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Coal Mine Safety

April 9, 2010 Leave a comment

It’s a continuing mystery to me why regulation of industry is so widely and casually disparaged. Then something happens like the collapse of the US banking industry, or a mine explosion, and there’s talk briefly of adding regulations or enforcing them more strictly, but soon it’s back to depicting regulations as yet one more evil government tool to take over free enterprise and steal our freedoms. Mind you, many of the people saying this don’t seem to mind at all when our government gets serious about stealing our freedoms, whether by reading our email without court approval or throwing us in jail without paying attention to habeas corpus.

And here we are, again, with this week’s mine explosion at Massey Energy Company‘s Upper Big Branch mine explosion in Montcoal, West Virginia. See this AP article from Wednesday for an account of Massey’s pattern of “frequently sidestep[ping] hefty fines by aggressively contesting safety violations, including recent problems with the ventilation system that clears away combustible methane gas.” As E.J. Dionne noted in The New Republic yesterday:

Companies just don’t like regulation, and Don L. Blankenship, the chief executive of Massey Energy Co., has a history of challenging the regulators in every way he can.

Massey’s Upper Big Branch Mine has been cited for safety violations 1,342 times since 2005. Eighty-six of those citations involved failing to follow a mine ventilation plan to control methane and coal dust, 12 of them coming last month alone.

Not surprisingly, Blankenship views this as the cost of doing business. “Violations are unfortunately a normal part of the mining process,” he said in a radio interview with West Virginia Metro News. “There are violations at every coal mine in America and UBB (Upper Big Branch) was a mine that had violations.” . . .

Only after disasters such as this one do we remember that regulations exist for a reason, that their enforcement can, literally, be a matter of life and death. We will eventually learn what went wrong at Upper Big Branch and whether the safety violations were part of the problem. But then what will we do?

As for banking regulation, the moment seems to have passed. I don’t see the Senate doing anything.

Categories: Government, Regulation

They’re Watching Us!

December 9, 2009 Leave a comment

Six years ago next month, we began the process of buying a new car for Gail. We soon settled on a particular model, and then had to decide on features and color, given those the dealer could get in. We were somewhat flexible on color. Our principal criterion was that we didn’t want the navigation package. We wanted the other standard multi-feature package, the one that gives you heated front seats and leather interior and a few other “luxury” items. But we didn’t want the navigation package for three reasons: we didn’t think we needed it — we sort of know our way around; why pay for something you don’t need?; but most important, Gail didn’t want the car to be equipped with GPS. I kept tellling her this could be useful, but she was adamant that she didn’t want them watching her. Paranoia or reality? Who knows? Remember the Mel Gibson character in Conspiracy Theory? He turned out to be right. Why bet against him?

Since most of the cars the dealer brought in had the navigation feature, we would have to wait. No problem. Our salesman identified a particular vehicle on its way from Japan and earmarked it for us. Or so he said.

Weeks went by. Eventually he said something had gone wrong and the car wasn’t coming to the dealer. Or maybe it was going to another customer. Whatever. We found whatever he said a little hard to take seriously. Whatever the issue, he was back to telling us that a car with everything we wanted was now available, and as a bonus, it had navigation too! He seemed to have forgotten the whole point, that we were waiting a month so we could do without navigation. We decided to take a look. And then, great car bargainer that I am, I managed to get them to agree to a big discount on the navigation. Gail, in turn, sucked it up and decided she could live with GPS.

Five years and 9+ months later, she couldn’t be happier. She has struck up a friendship with the disembodied woman who tells her how to get places. She finds the navigation more useful than she ever imagined. But best of all, with navigation and the accompanying screen in the dash, you get a rear camera that shows what’s behind you when the car is in reverse. The car I bought three years ago has this too. One quickly comes to appreciate it.

Are they watching? We moved beyond that.

Silly us. As you may have read last week, thanks to the work of Indiana University graduate student Christopher Soghoian,

Sprint Nextel provided law enforcement agencies with its customers’ (GPS) location information over 8 million times between September 2008 and October 2009. This massive disclosure of sensitive customer information was made possible due to the roll-out by Sprint of a new, special web portal for law enforcement officers.

Read more in his post on the subject. See also emptywheel’s post two days ago, in which she points out that Sprint may have made a significant amount of money from this service. She concludes, “You see, these companies only look like telecom companies. Really, they’re telecom and surveillance companies. The question is, how much telecom is it, and how much surveillance?” And see Scott Horton’s post yesterday at Harper’s. I’ll conclude with one passage from Horton.

In 1999, Congress passed a law requiring annual reporting of “pen registers and tap and trace devices” so that Congress could monitor the use of new technologies for electronic surveillance. This reporting requirement is imposed on the Department of Justice. However, Soghoian notes (I believe correctly) that the Justice Department has simply ignored the law and the obligations it imposes. This is one area in which the Justice Department apparently feels free to do what it wishes, including violating criminal statutes, whenever it feels national security is challenged. It is also free to rope telecommunications service providers into collaboration, assuring them that it will use its law enforcement monopoly to insure that criminal statutes they are jointly violating will not be enforced. This was the criminal enterprise engineered by the Bush Justice Department to subvert FISA. But so far there is little evidence of the Obama Administration charting a different course, or insisting on accountability for their predecessors.

Categories: Government, Law, Movies, Security

Same As It Ever Was

September 24, 2009 Leave a comment

Last night, I wrote about Gary Wills’ piece in the current NY Review of Books describing the US’s permanent national security state and the challenges any president — Obama in particular — has in changing it. This morning Glenn Greenwald addressed a particular one of these challenges, changing US policy on preventive detention. His comments are in response to an article by Peter Baker in today’s NYT reporting that the “Obama administration has decided not to seek new legislation from Congress authorizing the indefinite detention of about 50 terrorism suspects being held without charges at at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, officials said Wednesday. Instead, the administration will continue to hold the detainees without bringing them to trial based on the power it says it has under the Congressional resolution passed after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, authorizing the president to use force against forces of Al Qaeda and the Taliban. In concluding that it does not need specific permission from Congress to hold detainees without charges, the Obama administration is adopting one of the arguments advanced by the Bush administration in years of debates about detention policies.”

After discussing the specific issues, Greenwald observes that

when it comes to uprooting (“changing”) the Bush/Cheney approach to Terrorism and civil liberties — the issue which generated as much opposition to the last presidency as anything else — the Obama administration has proven rather conclusively that tiny and cosmetic adjustments are the most it is willing to do. They love announcing new policies that cast the appearance of change but which have no effect whatsoever on presidential powers. With great fanfare, they announced the closing of CIA black sites — at a time when none was operating. They trumpeted the President’s order that no interrogation tactics outside of the Army Field Manual could be used — at a time when approval for such tactics had been withdrawn. They repudiated the most extreme elements of the Bush/Addington/Yoo “inherent power” theories — while maintaining alternative justifications to enable the same exact policies to proceed exactly as is. They flamboyantly touted the closing of Guantanamo — while aggressively defending the right to abduct people from around the world and then imprison them with no due process at Bagram. Their “changes” exist solely in theory — which isn’t to say that they are all irrelevant, but it is to say that they change nothing in practice: i.e., in reality.

Greenwald brings up Wills’ article later, noting that “Wills makes the point I’ve been emphasizing for some time: as long as we remain a nation in a permanent state of war, devoted to imperial ends, maintaining our National Security State ensures that the core assaults on civil liberties will never end; at best, we can tinker with them on the margins with the types of pretty words that the Obama administration adores, but it will persist and grow on its own accord.”

Pretty bleak. But seemingly true.

Categories: Government, Politics

Change: Difficult, but Needed

September 23, 2009 Leave a comment
Diego Garcia

Diego Garcia

The current New York Review of Books has a short piece by Gary Wills describing the difficulties Obama (or any president) has in introducing policies that would move the US away from its permanent national security state. There may not be much that is original, but the article is still valuable in laying out the issues so succinctly and clearly. The opening is below. The article is short; read it all. (See also Jonathan Freedland’s review of David Vine’s Island of Shame: The Secret History of the U.S. Military Base on Diego Garcia, to both of which Wills refers.)

George W. Bush left the White House unpopular and disgraced. His successor promised change, and it was clear where change was needed. Illegal acts should cease—torture and indefinite detention, denial of habeas corpus and legal representation, unilateral canceling of treaties, defiance of Congress and the Constitution, nullification of laws by signing statements. Powers attributed to the president by the theory of the unitary executive should not be exercised. Judges who are willing to give the president any power he asks for should not be confirmed.

But the momentum of accumulating powers in the executive is not easily reversed, checked, or even slowed. It was not created by the Bush administration. The whole history of America since World War II caused an inertial transfer of power toward the executive branch. The monopoly on use of nuclear weaponry, the cult of the commander in chief, the worldwide network of military bases to maintain nuclear alert and supremacy, the secret intelligence agencies, the entire national security state, the classification and clearance systems, the expansion of state secrets, the withholding of evidence and information, the permanent emergency that has melded World War II with the cold war and the cold war with the “war on terror”—all these make a vast and intricate structure that may not yield to effort at dismantling it. Sixty-eight straight years of war emergency powers (1941–2009) have made the abnormal normal, and constitutional diminishment the settled order.

Categories: Government, History, Politics

Security Theater

September 2, 2009 Leave a comment

SecurityTheater

The Atlantic’s James Fallows has written frequently about the idiocy of the TSA’s airport security procedures, an idiocy best summarized by the phrase “security theater.” (See for instance his post from last January and the links contained therein. See also the Atlantic article in last November’s issue by Fallows’ colleague Jeffrey Goldberg.)

In Fallows’ latest post on this theme, from yesterday, he links to and quotes from last week’s “Ask the Pilot” column in Salon by Patrick Smith. Here’s one small excerpt from Smith:

There is a level of inherent risk that we simply must learn to accept. But, if we are going to have an airport security apparatus, and if we are going to devote millions of tax dollars to the cause of thwarting attacks, can we please do it smartly and at least improve our odds?

Am I the only one who finds it maddening, and even a little scary, that we can’t get this right? Is it not a national disgrace that TSA should spend its time confiscating butter knives from uniformed pilots rather than focusing on deadly threats with a long historical precedent?

I followed Smith’s “confiscating butter knives” link and found myself at one of his columns from last summer, which I urge you to read. The butter knife story is both hilarious and maddening. One taste (but read it all):

After removing the knife, she holds it upward with two fingers and stares at me coldly. Her pose is like that of an angry schoolteacher about to berate a child for bringing some forbidden object to class.

“You ain’t takin’ this through,” she says. “No knives. You can’t bring a knife through here.”

It takes a moment for me to realize that she’s serious. “I’m … but … it’s …”

“Sorry.” She throws it into a bin and starts to walk away.

“Wait a minute,” I say. “That’s airline silverware.”

“Don’t matter what it is. You can’t bring knives through here.”

“Ma’am, that’s an airline knife. It’s the knife they give you on the plane.”

Categories: Government, Stupidity, Travel

Bureaucratic Play

August 21, 2009 Leave a comment
French consulate regions

French consulate regions

It’s hardly news that bureaucratic functionaries love to toy with people. Who can blame them? One has to have some fun in one’s life. As a result, I’ve been anxious for months about Joel’s need to get a student visa for his time in France this fall. It’s required for any stay of over 90 days, and Joel will be studying in Grenoble from early September through December 19. The rules are that you need to show up in person at the consulate to which your home region is assigned, do so at least two weeks ahead of departure, and bring a long list of documents.

My first worry was, is Joel eligible to submit the application at the Boston consulate? If they insisted that Seattle is his home address, he would have to go down to San Francisco. (There seems to be no way around showing up in person at one of the ten consulates around the country. See the map here, also copied above. Notice that Louisiana gets its own consulate, which I suppose makes historical sense. So does Florida. I can’t imagine why.)

My second worry was that Joel would get around to it too late, especially if he showed up for his appointment in Boston and was told they can’t do it, he has to go to SF. My third worry was that he’d have failed to comply with some paperwork requirement, as interpreted by the fonctionnaire. And my fourth worry was simply that they’d screw him, just for the heck of it, like a cat toying with a mouse.

So anyway, Joel flies out of Boston a week from Sunday, nine days from now, to London and then Paris. That means to meet the two-week-prior requirement, he should have been to the consulate by last Friday at the latest. It didn’t work out that way. When he got around to making an appointment, the best he could do was three days ago, Tuesday morning of this week. In Boston. He had other things on his mind, like finishing up his summer half-term classes a week ago. This would be the week to deal with visa and apartment. Gail flew to Boston Monday, arriving that night, and got up way early (Seattle time) Tuesday morning so she could accompany him to the consulate. One of the paperwork requirements was a document attesting that your parents could provide for you financially, so what better way was there to do that than to have a parent present?

I wasn’t there, so I’m not the one to tell the consulate story. The main point is that the consulate official, noting that Joel had not met the two-week requirement, said that the best she could do is get the visa sent to us at the end of next week. Next Friday. It could be sent FedEx. Indeed, that’s the only option, and one of the items you need to bring is a prepaid FedEx mailer, which fortunately Joel arranged to get on Monday afternoon. That night I gave him our account number so it could be charged to us. Now, the thing is, it would be sent Friday to Seattle and Joel would be flying Sunday to France. That doesn’t quite work. Unless we pay extra for FedEx Saturday delivery, which we agreed to do. And even that doesn’t work very well. It means Joel can’t fly from Seattle back to Boston that Saturday morning, and flying out Sunday morning wouldn’t allow him to catch the 6:00PM flight from Boston to London. Well, there’s always overnight, and that’s what I booked him on, once we had all the information. The plan, then, was: visa sent Friday, visa arrives Saturday, Joel takes off Saturday night, arrives in Boston Sunday morning, kills 10 hours, takes off for London Sunday night.

I could say more, but again I wasn’t there. Like, there was the mother and daughter who cut in front of Joel and two other parties, all having 10AM appointments at the consulate. There is no first-come, first served apparently. Some fonctionnaire, ready to take the next case, asked for a 10AM appointment, and this mother jumped. But the galling thing is that they got their visa immediately, because there wasn’t enough time to send it, whereas Joel couldn’t even have his shipped a day sooner to simplify life.

Okay, so here’s the punch line. The visa came. An hour ago. The doorbell rang, I saw a FedEx truck out the window, I ran like hell to the front door so I wouldn’t miss him. I took the envelope from him, opened it up, and there was Joel’s passport, with visa glued to a page.

Let’s review. The consulate got his application Tuesday. They processed it Wednesday. They shipped it Thursday. It arrived Friday. No big deal. But we were told they wouldn’t ship it until next Friday. Our mild effort to ask if it could be sent sooner was met with the observation that we were late in getting there. Tough luck. We would have to pay the FedEx Saturday delivery fee, and if something went wrong, Joel wouldn’t be making his flights. Plus, because of the anticipated Saturday delivery, I had to book Joel on an overnight flight to Boston through JFK.

It’s here. We can relax. That’s the important thing. But what was the point of all the toying with us? Oh, I guess I already answered that at the beginning. Just because. One has to have some fun.

Further good news is that Gail and Joel have succeeded, as of 2 hours ago, in emptying Joel’s apartment, turning in the key, getting rid of the rental car, and checking out of the hotel room. Three days of hard work. Now they just have to wait for tonight’s flight, already scheduled over an hour late, with an arrival time in Seattle after 1:00 AM local time. It’s going to be a long day.

Categories: Culture, Family, Government, Travel

Driving off the Cliff

August 7, 2009 Leave a comment

driveoffcliff

A couple of years ago, when I read Rory Stewart’s account (The Places in Between) of his 2002 walk across Afghanistan, I came to appreciate the futility of our efforts at Afghani state-building. Stewart is now on the faculty of Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government and the director of their Carr Center for Human Rights Policy. The Financial Times had a column about him last week in which the writer, Emily Stokes, gives an account of a lunchtime conversation with him. (Hat tip: Eric Martin at Obsidian Wings.)

Stokes quotes one part of the conversation in which he gives a rather bleak assessment of the value of providing advice to government officials:

Since arriving at Harvard in June last year, he has been consultant to several members of Barack Obama’s administration, including Hillary Clinton, and is a member of Richard Holbrooke’s special committee for Afghanistan and Pakistan policy. “I do a lot of work with policymakers, but how much effect am I having?” he asks, pronging a mussel out of its shell.

“It’s like they’re coming in and saying to you, ‘I’m going to drive my car off a cliff. Should I or should I not wear a seatbelt?’ And you say, ‘I don’t think you should drive your car off the cliff.’ And they say, ‘No, no, that bit’s already been decided – the question is whether to wear a seatbelt.’ And you say, ‘Well, you might as well wear a seatbelt.’ And then they say, ‘We’ve consulted with policy expert Rory Stewart and he says …’”

And his assessment of state-building is bleak as well:

On the day we meet, the New York Times reports that it looks as if Obama’s policy of increasing troops in Afghanistan will work. Stewart has a different take. “The policy of troop increases will look ridiculous in 30 years,” he says. “They’re not going to make America safer from al-Qaeda. The theory of state-building is suspect. I’m not sure that the state they aim for is conceivable, let alone achievable. We should be pursuing a much more conventional development strategy in Afghanistan. And, if you want to combine that with a Special Forces unit that would make things uncomfortable for Osama bin Laden, then so be it.” He sighs. “But you can’t say that sort of thing to the policymakers. They’re grand, intelligent, busy people who have no interest in this kind of abstraction. They’re not interested in values, virtue, outlook … ” He pushes away a barely touched plate of mussels.

I hope Obama listens sooner rather than later.

Categories: Government, Politics

Taibbi on Health Care

July 28, 2009 Leave a comment
Max Baucus

Max Baucus

Perhaps Matt Taibbi is best taken in limited doses. He does go on too long, and at times he places style over substance. (Then again, if I wrote as well as he did, I wouldn’t hesitate to do the same.) Plus, he uses words in writing that I tend to reserve for oral use. But he does have a way of getting to the heart of the matter.

In his latest blog post , Taibbi discusses why we are about to get such a crappy health care bill. (Or maybe he would use a different word in place of ‘crappy’.) I already take that for granted, so no surprises there. But what’s up with Obama and the Democrats in the Senate anyway? Why are they unwilling to do anything substantive?

Yes, I’ve read about how Obama has the long view in mind. He’s savvy. He knows what he’s doing, working his way through the political thickets or minefields that other Democratic presidents have been trapped in for decades. Well, to hell with the long view. Let’s do something now (before Joel uses up his eligibility under my health care plan — the idea that he will have to stay in school or land the right sort of job in order to get continued coverage is absurd).

So anyway, here are excerpts from Taibbi:

It’s been clear from the start that the Democrats would make a great show of doing something real, then they would fold prematurely, ram through some piece-of-shit bill with some incremental/worthless change in it, and then in the end blame everything on Max Baucus and Bill Nelson, saying, “By golly, we tried our best!”

Make no mistake, this has nothing to do with Max Baucus, Bill Nelson, or anyone else. If the Obama administration wanted to pass a real health care bill, they would do what George Bush and Tom DeLay did in the first six-odd years of this decade whenever they wanted to pass some nightmare piece of legislation (ie the Prescription Drug Bill or CAFTA): they would take the recalcitrant legislators blocking their path into a back room at the Capitol, and beat them with rubber hoses until they changed their minds.

The reason a real health-care bill is not going to get passed is simple: because nobody in Washington really wants it. There is insufficient political will to get it done. It doesn’t matter that it’s an urgent national calamity, that it is plainly obvious to anyone with an IQ over 8 that our system could not possibly be worse and needs to be fixed very soon, and that, moreover, the only people opposing a real reform bill are a pitifully small number of executives in the insurance industry who stand to lose the chance for a fifth summer house if this thing passes.

It won’t get done, because that’s not the way our government works. Our government doesn’t exist to protect voters from interests, it exists to protect interests from voters. The situation we have here is an angry and desperate population that at long last has voted in a majority that it believes should be able to pass a health care bill. It expects something to be done. The task of the lawmakers on the Hill, at least as they see things, is to create the appearance of having done something. And that’s what they’re doing. Personally, I think they’re doing a lousy job even of that. …

This whole business, it was a litmus test for whether or not we even have a functioning government. Here we had a political majority in congress and a popular president armed with oodles of political capital and backed by the overwhelming sentiment of perhaps 150 million Americans, and this government could not bring itself to offend ten thousand insurance men in order to pass a bill that addresses an urgent emergency. What’s left? Third-party politics?

Categories: Government, Politics

Holy War

May 17, 2009 Leave a comment

gq

GQ has a feature article by Robert Draper about Donald Rumsfeld and the Iraq War that I’m only part way through, but that is worth a look. (I was tipped off to it by several bloggers, including in particular hilzoy here and here.) The most notable item so far is Rumsfeld’s use of cover sheets with Biblical quotes in the daily briefings on the war provided to George Bush. One example is above.

From Draper’s article:
Read more…

Categories: Government, Politics, Religion

Thanks Hillary

May 17, 2009 Leave a comment

passport

The State Department appears to be operating efficiently. Gail’s passport was due to expire this week, mine next month. Our plan was to renew them once Gail returned from Scotland in early April, but weeks later, our expiring passports were still in the house. So a week ago Friday we took the time to get new passport photos, fill out the forms, and mail in our passport applications.

I don’t like being without my passport for long, even if I have no specific travel plans. You never know when you might need it. And in my case, with my sister and her family in France, it’s good to know I can just get on a plane and go there if I need to. We therefore chose the expedited renewal option. The passport renewal is $75. The expediting fee is an additional $60. The guidelines are that normal renewal takes six weeks, where as expedited renewal takes three. It’s also recommended that you do next day mail delivery in sending the application to the address in Philadelphia, along with writing a check for $14.85 to cover next day return delivery. That’s what we did.

It all went out two Fridays ago and arrived in Philadelphia last Monday. The checks were cashed that very day, a good sign. And two days ago, Friday, exactly one week after we sent everything in, our new passports arrived. One week exactly. Pretty impressive.

The new passports look like the one above. The symbol near the bottom of the front cover is the Electronic Passport Logo. We received pamphlets explaining the Electronic Passport Security Features. Each “passport contains a small integrated circuit (or ‘chip’) that conforms to the latest international passport standards. This Electronic passport provides: Automated photo verification; Faster & more accurate immigration inspections; and Greater border Protection and Security.” The passport won’t need to be swiped. Instead, the information “can be read by special chip readers from a close distance.” And best of all, we can “[p]roceed to the special immigration lanes displaying the Electronic Passport Logo to be assured of the fastest and most efficient processing.”

Our first opportunity to use the new passports will be next month, when we head to Vancouver just before Father’s Day. I don’t imagine there are special Electronic Passport Logo lanes on I-5 at the border crossing in Blaine. We won’t get to test that feature for a while.

By the way, it’s a bit disappointing to realize how little I used my last passport. I got it in June 1999, having somehow let the previous one expire two years earlier. Gail, Joel, and I all got new passports then in preparation for our trip to Scotland and France in August. Then in 2004 we went back to Scotland, with a short stop in London on the way back. Other than multiple trips to Canada, that may be about it. The new passport is sure to see a lot more action.

Categories: Government, Travel