Wednesday, June 22, 2011

When suicide becomes murder

By Bob Confer

Back when I was a scoutmaster teaching my scouts about first aid I would ask them, “what’s the first thing you do when you encounter an injured person?” Most boys would respond with “call 911” or something along the lines of asking the individual what hurts.

I see things a little differently. I told them that before they do anything else they must assess the environment and ensure that whatever incapacitated the patient doesn’t have the chance to do the same to them. There could be any number of factors that contributed to the crisis, ranging from live electrical lines to noxious fumes.

It’s the latter that people must now be especially attentive to. First responders are becoming increasingly aware of the dangers that can befall innocent victims – second hand death, if you will – when it comes to something called chemical suicide.

Under this means of taking one’s life, the person creates a chemical mixture – most of the time hydrogen sulfide – using common household chemicals like toilet bowl cleaner or insecticide. The mixture is then inhaled at high concentrations. The victim is instantly overcome, the invisible killer destroying his lungs. At lower concentrations death is slow and painful as the victim suffocates to death, which is why nearly all of these suicides occur in a relatively-enclosed area like a car or a closet to maximize the amount of the chemicals within the air, ensuring the expediency of death.

Chemical suicide has been popular in Japan, where more than 2,000 people have killed themselves with this method since 2008 due to its certainty, ease and lack of trauma. Due to social networks and other things of the internet (including numerous “how-to” manuals), that wave has spread to the United States where it is gaining more exposure and use, especially by people under the age of 25. According to a recent report by the New York Times, the number of documented chemical suicides in the US was 36 last year. So far the number is nearly 30 and it’s certain to rise as word spreads.

Japan’s interest in this method, setting up the perfect storm for mainstream use in the US, has police, fire and ambulance personnel concerned for their safety and that of innocent bystanders. That’s because chemical suicide can easily become chemical murder. The same fumes that killed the suicidal person can kill or seriously harm the first person on the scene, whether it’s a family member checking on a non-responsive son or daughter, a Good Samaritan investigating someone passed out in a car, or a deputy tending to either of those circumstances. Even just simply venting the fumes to the air by opening a car door in a wide-open parking lot can knock you to the ground and cause seizure, delirium or coma.

This can happen anywhere, from big cities to small towns, with varying secondary effect. A 23-year old woman took her life in the Hollywood Hills last month, depressed from the lack of job opportunities. Luckily, she left a note on the outside of the car alerting others to the chemical dangers within. That wasn’t the case in the small town of Stillwater, located in the Adirondacks. Two weeks ago, an 18-year old committed chemical suicide in his car with no such warning. The two police officers first on the scene were treated for exposure to the fumes. Luckily they didn’t meet the same fate as the young man.

The Stillwater scenario is more the norm than an exception. National statistics show that 80% of first responders receive hospitalization for exposure in cases of chemical suicide. In one extreme case in Japan, a teen’s suicide sickened 90 people in her neighborhood. Those large numbers should highlight the danger that can befall those who health and lives were supposed to be unaffected by the chemicals.

So, my lesson to you is the same as it was to the Boy Scouts: Before tending to an incapacitated person (especially in a car and if that person has showed signs of depression), be careful. That person’s suicide could also be your murder.

Bob Confer is a Gasport resident and vice president of Confer Plastics Inc. in North Tonawanda. E-mail him at


This column originally ran in the 04 July 2011 Greater Niagara Newspapers

Putting a tax on summer camp

By Bob Confer

In hopes of correcting some losses that have occurred in traditional tax sources, New York has been quite creative in acquiring new revenues since the Great Recession began. The most-taxed state in the union has added or increased fees to hundreds of activities and purchases, everything from fishing to water bottles to cigarettes.

No one is safe. Not even non-profits. The state legislature is in the process of allowing local jurisdictions to collect taxes from the undeveloped properties owned by the Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts and similar groups. The old law states that such lands are off-limits to property and school taxes. This was put into place because legislators believed at the time – and rightly so – that there was a trade-off of pricey revenues versus priceless benefit: These organizations provide a benefit to the community far greater than what could ever be gleaned from the taxes they would pay.

The language of the potential replacement law implies that undeveloped lands do not meet the criteria for tax exemption. Supposedly, property is being used by non-profits only if it supports facilities and other improvements. The legislators seem to have forgotten their childhood (or common sense) because undeveloped lands are necessary for the outdoor experience afforded by summer camp operators. Forests, fields, and lakes are where you camp, hike, boat, and observe wildlife. Those tasks cannot be accomplished in their purest state from inside a building or under a pavilion. To fully experience and appreciate the outdoors – and learn about the natural world, the abilities of themselves, and the power of teamwork – youth need to be in the most pristine environment possible, one afforded by a wild campground. Look no further than both of our local Boy Scout councils. They own sizable, mostly-undeveloped properties. Camp Dittmer is just over 300 acres while Scouthaven exceeds 400 acres. Endless forests and waterways like theirs are what camping is all about!

Many kids will be unable to savor the outdoors because of the financial burden the new tax will place on them and their families. When the camp is taxed by the local school or community it will have to pass it on to the customers. Considering that many camps see only a few hundred visitors per summer and the property taxes will exceed thousands of dollars annually (especially if it is prime real estate like Camp Dittmer) each attendee will pay a substantial addition to the cost of his or her vacation. This will prove to be the breaking point, the fee that causes many lower-income families to say “no” to a week of camp for their son or daughter. Many of them can barely pull it off now.

Then again, suppose the camp can maintain its exempt status as allowed by the bill by improving the property. Sadly, that, too, will add significant cost to camping fees. The capital projects necessary to appease taxing jurisdictions will be burdensome, especially if the non-profit has to build facilities (and access) at the furthest point on the property. Infrastructure and new buildings and their outfitting and insurance cost a pretty penny. Remember, there’s a reason they’re called non-profits…they don’t have cash reserves to burn through.

The Senate recently passed their exemption-stripping bill (S.2544) by a wide margin (40-21-1). Since the Senate handily approved this measure it’s almost certain the Assembly will theirs (A.6057) - whether in 2012 or a special session later this year - especially due to the concerns that municipalities have over the existence of so-called “loopholes” if and when the state-mandated tax cap goes into play.

Passage can be stopped, though, with public action. If you value what you did at summer camp as a child and want your kids – and many others – to create similar memories, please take the time add your voice to the debate and point out the many flaws of this bill to your assemblyperson.

Bob Confer is a Gasport resident and vice president of Confer Plastics Inc. in North Tonawanda. E-mail him at


This column originally ran in the 27 June 2011 Greater Niagara Newspapers

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Engineering from the bottom up

By Bob Confer

Last week during a speech about the jobs market, President Obama talked about something that’s missing from our nation’s efforts to remain competitive in the global economy: Engineers. He’s come up with a plan to create 10,000 engineers annually through a private-public partnership in which corporations would strengthen their internship programs and the government would help stabilize collegiate engineering programs while offering students the financial assistance needed to finish their degrees.

It’s definitely a well intentioned idea. But, Obama has his sights on the wrong target. He’s aiming a little too high. College students shouldn’t be the greatest concern. All of the incentives in the world won’t turn out engineers if high school students first aren’t interested in the subject.

When was the last time you heard a teenager say she wanted to be an engineer or scientist? Kids may say they do at a younger age (like 8 or 9) but as they age, science and math (the building blocks of engineering) don’t remain sexy to them. If a kid doesn’t have the slightest interest in this difficult yet rewarding path of study by the end of the tenth grade, there’s really no way to get him or her hooked on it, let alone prepared for what college holds.

In order to produce engineers we really have to get the kids started young on mastering - even loving - science and math. As a country we do a very poor job of that. Depending on what study you read, American students typically rank in the low-to-mid 20s globally in those subjects. That’s why our influence is decreasing around the world: We aren’t making engineers, products, and strides because we aren’t making science and math interesting and worthwhile.

A lot of the blame falls upon our education system. Federal and state bureaucracy forces us to teach to a test, not to the actual mastery of a subject. What is learned from that style? Very little, obviously. That’s expected, as rote methods can make science and math extremely dry. If today’s youth were exposed to those subjects as you and I were (and as they still are in the Boy and Girl Scouts and other youth programs) with experiential learning, they might dig it. Hands on experimentation and experience are what make the sciences so attractive…just remember the excitement you felt when you were able to see how and why things worked. Now, so little of that wonderment is allowed to flourish within our students.

Even more blame for this falls onto parents and society at large. Most kids pooh-pooh science and math and so do their parents; many of them have become disinterested in those topics and insist on directing their kids to other hobbies and jobs, things that are familiar to them. The support just isn’t there at home. Nor can it be found elsewhere: Those who like science and math are labeled as nerds by classmates and - especially nowadays - popular culture. What image-conscious young teen would want to venture into those pursuits for fear of being derided or laughed at? Unless the kid is like Teflon, he wants to fit in. Once that foundation for a lifetime of science is removed during those formative years, it’s probably never coming back.

These are just some of the many obstacles for completing the equation that yields engineers. Addressing them in the college years is too little too late. If Obama wants to see meaningful results with his competitiveness goals he’d promote engineering by engineering from the bottom up, fixing our broken education system and our lame outlook on the intellectual pursuits. Let’s make science fun again!

Bob Confer is a Gasport resident and vice president of Confer Plastics Inc. in North Tonawanda. E-mail him at


This column originally ran in the 20 June 2011 Greater Niagara Newspapers

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Mandate ultrasounds for abortions

By Bob Confer

My wife and I are expecting. Needless to say, this is an exciting time in our lives. As first-time parents we are really looking forward to bringing this child - and more in the future - into this world and sharing with them all the wonders that it has to offer.

I’m an old-fashioned soul, so I don’t want us to know the sex of the child before birth. Even so, ultrasounds (without peeking) are a regular occurrence for us, checking up on the health and growth of the little Confer. Modern technology is awesome, as are the feelings we get – the goose bumps – when it shows us our bundle of joy moving about in the womb. The pictures we receive from the doctor’s visits are true keepsakes, as we constantly marvel at the baby’s features.

After I first saw those images and admired what they showed, my joy became sprinkled with a little bit of confusion, if not anger. Readers of this column know that I despise abortions of convenience. These sonograms took that feeling to another level. Only a few months into the pregnancy the images showed a human in form and a human in movement, so I was left asking, how could any pregnant woman who has witnessed an ultrasound allow someone to tear what was a living person from her body?

That question had me wondering about how many patients ever actually see, or are given the chance to see, their children prior to the abortion. Unfortunately, as made evident by the high body count (more than 1.5 million babies per year), not too many are. If they did, it would be a different story: if the patient had any semblance of goodness and respect for life hidden below the evil that sent her to the clinic, it would certainly come to the surface and prevent the abortion if she were able to see the vitality and preciousness of the little person within her.

It’s obvious that one step to curbing the number of abortions, and dramatically at that, would be mandating ultrasounds. Most states, though, don’t. Last month Texas and Florida passed laws requiring their use while only 4 other states – Alabama, Arizona, Louisiana, and Mississippi – have such laws on the books. In all 6 of those states the provider must perform the service and then offer the woman the chance to see the images (she doesn’t have to accept). Texas’s law has more teeth because the doctor must describe the image regardless, including the size of the fetus and the presence of limbs. So, even if the woman does decline the viewing she still gets some feeling for what’s taking place inside.

Those recent developments in Florida and Texas and the fact that the legislatures of 14 other states have recently proposed similar measures, shows there is ample support out there. Therefore, anti-abortion activists across America should champion such bills in their states.

It’s a start for ending one of the more callous acts of modern society, since the federal government is so keen on allowing abortions and there’s no chance of over-turning the Roe v. Wade decision. Abortions will always be available and there will be many couples demanding such services. But, if they see what I - and millions of other loving parents - have seen in the doctor’s office there’s a great chance a baby will be saved and given the ability that you and I have to experience the adventure we call life.

Bob Confer is a Gasport resident and vice president of Confer Plastics Inc. in North Tonawanda. E-mail him at


This column originally ran in the 13 June 2011 Greater Niagara Newspapers

Amtrak: The great American train wreck

By Bob Confer

Amtrak trains make passes by my office a few times day as they travel to and from Niagara Falls and points north, including Toronto. Despite the fact that the Falls is one of the most popular tourism destinations on the planet and the rail system stretches across an international border to a region ripe with economic activity, it’s very rare that I see anyone in the passenger cars. It’s patently obvious that public transportation via rail is unpopular, if not useless, in the United States.

That’s more than just an anecdotal observation; the proof is in the statistics.

According to Amtrak, 78,000 passengers travel on their network daily. Considering we are a nation of approximately 307 million people that means only 0.025 percent of our population frequents the system. That woefully small number, combined with similar numbers from other public and private rail companies, puts the United States in last place among 32 nations that accumulate 5 billion or more passenger kilometers per year. The leader of that pack, Switzerland, sees its average citizen amass 2,422 km/year while commuting via train. The average American travels just 80 km/year by rail.

Even though such observational and statistical evidence shows that Americans are disinterested in rail travel, the federal government (and then, in turn, state governments who benefit from federal largesse) insist that we are interested. Truthfully, if the demand for commuter rail did exist in the second half of the 20th century and was a possibility for the first half of the 21st century, we would have seen a huge investment by the private sector in the development of both light rail and high-speed rail. But intelligent capitalists know a loser when they see one and will not enter into a business destined for failure.

Government, though, doesn’t understand basic economics — or possess fiscal common sense — and chooses ventures that no one will touch. The government-owned Amtrak has long operated in the red. Last year’s losses were once deemed unfathomable at $419.9 million. They will be topped again for the fiscal year that will end in September when losses are estimated to hit $506 million. Next year’s losses are projected to be $616 million. These ever-growing losses are occurring even while ridership is increasing. This year’s usage is expected to surpass the record of 28.7 million passengers set last year. This shows that the business model — and more likely the market itself — is completely unsalvageable.

The only reason that Amtrak stays alive is subsidies by taxpayers. Since the start of the 2000s, the United States has dedicated more than $1 billion per year to the broken system, and matters were only made worse by the Rail Safety Improvement Act signed into law in 2008 which guarantees annual funding of $2.6 billion through 2013, more than covering Amtrak’s losses.

Despite the glaring weaknesses of commuter rail (and the federal government’s business acumen), Washington is insistent on spending even more of our money on its ethereal demand. Thinking the concept of high speed rail is the silver bullet that will win over the masses when it comes to the continued socialization of our means of travel, the White House announced in February that it will be “investing” $53 billion over the next six years to build such an inter-city network. That money will be used almost entirely by government entities, state-run operations, and Amtrak alike.

The Obama administration's biggest argument is that high-speed rail will be accessible to 80 percent of the population, thus giving them access to jobs and economic development. That is a stretch. One cannot assume that everything will work out just right so that millions of workers can commute from city to city daily and have an easy means to get to their jobs, let alone to the train station from their homes. That thinking may have worked back in the 1800s or early 1900s when development was centralized in the heart of the big cities. But now it won’t, because residential development and the jobs are much more widespread. In most of the United States, the best and most numerous employment opportunities for the average person are no longer to be had in the hearts of metropolises. The city limits and the suburbs are where it’s at; centralization is mostly a thing of the past. So, unless the trains can travel and stop at numerous locations around cities and in suburbia (which they won’t), they won’t be the job creators and commuter timesavers the government thinks they will.

Basically, as with the current Amtrak system, there won’t be the user demand to warrant the existence of the enterprise.

So, why spend the money? It comes down to a sense of control. The federal message about high-speed rail consistently touts vehicular congestion to and in our biggest metroplexes as well as the environmental impact of the cars as the main reasons why the people should get on board with the concept. Any or both of those reasons are the same the government cites in the need to centralize development, subsidize the purchase of electric cars (and their limited ability to reach great distances), and invest in alternative energy. In all cases, it is hoped the automobile can be taken away from more Americans. That’s because cars, trucks, and SUVs are a threat to the government — they perfectly embody liberty. With them, we have the freedom to freely move about the nation, to visit whom we want, vacation where we want, buy what and from whom we want, work where we want, and live where we want. With more people dependent on public transportation, they will be unable to experience all that life has to offer and all the potential that liberty gives us. Their experiences will be limited to only those narrow corridors where public transportation can take them. It is the federal government’s ultimate goal that our ability to move is directly tied to it, just as has been done with our citizens’ approach to retirement and healthcare where a majority of Americans have been indoctrinated to a reliance on Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, and more.

Luckily, though, this master plan is set to blow up in Washington’s face. Most Americans won’t go down this path of dependence. We don’t want to; we prefer to control our own destiny and day-to-day travels. Amtrak’s failures have showed that in spades.

Even so, high-speed rail will still leave an indelible mark on our country. We’ll be spending billions we don’t have, not just over this six-year project, but for years to come. It’s another piece of the puzzle that is America’s fiscal train wreck, one that — in combination with all of our other overspending woes — could easily derail our once proud and powerful nation.


Originally appeared in the 07 June 2011 The New American at:

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Groceries worth their weight in gold

By Bob Confer

If you share in your family’s grocery shopping duties you know there seems to be no end in sight to escalating costs for everything from junk food to health food and meats to cheeses.

How desperate is this situation for consumers? Better yet, how desperate will it become?

It’s tough to tell. Even the government doesn’t know.

The folks at the Department of Agriculture came into the year thinking we might see food inflation of around 2%, a leap from 2010’s spike of 0.8% but still relatively average compared to historical trends. But, by early March they altered their predictions for 2011’s prices, jumping the rate to a really uncomfortable 4.5%. One might expect them to increase their estimates again quite soon considering that factors are now in play that were unknown a few months ago.

One of them is gasoline. Back on January 1st a gallon of gas was around $3. Very few economists and investors assumed back then that it would reach the $4 mark so quickly, which it basically did last month at $3.99 nationally. Since then, it’s dropped to “only” $3.81, which is still a princely sum ($1 more than last year at this time) and could rise yet again this summer. Consider how much gasoline is used to grow your food and then get it to the processors, distributors and stores. It’s a huge embedded cost that the consumer must absorb.

The other major unknown has been the weather. Because of it, there will be a serious disruption in supply, perhaps one of the worst in recent memory.

The Mississippi River’s historic overflows (and the subsequent forced flooding by the government) have already taken 3 million acres of farmland out of commission for most of this year (and maybe more years to come). Many farmers and other agricultural professionals think that the damage may exceed 5 million acres before all is said and done.

This has also been one of the wettest springs on record across the Northern Tier of the United States, especially in the Northeast. This has delayed – and, in some places, even prevented – planting, with many farms 6 to 8 weeks behind schedule. With so many variables that Mother Nature can present even in good years, no one is quite sure how healthy their crops will be come harvest time.

Then we go from one extreme to another in Texas, Kansas and Oklahoma. Droughts of epic proportions have ravaged the area. This has nearly destroyed the entire Texan wheat crop (three-quarters of it is rated “poor” or worse) while wildfires have scarred 2 million acres of land in the Lone Star State, a fifth of which was dedicated to cattle grazing. In Kansas 39 counties were recently declared disaster areas by the USDA, while in Oklahoma two-thirds of the state is under drought which, so far, has cut the state’s wheat output in half.

Based on the effect these developments while have on previous estimates, where will prices end up at the grocery store? If I had to hazard a guess, I’d say that before year’s end total food inflation will be around 8%. Even 10% might not be out of the question (beef and pork are already 10.4% more expensive than this time last year).

8% is almost unfathomable. Remember back to the period from July 2007 to July 2008 when food inflation was at 6%. It’s not coincidental that was when the recession was really gaining steam. With less jobs to be had now because of the sluggish economic recovery – and many former 2-income households still stuck in a single-income rut - and high gas prices eating into households’ spending abilities, it will be even more of a struggle to feed the family this year than it was in 2008.

Food is one of those things you can’t do without. So, heed my dire warnings and prepare yourself. Freeze, can, stock, purchase in bulk, buy local, grow your own…do what you can to beat this monster. Even if I’m wrong and the USDA is right you’re still looking at substantial price instability.

Bob Confer is a Gasport resident and vice president of Confer Plastics Inc. in North Tonawanda. E-mail him at

This column originally ran in the 06 June 2011 Greater Niagara Newspapers