January 20, 2021

The Art of Collecting

Posted on 18. May, 2012 by Stephan Helgesen in Social/Cultural

Whether it’s campaign buttons, movie posters, Kewpie dolls or ordinary stones, everyone at some time in his/her life has collected something (even the late Elizabeth Taylor collected husbands… along with some pretty impressive jewels).

It starts early for us boys. Young men spend a fair amount of time walking with their heads down, scouring the ground for lost treasure like small change that falls out of someone’s pockets.

My collecting gene kicked into overdrive early on. It took the form of repeated visits to the city dump where everything imaginable was discarded into one enormous heap. My friends and I were the original dumpster divers before dumpsters were even invented.

We’d suit up in our nastiest clothes (which was easy because all of our clothes qualified for the Good Housekeeping Seal of Disapproval). We each took a flour sack along to carry back our ‘booty’ to our pirates’ lair which was four large empty refrigerator crates all nailed together. There we would speculate on the origins of the miscellany we had gathered.

Then we’d put everything into one big pile and negotiate over who got what. Each of us had collections of one sort or another, and somehow we managed to divide up everything without too much disagreement. We had an old coffee can that we used as our bank (to buy ice cream and other stuff) and whenever we couldn’t decide on who should get a particular item, each boy who wanted the item would put a nickel or a dime into the bank and then flip a coin to see who’d get it.

This was my first foray into capitalism and taught me a lot about hard work, trading and compromise.  It was also a great lesson learned at absolutely no cost to the taxpayers (though my parents did fork out a lot of dough for several pair of blue jeans).

Growing older, our collections change and so do our methods of collecting. While it’s been a long time since I visited the dump, back in the 70s I managed to muss up a lot of clothes scavenging around in old attics for antique radios and old vacuum tubes. I took the old cathedral-style and breadbox radios to a radio technician friend of mine who fixed them up, and then we’d both polish them and put new grille cloth over the old speakers. We had a ball as flea market sellers hooking them up to tape recorders that played old Jack Benny radio shows to the delight of passers-by.

That collection moved me up the revenue pyramid, but Donald Trump wasn’t worried. I never made Forbes’ wealthiest man’s list from the earnings of my small-time enterprise though it did teach me about letting go, something a lot of collectors can’t do with their prized possessions.

Over the years, my collections have matured from the days of my youth when I had a gazillion Topps baseball trading cards, hundreds of marbles, yoyos, tin soldiers and a ton of Superman comic books. As an adult I collected coins (until I was robbed), stamps (until they were soaked by a leaky roof) and various other items like autographed photos of celebrities.

These days, my collections are limited to inexpensive items that speak to me about things of my past or things of significance. For example, I’m currently collecting Albert Einstein items but don’t think that I’m actually going to get the Holy Grail of Einstein items – one of his signed letters – because they’re going for $20K!

The next time you doubt the important role that collectors play, think of us as society’s curators, people who are preserving the small items that fill in the blanks about our culture and that remind us of who we were and what we valued at the time.

- Editor

Agreeing with James Carville!

Posted on 17. May, 2012 by Stephan Helgesen in Social/Cultural

“If you live long enough you’ll end up experiencing everything,” my dear old grandma used to say. And she was right.

A few days ago, I actually found myself in total agreement with that quintessential Democrat good ole boy from Louisiana and former Bill Clinton campaign strategist, James Carville, who reiterated his famous remark, “It’s the economy, stupid,” on a talk-show panel.

Carville has never been a shrinking magnolia when it comes to giving his opinion on everything from fried chicken to political strategy, but like many southerners I’ve always found him interesting to listen to if only for the shock value of hearing another out-of-left-field barbed comment about his nemesis, the Republicans.

I thought that the movie, “Primary Colors” which had Billy Bob Thornton playing the ‘Divine Mr. C’ didn’t do him justice as Carville is a whole lot smarter, devious and charming than the Thornton portrayal showed. He’s actually one of a vanishing breed of southern politicos that can go toe to toe with well-read and articulate competitors and vanquish them with a simple phrase like, “That dog jes won’t hunt.”

In these days of teleprompter mania, one yearns for simpler times when politicians (like those in Louisiana) could stand up without a microphone and charm the pants off of whiskey-drinking shrimpers and bayou dwellers, armed with nothing but an iced tea and a sweaty brow.

If you’ve never heard a real Southern Baptist preacher’s sermon or attended a black church you’ve missed seeing the mold that people like Carville come from.

Many years ago, I was in Washington, DC on business. I got up early one Sunday morning, bought a newspaper and walked to a park where DC proper ends and Georgetown begins to read it under the trees. The plan was to kill a couple hours before my sight-seeing tour started.

I was almost to the park bench when a well-dressed black couple locked eyes with me and bade me ‘good morning!’  Seeing I was carrying a paper, they said, “Wouldn’t you like to see the truth behind that newspaper?”

Thinking it was some kind of riddle, I said, “sure,” so the lady took my arm and we all walked away from the park, straight to an old early 1800s church. The husband said, “Well, here we are, and we’re just in time.” The tableau read: Bible Studies 8:00-9:00am, Regular Service 9:00-10:00, Baptism 10:00-11:00am.

These nice folks (the husband was a Deacon in the church) must have gotten their merit badge for being ‘fishers of men’ from Saint Peter himself because they completely succeeded in reeling me in!

The Washington Post would have to wait. I had a three-hour date with true believers.  After the first hour of bible studies breezed by, my hosts ushered me upstairs to our seats. Music was already playing and families dressed up in their Sunday best were filing in.

My hostess leaned over to me and said, “This is going to be a very special day. Not only will my husband be preaching, but we will have some ‘witnessing’ and three adult baptisms.” I think a ‘Praise be to God’ passed her lips at this point, and I believe I echoed it with an ‘Amen.’

The make-up of the church was about 98% black, but I felt right at home. This was more a tribute to the color-blindness of the congregation than it was to my living on the island of Trinidad in the Caribbean for two years (which also had a large black population).

After much gospel singing and joyous receiving of the word, the service was nearly finished, whereupon the Deacon said, “We have some special visitors with us today, people who have come from far and wide to be here with us. Stand up and be recognized!”

One by one, all the visitors rose and received a ‘Praise God.’ When it was my turn, I eagerly sprang to my feet and thanked my hosts for ‘saving me from the Washington Post’ which elicited spontaneous applause.

The service over, we walked back to the bench where we had met. Saying goodbye to them, I settled in under an old, enormous tree. I felt good, refreshed.

It took me quite awhile before I realized that not only had I completely missed my sightseeing tour but had left my newspaper in the Bible study room! I think even James Carville would have agreed with me that something far more powerful than the economy was at work that special Sunday.

- Editor

Subsidy-seeking, wind-energy supporters running scared

Posted on 17. May, 2012 by Stephan Helgesen in Energy/Environment, Uncategorized

The wind energy industry has been having a hard time. The taxpayer funding that has kept it alive for the last twenty years is coming to an end, and those promoting the industry are panicking.

Perhaps this current wave started when one of wind energy’s most noted supporters, T. Boone Pickens, “Mr. Wind,” in an April 12 interview on MSNBC said, “I’m in the wind business…I lost my ass in the business.”

The industry’s fortunes didn’t get any better when on May 4, the Wall Street Journal (WSJ) wrote an editorial titled, “Gouged by the wind,” in which they stated: “With natural gases not far from $2 per million BTU, the competitiveness of wind power is highly suspect.”

Citing a study on renewable energy mandates, the WSJ says: “The states with mandates paid 31.9% more for electricity than states without them.”

Then, last week the Financial Times did a comprehensive story: “US Renewables boom could turn into a bust” in which they predict the “enthusiasm for renewables” … “could fizzle out.”

The article says: “US industry is stalling and may be about to go into reverse. …Governments all over the world have been curbing support for renewable energy.”

Michael Liebreich of the research firm Bloomberg New Energy Finance says: “With a financially stressed electorate, it’s really hard to go to them and say: ‘Gas is cheap, but we’ve decided to build wind farms for no good reason that we can articulate.’”

Christopher Blansett, who is a top analyst in the alternative-energy sector in the Best on the Street survey, says, “People want cheap energy. They don’t necessarily want clean energy.”

It all boils down to a production tax credit (PTC) that is set to expire at the end 2012. Four attempts to get it extended have already been beaten back so far this year—and we are only in the fifth month.

The Financial Times reports: “Time-limited subsidy programmes…face an uphill battle. The biggest to expire this year is the production tax credit for onshore wind power, the most important factor behind the fourfold expansion of US wind generation since 2006. Recent attempts in Congress to extend it have failed.”

According to the WSJ, “The industry is launching into a lobbying blitz.” The “2012 Strategy” from the American Wind Energy Association includes: “To maximize WindPAC’s influence, WindPAC will increase the number of fundraisers we hold for Members of Congress.”

“Continue the Iowa caucus program to ensure the successful implanting of a pro-wind message into the Republican presidential primary campaign.” “Respond quickly to unfavorable articles by posting comments online, using the AWEA blog and twitter, and putting out press releases.”

“Continue to advocate for long term extension of PTC and ITC option for offshore wind.”

“AWEA requested a funding level of $144.2 million for FY 2012 for the Department of Energy (DOE) Wind Energy Program, an increase of $17.3 million above the President’s Congressional budget request.”

A wind turbine manufacturer quoted in the Financial Times article says, “If the PTC just disappears, then the industry will collapse.” Regarding United Technologies plans to sell its wind turbine business, chief financial officer Greg Hayes admitted: “We all make mistakes.”

Despite twenty years of taxpayer funding, according to the Financial Times, “Most of these technologies are unable to stand on their own commercially, particularly in competition with a resurgent natural gas industry that has created a supply glut and driven prices to 10-year lows.”

The WSJ opines: “the tax subsidy has sustained the industry on a scale that wouldn’t have been possible if they had to follow the same rules as everyone else.” A level playing field would mean that wind developers would lose the exemptions from environmental and economic laws.

It is the fear of having to play by “the same rules as everyone else”—like the free market does— that must have propelled the anti-fossil fuel Checks and Balances Project to dig deep to unearth a “confidential” document.

The brainstorming document was designed to trigger conversation during an initial meeting of grassroots folks with a common goal—the document’s author didn’t even join us and his ideas received little attention. The meeting was February 1 and 2. I was there. But suddenly, on May 8, our little meeting is in the news.

Many of us who were at the meeting received calls from a variety of publications including The National Journal, The Washington Times and Bloomberg News—none of whom ran with the story (after talking to a number of us, the Bloomberg reporter concluded “I don’t think we’re writing a story about this”)—and The Guardian who did.

The Guardian story was picked up and expanded on in Environment & Energy (the reporter did talk to several of us), HuffPost, Tree Hugger, Think Progress’ Climate Progress, and others. (Note: Climate Progress and Tree Hugger remove any comment in opposition to wind energy as soon as it is posted.) High Country News has apparently done an original story trigged by the Checks and Balances press release. From these sources, some form of the story is all over the Internet.

The wind energy industry panic explains the sudden interest, but why our little group?

Washington Examiner columnist, Timothy Carney, provides the answer: “AWEA plans ‘continued deployment of opposition research through third parties to cause critics to have to respond,’ the battle plan states. In other words:

When people attack AWEA’s subsidies, AWEA might feed an unflattering story on that person to some ideological or partisan media outlet or activist group.” We are the people who have attacked the subsidies and AWEA has, through a “third party” fed “an unflattering story” to a “partisan media outlet.” Our collaborative actions have helped block the PTC extension efforts.

A common thread in the news stories is that we are really an oil-and-gas funded entity. They’ve tied us to the Koch Brothers. We all wish. Apparently they can’t believe that individuals and local groups can think for themselves and impact public policy without a puppet master telling us what to do and say.

In fact, the group has no funding. As we began to email back and forth over the sudden reporter interest, one meeting attendee quipped: “My trip was funded, in part, by MY brother, Paul, who donated frequent flyer miles for my trip.

I can assure you that my brother is not part of the Koch family. I paid for the rest of the trip out of my own pocket.” Yet, the reporters seemed determined to find a funding link. I told the Bloomberg reporter that we each paid our own way, that the meeting was held in a budget hotel outside of DC (unlike the AWEA meeting held at the prestigious La Costa Resort & Spa in Carlsbad, CA), and that we each had to pay for our own transportation, food, and lodging.

My comments never made it into print. In the spirit of full disclosure, I am the executive director of companion organizations that do receive funding from oil and gas companies and individual donors. But I, like the others, was invited as an individual, not as a member of any organization.

Additionally, we are not even a formal group. We met to consider forming a group. The “leaked” memo, addresses finding a group that might absorb us, affiliate with us, or align with us.

Attendees brought their individual issues, observations, and successes. Each had valid insights to contribute. Some viewed health impacts as the most important ammunition. Others, economics. Some, setbacks or bird deaths or land use.

Others, including the meeting’s organizer, John Droz, believe that the science—or lack thereof, is the best weapon. There are so many reasons to oppose wind that come down to government use of taxpayer money to support something that raises electricity prices based on the failed concept of man-made global warming. As a result of the meeting, we now know we are not alone, and we can call on one another for insight and advice.

We owe a debt of gratitude to Gabe Elsner, a co-director of the Checks and Balances Project. Without his discovery and subsequent exposure of the “document,” we’d still be just loosely affiliated individuals and small citizens’ groups.

The attack has emboldened us and helped others find us! A representative from the Blue Mountain Alliance sent Droz an email stating: “I probably need to send them a thank you note for leading me to you and your efforts.”

After the murmurings became known, one of the meeting attendees, Paul Driessen, wrote a detailed and data-filled column, “Why we need to terminate Big Wind subsidies,” which has garnered more than 700 Facebook “likes” on Townhall.com.

(To give perspective, I am pleased if I get 50 “likes.” Each “like” generally represents thousands of readers.) In just a few days, his column is all over the Internet.

Wind energy has more opposition than most people realize, and Elsner, who has served as the “third party” in the AWEA strategy, has allowed us to find one another.

While a few attendees at the DC meeting were concerned about all the publicity, attorney Brad Tupi, who has represented citizens victimized by wind energy projects, responded: “I would plead guilty to participating in a meeting of concerned citizens opposed to wasteful, unproven, inefficient wind energy.

I would agree that we are interested in coordinating with other reputable organizations, and I personally would be honored to work with Heartland Institute and others.”

If you do not support industrial, tax-payer-funded, wind-energy projects that are promoted based on ideology and emotion rather than facts and sound science, you can benefit from our affiliation.

Droz has a wonderful presentation full of helpful information. A few of the websites from the meeting attendees include: Illinois Wind Watch, Coalition for Sensible Siting, Energy Integrity Project, and Citizen Power Alliance.

The lesson to be learned from the attack on these hard-working citizens is that the little people can make a difference! We’ve got the subsidy-seeking, wind-energy supporters running scared—along with the crony capitalism that accompanies them. Remember, “If the PTC just disappears”—meaning if we do not keep giving them taxpayer dollars—“then the industry will collapse.”

Your phone call or email to a Senator or Congressman, such as Steve King or Dave Reichert who recently came out in support of the PTC, can make a difference. Tell them, as the WSJ said, “If the party is serious about tax reform…it will vote to take wind power off the taxpayer dole.”

It is time for the AWEA and the politicians who support the PTC to explain why higher electricity costs, human health impacts, substantial loss of property values in rural communities, dead bats and birds, and increased national debt are good for America and her taxpayers!

This article was submitted by the author of Energy Freedom, Marita Noon, who serves as the executive director for Energy Makes America Great Inc. and the companion educational organization, the Citizens’ Alliance for Responsible Energy (CARE). Together they work to educate the public and influence policy makers regarding energy, its role in freedom, and the American way of life. Combining energy, news, politics, and, the environment through public events, speaking engagements, and media, the organizations’ combined efforts serve as America’s voice for energy.


 

Spilling the beans on the rails

Posted on 04. May, 2012 by Stephan Helgesen in Social/Cultural

I took the train the other day – from Albuquerque to Washington, DC. Including a five-hour layover in Chicago, the trip took 50 hours (26 hours from ABQ to Chicago and 19 hours from Chicago to DC). Spending that much time on board a steel and glass container on wheels gives you plenty of time to get to know your fellow man, if you dare.

One thing I noticed from this trip is a common characteristic of most Americans – their willingness to tell absolute strangers their life story!

From the outset, I decided to talk to just about everybody I met. That included my seatmate next to me, the person(s) across the aisle from me, the fellow standing in line at the snack counter, the conductor, the waiter in the dining car, the other patrons of the dining car and those stretching their legs in the no-man’s land between the train cars.

Nearly everybody was willing to enlighten me on their family situations, their work challenges, their vacation plans, their disappointment with air travel and numerous other subjects.

Amtrak still believes in the community table concept where total strangers are assigned seats with other total strangers. I must say that it worked extraordinarily well. There was no lull of conversation at any of the tables I saw. On the contrary, there was a sharing of stories with plenty of laughs and smiles on people’s faces.

This brings me to one of the more interesting dinner companions I had, a fellow called Jeff who was originally from the Seattle area but had been living in New York for a few years. It seems that Jeff is a pretty famous guy.

Not long ago he decided to put up posters around NYC encouraging people to call the ‘Jeff, the one lonely guy’ hotline and tell their story about their loneliness. The response was overwhelming! Jeff got thousands of voicemails. Recently, an article in a popular New York City magazine made Jeff the one lonely guy, Jeff the one very popular guy.

All of a sudden his project got noticed big time and on May 20th an interview with him will be aired on national television, so look for it.

Jeff and I talked all through dinner and traded stories about loneliness: what occupations were the loneliest, which age groups were the loneliest, which gender was the loneliest, and we both ended up agreeing that there were a lot of stories out there that were not being told.

We also discussed how loneliness might actually be growing because of the new social media like Facebook and Twitter – that what started out to be a way to bring people closer together might actually be forcing them farther apart as people are replacing interpersonal interaction with impersonal cyber communication!

We talked about how abject and extended loneliness can end tragically in suicide and which countries were considered the happiest (the Danes came out as the happiest).

This was interesting to me as despite their happiness, the rate of suicide in Denmark and in the rest of Scandinavia has traditionally been pretty high. Then I remembered that suicide there is not considered a crime as it is here AND that U.S. insurance policies don’t pay out when a policy-holder takes that final solution. Maybe that explains the higher rates in Scandinavia.

Jeff and I parted ways. He went down to his sleeping car and I went back to my recliner to take the next big bite out of our respective American journeys (he was on his way to Los Angeles).  By the way, his website is: jeffonelonelyguy.com

Based on this experience, I believe there would be a darn sight fewer lonely people around if they had the opportunity to ride the rails across this great and welcoming land of ours. Don’t wait. Amtrak and the USA are waiting and so are all those exciting untold stories. All aboard!

- Editor

It’s not Al’s fault

Posted on 03. May, 2012 by Stephan Helgesen in Energy/Environment

Frequent readers of mine might be surprised to see that I am defending Al Armendariz, the newly resigned EPA Administrator of Region 6. In his recently revealed “crucify” comments, Armendariz was merely reflecting the view from the top—though the exact word choices may have been his own.

Yet, Al, alone, is taking the fall. He resigned on April 30 and his resignation was immediately accepted by EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson.

Yes, the above is my opinion. No, I do not have any special insight into the agency. What I do have is perspective and personal experience with similar top down attitudes as found in my state of residence: New Mexico.

New Mexico’s experience is a microcosm of what is happening in the EPA and, likely, every Obama administration agency.

From 2003 to 2011 Bill Richardson was the Governor of New Mexico. Despite being the Secretary of Energy during the Clinton administration (the job currently held by Stephen Chu), Bill Richardson governed with a decidedly anti-oil and -gas ideology (Sound familiar?).

The economy of New Mexico is one of the worst in the country. We joke that we’d be on the bottom of every list if not for Arkansas. Our economy is largely dependent on our abundant oil and gas resources—though we also have significant amounts of coal and uranium.

A soon-to-be-released, carefully-documented book chronicles the impact of just one of Governor Richardson’s anti-oil and -gas policies and concludes that it “represents a financial loss to the state’s economy of approximately $6 billion.”

Bill Richardson came into office with a $1 billion budget surplus and left with a $653 million deficit. Yes, the national economic downturn happened in Richardson’s final years—but the bad economy remains today and New Mexico’s Governor Martinez ended her fist year with a surplus of $250 million. The difference? The attitude at the top.

Governor Richardson appointed people to head agencies who reflected his political ideology and they built a leadership team within the agency made up of people with shared viewpoints. Likewise, President Obama has done the same. When Governor Martinez came into office, she made changes at the top.

My personal research revealed a dramatic change in how the oil and gas industry was treated from one administration to the next—though the rules hadn’t changed. The difference was in the attitude.

One administration used the rules and regulations as a hammer—pounding the industry until many ultimately gave up and left the state (taking their revenues with them) and the other used them as a guideline to work with the industry to help them work within the rules.

The difference plays out like this. With hundreds of drilling rigs in operation at any given time, an inspector looking for an infraction, regardless of how diligent an operator might be, can probably find something.

Under an administration looking to “crucify” an industry, the infractions are met with fines and delays. When inspectors want to work with industry, they do not look the other way. Rather, they point out the perceived problem and give the operator time to fix it. Under this scenario, honest operators with a clean record are given guidance as to how to do the right thing. Repeat offenders are treated more harshly.

In the current “crucify” news story, Al is taking the fall—but it is really not his fault. The White House wants us to think he is a rogue representative, but similar scenarios have played out in regions other than the one he oversees. The problem is agency-wide—probably administration wide.

New Mexico lost $6 billion in revenue due to one rule designed to “crucify” an industry and benefit the administration and its friends. As the Obama administration “crucifies” the oil and gas industry to benefit its friends in renewables—specifically solar, the American economy is the loser. Untold billions of dollars and jobs have been lost and we’ve had to borrow from China to make up the shortfall.

A true leader knows that he is responsible for the actions of everyone underneath him or her. Instead, Al has been sacrificed on Obama’s alter of spin.

This article was submitted by the author of Energy Freedom, Marita Noon, who serves as the executive director for Energy Makes America Great Inc. and the companion educational organization, the Citizens’ Alliance for Responsible Energy (CARE). Together they work to educate the public and influence policy makers regarding energy, its role in freedom, and the American way of life. Combining energy, news, politics, and, the environment through public events, speaking engagements, and media, the organizations’ combined efforts serve as America’s voice for energy.


 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Crucify all bureaucrats whose “philosophy” is based on ideology and emotion—others will behave better

Posted on 02. May, 2012 by Stephan Helgesen in Energy/Environment, Politics

The revelation of the EPA’s “philosophy” used in their regulation of oil and gas companies—“crucify” and “make examples” of, just as the Romans crucified random citizens in areas they conquered to ensure obedience—provides proof of what many have known: policy decisions are made on ideology and emotion rather than fact, sound science, and economic or human impact.

For this, we should all be grateful to Al Armendariz, EPA Administrator for Region 6. His honesty, in a 2010 video made public on April 26, allows us all a glimpse behind the shroud.

Armendariz has been making, according to Senator James Inhofe, “comments specifically intended to incite fear and sway public opinion against hydraulic fracturing.” In Thursday’s hearing, Inhofe says Amendariz frequently claimed a “danger of fire or explosion.”

Inhofe cited the Parker County Texas case as the “most outrageous.” There, in 2010, Armendariz’s region issued an Emergency Administrative Order against Range Resources—overriding the Texas state regulators who were already investigating the claim that hydraulic fracturing was contaminating well water. “Along with this order, EPA went on a publicity barrage in an attempt to publicize its premature and unjustified conclusions,” Inhofe said.

The Emergency Administrative Order was dropped earlier this month, but was done, as Inhofe called it, by “strategically attempting to make these announcements as quietly as possible.”

Both the EPA and the White House are trying to distance themselves from the Armendariz comments. Cynthia Giles, the EPA’s assistant administrator in charge of enforcement said, “Inevitably, some will try to imply that the unfortunate and inaccurate words of one regional official represent this Agency’s policy.

Rest assured that they do not—and no honest examination of our record could equate our commonsense approach with such an exaggerated claim.”

Yet, history shows that the Armendariz model is used more frequently than most would believe. Decisions are often made on ideology and emotion rather than fact, sound science, and economic or human impact.

Those decisions are often walked back—making the future look more like the past. Two current examples include the decision to use “timid” approaches toward preventing malaria in Africa and Germany’s environmentalist-appeasing, post-Fukushima decision to shut down their nuclear plants.

More than 100 years ago, the source of malaria was determined to be the bite of the mosquito—rather than the “bad air” as previously assumed. As I chronicle in the DDT chapter of my book Energy Freedom, DDT had nearly eliminated malaria in the western world when the ideology and emotion of Rachel Carson’s book Silent Spring led to the ban of DDT—despite the faulty science, and detrimental economic and severe human impact. Since DDT was banned in 1972, malaria has become Africa’s largest killer.

In the West African country of Sierra Leone, malaria accounts for more than 40 percent of outpatient mortality and is the top killer of children under five. Since the seventies, prevention has focused on “protecting people rather than halting mosquitoes: bed nets and drug systems prevail. Now the authorities want to return to eradication.”

The new strategy calls for the indoor residual spraying of insecticides such as DDT, bendiocarb, and the newly reformulated chlorfenapyr. Indoor spraying pilot projects have shown success. In areas where the spraying has taken place, for the first time, malaria is no longer the top killer of children under five. Dr. Samuel Smith, manager of Sierra Leone’s malaria control program, reports that “a combination of spraying and bed nets has a better impact”—making the future look more like what worked in the past.

Imagine the lives that could have been saved in Africa if DDT was dealt with using fact, sound science, and economic or human impact rather than ideology and emotion.

In Germany, the future could look more like the past as well. Following the Fukushima nuclear accident, a decision was made to shut down 8 of its 17 nuclear reactors with the remainder being phased out within a decade—before their life expectancy is over.

Critics of the Merkel administration, say it “never formulated a coherent strategy for switching to new forms of energy or for upgrading the country’s electricity grid.” The decision was motivated by ideology and emotion rather than fact, sound science, and economic or human impact.

One of the closed plants is Unterweser, located in the town of Kleinensiel. Maik Otholt, a Kleinensiel resident expressed his frustration with the decision: “Our facilities were serviced every year; they’re in perfect shape. Nothing ever went wrong.

And so now what are we doing? We’re buying nuclear energy from France. Their plant is just over the border. And now we’re buying that expensive electricity. It’s crazy.”

To make up for the loss of electricity from the nuclear plants, Germany is now, as Maik Otholt said, importing nuclear-generated power. Before the closures, Germany had electricity to spare and sold it to other countries.

Additionally, Germany is building or modernizing 84 power plants—and more than half of those will be run on fossil fuels including many on coal. The use of coal-fueled electricity generation has angered the very same environmentalists who cheered the nuclear plant closures.

Addressing Germany’s increased use of coal, Stefan Judisch, chief executive of RWE Supply & Trading, said, “If we were to replace (nuclear) baseload with renewable energies and gas, then electricity would become expensive.”

While environmentalists are touting the ideology of a carbon-free future, Germany has to face a reality that is far from a carbon-free future—making it look more like the past.

As the anti-fracking ideology and emotion continues to climb, remember the philosophy of Al Armendariz who punished to “ensure obedience” and the EPA’s “publicity barrage in an attempt to publicize its premature and unjustified conclusions.”

In Texas, as well as Wyoming and Pennsylvania, the EPA has had to walk back the accusations as the science didn’t support them—but by then the public had already been swayed by the fear, uncertainty, and doubt. Don’t let ideology and emotion shape America’s energy future. It needs to be based on fact and sound science with consideration for the economic and human impacts.

This article was submitted by the author of Energy Freedom, Marita Noon, who serves as the executive director for Energy Makes America Great Inc. and the companion educational organization, the Citizens’ Alliance for Responsible Energy (CARE). Together they work to educate the public and influence policy makers regarding energy, its role in freedom, and the American way of life. Combining energy, news, politics, and, the environment through public events, speaking engagements, and media, the organizations’ combined efforts serve as America’s voice for energy.


Environmentalism: Less about hugging trees, more about bringing America to her knees

Posted on 02. May, 2012 by Stephan Helgesen in Energy/Environment

Despite his speechmaking touting an “all of the above” energy strategy, President Obama’s re-election could depend his willingness to stand in the way of developing America’s resources.

Back in November, at the time of the original Keystone XL pipeline decision, environmental groups threatened to pull their backing for Obama if he approved the pipeline.

Michael Brune, executive director of America’s largest environmental group, the Sierra Club, is on record as saying that the President’s decision on Keystone would have “a very big impact” on how they funnel their resources—with the obvious implication being that they would not support the President if he didn’t do their bidding.

Other environmental groups such as the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) and the Environmental Defense Fund took a different tack but with the same goal. A press release from the Rainforest Action Network promised the President that if he denied Keystone, he would see a “surge of enthusiasm from the green base that supported you so strongly in the last election.”

Environmental groups clearly understand they have the ability to influence the President’s decisions based on their claims to support—or not support—his bid for a second term. So far, they must be pleased with his administration’s efforts.

On Wednesday, April 18, leading environmental groups came out with their official endorsement of President Obama—“the earliest” the groups “have ever endorsed in a presidential election cycle.” According to The Hill, “The groups are planning a mix of advertising and on-the-ground work on Obama’s behalf.”

However, Glenn Hurowitz, a senior fellow at the Center for International Policy, thinks the groups should have waited longer before endorsing the President. He believes the early endorsement removes the “greens’ leverage.”

Most pundits agree that the 2012 presidential election will be a hard fought, close race. In order to win, President Obama needs the four million votes from “greens” the groups represent—and they do not want increased domestic resource extraction.

According to BusinessWeek, funding from environmental groups is currently less than 50% of what it was through the same period in the 2008 campaign—one of the reasons cited: “renewing offshore drilling in the Gulf of Mexico.”

Though receiving little press, the Obama administration is working hard to convince the “greens” that he is one of them. The NRDC (one of the groups promising support if Obama does the right thing) has launched a major fundraising effort—aided by the actor Robert Redford, to block a proposed mine that would provide America with access to one of the largest known deposits of copper in the world.

Copper is essential for electric transmission and America’s industrial future—and highly sought after by developing economies such as China. The land—already designated for mineral exploration and development—also contains gold, silver and molybdenum.

Despite the fact that the Native Alaskans living near the proposed Pebble Mine site want the infrastructure and jobs the mine would provide, rich sport-fishermen and out of state environmental groups (NRDC is based in New York City) are claiming to “pressure the Obama administration to reject any permits that could allow Pebble Mine to move forward. And if necessary, we will challenge this disastrous project in federal court.”

The fund raising letter states: “Only NRDC combines grassroots power with the legal clout of more than 400 attorneys.”

To date, there is no detailed plan or application submitted for a mine. The companies involved have already invested more than $400 million in research, studies, and field work but have not yet applied for federal approval. Pebble Limited Partnership’s CEO John Shively said, “I think in terms of the environmental side, I am relatively convinced that the technology is there for us to do what we need to do. Combining the technology with the economics, we have not gotten that far, and we have not finished designing.”

There are more than 65 different types of state and federal permits, certifications, and reviews that must take place before the Pebble project can move forward. Yet, the EPA is entertaining a “preemptive veto petition” which would prevent “due process,” deprive America of much needed resources and Alaskans of the economic security the project could bring to the remote region.

Test drilling for core samples at the mine site have been found to be nontoxic and up to municipal standards. The actual location of the mineral resource is farther away from the waters of Bristol Bay than Los Angeles is from San Diego.

The EPA is currently conducting a watershed assessment on the potential impact of a large development project on the region that could easily have the effect of blocking any and all future development proposal, including construction of a community airport. The EPA’s assessment is expected to be released in a matter of weeks.

The EPA study, that pales in comparison to a multiyear $120 million environmental baseline review conducted by Pebble, is being used as a precursor for the agency to skip the established environmental review process and preemptively deny a 404 C Clean Water Act permit before the Pebble project has even applied for a permit. EPA preemptive action would be a first of its kind and would constitute a massive and devastating expansion of the administration’s environmental power.

In an April 18 letter to EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson, Senator Lisa Murkowski said, “I have encouraged all stakeholders to withhold judgment until 1) a detailed development plan is released for review and 2) all relevant analyses of that plan are completed.

A preemptive veto, just like a preemptive approval, would be based purely upon speculation and conjecture. It would deprive relevant government agencies and all stakeholders of the specifics needed to take an informed position.” She concludes: “As the people of my state work to attract investment and create jobs, regulatory uncertainty is hampering those efforts and they need answers to questions about actions the EPA is considering.”

Opponents of the Pebble Mine project have asked, “Can science and engineering eliminate the risks posed by the Pebble Mine to Alaska’s economy? If the answer is yes, the backers should show how in a clear and unquestionable manner.”

Yet, before the designs and plans are even complete, environmental groups like the NRDC have called for the project to be rejected—not based on science, but on emotional hyperbole and an anti-development agenda. Would the Pebble Partnership have invested more than $400 million if they didn’t think the technology was there to do what they need to do to meet the state and federal requirements?

The EPA’s preemptive actions in Alaska are just one example of the Obama administration’s attempts to prove to the greens that he is on their side. Another is the National Ocean Policy created through an executive order.

The order was signed nearly two years ago, but is only coming to light now because of the “potential this far-reaching policy has to hinder job creation because of the uncertainty it creates due to increased regulation.”

Lawmakers, in an April 2 letter, are asking “to put the brakes on the Obama administration’s National Ocean Policy.” The letter, to House Appropriations Committee Chairman Harold Rogers (R-KY), asks the committee to “specifically prohibit the use of funds for the implementation of the National Ocean Policy.”

On April 3, Rep. Don Young (R-AK) explained the new policy as “a complicated bureaucratic scheme which includes a 27-member national ocean council; an 18-member governance coordinating committee; 10 national policies; nine regional planning bodies—each involving as many as 27 federal agencies as well as states and tribes; nine national priority objectives; nine strategic action plans; seven national goals for coastal marine spatial planning; and 12 guiding principles for coastal marine spatial planning.

The administration claims that this whole National Ocean Policy is nothing more than an attempt to coordinate federal agencies and make better permitting decisions. Forgive me if I am a little suspicious when the federal government—through an executive order—decides to create a new bureaucracy that will ‘help’ us plan where activities can or cannot take place in our waters and inland.”

In an April 17 article written by award-winning investigative journalist Audrey Hudson and published in Human Events, Hudson opens: “President Barack Obama has an ambitious plan for Washington bureaucrats to take command of the oceans—and with it control over much of the nation’s energy, fisheries, even recreation in a move described by lawmakers as the ultimate power grab to zone the seas.”

She continues, “The ocean policy has already impacted oil and gas development in the Mid and South Atlantic, where more environmental analysis is now required to determine whether new studies must also be conducted to determine its safety, according to Interior Department Secretary Ken Salazar.”

Not surprisingly, environmental groups support the policy. The Sierra Club hosts an “Activist Network” that includes the National Ocean Policy: “This project is to promote implementation of the National Ocean Policy through recruitment, education and engagement of Sierra Club Activists throughout the nation.”

The NRDC “Switchboard” blog states: “The National Ocean Policy is a landmark policy that calls on us to evaluate all of the uses of the ocean—fishing, tourism, industry, military, energy—and identify how to manage these uses more sustainably.”

Rep. Bill Flores (R-TX) comments: “If you look at the catalyst for the entire initiative, it comes from the playbook of environmental groups that think the ocean ought to be controlled by the federal government.” Senator David Vitter (R-LA) adds, “This has largely been completely under the radar.

And that is exactly the way the administration and their environmental allies want to do it—announce the administrative fiat is complete and that we have this new way of life that nobody knew was coming.”

Pebble Mine and the National Ocean Policy are just two of myriad possible examples of how the environmental organizations and the Obama administration are working together to change America. When you think of the environmental movement, realize they have gone way beyond hugging trees. They now want to bring America to its knees.

This article was submitted by the author of Energy Freedom, Marita Noon, who serves as the executive director for Energy Makes America Great Inc. and the companion educational organization, the Citizens’ Alliance for Responsible Energy (CARE). Together they work to educate the public and influence policy makers regarding energy, its role in freedom, and the American way of life. Combining energy, news, politics, and, the environment through public events, speaking engagements, and media, the organizations’ combined efforts serve as America’s voice for energy.


Free trade run amok: the “TPP”

Posted on 02. May, 2012 by Stephan Helgesen in Economy

Last summer I described the then three pending free trade agreements (FTAs) with South Korea, Panama and Colombia as “clunkers” (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/leo-hindery-jr/these-three-free-trade-ag_b_895503.html).

Each failed to meet the only standard which matters: Is it in the best interests of American workers and the U.S. economy? Regrettably, these three agreements won Congressional approval last October, despite the fact that the promises of job and net exports growth from all eleven previous FTAs, dating back to the first one in 1985, have proven to be empty ones indeed.

Now the U.S. is aggressively trying to advance, by the end of this summer no less, the ‘mother of all FTAs’ to date:  the so-called Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP).

The TPP would be an agreement among the U.S. and the eight Pacific Rim nations of Australia, Brunei, Chile, Malaysia, New Zealand, Peru, Singapore and Vietnam.  Every Pacific Rim nation – including, notably, Japan, China, Russia, Indonesia, Canada and Mexico – could eventually be included.

But if advanced, I believe that TPP could very likely dwarf the negative impacts from all prior FTAs combined, including the still notorious multilateral NAFTA (which went into effect in 1994) and the multilateral CAFTA (signed in 2003).

While every promise associated with FTAs is impossible to assess, looking back at NAFTA and CAFTA as primers for TPP, these are the facts:

  • Neither Agreement has come close to meeting the fundamental promises made to the American people about the increase in U.S. net exports and the creation of American jobs which it would produce.
  • “One size never fits all” in multilateral trade agreements, especially when the differences in the states of development are extreme (NAFTA) or when the export mix among the countries is extreme (CAFTA, which includes OPEC member Nicaragua alongside largely agrarian Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras).

For example, from 1993 when NAFTA was signed to five years later, the U.S. trade deficit with     Canada widened from $10.8 billion to $16.7 billion; during the same period, America’s trade balance    with Mexico went from a surplus of $1.7 billion to a deficit of $15.9 billion.  By 2011, the U.S trade    deficit with Canada and with Mexico was $35.6 billion and $65.6 billion, respectively, or, in the               aggregate, an almost unbelievable $92.1 billion more than when the Agreement was signed.

FTAs were a popular mainstay of the last three Republican Presidents, and regrettably even President Clinton, urged on by the consummate free-trader Bob Rubin, embraced them as well, especially in his case, NAFTA.

Now the Obama administration, against the advice of economists from the left almost universally and from the right in increasing numbers, seems similarly anxious to drink the free traders’ Kool Aid, with the deeply flawed TPP as the straw in the drink.

In a compelling Council on Foreign Relations posting (“U.S. Trade Policy: Is America AWOL?, 7-18-11), Stewart M. Patrick praised the restraint showed by major trading nations in avoiding “a descent into 1930s-style, beggar-thy-neighbor trade discrimination.” And my criticism now of TPP is not born out of a desire for protectionism.

Rather, like Mr. Patrick, I believe that “the developed versus developing country dichotomy at the heart of the Doha Round [and now of TPP] obscures the surging global importance of the biggest emerging market economies (EMEs),” especially China, India and Brazil.

What the Obama administration should be doing, rather than rushing pell-mell into TPP, with its own extreme mix of economic maturity and exports, is acknowledging the near impossibility of negotiating complex multilateral trade agreements that prove fair to American workers.

Instead it should be spearheading more realistic efforts that reflect the growth of the emerging market economies and demand more burden-sharing by them.  To this point, China’s GDP already exceeds that of Japan and is second only to our own, just as India, now among the world’s largest economies, will soon overtake in the Pacific Basin each of Australia, Canada, Indonesia and Mexico and in the Greater Atlantic Basin the major countries of Europe.

Bilateral and thoughtfully constructed ‘smallish’ regional agreements are always preferable to massive multilateral agreements among widely disparate trading partners.

In fact, the only reasonable justification for such multilateral agreements is to address security and common defense concerns, but this particular justification, no matter how well intentioned, is insufficient to warrant such a dramatic mixing of trade and economic practices as is TPP.

Some fear that the demise of multilateral agreements will erode global support for the dispute settlement mechanism of the WTO, but this concern would be better addressed by reforming and strengthening the WTO than by further capitulating to ill-conceived multilateral FTAs.

The esteemed Jagdish Bhagwati of CFR and Columbia University worries that if multilateral agreements such as Doha and TPP collapse, then the world will be “overtaken by regional trade agreements and other bilateral arrangements which will be discriminatory.”

I dispute his conclusion that such agreements will inevitably be “discriminatory” – they needn’t be – and if effected without discrimination, they are, Mr. Bhagwati, far preferable to inherently and structurally flawed multinational agreements.

President Obama has said that TPP would be a template for a “21st-century [trade] agreement” which would eventually be open to all the countries of the Pacific region.

But the United States already has FTAs with four (Australia, Chile, Peru and Singapore) of the eight other countries included in the current talks, and these four nations plus the U.S. already account for more than 85% of the total trade at stake in the TPP.

Do we really need to start down such a slippery trading slope for codified trade relations with the four disparate countries of Brunei, Malaysia, New Zealand and Vietnam, which while significant in their combined GDP ($891 billion) are relatively insignificant in combined non-energy trading?

The reality is that too many of the eight non-U.S. first-stage signatories see TPP as a way to ensure a long-term American security commitment to the greater Pacific Basin, against the growing military power of China (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/leo-hindery-jr/china-continued-abusive-t_b_1196360.html), while continuing to free ride on America’s more open markets and lock in their access to them.

While it is appropriate to consider non-trade related strategic and security factors associated with small FTAs, provided U.S. values are not compromised, large-scale multilateral FTAs should stand on their own and not be afforded this ‘backdoor’ justification for their promulgation, which is how in part NAFTA and CAFTA were advanced and TPP is now being characterized

In writing about why U.S. trade policy to date has largely failed, Clyde Prestowitz (“The Pacific Pivot”, The American Prospect, 2 April 2012) says that all the trade deals to date – and now TPP – have served two clear purposes.

“The first is the geopolitical grand strategy objectives of the United States. By making the United States the market of last resort, the trade agreements have helped persuade allies to accept U.S. hegemony. The second purpose served is that of U.S. businesses that profit immensely from outsourcing and offshoring to Asia but that need the security provided by Uncle Sam to do so.

These realities reveal the flaws in U.S. trade efforts – misplaced priorities, a false doctrine, and false assumptions.”

The Obama administration is absolutely right to be seeking a comprehensive 21st-century U.S. trade policy.  And it is just as right to be seeking comprehensive 21st-century security arrangements for the greater Pacific Basin.  But neither objective should lead our nation into adopting TPP, which, unless materially changed from the draft now in circulation, appears to have the following major flaws:

It pays short shrift to the issues consumer safety and environmental practices and to the concerns of organized labor.

It breezes through intellectual property protection, regulatory coherence, and antitrust enforcement, especially of state-owned enterprises (SOEs).It allows for even more extreme financial industry deregulation while allowing for equally extreme foreign investor protections that in the past have helped American multinational corporations offshore American jobs.

A proper trade agreement – multilateral or bilateral – should limit the massive investment incentives that many nations (although not the U.S., of course!) now use to draw jobs to their shores and thus have cost America millions of manufacturing jobs in just the last decade.  These indirect export subsidies are nothing more than a highly effective way to circumvent WTO’s prohibition of direct export subsidies.

It bans “Buy American”, which would give all companies operating in any signatory country equal access to U.S. government procurement contracts (even though none of these other government’s procurement comes even close to matching ours in amount).

It gives America’s “Big Pharma” companies patent extensions while at the same time limits our ability to cut costs through ‘drug formularies’, even though such formularies are now deeply embedded in our Medicare, Medicaid and VA programs.  The only possible result is much higher drug prices for American consumers.

It allows TPP’s signatory nations to export the products of their highly subsidized State-Owned Enterprises (SOEs), contrary to the objections of every small and medium sized American manufacturer, all of our non-service labor unions, and every right-minded trade economist in America.  Nor are there likely to be appropriate limits on major foreign SOEs investing directly in the United States.

Compounding the myriad problems and the unacceptable loopholes going in, TPP’s terms, once enacted, will be very hard to change – and yet changes will inevitably have to be made.  And with only the [majority?] consent of the initial signatory governments, any other nation in the Pacific Basin can readily join the pact.

While this latter “all-for-one” premise is in keeping with the administration’s stated objective of TPP being the first encompassing 21st century multilateral trade agreement, it only confirms the fallacy of the “one size fits all” approach to negotiating FTAs.  Japan is not among the original proposed signatories, but neither is Fiji – how can any agreement be considered thoughtful when it can accept at once into membership such diverse Pacific nations?

Speaking of Japan, as I write this, Japanese Prime Minister Noda was expected to meet with President Obama on April 30 (yesterday), and it is thought that TPP was high on the list of topics, since the Prime Minister seemingly wants Japan in TPP, despite the strong objections of affected interest groups in Japan, especially agriculture.  Why the Prime Minister wants Japan in TPP and why we would want to see Japan in are mysteries to me.

Of the nine nations now negotiating TPP, Singapore and Malaysia embrace strategic industrial policy and export-led growth, and Vietnam is dominated by state-owned enterprises.  Should Japan – with its own commitment to export-led growth and to state-influenced (if not necessarily owned) enterprises – be allowed to enter the process, TPP will be even more problematic for American companies and workers.

As Mr. Prestowitz has written, “As a member of the WTO, Japan has long been pledged to follow free-trade rules yet [it] has managed to do so without opening its home market to imports; should it join TPP and still maintain its closed economy, Japan will make the accord even more dangerous to the American economy.”

The United States has no better friend than Japan today, albeit with some serious trade issues around autos and agriculture to be resolved between the two countries.  But TPP is simply not the ‘place’ to seek resolution, and there is no better example of the peril of using a single agreement to establish a fair trading regimen for disparate economies than thinking that TPP could at once fairly address the needs of the United States, Japan and Brunei.

This article was submitted by Leo Hindery Jr.who  is chair of the US Economy/Smart Globalization Initiative at the New America Foundation, co-chair (with USW President Leo Gerard) of The Task Force on Jobs Creation, founder of Jobs First 2012, and a member of the Council on Foreign Relations.  He is the former CEO of AT&T Broadband and its predecessors, Tele-Communications, Inc. (TCI) and Liberty Media, and is currently an investor in media companies.


 

Riding with the Rail Warriors

Posted on 02. May, 2012 by Stephan Helgesen in Social/Cultural

The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step, but in my case it began with a call to a friendly agent at Amtrak who walked me through my epic roundtrip journey from Albuquerque to Washington, DC via America’s railroad.

Why choo choo?

For those who’ve had their fill of airport security pat downs, interminable waits in airport lounges, weather delays and equipment problems not to mention passenger overbooking, Amtrak could be your solution. My personal tips are at the end of this article.

Embarking in Albuquerque was a snap. The number 4 Chief which originated from Los Angeles pulled in on time and offered coach passengers plenty of seating on the lower and upper levels of the train car with a splendid sightseeing ‘bubble car’ on top offering lots of light and ample space to move around.

The dining car was adjacent to the lounge and the smells of lunch were tantalizing, but I had already packed mine so I waited until supper to sample the cuisine.

To properly enjoy your train adventure, you will need to plan ahead. Dress in layers, bring a pair of cushiony socks or slippers (your feet will probably swell) and don’t forget to bring some snacks. While you can buy some on the train, they’re pricey. Water is $2.25/bottle and freshly brewed coffee is $2.00.

Train travel also requires an adjustment in your thinking. I resigned myself to a 26 hour ride to Chicago with 15 stops in between and a further 19 hours to Washington, DC.  This is not a Japanese or French bullet train. It is very much your grandmother’s train and only gets up to 90 miles/hour in spots.

That does not diminish the adventure, however. On the contrary, the time is yours to use however you wish. I chose to bring my Kindle with a dozen books loaded in it, a portable radio with headphones, my PDA that plays music and, of course, my laptop (which I’m using to start this article just outside of Kansas City which is 8 hours away from Chicago.)

Creature comfort

But back to my embarkation. Choosing a seat is pretty important. For me, I need to be riding with traffic (in the direction the train is heading).

The seats recline to 30 degrees and have foot rests and tray tables and are similar in shape and dimensions to business class airline seats. They could use a little more padding, but I made due by sitting on a pillow (there were plenty of pillows but, unfortunately, no blankets).

Overhead lighting is okay, but I brought one of those flexible neck lights with LED bulbs to shine directly on my Kindle and laptop screens.

Restrooms abound so there’s no waiting in the aisle like you do on a plane. I debated with myself on whether or not I should choose the upper or lower level of the coach car, but decided on the lower because of the traffic upstairs on the way to the observation car and the dining car.

It’s a bit darker down there, but I didn’t mind. The windows were big and still afforded a good view and there were only 12 seats in that compartment. Booaarrd!

We were on our way out of ABQ and headed east towards Lamy, Las Vegas, Raton and then on to Trinidad, Colorado before moving northwards to Kansas, Missouri and then Illinois.

Leaving at 12:10pm gives you plenty of time to pop up to the observation car, have a coffee and see a part of New Mexico that you can’t see from the highway (like the not so scenic rusty wrecks of old farm machinery and abandoned adobe lean-to’s that dot the landscape).

You’ll make Raton at about 5:00pm where you’ll have the opportunity to step off the train for a breath of fresh air for four minutes before re-boarding. One of the truly enjoyable aspects of train travel is the opportunity to talk with people of all walks of life.

People you meet

In Raton I said goodbye to Danny Tivljs an eighty-something former seaman who served aboard aircraft carriers in the Pacific during WWII. Just ask any Elks Lodge member in Raton if they know Danny if you want to look him up.

My seatmates from Albuquerque to Lawrence, Kansas (where we arrived at 5:00am) were an older retired couple (Karen and Dell Eiler) from the area around the twin cities in Minnesota.

Dell spent nearly his entire adult life working for 3M and was busy editing a history of some of the company’s products. Grandparents, they were in Phoenix visiting their children and grandchildren.

Before you say that it’s only old people who take the train, I saw many younger people on board, though the bulk of the passengers were over 60 like my dinner seatmates, the Loys from Lancaster, PA.  Veteran railriders, the Loys were smart. They had reserved a sleeper car for themselves.

Costing $239 (but it could cost you much more depending on ‘availability’), the sleeper’s not for those on a budget, but it is a great option for the older traveler who needs some quality down time.

That extra fee also includes your meals which could add up to $75/person/day, so it’s a deal worth considering especially when you factor your access to the special lounge in Chicago where you can wile away the five-hour layover.

Night falls heavily on the train, and the vapor lights of train yards and prisons cast an other-worldly color as old Number 4 rolled on past Trinidad, Lamar and La Junta, Colorado before setting its foot in Kansas (stopping seven times) and before finally crossing into Missouri.

Chugging past the Main Streets of small town America, it’s conceivable that the railroad has probably kept a fair number of them from going under over the course of the last century.

Gazing out my northward-facing window, I spied ornate architecture from the 1880s and train station facades that bespoke a more flamboyant and decorative time.

The feeling I have now is one of loss that so few of these grand edifices to America’s railroad era have survived. After all, what grandparent wouldn’t want to show his grandchildren a bit of American history?

Trainspotting

Everybody watches trains. We can’t help it. Some observe from behind the safety of RR Xing barriers while others watch as their loved ones board and are swallowed up inside the massive iron and steel machine.

Inanimate objects watch too, like the unmanned locomotives and freight cars at the numerous sidings along the route. In fact, these cars remind me of sleeping cattle who can be awakened by a single sharp sound, or in the case of the train cars, by a work order ushering them into service.

Occasionally, Number 4 runs parallel with the interstate, and 18-wheelers decked out in running lights, seem like cree swimming alongside a whale or dogs chasing a car.

Our 30-minute stop in Kansas City at 6:15am gave us a chance to exit the train for a whiff of mid-western air and to watch as the city yawned and gradually awoke to another business day.

The early morning light and slightly overcast skies made everything seem a bit softer as we chugged our way towards our first real stop in Missouri, La Plata. I don’t remember when the foliage started to change from Western to Mid-Western, but there was no mistaking the look of this most verdant part of the country.

Only eight hours to go before Chicago as we traverse a corridor of empty freight cars on either side of us and watch the Norfolk Southern locomotives pulling a hundred cars off to our right.  After running at a reduced speed for what seemed like a half hour we finally break free and are able to throttle up and move through a clump of thick foliage lining the tracks.

Leave your radio home

My tiny portable radio wasn’t pulling in many stations. All I could get was 92.3FM Country or a local AM station that was broadcasting a recorded interview.  The choices were interesting: Reba MacIntyre singing “Nothin’ like the love of a small-town girl” or former UK Prime Minister Tony Blair talking about the Iranian nuclear threat. I decided to turn it off.

Missouri was clearly in ‘waiting mode’ for the growth of spring chutes from its fields as we crossed the Mississippi River at 11:20am and rolled into Illinois. Only a few more stops now before Chicago.

In Galesburg, IL we were reminded of the impact the railroad had on this part of the U.S. by a huge old locomotive and three Pullman cars that stand on the siding near that town’s railroad museum.

The landscape changed rather abruptly from green foliage to brown bricks as Number 4 picked up speed for its final hour and a half trek to the Windy City. Well-manicured suburbs lined the tracks boasting hundreds of parked cars waiting for their commuter owners to pick them up after a long day’s work.

The one the only Chicago Union Station

Then, Chicago’s skyline came into view as we slowed down for the glide path to our destination…the long-awaited platform beneath our feet. Finally, we ground to a halt. After a long walk to the main building, the world opened up to a mass of people waiting, walking and talking. There was no mistaking it; this was Chicago. The pace of humans was fast and measured.

Had I not taken the bus from the Canal Street exit for northern Illinois, I would have been sentenced to a five-hour wait before the next train to Washington, DC departed.

(At this point, it might be good to reiterate the existence of a special lounge for passengers who have purchased the ‘sleeper car’ passage, and given the long wait, it might be just the thing for the weary traveler.)

Two days later, on a Saturday evening at 5:00pm, I once again found myself at the Canal Street entrance to Union Station readying myself for the next leg of my journey to Washington, DC an hour later.  Taking the escalator down to the departure gates, I was shocked at the crush of humanity that met me.

It was like the Chicago Stockyards had moved indoors! I even found myself quietly ‘mooing’  to myself while secretly wishing I had chosen to fly instead of spending the next 19 hours on board the Capitol Express with hundreds of my fellow Americans.

This wish was doubly reinforced when our train was called for boarding. The older more infirm passengers and those with small children were invited to board first. Being a senior citizen, I eagerly pushed forward into the next waiting area where we sat for another 20 minutes before taking the long walk to our train car.

This was very different from the first leg of our trip where we were allowed to board whichever coach car we wanted. Now we were ushered to the WASHDC car and given an assigned seat (no more self-seating), much to my displeasure.

On to WASHDC

All aboard! It was 6:10pm and we were inching our way out of the station. Our car, number 2930, was packed to the gills. The upside was it was near the lounge car and the dining car. The downside was it was near the lounge car and dining car! Seated only two rows from the noisy automatic doors that separated us from them was not a blessing.

Every time they opened they clunked, and every time they closed they clunked. That was okay now but it wouldn’t be later on as I tried to sleep. The other downside was the absence of toilets on that level (one had to go down a narrow staircase to visit the facilities below).

That brings me to the facilities, themselves. On the train to Chicago we had plenty of cups and water flowing from spigots near the bathrooms.

This train ran out of cups within the first few hours, and they were never replaced. The toilets quickly turned from sanitary to unsanitary (nobody cleaned them during the 19-hour ride) making that necessary trip much less pleasant. My solution was not to eat or drink too much so that I could avoid them.

It took us a full 30 minutes to chug past the station and the decrepit buildings that dotted the adjacent streets above the tracks. I must admit that I breathed a sigh of relief in breaking free from the city’s gravitational pull as we slowly moved away from the urban sprawl.

Getting comfortable ?

I spent the next few hours trying to find a comfortable position using a combination of tray table, footrest, leg rest, pillows, slippers and my carry-on bag. Deep enduring sleep was not possible despite the monotonous hypnotizing view from the train window. It wasn’t until eastern Indiana that I nodded off. After a fitful night of door clunking from the pilgrimage of my fellow passengers to the lounge and dining cars, I awoke just outside Pittsburgh at 6:00am the next day, groggy and tired. The sun was not yet up.

A chorus of coughing began, first by a little boy who obviously had allergies, asthma or severe lung congestion.

He was followed by his father and a woman seated in front of them. Soon the air was filled with millions of airborne microbial time bombs waiting in a holding pattern to land on new unsuspecting victims. Occasionally, a small three-month old baby could be heard whimpering.

Feeling the germs coming my way, and not wanting to chance baby cries, I fled to the lounge where I spent a few hours watching the clouds go by through the glass ceiling.

It was getting on to breakfast time, so I ambled in to the dining car. I was shown to a community table where I sat across from a mother and her daughter from California. I happily ordered my breakfast and made small talk for the next 30 minutes. Scrambled eggs and the trimmings were prepared well and delivered warm. The price was right ($7.99) and easy to digest.

The dining car was an oasis of civility and gave the impression of one from an earlier time in railroad history. It’s amazing what tablecloths and real plates can do to create an atmosphere! Milking the time so as to avoid going back to my seat was my tactic. It worked and I stayed even longer than I had planned.

The only thing that concerned me was leaving my luggage unattended for a long period of time, but I needn’t have worried. Everything was as I had left it, untouched by other human hands.

Where the river rivals the rails

The next seven hours through the hills and rivers of Pennsylvania, West Virginia and Maryland were a welcome visual respite from the dreariness of the Midwest. The train must have felt our fatigue, too.

Its plaintive whistle seemed to express that emotion, alerting the land-bound bystanders to our presence as we wound our way through, over and around the rivers and hills that comprised the landscape.

The morning shift was just starting at USS Steel Tubular products as bleary-eyed workers shuffled to the front door of the aging structure. Our noisy intrusion into their morning didn’t faze them. No one even looked up as we barreled on by.

Every so often, we could recognize the outline of a house high up on a hill, standing vigil over the sleeping forest below. Farther down the tracks, tiny stick houses hugged the rail lines. I couldn’t help but wonder why their inhabitants stayed there, not fifty feet from our passing train. The noise and dust must really be irritating.

Our Capitol Express was now only 4 1/2 hours from touchdown in DC. Every once in awhile, there were small groupings of six-to-eight houses sitting on a sliver of land above a riverbank staring back at us.

They were reminders of the existence that was still possible between the two worlds of unspoiled nature and modernity.

A new river has drawn us into its orbit flanked by a lush green blanket of trees. Below, fishermen have waded waist high into its waters and are casting about, hoping to snag their breakfast.

A little farther down the tracks, we passed Cassoni’s Garage and Truman’s Motorcycles and later one of the largest auto ‘graveyards’ I’ve ever seen, seemingly stretching on for a mile or more. (The river has a wide variety of inhabitants living side by side.)

The verdant banks are home to a bountiful wildlife, and our train appears observant of their need for peace and quiet as the whistles sound only infrequently now.

In my mind I know that it’s because we’re out in the country and are just observing the rules of the road, but I’d prefer to think it’s out of respect for the sanctity of the forest and the history of these hills that we pass quietly.

I’ve been thinking of reasons why someone would want to live here so far removed from larger cities, and then it hit me, it’s precisely that…because they’re removed from the larger cities!

Rounding a river bend, we can see old bridge supports from a bygone era when other bridges held other trains on other missions like transporting soldiers during the civil war.

The speedy waters around them rush over jagged rocks lying just beneath the water’s surface giving the impression that they’re migrating upstream.

A tiny cabin outside of the Village of Layton shoots a plume of smoke from its metal chimney pipe. Could other fishermen be cooking their morning’s catch?

High trees denuded of their bark now reflect the morning sun’s rays, sending it bouncing from one tree to another as the rapidly moving clouds swirl overhead.

Our train has just startled a flock of ducks that immediately heads on down river. I wonder what life was like for the Indian tribes that once called this great body of water home?

My seatmate, a friendly businessman from Liberia, is fast asleep, oblivious to the drama unfolding on the river. I envy him his ability to grab 40 winks. Maybe it’s because he has been on trains for nearly 42 hours starting out in Dallas, Texas after a brief visit with his son in Plano.

History meets the train

The Capitol Express has now reached Martinsburg, West Virginia, where we pass that town’s remarkably beautiful and ornate old rail station. This glimpse of America’s past architectural glory is like a shot of adrenalin for the eyes, jolting us awake and making us wonder what is to come.

I suspect that many of my fellow passengers are beginning to put their discomfort and fatigue behind them now in anticipation of our impending arrival in Washington, a short two hours away.

Passengers are moving about the cars, policing up their areas, packing up items, readying themselves and their families for our disembarkation in Washington.

A rush to the restrooms follows, clogging up the narrow aisles. A mother says, “Couldn’t you have thought of that before?” to her little boy. Her tiny son replies, “I was asleep, mama!” All is swiftly forgiven.

Stretching takes the place of yawning, and excitement is definitely on the menu as the inhabitants of car 2930 are in ‘arrival mode.’ At long last the Capitol Express rolls into DC and locates its place in the well-worn station.

Passengers, finding their land legs after 19 hours folded into the confines of the great ‘iron horse’, disembark and begin the long walk towards the terminal, eager to greet family and friends or to begin the final leg of their journeys by other means of transportation.

As for me, I am only a short 15-minute taxi ride from my hotel and will not have to step on board another train for three days before I take a short five-hour ride north to Connecticut to see my daughters.

The longest journey is now behind me…and ahead of me when I do the whole thing in reverse.

Tips for riding the Long Rail

1. Plan your trip well in advance

2. Check out the specials on the Amtrak website

3. Contact Amtrak well in advance

4. Wear comfortable clothes (in layers)

5. Bring foldable slippers or cushiony socks

6. Bring an inflatable neck pillow

7. Bring a foam (or other type) cushion for your seat

8. Try to get on board quickly (to get a better seat)

9. Find an experienced traveler and shadow them

10. Try to seat yourself in a quiet car or one with few seats

11. Do not sit close to the automatic doors (try for the middle of the car)

12.  Bring an extra reading light and some extra batteries

13. Avoid sitting near small children or babies

14. Bring a healthy snack and some water

15. Don’t separate yourself from your valuables for long periods of time

16. Do stand up and move around (that’s why you chose the train!)

17. Bring plenty of reading material to keep yourself occupied

18. Break up the long trip with short stays with friends or family

19. Be friendly to your fellow passengers but respect their need for quiet time

20. Treat the trip as an adventure and don’t forget to have fun!

- Editor

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