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Staff Editorials

Innovating our working class into tough corner

    People who are looking for restoration of the American economy under a new administration will likely be disappointed. It’s not fully accurate to use the word “problem” to identify one key cause of our financial tension and strife for it seems the term “progress” is also  applicable. To put it simply,  increased efficiency often equals fewer employees. American businesses have been successful at cutting costs by cutting manpower.
    A perfect example of this business innovation was evident last week with the sale of the five-year-old online Dollar Shave Company for $1billion.
    A quick look at the history of that company as detailed in a recent New York Times Deal Professor column shows exactly why our economy is in a major transition, not just a simple recession.
    This online company started with a simple idea - ship razors to guys who had blades as dull as garden hoes, but yet never remembered to buy a new razor when they went out. Nothing novel in that concept.
    They started with a very clever, mostly homemade, ad on YouTube, about 5 years ago. “Within 24 hours, the new business had more than 12,000 orders, more than it could handle. The ad went on to get over 20 million views and rocket Dollar Shave Club to over $240 million in revenue,” according to the NY Times article.
    The little company has gone on to capture eight percent of the total razor market in less than half a decade and now has 3 million subscribers. They now offer other personal care products.
    They are clearly a great American success story for investors who made a 20 to 1 return on them. But the dark-side is they only employed 190 people at the time of their $1 billion sale. They contract with a Kentucky location for shipping to customers and the razors are made in South Korea.
    They don’t deal with local drug/grocery stores. They don’t have anyone to deliver their razors to Pickens stores. No one is making extra cash stocking these razors on Main Street store shelves nor putting themselves through college ringing up the sale of these razors (when a guy actually remembered he needed one). They don’t contribute local SPLOST dollars through the sale of their products at our grocery stores.  Nobody blue collar can get a job making the razors in America and nobody white collar can get a job managing the production team.
    Modern business is filled with examples like this. Amazon built a retail empire and its performance has rewarded anyone who purchased their stock but how many small bookstores did they put out of business? How many people now buy their clothes, music or sporting goods exclusively online?
    Evidence of this increasing efficiency and decreasing wages can be found by noting that the stock market has chugged along much better than expected over the past five years. The market performance has been much more robust than stagnant wage growth. If you looked at solely at the Dow Jones, you’d not understand why middle class America is fretting over the economic future.
    We are not faulting or blaming anyone for this trend of innovation over jobs. No one is guilty of anything other than figuring out how to make business more productive. People shouldn’t be held back from having great ideas, cutting costs and trouncing existing companies.
    When Unilever pays out $1 billion to the Dollar Shave Club, a small handful of people will profit tremendously [more power to them, wish we had that idea]. 
    But, this is the scary part, the billion dollar company only employed one-third the number of people as our Pickens school system. And that is scary – how can anyone create jobs on a national scale with this type of economic transition underway?

The micro-ist of micro storms

pole-barn

This reporter and her family were apparently the only ones to suffer damage in the Saturday storm. Our collapsed pole barn.

By Angela Reinhardt

Staff writer
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     I just got off the phone with the county EMA director and he confirmed it – thunderstorms that came through Saturday afternoon apparently didn’t cause damage anywhere but on the half-mile of family property where I live.
    “You’re the first I’ve heard of any damage,” Pickens EMA Director John Nicholson told me.
    Everywhere else got much-needed rain and some thunder, but inside the teensy weensy circumference of land in west Pickens it was like Night on Bald Mountain for a terrifying minute or two, in which time the pole barn collapsed and several gigantic trees were uprooted, including a massive oak that splintered and blew over at the end of our dirt road.
    At about 2 p.m. Saturday I was sitting on the couch in the living room with my daughter when the sky got dark and we heard a stray boom of thunder. She’s scared of storms and started to spool up. In a feeble attempt to console her, I tracked the weather on my phone and said things parents usually say.
    “See,” I told Scarlett, who was teary-eyed and unconvinced. “The red areas are going around us. It’s just thunder and rain, sweetie. We’ll be okay.”
    Maybe kids have a sixth sense with storms or something, like dogs, because I couldn’t calm her down. Even though the rain wasn’t bad at that point I decided on an out-of-sight-out-of-mind approach. We moved into a back bedroom where there aren’t any windows.
    That’s when things got nasty.
    Out of nowhere the walls and roof creaked and shifted and the sound of violent wind cocooned us. I peeked out the bedroom door, through the window in the room across the hall, and saw the rain blasting by horizontally and faster than I’d ever seen it move. I took my son and daughter in the bathroom (for the first time ever) and they proceeded to freak out. “Oh my God! Oh my God, mom! We’re going to DIE today!”
    They told me their last goodbyes by the bathtub while I tried to convince them we weren’t (probably) going to die.
    Then it was over, as quick as it came.
    In the next few minutes I got a call from my mother-in-law who lives a few hundred yards down the hill. She wanted to know if we were okay. She told me about all the damage, which inconsiderately pinpointed every piece of farm equipment on the property: The pole barn collapsed on the new lawn mower and our go-kart, and the willow tree fell on the utility vehicle and the tractor.
    Everything on their screened-in porch was violently blown around while everything on my porch remained suspiciously unmoved, including papers and empty plastic containers. Neither my mother-in-law nor I received warnings on our phones or on the local weather stations. It was a total sneak attack.
    I called my husband, who was at work across the county, and all they got was thunder and rain. On our drives around the area we didn’t see any other damage (insert crickets chirping) and I didn’t see any other posts on Facebook about a storm. It was like God fired a laser beam of wind down from the clouds onto just our property. 
    Monday morning I got in touch with Dan Lindsey, Ph.D., a research meteorologist with the NOAA who said the damage was probably caused by a microburst. He even sent me a radar video of the storm from the National Weather Service and pointed out a “small intense echo in western Pickens County” at around 2 p.m.
    “These are somewhat common and are relatively small in scale,” Lindsey said, “so it's reasonable that the damage could be isolated to something like a 40-acre area.”
    He told me microbursts (or small downbursts) occur when rain from a storm evaporates, resulting in an area of quickly descending air that hits the ground and spreads outward. Not all evaporation leads to microbursts and other elements are at play when they do occur, but they usually happen with the strongest portion of storms when conditions are just right.
    Interestingly, a microburst is also what  EMA Director Nicholson said caused last week’s storms, which damaged the animal shelter and tore the steeple off a church.
    “They don’t always affect a large area, but they can be really violent,” he said.
    Despite all the technology that tries to help us plan ahead, these microbursts  show there is still unpredictability with weather and its bizarre precision -- hitting just my area. And you know what? Even though those 90 seconds were really, really terrifying, I like the fact that we still don’t know it all.

Keep cool America

    One of the pundits/commentators on Sunday made a point that on the surface America should be content this summer -- unemployment is down, gas is relatively cheap and the economy is doing well, our military is not as fully-engaged in anything overseas as it has been for the past decade.
    But that is not the case, the word used by several columnists and commentators is that the recent shootings of both the black men by the police officers and the five officers by a sniper has caused an “unraveling.” The massive protests in Atlanta over police shootings has certainly shown that the nation is unsettled.
     At the heart of the domestic tension is a growing split between those who favor Black Lives Matter versus those who are for Blue (police) Lives Matters, as though you have to choose a side. This is where things get frightening when it becomes an us versus them standoff within our own borders.
    It should go without saying that both Black and Blue lives matter. Neither side should have to publicly express their desire to live without fear, but unfortunately that is not the case.
    It would be unimaginable what would happen to a community that couldn’t depend on their police force. They are the backbone of what keeps us safe in our homes and on our streets everyday and most people know this. Despite occasional nasty remarks, Americans of good character all recognize law enforcement officers are here to protect and serve.
    Which is not to say we should ever set anyone on a pedestal so high, their actions can’t be questioned. If the shootings in Baton Rouge and Minnesota are found to be to be criminal, the officers need to face what the law deems appropriate.
    In both cases, the preliminary information warrants further investigation and dialogue. And worse still, it is hard to keep  track of all the incidents where black men have died following routine encounters with the police. Recent statistics from a Harvard researcher shows blacks are actually no more likely to be killed than whites with police shootings but the same statistics  show a significantly higher rate of blacks being on the receiving end of non-lethal use of police force.
    In Dallas, what occurred seems painfully clear: A twisted angry black man  cowardly gunned down five police officers and wounded others who were protecting the people protesting police shootings.
    But let’s keep in mind that the shooting of the officers in Dallas is not the work of any organized movement, any more than the mass shooting last June, which left nine dead in a Charleston church, is representative of white southern movements.
    In Atlanta with more than 10,000 protestors on the streets, there have been very few arrests and mostly for people blocking roadways. People want to be heard and exercise their First Amendment rights peacefully.
    But as these events show, it just takes one nut or one bad/poorly trained policeman to “unravel” a nation.
    Part of this constant tension lying barely under the surface of modern America is fuelled by the rhetoric that comes in a never-ending cascade on social media and the airwaves. Expressing fear that the country is on the verge of a collapse or about to be taken over gives rise to extreme action and justifies outrageous acts.
    Political debate has always contained  grand hyperbole and calls for action, but it has never been so pervasive as it is today, reinforcing beliefs that the country is being destroyed and we need immediate action to save our republic.
    Looking at comments on news stories and social media, one wonders if our president were assassinated by domestic terrorists would it be universally condemned? Would there be gloating among some groups?
    When you have sick-minds and feed them a constant diet of the government/police-is-coming-to-get-you rhetoric, it’s no surprise someone finally snaps.
    Criticizing a government is fine and political firebrands a constant part of American history. But at the end of the day, we must be able to behave civilly towards each other.
    Elsewhere in this issue, you’ll find words of wisdom from a man turning 100 years old. He thought we should all “keep cool.” While he may have been referring to the weather, his advice resonants with the recent events in this country - let’s all be cool.

Yes to nuclear power

    It’s been hot this summer; Air conditioners running around the clock. We are accustomed to this convenience in America and you can be sure families in India and China, where it’s also really hot, are using their growing affluence to buy similar appliances.
    All this means more electricity must be generated around the world. Analysts project world energy demands could triple in the next 30 years. Across the south eastern United States, energy demand is expected to grow 27 percent by 2030, according to Georgia Power.
    New sources of large scale, reliable, affordable power that don’t destroy the planet are needed. Thus far the wind and solar industries have made small strides but nothing to meet the projected global demand.
    Where the world needs to look is nuclear. Overshadowed by public fears that are largely misinformed, and bogged down in engineering, cost and permitting strangleholds, nuclear energy still represents the best bet for powering our world with the fewest harmful side-effects of pollution and climate change gases.
    Georgia Power, who operates the Hatch and Vogtle nuclear plants here, says on their website, “Nuclear energy is the most cost-effective, reliable and environmentally responsible fuel source available today.”
    They would like to add two new units to their Vogtle operation on the Savannah River. Construction is underway (sort of). They are running months behind schedule on a project once hoped to be completed by 2020.The cost overruns are similarly a mess and Georgia Power customers have already footed the bills by paying rates now to fund future construction. The new reactors were once slated as a $14 billion project but are now projected to run closer to $22 billion, according to the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy.
    The problems of opening a nuclear plant aren’t unique to Georgia. These would actually be the first two new nuclear units to open anywhere in the United States in the past three decades.
    While this construction project is a lesson in frustration, the world needs nuclear to work. No other power source is likely to meet our needs without wrecking the climate. Once operational, nuclear is  solid and sustainable. It doesn’t require digging additional holes for raw materials, nor pipelines stretched across the countryside, nor does it give off greenhouse gases that cause climate change.
    There is a public perception that nuclear plants equal radiation problems. But the nuclear plant disasters aren’t nearly as disastrous as commonly thought.
    Consider first that nuclear power has a track record in 32 countries (including third world locations), with decades of service and there have been three major accidents of note, two of which didn’t cause any direct fatalities.
    The accidents occurred at Three Mile Island in the U.S. in 1979, where it is widely thought that no serious health effects occurred though there is a minority view that the radiation released was the cause of later problems.
    The next accident was in Chernobyl in 1986 where an explosion killed 31 and later deaths are also attributable. But bear in mind this was the Soviet Union where denial of any accident and little effort to clean up contributed to the dire effects.
    Finally, there was the Fukushima plant in Japan in 2011 where older reactors were damaged by a tsunami. Bad location was a prime factor, though the accident caused no fatalities at the time; it is projected that up to 650 people could die of related radiation issues in future  years.
    Consider also the long period of no construction in the U.S. has allowed the technology to get much better. Some of the later designs greatly ameliorate problems with the waste issues of older plants.
    The U.S. Regulatory Commission requires plants meet a “1 in 10,000 core damage frequency” but the plants operating today mostly meet a 1 in 1,000,000 standard and the new plants are engineered at 1 in 10 million.
    One in 10 million odds seem pretty acceptable considering the other option of more climate change, pollution, plus the uncertainty of outpacing world energy production are all troubling for the whole planet.
    We need a clear plan in this country to move nuclear power forward and it starts in Georgia with our government working to clear hurdles for the two plants underway.

Things that make you go hmm on the downtown planning

    At the recent packed-house discussion of Jasper downtown transportation, there was a lot of enthusiasm, which is good. But listening to the comments, some of this optimism over the process may have been geared towards unrealistic expectations.
    Not to dampen, but hopefully to constrain, some of the more exuberant ideas. Please consider the following:
    “The city is held back by a lack of vision.” This was the number one most commonly cited weakness that consultants Kimley-Horn uncovered. The consultant tried to soft-pedal it so that those who are writing the checks, Jasper City Hall, weren’t offended.
    But it is really not accurate. There is a vision for what people want: basically for us to have a downtown where nice shops stay open late with well-lit, tree-lined streets and there are plenty of stylish pedestrians window-shopping and very convenient parking. While we are at it, let’s throw in that is remains a perpetual 75 degrees with sunny skies year-round.
    There is no lack of vision for what is wanted, but it’s true there isn’t any clear cut path to reach that vision. So much depends on what the existing businesses do and who shows up in the future with ideas and capital for a venture in an empty space.
    Many people at the meeting argue as though it is a fundamental law that if Jasper winds up with the right signage, right width of sidewalks and a nice theme of street-lamps, the downtown will see business boom. We are not convinced this is a sure bet.
    In fact, a greatly improved streetscape along Main was accomplished years ago and did not produce a longterm growth trend in business. The sidewalks here are nice, the downtown monument at the north end, the grassy park on the south end, that there are trees (regardless of whether you like the current crop) all amount to an attractive streetscape for Main Street.
    Bear in mind, the minions for years cried out, “Oh if we could do something about that blue building, it would help all of Main Street.” Voila, blue building restored more grandly than anyone could have wished for and it’s sitting empty.   
    • One of the more interesting ideas presented at the meeting was to work on the two back streets which parallel Main Street.  This may not be that useful as those streets (Mark Whitfield/West Street on the west and East Street on the east) serve in many places as backdoors of the buildings fronting Main Street.
    But to totally contradict the above point, the expansion of the downtown area with new streetscapes and routing of traffic into  backstreets, the area behind the Methodist church, (not to mention creating “connectivity” to old the Piggly Wiggly area), is an ambitious plan that might bear fruit. Maybe if people see a lot more nicely connected space it will give a renewed confidence in bringing businesses to town. Maybe?           
    There were some simpler points from that meeting, we would like to second:
    • The need for a better entrance to Jasper on Highway 515. A few trees, nice signs, some flowers and people on the four-lane know they are somewhere when they reach the Highway 53 intersection.
    • A little attractive signage in downtown. How about something directing people to the courthouse and the parking for it?
    Let’s be hopeful that some solid small changes will result from the planning process. Maybe we’ll see some traffic improvements and some attractive signage.         And more importantly this will allow our vision of a thriving downtown to result. But let’s keep in mind that neither Rome nor an improved Jasper will be built in a day.