Thursday, August 27, 2015

The tides are coming in ... dangerously so

Due to global warming, the oceans are rising and the pace of that increase seems to be accelerating. This comes from a report by Quartz:
New satellite research from NASA shows that not only are global sea levels rising quickly, but they could rise even more drastically than previous reports estimated. ... “It’s pretty certain we are locked into at least 3 feet of sea level rise, and probably more,” said Steve Nerem, head of NASA’s Sea Level Change Team. “But we don’t know whether it will happen within a century or somewhat longer.” Sea levels are rising for three main reasons: The melting of ice sheets in Greenland and Antarctica, the melting of mountain glaciers, and the expansion of oceans as they absorb heat and become warmer. All three causes can be directly attributed to global warming.

Although I am convinced that the NASA scientists have this right, there is a problem with the caveat built into their conclusion. Just when will this sea level rise take place? As Mr. Nerem notes, it could be a century or it could be longer. That is a pretty large fudge factor, and it makes it harder to motivate action--or even push people living in low-lying areas from building upward--until it is likely too late.

What I expect will happen in 75 or 100 or 150 years is that there will be several catastrophic events--massive coastal floods that destroy thousands of low-lying structures and ruin all of the roads, bridges and other coastal infrastructure. After the catastrophes, many property owners in those places will rebuild on stilts, maybe 10, 15 or 20 feet off the ground, and they will get around on sea craft. At the same time, millions or maybe even billions of others will relocate back several miles to the new, hopefully safe coastline.

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

"Israel should be annihilated, Iranian official says"

In case you were under the delusion that Iran has become a normal, peaceful country--in the wake of its signing a nuclear accord with Obama and other world leaders in order to get the sanctions against Iran removed and to regain access to $150 billion of its frozen assets--Hossein Sheikholeslam hopes to disabuse you of that notion:

"Our positions against the usurper Zionist regime have not changed at all; Israel should be annihilated and this is our ultimate slogan," the Iranian Parliament Speaker's Adviser for International Affairs Hossein Sheikholeslam was quoted as saying by Iran's Fars news agency.

To be clear, normal, peaceful countries don't talk about annihilating other countries, especially ones like Israel which have done nothing whatsoever to Iran. Despite that, every college campus across the United States has a hardcore group of secular leftists and anti-Semitic Muslim fundamentalists, including faculty and students, who are dedicated to the notion that Israel is the worst country on Earth; and not one college or university in the U.S. has even the smallest movement which has ever called out the Iranian government for what it is--a brutal, fascist, inhumane, power-hungry theocracy which has denied all human rights to its citizens and exported its horrible views and policies with men, guns and training to terrorists around the Middle East.

Thursday, August 20, 2015

"NOAA: July hottest month on record, and 2015 could be hottest year"

Like it or not, global warming keeps punching us in the face. Here is more data regarding how hot it has been this year worldwide by way of a CNN report:

If you felt the heat this past July, you are hardly alone. July saw the highest average temperatures since record-keeping began -- globally, not just in the United States -- the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration reported Thursday. Globally, the first seven months of the year also had all-time highs. The latest global temperature data make it likely that 2015 will be the hottest year on record, the agency said. NOAA's findings follow reports by NASA and the Japan Meteorological Agency, which reached the same conclusion using their own data.

I realize that there are still a lot of skeptics and deniers. Many of them are just ignoramuses who don't understand science or record keeping. Others are convinced that this is a scam of the environmentalist activists and is not really science. The skeptics and deniers are important because they are electing people who are stopping us from doing anything meaningful about all the carbon we are pouring into the atmosphere. 

What I wonder is this: What would it take to convince a global warming skeptic that he is wrong? What has to happen to change someone's mind, to make a person who thinks global warming is a crock to realize it is real? And not only to understand that it is real, but to accept that mankind by way of burning fossil fuels is causing the problem? 

I don't know if the skeptics and deniers are capable of being convinced. Nearly 100 percent of climate scientists accept the theory -- that human activities are causing the Earth to warm up as a result of emitting greenhouse gases, especially carbon dioxide as a consequence of burning gas, oil and coal. The hurdle may be like one of religion. Where someone who believes in a divine being cannot be unconvinced of that no matter the rational argument or the data or anything logical. Believers have their minds made up. And in the case of global warming deniers, their position is one of religion.

Of course, they might just say the opposite: that believers in global warming are the people whose belief is based more on religion than facts. But if they say that, then it seems more likely they might be open to an argument based on reason. That leads me back to asking the deniers and skeptics this question: What has to happen, in terms of temperature records or levels of atmospheric carbon, to convince you that global warming is real, that mankind caused it, and that we should do all we can to minimize its negative consequences?

Thursday, August 13, 2015

"Protein-packed breakfast prevents body fat gain in overweight teens"

This Science Daily story about the benefit of eating a lot of protein for breakfast caught my attention:

University of Missouri researchers compared the benefits of consuming a normal-protein breakfast to a high-protein breakfast and found the high-protein breakfast -- which contained 35 grams of protein -- prevented gains of body fat, reduced daily food intake and feelings of hunger, and stabilized glucose levels among overweight teens who would normally skip breakfast.

I usually eat either 2 eggs plus a dark green vegetable (cooked in a fry pan with a healthy oil, salt and spices) or I replace the eggs with a fillet of fish. What I was unaware of was how many grams of protein there are in my eggs or that fillet of fish.

The answer is there are 6 grams of proteins in an egg, 12g in two; and there are 15 grams of protein in a 4 oz. fillet of swai, which is the fish I normally eat every other day. I'm likely getting another 8 grams of protein from my double portion of green veggies (usually broccoli or zucchini).

Thus, if 35 grams of protein is ideal, I am getting far too little of it at breakfast. Makes me think I might benefit from adding in a protein shake.

It's also worth wondering if this study of fat teens applies to a fit, very active 51 year old. Perhaps the numbers are a bit different, but I suspect the idea is the same: that a lot of protein for breakfast will reduce hunger later in the day.

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Murder rate on the rise?

This story from USA Today is more than a month old, but it caught my attention because it is counter to the trend of lower violent crime rates which has been going on for more than two decades: 

"Several big U.S. Cities see homicide rates surge," said the newspaper's headline. Milwaukee, St. Louis, Baltimore, New Orleans, Chicago, Washington, D.C. and Dallas are reported to have jumps in their homicide counts. 

The homicide toll across the country — which reached a grim nadir in 1993 when more than 2,200 murders were counted in New York City — has declined in ebbs and flows for much of the last 20 years, noted Alfred Blumstein, a professor of urban systems and operations research at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh. Several U.S. cities – including Los Angeles, Phoenix, San Diego and Indianapolis – have experienced a decrease in the number of murders so far this year. Blumstein said the current surge in murders in some big cities could amount to no more than a blip. "It could be 2015 represents us hitting a plateau, and by the end of the year, nationally, we'll see that murder rates are flat or there is a slight bump up," Blumstein said.

No place seems to have it worse than Baltimore. The ABC TV station there last week reported that Charm City's murder rate is up 53 percent over 2014

Seventy more people have been killed in Baltimore this year compared to the same time last year.  Two more murders Monday pushed the city’s homicide rate to 201 deaths so far in 2015. It took until December to reach the same benchmark in 2014. At this time last year, 131 people were killed in the city.

I am not sure why this is happening, now. It's likely that part of the reason in some cities is a resurgent drug war, where gangs that had controlled some neighborhoods are being challenged by other gangs intruding on their turf. But if it proves to be a national trend over several years, gang turf instability won't explain much. 

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

"With road repairs on California's to do list, local officials push for new funds"

It took Gov. Brown a year and a half to finally take my advice to him seriously. But despite the delay, this week Jerry called a special session of the California legislature to address the crisis of road maintenance in our state and at the local level. Here is the LA Times story:

In preparation for a special legislative session on transportation, state lawmakers have proposed various tax and fee hikes to help produce $6 billion a year to pay for highway and bridge maintenance. On Monday, local government officials, along with allies in labor and business, outlined a plan by which the state, cities and counties could share that revenue. “I don’t think the people of California would be satisfied with a gleaming, beautiful state highway system, with broken [local] streets and roads that they can’t live with,” said Matt Cate, executive director of the California State Assn. of Counties.  
Gov. Jerry Brown called the special session to focus attention on problems with California roads, and lawmakers are expected to continue working on the issue when they return from their summer recess next week. Administration officials estimate that $59 billion is needed for state roads. An additional $78 billion is required for cities and counties, according to local officials. 

What is shocking is just how far behind the city of Davis and the county of Yolo are with their road maintenance. Davis needs about $120 million over 20 years, not to have good roads, but to remain barely adequate. Yolo County says it is $305 million short of its needs.

Thursday, August 6, 2015

"Hiroshima marks 70 years since atomic bombing with calls to end 'absolute evil' of nuclear weapons"

Although it was an unthinkable and undeserved outcome to the thousands of individuals who were killed by the atomic bomb -- in that sense not all that different than the deaths of millions of other civilians during the Second World War -- August 6 had a beneficial outcome for humanity. The bombing of Hiroshima directly led to the surrender of Imperial Japan on August 15, 1945.
This is from USA Today's account of the anniversary:
HIROSHIMA, Japan — Japan marked the 70th anniversary of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima on Thursday, as its mayor renewed calls for global leaders to rid the world of nuclear weapons, calling them "the absolute evil and ultimate inhumanity."  ...  An estimated 140,000 people died from the Hiroshima bombing, and even more were killed three days later in the attack on Nagasaki, on Aug. 9.

It is certainly appropriate the include the best estimate we have of the people killed in the Hiroshima bombing. However, what also needs to be included -- but never is -- is the best estimate we have of the number of people who would have died had WW2 continued on its course.
Those "saved" by the Hiroshima and Nagasaki atomic bombings were not just the tens of thousands of American and Allied military who would have died in an invasion. The U.S. estimated at the time we would have suffered 1 million casualties, though certainly not all of those would have been killed. The "saved" also include millions of Japanese civilians and soldiers we would have killed during an invasion and more who likely would have died from starvation and disease. 
But only considering the American and Japanese lives that were saved by the A-bombs woefully underestimates the total. Japan was still viciously in charge of Korea, large parts of China, Vietnam and Indochina and other territories in the Pacific in August, 1945. Had the War continued, it seems reasonable to presume that millions of civilians who survived following the War in those places would have died had the Japanese not surrendered due to the attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Thousands in those places every day were dying of disease and malnutrition due to the savage occupation by the Japanese. Virtually every country near Japan to this day hates Japan because of how horribly the Japanese occupiers treated their countries during the War.

Another important consideration of the benefit of ending the War as quickly as we did with the atomic bombings is the role of Soviet Russia in Japan. Other than the capture of a few islands in northern Japan, the Russians were left out of the occupation and reintegration of post-War Japan. But if they had played a role in the invasion, then it is likely (as happened in East Germany and North Korea) that the Russians would have imposed a Communist regime on the part of Japan it controlled. Because that never happened, Asia has been much more stable and prosperous ever since. And there are literally tens of millions of Japanese who have enjoyed good lives ever since who, under Communism, would have suffered the terrible fate of the North Koreans.
Certainly, the bombings were an injustice for the innocents in Hiroshima and Nagasaki who suffered terrible deaths -- some taking years of agony. But given the choice of a few hundred thousand versus many millions, it is clear to me that President Truman's decision to drop the bomb was the most humane one he could have made.

Wednesday, August 5, 2015

"Police: Tenn. theater attack suspect had been committed 4 times"

There was yet another violent incident today at a movie theater. Not surprisingly, the offender, who was shot and killed, was mentally ill:

(CNN) -- The man who was killed Wednesday by Nashville police after he allegedly went after moviegoers with a hatchet and pepper spray had been committed to a mental institution four times, police spokesman Don Aaron told reporters.
Vincente David Montano was committed twice in 2004 and twice in 2007, said Aaron, citing officials in Rutherford County. Montano had been arrested Murfreesboro, Tennessee, in 2004 in a case of assault and resisting arrest, police said.

The great wonder is why we don't go back to the time when the violently mentally ill are locked up in psychiatric hospitals where they can get treatment and they pose no threat to society or themselves. They should not be let out unless they recover their sanity or are clearly well enough to manage their own affairs and take their anti-psychotic meds. 

Bowing down to the civil libertarian extremists is not serving the best interests of these patients or society.

Tuesday, August 4, 2015

"Video: Kentucky officer handcuffs disabled boy"

A widely covered story in the news today is a video of an 8-year-old Kentucky boy with ADHD who was handcuffed by a sheriff's deputy after misbehaving in school. Here are the details as reported by a website called PressTV:
A crying third-grader boy with disabilities was handcuffed by a school resource officer in the US state of Kentucky in the fall of 2014, shows a video released by the American Civil Liberties Union. The video accompanies a federal lawsuit, which was filed on Monday by the ACLU, the Children's Law Center, and Dinsmore & Shohl on behalf of two children against the Kenton County Sheriff's Office in Covington, Kentucky.
The video shows that the officer handcuffs the crying boy’s biceps behind his back leaving him in pain for 15 minutes because of behavior related to his disabilities, the ACLU said.

I am not sure handcuffing the child in this video was the right thing to do. But I am not sure the deputy did the wrong thing, either.
Keep in mind that this boy's behavior was bad enough for the school to call in law enforcement. It's not as if he had a small temper tantrum in class and had to take a time out. His teacher and the school staff made it clear that they could not handle him. And when you see the video it is clear that this kid is seriously enraged and not ready or able to calm down. 
So the officer, it seems to me, had a few choices--none of which was all that good. 
One would have been to simply do nothing--let the kid go on swinging his fists and likely hurting other people or himself and whatever property was near. It is hard to see how this option is better than restraining the child with handcuffs.
A second option would be restrain him manually, firmly holding his arms using the officer's superior strength. But again, that does not seem like such a good idea. At best, it is equal to using handcuffs. At worst, the officer might accidentally break the child's arm or leave a bad bruise. The ACLU or other anti-police groups would then file suit against the officer for use of excessive force.
An option the officer certainly did not have was to tranquilize the child with a sedative. That might have been the best route. However, the deputy is not a medical professional. His charge was to make sure the child did not hurt himself or others, and that is what he accomplished with the handcuffs. If the school officials thought tranquilizing the boy with a drug was the way to go, they would have called for an ambulance, not law enforcement. 
So given the choices open to the officer, it seems to me he did the best he could by handcuffing the boy.
The bigger picture question is why this mentally ill kid has such severe ADHD and why, if the disease is not being controlled, he is in school with other children. A disruptive, violent student can definitively destroy the learning environment for every other student in his classroom. The sick boy's rights do not trump those of the other 29 kids who are there to learn.
A secondary, but related question is how this child's illness is being treated. I don't think you have to be a devotee to "alternative medicine" to think that a proper diet and extra exercise should be prescribed to a child with ADHD. That does not say that medication is not also part of the equation. It may be. But I am certain that a kid with, say, too much sugar in his diet and probably some weird chemicals added to processed foods will be harder to deal with than one who eats a more natural diet filled mostly with proteins and greens. Additionally, I would not be surprised to find that a child who cannot control himself in a classroom setting like this boy would be calmer and more rational if he were forced to burn off his extra energy through vigorous exercise before school every day. 


Edit: August 6, 2015

CNN ran a story today titled, "The handcuffed boy video: How to discipline children with ADHD." Here is a link:

I figured real experts would weigh in and make it clear what the officer did wrong and what he should have done instead. However, if you read the article, you will see the "advice" they give is a worthless load of shit. A pediatrician is quoted saying, "absolutely never, under no circumstances" would you use handcuffs for a child who has ADHD and is out of control." But then exactly what should have been done once the kid was violent and was out of control is not answered. That doctor says the most important "solution" is to have the right body language. Another expert says the "answer" is to "catch them when they are being good." WTF? How the hell does that help this policeman in this troubling circumstance when the boy is clearly not "being good."

If it is true that the school resource officer -- that is, the deputy -- did not do the right thing, the blame really should be placed on the school administrators who asked him to help. Those folks should have, apparently, called in someone who has the proper body language and could use that to "catch him when he is doing good."

Monday, June 22, 2015

Safflower fields forever

June 22, 2015 about 10 AM -- A safflower field in bloom along Road 99D, just north of Davis. Yolo County farmers often plant safflower in dry years, when they lack the water for thirstier crops like tomatoes, sunflowers and corn.

Saturday, June 20, 2015

Stopping at Steady Eddy's

Saturday, June 20, 2015 -- Davis Bike Club ride led by John Whitehead. Group stops at Steady Eddy's Coffee House in Winters during a 60+ mile roundtrip.

Monday, May 12, 2014

Davis City Council candidates Q&A

Two questions for the 2014 Davis City Council candidates:

1. The City’s hourly (or unit) labor costs have been growing faster than the City’s revenues have been growing for many years. Do you believe that is sustainable?

2. If you think the growing unit cost of labor is unsustainable, what reforms, if any, to the City’s labor contracts would you suggest the next City Council pursue to make these costs sustainable?


Daniel Parrella:

        1. No, whenever you have costs increasing faster than revenues that is inherently unsustainable. The growing employer's share of CalPERS in particular is daunting and represents a significant chunk of rising costs. 

        2. I would like to continue to build on the successes of the last labor negotiations. We have a few options moving forward. For starters all the employee groups should pay what the Davis Police Officers Association pays. They are the only group that pays both 9% employee share of CalPERS as well as 3% of the employer's share of CalPERS. We could also cut down on the Cafeteria Cash-Out Plan, It is currently at $500 and could be lowered to zero. Asking our employees to pick up a bigger tab of the employer's share, boosting it from 3% to say 5%, would also save a tremendous amount of money in the long run. 


Sheila Allen:

The growing cost of pensions and health benefits for the staff of the City of Davis and other public agencies is a major and legitimate public concern.  It is a major contributor to the $5 million structural budget shortfall that the city manager has estimated over the next five years.  A major portion of any public entity and most businesses are personnel costs.

However, labor costs are not the only factor that has been growing faster than city revenues in recent years. For example, the cost of materials needed to rebuild our pot-holed city roads have accelerated.  And, obviously, water rates will be increasing to pay for the joint project with the City of Woodland that will secure Davis' water future.

In comparing labor costs to revenues, it is important to remember that the country just suffered the greatest recession since the Great Depression, and the recovery has been much slower than past economic recoveries. The City of Davis was not immune from this economic downturn. Also, major state funding sources such as RDA have either dried up or significantly decreased. In addition, insurance costs have also increased. grew faster in recent years than city revenues.  But this problem is not unique to Davis. Almost every entity of local government across the state of California has been enduring these difficulties.

2. The situation calls for looking at every part of the budget equation to gets the city's books permanently back into balance. This includes the new revenues from Measure O on the June 3 ballot, which I support. I would look at every important asset in the city's portfolio and examine how it could be used to better the city's financial condition. In addition, economic development will also add to the revenue side of the equation.

And I think the adoption of additional budget efficiencies, including steps to help contain future growth in labor costs, are unavoidable until we are in balance. The city will need to go beyond the $11 million reduction in General Fund costs that have already been implemented by the current City Council in recent years.  While funding for public safety is a core service of city government and must always be the city's priority, every sector of city spending deserves a closer look in times like these.  

The city has just implemented a new round of contracts and imposed terms on two labor groups that did not reach a new contract with the city that have imposed some significant rollbacks in city compensation.  I support adhering to the terms for the life of the contract agreements. Future increases in compensation agreed to in future labor negotiations may need to be accompanied by offsetting concessions that require city staff either to contribute more to the cost of their benefits and-or agree to other changes that enable additional savings to assure a balanced budget and the long term fiscal health of the city.

That said, I am a very strong supporter of the city employees who are being asked to do more with less and to accept these difficult decreases in pay.  We must be careful to remember that we operate in a competitive market for city staff.  We need to attract, retain and value public servants who will maintain the high quality of city services that Davis residents rightfully insist upon.


Robb Davis:

I would say they are not sustainable and we can think about this in a number of ways.  First, 70% of our General Fund is in Employee Compensation.  By my calculations the total GF costs will be growing at about 3.2% per year and revenue at 2.5% over the next 5 years.  Given the place of employee compensation in total costs it is clear that we cannot bring the two rates of growth into line without dealing with growing employee compensation.  But the prospects for that are dim.  Our pension costs are set to double between now and 2020—going up to over $13 million.  Further, and this is where the lack of sustainability is clear, even though we have cut 22% of workforce over the past 5 years, pension costs alone next year will be where they were 3 years ago.  So we are cutting staff but paying more for that staff.  Most of that is in pensions, OPEB and current employee medical care.  Finally, even as our “reserve” shrinks to zero over the next year or so, we are still not maintaining streets and other critical infrastructure within our GF budget (the proposed 2014/15 budget has 2 million or so for maintenance but that is a drop in the bucket compared to need).  So, we may need to return to citizens for a parcel tax to cover street repairs.  THAT demonstrates the lack of sustainability of our budget: if we cannot cover the costs of maintaining current infrastructure with our current revenues but must look to hard-to-achieve tax increases (2/3 vote to pass), we have a problem.  

Of course we could deal with this lack of sustainability with rapid revenue growth from sales, property and unsecured property taxes.  But I am skeptical that we can grow or maintain growth rates in revenue to fill these holes (and you did not really ask about growing revenue—even though it is a piece of the puzzle).

2. If you think the growing unit cost of labor is unsustainable, what reforms not yet undertaken  if any, to the City’s labor contracts would you suggest the next City Council pursue to make these costs sustainable?

My solutions are stated in general terms because I am not sure (yet) where the greatest savings can occur.  But we should be willing to do all of the following (and I may be missing some—you will educate me I am sure):

1. We have reduced the cafeteria cash out but could/should we take it to zero?  Some cities do not have this and while some argue that by going to zero we may push more people INTO our plan (which would cost us more), I have not seen evidence of that.  Cutting the cafeteria cash out to zero should be on the table.
2. We will have to seek greater staff contributions to pensions.  This has been done in the past but salary lost to such contributions was “backfilled” by giving salary increases.  In the future we must request greater contributions to pensions and NOT backfill.
3. We must freeze all salaries (see previous point) in the next round of negotiations if possible.
4. We should explore graduated salary reductions.  By graduated I mean we should ask the highest paid staff to take salary reductions at a higher rate than lower paid staff.  We may simply freeze some salaries (I AM talking about salaries here) but have graduated salary cuts above a certain threshold.  UC Davis did this a few years back.
5. We should stop closing city offices (using a kind of furlough program) and ask staff to work full time for the same (or less) salary.  
6. I think we have gained some cost saving via recent state level decisions about where our medical care is referenced (Sacramento versus Bay Area).  We should also examine the possibility of asking for greater employee contributions to current medical care (if possible) and contributions to the retiree portion for beneficiaries (again, if possible—I need to study this more).
7. I am not sure what, if anything, we can do with current retiree medical care but we should examine what is possible to have them contribute more or provide a different coverage. 
8. Finally, we should look at the potential for outsourcing at all levels.  My only concern about outsourcing is that while it seems like a logical way to cut costs (we could offer contracts to those who pay salaries equal to the city staff’s and decent medical care but save tremendously because of no pension costs), I am concerned about quality of work.  This is not a smokescreen but a real concern.  Ownership and identification with the goals of the city IS a motivating factor for city staff and if we are going to outsource we need to have in place clear quality assessment guidelines for any outsourced jobs.

We have done some of 8 but perhaps need to be more aggressive in putting all of them on the table.  You can correct me where I am wrong here—as I am sure to be.  This is a huge and challenging area of learning for me.


John Munn:

I will start by observing that there are more challenges to the City of Davis budget than unit labor costs alone. I have not tried to separate unit labor cost out before, so you are going to get my initial thoughts that sometimes need to be corrected, which I expect but can be more painful in a public arena. I can also note with certainty that, having followed your columns, you already know a lot more about this than you will get from me.
I have commented elsewhere about the apparent lack of control over providing city services that comes from relying on attrition to reduce the number of city employees, and that total payroll has increased despite the reduction in number of employees. Increasing unit labor costs resulting from higher health care coverage and pension charges helps explain why the City’s budget has grown while number of employees has gone down. Rising payroll while the number of employees has been reduced by over 20 percent could also result from loss of lower paid workers, who actually provide services, while increasing the number of higher paid management employees. At his point, I don’t have information needed to know the relative importance of these possibilities in creating our current labor cost problems. Also, I want it to be clear that I consider total employee compensation to include both what is paid directly to an employee (including deducted amounts) and what is contributed by the employer to pay for benefits (some of which may be an unfunded future benefit). With that background, I will go on to try to answer your question.
Unit labor cost increases, alone, might not be the only reason for our current City budget deficit. But they must be a big part since, without raises, fewer employees should mean lower overall costs. However, having fewer employees might also pencil out to a lower overall cost of pension and health care costs depending on how the city contributions to pensions and health care are calculated for different employment classes (for example, is the health care cost of an employee tied to salary or not) and on the recent “give-backs” in employee bargaining agreements. This would need to be compared to increased health care system and pension system costs to know for sure, and I would work with City staff to produce that information.
With or without the complications noted above, and even without raises, there will be future increases in pension compensation because of staged increases in CalPERS rates and likely growth in health care premiums. So the City’s share of unit labor costs must be brought under control or they will inevitably grow to be larger than the general fund. This is obviously not sustainable.
In addition, total employee compensation is still adding to our unfunded liabilities. I have seen estimates of unfunded compensation liabilities of $15 million for pensions and nearly $60 million for health care. These are really big numbers, but I also know that they can grow or shrink based on assumptions about investment returns and rates of increasing cost that are subject to change.

Rich Rifkin Question 2: If you think the growing unit cost of labor is unsustainable, what reforms not yet undertaken, if any, to the City’s labor contracts would you suggest the next City Council pursue to make these costs sustainable?
John Munn Response:
From the information I have seen so far, paying for growth of unit labor costs without large, and probably unacceptable, local tax increases or other large sources of new revenue requires that employees pay a greater share of the cost for pension and health care benefits that are made available to them through City employment. Another approach to reducing the growth of unit labor costs is to create tiered systems, where reduced benefit packages are offered to new employees. However, I still want to see the assumptions and calculations before stating conclusions about how the City Council should deal with these costs.
Opportunities for collecting more City revenue from new sources, in addition to sales and parcel taxes, such as from business park property taxes and business-to-business sales, would also help to support growing employee costs. But the net City revenue increases that can be realistically produced from innovation parks and other business growth still need to be determined. This does not mean that business parks do not provide benefits, some of which have revenue spin-offs, such as local jobs. Hotel occupancy taxes are another potential source of new revenue.
Labor cost is a major part of the City budget, and my approach to balancing the budget is to go through a review process to identify available revenues and then match revenue to spending, including the cost of future unfunded needs such as pensions, health care, and street maintenance and repair. Then the holes between revenue and spending can be seen and a discussion about how or whether to fill them can take place. This is needed to gain the public’s trust in decisions made by the City Council, particularly about taxes and cuts. And City employees must also participate in this process so that they can see what measures are needed to maintain their benefits in the long term.


Rochelle Swanson:

As a sitting elected, it is inappropriate for me to give specific answers on specific items on labor contracts — especially when (we) have a couple not formally agreed to, but imposed. I think my record is strong on taking tough votes on getting our budget in better shape.

I can tell you that I will continue to support the use of a hired outside negotiator, which Joe (Krovoza) and I championed. And no, growing costs without matching revenues is not sustainable.

Monday, February 10, 2014

NYT: Nuclear Waste Solution Seen in Desert Salt Beds

One of the great problems of nuclear power has always been what to do with the radioactive waste. Most of it presently is stored at the reactor sites, and most of the spent rods are kept in specially designed pools, called wet storage. 
The rest of the waste, also usually kept on site, is in dry storage. According to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, dry storage began in 1986: "In this method, spent fuel is surrounded by inert gas inside a container called a cask. The casks can be made of metal or concrete, and some can be used for both storage and transportation. They are either placed horizontally or stand vertically on a concrete pad." 
Finally, however, The New York Times is reporting that New Mexico salt mines are providing a simple, feasible and effective solution:
Half a mile beneath the desert surface, in thick salt beds left behind by seas that dried up hundreds of millions of years ago, the Department of Energy is carving out rooms as long as football fields and cramming them floor to ceiling with barrels and boxes of nuclear waste. 
The salt beds, which have the consistency of crumbly rock so far down in the earth, are what the federal government sees as a natural sealant for the radioactive material left over from making nuclear weapons. 
The process is deceptively simple: Plutonium waste from Los Alamos National Laboratory and a variety of defense projects is packed into holes bored into the walls of rooms carved from salt. At a rate of six inches a year, the salt closes in on the waste and encapsulates it for what engineers say will be millions of years.

For many years the hope had been to bury it in Yucca Mountain in Nevada. But that never happened, largely because Nevadans opposed it, and they had strong political leadership from Sen. Harry Reid to make sure it was never done.
(The salt beds of the New Mexico desert are) of particular interest since the demise of the plan for Yucca Mountain, a volcanic ridge 100 miles from Las Vegas chosen by Congress for the storage of nuclear waste from power reactors and weapons, but adamantly opposed by the state of Nevada. 
The material buried at the plant, which began accepting waste in 1999, is limited by law to plutonium waste from making weapons, which is exceptionally long-lived but not highly radioactive. The waste from spent nuclear fuel, which is far more radioactive in its first few centuries, is not permitted. But experts say that proper testing and analysis might show that the salt beds at (the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant) are a good home for the radioactive waste that was once meant for Yucca.

Unlike with the situation in Nevada, the nearest neighbors in New Mexico support using he salt mines to bury the spent nuclear material.
In the nearby community, business and political leaders are agitating for expansion. John A. Heaton, a Democratic former state representative and the head of the Nuclear Opportunities Task Force, a local business group, argued that the geology was suitable. “The Permian basin is 250 million years old,” he said. “It’s been here a long, long time.” His group has bought a patch of desert and is now exploring whether the land could be used for interim storage of highly radioactive waste.
However, some opposition has arise at the state level, and the governor, Susana Martinez (R), has not yet decided which way she stands.

Monday, January 6, 2014

Maira interview

Prof. Sunaina Maira

What follows is a complete transcript of an email interview I recently conducted with UC Davis professor of Asian American Studies, Sunaina Maira:

Rifkin: As you know, the members of the American Studies Association have endorsed the Association’s participation in a boycott of Israeli academic institutions. You are listed as being on the ASA Council. I would appreciate your responding to some questions I have regarding the boycott:

Q. The ASA has no boycott against any other country in the world but Israel. Is it your belief that Israel’s human rights record is worse than that of all other countries?

A. The ASA responded to the call from Palestinian civil society for a boycott of Israeli academic institutions as an act of anticolonial and antiracist solidarity, following the Association of Asian American Studies, the Association for Humanist Sociology, and now also the Native American and Indigenous Studies Association. The response to this call from Palestinian academics, trade unions, and civil society groups has come after years of diplomatic negotiations and UN resolutions condemning Israel's illegal military occupation and war crimes have failed. 

Israel is the largest single recipient of US financial and military aid and receives unconditional US diplomatic and political support. It is the only country in the world that receives $3 billion annually from the U.S. Moreover, the US has singled out Israel for exceptional impunity in protecting it in the UN and despite its ongoing failures to comply with international law. The US mainstream media and academy has also helped maintain an embargo on free and open debate on Israel-Palestine through censorship. The Israeli state has been largely exempt from criticism of its human rights abuses, unlike, say China, North Korea, etc. A double standard has long been applied to Israel's human rights violations in the U.S. mainstream media and state policy. 

I should note that the crisis of academic freedom does not exist on any other geopolitical issue in the US at present. No academic in the US has ever been denied tenure or employment due to criticism of China or North Korea. Therefore the academic boycott is an *enlargement* of academic freedom for Palestinian, American, and Israeli academics alike, all of whom face reprisals for objective criticism of the Israeli state. So the issue was not just one of human rights, but also of academic freedom and repression.

Q. If you don’t think Israel has the world’s worst human rights record, would you support a boycott of the academic institutions in all countries which have human rights records worse than Israel’s?

A. If civil society or academics in other countries called upon US academics to engage in an academic boycott, yes, of course. Note that the ASA boycott resolution was adopted after years of discussion within the ASA and after an overwhelming show of support from the membership in the referendum, an unprecedented measure in the association. 

Q. What do you believe will be accomplished by the boycott? 

A. The boycott is a nonviolent, focused measure to oppose collaboration and complicity with Israeli academic institutions, none of which have condemned the daily violation of academic freedom of Palestinian scholars and students; and which engage in military and intelligence collaboration with the Israeli state and expropriation of Palestinian land that helps perpetuate the illegal occupation. Numerous reports have documented the extensive repression, surveillance, and racial discrimination against Palestinian students in Israeli universities; for example, see Yet the US academy has till now been largely silent on this. The academic boycott specifically targets academic institutions because the academy plays an important role in legitimizing Israel's illegal occupation and racially discriminatory policies. It is part of a global, nonviolent civil society campaign to pressure Israel to comply with international law and end this rogue state's daily human rights abuses, which have been provided cover by our own government and the lockdown on open debate in the US academy. 

Q. Do you believe there is a risk of harm, where academicians in Israel who believe in changing Israeli policy will be shut out of dialogue by your boycott and thus they will be less effective? 

A. The academic boycott promotes dialogue and collaboration. The false presumption that the boycott "shuts down" dialogue emerges from an obfuscation of the actual academic boycott resolution, which does not in any way prevent individual Israeli scholars from attending conferences in the US or collaborating with American colleagues. Israeli scholars who challenge Israel policy have for years been shut out of the Israeli academy; some have even been forced into exile due to repression and backlash, e.g. Ilan Pappe. The boycott resolutions will enlarge academic freedom by supporting Israeli scholars who want the illegal military occupation and apartheid policies to end and who support the global boycott movement. 

Yet it is striking that the US mainstream media coverage fails to mention Palestinian academicians who are shut out of not just academic dialogue, but sometimes out of the US and other places in their own country as well, given Israel's discriminatory travel policies, checkpoints, and restrictions on Palestinian freedom. 

Q. The head of the PA, Mahmoud Abbas, has said he opposes the ASA boycott. Your reaction to this? 

A. This is false as President Abbas never said anything about the "ASA boycott." But what the Palestinian president or PA thinks is not relevant to the academic boycott which is a response to the call from Palestinian civil society, and is an act of people-to-people solidarity, and academic-to-academic dialogue, not a response to any political parties. 

(Note: I am not sure if Ms. Maira is unaware that Mr. Abbas said in December he opposes boycotts against Israel or if she thinks that because he did not specifically discuss her boycott that he therefore is not opposed to it. Either way, her claim that he is not against the ASA policy is clearly wrong. And it should be said that, where the so-called civil society which she says asked her to boycott is unelected, Mr. Abbas is the democratically chosen leader of the Palestinian Authority and of his party, Fattah.)

Q. The anti-Israel sentiments (outside of Muslim countries) around the world seem to be rooted in left-wing politics (as opposed to anti-Semitic prejudice). Do you think the ASA’s boycott is a reflection of this left-wing attitude toward the Jewish state? And if so, does that suggest that there is a lack of political diversity in the ASA? 

A. The ASA boycott resolution reflects the organization's commitment to social justice, antiracism, and anticolonial and anti-imperial solidarity. If "political diversity" means being pro-racist, anti-justice, and pro-colonial/imperial, then that is a form of diversity that very few people would uphold-or so I would hope!

Furthermore, to assume that Muslims critique Israeli policies generally because of "anti-Semitic" prejudice suggests a gross misrepresentation of Muslim politics around the world and a denial of the impact of the Israeli state's anti-Arab policies on the region. 

(Note: Muslim anti-Semitism is in fact widespread and a serious problem. The Anti-Defamation League wrote this in 2013:

“Newspapers across the Arab and Muslim world continue to feature anti-Semitic caricatures and themes, with demonic depictions of Jews that include big noses, black coats and hats, large skull caps, and many promoting age-old global Jewish conspiracy theories, including blood libel themes, Nazi symbols and the use of animal imagery – snakes, vultures and sharks - to portray Israel as a sinister predator.”

Public opinion polls in all Muslim countries confirm a ubiquitous, nearly unanimous hatred of Jews by most Muslims in Muslim dominated countries, even those with no Jews.)

Q. Some universities associated with the ASA, including Brandeis, have withdrawn their participation in the ASA in reaction to the boycott. Would you support UC Davis withdrawing from the ASA or otherwise issuing a protest against the ASA over the boycott? 

A. It is the American Studies department at Brandeis that has withdrawn its institutional membership from ASA. This is very unfortunate, as it suggests that some departments are enforcing their own political or partisan views on their faculty and graduate students and depriving them of engagement with a professional academic association. This restriction of academic freedom is very troubling and entirely inappropriate, given that the ASA resolution is not legally binding on individual members so there is no reason for this backlash. 

Note also that there has been a massive campaign of hate mail, intimidation, and threats, including physical threats, to leaders and members of ASA and supporters of the boycott since the resolution. I am on the ASA National Council and I know many colleagues have received highly racist, homophobic, and offensive emails and letters, including myself. It is extremely disturbing that opponents of the boycott would resort to such tactics to bludgeon and terrify academics into silence.  

Q. Michael S. Roth of Wesleyan University recently wrote that “… the boycott is a repugnant attack on academic freedom, declaring academic institutions off-limits because of their national affiliation.” What is your reaction to this? Would you feel differently if associations like the ASA launched a boycott of UC Davis because your university was built on land taken from American Indians and is thus UCD is considered by them a colonial institution oppressing indigenous people? 

A. Please see above response re: the twisted logic of academic freedom. What all these statements clearly illustrate is blind support for the Israeli state's illegal and racist policies and human rights violations. It is also hypocritical for university leaders and academics to call for a boycott of an institution that has called for a boycott!

It is misleading to presume that a boycott could take the same form if it were enacted in one's own country. The academic boycott of Israel was inspired by the boycott and divestment movement opposing South African apartheid, which was also an act of solidarity with Black South African and antiracist academics and movements there. If indigenous and Native American scholars or others at UC Davis asked for the ASA to take a programmatic stance on settler colonialism here, of course, we would. Many of us work on issues of settler colonialism, imperialism and indigenous rights and we do not see these struggles as pitted against those of indigenous Palestinians--nor does the Native American and Indigenous Studies Association which just endorsed the academic boycott. Social justice activism is not a zero-sum game.