“I’m so bored. I hate my life.” - Britney Spears

Das Langweilige ist interessant geworden, weil das Interessante angefangen hat langweilig zu werden. – Thomas Mann

"Never for money/always for love" - The Talking Heads

Friday, January 10, 2003

Remora

From DeQuincey's Miscellaneous Essays, just posted in the Gutenberg Library -- although they still don't have the inimitable essay on The Fine Art of Murder:

Yet in the lowest deep there still yawns a lower deep; and in the vast
halls of man's frailty, there are separate and more gloomy chambers of
a frailty more exquisite and consummate. We account it frailty that
threescore years and ten make the upshot of man's pleasurable
existence, and that, far before that time is reached, his beauty and
his power have fallen among weeds and forgetfulness. But there is a
frailty, by comparison with which this ordinary flux of the human race
seems to have a vast duration. Cases there are, and those not rare, in
which a single week, a day, an hour sweeps away all vestiges and
landmarks of a memorable felicity; in which the ruin travels faster
than the flying showers upon the mountain-side, faster 'than a musician
scatters sounds;' in which 'it was' and 'it is not' are words of the
self-same tongue, in the self-same minute; in which the sun that at
noon beheld all sound and prosperous, long before its setting hour
looks out upon a total wreck, and sometimes upon the total abolition of
any fugitive memorial that there ever had been a vessel to be wrecked,
or a wreck to be obliterated. --

After we posted about industrial accidents, yesterday, we turned to the NYT, and lo and behold: there is an excellent article (part of a three part series) about the vicious record of shop floor mutilation, semi-blackmail, pollution and other malfeasances accrued by a privately held, Birmingham, Alabama based pipe corporation, McWane Inc. See, LI is as in tune to the Zeitgeist as a blind piano tuner is in tune with the note C.

The NYT is publishing this expose in conjunction with a Frontline investigation. We are of two minds about the project. On the one hand, this is exactly what we should be reading on the NYT business page. There is, as any amateur Marx-man could tell you, something depressingly expected about the fact that every big newspaper in America has a business page, and no big newspaper in America has a labor page. To point this out subjects one to the reproach of being one of those nuts who promote class warfare -- this is how Bush, predictably, warded off the complaint that his tax cuts inordinately benefit the rich yesterday. In the meantime, class warfare, like racism and sexism and all the other dreadful isms, goes marching silently on. Which gets us to our other hand -- our other hand is that there is something suspicious and smug in the media every once in a while, with eyes on some journalistic prize, birthing the stray muckraking article -- we suspect this is a salve for their conscience. Once upon a time, of course, such articles were common place.

Enough bitching. LI urges readers to go back to yesterday's article about the McWane company. Today, the second, or is it third, part of the series details the politics of regulatory enforcement -- a politics that works against punishing a big industry for its crimes, and even works against monitoring it when the company repeatedly violates elementary canons of safety.

"Nine workers have been killed in McWane plants since 1995. OSHA investigators concluded that three of those deaths resulted directly from McWane's deliberate violations of federal safety standards, records show. Safety lapses at least contributed to five other deaths, investigators found.

"Yet those deaths rarely received more than cursory attention from state and local law enforcement authorities. The police often did little more than photograph the body and call the coroner. Local district attorneys, if they were informed, generally deferred to OSHA."

As for the comedy of justice, the Laurel and Hardy show that opens when some wretch is hurt, or killed, in one of McWane's plants, the article is pretty rich. We especially liked the nailing of one Mr. Vacco, the Republican attorney general in NY State. Confronted with incontrovertible evidence that a McWane owned factory engaged in the unlawful disposal of hazardous waste, leading to the death of an employee, Mr. Vacco hesitated while the McWane company put the screws to him. He responded to the Times inquiry by claiming that the prosecutors under him were doing the hesitating. But the NYT found a mass of suspicious connections between Vacco and McWane, and a memo suggesting that the McWane's might close the plant if Vacco prosecuted. At first, Vacco used the stonewall line of defense:

"In a recent interview, Mr. Vacco acknowledged contacts between Mr. O'Mara (a McWane operative) and his office but denied having been improperly influenced. He said he had taken a personal interest in the case "to make sure that we did everything by the book." Any lack of action, he added, was not because of political interference but because of "foot dragging" by indecisive career prosecutors. "What happened here is that my assistants couldn't make a decision," he said."

Well, that began to sound a little silly as the NYT dug further. So Vacco revised himself:

"Today, he acknowledges that he could have obtained an indictment for criminally negligent homicide. But he says he was not persuaded by what he called a "tenuous" prosecution theory. "Would there have been a conviction? I don't know," he said. "It would have been a titanic battle."

As for McWane's economic threats, he said, "I don't think that a prosecutor should put his or her head in the sand when making these judgments."

Putting your head in the sand? Just as in the past, when an accident happens and the causes can be traced back to a big company -- whether it is Union Carbide, or Monsanto, or whoever -- the prosecutor's head always comes eagerly out of the sand, and looks around for exculpatory evidence. And usually finds it.

Thursday, January 09, 2003

Dope

LI has a review of Bill Minutaglio's City on Fire, (which is about the Texas City, Texas disaster) in this week's Austin Chronicle -- we think. That disaster was caused by the explosion of a monstrous amount of ammonia nitrate, which was being loaded into a French freighter, the Grandchamp, one April morning in 1947. The first paragraph of the first draft of the review was lopped off -- as we expected it would be. But we liked it as a "dope" intro. It goes:

I've been a fan of disaster stories ever since I became so engrossed, at the age of ten, in a history of the Johnstown flood that I suffered a minor panic attack during which I was convinced that the shallow pond at the end of our street was going to rise up and kill us all. The fascinations of disaster are metaphysical. It is in the belly of disaster that accident turns into fate, and in that interminably winding darkness the trivial metamorphoses into the monumental. The stray, tossed match, the hairline fracture in the concrete dam, the inordinate heat of a ship's dark hold on a spring day -- or this: a tiny gray pellet, coated with Carbowax, tinged brown from the addition of clay. A pellet of fertilizer. These, we know too late, too late, are the aberrant, urgent shapes of our death. And so the day, which is marked by events that would otherwise leave no more record than a snail's trail -- drinking coffee, answering the phone, packing the kids off to school -- events that would, as we said, ordinarily leave not a scratch on the tabula rasa of our remembered experience -- are suddenly backlit by a flash of the one fire -- the fire that extends from creation to the last judgement. The fire upon which all structures are built, and into which all structures will fall. The day of judgement blows up in our face. In that eerie light, we find that there is no scale upon which to measure events -- or at least that the scale we ordinarily use, that we have been bamboozled, all our lives, into using, makes no sense."

Well, LI likes to pull out the rhetorical stops every once in a while.

Reading Minutaglio's book, we became curious about the coincidence that the Texas City disaster involved, albeit peripherally, Union Carbide. Union Carbide was at the center of the biggest industrial accident of the century, in Bhopal. This is a continuing story. Briefly, the plant in Bhopal was a pesticide factory. A pesticide, Sevin, was manufactured there. According to Dominique Lapierre and Javier Moro's book, Five Past Midnight in Bhopal, the original planning for the plant was flawed by a grossly optimistic forecast for the market for Sevin. When the gas cloud emerged from the plant on December 3, 1984, it did so because the plant was being run by a skeleton crew, and the safety features of the plant had been pretty much disabled. The facts in the case are still in dispute, partly because Union Carbide (which was bought by Dow) has a tremendous interest in limiting its liability. This article quotes the New Scientist article that lays out the fundamental flaws that lead to the disaster. Bhopal net is a site dedicated to the survivors of the disaster, and it is full of grotesque but compelling data -- all going to show that a company can get away with murder if it is large enough. They have a page entitled the Dow watch which has this very interesting intro:

"This page started out as a collection of stories about Dow-Carbide's implementation of its famous "Zero Harm" policy. But the harder we looked the more stories we found of people who have been killed, or had their health ruined, by the greed and irresponsibility of these two companies, Union Carbide and Dow Chemical, which have now perhaps fittingly become one and the same.

"So many stories, yet they almost all follow the same pattern. A dangerous process, an untested chemical, a carelessly run plant. People die, or have their lives ruined. The company attempts to cover up the disaster, denies responsibility, stalls and impedes legal processes, lobbies against changes in the law which would limit its activities or force it to spend more on safety. Innumerable are their lies, their cold-hearted attempts to bury evidence which could have saved the lives of their victims. From the Hawks Tunnel silicosis disaster of 1930 to the Vinyl Chloride cover-up that began in 1954 and lasted fifty years, taking in along the way Hiroshima, napalm, dioxin and Bhopal."

The site has a very interesting bit about a disaster I, at least, had never heard of: the Hawk Tunnel disaster. Here's a bit of American history to mull over. This testimony is given on a website devoted to Muriel Rukeyser, who wrote a book about the incident. The majority of the killed were African Americans. Many of them, dead, were thrown into a river or piled into a mass grave, so that estimates of the numbers of deaths are imprecise. For similar reasons, nobody really knows how many were killed in the Texas City, Texas disaster, since the Bottoms, the black section, was wiped out. Black lives, in Senator Lott's Golden era, were a dime a dozen. This comes from the testimony of PHILIPPA ALLEN before a Congressional committee in 1936:

I have spent the last four summers in West Virginia; and during the summer of 1934, when I was doing social work down there, I first heard of what we were pleased to call the Gauley tunnel tragedy, which involves about 2,000 men.

According to the estimates of contractors, 2,000 men were employed there over a period of about 2 years in drilling 3.75 miles of tunnel to divert water from New River to a hydroelectric plant at Gauley Junction. The rock through which the workmen were boring was of a high silica content. In tunnel no. 1 it ran from 97 to 99 percent pure silica, and the contractors neglected to provide the workmen with any sort of safety device.None of the workmen, who have lived around Gauley Bridge all of their lives, were aware of the risk they were running, despite the fact that sandstone outcroppings can be seen all over the roads. These were robust, hard-muscled workmen, and yet many of them began dying almost as soon as the work on the tunnel started. With every breath they were breathing a massive dose of silica dust. That was the true explanation of it.

It usually takes from 10 to 20 years to develop fully in a man's lungs this condition, but the medical men said that these men were working under extremely dusty conditions and the doses they received were massive indeed.Silica dust is deadly in large doses. Every worker examined by a physician after working in the tunnel any length of time has been found to have this dreadful disease. It is a lung disease that cannot be arrested, once it is started. Ultimately, the victim strangles to death.

When I tried to tabulate the number of workmen who had died as a result of this condition, I found it impossible to do so for several reasons: First, because before it was generally known what was really killing these men company doctors had diagnosed the numerous deaths as pneumonia, to which silicosis-infected lungs are susceptible; second, the undertaker who handled many of the burials testified in court that his records had been destroyed; third, after suits were started and everybody knew that rock dust was causing this dreadful state of things and killing the men on the tunnel job, workmen left their jobs there and scattered all over the country.This tunnel is part of a huge water-power project which began in the latter part of 1929 under the direction of the New Kanawha Power Co., a subsidiary of the Union Carbide & Carbon Co. That company was licensed by the State of West Virginia Power Commission to develop power for public sale, and ostensibly it was to do that; but, in reality, it was formed to sell all the power to the Electro-Metallurgical Co., a Subsidiary of the Union Carbide & Carbon Co., which was by an act of the State legislature allowed to buy up the New Kanawha Power Co. in 1933.

I should like to state that I am now making a very general statement as a beginning. There are many points that I should like to develop later, but I shall try to give you a general history of this condition first.I found when I went to Gauley Bridge that men were still dying like flies in 1934. These were men who characterized themselves as generally following the mines as a trade. Mining in West Virginia is unsteady, and these men went into this tunnel work because they thought it offered opportunity for steady work at better wages, and that it was work which did not posses the hazards they had met in mining coal, such hazards being poisonous gases and falling rocks.Of the 2,000 men employed there over a period of nearly 3 years, many have been examined by private doctors. Men began to succumb to the bad condition within 1, 2, or 3 years after they started to engage in the work. It seems that but few of the 2,000 men affected will escape."

The Land was ours before we were the Land's.

Tuesday, January 07, 2003

Remora

LI believes that the first question about taxes should be: what are they buying? In the case of the current administration, there seems to be a desire to buy quite a lot, including a war. On the other hand, there is also the Enron philosophy to which Bush and Cheney subscribe. That is, they believe the company exists to reward its upper tier management -- or, in the case of a company nation, its upper class. So they seem willing to employ certain Enron accounting tactics to do this. Enron would give bonuses to its management based on projected profits -- profits that most often didn't materialize. Thus, Rebecca Mark, for instance, was rewarded with tens of millions of dollars for running projects that lost billions of dollars. In the same way, the Bush administration has apparently decided to destroy any progressivity in the tax system to reward the already inordinately rewarded top tier of the wealthy in this country. The proposal to end the dividend tax is a trademark Enron deal. It will lose the country billions of dollars, it will reward an investing class billions of dollars, and it will produce very little wealth for the rest of us. In fact, it will take away wealth from the bottom forty percent. Why?


Well, by now we have a history of de-regulating financial capital and assuring investors of greater returns on their investments by creating a panoply of tax dodges and lowering taxes generally on the upper income percentile. This creates incentives for investing in those enterprises with the greatest immediate returns. These are not synonymous with those enterprises that employ the greatest number of people. Take energy. After the wild ride of de-regulating energy and allowing a de-regulated energy market, what are we finding? That energy companies are still steady, but slow, profit generators. The earnings growth that you can pump out of them is never going to match the earnings growth you can pump out of, say, Microsoft ... unless you screw around with the numbers. To try to grow a power company at twenty percent per year is like trying to grow a rubber plant into a redwood. It ain't going to happen. However, if you encourage investors to expect the kind of returns you get from the de-regulated markets of the nineties, you'll get the same shenanigans of the nineties, as all sectors compete, desperately, to attract investors.

Which is just another way of saying that treating the de-regulation, and the de-taxing, of the financial sector as if that sector invested neutrally is nuts.

The tax policy center has a nice data base that compares the tax brackets from 1940 to 2002. In 1950, which might be the epicenter of New Deal America, incomes above 400,000 dollars paid an 84 % tax. Theoretically, of course.  Still, the attempt was being made to curb excessive wealth. That same income bracket, in 2002, paid (again theoretically) 34%.  Meanwhile, the corporate income tax contribution to the U.S. budget has been steadily dropping. According to this U.S. News article :


"The corporate levy�which raised $151 billion last year, down from $207 billion in 2000 when profits were easier to come by�may be an endangered species in its current form. Last year's take was the lowest since 1994 and accounted for only 7.6 percent of federal revenue, down from 26.5 percent in 1950. Individuals, meanwhile, are picking up a bigger share of the income tax burden. In 1950, corporations kicked in 39.9 percent of the total collected, while individuals ponied up 60.1 percent. Last year, corporations paid 13.2 percent, while individuals forked over the remaining 86.8 percent."



Any progressive party in this country should take account of these stats and ask what happened. That isn't all --- what Bush is proposing, now, is, in an odd way, a response to these statistics. It is a form of conservative progressivism. It would be hard to justify cuttng the corporate income tax rate further -- although of course the conservative argument, out there, is that since the corporate rate has been cut so much that it only amounts to 7.6 percent of federal revenue, why not cut it to zero and let companies use that money to employ people. Still, the affection people at large feel for corporations is much colder than the affection for them felt by the likes of Bush and Cheney. The elimination of the dividend tax is a covert way of achieving a massive tax cut for the people who own corporations.



That said, there are parts of the tax cut that make sense, or would make sense in some form, especially given the losses of the last three years to the retirement funds of average income Americans.



We'll go into this more in our next post.

NYT publishes a helpful Q. and A. about the Bush proposal.


Q. So what's this "double taxation" everyone's talking about?







A. That term can be a little misleading. A company does not raise its tax burden simply by deciding to pay dividends. But companies have to pay their own income taxes before they can pay dividends.



The federal and state governments tax as much as 40 cents of every dollar in a company's profit. If the remaining 60 cents is paid to shareholders as a dividend, the governments may collect about 24 cents more � 40 percent again � as personal taxes. Most companies, of course, retain much, if not all, of their profit to reinvest in their business. But of the share that is paid to taxable owners, as little as 36 cents of every dollar in profit goes into their pockets.



By contrast, interest on debt counts as a cost, and companies pay interest out of pretax revenue. That gives many companies an incentive to hoard cash or borrow rather than distribute profits to stockholders in cash.

Monday, January 06, 2003

Remora

Paul Krugman makes the case, in his latest column, that the Bush administration's fumbled strategy for containing North Korean military capability contravenes basic game theory. Krugman's canned explanation of game theory goes like this:
"During the cold war, the U.S. government employed experts in game theory to analyze strategies of nuclear deterrence. Men with Ph.D.'s in economics, like Daniel Ellsberg, wrote background papers with titles like "The Theory and Practice of Blackmail." The intellectual quality of these analyses was impressive, but their main conclusion was simple: Deterrence requires a credible commitment to punish bad behavior and reward good behavior."

One of Krugman's quirks is to show, at every opportunity, a vocational reverence for "men with Ph.D's in economics." He can't help himself. His larger point, however, is plausible: American power is not increased by the increase in belligerence of American rhetoric. That rhetoric, LI is convinced, is strictly for home consumption. In the case of North Korea, the belligerence has been met with an increase of belligerence on the North Korean side. Belatedly, we are discovering that we have upped the stakes without having any serious cards.

As any anti-war activist will tell you, our sudden mildness and benignity vis a vis North Korea calls into question the premises of "infinite justice," our war on Iraq, or, uh, on terrorism. In December, as we passed the stage of Iraq's 12,000 page weapons inventory, obligingly censored by the UN -- and with that censorship acceded to by the supine press, which did not question the national security imperative for disguising who sold what to Iraq -- the U.S. claimed, in a bout of heroic speed reading, that it was all a mockery. Of course, the press echoed this sentiment. But the press didn't tell us why it was a mockery. For all the disparaging noises emanating from D.C., nobody has pointed to some specific instance of a tabu weapon in S.H.'s arsenal. Rather, we are fighting the potential tabu weapon. This is an almost infinitely plastic casus belli. Thomas Friedman, another NYT op-eder, pretty much concedes this in his Sunday column. He takes on the anti-war slogan that the war against Iraq is about oil, not justice. It is, Friedman thinks, about oil. And so what? But he backs up and gives two conditions for saying that the war, if it happens, is immoral. Or, as he rather disgustingly puts it, is "seen to be immoral':

"I have no problem with a war for oil � if we accompany it with a real program for energy conservation. But when we tell the world that we couldn't care less about climate change, that we feel entitled to drive whatever big cars we feel like, that we feel entitled to consume however much oil we like, the message we send is that a war for oil in the gulf is not a war to protect the world's right to economic survival � but our right to indulge. Now that will be seen as immoral."

What this means is beyond our comprehension. If Friedman seriously thinks that the Bush administration is about to curb SUV use in the USA, he is definitely living on another planet, earth minus Cheney. What it really means is that we have to gear up a lot of meaningless rhetoric about energy consumption. In other words, boiler plate Democratic presidential candidate rhetoric. Meaningless attacks on the administration, unsupported by any desire to really act on the words in any significant way.

His second condition is that we not impose another dictator on Iraq:

"And that leads to my second point. If we occupy Iraq and simply install a more pro-U.S. autocrat to run the Iraqi gas station (as we have in other Arab oil states), then this war partly for oil would also be immoral.If, on the other hand, the Bush team, and the American people, prove willing to stay in Iraq and pay the full price, in money and manpower, needed to help Iraqis build a more progressive, democratizing Arab state � one that would use its oil income for the benefit of all its people and serve as a model for its neighbors � then a war partly over oil would be quite legitimate. It would be a critical step toward building a better Middle East."

This is the crux of the matter. An anti-war stance doesn't have to be a pro-S.H. stance, pace Hitchens ... The more general anti-war point is that Friedman's liberal imperialism is not in the American interest. It simply isn't a good idea to install an American force in Iraq for the next two or three years. It is an invitation to disaster, a la Beirut, 1983. And if the idea is that the implementation of democracy requires such a force -- and that is what the Wolfowitz/Friedman line is all about -- then we are back to a Vietnam era mistake. That is, we justify intervention by making a well intentioned goal that requires more intervention, and that increased intervention subverts our well intentioned goal. Notice that we are conceding that our goal is well intentioned. Actually, we don't believe that the Bush administration does have good intentions -- we believe that they want to use the war for domestic political ends.

So ... war is gently drifting upon us, like bad weather. The headline in the WP today is about massing 100,000 American troops -- although where they are to be staged from is unclear:


"The U.S. military is assembling a ground force for a possible invasion of Iraq that could exceed 100,000 troops and include three to four heavy Army divisions, an airborne division, a Marine division and an assortment of Special Operations forces, according to defense officials and analysts."