Wednesday, October 31, 2007

How high can we go?

Oil prices continue to ratchet upward, with today’s oil futures nearing a record of $95/barrel. As the cost of oil for heat rises and the price of gasoline heads higher, Google’s stock thrust through the $700 ceiling.

While I don’t claim to be an economics major, there seems to be some disconnect between the performance of the market and the perception of the strength of the US economy. If the stock market is a leading economic indicator of economic growth, then why are many Wall Street analysts voicing concerns about the sluggishness of the economy and worse, talking about recession? Recent reports on home sales point to a major slowdown and foreclosures are occurring at a record pace. One doesn’t need to be an expert in finance to know that the high cost of essential items, like fuel and food, doesn’t bode well for many, as we chug towards darkness and the colder days of winter.

It’s hard to find much about oil prices in the mainstream media that recognizes the peak oil possibilities spoken of by Kunstler, The Oil Drum and others. I’d say $100 oil is a pretty safe bet at this point.

Because I spend quite a bit of time on the road for my job, I’ve kept a close eye on gas prices. Back in August, 2006, when I started in my current position, the Cumberland Farms around the corner from my office had regular at $3.02. Since then, prices have backed off to $2.56, last March. Late May and early June saw it spike back to a “high” of $3.06 and the summer months it stayed consistently in the $2.75-$2.85 range.

Since I receive a mileage allotment, I do ok and cover my costs when gas stays below $3.00/gallon. I’m concerned where prices are headed, as oil continues to trend higher. It certainly affects people like me and others not as fortunate.

For anyone interested in something more than the inadequate, often clich├ęd reporting coming from mainstream financial storefronts, read through the comment section in The Oil Drum’s, "This Week in Petroleum" section.

In relation to my thoughts about peak oil possibilities, I’m back reading JK’s Monday pronouncements again and actually looking forward to them, sans comments, at his own website, not the blog.

Saturday, October 27, 2007

FEMA fakes it

FEMA, coming of its botched response to Hurricane Katrina, needed to make a solid showing in the way it responded to the wildfires, in Southern California.

Early reports from the frontlines indicated that FEMA’s response had been quick and targeted to the needs of the region—that was until yesterday, when stories began to circulate about Tuesday’s faked news conference.

Apparently last Tuesday, FEMA informed news organizations that it was holding a new conference 15 minutes prior to the event—insufficient notice for reporters to make it on time to the briefing. Like much of what passes for transparency in the Bush administration, FEMA’s Deputy Administrator, Harvey Johnson, apparently with a nod to the adage of “the show must go on, had agency staff members act as stand-ins for missing media members and begin asking questions, the kind of questions that those in the business would characterize as “soft ball” questions.

While it might be laughable for its stupidity, if it wasn't the nation’s top agency, tasked with coordinating the first response to disasters in the U.S. Actually, FEMA’s disdain for media protocol is nothing new. Back in September of 2006, in the aftermath of Katrina, FEMA had requested that new photographers refrain from photographing victims and refused to allow reporters and photographers to accompany FEMA personnel on boats looking for victims. There was little or no coverage about this at the time.

FEMA issued the following statement, which in BushCo fashion, is just dripping with disingenuousness and coated with the veneer of cynicism that all Bush communiques with the media are known for.

FEMA's goal is to get information out as soon as possible, and in trying to do so we made an error in judgment. Our intent was to provide useful information and be responsive to the many questions we have received. We are reviewing our press procedures and will make the changes necessary to ensure that all of our communications are straight forward and transparent.

At FEMA, our focus is disaster operations and, in this case, it means working closely with the State of California to support their response to the devastating fires. We're committed to being there for the State and being good partners. In working to do so we did not put enough focus on how we communicate to the public.

The real story -- how well the response and recovery elements are working in this disaster -- should not be lost because of how we tried to meet the needs of the media in distributing facts.
We can and must do better, and apologize for this error in judgment.

Contrary to FEMA’s statement, the real story is how much this smacks of Soviet-era newspeak that we used to shake our heads and chuckle, when viewed from afar—little did we know that our leaders were watching and looking to imitate a similar lack of transparency in our own country.

It just keeps getting weirder and weirder all the time with this group of war criminals and political hacks.

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Correctly diagnosing Maine's tax problem

Personally, I’m weary of much of what passes for policy dialogue in Maine. Going back to 2004 and before, when the champion of “slash-and-burn” tax cap referendums, Carol Palesky, foisted her referendum on the Pine Tree State, we’ve had a steady bleating coming from all corners that Maine’s taxes are too high. Rarely in that discussion are causes for these higher taxes ever addressed. Ah, actually, if cause-and-effect does get raised, the cause is always those “lazy people on public assistance,” or some variation of Maine as welfare kingdom.

While looking up a former client on LinkedIn and reviewing his contacts, I got directed over to a very interesting blog, by a gentleman in Wisconsin named John Michlig. I’ve had sprawl on my mind since last week’s GrowSmart Summit and have been doing quite a bit of reading on the subject. I found Michlig’s blog right up my alley. In fact, Michlig’s fully articulated writing style and variant takes on sprawl were refreshing. Rather than the usual wonkish, or condescending missives that too often pass for commentary, when it comes to smart growth and sustainable urban planning, Michlig’s writing is smart, original and makes real sense.

Take for instance, his post titled, “Sprawl-based Growth is EXPENSIVE.” Referencing Suburban Nation: The Rise of Sprawl and the Decline of the American Dream, by Duany, Plater-Zyberk and Speck, Michlig clearly delineates an issue that no doubt is affecting our tax situation—the much higher costs associated with the primary means of development that Maine, particularly rural Maine, is experiencing—that being suburban sprawl.

Maybe this helps define what was gnawing at me most of the day, last Friday and after, sitting through a variety of workshops, in Augusta. To hear presenters sit and tell Summit participants that all we need to do is cut the size of state government, is a misrepresentation of the values that I think GrowSmart Maine is trying to perpetuate (unless I’m totally off track).

Michlig's posts that I’ve read thus far, clearly indict much of what is currently being foisted on residents of our state by developers. Rather than drink the Kool-Aid of the “slash and burn” crowd, let’s begin to address our zoning policies and not weaken our environmental regulations (which is another point that David Flanagan intimated during his presentation, by using the code words, making Maine more “business-friendly,” which always means making it easier for “pave and park” types of development projects).

Speaking of Flanagan, he’s managed to garner another invite as a panelist, this time for a symposium of business leaders and economic development “experts,” hosted by Mainebiz and MPBN, addressing the supposed “Pessimism” that exists in Maine’s business community. Maybe Alan Caron should be a bit more careful who he chooses to model smart growth for Maine.

I don’t know about pessimism in Maine’s business community, but Maine’s legacy of feudalism that passes itself off as economic development brings out the pessimist in me.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

The obscenely wealthy and all the rest of us

Class is rarely mentioned in America today. We talk about sports, presidential elections and the past few days, forest fires. This isn’t to say that for people living in Southern California, experiencing the horrors of fire and devastation, there’s anything else they can focus on. Furthermore, death and natural disasters will always “lead,” when it comes to today’s news programming.

Despite ubiquitous news coverage, the scope of what gets reported seems to narrow over time. When Paris Hilton had her little run-in with the law, that’s all we seemed to have beamed into our homes. It’s probably not accidental, as corporations profit from the increasingly ignorant American population.

One of the things obvious to me in our very own state, is the growing chasm between those with real wealth and the rest of us. By using the term “us,” I’m lumping myself in with the diminished middle class (propped up by credit cards and other “smoke and mirrors” means of capital acquisition and attainment), watching whatever advantages that were carved and acquired during an aberrant period of post-WWII democratization and sharing of the wealth. Included in the “us” are those classified as lower income, some barely at a subsistence level and others living hand-to-mouth. For many of us on the bottom strata of the middle class, its not hard to imagine how easy it would be to descend to the bottom rungs of the socio-economic ladder. Social Darwinism, or the “survival of the fittest (or maybe, richest)” seems to be back in vogue in our fine nation.

I know it’s World Series night and all eyes will be focused on our national version of “bread and circuses,” but seeing this article by Holly Sklar and also, regularly rubbing elbows with people struggling to stay afloat, made it impossible for me to avoid injecting a dose of reality into today’s post.

One of the things that was apparent to me last Friday, when I was at the GrowSmart Summit, was that the crowd was not representative of most of Maine, at least the rural parts of Maine where average incomes are much lower than some of the more privileged parts of the state. Maybe that’s why panelists like David Flanagan, who keeps popping up on panels everywhere, are able to talk about cutting the state budget by $800 million and do so with a straight face, without batting an eye.

Here is a blog post linking to another article on the good fortunes of the richest Americans.

I give you Sklar’s article, which I read in Dissident Voice, in its entirety; consider this while you watch millionaires cavort and frolic about.

Billionaires Up, America Down
by, Holly Sklar

When it comes to producing billionaires, America is doing great.

Until 2005, multimillionaires could still make the Forbes list of the 400 richest Americans. In 2006, the Forbes 400 went billionaires only.

This year, you’d need a Forbes 482 to fit all the billionaires.

A billion dollars is a lot of dough. Queen Elizabeth II, British monarch for five decades, would have to add $400 million to her $600 million fortune to reach $1 billion. And she’d need another $300 million to reach the Forbes 400 minimum of $1.3 billion. The average Forbes 400 member has $3.8 billion.

When the Forbes 400 began in 1982, it was dominated by oil and manufacturing fortunes. Today, says Forbes, “Wall Street is king.”

Nearly half the 45 new members, says Forbes, “made their fortunes in hedge funds and private equity. Money manager John Paulson joins the list after pocketing more than $1 billion short-selling subprime credit this summer.”

The 25th anniversary of the Forbes 400 isn’t party time for America.

We have a record 482 billionaires — and record foreclosures.

We have a record 482 billionaires — and a record 47 million people without any health insurance.

Since 2000, we have added 184 billionaires — and 5 million more people living below the poverty line.

The official poverty threshold for one person was a ridiculously low $10,294 in 2006. That won’t get you two pounds of caviar ($9,800) and 25 cigars ($730) on the Forbes Cost of Living Extremely Well Index. The $20,614 family-of-four poverty threshold is lower than the cost of three months of home flower arrangements ($24,525).

Wealth is being redistributed from poorer to richer.

Between 1983 and 2004, the average wealth of the top 1 percent of households grew by 78 percent, reports Edward Wolff, professor of economics at New York University. The bottom 40 percent lost 59 percent.

In 2004, one out of six households had zero or negative net worth. Nearly one out of three households had less than $10,000 in net worth, including home equity. That’s before the mortgage crisis hit.

In 1982, when the Forbes 400 had just 13 billionaires, the highest paid CEO made $108 million and the average full-time worker made $34,199, adjusted for inflation in $2006. Last year, the highest paid hedge fund manager hauled in $1.7 billion, the highest paid CEO made $647 million, and the average worker made $34,861, with vanishing health and pension coverage.

The Forbes 400 is even more of a rich men’s club than when it began. The number of women has dropped from 75 in 1982 to 39 today.

The 400 richest Americans have a conservatively estimated $1.54 trillion in combined wealth. That amount is more than 11 percent of our $13.8 trillion Gross Domestic Product (GDP) — the total annual value of goods and services produced by our nation of 303 million people. In 1982, Forbes 400 wealth measured less than 3 percent of U.S. GDP.

And the rich, notes Fortune magazine, “give away a smaller share of their income than the rest of us.”

Thanks to mega-tax cuts, the rich can afford more mega-yachts, accessorized with helicopters and mini-submarines. Meanwhile, the infrastructure of bridges, levees, mass transit, parks and other public assets inherited from earlier generations of taxpayers crumbles from neglect, and the holes in the safety net are growing.

The top 1 percent of households — average income $1.5 million — will save a collective $79.5 billion on their 2008 taxes, reports Citizens for Tax Justice. That’s more than the combined budgets of the Transportation Department, Small Business Administration, Environmental Protection Agency and Consumer Product Safety Commission.

Tax cuts will save the top 1 percent a projected $715 billion between 2001 and 2010. And cost us $715 billion in mounting national debt plus interest.

The children and grandchildren of today’s underpaid workers will pay for the partying of today’s plutocrats and their retinue of lobbyists.

It’s time for Congress to roll back tax cuts for the wealthy and close the loophole letting billionaire hedge fund speculators pay taxes at a lower rate than their secretaries.

Inequality has roared back to 1920s levels. It was bad for our nation then. It’s bad for our nation now.

Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune News Service

Saturday, October 20, 2007

Different things for different people

[This is a highly subjective evaluation of Friday’s 2007 GrowSmart Maine Summit. Expecting one thing and finding out that many of the participants were looking for something much different for Maine’s future than I was. This post is less about a structured exercise in writing and more about trying to get my thoughts out while they are still relatively fresh and not overly-analyzed-JB]

It should be obvious to most, particularly those of us who’ve lived in Maine most of our lives that the state is changing. For some of us, those changes are not welcome and for the more cynical (a category to which I proudly claim membership), Brookings Report, or not, the state will continue to lose its former charm, as suburbanization continues to chew up the landscape. In fact, since 1980, an area of Maine the size of Rhode Island has converted from open spaces to residential usage.

While Maine’s population had remained static and stagnant, with growth coming to a virtual standstill in the 1990s that trend has now been reversed; Maine is now experiencing unprecedented growth. During the past decade, or so, the state’s annualized growth rate has doubled. Maine, which once ranked 46th in growth as late at 2000, has jumped to 26th nationally, experiencing the fastest growth in the U.S.

Transplants from away are arriving in Maine in record numbers, changing the character and the culture of the state. The midcoast region of Maine now numbers more residents from away, than natives.

When GrowSmart Maine commissioned the Brookings Institution to produce Charting Maine’s Future: An Action Plan for Promoting Sustainable Prosperity and Quality Place, it provided Mainers with an important document and potential roadmap, to aid residents in planning and plotting its future. While the document is important and even helpful, I find it interesting how the report's various recommendations have been seized upon by a variety of players to push forward agendas that they already had.

I was in attendance at Friday’s GrowSmart Maine Summit, which was held at the Augusta Civic Center. I estimated that there were around 1,000 people in attendance (the Press Herald pegged it at 700, Lewiston Sun Journal business writer, Carol Coultas, noted the attendance at 850). There was a healthy representation from Maine state government (Maine Planning Office, DEP, DECD), the non-profit sector, as well as real estate developers, engineers, consultants, municipal administrators and members of the state’s legislative delegation. Noticeably absent were members of the private sector and ordinary citizens. I imagine the latter were engaged in working and couldn’t afford to burn a vacation day, or lose productivity.

I had a chance to do some networking upon arriving, as well as spending some time in discussion with my executive director, who was also in attendance. We both felt that there was enough in the day’s agenda that had some connection with workforce development, to justify spending the day in various seminars.

The opening keynote by Harvard Professor Ronald Heifetz, on leadership, was brilliant. Heifetz mixed metaphors, with his subject matter ranging from soups and sexuality, to biology, with abundant biblical references thrown in for good measure.

Heifetz warned about confusing leadership with authority, as well as the importance of being able to recognize the differences between technical, versus adaptive change. Heifetz's contention is that many of the issues facing Maine and the country at large--sprawl, global warming, corporatization--are adaptive changes and don't lend themselves well to the same process that technical change is brought about by. All require changes in the way we live and less about a top-down governmental solution.

Part of the charge given to conference participants by Heifetz and echoed by GrowSmart's director, Alan Caron, was to spend some time meeting and talking to others that might not hold your own viewpoints. I would have enjoyed doing more of that but the size of the gathering and the tight framework of each seminar had participants being talked at, rather than having the opportunity to create dialogue.

I had signed up for a seminar titled, “Can Government Sreamline and Redesign Itself for the 21st Century?” While the tile was intriguing, the four panelists were a major disappointment. Beginning with the lack of technology limiting projection of visuals via PowerPoint, instead, having sheets of statistics being passed around the room, smacked of a lack of professionalism, or at least planning and was off-putting to me. As someone who presents regularly, I would think that one of these four people on the panel would have been better prepared with a laptop and a projector.

David Flanagan, the former president of Central Maine Power, former independent candidate for governor and now heading up the Maine Public Spending Research Group, was one of four boring panelists. It’s never a good sign when you begin with a policy wonk (Chuck Lawton/Planning Decisions), segue to a droning technocrat (Flanagan), have a pro-business, anti-tax crusader (Tony Payne/Alliance for Maine’s Future) in the three spot and end with an accountant (Beth Ashcroft/OPEGA).

Actually, Payne was a good presenter and made some decent points, but in my opinion, Flanagan and Payne represent an element that wants to gut government, rather than work off the GrowSmart/Brookings’ recommendations of reductions in the area of $60 to $100 million. Flanagan is promoting cuts in excess of $800 million, which in my opinion is unrealistic and even irresponsible.

After this torturous 90 minutes, it was back to the main auditorium for lunch and a few words from the governor. Governor Baldacci was in a trash talking mood, at times intimating that his move to consolidate schools, jails and even local PTA’s, stems from some deep well of philosophical resolve, rather than from the need to be seen as something other than your typical tax-and-spend Democrat and political hack.

If you happened to be hearing the governor for the first time, you would have thought he was the architect for smart growth and sustainable development. Since I’ve never heard the governor take a stand against any group looking to despoil the state’s pristine character (unless it was an Indian-run casino), his words came off sounding somewhat disingenuous to me.

After the morning’s disappointing seminar, I was hoping my afternoon would redeem my day and overcome being non-plussed up to this point.

I was off to “The Business Case for Smart Growth.” I was hoping that this would be about why it makes economic sense to do things that benefit people, places and the natural environment; a familiar theme of mine; putting people before profits.

It was apparent from the first 10 minutes, with Lee Sobel, from the US EPA’s Office of Development, Community & Environment that this was going to be a “paint by the numbers” recitation of government double-speak and gobbledygook. It was out the door and down the hall for me.

I ducked into a seminar on Main Street Renewal. Thinking this would be about how to revitalize Main Street and give merchants, citizens and others some ammo on how to stand up to corporate behemoths like Wal-Mart, Target and other big-box town-wreckers, a panelist was droning on about simplistic ideas such as hosting local events for your downtown area spurred me once again taking to the exit.

Scooting out of here, I retired to the auditorium to regroup, have a cup of coffee and jot down some notes. Realizing that time was ticking away on my day and that the conference was entirely different than my expectations, I now had only a brief window of opportunity to salvage the day.

[Grassroots organizers Rachel and Lucas, from NRCM]

Wandering through the exhibit area, I stopped at the Natural Resource Council of Maine’s table. They had a well-organized display about the Plum Creek Development Plan and NRCM’s reasons for opposing the current footprint of the project.

I met Rachel and Lucas, two young activists who came to Maine in August to work on NRCM’s campaign to help preserve the pristine character of the Moosehead Region. They are living in Augusta and Rachel had stumbled across my blog. She complimented me on my recent post about Augusta’s ugliness and the train wreck development that characterizes our state’s capital.

Despite my outward cynicism, I remain an idealist at heart and that’s probably why it was so refreshing to talk to two 20-somethings that still believe that grassroots campaigns are our only hope we have in resisting the onslaught of corporate development and profit-making.

[Author/researcher Stacy Mitchelll speaks about the Informed Growth Act]

Finally, it was time for the conference’s final afternoon sessions. For me, it was off to hear a discussion about the state’s Informed Growth Act.

This was well worth my time and the panelists, which included author/researcher Stacy Mitchell, Eleanor Kinney, attorney Peggy McGhee and Topsham select board member Michelle Jones, did an excellent job presenting and explaining this new law, designed to make it more difficult for large scale retail projects to set up shop in communities that oppose this kind of development.

The new law, passed in September, 2007, is the first statewide initiative like it in the U.S. It will require any municipality to make a decision on any proposed retail development of 75,000 square feet, or larger, to determine undue adverse impact. The law stipulates that the developer will bear the cost of the $40,000 fee to the State Planning Office for an economic impact study. This study will look at various possible negative effects, including existing retail operations, supply and demand for retail space, net job creation and loss, wages and benefits and the public cost of roads, police, fire, rescue and sewer, among other economic effects.

To get a sense of the scope of this type of project, there is no Shaw’s or Hannaford store in Maine larger than 44,000 square feet. A football field is 57,000 square feet.

I got to meet Mitchell and speak briefly to her. I told her that I appreciated her efforts with Big Box Swindle: The True Cost of Mega-Retailers and the Fight for America’s Independent Businesses, to create a compendium of facts and information for activists and others to counter arguments that are often posited in support of big-box development. Mitchell’s book has become “the bible” for those who know intuitively that big-box development is bad news for communities and the citizens that live there. Mitchell’s book gives us the toolkit to speak articulately and authoritatively about the costs and negative fallout that accompanies the arrival of big-box retailers.

[L-R: IGA Panelists Stacy Mitchell, Peggy McGhee, Eleanor Kinney, Michelle Jones]

This seminar was in line with what I expected the entire conference to be about. More in line with what I thought smart growth was/is, more in line with the values of Wendell Berry and people that are about place and less about trying find a way to salve the consciences of developers and real estate agents who want to pay lip service to maintaining the state’s heritage and culture, while aiding and abetting its destruction.

Friday, October 19, 2007

The Summit

I’m off to Augusta, to the GrowSmart Maine Summit for the day. GrowSmart couldn't have picked a better locale to illustrate unsustainable development and sprawl. The retail jungle across the street from the Civic Center (where the Summit is being held) is a case study in what's wrong with much of what passes for development in our state over the past 30 years.

I’ve looked over the brochure to get a sense of what workshops I want to attend—some of them look pretty interesting and some of them sound downright weird.

This is apparently a well-attended event. My hope is to meet a few people, maybe chat with Eleanor Kinney (the woman from Damariscotta who co-founded Our Town Damariscotta, to keep Wal-Mart out), possibly Stacey Mitchell of Big Box Swindle fame.

For me, personally, I’m hoping to see whether my own vision for the state’s future fits with GrowSmart’s and those of the various presenters.

My biggest complaint about the day is that you have to make tough choices between sessions and there are multiple sessions I wish I could participate in, but will have to miss.

My goal is to have a post up over the weekend on the Summit; mostly my observations and possibly some unique bit of information that you’ll only be able to get here at Words Matter.

Sunday, October 14, 2007

Boutique bait-and-switch

The opening of Whole Foods Market in Portland was met with a great deal of hoopla. For “boutique” consumers, the arrival of the world’s largest natural foods chain was a welcome addition to the area’s grocery mix. For others, Whole Foods’ choice of Portland and the opening of a 56,000 square foot operation in the Bayside neighborhood was viewed with trepidation. Those who have followed the Whole Foods story from a distance were not enamored by some of the things they were hearing, particularly their methods of dealing with local producers.

While organic foods may, or may not be beneficial from a health standpoint, the means of production and the expanding criteria of what’s considered organic is viewed with concern. Trucking organic lettuce 3,000 miles from Oregon or California doesn’t seem like a very sustainable agricultural process, particularly when local farmers offer more and more options, even during Maine’s winter.

Based in Austin, Texas, Whole Foods is a huge multi-national corporation. They own close to 200 markets and their total sales topped $5.6 billion in 2006. Over the past four years, they have pursued a very aggressive expansion policy, adding 60 locations over that period. While their choice to locate in Portland was spun as a victory for consumers, they also bought and shut down the Whole Grocer, Portland’s true locally-owned supermarket and a place where local producers were welcomed and lauded.

Stacy Mitchell, Maine’s maven of all things local and sustainable, has written a very solid article in the fall print edition of The Bollard, Portland’s (and arguably Maine’s) last bastion of journalism, detailing the practices of Whole Foods—how they treat local producers (rather shabbily, really, making them jump through multiple corporate hoops and utilizing practices that make it very difficult to compete with WholeFoods’ own private label products). I encourage you to read Mitchell’s article, particularly if you think that Whole Foods is a positive edition to your grocery-shopping experience.

Mitchell has written extensively about the damage that Wal-Mart and other big-box retailers unleash on local economies. Whole Foods, on the other hand, is often viewed favorably by those who might never set foot in a Wal-Mart or Target. She makes a strong case that like big-box retailers, Whole Foods also squeezes independent retailers, small-scale farmers and local producers.

I’m willing to give the Portland store some time to show their hand. Maybe they will change some of their policies and allow more local autonomy on what the Portland location can carry. As Mitchell writes in her article, it’s up to “consumers here (in Portland) to keep Whole Foods on its toes.”

Because Whole Foods is no different than any other corporate entity, they are cognizant of their bottom line. By voting with our pocket books, we can force them to be much more accountable to our local supply chain, which is our only hope for true agricultural and economic sustainability.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

American collective thinking

[Jim Kunstler is nothing, if not controversial. Say what you want about his thoughts and opinions, but he consistently argues for his viewpoint, cranking out a column, week after week. His thoughts about liberal Americans and their belief that the only thing wrong with America is George Bush, makes his latest essay essential reading--as if merely anointing a Democrat as king (or queen) is all America needs for what ails her.

Kunstler can be maddening at times, but I give the man credit; anyone who can generate over 300 comments on a blog is worthy of respect. In fact, the comments are often just as strong and well-argued as Kunstler's own thoughts and opinions --JB]

The Grass Roots Syndrome
by Jim Kunstler
(Reprinted from Clusterfuck Nation-Oct. 8th)

Because I wrote a couple of books about the design of cities (and the shortcomings of suburbia), a lot of blather comes my way about what towns around the nation are planning for the future -- and, off course, I hear plenty on the subject in my own town, Saratoga Springs, New York, which is a classic "main street" type town. I also happen to travel a lot and actually see what's going on far from home. Almost everything I see and hear is inconsistent with what I think reality has in store for us.

Most American towns, including my own, are obsessed to the point of mania with the issue of parking and more generally the management of cars, and much of their spending is directed to those ends. Municipal leaders (and the public they serve) have no idea what kind of problems the nation faces with oil. Because life in the USA has worked a particular way all their lives, they assume that it will continue to operate that way. Not only will they be disappointed as happy motoring spirals into history, but they will create a lot mischief in the meantime in planning things based on faulty assumptions.

My own town, for instance, relies heavily on tourism, in particular tourism based on happy motoring. There is not the slightest apprehension among the people here, or our leaders in city hall, that automobile-based tourism may not be happening as soon as five years from now. All our political energy is being expended in fighting about what kind of parking structures we will build (with borrowed money) and where to put them, and how these things might incorporate some secondary uses, such as police offices. We have also been debating plans for the expansion of our modest convention center -- in connection with added parking structures. It seems to me that one of the first things to go as the US economy contracts, along with its energy supply, will be activities like boat shows and optometrist's conventions.

Now this town happens to be on a railroad line that connects New York City to Montreal. Before 1950, it was the main way that people came to this town. These days, we get one train a day in each direction. The trains are invariably late, and not just a little late, but hours late. The track bed is in miserable shape and, of course, Amtrak is a sort of soviet-style management organization. There is no awareness among the public here, or our leaders, that we would benefit from improving the passenger railroad service, and around the state of New York generally there is no conversation about fixing the railroads. (Governor Elliot Spitzer is preoccupied these days with arranging to give driver's licenses to people who are in the country illegally.) We are going to pay a large penalty for these failures of attention.

Another aspect of all this has to do with our assumptions about land development. Here in my town, and elsewhere around the country, the assumption is that suburban development will continue just as it has the past sixty years. This assumption is shared both by the developers themselves and their opponents. The developers expect the current "downturn" to reverse before long. From the opponents' point of view, the assumption is based on their legitimate fears and heartaches about what they've seen heedless development do to the American landscape. Consequently, whatever mental energy is left after the parking debates get tabled is dedicated to fighting over projected suburban expansion.

My personal view about this is apparently radical -- though I am a man of modest habits and philosophy. My view is that the suburban project, per se, in the United States is over, finished. Like, totally. You can stick a fork in it. What you see is basically all that we're going to get. Not only do we not need anymore of it, but we have way too much of what is already on the ground. We don't need anymore suburban housing pods, and the ones already out there are going to hemorrhage value (and usefulness) as far ahead as anybody can imagine. We need more retail like we need 300-million holes in our heads. Ditto suburban office capacity. Ditto new roads and highways.

The projects that people see under construction now are things that went through the torturous permitting process at minimum a year ago and generally even further back. I would imagine that many of the developers of these few remaining projects -- whether they are condo villages or strip malls or chain store "power centers" -- are in deep melancholy as they read the news and desperately search for tenants. Their lenders must be equally depressed -- and in some cases cutting off further injections of capital. What remains is what bankers call "the workout" -- where the financial chips fall when people's hopes and dreams collide with reality's separate agenda.

In connection with the imminent collapse of our investments in suburbia is the fate of all the laws and codes that have governed the creation of it. I think it is a waste of effort at this point to attempt to reform what we generally refer to as "the zoning laws." They will simply become irrelevant. As we get in trouble with oil, and driving becomes more of a problem, it will be self-evident that regulations geared to keeping cars happy can no longer be followed. My guess is that for a period of time we will see a condition of stunned paralysis in the council chambers and planning boards. Eventually, if we are lucky enough to retain effective local governance, a new consensus will emerge that will be more reality-based by necessity.In saying this, I imply that societies go through cycles of collective thinking that range from being fairly consistent with reality to being dangerously out of whack with it. We're at the latter end of the cycle these days. One of the symptoms of this is the fact that so many Americans believe the only thing wrong with America is George W. Bush, and that if only we could wiggle out of "his" war, every day would be Christmas, with Nascar around-the-clock, time-outs for shopping sprees down the aisles of the Target store, 5000-square-foot houses for all (for $750 a month), and three BMWs parked in the driveway. . . with fries, and supersize it!

In reality, there's a lot more wrong with how we live and how we think about how we live than the mere presence of George W. Bush at the head of the federal government. Our expectations are deeply out of phase with what the earth can provide for us and what the future has in store for us, and this failure of our collective imagination goes down to the grass roots.

Monday, October 08, 2007

Making 'kraut

[The "hobler," working up a sweat]

[Watch that blade!]

[Perfectly prepared cabbage]

[Don't spare the salt]

[Kraut-packin' fool]

Yesterday’s return to seasonal temperatures befitting fall were the perfect setting for reconnecting with my German-ness, via the preparation of a traditional, ethnic food.

Sauerkraut, the product of cabbage and fermentation evokes many happy memories. It helps me to think back to that time, each fall, when I got to hang out with my father, uncle and grandfather, as they prepared their supply of sauerkraut for the winter. I first witnessed the making of this German staple around the age of eight, or nine.

Many know sauerkraut merely as an ingredient on their Reuben sandwich, or possibly from purchasing it already prepared at the supermarket, or better, Morse’s, in Waldoboro. Most however, know little about how it is made.

While I had a bird’s eye view of the process as a youngster, once I became a teenager, I had little interest in family ways, or ethnic foods. As a consequence, when I married and became a father and got interested in perpetuating tradition, I realized I didn’t know how to make the dish I loved as a youngster.

Upon returning to Maine from Indiana, I found that my father and uncle’s batch of sauerkraut had a different and less pungent taste than when my grandfather used to make it. I wasn’t sure why.

At a family gathering of the Baumer clan, someone had cooked a batch of sauerkraut. I tasted it and knew the flavor was what I had been searching for. I found out that my cousin had made it and put up a batch every year. We agreed to get together the following fall and he’d guide me in making my own supply.

What I found out is that sauerkraut is easy to make, but you need a couple of key items and a little muscle-power. One such item is a special cutter that my father and cousin called a “hobler,” which I assumed referred to the company that made this device. I actually found this description, via Roots Web and it provides a bit of insight into this shredding device and the sauerkraut-making process.

A Krauthobel is a long board with three or four blades set at an angle in the center. There are grooves on each side which hold a rectangular wooden frame that permits the tool to slide back and forth.

The "Hobel" must be fastened to a stable base that would not buckle under pressure from the work. A clean cloth was spread out on the ground underneath so that the shredded cabbage would fall upon it.

"Hobeln" (planing or grating/mincing the cabbage) was very hard work. The "Hobler" placed pieces of a cut-up head of cabbage in the wooden frame and pushed the "Hoble" back and forth in a smooth, rapid motion with just enough pressure so that the cabbage would be cut into shreds. A pyramid of cut cabbage gradually grew on the cloth below. Because "Hobeln" was strenuous work and required alot of strength the "Hobler" often had to stop periodically to wipe beads of perspiration from his forehead to prevent it from "seasoning" the cabbage. It was more and more difficult as the pieces of cabbage became smaller and there was constant danger that the "Hobler" might slice his fingers. One had to be extremely careful. As the pile of cut-up cabbage heads became smaller the pyramid of shredded cabbage on the cloth grew larger. Finally the work of "Hobeln" was finished.

I can identify with the “strenuous” nature of being a “hobler,” as I was perspiring heavily, even though the temperature was in the low 60s. It’s rugged work and there is danger of slicing one’s finger, as happened to me my first time working the cutter, with my cousin. I nearly cut the tip of my finger off. Fortunately for me and my sauerkraut, I avoided an encounter with the blade, this time.

Adding to the physical nature of preparing sauerkraut, each shredded cabbage, or two, requires “packing” into the container (in my case, a large stainless steel stock pot, which is my alternative to the traditional ceramic crock, which I find are often cracked, at least used ones picked up at yard sales—stainless steel works well and doesn’t alter the taste), by pounding it down with your fist, after adding salt. Because this can be quite abrasive on your knuckles, I suggest using a rubber glove, which offers protection and saves the skin on your hands.

My wife and I prepared 50 pounds of cabbage, which we’ll be ready to cook, probably with a nice pork roast, in about four to five weeks. There’s nothing like entering the home where sauerkraut is being cooked, particularly on a cool, crisp, late autumn day.

While sauerkraut is an acquired taste, more and more people are coming to appreciate it, particularly now that others are recognizing the health benefits of fermented foods like sauerkraut.

If you’ve never had homemade sauerkraut, I recommend a fall trip to Waldoboro, particularly between Thanksgiving and Christmas, to Morse’s. Take a left at Moody’s and head north on Route 220 for about eight miles. You’ll see the farm on the left.

If you’d like to learn more about fermented foods, like sauerkraut, I recommend a great book, by Sandor Ellis Katz, Wild Fermentation: The Flavor, Nutrition, and Craft of Live-Culture Foods. My wife and I sat through a presentation that Katz gave at The Common Ground Fair and he’s a real advocate of many fermented foods, including Kimchi, Borscht and wide array of other live-culture treats.

In our germ-phobic, overly-sanitized world, there’s something to be said for the wisdom of the ages and fermentation.

Friday, October 05, 2007

Can we revitalize our downtowns?

It’s been a terribly busy stretch for me over the past two weeks. I’ve been involved with multiple projects, including the launch of a new WorkReady™ training in Lewiston, where I’m based in my day job.

Last week, I spent a bit of time in Waterville and met Faye Nicholson, from REM, a wonderful, community-based organization. Faye and I got a chance to chat and she invited me to contribute an article for their quarterly publication, Local Voices. I happily complied, putting the finishing touches on it, last night.

It appears to me that Maine has a number of communities like Waterville, possessing solid infrastructure and potentially viable downtowns, which may prove to be attractive to young professionals and boomers, whose children have left the nest. Both groups have begun looking for alternatives to suburban sameness. The former Hathaway Shirt property, now dubbed the Hathaway Creative Center, could become a magnet for downtown revitalization.

Other communities in Maine with long term potential might be Skowhegan (if you overlook perspectives from outsiders) and even Augusta. Sadly, most Mainers know little or nothing about either community and people visiting the state rarely venture up Route 201 to Skowhegan and if they do, they are apt to buzz through downtown, on their way to Jackman and points north. Augusta, as seen from I-95, is a nightmarish scenario, with the Civic Center area and now, the Western Avenue exit, veritable advertisements for how not to build sustainable economies. If you manage to make it downtown however, you’d be struck by the architecture and the beauty of the Kennebec, while also noticing the lack of much vitality in our state capital’s downtown.

I recently found the blog of Jack Schultz, a fellow with some interesting ideas about economic development, particularly as it applies to rural America. Schultz has my dream job—getting paid to travel the country, speaking to groups and discovering pockets of vitality all over the contiguous 48 states. He really is an advocate for small-town growth and the revitalization of downtown areas, the antithesis of most of what passes for economic development in much of our own state.

For my readers in Maine, I’m putting in a plug for the upcoming Summit 2007, which will be happening in two weeks, on October 19th. This should be an interesting day, at least for those of us who are interested in the recommendations of the Brookings Report, Charting Maine's Future, which fits well with my own ideas for smart growth that I developed long before it became somewhat fashionable to talk about sustainable development. Ironically, the event is being held at the Augusta Civic Center, which is the antithesis of smart, sustainable development, as well as the mess across the street at the Augusta Marketplace, with its Wal-Mart Superstore, Sam’s Club, Home Depot, Old Navy, Kohl's and other big-box monstrosities, where the locals come to offer their sacrifices at the alter of mass consumption. (I actually blogged about this and included photos, but can't find it in my archives?)

I’m hoping to get a chance to do some photo-blogging in two weeks and I’ll certainly report out from my time spent at the conference.