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Desalination

[ 74 ] January 7, 2014 |

Yesterday, we discussed the serious problems the American West has with its water supply and the very real threats this portends for the region’s future. Those who truly believe technology can solve our problems sometimes turn to desalination plants as a cure. Sarah Goodyear sums up many of the reasons why these are really problematic:

First among these is cost. Desal plants are hugely expensive to build and operate. Water companies would have to pass those costs along to customers. Fluctuating demand can make this type of massive capital investment even riskier for utilities. The plants are also are energy intensive — another factor in the operating expense — and could be significant contributors to greenhouse gas emissions.

The environmental costs of desal are still only partially understood, according to a new report from the Pacific Institute. The possible negative effect on marine ecosystems has emerged as a major stumbling block to the construction of desal on the California coast.

Then there’s the disposal of the super-salty brine left over after the desalination process is complete. That liquid, produced in huge quantities — roughly one gallon for every gallon of desalinated water — is denser than normal seawater and could cause its own set of problems, particularly for desal plants located in areas without a lot of tidal flow.

All these factors, combined with the strong environmentalist constituencies in many coastal California communities and strict state regulations, mean that developing desal plants can turn into an expensive headache for water companies. In 2006 the number of proposed plants in California was 21. Now it’s down to 17, despite strong support for developing desal among many elected officials.

I am extremely skeptical of desalination as a reasonable solution for all these reasons. The impacts are likely to be massive–to the pocketbooks of customers and to the environment. Because the long-term impacts on ecosystems are poorly understood, like fracking and other energy projects that we rush into without sufficient study, desalination is likely to have unexpected consequences that will lead to difficult problems down the road. And while politicians and the public love these things in theory because they don’t see consequences, I don’t think they can either build enough of these to solve the water problems in California or that the cost of the produced water will be worth the effort.

Mapping Child Labor, 1933

[ 20 ] January 7, 2014 |

The Department of Labor provided some useful maps in 1933 of the United States’ patchwork regulations on child labor. One map.

Seems to me that Arkansas was infringing on the freedom of 8 year olds to work given that 4th grade requirement.

The Beef Monopoly

[ 84 ] January 7, 2014 |

It’s not so much that the beef monopoly is evil. We all know that. It’s that the beef monopoly is an evil subsidized directly by taxpayer dollars. That’s a problem.

I’d also argue that the beef pictured in the link was a bit overcooked.

Corporate Income Taxes

[ 81 ] January 6, 2014 |

I really don’t think Lawrence Kotlikoff’s idea to abolish all corporate income taxes is very good.

In recent decades, American workers have suffered one body blow after another: the decline in manufacturing, foreign competition, outsourcing, the Great Recession and smart machines that replace people everywhere you look. Amazon and Google are in a horse race to see how many humans they can put out of work with self-guided delivery drones and driverless cars. You wonder who will be left with incomes to buy what these robots deliver.

What can workers do to mitigate their plight? One useful step would be to lobby to eliminate the corporate income tax.

That might sound like a giveaway to the rich. It’s not. The rich, including Boeing’s stockholders, can take their companies and run — and not just from Washington State to, say, North Carolina. To avoid our federal corporate tax, they can, and often do, move their operations and jobs abroad. Apple’s tax return says it all: The company, according to one calculation, paid only 8.2 percent of its worldwide profits in United States corporate income taxes, thanks to piling up most of its profits and locating far too many of its operations overseas.

While Kotlikoff makes the not unreasonable suggestion that corporate taxes be replaced by taxes on dividends, the reality is that policy makers are going to take this, slash the corporate taxes, and not tax dividends or income. And while he might not be wrong that corporate taxes are an incentive to corporations moving around the world to maximize profit, they are doing that anyway to avoid labor standards, environmental regulations, and every social responsibility in exchange for an awesome next quarterly report.

The Rightless Workplace

[ 42 ] January 6, 2014 |

Former NLRB member Craig Becker on an extremely disturbing decision by the 5th Circuit that effectively creates what he terms a “rightless workplace.”

Unnoticed except by employment lawyers, the United States Court of Appeals in New Orleans last month issued what might be the most important workers’ rights opinions in decades. The decision permits employers to require workers, as a condition of keeping their jobs, to agree to arbitrate all workplace disputes and to do so as individuals, standing alone against their employer. The ruling could spell the end of employment class actions that were instrumental to breaching the barriers of both race and sex discrimination after the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act and remain critical to enforcement of minimum wage and other labor standards laws.

The case involved D.R. Horton, a home-builder operating in 27 states with annual revenue over $6 billion. The company required all employees to sign an agreement providing that employment disputes would be resolved by binding arbitration and that the arbitrator “may hear only Employee’s individual claims.” When one employee tried to pursue a claim that D.R. Horton had misclassified an entire category of workers as exempt from the protection of federal overtime law, the company insisted that each worker had to file his or her own claim.

The employee sought relief from the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), which held that the “agreement” to waive the right to join with co-workers in pursuing workplace claims violated federal labor law, which not only gives employees a right to form unions and engage in collective bargaining, but also to “engage in … concerted activities for the purpose of … other mutual aid or protection.” More than 30 years ago, the Supreme Court recognized that labor law protects employees when “they seek to improve their working conditions through resort to administrative and judicial forums.” After all, if employees have a right to strike together for higher wages, surely they can sue together to obtain the same result. And that is what the board held: Just as employers cannot require employees to “agree” not to join a union by signing what’s known as a “yellow dog contract,” neither can they require employees to “agree” not to file a class action.

The New Orleans Court of Appeals, by a 2-1 vote, reversed the board’s decision, concluding that employees’ longstanding labor-law right to act collectively was trumped by the Federal Arbitration Act (FAA), which was enacted in 1925 to require courts to enforce private parties’ lawful agreements to resolve disputes out of court. But the FAA does not say anything about class actions and does not require enforcement of arbitration agreements that violate another law, such as the National Labor Relations Act. The court’s holding was guided instead by recent Supreme Court decisions giving the FAA an expansive reading—for example, permitting AT&T Mobility to enforce an arbitration clause appearing in the fine print in its form contract with cell-phone users, precluding consumers from bringing a class action.

Forgive the long block quote but it’s necessary to understand what’s going on. Effectively, Republican judges are continually pushing the United States toward the New Gilded Age, where employees no longer have rights but employers have expansively defined rights that happen to coincide with Republican policy beliefs about the workplace. Think of Gilded Age courts not enforcing Sherman Antitrust Act against the corporations the legislation originally intended to regulate but instead being used to bust unions, as was the case in the late 19th and early 20th centuries for a comparison. Courts are effectively ending a long tradition of workers using the institutions for their rights through defining laws to end class action suits.

The Republican Party and its court appointees have basically deified corporations. Whether we believe corporations should be our masters are not is irrelevant, since the courts will decide the question for us.

The Republican War on Women Has Real Effects

[ 47 ] January 6, 2014 |

The Republican War on Women, Texas Edition, is having the precise effects Rick Perry and the gang hoped:

In the Rio Grande Valley, Whole Woman’s Health CEO Amy Hagstrom Miller told msnbc, doctors are struggling to care for women who have complications from self-induced abortions. Her clinic there, in McAllen, was one of two in the border region that had to stop performing abortions because of the law’s requirement that abortion providers have admitting privileges at a hospital within 30 miles.

“I can’t even get the hospital there to send us an application,” said Hagstrom Miller.

Women keep showing up anyway. All she can offer them is a gas card and bus tickets to San Antonio, four and a half hours away and at least a two-day affair, what with Texas’s forced ultrasound and waiting period requirements.

Meanwhile, on the ground in Texas, the handful of abortion providers who have been able to gain admitting privileges are scrambling to meet the demand. “The same number of women still need abortions,” said Hagstrom Miller.

Two of her employees have been working full time on the morass of paperwork and differing admitting privileges requirements at each hospital. Her Fort Worth clinic recently reopened when one doctor got privileges – but he has a full-time job elsewhere and can only come to Texas on the weekend.

“We had 100 people come the first day we reopened,” said Hagstrom Miller. “It was like New York, pre-Roe.”

The worst may be yet to come. The state only just issued specific regulations requiring that all abortions be performed in ambulatory surgical centers, authorized under the same omnibus abortion bill. According to Hagstrom Miller, of the 23 clinics with physicians who have admitting privileges, there are only six that currently have that certification, which can costs millions to achieve. An estimated 60,000 Texan women seek abortions every year.

Water in the West

[ 68 ] January 6, 2014 |

Although urban planners and environmentalists worry about these issues constantly, the blind faith by which most people involved with western development have assumed that water supplies would be found is amazing and disturbing.

“There is no planning for a continuation of the drought we’ve had,” said one expert on the Colorado’s woes, who asked not to be identified to preserve his relationship with state officials. “There’s always been within the current planning an embedded hope that somehow, things would return to something more like normal.”

Unfortunately, the Colorado during most of Lake Mead’s 78-year history was not normal at all.

Studies now show that the 20th century was one of the three wettest of the last 13 centuries in the Colorado basin. On average, the Colorado’s flow over that period was actually 15 percent lower than in the 1900s. And most experts agree that the basin will get even drier: A brace of global-warming studies concludes that rising temperatures will reduce the Colorado’s average flow after 2050 by five to 35 percent, even if rainfall remains the same — and most of those studies predict that rains will diminish.

Already, the drought is upending many of the assumptions on which water barons relied when they tamed the Colorado in the 1900s.

The growth of Las Vegas, Phoenix, Denver, and southern California all happened with the promise that technology could made paradise bloom. Agriculture wouldn’t have to suffer either–dairy and pecans in southern New Mexico and vegetables in the Imperial Valley could be satisfied by controlling water too. The implications for the long-term drought combined with continued demands upon the water supplies are immense. Not only will aquifer supplies likely be used up in a last-ditch effort to continue the lifestyle for another few years, but the Vegas lifestyle and the Phoenix golf courses are in real peril over the next few decades. Far more important than any of this is the tens of millions of people who have moved to the region. Drought is likely to be far more damaging to the regional economy of Phoenix and Vegas than the housing market collapse.

And even if you don’t live in the Southwest, you probably do eat lettuce in January. The relationship between out of season vegetables in the American diet and water technology in the Southwest is very deep.

Natural Resources

[ 25 ] January 5, 2014 |

A sweet and uplifting message from the Cold War for your Sunday morning.

The Costs of American Immigration Policy

[ 72 ] January 3, 2014 |

Perhaps the blackest mark on the Obama Administration has been the significantly harsher enforcement of American immigration law and the subsequent deportation of people, breaking up families.

Twelve-year-old Jason Penate spent the holidays hanging close by his father. They picked out a Christmas tree and decorated the front window of their Gainesville, Va., home with candy canes, and Jason tried very hard not to think about whether his father would still be here in the new year.

Jorge Penate, a Guatemalan national who came to the United States illegally in 1997, has a hearing scheduled Monday that will determine whether he can stay in the country. A drunken driving arrest two years ago launched deportation proceedings and cast his family’s future into uncertainty.

Jason wrote a letter to the immigration judge, explaining that the three days his father was detained in 2011 “were the worst days of my life” and asking not to be separated from him again. “If he does have to leave I think every day of my life is going to be the worst,” Jason wrote.

More than 1 million illegal immigrants were deported in the past three years, a record number reflecting increased enforcement efforts under the Obama administration. The crackdown has spun the lives of hundreds of thousands of U.S. citizens — including children like Jason — into upheaval.

In fiscal 2012, an estimated 150,000 U.S.-citizen children had a parent deported, according to a study by Human Impact Partners, a health advocacy group.

I know that Obama would sign a good immigration reform bill that would mitigate some of these problems and it’s not his fault that racist Republicans in the House won’t pass that bill (Boehner is talking about getting something through at least, giving me some hope. We’ll see if he’s really willing to stand up to the racists in his caucus. Color me skeptical). But it is very much Obama’s fault that he’s actually increased deportations of such threats to this nation as hard-working fathers and mothers of small children. Really unacceptable.

Garment Workers and Their States

[ 32 ] January 3, 2014 |

One of the laziest and morally bankrupt arguments people make about apparel workers and the working conditions is that they have governments and those governments need to step in if they want to improve wages. It’s up to Bangladesh to decide factory conditions in Bangladesh; American companies are just rightfully looking to maximize profit!

This of course not only lets American consumers and American apparel companies off the hook, but it also completely ignores the active complicity of those companies in backing up corrupt or dictatorial politicians that actively prefer to represent the companies over their own people. Apparel workers are demanding action from their own governments. What happens when they do? They get shot.

Military police officers fired Friday on protesters demanding higher wages for Cambodian garment workers, killing at least three people, officials said, as antigovernment protests against the decades-old rule of Prime Minister Hun Sen entered a volatile new phase.

The garment workers are demanding a doubling of their monthly wages, and they have been at the forefront of growing protests against Mr. Hun Sen’s authoritarian government. On Sunday, tens of thousands of people rallied to demand that Mr. Hun Sen step down.

This is why I keep arguing for the ability of workers to have access to an international legal regime defending their labor rights not only in their own country but in the country of corporate origin. The Cambodian workers desperate to make a decent living, like the Bangladeshi workers and like the Indonesian workers and Chinese workers and Vietnamese workers, face a government that has no interest in representing them and with a lack of meaningful democratic processes to create that change in ways that American liberals deem acceptable, i.e., the ballot box. So given that, what are they supposed to do?

Today in the Sixth Extinction

[ 16 ] January 3, 2014 |

A rundown of animals officially declared extinct in 2013 and how they reached their end.

Concern Trolling

[ 212 ] January 3, 2014 |

David Brooks is very concerned that adults might be smoking marijuana. Please make note of it. Also note that David Brooks claims to have smoked marijuana in the past. Judge for yourself whether you think that’s likely or not.

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