Thursday, June 28, 2007

Victor Davis Hanson, Hoover Institution, among the first on the far right to warn of the impending Peak Oil food/fuel crisis.

Victor Davis Hanson, writer of some astonishingly bombastic stuff, gives his regular readers the word on Peak Oil, the end of happy (cheap) motoring and the sour results of sprawl that is devouring agricultural land.

The Impending Food Fight
By Victor Davis Hanson
Thursday, June 28, 2007
While we worry about gas prices, the costs of milk, meat and fresh produce silently skyrockets. So like the end of cheap energy, is the era of cheap food also finally over?

Since the farm depression of the early 1980s - remember the first Farm Aid concert in 1985 - farmers have gone broke in droves from cheap commodity prices. The public shrugged, happy enough to get inexpensive food. Globalization saw increased world acreage planted and farmed under Western methods of efficient production. And that brought into the United States even more plentiful imported food.

Continued leaps in agricultural technology ensured more production per acre. The result was likewise predictable: the same old food surpluses and low prices. My late parents, who owned the farm I now live on in central California, used to sigh that the planet was reaching 6 billion mouths and so things someday "would have to turn around for farmers."

Now they apparently have. Food prices are climbing at rates approaching 10 percent per year. But why the sudden change?

There have been a number of relatively recent radical changes in the United States and the world that, taken together, provide the answer:

Modern high-tech farming is energy intensive. So recent huge price increases in diesel fuel and petroleum-based fertilizers and chemicals have been passed on to the consumer.

The U.S. population still increases while suburbanization continues. The sprawl of housing tracts, edge cities and shopping centers insidiously gobbles up prime farmland at the rate of hundreds of thousands of acres per year.

In turn, in the West periodic droughts and competition from growing suburbs have made water for farming scarcer, more expensive - and sometimes unavailable.

On the world scene, 2 billion Indians and Chinese are enjoying the greatest material improvement in their nations' histories - and their improved diets mean more food consumed than ever before.

The result is that global food supplies are also tightening up, both at home and abroad. America has become a net food importer. We seem to have developed a new refined taste for foreign wines, cheeses and fresh winter fruits even as we are consuming more of our corn, wheat, soybeans and dairy products at home.

Now comes the biofuels movement. For a variety of reasons, ranging from an attempt to become less dependent on foreign oil to a desire for cleaner fuels, millions of acres of farmland are being redirected to corn-based ethanol.

If hundreds of planned new ethanol refineries are built, the U.S. could very shortly be producing around 30 billion gallons of corn-based fuel per year, using one of every four acres planted to corn for fuel. This dilemma of food or fuel is also appearing elsewhere in the world as Europeans and South Americans begin redirecting food acreages to corn-, soy-, or sugar- based biofuels.Corn prices in America have spiked. And since corn is also a prime ingredient for animal feeds and sweeteners, prices likewise are rising for poultry, beef and everything from soft drinks to candy.

There is currently more corn acreage - about 90 million acres are predicted this year - than at any time in the nation's last half-century. But today's total farm acreage is either static or shrinking; land for biofuels is usually taken from wheat, soybeans or cotton, ensuring those supplies grow tight as well.

In the past, the genius of our farmers and the mind-boggling innovation of American agribusiness meant that farm production periodically doubled. Indeed, today we are producing far more food on far fewer acres than ever before.

But we are nearing the limits of further efficiency - especially when such past amazing leaps in production relied on once-cheap petro-chemicals, fuels and fertilizers.

As in the case of oil, we've gone through these sudden farm price spikes before. My grandfather once told me that in some 70 years of boom-and-bust farming he only made money during World Wars I and II, and the late 1960s.

But this latest round of high food prices seems coupled to energy shortages, and so won't go away anytime soon. That raises questions critical to the very security of this nation, which may have to import as many agricultural commodities as it does energy - and find a way to pay for both.

The American consumer lifestyle took off thanks to low-cost fuel and food. Once families could drive and eat cheaply, they had plenty of disposable income for housing and consumer goods.

But if they can't do either anymore, how angry will they get as they buy less and pay more for the very staples of life?

Victor Davis Hanson is at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University, and author, most recently, of "A War Like No Other: How the Athenians and Spartans Fought the Peloponnesian War."
I'd have never thought this kind of clear-headed discourse was even possible coming out of Hanson. But, he's a gentleman farmer and a classicist on top of being at the farthest edge of the right-wing. Lots of reactionaries are reacting badly to this uncommonly thoughtful and readable column from one of their own going off the reservation.

See the whole article, with reader comments, at Townhall.com.

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Waukesha Water Utility now will be held accountable for countless secret meetings.

Patrick Marley of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel posted this brief report today:

Madison - The state Supreme Court today overturned an 8-year-old appeals court ruling in saying that government bodies must spell out the business they will take up in [secret] meeting notices when they consider issues of broad public interest.

Today's ruling is the first time the high court has weighed in on the requirements of meeting notices. Under a 1999 appeals court decision, municipalities could list on notices simply that they were taking up licenses, rather than specifying what kind of licenses would be considered and for what businesses. Today's ruling reverses that.

The case stems from the Tomah School Board's 2004 approval of a contract with the teachers union. Brian L. Buswell sued the School District because he said the board did not notify the public for its June 1 and June 15, 2004, meetings that it would consider a controversial contract provision to give union members preference for hiring as coaches.

In the notice for its June 1 meeting, the School Board said it would consider employment negotiations in closed session. In the notice for its June 15 meeting, it said it would consider approving the teachers contract in open session but did not describe the provisions of the contract.

The Monroe County Circuit Court dismissed the case because of the 1999 appeals court decision that said governments had to provide only vague meeting notices. Buswell similarly lost on appeal and then asked the Supreme Court to take up the case.

The high court overruled the 1999 decision, saying governments must balance several factors in determining what to include in meeting notices. They must provide more information when they take up non-routine matters and must weigh the public's interest in an issue in determining how much information to put in notices, the court said.

In the Tomah case, the court said, the district needed to alert the public for both meetings that it was considering the teachers contract but that it did not have to say in the notice that the coaching provision was in the contract. The June 1 notice was insufficient but the June 15 notice was adequate, the court found.


In Waukesha, the Water Utility, as well as the City Council, have relied for decades on the advice and counsel of Waukesha's decidedly third-rate lawyer, City Attorney Curt Meitz.

Meitz gets elected time after time, largely because he doesn't have significant opposition. He's been a spectacular loser in court, having made two trips to the Supreme Court--once over attempts to shut down an adult bookstore and later over objections to EPA rules on Radium in our water. Both times he came back empty-handed. And the public paid for his poor performance, both in dollars and public perception of the quality of City Government.

It is unclear whether he just hasn't any talent, or whether he just doesn't know how to tell his constituents and elected officials that they don't have a case.

He achieved some semi-shocking notoriety decades back for having been accused of domestic violence; deferred prosecution was the disposition, in my recollection.

Many in City government roll their eyes and talk about Meitz's failures in the role of the City's chief legal officer, then complain that they are powerless do anything about the situation, since he is elected.

He has been approving notices of the Water Utility Commission's odious closed sessions (lots of them) and allowing the Commissioners to give short-hand explanations in the agendae: "Discuss Radium Issues" and "Water Supply Issues".

He will have to provide better legal advice and clearance of agenda item descriptions in the future.

Waukesha needs good advice from its City Attorney. The incumbent hasn't shown much talent, wisdom or finesse in his overly-long tenure. He ought to retire.

An even better idea would be to have an attorney who is hired by a panel of experts and elected officials (and subject to performance reviews), rather than an elected official in the position.

[Full Disclosure: City Attorney Meitz received some laughably inept and constitutionally abusive reports about your blogger, and the circumstances of his arrest a number of years ago. He insisted for weeks that he intended to prosecute me for the offense of "Obstructing an Officer" on the Night of Tuesday, October 30, 2000.

On that night, I was--with fifteen others, collectively the most mild-mannered and soft-spoken citizens imaginable, including a woman holding an infant, all of us guests at a private home near Cutler Park, on the front lawn, well behind the police line marked with yellow tape,--ordered by Waukesha's Keystone Kops, to get up on the porch because we were deemed to be a threat to the security of VP Al Gore and his running mate Joe Lieberman, who were campaigning for the White House. It little mattered that Gore and Company were in Chilton, Wisconsin at the time of the police demand. The actions of the police were clearly illegal and unconstitutional, regardless of where Gore was at the time.

I was standing on the bottom step of the crowded porch with Reuters photographer and long-time friend Al Fredricksen, wondering why I was doing what the cops had demanded. Al and I stepped off the porch, a deliberate challenge to their illegal orders. Two officious men-in-blue, whose principal difficulty as police officers seemed to be poor training and inept leaders, grabbed me, cuffed me and perp-walked me two blocks to a squad car, which then drove me one block to a "command post," at which was parked a bus for transporting the arrested to jail. From there off to the pokey.

The police had the good sense to not arrest a member of the working press with two cameras around his neck. That enabled Al to get it all down on film.

For a full five weeks, Meitz insisted that he had grounds to prosecute. I had a local attorney--fellow debate judge, and noble defender of First Amendment Rights, Bradley J. Bloch--who wrote a devilishly effective Motion to Dismiss that he filed at my plea hearing. Upon reading what he was up against, Meitz ran and hid, conceding that he had no case against me, dropping the charges.

Frosting on the cake: Police Chief Sharrock and Asst. Chief Dussault both apologized to Al Fredricksen and me in a meeting held in Mayor Lombardi's conference room. Said Sharrock: "My people should never have arrested you," adding that Meitz had assured them he had the goods and intended to prosecute".
]

Sunday, June 10, 2007

Beware of Exploding Mortgages


ANYONE who believes that the worst is over in the subprime mortgage fiasco need merely wait awhile. A tsunami of interest rate increases on these loans is headed your way....

During the next five years, some $1 trillion in adjustable-rate mortgages will reset. But in the here and now — from just June to October this year — more than $100 billion of that amount is scheduled to reset, and all of it is in loans that are in the riskier subprime category. Given the recent interest rate spike, many of those loans that once carried low teaser rates are on track to reset to at least 11 percent — or more than four percentage points higher than the current rate on a conventional, 30-year home loan.

Chances are slim that even the most creditworthy borrowers can survive payment shocks like these. And so, as the reset storm hits, delinquencies will rise and foreclosures will follow. It is too early to estimate how many foreclosures will take place as a result, but last year there were 1.2 million, according to RealtyTrac, an online real estate database.
By GRETCHEN MORGENSON
NY Times
Published: June 10, 2007


This will have repercussions from top to bottom of the real estate market.

There are significant numbers--though smaller than the percentage of subprimes about to reset--of adjustable rate mortgages in all segments of the housing market. The chaos that is coming in the low end will send shockwaves to every corner, every block, every subdivision, every condo development, every golf course dotted with tract mansions in Waukesha County.

WaterBlogged to MJS: Thanks, but no thanks.

A week ago, while shopping at Farm & Fleet in Waukesha (if they started selling meat and potatoes, fruit and vegetables I would consider that outfit a candidate for becoming the ONLY store I ever enter) I encountered a bright young fellow who worked hard to persuade me that becoming a paid subscriber to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel made sense. Our household pays $46.00/Mo. for The New York Times and appreciates the quality of the paper and the excellent home delivery, courtesy of an independent contractor who is virtually indentured to the Journal Sentinel, but gets to deliver other stuff, too.

But the young fellow persuaded me that the "paid subscriber" thing works to my advantage, as he was about to give me a $10 gift card usable at Farm & Fleet. The paper that comes from Milwaukee was proposing to pay me to be a subscriber. All I had to do was agree to a monthly credit card debit of $7 to cover daily and Sunday home delivery, for three months, to be offset by the upfront equivalent of a $10 credit I was getting. Moreover, I had the right to cancel at any time during the term. Looked like a fair-to-middlin' deal, though I could almost hear my dad saying "It isn't a bargain if you don't really need it".

Ooooh, hard to imagine that $11 out of my pocket is enough to cover the costs of producing and delivering 78 daily papers and 13 Sundays of product that would cost $58.50 retail (not delivered).

This morning the new newspaper arrived in a plastic bag, right next to the The Times, right in front of my door. The legendary New York paper weighed about half what came from Milwaukee. I opened both of them, began grazing.

Posted by Picasa

Journalistic effort on the left. Commercial sludge on the right.

Journal Sentinel included about two pitchforkfuls of coated-stock, four color, perfumed, mostly tacky commercial stuffers. Divided into two stacks, the content--everything printed on newsprint, including classified, auto and real estate--was a lighter and shorter one than the sludge.

Next, I went to the Crossroads, to sample the best of Milwaukee ideas and opinion. The section has clearly become amateur hour. Least satisfying were three "Quick Hits...mini opinions...from the Journal Sentinel Editorial Board's Reader Advisory Committee, whose members are chosen annually".

All three failed to communicate much. One of the writers ranted about how
"President Bush quietly accepts his adversaries waging a campaign of verbal assaults against him, which is bound to result in low approval ratings from the American people. Some Americans are distressed by this administration that endures abuse by Democrats just to “get along.” Americans don’t want to “get along” with people who are wrong.

I'd want to know more about this adviser's advice to the editorial board, but, then, I could get that from listening to the Sykes and Belling shows.

A second, by a retired UWM professor, reveals that TIF Districts are subject to abuse and need to be watched. This is pretty worked-over stuff, common knowledge even among the middle school set, something that isn't going to change based on one tired prof's recommendation.

Finally, Mai Xiong, a third "quick hit" adviser, goes deep into the interplay of Hmong-Americans, a heroic (or cruel and murderous, depending on one's point of view or tribal affiliation) military General Officer, the Laotian government, a war that started three or four generations back, and the U.S. government. There's plenty of evidence in six sentences that there is some deep hatred and unhealthy licking of wounds underlying this opinion. But, there's no context, no background, no way of evaluating the statements. Hit 'n' run.

I called and canceled. They will properly charge me the $5 bucks the Farm & Fleet card is worth.

Thanks, Pop, I'll try to stay tuned to your sterling advice: "It's no bargain, if you don't have any use for it".

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Of the biblical allotment of three score and ten I have lived only three of them more than a bicycle ride from one of the Great Lakes. I grew up ten blocks from Lake Erie in the (once Irish/Italian ghetto, now newly-hip) "Near West Side" of Cleveland. I can still cycle to the Milwaukee lakefront in an hour and a half; but, a round-trip has always been more than I would (noror ever did) attempt. -0- I'm a "...somewhat combative pacifist and fairly cooperative anarchist," after the example of Grace Paley (1922-2007). -0- I'm always cheerful when I pay my taxes (having refused--when necessary--to pay that portion of them dedicated to war). -0- And I always, always vote.