Friday, March 30, 2018

Heed the DEC's burn ban this spring

Much to the chagrin of the many rural residents who read this newspaper, the Department of Environmental Conservation’s annual ban on the open burning of brush is in effect and will remain so until May 14.

In the early spring of every year the state does not allow the burning of limbs, sticks and tree mass in towns where such activities are otherwise allowed the rest of the year (that would be communities with populations under 20,000). Over that two month period, the DEC still allows small cooking fires and campfires that are less than 3 feet in height and 4 feet in length, width or diameter.

This law is a necessary tool to prevent wildfires, as the grasses, leaves, and weeds of the springtime are perfect fuels for fires that can and do advance from their intended purpose. While the ground may seem saturated from snow melt and spring rains, the same can’t be said for the plants – they just spent a winter in suspended animation or death and they don’t have any water in them. Those dry plants will ignite from a nearby flame or windblown ashes. The ban’s end date coincides with the greening of that local plant life.

The law, which went into effect in 2009 and has cut back on wildfires by 36%, continues to be a sore subject for quite a few local property owners. Brush burning had always been a rite of spring, as homeowners with spacious country lots and woodlot managers found themselves cleaning up and disposing of the remnants of winter storms.

Despite the DEC’s reasonable expectations and the very real threat of a $500 fine (for the first offense) and larger ones and even jail time for repeat offenses, rural landowners continue to burn during the ban. They certainly can’t cite ignorance to the law, as each year there is an incredible amount of press that the ban receives in local broadcast and print news. What they can cite is their own indifference to it; I guarantee the common sentiment is, “It’s my property. I can do what I want.” 

Local property owners continued to take that cavalier approach in recent years. The perfect example is 2015. Many of them probably assumed that the brutal winter of 2014-2015 was so cold and snowy that the ground was soaked from the thaw and therefore fires wouldn’t happen. But they did…and often. During 2015’s prohibition period (which was made a week longer because of the dry May weather) the Niagara County Sheriff’s office dispatched 58 fire calls across Niagara County for brush and grass fires that went out of control.

Think about the scale of that – 58 times over a two-month period, wildfires threatened and destroyed property, be it land, woods or structures. Not only were the properties of the burners affected, but so were their neighbor’s lands and buildings.

Fortunately, no human life was taken and no houses were lost in those five dozen crises, and that’s a testament to our local volunteer firefighters. They abused themselves and their equipment (it’s never good to drive fire trucks across a beat up field or into a forest) to keep these out-of-control fires at bay.

So, while some guys will throw around the property rights argument, they need to understand that their neighbors have a right to safely enjoy their property and the firemen have a right to enjoy their weekends and evenings with their families (when most of these wildfires occur). We’re already in the midst of a significant volunteer firefighter crisis – there aren’t enough of them – so let’s not overwork those rare few who are giving their time to our community.

I ask that my fellow countryfolk use some common sense this spring and respect the law, the environment and your fellow man. Hold off on your brush fires and bonfires until June. A simple fire can quickly become a major situation this time of year. As Smokey Bear says, “only you can prevent wildfires.”

From the 02 April 2018 Greater Niagara Newspapers and Batavia Daily News

Thursday, March 22, 2018

Chinese factories are killing local jobs

Donald Trump became president for a variety of reasons that voters found intriguing during his campaign. One of his biggest selling points was his disdain for Chinese manufacturers and American outsourcers as he believes they pose threats to American jobs. That became a populist rallying cry for blue-collar workers which caused many traditionally-Democratic areas and states to turn Republican at the polls.

He’s been living up to his protectionist campaign promises of late, bringing steel and technological tariffs and controls to the fore. A lot of folks who count themselves as big thinkers – policymakers, economists, the media, and the corporatists on Wall Street -- have come out against them, publicly stating the specter of China taking our jobs is almost mythological. They believe that we no longer need to emphasize the manufacture of goods because we are better off as a high-tech service economy; most manufacturing job losses were attributed to robots and productivity; we’re in a global economy that knows no borders; and consumers are best served by lower prices.

That view of production is precisely why manufacturing has been hurting in America. Regulations, taxes, damaging trade agreements, and more that they have helped to devise have crippled the producers that are a necessary part of our nation’s health.

We need a productive economy. While a service economy creates little wealth, a mixed economy with strong manufacturing, mining, and farming sectors creates lots of it. For every $1 spent in manufacturing an extra $1.40 is added to the economy, twice the multiplier effect seen in service.

For that reason, and the obvious one that I have a vested interest in manufacturing, I side with the blue collar view of China’s threat. I’ve seen it firsthand. We live it every day at the plant…and so do other workers in many factories across the region.

For example, there is a Chinese producer that ripped-off the swimming pool steps and ladders that we make. The look, feel, design, and even the assembly manuals were all copied to a “t” – except for one patented portion of the products. Some would say that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, but that doesn’t make you feel good when you’re certain that the business lost to these cheap goods would keep 30 Americans busy for 3 or 4 months every year.

Going further back in time, in the 1970s my dad invented the flexible fuel funnel that you see in almost every garage. When that patent expired in the late-80s we lost that business because we couldn’t compete with overseas plants. We haven’t made any of these ubiquitous tools since 1990.

We aren’t alone.

Consider the origin of the Made in America Store. That awesome enterprise was founded by Mark Andol as a means to overcome the foreign monster hurting his first business, General Welding & Fabricating. Low-cost, low-quality Chinese competition forced him to close 2 of his 5 plants and layoff a third of his workforce in 2009.

Mark knew that he needed to “Save Our Country First” (the store’s slogan), so he opened the first of his retail locations in 2010 to showcase goods made by his fellow domestic producers. That business now has multiple locations and carries 7,000 American-made products. While the stores prosper, the back story is still there: Mark still fights China in an effort to keep busy the skilled machinists and welders at his factory.

Or, how about General Motors? The one-time Harrison Radiator – Delphi plant in Lockport is busy for sure, employing 1,400. But, that number is only a portion of what it was in its heyday (10,000 workers). Some of that is attributed to changes in business models and greater productivity, but hundreds of jobs were lost to Asian rip-offs. Foreign “partners” who worked with Delphi in the 80s and 90s stole ideas and technology (even going so far as to commit corporate espionage) and became competitors.

Then there’s the matter of tire dumping committed by China for years. The U.S. imported 8.9 million Chinese truck and bus tires in 2015 worth $1.07 billion, up from 6.3 million units worth $885 million in 2013. Those tires came in below market rates and were unfairly subsidized by the Chinese government.

In the fall of 2016, the US government finally placed tariffs on Chinese tires. But the damage was done. There were years of lost jobs and declined investments. There are 8 plants in the US that make truck tires – one of them, Sumitomo Rubber USA, is right here in Tonawanda.

You see, China’s threat is not some made-up bogeyman. It’s real. China manufacturers are taking jobs from Western New York and taking money out of local families’ pocketbooks.

From the 26 March 2018 Greater Niagara Newspapers and Batavia Daily News

Friday, March 16, 2018

Allow veterans to choose their healthcare

After sending our men and women to fight for our defense or interests abroad where they face the barrel of a gun or travel along bomb-strewn roads as a course of their daily duties, it only makes sense that upon their return we give our warriors some sort of benefit since most of them are paid little for the risks they take. It isn’t unreasonable to say that we should offer publicly-funded healthcare to our veterans. They deserve it and it should be our responsibility to maintain and improve the health of the bodies and minds that were scarified for us.

But, the current way of doing things – clinics and hospitals maintained by Veterans Affairs (VA) – shouldn’t be the only way. By following that path, we’ve achieved the cruelest of ironies: After they have survived wars and occupations overseas the health system that was meant to protect our veterans at home could ultimately end up being the very thing that kills them.

For a glaring example, look at the track record of the Buffalo VA Medical Center.
In 2013, a routine inspection discovered more than 700 vets could have been exposed to HIV or hepatitis from reused insulin pens. Hospital staff did not follow the necessary protocol and failed to dispose of the one-time use pens, which in turn created a health risk similar to that of sharing a syringe.

In 2017, in excess of 500 veterans were potentially exposed to those diseases and more after improperly cleaned colonoscopy equipment was inserted into their bodies. Not surprisingly, Buffalo’s officials didn’t learn from a 2009 crisis of the same that put 10,000 patients from VA hospitals in the south at risk.

Then there was last week’s headline: A report issued by the VA’s Inspector General gave an account of a 2016 tragedy during which a man suffered cardiac arrest and rather than try to resuscitate him the staff decided instead to declare him deceased. The details of the incident weren’t reported to higher-ups until almost a year later.

Were all of this to happen in the private sector, doctors, nurses, and hospitals would lose their employment and their licenses. Facilities would close, some people might even be jailed. Not in the VA system. It is, after all, a federal bureaucracy. When crises happen in the VA very few heads roll, some guilty parties keep their jobs or are “reassigned”, and reforms are slow to come if they do at all. The VA has no reason or will to change because it’s a monopoly. They have a captive audience and there is no competition.

One of the greatest aspects of free markets and free choice is competition…the dueling participants (individuals or organizations) will always aspire to offer and/or acquire the best, most diverse and most effective products or services possible. Without that motivation, limitations and suspect quality rule the day.

We need to allow our vets some of that freedom (after all, didn’t they fight for freedom?) and give them the ability to choose the care they want, from who they want, and from where they want. They shouldn’t be limited to a single source. Let them get their care from a place of their choosing, be it a VA medical center, Kalieda, Catholic Health or any number of specialists and clinics.

The best way to achieve this is through some sort of voucher system whereby veterans would receive government-funded insurance or their providers would receive publicly-paid reimbursement. It’s a simple concept that would allow the vets to escape the ills of the VA system while pursuing care at some of America’s best facilities.

It’s been tried, but poorly. In 2014, in response to 35 vets who died while waiting for care at the Phoenix VA, the Veterans Choice Act was introduced. That was a misnomer for most of the $2 billion bill was spent on building 26 new VA facilities and hiring more doctors and nurses. Only a relatively small portion of the bill granted vouchers and, even then, a vet had to live more than 40 miles from the nearest clinic to utilize the benefit.           

A truly effective voucher system would not be dissimilar to Medicaid, through which recipients receive stellar care and benefits that far rival what most privately-insured individuals get. If that Cadillac insurance system can work so well for non-contributors, why shouldn’t something similar – or better – work for those who did contribute to the greatness of our nation?  

Simply put, choice and safety are two things that we can - and should - offer our veterans. What we do now affords neither. It’s time for a change…why expose them to ongoing health scares – on domestic soil, no less -- after everything they’ve done for us? 

From the 19 March 2018 Greater Niagara Newspapers and Batavia Daily News