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Archive for August 20th, 2019

Why New York City Is On the Verge of Disaster

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Matt Stoller has a good albeit alarming column in Big:

Three Swords Over New York

Electrical blackouts are scary things. On July 13th of this year, New York City had a blackout that lasted for five hours. The subway stopped along several lines, people were trapped in elevators, Carnegie Hall and Broadway theaters shut down, and Jennifer Lopez was cut off in at her concert at Madison Square Garden.

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo and New York City Mayor Bill De Blasio blamed Con Edison, the New York utility that manages most electric power in the city. And why shouldn’t they? Just before the blackout, Con Ed president Tim Cawley embarrassingly said, “By any measure, we are the most reliable electric delivery system in the United States.”

The next weekend, it happened again, this time in Brooklyn.

Blackouts in New York City reflect the politics of the time. In 1965, and then again in 1969, Con Edison had massive outages that inspired frustration with what Americans perceived as an overall breakdown of the New Deal order. In 1977, it got worse, and there was widespread looting during a city-wide blackout during the rolling New York City financial crisis. The Carter and then Reagan eras of deregulation and concentrated capital were in many ways framed against the old, over-regulated, and antiquated systems represented by Con Edison, and in a bigger sense, New York City of the 1970s. In New York, partial deregulation of utilities finally came in 1997, and with this deregulation came a reduction in the amount of auditing by New York regulators.

We are beyond the Reagan era, of course, because that system is breaking down. Every age gets the metaphorical crises it deserves, and New York’s came in 2012, when Hurricane Sandy hit the city and caused power outages across half the city. I was there, and at first everyone was really nice to each other. Within a few days, a Mad Max vibe began to creep into daily interactions. The lights came back on in time to get the city more or less back to normal, though not everywhere.

The storm was the immediate cause of the blackout, of course, but the storm took advantage of an electrical infrastructure weakened by years of poor investment choices. We know this because a few months after the storm, the Utility Workers of America, the union negotiating with Con Edison, released a report on the company’s operational practices, alleging that “Con Edison appears to operate its electric distribution system based on a policy of“run it until it fails.’”

The details of Con Ed’s operations are ugly. The union noted a lack of redundancy in voltage equipment, smart meters paid for by the stimulus that were never turned on, and a lack of basic supplies. “Our members have worked on cable so old,” said the report, “that it has paper insulation, and on utility poles that were installed in the 1930s and remain in service today.”

The company used to have a policy of keeping a “safety stockpile” of basic supplies on hand in the event of an emergency. No longer. So when Sandy hit, Con Ed ran out of utility ladders and utility cable. It had to rush order parts that did not work on Con Ed systems, including “entire truckloads of utility transformers” which the utility could not return “because of their specialized nature.”

Imagine that. Before Hurricane Sandy hit the city, Con Ed didn’t bother stocking up on ladders. Ouch.

Obviously the union wants to show how its workers are valuable and deserve higher compensation, but the report is consistent with what we’re seeing in corporate America more generally. The union’s motivations are also consistent with what the engineers at Boeing wanted, which was to do their job with integrity.

More broadly, what these new blackouts reflect is two things. First, they show the stresses that climate change are putting on our society. Sandy in 2012 and the heat waves in July pressured the electric grid. Second, they reflect how the short-term financialized mentality that is now pervasive among American policymakers and corporate leaders weakened the grid. It’s similar to what’s happening in Puerto Rico, where an electric grid ruined by years of corruption and financial pressure from bondholders was destroyed by a storm.

The blackouts in July show that the problems revealed during Sandy have not been fixed. I spent time this weekend going through some of Con Edison’s investor documents. And what I found is similar to what I found with Boeing. That is, this is a company focused on financial returns more than engineering integrity. Mainly what I noticed, and this is a fairly trivial observation, is that while Con Ed promised to radically improve its operations after the disaster, what it actually did is increase its dividend every single year and pay its CEO $10 million. I suspect the blackouts last month are one of the results.

But a dysfunctional Con Edison is just the first problem with New York City’s infrastructure.

The second big problem is the Hudson tunnel, the nation’s busiest railroad route, connecting New York City to New Jersey. The tunnel was built in 1910 and is on the verge of collapse. In 2009, as part of the stimulus, there was the money to rebuild what everyone knows is the most important piece of crumbling infrastructure in America. But then- New Jersey Governor Chris Christie killed it to attack Obama and promote himself as a Presidential candidate, Obama didn’t do anything about it, and Trump has refused to move forward on a new attempt. Concrete is falling apart in the remaining tube.

In other words, a good chunk of New York’s transportation infrastructure could collapse, at any point.

But beyond the political choice, contracting in America is insanely expensive and difficult. The high speed rail in California promised in the stimulus is basically dead, even though that did get approval, because costs ballooned. So even if we wanted to fix the Hudson tunnel, it would cost far too much to do so.

I don’t have a good analysis of why construction is so expensive in America, but this is my thesis in a picture.

To put it into words, the problem we have is corruption in the government contracting world, aided by immense amounts of useless overpaid make work. In 2011, an antitrust attorney did a report on how we overpay for government contracting. In service of ‘shrinking government,’ policymakers chose to set up a system where instead of hiring an engineer as a government employee for, say, $120,000 a year, they paid a consulting firm like Booz Allen $500,000 a year for a similar engineer. The resulting system is both more expensive and more bureaucratic.

Here’s one example I grabbed from a public government contracting schedule. The rate negotiated by the government’s General Services Administration for Boston Consulting Group is $33,063.75/week to get a single relatively junior contractor.

Most top tier management consulting is useless. It boils down to telling executives they should raise prices or avoid taxes in a fancy way, helping one faction in a corporation win an internal battle against another, or aiding a cowardly leader do something he or she knows she should do but is afraid of doing without outside validation. It’s highly overpaid make-work, which is why the movie Office Space resonated.

This corruption wasn’t that bad until the 1990s, when Bill Clinton and Al Gore introduced their ‘reinventing government initiative,’ which transferred large amounts of government work to overpaid private contractors. They bragged the size of government didn’t grow, even as they were building a slothful, incompetent, and highly corrupt shadow government in place of the relatively functional public system they took over. This trend of offshoring wasn’t just Federal, but state-level as well. Twenty five years later we’re dealing with a government that can’t govern.

Aside from Con Ed, and the Hudson tunnel, there’s a third problem facing New York City. Food. New York’s food supply nearly turned into a crisis during Sandy, largely because of corporation consolidation. Here’s Siddhartha Mahanta in 2013:

Until relatively recently, most of the food that wound up in New Yorkers’ stomachs came from the farms of upstate New York, Connecticut, and New Jersey. Even Brooklyn and Queens helped out, for a long while registering as the nation’s two biggest vegetable-producing counties.

When that locally grown food got to New York, it tended to stay around longer, sitting in warehouses for perhaps weeks at a time.

Now, New Yorkers rely chiefly on food from across the country, or the other side of the world. And to complicate matters, in recent decades the big companies that run these systems have radically altered how they manage the flow of this food through their supply chains. Most of the private companies that now dominate the distribution of food in America, like Walmart and Sysco, keep much smaller inventories than in years past, sized to meet immediate demand under stable conditions—a strategy known as “just-in-time.” Analysts, in fact, expect Sysco—a major presence in the New York region—to continue cutting down an already super-lean supply chain operation.

In other words, the food on New York’s shelves flows through supply lines that stretch much further than ever before. And there’s a lot less of it along the way.

In other words, we have pooled risk in hidden ways and masked that with the appearance of financial profits. At Boeing it means the company was generating gobs of cash, but planes started crashing. In New York City, that means residents are vulnerable to losing electricity and food, and to transit collapses. Pretty important stuff, no?

Andrew Cuomo, the current Governor of New York, is part of the problem. His defining experience, in my view, was . . .

Continue reading.

We are going to see some extremely ugly happenings in NYC in the near future. It is being set up to fail. The people of NYC are assuming that things that are certain to happen cannot happen. It’s a sword-of-Damocles situation with the single hair holding the sword stretching to the breaking point, which is nigh.

Written by LeisureGuy

20 August 2019 at 2:26 pm

Some of the Country’s Worst Prisons Have Escaped Justice Department Action

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Another example of how the American government has abandoned the American public. Jerry Mitchell reports in ProPublica:

Mississippi has saved a lot of money on its prisons over the past several years. But as the experiences of next-door neighbor Alabama show, rampant violence and understaffing can eventually draw scrutiny from the U.S. Justice Department, with potentially costly consequences.

In April, the Justice Department concluded that “there is reasonable cause to believe that the men’s prisons [in Alabama] fail to protect prisoners from prisoner-on-prisoner violence and prisoner-on-prisoner sexual abuse, and fail to provide prisoners with safe conditions.” It demanded that the state fix the problems or face possible litigation.

Alabama’s prisons are so bad, they violate the U.S. Constitution’s guarantees against cruel and unusual punishment, the Justice Department has said.

Mississippi’s prisons may be as bad, or even worse, the Mississippi Center for Investigative Reporting and ProPublica reported. The ratio of prisoners to guards at South Mississippi Correctional Institution is 23 to 1, several times higher than Alabama’s, which stands at 9.9 to 1.

FAMM, a national nonprofit group advocating criminal justice reform, has called on the Justice Department to investigate Mississippi’s prisons.

Kevin Ring, president of the Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit, said the conditions remind him of prisons found in third-world nations. “They’re uninhabitable,” he said. “This is why we need the government to step in.

“When there is no oversight and accountability, this is what you get.”

The Department of Justice did not return an email requesting comment.

Rivers Ormon, press secretary for Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant, a Republican, said public safety remains a prime concern for the governor. She noted that the inmate population in state prisons fell by 11% in the year after the state passed prison reform in 2014.

“Certain challenges have made managing the system more difficult,” Ormon said in a statement, adding that Bryant has confidence in his team at the Department of Corrections.

(Ormon’s statement failed to note that the prison population is increasing again and is poised to top the 2014 figure in 2020.)

Prison guards in Mississippi are the lowest paid in the nation. Corrections Commissioner Pelicia Hall asked state lawmakers to give guards a significant pay raise, but that was rejected in favor of a more modest increase. The starting pay for guards is so low, those with families are eligible for food stamps.

Hall said she’s doing the best she can with the resources she has.

Alabama’s recent history offers lessons in what may happen if conditions in Mississippi don’t improve.

The Justice Department’s investigation of Alabama was triggered by allegations that officers were having sex with inmates. Investigators visited four Alabama prisons and talked to 55 employees and 270 prisoners.

“Alabama is deliberately indifferent to that harm or serious risk of harm and it has failed to correct known systemic deficiencies that contribute to the violence,” Justice Department investigators said in their report. “The deplorable conditions within Alabama’s prisons lead to heightened tensions among prisoners. And, as a result, the violence is spilling over so that it is affecting not only prisoners, but [Alabama Department of Corrections] staff as well.”

Separately, Alabama is being sued over its treatment of mentally ill inmates. A federal judge has ordered the state to add as many as 2,000 new officers in the next several years.

Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey, a Republican, has called for Alabama to build new facilities to replace its “deplorable,” “horrendous” and “inadequate” prisons. The latest cost for replacing three men’s prisons? $900 million. . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

20 August 2019 at 1:40 pm

The Car Seat Industry Helped Delay a Child Safety Regulation — Again

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“Profit above all” — The prime directive of American capitalism.

Daniel Porat reports for ProPublica:

A long-awaited federal safety standard to test child car seats for their effectiveness in side-impact car crashes has been delayed to March 2020 — more than six years since the regulation was first proposed and nearly two decades since Congress urged the Department of Transportation to address the issue.

Attempts to improve car seat safety have bogged down because of a lack of good data on accidents involving children, antiquated technology and industry lobbying. The car seat industry has sought to delay the side-impact rule, arguing that the government should not act without also updating its other safety standards for car seats.

Joseph Colella, the director of child passenger safety for the Juvenile Products Manufacturers Association, said that having to test multiple types of child car seats under varying crash scenarios with different testing tools would impose an “undue burden” on manufacturers and would lead to price increases for consumers.

The timetable for setting new rules for child seats has slowed further under the administration of President Donald Trump. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has not had a permanent administrator since January 2017. And Trump issued an executive order in January 2017 directing federal agencies to get rid of two regulations for each new one, a standard that consumer safety advocates say often hurts the ability of regulators to address dangers.

“This isn’t really new that NHTSA is slow to rule,” said Denise Donaldson, the editor of Safe Ride News, a child passenger safety publication. “When you’re already pretty slow and this happens, it just adds to the problem.”

Tim Edwards, a regulatory compliance manager at Dorel Juvenile, a car seat maker, said the company believes that NHTSA plans to update its front-collision standards and put forward the side-impact rule at the same time. If true, that could delay the side-impact standard beyond 2020.

The Department of Transportation provided a cryptic reason for the continued delay in a recent report on its regulatory agenda: “additional research and data analysis necessary.” Some previous reports simply listed “N/A” as the explanation. NHTSA, the agency that regulates car seats, declined to comment.

Motor vehicle crashes are a leading killer of children. Currently, child car seat manufacturers are required to test their seats in a simulated frontal collision. While those kinds of crashes are more common, side-impact crashes, like T-bone collisions, are more dangerous with higher rates of injury.

According to NHTSA, 794 child passengers age 14 and younger died in car crashes in 2017, the latest data available. The number of deaths of child passengers has been about the same since 2013.

NHTSA’s efforts to develop a side-impact standard for child seats began in the early 2000s. But the agency lacked solid data on how and how many children got hurt or died in vehicle accidents. The industry also did not have a crash test dummy that could be used to measure the crash forces experienced by children in real-world side-impact crashes.

In January 2014, NHTSA finally issued a proposed standard that would require all seats designed for children up to 40 pounds (or children in the infant to 4-year-old range) to be tested in a simulated side-impact collision.

The industry pushed back. In October of that year, Dorel Juvenile wrote in a public comment to NHTSA that releasing the side-impact test rule and the updated frontal test rule at different times would lead to major disruption and simultaneous “synchronization of both standards” would be “preferred.” While the agency was supposed to issue a final standard in 2014 according to the deadline set by Congress, NHTSA has repeatedly postponed the test requirement.

Consumer advocates have raised concerns about the delays. “I don’t understand why anyone hasn’t sued,” said Rena Steinzor, a professor of administrative law at the University of Maryland School of Law. An agency can be sued for unreasonable delays in implementing regulations or for failing to meet a deadline specified by Congress. “Unless they are worried that the Trump NHTSA would come up with a very weak rule,” she added.

A key issue is that the vehicle seat used to test the safety of child car seats in head-on crashes was initially based on the 1974 Chevrolet Impala. It was updated in 2003 to represent car seats of that time, but it is still not considered an accurate model for today’s cars. . .

Continue reading.

Unfortunately, Congress and the Executive branch seem to have abandoned acting in the public interest.

Written by LeisureGuy

20 August 2019 at 1:34 pm

Today’s shave: Italian in spirit (and partially in fact)

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Italian Barber is a Canadian company, but, as the name implies, Italian in outlook and heritage. The brush is from them, as is the Stealth razor, and I bought that puck of Tcheon Fung Sing, an Italian artisanal soap from them—and perhaps the big bottle of the Genuine Floïd after shave as well.

Yesterday a comment was made about the label on the small bottle of Floïd I used. This label looks to be the same, so perhaps they’ve updated their look.

But let’s begin at the beginning. This is a 24mm brush but still quite pleasant if a little larger than my usual choice, and the TFS lather is always good.

The Stealth is a superb razor and it’s a disappointment that it seems to have joined the legion of razors no longer made. It was a great buy while it lasted, but those days are past. But I (happily) have one, and I enjoyed every one of the three passes that left my face BBS and with no damage at all.

A good splash of Floïd and we move on through the week. So far, so good.

Written by LeisureGuy

20 August 2019 at 9:31 am

Posted in Shaving

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