Later On

A blog written for those whose interests more or less match mine.

Archive for March 5th, 2019

Something is ignoring what the American public actually want

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Tim Wu writes in the NY Times:

We are told that America is divided and polarized as never before. Yet when it comes to many important areas of policy, that simply isn’t true.

About 75 percent of Americans favor higher taxes for the ultrawealthy. The idea of a federal law that would guarantee paid maternity leaveattracts 67 percent support. Eighty-three percent favor strong net neutrality rules for broadband, and more than 60 percent want stronger privacy laws. Seventy-one percent think we should be able to buy drugs imported from Canada, and 92 percent want Medicare to negotiate for lower drug prices. The list goes on.

The defining political fact of our time is not polarization. It’s the inability of even large bipartisan majorities to get what they want on issues like these. Call it the oppression of the supermajority. Ignoring what most of the country wants — as much as demagogy and political divisiveness — is what is making the public so angry.

Some might counter that the thwarting of the popular will is not necessarily worrisome. For Congress to enact a proposal just because it is supported by a large majority, the argument goes, would amount to populism. The public, according to this way of thinking, is generally too ill informed to have its economic policy preferences taken seriously.

It is true that policymaking requires expertise. But I don’t think members of the public are demonstrating ignorance when they claim that drug prices are too high, taxes could be fairer, privacy laws are too weak and monopolies are too coddled.

Others remind us that the United States is a democratic republic, not a direct democracy, and that the Constitution was designed to modulate the extremes of majority rule. Majorities sometimes want things — like bans on books, or crackdowns on minorities — that they should not be given.

This is true. It is also true that a thoughtful process of democratic deliberation and compromise can yield better policy outcomes than merely following the majority’s will. But these considerations hardly describe our current situation. The invocation of constitutional principle has become an increasingly lame and embarrassing excuse. The framers of the Constitution, having experienced a popular revolution, were hardly recommending that the will of the majority be ignored. The Constitution sought to fine-tune majoritarian democracy, not to silence it.

The most obvious historical precedent for our times is the Progressive era. During the first decades of the 20th century, the American public voted for politicians who supported economic reforms like maximum-hour work laws and bans on child labor. But the Supreme Court struck down most of Congress’s economic legislation, deeming it unconstitutional.

In our era, it is primarily Congress that prevents popular laws from being passed or getting serious consideration. (Holding an occasional hearing does not count as “doing something.”) Entire categories of public policy options are effectively off-limits because of the combined influence of industry groups and donor interests. There is no principled defense of this state of affairs — and indeed, no one attempts to offer such a justification. Instead, legislative stagnation is cynically defended by those who benefit from it with an unconvincing invocation of the rigors of our system of checks and balances.

The president, because he is representative of more voters, might be thought an important remedy to this problem. And when running for office, Mr. Trump did gesture at his support for popular policies, promising to control drug prices, build public infrastructure and change trade policy to favor dispossessed workers. Yet since coming to power, Mr. Trump, with a few exceptions, like trade, has seemed to lose interest in what the broader public wants, focusing instead on polarizing issues like immigration that are not the public’s main concerns but the obsessions of a loud minority faction. . .

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Written by LeisureGuy

5 March 2019 at 7:33 pm

Post-Hurricane Harvey, NASA tried to fly a pollution-spotting plane over Houston. The EPA said no

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When the government turns on its own citizens. Susanne Rust and Louis Sahagun write in the LA Times:

In the weeks after Hurricane Harvey’s catastrophic sweep through the Houston area — which resulted in chemical spills, fires, flooded storage tanks and damaged industrial plants — rescue crews and residents complained of burning throats, nausea and dizziness.
Fifteen hundred miles west in the high desert city of Palmdale, NASA scientists were preparing to fly a DC-8, equipped with the world’s most sophisticated air samplers over the hurricane zone to monitor pollution levels.

The mission never got off the ground. Both the state of Texas and the EPA told the scientists to stay away.

According to emails obtained by The Times via a public records request and interviews with dozens of scientists and officials familiar with the situation, EPA and state officials argued that NASA’s data would cause “confusion” and might “overlap” with their own analysis — which was showing only a few, isolated spots of concern.

“At this time, we don’t think your data would be useful,” Michael Honeycutt, Texas’ director of toxicology, wrote to NASA officials, adding that low-flying helicopters equipped with infra-red cameras, contracted by his agency, would be sufficient.

EPA deferred to Honeycutt, a controversial toxicologist who has suggested air pollution may be beneficial to human health.

The response stunned NASA scientists, many of whom had flown similar missions in the past, including over the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

An EPA spokesman said the decision to wave off the Hurricane Harvey mission was made by Texas state officials, whose own pollution monitoring efforts included mobile bus units and crews with hand-held devices on the ground.

But NASA scientists say that, had the DC-8 been deployed, it would have provided the most comprehensive and detailed analysis of air quality in the region, allowing for a more thorough understanding of the situation.

“It’s totally possible we’d have found nothing at all to be concerned about,” said Tom Ryerson, a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration researcher who had previously been part of the Deepwater Horizon mission. “But at least we’d have known that,” he said, “without a doubt.”

Some see the EPA decision as part of a pattern.

Since taking office, the Trump administration has rejected and suppressed established science, partnered with fringe researchers and embraced industry-backed views — including appointing a former coal lobbyist as its new EPA administrator.

At the time of the hurricane, the agency was run by Scott Pruitt, who during his tenure targeted dozens of environmental regulations for rollback, including several focused on air pollution.

“This is a very clear illustration of the politics of knowledge,” said Scott Frickel, an environmental sociologist at Brown University, referring to the rejection of the NASA jet. “The EPA Region 6 and Texas authorities don’t want to know, so they are passing on something really important about urban-scale disasters.”

Clouds of benzene over Houston

On Aug. 25, 2017, Harvey stalled over the Texas coast, unleashing record rainfall on Houston and Galveston.

The area is one of the most heavily concentrated industrialized hubs in the nation, home to thousands of petroleum refineries and chemical manufacturing plants and more than a dozen Superfund sites. Over the next eight days, the storm dumped more than 60 inches of rain on some areas of the region, pummeling it with wind gusts in excess of 150 mph, according to the U.S. Geological Survey and EPA.

On Aug. 28, Gov. Greg Abbott suspended state emission rules, including those governing air pollution, after the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality argued they would impede disaster response. The rules remained suspended for the next seven months.

When the storm finally moved north and east on Sept. 4, the level of environmental destruction and confusion on the ground was unprecedented.

Smokestacks, pipelines and generators had been damaged or destroyed. Storage tanks filled with toxic chemicals were battered and leaking. Superfund sites were flooded, spilling hazardous waste into nearby rivers, streams and neighborhoods.

Officials from the EPA and the state environmental agency, which had shut down their stationary air monitors to avoid storm damage, maintained the air quality was fine. In addition to using ground technology, they flew in a single-engine prop plane that took photos and used infrared technology to detect chemical plumes in the area.

Despite EPA claims that pollutants were “well below levels of health concern,” residents and rescuers complained of the fumes. Clouds of benzene and other cancer-causing chemicals floated over the city, according to analyses by environmental groups and news reports.

As those reports spread, researchers with NASA’s Atmospheric Tomography Mission program thought they could help.

Since 2016, the chemistry laboratory has flown more that 197,000 miles around the globe, sampling hundreds of unique airborne gases or particles.

The team was about to embark on its fourth and final mission around the globe and had planned a six-hour test flight for Sept. 14 that would take them east to Lamont, Okla., where they’d carry out compass measurements, before heading back to Palmdale.
The laboratory inside the DC-8, when running at full capacity, hosts roughly three dozen scientists and engineers and a crew of eight. Tubes, spigots and flasks on the aircraft’s exterior guzzle in air samples as the jet bobs up and down between its lowest altitude of 500 feet and its ceiling at 40,000 feet.
“When fully equipped … it bristles like a porcupine with probes, tubes and laser equipment sticking out of the hull and windows and dangling off the wings — all of them plugged into instruments on board,” said Chris Jennison, the DC-8 mission manager, during a recent tour of the plane.

It is the most precise and comprehensive airborne air quality lab on the planet, according to scientists familiar with the equipment. Where the EPA’s air pollution single-prop plane can gather some basic chemistry of about two dozen species of air-pollutant compounds, the NASA jet can analyze more than 450.

As the team watched the disaster unfold, Paul Newman, chief scientist of NASA’s Earth Science Division, suggested they divert their test run and fly over Houston. The timing was serendipitous. The DC-8 was fully equipped and ready to go.

“We agreed this would be a good opportunity to support the Hurricane Harvey recovery effort,” Lawrence Friedl, NASA’s director of Applied Sciences wrote in a Sept. 8, 2017 email to the agency’s then-acting Administrator Robert Lightfoot and others. Indeed, NASA’s press shop was touting its coordination with the hurricane emergency response.

But over the next few days, it became clear neither the EPA nor the state of Texas saw this particular offer in that same light.

Emails detail how EPA officials fretted about ‘overlaps’

On Sept. 9, David Gray, the EPA’s deputy regional administrator in Texas and leader of the agency’s emergency response, wrote to NASA and Texas officials that he was “hesitant” to have the jet “collect additional information that overlaps our existing efforts” until he learned more about the mission. He noted that media and nongovernmental organizations were releasing data that was “conflicting” with the state and EPA’s.

NASA scientists tried to reassure Gray and Honeycutt that they wouldn’t do anything to hinder the data collection efforts. They said they wouldn’t focus on particular facility emissions but instead assess whether large changes in air quality had occurred following the disaster. They also promised not to deliver their data to the media, although they underscored it would eventually be made public.

In addition, they noted, similar interagency missions had succeeded in the past. In 2010, a NOAA plane with a similar payload aided the EPA in assessing air quality over the Deepwater Horizon spill. The data showed Gulf air was OK to breathe, assuaging the concerns of rescue operators and emergency responders.

Jane Lubchenco, the former NOAA administrator who oversaw the Deepwater Horizon mission, said the cooperation and tone of discussion then “was set at the highest level: The president made it clear he wanted teamwork throughout.”

“There is no good reason why that cannot happen most of the time,” she said.

But the NASA scientists’ assurances didn’t work.

The key decision-maker was Honeycutt, known for his energy industry-friendly views on toxic chemicals and pollutants. Six weeks later, Trump’s EPA would appoint Honeycutt chairman of the agency’s Scientific Advisory Board, an independent panel of scientists charged with providing advice to the agency’s administrator.

On Sept. 11, Honeycutt wrote in an email to NASA and EPA officials that state data showed no sign for concern, and “we don’t think your data would be useful for source identification while industry continues to restart their operations.”

Gray agreed with Honeycutt: “EPA concurs with your assessment and we will not plan to ask NASA to conduct this mission.”

The NASA team was stupefied.

“NASA does NOT need EPA approval,” Newman wrote to the team’s project coordinator, Barry Lefer. “We certainly should notify and potentially coordinate, but we don’t need approval.”

His superiors disagreed, and that evening Michael Freilich, the director of NASA’s Earth Sciences division, called off the flight. Freilich retired on Feb. 28.

The agency had “received emails from both TCEQ and EPA stating unambiguously that they do not want NASA to use the DC-8 for any data acquisition,” he wrote. “I am personally sorry.”

In recent interviews, EPA and Texas officials maintained the NASA flight would not have provided useful information.

“NASA is equipped to gather atmospheric chemistry data, not ground-level data, which is why we declined their offer,” Honeycutt wrote in an email.

“I did not tell NASA they could not fly their DC-8,” he said. “I don’t have that kind of authority; I’m just a state employee.”

John Konkus, an EPA spokesman, said the EPA didn’t deny the offer, either.

“This is EPA facilitating the decision-maker, which in this case was the state,” he said. EPA, he said, was “satisfied with the air monitoring technology that EPA had and [that the state] requested we deploy.”

An investigation from the Associated Press and the Houston Chronicle showed there was widespread, unreported pollution and environmental damage in the region. The team identified more than 100 Harvey-related toxic releases, most of which were never publicized or vastly understated, including a cloud of hydrochloric acid that leaked from a damaged pipeline and a gasoline spill from an oil terminal that formed “a vapor cloud.” . . .

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The Trump administration is the enemy of the people.

Written by LeisureGuy

5 March 2019 at 6:37 pm

Ignorant Arizona lawmaker inexplicably says requiring immunizations is “Communist”

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Apparently, insofar as one can follow her “thought,” a law requiring certain things (e.g., vaccines, no-parking zones, stopping at red lights) means that we have lost our liberty and are (no better than) Communists. Timothy Bella reports in the Washington Post:

Amid a surging measles outbreak in the United States that has grown to about 160 cases in 10 states, Arizona’s legislature recently passed bills allowing for a religious exemption for required vaccination shots — a move that public health advocates warn could lead to fewer immunizations. Republican Gov. Doug Ducey, who describes himself as “pro-vaccination” and “anti-measles,” suggested Wednesday he would strike down those proposals.
But one state lawmaker begged to differ with the governor. Republican State Rep. Kelly Townsend, a five-term state representative who is no stranger to making controversial and befuddling statements on social media, took to Facebook on Thursday to bemoan that Arizona was “prepared to give up our liberty, the very sovereignty of our body, because of measles.”
Why? Because doing so would be “Communist.”
“I read yesterday that the idea is being floated that if not enough people get vaccinated, then we are going to force them to,” Townsend wrote on Thursday morning. “The idea that we force someone to give up their liberty for the sake of the collective is not based on American values but rather, Communist.” . . .

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This woman’s thought processes are confused. She is confusing public health measures with tyranny, and laws with oppression. It sounds like she is basically opposed to legislation in general.

Written by LeisureGuy

5 March 2019 at 9:51 am

Charles McCarry, 88, Spy Turned Master Spy Novelist, Is Dead

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Sad to see him go. Fascinating novels. Just over a decade ago, I blogged what I see as the best reading order. And they’re worth reading (in that order).

Richard Sandomir reports in the NY Times:

Charles McCarry, a former C.I.A. officer who used his Cold War experiences to animate his widely admired espionage novels, notably “The Tears of Autumn,” a best seller about the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, died on Tuesday in Fairfax, Va. He was 88.

His son Caleb said the cause was complications of a cerebral hemorrhage caused by a fall.

The soft-spoken Mr. McCarry followed other former spies into writing fiction, a group that includes Graham Greene, Ian Fleming and David Cornwell, who writes under the pseudonym John le Carré. And over nearly 40 years, Mr. McCarry’s dense plotting, realistic detail and brisk writing style brought him a reputation as one of espionage fiction’s leading practitioners.

“McCarry is the best modern writer on the subject of intrigue — by the breadth of Alan Furst, by the fathom of Eric Ambler, by any measure,” the political satirist P. J. O’Rourke wrote in a review of Mr. McCarry’s “Old Boys” (2004) in The Weekly Standard.

“Old Boys” is the sixth of seven novels that center on Paul Christopher, an urbane agent for the Outfit (read: the C.I.A.), who first appeared in “The Miernik Dossier” (1973), an inventive tale told through letters, surveillance reports, diaries and transcripts of phone conversations. The Christopher character — Mr. McCarry’s equivalent of George Smiley — returned the next year in “The Tears of Autumn.”

“The Tears of Autumn,” Mr. McCarry’s biggest seller, reimagines the Kennedy assassination as payback by the South Vietnamese — using Cubans and the Mafia as go-betweens — for the White House’s role in the coup that led to the death of President Ngo Dinh Diem weeks before Kennedy was gunned down. Christopher travels the world to prove that his theory is correct.

“McCarry’s years as an undercover operative served him well,” the critic Patrick Anderson wrote in The Washington Post in 2005, when “Tears” was reissued. “Some of the novel’s best moments show Christopher meeting with a variety of revolutionaries, rogues, and killers.”

He added, “The Christopher novels are brilliant, but their flaw is that their hero has no flaw — he is too good to be true.”

Although he described his undercover work — the dead drops, the cover stories, the clandestine rendezvous — as unglamorous and tedious, Mr. McCarry said he had surrendered to it as the foundation of his intricately plotted novels.

“If you’re a born writer — which, alas, I seem to be — it’s almost impossible to refuse experience,” he told The Post in 1988, adding, “Fiction depends on its facts being believable, so it’s always useful to know the way things work.”

Albert Charles McCarry Jr. was born on June 14, 1930, in Pittsfield, Mass., and grew up on the family farm in nearby Plainfield run by his father. His mother, Madeline (Rees) McCarry, was a homemaker who influenced him with her stories about her family and girlhood.

Too poor to afford the colleges that had accepted him, Mr. McCarry enlisted in the Army, where he wrote for Stars and Stripes and edited a weekly Army newspaper in Bremerhaven, Germany.

Moving to Manhattan after his discharge, he lived on Christopher Street in Greenwich Village and wrote a novel, which went unpublished; to earn money, he washed dishes at Sardi’s, the Theater District restaurant.

A trip to a wedding led to a job writing for a newspaper in Lisbon, Ohio, where he met Nancy Neill, his future wife. By 1956, while he was working at another newspaper, in Youngstown, he was introduced by an Army friend to James P. Mitchell, the secretary of labor under President Dwight D. Eisenhower. Mr. Mitchell hired him as a confidential assistant and speechwriter.

Two years later, he resigned from the Labor Department to write full time in Europe. But Mr. Mitchell found a way to keep him from leaving government by calling Allen W. Dulles, the director of central intelligence, and asking him to recruit Mr. McCarry for the C.I.A.

Mr. McCarry worked for nine years as a deep cover operative in Europe, Asia and Africa, always alone and never attached to an embassy.

He served in Ghana after it gained its independence from Britain in 1957; Germany when the Berlin Wall was being built; Vietnam around the time of the coup against Diem in 1963; and the Congo when he learned of Kennedy’s death. But his son said he never discussed operational details.

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When Mr. McCarry was asked in 2004 to describe the type of identity he adopted while traveling in Africa for the C.I.A., he told The Morning News, a web magazine, with a laugh: “I was a nice young American who wanted to be helpful. And usually people were glad to accept the help.” . . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

5 March 2019 at 8:57 am

Posted in Books, Daily life

Nancy Boy, meet Blenheim Bouquet

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Nancy Boy is a great shaving cream, highly recommended, and this is a tub of their Signature shaving cream: lavender, rosemary, and peppermint, as I recall. The little Maggard travel brush did a terrific job, and my Fendrihan Mk II Stainless Steel razor once again proved its mettle: 3 passes to a perfect result.

A splash of Penhaligon’s Blenheim Bouquet aftershave finished the job:

Top notes: Lemon, Lime, and Lavender
Heart notes: Blenheim Bouquet has no heart notes
Base notes: Pine, Musk, and Black Pepper

After I posted this, I saw that Mantic59 is also a big Nancy Boy fan. And I think he’s right: Nancy Boy works best with a Plissoft-style synthetic shaving brush.

And this morning I see by the shadow that Molly is in her tree:

Written by LeisureGuy

5 March 2019 at 7:49 am

Posted in Cats, Daily life, Molly, Shaving

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