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Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Durable Economic Prosperity: Part 2 An Agenda for a New America

Durable Economic Prosperity:

Any plan for sustainability must insure that everyone in the United States has fundamental needs met as a non-negotiable condition of attaining a robust economy based on sustainability. At a minimum, these needs include nutritious food; shelter; healthcare; education; and ecosystem services – all provided affordably and reliably.
In order to achieve a sustainable or durable economic prosperity we must promote a diverse national economy as well as local economies that provide a wide range of employment opportunities; build assets that broadly distribute wealth; and encourages human-scale communities that provide shelter; and opportunity for all. Economic prosperity also requires that we work towards a tax shift that fully values social benefits and takes into account the externalized cost of pollution, and other negatives.

Over the mid-term, we must decrease economic dependence on activities that deplete natural resources or social capital . In the shorter-term investments must be made that have a triple bottom line, one that includes, economic, social, and environmental - returns. And we must begin to harness both market forces and changes in laws, taxes, and policies that favor a sustainable economy.

A sustainable or durable economy requires the development of programs, policies, and implementable initiatives that encourage activities that will empower communities and conservation of resources; promote environmental justice; preserve ways-of-life; and promote by example and through discourse the ideas of ecological and participatory democracy and its real world implications.

“Sustained growth is a cruel falsehood if it just means increasing production and consumption: on a finite planet, ultimately such growth is a physical impossibility. Talking about growth with no context is meaningless: growth can be good or bad or irrelevant; it must be judged in terms of its effects on people and nature, not in terms of the cash value of goods and services. Increased spending on nuclear weapons and increased spending on preventive health care services both contribute to the Gross National Product (GPN), but only one is of any value in a society concerned with human welfare.” Roy Morrison Ecological Democracy
Sustainable development is a process of continuous improvement by design, of natural, built, economic and social systems. Meaning__

 Nurturing diversity and productivity in natural systems;
 Using renewable resources and eliminating waste in built systems;
 Fulfilling social and environmental goals to create market opportunities in economic systems;
 And helping citizens to understand the whole in order to improve social systems.

Sustainable development means dynamic abundance, not static scarcity . If we apply our collective ingenuity, creativity, and know-how in a comprehensive planning process, it is possible for our social and environmental goals to be transformed into ecological improvement and economic opportunities. For example, environmentalists and businesses need no longer be opponents as long as those businesses get that environmental compliance is in their bottom line interest. A vision of a durable or sustainable future includes a market for creative entrepreneurs motivated by enlightened self-interest. The future is not something to be feared or fought over – it is something we have to guide creatively and cooperatively. We can work together, live better, and waste less.

Local Economies:

The wealth of our nation depends in large measure on the economic health of its cities, towns, and bio-regions. Strong local economies are the foundation of strong communities that can withstand the pressures created by an increasingly urbanized society – one in which many live far from their roots, have less direct social contact, friends and support.
Strong communities require an approach that not only provides the traditional deliverables of economic development—jobs, income, wealth, security—but also protects the environment, improves community infrastructure, increases and develops local skills and capacity, strengthens the social fabric, and respects heritage and cultural identity. This systematic approach assures that the whole is examined rather than simply its individual components.

While individual actions and lifestyle choices, such as buying organic produce, participating in local politics, or supporting the work of a regional environmental organization are important personal contributions. Strengthening local economies requires a cooperative shift in individual actions and choices. The cooperative economy of Emilia Romagna in northern Italy, the Grameen Bank in Bangladesh and other micro banking initiatives, Vancity Credit Union in Vancouver, the Women’s International Sewing Cooperatives of Nueva Vida, the Mondragon Cooperative in Spain, urban farms in Burlington VT, Brooklyn NY, and Detroit, “eco-villages, and the campaigns for local trade across North America are all examples of the potential of community mobilization to help strengthen local economies.

The migrations from central cities during the 1950’s and 1960’s and the decentralization of urban centers have created “centerless” communities where suburbanites commute from the outer suburbs and formerly rural areas along highway corridors and rail lines that slice through the inner ring suburbs. Big box stores, the mortgage crisis, and the disconnection of eating and our food supply have all led to the loss of local communities.

Even in our most rural areas, people drive from their farms miles to the local “gigantomart” to buy “ organic” fruits and vegetables flown and trucked from all over to the world, and inexpensive tools, clothing, and toys, made in many cases in sweatshops in third world countries to the detriment of the local economy.

Strong local economies give communities the capacity and resources to address specific and immediate problems such as the provision of health care, adequate housing, clean water and sanitation, and disaster prevention and response. Human settlements—large and small, rich and poor—need strong local economies to withstand the pressures created by an increasingly urbanized and isolating world.

A tax shift:

The traditional relationship between the environment and the economy usually pits the environment against the economy. Instead of pursuing economic activities and distribution as primary and looking at the consumption of natural resources and the impacts on the environment as incidental, we must begin to put the environment first. This means committing ourselves to conserving resources, including habitat resources. It also means including the environmental “costs” of an economic activity as integral to the overall costs of that activity, not treating those costs as incidental or an afterthought – not as clean-up or “mitigation. Economics and the environment must be completely integrated in the decision making and lawmaking process – not just to protect the environment and human health, but also to protect and promote sustainable development

Economics tells us that when you tax something, you get less of it. Our problem is that we tax things we want more of, such as income and enterprise, instead of things we want less of, such as toxic waste and resource depletion. The logical outcome is that we get less money and more messes. Tax Shift is about doing the opposite--removing taxes from "goods" and putting them on "bads." Whether you think government is too big, too small, or just right, tax shifting appears to make sense.

A tax shift would allow us to reduce or eliminate many existing taxes: regressive property, payroll, and sales taxes that are hardest on the lower and middle classes; enterprise-killing business taxes; perhaps even personal income tax. Instead we could tax actions that corrode the public good. We could tax emissions of deadly fine particles, greenhouse gases, and other air pollutants; discharges of toxic metals and other water pollutants; and the manufacture and use of pesticides and other hazardous chemicals. We could tax away most traffic jams, by charging drivers for use of major routes at rush hour. We could protect natural ecosystems by taxing the pumping of fresh water, the impounding of rivers behind dams, and the felling of virgin timber. Finally, by moving the weight of the property tax off buildings and onto urban land values, we could promote the growth of compact, walk able neighborhoods and slow the creep of our suburbs into farms and forests.

Shifting the tax burden would send out powerful signals--signals that would reorient consumption and production in our homes and businesses. Tax shifting would harness the profit motive for environmental ends and wring out the waste of resources. Governments would still get their money, and--because taxes on "bads" do not bog down the economy as much as many existing taxes on "goods"--employment levels and incomes would rise.
In economic terms, a tax shift would take taxes off labor and capital and put them on the third factor of production--resources, the gifts of nature.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

An Agenda for a New America

The first of several posts on a proposal for an agenda for a New America

With the inauguration of Barack H. Obama as the 44th President of the United States, there is, after almost half a century, the potential for a pragmatic progressive agenda to be formulated and implemented is tantalizing. President Obama consistently said during the campaign that it was time for bold leadership and real change. This proposal for an Agenda for a new America takes a pragmatic look at how we can foster a positive transformation of our culture and our country. It is my hope that some of these thoughts will help to begin the process of government reform and change the disastrous status quo.

For the first time in a very long time there is a genuine opportunity to work together despite significant obstacles to make a difference – to galvanize the will of the people, and involve the engaged and informed public in an implementable undertaking to create new jobs in sustainable industries, energy independence, an improved quality of life, and a preserved and restored environment.

This proposal for an Agenda for a New America is built on three “pillars, (or more aptly three legs of a stool)” – durable economic prosperity, social justice, and human and ecological health – the highest possible quality of life in the best possible environment. An Agenda that will advance programs and policies, will respond effectively to the real limits of ecological systems while fostering the unprecedented opportunities of democracy in which all people are able to develop to their fullest potential. Sustainable (or durable) development, for the purposes of this proposal, is a process of continuous improvement by design of natural, built, economic and social systems. This means nurturing variety and productivity in natural systems; Increasing efficiency, using renewable resources and eliminating all waste in built systems; using social and environmental goals to create market opportunities in economic systems; helping all citizens understand whole systems and act on that knowledge in social systems.

Some of the following ideas should be implemented by government. Many will be successful only when partnerships are formed with open minded and engaged people from the entire gamut of the political spectrum; with elected officials from both sides of the aisle in congress; and with the States, municipalities, businesses, and NGO’s. Each of the “pillars” will contribute to the protection of our Country’s people, and its land, air, water, communities, and natural resources, and make us once again a beacon of democracy and hope.

The suggestions for initiatives, goals, and objectives contained in these blog posts are designed for thoughtful consideration and debate and will entail even greater communication and cooperation between the government and those that it serves. Although some of these goals and objectives deal with suggestions that may not be immediately implementable, we must start now to make sure they will be in the near future. These agenda items and suggestions can be used to foster authentic debate and to highlight both the difficulties and promises of implementation. Some of these Agenda items can be the basis of legislation, and others can be the foundation of a national dialogue about where we want to go as a country and a people.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Bridging the Gap

Bridging the Gap

One of the topics of discussion At Monday, October 26, 2009 Port of New York-New Jersey's 9th Annual Port Industry Day, will be "what to do about the Bayonne Bridge."
The span, one of the most beautiful in the Harbor is said to be an obstacle to large container ships passing under it on the way to and from Newark Bay. It's clearance of 150+ feet above the Kill Van Kull, depending on the tide, means that some of today's ships must fold down antenna masts, or wait for low tide to pass through. The problem will become more serious after the Panama Canal is widened and new generation of so called post Panamax ships that can potentially carry double the load of current vessels are expected to call on some East Coast Ports.

Some vocal Port interests have proposed replacing the bridge. The Port Authority has commissioned a study of the question by the Army Corps of Engineers, and has authorized up to $10 million for planning and engineering services to develop options to deal with the bridge's low clearance.

The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey recently released a study that looked at three options to deal with the height-challenged bridge. The "quickest" option is a $1.3 billion project to jack up the bridge 40 percent above its 150 feet which might be completed by 2019 at the earliest. It will need a clearance of 215 feet to handle the new ships. Another option is to build a whole new bridge which would take until 2022. The most expensive option would be to get rid of the bridge altogether and replace it with a tunnel through which traffic would traverse under the Kill Van Kull. This option would take to 2024 to complete. There has been a lobbying effort by port interests to "move quickly."

I guess there have been sillier, or more expensive, and/or less needed projects proposed (like the infamous bridge to nowhere), but I am hard pressed to understand the logic behind, and the zeal to move forward on this ridiculous project.

Mariners, in particular the Pilots that have to navigate the narrow, rocky, dangerous channel called the Kill Van Kull, a tidal strait that connects The Upper New York Bay, and the Ports of Elizabeth and Newark in Newark Bay are adamant that the bridge is not the problem, but the location of the Ports and the logistics of moving huge ships in a channel that was never envisioned to accommodate them.

The Bayonne Bridge is the fourth longest steel arch bridge in the world, and was the longest in the world at the time of its completion. It connects Bayonne, New Jersey with Staten Island, New York, spanning the Kill Van Kull.
The bridge was designed by master bridge-builder Othmar Ammann and the architect Cass Gilbert. It was built by the Authority and opened on November 15, 1931,

The primary purpose of the bridge was to allow vehicle traffic from Staten Island to reach Manhattan via the Holland Tunnel.
The designers were far sighted enough to include the option of rail service across the bridge.

Ironically, there are less dangerous and less expensive alternatives than trying to get these monster ships to an inappropriate Port. Unlike the European Union, the United States does not have a comprehensive port plan therefore each port on the East Coast, from Florida to Nova Scotia is competing for the next generation of very large container ships. Instead of designating certain ports with deep unobstructed facilities as feeder or hub ports, and creating a fleet of very fast smaller ships to move container cargo to less accessible, but no less important ports in a coordinated way – US ports are competing with each other by building duplicate facilities for the few very large ships that are likely to call on East Coast Ports in the next twenty years.

When the Army transferred the Military Ocean Terminal Bayonne (MOTBY) to the City of Bayonne, those of us with an interest in the port, dredging, and the environment were heartened by the plans that included a state of the art container terminal for the largest of the ships that may call on the Port of NY and NJ (the so called post Panamax 10,000 teu container ships). The Bayonne Local Redevelopment Authority (BLRA) asserted that they would bring a port developer on board who would raise $500 million for a new container port, bringing with it more than 3000 jobs.

Not only could the former MOTBY be the closest port to deep channels – it will save billions of public dollars, avoid the height limitations of the Bayonne Bridge, and reduce the significant environmental impacts that will be caused by continuing to attempt to deepen the dangerous, narrow Kill Van Kull, and dredging more of the contaminated sediments of Newark Bay – the new port on the Harbor side of Bayonne, could be built using the newest most efficient container management technology including alternative fuel and electric vehicles, and direct transfer of containers from ship to trains or ships to container barges, or ships to container rail cars on barges.

The additional benefit of a new container port at MOTBY is its juxtaposition to the Global Terminals, and the Greenville rail yards. The MOTBY Port also creates a cross harbor synergy if the "cross harbor float" system is re-invigorated as is envisioned by the Port Authority of NY and NJ the new owners of the Cross Harbor Railroad. Taking all that into account, MOTBY is the premiere maritime asset in the Harbor and one of the most valuable maritime properties in the world.

The (pre-real estate meltdown) plan proposed by the Bayonne Redevelopment Authority (dubbed the Peninsula at Bayonne Harbor) is for high rise housing and offices, with a yacht harbor in the last huge graving (dry) dock in the harbor, and only a minimum amount of port commerce space, what appears to be one cruise ship berth. The dry dock on MOTBY is one of the world’s largest graving dry docks and is the only one remaining in New York Harbor after the dry docks in Brooklyn were lost under a parking lot for a non water dependant furniture store.

I can understand Bayonne’s impulse to become part of the "gold coast" of the Hudson, but does it make sense to lose a significant number of good paying, port related jobs for the short term and questionable benefits of housing or the loss of public access and working waterfront as other Harbor communities have experienced?

I am convinced that if cooler heads can prevail, a compromise can still be reached. One in which the significant acreage at MOTBY be used as a container port and port related commerce, while reserving some smaller portion for housing, commercial and recreation. The two are not incompatible. Some of the most desirable housing in Seattle WA and Portland ME overlooks the port and its complex and interesting operations.

This solution would not only save one of the most beautiful bridges in the Port, but would be a more efficient use of the $1-10 billion that it would cost to modify or eliminate the Bayonne Bridge. A cross harbor float, rail, and port infrastructure investment will provide more port jobs, reinvigorate the Brooklyn and Bayonne waterfront, and will be a smarter use of scarce resources.