Tuesday, December 12, 2017

In 2017 -- A Glass Both Half-Full and Half-Empty

It's hard not to be ambivalent about 2017. The year was full of both the good and the bad -- wasted opportunities and big accomplishments, a time difficult to measure in simple terms and even more difficult to encapsulate.

On the negative side, we had Hurricane Irma, an ineffective state legislature, a federal government riven with discord and an international scene fraught with terrorism, war and nuclear threats.

It was certainly a tough year locally. Irma dealt Collier County a terrible blow, and our leaders, ill-prepared, had few answers. There were fuel and water shortages, inadequate evacuation plans and shelters that didn't begin to house the many who couldn't get away in time. Recovery has been little better. Three months after the storm, much debris remains. FEMA payments have been slow coming or non-existent. On the commercial side, Irma destroyed nearly half of the state's orange, grapefruit and tangerine crops, and no government help is in sight.

The news from Tallahassee was just as bad. The lawmakers increased money for public education, but not enough to lift Florida above 40th among states for per-capita student spending. Mental health and addiction fared even worse, miring Florida in 49th place among states for funding treatment. (In Collier County, as the opioid epidemic worsened, our jails became the primary home for the addicted.) Bills to regulate fracking went nowhere, and comprehensive gambling legislation never got off the ground. Some money was allocated to rebuild our beaches and control pollution runoff, but not enough to make a difference.

The national scene was a downer as well. We learned that Republicans couldn't govern, a great disappointment to many of us. The Democrats didn't distinguish themselves either. Their only consistent activity was to disparage the president. Beyond government, there were endless reports of sexual harassment, gun violence and weather extremes. And we weren't happy about it. Americans were ranked only the 14th happiest people in the world, down from 13th the year before. Beyond our borders, we were confronted with never-ending conflicts in the Middle East and very real nuclear threats from North Korea.

A tough year indeed.

But it wasn't all bad. There was and is a bright side.

We still live in a great place. Beautiful, warm, cultured, well-beached, loaded with fine restaurants and recreation, Collier County is one of the most affluent places in the country, with a taxable value of $77 billion and millionaires thick under foot. Plenty of billionaires too.

In 2017, the greater Naples area was rated #1 in the country in well-being and income (nearly $80,000 per capita), while Naples-Marco Island-Immokalee was ranked #1 in the state in economic diversity. Our property values climbed, and Forbes Magazine pegged Collier County fourth-best in the nation in job growth.

Anthrax continued to expand, announcing plans for a six-story office complex, a four-story hotel and a new wellness center. CEO Reinhold Schmieding said the facilities would be "a magnet for medical tourism."

Unemployment in the region dropped below 4% and job opportunities rose, although skilled workers in some sectors were in short supply. And, in spite of Irma, tourism continued to break records.

Things looked up nationally as well. The stock market soared, setting new highs, filling pension funds and creating billions in wealth. At the same time, the GDP rose an average of 3% over the last three quarters and is about to top $17 trillion for the year. Consumer confidence and spending gained sharply.

And, driven by an improving global economy, corporate sales and profits surged, as did capital spending. The Wall Street Journal headlined the good news in November: "Economy Hits Full Stride for the First Time in 10 Years."

What about 2018? The future looks bright as well. Mark Strain, Collier County Examiner and a good barometer of all things Naples, says, "This is still the best place in the country to live." I agree. And next year we have a chance to ensure it stays that way. With an avalanche of elections, ballot referenda and constitutional amendments, we as voters will have an opportunity to steer our own course.

I have little doubt 2018 will be a year when the glass is more than half full.

Sunday, November 26, 2017

The Day the Atomic Age Was Born

Anniversaries are always important. Most are personal, but a few are for everyone. For example, December 2017 is the 75th anniversary of "Casablanca," the iconic film that captured the zeitgeist of the 1940s.

It is also the 75th anniversary of something else -- an event so momentous it's no exaggeration to say it changed the world. It happened on the campus of the University of Chicago, my school, where I did graduate work in chemistry many years ago. (My wife and I were newlyweds at the time, she an English major.) On my way to the chemistry labs each day, I walked past the Henry Moore sculpture that commemorates the event. Tour buses drove past it as well.

I'm talking, of course, about the first controlled self-sustaining nuclear reaction -- the lynchpin of the Manhattan project, the seminal event that ushered in the atomic age. And, as all schoolchildren know, the endgame was Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the horrendous destruction that ended World War II.

Much has been written about Chicago Pile-I. A great read is Segre and Hoerlin's "The Pope of Physics," a breezy biography of Enrico Fermi that chronicles the splitting of the atom.

The atomic age was born on December 2, 1942, on a squash court under the west stands of Stagg Field. The centerpiece of the experiment was a 400-ton layering of solid graphite bricks and bricks embedded with uranium and uranium oxide. As described in the University of Chicago Magazine, fast neutrons released by the decaying uranium were slowed by the graphite so they could be captured by other uranium nuclei, inducing more fission. Cadmium rods inserted into the pile absorbed the slowed neutrons, in turn controlling the chain reaction.

That this happened on the Chicago campus at all was a fluke. For safety reasons, it was scheduled at a remote site in the Argonne forest southwest of the city (now the Argonne National Laboratory). But a worker's strike shut down construction of the building that was to house the pile. Fermi and his colleagues decided not to wait for the strike to end, but instead to build the pile themselves and to do it in a setting so mundane that few would notice.

The story is amazing, filled with vignettes and homely touches -- very much a story of its time.

  • Robert Hutchins, the iconic president of the University of Chicago, was never told of the risky experiment about to take place in an area amidst thousands of students. The scientists were afraid Hutchins would deny permission.
  • In a show of teamwork that would be impossible today, players from academia, the military and the private sector built the pile in 15 days!
  • The orchestrator of it all, Enrico Fermi, a native of fascist Italy, almost didn't make it to December 2. His classification as an enemy alien was lifted just two months earlier.
  • On the fateful day, as the cadmium rods were removed and the radiation mounted, Fermi halted the experiment. "I'm hungry," he said. "Let's go to lunch."
Later the experiment was resumed and the pile went critical. Forty people were there, crowded into the hidden squash court. Forty people witnessed history. As the last cadmium rod was withdrawn, Fermi said, "The reaction is self-sustaining. The curve is exponential." Atomic power had been unleashed. It was 3:53 p.m. and the world would never be the same.

The cadmium rods were reinserted and the chain reaction shut down. It had indeed been a controlled experiment. Only half a watt of power had been generated.

Arthur Compton, a Nobel physicist and major player in the Manhattan Project, called his counterpart, James Conant in Washington DC. His words would become famous: "The Italian navigator has just landed in the new world."

CP-I was only the beginning, of course. Uranium was enriched in quantity in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. Parallel work with plutonium was conducted in Hanford, Washington. And, as everyone knows, the bomb itself was developed in Los Alamos and tested 160 miles south in the New Mexican desert. The scientists and engineers who ran the Manhattan Project would become household names. Along with Fermi, Compton and Conant, there was Oppenheimer, Lawrence, Weil, Greenewalt, Teller and many others.

That was a long time ago. The university has changed. The west stands of Stagg Field are long gone, replaced by Mansueto Library. Also gone is Kent Laboratory, where Harold Urey had separated heavy water in a stairwell distillation column just a few steps from my laboratory in an adjoining building. Gone too is the rooftop promenade where I carried out sunlight-driven photochemical reactions long before solar power became fashionable.

But recollections remain. I remember Carolyn Scott, an undergraduate classmate, tell of a party her parents, surgeons at Chicago's Billings Hospital, hosted on the day the Japanese surrendered. Professors at the party, freed of their secrecy oaths, one by one told their wives they had helped build the atomic bomb. Scottie never forgot that. It made an impression on a young girl.

And what started on that remarkable day 75 years ago continues to impact the world. It spawned nuclear power plants that generate 20% of our electricity. It ended one war and averted others. It supported some governments and toppled others. It led to weapon proliferation that dominates our news today and shapes world policy.

Love it or hate it, Chicago Pile-I changed everything. The genie can never be put back in the bottle.

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

What a Fracking Mess

It's always disheartening to see the same misinformation peddled over and over again. I guess it's a tenant these days that if you say it enough times, whether it's right or wrong, people will start to believe it.

So it is with fracking.

The environmental left (no, that's not redundant) has made opposition to fracking a rite of passage. Just utter the word and you get cries of anguish. You don't have to understand it. You just have to oppose it. At a recent political gathering, I overheard one leftie say to another, "Fracking? We're against that, right?"

Fracking is back in the news again because several state legislators, cajoled by hysterical environmentalists, have proposed bills that would ban the procedure in Florida. SB 462/HB 237 would prohibit so-called fracking.

Not surprisingly, we're told of this through an overlay of misinformation. A Naples Daily News reporter recently wrote, "Fracking is a general term for various ways oil companies pump chemicals into a well to either dissolve or break up underground rock formations to stimulate oil or gas production."

Wrong. Fracking isn't pumping chemicals into a well. Fracking is a popular shorthand for hydraulic fracturing, pumping water under very high pressure into an oil- or gas-bearing formation. Slurried sand, part of the injection fluid, holds open the fractured rock to ease recovery of the trapped hydrocarbons. Chemicals make up less than 1% of the mix.

For those interested in learning about fracking, I recommend two terrific books -- Gregory Zuckerman's The Frackers and Gary Sernovitz's The Green and the Black.

The indisputable fact is hydrolytic fracturing, coupled with horizontal drilling, has transformed global energy, revitalizing old fields and opening up new ones that were previously unprofitable. It has freed the U.S. from energy dependence on the unstable Middle East. And it has benefitted the environment by providing cheap natural gas to replace coal in our power plants.

Some say the combination of fracking and horizontal drilling is one of the most important advances in the past 50 years. I don't disagree.

But some do. Our local watchdog, the Conservancy of Southwest Florida, has made a cottage industry of decrying fracking and its presumed evils. Instead of doing the hard work to reduce  nutrient pollution of our waterways, a real problem in Florida, it has chosen instead to pick the low-hanging fruit, grab the headlines and demonize something it barely understands.

The Conservancy claims "toxic chemicals" used in the fracturing fluid will contaminate aquifers that provide our drinking water. I challenge them to prove that. The fact is the chemicals, mostly fluidizing and suspending agents (some of them food additives) are used in minuscule amounts, far below toxic levels, and are further diluted in the formation and largely recovered in the pump-back fluids.

The horror stories from fracking's early days (see Zuckerman and Sernovitz) simply don't apply anymore. Today's procedures are well controlled, with care taken to ensure the fluids are safe, casings are secure and leakage is minimized or, in most cases, eliminated altogether.

Whether you believe this or not, the proposal to ban fracking is a solution looking for a problem. Fracking hasn't been done here. There has been no hydraulic fracturing in Florida. The Conservancy cites the Collier-Hogan well near Lake Trafford as an example. But that well wasn't fracked. It was acidized, a long-standing procedure to boost production that's been used for decades around the country, particularly in limestone formations like we have in Florida. Further, in spite of frantic attempts to prove the Collier-Hogan procedure tainted nearby groundwater or aquifers, no signs of pollution have ever been found.

The confusion between fracking and acidizing points up another problem. All of the local attention is being given to "fracking." In fact, hydraulic fracturing is but one of many types of enhanced recovery that could be used in Florida. Along with acidizing, some of the others include microbial treatment to fluidize heavy oil, carbon dioxide injection to cut oil viscosity, surfactant sweeps to scrub residual oil and gel emplacements to reduce water production.

Regulating just fracking isn't enough.

What should be done? Don't ban anything. Get some facts. Put a hold on all forms of enhanced production until risks  can be assessed.  Carry out an objective study -- the DEP is right group to conduct it -- based on Florida's geology. Investigate possible damage to our water supply from all types of enhanced recovery. Then, when real information is available, impose standards.

Sen. Kathleen Passidomo (R-Naples) and a number of her colleagues agree with this approach, which was tried without success the past two sessions. It should be tried again; it's the right way to go.

In the meantime, SB 462/HB 237 should be allowed to die, with or without hearings. The bills are inadequate and have little merit.

Wednesday, October 25, 2017

And That's No Bull

Red meat is getting a bad rap these days, even worse than the usual eat-more-grains-and-fish mantra from government do-gooders.

Correlations with increased cancer and heart disease are growing, and even longevity appears to be compromised by too much beef. Those of us with dangerously high iron levels are told to steer clear (no pun intended) of red meat.

Then there's gout and uric acid-based kidney stones. And in its dietary guidelines, the U.S. Department of Agriculture warns us to limit red meat consumption.

All this bad news is having an effect. More and more people are turning to poultry and fish or just foregoing animal protein altogether. Of my seven grandchildren, two are vegetarians and one is a vegan -- she avoids animal flesh and protein that comes from animals (eggs, milk, cheese). Cooking for them is a chore and a half.

The pogrom against meat has gone national. Some businesses, having introduced casual Fridays 15-20 years ago, are now offering meatless Tuesdays in the company cafeteria. Turkeyburgers and turkeydogs are staples on suburban grills. Being "health conscious" has come to mean shunning the cow (and sheep and pig).

But eating the cow is only part of the problem. Raising the cow is just as bad, say the environmentalists. The beast requires grazing land and water that could be put to better use. Vast parts of the Midwest are devoted to growing corn and grains to fatten cattle. Then there are the hormone shots the purists don't want carried over onto their dinner plates. And finally, good grief, the cow defecates, soiling farmland and fouling waterways.

But that's not the worst of it. The worst of it is methane -- a potent greenhouse gas that contributes to global warming or whatever climate evil is fashionable these days. Methane comes from leaky gas wells. But more of it comes from cows! That's right. Livestock and their byproducts are responsible for 51% of methane emissions. And a good bit of that comes from cattle flatulence. A wit called it the "barnyard bugle." You can't make this stuff up!

A Naples Daily News letter-writer posited, "If just a simple majority in the Paris Agreement signatory nations removed animal products from their diets, we would be well on the way to reversing rising temperatures." Oceans would probably recede as well.

But, seriously, suppose cattle were no longer raised and the market for red meat dried up. What would take its place? Can plants or even bugs be disguised to look and taste like beef or pork?

The short answer is yes, and some of the food industries' highest rollers are betting heavily on it.

The Wall Street Journal just tallied the effort: PepsiCo is looking into mycoprotein from fermented fungus. Kellogg is investigating smoothies containing protein-rich leaves from the West African moringa tree. General Mills is researching kaniwa, a protein-rich seed from South America.

Aspire Food Group is taking it a step further. The Texas-based company is betting on insect farming, which, it says, requires far less land, water and fossil fuels than raising livestock. Crickets are the insect of choice. Aspire has used cricket powder in protein bars, cookies and dog food, and offers roasted crickets as a crunchy snack. BBQ sauce or sour cream is optional.

Food companies are also exploring combinations of plant proteins, drawing on lentils, mung beans, mustard seeds and lupin beans. Researchers at PepsiCo are looking into soy, mealworm powder and duckweed (we've lots of that in Florida). A recent innovation is a patented process for solubilizing oats in water for protein drinks.

Benefitting from this revolution are the flavorant companies, since the natural flavor of crickets and mealworms have to be covered up or, better, be made to taste like a Big Mac. Then there's texture to deal with, opening up whole new opportunities for bulking and crisping agents.

Lest this sound like a chemical takeover, keep in mind that ground beef is made up of chemicals -- scores of amino acid combinations plus fatty esters and an array of other unpronounceable goodies. It's a matter of substituting one batch of natural products for another. In meat substitutes, only the flavorants, or at least some of them, will be synthetic chemicals, and they will make up less than 0.1% of the meatless patty.

There are big changes coming to our grocery shelves. By 2021, meat substitutes are forecast to be a $1 billion business, with nothing but upside ahead. Think of the ingredient listing on the label: Powdered mealy worms, heat-rendered jackfruit, xanthan gum, polydextrose, stevia, sea salt.

Double cheeseburger anyone?

Saturday, October 7, 2017

Glass Half Full

It's the age-old question: Is the glass half full or half empty? And it applies big time to our chaotic society today -- with its shootings, nuclear threats, hurricanes, political upheavals and more.

I'm going with half full.

Say what? How can anyone be optimistic given the horrors the 24/7 media lays on us every day? But I am optimistic, and here's why.

  • The stock market is soaring, shrugging off negative news, setting new records every week. I'm benefitting, but so are many others, including wage earners across the country. Half of the U.S. population is invested, either directly or through pension plans. This rising tide really does lift all boats, or at least a good many of them.
  • Unemployment hit a 16-year low, down to 4.3%, with 135,000 new jobs reported in September, and that's actually lower than the 180,000-per-month average for the first eight months of the year. Blame the hurricanes. Underscoring the good news, job growth has been strong across the board, benefitting blue-collar workers and college graduates alike. Further, economists report, chronically unemployed workers, those on the sidelines who despaired of finding employment, have rejoined the labor force at the highest rate since 2010.
  • And income is up. Median household income, adjusted for inflation (which remains low), rose 3.2%, surpassing 1999, the previous high. Low-wage earners scored the biggest gains. And the number of indigent Americans has declined, with the poverty rate falling to 12.7%.
  • Gross domestic product (GDP), that broad indicator of economic health, broke through 3% in the first half of 2017, a harbinger of good times ahead. Consumer confidence is the highest it has been in over ten years.
  • U.S. exports are growing at an annualized rate of 6%, outpacing the average of the previous decade. And this is in spite of uncertainties about oil and natural gas prices. American food exports are up 9% over last year, driven by jumps in dairy exports (up 25%) and beef exports (up 16%). Coal is being shipped overseas in record amounts.
  • Perhaps most important, the economic boom is not limited to the U.S. Growth is taking off around the world. The Wall Street Journal reports that all 45 countries tracked by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development are poised to grow this year, many at record paces -- overall the rosiest picture since 2007.  Even Greece and Portugal are bouncing back, something no one would have thought possible just a few years ago.
  • Both the feds and many state governments are taking steps to ease labor shortages, both for seasonal workers and high-tech scientists and engineers. Even with the expanding economy, there are virtually millions of unfilled jobs. These shortages, or at least some of them, are being addressed by increasing visas available to foreign workers.
All in all, we have reason to feel pretty good about the future. So when I hear the pundits talking about the decline of the America way and the social abyss that awaits us all, I just shrug and check my market holdings.

The glass is indeed half full.

Friday, September 22, 2017

The Terrible Legacy of Irma

My wife and I are among the Irma survivors -- survivors in the sense that we lived through the hurricane and remain Naples residents. We have our red badges of courage. As Stephen Sondheim wrote in 'Follies,' "We're still here."

Let's be clear. Irma was not some exhilarating experience to be called up later with a laugh at cocktail parties. Irma was terrible. Flat-out awful. Damage was not limited to property. The storm took a terrible toll on psyches, etched fear into our memories, fear that will not go away any time soon.

Few will forget the frantic entreaties of our elected officials as the storm approached: "Get out! Leave now! This is your last chance!" The problem was the shelters were full, the airports closed, the roads north clogged and little or no gasoline was available well into Georgia. For most there was no place to go! Such advice was idiocy.

People were terrified. What to do? One neighbor started to drive north, couldn't find fuel and turned back before she ran out of gas. Another neighbor couldn't get medicine. The pharmacies had all closed. Many, we included, were certain our houses would not withstand the 200-mile-per-hour winds that were forecast. And we'd be trapped there. Survival was a serious concern.

Bottled water had long been sold out, panels for covering windows long gone, flashlight batteries nowhere to be found. Shelters opened, filled up; other shelters opened, then quickly filled. People rushed to get a spot only to find they were too late. Hotels and motels were not options; frantic telephone calls around the state showed that everything was either closed or filled to capacity.

Some people took refuge with friends or neighbors. Most just hunkered down and prayed.

Few will ever forget the violence when the storm hit -- roaring, blinding, ripping out trees, tearing off roofs. Terrible flooding. Storm surge topping sand dunes. Roads rendered impassable.

The sad fact is our officials were simply not ready for a storm of Irma's magnitude. Local preparations were woefully inadequate. That includes water supplies, power backups, emergency help for the disabled. Local clinics had no generators. There was no master plan for sheltering and evacuation; no advance work with the private sector to ensure adequate fuel, water and other necessities; little apparent thought given to access for needed medicines. Drainage systems proved inadequate. There was no backup power for lifting stations that cleared toilet waste.

Lost was the fact that Collier County has 330,000 residents. Preparations benefitted perhaps 10% of them.

But look, it does no good to criticize our officials. Irma was unique, a 50-year storm (some say a 100-year storm). And there's no evidence that officials in other counties did any better. Certainly everyone's post-storm response was first rate. Debris was cleared, roads reopened, emergency repairs made. Local utilities labored around the clock to restore electricity. Communications from county commissioners and the Naples Daily News provided timely advice and helped keep people safe.

But the nightmares remain. Some friends are selling and getting out of Dodge. Others are armoring their homes, reinforcing their roofs and adding generators. That works for people who can afford it. Many who can't, homeless or with limited resources, are dependent on help from others. That help is coming in the form of donations, always generous where Naples is concerned. And some government money will eventually trickle in.

My wife and I are taking stock, wondering why anyone would live in a place so dependent on air conditioning. We'll do some armoring, hope we never need it, and install a big generator. And, like most, we'll stay here and get on with life.

But I suspect we'll never fully get over the horrors of Irma.

Saturday, September 2, 2017

Half-Baked Alaska

Back from Alaska. Quite a place. It's our 49th state, brought into the Union in 1959, within the lifetime of many of us.

It's license plates call it "The Last Frontier," and in many ways it is -- vast, rugged, with self-sufficient people struggling to cope with the technological niceties of the 21st century.

My wife and I just returned from a visit there, a stark contrast to Hawaii, our 50th state, where we traveled last year.

The very size of Alaska is daunting. It's bigger than Texas and California combined, with limited roads and population scattered sparsely throughout. Anchorage is the only city of any size, and it has the feel of a Wild West town.

For the geographically challenged (we were among them), Alaska has two distinct parts -- the Inside Passage, a leg to the southeast with waterways and islands that hug British Columbia, and the main land mass plus a smattering of islands that abuts the Yukon.

The Inside Passage is the realm of cruise ships, the massive Love Boats that carry thousands of passengers to and from Seattle and Vancouver. The behemoth ships search out glaciers and stop at ports that can't be reached by road.

Juneau, the state capital, is one of those ports. With a population of 30,000 (Alaska's third largest city), it occupies a narrow strip of gold-mine tailings deposited between steep mountains and the Gastineau Channel, one of many inlets from the Gulf of Alaska.

And you can't get there by car! You have to come by ship or fly in as we did. The concrete runway at the Juneau airport has an adjoining runway of water, a man-made rectangular lake for float planes that fly fishermen around the state. One statistic has Alaska with more bush pilots than any other place in the country, including those who fly planes with skis for landing on glaciers.

For the purists who like their capitol buildings with domes and acres of surrounding land, the Alaskan capitol will disappoint. It looks like a department store with four columns at the front door. No frills. Just a plain building tucked into Juneau's crowded business district.

Like everything else in the state, we found the people unassuming and understated. And very proud to be Alaskans. I asked one old gentleman how long he had lived in Juneau. He said over 40 years. That, I said, makes you a native. "Native," he snorted. "Heck, I'm a pioneer!"

Parts of Alaska, we found, were throwbacks to the last century or maybe the century before. To collect parking fees, a lot in Juneau required you to stuff tightly folded bills into a wooden slot and push them in with your car key. No kidding. And national newspapers were a rarity. Even in Anchorage we had trouble scoring a Wall Street Journal or New York Times. In spite of missile threats from North Korea, world news seemed a low priority.

The food, however, was terrific.
 - Best restaurant: Salt (Juneau)
 - Best oysters: Simon & Seaforts (Anchorage)
 - Best espresso: Conscious Coffee (Talkeetna)

Fresh seafood was everywhere. The salmon were running, and halibut was plentiful. The water was said to be the purest in the country. (On one boat trip, the captain pulled up to a cliff so the passengers could fill their cups directly from a waterfall.) One benefit of the pure water was an abundance of micro-breweries around the state, even in remote areas. The beer, fresh and cold, was uniformly good.

Alcohol, it turned out, was not Alaska's only sin. Our visit coincided with the coming of legalized pot. Last November, Alaska became the seventh state to allow marijuana for recreational use. So in the interest of unbiased observation, we visited a number of pot shops.

The first was a hoot. Behind a Hernando's Hideaway-type door with a face-level sliding screen, a kindly (and very mellow) gentleman asked for our IDs. We had a good laugh. My wife and I exceed the 21-year-old age limit by a significant multiple. All of the other places (we scouted only Juneau and Anchorage) had a "hey man" open-door policy. Garish they were not. The dispensaries were storefront places that looked like Apple stores. Nothing flashy, but with a supermarket of choices. One offered free butane for vaporizer torches. The going rate for pot was about $400 per ounce.

An interesting aside is that Alaska is worried that the bureaucracy put in place to regulate the marijuana business may cost more than the tax revenues generated from pot sales. An unintended consequence, for sure.

Alaska, befitting its size, had a mix of good and bad, like pot-holed roads everywhere. But there were two bottom-line highlights.

First were the glaciers spilling into the sea. You don't see that just anywhere. Blue-dense rivers of ice calving slabs into the sea with explosive force, forming fields of icebergs and showing up-close and personal why the sea level is rising.

Second was the remarkable wildlife, perhaps an Arctic version of equatorial Africa. From harbor seals on ice floes to herds of caribou in mid-Alaska. From black bears chasing salmon in the rivers to brown bears (read grizzlies) scouring the mountainsides for berries. In Denali National Park, we saw nine moose, bulls and cows at the start of rutting season. Outside of Juneau, we saw bald eagles by the dozens. And in Denali, we photographed Alaskan magpie, willow ptarmigan, spruce grouse and  one marsh hawk. The variety and number of wildlife were staggering.

Anyway, we're back in south Florida now, sweaters and parkas stored for the next trip north. They say travel is broadening, and it is. Nothing like the contrast of a place like Alaska to show what a wonderful and diverse country we live in.

Saturday, August 5, 2017

Time to Swallow a Tax Increase?

When are tax increases justified?

Never, says my wife and many of my Republican colleagues agree. We're overtaxed as it is, and we should make do with what we have.  Prioritize expenditures and live within our means.

That may be the prevailing mood in Collier County. It certainly seems to be with the County Commissioners, who recently bowed to political pressure and scrapped a 0.25-mil property tax boost  to fund Conservation Collier.

A tax increase is always a tough call, particularly with the federal government sucking more and more money out of our pockets. But the time might be right to consider a limited, directed and temporary tax hike in Collier County. Here's why.

Unmet needs are piling up, many that have been deferred for years.

  • Vital infrastructure projects are stalled. The existing county budget simply can't keep up with current needs, let alone support growth occurring to our east and south. We're talking about $150 million in backlogged road and sewer construction, delayed bridge repair and long-promised neighborhood parks.
  • Affordable workforce housing is almost non-existent. An infusion of money will be needed if any real progress is to be made, including beefing up the local trust fund and extending infrastructure to new housing sites.
  • Workforce training, a priority of the Greater Naples Chamber of Commerce, will require capacity beyond what Lorenzo Walker and Immokalee Tech can provide. One or more additional training centers for the trades are needed.
  • There is a desperate shortage of mental health and addiction treatment facilities, beyond what's  available at David Lawrence. A second priority, no less important, is rehab housing for patients once they have been treated. That would relieve pressure on our county jail, now shamefully the major center for housing the addicted and mentally ill.
These unmet needs, says Chamber CEO Michael Dalby, could be addressed by a temporary boost in the sales tax. A 1% increase would generate an estimated $68 million a year. The tax would sunset after 4-5 years, whenever the projects were completed, returning the tax rate to 6%.

This is not a new idea. Sixty-one Florida counties have some form of local sales tax. It's widely used to bridge revenue gaps and fund special projects.

To be clear, the Chamber is not proposing a tax increase at this time. It is proposing the county staff estimate the cost of backlogged projects, determine which could be carried out within the existing budget and estimate the cost of those remaining. The unfunded projects, prioritized, would form the basis for a temporary tax. 

The proposal has a number of good features. It addresses specific needs, imposing upfront limits on expenditures -- so much for roads, so much for affordable housing, so much for mental health facilities. The tax would be capped at purchases of $5,000, and there would be exemptions for groceries and other essentials. Based on past experience, visitors would pay 25-30% of the tax, reducing the burden on permanent residents. An oversight committee would monitor the program to ensure compliance. And, most important, the tax would be temporary. 

To proceed. the commissioners would have to decide what items to include in a referendum, specify  project-by-project funding and craft language for the November 2018 ballot. The voters would then make the call.

There are a good many unanswered questions. A particularly knotty one is whether to include money for Conservation Collier. The environmentalists say no. They don't like the bundling, preferring instead a stand-alone referendum to increase the property tax. The issue, of course, is whether voters would go for two tax hikes on the same ballot.

These are early times and the debate is just beginning. But the infrastructure needs are real and in many cases critical. It's not too early to start considering how to deal with those needs.

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Mangia! Mangia!

These are exciting times for foodies.

New restaurants are opening in the Naples area, offering everything from low-calorie health food to sauce-based haute cuisine. One new health-oriented place advertises its meat dishes as coming from "humanely raised, environmentally sustained animals that are exposed to no antibiotics, pesticides or added hormones." You can't be too careful.

But kidding aside, good things are happening. Coffee, the life-blood for many of us, got another favorable report. Studies published in the Annals of Internal Medicine found that people who drank two or three cups a day had a lower risk of death from heart disease or cancer than those who drank no coffee at all. A three-point play. Coffee props up an aging mind, and it's good for you to boot.

And how about salt, that cheapest of flavorants that makes everything taste better? Salt is in everything: bread, soup, deli meats, most processed foods, restaurant entrees. Long a pariah for its effect in raising blood pressure, salt has been on everybody's "bad" list for years. The FDA wants intake lowered by one-third.

But new findings show we don't know as much about salt as we thought we did. Studies on Russian cosmonauts, held in isolation to simulate space travel, showed increasing amounts of salt made them less thirsty and hungrier. Animal studies confirmed this. Mice burned more calories when they got more salt, eating 25% more just to maintain their weight. The implications are profound and completely unexpected. So don't throw out your salt shaker just yet. We still have a lot to learn.

Then there are condiments, the powders you buy in tiny jars at the supermarket for five bucks apiece. They have a long history of curing all kinds of things. My wife's favorite is turmeric and, wouldn't you know, recent reports have shown she was prescient. Turns out turmeric, which is loaded with antioxidants, suppresses deposits in the brain leading to dementia. Mind you, studies so far have been limited to rats and mice. But the outlook is good if you're a fan of chutneys, curries, chicken stews -- dishes made better by a hefty dose of turmeric.

There are other brain boosters as well. The Canadian Brain Health Guide recommends lots of berries, whole grains, beans and cold-water fish. Our neighbors to the north claim such a diet reduces risk of developing Alzheimer's by 36%.

For me, the best news was that nuts provide all kinds of benefits. Ever since a trip to Hawaii, I've been hooked on macadamia nuts. Best snack ever. The FDA recommends at least 100 nuts of any kind each week. That and other good behavior is said to reduce the incidence of heart disease, stroke and diabetes.

High science is helping out. Onions have been genetically engineered to boost the level of flavonoids, adding new dimensions of flavor. The Japanese have developed carrots with increased fiber content and high levels of the antioxidant beta-carotene. New research using gene editing is improving the flavor of tomatoes and creating mushrooms that don't brown when sliced.

Even bacon may be making a comeback. My tree-hugging friends say everyone should avoid eating beef because cattle flatulence is a big source of methane, a potent greenhouse gas. Pigs, it turns out, do less ... Well, let's just say they emit much less methane. And that should be enough to give bacon a dispensation from the FDA, right?  Removal from the "never eat" list.

No question, things are looking up.  Mangia!

Friday, July 7, 2017

Memories of Qatar, Hold the Remorse

Ah, Qatar, I remember you well. At least, I think I do. It's been a while.

Qatar is back in the news again, shunned by its Middle Eastern neighbors for snuggling up to Iran, promoting terrorist broadcasts on Al Jazeera and harboring Turkish military. The U.S., which also has a military base there, is urging reconciliation.

Qatar is easy to locate on a map. It sticks out like a sore thumb into the Arabian Gulf. In my working days, I called there often. That was back in the 1980s. Doha, the capital, was an important business stop.

Back then, the Arabian countries were ripe markets for water-treatment chemicals, with huge desalination plants cranking out drinking water for the desert masses. Desalination, both by distillation and reverse osmosis, needed antiscalants to prevent mineral buildup on the heat-exchanger or membrane walls. And the Arabians could pay for those chemicals. It was said back then, with only slight exaggeration, that a barrel of fresh water was worth more than a barrel of oil.

My recollection of those days is slipping, but I do remember we were not well schooled in Arabian culture, particularly as it applied to business. We learned, often the hard way, that relationships take time to build, family comes first, time has little value and maintaining face is all important.

Here's an example. Several colleagues and I, prompt for a call on a departmental secretary, were shunted to the rear of a large conference room when a relative showed up unannounced. We cooled our heels while the secretary and his cousin (or perhaps nephew) consumed vast amounts of tea and chatted for nearly an hour.

That turned out to be the high point of the visit. When we were summoned back to the front of the room, our marketing manager -- a voluble New Yorker -- extolled our products, gesticulating, making the big pitch. Later, our Egyptian salesman took us to task. He said we erred by pointing (very threatening) and by telling the secretary our products could help him solve his problem (making him lose face). But our salesman said, don't worry. It turned out the secretary didn't understand a single  word of English!

Another recollection points up the fact that terrorism isn't new to the Middle East. Back in the 1980s, everyone was on edge and security was tight, particularly at airports. On one visit, I was walking to the terminal, having just landed at the Doha airport, when I realized I had left my briefcase on the plane. I swore and started running back to the plane. My colleague shouted, "Dave, stop, stop!" I turned around to see a sub-machine gun pointed at me. I nearly got shot in the back. The guard thought I was a terrorist going back to blow up the plane. You tend not to forget things like that.

Less dramatic is my recollection of a fishing trip in the Arabian Gulf. With government offices closed on a Friday, the Qatari sabbath, I joined a veritable United Nations of visitors on an old Arabian dhow, a fishing vessel tricked out with ... nothing. No compass, no charts, no radar, no life jackets, no depth sounder (it did have a lead line). The captain, in white gown and checkered headdress, stripped down to his underwear once we cleared the breakwater. It was at least 105 degree Fahrenheit.

The sea was flat; there were no buoys or markers of any kind. Yet the captain seemed to know exactly where he was going. At one point we passed another dhow going in the opposite direction. Someone on the other boat shouted to us, trying to get directions. Our captain ignored him, later explaining the other vessel had passengers from another sect, a lesser one, one unworthy of his attention. Tribalism, at least back then, was alive and well.

Ultimately, the fishing trip was successful. Using hand lines (the boat had no fishing poles), we used shrimp to catch bait fish and the bait fish, hooked through the eye sockets, to catch grouper. The key was to jerk up the line when we felt a hit to keep the grouper from diving into the rocks below. By the time we returned, everyone was bloody from the lines cutting into our hands. But we also had fish, big ones.

How does the story end? We didn't get to keep the fish. Instead, we were told we could order grouper, very fresh, for dinner that night at the hotel by the wharf. No one ever accused the Qatari's of being poor businessmen.

Time have changed since the 1980s. Most Qatari officials speak English now. Planes pull up to jetways. All passengers go through security. Fishing boats have GPS and even fishing poles. Western ways have overtaken the Middle East. Just look at television shots of the skyscrapers. Dubai has the tallest building in the world.

Time has air-brushed many details of the past. Or maybe it's just age making memories more selective. Don't get me wrong. I'm not complaining. Next year I may remember nothing at all.

Friday, June 30, 2017

Renewable Energy Still a Distant Hope

It's been a tough year for green energy.

Even with declining oil and natural gas prices, fracking hasn't slowed down. Costs have been dramatically reduced so that even at $50 a barrel petroleum can be profitably produced in many fields. Horizontal drilling, often miles into a formation, combined with vastly improved computer analysis, means more oil or gas can be recovered from a single platform.

So, to the anguish of greenies, fossil fuels continue to grow. The U.S. is now energy independent and actually exporting natural gas. And that will not change any time soon. Even if the Paris climate accords are implemented (I give that one chance in a hundred of happening), solar and wind would contribute less than 3% of world energy by 2040.

Climate scientist James Hansen was quoted as saying, "Suggesting that renewables will let us phase rapidly off fossil fuels in the U.S., China, India or the world as a whole is almost the equivalent of believing in the Easter Bunny and Tooth Fairy."

And the world shrugs. A recent U.N. poll found that climate change is a low-priority issue for most people -- well behind health, education, food, jobs and other essentials. And, of course, President Trump has struck down a number of Obama decrees that propped up green energy. A bad year, indeed.

But environmentalists shouldn't be too glum. There's good news as well, and some of it in Florida.

The recent legislature passed and Governor Scott signed a bill implementing Constitutional Amendment 4 approved last year by Florida voters. The amendment exempts from taxes the assessed value of solar energy devices, including batteries. Businesses installing solar get the exemption as well. Not a big deal, but another incentive for green energy.

Perhaps more important, state utilities are abandoning coal and turning to natural gas and renewables. Florida Light & Power recently announced plans to add nearly 300 megawatts of solar a year through 2023. Combined with 2,100 megawatts already in production, that will be enough to power 420,000 homes.

That's encouraging. But for renewables to make real inroads, technical improvements are needed --  big advances that will allow green energy to compete without subsidies.

And it's happening, albeit slowly. Here are some examples.

- Perovskites are continuing to improve. This family of inexpensive minerals has achieved a light-to-electricity conversion of 24% in the laboratory, with a huge upside. This compares to 17% for commercial silicon-based solar cells, which have an upper limit of 25%. Advances have solved some of perovskites' stability problems, and pilot production of cells is expected to begin in 2020.

- Big advances are also being made in batteries: Spongelike anodes to increase lifetime, zinc-air cathodes to improve recharging, nanoparticulate phosphorus to boost capacity, iron-based cathodes to cut cost.

- Caverns, like abandoned coal mines, are being tested as receptacles for water from above-ground reservoirs, essentially creating miniature hydroelectric plants. The idea is to use solar or wind to pump the water up to the reservoir and, when energy isn't being generated, to allow the water to run back down to the cavern by way of the pump, which acts in reverse as a power-generating turbine. Still in its infancy, this outside-the-box technology is being evaluated in the U.S. and Germany.

 - Since a sizable portion of petroleum is used to make chemicals, replacement by regenerable feedstocks would reduce the need for hydrocarbons. And that's starting to happen. For example, a group in Germany has discovered a fermentation route to aniline, a chemical widely used to make plastics, dyes, pigments and synthetic rubber. The process, which uses sugar and ammonia as feedstocks, is targeted for scale-up in 2020.

This is real progress, and it shouldn't be minimized. But there's a great deal more to be done. These and other technologies will have to be developed, commercialized and proven in the marketplace. That won't come easily, and it won't be fast. What can be done to speed it up? A boost in government funding would help.

Climate scientist Bjorn Lomborg writes, "True progress in reducing carbon emissions will require far-reaching advances in green energy, and that will mean massive investment in research and development." I agree. That's a far better use of taxpayer money than squandering it on subsidies that simply mask the inability of renewables to compete in the free market.

Saturday, June 17, 2017

Ball Fields Built on Sand

We live in interesting times.

After stuffing the Atlanta Braves' attempt to pick our pockets for a spring training stadium, the Collier County commissioners turned around and committed $60-80 million to build an amateur sports complex.

What's the rationale? Local youth can use it whenever state or national sports tournaments aren't occupying the space. And that wouldn't be very often, because out-of-towners are going to flock here, bringing their soccer, lacrosse, field hockey, tennis, softball and who-knows-what-other teams to compete, overrun our hotels and flood our restaurants, spreading money in their wake.

We are told the project will strengthen the tourism leg of our economic stool (construction and agriculture being the other two legs). It will be pickleball times ten. Or fifteen.

A county-funded consulting firm earned its money by forecasting the sports complex would bring in  265,000 people a year.

To make this happen, the commissioners did what for years was unthinkable. They raised the tourist tax from 4% to 5%. The big resort hotels that fought the increase for years were overwhelmed by smaller inland hotels, trade associations, sports lobbyists and a multitude of hard-breathing fathers pleading for more playing fields for their kids.

It was a full-court press, and it was well orchestrated. County officials assured the cautious that the $3.8 million allocated for the sports complex wouldn't take money away from the beaches. The officials went so far as to guarantee that any shortfall in bond debt service would be covered by the county's general fund -- that is, the taxpayer's dime. No way we would default or strip money from the beaches, even in an economic downturn. All contingencies are covered.

Never mind that $3.8 million underwrites bonds for only a $55 million project. (What happened to $60-80 million?) We simply won't build an indoor arena if we run out of money. But let's not over-think this. Let's get the show on the road. Start negotiations to buy the land. What could possibly go wrong?

What could go wrong is that the hordes won't show up. The notion that "if we build it, they will come" is a triumph of hope over reason. There are sports complexes all over Florida and more being built. They will all compete for the same state and national tournaments, and the competition will be fierce.

Ah, but what about the draw of beautiful Naples, with its culture and beaches and fine restaurants? Won't that tip the scales?

No, that will have no bearing whatsoever. Competing communities can offer the same fast-food restaurants (forget about fine dining), nearby hotels and motels and, in coastal communities, the same beaches. There won't be much beach-going anyway, because the sports fields will be too far away -- at Collier Boulevard and I-75. And I can't see bus-loads of kids doing much shopping on 5th Avenue or 3rd Street or visiting Naples Botanical Gardens.

But the project looks like a done deal. And why not? The commissioners have political cover. Since the facility won't open until 2021, most people will have forgotten by then who approved this fiscal boondoggle.

Are there any upsides? Any good news in all of this?  Maybe. To make everyone happy with the bed tax increase, the county proposed more money for the beaches, upping the allocation to 42.6% (of the 5% tax). If approved, that would provide an additional $2.5 million a year for beach spending.

When added to funds from catastrophic reserves, FDEM reserve reimbursement, and Fund 183 and 195 money, that would be enough, according to Gary McAlpin, head of Coastal Zone Management, to carry out a major resiliency program -- starting with a $38 million project in 2020 to deepen and widen beaches throughout Collier County.

But let's face it. A lot of things could happen, and not all of them good, between now and then. A destructive coastal storm, a fall-off in tourist funds, an unexpected call on county reserves. Big plans today -- for ball fields and beaches -- could end up as projects built on sand.

Monday, June 12, 2017

Florida's Polluted Waters

It comes as no surprise, but the report card on Southwest Florida's watersheds is still jarring.

Capping years of analysis, the Conservancy of Southwest Florida's recent report shows that waterways and estuaries from north of Lake Okeechobee to Ten Thousand Islands are badly polluted and that wetlands and mangrove loss is severe.

The study grades ten estuaries and rivers on water quality and wildlife impact, the latter defined as conservation land remaining after urbanization -- an apparent smack-down on economic growth the Conservancy finds environmentally unfriendly.

But on balance the assessment is a good one. I find it encouraging the Conservancy is focusing on this, a truly important issue, instead of playing to the balcony on fracking and other headline grabbers that have little substance. Kudos for the good work here.

Of the ten water bodies evaluated, which are the worst? Naples Bay and the Caloosahatchee River, both racking up a D- in each category. Both are cesspools of fertilizer runoff, the Caloosahatchee from farm land north and south of Lake Okeechobee and Naples Bay from the City of Naples and the Golden Gate Canal. Naples Bay also boasts copper levels among the highest in the country, thanks to years of unmanaged cupric sulfate treatment to eradicate algae fed by over-fertilization.

But that's not the worst news. The worst news is that none of the ten waterways had water quality graded higher than a C (Rookery Bay). Six had D's or D-minuses, and four had C's or C-minuses. While high nutrient and heavy metal levels were the main culprits, the study also found excessive bacteria (animal waste and leaky septic tanks), low dissolved oxygen and occasional pH and turbidity problems.

It's not a pretty picture, discouraging for those of us who live here and certainly not an advertisement for tourism.

What can be done about it? Columnist Brent Batten of the Naples Daily News quotes Rob Moher, head of the Conservancy, who urges people to dispose of waste properly, minimize fertilization and irrigation, seal septic tanks and use permeable pavers. All good advice.

And it would help if Collier County enforced its ordinance on landscape management practices (11-24).

Longer-term, reactivation of the Conservation Collier land-purchase program might have an impact, although I'm skeptical we'll see the effect in our lifetimes or, at least, in my lifetime.

But the picture isn't all bleak. The Conservancy didn't include Clam Bay in its study, and perhaps it should have. Maintained with great care by Pelican Bay, the estuary is clean and its mangrove forest is largely intact. Nutrient and oxygen levels meet Department of Environmental Protection standards, as does dissolved copper, once badly out of spec. Wildlife is abundant and a management plan ensures the preserve meets stringent environmental guidelines.

Admittedly, Clam Bay at 560 acres is a small piece of the watershed pie. But it's a good example of how relentless attention can make a difference. Grade it A-.

Tuesday, June 6, 2017

Sand, Glorious Sand

With the hurricane season upon us, Southwest Florida's vulnerability stands out like a sore thumb.

Consider the following.

  • Over half of the population lives within two miles of the shore.
  • Coastal construction is soaring, and every structure is exposed.
  • Insurance rates are spiking, particularly for flood coverage.
But what would be affected most are our beaches. Our most important tourist asset could be wiped out overnight, or at least severely damaged.

Collier County's beaches are in relatively good shape right now. Unlike some in northern Florida and on the east coast, the beaches here have escaped major damage. Annual truck hauls of quarry sand have repaired erosion and maintained beach widths in most places of 90-100 feet. Not bad.

But the vulnerability remains.

To head off catastrophic sand loss, county officials are considering a "resiliency" approach -- beefing up the beaches before a big storm hits. The idea is to add a foot or so to the dunes, buttress the berms and extend widths to 150 feet where possible.

That would largely fill the beach template, we are told, including the underwater area, and provide a beach that would be sustainable well into the future. One big project with smaller follow-ups.

It sounds right. And it would take a lot of sand, up to 1 million cubic yards, far more than could be provided by truck haul. Gary McAlpin, head of Coastal Zone Management, is looking at off-shore hopper dredging -- likely at a site off Captiva Island, some 40 miles away. This would be an expensive proposition, estimated to cost $30 million or more.

Where would we get that kind of money? Not from the Feds, who are cutting funds for projects of this sort. And certainly not from the State. Tallahassee is providing $50 million for the entire 825-mile Florida coastline. 

The money would have to be raised locally, likely from the Tourist Development Tax, a 4% tariff on hotel stays and other visitor accommodations. As things now stand, 47% of tourist tax revenues go for marketing, 41% for beaches and 12% for museums.

To grow the beach reserve so "resiliency" could be funded, two proposals have been made, both involving changing how the tourist tax is spent. Ed Staros, General Manager of the Ritz-Carlton Hotel, would direct 60% to beaches and 40% to marketing, with museums to be funded elsewhere. Collier Commissioner Penny Taylor proposes a 62.5/37.5 split between beaches and marketing.

Either plan would be a winner, boosting beach funding by $4.1 to 4.7 million a year. The extra money would go a long way toward making "resiliency" possible and ensuring beach longevity. 

What about other approaches, things that don't involve replacing sand that gets washed away?
Dune plantings, off-shore mangroves, even hardening with groins and jetties.

Hardening is a non-starter. Commissioner Andy Solis says permitting would be very difficult today. And environmentalists would fight it soothe and nail. Additional plantings would help, but there's no evidence they would stand up to severe storms.

Beach dewatering, such as with pressure-equalized modules (perforated pipes buried in the sand), has been proposed. But the long-term effectiveness is suspect, and it takes years to see the benefits, if any. Results in Europe have been mixed, and no PEMs are used in the U.S. today.

So it appears prophylactic nourishment, "resiliency," though imperfect, may be our best bet. Now we just have to come up with the money.

Thursday, May 25, 2017

Here's to Europe, Warts and All

My wife and I returned from Europe to find the U.S. media fretting about whether world order was reordering. Whether a populist wave was sweeping Europe, about to wash away the European Union and, gasp, socialism. Whether countries were about to restrict immigration. Whether the EU would survive. Heck, whether Europe would survive.

Not to worry. The answers are no, no, yes and yes. The sky isn't falling. In fact, our brief travels suggest nothing much is changing, Brexit and Trump notwithstanding.

The welfare state is alive and well, with bureaucracies bloated and inefficient and regulations so pervasive they make the Obama years look like unfettered free enterprise. Everything and everyone are taxed to the point of breaking (like in Connecticut). Unions still call the shots. Business productivity is a joke. And entitlements reign.

Little is spent on defense. In France, it's "croissants, not cruisers." In Italy, we saw a few military ships that looked like relics from World War II. Without U.S. protection, Europe would be overrun by Russia in two weeks. Okay, maybe it would take a month. Some wag said Sweden is already drawing up surrender papers.

In Germany people are scandalized that Trump asked NATO countries to pay 2% of their GDP for defense, as was agreed many years ago. But why should Germans sacrifice their weinerschnitzel and long vacations if Angela Merkel can get the Americans to guarantee Europe's safety? Even more important, why buy guns when you can spend the money to subsidize green energy? Who knows, maybe wind turbines will be a shield against Iranian missiles.

Okay, enough negativity. Americans still love to visit Europe, and my wife and I are no exceptions. The food is great, the wine even better, and you can't beat the exchange rate. The quaint and picturesque are everywhere. And there's the history. Europe is, after all, the land of our ancestors -- for many of us anyway. And history still matters.

Europe never ceases to surprise. Even armed with old-fashioned guide books and the newfangled Internet, you can expect the unexpected.

For example, we learned that Malta, a big ship-building center, was more heavily bombed in the Second World War than London. And who knew that cannoli was invented in Sicily or that sea salt is still mined there? Or that Italy has two of the world's three most active volcanoes -- Etna and Stromboli (the third is Kilauea in Hawaii)? Or that Vesuvius, hovering over Naples, is 23 years past its eruption due date?

Here's one for the foodies: Only half of the tables in iconic Tour d'Argent look out over the Seine and Notre Dame. The other half give diners a killer view of Parisienne chimney pots!

Then there's the Sistine Chapel, said to have the highest concentration of pickpockets in Europe. I don't believe that. Anyway the ceiling is now clean and visible, and still quite remarkable.

Europe remains a photographer's dream -- from the Amalfi cliffside to the Sicilian antiquities to the Impressionists in d'Orsay. There's nowhere else quite like it.

So back home in Naples -- Florida, that is (there's a difference) -- I toast the grand dame across the pond. Warts and all, Europe will always be a favorite destination.

Monday, May 22, 2017

Let's Be Thankful We Live in Florida

It's been a tough year for Connecticut. My former home state is reeling from crisis after crisis, most of its own making.

The wealthiest per-capita state in the U.S. is one of four states losing population. Its taxes are the highest in the country (beating out California is no small feat). And its probate system, considered the worst in the country, reinforces the adage, "Don't die in Connecticut."

The latest blow was losing General Electric to Boston. The headquarters of one of the world's top corporations got fed up up with the Connecticut tax system, among other things, and moved to Massachusetts, hardly a tax haven itself. (My daughter, who lives in Fairfield, CT, says the loss of local tax revenues has been devastating.)

Connecticuts's answer to all of this -- not surprising from one of the bluest states in the country -- has been to double down and raise taxes even higher. As a result, businesses and residents have been fleeing the Nutmeg State in droves.

According to a recent Wall Street Journal article, Moody's Investor Services just hit Connecticut with the third lowest rating for a state, citing population loss as a major reason. The state faces a $5.1 billion deficit over the next two fiscal years.

How to fix it? Squeeze the fat cats and corporations even harder? That may no longer work. The state budget office reluctantly admits that well may be running dry. There may be little more to squeeze out.

The problem is the big tax-and-spend states have no other playbook. Tax cuts, easing regulations, business incentives are all anathema to the Northeast Democrats.

That position is echoed by the powerful public-sector unions. A spokesman for Council 4, the largest state union, said, "Ask Connecticut's wealthiest taxpayers and largest corporations to sacrifice and pay a little more to protect the services people rely on."

Odds are the tax-and-spend folks will prevail, and more businesses and residents will move to Florida, where we have our own problems -- but overtaxation isn't one of them.

It's been a tough year for my former state. Even the weather has been lousy, cold with lots of snow. And the mighty UConn women failed to win the NCAA basketball championship. A tough year indeed.

Monday, April 17, 2017

Double Talk from Tallahassee

It's easy to be cynical.

We were told for years that purchase of 60,000 acres of sugar cane land south of Lake Okeechobee was essential for containing overflow and cleaning runoff to the Everglades.

We had to buy that land. It was an environmental imperative. A massive reservoir was the answer to controlling algal bloom and stemming pollution of the St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee Rivers. Don't sweat the cost, we were told. $2.4 billion was a small price to pay for avoiding a calamity that would destroy our waterways and sink our tourist industry.

Then, whoops, we learn we really don't need that additional land after all. Turns out we have had enough all along. The apocalyptic problems can be solved on 14,000 acres of state-owned land. And it will cost only $1.5 billion.

Wait a minute. We don't need more land? That's quite a flip-flop. Senate President Joe Negron, the impresario behind the $2.4 billion pitch, has twinkled his magic wand: Now we need it. Now we don't.

Credibility? Forget about it. Nobody will ever believe another thing Negron says. Or any of the other Chicken Littles that suckered us along for years, then flip-flopped along with Negron. I'm talking about conservation paragons like the Everglades Foundation and Audubon Florida. They don't deserve another nickel in donations.

But wait. There's more. Turns out the two reservoirs on state land (one planned, one already there) will hold 100 billion gallons of lake discharge. But they won't clean it up! That will require more money and more land. Filter marshes -- big ones -- will be needed downstream of the reservoirs to protect the Everglades from the polluted discharge.

Some of our pols say SB 10 is the wrong approach anyway. U.S. Senator Bill Nelson wants to build reservoirs north of Lake Okeechobee. Congressman Francis Rooney wants to complete existing projects before building any more reservoirs. He says we should wrap up some of the 68 projects already on the books, like reinforcing the the Herbert Hoover Dike around the lake.

And some of our pols have no clue whatsoever. One recently wrote, "The algal blooms will continue to occur unless the high volume of discharges from Lake Okeechobee are stopped."

This should not be a scoop, but here goes: The algal blooms are not caused by "the high volume of discharges from Lake Okeechobee." They're caused by fertilizer runoff from sugar cane fields. That's what must be stopped. Lake Okeechobee just holds the polluted water; it doesn't cause the pollution.

Governor Rick Scott is feinting in still another direction. He would have you believe the real problem is leaking septic tanks. It's not. Scott doesn't want to offend Big Sugar. Pure and simple, the algal blooms are fueled by fertilizer runoff.

There are two ways to fight the problem.

(1) Keep the water from getting polluted in the first place." To do that, tighten water-quality standards for dissolved nitrogen and phosphorus in all Florida waterways, including the sloughs, canals and streams in the cane fields around Lake Okeechobee. The DEP can and should do that. Can tough specs be enforced? Not everywhere. But the DEP can enforce them where the problem is most severe -- discharges from South Florida farms.

(2) Treat the water after it's polluted. To do that, build massive reservoirs north and south of the lake and spend money to add filter marshes or other cleanup facilities -- and, for a change, be honest about the land needed and the cost.

Here's an aside. Some months ago, a caller told me I didn't understand Florida farming. He said, because the soil is so poor, mostly sand, huge amounts of fertilizer and irrigation are needed to grow sugar cane. That's a perfect storm for nutrient runoff and algae growth. So, the caller said, if Big Sugar is to survive, the only approach is to let the farmers pollute, then have someone clean up the water later.

How this plays out remains to be seen. But here's a prediction. Little or nothing will be accomplished this year. Either the Florida House will water down SB 10 even further, or the House will kill the bill and we'll be back to square one.

The optimists say even a neutered SB 10 is better than nothing at all. Let the camel get his nose under the tent, and the rest of him will follow, maybe next year.

I say I'm tired of playing games. I'm tired of hearing that much should be done, only to learn that much isn't needed and then to learn that, in fact, much really is needed.

I suspect what's really needed is a wholesale change in Tallahassee.

Saturday, April 1, 2017

Stumbling and Bumbling in Tallahassee

How are we doing as we approach the mid-point of Florida's 2017 legislative session? Not particularly well. Here's a quick look at where things stand.

Budget-wise, the chambers are $2 billion apart -- the Senate pegging expenditures at $83.2 billion compared to the House at $81.2 billion. Governor Rick Scott proposed $83.5 billion. It looks like Florida will have a small surplus, followed by a $1.3 billion shortfall next fiscal year and a $1.9 billion drop the year after that. That means long-term expenditures, particularly those involving guaranteed payouts, are getting close scrutiny.

Differences between the Senate and House show up in a number of high-profile areas.

Education - Public school spending will increase from the current level of $7,204 per student to $7,414 if the Senate gets its way or to $7,223 if the House prevails. The smart money says the House wins on public school funding but loses on its proposed boost for charters.

In higher education, the Senate wants to raise the status of Florida's universities by expanding the Bright Futures scholarships for top students and rewarding schools for high four-year graduation rates (current average is 47%). Scholarships for needy students would also be increased.

The House plan is more modest but includes money to attract top-level professors and researchers. Because the more ambitious Senate proposal is tied to property tax increases, odds are the House wins with no tax increase and pared-down spending.

Gambling - A thorny issue for years, Florida gambling has the two chambers miles apart. The more conservative House wants to hold the line, leaving the Seminoles with exclusive rights to blackjack and other "banked" card games (HB 7027). The Senate, on the other hand, wants Florida to become "a humid Las Vegas," throwing the doors open to slot machines in counties where they are approved and adding craps and roulette to Seminole casinos (SB 8). The Senate would also allow dog and horse tracks and frontons to jettison money-losing racing and jai alai -- de facto converting them to casinos.

The battle lines are clear. The House says limit gambling and keep Florida family-friendly. The Senate says raise the stakes and pump tax revenues. Best bet is a compromise, heavily weighted toward caution.

Tourism and Economic Development - Gov. Scott and House Speaker Richard Corcoran have been waging war over state money for luring tourists and businesses. Scott wants it and the Speaker doesn't. Likely outcome is scaled-back funding -- perhaps $25 million each for Visit Florida and Enterprise Florida.

Medical Marijuana - Passed by a 71% vote last November, the constitutional amendment expands pot use for an array of diseases and "other debilitating medical conditions." In a first step toward implementing the amendment, the House wants to ban pot smoking, keep marijuana out of foods and prevent its use in vaporizers (HB 1397). Supporters of Amendment 2 are apoplectic. Sick people need weed in all forms, they say. Bongs, brownies, gummy bears. And the Senate is jousting with the House over the number of growers and distributers, pitting tax revenues against safety and control. Look for lots of lawsuits.

Polluted Waterways - To buy or not to buy, that is the question. We're talking about land south of Lake Okeechobee, that centerpiece of nutrient pollution. Senate President Joe Negron says the land is  needed for a reservoir to store and clean off-flows to the Everglades (SB 10). Opponents, including many in the House and even U.S. Representative Francis Rooney, say the $2.4 billion price tag is excessive. A better approach, they say, is the stepwise Everglades Restoration Plan, already underway. Will Negron's $2.4 billion be approved? Forget about it.

Beaches - A favorite hand-wringer in Tallahassee, Florida's beaches get a lot of press but very little money. That won't change. The Senate is touting $50 million per year for renourishment plus additional money for replacing sand lost in past storms (SB 1590). The House has a companion bill (HB 1213), and passage is likely. But think about it. $50 million for 825 miles of shoreline. Collier County won't get a penny.

Fracking - A knee-jerk target of the uninformed left, fracking always evokes anguish among environmentalists. Attempts to ban or regulate hydraulic fracturing of oil and gas wells failed in 2015 and 2016. And they just failed again. The Senate wanted to ban (SB 442), and the House wanted to study (HB 451). So, again, nothing will happen. The right path is a no-brainer: Impose a moratorium on all enhanced recovery (not just fracking), and task the DEP with conducting a thorough study on likely effects on drinking-water aquifers. Then legislate.

Home Rule - Insidious attacks on home rule were mounted this year in the form of HB 17 and SB 1158. The bills sought to give the state authority to regulate local businesses, a body blow to cities and counties throughout Florida. Huge pushback appears to have derailed both bills.

And so the legislature stumbles and bumbles into its second month. Its grade so far? Maybe a C-. But an F is within reach. With ongoing rancor between Scott, Corcoran and Negron, odds are no better than 50:50 that a budget can be struck before June.

Saturday, March 25, 2017

Viva ObamaCare

The will of the people has been upheld.

ObamaCare remains the law of the land.

The voters made the call by electing congressmen who just agreed to keep the existing healthcare system.

Democrats stood united for the status quo, implacably rejecting anything different. Republicans couldn't agree on an alternative -- seeking the impossible instead of the achievable. As such, and in spite of cries to the contrary, they de facto accepted ObamaCare. And the voters who duly elected them, Democrats and Republicans alike, got exactly what they voted for.

What did they get? A system of failing exchanges, dwindling choices, skyrocketing premiums, fleeing insurance companies -- in short, imploding healthcare. And it won't be fixed. Not by this congress and not by this president. There will be no additional subsidies, no more shoring up with taxpayer money. Hell will freeze over first.

So ObamaCare will continue until it fails and millions lose their coverage. Democrats and Republicans, and the many voters who elected them, now own ObamaCare and its perilous future.

Thank you, voters.

We have a great form of government.

Thursday, March 16, 2017

Frontal Attack on Home Rule

The common wisdom among Republicans, me included, is that the best government is the government closest to home. Who better than city or county officials to know how businesses should be regulated, funds allocated, growth managed? Where better to take voter input than in your own back yard, where workshops and town hall meetings give the guy next door his turn at the microphone?

Home rule has been a sacred tenet in Florida. But it's slipping away. In past years, loss of autonomy has been gradual -- a drip, drip wearing away of city and county control, slowly transferring power to Tallahassee.

But now that drip, drip is about to become a flood. Home rule may soon be a thing of the past. Three horrendous bills are making their way through the legislative process this year -- one of them, sorry to say, authored by our own Kathleen Passidomo.

House Bill 17 (Fine, R-Brevard) is a two-by-four to the forehead, undisguised and arrogant. It would transfer to the state the right to regulate businesses, professions and occupations. Period. The language of the bill is that broad. All regulations of local businesses would take place in Tallahassee. Locations of gas stations, massage parlors, shopping centers would be decided by distant bureaucrats.
Property values be damned.

Senate Bill 1158 (Passidomo, R-District 28) is almost as bad. It would prevent local governments from enacting rules or ordinances that have an adverse impact on economic growth, employment or investment. Again, remarkably broad language that covers just about everything. And, of course, "adverse impact" would be decided by Tallahassee.

PCB WMC 17-02 is still another attempt to ravage home rule. It would rip away local taxing authority by forcing city and local governments to spend down money in special funds before increasing property taxes. And, just as bad, it would restrict special taxes (think landscaping, Conservation Collier, new recreational complex) if property taxes had been increased within the past three years. Why, you ask, should this be any of Tallahassee's business? Why indeed.

We are told the rationale for HB 17 and SB 1158 is that the 67 Florida counties could enact 67 different sets of business regulations, gumming up inter-county commerce and stifling economic growth. Responding to a Collier Citizens Council email opposing SB 1158, Senator Passidomo complained, "Local governments have passed legislation that negatively impact jurisdictions outside their area or impede commerce, trade or labor beyond their boundaries."

As examples, she cites (don't laugh) use of Styrofoam cups and plates, shopping cart regulations, sale of helium balloons, retail sale of cats and dogs. Included in this comedic potpourri is one troublesome example: Establishment of chain retail stores. Suppose the City of Naples doesn't want (my examples, not Passidomo's) a twenty-seven-pump gas station on 5th Avenue or a block-long self-storage building on 3rd Street. Tough. The City of Naples doesn't make the call. Tallahassee does.

Passidomo said SB 1158 "is not intended to take away local authority or local control over whatever local governments can do within their own jurisdictions." But the bill's broad language puts the lie to that disclaimer. An attorney friend said page 4 of SB 1148 has a neatly disguised Trojan Horse. I don't think it's much of a disguise. To me it looks like a clear dismantling of home rule.

Joining the Collier Citizens Council in opposing this power grab is the Collier County Presidents Council, another civic group concerned about residents and neighborhoods getting the shaft. Interesting we haven't heard from the League of Women Voters.

We have heard from friends on the Naples City Council who said they are "furious" with Passidomo. And top officials of Collier County government said they are "very much aware" of these bills and are working with the Florida Association of Counties to defeat them.

Perhaps enough punch-back will have an effect. Our lawmakers should be aware voters have long memories. A short-term legislative victory could have a long-term Pyrrhic effect at the ballot box.

Monday, March 6, 2017

Pass the Earplugs Please

It's a true curmudgeon who finds fault with anything in the Naples art scene.

We've got the wondrous Naples Philharmonic Orchestra, six chamber music programs, the Stay-in-May festival, Opera Naples, church music galore, jazz, barbershop, marvelous theater groups, Broadway shows, visiting orchestras, the Baker Museum and more.

And we've got big-time donors funding it all.

What can you possibly complain about?

I'll tell you what: The screeching cacophony of modern music.

We're being force-fed discordant noise and told it's music -- even better, music of our times, chic and elite. We're told to get with it. We won't look sophisticated if we don't whoop and applaud some of the worst sounds since an Amtrak train wreck.

It's been building like a cancer. In a past season, the Naples Philharmonic poisoned a wonderful Mahler program with the shrill honkings of Szpilman and Desyatnikov. One evening we had to endure abominations by Rozsa and Weinberg to get to Scheherazade (many had already left by then). That was topped by something called "How Wild the Sea" (Puts), drifting and atonal. Those who stayed got Tchaikovsky after intermission.

Last year the Phil outdid itself with a farcical piece that featured bowls of water, inverted cocktail shakers, a water tube, a sieve and three submergible gongs. The finale of this "Water Concerto" entailed the head splasher raising a colander out of one of the bowls to create a waterfall (allegro molto agitato). Only the first two rows got wet. Who says the circus is dying?

How about this season? If possible, it's getting worse. At a recent Phil concert, the audience was subjected to an ear-shattering piece misnamed "Beautiful Passing" (Mackey) -- think of a sharp object scratching a blackboard. People were stunned. One said, sotto voce, "My god, that was awful." The woman next to me said, "They would never get away with crap like that in New York." Of course, this isn't New York. Naples Daily News arts columnist Harriet Heithaus reported a plethora of negative emails. She wrote, "Gauging by the emails ... the 20-minute work ran 20 minutes too long."

We can't seem to get away from it. The usually reliable Classic Chamber Concerts went off the rails in January with an atonal potboiler called "River" (Kernis) -- a catastrophe made worse by the musicians first playing snippets of each movement and discussing them ad nauseam. One dispirited subscriber said, "That was doubly bad. We had to listen to it twice." Those with the courage to stay got Debussy after intermission.

Even great orchestras aren't immune. The mighty Vienna Philharmonic demeaned itself with some unrelenting noise called "Time Recycling." The audience didn't know what to think. The composer came out, perhaps embarrassed, and got a smattering of applause. At least no one booed. It proved the adage that bad music played by a great orchestra is still bad music.

So what gives here? Why the angst?

While it's true some people actually like modern music, the vast majority do not. The demographic in Naples is overwhelmingly elderly, and most concertgoers want the classics -- Bach to Rachmaninoff and most of the masters in between. Dissonance doesn't sell unless it's artfully hidden. ("Tonight's program features Mozart and Brahms.")

In any event, here are some suggestions that may help, some gratuitous advice to artistic directors.

First, put the contemporary pieces after intermission. That way people can get out before the carnage  begins.

Second, insist on truth in advertising. Something like the warning on cigarette packs: "Modern music could be dangerous to your listening health."

Sunday, February 19, 2017

Dimming the Sunshine

You would think the sky had fallen.

Representative Byron Donalds (R-Naples) just introduced a bill in Tallahassee (HB 843) that would allow two members of an elected public board or commission with five members or more to meet privately to discuss board issues.

That, of course, would skirt the Sunshine Law, which says such get-togethers, even by two people, have to be publicly noticed.

Donalds expressed concern there was a double standard, since the Florida legislature -- notorious for its back-room maneuvers -- is exempt from the Sunshine Law, which applies to everyone else, to all other publicly elected groups in the state.

The outcry was swift, over-wrought -- and predictable.

Barbara Peterson, head of the First Amendment Foundation, was quoted as saying, "This obliterates our right to oversee government and hold it accountable." (One could just as easily argue that Donalds' bill restores the very essence of free speech.)

In an editorial, the Naples Daily News said, "His proposal obliterates five decades of a law we believe Florida should point to proudly." Lots of obliterating here. (The media, disingenuous defenders of Sunshine, loves the convenience of covering decision-making at a single, easily accessed meeting.)

The fact is the Sunshine Law does as much harm as it does good. It stifles the kind of thoughtful planning that many do best in private, one-on-one, with heated disagreements resolved out of the spotlight, with compromises possible without losing face in public, and with good policy often the outcome.

The Sunshine Law inevitably leads to long, tedious and unproductive meetings -- meetings that could be streamlined if two opposing board or commission members talked through their differences over a beer ahead of time.

Another problem, as Donalds correctly notes, is that Sunshine gives too much power to staff -- local managers, superintendents and administrators -- rather than to elected officials. The wrong people are often in charge. And the staff is free to pick off board members behind closed doors, to convince them one-on-one that administrative proposals should be supported (you're naive if you think that doesn't happen). Administrators can do that, but board members can't. Freedom of speech? I don't think so.

The problem is at its worst in appointed boards and committees -- advisory groups to city councils and county commissions.

When I applied for the Pelican Bay Services Division board, which is appointed by the Collier County Board of Commissioners, a friend who was just exiting PBSD said, "You're going to hate it," referring to the Sunshine restrictions. He knew I was used to before-meeting one-on-one discussions with other directors from private boards on which I served. He knew I was used to the kind of detailed interaction you simply can't get in noticed meetings with time-certain agendas and television formalities.

The result all too often is rubber-stamp voting. The staff knows the details (and implications), but the board members do not. Sunshine has kept them in the dark. And policy suffers. Almost always.

I have talked with directors on other appointed boards in Collier, and they invariably say the same thing. Efficiency is poor, everything takes too long and the end product is often lousy.

The PBSD tries to get around this by holding endless committee meetings, all duly noticed. But even that is no substitute for warring directors making peace at the local coffee shop.

The extreme absurdity of Sunshine was driven home when publication of an updated Clam Bay Guide was held up because I could not consult with a fellow director about a photograph of a reddish egret! You can't make this stuff up!

So hats off to you, Byron Donalds, for calling attention to Sunshine overreach. Your bill won't go anywhere, but it was worth the effort. Perhaps it would get some traction if it were limited to appointed boards. That would at least be a start.

Sunday, February 12, 2017

Another Mess in Tallahassee

Democracy, it is said, is like making sausage. The end result is sometimes good, but the process is always ugly.

That seems to be the case with the Florida legislature. The Senate is once again fighting with the House, and both are fighting with Governor Rick Scott. And the key fighters are all Republicans. Maybe that's part of the problem.

The latest skirmish involves the Senate threatening to sue the House over a rule change said to improve transparency. Transparency? In Tallahassee? Can't have that. And with money tight in spite of growing prosperity, the legislature is brawling over how to spend $83.5 billion, the budget proposed by Scott -- a sum greater than the GNP of most countries.

Here's an overview of the mess.

  • Education is getting shafted again. Florida ranks 41st among states in per student spending. Yet Scott is proposing an increase of only 3%, a boost that depends entirely on additional property taxes -- and that won't happen. More likely is a smaller or no increase, resulting in Florida losing even more ground to inflation. Little wonder we continue to lag behind much of the rest of the country. (Thank heavens my grandchildren are being educated in New England.)
         Then there is the university system, where our legislators want to trim the number of four-year 
         degrees and freeze tuition rates -- without any boost in spending. To be fair, Florida isn't alone. 
         The Wall Street Journal just reported Iowa, Missouri and Nebraska are making big cuts in 
         university funding.
  • Beaches aren't faring much better. Scott is proposing $60 million for maintenance and renourishment of all Florida beaches, a laughably small amount. That's on top of $77 million for repairs from recent storms ($803 million in insurance claims are being sought). That means localities will have to shoulder most of the costs -- again.
  • Pollution control, specifically the Lake Okeechobee mess, is getting a lot of attention in Tallahassee, but there's no consensus on what to do. Bills have been filed in the Senate and House (SB 10 and HB 761) authorizing purchase of 60,000 acres south of the lake for a reservoir to clean up runoff to the Everglades.
         Other legislators want, instead, to speed repair work on the Herbert Hoover Dyke so the lake   
         can hold even more polluted water. Still others want to buy land to the north to catch runoff 
         from the Kissimmee Basin. Scott, in an altogether different approach, wants to fund septic tank
         repairs, arguing (wrongly) that septic leakage is the main cause of pollution. Don't 
         expect much of anything to happen.
  • Gambling reform, another Tallahassee piƱata, is back on the front burner. Bills now filed would allow expanded card games (think blackjack) and slots for pari-mutuel operators. Depending on the bill, the operators either would or would not be allowed to shut down money-losing horse and dog tracks. Any new legislation would have to be accompanied by a contract with the Seminole casinos. Another morass.
  • Then there's the battle between the governor and legislative leaders over money for economic development and tourism. Scott wants $85 million to lure new businesses to Florida and another $76 million to market tourism. Leaders in both houses say no, Florida is growing fast enough without corporate welfare, and tourists are pouring in without prompting from taxpayer money.
  • Finally, there's my personal favorite: medical marijuana. Regulators want so-called patients to be under a prescribing doctor's care for 90 days before pot can be dispensed. Activists want no delay and no constraints on weed usage. Let's toke, dude. And the legislature is stirring the pot with two bills of its own -- all certain to trigger more lawsuits and confusion.
Sausage indeed!

Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Democrats, Take Heed

Half of my friends are Democrats, maybe more than half, and most are liberal Democrats. As in Obama liberal. And since the election, they have been very unhappy. The nerve of the electorate to go against their wishes. That defeats the natural order of things as proclaimed by the left-wing media. (Whoops, that's redundant.) Trump's winning was inconceivable. Until it wasn't.

But they are still my friends. So I offer some well-intended advice, gratuitous certainly, but offered in the spirit of friendly consolation. No smirks intended.

Get over the notion Trump is an illegitimate president. Forget about Comey and Putin and Wikileaks. The electorate wasn't led by its nose. Voters, even those in flyover country, can think for themselves. And they did. Over 62 million people voted for Trump, and he captured 304 electoral votes to Clinton's 227. Ah, you say, but Hillary won the popular vote. But, my friends, we were playing football, not basketball. And everyone knew that. If the election were to have been decided by popular vote, all of the candidates would have concentrated on large population centers. But it wasn't and they didn't.

Jettison the Clintons and look for some fresh faces. Many voters, my wife and I included, didn't so much vote for Trump as vote against Hillary. She was and is repugnant to many, untrustworthy and steeped in corruption. There has to be someone out there other than the Clintons and a septuagenarian socialist to lead the Democrat party. Someone whose views have broad appeal. A centrist, someone who's young, untarnished and bright. Someone. Anyone. If not, your party is in worse shape than I thought.

Do something to appeal to the middle class. The Democrat party is now the party of the minorities, the feminists, the labor unions and the trial lawyers. Not a very broad base. It's become a left-wing anachronism. What happened to the party that championed the middle class, the working guy, even though he may be white and third-generation American? The liberal elite in their coastal enclaves have completely lost touch with middle America, with the rural south and the midwest and the mountain and desert west, with people who feel that jobs are more important than saving the environment, that religion is an important part of life, that it's okay to say Merry Christmas.

Understand there is more than one point of view. I respect your point of view, even though I might not agree with it. So respect mine and that of millions of other Americans who have a vision that may be different than yours. Barack Obama couldn't govern because be couldn't accept the fact that everyone didn't think exactly as he did. Ah, you say, but there are absolutes. Absolute good. Absolute evil. But who defines that? No person or political party has a corner on moral clarity.

Accept the fact that people want change. If they had wanted more of Obama's policies, they would have elected Hillary. They didn't. And they are getting change, and more is on the way. Some of my friends are scandalized that Trump is doing exactly what he said he would do during his campaign, doing what the people elected him to do. To those friends I say, get over it. Democracy is working just the way it was intended.

Understand that Trump is not going to destroy the environment. He doesn't want to. What he wants to do is redress the balance, to give equal weight to jobs and the economy, to look at America's overall well being. Reviewing the impact of often-arbitrary waterway and emission standards is prudent, not destructive. For years the executive branch imposed extreme measures with little concern over whether they were necessary, whether they would have an impact on climate change or ocean rise. Under Trump, those measures will be reviewed with an eye to scientific rigor, the intent being to restore some kind of rational balance.

Above all, have fun. Stop suffering. So many of my liberal friends are near suicidal, with hang-dog outlooks, terminally sad. Come on now. You can survive four or even eight years of Donald Trump. I survived eight years of Barack Obama (although not always with good grace). Life is good. We live in the greatest country in the world. Enjoy it. Have fun. Unhappiness leads nowhere. If you can't drink to Trump, lift a glass to America. Cheers! Bottoms up!