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The Wrongologist

Geopolitics, Power and Political Economy

It’s Past Time To Make Changes To Our Economic System

The Daily Escape:

2011 Art piece by Steven Lambert

Does capitalism work for you? Well, you certainly work for capitalists. The real question is whether capitalism still provides economic security to all of us.

Steve Lambert, the artist who designed the sign, engaged with people across America over a three-year period about whether capitalism was still working. He learned that people were split about 50/50 on the premise:

People usually first react to the piece by falling back on the comfort of abstractions and repeating popular myths. For example, the true/false dilemma is much easier to resolve when the only alternatives to capitalism are presumed to be failed communist dictatorships. It’s also much easier to pretend that the only “true” definition of capitalism is the kind of free-market extreme idolized by thinkers like Ayn Rand and Friedrich Hayek

Or thinkers like Paul Ryan, Mitch McConnell and Donald Trump. Lambert learned that people generally agreed with the concept, assuming “you are willing to work hard, or work smarter”:

I’ve always found the formulation “work hard, work smart” disturbing. When you invert the expression, it implies: if capitalism doesn’t work for you (that is, if you’re poor, out of work or have a demeaning job), it’s your fault. To put it more bluntly, you are lazy and stupid.

If we ignore the fact that until recently, wages have stagnated for decades, and that what most people earn in a lifetime is insufficient to cover a modestly comfortable retirement, maybe you can say that capitalism is working.

We have been told that federal budget deficits impair our ability to grow the economy, or to put food on our individual tables. In fact the opposite is true. This idea makes us believe that our ability to earn a living requires some degree of suffering by other Americans.

As Claire Connelly says: (emphasis by Wrongo)

“We can’t afford it” has been the proverbial comforter of opponents of the welfare state harking back to the Clinton / Blair days….This argument has been used as an emotional crutch for people who don’t want to admit that they’re comfortable with homelessness and unemployment….If their bottom line is stable.

This lie sets us against each other, implying that the well-being of everyone else is a direct threat to our own. And who wins? The beneficiaries of the newly lowered taxes, corporate America and its management teams. More from Connelly:

Do we really want to live in a world….Where most people will be lucky to earn minimum wage, or wait for months to get paid. If at all. A world where we are not entitled either to a job, or an education, or affordable health care or a social safety net?

We are likely to see a $1.3 Trillion budget pass both houses of Congress this week. It is deficit spending run wild. Wrongo knows that both parties believe that deficits don’t matter, and to a great extent, he agrees.

But these deficits are larger than they had to be, due to the massive corporate and wealthy individual tax cuts the Republican House and Senate just passed. And it’s not only the size of the deficits, it’s the mis-allocation of funds by our neo-con overlords.

This is what capitalism has delivered for America: More than 45 million of us (14.5%) live in poverty. In 2016, another 49.5 million Americans were age 65 and older, and half of them (24.75 million) had yearly income of less than $23,394.

That adds up to about 70 million (22%) of Americans.

One idea that is gaining attention is a Jobs Guarantee program. The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP) recently released a paper arguing for a national jobs guarantee through a national infrastructure bank. The CBPP plan envisions an infrastructure bank that would fund vital projects and ensure that jobs are well-paid. The government would use this job-creating ability to expand jobs in sectors where the market won’t currently invest, like a national high-speed internet network.

Government guarantees of employment aren’t radical. They aren’t communism, or socialism. We did it before with the New Deal. It reinforces traditional American values around work, and it builds the tax base by taxation on the jobs created. Here’s a final quote from Steve Lambert:

My favorite response to the sign was from a 17-year-old high school student in Boston. She said: “Capitalism can’t work for everyone. If it did, it wouldn’t be capitalism.”

This is where the conversation needs to go: We have to change an economic system that fails so many.

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Will Tariffs Bring Prosperity?

The Daily Escape:

Detail of art painted on a truck, Pakistan – 2017 photo by Caren Firouz. South Asian “truck art” has become a phenomenon, inspiring gallery exhibitions.

Will new tariffs help our economy? The view of a typical Trump supporter:

Some of us are happy about these tariffs because it starts a long overdue conversation about trade: Everyone knows that the press, congress, economists, and the multinationals love existing policy, and that most of them couldn’t care less about trade imbalances. If this is the only avenue our democracy has to change trade policy, then we’re all for it.

Yet, the conventional wisdom is that Trump’s tariffs on steel and aluminum will do more harm than good. There are several concerns. To the extent we need steel and aluminum to use in our domestic production, it will cost more, and prices will have to go up, assuming that the manufacturers are unwilling to lower their profit margins. Ultimately, those increased costs hit the American taxpayer.

Another concern is retaliation. Our trade partners can block our exports, or charge retaliatory import tariffs of their own. Just 12% of US GDP are exports, so we’re less exposed to that threat than other economies that have a larger percentage of their economies dependent on exporting. However, jobs can be easily lost if China, Brazil, or the Euro Zone block some of our exports.

Trump’s rationale for new tariffs is two-fold. First there is a national security risk caused by diminished capacity in sensitive industries. Second, good jobs will come back to America if we produce more stuff.

Let’s deal with national security first. No doubt we have surrendered some of our strengths in sensitive products and technologies. But, it’s not a critical issue for steel or aluminum. We can get them from many countries that are currently our allies.

Artificial intelligence, advanced semiconductors, and software are an entirely different matter. There are legitimate national security-based rationales for restriction in those areas.

But, we are in trouble with some of the exotic steels that the Defense Department uses in weapon systems. For example, the Belgian firm Fabrique Nationale is the prime contractor for a lot of the high end small arms. Some of these specialty steels are only manufactured in annual production lots. Trump’s tariff won’t shift the production of those exotic steels to domestic sources.

So even in the few cases in which a tariff might serve a national security purpose, the Trump tariff will fail.

And while the Chinese dump steel below cost on global markets, most others (Canada, Brazil) do not, and we buy a lot more from them than we do from China. And there is no scenario whereby Canadian steel exports are a “national security” risk, Trump’s primary rationale. And the Trumpets seemingly can’t see the difference between primary aluminum (China exports nearly none) and semi-manufactured aluminum products, such as bars, plates, and wire rod, which they export a lot.

But, don’t foreign governments subsidize their steel industry? China does. However, that means that China is essentially giving us cheap steel. The question for Trump is: Will we gain enough jobs in our domestic steel industry to outweigh the losses to us in higher prices across all industries?

Maybe, but it hasn’t worked that way in the past.

Tariffs help lazy and/or incompetent businesses. Imposing new tariffs will just put off the day when the toxic combination of bad management, lack of investment, poor infrastructure, and bad government causes these protected industries to implode.

If you are a manufacturing company that is internationally competitive and well run, how would you like it if your steel and aluminum suddenly became 25% more expensive? All to protect some other lazy SOB who hasn’t invested in his plant in 20 years?

The correct response should be to find out why your product isn’t competitive, and then fix it. Much of American industry has done that, by automating, by moving abroad for cheaper labor, or to be closer to raw materials.

Ultimately, Trump’s tariffs will just postpone the day when our uncompetitive sectors must modernize, or go under.

And that result is always a net loss of jobs.

The best think tank idea is to establish tariffs (or quotas) based on the amount industries pay their labor in foreign countries vs. what US employers pay. If the foreign country’s prices are lower, than a tariff would kick in. This would help us with US firms who manufacture overseas. They would have the choice of paying higher wages to US laborers, or paying a tariff on their imports to the US.

Trump’s message is: If you want unfettered access to the US market, make it here. If the US consumer pays more, that is a price he’s willing to take to have the manufacturing base.

This is a debate worth having.

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Rural Towns Have Polluted Water. Will Trump’s Plan Fix It?

The Daily Escape:

Valley of Desolation, Eastern Cape, South Africa – 2018 photo by Ottho Heldring

The Trump infrastructure plan asks states and cities to partner with private equity to build their roads, bridges and water treatment plants. As the WSJ explains, private equity says they are not interested. Apparently, they don’t want to build things; they prefer to purchase existing assets: (emphasis by Wrongo)

Fund managers say they are mainly looking for assets that are already privately owned—such as renewable energy, railroads, utilities and pipelines—and not the deteriorating government-owned infrastructure like roads and bridges that helped attract the capital in the first place. To the extent they are interested in public assets, the focus is more likely to be on privatizing existing infrastructure than on new development—the heart of Mr. Trump’s push.

One area where private equity may think they have a role to play is with America’s threatened water systems, which are existing assets. When people think of water crises, they think of places like Flint, Michigan, because a failed urban water system affects huge numbers of people.

But most health-based violations of drinking-water standards occur in small towns. Of the 5,000 US drinking-water systems that racked up health-based violations in 2015, more than 50% were systems that served 500 people or fewer.

But when we add up the total number of people affected, rural America’s drinking-water situation is an order of magnitude greater than Flint’s. Millions of rural Americans are subject to unhealthy levels of contaminants in their drinking water, largely from agriculture and coal mining.

And as the rural/urban economic gap grows, this basic inequality won’t get fixed unless something radical is done to improve water quality in rural America.

Agriculture is the culprit in many rural towns, and unhealthy levels of nitrates is the primary cause. Nitrogen-based fertilizer runs off of farmlands and into the nation’s fresh water. The health impact of ingesting nitrates is serious:

  • Two-thirds of communities with nitrate levels at or above 5 ppm are in 10 states where agriculture is big business.
  • Almost three-fourths of communities whose drinking water is at or above the legal limit are found in just five states – Arizona, California, Kansas, Oklahoma and Texas.

Remediation costs vary, but a 2012 report from the Center for Watershed Sciences at UC Davis gives a yardstick. They say that a community of just under 5,000 people could incur annual costs ranging from $195,000 to $1.1 million to build and operate an ion exchange system, while a reverse osmosis system would cost from $1.1 million to $4 million a year. A $4 million system would cost $800 per citizen.

These costs may be far beyond the ability of small towns to finance. What is really going on here is another case of “socializing losses”. Farms are polluting the water, and the town is left to pay for remediation. And the big agriculture lobbies are making sure that their members avoid any liability for poisoning their towns.

We know that we haven’t been able to fund Flint’s water remediation with public funds. How will we deal with the rest of America’s polluted drinking water?  It isn’t likely that towns and cities can do much more. Some cities have debt capacity, the capital markets may be willing to lend to them. However, hostility to new taxes on the local level means that issuing new debt is difficult politically for mayors and town councils.

Trump’s infrastructure plan opens up the Clean Water State Revolving Fund (CWSRF). This federal financial assistance program for water infrastructure projects would allow private firms to both manage and repair water infrastructure at taxpayer’s expense. Previously, only states and municipalities could access the fund.

Funneling CWSRF funds to private water system providers means our most vulnerable towns will have to turn over basic infrastructure to for-profit companies. And those companies will charge for the privilege. On average, private for-profit water utilities charge households 59% more than local governments charge for drinking water, an extra $185 a year.

When your water is poisoning you, should you agree to raise water rates to fix it, or do you expect to get pure water for the money you are already paying?

What if you are unable to move to a place where the water is safe?

If your water system will cost $ millions for a town of 500, how can it possibly be paid for, except by public funding?

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Automation Will Cost 75 Million US Jobs By 2030

The Daily Escape:

Torres Del Paine National Park, Patagonia, Chile. Torres Del Paine is known for its mountains, glaciers and grasslands that shelter rare wildlife like Guanacos.

Wrongo has written many times about automation taking jobs that will not be replaced onshore. McKinsey & Co. has a new study that finds that job losses due to automation will take out anywhere from ten to twenty percent of the current global workforce by 2030:

As many as 800 million workers worldwide may lose their jobs to robots and automation by 2030, equivalent to more than a fifth of today’s global labor force.

The report covers 46 countries and more than 800 occupations. The McKinsey Global Institute study found that even if the rise of robots is less rapid than they expect, 400 million workers could still find themselves displaced by automation and would need to find new jobs over the next 13 years. McKinsey said that both developed and emerging countries will be impacted. Machine operators, fast-food workers and back-office employees are among those who will be most affected if automation spreads quickly through the workplace. Bloomberg made a chart summarizing the jobs lost by country:

Source: Bloomberg

This implies that some 75 million jobs are at risk in the US by 2030, to be replaced by…something.

The bottom line is that many of the unemployed will need considerable help to shift to new work, and as a result, starting salaries will continue to flat line. McKinsey paints a rosy picture about the future jobs market post-automation. They say that the economies of most countries will eventually replace the lost jobs, but are a little unclear on what the new jobs will be. They mention health care, infrastructure, construction, renewable energy and IT as likely job areas.

But the challenge is how the displaced workers learn the new skills necessary by 2030. Axios quotes Michael Chui, lead author of the report on the needs for retraining:

We’re all going to have to change and learn how to do new things over time…It’s a Marshall Plan size of a task…

How will America fund a Marshall Plan for retraining 75 million of us, particularly when we’ve just given the very corporations who are automating our jobs even more of a break on their tax bills? It’s unlikely that the Republican-controlled Congress will have any desire to fund the necessary comprehensive re-training effort. If Congress had any foresight, they could have made their new corporate tax cuts conditional on these same firms paying for the job retraining that their automation will cause for American workers.

But, it will be our job to figure out where these new training funds will come from, right along with the funds we have already given to the job creators Republican donors.

And what if you don’t have the money or learning aptitude to acquire these new skills? Well, you are likely to be both unemployed and poor. And that mean tens of millions more Americans will not have the resources to stay out of poverty.

Perhaps CEOs and Congresscritters ought to remember that there are enough guns for every man, woman and child in this country, and many are in the hands of the very people who would be hurt most by automation.

We can’t hold back the tide of automation, but we can be smart about how we, as a country make the transition to fewer very highly-skilled workers and many narrowly-skilled workers. There are questions to ask, and solutions to craft for the post-2030 world.

How will America’s forgotten workers survive in a society that is led by people who don’t care if they have a job?

How will America’s forgotten workers survive if the political establishment tries to unwind the social safety net while celebrating the progress of technologies that cost jobs?

That could lead to torches and pitchforks.

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Here Comes the Retail Apocalypse

The Daily Escape:

The Oberlausitzische Library of Science, Gorlitz Germany

There is a growing concern that the mall as we know it is in big trouble. RadioShack, The Limited, Payless, and Toys“R”Us were among 19 retail bankruptcies this year. From Dave Dayden: (brackets by the Wrongologist)

This story is at odds with the broader narrative about business in America: The economy is growing, unemployment is low, and consumer confidence is at a decade-long high. This would typically signal a retail boom, yet the [retail store] pain rivals the height of the Great Recession.

Many point to Amazon and other online retailers as taking away market share, but e-commerce sales in the second quarter of 2017 were 8.9% of total sales. There are three reasons for so many sick retailers.

First, while online sales are “only” 8.9% of total retail sales, these businesses have very high fixed costs and low net profit margins. The Stern School at NYU tracks net profit margins on thousands of businesses across many sectors, including retail. The margins for Specialty retail for the year ending January 2017 was 3.17%. It was 1.89% for Grocery and 2.60% for General retailers. If a high fixed cost business loses 9% of sales, it can easily wipe out the bottom line.

Second, many retail companies carry high debt levels. Bloomberg explains that private equity firms (PE’s) have purchased numerous retail chains over the past decade via leveraged buyouts, where debt is the primary source of the money used to buy the business. There are billions in borrowings on the balance sheets of troubled retailers, and sustaining that load is only going to become harder if interest rates rise.

Third, there are just too many stores in our cities and suburbs to sustain sales in a world where online shopping is growing rapidly.

Worse, billions of dollars of that PE-arranged debt come due in the next few years. More from Bloomberg:

If today is considered a retail apocalypse…then what’s coming next could truly be scary.

This chart shows what percentage of retail real estate loans are delinquent by area:

Source: Trepp

There are large areas of America where more than 20% of the loans are past due. More from Bloomberg: (emphasis by the Wrongologist)

Through the third quarter of this year, 6,752 locations were scheduled to shutter in the US, excluding grocery stores and restaurants, according to the International Council of Shopping Centers. That’s more than double the 2016 total and is close to surpassing the all-time high of 6,900 in 2008…Apparel chains have by far taken the biggest hit, with 2,500 locations closing. Department stores were hammered, too, with Macy’s Inc., Sears Holdings Corp. and J.C. Penney Co. downsizing. In all, about 550 department stores closed, equating to 43 million square feet, or about half the total.

This threatens the retail sales staff and cashiers who make up 6% of the entire US workforce, a total of 8 million jobs. These workers are not located in any one region; the entire country will share in the pain.

These American retail workers could see their careers evaporate, largely due to the PE’s financial scheme. The PE’s, however, will likely walk away enriched, and policymakers will share the blame since they enabled the carnage.

Our tax code makes corporate interest payments tax-deductible. So the PE kingpins load up these companies with debt and when they walk away, they get tax credits for any write-offs, incentivizing them to borrow and play the game again. The PE firm might lose some or all of its equity, but in most cases, it already drew cash out via special dividends and fees, so it has made its money.

The lenders, employees, state development authorities are the ones left holding the bag.

The GOP’s new tax plan proposes a cap on the deductibility of interest payments over 30% of a company’s earnings. But, the GOP left a loophole: Real estate companies are exempt from the cap.

Surprisingly, this benefits Donald Trump’s businesses! It also helps PE firms that split the operating side of the businesses they buy from the property side, as most do. They put the borrowing onto the property side, and continue to deduct the interest.

So financialization businesses like PE will continue to strip the value out of companies with hard assets.

Billions in asset-stripping and thousands of operations sent overseas. Labor participation rate is stagnant, yet we are assured that if we pass big corporate tax cuts, the US economy will grow fast enough to more than compensate for the losses.

What’s wrong with this picture?

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Saturday Soother – October 7, 2017

The Daily Escape:

Naiman Nuur (Eight Lakes) National Park, Mongolia. The lakes are just 22 miles from the Orkhon waterfalls, but are accessible only by hiking, or by horse. You can get to it with 4 wheel drive vehicles, but it is 80+ miles one way, 160 if there are heavy rains. You are probably never coming here.

Rick Perry heads Trump’s Department of Energy, (DoE). With the Russians, nuclear war with North Korea, ditching the Iran deal, and hurricanes, we have ignored Perry. But Perry hasn’t ignored the coal industry Trump hired him to protect. The DoE has asked the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) to begin the rule-making process to subsidize coal and nuclear plant operator’s costs and profits. From Vox:

Perry wants utilities to pay coal and nuclear power plants for all their costs and all the power they produce, whether those plants are needed or not.

This takes a brief unpacking. The DoE did a study of power grid reliability that said:

The loss of coal plants had not diminished grid reliability; in fact, the grid is more reliable than ever. Reliability can be improved further through smart planning and a portfolio of flexible resources.

Then the DoE said to FERC: Address a crisis we determined doesn’t exist. They are asking FERC to adopt a rule forcing utilities in competitive energy markets to pay the full cost of plants that have 90 days’ worth of fuel on-site. Perry’s argument is that the levels of renewable energy produced from wind and solar is variable. And since backup is needed for days with calm winds or cloudy skies, we need to preserve the aging coal and nuclear plants to protect the power grid from dips in availability, because they alone among electric power sources, have 90-days of fuel on hand.

Perry’s contention is that coal and nuclear stored fuel is necessary for grid reliability, and, that these plants are unfairly being driven out of business by subsidies to renewable energy. This is patently false. It is cheap natural gas that is driving coal out of business.

Having fuel on-site does little for grid resilience. No one expects energy outages if coal and nuclear plants continue closing. But, let’s have more corporate welfare for the least useful part of the energy industry!

Perry’s alleged problem isn’t real, and his solution, subsidizing coal and nuclear plants, is a form of theft. A transfer from the most deserving, clean renewable and safe plants, to the least deserving, most polluting and dangerous coal and nuclear plants.

And people will be taxed through artificially higher electricity rates to subsidize coal and nuclear plants. More from Vox:

It’s hard to overstate how radical this proposal is. It is wildly contradictory to both the spirit and practice of competitive energy markets. It amounts to selective re-regulation, but only for particular power sources, which wouldn’t have to compete, they’d just have to have piles of fuel.

So does FERC have to do what DoE asks? No, but consider this: FERC has three commissioners (a quorum), two of which, including the chair, are Trump appointees. The chair is Neil Chatterjee, who was a staffer for Sen. Mitch McConnell, the Senate’s champion of coal. Chatterjee recently said:

I believe baseload power should be recognized as an essential part of the fuel mix. … I believe that generation, including our existing coal and nuclear fleet, needs to be properly compensated to recognize the value they provide to the system.

So, this market-wrecking plan to Make Coal Great Again is likely to happen.

This is an old-school Ayn Rand-style looter giveaway from a bunch of self-described free-market “conservatives” trying to rescue a dinosaur industry that is choking the world.

Just another issue that raises our anxiety level. It’s Saturday, and we need to dial it back, relax and stop thinking about how these Trump termites are quietly undermining everything. Grab a hot, steaming cup of Mystic Monk Paradiso Blend coffee ($15.99/lb.), find a quiet corner, put on the Bluetooth headphones and listen to Telemann’s “Concerto in D major for Violin, Cello, Trumpet and Strings”, TWV 53:D5. Here performed by the Bremer Barockorchester, recorded in a November, 2015 live performance at the Unser Lieben Frauen Church, Bremen, Germany:

Note the valveless trumpet played by Giuseppe Frau. It is an Egger (three-hole system) Baroque trumpet.

Those who read the Wrongologist in email can view the video here.

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Saturday Soother – September 23, 2017

The Daily Escape:

Sunndalsøra, Norway, best known for its aluminum factory, one of the largest in Europe – photo by Brotherside

WaPo reports that estimates say it will take about four months for electric power to be restored on Puerto Rico. You would hope that we could beat the estimate by quite a bit. What is the Congress’s plan to help out our Commonwealth?

Can you imagine living somewhere without power for several months? We had to do it once at the Mansion of Wrong, at the height of winter for 7 days. It got to 37°F one night inside the house. We now have a whole house generator.

What happens to the Puerto Rican economy if there is no power for multiple months? Can average people make a living? How will they pay the rent, or the mortgage?

Our first concern should be providing them with supplementary power. Generators and the fuel to power them must be among the first things we deliver to the island. They are the cheapest, fastest way to deliver temporary power while the basic infrastructure of power lines and cell towers are rebuilt. Fuel (mostly diesel) will need to be brought in via ship. Health care facilities need power to operate, and the basic elements of government requires it as well. With power, they can begin to restore normalcy, communications and water for citizens.

People will need some form of temporary housing. Businesses will need to sell products and services, and help keep people employed. It’s also not clear how law and civil order will stand up to months without power, or to a situation where people can’t get their basic needs met.

Anyone with resources, or family connections on the US mainland is going to move away, many will come here. Will Puerto Rican immigrants be seen by the GOP base as simply more illegals coming to use our welfare system?

Will the GOP remind their base that Puerto Ricans are US citizens? It isn’t certain that Republicans all will say that. Think about what that says about the America we live in today.

The scale of this disaster would be unfathomable and unacceptable on the US mainland. Will we step up as a country and help our brothers back to their feet? Or, will we do something half-hearted because they are the “other“?

Before you answer, remember that Flint Michigan still doesn’t have safe drinking water. Maybe getting the help you need is mostly about whether you (and your town) are the correct color.

Time to get soothed after another really tough week. Try to find a bag of Beanstock’s Shucker’s Roast coffee (only available at retail during the Wellfleet Cape Cod Oysterfest) but otherwise available at great Cape Cod restaurants like C-Shore Wellfleet. Then, brew up a hot, strong cuppa. Settle back, put on the Bluetooth headphones, and listen to Tchaikovsky’s Trio in A minor, Op. 50. This will take about an hour, but you will be greatly rewarded.

Tchaikovsky wrote this between December 1881 and late January 1882. It is the only work Tchaikovsky ever wrote for piano, violin, and cello. Here it is performed live at the New England Conservatory’s Jordan Hall in February 2013, with Livan on piano, Zenas Hsu on violin and Yina Tong on cello:

Those who read the Wrongologist in email can view the video here.

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Houston’s Petrochemical Industry Fails to Protect City

The Daily Escape:

Ranwu Lake Campsite, Tibet photo by Arch-exist Photography. Ranwu Lake is a tourist attraction in SE Tibet, and is called the “Tibetan Switzerland”.

Life in the age of corporatism resembles life in the food chain. In a potentially disastrous outcome from the Harvey flooding, a chemical plant in Crosby, Texas belonging to French industrial giant Arkema, has had several explosions of peroxide and other volatile chemicals. From the NYT:

The company had already ordered all workers to leave the damaged plant, and Harris County ordered the evacuation of residents within a 1.5-mile radius.

These chemicals have to be refrigerated. When the plant’s warehouses lost power, they transferred the product to diesel-powered refrigerated containers. But later, the backup generators were swamped by flood waters, so cooling was lost, and the explosions began. On Tuesday, the company released a statement:

Refrigeration on some of our back-up product storage containers has been compromised due to extremely high water, which is unprecedented in the Crosby area. We are monitoring the temperature of each refrigeration container remotely….while we do not believe there is any imminent danger, the potential for a chemical reaction leading to a fire and/or explosion within the site confines is real.

The rains are over, but the chemical fires linger. Richard Rowe, the CEO of Arkema’s American operations said:

The company has no way of preventing chemicals from catching fire or exploding at its heavily flooded plant…the company has no way to prevent…this worst case outcome.

The CEO says, “No way to prevent explosion“. Back in the olden days, that would be known as a “major design flaw”. Most engineers would have recommended placing the generator sets above at least the 100-year high water mark, just to prevent this kind of fun event. They would also put the diesel tanks above that water line.

Maybe next time. The Houston Chronicle had this amazing map of chemical plants in the Houston area:

In case it is hard to read the map legend, the yellow markers are for petrochemical plants that have a “medium” potential for harm based on their location within the 100-year flood plain. The red markers have a ”high” risk for harm. Houston’s ship channel and the surrounding area along the Gulf coast represent about 40% of U.S. petrochemical manufacturing. At least 25 Houston-area plants have either shut down, or experienced production issues due to Hurricane Harvey’s flooding.

Any guesses that the concentration of plants in the Houston flood zone will cause our corporate overlords to think about relocation of a few of these sites? Or, how they best secure them from the next 500-year flood, which looks like it will happen in say, the next five years? From Forbes:

Harvey was a wake-up call, reminding us that it is time to take a more serious look to ensure the safety of the petrochemical industry and the public at large, just as the nuclear power industry has done in reaction to the Fukushima disaster.

But Arkema has worked hard to change EPA rules in their favor. David Sirota reports that the new rules, which were set to go into effect this year, were halted by the Trump administration after a lobbying campaign by Crosby plant owner Arkema and its affiliated trade association, the American Chemistry Council:

Those rules — which would have taken effect on March 14 — were blocked by EPA administrator Scott Pruitt. The move was a big win for the chemical industry that has spent more than $100 million supporting federal lawmakers since 2008.

Apparently, sacrifices must be made in the name of making America great.

The closures are not just disrupting markets; they’re also causing the release of toxic pollutants that pose a threat to human health. The NYT reports that damaged refineries and oil facilities have already released more than two million pounds of hazardous substances into the air.

The sheer number of facilities around Houston that have to come back online at the same time creates another huge emissions problem. From City Lab:

The real problem is that the plants are allowed to operate so close to residential areas in the first place. Houston’s lack of zoning regulations have been front-and-center in discussions about why Harvey has been so terrible for the city, and that’s no different in the discussion about air pollution.

Not to worry, Houston, your petrochemical corporations will be fine. They have insurance. They will get to write off any damage against their profits. They will get tax incentives to rebuild, or if they choose to move, tax credits from the town down the road.

The people? Most will have no insurance to rebuild their homes or to purchase new furniture.

And the pollution impact? A cost of doing business for the petrochemical industry.

Unfortunately, for the people, pollution’s about their health. And there will be no help forthcoming for the most vulnerable Houstonians.

Have a slice of Texas-themed music: Here is Robert Earl Keen, doing “Corpus Christi Bay” from his 1993 album “A Bigger Piece of Sky”:

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Saturday Soother, January 7, 2017

Happy Birthday today Kelly!! Other than that happy fact, little went right in America this week. Our Overlord, Donald I, rode to a presidential win by saying he would bring jobs back to America that have been lost to automation and offshoring by US companies.

But economists have said for years that creating jobs for low skilled Americans will be difficult. Here is further evidence that bringing back jobs may be tougher than Trump thinks. Salon reports that for men ages 25 to 54, the work statistics are poor:

For this group, labor force participation has sunk to 88.5% from a 1954 peak of 97.9%. Most of that loss has occurred among men who have a high school degree or less, according to a report this year by the Obama administration.

And there are interesting facts to consider where unemployed men are concerned. The NYT’s Upshot reports that the jobs that have been disappearing, like machine operator, are predominantly those that men do, while the occupations that are growing, employ mostly women. More from Upshot:

Of the fastest-growing jobs, many are various types of health aides, which are about 90% female. When men take these so-called pink-collar jobs, they have more job security and wage growth than in blue-collar work, according to recent research. But they are paid less and feel stigmatized.

Upshot quotes David Autor, an economist at M.I.T.:

The jobs being created are very different than the jobs being eliminated…I’m not worried about whether there will be jobs. I’m very worried about whether there will be jobs for low-educated adults, especially the males, who seem very reluctant to take the new jobs.

The issue is America’s culture of masculinity. Andrew Cherlin, a sociologist and public policy professor at Johns Hopkins says:

Traditional masculinity is standing in the way of working-class men’s employment…We have a cultural lag where our views of masculinity have not caught up to the change in the job market.

Why is it that men can get away with saying that they deserve better than women? Perhaps that is a rhetorical question. After all, we elected Donald Trump, who can get away with anything.

The Salon article had this snippet: (emphasis by the Wrongologist)

Health problems and the opioid epidemic may also be a major barrier to work, according to research by Alan Krueger, a Princeton economist and former Obama adviser. Nearly half of men ages 25 through 54 who are neither working nor looking for work, take pain medication daily.

Some of these men may have been injured on the job and were subsequently laid off. But some may also represent part of the huge increase in opioid use in America. They may be part of the increase in disability cases since the Great Recession: More than 10 million Americans received Social Security disability benefits in 2014 (most recent statistics). Benefits paid to disabled workers totaled $11.4 billion per month nationwide, a substantial increase from the $6.1 billion paid monthly in 2004. The top three states receiving disability benefits are West Virginia, Alabama and Arkansas.

We became this society honestly. Our politicians hold our corporations in high esteem. The corporations repay us by automating most jobs and shipping other jobs overseas. They do this with little or no responsibility to help displaced workers retrain, or find new work. They do this while asking for bigger tax breaks to remain domiciled in the US. They do this while blaming our education system for not providing trained, ready-to-work job entrants at no cost to them.

We just cannot count on them to be good corporate citizens.

Those on pain killers may or may not have disabilities that prevent them from working. But in any case, society does not owe unemployed working age men permanent, high paying manufacturing or mining jobs, despite whatever efforts Trump may make.

It is time for them to adapt.

We need a soother. Here is Grex Vocalis a Norwegian chorus formed in 1971. Grex Vocalis has reached the finals of the BBC contest “Let the Peoples Sing” three times. In this video they are performing “An Irish Blessing” (May the road rise to meet you) written by an American, James E. Moore in 1987, live at the Amadeo Roldán Theatre in Havana Cuba:

A Norwegian chorus performing an Irish tune, written by an American, in Cuba. That’s gotta be soothing.

For those who read the Wrongologist in email, you can view the video here.

Sample Lyrics:

May the sun make your days bright

May the stars illuminate your nights

May the flowers bloom along your path

Your house stand firm against the storm.

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Congress Is Back, And the Revolution Begins!

Here is food for thought from David Weigel of the WaPo: (emphasis by the Wrongologist)

When the 115th Congress begins this week, with Republicans firmly in charge of the House and Senate, much of that legislation will form the basis of the most ambitious conservative policy agenda since the 1920s. And rather than a Democratic president standing in the way, a soon-to-be-inaugurated Donald Trump seems ready to sign much of it into law…

That plan was long in the making. Almost the entire agenda has already been vetted, promoted and worked over by Republicans and think tanks that look at the White House less for leadership and more for signing ceremonies

There is little reason for Republicans to seek bipartisan support for middle-of-the-road legislation. They will simply work as a hive to turn America into Kansas. You remember Kansas, the state that has such a terrible record of job creation and economic growth? Kansas governor Republican Sam Brownback launched the orthodoxy of Grover Norquist and the Koch brothers on the state. And Brownback and Steven Moore who helped Brownback with his disastrous legislative agenda, are both economic advisors to Trump.

We have seen lots of hand-wringing about how to stand up to the Trump agenda that will begin raining down on America on January 20th. Most calls to action are from single-issue activist groups that lack the resources to get media attention, or to make a difference.

But there is a clear need for collective action on national, state and local levels. And that movement needs a leader.

How about an anti-president? Maybe Bernie Sanders? When Trump governs by tweet, he would be countered by the anti-president. Americans might come to know that, while Trump and company are cutting healthcare, the shadow government led by anti-president Sanders and vice president Warren are passing and signing a national healthcare bill.

When Trump cuts taxes on the rich and corporations, the shadow government is raising taxes on the rich and penalizing corporations that locate overseas to avoid paying tax at home.

When Trump appoints an anti-abortion, pro-Citizens United Supreme Court Justice, the shadow government appoints someone who is for social justice.

This can begin to build a consensus about what Trump is doing wrong.

We don’t have a parliamentary system, but, most Americans have no idea about political theory, or political facts. So, few will realize that a shadow government isn’t consistent with our Constitutional system!

And the new shadow government MUST not contain Pelosi, Schumer, or any of the geriatric Democrats in the House and Senate. That will de-legitimize the effort.

On New Year’s Day, Wrongo and Ms. Right attended a Baroque music concert at an old Congregational church in Washington CT that dates from 1741. Within a beautiful program, we heard a piece by the Italian composer, Domenico Zipoli. Zipoli has an interesting history. He studied with Scarlatti, he became a Jesuit, and worked as a missionary and died in 1726 in Argentina at age 38. Zipoli’s music was a revelation to us. Here is Zipoli’s “Elevazione” for oboe, violin, organ and cello. It was wonderful to hear it in a place with a good pipe organ.

The “elevation” is the point in the Catholic mass when the chalice and host are presented to the congregation. The performance lasts for eight+ minutes, much longer than what Wrongo prefers to present to you, but it is achingly beautiful, so please have patience.

It may be the perfect antidote to the shenanigans we will be seeing from the Trump administration, and we may need to watch it daily for a few months:

It begs the question, why was the 18th century blessed with so many great composers while the 21st century was given Justin Bieber?

Those who read the Wrongologist in email can view the video here.

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