Monday, January 20, 2014

DRINKING WATER - WASTED, POLLUTED AND AT RISK by John P. Flannery

How long before the faucet dries up? (Photo by John P. Flannery)

We’ve all been taught that we are mostly made of water, how we need it to live, to drink, to clean, to grow anything we eat, to nourish the trees that produce the air we breathe, and yet our world right down to the county level where we live fails to protect this precious life resource – like we could survive without water.

300,000 men, women and children in West Virginia found that the water in their home faucets from the Elk River made them ill and smelled something like licorice.  It was the scent of 4-methylcyclohexane methanol.  A negligent coal mining company, Freedom Industries, earning 30 million dollars last year, had 13 tanks all sixty years old and one 35,000 gallon tank leaked 7,500 gallons of this chemical through cracks in the containment wall into the Elk River. Incidentally, the wastewater treatment plant’s intake pipe took in the tainted water even after it had notice of the chemical spill, and pumped it out to its customers.  Needless to say, the treatment had not removed the chemical waste.

In Virginia, on January 8, 2014, State Senator Charles W. Carrico, Sr. (R-40SD), perhaps eager to mimic West Virginia’s careless regulatory system, offered a bill, SB 217, in the General Assembly that, if it passes, shall increase the likelihood that we’ll have coal waste in our rivers polluting our drinking water.  Presently, the Director of the Virginia Department of Mines, Minerals and Energy must provide a copy of any application by the coal industry for a permit to discharge sewage, and industrial waste from coal surface mining operations to the State Water Control Board.  When that happens, the Water Board may object if the discharge impermissibly pollutes our water.  Senator Carrico seeks to strike any notice the Water Board may receive and preclude any objection they might interpose.

70% of the earth is water but only 2.5% of that water is fresh water that we can use, and less than 1% of that fresh water is liquid – meaning not frozen.

The water that we drink comes from our rivers, lakes, reservoirs and, if you have a well, from under the ground in an aquifer if there is one close enough to the surface to reach by drilling.  The water we have is limited. 

If you want to think of how that is true, then consider how, if you are on a well, you’re sticking a straw into the same pool as your neighbor and his neighbor and so on.  The more straws, the more risk there’s not enough for “you all,” not if you draw water from the aquifer faster than it can recharge; then you have to ration, or do without. 

One good local example of this is Purcellville’s public water system.  In the summer, they put up warning signs to ration water use.  Unrestrained development increases the uncertainty there’s enough water for everyone.  Recently, the Town of Purcellville annexed a new development called Autumn Hill/Mayfair of 257 single family and town homes that presumably will suck up hundreds of thousands of gallons of water a year more in a public water and waste system that already rations water. 

There’s this misunderstanding that the water above and below ground are unrelated and separate.  Some pour all manner of poison on their grass, rather than safer pest control methods, unconcerned that what we do above ground, affects our streams, and the waters that run underground in our aquifers. 

Others are unconcerned to maintain their septic systems that can discharge pathogens and present a public health hazard if not well maintained. 

Driveways, sidewalks, and pavement prevent rain water from soaking into the ground, so we have storm water runoff that picks up debris, chemicals, dirt and other pollutants that can find their way into rivers, ponds, streams.

We can put a man on the moon but we can’t keep our water clean here on earth.

Monday, January 13, 2014

SAVING FOR A “RAINY DAY?” – NOT REALLY! by John P. Flannery



Saving for a “rainy day” (Photo by John P. Flannery)

A recent poll said that 40% of our friends and neighbors have made their New Year’s resolution – to save more - in savings accounts, automatic transfers, savings bonds, and certificates of deposit.

We once did save at a decent rate.  Our national saving rate was 12.2% in November 1981.  But the rate fell like a stone starting in 1982 and went as low as less than 1% a number of times between 2000 and 2010.  Easy credit meant you didn’t have to save – so some wrongly thought.

The rate climbed back up when the 2008 recession hit, going from 1.3% in January 2008 to 4.2% in December of 2009. 

The latest report from the U.S. Department of Commerce, from the Bureau of Economic Analysis, says our current rate of savings is an anemic 4.2%.  See http://www.bea.gov/newsreleases/national/pi/pinewsrelease.htm .

The dilemma for families that want to save is that they likely owe in debt at a higher interest rate than what they can get saving their money.  From 1990 to 2008, the nation’s citizens were convinced, Benjamin Franklin’s advice to the contrary notwithstanding, that being a borrower was not so bad.  Unfortunately, if a nation’s citizens don’t save, then the nation has to borrow from other nation-states who do save.

If you haven’t checked lately, the return on a savings account is not that much more than if you just hid your money in a mattress.

Nevertheless, the best advice is to save for that rainy day – what we were taught in High School.
One economic theory on savings is to save while working to smooth consumption during retirement – that metaphorical “rainy day” that trumps almost all others.

What’s quite alarming is that a typical working age household has only $3,000 in retirement account assets.  Even a household near retirement, and that’s about 38 million people, who have no retirement account at all (no IRA, nor 401(k)), has saved only about $12,000.  The median savings for people with a retirement account is $100,000, but that larger sum won’t go that far for our graying population retiring at age 67.  The Center for Retirement Research (http://crr.bc.edu/ ) estimates that the gap in savings needed to retire and the savings in hand nationwide stands at $6.6 trillion.

Before anyone goes blaming folk for not saving, there’s a lot that can make you choose to spend and not save, an uneven ability to earn (in a changing market), worse than that, unemployment, disability, disease, the lost value of real property as an asset to leverage your resources (remember 2008 when many discovered a house does not always appreciate in value), an employer’s failure to make good on a pension retirement fund (promised and then withheld), not to mention the drive among some elected “hot shots” to cut federal and state retirement payouts (after the fact), reducing anticipated payouts in social security, as well as questionable cuts proposed for Medicare and Medicaid.

Nor is our government making saving easier.  You all know how the feds have discussed eliminating the mortgage interest deduction – as if it wasn’t enough that the bank crisis devalued the asset many relied on to “smooth” their glide path toward a secure retirement. 

The feds are now looking at cutting back on 401(k)s as a tax deduction to reduce the deficit (no thanks to the Simpson-Bowles bipartisan commission).

If retirement is the biggest and longest “rainy day” in our lives, we have to save more, but those of us in the middle class also have to protect the mortgage interest deduction, retirement accounts, federal and state retirement programs, social security, Medicare and Medicaid.

We also have to fight for our fair share in wages and salary of the profits we make possible for the so-called “job creators” who are long on excuses for making few new jobs and hording what they get in profits.

We also have to question imperial wars abroad that compromise our nation’s ability to invest and grow at home.

In the bargain we shall not only save for our own retirements, we might just save the nation.

Sunday, January 5, 2014

OUR TOXIC PUBLIC DIALOGUE by John P. Flannery

“Lethally Hilarious” – the “Wolf of Wall Street”

No one should admire the exploitation movie headlining Leonardo DiCaprio as “the Wolf of Wall Street” who holds a false fixed grin for three hours, selling us, inviting us to share the life of a greedy, sex-crazed sociopathic stockbroker, who dupes na├»ve middle class investors to buy worthless stocks so that DiCaprio’s character can live in a mansion, and have a helicopter, trophy wife, yacht, prostitutes galore, countless lines of coke, morphine, and endless quantities of Quaaludes.

One movie reviewer claimed the movie was “lethally hilarious.”

There’s nothing “hilarious” about porn, drug addiction, prostitution and marathon boiler rooms stealing from hard-working middle class “marks,” all the time glorifying the thugs in suits that laugh at their off-camera victims.  This movie is not “ordinary” movie fare; its aim is unrelenting painful excess that some mistake for the American dream. 

The lead FBI agent who pursues DiCaprio’s criminal character, is featured in one of the movie’s final scenes, a disparaging setting, riding anonymously home on the Manhattan IRT with other working “stiffs” – underscoring DiCaprio’s earlier accusation in the flick that the Agent led a sorry life riding the subway home to an ugly wife (whom DiCaprio didn’t know to describe) while DiCaprio stood high and mighty on the deck of his lily white yacht throwing greenbacks at the agent. 

When DiCaprio is arrested, he “rats” on his associates, and weasels his way out of prison in 22 months, the cost in custody of his corrupt “business,” to build his next fortune including the two books that he wrote in real life that “inspired” this “blockbuster” movie.

In this movie, there’s a Quaalude party that DiCaprio convenes at his mansion with his partner, played by Jonah Hill; they pop so many Quaaludes they nearly die. 

Terrence Winter, the film’s screen writer, says this scene is so funny, that “DiCaprio and Hill on drugs rival Laurel and Hardy.”   Talk about twisted.  Mr. Winter “spins” this dark and toxic drug fest pretending a near death drug experience is a thigh slapper in order to get us to buy a ticket to his show.

Jonah Hill admits, “I was disgusted by what I was doing!”  Among the gross acts Jonah “did” was to “pleasure himself” at a party amidst watching bystanders while he fixed his onanistic gaze on the woman who became DiCaprio’s trophy wife (after DiCaprio kicked his first wife to the curb).  DiCaprio is equally disgusting when he man-handles a flight attendant the way a disobedient Fido might. 

Martin Scorsese, the Director, admits, “People can take their identification with movies and novels to some alarming places.”  But Leonardo and Martin are not concerned whence their viewers go after the movie, whether “alarming” or not, as long as they go to the movie in the first place to justify the $90 million they spent making this flick.

Movies often lag the cultural context that movie makers believe makes their product saleable.

Martin and Leonardo appear to have read the nation accurately.

As a nation, we have become insensitive to schemers, personal affronts, invasions of the most personal privacy as our elected figures, pundits, shock jocks, among others, recklessly publish whatever comes into their head, including the most hurtful and unfounded accusations, entirely indifferent to good taste, accuracy, compassion or privacy. 

DiCaprio compared his movie to Roman Emperor Caligula’s reign.  Caligula inflicted pain and death, acted unjustly, looted the public treasury, and engaged in all manner of sexual misconduct.

DiCaprio said his movie was “a modern-day Caligula, the height of debauchery.”

Is the face of our nation truly mirrored in DiCaprio’s distasteful art - a nation at the height of debauchery?  Perhaps we fall short of the heights he claims.  But we’d do well to start by dialing back on our toxic dialogue or risk doing to our nation what Caligula did to his.
 


Thursday, November 14, 2013

REMEMBER VETS – BY DOING SOMETHING! by John P. Flannery

At the Vietnam Wall Memorial in DC

We have had another Veterans’ Day and remembered the sacrifice of the men and women who served this nation. 

But we really should be doing a lot more than simply – “remembering them.” 

We must do better and demand that our elected and appointed officials “do something.”

My late uncle, Charles Flannery, served in the armed forces led by General Patton when the Allies attacked by way of Sicily the beaches of Italy.  Charles was shot in the chest, lifted off his feet, spun around, knocked unconscious, and taken prisoner.    

Years after the war, Charles died in a hospital in the Bronx that, according to my elders, refused to give him more blood, to save him from that earlier war wound.  Ours was one family, as young as I was, that resented the nation’s unfulfilled promise to our Uncle Charles.

Our nation has been long on promises to vets when leaving our shores to serve our nation abroad, and quite uneven, often indifferent, to their needs upon their return home when broken by the war.
One clear indication of how we are currently failing our service men and women is the statistic that we are losing fewer soldiers on the battle field, than we lose to suicide. 

It has a lot to do with the fact that as high as 30 percent of our Vets from Iraq and Afghanistan, according to some studies, suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder but don’t receive the care that might erase or mitigate this wake-a-day night mare.  Others suffer traumatic brain injuries – most often concussions from one or more bomb blasts – that go untreated.

One whistleblower, Steven Coughlin, a senior epidemiologist in the Office of Public Health at VA, was directed not to disclose any findings that the asthma and bronchitis that returning Vets suffered could have been caused by the “burn pits” in Iraq and Afghanistan.  The sad beat of our government’s callous indifference is relentless.

45% of those returning from Iraq and Afghanistan have suffered compensable disability injuries.  Whatever the cost, and it is significant, we handle these claims very slowly.  The “system” is overburdened and can’t handle the load.  We are told.  So why don’t we add the staff necessary? Or, is this how we suppress the cost of paying these claims?  There are thousands and thousands of disability appeals (notices of disagreement with a VA decision), one out of five appeals, distributed throughout the eight regional offices across the nation, almost entirely ignored by VA regional offices; one regional office reportedly took 1,219 days to process an appeal from a disputed VA decision.

When they return from the theaters of war, hundreds of thousands of vets are doing time in prison or jail because of substance abuse or mental health.  Half of our vets in custody are there because of drug offences.  You may have heard that it is easy to get all manner of psychoactive drugs by prescription in the war theater, to keep our men and women fighting.  Then, they come home and they can’t get prescriptions.  So they improvise.  While the VA will authorize prescriptions for returning Vets, they refuse to do so if the Vets are in custody in prison or jail. 

Tricare, DOD’s Insurance Plan, won’t pay for addiction treatment with methadone or buprenorphine, whether you are in or out of jail or prison.  We have a society thus that prefers to criminalize a person who requires treatment, rather than treat them instead. 

We are failing to honor those who have been injured mentally as well as physically.  We should be ashamed when we praise Veterans on one day, Veterans’ Day, and the rest of the year, we fail to do what’s necessary to heal, to treat, to repair, to acknowledge by our efforts the lifetime sacrifices they made to our nation and its security.