Our Decaying Infrastructure

It seems to me….

This is our history – from the Transcontinental Railroad to the Hoover Dam, to the dredging of our ports and building of our most historic bridges – our American ancestors prioritized growth and investment in our nation’s infrastructure.” ~ Cory Booker[1].

Drive down any highway, cross any bridge, or travel through any airport and you will see the effects of the U.S.’s underinvestment in its national infrastructure – our very foundation is in steady decline. We drive on roads with potholes and over bridges in disrepair. We wait in traffic jams and ride in overcrowded subways. Our airports are bursting at the seams. We need a modern rail system. There is concern that a levee or dam could fail in a storm. Our nation’s economic strength has suffered because spending on infrastructure, education, and basic research are considered immediate costs rather than long-term investments that will ultimately pay for themselves. Perhaps more than anything else, our nation suffers from a deficit of insight – an under-appreciation of the true scope of what is necessary to repair the major problems threatening us as a nation. Our aging infrastructure, which admittedly is only of one of our many concerns, has been permitted to decay.

Additionally, many infrastructure investments are necessitated by climate change. Rising sea levels threaten to inundate coastal areas; increased weather intensity whether from violent storms, droughts, flooding, wildland fires… require significant investment to prevent or alleviate future adverse impact.

Substantial investment in infrastructure, maintenance, and improvement is critical to the U.S. economy[2]. 79 percent of Americans agree that significant infrastructure investment is necessary to repair and modernize our nation’s crumbling infrastructure: roads, bridges, tunnels, electrical grid (renewable energy), water and sewer, railways, air transport, waterways…. About 34 million Americans lack access to basic broadband communications. Highspeed and mass transit availability and air traffic control upgrades are necessary to alleviate transportation bottlenecks.

Still, infrastructure spending is at a 20-year low. Much of our nation’s infrastructure was constructed many years ago – paid for by the current generation’s parents, grandparents, or in many cases, by their great-grandparents. While a way always seems to be found to fund new construction, maintenance of facilities, especially those underground or otherwise out of sight, is politically difficult. Full correction is estimated to cost around $1.5 trillion in today’s dollars and the longer correction is delayed, the more it will degrade and cost to repair.

While there is broad general support about the necessity for repair and upgrades, there is little agreement as to how to finance it. Our current budgetary system creates a bias against the spending necessary to support long-term growth, productivity, and competitiveness[3]. Currently, our government uses a 10-year cash-based budget that does not allow for discounting future revenues or spending in that window.   Congress’s current approach accounts the entire cost of capital investment when the money is spent – the real economic benefits are not counted. This system creates a budgetary bias against crucial spending.

The list of what is needed is lengthy. While incomplete, briefly:

  • Highways: A third are considered to be in poor or mediocre condition – especially those in and around cities.
  • Bridges: There are over 614,000 bridges in the U.S. and about 9 percent are in need of significant maintenance or replacement. 75 percent are over 50 years old and not designed for today’s traffic loads.
  • Airports: The current air traffic control system is dependent upon 1960 technology. Anyone who has recently flown will testify to the obsolescence of U.S. airports relative to those in other countries.
  • Rail: Insufficient capacity for either passenger or freight traffic. Many areas are either no longer or are very poorly served. Passenger support, especially in urban areas, is in need of expansion and modernization.
    Rail transport, whether freight or passenger, has provided a major segment of our transportation needs reaching back prior to when Abraham Lincoln authorized the first transcontinental railroad. Now funding is necessary to not only expand but to alleviate major bottlenecks on systems designed to accommodate only a fraction of the traffic now handled. One quarter of all U.S. rail traffic, about 1,300 trains every day, funnels through a single point in Chicago. All commuter rail lines on the Boston-Washington corridor pass through two rail tunnels under the Hudson River between New York and New Jersey. The U.S. has over 140,000 miles of dedicated freight railways that annually carry about 40 tons of items per person.
    Anyone who has traveled by passenger rail will attest to the neglected second-rate conditions – especially if they have traveled throughout much of the rest of the world.
  • Water Ways: The U.S. has over 25,000 miles of inland waterways and usually are the most overlooked aspect of our vital infrastructure carrying grain, coal, steel, etc. They carry 14 percent of all domestic freight. Most are aging and in need of repair. The worst bottleneck is in southern Illinois where the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers merge and the Cumberland and Tennessee Rivers splinter off.
  • Electrical Grid: In need of extensive upgrades and repair. It also is considered vulnerable to physical and cyber-attack. Over 4,000 disruptions were recorded in the U.S. in 2016 affecting 17.9 million people at a cost of $150 billion. Weather-related disruptions constitute the greatest threat to electrical grid reliability; one out of three outages were caused by trees.
    Power grid improvements incorporating intelligence would help prevent disruptions or quicken restoration following any problems but also increase vulnerability to cyberattack. An organized attack against the power grid has the potential of requiring several weeks to recover at a cost of up to $1 trillion.
  • Communications: The majority of users have only a single provider available in their area. Internet upload/download data rates are slower than in many other countries even though the Internet was developed here in the U.S. The typical fixed broadband average download speed in the U.S. was greater than 50 Megabits/second (Mbps) during the first six months of 2016 topping out at 54.97 Mbps in June. The average download speed of fixed broadband connections worldwide is 23 Mbps.
    About one quarter of Americans, less than half of households with an annual income of less than $20,000, do not currently have access to broadband communications, 25 Mbps download speeds, denying them access to opportunity, education, and prospects.
  • Levees: About a third are considered to be in unacceptable condition.
  • Water: whether for personal use, wastewater collection and treatment, or commerce constitutes a largely-ignored problem. Potable water systems in many large cities are over 100 years old, contain pollutants including unacceptable levels of lead and other toxins, and suffer frequent watermain breaks. Public water systems need substantial replacement of pipes, treatment facilities, storage tanks, and other assets. Sewer collection systems and treatment plants encounter leakage or flooding. Over 100 cities are under federal or state mandates to upgrade their water systems but lack funding to do so.
  • Solid Waste Disposal: much still goes into landfills despite recycling gains.

Rather than attempting to solve one isolated type of problem, all infrastructure problems should be considered collectively. E.g., rather than adding additional lanes to an already multilane freeway, add rail transport in the center divider along with a readily-accessible buried services vault sufficient to accommodate all anticipated utility needs.

Concern about American economic competitiveness requires substantial infrastructure investment for highways, roads, bridges, water, wastewater and solid waste facilities, the energy grid, and schools and other public buildings. Infrastructure provides the critical underpinning for the U.S.’s local and regional economies.

First class infrastructure increasingly is defined as sustainable infrastructure. Upgrading of the electricity grid and greater use of energy efficiency strategies by utilities, businesses, and households will control long-run costs and reduce our carbon footprint. Green strategies, including the use of environmentally sound storm-water management techniques and advanced recycled materials, are also being incorporated into the improvement of roads, waterways, and flood barriers to enhance project performance and reliability at reduced cost relative to conventional approaches. Life cycle planning, to ensure cost-effective construction and maintenance over a project’s useful life, is now entrenched in infrastructure best practices.

There is much that needs to be done. The longer it is postponed, the higher the cost of repair.

That’s what I think, what about you?

[1] Cory Anthony Booker is an American politician and the junior U.S. Senator from New Jersey.

[2] Barone, Emily. Rebuilding Our Foundations, Time, 24 October 2016, pp46-47.

[3] Ludwig, Eugene. How America, Can Get Out Of Its Economic Swamp, Time, http://time.com/4515251/america-budget/, 3 October 2016.

Posted in Air, airports, Bridges, Climate Change, Communications, Congress, Dams, Drought, Economy, Education, Energy, Environment, Fires, Floods, Highways, highways, Infrastructure, Infrastructure, Infrastructure, Investment, Investment, Levees, Power, Power, Railroads, Roads, Roads, Sewers, Storms, Subways, telecommunications, Traffic, Train, Trains, Transportation, Travel, Tunnels, Utilities, Utilities, Vehicle, Water, Water Systems, weather | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Agriculture Not What It Used To Be

It seems to me….

Conventional agriculture has never succeeded in feeding the world, and it’s never produced anything good to eat. For the future, we need to look toward alternatives.” ~ Dan Barber[1].

The future of agriculture, specifically traditional farming, is definitely not what small independent farmers who belong to organizations such as Future Farmers of America want to promote. There’s growing consensus that our current food production paradigm is unsustainable. The U.N. estimates that by 2050 it will necessary to sustainably produce 70 percent more food by calories than today just to keep up with global population growth and increasing economic preferences.

This is a complicated problem as there will be less land available for farming due to urban encroachment into prime agricultural areas. Farmers are also aging globally as younger generations migrate to cities primarily resulting from a productivity boom over the last century that has kept food prices low making farming less economically attractive.

While the reasons still remain somewhat unclear, global agricultural productivity growth is slowing for the first time in decades. This most likely is a systemic problem related to the rise of monocultures and the overuse of fertilizers that have added harmful salts to soils. New genetically modified crops will result in an overall continuation of productivity increases but there are questions related to their general acceptability.

Many of the major changes are technology related. An increased use of robotics[2] will be necessary and both governments and tech industries are pushing robotics development to take over from humans as rising concerns in various locations such as Japan that an aging population will soon result in a potentially crippling labor shortage.

Another major change will be development of inner-city farms in both warehouses and on rooftops[3]. Indoor cultivation enabling all-year crop growth will be necessary as world population increases and arable land does not.

The basic concept of hydroponics was originally developed around 1940 by William Frederick Gericke, a professor at the University of California Berkeley. Though much anticipated as a method to substantially increase agricultural production, it failed to change the way food was grown and was primarily adopted by pot farmers even though it resulted in yields that surpassed conventionally grown crops at the time.

Not only are those farms cultivating produce, some are also raising fish and other seafood. It is generally anticipated that as availability of edible marine sea food declines, not only will fish farms raise ocean-captured fish in coastal nets called net pens but a substantial quantity could also be raised in indoor marine aquaculture systems.

Demand for fresh, locally grown food has increased among urban consumers and warehouses using advanced hydroponic and aquaponic methods have stepped in to compete with conventional farms. These farms have some advantages over conventional farms: they are able to grow 200 percent more food per square foot than traditional agriculture without use of chemical fertilizers. Vertical farms on-average also use 98 percent less water and 70 percent less fertilizer than outdoor farms. Weather fluctuations are not a factor and neither is soil management. They can harvest crops up to 20 times a year and with their stack-it-high layout, occupy a fraction of the land required by traditional agriculture.

As other factors such as climate change and prime arable area reductions negatively affect rural farmland, vertical farming is able to make efficient use of urban spaces by occupying previously neglected warehouses, underutilized rooftops, and other vacant areas.

Problems still remain before urban farms can totally compete with traditional ones: high upfront costs, environmental control, technology dependence, and high energy costs are only some of the major ones. Without sunlight, plants require intense lighting for 16 to 18 hours a day. Improvements to indoor farming technology, including cheaper, more efficient lights, as well as monitoring equipment that measures and adjusts growing conditions, have brought down costs in the past few years and further innovations are under development.

While urban agriculture will never be able to totally replace rural agriculture, without major changes there will not be enough countryside to grow all the food required to keep everyone fed, growing lettuce away from urban centers still remains more environmentally friendly. Today, for-profit urban food companies that want to make their product affordable must structure their business plans to accommodate the extra costs that come with subsidizing a product.

Perhaps somewhat ironically, the first major use of this technology might not be on Earth. NASA has contracted to create a hydroponic bioregenerative life support system for astronauts on extended missions to the moon or Mars. Various companies are attempting to perfect closed-loop systems where plants consume an astronaut’s carbon dioxide and body wastes and the plants in turn provide the astronauts with oxygen, fresh water, and food.

Regardless of how we think of traditional agriculture, the next generation of U.S. farmers will most likely be of a new breed. For now, peri-urban (urban adjacent) greenhouse operations are able to produce higher crop yields, have more productive potential, and also avoid the significant environmental and monetary costs that indoor farmers are forced to incur. Still, the future of farming will undoubtedly be substantially different than today.

That’s what I think, what about you?

[1] Dan Barber is a chef and co-owner of Blue Hill in Manhattan and Blue Hill at Stone Barns in Pocantico Hills, New York.

[2] Nichols, Greg. Japan Announces First Farm Run By Robots, ZDNet, http://www.zdnet.com/article/japan-announces-first-farm-run-by-robots/?tag=nl.e539&s_cid=e539&ttag=e539&ftag=TRE17cfd61, 25 February 2016.

[3] Wells, Jeff. Indoor Farming: Future Takes Root In Abandoned Buildings, Warehouses, Empty Lots & High Rises, International Business Times, http://www.ibtimes.com/indoor-farming-future-takes-root-abandoned-buildings-warehouses-empty-lots-high-rises-1653412, 9 August 2014.

Posted in Agriculture, Agriculture, Agriculture, Aquaculture, Aquaponic, Astronaut, Berkeley, Bioregeneration, Carbon Dioxide, Crops, Environment, Farm Land, Farming, Farms, Fertilizer, Food, Food, Future Farmers of America, Genetic Engineering, GMOs, Hydroponics, Japan, Life Support, Mars, Monoculture, NASA, Robotics, Space, Sunlight, Water, Weather | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Solar Power Development

It seems to me….

Solar power is going to be absolutely essential to meeting growing energy demands while staving off climate change.” ~ Ramez Naam[1].

The U.S., as well as much of the entire world, is undergoing a sustainable-energy revolution where renewable sources such as wind and solar have become increasingly cost effective. Since 2008, the price of solar panels has dropped almost 80 percent and solar energy may soon be the world’s largest source of renewable energy.

China has led the world in manufacturing and exporting ever-cheaper solar panels for the past three years. During that same time, its domestic market increased to surpass Germany’s in 2015 as the world’s leading market for installed solar capacity.

The solar industry in the U.S., where solar-powered photovoltaics (PV) were originally invented, provided over 260,000 American jobs in 2016 according to National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) in Boulder, Colorado, and its hiring rate is growing 17 times faster than the U.S. economy. The solar industry workforce exceeds that of oil and gas construction and is nearly three times the size of the entire coal mining workforce.

The solar market, however, is dominated by China who heavily subsidizes its solar market and industries. China’s silicon-based solar products have become cheap and reliable enough to control 70 percent of the world’s trade in solar modules while the U.S. has only about 1 percent of the current market.

Swiftly decreasing prices, which some have dubbed the “solar coaster”, have been devastating for companies incapable of responding. Some large U.S. panel manufacturers; e.g., Solyndra; were pushed into bankruptcy and others appear to be heading in that direction. The only two remaining large American panel makers are now outsold by at least six Chinese competitors. China eclipsed the leadership of the U.S. solar industry, which invented the technology, still holds many of the world’s patents, and led the industry for more than three decades due to insufficient public-funded development support.

This, however, is still subject to change as energy systems become re-engineered. Unfortunately, some denial of climate change exists as a few politically-motivated politicians fail to recognize the substantial economic opportunity of solar energy where markets are predicted to expand by 13 percent a year. In the U.S., for example, electric utilities are now the nation’s largest customers for solar panels, constituting 60 percent of the market that was until recently dominated by homeowners and commercial buyers of rooftop solar installations. Utility-scale systems can be installed at lower costs when compared with commercial or residential systems making the price of solar-generated electricity by utilities close to competitive with conventional sources in some locations.

40 percent of global carbon emissions result from the transportation-sector, industrial processes, and building operation. De-carbonization of the commercial and industrial infrastructure is achievable through increased energy efficiency along all parts of the energy chain from production or resources to final consumption. Increased investment in renewable energy can provide abundant clean, and increasingly inexpensive, electrical power further encouraging additional electrification. In 2015, for the first time, more renewable capacity was built than conventional fossil generation.

If the U.S. innovates, cuts costs, and nurtures newer technologies, it could emerge as the world’s second largest solar panel manufacturer by 2020. This opportunity window partially results from discovery of a new substance called perovskite providing increased solar efficiency. This, however, would be dependent upon some degree of public-sector investment.

Perovskite is a metallic-looking rock originally found in the Russian Ural Mountains in 1839 named for Lev Perovski, a Russian mineral expert who died in 1856, who first studied it. It is not a particular mineral but a class of minerals that share a common crystalline structure of cubes and diamondlike shapes. Almost all solar cells are currently made from crystalline silicon but researchers continue in their efforts to develop a more efficient material. A perovskite is any material with the same type of crystal structure as calcium titanium oxide (CaTiO3).

Perovskite panels, while still less efficient than silicon, could potentially be less expensive than silicon as it can be made at substantially lower temperatures (100C vs. 900C), is flexible enabling it to be rolled in long sheets, and can be made in a variety of colors for use in a wider variety of applications than silicon[2].

The best silicon cells achieve about 25.6 percent efficiency compared to only about 20 percent for perovskite but where silicon efficiency has plateaued, perovskite researchers are making rapid improvements and believe 30 percent efficiency is possible (33 percent is considered about the theoretical maximum efficiency for a single cell).

A property called BandGap – the minimum energy level required to liberate electrons – determines the amount of solar energy a semiconductor can convert to electrical power. The BandGap is different for each substance. Sunlight is composed of all wavelengths of light but only a portion of those wavelengths exceed the necessary energy BandGap to produce useable power. The lower the BandGap, the more of the sun’s spectrum a cell can absorb but the lower energy level each electron will have.

Silicon’s BandGap is fixed but perovskite’s can be changed by varying its chemical composition. Additional perovskite cells with different BandGaps can be stacked to increase total electrical power output.

The biggest remaining challenges prior to wide commercialization are scaling production to larger size cells and sealing out moisture. Perovskite is moisture sensitive and quickly degrades when exposed. Glass panels used to produce silicon panels would reduce flexibility which is one advantage perovskites have over silicon. The current industry standard for solar panel life is 25 years, about 54,000 hours of continuous bright sun light, but perovskite is currently only able to survive about 2,000 hours.

At this time, though promising, much research and development remains prior to perovskite mounting any significant challenge to silicon. Regardless of materials innovation, solar energy is rapidly becoming the power source of choice in the U.S. It no longer is only a possible major energy source for the future, that future has now arrived.

That’s what I think, what about you?

[1] Ramez Naam is a professional technologist and science fiction writer.

[2] Sivaram, Varun, Samuel D. Stranks, and Henry J. Smith. Outshining Silicon, Scientific American, July 2015 pp54-59.

Posted in BandGap, Boulder, Carbon, China, Clean, Climate Change, Colorado, Electric, Electrical, Emissions, Employment, Energy, Energy, Energy, Environment, Funding, Germany, Lev Perovski, National Renewable Energy Laboratory, Panels, Perovskite, Photovoltaic, Power, Power, Public-Sector, PV, Renewable, Russia, Silicon, Solar, Solar, Solar, Solyndra, Utilities, Wind | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Single-Payer Healthcare

It seems to me….

The American public believes that health care is a right and not a commodity.” ~ Michael Moore[1].

As a basic requirement in order to belong to their club, Republicans are obligated to condemn the Affordable Care Act (ACA), which they derisively insist on calling “Obamacare” though it basically originated as a Republican measure, as being bad for business and eliminating jobs – even though the U.S. has gained over 5.7 million private sector jobs since it was enacted in 2014. As a result of the ACA, over 90 percent of U.S. citizens are now covered by some form of medical insurance. Additionally, according to a recent study, people living in states that expanded Medicaid under the ACA are, on average, less likely to have medical debt, more likely to receive preventive care, and have lower long-term medical costs. Moreover, the growth of healthcare-related spending as a percentage of GDP has slowed since passage of the ACA.

While the ACA did not result in the degree of healthcare improvement for which many had hoped, and was in many ways hobbled by compromises needed to obtain passage, it remains a foundation upon which to build. It would be far better to take the good and simply modify rather than attempting to totally repeal and start over strictly for ideological benefit. As a nation we deserve better than politically motivated one-upmanship – if the Democrats win control of Congress in 2018, would they then attempt re-repeal and replace whatever plan Republicans approve? This is of benefit to no one and needs to stop.

It was hoped that with federal financial assistance available under the ACA, health insurance would become affordable for significant numbers of low-income Americans but even with the subsides it provided, that assistance remained insufficient for many.

For many extreme conservatives, the ACA went too far in providing healthcare to those economically challenged and provided insufficient tax benefit to the wealthy; for liberals, it failed to provide sufficient care to many at a reasonable cost. The proposed Republican replacement, developed in secret by a small select group (after strongly criticizing Democrats for the same tactic) made no effort for bipartisan input.

The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office determined that the healthcare bill passed by the House in May 2016 would leave 23 million fewer Americans with health insurance by 2026 than under the ACA; the Senate Republican healthcare bill currently up for consideration would leave 22 million fewer Americans with health insurance.

The proposed bills eliminate the insurance mandate requirement and would transform the Medicaid program to a per-capita cap basis limiting Federal funding for the least healthy including long-term Alzheimer’s, long-term care, and others with serious illnesses. The legislation’s tax cuts would be very beneficial to wealthy Americans and health insurers and providers who would get a trillion dollars in tax breaks[2]. The legislation would be disadvantageous to recipients of current tax credits who are older, sicker, and poorer and live in areas where care is more expensive. They might be able to afford low actuarial value coverage with the tax credits the bills would provide them but they then would most likely be unable to afford the cost sharing that coverage would impose.

Higher-income younger people, on the other hand, would find coverage under the legislation much more affordable than it is now – the tax credits might fully cover their premiums and leave extra for their health savings accounts. Some insurers could find the state reinsurance money and continuous coverage requirement enough of an incentive to stay in the market but others may not. Without further analysis, it is difficult to see how the bill could pay for itself and it could quite possibly result in significant losses in coverage.

It should be obvious to anyone with even the slightest bit of consideration, compassion, or empathy for those with medical issues that neither the House or Senate proposals are acceptable.

Perhaps the best alternative is a rejection of both the current ACA and the Republican proposed replacements. As U.S. Congressional politicians debate the future of healthcare, the notion of a single-payer healthcare system to simplify and expand coverage is increasingly being discussed. According to a recent poll by the Morning Consult and Politico, 44 percent of Americans favor a single-payer healthcare system. The U.S. is one of the only countries in the developed world that does not have such a system in place.

Single-payer, or Medicare for All as it’s sometimes referred to in the U.S., is a system in which all healthcare financing is provided by one entity, such as (but not always) the federal government. All residents receive core coverage regardless of income, occupation, or health status.

One of the glaring weaknesses of both the ACA and the proposed Republican replacements is that a market economy will not care for the sick unless it can be paid for. Insurance can help up to a point but insurance companies have no interest in covering people they suspect will get sick. Unfettered markets result in only those who are wealthy and/or healthy enough that they will not frequently need healthcare insurance being able to get coverage.

Similarly, insurance companies can be required to not discriminate based on medical history but that would result in higher premiums for the healthy. An incentive can be created to stay uninsured until or unless you get sick which pushes premiums even higher. It therefore is necessary to regulate both individuals as well as insurers mandating that everyone sign up. Since some people won’t be able to obey such a mandate, subsidies which must be paid for out of taxes are necessary.

The U.S. spent about 17.8 percent of its gross domestic product (GDP) on health care in 2015 – a much higher percentage than for any other major country. This averaged out to about $9,990 for each man, woman, and child. Actual spending, however, is distributed unevenly across individuals, different segments of the population, specific diseases, and payers. Only five percent of the population accounts for almost half (49 percent) of total health care expenses. The 15 most expensive health conditions account for 44 percent of all health care expenses. And patients with multiple chronic conditions cost up to seven times as much as patients with only one chronic condition.

As the cost of healthcare has increased, it has become more difficult for individuals to afford private plans. Employer-based healthcare plans discourage someone who wants to start a new business as they are hesitant to leave whatever job they currently have as they would lose their employer-provided health insurance with no guarantee that they could ever get insurance on their own for themselves and their family. Additionally, the current U.S. healthcare system is a burden on companies making them uncompetitive with manufacturers in other nations with single-payer systems.

There is little possibility that the U.S. will ever change this situation as insurance and pharmaceutical companies have too powerful a voice in Congress to permit it to happen. The ACA passed under President Obama was a very weak bill with numerous shortcomings necessary just to get a few critical reforms. Conservatives who object to the approval of any healthcare measure, have repeatedly tried to cut funding for implementation of even modest reforms and now are attempting to totally repeal the measure.

A single payer system would simplify all of this by largely cutting out the insurance and pharmaceutical companies untethering coverage from employment. Middlemen, like private insurance companies, who make the current system so frustrating to navigate and politically fraught, would be the only losers.

Everything from dental care to long-term care would be covered for everyone under a single payer system equalizing treatment between the affluent and less affluent. Medicare, for which everyone over 65 can qualify, is an example of a generalized universal public medical financing system in the U.S that demonstrates such a system would be successfully here.

It is time for both political parties to put aside their differences and attempt to reach a compromise – not only on healthcare but other critical issues such as the environment, immigration, education, infrastructure, tax reform…. But that, given the current political reality, would not be realistic.

That’s what I think, what about you?

[1] Michael Francis Moore is an American documentary filmmaker and author.

[2] Jost, Timothy. Examining The House Republican ACA Repeal And Replace Legislation, HealthAffairs Blog, http://healthaffairs.org/blog/2017/03/07/examining-the-house-republican-aca-repeal-and-replace-legislation/, 7 March 2017.

Posted in ACA, ACA, Affordable Care Act, Affordable Care Act, Alzheimer's, Compassion, Congressional Budget Office, Conservatives, Consideration, Democrat, Democrats, Health, Health, health care, Healthcare, healthcare, Insurance, Insurance, Insurance, Liberals, Lower-Income, Medicaid, Medical, Medicare, Morning Consult, Obama, Obamacare, Poles, Politico, Republican, republicans, Single-Payer | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Employment and Globalization

It seems to me….

Globalization is not a monolithic force but an evolving set of consequences – some good, some bad, and some unintended. It is the new reality.” ~ John B. Larson[1].

While local loss of jobs is frequently stated as the primary reason for opposition to globalization and off-shoring, what is usually ignored is that they also have lifted millions of people out of poverty and into the global middle class. Many middle-class U.S. manufacturing jobs have been eliminated and those displaced workers have a right to be angry but contrary to what is commonly believed and repeatedly stated by self-serving politicians, many manufacturing jobs have returned to the U.S. over the last decade due to lower dependable energy and transportation costs and to rising labor costs abroad.

Many of those jobs lost to offshoring were the type of jobs that would have been eliminated by automation. Technological advancement is changing the entire manufacturing process eliminating entire segments of traditional employment. Future manufacturing jobs will go to those who can program, run, and maintain fast-evolving high-tech equipment in the age of robotics and are sufficiently flexible and resourceful to succeed in many different roles[2].

The U.S. economy is quite dynamic and creates/destroys around 5 million jobs each month. While almost 6 million manufacturing jobs were lost between 1999 and 2011, only a fifth of that decline resulted from Chinese competition. Those who lost jobs generally did not find new ones nearby nor did they go in search of work elsewhere. Instead there was almost a one-for-one increase either in unemployment or, more frequently, in people leaving the workforce entirely – often to claim disability benefits, which 5 percent of Americans aged 25-64 now receive. Consequently, job losses from off-shoring are more concentrated and longer-lasting than initially had been assumed.

Advocates of freer trade have always known that some employees lose out even as the great majority benefit[3] but no one suffers more from an imposition of tariffs than the poorest workers. Free trade still deserves full support even if greater care needs to be taken of those it hurts. While much is heard regarding overseas flight of manufacturing (offshoring) and its devastating effects on abandoned areas, rather than being in decline, many of those areas are becoming hubs of developing entirely new industries and technological innovation. The problem is that the majority of the jobs created require higher educational preparation than those eliminated.

The shock caused by China’s emergence also exposed fault lines in the U.S. economy. Workers seem less willing to switch jobs or move to another state than in the past. Part of the explanation may be rising home ownership anchoring people to declining areas or pricing them out of vibrant ones. Whatever the explanation, free trade can impose high costs on a few locations.

The worst possible response to such fears is the protectionism that trump is peddling. The surge in cheap imports of clothing, shoes, furniture, toys, and electronics from China and elsewhere in Asia has greatly increased the spending power of those on low incomes. It has also added to the variety of goods they are able to buy. One study by economists at the University of California – Los Angeles, and Columbia University calculated that median income earners in the U.S. would lose 29 percent of their purchasing power if we were closed to trade but that the poorest would forfeit as much as 62 percent since they spend proportionately more on goods that are traded. Add to the reckoning the eventual benefits of a richer Asian market for exporters, the spur to innovation in the U.S. from global competition, and the low-cost inputs for consumer goods, such as the iPhone, that raise the productivity of U.S. designers and arguments in favor of free trade are overwhelming.

Globalization admittedly has its flaws: though the great majority benefit, some lose out. More must be done to tackle these downsides. The backlash against trade is just one symptom of a pervasive anxiety about the effects of open economies – more must be done to help those who lose out from offshoring and technological displacement. The idea that globalization is a scam that benefits only corporations and the rich could scarcely be more wrong.

Much of the problem is of our own making. The U.S. spends only 0.1 percent of its GDP, one-sixth of the wealthier nation average, on policies to retrain workers and help them find new jobs. New policies are necessary to deal with all sources of disruption, from cheaper robots to new technologies such as 3D printing. Protectionists want to turn back the clock. It is significantly better to benefit from the permanent overall gains from trade while preparing the workforce for additional future changes.

The U.S. has also lagged behind other advanced nations in “active” labor-market policies. More could be done to help workers who lose jobs to find new ones through job exchanges and free training to add relevant skills. There may be a case for providing relocation grants for workers hurt by trade. Displaced workers complain that alternative jobs in the service sector do not pay as well or come with the same healthcare or pension benefits that big manufacturers previously provided – a strong argument for a system of portable benefits that go with workers when they change jobs. A system of wage insurance might deserve additional consideration.

Germany has been able to constantly upgrade the skills of its workforce thanks to its system of apprenticeships. The U.S. also needs to expand available apprenticeship programs to a level commensurate with that in other advanced nations as they have been shown to be a very cost-effective way for prospective employees to obtain highly sought-after middle-skills. There needs to be a reduction in red tape and overly rigid requirements while encouraging broad-based industry standards for administering those programs. These programs typically are a three- or four-year endeavor allowing the apprentice to acquire new skills under the watchful eyes of a trained mentor. One or two days each week are dedicated to classwork at a local community college or technical school without accruing any college debt. Apprentices are able to earn while they learn and studies have shown that most (90 percent) are gainfully employed by the conclusion of their apprenticeship.

U.S. community colleges in depressed areas show promise in bridging the skills gap but there is still too much emphasis on an expensive four-year university education and too little on vocational training. Secondary education at public colleges and vocational schools should be free to all who qualify.

Export-led growth and foreign investment have dragged hundreds of millions out of poverty in China and transformed economies from Ireland to South Korea. Exporting firms are more productive and pay higher wages than those that serve only the domestic market. Half of the U.S.’s exports go to countries with which it has a free-trade deal even though their economies account for less than a tenth of global GDP.

Openness delivers other benefits. Migrants improve not just their own lives but the economies of host countries. Foreign direct investment delivers competition, technology, management know-how, and jobs which is why China’s overly cautious moves to encourage foreign direct investment (FDI) were somewhat disappointing.

In general, greater opportunity makes people better off and there are more and more varied opportunities in open economies than in closed ones.

That’s what I think, what about you?

[1] John Barry Larson is the U.S. Representative for Connecticut’s 1st Congressional district.

[2] Bremmer, Ian. Trump And Sanders Have Tapped Into A Dangerous – And Wrong – Anti-Trade Sentiment, Time, 25 April, 2016, p10.

[3] The Case For Free Trade Is Overwhelming. But The Losers Need More Help, The Economist, http://www.economist.com/news/leaders/21695879-case-free-trade-overwhelming-losers-need-more-help-open-argument?cid1=cust/ednew/n/bl/n/20160331n/owned/n/n/nwl/n/n/NA/n, 2 April 2016.

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Continuing Education

It seems to me….

Community colleges provide higher education where people live, helping to build strong ladders of opportunity that allow people to secure a foothold in the middle class.” ~ Thomas Perez[1].

Our current education model with formal education primarily confined to the young is no longer sufficient as the need for new skills and constant updates accelerates. As manufacturing employment changes from production line assembly, routine office jobs, and repetitive clerical work to innovative and creative positions, higher levels of formal education becomes necessary. As the need for training/retraining increases, it mainly is only those already degreed who take advantage of online educational offerings.

Even skills learned in K-12 schools atrophy unless used but many low-end jobs give workers little opportunity to use what taught. New ways of learning are essential to help those most in need, policymakers should be aiming for something far more radical than is currently available. Because education is a public good whose benefits spill over to all of society, governments have a vital role to play – not just by spending more but also by spending wisely[2].

87 percent of workers believe it will be essential for them to get training and develop new job skills throughout their work life in order to keep up with workplace changes[3]. Changes in educational and learning environments are necessary[4] to help people stay employable[5] in the labor force of the future[6]; our education system will need to adapt to prepare individuals for the changing labor market. At the same time, recent IT advances offer new and potentially more widely accessible ways to access education. A central question about the future, then, is whether formal and informal learning structures will evolve to meet the changing needs of people who wish to qualify for future workplace expectations.

Automation is projected to transform the U.S. workforce making higher-level STEM skills critical in fields that once required little more than manual dexterity. Not everyone will successfully navigate the shifting jobs market. Those most at risk of technological disruption are men in blue-collar jobs, many of whom reject taking less “masculine” roles in fast-growing areas such as health care, but to keep the numbers of those left behind to a minimum, all adults must have access to flexible affordable training.

Community colleges, which educate about 40 percent of all undergraduates in the U.S., have the potential to become the much-needed engines of economic and social mobility but are facing declining enrollment and tightening budgets even as officials hold them up as the answer to bridging the country’s blue-collar skills gap.

All educational institutions are increasingly dependent upon student tuition for funding at a time when those attending are less able to afford it – low-income students outnumber middle- and high-income students at community colleges by 2 to 1 (a recent estimate is that as many as 14 percent might be homeless). The time has come for attendance at all institutions of public educational to be without cost; a logical place to start would be at the community college level.

Some states have recognized this necessity. Attendance at community colleges is free to state residents in Tennessee and Oregon while Arkansas and Kentucky are developing similar programs. Attendance at all public two and four-year colleges is free to many state residents in New York. K-16 education, at a minimum, should be free to all regardless of where they live. Unfortunately, rather than funding educational programs, Trump has proposed a 13 percent reduction in the Department of Education funding for the coming year making it even more difficult for such programs to serve student’s needs.

Community colleges, in addition to preparing students for further higher education, have become vocational and job-training centers for teachers, nurses, police officers, pilots, and dentists and provide skills necessary to qualify for locally available jobs. They enroll more women, minorities, and lower-income students and frequently are more likely to be located in smaller and rural areas.

More is needed – especially in student counselling and assistance such as childcare. Less than 40 percent of community college students graduate, many dropping out in their first year. Though 80 percent of two-year students claim their eventual goal to be a bachelor’s degree, only 14 percent earn one within six years. Attempting to balance work, family, and education can be too much for many students.

The need is obvious. 48 percent of small businesses reported in early 2017 that they were unable to fill open positions due to a lack of qualified applicants[7]. Without an available option for employment improvement, increased economic inequality and social dissatisfaction can be anticipated.

That’s what I think, what about you?

[1] Thomas Edward Perez is a consumer advocate and civil rights lawyer who was the U.S. Secretary of Labor from 2013 to 2017.

[2] Equipping People To Stay Ahead Of Technological Change, The Economist, http://www.economist.com/news/leaders/21714341-it-easy-say-people-need-keep-learning-throughout-their-careers-practicalities, 14 January 2017.

[3] The State of American Jobs, Pew Research Center, http://www.pewsocialtrends.org/2016/10/06/the-state-of-american-jobs/, 6 October 2016.

[4] The Future of Jobs, World Economic Forum, http://www3.weforum.org/docs/WEF_Future_of_Jobs.pdf, January 2016.

[5] Lee, Kristin. Artificial Intelligence, Automation, and the Economy, The White House, https://obamawhitehouse.archives.gov/blog/2016/12/20/artificial-intelligence-automation-and-economy, 20 December 2016.

[6] Raine, Lee, and Janna Anderson. The Future of Jobs and Jobs Training, Pew Research Center, http://www.pewinternet.org/2017/05/03/the-future-of-jobs-and-jobs-training/?utm_source=Pew+Research+Center&utm_campaign=be5de05165-EMAIL_CAMPAIGN_2017_05_04&utm_medium=email&utm_term=0_3e953b9b70-be5de05165-400092341, 3 May 2017.

[7] National Federation of Independent Businesses.

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GDP And Productivity

It seems to me….

The welfare of a nation can scarcely be inferred from a measurement of national income as defined by the GDP.” ~ Simon Kuznets[1].

U.S. economic recovery following the 2008 economic crisis, though better than in many other advanced nations, was less rapid than many anticipated. Of even greater concern, economic growth (the product of productivity and demographics) has been declining essentially since the 1970s according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS).

There remains considerable debate as to why this is true. Many believe productivity is not being accurately computed; that the BLS, which remains focused on production of physical items rather than factoring in the effects of computerization and automation, though both the BLS and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) disagree and believe this not to be correct. In fact, not only are BLS figures incorrect, they no longer even appropriately measuring the correct items.

The standard metric of economic performance is the gross domestic product (GDP) but GDP is a failing metric less reflective of how our economy is performing with each technological advancement. Widespread adoption of automation and computerization in part necessitated in reaction to the 2008 economic crisis resulted in elimination of large numbers of traditional lower and middleclass employment opportunities allowing fewer employees to create more product output, a trend missed by many economists as the GDP increasingly failed to reflect actual economic status. 2008 might be considered the start of what is essentially a post-manufacturing age as any analysis clearly displays a distinct transformation in production and employment trends apparent at that time.

While GDP is the best metric currently generally available for understanding our economy, it no longer is able to accurately provide sufficient insight into the economy’s performance. GDP, by itself, fails to measure what is becoming increasingly important in advanced societies – that employment, innovation, and productivity are shifting from product manufacturing to services, entertainment, and intellectual endeavors. GDP, as has frequently been noted, also fails to reflect much that makes life worthwhile; e.g., art, literature, stage and screen, leisure….

Technology has further lessened the usefulness of GDP by providing free or very inexpensive access to much that previously was costly or unavailable and fails to reflect contributions from the introduction of new products and improvements in existing products.

Digitization is especially difficult to measure. Encyclopedias were expensive but now are essentially free (though Internet access and an access device must be purchased). Typewriters were relatively expensive; any computer can be a word processor. Precise location information was not available at any price; GPS location is free. The actual value of items has substantially increased but that value is no longer factored into the GDP.

Additionally, zero-wage, zero-price activities such as preparing and accessing social media sites are not counted in the GDP. Similarly, the growth of the sharing economy (Uber, Airbnb…) do not contribute. On-line educational information (YouTube, Wikipedia…) increase knowledge and capability to acquire new abilities which previously would only have been available in costly training classes but now are free.

How does our GDP reflect the change in music purchases from physical media to digital downloads? The total purchase volume increased, price has decreased, but music purchases no longer contribute to the reported GDP.

How does the value of a Skype call compare to a traditional phone call? The visual face-to-face interaction available using Skype was not previously available at any price but is now essentially free but not factored into the GDP.

Anyone with a telephone has immediate access to more information than anyone using even the best encyclopedia twenty years ago. As stated, not only is that information essentially free, it no longer contributes to our GDP. There no longer is a market for encyclopedias.

These changes have affected all aspects of the economy. Innovation in the form of computerization and automation surpassed an inflection point such that productivity improvements are impacting the number and quality of employment opportunities through creation of entirely new categories of products. Improvement to existing products has resulted in enhanced product quality while being produced by a rapidly decreasing number of workers. This has primarily impacted middleclass employment resulting in an apparent slowdown in productivity increases which will continue to mainly affect future traditional blue-collar employment opportunities. Steps necessary to reverse this trend includes increased infrastructure repair and improvement, education and training/retraining availability, and emphasis on research and development.

Economists agree that a nation’s standard of living is directly dependent upon its productivity rate – increasing output from an equivalent number of inputs; e.g., manufacturing output per worker; normally results in an improved living standard. Productivity is therefore historically dependent upon innovation. While GDP is the standard by which we typically measure productivity (the term “productivity” generally refers to “labor productivity”), productivity growth is driven by innovation in technology and production improvements. This is the area where the system is showing indications of difficulty. Regardless of how it is measured; e.g., capital productivity or multifactor productivity (the weighted average of both labor and capital), something called the “Solow Residual[2]”; all indicate a remarkable productivity improvement directly correlated to technology introduction and use.

GDP becomes increasingly misleading in what we attempt to measure and with the creation of every new item or service that never previously existed, when current items are digitized, or when the cost of some item is eliminated.

Measurement of several additional quantities are necessary to improve the accuracy of economic quality not currently represented in the GDP – it must include intangibles that add to the value of the economy. While technology has altered what is factored into GDP calculations, it also has provided the means for improvement. Data collection and Internet transmission has increased exponentially over recent years and there isn’t any indication this increase will soon lessen. There is a principle that only what gets measured gets done and developing technology, such as the IoT, provides an available resource for collecting that data.

The importance of GDP, or whatever metric replaces it, has numerous implications for the economy. Increased economic growth would better resolve national debt concerns than additional austerity demanded by conservatives; a GDP increase of just 0.5 percent would solve current budget difficulties. We need an improved method of measuring it.

That’s what I think, what about you?

[1] Simon Smith Kuznets was an American economist, statistician, demographer, and economic historian who received the 1971 Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences.

[2] Robert Merton Solow is an American economist particularly known for his work on the theory of economic growth that culminated in the exogenous growth model named after him.

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