Wednesday, August 15, 2007

The Cult of Personality

You might recall when the above phrase was applied to several individuals, almost always dictators, who fit the definition as expressed in Wikipedia, namely, “A cult of personality arises when a country’s leader uses mass media to create a larger-than-life public image through unquestioning flattery and praise.” This characterized the regimes of Mussolini, Hitler, Stalin, Castro, Mao Zedong, and most recently, Kim Hong-il of Korea. Of course, any attempt to duplicate this process in the United States would be unthinkable—well, think again.

There were several rather frightening revelations during the July 10 th testimony before a congressional panel, by Richard Carmona, the former Surgeon General of the United States, who was appointed by President Bush to that position. One piece of testimony was rather humorous: for each written page of every speech he gave, Mr. Carmona was required to mention President Bush three times—presumably favorably. While probably an exaggeration, some might say this type of activity is merely a prelude to the development of a personality cult, and perhaps an “Imperial Presidency”? Maybe that wasn’t so funny after all.

The rest of Carmona’s testimony was equally ominous. In fact, you can see the live testimony for yourself by Googling “Daily Kos, Richard Carmona.” He testified that political appointees (not scientists) would not allow him to speak or issue reports about stem cells; emergency contraception; sex education; or prison, mental and global health issues. Here we have the nation’s leader in the fields of health required to adhere to policies driven by non-scientific ideology and religious beliefs.

Typical of this strategy is the president’s refusal to fund any UN (or domestic) program that encourages family planning and/or the use of contraceptive devices, including condoms. Instead, this administration favors agendas that promote abstinence, a policy that has now been proven ineffective. Funded by the administration’s own agency, the Department of Health and Human Services, a report issued this past April stated, “Findings indicate that youths in the program group were no more likely than control group youths to have abstinence from sex and, among those who reported having sex, they had a similar number of sexual partners and had initiated sex at the same median age.” These abstinence programs have lost so much credibility that some 10 states have already abandoned them. In the meantime, some estimates indicate that upward of $1 billion of tax money have been spent on these worthless programs, money that could have been better-spent promoting safe sex and condom usage. But, hey! In the game of life played by some, ideology trumps science time and time again.

Regarding the former Surgeon General, while he had the courage to testify about his travails before Congress, why did he not have the courage to do so while still in office? He served out a four-year term with no indication that he was being muzzled. If he was so frustrated, why didn’t he resign? That question was not addressed during the hearings.

Shift Happens

Karl Fisch is more than just a teacher, he must be classified as an “educator.” He works for the Littleton, Colorado, school district as Director of Technology in Arapahoe High School. To even have a Director of Technology in a high school makes it quite unique, and apparently, Mr. Fisch is equally unique. He has a blog (The Fischbowl) that is used by the high school staff and his students. He also developed a remarkable Power Point slide presentation that he calls, “Did You Know,” with a sub-title of Shift Happens, which emphasizes the enormous pace of information, discovery, and innovation taking place in the world. (Mr. Fisch was apparently influenced by Thomas Friedman’s book, The Earth Is Flat). The latest version (slightly different from what is listed below) can be accessed by clicking here. Accessing this original blog on-line is much more dramatic than reading the rest of this article. Nevertheless, here it is:

Did You Know?
  • If you are one in a million in China, there are 1300 people just like you. In India there are 1100 people just like you.

  • The 25 percent of Chinese population with the highest IQ’s is greater than the [entire] population of North America. In India, it’s the top 28 percent. They have more honor kids than we have kids.

  • China will soon become the number one English speaking country in the world.

  • If you took every job in the United States today and shipped it to China, it would still have a labor surplus.

  • During the course of this presentation [about seven minutes], 60 babies will be born in the United States; 244 in China; 351 in India.

  • The U.S. Department of Labor estimates that today’s learner will have 10-14 jobs by age 38. One out of four workers today is working for a company for whom they’ve been employed less that one year. More than one of two less than five years.

  • According to former Education Secretary Richard Reilly, the top ten jobs that will be in demand in 2010 didn’t exist in 2004. We have been preparing students for jobs that don’t yet exist, using technologies that haven’t been invented, in order to solve problems that have not yet been recognized.

  • Name this country — richest in the world; largest military; center of business and finance; strong education system; world center of innovation, invention; currency the world standard of value; highest standard of living. [Answer] England in 1900. [Will that be us in 2100?]

  • The US. Is 20 th in broadband internet penetration —Luxemburg just passed us.

  • Nintendo invested more than $42 million in Research and Development in 2002 alone. The U.S. federal government spent less than half as much on research and innovation in education.

  • 1 out of every 8 couples married in the United States last year met on-line.

  • There are over 106 million users of My Space as of October 2006. If My Space were a country it would be the 11 th largest in the world. The average My Space page is visited 30 times a day.

  • We are living in exponential times: there are 2.7 billion searches a day on Google every month. How were these addressed before Google?

  • The number of text messages sent and received each day exceeds the population of the planet.

  • There are 540,000 words in the English language, about five times as many during Shakespeare’ time.

  • More than 3,000 books are published daily.

  • It is estimated that a week’s worth of The New York Times contains more information that a person was likely to come across in a lifetime in the18th century.

  • It is estimated that 40 exabytes (4.0 X 10 19 ) of unique information will be generated worldwide this year. That’s estimated to be more than in the previous 5,000 years.

  • The amount of new technology information is doubling every two years. For students starting a four-year technology or college degree, this means that half of what they learn in their first year of study will be outdated by their third year of study. It is predicted to double every 72 hours by 2010.

  • Third generation fiber optics recently tested by NEC and Alcatel pushes 10 trillion bits per second down one strand of fiber. That’s 1900 CD’s, or 150 million simultaneous phone calls every second. It’s currently tripling every six months.

  • 47 million laptops were shipped worldwide last year. The $100 “laptop project” is expected to ship between 50 and 100 million laptops a year to children in underdeveloped countries.

  • Predictions are that by 2013 a super computer will be built that exceeds the computational capabilities of the human brain. And while technical predictions further out than 15 years are hard to do, by 2049 a $1,000 computer will exceed the computational capabilities of the entire human species.

So, what does it all mean? Shift happens.

The information in this article was recommended to me by our Minnesota friend, Bruce Harris.

More Pharmaceutical Follies

I hate to say I told you so, but… more than two years ago, in a series of articles titled, Pharmaceutical Follies, I denigrated the pharmaceutical industry and its reprehensible use of a massive group of lobbyists (some 6000 in total), whose sole function was to influence legislation at both the federal and state levels, to insure a continuation of the industry’s enormous degree of profitability. What follows could have been a part of the recent movie, Sicko — Michael Moore would have had a picnic with this, so read on.

In July of 2005, I wrote, “A more recent lobbying effort resulted in a piece of legislation that few are even aware of and even if you did read about it, the ramifications, especially as they affect the pharmaceutical companies, are virtually unknown. With a most appealing title, certain to resonate with every logically minded citizen, the underlying impact of the legislation is totally hidden. How can anyone argue against the ‘American Job Creation Act,’ signed into law by President Bush in October 2004? The more appropriate and realistic title should have read, ‘The Foreign Tax Giveaway to Big Pharma Act.’

“In the past, the tax law required that all profits from foreign subsidiaries be taxed at a 35 percent rate when these profits were returned to the U.S. Most companies have avoided this tax by merely keeping those profits overseas. The new act encourages the repatriation of profits by reducing the tax rate from that 35 percent to the astonishingly low rate of 5.25 percent.

“Assumedly the differential would be invested in operations and facilities that would create new jobs. The major beneficiaries of this law will be—ta dah!—the pharmaceutical companies, since, as you will soon see, they derive more of their profits from overseas operations than any other industry. Yet, despite its intent to repatriate at least $28 billion, thus saving over $8 billion as a result of the act, in April, Pfizer announced it would cut its annual costs by $4 billion over the next three years, undoubtedly cutting, not creating jobs in the process.” I then explained how the pharmaceutical companies generate the bulk of their profits (or so they maintain), from their foreign operations, and scrupulously and spuriously avoid domestic taxes.

Let’s forward now to an article in the July 24 th issue of this year’s The New York Times. The headline said it all: “Tax Breaks Used by Drug Makers Failed to Add Jobs as Advertised.Is anyone really surprised that the lobbyists, their huge campaign contributions and other, perhaps more nefarious activities aimed at our not so naive politicians, were once more victorious in their efforts to add to the pharmaceutical industry’s already record high profits?

Here is what The Times wrote: “Two years ago, when companies received a big tax break to bring home their offshore profits, the president and Congress justified it as a one-time amnesty that would create American jobs.” As The Times further relates, nothing of the sort happened. “Drug makers were the biggest beneficiaries of the amnesty program, repatriating about $100 billion (My article was way off on that number) in foreign profits and paying only minimal taxes. But the companies did not create many jobs in return. Instead, since 2005 the American drug industry has laid off tens of thousands of workers, in this country.” To add insult to injury (and don’t think the American taxpayer has not been injured by this bogus legislation), the article adds, “And now drug companies are once again using complex strategies, many of them demonstrably legal, to shelter billions of dollars in profits in international tax havens, according to their financial statements and independent tax experts.”

In my article two years ago, I quoted several well-known individuals, and their thoughts about politicians. See if you don’t think they are even more valid today. The famous Roman orator Cicero observed, “Never was [there] a government that was not composed of liars, malefactors, and thieves.” Mark Twain commented, “There is no distinctively native criminal class except for congress.” Ronald Reagan’s classic, “Politics is supposed to be the second oldest profession. I have come to realize it bears a very close resemblance to the first.” And most appropriately, Mark Twain’s remark made over 70 years ago, “We have the best Congress money can buy.”

Remember, you heard it all here first, two years ago. Where are you when we need you Michael Moore?

Wednesday, August 01, 2007

The Doomsday Book, An Environmental Nightmare — Part V

On January 6 th, 1942, just one day short of one month after the attack on Pearl Harbor, President Franklin D. Roosevelt presented his annual State of the Union address to the nation. Few people today have a vivid recollection of the details of that speech, and that is unfortunate since there are lessons that can be learned from it. He said, in part, “Our task is hard — our task is unprecedented — and the time is short. We must strain every existing armament-producing facility to the utmost. We must convert every available plant and tool to war production. That goes all the way from the greatest plants to the smallest — from the huge automobile industry to the village machine shop. […] Only this all-out scale of production will hasten the ultimate all-out victory. Speed will count. Lost ground can always be regained — lost time, never. Speed will save lives; speed will save this Nation which is in peril; speed will save our freedom and our civilization.”

The enormity of Roosevelt’s thinking was so prodigious as to be almost inconceivable. For example, in this historic speech, he outlined his industrial war objectives for the year 1942: to produce 60,000 planes (and more than double that number, 125,000 in 1943); 45,000 tanks (75,000 in 1943); to increase ship production to 6,000,000 tons in that current year, adding 4,000,000 tons more in 1943.

The primary industrial complex at the time was the automobile industry, and its leaders expressed doubt as to their ability to meet this enormous challenge, questioning whether Roosevelt’s goals were even doable. Roosevelt reportedly responded, “Gentlemen, you do not understand me. You will stop producing cars and will produce what our country needs from you.” — And produce they did, completely halting all car production from the spring of 1942 until the end of 1944.

As Brown’s book recalls, “In addition to a ban on the production and sale of cars for private use, residential and highway construction was halted, and driving for pleasure was banned. A rationing program was also introduced. Strategic goods — including tires, gasoline, fuel, oil, and sugar — were rationed beginning in 1942. Cutting back on consumption of these goods freed up material resources to support the war effort.”

As a guest speaker at a meeting of the World Bank in Washington in April of this year, Lester R. Brown, president of the WorldWatch Institute and author of the book Plan B 2.0: Rescuing a Planet under Stress and a Civilization in Trouble, recounted the above story. Brown compared those times when the world faced the challenges presented by the combined Nazi and Japanese threats, to the even more dire potential consequences related to global warming that also endanger civilization as we know it. Public sacrifices for the sake of waging war, common during that precarious period, are strangely missing today.

Juraj Mesik of the World Bank wrote this comment about Brown’s presentation: “A leader of Roosevelt’s stature could rally his nation and the world to understand the dangers of changing weather patterns — droughts, fires, storms, refugees, depleted water supplies — that will spare no nation, no matter how wealthy.” It is obvious that President Bush has no intention of becoming that leader in the arena of global warming even if he possessed the abilities to do so. Most ironic is the fact that unlike our present president, the individual that is leading the war on global warming is the “might have been president,” Al Gore. As a result of the 2000 election, we have lost precious time — it will be eight years — until the next president, hopefully, will address this issue with the same strength of character and willfulness as did Roosevelt in that time of desperate need.

Mr. Brown’s tome, that I have identified as the “Doomsday Book,” does outline a series of issues that left unaddressed could indeed lead to catastrophic consequences, many of which have not been recognized as problematic. Consider, for example, one such issue that I strongly suspect you have overlooked — SEX. That does not refer to gender, but to sexual activity that will drive the world’s population from its current number of over 6,600,000,000 to almost half again as large by 2050, over 9,400,000,000. The organization, World Population Awareness, describes overpopulation as “the root of most, if not all, environmental and many economic issues: timber over-harvesting, loss of arable land, ocean depletion, food shortages, water shortages, air pollution, water pollution, flooding, plant and animal habitat loss, global warming, and immigration.”

Far be it for me to discourage sex. However, even the Executive Director of the UN Population Fund states, “We cannot confront the massive challenges of poverty, hunger, disease, and environmental destruction unless we address issues of population and reproductive health.” As Lester Brown points out, this is a concern that can be easily mitigated by providing reproductive health and family planning services. He quotes a United Nations estimate that “…meeting the needs of the 201 million women who do not have access to effective contraception could each year prevent 52 million unwanted pregnancies, 22 million induced abortions, and 1.4 million infant deaths.” He says, “The costs to society of not filling the family planning gap are unacceptably high.”

The issues covered in Brown’s book, Plan B, are not only diverse, but really too numerous to list all in an article of this nature. Brown describes the three components that comprise Plan B as “1) restructuring of the global economy so that it can sustain civilization; 2) an all-out effort to eradicate poverty, stabilize population, and restore hope in order to elicit participation of the developing countries; and 3) a systematic effort to restore natural systems.”

For example, one critical problem that ties in to the “sex” issue mentioned above is the growing world-wide HIV scourge, that has, as Brown writes, “so disrupted economic and social progress [especially] in Africa.” He suggests, “At the most fundamental level, dealing with the HIV threat requires roughly [a total of 12 billion] condoms a year in the developing world and Eastern Europe. However, only 2.5 billion are actually being distributed. Yet, it would cost only $285 million a year to distribute enough to save a huge number of lives.”

He writes compellingly about attempts to eliminate poverty, however, “A strategy for eradicating poverty will not succeed if an economy’s environmental support systems are collapsing. If croplands are eroding and harvests are shrinking, if water tables are falling and wells are going dry, if rangelands are turning to desert and livestock are dying, if fisheries are collapsing, if forests are shrinking, and if rising temperatures are scorching crops, a poverty program — no matter how carefully crafted and well implemented will not succeed.”

Brown offers recommendation on how to embark on programs that would address each of these issues, and then, unlike most visionaries who tend to ignore cost issues, he provides an “Annual Earth Restoration Budget.” This outlines the dollar cost to reforest the earth, protect topsoil on cropland, restore rangeland, restore fisheries, protect biologic diversity, and stabilize water tables. To some, the cost, estimated at $93 billion, might seem excessive. However, consider that “More than half the world’s people depend directly [or indirectly on these industries] for their jobs.”

Brown also furnishes estimated costs to “Meet Social Goals,” such as universal primary education, adult literacy, school lunch programs, reproduction health and family planning, universal health care, and closing the condom gap. Funding these issues would be $68 billion annually. These two numbers add up to a total of $161 billion a year—a staggering amount? If viewed from the perspective of saving the planet, perhaps not. Ironically too, according to an official Congressional Research Service report, dated the end of June, that amount is just under the total allocated to the Department of Defense for conducting the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The United States has a reputation of being a result-oriented nation. It would seem something is awry.

As might be expected, Brown does not overlook the consequences of climate change. One chapter, titled “Stabilizing Climate,” is devoted to specific recommendations that would help resolve the problem of global warming. He points out however, that while the European Union and Japan have specific plans to reduce carbon emissions and boost energy efficiency, the U.S. has made little progress in doing so. Yet the simple act of replacing all incandescent bulbs with compact fluorescent lamps (CFL’s) would cut the use of electricity for lighting in half. While more costly, CFL’s use only one-third as much electricity and last ten times as long as incandescent bulbs. (Install them in your outdoor lighting along with the new timers that accommodate fluorescent bulbs.) Used worldwide, CFL’s could eliminate the need for hundreds of climate disrupting coal-fired power plants.

On a much wider scale, Brown is a strong proponent of wind power. Brown cites six reasons why wind power is so desirable and why its usage is growing so fast, especially in Europe. “It is abundant, cheap, inexhaustible, widely distributed, clean, and climate benign.” Wind’s annual growth rate of 29% dwarfs the growth of oil, natural gas, coal, and nuclear power. It is estimated that by 2020, wind generated electricity will satisfy the resident needs of 195 million consumers half of Europe’s population. As long ago as 1991, the U.S. Department of Energy noted that three wind rich states, N. Dakota, Kansas, and Texas, had enough harnessable wind energy to satisfy national electricity needs — and that was before the advancements that have occurred in wind technology and the 100 meter tall wind turbines currently in use.

There is also a tie-in between wind power and hybrid cars—specifically the next generation of Hybrids that will include plug–in electric capacity. Brown predicts, “Moving to the highly efficient plug-in gas-electric hybrids, combined with the construction of thousands of wind farms across the country to feed electricity into a strong, integrated national grid, could cut U.S gasoline use by 85 percent. It would also rejuvenate farm and ranch communities and shrink the U.S. balance-of-trade deficit. Even more important, it could cut automobile carbon emissions by some 85 percent, making the U.S. a model for other countries.”

Another vast untapped source of energy is solar cell energy. Both Japan and Germany successfully implemented solar roof programs with installations of 70,000 in Japan and 100,000 in Germany. In addition, more than one million homes in villages in the developing world are getting electricity from solar cells. (A large new solar cell fabricating plant was just built and opened in Germany by a U.S. company, First Solar, whose chief executive officer’s parents live in Boca Pointe.) Currently, China, the world leader in this technology is planning to quadruple its current 52 million square meters of solar collectors by 2015. Spain is also a leading manufacturer of solar thermal panels, and now requires the inclusion of rooftop solar heaters on all new buildings.

Brown notes that the sun is not the only powerful source of energy. The earth itself is also a source of heat energy, mostly from radioactivity deep with the earth, in the form of geothermal energy. Many countries, rich in geothermal energy are those bordering on the Pacific in the so-called Ring of Fire — some in South America, Central America, Mexico, the U.S. and Canada, Russia and China, and several other Asian countries. Here, the U.S. and the Philippines are leaders. The number of countries turning to geothermal energy is increasing rapidly.

For the U.S., Brown maintains that, “…its rich endowment of low cost wind energy suggests that wind will likely emerge as the center-piece of the new energy economy. It can supply electricity for heating, cooling, cooking, powering automobiles, and even producing steel. The United States, which gets 7 percent of its electricity from existing hydroelectric facilities, also has a substantial geothermal potential in the western states and an enormous solar cell potential throughout the country.”

Brown claims that, “History judges political leaders by whether or not they respond to the great issues of their time. For today’s leaders, that issue is how to move the global economy onto an environmentally sound path. We need a national political leader to step forward, an environmental Churchill, to rally the world around this mobilization.” He further emphasizes, “The choice is ours—yours and mine. We can stay with business as usual and preside over an economy that continues to destroy its natural support systems until it destroys itself, or we can adopt Plan B and be the generation that changes direction, moving the world onto a path of sustained progress. The choice will be made by our generation, but it will affect life on earth for all generations to come.”