doubt that was a questioned that haunted her to her grave. Deep down inside she knew the answer was “no”.

But, life must go on.

Her children have since been adopted by something that calls herself America. But this new America is nothing like the old. The real America is dead and her loss is going to leave a void, a depression, in our lives. All of her children - those who learned well from her and those who used her – will suffer without their true mother.

God bless America. I’ll miss her.

One day, you will, too.

Friday, February 20, 2009

New York asks for our help

From the 23 February 2009 Greater Niagara Newspapers

By Bob Confer

I recently received an e-mail from a reader in Niagara Falls (whom we’ll call “Pete”) which said the following: “Maybe in one of your next columns, you could list who citizens should contact to voice their concerns instead of putting up with this nonsense. I am not much of a political activist, but I am ready to give someone an earful. We should all be saying, "I'm mad as hell, and I'm not going to take it anymore!"

Well, Pete is not only a concerned citizen, but it seems he’s a clairvoyant, too. ‘Round about the same time that he e-mailed me, Pete’s wishes came true. Just over a week ago, Malcolm Smith, who leads the State Senate, launched an initiative that’s been called an interactive budget forum. Admitting that the Governor’s budget is not the greatest in the world, he has asked that all New Yorkers assist the Senate in crafting a sound budget. They want our ideas about how to balance the budget, cut costs, trim waste, and, last but not least, increase revenues (the only blemish for this cause).

The Senate requests that you flood them with feedback and engage them in conversation. And, they’ve given us plenty of ways to do that. You can go to the website where you can submit your ideas. Or, you can shoot them an e-mail to And, for those who are old-fashioned and not so web-savvy, you can leave a message on their toll-free hotline. The phone number is 1.800.706.9995.

This is a somewhat unprecedented request by the Senate. For starters, it’s the first time that either house has ever opened the floodgates to public comment by openly asking, if not begging, for mass help. And, secondly, it’s a significant change of pace from normal procedure for, you see, the perspective of regular people is actually a fresh one to a good many elected officials who have made lifelong careers out of their legislative adventures. By making a living in the ivory towers of Albany where they are an audience to lobbyists and never their true constituents, lifers (such as Dale Volker, for example, who has been in the legislature since 1972) have become totally disconnected from the Real World. Kow-towing to the lobbyists who represent everything under the sun, from the environment to Big Business to public employee unions, the politicians have forgotten about the special interests that matter the most: The average, everyday people who live back in their home districts, struggling to feed a family, keep a roof over their heads, find a job, or run a small business.

It’s those individuals – We, the People – who feel the financial and emotional pain of what Albany begets. We’re the ones who pay taxes that are the highest in the nation and see nothing good come of it. We’re the ones whose families, friends, and employers have ventured off to greener pastures because of the sociopolitical malaise. We’re the ones who see the excesses in state government that the political class glosses over…things like public authorities, public employee payrolls and pensions, Medicaid, and over-regulation, all of which are a drain on the private sector and the working class.

It’s up to you and me, every one of us, to make our voices heard. While you have that chance, share your thoughts with Senator Smith and Company. There are no ideas too big or too small for them to ponder. Dollars can add up in a hurry and hundreds can quickly become thousands which can quickly become millions. With budget gaps in the billions, every little thing can help. Remember that no idea can be deemed as too obvious, either. If it is, why haven’t they moved on it?

So, be frank, be analytical, be constructive. Above all, be caring: Treat this task with the utmost respect and your full attention, because this is your home and my home that we’re talking about, and it’s our responsibility to clean it up. The time to be passive is long gone. We’ve been suffering for decades and, as Pete said, we’re not going to take it anymore.

Friday, February 13, 2009

Upstate becomes powerless

From the 16 February 2009 Greater Niagara Newspapers

By Bob Confer

The New York Power Authority’s mission hasn’t changed much through the years. The Authority was created for the purpose of developing the economy through affordable electricity and they say that to this day NYPA holds true to that cause. In one of its recent annual reports the organization’s mission statement began with this prose: “We will retain and create jobs in New York State by: Facilitating the transition to competitive energy costs; Mitigating the cost of energy to business, to government and to consumers throughout the State…”

Many a person has said the Authority has failed to live up to that cause, citing the still-high electrical rates in Upstate New York, rates which rank amongst the highest in the nation and account for the mass exodus of manufacturers from this region. When such accusations surface, which is quite often, NYPA goes on the defensive and touts their various cost-savings programs like Replacement Power or Power For Jobs.

One cannot help but turn a deaf ear to such propaganda after seeing how the Authority repeatedly sells out to downstate, furthering Upstate’s demise. The naysayers have been right time and time again, and current developments have shown NYPA deviating from its core mission once again, thanks to some nudging from the state legislature.

In an early-February vote both houses voted to sweep (take) funds from NYPA as a part of the Three Men In a Room’s deficit reduction plan. This plan, in essence, is the legislature’s way of absolving itself of the tough responsibility of making cuts and streamlining operations. They found it easier to decrease the impact of their overspending by creatively finding revenues elsewhere. So, they voted to take an extra $476 million from NYPA’s reserves and put it into the State’s coffers. That brings NYPA’s total contribution to the state coffers to $771 million over the next two budget years.

We’ve always been told that we have no control over state authorities because they are, in theory, self-standing business units accountable to no one. But, somehow, NYPA rolled over quite easily for the legislature and willingly gave up those funds after brief debate. Their kitty, by going into the general fund, will end up in the NYC Metro area where a great majority of the budget funds typically go. This is a major bloodletting of the upstate region for it has been proven many a time that NYPA’s profits come mostly from the Niagara Power Project. So, once again, we’ve been sold out.

This is money that could have been better spent elsewhere. Not to be parochial, but that elsewhere is here. And, there’s a way by which it could have been spent which would have held true to NYPA’s mission of making cheap power available. According to State studies, were those swept funds to be used instead as a power subsidy, every small business in Upstate New York would see a two-cent per kilowatt hour reduction in their power bills, good for two years as we weather the recession. Those savings would be significant, and key to maintaining the economic viability of many a firm. That small token would save my company over $150,000 per year. As I noted in my column two weeks back, my company pays $496,500 more than what our competitors in Ohio would for electricity. The savings would help cut into that competitive disadvantage faced by many. That’s the shot in the arm our local economy needs.

But, unfortunately, NYPA has other plans for the upstate populace…and so do other folks. As much as NYPA may have sold us out to the downstate interests, so did some of our local elected officials. It should be noted that Senator Antoine Thompson and Assemblywoman Francine DelMonte - both of whom have the Niagara Power Project in their districts’ backyards and report to constituents in the once grand Niagara Falls manufacturing corridor that needs the cheap power - voted in favor of taking the money away from NYPA. These are the same individuals who tout the importance of the Project and keeping its power and money in WNY where it belongs. In the end though, it seems that their allegiance to party was stronger than their allegiance to people and principle.

With elected officials and bureaucrats so willing to give away what few assets our area has left, we’re left with – and will always be left with - nothing. And, because of that, no matter how hard we as taxpayers, workers, and businessmen might try, we can’t gain much ground because the odds are truly stacked against us. It’s no wonder the Niagara Frontier is in such great decline.

Friday, February 6, 2009

"Buy American" takes some heat

From the 09 February 2009 Greater Niagara Newspapers

By Bob Confer

Two weeks ago, Germany’s largest newspaper quoted me in a sizable article about protectionism. They pulled a line from my recent column about the importance of buying American-made goods as a means to stimulate our economy. In that same article they mentioned President Obama’s “Buy American” clause in the economic stimulus package, language that requires all steel and iron used in infrastructure projects to be manufactured in the USA.

In both cases, the German reporter and those he interviewed cited our thoughts as “dangerous” and “incendiary”. Even though I don’t agree with him most of the time, it’s an honor to be lumped together with our country’s chief executive when it comes to an issue with such national and, I guess, international implications. But, it saddens me that since then he has backed off on the domestic content requirement, weakening the language to the point of making it powerless. Obama and his advisors just couldn’t handle the pressure put on them from the rest of the world.

That article was just the very tip of the iceberg, one that’s an impossibly-gigantic mass of icy anti-American disdain just hoping to sink our nation like the Titanic. “Bash America” became a recurring theme at the recent World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. This intensely-scrutinized summit began with Russia’s Putin and China’s Wen Jiabao blaming the US for the collapse of the global economy. They bluntly said our capitalist system was flawed and that the world needs some sort of reserve currency besides ours. Even though most attendees looked at their speeches as rants driven by tired old communist philosophies, it left a bad taste in their mouths and set the tone for the rest of the forum.

From that, the biggest hang-up of this meeting became Obama’s patriotic protectionist ways. Everyone to a man was critical of the Buy American directive. It was the general consensus that protectionism is a troubling practice and a contagious disease, one that would cause all nations to return the favor, sending the global marketplace into a tailspin, hurting what they call the “bottom billion” of the world’s population. Noting the disastrous Smoot-Hawley Act of the 1930’s (which in no way mirrors what Obama proposed) the world leaders made an effective yet horribly incorrect case for breaking down the walls.

This being the nation’s first worldly get-together since he took office, it was not a good start for Obama. Maybe not here, but definitely abroad, a great deal of shine came off of his post-inaugural glow. Not wanting to set a precedent for his reign as president, he succumbed to the stress and last Tuesday he changed his way of thinking. He said this on Fox News: "We can't send a protectionist message….I think it would be a mistake though at a time when worldwide trade is declining for us to start sending a message that somehow we are just looking after ourselves and not concerned with world trade."

A mistake? No, it’s a mistake that Mr. Obama is deemphasizing the clause. The stimulus package is using American money – paid for by American taxpayers – to supposedly drive the American economy. That said, charity must begin at home. Spend the money here!
Looking at the big picture, the federal government is, theoretically, a free-thinking consumer in an open marketplace, a consumer that that can make purchases as it sees fit. It can use any criteria it wants to make its buying decisions, just as you or I would at the grocery store. But, alas, the international leaders who always tout free trade are up in arms against it when it’s actually practiced.

That’s the difference between globalization and globalism. In the former, all nations are independent, interacting with one in another in open markets. In the latter, nations forsake their sovereignty and borders and self-rule become a thing of the past, something that is becoming quite common (European Union, anyone?). We’ve fallen into that globalist trap in the past with NAFTA and CAFTA. Now, we’re back at it with our current president selling us out. Sure, he was well-intentioned at the start with the Buy American drive, but by casting it aside so easily, he forgot that the people of the US voted for him to be their president. He was not elected by the rest of the world. He has no obligation to China, Russia, and European Union. First and foremost, he is supposed to look out for America. In this case - one of his very first tests - he failed us miserably.

As Obama promised in his campaign, he gave favor to the working class. Thing is, it just wasn’t here in America.