Friday
Jul182014

Prey for Return of Atlantic Cod Population

Scientific surveys suggest the cod population in the Gulf of Maine is seriously depleted. (Pew Charitable Trusts)Diversity and numbers of forage fish available to cod and other predators has dwindled

By PETER BAKER

A recent study illustrates what has happened to New England’s once plentiful Atlantic cod population, and the findings highlight the big role that little fish play in our marine ecosystems and economy.

It’s no secret that New England’s cod are in trouble. Overfishing has so severely depleted the population that federal officials declared a fishery disaster and Congress appropriated more than $30 million in aid. But even as the bottom fell out of cod stocks, many fishermen insisted the fish were still plentiful in their nets and disputed the science supporting tighter catch limits.

Why did fishermen see a bounty while scientists in fact called it a bust?

Researchers at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Northeast Fisheries Science Center say a change in the forage fish, or small prey species, the cod were eating offers an explanation.

A sand lance.In an article published in May in the Canadian Journal of Fisheries and Aquatic Science, the authors say that around 2006 the dominant prey for cod switched from Atlantic herring to sand lance — small, eel-like fish that burrow in the sediment of the seafloor. Sand lance were abundant in an area known as Stellwagen Bank, and so cod, too, congregated there. Soon, cod fishermen focused so much effort on the bank that some 45 percent of the cod caught in a year came from just a 100-square-mile area in the region.

But scientific surveys assessing the cod population over more than 20,000 square miles in the Gulf of Maine continued to show that the larger population was seriously depleted. Clearly, the abundance in one small region didn’t accurately reflect the overall status of cod. The authors say they hope the findings can “help fishery managers, scientists and the industry understand and resolve apparent conflicts between assessment results and the experiences of the fishing industry.”

While this study helps to explain the recent past, it also holds important lessons for the future of fishing. The switch in cod diet from herring to sand lance held major implications for one of the region’s most economically important fish. Over the years, through intensive fishing for prey species such as Atlantic herring and menhaden, plus the depletion of other historically important prey such as river herring and shad, the “menu” of forage fish available to cod and other predators has changed. We need a management system that better monitors and responds to the ways prey and predators interact.

Such a system is available, and it’s called ecosystem-based fisheries management. Scientists have long known that simply measuring and managing one fish species at a time is insufficient. So they’ve put decades of work into developing the ecosystem-based approach to provide a much more accurate and useful picture of what’s occurring in the water.

A good ecosystem-based fisheries management program would take the needs of predator species into account and allow managers to restore the abundance of prey, causing a resurgence of fish stocks and, ultimately, providing greater opportunity for the fishermen who depend on them.

Peter Baker directs The Pew Charitable Trusts’ U.S. ocean conservation efforts in the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic.

Wednesday
Jun252014

What to Pack for 8 Days of Paddling R.I.'s Rivers?

By DAVID SMITH

David needs to pack this equipment, and at least one bag of chocolate chip cookies, into his 14-foot kayak for eight days of paddling across Rhode Island. (David Smith)An eight-day kayak trip sounds easy enough, but then again I have to carry everything I could possibly need in a 14-foot-long Current Design Kestrel. Finite space, meet my need to pack for a long trip.

I have my pride, and paddling down the river with a floating flea market attached to the outside of my kayak is not my first choice. And there is also the safety issue of making it top-heavy. That has to be avoided. I need to be able to turn a corner without rolling.

So, how did I come to be faced with this dilemma? I have been graciously allowed to accompany three members of the Rhode Island Canoe & Kayak Association on their quest to “Paddle Across Rhode Island” beginning July 6. As a freelance writer it sounded too good to pass up. The group is paddling from the Massachusetts border to where the Pawcatuck River meets Little Narragansett Bay in Watch Hill. They have estimated it to be 101 miles.

I have camped for one or two nights on paddles along rivers in the past so I wasn’t starting from a position of ignorance. But I knew there is going to have to be some compromises. For one thing, I need to stow a kayak cart for long portages, one of which is 9 miles. The cart weighs at least 7 pounds. Luckily, it breaks down and one part will fit behind my seat. The wheels will go inside the back compartment, but that leaves less room for other gear.

Weight is definitely going to be an issue, and titanium accessories are only one small step. I have read about backpackers who worry about mere ounces and have gone so far as to cut the handle off a toothbrush and take dehydrated meals out of “heavy” foil pouches and put them in plastic bags.

I don’t own a scale. I’ll have to wing it.

For one thing, this trip just needs a sleeping bag liner. My Big Agnes Emerald Mountain tent weighs about 3 pounds (with titanium stakes), so I’m good there. I usually carry two GSI Outdoors micro-tables but I will only bring one. I need to keep my food off the ground when I am cooking.

I will need to carry three days of water, because filtering a supply from the Blackstone River and other waterways in Providence is not my first choice. I figure between the three 48-ounce Nalgene bottles and my Camelbak I should be all set. We will refill at various portage points.

Clothes are easy. It’s July. I will wash one shirt and wear the spare. One pair of shorts should be fine. I do need my hiking shoes for those portages and a pair of socks. Water shoes are fine for launching and short walks, but a long trek ... no.

My first-aid kit is a must. The guys suggested that I could leave that home because they would have one. It wouldn’t seem right. Of all the things I carry, I have spent a lot of time on my first-aid kit. I don’t want to be miles and hours from the nearest help wondering why I didn’t spend $12 for a package of Quikclot. I hope I never have to use it, and when the package expires I will gladly dispose of it. But what price do you put on your health?

I have grazed my thumb with a pruning saw while in the swamp. Luckily, I pulled out my kit, cleaned it, put on some antibiotic and wrapped it with tape. My kit is going with me. If I have to, I will leave that extra bag of cookies at home.

And that brings me to food. I won’t be bringing a small cooler with me on this trip. For one thing, what’s the point? And another is I don’t have room.

Let me just say up front that I hate most dehydrated food. It tastes awful. How can you screw up a simple meal of spaghetti and sauce? When I tried it the other day, it wasn’t even spaghetti. It was spiral pasta. I tried some other meals and was equally disappointed.

I always bring food that I normally would eat and this trip will be no exception. Well, there is one exception. I am bringing dehydrated packages of blueberry granola. Add some water and it makes a nice breakfast.

Take a walk in the supermarket and you will find a fascinating array of prepared foods, including rice and even cooked chicken in a pouch. I usually take the rice, add the pouch of chicken and rehydrate some vegetables and mix it all together. It’s at least palatable with the right sauce. I can do the same with different flavors of packaged rice and noodles at $1 a package, compared to the $6 to $8 for the dehydrated varieties.

For a change of pace from plain water, I plan on filling a 16-ounce bottle with water in the morning and throwing in a peach-flavored tea bag and a bit of sugar. It will be a nice break at lunch, which should be peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.

I don’t want to paddle all day and have to settle for dehydrated food. If it takes a bit longer to prepare and I have to clean up a few utensils afterwards I am good with that.

The real test will be when I put everything in dry bags and pack my kayak for a trial run. I will find out quickly what is essential. The trick is that I can’t pack it tight. When you have to break camp and put stuff back in the kayak it never fits the same way. Things get separated, not rolled as tight. I will also have to contend with a bag of garbage. Luckily there will be spots along the way to dispose of it.

The other guys on the trip are paddling canoes, and they have a lot of storage room. It sounds like they are bringing a lot of “comfort” items. That’s OK. My comfort items are my Neo-air mattress and my Nemo pillow. They will definitely survive the cut. And somewhere I have to find room for at least one bag of those chocolate chip cookies. Breakfast bars are good but they get old in a hurry. I have never met a cookie I didn’t like.

Oh, and I have to buy a three-pack of chocolate milk that doesn’t have to be refrigerated. If I cool it in the river it will be a blessing. I once brought them on a scouting trip and by the end of the three-day outing I could have sold them for $5 a carton.

Yikes, I need to go pack. Where’s my revised list?

Freelance writer David Smith is a frequent ecoRI News contributor. In his spare time, the Westerly resident can be found kayaking and fishing in southern Rhode Island.

Tuesday
Jun172014

Climate Action a Medical Necessity for Ocean State

By Dr. PAUL MORRISSEY

Recently, I received an invitation to speak at a press conference on climate change. The night before the event, my three children asked me, “Dad, what do you know about climate? Why are you a climate expert?”

“I’m not,” I told them, “but climate affects us all.”

As an organ transplantation surgeon for Rhode Island Hospital, I’m intimately aware of the potential disasters we face from climate change. When someone passes away and the family consents to donate their organs, I’m the person who they call to recover those organs and liberate two people from dialysis, hopefully giving them a longer and better quality life. While most of the donors are local, some have been flown in from as far as Bermuda and California.

Medicine is a complex endeavor and relies on a system of infrastructure to support it. If weather disasters due to climate change — severe storms, power outages and floods, to name a few — lead to failures of this infrastructure, there will be serious medical consequences. New Orleans is a stark example of this. Nearly a decade later, the medical system is still recovering from the damages caused by Hurricane Katrina, particularly regarding the delivery of the most complex types of care.

As climate change becomes a reality and similar climate-related disasters threaten Rhode Island, imagine the individual Rhode Islanders who can’t receive timely surgery because of power outages and blocked transportation routes.

Rhode Island also faces more immediate adverse health consequences of climate change. As average temperatures continue to rise, Rhode Island will experience longer heat waves and a drastic increase in the number of extreme heat days. The annual number of hot days (over 90 degrees Fahrenheit) is predicted to increase from about five now to nearly 60 by 2100.

Extreme heat days are already affecting an increasing number of people, particularly children, with asthma and heat stroke.

Climate change also affects the quality of life in the Ocean State. A healthy and thriving environment is an important benefit to living in Rhode Island, with its beautiful beaches and parks. As Rhode Island faces sea-level rise and other impacts of climate change that deface its beauty, it might become a less desirable place for raising a family and recreation, and highly skilled professionals might choose to work elsewhere.

Rhode Island Hospital and the medical field throughout the state employ 77,000 people. These people came to the state for a reason. Some of them came because of the top-notch universities or because Providence is a great city. Many came to Rhode Island because it’s a beautiful place to live. We’re attracted by the beaches, and we’re attracted by the environment. If that starts to lose its luster as the impacts of climate change become more real, then we’re going to have a tougher time recruiting talented physicians and medical researchers.

Currently, the General Assembly is the closest it has ever been to passing comprehensive climate legislation. Companion bills S2952 and H7904 set targets for cutting carbon emissions while empowering individual communities to adapt to sea-level rise and more intense weather. Our neighbors in Massachusetts and Connecticut have already seen great benefits from similar legislation. These bills provide Rhode Islanders with our most important weapon in the battle against climate change.

I’m not a climate expert, but I know that if we don’t take action on climate now, our state will lose crucial economic and medical opportunities.

Dr. Paul Morrissey is a kidney transplantation surgeon at Rhode Island Hospital.

Tuesday
Jun172014

We Need Softer, Smarter Approach to Resiliency

By KENNETH J. FILARSKI

On behalf of the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC), as an architect, a planner and chair of USGBC Rhode Island, it’s our vision to create and enhance buildings and communities that will regenerate and sustain the health and vitality of all life within a generation.

Our work embraces the triple bottom line of people, planet and profit. People for our work creating healthy communities and happy citizens; planet for enhancing our surroundings for a cleaner and livable environment; and profit for building a more robust economy.

I admittedly am not a big fan of the now-popular words "resiliency" and "resilient." That is largely because of the mindset and context of the way those words are used. Far too often resiliency and resilient are used and interpreted in a most machismo sense: to build or rebuild after a disaster with something bigger, stronger, tougher. We need a softer, smarter approach to resiliency. The machismo approach costs us money and resources.

Anything we do in the realm of resiliency will help the economy. There is no question about that. But that is an ordinary approach. We can do better. We should be doing the extraordinary. An approach based on ecology is far more intelligent, is sustainable, makes efficient use of all resources and flows with the path of least resistance.

In 2004, according to the Center for Science and Technology Policy Research at the University of Colorado, economic losses in the United States due to disaster events was more than $113 billion. Furthermore, the gap between the dollar amount of those economic disaster losses and the compensation for those insured losses is increasing at a geometric rate. There is no doubt we are experiencing more economic losses with less insurance dollar compensation, which further reduces the flow of capital into our economy.

Decent building codes are critical tools in times of disasters and increased extreme weather events. Many people regard building codes as the highest standard of construction, when in fact they are a minimum standard. If building codes or our government would inform the property owner that elevating a building 3 feet above Base Flood Elevation (BFE) instead of the code requirement of 1 foot above BFE, it would save the property owner of upwards of 90 percent of their flood insurance premium. Furthermore, it would make citizens feel good about government, appreciative of that information, in addition to saving them real dollars, which might then be put back into the local economy.

Roy Carpenter’s beach in Matunuck is an iconic coastal summer colony of some 373 cottages. For the tax appraisal of those cottages alone, not the land value, the town of South Kingstown receives a substantial amount of revenue in property taxes. Those buildings are rather fragile structures as current building codes go. If superstorm Sandy had hit Rhode Island as it did New Jersey and New York, those cottages are gone and that revenue is lost.

According to the New England Environmental Finance Center, using existing flood protection measures, some 150 million to 300 million people will be flooded from a 0.5 meter of sea-level rise, which is expected by the middle of this century. It’s estimated that if more sustainable flood protection measures were used, including sustainable hazard mitigation, the magnitude of the people impacted by that 0.5-meter rise would be reduced downward to some 1 million to 10 million people. The result is not zero, but it’s a significant reduction — real money and real human lives saved by being smart.

A penny saved is a dollar earned. An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. In the economics of resiliency, let’s focus on the ounces and the pennies in the beginning, rather than paying with our dollars and needless pounds of cure later on. Aesop’s Fables tell us that a bundle of sticks is stronger than one stick. Let’s bundle our resources and link them together. A diverse ecology is stronger than a simple ecology.

With Rhode Island’s Executive Climate Change Council, Senate bill 2952 and House bill 7904, we are getting there. At a time when the General Assembly is dealing with the state budget, they might appreciate this quote from architect and legendary Brazilian Mayor Jamie Lerner: “If you want creativity, take a zero off your budget; if you want sustainability, take off two zeros.”

The resiliency of Rhode Island, which includes the environment, economic development and social equity, needs to be based in a holistic understanding and an embracing of our ecology. Resiliency needs to be intelligent and sustainable. If we can do that, we have taken a significant step.

Kenneth J. Filarski is principal of FILARSKI/ARCHITECTURE+PLANNING+RESEARCH an ecology studio and design workshop.

Tuesday
Jun172014

A Generational Mission for a Sustainable Future

By HERBERT F. RADFORD

American systems theorist, architect, engineer, author, designer, inventor and futurist Richard Buckminster Fuller was known to pose an important question to himself by asking, “If the future of human civilization depended on me, what would I do, what would I be?

Doubtless, Fuller would have gone on to answer his own question at prescriptive length by offering up new perspectives as to what he saw as vital to keep “Spaceship Earth,” as he called our highly interconnected planet, in operating order.

If he were alive today Fuller likely wouldn’t be astounded by the pace and complexities of globalization, the speed with which digital and transportation technology are increasing integration of the complex natural, social and technological systems on which human life depend.

He would be astounded, however, at our insistence on continuing to follow one dominant economic development/growth model, with its reliance on mass production, consumption and waste — and all of it fueled by an energy infrastructure that remains almost entirely dependent on carbon-based fossil fuels. He would view this as highly problematic. He would take action.

As a species, humanity is confronted today with a challenge that we don’t seem to recognize or to take seriously. Put simply, as our population races toward 9 billion by 2050, we are faced with a difficult challenge in allocating ever-faster disappearing natural resources to sustain us. We are presuming that the same development models that helped create the enormous post-World War II middle-class economies in Europe, North America and Japan can be endlessly duplicated worldwide, utilizing a presumably endless supply of oil, gas and coal.

The reality, however, is something else entirely. Through exclusive reliance on fossil fuels as the means to power our technological systems, we pump some 80 million tons of greenhouse gases, chiefly carbon dioxide, into our atmosphere daily. Irrefutable, peer-reviewed scientific evidence has shown this burning of fossil fuels is linked to climate change.

Based on rising atmospheric temperatures, we are fast approaching a point of no return, and stand to experience more frequent extreme weather, increasingly rapid polar ice melting, coastal flooding, species depletion, crop and food production destabilization, water shortages, and increased disease. It’s not a pretty picture.

We live, as Al Gore recently said in regard to global warming, under the influence of a “culture of distraction.” We are content with business as usual, willfully ignorant of the consequences of choosing to follow.

Faced with this increasingly less-hidden problem as the evidence mounts daily, we must ask ourselves how do we become better stewards. The answer lies perhaps in the revisiting the definitional meaning of the capitalistic system to which we subscribe.

Capitalism, as we know it, has served humanity well, albeit unevenly and imperfectly, in the sense that 350 years ago, before the industrial revolution, before 18th-century “enlightenment” gave us individual rights and freedoms, apart from a microscopically thin elite at the top of the economic order, everyone was poor.

Gradually, throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, profits from mercantilistic trade were reinvested in manufacturing, theories of comparative advantage took hold in reality, labor was directed from agriculture alone to the manufacturing wage and the industrial revolution was born. The classic factors of production — land, labor and capital — formed the pillars of what we came to call the traditional capitalist system.

American physicist, environmentalist and writer Amory Lovins, in his 1999 seminal study of modern capitalism, offered a new interpretation of the factors of production based on contemporary realities by providing the definition of what he calls “natural capitalism”:

“In a traditional economic analysis of the factors of production, natural capital would usually be classified as ‘land’ distinct from ‘capital’ in its original sense. The historical distinction between ‘land’ and ‘capital’ was that land is naturally occurring and its supply is assumed to be fixed, whereas capital as originally defined referred only to man-made goods.

“It has been argued that it's useful to view many natural systems as capital because they can be improved or degraded by the actions of man over time, so that to view them as if their productive capacity is fixed by nature alone is misleading. Moreover, they yield benefits naturally which are harvested by humans, those being nature's services. ... These benefits are in some ways similar to those realized by owners of infrastructural capital which yields more goods, e.g. a factory which produces automobiles just as an apple tree produces apples.”

Lovins, in developing the concept of natural capitalism, began a decade ago to acquaint us with a new approach to viewing the interrelationship of natural and technological systems, and to set the stage for his argument today that fossil fuels are “capital” that should be preserved. He has taken his views to a new level in the movement to “reinvent fire” and address the limitations we have imposed in addressing climate change, saying that, “Saving and displacing fossil fuels can work better and cost less than buying and burning them.”

Lovins presents an argument which demonstrates that shifting to a new energy paradigm can save more than $5 trillion in net present value while supporting a U.S. economy that  would be 158 percent larger by 2050. He has asserted that we can do this with “no new inventions, no new federal taxes, mandates, subsidies or laws, completely end-running Washington, D.C., gridlock.” He has asserted that we can end oil and coal use, for $5 trillion less than we currently spend with no act of Congress led by for-profit business interests, and that “our energy future is not fate, but choice and that choice is very flexible.”

But a central question emerges. If as science has shown we are in trouble and need to consider a more sustainable, non-fossil-fuel dependent economic development, what is required to get the attention of citizens and policymakers worldwide to recognize the environmentally destructive shortcomings of reliance on one monolithic, throw-away, fossil fuel-based approach to economic development and to mobilize to do something about it?

Is it imagery of the melting ice caps with giant ice formations breaking apart? Is it the live camera view of a runaway oil well spilling into the Gulf of Mexico for months? Is it imagery of dying, oil-soaked wildlife?

As compelling and exasperating as these images may be, as modern globalized humans, we have a short attention span. We are confronted with visual and other information overload. We have ceased to pay any real attention.

Nicholas Stern, the former chief economist of the World Bank, offers an example of revisiting the true cost of the energy backbone of our time: fossil fuel in its most visible form, the oil we use to heat our homes and buildings and to fuel our transportation.

As described by Manzoor Ahmed in his review of sustainability and education:

“Stern, in a ground-breaking study carried out in 2006 on the future costs of climate change, identified a massive market failure as a key problem. He identified one example as being the failure of the market to take into account the climate change costs of burning fossil fuels.

“The petrol price of $3 a gallon at the pump in the United States in mid-2007 reflected the cost of discovering oil, extracting it, refining it and delivering it to the service station. It overlooked the costs of climate change, tax subsidies to the oil industry (such as the oil depletion allowance), the health care costs for treating respiratory illnesses caused by polluted air, and the military costs of protecting access to oil in politically unstable regions. The difference between the market prices for fossil fuels and the prices that also incorporate their environmental costs to society is obviously huge. The International Centre for Technology Assessment calculated that factoring in other costs beyond those for production and distribution would put the price of a gallon at the pump up to $15 instead of $3.”

Put simply, if we educate ourselves to be aware of the true cost, meaning inclusive of the environmental costs, of reliance on fossil fuel alone, then perhaps we have discovered an attention-getting device. We are addressing the case and cause of environmental degradation at the wallet level, in the pocketbook.

If consumers see the complete cost of reliance on fossil fuel as closer to $15 a gallon and not $3, then perhaps an overdue awakening could be engineered.

In his 2008 book “Hot Flat and Crowded” author and New York Times columnist Tom Freidman asserts:

“... if we want to maintain our technological, economic and moral leadership and a habitable planet, rich with flora and fauna, leopards and lions, and human communities that can grow in a sustainable way — things will have to change around here, and fast.”

He is correct, things do need to change fast. Under the present paradigm of fossil-fueled, mass consumption and waste, time is short before reaching  manmade irreversible instability.

How do we avoid this scenario? What is required is the mobilization of political will to convince ourselves and our leadership that change is at hand and that it’s a good business proposition that has the advantage of political neutrality.

As daunting as this may seem, Al Gore’s most important message from his 2006 and film “An Inconvenient Truth” is that “in America, political will is a renewable resource.” And renew it we must.

Providence resident Herbert F. Radford teaches advanced communication for Harvard post-doctoral researchers at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston.

Thursday
Jun122014

Legislature Must be Resilient on Climate Change

By CHRISTINE WEST

I recently had the privilege of standing alongside fellow Rhode Island business leaders on the steps of the Statehouse to promote some of the most important legislation that will come up for a vote this year. The two bills deal with climate change — an issue with massive implications for the local economy. (Both the House and Senate passed its version of the bill June 11.)

With sea-level rise threatening coastal communities, extreme heat days making energy costs skyrocket and the risk increasing for a repeat of superstorm Sandy, it’s clear that climate change isn’t just an environmental issue. It impacts local business, employment, infrastructure and families. In this case, choosing between environment and economy is a false choice. Waiting to tackle this issue will hurt both our coastline and our pocketbooks. However, a little foresight and willingness to invest in the future can transform one of our most dire environmental threats into one of our biggest economic opportunities.

At my business, KITE Architects, we focus on designing intelligent and efficient buildings that will stand the test of time. We understand that our buildings need to be resilient — that is, suitable for the next generation, even as the climate changes. A key part of our business is helping companies, institutions and individuals reduce their energy use, lower their carbon footprint, and to generally make more resilient buildings.

The comprehensive climate-change bill that will be voted on this month clears the way through smarter planning and putting a high priority on saving energy. This will create jobs, not only for architects and engineers, but also the construction trades. Ultimately, it will be an investment with tangible value for years to come.

When our architects renovate a building, we make it more efficient, which results in savings for its occupants. Climate-change legislation would help all Rhode Islanders achieve these same savings. Neighboring state economies are already seeing positive impacts from similar legislation. A recent study on the Massachusetts Green Community Act by Analysis Inc. found that, after the first six years of implementation, the state saw $1.2 billion in net economic benefits, along with 16,000 new jobs.

In other words, Massachusetts is already reaping the benefits of implementing a long-term climate plan. There’s a reason why some 60 Rhode Island small businesses including ours have signed a letter asking the General Assembly to approve a similar plan. What’s good for the Ocean State’s climate is also good for Rhode Island business.

Architects, engineers and builders already have the technology and the willingness to reduce energy use and lessen our infrastructural greenhouse gas emissions. What we need now is the political will and leadership to pave the way toward applying this knowledge, and scaling it up. We need smart planning tools and enforceable targets for carbon reductions. In short, we need policy that lives up to, and extends, our potential for making progress on climate change.

Please join me in contacting your state legislators today, and asking that they pass a comprehensive climate-change bill before the end of this session. For Rhode Island’s environment and economy, it’s the right thing to do.

Christine West is a principal at KITE Architects and is chair of the Providence City Plan Commission.

Friday
Jun062014

Use Power of Public Purse to Shrink Pay Gap

By Sen. CATHERINE COOL RUMSEY

Recently, Walmart CEO Doug McMillon told Business Insider that he’s an “associate,” just like the retail workers in Walmart stores. Mr. McMillon, however, makes nearly $10 million a year, while 30,000 of his “associates” make the minimum wage.

Many people recognize that the wide — and widening — wage gap in the United States is a detrimental economic trend that harms the vast majority of Americans. But as a country that has long revered the entrepreneurial spirit and the notion that those who build a successful enterprise deserve to reap its rewards, perhaps some feel there is little we can do to prevent wealth concentration among those at the top of private industry.

One element that contributes to the concentration of wealth in this country is the inordinately high compensation packages that many companies pay their executives. While the success of those firms often relies on paying disproportionately lower wages to the masses who create, sell or otherwise promote the corporation’s products or services, those at the top can pull down tens of millions in a single year, hundreds of times the salary of the vast majority of their employees.

According to a 2013 Economic Policy Institute study of the top 350 U.S. firms, CEO pay grew more than 876 percent between 1978 and 2011, more than twice the growth of the stock market and significantly faster than the growth of typical private sector workers. The ratio of CEO pay to average worker pay widened accordingly. In 1978 it was 29 to 1; by 1995, it had grown to 122 to 1, and it peaked at an astonishing 383 to 1 in 2000.

Low wages are not just a business matter. This extreme wage inequality often comes at a cost to the taxpayer, too. Many workers at the bottom of the pay scale are forced to rely on numerous social services — food assistance, subsidized child care, rent and energy assistance, and health care — to make ends meet, despite being employed full time.

To put the taxpayer cost into perspective, a recent report estimates that low-wage earners at a single Walmart Supercenter in Wisconsin cost taxpayers $900,000 to $1.75 million in public assistance provided to their employees annually. The question we as taxpayers need to ask ourselves is, “Why should our tax dollars subsidize economic inequality?”

I have proposed one course of action in the form of legislation (2014-S 2796) that would give preference in state contracts to companies whose executives are paid salaries that don’t exceed 32 times the salary of their lowest-paid full-time employee. As an example, for a company to have a preference in contracting with our state, if the CEO made $1.6 million, its lowest earners would need to make at least $50,000.

This legislation doesn’t stop companies from paying their CEOs whatever salary they want, nor does it even prevent those companies from bidding on and winning state contracts. It simply gives a preference to companies that do their part in reducing their employees’ need for taxpayer subsidies. I believe it would also lead to more efficient and effective pricing and services from companies that are truly interested in serving the public interest instead of soaking the taxpayers.

Fairer wage ratios and bringing up wages of those struggling will also return to the middle class some of the buying power it had in the middle of the 20th century — a plus for those very companies that have products to sell.

Our state speaks with our money; saying we would prefer, when possible, to do business with companies that aren’t contributing to the proliferation of economic inequality is the right way to use taxpayer money.

The hidden cost to the taxpayer as a result of wage inequality has been growing for decades; it will take many actions to change course. Congress passed the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act in 2010, which instituted a new level of transparency on executive pay. The Senate bill mplements a simple preference to help promote income security and economic justice for all Rhode Islanders.

Sen. Catherine Cool Rumsey is a Democrat who represents District 34 in Exeter, Charlestown, Richmond, Hopkinton and West Greenwich. Her bill passed the Senate on June 5 and will now go to the House of Representatives.

Thursday
Jun052014

We Can't Afford to Create Next Fisheries Disaster


By PETER BAKER

Federal and state officials recently announced a plan for the distribution of millions of dollars in disaster assistance for New England fishermen who depend on cod and other groundfish. But some of these same regional officials are considering a proposal that threatens to make things worse by cutting back habitat protections for depleted groundfish species.

In 2012, Acting Commerce Secretary Rebecca Blank declared a disaster after declines in the populations of groundfish forced sharp cuts in the allowable catch. A resulting framework agreement announced last month by regional officials at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) fisheries service would divide nearly $33 million in federal disaster assistance to six states.

Massachusetts — home to most of the region’s groundfish fleet — would take the lion’s share of the disaster money. Fishermen who qualify would be eligible for direct relief and various state programs would receive grants. A vessel “buy back” program is also in development.

As these taxpayer dollars are being distributed, it’s important that fisheries managers take a hard look at how this disaster came about, and how another one can be avoided — because New England has been in this situation before and could well be again.

Twenty years ago Commerce Secretary Ron Brown declared a disaster for groundfish after overfishing pushed cod and other populations to historic lows. Unfortunately, for most of the past two decades the New England Fishery Management Council, which works with NOAA to regulate fishing in federal waters in the region, didn’t do enough to correct the situation. The council failed to rein in overfishing, postponed the adoption of science-based catch limits and opted for weak rebuilding plans for overfished species. As a result, New England’s once-famous cod are still struggling to recover.

While some in the fishing industry say catch limits have caused their current problems, the data show that fishermen have often not been able to find enough cod to fill their quotas. New England also has the unfortunate distinction of having the most overfished populations of any fishery management region in the country.

Scientists say that one of the best ways to help cod and other depleted fish bounce back is to protect their habitat. Fish need places where they can find shelter and food, spawn, and grow. Habitat is where fish make more fish. And what New England needs is more fish.

The New England Fishery Management Council is working on a long-overdue revision to its plan for fish habitat protection and, unfortunately, it appears to be heading in the wrong direction. Industry-supported proposals before the council could slash the amount of marine habitat protected in New England by some 70 percent.

If this proposal prevails, we could be on a course to need continued disaster relief, even before this money is spent. Council members should instead stick to a strong, science-based approach to protect habitat for depleted New England fish populations. In the midst of one fishing disaster, New England officials shouldn't sow the seeds for another one.

Peter Baker directs The Pew Charitable Trusts’ U.S. ocean conservation efforts in the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic.

Thursday
Jun052014

Garrahy Garage Idea Not Grounded in Reality

By ANDREW FARRELL

I have reviewed the "Garrahy Courthouse Parking Garage Conceptual Analysis" report published in February. The report, which is really four separate reports on related topics, reveals that 1) there is no need for the parking garage 2) the garage will provide parking primarily for courthouse employees and visitors 3) Rhode Island taxpayers will be subsidizing the parking of the current courthouse employees and 4) the proposed LINK parcels development projections are wildly out of proportion with historic development and future population trends for the city.

Current parking status
In the report’s executive summary the premise for garage construction is given. On Page 1 it states that, “the transformation of the current surface parking lot at the Garrahy Courthouse into a structured parking garage represents a unique opportunity to address current parking capacity deficiencies and provide a mechanism to promote economic development through highest and best use development of the nearby LINK parcels.”

However, later in the report, on Page 3 of the Nelson Nygaard Parking Analysis memo, the results of a 2010 downtown Providence parking study are reviewed. That report stated that, “although there are pockets of high parking demand throughout the downtown and within sub-boundaries on an average weekday, overall there is still an ample supply of parking available.”

Within the three downtown zones measured, there were a total of 16,777 spaces, and an average weekday utilization rate of only 66 percent, equaling about 5,700 spaces unused during peak demand. On Page 1 of the Desman Associates memo within the conceptual analysis report the observation is made that the downtown parking lots are “virtually deserted after 5:00 PM on weekdays and all days on weekends and holidays.”

With no subsequent parking studies referenced in the overall report, there is no evidence to support the statement that there are parking capacity deficiencies to be addressed.

Garage usage and revenue projections
The report also describes in some detail the financial projections for the hypothetical courthouse garage development. The structure is assumed to be seven stories and would provide 1,250 spaces. Section 7.2 of the Executive Summary breaks down by category the projected users:

The report further describes each of the user categories:

Garrahy employees are the existing 517 courthouse employees who park off-site and would continue to pay a total of $32,000 per month in parking fees, or $384,000 annually.

Early-bird parkers are described as existing courthouse visitors. The report relates that courthouse administrators estimate the building attracts roughly 2,500 visitors a day.

Evening transients are identified as being primarily attendees of the Providence Performing Arts Center for 30 performances a year. This category would be supplemented in the future by demand for new retail development in the area.

Day transients are identified as additional courthouse visitors, Brown University Medical School visitors, and in the long term new office development users.

Overnight monthly users are identified as coming from existing and new residential development in the area.

Limited and general monthly users are identified as existing and new office workers in the area.

In using the report's own figures and assumptions, only 165 parking spaces, or 13 percent of the total facility, are projected to be available for use by current or future office and retail users. At the same time, the 517 courthouse users will be subsidized by the state of Rhode Island and the other parking garage users since they will be providing only 13 percent of the facility’s gross revenue, even though they will be using 40 percent of the total spaces.

With these gross revenue assumptions and projected operating expenses, the garage is forecast to generate a net loss through the first three years of $640,000. This deficit would be funded by the state of Rhode Island or the city of Providence.

LINK parcel development assumptions
The report references that the I-195 Redevelopment District Commission is working with two development scenarios:

Scenario 1 envisions more than a million square feet of office and research space to be built and occupied within the district. According to MG Commercial Real Estate, based in Providence, the downtown Providence commercial real-estate market consists of 6.3 million square feet, and according the CB Richard Ellis had a vacancy rate of 16.2 percent.

Increasing the total built commercial real-estate environment by 16 percent would take a considerable amount of expansions and relocations to Providence by companies to meet this projection, which would be unprecedented given that the total labor force in the Providence MSA as increased by only 48,553 from March 1994 to March 2014.

Scenario 2 envisions 1,050 apartments to be built within the district. According to the Rhode Island Statewide Planning Program’s “Rhode Island 2010-2040 Populations Projections” report, published in April 2013, the population of Providence is forecasted to increase from the 2010 census figure of 178,042 to 180,583, an increase of about 2,500 people. A recent market study conducted on the feasibility of a large multifamily project in Providence, published in January, 2013, recommended a lease-up rate assumption of 10 units per month.

The market data and population projections don’t support the development assumptions that are being used to derive future downtown parking needs. Overall, the stated reasons for building the Garrahy garage don’t match the reality on the ground as currently exists today, nor the projected reality based on the commercial real-estate market and demographic trends.

Andrew Farrell works for a national organization dedicated to community redevelopment and historic preservation through the use of public/private partnerships. He is based in Washington, D.C.

Wednesday
May282014

Business Climate Think Tanks Offer Same Tired Lies

By GREG GERRITT

I have seen a steady stream of words claiming that if Rhode Island would just do what the rich folks want us to do, everything would be OK. Rather than calling it doing the bidding of the 1 percent, the think tanks give it a bit of a veneer and call it the business climate. Whatever you call it, the prescriptions called for by the propagandists for the ruling class are almost exactly the opposite of what Rhode Island needs to create prosperity.

According to Kansas Inc., the Kansas state agency tasked with economic development, there is no evidence that undoing environmental regulations does anything useful for the economy, and cutting taxes has an effect so small that you probably wouldn’t notice.

Ron Coan, editor for the Journal of Applied Research in Economic Development, is clear about how little value is generated by these business reports.

He writes, “We are reluctant to touch any state or city business climate studies — although we will. With very few exceptions, most should never be read. Period! Most rankings are little more than bullets fired at an enemy, and like all bullets, they should be dodged. Most indexes and rankings will decide for you what is valued in a business climate and toss out all the rest ... in the process the reader becomes cannon fodder in the polarization of America. If nobody read this stuff, it might eventually go away.”

There is, however, an abundance of evidence, beginning with Stephen Meyers’ classic 1991 study, that links strong regulatory climates with healthier economies. The innovation generated by the need to clean up, combined with efficiencies generated by not throwing things away, has had a huge positive effect on many bottom lines, even before we discuss the economics of the health and well-being benefits that strong regulations bring.

In fact, a number of studies have shown that the various sections of the federal Clean Air Act have fostered economic benefits well above the cost of implementation, as well as being a major spur to innovation and efficiency in a variety of industries.

Beyond bludgeoning us with the business climate, economic development efforts in Rhode Island are mostly misguided, because they seek goals that don’t match current conditions. There is pretty good evidence that places like Rhode Island, which saw their industrial development peak more than 100 years ago and have since sprawled away from urbanism and have few natural resources that can be mined or drilled, are unlikely to have rapid economic growth. The more Rhode Island thrashes around for growth by giving the rich the tax cuts and the loose wetlands regulations they want, the less likely we are to achieve community prosperity.

Understanding the slow growth environment we find ourselves in, and understanding that in order to achieve prosperity, Rhode Island will need to heal ecosystems, reduce economic inequality, reduce our use of fossil fuels, adapt to climate change and dramatically improve our food security. One has to wonder why so many in government and business continue to offer the same tired formula they have offered Rhode Island for 30 years, when all it has brought us are things like 38 Studios and nearly brought us a billion-dollar debt for a white elephant container port in Quonset that was only averted when the people rose up to stop the elite from acting stupid with our money.

Clearly following the business climate think tanks prescriptions will prevent us from reducing inequality and getting ready for the changing climate. The World Bank has recently discovered that in low-income communities making sure the fruits of development accrue to the community rather than get captured by outsiders, and practicing economic democracy, in which the community members have a voice and a vote in how money is invested in the community, is the only way to create the triple bottom line win-win-win our communities need.

Providence resident Greg Gerritt is a frequent contributor to ecoRI News and the founder of the think tank Prosperity for Rhode Island.