|We're Running Out of Helium|
Helium is useful for much more than filling party balloons. It is required for the operation of MRI machines and quantum computers, the manufacture of microchips and optoelectronics, and the conduct of countless scientific experiments. For many decades, recognizing its value, the United States has stockpiled the gas, which is found as a trace component in some natural gas fields. Under the Gingrich-inspired drive toward privatization of government resources, the 1996 Helium Privatization Act required selling off the national reserves, eventually to leave users of helium at the mercy of the international market. The law was poorly crafted and required helium to be sold at a price that is far below fair market value. This fire-sale pricing has squandered a relatively rare and valuable resource, has reduced returns to taxpayers, and, most important, has resulted in an unreliable supply of helium.
In collaboration with both the Republican and Democratic leadership on the Committee on Natural Resources, I have introduced legislation to establish public auctions to set a fair price for helium. Although our legislation does not provide the long-term fix we will need ultimately to insure adequate supply, it would allocate a portion of our helium reserves for research and defense purposes and stop the firesale of public resources. I wish that when the 1996 bill was passed, lawmakers had cared less about whether a policy was nominally “public” or “private” and more about whether it was intelligently crafted and carefully executed with the long-term future in mind.
The Coming Demographic Deficit
For the past half century, America’s economy has benefited from what you might call a “demographic surplus.” Because of the post-World War II baby boom, our population has consisted of many working-aged adults. Yet as America ages and Baby Boomers retire, we will be at risk of running a “demographic deficit”: that is, the population will begin to skew toward people beyond their most productive years.
We can see similar demographic forces at work in other countries. China is growing at a blistering pace, but due to its “one child per family” policy, its population contains few young people. As an increasing share of China’s population retires, the nation’s economic growth could stagnate. India presents a near-opposite picture. About half of India’s population is under the age of 25. In the years to come, its working-age population will increase, potentially providing an economic boost.
Here in the U.S., politicians sometimes talk about our demographic challenges by saying that the costs of Social Security and Medicare will rise in the years ahead, but that is an incomplete view. A vibrant economy capable of supporting workers, non-workers, and their families depends not only on the number of people in each age bracket but also on the training, education, communications, transportation, research, and other things that are provided to make the workers most effective, knowledgeable, and productive.
How can America overcome our “demographic deficit?” One possibility is to make full use of immigrants in our economy, which could add more working-aged adults to our population and allow them to find jobs where they can contribute the most. Government and businesses also can invest in projects that are likely to produce big payoffs down the road, such as infrastructure and R&D and education, which will help our economy continue to grow despite demographic headwinds.
National Serve Weather Preparedness Week
As Hurricane Sandy and other recent storms have reminded us, severe weather can strike anywhere at any time. This week is National Severe Weather Preparedness Week, a good time to learn about and prepare for severe weather.
In particular, please take a few minutes to prepare a family emergency plan, build an emergency kit, and ensure that your important papers and valuables are stored in a safe place. Also, learn whether your cell phone is equipped to receive Wireless Emergency Alerts, and consider subscribing to receive severe weather alerts from government or private forecasters.
Further information is available online at ready.gov/severe-weather.