Archive for May, 2009


Cash Saving Tip of the Summer: Throw Out Your Dryer

Sunday, May 31st, 2009

Behold the classic domestic duos of the past: Ricki and Lucy. Ozzie and Harriet. Bennifer. Tom and Jerry. Bush and Cheney. And most important of all, not to mention the most seriously detrimental to human society—um, make that second most serious—the washer and the dryer.

Readers may doubt the importance of separating the latter, but a divorce must be arranged. The dryer, as it were, is an energy-sucking, money-vaporizing, obsolete object that has served its last purpose. Feel free to recycle it, make better use of it, or fill it with water and use as a pleasant place for baby ducks to frolic in your yard. But seriously, if you want to save money this summer, you may have to part with your Maytag and those handy BounceTM sheets, and embrace other ways to dry your clothes.

According to Stephen and Rebekah Hren, authors of The Carbon-Free Home: 36 Remodeling Projects to Help Kick the Fossil-Fuel Habit, throwing out your dryer is a wicked way to save money this summer.

Electric clothes dryers are a colossal waste of energy. They often draw around 6,000 watts. Six thousand! This is more than a typical heat pump or electric water heater, usually thought of as the hogs of the household. Simply put, you should not use this appliance. Gas dryers are more efficient because they use no electric-resistant heat, but they can still draw around 720 watts. That’s a lot, equivalent to about 60 compact fluorescents (not to mention the energy of the gas). You should plan on getting rid of electric heat dryers and hopefully gas-fired dryers as well if your climate allows.

Solar clothes drying shows this energy source at its finest. It’s a great example of simplicity combined with effectiveness. Hang up something wet in the sun, come back in a few hours, and voilà, it’s dry, clean, and fresh smelling. Like everything, having the proper tools to access this resource goes a very long way in making sure it’s effective and easy to do. Some of this depends on your climate and your own personal habits. We realize some parts of the country have very little sun in the winter, but if you set aside a bit of room, even in a closet or a spare bedroom, clothes hung on racks will dry fairly quickly in a heated house.

Just for the record, I am not an eco-psycho. I am a recent convert to the drying rack, and I choose to keep it covered in wet clothes, by a breezy window facing the sun. Actually, to be honest, I was sort of forced to shun the electric dryer—my boyfriend won’t let me turn the damn thing on. He’s a better man than I, with weightier morals. So yesterday while he was out of town, I cheated. I gathered together a bundle of cut-offs, sweatpants, and dirty socks and thought, Oh yes. Now’s my time. I’m gonna get my clothes real warm and dry. But as I began to open our dryer (which I’m about to get rid of), I caught sight of the indoor drying rack, waiting in the sun. I remembered the last batch of laundry, and how it smelled like clean grass. I thought of my electric bill. About my rapidly depleting checking account. The choice, in the end, is actually pretty obvious, and after a couple times using solar drying techniques (clotheslines included), my lazy reflex wore off. I now see it as meditating and investing in my solvent future. Out it goes!

Here are some tips on solar drying from the Hrens. Try these at home!

  • Retractable clothesline: An excellent tool for the space-constrained. These come in a variety of lengths and are very simple to install indoors or out. Consider putting these inside near a passive solar wall. The sun will dry the clothes and raise the humidity of the room in wintertime, making it more comfortable inside.
  • Indoor drying rack: Avoid the cheaper models, as they can fall apart rather quickly. These are generally collapsible and can stand alone or be wall-mounted. I recommend having at least two. Being able to place these in sun or near a woodstove will greatly speed up drying time in the winter.
  • Outdoor drying rack: If you’ve got the room outdoors, a permanent outdoor rack is a very effective method for drying clothes, even when the temperatures barely get above freezing. It requires some time to mount properly, but it should function well for decades.
  • Clothespins: These are a necessity and come in two varieties: split or spring. Determine your preference and make sure you have plenty. Hanging clothes from pins rather than folding them over the line greatly speeds drying time and greatly reduces the odds that any clothing will fall off and get dirty. Folding clothes generally means two sides of the clothing are not exposed to the air at all. This more than doubles drying times.

Conservative Group Begins Swiftboat Campaign to Sink Healthcare Reform

Saturday, May 30th, 2009

The Swiftboating of healthcare reform has officially begun. Or rather, it will have officially begun with the airing of a 30-minute dis-infomercial compiling patients’ “horror stories,” funded by disgraced former hospital CEO Rick Scott.

This Sunday, the front group Conservatives for Patients’ Rights will be airing a 30-minute documentary with “horror stories” aimed at chipping away public support for reforming our health care system. Ironically, the leader and financier of the organization, private health care executive Rick Scott, is actually credited with transforming the American health care system into the profit above-all-else culture that is currently plaguing America.

Rick Scott is not only known for his efforts to build the “McDonald’s” of the health care industry, but his company was also forced to pay a $1.7 billion fraud settlement, the largest health care fraud settlement in U.S. history, for systematically stealing from taxpayers.

The ThinkProgress report, titled “Who Is Rick Scott?”, is below.

Don’t Loaf Around This Weekend…Make Your Own Bread!

Saturday, May 30th, 2009

When I was a kid, they called me Yeasty Baby, because I loved bread. Now they call me Masonry Momma, because I learned how to make it myself, in one weekend flat.

There are still millions of people in the world who haven’t gone gluten-free. Bread, besides being the body of Christ and whatnot, is still the staple food in the average diet, and probably always will be. But it’s expensive to buy the good loaves, and most affordable store-bought varieties are high in processed sugar and bleach. So it’s worth it—both economically and yummily—to learn how to make your own, and it’s not hard.

Dan Wing and Alan Scott are experts in baking bread and building masonry ovens. Wing, for example, travels around in a gypsy bread wagon of his own construction, baking bread at parties. They’re brilliant, and their advice will give you the skills to bake the perfect loaf of bread—down to a science. If you already know how to make bread, perhaps you need a new oven? They’ll show you how to do that, too.

Below is an excerpt from The Bread Builders: Hearth Loaves and Masonry Ovens by Daniel Wing and Alan Scott.

 

I have baked bread for thirty years. Not professionally, but regularly: I made a lot of bread in all those years. Most of the bread I baked was not as good as the best bread I have ever eaten, though. It was better than any bread I could buy, but only because few bakeries in this country were making bread that was better, none of them were nearby, and bread is perishable.

Don’t get me wrong: I had fun baking, and everyone liked my bread. But when my bread was only okay I could still see and taste in my mind the bread I wanted to bake—a hearth loaf with an open crumb and a resilient crust, full of flavor. Bread that would stay fresh for days without added sugar, milk, or fat. For years I just couldn’t seem to make bread like that. Now I do, almost every time I bake. My success surprises me a little, even though I know it is my own bread coming out of my own oven, and of course I know exactly what I did to make it. Each time I open the oven door and I see and smell the loaves, my heart jumps and swells a little.

Learning to bake that way didn’t come without a lot of flailing around, because I was walking in the dark at first. The steps I eventually took to learn to make the kind of bread I like are ones that you can take more easily with the help of this book. Although a first-time baker will get plenty from this book, he or she may not realize the value of the information I have collected. People who have baked before—but never really understood what they were doing—are going to get the most out of it. That is especially true for people who want to make wonderful rustic loaves, and haven’t been able to.

To do that, you must first learn to ferment your dough naturally (using what most Americans call a sourdough starter) and you have to understand fermentation well enough so you control it, not the other way around. That is how you make a full-flavored loaf that honors the remarkable grain it’s made from, that delights the eye, and holds whatever degree of sourness you seek—a little or a lot. In this book you will learn how and why rye flour, or whole wheat flour, or machine kneading, or a hot day, or many other factors will change the dough you make and the bread you bake. Controlling natural fermentation is the first big step on the path to creating great bread.

The second big step is to bake your bread in hot masonry. The reasons for this will become clear as you read the book, but take it as a given for now. “Hot masonry” means you can bake many loaves at a time in a masonry oven or you can bake one loaf at a time in a ceramic cloche in a conventional oven. (Bread from a cloche is not actually the same as bread from a masonry oven, but is so close that you almost need the two loaves in front of you to tell the difference.) Only by baking in masonry can the home or small commercial baker get a loaf that looks, chews, and tastes right. That is true even if the dough is perfectly made before it is baked.

If the secrets of good bread baking are so simple (fermentation, hearth baking), why do so many people have trouble making good bread? There are four reasons for our failures: The first is that most of us have tried to learn the process from books, and there haven’t been books in English that adequately explained fermentation or discussed masonry ovens. The second reason is simple confusion— the best described sourdough baking technique in this country (using a sour starter to react with baking soda to raise flapjacks and quick breads) is not similar to the process for making good “European” naturally leavened bread. Americans tend to maintain sourdough starters in a way that does not produce consistent results when baking bread, but would be fine for pancakes. The third reason is that for more than seventy-five years bakers have been taught to equate successful baking with fast baking—witness the profusion of instant yeast brands—while the opposite is true. The impetus for speeding up the process of making bread was first reflected in advertising that yeast companies directed to commercial bakeries (the familiar “time equals money” equation). Faster baking was then presented as a lifestyle improvement to home bakers who did not realize what speeding up baking would do to their bread. Although the amount of time spent mixing, kneading, slashing, and baking is only marginally longer for good bread than poor bread, the number of hours over which the steps occur is much longer for good bread, regardless of whether the dough is raised with small doses of commercial yeast or from a natural leaven. The fourth reason? The ovens—most people are trying to bake hearth breads in kitchen ovens.

You can gauge the extent of the confusion about natural fermentation by reading the questions posted to Internet Usenet newsgroups such as rec.food.sourdough and rec.food.baking. Many of the people who post questions to these groups are experienced (often professional) bakers who encounter difficulty changing from speed-baking with store-bought yeast to baking with a natural leaven. These otherwise able people don’t understand the principles of natural fermentation because those principles have not been laid out—the lessons of research in cereal chemistry, dough microbiology, and so forth have not been explored to any extent in popular books on baking, while specialized seminars and videos about sourdough are expensive, costing hundreds of dollars. Baking books give elaborate and intimidating descriptions of how to start and maintain a leaven when it would be more enlightening to describe in detail what is happening in the sourdough process and to consider the properties of sourdough ingredients—water, flour, salt, wild yeast, and bacteria. Methods and rules are not as useful as understanding. A baker who understands the process is liberated— free to create new recipes and to manipulate the determinants of bread quality in pursuit of his or her perfect loaf. This book is short on recipes (on purpose, as there are many excellent sources of recipes) but long on the background information you need to make the kind of bread you want, either by adapting an existing recipe you like, or making up a new one.

“Fermentation.” “Cereal chemistry.” “Nutrition.” All of this sounds intimidating to the non-scientist. To be truthful, it is even intimidating to a scientist—but you don’t need to be a scientist to understand it. You just have to want to learn. Since I knew little of the “science” of fermentation or cereal grains when I set out, the information I found was new to me, and I hope that it seems fresh as I relay it to you. Although most of it has been published somewhere, no source I could find includes it all, or digests it for consumption by the committed layperson. I hope that the “bread” half of this book will teach you the characteristics of sourdough hearth bread and the factors (that you can control) that determine those characteristics.

The other half of this book is about building and using masonry ovens. Simple retained-heat ovens (in which a fire is built in the same chamber where the bread will be baked after the fire is removed) are what I actually started out to write about. Masonry ovens have great historical appeal because they are the way bread was baked for millennia, but they are being built now out of more than a purely historical interest. They are built for the unique way they bake: masonry ovens “shock” dough with a massive transfer of heat when the bread is first put in, and they preserve the dough’s moisture when the crust is first forming and the loaf is expanding.

In New Book, Howard Dean Takes On Opponents of Healthcare Reform

Friday, May 29th, 2009

The opponents of healthcare reform are already lining up, swiftboating, backing off on their promises, and mounting a heavily-funded and totally dishonest campaign to kill any chance of a public option. They’ve got Rick Scott. They’ve got the insurance companies. They’ve got their Limbaughs and their Becks and their Hannitys.

But we’re not going to meekly back down and accept some watered-down legislation favoring the insurance giants and pharmaceutical companies. We’ve got a grassroots movement with massive support. We’ve got a Democratic majority (as long as they’re willing to show some backbone). And we’ve got Howard Dean, armed with his eponymous new book, Howard Dean’s Prescription for Real Healthcare Reform: How We Can Achieve Affordable Medical Care for Every American and Make Our Jobs Safer.

I can honestly say, without a moment’s hesitation, I am very excited about this book. Because:

  • a. I like Howard Dean, and
  • b. I want to see real healthcare reform

I can’t wait for this book to drop, and I can’t wait to read it.

From the press release:

Burlington, VT. (May 29, 2009) — Former Vermont Governor, physician and DNC Chairman Howard Dean brings his unique, no-nonsense perspective to the healthcare debate in a new book that explains both the obstacles to reform and what it will take to achieve real healthcare reform. HOWARD DEAN’S PRESCRIPTION FOR REAL HEALTHCARE REFORM: How We Can Achieve Affordable Medical Care for Every American and Make Our Jobs Safer (www.deanshealthcare.com) will be released as an e-book in all formats the week of June 8, 2009, then released as a printed paperback on July 1, 2009. It will also be released as an iPhone application available for download in the iTunes App Store. In addition to being able to navigate and search the entire book, this interactive book application will allow readers to quickly and easily take action and get involved in the fight for healthcare reform. The official publication date is July 20, 2009.

In a riveting call to action Dean takes on those who are once again mobilizing against real reform with many of the same hollow arguments and rhetorical charges about a socialist agenda. As Dean points out in his book, they should check the facts. “America has had ‘socialized’ medicine since 1964. It’s called Medicare; it covers every American over 65, and they are very happy with the program. The rest of America deserves a similar option.”

Dean argues that for real reform to happen, Americans must have the choice to either keep their existing coverage if they are happy with it, or have the option to select a public plan; and that America must continue to make key investments as President Obama has begun to make in healthcare information technology to reduce costs and improve the quality of care.

Dean also looks at the devastating impact has had on the American economy adding to job losses as rising healthcare costs cause a bankruptcy in America every 30 seconds, 14,000 people lose their health insurance every day. Rising healthcare costs are also one of the major reasons why small businesses close down and corporations ship jobs overseas.

This new paperback original (and e-book) outlines a practical, pragmatic approach as proposed by President Obama during the 2008 Presidential campaign, and the arguments the opposition will use to prevent a system that includes the 48 million Americans who are forced to live without health insurance:

*Give every American the choice of public or private healthcare insurance
*Public health coverage for life, no matter where you live or work
*No forced moves if the consumer is happy with current coverage
*Small business assistance from the government for employee plans
*No American is disqualified for an existing health condition
*Similar premium costs for everyone, despite age or illness
*Fewer dollars spent on management and more on medicine

“This is the moment when real reform is finally possible. Governor Dean has been a passionate advocate for reform for a long time and, as a physician, has a unique perspective of what is needed and what will actually work. Anyone who wants to better understand the debate and how to fight back should read this book. Chelsea Green is honored to publish this important book that will no doubt influence the national debate about healthcare reform,” said Chelsea Green Publisher Margo Baldwin.

Howard Dean, former DNC Chairman, presidential candidate, six term Governor and physician, currently works as an Independent consultant focusing on the areas of healthcare, early childhood development, alternative energy and the expansion of grassroots politics around the world. Dean was recently named Chairman of the Board of the Progressive Book Club, which works to empower progressives to develop, debate and promote progressive ideas through books and is also working with Democracy for America to mobilize the grassroots in support of healthcare reform.

And don’t forget to check out Dr. Dean’s new website, DeansHealthCare.com.

The Casino Class

Friday, May 29th, 2009

The Masters of the Universe on Wall Street treated the American economy like their own personal casino. And when they lost it all, they leaned on the American people like a gambling addict leaning on his soft-hearted kid brother—because face it, Johnny, “if the Mob breaks my fingers it’ll bust our poor old Ma’s heart.” (In this analogy, “Ma” represents the economic stability of the entire planet.)

If you want an overview of the financial crisis explained in everyday language the average person can understand, and served up with a healthy portion of humor—if you want some solutions to how we can get out of the mess the Wizards of Wall Street got us into—KCLabor.org urges you to check out Les Leopold‘s new book, The Looting of America: How Wall Street’s Game of Fantasy Finance Destroyed Our Jobs, Pensions, and Prosperity—and What We Can Do About It.

From their review:

If you want to know why it was necessary to give over a trillion dollars to big banks and insurance companies over the last year Les Leopold’s new book is for you. Carrying on the tradition of the Labor Institute he helped found and now directs, Leopold manages to explain the most complex shenanigans of finance capital in language the average worker can understand. To keep us going off the deep end in to despair he sheathes the sharpest edges with some humor. He even closes with some suggestions of what to do.

The reader finds out about derivatives; collateralized debt obligations, including their squared and cubed variations; credit default swaps; and, most inventive of all, synthetic collateralized debt obligations. You’ll also be equipped to impress the counterman on your next trip to the deli by instructing him to tranche your corned beef thin and extra lean. If, like me, you at first find yourself having trouble keeping these byzantine terms straight you can bookmark a handy glossary included by the author in the back.

It wasn’t intended that even mere stock brokers or politicians, much less workers, would ever understand this strange new lexicon, with its underlying definitions of finance. The author quotes former Senator Phil Gramm (of Gramm-Rudman fame) “politicians don’t know a credit default swap from a turnip.” This is the brave new world of “fantasy finance,” exceedingly complicated, not possible before powerful computers started appearing on bank desktops.

But once those PCs arrived, and the old firewall between investment and savings banks was scrapped, thousands of creative hustlers at banks big and small started designing new custom-made over-the-counter securities for customers eager to get more bang for their buck. Leopold explains how early perceived successes in this completely unregulated arena ultimately led to their handling of trillions of dollars–mostly other people’s dollars–like they were playing Fantasy Baseball.

There were a few sticks-in-the-mud who warned early on, even fifteen years ago, the potential for disaster and urged regulation. They were dressed down not only by Greenspan and Bernanke but Obama’s financial gurus as well–Volcker, Rubin, Summers, Geithner. All are free marketeers who likely review a few pages from Milton Friedman before going to bed every night.

If the gambling casinos had been risk takers on a par with the financial casino Las Vegas and Atlantic City would have become ghost towns long ago. With no one–not even the vaunted credit risk evaluators such as Moody’s and Standard & Poors–telling the bankers about their evolving nudity they lost their shirts and got caught with their pants down when the housing bubble burst. Their delicately layered tranches–“insured” by those turnip-like credit default swaps– forced them to coin yet a new term–toxic asset. The U.S. meltdown also had ramifications throughout the world, even bringing down the government of Iceland.

Read the whole article here.

 

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Report: Climate change crisis ‘catastrophic’

Friday, May 29th, 2009

CNN reports the Global Humanitarian Forum, led by former U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, has released the first comprehensive report into the human cost of climate change. A 0.74° Celsius rise in world temperatures has had devastating, heartbreaking effects. A 2° rise, which now seems inevitable, will cause unthinkable misery.

Primarily—and disproportionately—affected are those living in developing countries. These hundreds of thousands of deaths aren’t occurring simply because of climate change’s most obvious effects, like flooding, but mostly due to climate-related malnutrition, diarrhea, and malaria. And as people flee impacted areas, they’re putting pressure on the areas they’re migrating to. It’s becoming, according to the report, not only a humanitarian crisis, but a global security issue. Hopefully, the report will influence the upcoming United Nations Climate Conference in Copenhagen, whose stated goal is “to forge a post-Kyoto climate agreement for 2012 and beyond.”

LONDON, England (CNN) — The first comprehensive report into the human cost of climate change warns the world is in the throes of a “silent crisis” that is killing 300,000 people each year.

More than 300 million people are already seriously affected by the gradual warming of the earth and that number is set to double by 2030, the report from the Global Humanitarian Forum warns.

“For the first time we are trying to get the world’s attention to the fact that climate change is not something waiting to happen. It is impacting seriously the lives of many people around the world,” the forum’s president, former U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, told CNN.

Speaking to CNN’s Becky Anderson in London on Friday, Annan said the migration of people from newly uninhabitable areas presents a security issue that needs to be addressed by the United Nations Security Council.

“This is one of the reasons why I’ve described climate change as all encompassing,” he told CNN. “This threat to our health, this threat to food production, this threat to security. It raises political tensions, it will have people on the move — and they are on the move — and many more which will bring tensions.”

The report, titled “Human Impact Report: Climate Change — The Anatomy of a Silent Crisis” comes just six months before the United Nations Climate Conference in Copenhagen to forge a post-Kyoto climate agreement for 2012 and beyond.

Annan called on Member States to reach a “global, effective, fair and binding” outcome on climate change, as the report warned that the talks could “well be the last chance for avoiding global catastrophe.”

[...]

Of the 300,000 lives being lost each year due to climate change, the report finds nine out of 10 are related to “gradual environmental degradation,” and that deaths caused by climate-related malnutrition, diarrhea and malaria outnumber direct fatalities from weather-related disasters.

The vast majority of deaths — 99 percent — are in developing countries which are estimated to have contributed less than one percent of the world’s total carbon emissions.

Read the whole article here.

 

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Applying Permaculture to the Home Garden: Toby Hemenway on Writer’s Voice

Friday, May 29th, 2009

Francesca Rheannon of Writer’s Voice talks to Toby Hemenway, author of the new classic Gaia’s Garden: A Guide to Home-Scale Permaculture, in the first part of this podcast on Sustainable Gardening.

When you think about natural, sustainable gardening, says Toby, “organic” is really just the starting point. What a permaculture gardener is really trying to achieve is to mimic the processes that go on in nature. Say you walk into a forest: everything looks fine. You go back in three months later: things are pretty much the same. With minimal, if any, human inputs, nature takes care of itself. How can we apply this to our own backyard gardens? That’s the question Toby Hemenway tries to answer in his never-ending quest to dispense permaculture across the land, like Caine dispensing justice on “Kung Fu.”

Listen Now

Soaring Healthcare Costs in Small Texas Town Illustrate Need for Massive Reform

Thursday, May 28th, 2009

Healthcare reform means not only health insurance for every American (although it certainly means that), and it doesn’t only mean providing a single-payer, public option (although it absolutely means that)—it also means getting the soaring costs of American healthcare under control.

Health care in the U.S. is the most expensive in the world. Are we the healthiest people in the world, then? I can almost hear your derisive snort of laughter. No, of course we’re not.

This adds up to precisely one inescapable conclusion: something is really wrong here.

In McAllen, Texas—a small town with the distinction of being one of the most expensive healthcare markets in the world—Atul Gawande tries to figure out what that is.

From The New Yorker (h/t to Daily Kos):

It is spring in McAllen, Texas. The morning sun is warm. The streets are lined with palm trees and pickup trucks. McAllen is in Hidalgo County, which has the lowest household income in the country, but it’s a border town, and a thriving foreign-trade zone has kept the unemployment rate below ten per cent. McAllen calls itself the Square Dance Capital of the World. “Lonesome Dove” was set around here.

McAllen has another distinction, too: it is one of the most expensive health-care markets in the country. Only Miami—which has much higher labor and living costs—spends more per person on health care. In 2006, Medicare spent fifteen thousand dollars per enrollee here, almost twice the national average. The income per capita is twelve thousand dollars. In other words, Medicare spends three thousand dollars more per person here than the average person earns.

The explosive trend in American medical costs seems to have occurred here in an especially intense form. Our country’s health care is by far the most expensive in the world. In Washington, the aim of health-care reform is not just to extend medical coverage to everybody but also to bring costs under control. Spending on doctors, hospitals, drugs, and the like now consumes more than one of every six dollars we earn. The financial burden has damaged the global competitiveness of American businesses and bankrupted millions of families, even those with insurance. It’s also devouring our government. “The greatest threat to America’s fiscal health is not Social Security,” President Barack Obama said in a March speech at the White House. “It’s not the investments that we’ve made to rescue our economy during this crisis. By a wide margin, the biggest threat to our nation’s balance sheet is the skyrocketing cost of health care. It’s not even close.”

The question we’re now frantically grappling with is how this came to be, and what can be done about it. McAllen, Texas, the most expensive town in the most expensive country for health care in the world, seemed a good place to look for some answers.

Read the whole article here.

 

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Waxman-Markey, Cap-and-Dividend, and Real Climate Solutions

Thursday, May 28th, 2009

A little over a month ago, the Washington Post ran a piece on Peter Barnes, author of Climate Solutions: A Citizens Guide and Capitalism 3.0, that we somehow missed. But it was a good one, in light of the Waxman-Markey climate change legislation before Congress.

Now that the bill’s been weakened to the point where something like 85% of pollution permits will be given away free to historic polluters (as Chelsea Green EIC Joni Praded said, “no dividends from giveaways!”), this is a good time to put pressure on lawmakers to pass real Cap-and-Dividend legislation.

From the Washington Post:

For several years, Peter Barnes has been peddling a Big Idea about how to design climate change legislation so that it might actually be popular. Now he might finally get his day in the sun.

The idea is simple: Make companies pay for greenhouse gas emissions by auctioning off allowances — then send Americans equal checks for their share of the amount collected. He calls it “cap and dividend,” and it resembles the plan Alaska uses for sharing oil royalties with residents by sending them annual checks.

An indication that Barnes’s idea could become popular came last Wednesday: A version of it was introduced as legislation by Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.), co-chairman of the Renewable Energy and Energy Efficiency Caucus.

This year promises a vigorous debate on the climate issue. President Obama has vowed to push for climate change legislation that would establish a ceiling on greenhouse gas emissions and allow companies to trade allowances, a combination of regulation and market mechanism that could force Americans to pay extra for anything made with carbon, from electricity to gasoline to plastics. That’s a potentially complicated and unpopular plan; its foes are already raising cries of “tax” to frighten voters and lawmakers at a time of economic distress.

Enter Barnes. He’s an unlikely player in Washington. A Harvard graduate, he began his career as a journalist and wrote books with titles like “Pawns: The Plight of the Citizen Soldier” and “The People’s Land.” But then, he later wrote, he realized that “the market is mightier than the pen” and if he wanted to make the world “a little fairer,” he should go into business. With a few friends, he started a solar energy company in San Francisco in 1976. After President Reagan eliminated tax breaks for solar power, the firm closed its doors.

In the mid-1980s, he co-founded Working Assets as a socially responsible money management firm. Its first ad displayed an ominous photo of a nuclear power cooling tower with the words: “It’s 11 p.m. Do you know where your money is?” Later the company moved into credit card and telephone service businesses. Every time a customer used the card, Working Assets donated 1 percent — a portion of the merchant’s service charges — to good causes. Working Assets was soon making and giving away millions of dollars.

After retiring with a comfortable fortune, Barnes turned his attention to the problems of capitalism and climate change. In a book called “Capitalism 3.0,” he wrote about how the economic system failed to protect common resources, such as air and water, because people didn’t have to pay to pollute them.

His solution is a mix of capitalism, populism and environmentalism.

In “Who Owns the Sky?”, he said that people who pollute the air should pay into a “Sky Trust” that would belong to everyone. “The trouble is, markets have no appreciation for intrinsic value. They’re blind and dumb and stunningly mindless; they do what they’re programmed to do with ruthless aplomb. That wouldn’t matter if we could run our lives without markets. But we can’t. We need to communicate with markets because markets determine how resources are used.”

His plan would force the first sellers of fossil fuels — about a thousand companies such as coal mining firms or oil companies — to pay for carbon emissions. Those capturing and safely storing carbon dioxide emissions, something coal plants are looking at, would get credits.

Not everyone would come out whole. “Those who burn more carbon will pay more than those who burn less,” Barnes wrote. “If you drive a sports-utility vehicle, you’ll use more sky than if you ride a bus; hence you’ll pay more scarcity rent. Since your dividend is the same no matter what, you’ll come out ahead if you conserve [energy] and lose money if you don’t.”

Read the whole article here.

 

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LISTEN: Les Leopold Explains Wall Street’s House of Cards

Thursday, May 28th, 2009

What I love about Les Leopold‘s new book, The Looting of America: How Wall Street’s Game of Fantasy Finance Destroyed Our Jobs, Pensions, and Prosperity—And What We Can Do About It, is Les’s ability to take the most complex financial concepts—concepts that impact the real economy, that impact you and me—and make them perfectly lucid and understandable using a few simple metaphors—and make it interesting. That’s skill.

Les illuminates the financial crisis, shining a light on the game of high-stakes fantasy finance that led us to our current disastrous situation, and explains what we need to do to get out of it, in this interview with AfterDowningStreet’s David Swanson.

LISTEN NOW

Here’s a partial transcript, courtesy of the folks at AfterDowningStreet.org:

LL: Well, thank you very much, David. I’m very glad to be here.

DS: Thanks for being here. It is a wonderful book. It’s not too long. I greatly enjoyed it, and it explained some crazy-sounding things to me from Wall Street that I had no idea what they could possibly be. Things liked “cubed, collateralized debt obligations,” and so forth. I don’t know if we have time on this, in this interview, for you to explain all the terms to everyone. They can get it from reading The Looting of America, but use your judgment and explain what we need.

But maybe if I could I’d like to start here: There is sort of a basic rule of economics that you say you and others have been taught. That is that when productivity goes up, the workers pay goes up. Not just that it should, but that it does, as some sort of a rule. And yet that hasn’t been true for quite some time. Can you discuss what has happened?

LL: Basically from World War II to the mid-70’s if you look at the productivity index, and we should define productivity – it’s the amount of output per worker hour. And the wealth of nations is basically determined by the value of output per worker hour. The more valuable that worker hour, the greater the prosperity of the nation. So it’s what is beneath pumping up the line of gross domestic product and other things like that. And our standard of living.

The productivity index and the average hourly wage of the non-supervisory production worker (which is something that is tracked in the statistics books, the government statistics books), those two numbers went up virtually in tandem from World War II to the middle of the 1970’s, and the thinking was that as productivity goes up, corporations make more money, they then hire more workers, which drives up the price of labor, and, the real price of labor after you take into account inflation, and as the two go up together, prosperity within your country goes up. And this was one of the reasons American capitalism was such a shining example around the world. The standard of living in the post-World War II period was phenomenal for the average working person, virtually throughout the country. There were exceptions – farm workers, African-American farm workers in the south, etc., – but overall there was a wonderful increase in the standard of living.

Something very strange started to happen in the mid 1970’s that, the two got de-coupled. It was no longer, what we thought was automatic turned out not to be automatic. In fact, there were other factors involved, and productivity continued to rise and, but the average worker’s wage after inflation went flat and started to go down. And this created an enormous change in the American economy, because the gap between those two lines first was hundreds of billions of dollars and now trillions of dollars, and that money had to go somewhere. It was no longer going to the average working person. In fact, it went to the very, very top of the income ladder. And that’s the source of our current crisis. A huge amount of money going to a very few people at the top.


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