The Year in Review and the Year to Come
January, 2013 and here we sit, despite the (hopes?) that so many placed on the calendar of the Maya, who, they might have noticed, apparently didn’t predict their own end, so why should they predict ours?
It’s traditional around this time of rebirth, as the sun gradually remains in our sky for longer and longer times, to reflect on the year passed, and look ahead to the year to come.
So what was our life like in 2012 and what of last year will we carry forward into the future?
On the political front, 2012 saw a major offensive from the local Tea Party to ‘take over’ the Republican party. They were spanked rather firmly by voters in the May primary, who rejected this more extreme version of conservatism, but these candidates appealed to a number of area residents and its likely they will continue to be force pushing behind the Republican agenda—which, in Idaho, is pretty much the entire political agenda.
Our local representatives in state politics (Senator Shawn Keough, and Representatives George Eskridge and Eric Anderson) have returned to Boise and to a legislature made up of almost 1/3 new members, where they will once again grapple with balancing services wanted by taxpayers with the revenue stream taxpayers are reluctant to give.
The state’s Economic and Revenue Assessment Committee, of which Senator Keough is the co-chair, heard reports from various agencies on expectations for 2013. Bob Maynard, the chief investment officer for the PERSI state retirement system, says the year to come will feature “subdued and stumbling growth.”
The three biggest issues for this year’s legislature, outside of the budget itself, are, according to Senator Brent Hill (Senate President pro tempore), education reform, health insurance exchanges, and the repeal of the personal property tax.
I don’t expect much to happen beyond talk with that personal property tax repeal, given it would mean a loss of around $140 million to local governments. In addition, this is a tax that’s paid by businesses (it’s a tax on the value of items they own within their business—computers, chairs, major equipment and the like), which doesn’t generally excite a lot of interest in the average voter.
Now that voters gave a resounding “no” to State Department of Education Superintendent Tom Luna’s plan to reform education, it’s back to the drafting table for the Idaho legislature. Governor Otter has called for the development of a “stakeholder’s group” to look at the issues, and said he does not expect new legislation in 2013.
Where there will be new legislation is in the development of health insurance exchanges for Idaho citizens, a part of the Affordable Care Act health reform. Conditionally approved by the US Health and Human Services Secretary, Idaho will develop a private ‘marketplace’ where citizens can shop for insurance services. Legislators will also have to determine whether or not to expand Medicaid eligibility for Idaho’s poorer residents, which Governor Otter’s Medicaid Expansion Work Group unanimously voted in support for.
Currently in Idaho, Medicaid is not available to an adult who makes more than $205 a month, or a family of four whose gross income is more than $382 a month. Yes, you read that correctly—a month.
The expansion would make medicare available to those who earn up to 138 percent of the federal poverty level—that is, around $1,284 per month for a single adult, $2,650 a month for a family of four. This expansion would make Medicaid available to approximately 100,000 Idaho residents who currently do not qualify.
By the way, thanks to Idaho Public TV you can keep up with what’s going on in Boise real-time, with live streaming TV over the Internet, at www.idahoptv.org/insession.
The seasonally adjusted unemployment rate for Idaho, around 9 percent last year, was slightly better than for the nation as a whole, and predictions are for that ‘trend’ to continue. Don’t get too excited, though; tenths of percentage points still mean that an awful lot of people are looking for work.
Gas prices were all over the map last year, up one week then down the next, but overall the price is high, and that doesn’t look to change. Forbes Magazine reported in November 2012 that high gas prices are “the new normal” and are “here to stay.” A reflection of the cost of extracting and refining lower quality fuels, itself a reflection of life in a world where peak oil has likely been reached, those of us who live where driving is a requirement are going to have to give greater consideration to the amount of time we spend behind the wheel. CNN’s Fortune reports that some believe 2013 may bring gas at $5 per gallon.
Expect continued volatility in those prices as well. A report by the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development says fluctuations in gas prices are driven primarily by the commodities market, what they describe as “the hundreds of billions of dollars of bets placed on expectations of temporarily rising prices.”
We have seen where the idea of regulating Wall Street has gone, so don’t be surprised this year if the cost of filling the tank plays havoc with your budgeting skills.
Last year was also the year when climate change began to become very visible to a large number of Americans, and quite frighteningly, it’s happening harder and faster than scientific models had suggested. Floods, droughts, wildfires, hurricanes, tornadoes... 2012 just about had it all, though we here around the Panhandle of Idaho were protected from extremes. Nonetheless, just about every gardener out there in shouting range was eyeing their ground in March—in March!—speculating about whether it might be safe to plant a few things. And some went further than speculation. No, you’re not going to be planting tomatoes in the spring—at least, not outside—any time soon, but many did well with hardy, cold-loving plants much earlier in the year than is normally possible.
Will that happen again this spring? It’s hard to tell, given the major driver of our local weather—the ANSO—is in an odd phase they’re calling “La Nada.” As of now, the National Weather Service’s weather prediction for the next few months in our area is “normal.”
It might be normal in our area weather-wise, but the impacts of last year’s extreme weather are ready to slap us in the face, mostly in the form of high food prices. The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Economic Research division says in the first quarter of the year, you can expect to see a 3 to 4 percent increase in the price of milk, eggs, beef, poultry and pork. You don’t have to worry about that $9 a gallon milk, however, as the deal to address that dreaded fiscal cliff included a provision to extend subsidies for 9 months to various commodities.
Another factor in higher food prices is the drought-caused problem of navigation on the Mississippi. While the Corps of Engineers is working non-stop to remove rocks and thereby deepen certain channels, the current hope is that the Mississippi will remain navigable only through January 26. When cargo can’t move by barge along the “mighty Mississip,” it adds $11 a ton to the cost of transporting goods. To put that into perspective, it’s estimated that losses from closing the river to traffic average $300 million a day, and the losses grow exponentially after the first few days.
Which means that 2013 might be the best time to finally getting around to planting that garden; and to supporting local businesses, farmers, growers, milk producers and all the rest.
End of the World
Finally, while 2012 did not bring about the end of the world, don’t think that means your 2013 is going to be free of apocalyptic fervor. After all, it’s twenty-thirteen! Here’s my candidates for events that will make the headlines (or the rounds of Facebook statuses) that many will insist herald TEOTWAWKI (the end of the world as we know it):
• 2013 will be the year of the comet, with a March pass by the comet Pan-STARRS, and then the awe-inspring, October-December journey of the comet Ison through our skies. It’s possible that Pan-STARRS will be bright enough to be seen by the naked eye, and Ison is predicted to be similar to a comet seen in 1680 whose tail was so bright, the comet could be easily seen even in the daytime skies. That’s bound to freak a few people out.
• Don’t want to wait that long to be afraid? It’s Asteroid da-14 to the rescue! While NASA has stated firmly this near-Earth asteroid is not on an impact trajectory, that isn’t stopping a lot of people on the Internet from insisting that it is. Expect its arrival on February 15.
• 2013 is also a period of solar maximum, which is a time of increased solar activity and which can include solar storms which create an “EMP burst” that can wipe out all electronics in their path. We see solar maximums approximately every 11 years, so it’s not like this is something new, but expect predictions of TEOTWAWKI via solar storms to show up in your 2013 “news feed.”
You know why we invest so much time in apocalyptic predictions? Because we can’t do anything about it. And we like that. God forbid we actually do anything about the real threats that are facing us.
My 2013 prediction is that things will slowly and steadily continue to grind downward and we will do nothing to stop that trajectory. Fukushima reactor 4 will continue its meltdown, we will increasingly, frantically, search for ways to feed our energy habit while we guzzle down and belch out what should be our reserves, our economy will continue to be based on a growth that’s simply not possible, we will continue to de-fund programs that literally mean life or death to millions of Earth’s inhabitants, mass shootings will continue, and we will spend 2013 putting out fires that could have been prevented.
That’s in the aggregate, of course; locally, I see a slightly brighter future. I see it in the faces and the work of those who continue to put heart and soul into improving this place where we live, from community gardens to baseball fields to the preservation of the wild places around us. 2013 can be a good year here in our little piece of paradise—if we want it to be.