Friday, July 13, 2007

Open Letter: Veto Overrides

Dear Representatives and Senators,

I am writing today to express my hope that you will vote to override Governor Douglas's vetoes of the Energy Bill (H.520) and the Campaign Finance Bill (S.164). Like nearly any bill of consequence, neither is perfect. However, they do move the state in the right direction, and the vetoes were unwarranted.

While the bills should become law on their merits, I also want you to vote to override the vetoes because I want progressives (Democrats, Progressives, and any who sides with them) to stand up to the Republicans, and this Republican in particular. Governor Douglas has far more control of the public debate in Vermont than he should, given his stance on the issues, and he has been able to frame the debate in his favor. I want progressives to show leadership by fighting hard for what we stand for, and passing these two bills is a perfect opportunity to do so. Progressives need to show we are organized and committed if we hope to win the 2008 gubernatorial race, something we desperately need to do in order to move Vermont forward.

Please travel to Montpelier on the 11th and vote to pass these bills. Doing so is the right thing for progressives, Vermont, and the whole world.

Thank you for your time.

Monday, July 2, 2007

Open Letter: Farm Bill

Dear Congressmen and Senators,

I am writing today to urge you to work to pass a fiscally and environmentally responsible farm bill that benefits both small family farms and Americans consumers. The farm bill is a complex piece of legislation that contains a lot of programs that may cost a relatively small amount individually, but in aggregate are expensive and very important to the health of American citizens. Since I am not familiar with the fine details of farm policy, let me list some of the basic questions I want you to ask when judging the bill.

  • Does it support small family farms over agribusiness? Family-operated farms and farmer-owned cooperatives should receive the bulk of farm support, instead of large corporate farms and farm supply companies, which get the most today.
  • Does it support environmentally responsible farming practices? The bill should help farmers preserve topsoil, prevent nutrient runoff, preserve wetlands, and otherwise act or not act in ways that are sustainable over many generations.
  • Does it support safe and healthy food? The bill support the production of fresh food that is free of excessive levels of hormones, antibiotics, pesticides, and herbicides. In Vermont specifically, the farm bill should support a dairy industry that does not use rbST, or advanced antibiotics that should be reserved for severe infections in humans.
  • Does it support increased food inspection, especially of imported food? Many recent deaths and the pet-food disaster point to an inspection system that is broken. The bill should increase funding for food inspectors and dramatically increase inspection of foods from countries which don't have good inspection systems, such as China.
  • Does it end support for grain-based ethanol programs? There is no clear evidence that grain-based ethanol has a positive net energy return, meaning that the fossil fuel energy used to produce the ethanol might as well be burned directly. Grain-based ethanol is pork, and always has been. Subsidies for grain-based ethanol also raises the costs of feed for Vermont's dairy farms, which is yet another reason to oppose these programs.
  • Does it end support for sugar subsidies? Not only does growing cane sugar in the Everglades hurt that wonderful habitat, the sugar subsidy (which is also a high-fructose corn syrup subsidy) makes many products in America cost more and taste much worse.

I am sure there are many issues related to the farm bill I have not touched on. If you and your staff are not familiar with them, I suggest you reach out to progressive farm and environment think tanks in Washington for more information. I am confident you will end up supporting a farm bill that is good for the environment, good for farmers, and good for consumers.

Thank you for your time.

Saturday, June 16, 2007

Open Letter: CAFE Regulations

Dear Congressmen and Senators,

I am writing today to urge you to support the strongest possible CAFE requirement, one that makes no exceptions for so-called 'light-trucks' or for the use of alternative fuels. Various amendments have been offered in the Senate which would alter the deadline for meeting the rather modest standards that have been proposed in S.357. I urge you to reject those amendments and keep the bill clean from unrelated amendments.

Truth be told, CAFE is rather poor policy. It is complicated for manufacturers to calculate and meet. It allows for several exceptions, and it fails to regulate the fuel efficiency of larger vehicles. And it does nothing to alter the fundamental pattern of urban development in America that drives the nation's incredible appetite for oil.

A far better approach would be to replace CAFE with a constantly increasing federal motor fuels tax (aka a gas tax). A gas tax that increased by $0.03 per month (and more after several years) would give consumers a clear reason to reduce their fuel consumption. They would be able to do so in the way that suited them most, be it buying a fuel efficient car, moving closer to work, telecommuting, car-pooling, or many other means. Such a tax would be easy to collect – a federal gas tax already exists - and would eliminate the paperwork created by CAFE. A new gas tax would not cause significant financial hardship because it would give people plenty of time to adapt, as well as clear incentives to do so.

Many people claim to object to a gas tax because it would fall hardest on poorer Americans. However, a gas tax is hardly the only tax that poor people face. A gas tax could easily be offset by using the revenues from it to replace the FICA tax on the first few thousands of dollars of wage earnings. A gas tax plus such an exemption would give poor people a reason to reduce their use of fuel, along with more reasons to work, while still preserving their FICA contributions. A gas tax could also be used to fund improvements in mass transit.

But I am a realist, and recognize that increasing the federal gas tax would be very unpopular. Most Americans are totally uninformed and unrealistic about the viability of our current level of oil usage. Most Americans expect that their grandchildren will drive huge cars everywhere anytime, just like everyone does today. This expectation will certainly be proved terribly wrong. Until the time that Americans support an increasing gas tax, CAFE will be the best policy that can be implemented at the federal level. I look forward to seeing the small improvement that CAFE represents passed soon.

Thank you for your time.

Friday, May 18, 2007

Open Letter: Ending the War in Iraq

Dear Congressmen and Senators,

I am writing today to urge you to work even harder than you have so far to end the disastrous War in Iraq. The War in Iraq has killed thousands of Americans, wounded tens of thousands more, and killed hundreds of thousands of Iraqis. It has cost American taxpayers over $500 billion so far, and its ultimate costs will be well over $1 trillion. It was started under false pretenses for reasons that still remain unclear, and serves no discernible goal. The War in Iraq is wrong, pointless, bad for America, and must be ended as soon as possible.

I realize that any legislation which includes a clear withdrawal timeline will be vetoed by President Bush, and that at some point funding must be passed. Therefore I urge you to pass legislation which funds the War in Iraq for increments of not more than 3 months at a time. This will force the President to provide progress reports and justification for the war again and again. Hopefully after a time enough Republican legislators will defect and the war can be ended, or this process will continue until the 2008 election and the Republicans will be defeated.

If for some reason the President concedes defeat and agrees to end the troops, the withdrawal must be complete. All American troops should be removed from Iraq, including from Kurdistan, and construction on any long-term bases halted. There is no reason for an American presence in Iraq – the well has been too deeply poisoned, and as long as our troops are in the country the Iraqis will be distracted from rebuilding their country. Ideally, all troops would also be withdrawn from the larger Persian Gulf region, but that will take much more time and some significant political shifts here in America. Troops are also need for the War in Afghanistan – a war that was going well until the president foolishly diverted troops to Iraq.

I also urge you to properly fund the Veterans Administration. Our soldiers have served in Iraq honorably (with a very few exceptions) and deserve to receive proper medical treatment for injuries sustained during the war. The VA was doing quite well with the funding and patients it had until this war started, which broke a system not accustomed to treating new patients. I urge you to work hard to remedy yet another shameful failure of the Bush Administration.

But most of all I urge you to attempt to end the war in Iraq as soon as possible. Please do everything you can ,and make it your top priority. Lives are being wasted and families broken every day because of the War in Iraq, and it should not go on.

Thank you for your time.

Thursday, May 17, 2007

Quote from Kunstler

Here's a great quote from an article by Kunstler:

Of course, the single worst impediment to clear thinking among most individuals and organizations in America today is the obsession with keeping the cars running at all costs. Even the environmental community is guilty of this. The esteemed Rocky Mountain Institute ran a project for a decade to design and develop a “hyper-car” capable of getting supernaturally fabulous mileage, in the belief that this would be an ecological benefit. The short-sightedness of this venture? It only promoted the idea that we could continue to be a car-dependent society; the project barely gave nodding recognition to the value of walkable communities and public transit.
That's about where I stand: barring a miracle such as nuclear fusion or $1/watt solar panels, we will have to fundamentally reshape the built environment around feet, bikes, and public transportation (and we should do so anyway for a host of other reasons). It will be incredibly painful and unpopular, and I have serious doubts about whether it can be done.

Open Letter: Immigration Reform

Dear Congressmen and Senators,

I am writing today to urge your support of comprehensive reform of United States immigration policy. A number of proposals are floating around Washington, the most famous of which is the ridiculous “wall” supported by many Republicans. I must emphasize that you should support reform that addresses all aspects of the issue, and not catchy white elephants.

Of course, when immigration is discussed the focus is primarily on illegal Mexicans. Let me be clear in stating that I do not harbor ill will towards Mexicans, Latinos in general, or any other group, and that any bigotry encountered during this policy debate should be thoroughly denounced. The focus on Mexicans actually distracts from the fact that illegal immigrants come from many countries and arrive in a variety of ways, including overstaying legal visas. However, I must also point out that the relative ease that Mexicans have in emigrating to America reduces pressure on the Mexican government to enact meaningful reforms, and an unreformed, highly unequal, and thus unstable Mexico is not in America's best interest.

Foremost in any bill should be enough funds to staff Immigration and Naturalization Service workplace inspectors at much higher levels. Current levels of INS inspection staffing are not sufficient to create a credible enforcement threat. Crucial to any enforcement process is the belief by lawbreakers that they are likely to be inspected. INS should be able to regularly inspect industries where illegal immigrants are concentrated – food service, janitorial, and construction. The INS should also have sufficient resources to be able to track down those who overstay legal visas because history has shown this class of people can be dangerous to America.

Second in any bill should be much stronger penalties for companies that hire illegal immigrants. Current penalties are so low that a simple cost/benefit analysis makes hiring illegal immigrants a rational move for many companies. Penalties need to be raised to a much more punitive level, and any conspiracies to hire illegal immigrants should be subject to additional levels of punishment.

What should not be included in any immigration reform bill is an amnesty program for illegal immigrants already residing in America. America is a nation of laws and that should apply to everyone who wishes to live in America. Many thousands of people are waiting around the world for the chance to enter America legally, and to allow those who entered illegally to jump ahead of those who respect the legal process is unfair, inappropriate, and a bad moral lesson. However, I am not in favor of mass deportations or anything draconian. Once illegal immigrants realize that their prospects for employment are much poorer than for legal immigrants they will leave on their own, or they will be caught in normal INS sweeps.

In conclusion I hope you support a bill that addresses root causes via law enforcement, while ignoring calls to flag-wave at the border. I am confident you will support good policy.

Thank you for your time.

Monday, May 7, 2007

What is Peak Oil?

(Note: this is a rather terse and disjointed first take on my outlook. I hope to expand it in the future.)

The phrase 'Peak Oil' is term that means many things to many people, like its close cousin Global Warming, though far fewer people have heard of Peak Oil. It can be many things because it is not a discrete entity like clouds, or humpback whales, or lunch. In the minds of the various people who know the term it is a varying composite of engineering, science, and culture - whether it should be or not.

Peak Oil is first and foremost a physical phenomenon that can be observed, and has been repeatedly by oil industry engineers. The rate of oil production in field after field has followed what to the casual observer would appear to be 'bell curve' when plotted out visually. The flow of oil starts off slowly, then enters a period where it rises quickly to a rounded peak, followed by rapid decline, and a final period of minimal extraction. The curves of individual fields vary slightly for a variety of reasons: political turmoil, accidents, poor management, and more. Technological developments also tends to make the decline side of the curve less steep due to better recovery. However, all fields eventually decline, usually sooner than later.

Science enters the Peak Oil concept through explanations of the phenomenon. Oil and other fossil fuels are formed by geological process that scientists have explained fairly well. Science also explains why fossil fuels are relatively rare and are not forming at rates anything close to the rates at which they are being depleted. Science also explains why various fields produce at different rates, have different mixtures of oil and gas, and so on.

Finally culture rears its head when the implications of Peak Oil are contemplated. To some it seems like the end of the world, and say so. Others, overwhelmed by the implications for the lives that they currently live, discount it entirely, preferring to listen to those who attack it for baser, more selfish motives. To yet others it is some kind of nefarious plot dreamed up by unknown people aimed at destroying this or that. In other words, Peak Oil generally either slots easily into a persons existing mental framework, or gets rejected because it does not. For a few (but hopefully growing number of people) coming to understand Peak Oil as a observable phenomenon changes their mental outlook, as well it should.

I am definitely a person whose outlook has been changed by coming to understand past patterns of oil discovery and production, likely future discovery and production, and the implications of a serious decline in oil production, along with production of other fossil fuels. These amazingly concentrated sources of energy have enabled modern human civilization. Without these precious strokes of geological luck development would have slowed significantly in the late 18th or early 19th century as biomass-based energy resources became depleted. With fossil fuels humans have been able to radically reshape their lives and the whole earth, for better or worse. And now our frenzied development has reached a point where it could harm ourselves, unless changes are made.

The sciences, in addition to explaining the how sources of energy arise, give us an important rule: energy can be used only once. (This is actually an implication of the second law of thermodynamics, not a formal law in itself.) If energy is readily available, it can be used with abandon. But if concentrated sources of energy are rare, then great care should be taken when using energy to make sure as much as possible is going into useful work. Peak Oil implies that concentrated energy sources are rare and likely to decline at current usage rates. Unfortunately, modern patterns of living developed when the amount of energy available appeared or were reported to be nearly limitless.

Unless a major new source of energy is discovered, a significant new energy technology is developed, or significant mitigation efforts are undertaken, the implications of Peak Oil for human civilization are profound and not all that appealing. At this point in time the chance of finding major new fossil energy deposits is low, and even if they were discovered utilizing them would just add to the other major threat man-made facing the world - Global Warming. The chance a major new energy technology coming on-line in the near future, such as nuclear fusion, is also low. That leaves mitigation, both in the form of reducing energy use, and making major coordinated investments in existing energy technologies such as solar, wind, and nuclear fusion. Investments should be both in new plant as well as incrementally improving these existing technologies.

Friday, April 20, 2007

Open Letter: 2007 Vermont Legislative Session

Dear Representatives and Senators,

I am writing today to express my hope that you will strongly support efforts in the Vermont legislature to address the important and potentially catastrophic issues of Global Warming and Peak Oil. Though the two issues are different in focus, they both have to do with the over-use of fossil fuels by industrial nations such as the United States. While actions by Vermont alone will do very little in and of themselves to reduce global fossil fuel consumption and carbon emissions, strong leadership by our wonderful state could allow other states and countries to follow, and is the moral thing to do regardless of actions elsewhere.

Below is a non-comprehensive list of policies I hope you pursue in the legislature this year.

Electricity Generation and Transmission

  • Encourage building of large-scale wind generation projects by reducing regulation
  • Support the license renewal of Vermont Yankee as a state policy
  • Support programs encouraging the development of a “smart” electrical grid which would allow for time-of-day pricing, and appliances that could communicate with this grid

Household Conservation

  • Enact requirements that new homes meet the highest standard for energy efficiency
  • Support programs for weatherization of older homes through loans and grants
  • Support programs for re-purchasing old and inefficient refrigerators

Transportation Conservation

  • Enact a graduated annual vehicle registration fee based on fuel consumption or engine displacement on both light and medium duty vehicles (up to 11,000 lbs)
  • Relax pollution standards on automotive diesel engines under 2.0L in displacement from California to Federal standards
  • Provide further support for the freight rail network through funding of capital projects which resolve speed, clearance, and weight issues, and which help develop more intermodal terminals

Land Use Planning

  • Enact policies that further discourage the conversion of cropland to residential developments

Please contact me if you have any questions about the important issues of Global Warming or Peak Oil. I look forward to seeing concrete progress from Montpelier this year.

Thank you for your time.

Open Letter: Housing Bubble Bailout

Dear Congressmen and Senators,

I am writing today to express my concern over various proposals being floated that would bail out homeowners who have taken out risky or inappropriate loans in the past few years. I am strongly opposed to any kind of bailout. Bailing out people for reasons other than 'acts of God' is bad policy because doing so creates a 'moral hazard'. A moral hazard teaches people that poor decisions do not have negative consequences, which of course is completely wrong.

The modern practice of American homeownership has existed for several decades. Part of that practice has been the broadly-held knowledge that a household should not buy a home that costs more than 3.5 times the household's annual income. Unfortunately, due to the Federal Reserve holding interest rates too low for too long following the 2001 recession, and due to an under-regulated mortgage industry 'innovating' by creating a wide array of very risky new 'products', a great number of households have purchased homes that they would not be able to afford under normal and more rational circumstances. The two unique factors temporarily lowered the down-payment and initial cash flow required to purchase a home, and allowed some households to purchase homes far more expensive than the 3.5 multiplier rule would otherwise dictate. These lower requirements enabled housing prices to be bid up artificially, and created the current housing bubble. As the two special circumstances disappear, housing prices will come down.

I encourage you to use your office to investigate fraudulent and deceptive business practices in the mortgage industry, as well as the wider real estate industry. There are plenty of reports of appraisers inflating home values, real estate agents pressuring appraisers to do so, agents and mortgage brokers encouraging borrowers to lie on their loan applications, and so on. Proper investigation and oversight of the real estate and mortgage industries is needed, especially since the current administration has not done so. I encourage you to create ways for homeowners who have been victims of fraud and deception to seek appropriate compensation.

However, bailing out homeowners would set a bad precedent, as well as keeping housing prices artificially high. The majority of homeowners have made good financial decisions, and bailing out the minority who made bad decisions would be unfair and inappropriate. That means many homeowners who have made bad decisions will suffer, along with holders of risky mortgage bonds. Financial loss must be the price of making bad financial decisions, otherwise there would be no reason to make good financial decisions. Inaction during widespread financial losses is certainly not a vote-winner, but you were elected to provide quality leadership for this country. The appropriate leadership now would be to make sure the unique factors that enabled the housing bubble do not re-occur, and to investigate fraudulent and deceptive practices in the real estate industry. I am confident you will make the correct choice.

Thank you for your time.

Thursday, April 19, 2007

Excerpt from "The End of Oil"

I'm slowly working through Paul Roberts' The End of Oil: On the Edge of a Perilous New World (Amazon, Powell's) and I came across a passage so good I had to share it.

In this context, it is hardly surprising that the Bush administration's energy policy has been so lopsidedly slanted towards oil. Whereas many energy experts, particularly those in the left-of-center advocacy community, saw 9/11 as a prime opportunity to renew the effort to move away from oil altogether, the Bush administration drew the opposite lesson. For Bush, the lesson to be learned about energy insecurity was not that the West should use less energy as it did in the early 1980s, but that the West should be willing to make energy more secure and less unpredictable, as American had tried to do during the first Gulf War. During that war, rather than simply retreating into a defensive energy policy, the West had taken a bolder, more muscular approach and had simply removed the threat to price stability.
Insanity, pure and simple. I opposed the first Gulf War because I thought that America had no business fighting a war over oil, and argued afterwards for an increased tax on gas so that we wouldn't have get involved in a war for oil again. Was I ever proven right, and how.

Saturday, April 14, 2007


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