A Lesson in the Demise of Senator Skelos

Former New York State Senator Dean Skelos is going to jail for steering government contracts to his son as well as constructing quid pro quo arrangements for his son. The man was president of the State Senate and now he is convicted felon. At a newsy level his story is just another corrupt politician in a state with a long history of government corruption; however, the Skelos drama was almost an immitigable tragedy for the environmental health of the state.

One of the contracts Senator Skelos was trying to steer to his son was a consultant’s post for a fracking consortium. The deal was contingent on the state legislature passing a bill allowing fracking and Governor Cuomo signing off on the bill. The bill passed, regulatory agencies waffled, and only at the last minute did the governor refuse fracking in the state.

In one of the depositions, Skelos stated something to the effect that nobody wanted fracking in the state anyway. For a sum of a few hundred thousand dollars, the senator was willing to ruin the groundwater across numerous counties affecting thousands of residents and to accelerate climate change with the release that much more carbon into the atmosphere. The greed is bad enough but there is more to consider.

The consequences of fracking cannot be remediated. There are no courses of action that can purge the contamination of aquifers due to fracking. Further, there is no method to recall and seal away the millions of tons of carbon that are released into the atmosphere by fracking. Fracking is destroying areas of the country for lifetimes to come at the least and accelerating possibly irreversible climate change, which is our worst fear. Skelos was willing to do this for $400,000.

At every stage of this fracking debate in New York State, citizens and environmental organizations fought hard, bring to bear the science, the community concerns, and the moral imperative to keep fracking out of the state. Skelos did not give a scintilla of a thought to the science though he did not dismiss it. Worse, he ignored it. He had no moral compass, meaning that all of those impassioned arguments against fracking were trivialized as well. He heard all of the rancor and discord, dismissing it all in a narrow quest for the money.

Those of us who fight for legislation based on climate science are a serious lot, taking upon ourselves this burden as a life or death issue. It is. Former Senator Skelos and his ilk repudiate our fight as if it is just another political skirmish, another opportunity for scoring political points or securing personal financial gain. Their approach is morally reprehensible. Humanists and God believers alike are repulsed for the same reason of short-sighted moral bankruptcy.

The lesson of Senator Skelos is that we cannot relent on the pressure we bring to bear. Dean Skelos was never going to listen but Governor Cuomo did. In any given legislative or regulatory push, we may never know where our voice of reason and merit will overcome the obstacles. So we push; we push everywhere. To friends and foes alike, let all take note that we will not stop until our planet is pulled back from the brink.

My TEDx Talk

“God in the Public Square” has been posted here. This seventeen minute talk examines non-theist God beliefs, a huge part of our culture today that few even acknowledge exists. For non-theists, God is a “What” rather than a “Who”. Non-theists have been central to the conversation in the Public Square since the founding of the United States and are still in the middle of the great debate.

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TEDx Adelphi University | AU PAC | April 5th 2016. Copyright Chris Bergmann Photography

An Inspector General’s integrity

The operative word is INTEGRITY and the Washington Post has posted a story of the latest breach of integrity. This breach is not from our legislators but from the bureaucracy, the Civil Service that actually is the majority of our government. The appalling nature of this breach is accusation that the Inspector General, the oversight mechanism, failed to tell the truth by lying by omission.

Described by the Washington Post: “After the fall of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak in 2011, the U.S. Agency for International Development [USAID] hired several non­governmental organizations to set up pro-democracy programs in Egypt — even though they were not registered to work in the country. Less than a year later, the Egyptian government charged 43 NGO workers with operating illegally. Sixteen of them were Americans, including the son of then-U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood.”

The USAID paid the bail for these 43 people of $4.3 million, which is understood by the auditors of the USAID as a paid bribe to release the jailed hostages. None of this debacle was mentioned in the Inspector General’s report because he was awaiting confirmation to be the permanent Inspector General and did not want to make waves. He failed the most basic test.

We pay I.G.’s to make waves. We put I.G.’s in place to expose this sort of unethical and illegal behavior. The bottom line is that we expect Inspectors General to be the epitome of integrity. Nonetheless, no disciplinary action has been taken. Mr. Carroll has withdrawn his nomination but will remain in the same office as Deputy Inspector General. There will be no disciplinary action apparently.

When integrity is diminished, cynicism fills the void. One man’s act of cowardice, of fear of reporting his job because it might make him look like a poorer prospect, has diminished an entire agency and lot of the good work that the USAID actually does. Everyone loses.

Piggy bank for College?

The New York Times ran an op-ed column by Andrea Levere on October 7, 2014 (yesterday as of this writing) on Children’s Savings Account (CSA). Ms. Levere is attempting to address the issue of sending lower income children to college by starting CSA’s for disadvantaged children in kindergarten or even at birth as a government program. The idea is worthy but the presentation has a terrible flaw – saving money even from birth does not pay for college any more.

My good friend was so proud of his first born and had great dreams for her. He put $100 in a 529 College Savings Plan every month through her first 18 years. At the end of her 12th grade year, her account had $40,000. For a capital investment of $21,600 with compounding interest, the child had a great start so it seemed.

Except that $40,000 did not cover completely her first year of college. She was an excellent student who excelled and secured a slot an fine university that was not Ivy League. If her father had put away $500 a month for 18 years, then the power of compounding interest would have paid for her undergraduate career. That is $6000 compared to the $1200 that my friend socked away each year. For middle class families in the United States, putting away for each child $6000 a year for college is not a possibility. Putting away 8% of the household income per child when the average income for a two adult, two child middle class household at $75,000 a year is a fantasy.

Adding insult to injury is the manner in which the government calculates estimated family contribution (EFC) for government sponsored loans and grants for college. The higher the EFC number, the more the family has to pay out of its own pocket. If the money is still in the 529 College Savings plan, the government calculates 100% of the money for college, which raises EFC by hundreds or thousands of dollars. If the college money is not in the 529 plan but under the parents’ name in any sort of investment fund, then the government calculates a percentage of the money based on the 1040 tax return, which will be less than 100% including the parents paying income tax on the college money the previous year! The money is the same amount but the EFC will be lower. The system is disconnected by college savings under one agency and college loans under another agency and thus broken.

The real kicker is that if the family has not put aside any money for college, the EFC will be lower and the student and the family will qualify for more subsidized loans and/or grants.

College tuition along with room and board has risen much faster than inflation in the United States and real wages have been stagnant for at least twenty years. Also, the middle-class paying jobs of the foreseeable future require a Bachelor’s Degree. Without government intervention into this non-market driven segment of our economy, more and more of the population will be disenfranchised from achieving or even maintaining a middle class livelihood. This is more than bad economics, this is a recipe for the decline of a nation.

A better Recycling Day

Despite all the troubles in the world, we should also take time to compliment and give thanks when people, companies and governments take good actions. Yesterday my local government held one of its ongoing recycling events. This one specifically targeted electronic recycling but also included pharmaceuticals and paper shredding.

County workers directed us from the street through the parking lot to the “Recycle Run” as I named it. They took my name and my categories of recycling materials. I had old CPU’s, monitors, and printers. I followed the cones to the site and never left the car. Huge packing boxes were set out on both sides of the drive. After popping my trunk, the county workers pulled everything out of my trunk, sorted it immediately and placed it the appropriate boxes. If they took 90 seconds I would be surprised.

The United States lags behind most other nations in recycling usable materials. Some nations reach 90% while the U.S. hobbles along at 7 – 10% if the studies are accurate. There is no federal mandate and most states that provided funds at the local level have cut back. Counties and municipalities are left to grapple with their local landfills and trucking fees for getting the garbage out. South Hempstead Township in Nassau County, NY has made shrinking the landfill a priority with the recycling of the most dangerous and poisonous products to the most reusable items found in households.

Hats off to the township. This is a worthwhile program, well-conceived and executed as well.

To understand what a federally mandated but locally run successful garbage pickup/recycling program looks like, read the rules for South Korea here:

http://www.korea4expats.com/article-waste-disposal-recycling-korea.html

Honey is not so sweet anymore

The Honey lobby is lobbying Congress for stricter definitions of what is honey. According to an article published in The Atlantic, the regulations of what constitutes honey are so loose that the product on the shelves may not contain any pollen. What are consumers buying?

Some honey is corn syrup flavored as honey. Some is rice syrup, which is already the same color as honey. The more sophisticated faux honey is the product of bees force fed corn syrup. One cannot determine by price or by label the quality of honey that is for purchase in American stores.

Needless to say, the big honey labels in the United States are protesting against new definitions of honey and further regulations. Honey is just another example of highly-processed food stuffs in the American market. The lack of specific labeling allows faux food to be passed off as a legitimate food substance, in this case honey from bees. Corn syrup is inexpensive and honey prices are quite high.

Unless you know someone with beehives who is willing to share, the probability that you are consuming a partially faux honey product is remarkably high.

While the state of honey in the jar may be legal, there is a moral corruption here. While food processors have the right to produce processed foods, many of the products are clearly identified as highly processed by the list of ingredients. I also have the right not to purchase these processed foods. By hiding the content of honey, my rights are undermined – legal though the mechanism be. The very fact that companies have to hide ingredients, even lobbying regulatory agencies to make sure that ingredients remain hidden, should be a warning that these products are ultimately undesirable.

We are what we eat. Suddenly, that aphorism is a scary proposition.

http://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2014/10/the-honey-lobby-is-demanding-that-the-government-defines-honey/380994/