Fran Smith

Post image for Human Achievement of the Day: 3D Printing Cups, Cars, Houses, and Faces

3D printing is a relatively recent technological development that has already begun to revolutionize model-building, structural and other medical procedures, and construction of items from toys to houses.

Also called additive manufacturing (as contrasted with subtractive processes, that is, machining), 3D printing uses digital instructions produced through computer-aided design (CAD) software to create an item by “printing” it in layers using a variety of materials – powders, plastic, ceramics, etc. With ink-jet-type print heads, the materials are extruded layer by layer according to the design.

In its early applications, 3D printing was principally used for creating prototypes or models of larger objects. With 3D printing, those prototypes could be built with greater precision and speed and allow for quick modifications in the design. Rapid prototyping developed during the 1980s and early 1990s.

In the past decade, 3D printing applications have found fertile ground in the medical field. Almost daily, a medical breakthrough made possible through 3D printing is announced. Today, researchers announced that they had created heart muscle that beats when it is implanted in animals. Yesterday, news stories reported that 3D printing had saved a baby’s life by printing a splint that fit over his windpipe and kept it open so he could breathe.  Researchers are using 3D printing to produce scaffolding that they then grow tissue on to rebuild human skeletal parts that have been heavily damaged by injuries or diseases.

For example, structural 3D printing has been used to rebuild a young man’s facial structure after an accident shattered his face. A cancer sufferer had a new pelvis “printed” using that technology. Doctors are more often simulating difficult and lengthy operations by using 3D printed models of the organs or parts of the skeleton on which they will be operating. Using those models can drastically reduce the operating time involved and lead to safer and more efficient surgery – thus reducing the risk to the patients.

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With the U.S. Senate’s passage February 4 of a farm bill by a vote of 68-32, a nearly $1 trillion (over 10 years) farm bill will govern agriculture policy for the next five years. The House had previously approved the bill last week. About 80 percent of the spending goes for food stamp and nutrition programs.

Even though this was the most contentious farm bill process in recent history, the results are pretty much the same: farmers will get their pork one way or another. The elimination of “direct payments” to farmers was touted by supporters of this legislation. Those are payments made to farmers even if they didn’t farm the land. All well and good. But instead of putting those expected savings back into taxpayers’ wallets, lawmakers diverted many of those funds to the new pork – expanded federal crop insurance – where the federal government (taxpayers) pays about 60 percent of the farmers’ premiums and most of the administrative costs of the crop insurers. There’s also no means testing for determining who gets crop insurance subsidies.

This bill also creates what’s called a “shallow loss” program for farmers, where farmers would receive insurance payments when their revenues drop below a certain percentage of previous years or when the prices for agricultural commodities drop below target prices. With farmers’ record revenues and recent high commodity prices, this program could end up costing much more than the estimates if revenues and prices drop.

The U.S. sugar program remains with its command-and-control structure that determines supply and demand. Under that program, domestic sugar historically has cost two to three times the world price, which translates into about $4 billion more per year that consumers pay and the loss of jobs in the confectionery and food industries.

Three of the most influential Republican Senators on agriculture issues – Sens. Grassley (Iowa), Roberts (Kansas), and McCain (Ariz.) — were included in the 32 who voted Nay.

The bill now goes to President Obama for his signature.

The trade debate is heating up in the wake of President Obama’s nod to trade in his State of the Union address, the introduction this month of a Trade Promotion Authority (TPA) bill, and the on-going negotiation on two major trade deals.

A major schism among Democrats on trade broke out January 29, when Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said in an interview that he was against TPA, commonly known as “fast-track” legislation, which gives the president authority to negotiate trade agreements that are then voted on by Congress without amendments. Without fast-track, it’s difficult to negotiate final trade deals with other countries when they know Congress can change the terms. Reid was quoted as saying: “Everyone would be well-advised just to not push this right now.”

Reid’s opposition is in contrast to President Obama’s endorsement of fast-track authority in his State of the Union address earlier this week when he said:

We need to work together on tools like bipartisan trade promotion authority to protect our workers, protect our environment, and open new markets to new goods stamped “Made in the USA.” China and Europe aren’t standing on the sidelines. Neither should we.

Reid’s stance is at odds too with some leading Democrats, such as Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus, D-Mont., who joined with Ranking Member Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, and House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Dave Camp, R-Mich., to introduce a TPA bill on January 9. However, Baucus’ active leadership on TPA may be in question, since he was nominated to be Ambassador to China.

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Post image for New Farm Bill Will Deliver the Pork to Farmers

Last night House and Senate conferees agreed on a nearly $1 trillion farm bill that would eliminate long-standing direct payments to farmers but beef up the heavily subsidized crop insurance program. Farmers are pretty happy about that because federal crop insurance covers farmers’ crop losses or revenue losses, while the government pays a high percentage of the premiums’ costs and underwrites most of the insurance companies’ administrative costs.

The five-year farm bill replaces the 2008 farm bill, which had expired and was extended because Congress could not reach agreement on components of a new bill.

The command-and-control sugar program remains in place, with its combination of controls on domestic supply, price supports, and restrictions on sugar imports. It has been estimated that the sugar program costs consumers up to $4 billion a year in increased costs, while driving many confectionery companies out of business or out of the country.

The bill would also continue U.S. country of origin labeling requirements for meat – COOL – even though the protectionist program is being challenged by Canada and Mexico as being discriminatory under World Trade Organization rules. COOL requires labeling that indicates where the animal was born and raised, where it was slaughtered and processed.

The conference agreement would include modest cuts to the food stamp program – about a one percent cut over 10 years or about $9 billion. Originally the House had pushed for more extensive cuts, but the Senate balked at those.

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Post image for Trade Issues Heat Up — A New TPP Leak, “Fast-Track” Bill

WikiLeaks on January 15 leaked another chapter of the negotiation text of a major trade agreement – the environmental chapter of the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement (TPP). Environmental groups jumped on the text and said the U.S. position outlined in the documents shows backward steps in areas such as enforcement of environmental provisions and deference to multilateral environmental agreements (MEAs).

According to an article in the New York Times, the U.S. seems to be pushing for more extensive environmental provisions, but the other eleven negotiating parties are pushing back, arguing that such provisions would hamper needed growth in their countries.

For example, in the Chairs’ summary of different countries’ views on incorporating measures in TPP to fulfill specific MEAs and making those enforceable, only the U.S. supported that position. Ten of the twelve countries thought otherwise and indicated that since those agreements were negotiated in different circumstances, those obligations shouldn’t be subject to dispute settlement in TPP.

In an apparent reaction to the leaks and to negative reaction from environmental activists, the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative late Wednesday afternoon issued a press release stating its strong commitment to the environmental chapter:

The United States’ position on the environment in the Trans-Pacific Partnership negotiations is this: environmental stewardship is a core American value, and we will insist on a robust, fully enforceable environment chapter in the TPP or we will not come to agreement.

The release went on to state:

In December the trade ministers of the 12 TPP countries met for three days to tackle tough issues together, including in the environment chapter. There, the United States reiterated our bedrock position on enforceability of the entire environment chapter, as well as our strong commitments to provisions such as those combating wildlife trafficking and illegal logging.

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Post image for Sugar — Congress’ Favorite Sweetener

The sugar lobby’s sweet contributions and their day-in-day-out lobbying means broad bipartisan support for continuing the U.S. sugar program in the 2013 farm bill, as The Washington Post noted in a wide-ranging article December 7. Sugar policy, consisting of price supports, restraints on domestic supply, and import controls, benefits mainly a small number of rich sugar producers at the expense of consumers and taxpayers, according to the article.

Historically, the program has resulted in domestic sugar prices substantially higher than the world price. Besides those sweet deals, the government also buys back sugar producers’ surplus so they don’t have to pay back federal loans. Then the U.S. Department of Agriculture sells that sugar to ethanol producers at a loss.

Numerous attempts have been made to rein in this egregious program, but the sugar industry’s intense and consistent lobbying and the huge contributions they make on both sides of the aisle almost guarantee them the program’s continuation.

The cost to consumers hits them in the pocketbook, as sugar is an ingredient in not just sweet treats, but in staples such as bread and processed food. The sugar program means about $3.5 billion in additional costs to consumers per year.

It’s estimated that the higher domestic prices for sugar has cost the confectionery, beverage, and food industries nearly 127,000 jobs between 1997 and 2011, according to the U.S. Department of Commerce, and has led to many candy companies moving their operations to other countries, such as Mexico and Canada. For every job saved in the sugar producing industry through the sugar program, about three jobs are lost in the confectionery and food industries, says Commerce.

As CEI noted in a coalition letter to the House and the Senate:

The U.S. sugar program is a classic public choice case of concentrated benefits and dispersed costs: of how special interests can trump the public interest. A small number of sugar producers receive enormous benefits, while the costs are spread across the U.S. economy, hitting consumers and the sweetener-using industries.

It sounds like fast-track authority for trade deals is getting some traction, according to an article today in the Financial Times. The FT says that senior aides to influential committee chairman are gearing up to move legislation that would give the Administration the ability to craft trade deals that would go to the House and the Senate for up-or-down votes.

The push for fast track would ease the way for consideration of the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement – a trade agreement well along in its negotiations and that could be considered next year.  Top U.S. negotiators are heading to Singapore for continued talks on TPP, which would include 12 countries in a comprehensive trade pact. The current members are Australia, Brunei Darussalam, Chile, Malaysia, New Zealand, Peru, Singapore, the United States, Vietnam, Canada, Mexico, and Japan.

That trade agreement would likely unravel without fast track because that would allow multiple special interests, including unions and environmental groups, to push for including their pet issues.  In addition, in November 2013, Wikileaks published a draft of the intellectual property chapter, which already has set off lots of opposing views on those issues.

Moving quickly on fast track won’t be easy.  The last time it was reauthorized was in 2007 under President Bush and ushered in the mandatory inclusion of labor and environment provisions in trade agreements.  Proponents of including non-trade issues in trade agreements are likely to be pushing for even more in a new Trade Promotion Authority bill.

A protectionist meat labeling rule requires complicated labeling of beef, pork and poultry to indicate where the animals were born, raised, and slaughtered. Called country-of-origin labeling or COOL, the U.S. Department of Agriculture labeling scheme means that cattle from Canada moved to the U.S. for slaughtering, for example, will have to be tracked, segregated, and recorded to show that the meat is from cattle “Born in Canada, raised in Canada, and slaughtered in the U.S.” Meat products from animals born, raised, and slaughtered in the U.S. would have labels indicating that.

The rule particularly affects major U.S. trading partners, Canada and Mexico, which are part of an increasingly integrated system of meat production for those three countries. But the rule also hits domestic meat processors and retailers with higher costs of a tracking and record-keeping system from birth through raising, then through the meat processing and distribution systems.

The original COOL rule was part of the 2008 U.S. farm bill. It mandated that the “Made in America” label could only be used for meat products from animals that had been born, raised, and harvested in the U.S.  However, Canada and Mexico in 2009 brought a complaint to the World Trade Organization that the rule discriminated against those two countries and was a violation of the WTO rule on Technical Barriers to Trade. The WTO ruled in 2012 against the U.S. and determined that the COOL label requirements had a “detrimental impact on imported livestock because its record-keeping and verification requirements create an incentive for processors to use exclusively domestic livestock.” The WTO said the rule had to be rewritten to be compliant.

The revised USDA rule first went into effect in May 23, 2013, with the USDA allowing an extension to November 23, 2013. But its requirements for major trade partner Canada has led two Canadian government ministers to call for another WTO review to ascertain whether the revised rule is compliant and to publish a list of possible retaliatory measures against a wide range of imports from the U.S. In a statement accompanying the listing, the two ministers wrote:

Despite consistent rulings by the World Trade Organization, the U.S. government continues its unfair trade practices, which are severely damaging to Canadian industry and jobs.

Our government is extremely disappointed that the United States continues to uphold this protectionist policy, which the WTO has ruled to be unfair, and we call on the United States to abide by the WTO ruling.

We are preparing to launch the next phase of the WTO dispute settlement process on the new U.S. rule, which we had hoped to avoid by the United States living up to its trade obligations.

The Canadian government, with the full support and active engagement of Canadian industry, has fought against this unfair treatment, which is also hurting U.S. industry and consumers.

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Post image for Wikileaks’ Latest — Draft IP Chapter in Major Trade Agreement

Wikileaks has made another big splash yesterday — not about spying, but about a multinational trade agreement currently being negotiated. Wikileaks published a draft chapter on intellectual property that is part of the Trans-Pacific Partnership  Agreement (TPP), now being negotiated with 12 countries — Japan, Mexico, Canada, Australia, Malaysia, Chile, Singapore, Peru, Vietnam, New Zealand, and Brunei Darussalam.

The 95-page chapter, as a negotiating document, includes proposed provisions and language on a broad range of intellectual property issues, including copyrights, trademarks, patents, pharmaceuticals, and the Internet. The chapter also includes enforcement mechanisms for violations of the agreement. Individual countries’ initials next to the provisions or words in brackets show which countries support or oppose the particular language.

It’s a difficult document to parse, as many of the provisions reference other agreements and treaties, particularly the Agreement on Trade Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights, commonly known as TRIPS, which is administered by the World Trade Organization.

Intellectual property rights are likely to continue to be a difficult issue for the 12 countries to negotiate, as some countries are at the leading edge of technological developments, while others are hardly players.  However, some of the developing countries are pushing for intellectual property rights in plant varieties — likely to be a contentious issue as well.

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Post image for Enflaming, Not Enlightening: George Monbiot on Investment Treaties

George Monbiot in The Guardian, in his usual hyperbolic and specious way, describes the proposed U.S.-EU trade agreement’s purpose as to attack national sovereignty through a secret plot by big businesses and corporate lawyers to sue governments and overturn nations’ laws.

Monbiot starts his diatribe by asking a set of rhetorical questions. A bit irritating, but maybe that’s his way of getting readers involved. Then comes his first substantive sentence: “The purpose of the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership is to remove the regulatory differences between the U.S. and European nations.”

That is a misstatement. TTIP’s purpose is to promote freer trade between two of the largest trading blocs in the world by removing tariffs, addressing non-tariff barriers, and attempting to streamline differing regulatory schemes that impede trade. Through reducing or eliminating trade barriers, the overarching purpose is to increase economic growth and create new jobs on both sides of the Atlantic.

But Monbiot ignores those purposes, of course. Instead, he focuses on the nefarious goal of big business — “to kill regulations protecting people and the living planet” through promoting investor-state dispute settlement in TTIP. And Monbiot says that this mechanism is powerful, subtle, and secretive:

The remarkable ability it would grant big business to sue the living daylights out of governments which try to defend their citizens. It would allow a secretive panel of corporate lawyers to overrule the will of parliament and destroy our legal protections.

What Monbiot is referring to are investment treaties or provisions between countries that attempt to attract investment in those countries through providing clear and non-discrimatory rules for how one country treats investors from another country. Those investor-state rules obviously have to incorporate provisions dealing with disputes, that is, when an investor from another country believes his property has been expropriated or reduced in value by the other country’s actions. When that occurs, the dispute would be arbitrated, generally by an international panel.

Again, that approach makes sense. If the dispute were decided by the domestic courts of law, varying legal systems would complicate the process. Plus, there would be a greater likelihood of discriminatory treatment against the foreign country.

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