Later On

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Archive for September 3rd, 2017

Former Shell Oil civil engineer and Berkeley Professor Emeritus Robert Bea speaks on Hurricane Harvey

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A very interesting interview:

Robert Bea is a retired civil engineer and professor emeritus at the Center for Catastrophic Risk Management, University of California at Berkeley. He has had a long career in the fields of flood control and risk assessment and management, beginning in 1954 when he joined in the Army Corps of Engineers.

He was appointed chief offshore civil engineer at Shell Oil in 1965 and stationed in New Orleans. Four years later he was moved by Shell to Houston. After helping to develop the international consulting engineering contractor that became PMB-Bechtel, he joined the faculty at UC Berkeley. There he worked on the analysis of major failures and disasters involving engineered systems, such as the Hurricane Katrina disaster in New Orleans, the NASA Columbia Shuttle explosion, the BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill, the PG&E San Bruno pipeline explosion, and, most recently, the 2017 failures at the Oroville and Anderson dams in California.

Professor Bea spoke with the World Socialist Web Site on Wednesday from his home in California.

Robert Bea: The upset at the Oroville Dam and Anderson Dam in California this past winter is connected to Hurricane Harvey in Houston. In California, we’re coming out of a very dramatic five-year drought. So this year we were blessed with a lot of fresh water, but the systems we had in place to help us benefit from this crucial resource were not prepared.

Worse yet, no one really understood the system as a system. It was a collection of disjointed pieces and parts. Well, that’s just what we’ve seen unfold in Houston, Texas. The storm is much more intense than was expected—that’s to be expected, actually. Global climate change is not a debate. The climate’s been changing since there was a climate to change.

The system in Houston for “flood protection”—it’s really not flood protection at all. It isn’t a system. It’s a bunch of disjointed pieces and parts.

Barry Grey: When you say it’s not really a flood control system, could you elaborate on what you mean by that?

RB: Sure. The Corps of Engineers built nice piles of dirt we call the Barker and Addicks dams. We used to live a few miles from those dams. Our home was located in Memorial Estates, next to a wonderful area called Buffalo Bayou. As our sons grew up, it changed from a bayou to a swamp. The spillway for the Barker and Addicks dams turned into a clogged sewer pipe.

Surrounding it, the open country we saw when we first got there turned into strip malls and highways and research facilities and refineries. So the environment changed. There was no system to confront that set of environmental changes.

At the end of that picture, you open up the newspaper to see the news and say, “Oh, my God! We’ve got flooding in Houston.” It looks like Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans. It looks like it because it’s about the same damn thing.

BG: You know that just the other day the administrator of FEMA made a statement saying there’s no way we could have anticipated this.

RB: That’s total bullshit! I’m normally not that blunt. Absolutely total bullshit! You couldn’t anticipate it because you weren’t looking for it. To anticipate something you have to be looking carefully at it, analyzing what you see and what you detect. Who’s looking carefully and analyzing carefully how in the hell water gets from north of Houston to south of Houston? Nobody.

Some of the pictures of levees that were breaking and will continue to break are just like the levees I found in New Orleans after Katrina. You had trees growing on them or around them. Trees undermine levees, so levee breaks should be no surprise.

BG: There have been numerous studies, reports, recommendations by the American Society of Civil Engineers and others, certainly since Katrina. What has been the response from the political establishment to those reports? . . .

Continue reading. There’s a lot more.

Written by LeisureGuy

3 September 2017 at 7:09 pm

Lawrence Summers: It’s time to balance the power between workers and employers

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A plea for unions from Larry Summers, but the GOP has so weakened labor law and labor agencies that I see little hope. And the presence of monopolies or monopoly-like behavior (Steve Jobs setting up agreements among tech companies to underpay employees by keeping salaries low (by preventing bidding wars that would determine true market value of a potential employee)), also keep workers down and non-unionized. Summers writes in the Washington Post:

The central issue in American politics is the economic security of the middle class and their sense of opportunity for their children. As long as a substantial majority of American adults believe that their children will not live as well as they did, our politics will remain bitter and divisive.

Surely related to middle-class anxiety is the slow growth of wages even in the ninth year of economic recovery. The Phillips curve — which postulates that tighter labor markets lead to an acceleration of wage growth — appears to have broken down. Unemployment is at historically low levels, but the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported Friday that average hourly earnings last month rose by all of 3 cents — little more than a 0.1 percent bump. For the past year, they rose by only 2.5 percent. In contrast, profits of the S&P 500 are rising at a 16 percent annual rate.

What is going on? Economists don’t have complete answers. In part, there are inevitable year-to-year fluctuations (profits have declined in several recent years). And in part, BLS data reflects wages earned in the United States, even though a bit less than half of profits are earned abroad and have become more valuable as the dollar has declined relative to other currencies. And finally, wages have not risen because a strengthening labor market has drawn more workers into the labor force.

But I suspect the most important factor is that employers have gained bargaining power over wages while workers have lost it. Technology has given some employers — depending on the type of work involved — more scope for replacing American workers with foreign workers (think outsourcing) or with automation (think boarding-pass kiosks at airports) or by drawing on the gig economy (think Uber drivers). So their leverage to hold down wages has increased.

On the other hand, other factors have decreased the leverage of workers. For a variety of reasons, including reduced availability of mortgage credit and the loss of equity in existing homes, it is harder than it used to be to move to opportunity. Diminished savings in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis means many families cannot afford even a brief interruption in work. Closely related is the observation that workers as consumers appear more likely than years ago to have to purchase from monopolies — such as a consolidated airline sector or local health-care providers — rather than from firms engaged in fierce price competition. That means their paychecks do not go as far.

On this Labor Day, we would do well to remember that unions have long played a crucial role in the American economy in evening out the bargaining power between employers and employees. They win higher wages, better working conditions and more protection from unjust employer treatment for their members. More broadly, they provide crucial support in the political process for programs such as Social Security and Medicare that benefit members and nonmembers alike. (Both were passionately opposed by major corporations at their inception.)

Today, only 6.4 percent of private-sector workers belong to a union — a decline of nearly two-thirds since the late 1970s. This is the one important contributor to the decline in the relative power of labor, especially those who work with their hands. Workers seeking gigs on their own are inevitably less secure than a group collectively representing their interests. The decline in unionism is also a contributor to the pervasive sense that our political system is too often for sale to the highest bidder.

What can be done? . . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

3 September 2017 at 7:06 pm

Should we ban hate speech? Nazis in the street and the “paradox of tolerance”

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Paul Rosenberg writes in Salon:

In the wake of the violence in Charlottesville, I’ve been seeing a lot of people — from writers at the New York Times and Quartz to ordinary Twitter users — refer to a famous argument by the British-Austrian Jewish philosopher Karl Popper known as the “paradox of tolerance.”

Because it speaks so directly to the growing concern that neo-Nazis and other white supremacists are gaining power in America — in no small part due to Donald Trump’s election to the presidency — it deserves to be quoted in full. Here is its best summation, courtesy of Popper’s book “The Open Society and Its Enemies.”

Unlimited tolerance must lead to the disappearance of tolerance. If we extend unlimited tolerance even to those who are intolerant, if we are not prepared to defend a tolerant society against the onslaught of the intolerant, then the tolerant will be destroyed, and tolerance with them.  —  In this formulation, I do not imply, for instance, that we should always suppress the utterance of intolerant philosophies; as long as we can counter them by rational argument and keep them in check by public opinion, suppression would certainly be unwise. But we should claim the right to suppress them if necessary even by force; for it may easily turn out that they are not prepared to meet us on the level of rational argument, but begin by denouncing all argument; they may forbid their followers to listen to rational argument, because it is deceptive, and teach them to answer arguments by the use of their fists or pistols. We should therefore claim, in the name of tolerance, the right not to tolerate the intolerant.

When I encounter this argument, my mind immediately flies to a very personal experience. Back in the early days of Donald Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign, I was targeted by Andrew Anglin — the same Andrew Anglin whose neo-Nazi website The Daily Stormer was effectively run offline after he encouraged violence post-Charlottesville — in a pair of blatantly anti-Semitic editorials. After describing how this was a deeply unsettling experience, I offered the following thought:

Although I have nothing but contempt for Trump and his racist supporters, I respect their right to free speech. I would rather live in a society that permits it that one that does not — even when some of the invective is directed at myself.

Only 18 months have passed between the days when I wrote those words and the present moment, yet the chronological gulf feels much larger. Do I stand by them now?

Yes — with one crucial caveat. While even toxic political speech should be tolerated, our society needs to be aggressive in holding those who disseminate it accountable. They will almost certainly resist, and that fact cannot matter in the slightest.

First, though, let’s address the two problems with arguing that hate speech should be banned. The most obvious is that the same logic which can be used by one group to deny speech to their adversaries can be turned against them. As Trump made clear when he characterized the anti-fascist counter-protesters as violent and provocative, individuals who oppose humanitarian causes have little difficulty in characterizing progressives as the true oppressors.

Of course, progressives inevitably respond to this by arguing that their ideology is so fundamentally different from that of the alt-right that the Trumpian position is clearly wrong. That rebuttal misses the larger point. Societies may be ruled with laws, but those laws are justified and embedded into our culture by abstract principles. As soon as a new precedent alters one of those fundamental principles, anyone who operates within that society can effectively apply those principles to advance their own agenda, whatever it may be.

“The ability to associate disagreeable ideas with the oppressor, and to quash free speech or other political rights in the name of justice for the oppressed, is a power without any clear limiting principle,” explained Jonathan Chait of New York Magazine in April. “Historically, states that rule on that basis tend to push that power to its farthest possible limit.”

The ACLU summed up this point quite succinctly after Charlottesville, when its statement condemning white supremacism also noted that . . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

3 September 2017 at 1:26 pm

Posted in Daily life, Government, Law

I Was a Mercenary. Trust Me: Erik Prince’s Plan Is Garbage.

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Sean McFate writes in Politico:

For the past year, Erik Prince has been peddling an idea that should alarm anyone who has followed his career: We should replace U.S. troops in Afghanistan with mercenaries, preferably his.

For those who do not know Prince, he was a founder of Blackwater International, the private military contractor that became so toxic, he had to change the company’s name. Under his management, Blackwater committed perhaps the worst war crime of the Iraq War: A squad of armed contractors killed 17 civilians at the Nisour traffic circle in Baghdad. The incident sparked a political uproar in Iraq, vastly complicated the mission of the State Department diplomats the contractors were ostensibly there to protect, and set off multiple probes into Blackwater’s conduct. A FBI inquiry later found that 14 of the 17 deaths were unjustified. For Americans, the “Nisour Incident” was a stain on their country’s moral character. For Iraqis, Blackwater’s reckless behavior and callous disregard for Iraqi lives seemed emblematic of America’s handling of the war as a whole, and helped to hasten our exit.

Now, Prince wants to privatize the Afghanistan War. And Afghans thought the worst we could do was bomb them.

The generals laughed at Prince, and thankfully the president went with the nonmercenary option. But Prince refuses to disappear, excoriating the generals in a recent op-ed for The New York Times, and pushing again for mercenaries, suggesting “it is not too late to alter the course.”

As a former military contractor, I cannot imagine a worse outcome for Afghanistan or the U.S. than handing everything over to mercenaries.

Prince’s argument has lots of problems. He insists contractors should not be stigmatized as “mercenaries,” even though he is proposing armed civilians in conflict zones—the classic definition of a mercenary. Instead, he says they are like the Flying Tigers, the popular name of the 1st American Volunteer Group that flew against the Japanese in 1941–42. Here is where his analogy takes a nosedive: The Flying Tigers were not mercenaries. Rather, they were U.S. military pilots who took off their uniforms to fly as civilians, so that FDR did not have to declare war. Once war was declared, they flew as American fighter pilots once again. That’s hardly the same thing as contractors being paid, often exorbitantly, to fight a war on our behalf.

Prince also compares mercenaries to SpaceX, the private space company, probably offending SpaceX employees everywhere. Elon Musk does not kill people for money.

Crazy as all this sounds, it is a marked improvement over Prince’s earlier op-ed for The Wall Street Journal, in which he advocates neocolonialism—a deeply un-American idea. He urged an American “viceroy” be installed to rule Afghanistan like a colonial overlord, backed by a mercenary army modeled on the old British East India Co. That’s like recommending plantations to assist African-Americans in poverty. Anger was swift. Hamid Karzai, Afghanistan’s ex-president, tweeted this: “I vehemently oppose the proposal to the U.S. govt to outsource its war in Afghanistan to private security firms.”

Besides being offensive, Prince’s proposal is unworkable. I know because I’ve done these things. For years, I worked as a private military contractor in Africa and elsewhere. I built armies for clients, dealt with warlords, conducted strategic reconnaissance, worked with armed groups in the Sahara, transacted arms deals in Eastern Europe and even helped prevent a genocide in Central Africa. I use fiction to reveal the secretive world of mercenaries. It’s worse than people think.

Mercenaries are back, a dangerous trend occurring in the shadows. . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

3 September 2017 at 10:59 am

The right to organize at work deserves constitutional protection

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Shaun Richman writes in Vox:

On Labor Day, alongside stories about parades and final trips to the beach, we can expect to read the usual depressing statistics about the decline of labor unions in the United States. The problem with this coverage isn’t the facts, which are undeniable — it’s the tone of inevitability.

Today, less than 11 percent of workers, including just 7 percent in the private sector, are members of a union — a dramatic drop from the 1950s, when more than one-third of the workforce was unionized. The recent loss by the United Auto Workers at a Mississippi Nissan factory, where workers voted by a three-to-one ratio against union representation, is just the latest in a long string of defeats for the labor movement.

And this decline has a real effect on families’ financial security: Researchers have shown that nearly half of the decline in middle-class incomes is due to the shrinking rates of unionization.

Few articles probe deeply into the cause of the decline, but here’s a hint: It isn’t because unions no longer make sense in the modern economy, nor is it about American workers’ supposed skepticism toward unions (especially in the South). And it’s not more evidence that the white working class stubbornly insists on voting against its own interests.

Rather, the decline of unions is a direct result of our nation’s badly broken labor laws — specifically, the ways in which those laws and court decisions fail to acknowledge, much less protect, the constitutional rights of workers.

American courts have never been kind to labor. From the beginning of our nation’s history well into the 20th century, union organizing efforts were treated by conservative jurists as criminal conspiracies and interferences with employers’ sacrosanct contract rights. Unions spent the 19th and early 20th centuries decrying “judge-made law” and seeking, essentially, to get the government and courts out of labor disputes.

This approach did notch a few victories. The Norris-LaGuardia Act of 1932 prevented the federal courts from issuing injunctions against union picket lines (which were frequently enforced at bayonet point). Many states passed similar laws to keep their courts and local police out of the fray.

But the modern labor era began in many ways in 1935, with the National Labor Relations Act, which made it the official policy of the United States to encourage collective bargaining. The act established a federal agency, the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), which would certify unions and punish employers that refused to deal with them. While well intended, passage of the NLRA in the form it took has had many unintended, and some extremely detrimental, consequences for organized labor.

A failure to ground labor laws in the Bill of Rights

The framers of the legislation, who at the time were leery of a conservative Supreme Court, made the pragmatic decision to root the law’s authority in the Commerce Clause, which grants Congress the right “to regulate Commerce with foreign Nations, and among the several States.” This was the subject of no small debate at the time.

Many advocates believed that labor’s rights should be based on First Amendment rights to free speech and free assembly; others thought that the Fifth Amendment right to “due process” — interpreted as a broad protection of citizens’ rights — made sense. Leaders of the American Federation of Labor had been arguing for a half-century that the 13th Amendment, which prohibited both slavery and, crucially, “involuntary servitude,” was the appropriate constitutional basis for labor rights. But the act’s framers were convinced that the Lochner-era Court that made laissez faire economics a virtual state religion would never go for more lofty human rights justifications.

Practically speaking, the court was motivated to accept the NLRA more by the wave of sit-down strikes roiling the country in 1937 than by legal theories. But conceiving of unionization as a matter of business regulation led to a very narrow interpretation of the act. Before the end of World War II, the court took away legal protections for sit-down strikers, denied striking workers the right to return to his job, and granted employers a First Amendment right to run vicious union-busting campaigns.

Much of this anti-union thrust was endorsed and enhanced by the Taft-Hartley Act of 1947, passed by a Republican Congress over President Truman’s veto. The law declared it illegal for union members to boycott or picket a “secondary” employer — that is, a company that they do not work directly for, but who has significant or even essential business dealings with their employer.

Most people think of the Taft-Hartley Act for its “right-to-work” provisions. The Act permitted states to allow workers to decline to join a union, or pay fees, even if they benefited from union-negotiated contracts. . .

Continue reading.

And see also in VoxHow bosses are (literally) like dictators,” by Elizabeth Anderson, which begins:

Consider some facts about how American employers control their workers. Amazon prohibits employees from exchanging casual remarks while on duty, calling this “time theft.” Apple inspects the personal belongings of its retail workers, some of whom lose up to a half-hour of unpaid time every day as they wait in line to be searched. Tyson prevents its poultry workers from using the bathroom. Some have been forced to urinate on themselves while their supervisors mock them.

About half of US employees have been subject to suspicionless drug screening by their employers. Millions are pressured by their employers to support particular political causes or candidates. Soon employers will be empowered to withhold contraception coverage from their employees’ health insurance. They already have the right to penalize workers for failure to exercise and diet, by charging them higher health insurance premiums.

How should we understand these sweeping powers that employers have to regulate their employees’ lives, both on and off duty? Most people don’t use the term in this context, but wherever some have the authority to issue orders to others, backed by sanctions, in some domain of life, that authority is a government.

We usually assume that “government” refers to state authorities. Yet the state is only one kind of government. Every organization needs some way to govern itself — to designate who has authority to make decisions concerning its affairs, what their powers are, and what consequences they may mete out to those beneath them in the organizational chart who fail to do their part in carrying out the organization’s decisions.

Managers in private firms can impose, for almost any reason, sanctions including job loss, demotion, pay cuts, worse hours, worse conditions, and harassment. The top managers of firms are therefore the heads of little governments, who rule their workers while they are at work — and often even when they are off duty.

Every government has a constitution, which determines whether it is a democracy, a dictatorship, or something else. In a democracy like the United States, the government is “public.” This means it is properly the business of the governed: transparent to them and servant to their interests. They have a voice and the power to hold rulers accountable.

Not every government is public in this way. When King Louis XIV of France said, “L’etat, c’est moi,” he meant that his government was his business alone, something he kept private from those he governed. They weren’t entitled to know how he operated it, had no standing to insist he take their interests into account in his decisions, and no right to hold him accountable for his actions.

Like Louis XIV’s government, the typical American workplace is kept private from those it governs. Managers often conceal decisions of vital interest to their workers. Often, they don’t even give advance notice of firm closures and layoffs. They are free to sacrifice workers’ dignity in dominating and humiliating their subordinates. Most employer harassment of workers is perfectly legal, as long as bosses mete it out on an equal-opportunity basis. (Walmart and Amazon managers are notorious for berating and belittling their workers.) And workers have virtually no power to hold their bosses accountable for such abuses: They can’t fire their bosses, and can’t sue them for mistreatment except in a very narrow range of cases, mostly having to do with discrimination.

Why are workers subject to private government? . . .

Continue reading.

Later in the article:

Scotts, the lawn care company, fired an employee for smoking off duty. After Rep. Rodney Frelinghuysen (R-NJ) notified Lakeland Bank that an employee had complained he wasn’t holding town hall meetings, the bank intimidated her into resigning. San Diego Christian College fired a teacher for having premarital sex — and hired her fiancé to fill her post. Bosses are dictators, and workers are their subjects.

Read the whole thing. This is a particularly good article.

Written by LeisureGuy

3 September 2017 at 8:55 am

We already knew how to reduce damage from floods. We just didn’t do it.

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David Conrad and Larry Lawson write in the Washington Post:

The waters stretched as far as you could see, and then farther, in every direction. Rainfall totals were reported in feet, not the usual inches. Dozens of people died. Highways were submerged; thousands upon thousands of square miles of land were deluged. The damage totaled billions of dollars.

 It happened 24 years ago, in the Great Flood of 1993 in the upper Midwest.

After that disaster, the Clinton administration directed an experienced federal interagency task force to report on the flood and its causes. That report, “Sharing the Challenge ,” was prepared by Army Brig. Gen. Gerry E. Galloway and released in 1994. It made more than 100 recommendations for policy and program changes to address and reduce flood risks and improve the nation’s floodplain management everywhere, not just in the area along the Mississippi River that had been underwater. The government found that many policies were encouraging — rather than discouraging — people to build homes and businesses in places with increasingly high risks of flooding by allowing new building in those areas, constructing insufficient flood-control projects that give residents a false sense of security and subsidizing redevelopment after disasters without mitigation. That often compounded the costs and problems caused by floods.

Ultimately, though, very little changed. The lessons of 1993 were largely ignored, especially in parts of the country that were most vulnerable to flooding — such as Houston. Experts and policymakers have known for a long time that we need to change the way we approach flood mitigation and prevention, but that hasn’t stopped the nation from making the same mistakes over and over. Now, as the federal government prepares to spend billions more cleaning up from catastrophic floods, we’re in danger of doing it again.

***

The Clinton administration’s report seemed like it might change things at first. It suggested the government should offer voluntary buyouts to owners of buildings that flooded repeatedly, clearing the most at-risk land of businesses and residences and leaving it as open space that could be devoted to flood-tolerant uses such as parks, recreation areas and wetlands. Especially in states such as Missouri, Iowa and Illinois that had been hit hard by the 1993 disaster, governors supported this new approach. More than 10,000 buildings were bought so their owners could move outside floodplains. The federal government spent $121 million on this type of mitigation after the 1993 floods — acquiring land or elevating, relocating or flood-proofing buildings. That investment probably saved $600 million in disaster relief: The National Institute of Building Sciences estimates that each dollar spent on flood mitigation saves $5 in future flood damage.

Four years after the Great Flood commission issued its report, the two of us collaborated on a follow-up paper released by the National Wildlife Federation, “Higher Ground .” We looked at the nascent successes of the Midwest floodplain buyouts and relocations that took place after the 1993 floods. In Missouri, where there were major buyouts, one study showed that disaster relief after a 1995 flood cost 99 percent less than after the 1993 flood, even though 85 percent of the same area was affected. We also looked at the class of properties considered by the National Flood Insurance Program to be “repetitive loss properties” — places where the program had paid repeated claims within a 10-year span. We found that substantial benefits for property owners and taxpayers could be gleaned by simply removing damaged buildings, rather than repairing them only to see them flooded out again. We also concluded that many flood insurance policies were heavily subsidized and underestimated risk, leading to premiums that were far too low to make homeowners realize just how flood-prone their locations were.

Still, we also found that paying to relocate a relatively small number of people could significantly reduce the risk. About 2 percent of the flood insurance policies with repetitive losses were generating 40 percent of the claim payouts — many of them making expensive claims frequently. But these properties were seldom subject to risk mitigation (such as elevation or relocation), even after a flood caused damage worth more than 50 percent of their value, which is considered “substantially damaged” and is supposed to require mitigation. We also found that about 20 percent of these properties were located outside the designated “100 year” floodplains, areas where the chance of a flood in any given year is predicted to be 1 percent. The maps, in other words, were badly out of date, even then.

But owners often found few realistic options for getting out of harm’s way, even with some of the new programs that were established, because the government was slow to provide assistance and there seemed to be little real resolve for making difficult changes.

The city where we chose to release the report was Houston.

At the time, Houston ranked third (and surrounding Harris County fourth) in the nation in the number of repetitive-loss buildings, behind only Jefferson Parish, La., and New Orleans. It was too late to change policies in a way that would help New Orleans, which was already mostly built out — and mostly at or below sea level. But Houston and its adjacent areas, even with explosive growth and development underway, still had clear options to prevent future floods. They could conduct watershed planning and management. Officials could buy out or relocate the most endangered buildings, or put them on stilts, and could adopt higher building-elevation standards and stronger building codes. They could regulate the expansion of impervious areas in a way that would limit paving over pastures and wetlands to construct parking lots and endless subdivisions, and they could establish shoreline protections to reduce flood risks and costs going forward. This was the array of approaches needed to stay and hopefully reverse the growing costs of flooding. The nation’s floodplain organizations, at the same time, pleaded with city leaders to heed these warnings and act.

They didn’t. . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

3 September 2017 at 8:16 am

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