Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Some Food for Thought

Over this holiday season I’ve been traveling around Tanzania with my sister who has been volunteering here as a health educator. Though she has been primarily working on HIV/AIDS issues, I of course have been more interested in how this particular African country has been dealing with waterborne diseases. And the fact of the matter is that – just as Tanzania’s economy is experiencing relatively solid growth while Mali is left watching on the sidelines - Tanzania is steadily improving its indicators of water and sanitation while my beloved Mali remains mired in stagnation and disease.

Statistics vary according to the respective methodologies of the World Health Organization, the Center for Disease Control, UNICEF, etc.; and public health statistics are notoriously difficult to measure in the hardly-functional states of sub-Saharan Africa. But the broad picture is clear; though health indicators in Tanzania remain generally abysmal, they are considerably less abysmal in Tanzania than in Mali. Here in Tanzania there is a significantly lower prevalence of diarrhea, giardia, dysentery and cholera; Tanzania has a lower prevalence of death by diarrheal disease, a lower infant mortality rate, a lower child mortality rate, and a slightly greater life expectancy overall.

And in many of the same reports, you will find that only 24 percent of Tanzanians have “access to adequate sanitation facilities” i.e. toilets or latrines. This statistic too is prone to wild estimation and subjectivity, but I think that it may be the most telling. A Westerner might look at this figure and read it to mean Tanzanian sanitation infrastructure is atrocious – I think that would be a fair statement – but they don’t know the meaning of atrocious until they read that only 1/6 of that fraction, a mere 4 percent of Malians have “access to adequate sanitation”. The blunt truth is that beyond the likes of Niger, Mauritania, Haiti, Afghanistan and the very nadir of the most-underdeveloped countries of the world, it is difficult to exceed the sheer disarray of sanitation in the Republic of Mali.

Confined to the realm of pure statistical analysis, one might be inclined to assume that that is the whole story; Tanzanians have more latrines and soak pits than Malians, latrines and soak pits reduce the chance of fecal contamination of the drinking water, therefore Tanzanians have less prevalence of giardia and dysentery and greater life expectancies than Malians. Q.E.D.

But there’s more to it than that. In addition to the existence of water and sanitation infrastructure of the lack thereof, the prevalence of diseases transmitted via the fecal-oral cycle is tied to sanitation practices. Loyal readers of this blog are probably familiar with the fact that Mali’s appalling prevalence of gastrointestinal disease is largely caused by the country’s traditions which entail that the people of that country clean their respective anuses with their respective left hands, they “wash” their hands before eating by mushing their left and right hands together in a tin can of water used by every member of the eating party, and then they eat from a communal food bowl with their respective right hands. Popular Tanzanian anal-cleansing and eating practices are not much better; they generally eat their corn ugali with their hands, very few ever adequately wash their hands with soap, and even fewer use toilet paper or a bidet.

However, there are a few subtle differences. Most notably, when Maasai herders “wash” their hands without soap, they don’t dip their hands into a container of increasingly-filthy water. Instead, the eating rituals of the Maasai culture involve the youngest boy bringing a pitcher of hot water to his elders and pouring it over their hands. Even if they’re not doing a very thorough job of washing their hands, at least they’re not making them even dirtier as the Miniankas are wont to do.

And even though the Maasai maintain the uncouth tradition of eating with their hands, they do not eat with their hands from a communal food bowl. You see, in addition to drinking tea and eating fried potato “chips”, Tanzanians adopted from their former British colonial overlords the practice of eating from individual plates. This – I believe – makes a world of a difference. Even if someone is going to eat ugali with fecal matter-tainted hands and unwittingly practice coprophagy, there is relatively little risk of contracting giardia, dysentery or cholera by ingesting one’s own fecal matter – if there are amoebas in your stools, then you already have amoebic dysentery. The only way to contract fecal-oral cycle-transmitted disease is to ingest someone else’s poo particles – a risk significantly downgraded by a culture that shifts from eating from one shared bowl of food to multiple, individualized bowls of food.

I can only assume that the hygienically-superior eating habits of Tanzanians and their hand-washing practices which at least are not counterproductive probably provide a partial explanation of why this society is significantly less mired in disease than the people of Mali. Of course, this hypothesis would be quite daunting to prove as 1) there is no control group; and 2) if compilations of data on disease prevalence are shaky and “access to adequate sanitation facilities” is much too subjective to ever be analyzed scientifically, any statistic like “the prevalence of adequate hygiene practices” is 100-percent subjective and therefore epidemiologically-useless.

Nevertheless, I suppose that the conclusions are quite clear: cultures that are receptive to amending their cultural practices at least stand a chance of improving their public health and their general standard of living. Conversely, cultures which exhibit little genuine interest in learning how to swim are more liable to sink. If the people of Mali want to sully their hands in each other’s filth and eat with their hands from the same food bowl, then they are going to remain forever mired in gastrointestinal disease.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Zac Mason in the News!

Two generations of Masons - one a doctor and the other an actual mason - are quoted in the New Canaan Patch on how this recession is taking a toll on the hopes and dreams of 20-somethings.

Though I want to clarify that I vehemently live in Vista, New York and not New Canaan, Connecticut as this article erroneously implies - my only tie to the place is that my dad works there.

And if any other foot soldiers in the reserve army of the unemployed are looking for career opportunities, the Peace Corps is always hiring!

Monday, December 6, 2010

Long Live the Existing Homes Tax Credit!

I will concede to my Republican friends that there are tax cuts which serve as such a strong incentive to potential consumers that they do stimulate economic activity. I will agree that Congress ought to extend these tax cuts in order to help small businesses weather this deep recession, to create jobs and to reduce the federal deficit – and that it is imperative that they extend these tax cuts as soon as possible so that they don’t expire with the coming new year. In fact, I think that these tax cuts ought to be made permanent.

I’m not talking about the Bush tax cuts, of course. Across-the-board reductions of the income tax rate for the very richest households are amongst the most ineffective job creation policies imaginable because they are absolutely unconditional to any sort of consumer spending, business investment or other job-creating activity. Moreover, these sorts of tax cuts are even more ineffective when they are showered upon those millionaires and billionaires who respond to incentives the least and are more likely to save their tax windfall than to spend or invest it. This is why few economists unaffiliated with the Heritage Foundation or Regent University will tell you that extending the Bush tax cuts to the year 2021 actually amounts to a cost-effective policy to promote economic growth – the CBO estimates that every $1 of the Bush tax cuts has generated only a piddling 40 cents of additional economic activity.

To find such solid growth-oriented and fiscally responsible tax incentives that are targeted towards the most incentive-responsive sectors of the economy, you would have to look at the understated Obama tax cuts embedded in the 2009 stimulus package. Among the most cost-effective growth-oriented policies conducted in recent years have been the extension of the Existing Homes Tax Credit tucked into the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009. This unarguably pragmatic plank of the stimulus package combined Keynesian spending in the form of $5 billion of grants to low-income homeowners and it increased from 10% to 30% for the cost of energy-efficient insulation, windows, roofing, heating, ventilation and cooling systems and with a maximum tax deduction of $1,500. Because these particular tax incentives were tax credits completely conditional on very specific species of investments, the Existing Homes Tax Credit was specifically-targeted to stimulate economic activity.

The Existing Home Tax Credit was a primary reason why my family decided to splurge $13,120 renovating our house with a new set of windows. In all honesty the Obama tax credit wasn’t the only reason why we made this large investment – also, I was really, really cold. You see, our home and all of its original windows were built in 1972 – a year when the Vietnam War was a-raging, Don McLean’s “American Pie” was at the top of the Billboard charts, Richard Nixon obliterated George McGovern in his re-election campaign and five Cuban men were arrested in an elaborate plot to bug the office of the Democratic National Committee. 1972 was also mere months before the OPEC embargo on the United States, the mother of all oil crises and the classical era of energy conservation.

38 years later the seals on our windows had broken, the wood frames had warped and in many places the entire panel had fallen off its tracks. In my room the windows had degraded so badly that I literally could not close them. My room had always been drafty through high school and college; in the summer this was never really so bad, but it was always a bit uncomfortable when the outside temperature had fallen below 30 degrees Fahrenheit. Now that my body is still struggling to adjust from the sweltering Malian Sahel, I felt that I could now submit to my father a quite-valid request to crank up the thermostat.

“For such an admirer of Jimmy Carter, you of all people should put on a sweater…”

“I am wearing a sweater – and a polar fleece and a jacket and a scarf and a hat. And when I sit in my room I can see my own breath. With all due respect to President Carter, our house in Vista is situated in a different climatic zone than his peanut farm in Plains, Georgia…”

And we agreed that maybe there exist even more effective, cost-efficient methods of heat retention than polar fleece. My dad and I gave an ample examination of each and every one of our house’s 25 windows and came to the conclusion that they were all past their expiration date. Every window in our house was broken beyond repair; the seals were broken, the cavities between the panes were full of condensation. The worst culprits were the bay windows along the wall of our dining room. Our heat vents were blowing 30 percent of our hot air right out the window! And likewise, since heating and cooling constitutes roughly half of our home energy consumption, at least $50 of the $341 we spend a month on our electric bill was being completely and unnecessarily wasted – we were throwing at least $600 out the window every year!

The root of the problem was in the fact that the original windows built in this house were made with wood frames. Wood can be fine for flooring, paneling, trim and furniture, but it is in many ways an archaic building material for window frames because wood warps, it cracks, it eventually decays and rots no matter how much protective varnish you paint it with. Even in a climate spared of termites, wooden windows are not meant to last much longer than a single generation in America (33 years in my family). If people want to live in homes made of wood that’s fine, but so long as the United States’ official housing policy is to promote home ownership, then we Americans have to grasp that home ownership entails the responsibility of conducting necessary maintenance, repairs, and gradual modernization – and if we are going to own houses made out of organic materials like wood then we have to continue more regular upkeep than we would if our houses were made solely out of concrete, brick, plastic and steel.

And just as it makes only perfect sense for our every next car be a hybrid or an electric, it’s time to make sure that we not let this crisis go to waste either. If we have to replace our windows, we are going to replace them with the most effective, the most durable, the highest quality windows on the market to cut down on the amount of energy we consume for heating and cooling. Maybe our Ben Affleck-aged, 2,400-square-foot house is too outdated to ever be LEED-certified, but we can at least remodel and renovate it into something that is significantly more energy-efficient, something that requires less consumption of fossil fuels and reduces our overall carbon footprint.

My dad decided to go with the recommendation of one of his friends and hired Thermo-Tite Windows – a small business of a few dozen employees based out of Port Chester, New York which sells the highest-graded window available on the market to private homeowners. Apparently, we learned that when we are buying new windows every 38 years or so we should ensure the quality of the products we purchase by checking the window performance rating issued by the National Fenestration Rating Council.

Every window worth its weight in sand should be affixed with an NFRC rating label detailing the following:

U-factor - which measures how much energy material conducts.
solar heat gain coefficient - which measures how well a product blocks heat cause by the sunlight.
visible transmittance - which measures how much visible light comes through the glass.
condensation resistance –which measures the window’s ability to resist condensation on the interior surface.

The problem with our 38-year-old double-paned windows was that all that sat between those panes was gas composed of the natural ratio between nitrogen, oxygen, water vapor, carbon dioxide and argon found in Earth’s atmosphere.

“What is argon?” you might ask. Argon is a noble gas, element number 18. People usually do not give it much notice unless they are either engaged in the business of poultry asphyxiation, graphite production, titanium processing, filling up fluorescent light bulbs or windows. But people should give this noble gas the credit that it is due. Coming in third after only nitrogen (78.09%) and oxygen (20.95%), argon gas constitutes approximately 0.93% of the volume of Earth’s atmosphere; coming in fourth is the most prevalent greenhouse gas – carbon dioxide – which constitutes a mere 0.039%. Argon gas exhibits certain properties which allow us humans to utilize it in our manufacturing of windows in a way that reduces the prevalence of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases we pump into our atmosphere.

In vintage Genesis-with-Peter Gabriel-Era windows like the ones we had in our house, naturally-occurring argon gas usually constitutes only 0.93% of the insulation. That’s a terrible waste of that fraction of that millimeter of space between the two panes of glass that could be easily filled with a plurality of argon gas – which conducts heat less efficiently than nitrogen or oxygen. When the Mason family’s climate-controlled home interior is set to 68 degrees and the portion of the atmosphere directly adjacent to the windows is 34 degrees, the basic laws of thermodynamics entail that heat will gradually transfer from the portion of the atmosphere inside our house to the atmosphere outside of our house. Hence despite the fact that we were setting our thermostat and consuming enough energy to heat the house to 68 degrees it felt closer to 58 or even 48 right next to the windows.

Now in the 2010s the Thermo-Tite Window Company is mass-marketing double-paned windows with enhanced argon content of the slight cavity between the two panes. Gaseous argon allows for significantly less heat conduction than gaseous nitrogen or oxygen – so the greater the ratios of argon to nitrogen and argon to oxygen in a given gaseous mixture, the slower it will conduct heat. Compared to windows filled with naturally-composed dry air, this argon-enhanced double-pane window reduces heat conductivity by roughly 30 percent.

In a temperate climate like New York, most families consume approximately 864 kilowatt/hours of energy and spend $95 month air-conditioning their home from May through August. Since heat can also be conducted from the hot summer air outside through your windows to the air-conditioned interior, windows like my old Thermopanes with a high U-factor are wasting about 30 percent of that energy or $29 of their monthly electric bills on air-conditioning which also effectively is lost through the windows. And those are only the economic windfalls of the windows’ reduced heat conductivity!

Argon-filled Thermo-Tite Windows also receive such high performance ratings from the National Fenestration Rating Council because of their solar heat gain coefficient, their visible transmittance, and the windows’ condensation resistance. These factors are also beneficial to my household’s bottom line, because homes are also inadvertently heated by the sunlight which passes through the double-paned windows – so windows marked by higher solar heat gain coefficients and lower visible transmittance are heated by unwanted solar radiation during the months when families are cranking the AC. A New York household that uses a central air conditioner 8 hours a day could reduce the amount of heat coming into their house via solar radiation and reduce the amount of energy that their air conditioning system needs to bring the house to their designated temperature.

In layman’s terms, Thermo-Tite’s windows are framed with special insulating fiberglass which reduces the chance of condensation forming on the inside of the two panes. Thermo-Tite’s silver oxide-coated windows reduce the amount of solar radiation that passes through the glass panes and argon cavity – and this reduces the amount of energy consumed on cooling houses in the summer, which is much less than that lost by conduction but a considerable amount of energy nonetheless. With such slight technological improvements in manufacturing these windows from making the frames out of durable steel, plastic and fiberglass instead of wood, coating the glass with silver dioxide and filling the space between the two panes with concentrated argon gas, we can prevent so much wasted energy consumption on cooling by about 30 to 35 percent. In New York we consume a much greater percentage of our annual energy bill on heating than cooling in comparison to a household in Texas or Arizona, but over the months and years the costs add up nonetheless.

Altogether, New Yorkers typically spend 50 percent of their overall utility bills - roughly $4,000 - on heating and air-conditioning. So if there is any way that we can reduce the amount of energy we consume on heating and air-conditioning our homes – even by just a fraction, it can eventually adds up to hundreds if not thousands of dollars in savings every year. That means that if the average family in New York were to replace their outdated air-filled double-paned windows with energy-efficient argon-filled double-panes, they could save an average $600 each year on their electric bills. So by investing in more energy-efficient windows and reducing their consumption of fossil-fuel-generated electricity, that average family in New York would save themselves the equivalent of their much-heralded rebate from the 2001 Bush tax cuts every single year from now until they move out of their current home.

More money saved on utility bills is more money the pockets of consumers – in terms of economic behavior, savings on utility bills has supply-side effects on consumer spending no less than a check in the mail from the U.S. Treasury. If anything, it is more effective than the ostentatiously-marketed supply-side stimulus of the Bush tax cuts because people are less likely to notice the money saved and put it in the bank and more likely to go out and spend it on better-quality food at the supermarket, a new jacket at the department store, dinner and a movie with their girlfriend or a round of beers for all of their friends at the bar. Instead of spending money on oil imported from the Middle East, people who improve the energy-efficiency of their homes are now freed to spend that money on goods and services produced here in the United States.

A free market purist would argue that every consumer in America should simply be educated about the economics of energy consumption and the science of argon-filled windows and they should be able to decide upon such a clearly money-saving investment by their own reason and free will. Maybe my parents would have replaced the drafty windows in my room simply because it was so cold that I could see my breath at night. But what really prodded them to make this decision was the Obama administration’s $1,500 home weatherization tax credit.

After my dad and I inspected all of our broken, leaking 38-year-old windows, we did the math and calculated that to hire Thermo-Tite to replace every one of them would cost $13,120. But thanks to the tax credit, it would really only cost us $11,620 – still a significant sum, but a much more manageable one. Though we live in a relatively large 2,400-square-foot house, so we consume more energy on climatisation. by investing in more energy-efficient windows alone we should save approximately $50 month on our electric bills

Thanks to the Obama administration’s tax credit, we decided to pay Thermo-Tite Windows for $13,120 worth of argon-filled double-pane windows, insulated frames and installation. Our $13,120 went towards the windows themselves – which were manufactured in New Jersey, the Thermo-Tite company headquartered in Port Chester, New York, and the subcontracted carpenters who live throughout the Hudson Valley. And when the work was done we gave each one of the carpenters a $20 tip. The home weatherization tax credit spurred us to take $13,220 that would have otherwise laid fallow in the bank and to spend it on goods and services right here at home.

…And those window manufacturers in New Jersey and the management in Port Chester and the carpenters from Wappinger’s Falls are going to take the money they earned from us and spend it at the supermarket, at the movie theater, on Christmas gifts for their wives and their children. And that money in the pockets of working class households who need it the most is going to create more demand for more goods and more services and more jobs as it continues circulating and multiplying throughout the economy. From personal observation, I can tell you that the Existing Homes Tax Credit was the deciding factor in my family’s decision to put $13,220 into the economy – and all of this additional spending cost the U.S. Treasury only $1,500 in tax deductions. And the window-makers, carpenters and management are going to pay more income taxes, that extra money circulating and multiplying is going to generate sales taxes, thus the federal and state governments are going to reduce their deficits with more tax revenue.

The grant and tax incentive policies have received criticism over the past year as they have grossly underperformed the Obama administration benchmark of weatherizing 600,000 homes by March 2010. Vice President Biden came to in Manchester, New Hampshire to celebrate the weatherization of the 200,000th home on August 27th. At the current trajectory, the Energy Department will probably announce the 600,000th home improvement paid for with the Weatherization Assistance Program sometime in the sequel Recovery Summer 2011.

A March 2010 article by Garance Burke in the Boston Globe panned the weatherization measures of the Obama stimulus, noting that a year after the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act was signed by President Obama “the stimulus program has retrofitted 30,250 homes – about 5 percent of the overall goal – and fallen well short of the 87,000 jobs that the department planned.” Burke emphasized individual instances of inactivity as poster-children for the WAP grants’ ineffectuality;

“In Indiana, state-trained workers flubbed insulation jobs. In Alaska, Wyoming and the District of Columbia, the program has yet to produce a single job or retrofit one home. And in California, a state with nearly 37 million residents, the program at last count had created 84 jobs.”
Burke and other critics are correct to point out the inconvenient truth that this one of the Obama administration’s signature job creation policies has lagged in meeting its expectations on time. However, they are misguided in asserting that this lag in job creation has been due to any inherent fault in the structure of the Weatherization Assistance Program or the extension of the Existing Homes Tax Credit. One of the primary reasons why the home weatherization policies have yet to live up to the Obama administration’s projected job creation numbers has been because the Recovery Act was designed so that most of the stimulus funds would be spent by the individual states – and for one reason or another, the individual states have not administered the home weatherization programs that these grants are meant to fund.

The weatherization program has underperformed nationally because it has underperformed disproportionately in states like Alaska, Texas, Mississippi, Louisiana and South Carolina where the rock-ribbed Republican state governments are ideologically opposed to implementing President Obama’s stimulus policy. "We can't accept the bait," said Sarah Palin - then-Governor of Alaska. "It's a bribe - it's 'here, take these dollars - but you gotta grow your government.'" In addition to federal grants to pay for home weatherization, Governor Palin rejected energy efficiency grants, immunizations, air quality grants, emergency food assistance, homeless grants, senior meals, child care development grants, nutrition programs, homeless grants, arts, unemployment services, air quality, justice assistance grants and other programs allocated to Alaska. Surely if we are to caste blame for the disappointing track record of the home weatherization grants and tax credits in states like Alaska, Texas, Mississippi, Louisiana and South Carolina, we should be pointing our fingers at GOP Governors like Sarah Palin, Rick Perry, Haley Barbour, Bobby Jindal and Mark Sanford who have sacrificed the weatherization grants which would greatly benefit their constituents on the altars of national ticket ambitions.

Other states like California have fared so badly implementing their share of the Recovery Act’s stimulus funds because not because their Governors were more interested in political grandstanding but because their hands have been tied by sheer political gridlock. Though Governor Schwarzenegger had been an outspoken proponent of the Obama administration’s home weatherization policies in his state, California has been largely unable to implement stimulus projects because the state government is undergoing such a budget crisis has slashed public employees to such austere extremes – Governor Schwarzenegger has asked state employees to take voluntary “Furlough Fridays” – that the state can hardly cash their Weatherization Assistance Program grants let alone establish and conduct a brand new state housing program.

However, the opposite is true in Massachusetts – which is perfectly on schedule with spending its $122 million in WAP grants by the U.S. Energy Department’s March 2012 deadline. As of May, the Commonwealth had insulated 2,845 units of private housing, employing 42 new contractors and 220 new installers. The Massachusetts Department of Housing and Community Development has also awarded more than $10 million to 20 local housing authorities to weatherize the state’s 50,000 public housing units and replace their outdated, inefficient heating systems – with material procurement and installation happening as you read this blog. The primary reason why the Obama administration’s weatherization grants have been so consequential in Massachusetts while they have been faltering elsewhere is that under Governor Deval Patrick Massachusetts already had a established a functioning home weatherization program of its own albeit with a much smaller budget. When the Recovery Act’s WAP grants were allocated to the respective state governments, Massachusetts did not have to waste time with HR issues and was able to hit the ground running.

The Weatherization Assistance Program has yet to meet its job creation in the immediate short run perhaps because state-administered home weatherization programs are not as “shovel-ready” as federal highway spending or aid to the states to retain public school teachers, police officers. Nevertheless, as of Joe Biden’s August commemoration of the 200,000th weatherization of a private home with federal stimulus dollars, despite the delays and setbacks experienced in some of the largest states, this program had created approximately 13,000 jobs for plumbers, carpenters, electricians, welders and other assorted craftsmen. As states are picking up the pace, tens of thousands more jobs are projected to be generated by the modest $5 billion Weatherization Assistance Program.

An unfortunate matter for the Obama administration and other cheerleaders of Keynesian spending is that there exists hardly an iota of data available on the Existing Home Tax Credit for economists and public policy experts to parse. Homeowners were only able to begin making tax deductions on money they invested in energy-efficient retrofitting beginning as of Tax Day 2010 – so it would be fair to say that with the notable exception of professional policy analysts the vast majority of taxpayers did not feel this incentive until this year. Until we have conclusive numbers from the Departments of Treasury on how many people actually took this tax deduction, we can’t really know how much it costs because its expenditure is perfectly conditional on the degree to which people respond to this incentive, until we have employment statistics through December we can’t know how many jobs it created, and until we have statistics from the Department of Energy we can’t project how much they are going to reduce U.S. energy consumption and emission of greenhouse gases.

This whole matter of home weatherization is anything but a campaign of feel-good activism – it is a serious policy to spur economic growth and recovery. As far as tax cuts go, the Existing Homes Tax Credit is remarkably cost-efficient because there are no public monies being wasted on just throwing tax cuts at everyone with the hope that some of it might stick. The carrot of the tax credit is perfectly contingent on actual spending, so if you weatherize your house and actually put money into the economy you receive a tax credit, if you don’t you get nothing and the deficit is no worse as a result. No public monies are frittered on idle speculation, stagnant saving or wasteful consumption– the cost to the Treasury of this particular tax credit is directly offset by consumer investment which stimulates demand for domestically-produced goods and services and spurs employment for working class and middle class Americans. Since home heating and cooling costs are disproportionate strains on the pocketbooks of those working class and middle class families who can afford them the least, this tax credit is remarkably progressive – while at the same it remains egalitarian as higher-income families like my own can benefit from saving on energy bills all the same.

If my parents were to live in this house indefinitely then their investment in energy efficiency would pay for itself with savings on home heating and cooling bills after approximately 19 years; assuming that my parents still live in this house into their 70s then sometime around the year 2029 they would have an additional $4,800 every year to splurge on vacation, invest on the stock market, tuck away in their savings account, or do whatever their hearts desire with the windfall of real energy savings. Though by that time they Dan and Sue Mason will more likely have sold their present house and retired to Vermont or the Berkshires; they will nevertheless benefit because they will be able to sell this property for a higher price – not because of idle speculation on the real estate market but because they have invested in the real value of their home. Whichever way you look at it, the home weatherization tax credit will in the long run foster greater savings, investment and spending on goods and services produced in America, it could help revive the real value of property on the real estate market and should be a boon to the financial interests of homeowners, landlords and renters alike.

However, like the Bush tax cuts the extension of the Existing Homes Tax Credit is set to expire on December 31st of this year. Rich Neale, a sales representative for Thermo-Tite Windows says “We’ll still have jobs here and there, but a good portion of our business comes from customers are deciding to weatherize their windows solely because of the tax incentive. We’re afraid that at the end of the year our business is going to dry up.”

As Congress deliberates on which tax cuts to extend and which to let expire, the Existing Homes Tax Credit must not be overlooked. This directly targeted tax incentive stimulates economic activity and fosters job creation more cost-effectively than blanket reductions of the income tax, capital gains and dividends tax, and especially the inheritance tax. Moreover, these tax credits estimated to be valued in the hundreds of millions of dollars and their $5 billion public spending counterparts are relatively modest and affordable. Not all tax cuts serve as incentives for private sector growth the same way, some tax cuts are simply better fiscal policies than others, and there is no compelling economic argument that the gargantuan, ineffective, regressive boondoggles of the Bush tax cuts should be renewed but the modest, cost-effective, job-creating Existing Homes Tax Credit should be allowed to expire.

From my perspective, this is a no-brainer.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

The Future is Here

Now that the clunker of a Jeep Wrangler has been traded for a hyper-efficient Toyota Prius, I’ve been in awe of modern Japanese technology. Being eternally vigilant of keeping my smug emissions to a minimum, I can only heap praise upon the ultra-light, aerodynamic, hybrid-electric which stands as the most fuel-efficient gasoline-consuming automobile ever mass-produced thusfar in the history of human civilization.

It is a pleasure to drive, the built-in GPS and rear-monitor make driving and parking incredibly easier, and with an average of 48 miles per gallon on highways and 51 miles per gallon in cities I hardly ever have to fill up for gas. When I drove the Wrangler I could hardly drive from Vista to Vermont without having to fill the tank, but on a recent road trip I was able to drive the Prius from Amherst, Massachusetts to Alexandria, Virginia – a total of 8.5 hours and 401 miles – without having to stop for gas! And if that weren’t good enough, it only cost me $29 because the Prius gas tank is so small to begin with! Forget about carbon emissions; the expense of this car will eventually pay for itself in savings on gasoline consumption!

Though it is the most fuel-efficient car on the market, the Prius isn’t necessarily the superlative most cost-efficient when it comes to fuel consumption. Though the Prius II gets 48/51 miles per gallon it costs a whopping $22,800 – whereas the Honda Civic gets a mere 40/43 mpg it also costs only $15,800. Of course, if private consumers as well as policymakers in business and government are trying to figure out ways of minimizing CO2 emissions, they should focus more on those models that can reduce fuel consumption the most cost-efficiently. Hybrid vehicles are only going to be practical solutions to the macroeconomic issues of air pollution and climate change when they are sold at a price that not just the sons of doctors and real estate brokers but also middle-class and working-class consumers can afford such an unwieldy investment.

So the other day I was driving around doing errands when I stopped in a parking garage and saw something which put my puny Prius to shame: a Tesla Roadster.

I was just dumbstruck standing there for what must’ve been five minutes admiring this beautiful, sleek and unarguably sexy car as though it were Lea Michele posing there in the parking garage in lingerie and stilettos… (drool)…

And this Jamaican delivery guy parks next to me, sees me and laughs a good hearty belly laugh, “Ho ho ho! Dis electreec ca! De man paks his electreec ca hea every day! It ees de Futah!”

“Yeah… I know…”

“You know how much money I spen’ on gas? Hundreds and hundreds o’ dollas every week! If I had an electreec ca I could deeliver my packages and not spend no money! I’d just plug eet in and feell eet with electreecity!”

And for the rest of the day, I couldn’t help but think of that Jamaican dude in the parking garage. In all probability this guy making $15,000-$20,000 a year can’t afford to go out and buy a Tesla Roadster. And he’s probably not in line to buy one of the first Chevy Volts for $32,780 or one of the Nissan Leafs for $25,280. But what if one day five, ten, twenty years from now the Volt or the Leaf or one of their progeny is produced on such a scale that he can afford to buy one?

These electric cars are being marketed as being able to run on $1.50 worth of electricity per day. If you can charge your car up at home or at the office then the cost would just be added to your overall utility bill – but a great deal of commuters who need to drive long distances every day would need to be able to recharge at private recharging stations en route. A small business owner like a package deliverer, a carpenter, a cable repairman or Joe the Plumber who drives from house to house for business might have to recharge multiple times every work day! And of course, no country has ever had a full-scale economy of electric-charging stations and we can only speculate as to how this hypothetical market is going to function.

But could the recharging of electric cars really cost only $1.50 per day – even for someone like the Jamaican delivery guy whose job consists of driving around town all day long? And wouldn’t charging a commuter fleet only be adding to the burden of our already-strained electric grids? Maybe in a market along the swaths of California, Nevada, Arizona and Texas desert that will soon be electrified exclusively with solar and wind energy a fleet of electric cars could have a miniscule carbon footprint - but here in New York where so much of our electricity is derived from oil, coal and gas of course electric cars would only have a marginal effect on reducing our greenhouse emissions for staving off the most disastrous global climate change. Electric cars could have only modest improvements on our environmental degradation in a cloudy region like New York without a massive reinvention of our energy grid - which for now remains untold generations away, so they can really only be rationally superior products in this market if they offer genuine economic benefits in terms of saving on transportation costs.

I must concede my own ignorance on the matter – and beseech you all in the peanut gallery for some answers. At the moment I’m only tangentially interested in electric cars in terms of air pollution or carbon emissions – I'm much more interested in the potential for electric cars to improve the traditional indicators in our economy. If a typical commuter who drives from, say, the suburbs of Westchester County to Madison Avenue five days a week were to drive a Tesla Roadster, a Chevy Volt or a Nissan Leaf, how much money would he be saving on gas? In the case of the Jamaican delivery guy who is driving not just as a commuter but as an operating cost of his business, how lucrative would his investment in a Volt be over the course of 10 years? Is this fuel-saving technology something that could help small businesses stay afloat in this perilous economy – and if so, to what degree? Could it help small and large firms save so much money on gas that they could actually afford to invest and expand their production and start making new hires? And considering that many of these cars are going to be manufactured here in the United States and they will be using less Middle Eastern oil, how will the growth of electric cars effect our trade deficits? Can the gradual conversion from a fleet of gasoline-fueled cars and trucks to vehicles powered by electric batteries contribute to the overall solvency of the United States economy?

If any of you can find any good data on the economic benefits of electric cars – or even just personal anecdotes or musings on your own household budget, I would much appreciate it. Here’s to making Zacstravaganza more of a two-way conversation in the new year!

Monday, November 22, 2010

$20 and a Goat

(With my apologies to those who already know it ends, I have recently rewritten what remains perhaps the greatest story that has ever happened in the history of Zachary Asher Mason. The Assassination of James Brown is now my case for why I want to go to law school to study property, torts and international law. At the very least, I'd like to hope that it makes my application a memorable read.)

While I served as a Peace Corps Volunteer in the African nation of Mali, I found that “property” and “property rights” were very nebulous concepts. Every man in the Minianka tribe with whom I lived had his own plot of land over which he had exclusive claim to farm – but the fields were demarcated only by the whims of the village chief. Every man was the undisputable owner of the millet he harvested – but the Miniankas believe that it is every man’s obligation to share his food with his fellow clansmen. Property rights did exist in Minianka culture, but if one man had it and another man believed that he deserved it then who had the right to use that property was up for debate.

My interest in the law was piqued when a twist of fate required that I argue a case of property rights before the Minianka tribal elders. I came to the elder council believing that the facts of my case were very straightforward; I owned a cat upon which I bestowed the name James, and this cat was my sovereign property. One night my cat ventured beyond the realm of my chain-link fence and scaled the wall of the clinic across the street. At this clinic stood a night watchman armed with a shotgun to deter the theft of the village’s valuable stores of medicine, and he had a history of abusing his position by shooting neighborhood cats and feeding them to his deeply-impoverished, malnourished family. This one night the watchman decided to shoot my cat James, chop its head off, skin it and feed it to his family for dinner.

Upon discovering this act the next morning, I considered myself a victim of great wrongdoing and demanded restitution. In Minianka society it was considered a greater affront than the crime itself for one to press charges with the formal law enforcement agencies, for after 80 years of Colonialism and 32 years of dictatorship this culture has nurtured a deep-seated distrust of the state. Instead, the Miniankas resolve all of their conflicts within the informal system of the chief of the village and the traditional elder council. And so I petitioned the chief of the village for a redress of my grievances. My argument came in two parts.

As for the charge of livestock theft, I based my claim on the facts that my cat was an article of livestock property and that I had paid 10,000 francs for this cat and its vaccinations. I argued that since the night watchman killed the cat and ate it, he was thereby unable to return my cat in its original form and thus he had violated my sovereign property rights. Therefore, I contended, the night watchman should pay me 10,000 francs so that I could buy and vaccinate a new cat to replace the one he had destroyed.

Moreover, I contended that the night watchman had committed reckless endangerment by discharging a Colonial-era musket mere meters from the garden where I was then sleeping in my tent. I was concerned that if he had missed my cat he might have hit me with a bullet from his highly inaccurate musket. I made the case that I would not be content with a mere financial settlement equivalent to the property that I had lost, for I was concerned that on a later date the night watchman might be perfectly content to shoot at another cat and simply pay me after the fact. Since I did not press formal criminal charges before the Commandant, I demanded that the night watchman also pay me a goat in civil damages.

In the traditional Minianka legal system the defendant is entitled to make his argument too, and in this case the defendant asserted a novel defense. The night watchman conceded that he did in fact kill my cat, but he argued that he had no choice. “Evil sorcerers cast black magic spells to curse people with sickness, and evil sorcerers can take the form of animals”, he reasoned, “and so when I saw this cat approach the clinic wall, I had no means of knowing whether or not it was an evil sorcerer disguised as a cat. Therefore, as I was afraid for my own life, I determined that I had no choice but to shoot this cat as an act of self-defense.”

The village chief found in my favor for my claim for restitution for my property, but he acquitted the night watchman under the charge of reckless endangerment; “The night watchman raises a good point; what if your cat had been an evil sorcerer?” I erred in the way that I formed my case because I articulated an entirely Western sense of justice, and I did not consider that the village chief himself was a product of a society that is sincerely afraid of witchcraft.

Despite the fact that my first experience arguing a case resulted in such a disappointing verdict, I came away more determined than ever to pursue a career in law. Knowing what it means to suffer a loss, I want to be able to defend people’s property rights in a modern court of law. Now that I know the true meaning of injustice, I want to be able to right these kinds of wrongs and make such an airtight case that not even the most partial judge could reject it.

In particular, I intend to study international law so that I can represent American citizens and firms conducting business overseas. When Americans are in foreign countries to do work, at some point they are going to have to write contracts and obtain licenses from the pertinent regulatory agencies. As I have learned from personal experience, when disputes arise with host country nationals American firms are going to need legal representation to make their case before foreign tribunals within the framework of the local laws, customs and beliefs. That is why I would like to study the principles of justice as they are codified in the laws of the United States and be able to compare them to the laws of the State of Qatar, the Kingdom of Morocco and the Islamic Republic of Pakistan – as well as the customs of societies like the Miniankas who resolve their conflicts through informal institutions.

I want to pursue a career in law because I hope to be able to use my legal education in countries like Mali not just to protect American expatriates’ property in their beloved cats but to also protect Bambara farmers’ property in goats and Fulani pastoralists’ savings in cattle. The law must protect property rights in order to facilitate business growth and development in countries like Mali not just so that Americans can profit – but also so that people like the night watchman might be able to afford to buy more food, medicine and clothing for their families. I hope that I can use the power of the law to advance the cause of justice, because the sound practice of law should protect the rights of all property owners and foster an economy that thrives to such an extent that no family goes malnourished.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Water Sanitation Begins at Home

After spending two years working to develop water and wastewater infrastructure in Mali, I have been back in New York for two months and have learned to see the place that I call home in a brand new light. People often ask me how I am adjusting back to America, and if I don’t have time for a real conversation I tell them “It’s really cold!” or “I really enjoy going to the supermarket!” But if you have the time to listen, I would like to share with you how after everything I’ve seen and done in the most underdeveloped corners of Africa, being back in America is in some ways quite unsettling – I would be dishonest if I didn’t tell you that I am thoroughly disappointed with my local tribe and clan.

In Mali I lived amongst a society of isolated, impoverished, unlettered farmers who have spent the past however-many millennia suffering and dying from completely preventable giardia and dysentery. I would go to a Minianka family’s house and see that they arranged their compost pile full of donkey manure only a few meters from the uncovered well from which they drew all of their drinking water, or that they had dug their well on one side of a mud-brick wall and that on the other side of that wall the neighboring family had built a latrine. I will admit that in moments of weakness I sometimes succumbed to pejorative views of the local culture – I thought that my community’s nonchalance, disinterest and at times visceral resistance to modern methods of sanitation were exclusive to the Minianka tribe. I would share these frustrations in letters to my friends back home and they would express their disbelief; one wrote back “My dog and your cat understand that they shouldn’t shit in their drinking water – how is it that these people haven’t figured out such a basic instinct of animal survival?”

Now that I’m back in America I can rest assured that the people of my home country aren’t simply pulling down their pants and defecating in the streets like many did in Sanadougou, and just about everyone in New York can tap water from groundwater wells or municipal water grids with indoor plumbing systems in the comfort of their kitchens. But apparently even in the supposedly-developed West, in the wealthiest corners of the wealthiest states in the wealthiest country in the history of human civilization, even my fellow tribesmen have yet to act on the basic truth that my friend’s dog and my cat grasped so well.

This rude awakening came to my attention when I visited my friend at her home here in South Salem, New York and asked for a drink of water – and she proceeded to take a bottle of Poland Spring out of the refrigerator.

“That’s not necessary – I prefer tap water.”

“No, actually it is necessary.” my friend explained, “Our tap water is unpotable!”

I was dumbfounded. “You mean to tell me that I just spent two years working to bring potable drinking water to an obscure tribe in a remote corner of Africa – but here in New York we can’t drink the water?”

“I’m afraid so. Give it a taste.”

I filled a glass with water from the sink, took a sip and spit it out in disgust. “This water is so salty it tastes like contact lens solution!”

“That’s because our chloride levels are off the charts! I’m pretty sure that it’s because in 2008 the Town of Lewisboro discontinued the use of sodium chloride to de-ice the roads during the winter, so beginning in the winter of 2008-2009 they started using magnesium chloride under the reasoning that it is less harmful to the environment. However, magnesium chloride is only half as effective in reducing ice as sodium chloride – so they had to use twice as much.”

She pointed out the window, “If you see right there – that’s our well, and it’s only a few meters away from the road. So when the snow and ice melt, much of the magnesium chloride flows downhill as runoff and then percolates down to the groundwater – the groundwater our well pumps up as our drinking water. Our chloride levels went through the roof – that’s why our water is so salty! ”

My friend explained that she started going to the supermarket to buy bottled water in bulk – but she needed to transport such an unwieldy mass of water every week, soon she found herself having to go to the supermarket every three or four days that she and her husband realized that they needed a more practical long-run solution. They signed up for Nestlé Waters to deliver five 5-gallon bottles of Poland Spring to their door every month for $39.95. Even though they are paying taxes to the Town of Lewisboro to ensure clean water – and de-ice the roads – they also to pay $479.40 every year to Nestlé Waters in recurring water expenses.

My friends in South Salem have to use Poland Spring not just every time that they want to drink a cup of water, but every time they make a pot of coffee and every time they cook spaghetti and every time they brush their teeth. Their dishwasher was leaving white saline residues on their dishes, it was corroding their stainless steel knives – and dishwashers can only operate with tap water, so if they didn't buy a water softener they would have to do their dishes by hand with Poland Spring.

The tap water is so salty here in this neighborhood that it can only be used for bathing, washing clothes, flushing the toilet and irrigating the lawn and garden. Though in all fairness, perhaps the drinking water supply in South Salem is not as bad as the foul wells my erstwhile neighbors drank from in Sanadougou in that at least it isn’t soiled with fecal matter. But that’s a lot more than they can say in Amherst, Massachusetts…

I recently drove up to my old college town to say hello to some old friends, including my Professor Jessica Wolpaw Reyes. If there is anyone in America who understands the value of clean water, it would be Professor Reyes; she is an economist specializing in the niche subjects of environmental economics, the economics of water and health and how these subjects intertwine. In fact, she has been making waves with a seminal paper in which she linked the levels of lead in the drinking water to crime rates. Her latest research is concerned with the adverse health effects of plastic packaging of food and beverages.

When I arrived at the Reyes’ household, I was surprised to watch my Professor open up the fridge and serve her kids from a plastic jug of Poland Spring. “Isn’t the conclusion of your next paper that we should stop drinking plastic-bottled water?”

“Yes, it is pretty terrible and I would certainly prefer not to, but my choices are limited. The town just discovered E. coli and fecal coliform in the drinking water, so unless I am going to boil or chlorinate every last drop of tap water we use to drink and cook and clean the dishes – which is quite impractical, frankly – I have no choice but to buy bottled. As much as drinking from plastic bottles might cause some forms of disease in the long run, at least it won’t cause immediate gastroenteritis…”

“… So you’re telling me that the municipal drinking water supply is contaminated with fecal matterhere in Amherst, Massachusetts…?”

“That’s precisely what I’m telling you. If you thought that these problems were exclusive to Africa, then you have a lot to learn about the sorry state of water policy in America.”

It turns out that the presence of E. coli and coliform in the Amherst water supply was probably fostered by three successive water main breaks over the course of October. Since these breaks were located fairly close to the water treatment plant they leaked vast quantities of chlorinated water, and as chlorine kills bacteria and microorganisms it breaks down itself, so as the newly-chlorinated water was flowing out of the broken mains chlorine levels in the later segments of the municipal water grid dropped to such low concentrations that E. coli and fecal coliform cultures could flourish unabated.

Just as a chain is only as strong as its weakest link, the quality of water provided by a given plumbing system is only as reliable as its weakest pipe. All there needs to be is one single pipe which over the years (or only months) of chemical or physical duress has degraded to such a degree that it can no longer withstand the pressure of the water being pumped through it; eventually cracks form and the pipe will begin to leak. The pressure at the end of a hydraulic system is contingent on there being a constant volume of water inside, so if water is coming out at multiple apertures, pressure will drop accordingly. If there’s just a tiny little trickle at the end of a remote line, water pressure will reduce somewhat and water quality will decline – but in the grand scheme of things that’s not so terrible. What’s terrible is when a plumbing system has cracked in so many places or there’s one break so big that water is gushing out in such massive volumes that the pressure of the hydraulic system plummets so low that it becomes negative.

Negative pressure means that instead of pushing out the hydraulic system will be sucking in – usually air, which leads to rust buildup. This is what happened with the solar water pump-to-tap system we renovated in Sanadougou; the pipes were so damaged that water pressure was usually so insufficient that one could hardly get any water from the taps, and when the water did come it was so discolored and bad-tasting that no one wanted to drink it. If a plumbing system marked by leaking pipes and negative pressure were surrounded by nothing but air, it would probably be contaminated with only iron, manganese and iron bacteria – which is certainly bad, but it’s not the superlative worst thing that could happen to the water supply.

Off the top of my head, I can’t think of any kind of water that I would be less enthusiastic about drinking than water contaminated with fecal matter. Writing from personal experience, take it from me that E. coli, coliform, giardia cysts and amoebas rank among the bottom of things that you ever want to down in your water glass. Okay… Vibrio cholerae would be worse – though I have no personal experience with cholera to serve as a reference point… Mercury, selenium, plutonium would be much worse – but these kinds of high-tech pollution are fairly complicated, and to be frank we Americans are nowhere near close to mastering even the basics of sanitation so for now I’ll just stick to the fundamentals; e.g. how to keep shit out of our drinking water supply.

Likewise, the most immediate problems of water sanitation are related to the fact that the water mains transporting potable drinking water from the treatment plant aren’t the only pieces of infrastructure that break. Just as water mains corrode and crack, so do the outflow pipes transmitting blackwater from toilets and greywater from sinks and washing machines and dishwashers to the municipal wastewater treatment plant. Or in low-density communities where wastewater is disposed via decentralized septic tanks and leach fields, a household’s sewage is jettisoned directly into the soil under the assumption that the wastewaters will be transmitted in such modest volumes that the soil will have the capacity to remove all of the impurities and the wastewaters can eventually merge with the groundwater without contamination.

However, all too often the effectiveness of a septic system is grossly overestimated or plots of land are subdivided and a neighborhood becomes exponentially denser with no commensurate improvement in wastewater infrastructure, and as the inadequate wastewater infrastructure is overused the ground becomes supersaturated with sewage.

If the water table is high and the capacity of the septic systems is insufficient for the population, then the groundwater will probably be contaminated with sewage and all of the dangerous bacteria and microorganisms that come with it.

This was precisely the case in the community built around Peach Lake in nearby North Salem. The oldest houses along the shore of Peach Lake date back from the 1900s, 1910s and 1920s when this community was just a small cluster of wealthy Manhattanites’ summer cottages – and when these oldest houses were built a century ago they were equipped with small septic tanks intended to be used only a few months every year. Though by the 1950s the sprinkling of summer cottages along Peach Lake had developed into full-blown suburban neighborhoods with more than 700 homes inhabited year round, they had grown to such a size and density that they really needed a municipal sewer system and a wastewater treatment plant – but all of the residents of this lakefront community were still disposing of their sewage with miniscule septic tanks meant to service the occasional Coolidge-era vacationer.

Lakefront communities are almost by definition situated on top of extremely high water tables – and Peach Lake was no exception – so all of their raw sewage was overloading the soils and contaminating the groundwater which in turn flowed to the lake. And eventually the pollution had built up so badly that by the 1970s Peach Lake had become a veritable cesspool; phosphorus levels were so high that algae blooms choked off the rest of the aquatic ecosystem, bacteria counts were so high that the town of North Salem had to forbid swimming and close the beaches.

If this kind of water pollution had happened to just any old pond, that would be pretty bad for the ecology of the pond and the health of the families in its immediate vicinity; however Peach Lake is not just any old pond – it’s a part of the Croton Watershed which contributes to the system of reservoirs which provide the supply of drinking water for New York City.

Consequentially speaking, the sanitary practices of my fellow New Yorkers in North Salem were really no better than those of the Haitians who are shitting upstream and drawing their drinking water downstream in the same Artibonite River. The only reason why people in the Bronx and Manhattan aren’t suffering from a cholera outbreak like there is now in Port-au-Prince is that the NYC Department of Environmental Protection operates what is one of the grandest water treatment systems ever established in the history of human civilization.

But I digress – back to water mains. A broken water main per se is such a grave threat to public health because a disruption in the supply of treated water can disrupt the chemical equilibrium throughout the rest of the entire water grid, and if chlorine levels fall like they did in Amherst this past October then the quality of the water in the main is free to return to its natural state i.e. full of bacteria. But keep in mind that if so much water is being lost that the pressure is not just low but negative, the hydraulic system is going to suck in whatever matter it can in the immediate vicinity of the break. Maybe the hydraulics will only suck in oxygen – not the end of the world. But imagine what happened when water mains inevitably broke around Peach Lake in North Salem…

Most households connected to a municipal water system are also connected to a municipal sewer system. When crews of masons and pipefitters and plumbers build one set of pipes, they usually build the other along the same routes because it is the most efficient method of construction. Hence it would be more than fair to say that most water pipes are built in the same neighborhoods as each other – usually they are built one on top of the other. Without proper maintenance, water pipes break. Without proper maintenance, sewer pipes break. And thus without proper maintenance, the water mains which were built to bring potable drinking water to its consumers can break and develop negative pressure and suck in raw, untreated sewage.

This scenario is more than just a hypothetical possibility; seeing that water pipes are generally laid in the same places where sewer pipes are laid – or septic systems, or storm drains or fire hydrants where dogs defecate, or fields enriched by organic fertilizer, or woods where wild animals lay their droppings – it would be fair to assume that any significant water main break is going to lead to some form of contamination of the water supply at least downstream from the aperture. This happens all the time in towns and cities far and wide in every region and climatic zone…

...from Los Angeles... Seattle... Cleveland... Baltimore... Hoboken... Staten Island... Bleeker Street...

I cannot emphasize enough that every time a water main breaks like this – even when it doesn’t rupture with such sensationalist bravado – it carries grave implications for public health. A broken water main isn’t like a pothole in the street; it’s not a nuisance that we can just deal with until the next scheduled maintenance. Every time that a water main breaks, at least the portion of municipal drinking water supply downstream from that main should be considered as though it is contaminated with sewage. When you see a water main break in the United States of America, that means that everybody who depends on this system for drinking water is now at risk for the sort of waterborne diseases that you would expect to see in some Third World country – because when our massive water systems malfunction we might as well be drinking from some fetid hole in the ground. Every time that a water main breaks it is in all probability not just a freak occurrence – it is most likely an indication that the entire water and wastewater infrastructure upon which that populations depends is old and decrepit and that it has probably been grossly neglected and shortchanged of tens of billions of dollars and however many decades of necessary repairs.

So think of the ramifications that decrepit infrastructure led to in a small town like Amherst or North Salem and try to imagine how those problems could intensify and cascade in a much larger, more densely-populated metropolitan area of multiple millions of people. A good case study would be to see what happened this last May when a 10-foot wide underground water main connecting the Quabbin Reservoir to the municipal water system serving Boston and its suburbs ruptured in Weston, Massachusetts. To call this a “leak” would be an understatement – the broken main was dumping 8 million gallons of water into the Charles River every hour for 8 hours until the Massachusetts Water Resources Authority was able to shut the valve and cap the flow.

Governor Deval Patrick issued a state of emergency and boil water orders for over 2 million people in 30 communities; “This water is not safe for drinking” he declared. Mayor Thomas Menino also issued a state of emergency in Boston, alerted residents about the boil water order through the city’s reverse-911 system, distributed fliers and sent police officers to the streets declaring the boil water orders with bullhorns.

Unlike in Amherst where a boil water order was an inconvenience, in a densely-populated metropolitan area the size of Boston this was a full-fledged public crisis. Even if the city and the state issue boil water orders, this is not an option for the hundreds of thousands of Boston residents who don’t have functioning stoves or students who aren’t allowed to have hot plates in their dormitories. Not only private households but businesses were not able to function without immediate access to tap water; for restaurants, hotels, movie theaters and baseball stadiums that need water as an input in the food and beverages they sell, which have to be able to serve food and beverages at a certain temperature in large quantities, boiling water was simply impractical. The only way that people could go about their daily life was by stockpiling bottled water.

But the fact of the matter is that the free market in commodified bottles of water – in all of its efficient glory – has proved unable to meet the demand for potable drinking water. Living off of bottled water might be feasible in a small town like South Salem or even a large town like Amherst, but only because these are communities where the majority of residents are either college students whose respective schools provided for bottled water supplies in their dining halls and dormitories or they have cars and can drive down the road to a shopping center. Even if the local Stop N’ Shop is sold out of Poland Spring, those with cars can just drive to the supermarket in the next town over beyond the boil water order zone. Though in a city like Boston where the majority of residents don’t have cars and the T doesn’t go anywhere beyond where the boil water order was in effect, the stocks of bottled water sold to supplement the municipal tap system were too modest to supply the entire metropolitan population of 2 million. Stores were even sold out of sparkling water! Bostonians had to resort to brushing their teeth with seltzer! Bottled water was in such short supply that Governor Patrick had to call up the Massachusetts National Guard to deliver emergency drinking water supplies.

Bottled water has its virtues; it’s convenient, it carries the dependability of any brand-name consumer item, and it’s cheaper in the short run than investing in the durable infrastructure necessary to make tap water potable. Professor Reyes – as much as she’s against it – drank Poland Spring for the duration of Amherst’s boil water advisory. Some households – like my friends in South Salem – have given up on tap water entirely and have been drinking bottled water exclusively for years now. But as individuals and moreover as a society, we really cannot afford to rely on bottled water for our long term needs. I’m not even addressing the environmental costs of generating so much unnecessary plastic waste; to subscribe to Nestlé Water’s home delivery services, one has to pay a deposit of $20 for the dispenser – $22 for the stainless steel model, one has to pay the continued subscription costs of $32.96 for three, $39.95 for four, or $46.80 for five 5-gallon bottles of Poland Spring delivered to your doorstep every month. A year’s supply of home-delivered Poland Spring for a family of four would cost $581.60 – plus taxes. For a family with two professional-salaried breadwinners, $581.60 isn’t going to break the bank. But for a middle class family that makes $50,000 a year, the $581 of bottled water would add up to 1.7 percent of their total household budget – that’s a significant sum of money. In comparison, the Bush tax cuts of 2001 saved a family making $50,000 per an average of $1,825 each year.

My cousins Bob and Jane in Stamford, Connecticut have had chronic water problems with the water in their house that is pumped from their 50-year-old well; the water is turbid and acidic and it is full of high levels of iron, iron bacteria, manganese, nitrates and chlorides. They technically can drink their tap water – it is potable – but the water looks opaque, it tastes terrible, the chlorides are corroding the pipes and Bob’s doctor thinks that the high iron levels might be the cause of his blood pressure problems. So for 21 years they have been subscribing to Poland Spring’s home delivery services for the total cumulative cost of more than $12,000.

But recently Bob and Jane decided that enough was enough and they are now hiring plumbers to install a brand new well storage unit for $1,800 and a water softener for $2,800. “Wells were never meant to last forever – to just keep putting and putting this off is sheer insanity!” Bob explains, “It’s costing me an arm and a leg, but compared to what bottled water costs these investments are actually quite reasonable.”

We as a people have to start approaching our national crisis of inadequate water infrastructure the same way as my cousins Bob and Jane addressed the problem with their well and realize that it’s not a matter of paying or not paying. The choice we have to make is whether we are going to pay indefinitely for the damage caused by dilapidated water systems and tremendously expensive band-aids – or whether we are going to address the root of the problem and invest in durable water infrastructure so we can have clean drinking water now and save money and improve our economy in the long run.

Back to North Salem, after decades of environmental consultations and town meetings and board resolutions the communities around Peach Lake are finally getting the wastewater infrastructure that they need. Last year Congressman John Hall was able to secure $7 million of funds from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act to pay for the construction of neighborhood sewage collection systems, a pump station and a treatment plant.

“Funding clean water infrastructure is a smart investment that will help protect public health and create long term value for years to come. This project will create local jobs and reduce the burden on local property taxpayers” Congressman Hall explained, “When I cast my vote earlier this year for the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, this is exactly the kind of investment that I knew we needed in the Hudson Valley.”

We need to implement this kind progressive clean water agenda on a national scale. Our water infrastructure is falling apart because much of it dates back from before the Roosevelt administration – the Theodore Roosevelt administration. Especially in older cities like Boston, New York, St. Louis and Chicago many of the water mains and sewer pipes date from the Civil War era. Almost everywhere we need to step up monitoring, maintenance and basic repairs, but in many places after more than a hundred years of use and neglected maintenance the infrastructure has degraded so badly that it is beyond the point of no return. Here in Westchester County, much of the Croton Watershed which provides New York City’s drinking water supply dates back to its original construction in 1842 – in some places, the population of Manhattan’s drinking water is still transported via wooden aqueducts. Assuming that technology might have improved after a hundred years or so, the mere upkeep of antediluvian infrastructure will not suffice for our present needs. If we are to have a functioning society and economy we have to build significant swaths of our grids anew and lay brand new water mains and sewer pipes and construct treatment plants utilizing modern 21st century technology.

There are some members of Congress and elements of this administration who do understand the gravity of our inadequate water systems and who have begun to take action to finally invest in the modern infrastructure that we need. Though experts on these matters are contending that the Obama administration’s actions thusfar have been a good start – but nowhere near enough to repair, replace and modernize all of our corroded water mains, decrepit sewers and obsolete treatment plants. In 2002 the Environmental Protection Agency released a report estimating that the United States will have to spend as much as $390 billion over two decades simply to replace outdated wastewater infrastructure systems and replace them with new ones. In 2008 the Agency reported that the nation’s publicly-owned water treatment plants alone needed roughly $202.5 billion worth of investment. The American Society of Civil Engineers goes even further and estimates that in order to simply maintain our current levels of sanitation and drinking water quality we will need to invest $255 billion in our water and wastewater infrastructure – $109 billion more than currently-projected outlays – just over the course of the next five years. These numbers might sound staggering, but when you consider that over the past decade Congress has allocated $751 billion in emergency spending measures to fund the war in Iraq and $336 billion for the war in Afghanistan, an additional $109 billion in emergency spending to fund critical investments in our water and wastewater infrastructure in America actually seems quite modest.

As the 112th Congress convenes in January and begins what is certain to be a long, drawn-out budget showdown, lawmakers would be wise to heed the advice of the Environmental Protection Agency and the American Society of Civil Engineers and provide for increased spending on water and wastewater infrastructure. Understandably, this is a time when public officials are going to have to make tough choices between tax cuts, military bases, schools and roads – and water and wastewater infrastructure might unfortunately take the cut because the very most public of public goods doesn’t have a constituency as well-organized as the Oil Lobby, the Farm Lobby or the Defense Contractor Lobby. But unlike tax cuts for millionaires or the next generation of nuclear weapons, we don’t have a choice as to whether or not we are going to pay for our water systems.

We can choose to pay to maintain and repair and modernize our infrastructure now when it’s merely expensive, or we can choose to pay for our infrastructure later after all of our sewage treatment plants have collapsed and all of our drinking water systems are contaminated with fecal matter and all of our infrastructure is so unsalvageable that we have to replace everything from scratch – then it’s going to be really¸ really, really expensive. Paying for adequate maintenance is an incredibly more frugal policy than putting it off until we have to pay for more expensive repairs, paying for repairs is likewise more frugal than just letting systems collapse and having to pay for unnecessary new construction. I cannot emphasize enough that the rationale for investing in water infrastructure now as opposed to later is inherently conservative in nature. This goes out to all of you who can't stand wasteful spending; if we don’t invest in necessary public infrastructure, can you imagine how much more the American people would have to spend on Poland Spring home delivery? If you think that Medicare, Medicaid and Obamacare are expensive now, can you imagine what the costs would be like when the American people are suffering from endemic gastroenteritis and giardia and dysentery?

Back in Sanadougou, my friends in the Minianka tribe stoically accept these waterborne diseases and the ensuing poverty and misery and death that define their lives as simple facts of life. When the Peace Corps sent me to live amongst them, my role in this foreign society was to shine a light on these problems that no one wanted to talk about, to connect the dots between the causes and the symptoms, and to show the Miniankas that if only they open their minds to change and invest the time and resources necessary to obtain clean water, then we could completely and thoroughly prevent all of this disease and stagnation from ever existing in the first place.

And now that I am back home, I think that my role in my own society might be more or less to same – though maybe it might be more complicated as my countrymen seem to think that the sheer mass of our GDP or our military might somehow set us apart from the basic facts of pathology. Indeed, we might have advanced computer technology and a developed commercial economy centuries and millennia ahead of Haiti, Kenya, Afghanistan or Bangladesh – but that doesn’t make the American people immune from the same bacteria and parasites that are keeping the various cultures of the Third World mired in disease and poverty. The presence of these contaminants in our drinking water does not have to be a fact of life, we can very easily change our practices and improve our infrastructure without sacrificing our cultural heritage and without breaking the bank, but with the same combination of obtuseness and reckless pursuit of absolute convenience, we – like the Miniankas who refuse to wash their hands with soap – act as though we are content with living amongst our own filth. I can forgive the Miniankas for their inadequate sanitation so long as they can plead ignorance to the science of disease transmission; I cannot extend that same generosity to my fellow Americans.

Do we in America really live in an incomparably advanced civilization? Are our ways in fact superior to the Germans, the Russians, the Chinese, the Indians… the Miniankas? Or are we just conceited by the intoxicating sophistry of American exceptionalism?

I think that in evaluating the relative greatness of a society, a good place to start would be to analyze the development of their sanitation practices and infrastructure. Upon this rude awakening to the realities of our water policy in America, I cannot help but share the sentiments of my late Grandpa Leon who used to shake his head and conclude, “We’re still swinging from the trees”. Though I would like to hold out hope that my people will be able to evolve in our ways – perhaps to the level of my friend’s dog or my cat – and that one day we will finally begin to keep our shit out of our drinking water.