Thursday, March 26, 2015

DDT ban is responsible for suffering in Africa

Although unheard of in the United States, malaria is one of the most horrific diseases in the world. Transmitted to humans by the anopheles mosquito, if left untreated – and even if treated, for that matter - it can cause abnormalities in a person’s blood and ultimately organ failure and death.

Kids are especially susceptible to it. There were 198 million cases of malaria worldwide in 2013 and 584,000 deaths. A vast majority of those who succumbed (453,000) were children under the age of 5.

Because of the ugly reality of painful suffering that manifests in the youngest of children, a veritable industry of charity exists to combat malaria in sub-Saharan Africa where 82 percent of all malaria cases occur. International funding for the war on malaria, through public money and, mostly, private money donated through churches and other organizations, now exceeds $1.5 billion a year.

Such investments and efforts have barely put a dent on malaria’s impact, even though malaria warriors pride themselves on having improved the death rate this century. But, have they really? Back in 2000, a child under the age of 5 died every 45 seconds from malaria. Today, statistics have one passing away every 60 seconds.

The death rates remain unconscionably-high because the vast financial resources that are available are mostly directed at endeavors that don’t kill mosquitoes but instead help people fight the disease itself. Such tasks include providing the masses with mosquito nets in which to sleep, educating about the disease and its earliest symptoms, and ensuring access to anitmalarial drugs and preventive treatments.

Our dollars, sweat and emotions would be better invested in methods that actually eliminate the mosquitoes so the threat is gone rather than managed. There’s no better tool that which saved the United States and Europe from the disease and has made malaria’s former abundance something of a historical footnote here. That weapon would be none other than DDT.    

Dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane was first synthesized in 1874 by University of Strasbourg graduate student Othmar Zeidler with no intent other than to produce a new molecule to satisfy his thesis. It wasn’t until 1939 that Paul Mueller stumbled upon the insecticidal nature of DDT when he was looking to develop a means to battle clothes moths.

It was then put to use by the Allies in the second half of World War II to quell typhus and/or malaria in the European and Pacific theaters. Prior to that, malaria – not bullets or bombs – claimed the lives of 60,000 American soldiers. Some 500,000 US soldiers contracted malaria; things were so bad that Douglas MacArthur said that only a third of his men were fit for combat.

DDT spraying almost instantly killed off the vectors and our healthy forces were able to turn back other evils like the Nazis and Japanese. Based on that success, DDT was then used in great volume on the home front. In 1947 there were 15,000 cases of malaria in the Southeast. By 1951 federal health officials considered malaria eradicated in the US.

Its use came to an end by 1972, mostly due to Rachel Carson’s 1962 book Silent Spring which, rightly or wrongly, blamed DDT and other insecticides for a number of calamities from environmental waste to thinning egg shells of songbirds to cancer. Despite the questionable and biased science behind Carson’s tome, and spirited debates that lasted for more than a decade after its release, the EPA banned the powder, even though it saved millions of lives.

While it had saved lives in the developed world, it was too late for undeveloped nations. The ban on DDT became global and African countries – the hardest hit by the disease – couldn’t use it. The strict adherence to the global ban has been solely responsible for killing a half-million to almost one million people every year for the past 40-plus years.

In 2006, the World Health Organization loosened – but did not release -- its steely grip and allowed the use of DDT as an indoor residual spray on the African continent. Like other charitable methods, this helps only to manage the mosquitoes – it drives them from peoples’ homes but does nothing to kill the larva that are spawned in pools of water.  The mosquitoes are allowed to exist. One’s home may be safe, but the outdoors is not.  

So, the next time the collection plate is floated around your church specifically for malaria relief, ask this question before you give: Is your church’s highest office – the Pope, Bishop, President -- doing anything to influence international powers to allow the full use of DDT?

If not, your money is going to waste…and, sadly, so are the lives of millions of innocent children.

Man possesses the weapon to right this wrong. Let’s use it. 

From the 30 March 2015 Lockport Union Sun & Journal

Friday, March 20, 2015

Let the Export-Import Bank die

Over the next month or two, Americans will be subjected to a game of political football, as Congress and then the President will have a heated back and forth over the future of the Export-Import Bank, the charter of which is set to expire in June.

Most Americans are unfamiliar with the Bank. It considers itself the official export credit agency of the United States and its mission is to assist in financing the export of U.S. goods and services to international markets. The Ex-Im Bank provides working capital guarantees (pre-export financing); export credit insurance; and loan guarantees and direct loans (buyer financing).

It does all of this with the full support of public finances. If a foreign transaction falls apart or a participating American business is hoodwinked, it’s up to the Bank (and taxpayers) to foot the bill and make the affected company whole again.

That happens too often because the primary purpose of the Ex-Im Bank is to assume credit and country risks that the private sector is unable or unwilling to accept. That means if a private bank or insurance company knows better than to back a deal, our government steps in to do it, knowing full well the great amount of risk and lack of certainty.  

Enough deals have fallen through over the 80 year history of the Bank that American taxpayers have been on the hook for approximately $2 billion every decade per a report issued by the Congressional Budget Office last May.

That’s $16 billion thrown away to assume risk that those companies should have assumed on their own. True free-market capitalism is based on the entrepreneurial spirit of its participants…winners and losers know the risks, assume the risks and then reap the rewards or miseries created by the fulfillment of those risks.

But, unfortunately, that’s not the economic system we really live in. It may be for businesses on Main Street, but the markets are controlled by the businesses on Wall Street, entities that claim capitalistic paths but instead choose one that finds them begging for -- and being granted – favor from an unconstitutional federal system that meddles in markets and promotes crony capitalism. Just look at the bailouts of the Great Recession for the best example of that: Trillions of taxpayers’ dollars were used to prop up banks, lending institutions and larger corporations that were weakened by their own mass stupidity.

It’s those same businesses that are benefiting from those same taxpayers, via the Ex-Im Bank, who are taking on all the risk for potentially-bad business deals.

But, the Bank wants you to believe otherwise.

It makes an audacious claim that nearly 90 percent of its more than 3,340 transactions in 2014 directly supported American small businesses. That doesn’t tell the full story. Companies with 1,500 employees fall into the small business category for the Bank. Although 90 percent of the transactions went to small businesses (as mutated as that description may be), more than three-quarters of the dollars annually are spent on their 10 largest clients, the likes of Boeing, Caterpillar, and General Electric, all multi-billion dollar corporations that can certainly evaluate and cover their own risks.

The Ex-IM Bank approves $30 billion in new commitments ever year and has a statutory lending cap of $140 billion. But some of the Republicans who want to keep the Bank alive want that cap increased to a whopping $175 billion by 2021.

It doesn’t matter if it’s $175 billion or a dollar and seventy-five cents. It should not be the responsibility of the citizenry. Business is risky and businesses themselves should assume that risk if they want to do business.

As we saw in 2008, a world-wide recession can creep up seemingly out of the blue. Although we are experiencing a somewhat-improving economy in the U.S. the rest of the world is teetering on the edge of another recession. That, coupled with a strong U.S. dollar which can really inhibit foreign transactions, makes export-import even more of a gamble.

Let’s not repeat past bailouts this time around. Let the Export-Import Bank die in June and force entrepreneurs to be true to their title once again.  

From the 23 March 2015 Lockport Union Sun and Journal

EXPLORING THE NIAGARA FRONTIER: The horned lark’s mating ritual – a true sign of spring

The horned lark's "horns" are actually feathers. (PHOTO BY KATHY 
A few weeks back this column dismantled the widely-held belief that robins are a sign of spring, exposing it for what it is – a myth. Those red-breasted birds are with us all winter, just in lesser numbers and hidden from view for most of us.

That left some people wondering just what do I consider to be the first sign of spring?

That would be none other than the rather strange, even dangerous, mating ritual of the horned lark.

What is a horned lark?

The horned lark is the New World’s only true lark, which is amazing given that there are 90 species of larks in the Eastern Hemisphere.

It is a rather small, ground dwelling bird. Coming in at 7 or 8 inches, it’s not much larger than a sparrow (although more streamlined and less chubby in appearance). From a distance — which is normally how they are observed since they are rather skittish — they appear just as plain as sparrow, a drab light brown.

But, when you look at them through field glasses, you are in for a surprise. Larks are actually quite attractive.

They have a black stripe through the eye, a black crescent on the upper chest, and two black horns (which are really feathers) that account for their name. Mixed in between those wisps of black are facial and forehead colorations that range from ghost white to bright yellow.

Where do they live?

Larks can be found all year long across Eastern Niagara County, often in good numbers, frequenting spacious fields and, in the winter, roadsides and golf courses. They prefer mostly barren habitats; that is, they like the ground to be plant-free or having plants shorter than 3 inches in height. So, as crops and weeds get too tall, they will vacate the area, moving on to other fields, only to return once a field is plowed.

In the winter months, you will see them in especially large flocks of 12 to 30 birds. From now till July, they will be in flocks of 6 birds or fewer, which is typically a family.

What is the status of the horned lark? 

Despite being pretty common on this end of the county, they aren’t on the western side of the county or most of upstate (except Orleans, Genesee, and Wyoming Counties). In the downstate area, their numbers have really plummeted. This is all due to the de-emphasis of farming in certain areas of the state and the reforestation of farms, which takes away the larks’ habitat. Nationally, their numbers have decreased by 62 percent since 1966.

Because of that, horned larks are a species of special concern in New York State, the third-in-line category when it comes to assessing the health of an animal’s population in the state. Species of special concern warrant attention and consideration but current information, collected by the Department of Environmental Conservation, does not justify listing these species as either endangered or threatened.

I’ve always approached such rankings for this and other grasslands bird with a little trepidation. Wide open grasslands did not exist in any volume across upstate New York before the Europeans came; the area was just a gigantic forest. The larks came to be in this region because of Man. They weren’t naturally occurring. So, is Mother Nature only seeking her preferred equilibrium now?

When do they breed?

Horned Larks have the unique distinction of being New York’s earliest nesting songbird. They are nesting now, even as snow covers half of the local fields on which they build their nests.

That’s not unusual for them, as they have been known to nest as early as February. Since March storms are occasional occurrences, horned larks compensate for Old Man Winter’s ruination of early batches of eggs and/or decimation of hatchlings by having up to 3 broods a year. They breed so early in the year that most young birds have left the nest by the time the first plows come around.

What about that mating ritual?

The mating ritual mentioned at the beginning of this article is bizarre and death-defying.

The male horned lark will rocket high into the air, 500 to 800 feet up. While ascending, he will sing a rather neat tinkling or bubbling song. Once that song stops, he brings his wings into his body and goes into total freefall. Since his wings are not out to slow down his fall, gravity will have full effect and he will fall at incredible speeds, speeds at which you’ve never seen a bird move.

As you watch this, you think that the bird is going to die by splatting on the ground. But he doesn’t ... when he’s mere feet from the ground he will spread his wings, instantly right himself and land on his feet rather softly. I’ve seen this many times and I still don’t know how they do it.

Probably happy that he didn’t die and proud that he could impress his potential mate, the male horned lark then puffs out his chest and saunters around the female with both of his horns outstretched or erect like devil’s horns.

If you head out to a local winter wheat field this week, just an hour or so before sunset, you might see this strange ritual. It’s neat no matter how often you see it, as each time you expect that the male horned lark will die, but he doesn’t.

It just shows that men will do dangerous things to impress women, even in the animal world.

But, I guess the larks have proved you have to be a little “horny” in the first place to want to do something like that.

+Bob Confer lives in rural Gasport where watching horned lark rituals is like watching NASCAR, you only do it for the crashes. Follow him on Twitter @bobconfer or email him at

From the 19 March 2015 East Niagara Post

Saturday, March 14, 2015

Water: The Niagara Frontier’s economic driver

If any one thing could account for the past successes of the Western New York economy, it’s water.

When the Erie Canal opened in 1825 it made the region the gateway to the West, offering a navigable trade route connecting the Atlantic Ocean to Great Lakes. It was an engineering wonder that cut transportation costs by 95% and improved delivery times by weeks. WNY became a commercial hub and Buffalo one of the most important cities in the United States.

But, the golden years of the Canal lasted about a half-century. It was made almost useless by the advent of the United States’ vast rail network that, by 1869, connected coast to coast.

It wasn’t long after that, though, that the area experienced yet another economic boom driven by water. In the late 1800s power plants began to develop along the Niagara River, including the world’s first large-scale power plant to produce the alternating current so important to the efficient delivery of electricity and, therefore, industry. That technology harnessed the limitless power of the River to create vast amounts of electricity and whereas many other cities saw electricity as a luxury, Niagara Falls was able to take it for granted. This brought manufacturers by the droves to the Falls, which became an industrial Mecca for the first half of the twentieth century.

But, after World War II, things changed. Affordable electricity was no longer specific to WNY. Vast hydroelectric projects popped up all over the country and power generation technologies that used coal were refined in the 1920s and again in the 1940s, making that an accessible and cost-efficient means to power homes and businesses. Niagara Falls lost its edge. Then, it lost its businesses and residents. Now, the corridor along the River looks like a manufacturing ghost town. The City itself is similarly unattractive, its population one half what it was in 1960.

But, there is hope, hope in that substance which boosted our economy in days gone by: Water. It’s time again that we leveraged that asset to bring about a new age of prosperity to WNY. Later this century – and right now for that matter - water has a very good chance of being the new oil, a substance so rare and necessary that governments (even neighboring municipalities) will compete for it and sell it at a premium.

We’re fortunate here in WNY that water abounds. We have the Great Lakes, the mighty Niagara River, and hundreds of streams, ponds and lakes filling our landscape. Other places, including those where Niagara’s businesses and people migrated to, aren’t so lucky. There, water is at a premium. There’s barely enough now and, as those communities expand, they are guaranteed to be lacking in the future. Georgia, Texas, and California are just a few of the states that have experienced absolutely frightening water woes over the past decade.

This puts the Niagara region in a unique position to profit from other people’s despair. Corporations and people need certainty when it comes to water supply and you can’t get much more certain than our backyard.

Over a half-dozen years ago the Niagara County Center for Economic Development began marketing the region to water-intensive industries in hopes of attracting new businesses. It’s something that they continue to this day – the March newsletter of the IDA made mention of their marketing efforts to water starved states.

Until only recently, very few development agencies in the Great Lakes had followed suit – despite the seriousness and scale of the growing water shortages and how water could be a silver bullet for ruined economies like Detroit’s. This has put Niagara County in the lead based on both moxie and available natural resources.

It is hoped that their continued efforts and the frustrations of southerners and westerners combine to bring companies both big and small back to the region. We definitely have the resources and we must use them (intelligently, though, with an emphasis on the state of the environment) to recreate a robust WNY economy for this and future generations.

From the 16 March 2015 Lockport Union Sun & Journal

Thursday, March 12, 2015

EXPLORING THE NIAGARA FRONTIER: Mute swans get a reprieve

Last year there was a lot of buzz in Niagara County amongst animal lovers who were incensed over plans by the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation to wipe out the state’s entire population of mute swans.

Mute swans aren't from around here — but they're growing in number. 
Property owners along Wilson Harbor were especially mad as Twelve-Mile Creek had become home to more than a dozen of the birds. To the east, there has been a pair or two of swans that have called Eighteenmile Creek home through the years, much to the delight of kayakers and canoeists who frequent Olcott.

“How dare one kill such a beautiful bird?” seemed to be the general sentiment.

A threat to the environment 

The DEC saw — and still sees — mute swans as a threat to the environment.

That, they are.

They are not native to North America and are therefore an invasive species. As we’ve discovered with starlings and house sparrows, avian invasives as just as troublesome as other unwelcome guests like Japanese beetles or the gypsy moth.

Mute swans were introduced to the continent in the late 1800s as a means to beautify ponds and lakes, especially those owned by the rich along the East Coast. They quickly spread throughout the northeast and Great Lakes. Over a 30 year period, it was determined that the Great Lakes population of these giants grew by at least 10% a year, doubling every 8 years. There are now 2,200 of them in the Empire State alone.

The DEC considers them a scourge of aquatic vegetation, especially on the East Coast where they have especially large colonies. An adult mute swan can consume 8 pounds of aquatic weeds and seagrass per day, while uprooting much more in the process. This has proven to be dangerous to already-strained populations of threatened birds like black ducks, canvasbacks and brants.

Mute swans are also incredibly territorial, exerting really aggressive behavior on native waterfowl, driving them from their habitats. One need only take a small watercraft up Eighteenmile Creek to observe this – the adult swans will shoo away ducks and rails and chase them for great distances. Thus, those native birds won’t nest in the creek’s gorge which, as it is, doesn’t have a lot of available nesting sites.

The DEC’s original plans

Last year the DEC introduced a swan management plan that would have seen them remove mute swans from New York waters by exterminating them. They planned to capture and/or kill every one of the 2,000-plus swans — adults and cygnets alike.

To animal lovers, that seemed over-the-top, even inhumane, but as the DEC’s wildlife management officials and many birders and conservationists who supported the plan had said at the time, extermination was the only way to control the creatures and make the environment right again.

No one would have that, though.

Public comment poured in at rates typically unseen by the DEC, and the agency shelved the idea, promising to go back to the drawing board.

The DEC’s new plans

Earlier this week, the DEC issued the revised draft, one that doesn’t feature mass killings.

Notable changes to the plan include:
  1. A revised goal focused on minimizing swan impacts, rather than eliminating all free-flying swans
  2. A regional approach that recognizes the distinct differences in history, status, impacts and management opportunities for mute swans between downstate and upstate regions of New York
  3. A new strategy to permit municipalities to keep swans at local parks and other settings pursuant to local swan management plans, as long as certain conditions are met
  4. A commitment to full consideration of non-lethal techniques, including egg-oiling and placement of swans in possession of persons licensed by DEC, except where immediate removal of swans is necessary to protect public health or safety
The revised management plan also describes nine strategies that DEC believes are necessary to achieve the plan goal. Key strategies include public education and outreach to inform people about the history and impacts of mute swans in New York; banning the importation, commercial trade, propagation and release of mute swans; allowing municipalities to develop local mute swan management plans in cooperation with DEC; and continued efforts by DEC to reduce wild mute swan populations, especially here in upstate New York where they did not occur before 1980.

You can download the DEC’s 16-page document as a PDF here:

Public comment

Everyone with some interest in the issue, supporters and naysayers alike, should share their thoughts with the DEC regarding the revised management plan. Comments on the revised draft mute swan plan may be submitted in writing through April 24 to: NYSDEC Bureau of Wildlife, Swan Management Plan, 625 Broadway, Albany, NY 12233-4754 or by e-mail to (please type "Swan Plan" in the subject line).

+Bob Confer lives in rural Gasport where he admires tundra swans but not mute swans ... a topic for another column. Follow him on Twitter @bobconfer or email him at

Friday, March 6, 2015

The dangers of a $10.50 minimum wage

Last week Governor Cuomo made a visit to Buffalo that had the panache of a campaign stop, as he officially launched his endeavor to increase the state-wide minimum wage to $10.50 ($11.50 in New York City) by the end of 2016.

Of course, his plan was lauded by left-leaning Democrats, some labor groups and those who look at minimum wage positions as being a career choice and not a job choice.

But, the people who keep the economy going in New York – small business owners – were taken aback by the latest and greatest in what has been a spate of wage increases in the Empire State.

While the minimum wage increase will have a direct impact on the service sector which naturally tends to pay lower wages by forcing them to reach $10.50, it will be an especially damning development for the economy’s wealth creating sectors – manufacturing and farming. They will have to make adjustments to labor costs that will significantly affect their ability to compete with other states and other countries.

As a rule, factories and farms across Upstate pay well above the minimum wage (which was $8.00 just over 2 months ago), anywhere from a couple of dollars to five more for entry-level positions. Even though they are above the minimum wage, they, too, will have to increase the starting wages as the minimum makes a major jump.


With an unemployment rate around 5% in New York it’s an extremely competitive job market. If the most basic and least-productive jobs in the economy see their starting wage rise to $10.50, the factories and farms that are currently at that rate or within a couple of dollars of it will have to raise their wages and maintain that gap that they had versus previous iterations of the minimum. If they don’t, they will lose workers who will choose easier and less physical jobs at the new minimum wage.

Because of the need to do that to maintain their workforce, keep their operations going strong, and not pay their workers the minimum wage for tasks that aren’t minimum wage work, those industries will have to pass the higher costs on to their customers.

That will be suicide.

New York businesses that grow crops or manufacture goods already have the highest cost burdens among the lower 48 state. As I’ve indicated numerous times in this column, my company alone throws away $750,000 a year on state-driven costs for electricity, taxes, workers comp and more that are over and above what our competitors in Ohio, Indiana, and Utah pay.

Were the $10.50 rate to go through, we would more than double that competitive imbalance because we would be forced to maintain the large gap we currently have against the minimum wage in regard to our starting rate. This would have to be implemented across the board, though, because there’s no way that I can tell a long-tenured coworker that the new guy we just hired is worth $2 to $3 more per hour, but he’s not. When applied to 190 people at 40 hours a week, 52 weeks a year, plus an endless amount of voluntary overtime, we’re not talking chump change.

I have no choice but to pass that on to my customers. What will that mean? A loss of business -- and likely a lot of it.

We don’t use robots. Many of our products have high labor inputs. As an example, it takes 6 to 11 people to make a kayak. Those are just the direct costs. Each of those boats is also handled by a myriad of material handlers, truck drivers, and shippers. That’s just one type of product among the dozens we make with similar effort.

What do you think customers will say when I come to them with higher costs because direct and indirect labor went up 10 to 15 percent? They’ll probably say “good bye”. Their customers – the big box stores, distributors, etc. – won’t pay higher prices (because they know the end consumer won’t) when they know someone in Utah or China can make the goods much cheaper.                   
It’s especially frustrating because, this year, my company is making a significant multi-million investment to ensure we have a future in Western New York. It seems like Governor Andrew Cuomo is doing everything he can to ensure we don’t.

But, we’re just one company. There are thousands more that will be adversely affected in a similar way.

The minimum wage increase won’t bring people out of poverty in New York because it will create poverty --- plants and farms will downsize, maybe even shutter, because their ability to compete in the global marketplace will be made even weaker than it is now.  

From the 09 March 2015 Lockport Union Sun and Journal