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A number of you have told me that you don’t look forward to reading the column on your computer screen. That’s not necessary if you have a printer. Print out the column and take it with you to the breakfast table or wherever else you choose to read printed material. (You can also call up past columns in case you missed them.)
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January 28, 2010
In all the legislative “let’s turn Nebraska wind into lots of dollars” enthusiasm and in the supporting editorial comment, I have yet to see any answer to these fundamental questions:
What study, based on solid research, has confirmed that there is a large market in the eastern United States for electrical energy that could be exported from Nebraska?
What careful research has produced a practical, cost-effective plan for gathering the electricity from windmills on Nebraska farms and ranches and exporting it hundreds or perhaps more than a thousand of miles to such eastern markets if they indeed exist?
Nor have I seen—in any of the countless stories or editorials promoting wind power development in Nebraska—any focus on the fact that such development would be practical only because of federal subsidies to private investors—subsidies which would be financed by issuance of what, in effect, are IOUs; i.e., by the issuance of bonds, which is the way that the deficit-ridden federal government must raise money when it spends more than it collects in taxes.
This largely overlooked truism makes the final cost even greater than the amount of the federal subsidy—the bonds must be paid back at face value plus interest.
Who gets the tax subsidies which make these projects doable? That’s where the profit-seeking private investors come in—tax subsidies to private investors who are likely to be based in other states or even in foreign countries. (Some of the larger financiers of wind power projects in the United States are headquartered in Denmark, Germany or Spain.)
Ironically, the rationale for federal subsidy of wind power is definitely not to create a profitable windfall (I couldn’t resist the play on words) for Nebraska farmers and ranchers and private investors in Nebraska or other states or foreign countries. The rationale for federal government subsidy is that wind power is a non-polluting, renewable source that replaces (to a very modest degree, I must emphasize) the carbon emissions from coal-powered plants, thus becoming part of the “green” movement to reduce global warming.
In 21 World-Herald stories dealing with the possibility of developing windmill-generated electricity as a major economic factor for our state, I found exactly one story that touched on wind power as a predictable or at least possible Nebraska contribution to a “greener” global environment.
If there was any “green” component implied in the stories, it was definitely the color of currency—how much money could Nebraska farmers and ranchers and outside investors make from those proposed hundreds (thousands?) of windmills.
In the case of the Omaha Public Power District’s decision to buy electricity from a proposed wind power development near Petersburg, Nebraska, one of those 21 news stories said the Omaha-headquartered utility considers this a money-saving alternative to building another electricity-generating coal-fired plant.
A wise alternative, but the story failed to point out that OPPD still must increase its standby conventionally-powered production capacity.
OPPD officials have told me that electric utilities must maintain as much standby capacity as they would if they had no access to wind-powered electricity. This is because there are periods when the wind isn’t blowing hard enough to generate significant electricity, especially during the summer when demand for electricity is greatest because of air conditioning.
(“Sorry, the wind isn’t blowing today” would hardly be an acceptable response to a sweating customer calling on a July day to complain that his power is off.)
To its credit, OPPD is studying ways to increase the “green” output from its Fort Calhoun nuclear plant by 17%, the calculated maximum expansion capacity.
Interestingly, all the wind power discussion has included no indication of reluctance to end Nebraska’s status as an all-public-power state, with profits from electricity sales now to go to private parties including outside investors.
Incidentally, one editorial comment referred to the legislation which is being developed in Lincoln as a “home-grown” plan. I am told that while the final plan must be one approved by the Nebraska Legislature, the legislators are getting a good deal of advice from lobbyists representing non-Nebraska corporations which are interested in financing Nebraska wind energy projects in anticipation of an attractive return on their investment.
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In an editorial immediately below one in which illegal aliens were described as “Americans-in-waiting,” The New York Times published an editorial headlined “A Big Loss for Big Tobacco.” It told with unconcealed glee of a Florida jury’s ordering Philip Morris USA to pay $300 million to a former smoker who had developed severe emphysema and may need a lung transplant. (As I see it, he’s lucky he is not dead.)
Of the total award, $56 million was given in compensatory damages—that is, compensation for the actual physical damage which the jury felt the smoker had suffered. The rest was charged against Philip Morris under the logically indefensible but judicially approved doctrine of “punitive damages,” punishing Philip Morris for its promotion of its totally legal product. This supposedly warns other tobacco companies that they may face similar punishment when a smoker sues.
In the first place, anybody who smokes is foolish and should take upon himself or herself the burden of any damage which results from smoking. (The knowledge that nicotine can kill goes back at lest as far as the World War I era, when cigarettes were sometimes referred to as “coffin nails.”)
In the second place, when juries award the multi-millions in damages to compensate the foolish smoker, it does not follow that civil court proceedings logically can or should result also in punitive damages. The term “punitive” implies that it is punishment ,which has no place in a civil courtroom where a jury is trying a presumably civil case. If there is punishment to be applied, it should be under a criminal statue in a criminal trial.
Rejoicing in the punishment being laid on Philip Morris, The New York Times editorial offered this highly questionable assertion: “Lawyers are often reluctant to represent smokers and former smokers. Suits against the tobacco industry, which is known for its tough litigation tactics, can take years and be extremely expensive.”
It is, I believe, common knowledge (apparently except to The New York Times) that certain lawyers have become wealthy winning punitive damage awards. That, of course, is because a substantial share of the award routinely goes to the plaintiff’s attorneys.
While I believe that so-called “punitive damages” should be removed entirely from civil proceedings and, if considered sound public policy, should be pursued in criminal court, there is a way to keep plaintiffs and lawyers from unreasonably profiting from such an award. See that the awards—or at least the major portion of them—go to some public purpose like the public schools, rather than to the plaintiff and his attorneys.
In Nebraska, punitive damages can be awarded but are rarely if ever sought by attorneys in damage suits because the Nebraska Supreme Court wisely decided many years ago that a punitive damage award is in the nature of a fine which, under the state constitution, must go to the public schools.
You can bet that very few lawyers are interested in pursuing damage awards which go to the public schools rather than to the plaintiff and his attorney.
* * *
Enough heavy lifting. Let’s talk sports.
A World-Herald columnist recently reminded us that it was Bill Callahan, fired as Nebraska Cornhusker football coach after the’07 season, who recruited Ndamukong Suh in 2005. Suh said at the time he was attracted to Nebraska in large part by the fact that he liked the coaches, including Callahan.
It was, incidentally, not a sports columnist who recalled this interesting fact about the recruitment of Suh, who, among a host of other honors, was named “Defensive Player of the Year” by the Associated Press. The columnist was Mike Kelly, The World-Herald’s superb “columnist for all seasons.”
(One gets the impression that The World-Herald sports staff in general doesn’t like to recall anything favorable about Callahan or the athletic director who hired him, Steve Pederson. Pederson was quickly welcomed back to Pittsburgh as athletic director and Callahan became offensive line coach for the New York Jets, who surprised the so-called experts by coming within one victory of playing in the Super Bowl.)
Another World-Herald columnist—this one a sports columnist—wrote a recent piece asserting that Iowa Hawkeye football coach Kirk Ferentz doesn’t get the credit he deserves but certainly does deserve the salary he receives, despite some criticism to the effect that he is overpaid. The columnist didn’t say how much Ferentz is paid.
So our “In-Depth Research Department” (my administrative assistant Jackie Wrieth) reports to you that Ferentz’s salary is $3.02 million a year.
His contract was extended recently, the only change being to provide access to a private plane for up to 35 hours of personal use each year. An ESPN columnist said this would normally cost as much as $85,000 (about $2,400 an hour), all of which would come from contributions from Iowa football boosters.
(A friend of mine well familiar with the rates charged for jet rental tells me that the normal rate for travel in a rental jet is a good deal more than $2,400 an hour.)
Still on the subject of sports commentary. The selection of Turner Gill, former star Cornhusker quarterback and assistant Husker coach, was greeted enthusiastically by Husker fans including a columnist who said Gill’s selection poses a “tough” problem for Husker fans, implying that it could influence fans when the Huskers play the Kansas Jayhawks.
I think a more realistic view would be that Husker fans will wish Gill well in every game except when the Huskers play the Jayhawks.
Gill, incidentally, starts at KU with a $2 million annual salary after compiling a 20-wins/30-losses record as head coach at the University of Buffalo. Included was a 5/7 record last year.
* * *
Apparently I was being too subtle in my request for reader help in identifying the “Doogie Howser” referred to in a newspaper headline.
I could have found an explanation of Doogie on the Internet. (You can find out almost anything on the Internet, and some of it is even truthful.)
My implicit point was that newspaper readers shouldn’t be required to go to the internet or any other source to understand a headline.
I was pleased, as an indication of readership interest, by how many people informed me that Doogie Howser was a character in a television series some years back—a 16-year-old medical doctor who, predictably, encountered numerous problems as he practiced among older medical personnel.
Thanks for the numerous readers who enlightened me. Now how come none of you out there could explain the puzzling “Raise Arizona” headline on a story of Nebraska’s 33-0 Holiday Bowl victory over Arizona?
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Some readers have told me they like a touch of humor—or maybe something about Marian and the dogs—to end the column.
This week’s offering:
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