Wednesday, January 26, 2011

State of the Planet Address

On January 25, 2011, the President gave his annual State of the Union Address.  The TSAP believes we should start a new tradition--the State of the Planet Address.  Yes, we know it is a bit of a downer to say the least.  So take off your rose-colored glasses and read on:

Our planet is in grave danger.  We face several serious long term problems:  climate change, deforestation/desertification, loss of biodiversity, overharvesting, energy crises, and of course pollution of many kinds.  Polar ice caps are melting.  Rainforests have been shrinking by 50 acres per minute.  Numerous species are going extinct every year.  Soil is eroding rapidly.  Food shortages have occurred in several countries in recent years.  Weather has been getting crazier each year, most likely due to climate change. And in 2010, we had the worst oil spill in the entire history of the world, leaving widespread and severe environmental damage in its wake that will persist for years to come. 

None of this is an accident of course.  These problems are man-made, and their solutions must also begin with humans.  We cannot afford to sit idly by any longer, lest we face hell and high water in the not-too-distant future.  Our unsustainable scorched-earth policy towars the planet has to end.

While we do not invoke the precautionary principle for all issues, we unequivocally do for the issue of climate change and any other environmental issues of comparable magnitude (we support the Rio Declaration's version, to be precise). With no apologies to hardcore libertarians or paleoconservatives, in fact. We are not fazed one bit by the Climategate scandal as it does not really "debunk" the scientific consensus on anthropogenic global warming. The only serious debate is about how fast it will happen, and when the tipping point will occur. It is not a matter of if, but when. And the less precarious position is to assume it is a real and urgent problem. We need to reduce CO2 emissions to the point where the CO2 concentration is at or below 350 ppm. And it is currently at an unsustainably high level, and growing.

Solving the problem of climate change will also help to solve the other ecological crises we are facing, for they all ultimately have the same root causes, not least of which is our insatiable addiction to dirty energy.  However, there is a right way to solve it, and several wrong ways.

The TSAP endorses the ideas embodied in Steve Stoft's new book Carbonomics, most notably a tax-and-dividend system that would tax carbon (i.e. fossil fuels) at the source, and give all Americans an equal share of the revenue generated from this tax. Every dollar raised will be used this way without exception. Yes, prices for various things would undoubtedly rise due to this embedded tax, all else being equal, but the dividend will allow Americans to pay for this increase. The average American would in fact break even, but those who (directly or indirectly) use less energy than average will effectively pay less tax, while the energy hogs will effectively be taxed more, as they should be. Thus it is certainly not a regressive tax, and may even be mildly progressive. This is both the simplest and most equitable way to reduce carbon emissions as well as other forms of pollution, not to mention waste of dwindling non-renewable resources. The real challenge is getting the feds to accept something that won't directly benefit them (in the short term).  Carbonomics also includes other good ideas, such as improving how fuel economy standards are done, and crafting a better verison of the Kyoto treaty.

Though not a part of Carbonomics, we also support raising the federal gasoline (and on-road diesel) tax, raising it a penny a week for two years until it is a dollar higher than it currently is but using that to fund alternative energy sources and public transportation along with highway funding (and including a limited prebate). We call this idea "a penny for progress".

We support ending net deforestation completely, and putting carbon back in the ground through carbon sequestration. One method is known as biochar, a type of charcoal made from the plants that remove carbon dioxide from the air, that is subsequently buried. This is also an ancient method of soil fertilization and conservation, originally called terra preta.  It also helps preserve biodiversity. 

We've said this before, and we'll say it again. We need more nuclear power plants as well. Nuclear emits no greenhouse gases directly, and even indirectly it pales in comparison to fossil fuels. Done properly, it is just as green as solar photovoltaic power, produces less radiation than coal power, and is much safer than in the past (and even those dangers were exaggerated). Since nuclear plants take many years to build, we need to get cracking ASAP. Nuclear power is not a substitute to renewables; it is a necessary complement to them since we need a base-loading power source, not just intermittent power. Our nation's irrational fear of all things nuclear needs to die NOW. Right now.

But the biggest elephant in the room (make that the elephant in the Volkswagen) is overpopulation. It does not make for pleasant dinner conversation, but it must be addressed or else all other causes become lost causes in the long run. We need to have fewer kids, or nature will reduce our population for us, and the latter will NOT be pleasant. The TSAP believes in voluntarily reducing the total fertility rate to 1.5-1.9 to do so, along with reducing immigration dramatically, but we do not support draconian and/or coercive measures of population control (like China has used). But the current tax and benefit incentives that reward having more than two children need to be jettisoned at once. We believe more liberty is the answer, not less. But we cannot keep growing and growing, that's for sure (in fact, we need to shrink). And our addiction to economic growth (despite being recently decoupled from well-being) is also part of the problem.

Bottom line: we need to take the environment much more seriously than we do now. We ignore it at our own peril.

Third-Hand Smoke Redux

A year ago, in a previous post, we discussed the relatively new and unfounded scares about third-hand smoke.  This concept is typically defined as the residue from tobacco smoke that sticks to various surfaces, including the smokers themselves.  We have warned that this bogus scare may lead to frivolous lawsuits and further loss of civil liberties in the future, and expressed great concern about such prospects.  Thus, we had hoped the issue would go away, but apparently it did not.

One recent study found that tobacco smoke residue on cellulose substrates (to mimic fabric surfaces) has the potential to "desorb" from such substrates upon exposure to ozone (O3), and become airborne in the future.  However, even the researchers admit that this would requires much lower levels of humidity and much higher levels of ozone that would be found in a typical home.  Perhaps on an airplane this may be true, due to dry cabin air and stratospheric ozone, but smoking is already banned on American airplanes.  This was similar to another study from last year that found that the pollutant nitrous acid (HONO) can react with nicotine to form small amounts of carcinogenic tobacco-specific nitrosamines (TSNAs). very, very afraid!  However, what the media didn't report was that the amount of HONO used was an order of magnitude higher than would be encountered in a typical home--if your levels are that high, that in itself is a health hazard, and it often indicates the presence of toxic NO and NO2 as well.  Bottom line:  neither study demonstrated that so-called third-hand smoke poses a practically significant health hazard under non-extreme circumstances, if even at all.  And it is junk science to claim otherwise.

But what about the new study that found that toxins supposedly linger in a building long after a smoker moves out?  Again, no proof of any actual health hazard, just the observation that surfaces tested positive for nicotine, and the urine of new nonsmoking residents tested positive for cotinine (a nicotine metabolite), the latter of which may very well be confounded.  So what?  It's the dose that makes the poison, and there's a safe level for everything, even arsenic and (gasp!) radiation.  And the actual amounts of nicotine and cotinine were quite small indeed, and not at levels proven to be hazardous.  In fact, even the authors readily admit that "this study was not designed to investigate health outcomes of exposure"--despite the media's insinuations otherwise.

Another study apparently found that even when smoking occurs in an unventilated room and surfaces are vigorously agitated the following day, the concentration of "third-hand smoke" particles that do become airborne is 100 times lower than second-hand smoke, which itself is more dilute than first-hand smoke.  Thus, even anti-smoking activist Michael Siegel considers the alleged risk from such exposure to be theoretical rather than practical, and that there ought to be no concern at all about the residues carried on the clothing of smokers after smoking outdoors.  Finally, some sanity for once!

And furthermore, I suggest all the true believers take a look at the following links:

As for further erosion of civil rights and liberties, It appears our fears may very well come true if our society lets them.  For example, the town of Great Neck, NY just recently banned outdoor smoking on the sidewalks, punishable by a whopping $1000 fine.  Worse still, the state of Maine is actually considering a bill that will deny medical treatment (through Medicaid) to smokers, despite the fact that smokers actually save society money (on balance) by dying earlier than nonsmokers.  Talk about playing God--should also we deny medical treatment to obese people, or anyone else some people deem deficient in character?

The TSAP is definitely NOT pro-smoking or pro-tobacco, and we hate the merchants of death known as tobacco companies, who willfully lied for decades about the dangers of their products and who continue to add harmful adulterants to this day. We believe that smoking or otherwise using any form of tobacco (all-natural or otherwise) is quite foolish given what we know today. But we fully support the right of all legal adults to choose pleasure over longevity, as long as they do not endanger nonconsenting others more than the minimum. Our society's love affair with the chimera of a no-risk society is a farce, plain and simple. Life is a risk, and there will be many things in this world you don't like.  Cry me a river, build a bridge, and get over it.  Remember that this is America, the land of the free, not Soviet Russia or North Korea.  Those that can't handle living in a free society should take advantage of the best freedom we can offer you--the freedom to leave.

Thus, we recommend that governments do the following:

  • Ban the use of radioactive fertilizers completely, period
  • Ban the use of any harmful additives or pesticides for tobacco products, and require all new additives (if any) to be FDA-approved
  • Require full disclosure of ingredients in tobacco products on the package
  • Require all cigarettes to be fire-safe, like many states already do
  • Set a national price floor of $5 per pack ($50 per carton) to discourage interstate smuggling, and index the federal tobacco tax to inflation
  • End all tobacco farming subsidies
  • Ban workplace discrimination for smoking on one's own time, or any other lifestyle choice that does not adversely affect one's job or directly harm nonconsenting others
State and local

  • Repeal all outdoor smoking bans, and pre-empt any future ones
  • Repeal smoking bans in bars, and let the owners decide for themselves
  • Repeal any smoking bans in residences, or at least set aside some apartments (and dorms) that do allow smoking
  • Set (and enforce) reasonable air quality standards for bars and restaurants that must be met, smoking or not
  • Give tax credits for the purchase of high-tech ventilation and air-cleaning equipment to bars and restaurants
  • Repeal smoking bans in private clubs
  • Maintain existing indoor smoking bans in areas other than bars and residences
 At all levels

  • Throw any lawsuit related to "third-hand smoke" out of court, and allow such plaintiffs to be countersued for filing a frivolous lawsuit
  • Do not interfere with parental rights relating to smoking (within reason)
  • Do not ban e-cigarettes, snus, or other smokeless tobacco products, and do not restrict them more severely than cigarettes 
  • Divest from Big Tobacco completely
  • Increase honest anti-tobacco education programs
  • Quit harassing smokers--their taxes pay your salary

Final thought:  whenever anyone says "there is absolutely no safe level of exposure to tobacco smoke (or its residue)", just replace the word "tobacco" with "campfire" or "barbecue". Now do you see how absurd it sounds?

Monday, January 24, 2011

What to Do about the Debt?

The national debt (currently $14 trillion and growing) is about to reach its ceiling of $14.3 trillion, probably by March 31 of this year.  Some, like the President, say we must raise the debt ceiling or risk defaulting, the latter of which would be catastrophic.  Others, like many Republicans, say that we should not raise the ceiling, thus forcing the government to cut spending.  Still others believe America is doomed either way.  So what's the truth?

Well, first of all, not raising the ceiling is not the same thing as defaulting, and such a choice is a false dichotomy.  Not raising the ceiling simply means we can't increase our rate of borrowing.  If we hit the ceiling on March 31, the government will still have several more months before we actually run the risk of default.  The Feral Reserve has many weapons in its arsenal to stave off a crisis temporarily.  That will buy some time for further debate in Congress on what to ultimately do.  However, we must never default--it is simply not an option.  On the other hand, our current practice of continually increasing the debt is unsustainable.

It is interesting how the Republicans have suddenly become so hawkish about the debt, considering how they have been running up massive deficits since Reagan, and thus how most of the debt (including interest, which we simply borrow even more to pay) can be traced to Reagan and both Bushes.  You know, the same borrow-and-spend "conservatives" who cut taxes on the rich while increasing "defense" (read: war) spending as well as general government waste.  And today's Republicans are the same ones who held unemployment benefits hostage to force the Democrats to extend the tax cuts on the rich, further worsening our debt problem.  The current brinksmanship on the debt ceiling is most likely just yet another way to extract more concessions out of the Democrats.  The Republicans most likely will accept a ceiling increase in exchange for what they want.

We at the TSAP believe that the best course of action is to not raise the ceiling, and force Congress to raise taxes and cut spending.  But it has to be done right.  The best way to raise taxes is to end the Bush tax cuts for the top 2% of the population, create a new 50% bracket at $1 million, equalize the dividend tax with the tax on regular income, and close as many tax loopholes as possible ASAP.  (No, that will not destroy jobs--we have already debunked that claim.) When the economy improves, taxes on the lower 98% should also be restored to their 2000 levels, and/or be replaced with a VAT.  Tariffs on foreign goods need to be raised as well, which will also protect American jobs.  Other taxes that should be raised are the gas tax, the alcohol taxes, and the tobacco taxes--and perhaps new excise taxes should be created on other vices.  As for spending, the best way to cut that is to cut defense spending by half over the next 5-10 years, close unnecessary foreign bases, accelerate withdrawal from Iraq, and completely pull out of Afghanistan no later than 2012.  Waste should be eliminated, the line-item veto should be restored, and the Read the Bills Act must be passed.  No more bailouts, ever.  In the longer term, Social Security and Medicare do indeed need to be reformed, but not jettisoned or privatized like in the Republican fantasy world.  And raiding the Social Security Trust Fund should be banned entirely.

So if the Republicans want to not raise the ceiling, fine.  But the Democrats should not concede, but rather call their bluff and demand that the Republicans agree to higher taxes on the wealthy and cuts to "defense" spending and Republican waste, or else the ceiling will be raised to $15 trillion (but no higher).  Turnabout is fair play--after all, the Republicans were the ones who demanded the tax cut extensions by holding unemployment benefits hostage.

Failing all that, if the ceiling is eventually raised, any such raise should be conditional on passage of a balanced-budget amendment to the Constitution.  You know, the very same amendment that Bush II claimed to support when he first ran for President in 2000.  In other words, from 2012 onward, no more deficits, only surpluses.  Then maybe we can actually start paying down our ludicrously high national debt.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Reflections on the Tuscon Shooting

On January 8, 2011, Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords was shot in Tuscon, AZ, along with several other people.  While she survived after being shot in the head, and appears to be recovering fairly well, six other people unfortunately died, including a child.  Out of respect, the TSAP has (until now) avoided making any posts about the Tuscon massacre or any issues related to it since we first learned about it. 

We extend our deepest condolences to all the victims of this horrible and senseless act of violence, along with their families.  As we have stated before, the TSAP uneqivocally condemns all forms of violence, political or otherwise, except for immediate self-defense.  It destroys the fabric of society and often leads to more violence.  Regardless of one's political persuasion, that fact should be clear to all.

What can we learn from this tragedy?  Well, we know that the alleged shooter (whose name we refuse to mention) was apparently mentally ill.  This fact can be gleaned from his history of uncontrolled outbursts in class and bizarre YouTube videos.  We know that he was gung-ho about killing Giffords for quite some time, and that the shooting was premeditated rather than a crime of passion.  We know he was neither left-wing nor right-wing, but was an ardent anti-goverment conspiracy theorist, and possibly a bigot as well.  We know that he was an ex-drug user who apparently got worse mentally after quitting, and committed the massacre after being clean and sober for over two years.  We know that he got the gun legally and passed the background check, but probably could have gotten one fairly easily even if had he been denied, due to the widespread availability of illegal guns (especially in major cities like Tuscon).  We know that multiple-victim public shootings are relatively rare events, and interestingly are even rarer and typically less severe in jurisdictions that allow the carrying of concealed weapons (such as Arizona).  And that many such shootings, such as Virginia Tech (and all other school shootings in America since 1995) occur in so-called "gun-free zones".  We know that nearly half of these shooters have been formally diagnosed with a severe mental illness (such as schizophrenia), and we also know that our country's mental health care system is seriously broken and underfunded thanks to ignorance and decades of budget cuts.

Unfortunately, politics can get nasty rather quickly after something like this happens, and the rancor can easily cloud one's judgment.  We at the TSAP strongly discourage any sort of overreaction to this tragedy, including the passage of knee-jerk legislation that will most likely do more harm than good.  And we also support President Obama's call for increased civility in the wake of this tragedy.

Monday, January 10, 2011

The Fluoridation Controversy Revisited

On January 7, 2011, for the first time in nearly half a century, the federal government has reviewed recommended fluoride levels in drinking water, and announced that they may recommend reducing (but not eliminating) such levels.  Apparently, kids are getting too much fluoride, as evidenced by the significant increase in dental fluorosis (tooth mottling) in teens since the 1980s.  Which should come as no surprise, since fluoride is found not just in drinking water, but also in toothpaste, some vitamin supplements, tea, processed foods and soft drinks made with fluoride-containing water, some bottled waters, and even the air we breathe.

Water fluoridation began in earnest in the early 1950s, after first being tried in 1945 in Grand Rapids, Michigan.  Today, the majority of communities in the United States currently fluoridate their water.  However, most European countries currently do not, and most of those that once did have banned the practice decades ago due to safety concerns.  While it is true that tooth decay rates have declined in the US since fluoridation was adopted, similar or even faster declines have been observed in countries that do not fluoridate.  Also, declines often began before fluoridation, and continued after stopping it.  Thus, the secular decline in tooth decay was most likely due to an increase in the use of fluoride toothpaste as well as improvements in general nutrition, as opposed to water fluoridation.  Which makes perfect sense, since it is now known that the benefits of fluoride are topical rather than systemic.

As for the potential risks associated with fluoridation, the statements by proponents of the practice have not been particularly reassuring.   Fluoride has been linked to several adverse health effects, some scarier than others.  While the jury is still out on many of these effects, evidence has been mounting for quite some time, and even the relatively weak version of the precautionary principle embodied in the Rio Declaration would seem to preclude continuation of deliberate water fluoridation in any amount.

There are also ethical issues to consider.   Mass-medicating the whole population with uncontrolled doses of a potentially hazardous substance without informed consent is generally viewed as violating basic biomedical ethical principles, to say nothing of civil liberties issues.

Since our founding in 2009, the TSAP has generally been neutral on the issue of water fluoridation.   However, in light of both past and recent evidence, we now recommend that a complete moratorium on the practice be put in place as a precautionary measure while the issue is studied further.