Thursday, August 02, 2007

The True Cost of Coal

The profits that the old coal plants without pollution controls rake in are not simply a consequence of the fact that coal is cheap and plentiful. These plants are legal mints because the regulatory system fails to account for the social, environmental, and public health costs of burning dirty coal - what economists call "externalities." All other things being equal, dirty megawatts from old coal burners are almost always cheaper than clean megawatts from other sources. The real cost of those dirty megawatts - the devastated mountains of West Virginia, the heart attacks and asthma caused by air pollution, the pumping of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere - are all offloaded onto the public. How would competition in the electricity markets change if these costs were factored in? According to a ten-year study known as ExternE, which Princeton University professsor and energy expert Robert Williams calls "state of the art," factoring in just the public health effects of air pollution from U.S. coal plants would add an average of about $13 per megawatt-hour to the price of coal-fired power. (This does not include damages connected to mining, nor does it include costs related to global warming.) For the big dirties, added costs could be as high as $33 per megawatt-hour. In comparison, the cost of externalities on a natural gas plant are only about 40 cents per megawatt-hour. In a market that accurately reflected the true cost of power, old coal burners would be shut down because the price of the power they generated would be too high for the market to bear.

From "Big Coal: The Dirty Secret Behind America's Energy Future" by Jeff Goodell


Monday, February 26, 2007

The Wal-Mart Effect (2)

"[Hanes] conluded, says Caldwell, 'people just had more underwear in their house than they really needed, or had had in the past.' The underwear was so cheap, and so irresistably displayed on those pallets, that people just bought it and took it home. That kind of consumption doesn't trouble Caldwell at all - his job was to sell underwear. It's always nice to have a fresh pair of athletic socks, of course, but consumption driven strictly by price and impulse - consumption that answers no need at all - well, that's curious. Wal-Mart was saving its customers money, and they were tucking the savings away in the underwear drawer." (pg 70)

"(Lingerie maker Frank) Garson says for the wages of a single U.S. factory worker, competitors could hire seventy people in indonesia." (pg 97)

"'No matter how hard they work, how fast they get it done, how much improved the quality is, it's never good enough with Wal-Mart. The idea of a 'satisfied customer' was, for them, an oxymoron. It just doesn't happen. It doesn't compute."
That's why Ford says, 'When you see the Wal-Mart smiley face, whistling and knocking down prices, somewhere there's a factory worker being kicked in the stomach.'" (pg 99)

"'They've lowered the price of the TVs to the point where they can't afford to pay $1 or $2 an hour they have to pay in Mexico.'" (pg 100)

"'People say, how can it be bad for things to come into the United States cheaply? How can it be bad to have bargains,' says Dobbins. 'But you can't buy anything if you're not employed. We are shopping ourselves out of jobs." More than that, says Dobbins, the manufactured goods coming to the United States so cheaply are made under factory conditions that would not only not be tolerated in the United States, they likely wouldn't even be legal.'
'We want clean air, clean water, good living conditions, the best health care in the world,' says Dobbins. 'Yet we aren't willing to pay for anything manufactured under those restrictions." (pg 103)

"'The cost structure of operating manufacturing plants in the United States is just enormously out of sync with what people want to pay. Dramatically.'" (pg 104)

"Eventually, there are no more efficiencies to be wrung out of the supply chain; there are no more pennies to be saved with smarter distribution or reduced pakaging or cheaper plastic. Eventually, the only way to lower costs is to manufacture products outside the United States, in countries with lower labor costs, fewer regulations, less overhead. This element of the Wal-Mart effect remains largely hidden from public view" (pg 106)

"In 2003, for the first time in modern U.S. history, the number of Americans working in retail, (14.9 million) was greater than the number of Americans working in factories (14.5 million). We have more people working in stores than we do making the merchandise to put in them." (pg 108)

"Consumer spending, however, accounts for two thirds of the U.S. economy." (pg 108)

Saturday, February 24, 2007

The Wal-Mart Effect (1)

"Wal-Mart has recently taken to explaining that retail jobs like those it offers, although paying double the minimum wage, are nonetheless intended as supplemental income, not as support for a family. The problem with that is that for two thirds of Americans, Wal-Mart is the single largest employer in the state where they live." (pg 15)

"From one side of the country to the other, there are dozens of lawsuits alleging that store managers routinely forced hourly employess to punch out at the time clock, then return to work, putting in hours of unpaid labor. Wal-Mart recently settled a federal investigation of its use if hundreds of illegal aliens to clean its stores, making a record-setting payment to the federal government. The company faces the largest class action lawsuit in history: the sex discrimination suit on behalf of 1.6 million current and former female employees that alleges that Wal-Mart managers systematically underpaid women and denied them promotions. A front-page story in the New York Times in 2004 revealed Wal-Mart's routine practice of locking employees inside about 10 percent of its stores overnight, a practice the company altered even before the Times could publish the story." (pg 27) (note: this case is ongoing)

"Even if you assume that Wal-Mart and its competitors are hiring equally talented staff - which is not a safe assumption - the standard Wal-Mart headquarters staffer is working at least 15 percent more hours in a routine week, even if his or her competitors are logging fifty hours." (pg 30)

"Sam valued every penny" (pg 30)

"Sam was a workaholic" (pg 31)

"In August 2004, a union was certified at a Wal-Mart store in Quebec, and it was authorized to negotiate a labor contract with Wal-Mart on behalf of the store's 190 employees. Ten months later Wal-Mart closed the 130,000 square foot store in Jonquiere, laying off all the associates. In eleven years of doing business in Canada, where Wal-Mart is the largest retailer, the company had never permanently closed a store. A Wal-Mart spokesperson said simply that the union's contract demands would have required the store to add thrity new jobs - a 15 percent increase in payroll for a company that operates on a 3 percent profit margin." (pg 48)

Monday, August 07, 2006

Bertrand Russell

"When first the opposition of fact and ideal grows fully visible, a spirit of fiery revolt, of fierce hatred of the gods, seems necessary to the assertion of freedom. To defy with Promethean constancy a hostile universe, to keep its evil always in view, always actively hated, to refuse no pain that the malice of power can invent, appears to be the duty of all who will not bow before the inevitable. But indignation is still a bondage, for it compels our thoughts to be occupied with an evil world; and in the fierceness of desire from which rebellion springs there is a kind of self-assertion which it is necessary for the wise to overcome. Indignation is a submission of our thoughts but not of our desires; the Stoic freedom in which wisdom consists is found in the submission of our desires but not of our thoughts. From the submission of our desires springs the virtue of resignation; from the freedom of our thoughts springs the whole world of art and philosophy, and the vision of beauty, by which, at last, we half reconquer the reluctant world. But the vision of beauty is possible only to unfettered contemplation, to thoughts not weighted by the load of eager wishes; and thus freedom comes only to those who no longer ask of life that it shall yield them any of those personal goods that are subject to the mutations of time."
From the essay "A Free Man's Worship"

Sunday, August 06, 2006

Carl Gustav Jung

"Just as man, as a social being, cannot in the long run exist without a tie to the community, so the individual will never find the real justification for his existence, and his own spiritual and moral autonomy, anywhere except in an extramundane principle capable of relativizing the overpowering influence of external factors. The individual who is not anchored in God can offer no resistance on his own resources to the physical and moral blandishments of the world. For this he needs the evidence of the inner, transcendent experience which alone can protect him from the otherwise inevitable submersion in the mass. Merely intellectual or even moral insight into the stultification and moral irresponsibility of the mass man is a negative recognition only and amounts to not much more than a wavering on the road to the atomization of the individual. It lacks the driving force of religious conviction, since it is merely rational. The dictator State has one great advantage over bourgeois reason: along with the individual it swallows up his religious forces. The State has taken the place of God; that is why, seen from this angle, the socialist dictatorships are religions and State slavery is a form or worship. But the religious function cannot be dislocated and falsified in this way without giving rise to secret doubts, which are immediately repressed so as to avoid conflict with the prevailing trends towards mass-mindedness. The result, as always in such cases, is overcompensation in the form of fanaticism, which in its turn is used as a weapon for stamping out the least flicker of opposition. Free opinion is stifled and moral decision ruthlessly suppressed, on the plea that the end justifies the means, even the vilest. The policy of the State is exalted to a creed, the leader or party boss becomes a demigod beyond good and evil, and his votaries are honored as heroes, martyrs, apostles, missionaries. There is only ONE truth and beside it no other. It is sacrosanct and above criticism. Anyone who thinks differently is a heretic, who, as we know from history, is threatened with all manner of unpleasant things. Only the party boss, who holds the political power in his hands, can interpret the State doctrine authentically, and he does so just as suits him."

Henry David Thoreau

"Men cannot conceive of a state of things so fair that it cannot be realized. Can any man honestly consult his experience and say that it is so? Have we any facts to appeal to when we say that our dreams are premature? Did you ever hear of a man who had striven all his life faithfully and singly toward an object and in no measure obtained it? If a man constantly aspires, is he not elevated? Did ever a man try heroism, magnanimity, truth, sincerity, and find there was no advantage to them? that is was a vain endeavor?"