Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Nanny Nightmares: No More Bottled Water for You!

The Competitive Enterprise Institute is mightily upset about a report by the Environmental Working Group(EWG) that points out what should be obvious: buying bottled water is usually a giant waste of money particularly because what's in the bottle could very well be just plain old tap water. Meanwhile, bottled water is a giant source of profit to Coca Cola, Pepsi and other members of the industry.

The folks at the Washington D.C.-based booster of corporate America (CEI) is trying to counter criticism of bottled water by suggesting that consumers' worst enemy is --shriek!--the Nanny State! You know, those government Nannies in their frumpy clothes, their lips tight in disapproval, who don't want you to have choices, choices, choices! In this case, the choice of drinking bottled water while leaving to the public at large the cost of disposing of the container and ignoring the oil used in making all that plastic and its impact on global warming. The CEI has even created a special website just to fight efforts to shrink use of bottled water.

Here's the bottom line from the EWG: "With bottled water, you don't know what you're getting." Laboratory tests found Walmart's Sam's Club bottled water contains traces of disinfection, a sign that it is simply bottled tap water. Other brands sampled contained traces of contaminants at levels higher than the bottled water industry's own purity standards allow.

"Given the industry's refusal to make available data to support their claims of superiority, consumer confidence in the purity of bottled water is simply not justified," the report continues.

Of course, what's given the bottlers and the CEI that sinking feeling is that the growth in sales of bottled water is slowing. Reports like this from EWG, combined with growing public concerns about the environmental damage from the bottles, surely won't help to revive industry growth. In 2002, consumers spent $11 billion on bottled water, and sales grew 12 percent. This year, the increase is expected to be under 2.5%. Uh, oh.

There's even an effort by some universities to ban bottled water sales on campus as a green initiative. That has particularly disturbed the folks at CEI, bothering their rest with Nanny Nightmares.

Angela Logomasini is the CEI's spokesperson on this subject, and she criticized the EWG report as "junk science" and misleading. She's a Ph.D, a press release points out, but the CEI's web site says her advanced degree is in political science not biology or chemistry. I gave her a call to ask her to explain her assessment of the report, and it turned out she had no criticism of the laboratory findings, just the conclusion that bottled water is no better than tap.

She asserts that even though some bottled water is drawn right from municipal supplies that it's still better because it is filtered further and thus may taste better.

Her political background is more to the point of the CEI's criticisms. Calling a ban on bottled water sales on campuses "ridiculous," she asserts, "We're against the Nanny state. It's a right for people to live in a free society and engage in voluntary exchange, free trade."

What I've always loved about this view of capitalism--and I have a background in economics--is that free enterprise champions never want to pay the real price of so-called free trade.

How about a tax or at least a deposit on water bottles to cover the costs of disposing of the bottles? Nope. In fact, Logomasini said CEI would like to do away with all bottle deposits.

What about a labeling requirement that would tell consumers the source of bottled water, so you'd know, for example, that you were paying $1.50 for 12 ounces of some municipality's public water supply? Nah. Most brands, she asserts, have a phone # on the label where you can get such information.

The CEI's bottom line is that an unfettered market is always the answer.

Here's my bottom line: Buy genuinely reusable water bottles and refill them. A good source is REI, a retailing cooperative with a strong sense of responsibility to the public and the environment. With all the money you save, you can buy something really worthwhile in a bottle to celebrate your newfound thrift. Champagne anyone?

Friday, November 14, 2008

They Didn't Get to Vote Nov. 4

One of the least recognized penalties for committing any kind of felony in America is loss of the right to vote. And the biggest losers of that most basic aspect of citizenship are blacks and Latinos, most of them convicted of non-violent drug offenses.

The effect is unblushingly racist: the disproportionate enforcement of our failed drug laws and bans on voting by felons weakens the political power of minority communities. 

And that's no accident, says Ira Glasser, president of the Drug Policy Alliance and former executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union. Glasser, who woke me up to this issue when I heard him speak a couple of years ago, believes this is a deliberate policy to deprive minorities of power, an extension of the Jim Crow laws we thought we had left behind.

Here's the picture:
  • Although African Americans make up about 12% of the U.S. population and 13% of drug users, 38% of those arrested for drug offenses and 59% of those convicted are black.
  • Almost all states and the District of Columbia strip felony prisoners of their right to vote. Only 2 states--Maine & Vermont--allow voting by felony prisoners.
  • 35 states prohibit voting while felons are on parole
  • 30 states prohibit voting by felons on probation
  • 2 states--Kentucky & Virginia--are completely non-forgiving. Even after you've done your time, you never again can vote.
  • A few other states delay restoration of voting rights for certain offenses for as long as 5 years.
An estimated 5.3 million Americans (1 in 40 adults) have currently or permanently lost their voting rights as a result of a felony conviction.

But of those people, 1.4 million are African-American men--13% of the total population of black men, or more than 1 in 10.

As bad as that is, here's a shocking look forward, according to the Sentencing Project:

If the current unfair enforcement of drug laws continues, three in 10 of the next generation of black men can expect to be disenfranchised at some point in their lifetime. 

Not only is this situation racist, but it's costing us money we can ill afford. 

Here we are trying to find money to support education and health care and other essential services as our economy goes into the tank, and we're still wasting billions of dollars nationally keeping people in prison for using the short list of drugs we call illegal. Not so for those who abuse prescription drugs or alcohol, as long as they don't drive or engage in other behavior that hurts other people. Shouldn't that be the standard for all drugs? What makes marijuana or cocaine or heroin so different, other than that they are illegal and therefore the cause of so much crime, here and abroad?

Alternatives to incarceration, community-based drug treatment--in short, treating drug use as a health problem--would be far less expensive, not to mention humane than locking people up and in the process destroying their families and communities.

This picture looks even worse when you consider that in some states, the prison population is counted for representation in the communities where the prisons are located---mostly rural areas--rather than the home towns of the prisoners. In some communities, this results in giving the votes of a small number of generally white voters more weight than those of others. That's a clear violation of one person, one vote.

It's a situation crying out for change. 

Let's hope the new Obama Administration finds the time to dial down the drug war and put the drug problem in a new framework that delivers a healthier, more just America.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Obama's Win: Power to the People!

We did it. We all did it. All of us who marched and protested over and over, in the bitter cold and the hot sun, who circulated and signed endless petitions, who wrote countless letters and emails, who went in person to beseech our elected representatives, only to have all of these actions fall on deaf ears in Washington--this election of Obama was our victory and our revenge.

 This election wasn't decided by hockey moms or middle-aged white men. 

This election was decided by the members of the PTA and the social justice committees in churches across America. It was decided by the veterans pleading for an end to war and health care for their injured comrades. It was decided by the women's groups determined to save our option for abortion and our access to birth control and emergency contraception. It was decided by the organizations of nurses outraged by a health care system that leaves many to die without needed treatment. It was decided by immigrant rights groups looking for justice and not exploitation. It was decided by environmental activists passionate about saving our planet from global warming, about preserving the life in our oceans and on our lands. It was decided by the organizers of small coops distributing garage-made biodiesel to members of their community.

In short, it was decided by all those millions of people who for the past 8 years have been looking for a voice in Washington. And who have been stunned and dismayed that no matter how they pleaded, they were ignored by an incompetent President proud of his ignorance, and by deluded Republicans who thought they had the power. 

Most analysts are pointing to the implosion of our economy as the decisive factor in this election, and surely it made the need for change more urgent than ever.

But when the Republicans disparaged Obama's experience as a community organizer, they insulted just those people with the knowledge, the ability and the passion to take them down.

It was all those folks, with experience in a wide array of grassroots organizations, who saw in Obama the person who seemed willing and able to listen and be reasonable. And with faith in him, they put their organizing skills to work on his behalf, traveling to the embattled states, making phone calls on his behalf, contributing the massive amounts of money he needed to overcome the smears and the constant babble of right-wing bloviators on radio and TV.

So on this day, I'm celebrating because we the people, the people who work to make our communities, our country and the world better, we won yesterday. We won. 

I, for one, will take this day to enjoy our victory. Power to the people!

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Obama Plan to Bankrupt Coal Industry? Not.

In my worst nightmares as the presidential campaign neared its end, I envisioned the Bush Administration bombing Iran as its "October surprise," a game-changing event designed to push the election to McCain.

Thankfully, this didn't happen. Instead, in the past couple of days Republicans dredged up a recording of an interview Obama gave earlier this year in which he talked about the future of the U.S. coal industry.

I was supposed to be shocked and dismayed by an email that landed in my inbox with the headline:  "Obama Plan to 'Bankrupt' Clean Coal Would Cost Thousands of Jobs." 

Just as with so many campaign ads this political season, the words in that headline are a gross distortion. Here's why.

First, Obama has no plan whose intent is to bankrupt the coal industry. What he did say was that he would put into place a cap-and-trade system for greenhouse gases that would, for the first time, put a dollar value emissions that contribute to global warming. Unless an electric utility were able to somehow contain the emissions of carbon dioxide and other gases that come from burning coal, the utility would have to pay for each unit of gases it spews into the air. 

The effect of that system would be to put coal, the dirtiest of all fossil fuels, at a disadvantage against electricity made from cleaner fuels. 

And, indeed, Obama said in that interview that under such a system, the marketplace would determine that coal is too expensive to compete, leading to the bankruptcy of coal system operators.

This, of course, would be a good thing. By making energy companies pay the real costs of their business activity, the market would function to favor the cleanest sources of energy, including, of course, solar, wind, biodiesel, etc. 

This of course, is a horrible prospect to the Western Business Roundtable, the group that sounded the alarm in the final day before the election.  Like so many Big Businesses who speak the praises of capitalism and free markets when they apply to someone else, they've gotten used to letting other people--read taxpayers--pay to clean up the environmental messes they leave behind. The Roundtable is an association of energy companies, oil, coal, & natural gas, active in western states. They and their brethren in the rest of the country, including the coal strip-mining companies engaged in taking the tops off mountains in West Virginia, want to be allowed to continue to despoil our beautiful land and warm our planet without paying the price for their action.

Mountaintop removal is something you have to see, at least in pictures, to understand the devastation it creates. To get at the coal underneath all those pesky trees, bushes and top soil these environmental vandals just blast away the mountain tops and dump hundreds of millions of tons of creation into nearby valleys. From the air, these huge strip mines look like lunar landscapes.

Second distortion: Always looking for the angle that can rouse ordinary folks to take their side, the Roundtable's alarmist email also raised the specter of the loss of "hundreds of thousands of jobs" if a cap-and-trade system made coal mining the market loser that it should be.

This would also be a good thing. The dirty, deadly job of underground coal mining might eventually become a bad memory.  Certainly those workers will need help during the transition away from coal, and that must be one of the uses to which emission payments should be put. As for the folks who run the giant machines that eat mountains, let's find work for them building and repairing bridges and roads and other beneficial public works.

The last distortion in the headline of that email lies in the words "clean coal." There's just no such thing. The death toll and injuries, the environmental devastation involved in mining coal are so overwhelming that this is an industry that should become obsolete. For an excellent overview of all that, have a look at this article in the Washington Post. 

Even if it does become possible to pump the greenhouse gases from electricity plants underground--an incredibly expensive idea--or, better, to feed the carbon dioxide to algae that can then be harvested to make biofuels--the production of coal itself is an insult to the earth. Using the adjective "clean" in relation to coal is, plain and simple, an oxymoron.