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Monthly Archives: July 2014

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A Peek Behind The Curtains Of War

by Brian T. Lynch, MSW
I read a comment posted elsewhere today by an Israeli living in Israel right now during this latest conflict with Hamas in Palestine . On one side Hamas does not speak for the hearts and minds of the every day people living in Palestine. Many Palestinians feel as if they are held hostage by Hamas while Israeli shells kill innocent victims. On the other side some Israelis no longer recognize their neighbors who have grown hard and belligerent. Hate and blood-lust are spreading among the citizens, changing the character of who they are as a people. I was deeply moved. I see now that it is as if there are two Israels and two Palestines, one visible to the outside world and one hidden from view. The conflict we see hides greater conflict and suffering in the hearts and souls of people on both sides. My own heart aches for the humanity that is dying with each new casualty in this war.

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Inequality on a Global Scale (literally)

The cartoon below is from the great editorial cartoonist Stuart Carlson. It highlights with humor a very serious global economic condition, growing wealth inequality.

http://www.gocomics.com/stuartcarlson/2014/06/20#.U9Zns_ldXfJ (Go and enjoy his other cartoons.)

Allow me to breakdown the math for you. These figures work out to an average of $486 per poor person vs. $20 billion per rich person. This is not a measure of income but a measure of wealth, or capital.

Another important math fact from this illustration: If you have $20 billion in capital and earn an average return on investments of 4% a year, and if you lavishly spend $1 million per month on your lifestyle, at the end of 50 years you will still have $140 billion left for your children to inherit. That’s right, if you have seven children they would each get close to the 20 billion that you started out with.

This is the crisis of capital that we face. This fact is among the findings of economist Thomas Piketty in his recent book, Capital in the Twenty-First Century. Within just a few generations almost all the wealth on the planet will be handed down from parents to children. Almost no new fortunes will be made through the earnings of those who have to work for a living. We will effectively return to a feudal system even here in the United States and abroad. The phenomenon is global. The quicker national and global population stabilize or decline the faster wealth will concentrate among the wealthy.

All we have to do to return to a feudal society is… do nothing.

Someone on facebook asked me, “Is it really the zero-sum game that these breakdowns of wealth distribution always seem to imply?”  Good question! Is it the case that the growing wealth of the wealthy must come at the expense of growing poverty Or, doesn’t the growth of capital lift all ships?

When you look at national and global income-to-capital averages you see what looks like fairly stable ratios. Growing capital wealth and growth in income seem to balance. But look a littler closer and you see that more of the population falls into poverty as the value of capital grows at compounded rates. So yes, there is more national income, but there is an ever larger percentage of income coming from capital investments and going to the wealthy.  As capital becomes the main source of income, the real earnings of wage earners stretches and collapses at the lower end of the economic scale.  For the middle class, it is like being caught between the gravitational fields of two black holes… one created by poverty and  the other by capital wealth

War “Statistics”: The New York Times Deceives Again

* * * G U E S T   B L O G G E R * * * 

by Gil Lavi

July 25, 2014

The “Daily Tally” in the New York Times, a casual-sounding infographic, presents a side-by-side count of casualties and missiles in Gaza and Israel. Although it is ostensibly one of the clearest representations of violence, it is seriously misleading.

War photography can be powerful, moving, and shocking; and data to prove a point can be reassuring, if often falsely. It is the very power of numbers, graphics, and photographs that makes them at the same time compelling ways to prove a point, and lousy ways of explaining what is really going on.

During World War II, it is estimated that 378,000 German civilians were killed in British air raids, compared to only 62,000 British civilians killed in German air raids. Knowing this, however, does little to help understand the nature of the conflict.

The New York Times’s Daily Tally is as political as the map represented in it. The visualization quantifies two elements related to the conflict: the number of deaths, and the number of attacks. It does not reveal who started the latest round of battle or why; who the dead are; how many civilians live under constant threat of indiscriminate shooting, or how that number accumulated over time. The numbers simply attempt authoritatively to represent an amount violence in the air, devoid of all context.

The New York Times “Daily Tally” infographic is seriously misleading, its numbers devoid of all context. (Image source: Screenshot of nytimes.com)

Karen Yourish and Josh Keller, its authors, refer to these hostilities as another volley in the “Israeli-Palestinian Conflict.” They could just as easily, and more accurately, have framed the events as, “the conflict between Israel, Hamas and its Palestinian hostages.” I suggest this as a title because it signals to viewers that this conflict is more nuanced than the black-and-white conflict presented. Most Palestinians might even reject Hamas’s aggression towards Israel: a 2013 survey conducted by the Ramallah-based organization, Arab World for Research & Development wrote that 65% of Palestinians opposed a new intifada, 95% of Gazans supported a new round of elections, and 44% of Palestinians preferred the Fatah approach.

The Daily Tally, favoring a more simplistic formula that implicitly frames the conflict as one between good and evil, obfuscates these distinctions. It also neglects to inform readers that as many as 70% of the Israelis support a Palestinian state backed by the UN, according to a survey done by Hebrew University’s Harry S. Truman Research Institute. Instead, the Daily Tally simply demands to be frequently refreshed — counting the dead while ignoring the demands of the living.

Maps, images, and infographics can, of course, easily become the instruments of promoting particular political ideologies, and might even have been chosen for that reason. By choosing to represent only particular aspects of a story, however, the people who post the Daily Talley know they are capable of swaying opinion and motivating viewers to think about a situation in a particular way. But that is not “all the news that is fit to print;” that is propaganda.

Creating compelling clickbait in the form of infographics is a disturbing trend in news today. Journalists would be more credible if, instead, they were even interested in embracing a more complete approach to communicating authentic stories, rather than competing for the bloodiest image. It would be refreshing if journalists would recommit themselves to promoting the truth, as closely as they could, behind the images and numbers they present. In promoting this partial and often false knowledge, it is easy to inculcate a misguided sense of righteousness on both sides. In the search for truth, infographics, images, and numbers give only the illusion of knowledge. The real thing often looks quite different.

Gil Lavi is a writer and former Middle East news photographer who focuses in his work on the research of images, maps and graphics from the Middle East.

Originally published by Gatestone Institute 

WATER, DETROIT AND THE ESSENTIALS OF LIFE

by Brian T. Lynch, MSW

Recent news accounts of the massive water shut-offs by the City of Detroit has drawn national and international attention to this essential utility that we sometimes take for granted. Over 17,000 residents have had their water shut off in that city for non-payment. About 12% of the 90,000 Detroit utility customers are delinquent by more than 60 days, and nearly half of the water customers are behind in payments (the latter fact according to an LA Times report). Since April of this year the city has targeted shut offs for 4,000 residents per week who are $150 or more in arrears.

 
Image Credit: http://www.waterpurifier.org


The delinquency rates aren’t new. Detroit is a shrinking city with lots of poor residents left behind. The city is bankrupt. The aggressive enforcement measures towards those behind in their bill is new. City management official claim that the water and sewer utility has been plagued by corruption, incompetence and inadequate maintenance for decades, and is seriously in debt. The utility’s bond rating is Baa with $5.4 billion in bond obligations. Moody’s Financial Ratio Analysis places the utilities debt ratio at around 90%.

Detroit is currently run by an appointed emergency manager selected by the Governor under a controversial new Michigan law. The emergency manager supersedes all elected authority in the city and has nearly absolute power. Pressure to shut off delinquent residential water customers comes under his authority. 

 
The move to turn off the water is controversial on several levels. Delinquent commercial and industrial customers are apparently not being targeted for cut offs. Residents claim their bills are excessive and State assistance isn’t forthcoming with any assistance. Community organizations have appealed to the United Nations. The U.N. recognizes access to water as a basic human right and holds that it is a violation of human rights to cut off people who legitimately cannot pay. The Detroit authorities claim that many residents intentionally don’t pay water bills, thus contributing to the crisis, a claim that citizen advocacy groups deny. There are rumors that the municipal owned utility might be sold to a private company, raising suspicions that this has been the plan all along. The water shut off policy has lead to angry street protests.

To understand Detroit’s situation it is helpful to step back first and look more broadly at water utilities here and abroad. 

Water Utility Rates are on the Rise

An article last year by Brett Walton at the “Circle of Blue” reported that: “Water prices in 30 major U.S. cities again grew at a pace faster than inflation, according to Circle of Blue’s annual survey of water rates for single-family residential customers. Water prices increased an average of 6.7 percent in these metropolitan areas, a slower rate than in recent years but well above the 2.1 percent increase in the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics’ Consumer Price Index for 2012. The median increase in water prices was 6.2 percent.” 

A 2000 survey by the U.S. Census Bureau found that, “The average annual cost of water and waste water for a household that pays directly for service is $476 per year, ranging from $334 in Nebraska to $721 in Hawaii.” That figure works out to about $40 per month while an EPA website says: “American household spends, on average, only $523 per year on water and waste water charges… ” That works out to a U.S. average of $43.58 per month for water and sewer. 

In a recent USA TODAY article entitled “Nation’s water costs rushing higher” it was reported that: 

“While most Americans worry about gas and heating oil prices, water rates have surged in the past dozen years, according to a USA TODAY study of 100 municipalities. Prices at least doubled in more than a quarter of the locations and even tripled in a few.[snip] Monthly costs topped $50 for consumers in Atlanta, Seattle and San Diego who used 1,000 cubic feet of water, a typical residential consumption level in many areas.

There is also a water and sewer industry report prepared in 2012/2013 by Black and Veatch, a private firm. This report says the cost of water in Seattle, for example, was $8.19 per 1.000 gallons, not including the sewer charges. The combined monthly bill for sewer and water in Seattle was $177.93 per month for residential customers using 7,500 gallons, according to this report. 

Meanwhile in Detroit, according to the Black and Veatch report, the monthly water and combined sewer and water rates for residential customers using 7500 gallons per month was $24.12 and 70.89 respectively. So which figures are correct?

It turns out that water and sewer utility prices are deceptively difficult to understand or to compare from city to city. There are different units of measurement, different seasonal schedules, peak and off-peak metering and different rate structures. Also, in cities especially, water and sewer rates are separately billed but inseparable because water use is the measure of sewer use in most cases. Billing is combined. Sewer rates are generally higher, often double the water rates. Comparing water pricing without including sewer pricing can be very misleading. Finally, to get a full picture of a municipal utility overall, it is important to compare the rates for commercial water/sewer uses and the wholesale rates the utility charges industries.

An Apples to Apples Comparison
The table below directly compares the published water and sewer rates for Detroit and Seattle (converted to dollars/1,000 gallons). Seattle was selected for comparison because it was one of the cities mention in the USA Today article as having the highest rates. The data is from both city websites. 

At first look it appears that Seattle water and sewer prices are significantly higher than in Detroit. The average Seattle resident uses 3,740 gallons of water per month for a combined water/sewer bill of $112/mo. compared with $62/mo. in Detroit. But when you take a closer look you see that Seattle has a two tier residential rate. The published rate is for residents who can afford it while those families making less than 70% of the city’s median income receive a 50% discount. The discount only applies to low wage families who aren’t eligible for HUD (Section 8) federal assistance, and the municipal utility actively helps low wage customers apply for federal aid if eligible. They also have programs to help families conserve water and they have very flexible payment plans for any residents who fall behind according to the spokesperson with whom I talked. Shutting off water to a customer would not be considered for residents who owe less than around $1,000. 

Detroit, a city with a median family income 25% lower than Seattle, has flat rates. It offers no low income discounts. As a result, the average low income water/sewer bill in Detroit is higher than in Seattle. 

To complete the look at water and sewer utilities in these two cities it is important to compare rates for retail commercial and wholesale water customers as well. The information on the websites is a little more difficult to extract in this area. The graph below is my best attempt. 


What jumps out here is the different rate structures in these two cities. Commercial rates in Seattle are somewhat higher than in Detroit, the monthly minimum and maximum wholesale facility charges are significantly higher. Seattle also has a peek commercial water rate that is higher than off-peak to encourage conservation. Meanwhile the difference in the maximum and minimum facility charges in the two cities is 13 times and 38 times higher in Seattle. This suggests that there may be some latitude for Detroit to raise commercial and wholesale water/sewer utility rates to help offset the current financial short fall. Additionally, the Detroit utility could also consider raising residential rates for customers who can afford the increase and discounting rates for low wage earners, as Seattle does.

In the meantime, Detroit should look at the creative collection alternative already practiced in other states and try to find effective alternatives to shutting off water to so many of the residents they are honor bound serve. Access to water is an essential human right and cutting off resident from water should be a last resort. Just reviewing the rate structure suggests possibilities that may not have been considered yet.

A Global Perspective
How do U.S. water rate compare with the cost of water in other cities around the world?

The Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development ( OECD ) conducted two surveys of residential water tariffs in 1999 and in 2007-08, using a reference consumption of 15 cubic meters per household per month. The 2007-08 survey covered more than 150 cities in all 30 OECD member countries. The survey does not claim to be representative. The OECD survey was complemented by a survey of the industry information service Global Water Intelligence (GWI) conducted in 2007-2008 in parallel with the second OECD survey. The 2008 GWI survey covered 184 utilities in OECD countries and 94 utilities in non-OECD countries. GWI has repeated its survey every year from 2009 to 2012, increasing the number of utilities surveyed to 310 in 2012.

When you convert the OECE findings to US gallons the results indicate that the average water rate in the 310 global cities surveyed is $7.50/1,000 gallons. The range of water rates vary greatly from $0.11 per 1,000 gal. in Saudi Arabia, to $34.86 per 1,000 gal. in Denmark. Then there are also countries, such as Ireland, where water is delivered to households free of charge.

The benchmark for monthly water use in the OECD survey was 15 cubic meters per month, or 3,963 gallons per month, compared with 7,481 gallons per month in the United States. As the graph below shows, U.S. households use more water than do households in most other countries. In the examples above, the difference represents an 88% higher rate of water use in the U.S.

To complete the comparison it is important to acknowledge that higher volumes of water used per household in the US lowers the cost per gallon. In the USA TODAY article, greater conservation of water by customers was named as one of the reasons for higher water rates. When you factor in the average water use in the US with the benchmark estimate of average monthly use in the OECD study, residents in Atlanta, Seattle and San Diego are paying approximate $50 per month for water while residents in foreign cities are paying about $30 per month. 

If U.S. water consumption dropped to the lower global levels, residents in the cities mentioned above would pay about $27 dollars per month. However, lowering water use that much in the U.S. would significantly raise the cost per gallon. There are so many variables and assumptions in all of the underlying data that this is a rough guess. 

Keep in mind also that the cost of water for the data cited here is for cities, yet it isn’t clear if the figures given include sewer costs. The quality of sewer systems and their associated costs vary greatly, both nationally and across the globe. The best that we can gather from this very rough comparison, then, is the impression that current water rates in the U.S. are somewhat comparable with average global rates. 

Water is an essential part of our daily life and a human right. It is a finite resource that is growing in scarcity. Social and environment forces are combining to raise water prices everywhere. The trend in rising prices is likely to accelerate as U.S. water conservation become more essential to meet our basic water needs, and this article doesn’t even touch on agricultural where most of our water is used. With scarcity comes increased commercial opportunities and there will be growing pressure to privatize municipal water utilities for profit. Balancing commercial interests with human needs and human rights is a conversation we need to have. Increasing public awareness is critically important for our future and the media will need to do more and better reporting to inform the public.

July 4th – What I Celebrate

We are the first nation on Earth founded on principles of human government rather than tribe, race, religion, culture or any other accident of birth. That is what I celebrate today. I celebrate a nation that serves a richly diverse people, respecting the human rights of each person under a system of equal justice for all, while protecting us and promoting our common welfare according to the will of ordinary citizens. Today I do not celebrate this land, which I do love, or our great accomplishments, of which I am proud, but rather the principles on which we were founded. And if we find that we are not living up to those founding principles as best we should, this is the day to renew our commitment to live by those principle that truly define us as Americans.