Our View: Redefining 'normal'
America must not return to the same habits and practices that got us into this present economic mess.
It's been going on long enough, and we're sick and tired of it.
The recession, of course.
It's already sucked the life out of many among us, turning our worlds upside down, robbing us of our jobs, our businesses, our homes and, in some cases, even our hope. And as bad as all that has been, it promises to get worse before it gets better.
The president is doing his best to keep our spirits up, trying to convince us that his plans will get us back on track, if only we'll hang in there a little longer.
But everything around us, especially here in the San Joaquin Valley, seems to say different. The ever-rising unemployment, the flood of foreclosures, the increase in bankruptcies, the empty store fronts, the cutbacks in government services and so many other sad signs signal that we're not out of the woods.
Some economists believe we're near the bottom; others say not so fast, that we still have a long, hard road ahead of us.
Sooner or later, though, these painful times will pass. Well, we want it to be sooner rather than later; in fact, we want it to be today, not tomorrow or, worse, not next year.
The question is: Will that be the old normal or a new normal?
Will we cling to the status quo, try to pick up where we left off, slip back into old patterns?
Or will we have taken advantage of these terribly tough times to rethink what matters most, to reset our priorities, to reimagine and reinvent how we live our lives -- in our homes, at our businesses, in our government offices and on our campuses?
For a time, it looked as if something like that might have happened eight years ago, when terrorists rocked our world, literally and psychologically, on that death-filled day of Sept. 11, 2001.
For a moment, we changed. We came together as individuals and a nation; we set aside our petty politics, we overlooked our difficulties and differences, we turned to family and friends and faith. We vowed to be different.
But it didn't last. Once the danger seemed to pass, most of us settled back into life as we knew it and enjoyed it. We returned to normal.
Will that happen this time?
Businesses, industries, government agencies, schools and, of course, individuals, most everyone has had to adjust as the economy slipped and slid and then sped downhill.
Businesses and industries have cut staffing, reduced inventories and looked for efficiencies and economies wherever they could find them. Government agencies and schools sought savings as well, but only now are having to make hard decisions to eliminate positions and services.
And, of course, individuals have had to tighten their belts. For some it was only a notch here or there -- not going out to lunch or dinner, putting off a big trip, postponing buying a big-ticket item.
For others, though, the loss of a job, the failure of a business or poor prior decisions have forced painful changes.
When -- not if, but when -- the recession ends and the recovery begins, will we have learned anything from this unpleasant journey? Will we "stay adjusted" or as quickly as possible revert to old ways? Will we cure ourselves of debt-fueled excesses or relapse into "affluenza?"
It's going to be hard to resist returning to the old normal. After all, we're a society that too often confuses personal worth with material wealth.
We are a people for whom in general less is bad, more is better and even more is best. Our economy is built on credit, and credit in the end encourages people to live beyond -- and in too many cases, far beyond -- their means. That goes for individuals, businesses and government agencies alike.
Uncle Sam pointed at us from a recent Newsweek magazine cover, and a big bold headline proclaiming, "I want you to start spending!" carried us inside to an equally loud, "Stop saving now."
Struggling merchants, big and small, understandably want us to spend; their ads tempt us with "0 percent interest," "Nothing down" and "No payments 'til 2010."
Spend we must, no question about it. But will we spend wisely?
Let's hope so.
As difficult as these times are -- and for some among us they are exceedingly and painfully so -- they also are a golden opportunity to think and act in new and different ways.
We need a new normal. For our businesses. For our government. For our schools. For for our personal lives.
And there's no better time than now.
Jobless rates rise in all US metro areas in Feb....JEANNINE AVERSA, AP Economics Writer
WASHINGTON Unemployment rates moved higher in all of the nation's largest metropolitan areas in February with Indiana's Elkhart-Goshen and North Carolina's Hickory-Lenoir-Morgantown registering the biggest annual increases.
The U.S. Labor Department reported Wednesday that all 372 metropolitan areas tracked saw their jobless rates rise in February from a year earlier.
Elkhart-Goshen and Hickory-Lenoir-Morgantown were both hammered by manufacturing layoffs.
Eklhart-Goshen's jobless rate soared to 18 percent, up 12.5 percentage points. The area has been battered by layoffs in the recreational vehicle industry. RV makers Monaco Coach Corp., Keystone RV Co. and Pilgrim International have cut hundreds of jobs.
The unemployment rate in Hickory-Lenoir-Morgantown, hit by layoffs at furniture makers, jumped to 15.7 percent, a 9.3 percentage point increase.
Fallout from housing, credit and financial crises - the worst since the 1930s - is forcing companies to lay off workers and resort to other cost-saving measures to survive the recession.
3M Co., the maker of Scotch tape, Post-It Notes and other products, said Tuesday it's cutting another 1,200 jobs, or 1.5 percent of its work force, because of the global economic slump. Fewer than half the jobs will be in the U.S., but include "several hundred" in its home state of Minnesota, a company spokeswoman said. The 1,200 figure includes cuts made earlier in the first quarter.
The U.S. unemployment rate, released last month, rose to 8.1 percent in February, the highest in more than 25 years. Economists predict the national jobless rate will climb to 8.5 percent in March. The government releases that report on Friday. It will probably hit 10 percent by year-end even if the recession were to end later this year, they said.
El-Centro, Calif., continued to lay claim to the highest unemployment rate - 24.5 percent. The jobless rate is notoriously high in the area, where many unemployed are seasonal agriculture workers.
Following close behind were Merced, Calif., with a jobless rate of 19.9 percent, and Yuba City, Calif., at 18.9 percent. Elkhart-Goshen rounded out the top four.
Louisiana's Houma-Bayou Cane-Thibodaux region had the lowest unemployment rate at 3.5 percent.
Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke said the recession, which began in December 2007, could end this year, setting the stage for a recovery next year only if shaky financial markets are stabilized.
To brace the economy, the Fed has slashed a key bank lending rate to an all-time low and has embarked on a series of radical programs to inject billions of dollars into the financial system.
The Obama administration's $787 billion stimulus package includes money that will flow to states for public works projects, help them defray budget cuts, extend unemployment benefits and boost food stamp benefits. The administration also is counting on programs to prop up financial companies and reduce home foreclosures to help turn the economy around.
Companies are cutting jobs and other costs to survive the recession. Sales and profits have been hurt as consumers have hunkered down. That's caused the economy to shrink. Analysts believe the economy will keep on shrinking through the first six months of this year.
Environmental group fights subpoena on leak...PETE YOST, Associated Press Writer
WASHINGTON The National Wildlife Federation on Tuesday challenged a government subpoena aimed at finding out who leaked the Bush administration's plans to weaken the Endangered Species Act just weeks before President Barack Obama took office.
In a letter to the office of the Commerce Department inspector general, the federation argued that the demand for some of the private group's records violates First Amendment rights to free speech and freedom of association.
A subpoena from IG Todd Zinser seeks documents that would identify who leaked draft environmental rules to the federation last summer.
Lawyers representing the federation are offering to meet with the IG's office to discuss the environmental group's objections. If the IG refuses to withdraw the subpoena, the dispute would head to federal court, where a judge would decide whether to enforce the IG's demands.
The IG's office says its inquiry focuses on the government's ability to deliberate policies privately. Federal regulation bars government workers from disclosing nonpublic information.
The federation says that in disclosing the information, it was keeping the public informed.
"We were able to expose a last-ditch effort by the Bush administration to weaken our nation's most important wildlife law," said John Kostyack, executive director of wildlife conservation and global warming at the federation.
Kostyack has said that a "whistle-blower" sent him the draft regulation, which enables federal agencies to decide for themselves whether highways, dams, mines and other construction projects might harm endangered animals and plants.
On March 3, Obama put the Bush regulation on hold until the Interior and Commerce departments complete a review.
Anti-sprawl rules to steer Sacramento development...Jim Wasserman
When Sacramento gets past the housing crash, its next wave of growth will play out under stricter rules that limit greenhouse gases and clamp down on cars, area real estate officials were told Tuesday.
Panelists at a real estate forum peering beyond the region's current downturn said state legislation to curb emissions from cars and far-flung-residential living will push more growth into existing area neighborhoods.
It's an idea that runs counter to a capital-area housing boom that spread 80,000 new houses, mostly single-family detached residences, onto empty suburban-area land between 2002 and 2007.
The region's next housing boom will – and must – rely more on trains, buses and alternatives to cars, said William Hudnut, an advocate for cities and former Indianapolis mayor credited with reviving his Midwest state capital.
"The less driving there is the less carbon dioxide that is being emitted into the air," he told a gathering of nearly 100 public- and private-sector architects, city planners, land-use attorneys, real estate consultants and elected officials. "The challenge is to reduce dependence on the car."
The notion is central to implementing the state's Assembly Bill 32, which aims to lower greenhouse gas emissions to 1990 levels by 2020, and SB 375, which ties that goal to new housing and commercial development.
Hudnut spoke at a forum organized by Sacramento's affiliate of the Urban Land Institute, a research arm of the U.S. real estate development industry. He praised the two bills and the Sacramento Area Council of Governments' regional Blueprint for higher-density growth through 2050 as models for the nation.
"You seem to get it," said Hudnut. "A lot of the country doesn't."
Longtime Sacramento redevelopment attorney Joseph Coomes Jr., said that while the Blueprint is voluntary, "we're now getting mandatory imperatives in AB 32 and SB 375. And more imperatives will be coming down the line."
Sacramento County Supervisor Roger Dickinson told the gathering the county aims to put most of the 53,000 new homes it will need by 2030 into existing neighborhoods.
"We are very dedicated to revitalizing a lot of those older first-tier suburbs," he said. But he said the idea worries home builders and developers who find it easier to build on empty land. Also raising concerns are existing residents who don't want up to 20 percent more people living in their areas.
Nonetheless, Hudnut said the new century will be a "gargantuan business opportunity," with half of all U.S. and European growth income to come from "restorative development" in built-up areas.
"Reinvesting, rebuilding, revitalizing, redeveloping and re-engineering. We live in the 're-century,' " he said.
Pacific Ethanol could run out of cash by April 30...Dale Kasler
Pacific Ethanol Inc. is running out of gas.
The troubled Sacramento ethanol producer said Tuesday that its cash could run out in a month. Once among the fastest-growing ethanol producers, the company said in a Securities and Exchange Commission filing that there's "substantial doubt" that it can continue beyond April 30 unless it can renegotiate its debts or find new sources of cash.
It said it might have to file for bankruptcy protection.
Company officials couldn't be reached for comment.
Pacific Ethanol is in default on $250 million in loans. Although its creditors agreed once again Tuesday not to take legal action on the defaults, the agreement expires April 30. As it is, the company has only $4 million in cash and $4.7 million in available credit, and probably can't keep going beyond that date.
As part of the latest agreement, Pacific Ethanol revealed that it had to borrow $2 million from its chairman, former California Secretary of State Bill Jones, and President and Chief Executive Neil Koehler.
The company also disclosed heavy fourth-quarter losses: $33.9 million, or 61 cents a share. That compared with a loss of $14.7 million, or 39 cents a share, a year earlier.
Sales grew 23 percent to $160.4 million. But Pacific Ethanol, like its competitors, has been squeezed by shrinking margins as ethanol prices failed to keep up with the rising cost of corn, the main ingredient used in making the fuel additive.
With corn at $5 a bushel and ethanol at $1.55 a gallon, "the spread between ethanol and corn is really too narrow to make money," said Joel Karlin, a commodities analyst at Western Milling in Goshen in Tulare County.
In addition, the wholesale price of gas has fallen below that of ethanol, Karlin said. As a result, refiners have no incentive to use more ethanol beyond the mandated minimums. That curbs demand.
Last fall one of the nation's biggest ethanol makers, VeraSun Energy of Sioux Falls, S.D., filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy.
After a period of rapid growth in which it built plants in three states, Pacific Ethanol has been furiously downsizing. It suspended production at three of its plants in recent months and is operating at one-quarter capacity.
Pacific Ethanol stock closed at 33 cents a share Tuesday, unchanged, on the Nasdaq market.
At hearing, Calaveras residents blast Pardee plans
Raising reservoir would inundate bridges, rec spots...Dana M. Nichols
SAN ANDREAS - In June, in a meeting room about 100 miles west of San Andreas, the seven directors of East Bay Municipal Utility District will vote on long-term plans that could doom one of the few remaining stretches of publicly accessible whitewater on the Mokelumne River.
The plan that will come to a vote then - the district's Water Supply Management Plan through 2040 - calls for possibly raising the level of Pardee Reservoir 33 feet, drowning Middle Bar Bridge, the current Highway 49 bridge over the Mokelumne, and another mile of the Electra whitewater run above the Highway 49 bridge.
What folks in Calaveras County wonder is whether their objections to the project will carry any weight, given that there are fewer than 50,000 people in Calaveras County. In contrast, EBMUD has more than 1 million customers, and those people elect EBMUD's directors.
But if Calaveras residents don't influence the decision, it won't be for lack of trying. EBMUD Board of Directors Chairman Doug Linney told the 186 people who turned out Monday night at San Andreas Town Hall that they were twice as many as the combined total who attended the previous four public hearings since March 16 on the 2040 plan.
"Your comments tonight are just as important as every other meeting we've had," said Linney, who was joined by fellow EBMUD directors Katie Foulkes and Andy Katz.
Many speakers were skeptical that the hearing would make a difference and said they are preparing for a prolonged struggle to prevent destruction of a stretch of river they say is important for recreation, its history, the plants growing on its shores and the health of the Mother Lode economy.
"You will meet tremendous resistance for this," said San Andreas resident Tillman Sherman, who serves on the boards of a number of organizations, including San Andreas Sanitary District. "We are fed up with people coming up here and pillaging our environment."
Marge Grow, a California Valley Miwok, said raising Pardee would inundate a place where she gathers black willow for traditional Miwok weaving.
"This is one of the cradle boards from that willow patch," Grow said, showing the board to the EBMUD directors.
David Blau, a consultant with the firm hired by EBMUD to study the agency's 2040 water needs, said EDAW analyzed more than 100 ways that EBMUD could reduce water consumption and increase supply to cope with growing demand over the next 31 years.
Blau said that around 2025 - in 16 years - EBMUD must decide between building a de-salination plant or raising dams including Pardee in the Sierra.
"It's an either-or decision at this point," he said.
Calaveras County officials and business leaders made sure EBMUD directors knew the degree of interest. Steve Wilensky, the supervisor who represents the area on the Calaveras County side of the affected stretch of the Mokelumne, helped organize Monday's hearing and was its first speaker.
Wilensky noted the hard economic times and that tourism is one of the few parts of the local economy that has potential to grow.
George Wendt, founder and president of OARS, a Calaveras County-based action adventure firm that offers whitewater rafting trips, told EBMUD officials that the stretch of the Mokelumne above Pardee could be a prime commercial rafting area.
Currently, only one commercial raft trip a year, a fundraiser for the nonprofit Calaveras Youth Mentoring Program, is allowed on the stretch from Electra Powerhouse to Middle Bar.
Many who spoke at the hearing said the issue is one that should force humans to confront limits and stop the pattern of demanding to consume ever more natural resources such as the waters of the Mokelumne.
That's the way Christine Coleman sees the Mokelumne. "It is a very sacred place for us," Coleman said.
Have your say
See the East Bay Municipal Utility District's 2040 water supply plan and learn how you can comment online at www.ebmud.com/water_&_environment/water_supply/
The deadline to comment on the plan is Monday. Consultants expect to complete the plan May 8 and send it to a vote by EBMUD's board of directors on June 23.
San Francisco Chronicle
Court sides with power plants over fish...MARK SHERMAN, Associated Press Writer
(04-01) 10:32 PDT WASHINGTON (AP) -- The Supreme Court ruled Wednesday that the government can weigh costs against benefits in deciding whether to order power plants to undertake environmental upgrades that would protect fish.
The court's 6-3 decision is a defeat for environmentalists who had urged the justices to uphold a favorable federal appeals court ruling that could have required an estimated 554 power plants to install technology that relies on recycled water to cool machinery.
By reducing water intake, the closed-cycle cooling also results in fewer fish being sucked into the system or smashed to death against screens. The Environmental Protection Agency estimates water-intake systems at power plants kill 3.4 billion fish and shellfish each year.
The ruling, written by Justice Antonin Scalia, was a victory for the power industry, which has long advocated for the use of cost-benefit analysis on environmental issues. The utilities were backed by the Bush administration.
It is unclear whether the EPA in the Obama administration will chart a similar course or decide not to use cost-benefit analyses when they yield less environmental protection. EPA administrator Lisa Jackson previously directed the New Jersey environmental protection agency. New Jersey was one of several states that challenged the EPA regulations that the court approved Wednesday.
The high court decision overruled the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in New York. The appeals court said that the Clean Water Act does not allow cost to be used when deciding what technology would best minimize environmental impacts.
But Scalia said even the appeals court and environmentalists "concede that some form of cost-benefit analysis is permitted."
In dissent, Justice John Paul Stevens cited "powerful evidence" that Congress did not want cost-benefit analyses to be used in determining the best available technology for reducing the number of fish killed. Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and David Souter also dissented.
All new power plants must use closed-cycle cooling.
But the regulations at issue in the Supreme Court case apply only to older facilities.
Scalia said there is nothing wrong with EPA regulations that allow the use of less costly systems that come close to achieving the same environmental benefits as the closed-cycle cooling.
The closed-cycle systems would cost $3.5 billion a year and reduce the number of fish killed by up to 98 percent, he said. EPA says other technologies would cost a tenth as much and cut the number of fish killed by 80 percent to 95 percent, Scalia said.
The same EPA analysis also found that the most fish-friendly systems would reduce the amount of electricity the plants generate. Utilities would have to build 20 new 400-megawatt power plants to replace the electricity, the EPA said.
Electricity costs could rise by 2.4 percent to 5.3 percent in that scenario, the agency said.
Among the problems environmental groups have with cost-benefit calculations is the difficulty of valuing the benefits.
"Trying to put a dollar figure on fish and aquatic systems gets very difficult and contentious," said Amy Sinden, a Temple University law professor who wrote a brief in the case on the side of the environmental groups. "It is inevitably understated."
Indeed, the EPA's analysis valued the annual benefit in fish saved at $83 million, but that number takes account only of the value of fish that end up on dinner plates or sport fishing hooks — about 2 percent of all the fish killed. The agency assigned no value to more than 98 percent of the aquatic life killed each year.
"This narrow focus skewed the agency's calculation of benefits," Stevens said.
The cases are Entergy Corp. v. EPA, 07-588; PSEG v. Riverkeeper, 07-589; and Utility Water Act Group v. Riverkeeper, 07-597.
Scientists take another stab at nuclear fusion...Jim Doyle
After more than a decade of work and an investment of $3.5 billion, scientists at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory say they have created a super laser that will enable them to build a miniature sun within the lab in the next two years.
The U.S. Department of Energy certified the world's largest laser on Tuesday, an instrument that will test the reliability of the nation's nuclear weapons stockpile, explore the origins of the universe and seek to create nuclear fusion energy.
Nuclear fusion is the National Ignition Facility's biggest goal.
By 2010 or 2011, the lab's scientists hope to achieve ignition - that is, produce the first tiny thermonuclear explosions inside their capsule targets in hopes of ultimately creating a limitless source of fusion energy, the kind of energy that powers the blazing heat of the sun and stars.
"It's an extremely exciting prospect," said Edward Moses, director of the laser project. "The search for fusion energy has been a long haul. Some people say it's better than you can believe, but based on everything we know, the question now is more 'when,' not 'if.' "
Researchers have dreamed for more than half a century of tapping the potential of nuclear fusion as a clean, cheap power source. If successful, nuclear fusion energy could be a game-changer for meeting the world's energy needs. Current nuclear power plants rely on nuclear fission, or the splitting of atoms, a chain reaction that produces large quantities of deadly radioactive waste.
But if this costly experiment at Lawrence Livermore fails, it could kill U.S. fusion research for good. Since the 1950s, scientists have tried different processes to create nuclear fusion but have failed. For all the money spent on research, fusion has yet to power a light bulb.
500 billion watts
The National Ignition Facility is 10 stories tall and three football fields in length, and its 40-foot-tall target chamber is shaped like a golf ball. Nearly 200 powerful laser beams are guided by a switchyard of mirrors to arrive at once at the target chamber. The goal is to ignite a tiny hydrogen fuel pellet and produce a burst of energy of up to 500 billion watts of power.
"This is the first time that we've built a laser that is capable of reaching the energy and power conditions that can drive the fusion process," Moses said. "We're going to be able to create temperatures inside these small targets of over 100 million degrees. That's hotter than the center of the sun, and very high pressures and densities are needed for fusion to occur."
Supporters say fusion holds no risk of a nuclear meltdown and will generate insignificant waste byproducts. But fusion's prospects have been greeted with skepticism.
Secretary of Energy Steven Chu, the nuclear physicist who previously headed the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, joked to an audience at an energy conference at Stanford University in 2006 that "I'm going to skip (discussing) fusion because it will probably skip the 21st century."
The super laser project has been subject to repeated delays and cost overruns since the lab broke ground in 1997. It initially was budgeted at $1.2 billion and scheduled for completion in 2002.
Scientists also plan to use the giant laser to conduct experiments to gauge the reliability of the nation's aging nuclear weapons stockpile. The United States has not deployed any new nuclear weapons in more than 20 years nor conducted an underground nuclear test since 1992.
"Protecting the safety, security and reliability of our nuclear deterrent in a world without nuclear testing is one of the most important things we do," said Damien LaVera, a spokesman for the National Nuclear Safety Administration.
Additionally, scientists plan to use the Livermore laser to explore the origins of the universe, including the makeup of stars and planets within and outside our solar system. They will examine how materials behave at temperatures and pressures like those at the center of a star.
But perhaps the most critical use of the laser will be the search for nuclear fusion, lab officials said.
A nuclear fusion demonstration project could be up and running in 10 to 12 years, they say, bringing fusion energy a step closer toward commercialization.
"Now, the science can start in earnest," LaVera said. "The research really begins."
Contra Costa Times
Lab's fusion quest reaches another milestone...Suzanne Bohan
After 12 years and billions of dollars spent, the U.S. Department of Energy on Tuesday officially certified the National Ignition Facility at Lawrence Livermore Laboratory.
Key missions of the facility, the world's largest laser operation, are to assess the reliability of the nation's nuclear stockpile through simulations and to provide a training ground for a new generation of physicists.
But in 2010, all eyes will be on the facility to deliver on its most visible promise — showing that the fusion of two hydrogen atoms to produce "clean" energy can be achieved on a sustained basis, not just a millisecond in a lab experiment.
With a sustained fusing of hydrogen, fusion energy power plants could be built, said Edward Moses, director of the NIF project, providing an energy source that would use water, including seawater, as fuel, and emit no carbon.
"If you have a wet pile of leaves and light it with a match, you get a little puff but it can't propagate," said Moses, alluding to previous efforts at fusion research. "But now we hope we can create conditions where the leaves are hot and dry.
"This has always been a grand scientific endeavor," he added. "People have been thinking about this for 50 years."
The project cost $3.5 billion, and will require $100 million annually to operate, he said.
But Christopher Paine, nuclear program director with the Natural Resources Defense Council in Washington, D.C., disputes those figures, saying it has cost at least $5 billion. He said hundreds of millions more will be spent trying to achieve ignition — the term for successful fusion — with no guarantees of success.
"There are very high expectations that in 2010 they'll achieve ignition, and they're not going to be able to deliver on that," Paine said.
"Fusion has been and always will remain a 100-year agenda," he continued. "And the world is on a 20- to 30-year clock to do something about climate change."
The billions of dollars spent on fusion research could instead be directed toward making solar and wind-power more efficient and economically viable, as well as other forms of nonfossil fuel energy.
"It's a gross misallocation of our energy resources," Paine said. "We're in a crisis. We shouldn't be sitting around speculating if Livermore can spend (billions) and get a fusion reaction. This is just 'workfare' for weapons scientists who no longer have anything to do."
Paine also said one of the aims of the facility is to provide a training ground for the next generation of nuclear weapons designers.
Lynda Seaver, a spokeswoman with Livermore Lab, countered that the laser facility wasn't designed to conduct nuclear weapons development work, and there is no weapons design work performed at the facility.
"This will be a training ground for physicists, but not for nuclear weapons design," Seaver said of the facility.
The work at the facility "represents a new generation of capabilities," said Moses, and isn't make-work for idle weapons scientists.
The research "will be used for basic science, homeland security, industrial applications, energy security and also as defensive tactical lasers on the battlefield," he said.
Moses said he's "confident, not supremely confident, but more confident than ever before," that when the facility in 2010 makes its first attempt at fusion, evidence will show that more energy was produced by the ignition than was put in by the 192 high-powered lasers aiming at a small target chamber. That's the crucial first step for demonstrating that fusion could conceivably provide a cost-effective source of electrical power in the future.
For more than five decades, scientists have pursued fusion as a means to provide unlimited sources of energy without the complexities inherent in purchasing oil overseas or drilling domestically, storing nuclear waste and facing the risk of nuclear meltdowns, and mining for coal.
While fusion reactions generate some radioactive material, Moses insisted it was "minuscule" compared with the amount produced by nuclear power plants.
Robert Muller, a physics professor at UC Berkeley, said he believes the facility is worth the cost, if only for the value it brings to the nation's nuclear weapons stockpile stewardship program. He's less certain of its prospects for creating a viable energy source.
"It's very long term. Fusion will be the energy of the 22nd century," he said. "It's hard to see how we can have cheap fusion."
Fusion is usually likened to creating miniature suns on Earth, because the fusing of hydrogen also fuels the sun and stars.
"My view of fusion is when it does work, it is finally the ultimate answer," Moses said. "You can build the sun right here on Earth, you could put it anywhere you want, and you're using hydrogen and water.
"You put that all together, and it's kind of hard to turn your back on it," he said.
New York Times
State of the Birds...Editorial
Ken Salazar, the secretary of the interior, released a new, nationwide survey last month that assesses the state of bird populations in America. The news is grievous. Over all, a third of the bird species in this country are endangered, threatened or in serious decline.
There is special concern for grassland birds — whose habitat has been vanishing steadily for decades — for birds in Hawaii, where a variety of species face a variety of threats, and for coastal species. The good news is that wherever nature is allowed to recover, especially in the case of wetland birds, it shows its usual resilience.
But there is no glossing over these staggering losses, and there is no dismissing what they mean. There is nothing accidental or inevitable about the vanishing of these birds. However unintentional, it is the direct result of human activity — of development, of global warming, of air and water pollution and of our failure to set aside the habitat these birds need to flourish. Every threatened species reveals some aspect of our lives that could be adjusted.
The survey also shows that where humans have made an effort — as with migratory waterfowl and with endangered species like the peregrine falcon — good things have happened, with some species recovering even as others declined. This in turn argues that the programs now in place to protect habitat should not only be spared the budgetary wrecking ball but also expanded — most conspicuously those managed by the Agriculture Department that seek to preserve wetlands and prairie grasslands as well as the Interior Department’s Land and Water Conservation Fund.
The remarkable recovery of ducks and geese and other wetland species — thanks to strong conservation efforts — should remind us of what is possible. The only other outcome is too grim to consider — a landscape steadily emptying of birds.
Maps That Draw a Line on Energy Projects...Matthew L. Wald, Green Inc.
An overused metaphor in arguments about the environment and electricity projects is “drawing the battle lines.’’ But that is exactly what the Natural Resources Defense Council and the Audubon Society did Wednesday, on maps managed by Google, for 13 Western states covering about half the land mass of the continental United States.
N.R.D.C. A map of the 13-state area, with sensitive areas in color.
The idea was to tell companies that want to develop renewable-energy projects what locations were likely to provoke a fight. Although wind and solar projects do not add to air pollution or global warming, their equipment and the associated power lines can hurt endangered or threatened species, environmentalists say.
And while the battle lines are quite literally available with a few mouse clicks, the intent is not entirely hostile, with the national groups recognizing that the issue is environmental balance, pitting prairie species like the greater sage-grouse against animals like the polar bear, which lives on ice that is melting because of global warming, some of it probably caused by coal-fired power plants that wind and sun could partly replace.
“The impetus, at least for the Natural Resources Defense Council, was in large measure the number of renewable-energy developers I was meeting in my work who kept saying to me, ‘please tell me where not to go,’ ’’ said Johanna Wald, a senior attorney with the group. Plant developers want minimum hassle, she said.
The wind industry publishes photos of cows grazing placidly around towers, and argues it is compatible with nature. But Brian A. Rutledge, executive director of the Audubon Society of Wyoming, said wildlife and domesticated species were different. “We have species of birds, for example, that won’t nest within 200 yards of a road, period,’’ he said. Some prairie birds will not venture anywhere near a vertical object like a tower or a power-line pylon, he said, probably because they are genetically imprinted to avoid natural vertical features, like trees, where predators perch. The lesser prairie chicken, he said, will not cross under a power line, even between widely spaced towers. “It becomes like a river down the middle of their population base,’’ he said.
Matthew McKinzie, of the N.R.D.C., said that his group had provided data on 173 species that were threatened or endangered, some of which had only a small habitat remaining. The list includes fish species.
The maps, part of Google Earth, show wilderness areas, areas where roads are banned, national parks, wildlife refuges, areas under consideration for wilderness protection, and many areas that lack legal protection but are prime territory for vulnerable species.
The effort by Google and the environmental groups comes soon after the Western Governors Association posted a draft map of “renewable energy zones,” and the new secretary of the interior, Ken Salazar, ordered that a federal task force be formed to increase use of public lands for production and transmission of renewable energy.
At the American Wind Energy Association, Laurie Jodziewicz, a spokeswoman, said the wind industry was involved in the governors’ mapping effort. She predicted that the new Google Earth offering would also be useful, but said that the data was sometimes too coarse to base decisions on, and that it would take inspection of the sites to determine if there was really an environmental issue — just as it takes inspection and testing to see if there is a renewable energy resource. And the issue is not just wind, solar and geothermal, she said; oil and gas development is still going on in the West, she pointed out.
The environmentalists are focused on oil and gas development, too; they say they would like to see such developments around existing gas wells, coal strip mines that have been filled in and other rural areas that are already industrialized.
Reports Offer Mixed Message on U.S. Economy...JACK HEALY
The struggling American economy offered up a batch of mixed messages about its health on Wednesday, including a report that raised questions about whether unemployment was rising faster than economists had expected.
In a series of reports from the government and private groups, an index of manufacturing activity improved slightly in March but was still mired in negative terrain. Construction spending fell. The number of for-sale homes with signed contracts increased as housing prices continued to drop.
And a report from ADP and Macroeconomic Advisers said the private sector shed an estimated 742,000 jobs in March, a starker figure than average expectations for the government’s monthly report on unemployment. Economists say they believe the economy lost 660,000 jobs in March, and are waiting for the Labor Department to release its jobless report on Friday.
But whether job losses for the month total 600,000 or more than 700,000, economists are bracing for a bad number. Confronted with falling profits and lower revenue, employers have been slashing positions to conserve cash as the recession drags on.
And economists said that some faint signs of hope in consumer spending and retail sales figures were not likely to affect the pace of layoffs and contraction.
“Companies are so miserable and so scared that they need to see more than a month or two of things being less bad before they’re even willing to contemplate the rate at which they’re letting people go,” said Ian Shepherdson, chief United States economist at High Frequency Economics.
Other reports released Wednesday offered glimpses of daylight, but only faint ones.
“Many pockets of improvement” and “still very slow” were comments that reflected the tug of war in the manufacturing sector, according to the Institute for Supply Management’s March report. Manufacturing conditions declined for 14th month, but the group’s index rose slightly to 36.3 from 35.8 a month ago, possibly reflecting moderation in the declines.
New orders increased 8.1 percent, which prompted one economist to report seeing some “shoots of green in the details” of the report.
The National Association of Realtors reported that sales of pending homes rose a seasonally adjusted 2.1 percent in February from a month earlier, bolstered by double-digit increases in the Northeast and Midwest. The index of pending-home sales — which encompasses deals that have signed contracts but have not closed — bounced off a record low.
“Pending home sales have a way to go for there to be a meaningful increase, but recent increases in shopping activity are hopeful indicators that we’ll see additional sales gains,” Lawrence Yun, chief economist for the association, said in a statement.
The group’s index of how affordable homes are rose to a new record high as home prices continued to slide and mortgage rates declined. The Mortgage Banker’s Association said the average interest rate on a 30-year fixed mortgage fell to 4.61 percent last week as the Federal Reserve’s actions to ease lending rippled through credit markets.
With many housing markets across the country still careening lower, builders have cut back drastically — a fact reflected in the government’s latest report on construction spending. Over all, construction spending fell 0.9 percent in February, a shallower drop than expected.
But residential construction hit another wall. Spending on residential construction projects fell 4.1 percent from January, and was 29 percent lower than a year ago. Spending to build offices, highways, hospitals and other nonresidential projects was up slightly, but economists expect that section of the market to shrink.
“There’s no sign of any inflection point at all,” Mr. Shepherdson said, referring to the measure of when a decline begins to soften. “The trend is clearly downward.”
Pending home sales off lows
Pending sales of existing homes rose slightly from record January low while affordability hit record high...Les Christie
NEW YORK (CNNMoney.com) -- The number of existing homes put under contract ticked up in February after hitting historic lows the previous month.
The National Association of Realtors reported that its monthly Pending Home Sales Index rose 2.1% to 82.1 from 80.4 in January.
The Midwest saw the largest gain of any regions, with pending home sales jumping 14.5%. The Northeast also recorded double-digit growth at 10.6%. The South inched up 4.4%, and the West dropped 13.5%.
"Pending home sales have a way to go for there to be a meaningful increase, but recent increases in shopping activity are hopeful indicators that we'll see additional sales gains," said NAR's chief economist, Lawrence Yun.
Housing affordability hit a record high in February. NAR's Housing Affordability Index jumped 0.9 percentage points to 173.5 in February, which is up 36.3 percentage points from a year ago. To determine affordability, the HAI incorporates the relationship between home prices, mortgage interest rates and family income.
According to the NAR report, a family earning the national median of $59,700 could afford a $285,600 home in February, presuming they devote no more than 25% of gross income to mortgage principal and interest. The national median price for existing single-family homes is $164,600.
Yun expects inventories of homes on the market to swell during the coming months if sellers follow the normal pattern of increased selling during the spring.
"But with the positive housing stimulus incentives now in place, we expect home sales to gain momentum in the second half of the year with first-time buyers absorbing a lot of the excess inventory," he said.
That should lead to more stable housing market conditions by the end of the year, NAR predicts.
When home prices hit bottom
The end may be in sight - and getting a better sense of when it's coming can help you make the smartest buying and selling decisions...Amanda Gengler. Additional Reporting by Veronica Crews and Alexis Jeffries contributed to this article.
(Money Magazine) -- Call it the Great Housing Paralysis of 2009. If you're hoping to buy your first home or invest in a second one, you're probably sidelined, unsure when to jump in. If you want to sell, you're thinking it may be better to wait. And even if you don't plan to either buy or sell anytime soon, watching one of your biggest assets tank is about as much fun as being chased by hornets. When will the pain stop?
Nationwide, home prices will bottom out at the end of this year, according to the forecasters at Moody's Economy.com. Median prices will probably fall another 10% on top of the 27% they've plummeted since their 2006 peak. That prediction assumes that President Obama's various recovery efforts - including billions to slow foreclosures and goose bank lending, plus a tax credit to most 2009 buyers who haven't owned in the past three years - will have some effect. If they don't, says Economy.com's Mark Zandi, the bottom could come as late as 2011.
And then? "The recovery will look more like a U than a V," predicts Mike Larson, a real estate analyst at Weiss Research. Translation: After home prices hit their lows, they'll probably stay there for a few years as the economy slowly struggles back to its feet. Prices aren't expected to reach their 2006 levels again for another decade.
Before you reach for the Xanax, think about a few things. First, the nation was in a housing bubble, remember? What's happening now is both inevitable and necessary. Second, if you haven't yet bought your first home, you should be happier than Kate Winslet on Oscar night. Third - and most important - the outlook varies dramatically depending on where you live. If you're in Memphis or Greenville, S.C., for example, the bleeding is almost over. Find projections for when the nation's 100 largest metro areas will hit bottom - and how prices are likely to change in the next 12 months in our Real Estate 2009 list.
As you've heard countless times, you should think of your home primarily as a place to live, not as an investment. And it's nearly impossible to time the bottom perfectly. That said, getting a sense of the price trends in your area can give you the confidence to make decisions that can save you a whole lot of money. For the latest advice on buying, investing, and selling - no matter where you live - read on.
Factor in future drops. Buying in one of the areas that is expected to keep falling significantly for another year or more is - how shall we put it? - probably not the greatest idea. If you don't currently own a home, keep renting until your market is closer to its trough (you can find that information on the Real Estate 2009 list).
But if you really want to buy now - for example, you're moving to a city where the available rental housing isn't appropriate for your family - aim to negotiate a deal that factors in this year's expected price drop. For example, if your market is forecast to fall 10%, bid at least 10% less than the home's current value. If the seller refuses, find another house (there are plenty).
Even if you can't score a deal like that, you can console yourself that you'll have a decent shot at making up future price declines (and the thousands you spent in closing costs) as long as you stay put for at least five to seven years.
Consider foreclosures and short sales. If getting a great deal is your main goal, look for foreclosures, which typically sell for at least 20% to 30% less than market value, according to foreclosure-listing website RealtyTrac. Because these homes are sometimes abandoned and stripped, get a contractor to make a free estimate of the time and cost of repairs, and make sure they won't wipe out the amount you'd save.
Another economical option: short sales, in which bankers allow homeowners to sell for less than they owe. They can save you 10% or more. The seller typically still lives in the home, so it's usually in decent shape. One big drawback: The process can take up to six months and can fall apart at the last minute. "If foreclosure is 30 to 40 days away, it's very unlikely that the short sale will happen first," says Glenn Kelman, CEO of Redfin, an online real estate broker. For more see "Snag a Great Deal on a Short Sale."
Be smart about mortgages. Today's rates - averaging 5.2% for a 30-year fixed loan - are steals. They'll probably hover in the 4.75% to 5.5% range all year, says Larson, so there's no need to rush to lock in. (Jumbo loans - those larger than $417,000, or up to $729,750 in certain high-cost areas - average 6.8% and are unlikely to close in on traditional rates this year.) However, because some lenders are requiring more information today, it's taking longer (about 45 to 60 days) for banks to approve loans. To land the best rates with no extra costs, you'll usually need at least 20% down and a credit score of 720 or better. And to qualify for any mortgage, your monthly payments toward debt should eat up no more than 43% of your pretax income; your monthly mortgage, insurance, and taxes should total 31% or less.
Think tortoise, not hare. Because prices have further to fall in most areas, forget about flipping. You're better off investing in, say, a vacation home, a future retirement home, or a rental property that you're planning to hold for a minimum of five to seven years. Otherwise you run a significant risk of losing money from future price declines, plus closing costs.
Focus on location, location, location. If you plan to rent out your purchase at some point, look beyond the deal. "Many investors are simply looking for where prices have fallen the most, but they also need to look for areas where the economy is still strong and people can find jobs," says Amy Bohutinsky, a vice president at Zillow.com. Many cities with large price drops have high unemployment. Look for areas close to public transportation, a university, or shops and nightlife. "Those neighborhoods will appeal to people in their twenties and thirties who have been waiting and renting," says Bohutinsky.
Get pre-approved. Many lenders still want nothing to do with investors, so you'll face tougher loan requirements than you would have a few years ago. Banks may also limit you to perhaps four outstanding mortgages if you don't have tons of cash on hand. Before you start scouting neighborhoods, get pre-approved for a loan so that you're sure you will qualify.
Stop deluding yourself. Ignore list prices and base your asking price on what similar homes in your area have actually sold for in the past three months. "Even six months ago the market was totally different," says Ellen Klein, a realtor in Rockaway, N.J.
No nibbles after 30 days? Drop the price. An even better strategy, says Klein: Right out of the gate, price your home at 10% below what comparable ones have gone for. That may attract more than one bidder, pushing up the final price. If your area is on Real Estate 2009 list and is forecast to fall by double digits in the next 12 months, do whatever it takes to unload now. The longer you hold on, the more the value will erode. The alternative: Stay put.
Spiff up the joint. If your area has lots of foreclosures, it'll be hard to compete on price. But it won't be hard to compete on condition. So make repairs now, then heavily market the fact that your house is move-in ready. Throw in a bigger commission to buyer agents so that they'll show it more often. Also advertise that you have a flexible closing date - even if it means you must rent until your next home is ready. That way buyers who must move in 30 days will know yours is an option.
Get creative. If you absolutely must move out soon and your home isn't selling, consider offering a rent-to-own option, sugests Eric Mangan of ForSaleByOwner.com. A potential buyer pays you a monthly sum to live there. After a set number of months - say, six to 18 - he either has the option to buy or is required to buy. You'll need to pay an attorney about $300 to draft the contract. But at least you'll have money coming in each month to cover some or all of your mortgage payment.
No matter where you live, remember that a year can make a huge difference. If the forecasts prove true, by this time in 2010 about half the metro areas mapped on these pages will have stopped falling. The housing market - slowly, gingerly - will start reviving. At last!