Friday, July 30, 2010

Solar is not the answer

From the 02 August 2010 Greater Niagara Newspapers

By Bob Confer

Knowing the struggles that my company faces in paying some of the highest electrical rates in the nation – double what our competitors pay – many people have asked me, “have you ever thought about solar energy?”

Yes, I have. But, you’d be surprised at what I discovered.

In my initial investigation into the concept a few years back I looked into a rooftop solar generation system for our warehouse where the electrical demand is quite limited; it’s basically lighting. I found the cost to be quite extravagant. Not counting the various and meaningless tax break/rebate/accounting gimmicks that solar distributors include in their sales pitches, the return on investment would have taken 20 years and the power produced by the system (at maximum efficiency, which is impossible) would have satisfied only one-twelfth of our needs at that building.

If you think that’s bad, realize that in order to meet the total demand of our production facility where all of our machinery is housed we would need a solar array that’s 13.75 acres in size. And, that would cover us only during the day time hours. We’re a 24-hour facility. What do we do when the sun sets?

Issues like those aren’t specific to my company. Any business or homeowner that would like to utilize the power of the sun faces those same problems.

The technology of the day has its limitations, based on site constraints and the inability of most home and business systems to track the sun. According to studies done by energy expert Ed Hiserodt, the capacity factor of a typical high-quality solar panel is only 18 percent. He notes that, in the larger scale, even the much-ballyhooed Desoto plant in Florida – touted as the nation’s largest solar plant – is rated for 25 megawatts yet only produces 4.79 megawatts.

Further tempering energy generation is the availability of sunlight. It’s simple: No sun equals no energy. The days are only so long (especially in the winter) and, here in WNY, they are quite cloudy. Over the course of the year we receive 48 percent of available sunshine. In comparison, Phoenix, Arizona gets 85 percent. Solar generation is primed for failure on the Niagara Frontier because, no matter how many panels are erected, backup sources must always be available for use in the day as well as the night.

Solar energy is quite costly, too. A perfect example is the situation that is set to occur in Arizona. APS, the state’s largest utility, will be buying all of the electricity that will be produced at the Solana solar plant at a rate of 14 cents per kilowatt hour. That’s 8.5 times the cost of electricity produced by the Palo Verde nuclear plant outside of Phoenix!

It’s obvious, in just the quickest of analyses, that solar energy is impractical, inefficient and expensive. That’s why it’s rather dumbfounding that elected officials continue to push for it in their drive to go green. Perhaps they are blinded by altruism and are unaware of solar energy’s weaknesses. Or - more likely - maybe they are aware and choose not address the problems associated with solar because they think their ever-so-popular green initiatives will win votes in the next election because the average voter (not to mention the average news outlet) chooses not to look deeply into the issues of the day. We live in a world driven by government’s quick fixes and inattention to long-term implications.

Even our President is guilty of playing this political game, with our money no less. A few weeks ago Mr. Obama announced that the government is handing out nearly $2 billion (yes, billion with a “b”) in corporate welfare to two solar plants, Abengoa Solar, which plans to build one of the biggest solar plants in the world in Arizona, and Abound Solar Manufacturing, which is building 2 US plants. Haven’t we given enough already to giant corporations (Wall Street, anyone?) with no return on investment and no benefit to the working class or the economy?

Solar energy is not the answer to what ails our economy, not now and not in the long-term. If logic prevailed, more efficient and inexpensive energy sources (like nuclear) would be allowed to flourish.

Understand that it is not the government’s role to choose winners and losers in the markets. Yet, it does and, once again, it’s obvious that the government is only capable of choosing losers and making them out to be winners, which, in turn, makes the consumer and the taxpayer the ultimate loser in the equation.

Friday, July 23, 2010

Having a say in school closings

From the 26 July 2010 Greater Niagara Newspapers

By Bob Confer

I recently wrote a column in which I discussed the need to return to a more localized approach to schooling in which the teachers, school boards, and parents were empowered to determine the curriculum for their schoolchildren and teach accordingly. Nowadays, such local control is grossly subdued as the federal and state governments dictate what and how the teachers can teach, making for a standardized and markedly-dumber student body.

It was fitting that the column came out just before the New York Senate introduced a piece of legislation that would further erode the significance of the community-driven approach to education. Rather than focusing on curriculum, this new attack would aim its sights on the physical environment in which the students learn. The bill was introduced by Senator Kevin Parker of Brooklyn, mirroring a companion bill in the Assembly that’s cosponsored by a trio of WNY legislators (Sam Hoyt, Crystal Peoples-Stokes and Mark Schroeder) and is intended to create the Commission on Education in the 21st Century. The Commission would be charged to evaluate the operational and cost structures of the entire educational system in the Empire State and recommend which schools/districts should close and consolidate, recommendations that would be put into law by the legislature and Governor.

This is eerily similar to the infamous Berger Commission which a few years back swept through the state with its findings on what hospitals and care centers needed to be closed or have their functions re-assigned. As with the Berger Commission, the state government is overstepping its bounds with the Education Commission. In the case of the Berger Commission, the state interfered in the marketplace and told private enterprises what they could and could not do while, with the Education Commission, the state will be telling communities and local taxing jurisdictions (the school districts) how to do things.

In both scenarios, New York probably may have the upper hand due to its long-running and wrong-headed influence in both functions whereby it substantially funds their operations, giving (recirculating) billions to hospitals or schools. Right or wrong (I know it’s the latter), but definitely because of the giveaways, the state’s bureaucracy has the ability to control what happens since it has a vested interest in the outcome of its investments, showcasing the flaws in mixed economies and mixed governments that strip people of the true personal and community freedom associated with free markets and representative government.

Taxpayers, parents, and school boards – all of them the people who, besides the kids, matter the most in this equation - won’t have a say in the future of their schools; they’ll be forced to do what the state says. Remember the activism that occurred statewide when residents were told the local hospitals that birthed their children or saved their lives were set to close? That ire will be nothing compared to what will happen when a faceless and unaccountable government entity tells people that their neighborhood school will be closed or their district – sometimes the only thing that binds a community – will be devoured by a nearby one.

Such decisions - and they are hard ones - need to happen. Statewide, we have too many schools, too many teachers, too many administrators and too many redundant operations. All of those cost taxpayers too much money. But, the design and implementation of the plans to temper such waste are best left in the hands of the local voters and the school boards they empower. Only they know the needs, expectations and limitations of their local residents and their children. Let them decide.

So, how do we make that happen?

First, we must contact our legislators and ask that they vote “no” on the Education Commission. That may prove to be a difficult undertaking as its fashionable for senators and assemblypeople to trumpet the consolidation of school districts (mind you, this is a state legislature that can’t clean its own house). But, if they hear from enough citizens (not to mention the school unions) they may change their tune.

Secondly, we must pursue other options. Earlier this year the New York Reorganization and Empowerment Act (penned by current gubernatorial candidate Andrew Cuomo) became law. This fine piece of legislation allows voters and town/village boards to easily initiate the process to dissolve or consolidate their towns, villages and special districts. School districts, though, were not included in the Act. But, they deserve similar legislation. If Cuomo becomes governor (which is almost certain), this would be something for him to champion at the urging of a populace that deserves the right to manage its own schools.

Friday, July 16, 2010

The headache of war

From the 19 July 2010 Greater Niagara Newspapers

By Bob Confer

The Obama Administration recently made a welcome change to the military’s approach to the recognition of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). For years, the burden was on the soldier to provide a ridiculous amount of detailed proof regarding the occurrence of an incident in the battlefield that would haunt his psyche years after the fact. Now, thanks to the President, benefits for PTSD can be claimed if, one, the soldier participated in assignments that had the potential to subject him to a traumatic event and, two, a single Veterans Affairs doctor indicates that the soldier is suffering from PTSD.

This is in response to the high-number of PTSD sufferers who now represent a fifth of the veterans returning from the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts. With the uber-tough military mindset exemplified by General Patton’s infamous and calloused soldier-slapping incident a thing of the past, more and more soldiers are willing to admit PTSD. The stigma that our armed forces must be possessed of inhuman indestructibility has been lifted by even more by the Obama Administration and he should be commended for that.

At the same time, he should be pressed to commit himself, our military and the VA to addressing another war-related ailment of the mind, Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI). TBI garnered only scant mention in Obama’s recent weekly address, which is surprising considering that TBI has been recognized as the signature injury of the Global War on Terror by the VA, even more prevalent than PTSD. According to some estimates, 25 percent of all troops suffer from TBI and in March of last year it was said by the VA that 360,000 soldiers had been hit with TBI during their deployments in the Middle East.

Despite such high numbers, the Defense and Veterans Brain Injury Center treated only 70,000 patients last year. That’s because those warriors showed significant injury, be it brain tissue damage or bullets and shrapnel in the skull. The others who fell under the TBI umbrella remained mostly untreated because TBI is an invisible injury.

TBI is, as its name implies, the result of a trauma upon the brain, which can include the forceful, concussive blasts from explosions (This accounts for the heightened volume of TBI in our ongoing conflicts as our soldiers encounter so many roadside bombs and improvised explosives). The soldier survives the blast – or so his outward physical appearance shows – and is basically left alone for numerous reasons which include the medics’ attentiveness to the more life-threatening injuries of their peers or the soldier’s and his commanding officers’ lack of understanding of injuries that don’t show through bleeding, broken bones, loss of limbs and the like.

The TBI-affected soldier then goes on to live his life in a cloud, mostly temporarily but sometimes quite permanently. He may exhibit symptoms that concussion cases typically show, from cognitive issues to the inability to focus to memory loss to recurring headaches. If unaddressed, recurring TBI – or putting someone with TBI in action too soon - can result in irreversible brain injury and mental illness.

There are two ways to go about fixing – or at least tempering - this threat. First, the Armed Forces’ and VA’s medical units must be empowered to properly diagnose TBI and apply the treatment or limitations necessary to secure the trooper’s physical and mental well-being which may include rest and/or reassignment. Secondly, our forces must be properly equipped to protect themselves as best they can from explosive force. This would require the development of markedly-improved helmets to blunt the blasts, the use of helmet sensors that would raise a red flag concerning a traumatic event (already tested on some 7,000 helmets) and the manufacture of even-beefier military transport vehicles to protect its riders from roadside bombs.

All of this, though, demands a greater attention to the details of TBI and the recognition thereof by our entire military, from the Chief Commanding Officer all the way down to the newest enlistees.

It also demands the same from you as a citizen. As a sports fan, you’ve no doubt shown genuine concern for athletes who have suffered career ending TBI from repeated hits to the head in football and hockey. Why not take that concern and apply it to real heroes, not overpaid men playing a boy’s game but rather to men fighting a man’s war, sacrificing mind and body every waking moment? Be cognizant of what TBI means to your friends and family who are serving and make it a point to demand that our President and his administration devote the resources necessary to address TBI.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Under-reporting unemployment

From the 05 July 2010 New American at:

By Bob Confer

The June jobs report issued by the Labor Department noted that total employment was down by 125,000 jobs for the month and that the 83,000-worker growth in the private sector was much smaller than expected. Despite the drop in employment, the unemployment rate dropped as well, to 9.5 percent.

That illogical statistical anomaly is attributed to the Labor Department’s current means of recordkeeping, which discounts so-called discouraged workers. A discouraged worker is someone who has given up looking for work, at least for the time being, because of a lack of prospects. Despite those workers being willing and able to work, government economists do not account for them in the general unemployment statistic, making the dangerous assumption that they have dropped out of the workforce entirely. If they were taken into consideration they would add 1.2 million to the ranks of the unemployed.

The generally-accepted unemployment rate also excludes another group of what the Labor Department considers marginally-attached to the workforce. Currently, there are another 1.4 million able-bodied and un-retired Americans who had worked at one time yet have not looked for work for a variety of reasons that, according to the Labor Department, supposedly include scholastic and family responsibilities. Basically, the government considers them disinterested in the workforce, though common sense shows otherwise.

Accounting for both sets of marginally attached workers there are 2.6 million people who are left out of economic concern. Were their numbers to be added to the general population of job seekers, as they should, total unemployment would rise to 17.2 million, pushing the rate to a staggering 11 percent.

The undercalculation does not end there. A good many non-government economists and those who take an active role in the analysis of private sector trends (financiers, entrepreneurs, business managers, and the like) believe that those who are underemployed should be accounted for. An underemployed individual is someone who, due to economic conditions, is working part-time at was once a full-time job or, in some cases, is working at a job that’s a considerable step down in terms of income and/or responsibilities than what was once had as a means to hold him or her over until a better job can be found. There were 8.6 million Americans who fit this bill in June.

Add the underemployed to the unemployed and the total workforce available or active that is not meeting its full potential is 25.8 million. The resultant underemployment/unemployment rate is 15.6 percent.

That number, although still likely underreported due to the Labor Department’s suspect methods of data collection, is closer to what businesses and families are feeling as they try to make ends meet. It’s painful having 9.5 percent of the workforce unable to actively participate in the marketplace through the production and delivery of goods and services, respectively, the exchange of wages and the application of those wages to the economy. But, it has seemed throughout the entire recession that the job rolls were even worse off than what was advertised. It has been, based upon the extended analysis of what should constitute labor statistics. Having nearly 26 million Americans (and their families) either possessing very little discretionary income or none at all is a real downer on the further development of the private sector and, as some would argue, the public sector as well through lesser tax revenues.

The federal government knows that the job market’s health is more hazardous than it lets on. Yet, it openly manipulates the data in its message to the masses to paint a prettier picture. This deliberate act is entirely political in nature, a means of saving face for, one, the unconstitutionally oversized and unaccountable executive branch and its myriad agencies and departments that infringe on the free markets and, two, the elected officials who choose to inappropriately meddle in economic affairs through the creation and application of legislation that inhibits capitalism. They know full well that everything they do constricts employment growth more than any private-sector issue ever could. They don’t want it known that recent gimmicks in federal and global governance (like altruistic real estate financing, Medicare expansion, unconstitutional wars, bailouts, financial reform, the green movement and Obamacare, to name a few) have created and will maintain a double-digit unemployment rate.

By making unemployment appear lower than it is — and even decreasing its reported month-to-month value despite reality — the powers-that-be ensure that the media deliver a message that keeps a majority of Americans on their side and clamoring for more government intervention by making them believe that all previous regulations and stimuli have been meaningful and successful.

But, anyone who has been looking for gainful employment, or any business that is trying to reclaim the good old days of only four years ago, knows better. They can see through the lies and understand too well that unemployment is underreported. Hopefully, it’s their truthful tales of struggle and economic misfortune (not those of Congress or the Obama Administration which cite the contrary) that resonate at the polls come November, sending the message that our economy can be reenergized only through less federal intervention and, subsequently, a more active and robust private sector.

Friday, July 9, 2010

The business of race and sex

From the 12 July 2010 Greater Niagara Newspapers

By Bob Confer

Over six months into the current session, both houses and the Governor were still at an impasse over advancing the legislation necessary to make ends meet. Yet, amidst that mess and the related financial nightmare, they still found time to play politics and pass bills that give advantages and accommodations to minority and women-owned business enterprises (MWBEs). In a press report dated July 2, the Senate boasted of new rules that would ensure so-called fairness in contracting, emphasize the supposed importance of sex and race in state procurement functions and grant privilege to MWBEs when delving into the state’s Small Business Revolving Loan Fund.

It’s obvious that the Senate and Assembly must still think we’re living in the 1960s, back when the significant social changes brought about by the civil rights and women’s lib movements may have fostered a temporary need for MWBE legislation to aid in accessing the markets. Those days are long gone. The legislators need only look amongst their ranks to see that played out: We have a black governor (Paterson) and Senate leader (John Sampson) in our state while, nationally, a woman is third in charge (Nancy Pelosi), another ran for vice-president in the last election (Sarah Palin) and, above all, we have an president in Barack Obama who is one-half African American.

Those advances in social understanding, and the widespread acceptance of leaders who may look different than the “old white guys” of days gone by (something readily apparent in the private sector as well), show that America’s days as a heavily sexist and racist nation are behind us. Despite that, the government still advances MWBE legislation, an insult to the concept of fairness, the very thing the lawmakers promote.

Let’s start with the concept of government lending. The Senate is rewording the language of the taxpayer-funded loan program to focus on women and minorities based on the assumption that they have had difficulty in accessing traditional credit markets. It makes one wonder if the legislature has picked up a newspaper in the past two years. Because of the global financial collapse, everyone has had problems acquiring loans. It has nothing to do with skin tone and everything to do with the business. And, it’s the concept of business the Senators obviously don’t understand: What if a white male has an extraordinary idea that would solve the energy crisis and he can’t get a loan because the state would prefer to give it to a female who wants to open a gift shop? It’s a far-fetched example, but it shows the disconnect.

Next, there’s the matter of government purchasing. The resultant impairment – not betterment – of fairness via MWBE rules ends up hurting the working class as a whole by granting preference to certain companies. Because a woman is at the helm of a contracting firm, does that make her firm any more worthwhile than the next? In most cases the make-up of her workforce is no different in terms of diversity than that of a company owned by a white male. Then, what if she is awarded a contract based on her sex yet pays her workers a sub-standard wage and benefits? Who wins?

What about a firm owned by a white male that employs an above average number of minorities? If MWBE laws are all about diversity and equality, shouldn’t his firm get as fair a shake as (if not preference over) a minority-owned firm that employs an average or below average population of minorities? I quite often think of this when participating in the bidding process for projects for the government and larger corporations (which have fallen into the government’s trap). Judging by the questionnaires we must fill out, it’s obvious that ownership is, frankly, a little too Caucasian and manly to get a fair consideration, even though our minority employment is typically 12 to 15 percent, well above the non-white population in Niagara County (10 percent) and, especially, our home base of North Tonawanda (2.1 percent).

If the government wanted fairness and diversity to actually mean something, they should focus on factors such as that. But, I don’t want them to. The government should stop using racism and sexism to beat perceived racism and sexism and let everyone - man, woman, white, black – fairly bid on contracts and see them rewarded to businesses based solely on free market ideals (simply put: quality, price and service) and not for the skin tone or reproductive organs of their owners.

Friday, July 2, 2010

Handguns and privacy

From the 05 July 2010 Greater Niagara Newspapers

By Bob Confer

Based on the numerous columns that I’ve written about the Second Amendment and the natural right to self-defense it’s pretty obvious to the reader that I pack heat. I’m a firm believer in being prepared to protect myself and others from any threat, man or beast. A lot of people are. But, they don’t have columns in which to expound on that belief and most of them try to keep their feelings about handguns close to the vest. To those folks, possessing a firearm is their business and no one else’s.

Unfortunately, something transpired in June that trampled over their rights to both gun ownership and privacy, all in one fell swoop. A website, posted anonymously of course, came about at that featured a series of databases listing the names and addresses of all registered handgun owners in New York State. Following a public uproar - and no doubt a flurry of hate mail and legal threats – the website has since changed and is now a clearinghouse of information about various penal codes hosted by the Buffalo Criminal Law Center, a take-off of the University at Buffalo’s Law School. It is unknown to this writer as to whether the BCLC is the original host or the whospackingny URL is being redirected to the BCLC site.

When it was up and running, allowed the visitor to not only search a user-friendly database but it also permitted downloading of the complete data set in Excel format. So, even though the information is not readily accessible to the masses for the time being (who knows if the website will rear its ugly head again), it’s still out there someplace. I’ll guarantee there are thousands of people who saved the file to their hard drives, information that can be shared by email or a whospackingny copycat.

The lists can easily end up in the hands of the wrong people, causing serious harm. It is feared by many that violent criminals like drug pushers and gang members who are in turf wars and need to be equipped will use it to find a home that has handguns within it, observe that address, and break into it when the homeowners are gone, all in an effort to steal the weapons. The database makes it so simple to commit such an egregious act as it hand feeds prospects to thugs.

There’s also the media-and-left-induced stigma that comes with gun ownership that will only be exacerbated by the availability of records. We live in an era in which guns are foolishly feared rather than respected and many individuals nosy enough to peruse the list might overreact and turn on their neighbors, friends, and family, choosing not to go to a gun owner’s house or send their kids there for fear that the weapon makes that abode or the registered user a danger. Folks on the other side of the guns and privacy issue like the access to the data just for that reason.

When the website was live, the webmaster attempted to deflect responsibility for his or her actions by stating that the handgun registrations are public record. That’s a rather poor justification for sharing what was once though secret, but it does beg the question: Who’s more at fault, he who publishes such information on the web or the government entities which allow such information to be public record?

I’ll go with the latter. New York is one of only a few states in which gun ownership is considered fair game for prying eyes. The law needs to be changed to prevent its availability to the public. It can be done. It has been done. Case in point, even though taxpayers pay for some 4 million New Yorkers to be on Medicaid, we are not allowed to know who they are or where they live although the case could be made that such information should be public record as the state is taking from the rights of an individual (the right to property/happiness) to grant privilege to another. One should know how their public monies are being used. Gun ownership doesn’t fall into such a category. You don’t intrude on anyone’s rights by possessing a weapon. Despite what Albany may believe, gun ownership does not make you a threat to the common good.

That said, please take the time to call or write your Assemblyperson and Senator. Get them to push for legislation that would make your ownership of weapon secret, just as you thought it was and just as you know it should be.