Harden The Electrical Grid

September 11, 2018

I’d like to follow up last week’s commentary with an aspect of the damage done by Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico that should be a warning to all Americans.

Virtually all experts will tell you that the American electrical grid is vulnerable.

Without electricity virtually nothing works. Electricity is essential to all our meters and gauges and thermostats and doorbells – virtually everything that we work with, is electrical.

I tried to compose this commentary while taking a walk in my neighborhood but suddenly I noticed that the screen was stuck on a particular word. And then I got a message that my phone had disconnected from WiFi. Wi-Fi and everything else is electrical. All of our Communications are based on the electrical system. Cell phones, telephones, radio, television, cable – everything is based on electricity. Old fashioned wired telephones, known as landlines, were the rare system built with a separate power source and that’s one of the reasons why we kept a landline in our house along with our cell phones. We wanted to be able to communicate even when the grid went down.

I’ve been in several power outages of varying lengths. When New York City had an outage of several days we got places on foot. New York City is designed for foot traffic with sidewalks and lots of little business areas in reach for most of us. But the elevator didn’t work in my elderly cousin’s apartment building and she was trapped on the 5th floor. She couldn’t get downstairs and was dependent on the kindness of neighbors to bring her food. Of course, in a power outage our refrigerators don’t work. Many of our kitchen stoves won’t work even if they run on gas because they depend on electrical starters. Our thermostats won’t work and the heat won’t come on even if it’s a gas, oil or other non-electrical system because they depend on an electrical spark. Almost all factories, machinery, offices, shipping and stores depend on electricity for necessary functions. Everything crashes without electricity. Hospitals don’t function without electricity so  most have invested in backup generators but they are very expensive to run for any length of time.

It turns out that the gas pipeline system is dependent on electrical supplies for many of its functions. Without electricity, the modern world we live in is at a standstill as Puerto Rico has been for months.

But the grid is vulnerable. It can and does go down for accidental, malicious and natural reasons. To hand China or Russia the power to bring the good old U.S.A. to its knees, just don’t harden the grid. The internet was originally created by the Defense Department – that’s right, the federal government Department of Defense – because it had identified vulnerabilities in the land-based private telephone system. Patriots on both sides of the aisle need to see that the electrical and internet grids are hardened, fast.

— This commentary was originally scheduled for broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, September 11, 2018. The broadcast by NPR and WAMC of the hearings on the nomination of Judge Kavanaugh, however, pushed back the originally scheduled broadcast. We plan to broadcast it at a later date but I am posting it now nonetheless.

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Puerto Rico and Hurricane Maria

September 5, 2018

I’m glad Gov. Cuomo has been talking about what happened to Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria. It should never have dropped out of public discussion both for the sake of the residents of Puerto Rico and for the rest of us.

Katrina undid George Bush when many in New Orleans and the surrounding area got no help. The public was disgusted when Bush praised the head of FEMA for “doing a heck of a job” four days after the hurricane struck. After Hurricane Maria hit, the whole island of Puerto Rico was without power. Half were still powerless half a year later, jerry-rigging connections or using generators for life-saving equipment. At least 11,000 US citizens were still powerless in June, with power authorities still figuring out who was without. But it didn’t bother Trump. The storm hit Puerto Rico on September 20. In early October, Trump announced he’d already done enough.

Dealing with weather disasters takes advance planning. Reacting after the damage is done is too late for many of the injured and displaced. A member of the Albany Law Board who worked on disaster planning for the Red Cross described the process to me. One has to anticipate needs, delivery routes, and get things to staging areas from which they can be delivered before the storm hits, together with the vehicles needed to bring supplies to the affected people. That’s complex and difficult but it can be done because we have considerable advance warning of where major weather events will strike. Not rocket science, it’s a well-worn path of jobs that need to be done.

Puerto Rico is not unmapped far away frontier territory. It’s an island, which should have suggested advance planning for sea-worthy ships and protected areas on the island. Its miles of unpaved mountain roads should have suggested the need for helicopters, like those New York supplied when the Feds didn’t. FEMA was busy with other disasters but that too was predictable. It didn’t raise the alarm and ask for help until well after the storm passed by. Only then was the U.S. Army, itself skilled in disaster relief abroad, permitted to go into Puerto Rico.

Some politicians like to charge that the damage was Puerto Rico’s own fault, the result of graft, corruption and mismanagement. That’s a misdirected ascription of collective guilt. Most Puerto Ricans are related to those ills only as victims. And the beneficiaries were the same people and institutions that we like to hold harmless, the wealthiest people and corporations. The electrical grid was unable to resist storm damage because the corporate leadership left it that way. But we prefer to blame an island and an ethnic or racial group. It would be such bad form to notice who actually caused and who was victimized by the problems in Puerto Rico.

Worse, it hasn’t been allowed to use federal money to fix anything in the cleanup, only to rebuild not one jot better than before, ready to collapse again in the next storm.

All this reflects incompetence and lack of concern about the welfare of Americans. We are all diminished by humanitarian disasters. And disasters are contagious. As John Donne so eloquently put it, “never send to know for whom the bells tolls; it tolls for thee,” for all of us.

My classmate, Judge José Cabranes, wrote in the Washington Post that Puerto Ricans would be leaving the island and coming to the mainland. They have, and as citizens, they may, and should, vote where they settle.

— This commentary was originally scheduled for broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, September 4, 2018. The broadcast by NPR and WAMC of the hearings on the nomination of Judge Kavanaugh, however, preempted broadcast on the 4th. We plan to broadcast it at a later date but I am posting it now nonetheless.


Impunity of the men on top?

July 12, 2018

The news has just announced that Alain Kaloyeros has been convicted on all counts. What he was convicted of doing was steering contracts to friends/supporters of Andrew Cuomo. That’s infuriating. Did Cuomo favor projects that went to his friends? That would have put everyone in a position where they had to break the law to be treated decently by the governor. And of course someone else gets the rap. I’m disgusted.

By the way, did the same thing happen when Trump removed Preet Bharara as the United States Attorney for the Southern District of New York? Since shortly after he was dismissed, we have heard nothing more about Bharara’s investigation of Fox. Coincidence? A subsequent US Attorney understanding who butters his bread? Or was he appointed because he and Trump had an understanding?


Stop Dumping All the Risks on Blue Collar Workers

June 5, 2018

I have been thinking about all the blue-collar workers who believed that Donald Trump would do a great deal for them.

We often talk about the risks that entrepreneurs face but capitalism does its best to outsource risk to blue-collar workers. If there are environmental problems, poisons in the air or water, blue-collar workers and their children will be the first to become sick – they are the canaries in the coal mines. But the irony is that they are also the first to be affected by any attempt to remedy the situation. Prohibitions may force their workplaces to shut down or lay them off.

Liberals often respond by saying that new methods will create jobs. But blue-collar workers have good reason to assume that any jobs created will probably be for other people. Liberals also argue that the proper method for creating jobs is with public works, renovating American infrastructure, etc. But who’ll get the infrastructure jobs? And even more important, no one has been able to promise those jobs. Obama tried but Congress blocked much of what he wanted to do. Trump promised a huge infrastructure program but he put it in the budgets of the states, not his own budget. In effect American politics has not been able to deliver on that jobs promise for the people whose jobs are at risk.

Other relief programs are more automatic: Except for Puerto Rico, we regularly protect people flooded by major storms even when they should have known better than to build on flood plains. The farm program, whatever its shortcomings, protects farmers with formulas that can be calculated in advance. Unemployment insurance is statutory but often grossly inadequate. Social security and Medicare have been reliable though they have become political footballs. Obamacare still exists despite Republican attempts to kill it. But you can’t feed and house a family on medical care. The earned income tax credit comes annually after April 15.

All of this suggests political winners and losers – we like some folks and we don’t trust others with whatever we might do for them. Government has not been willing to become the employer of last resort, so that there are always jobs and wages, although some candidates are urging it now. A negative income tax has been deemed too expensive. And Trump has spent huge tax dollars on enriching the super rich instead of reducing or eliminating the payroll tax in order to encourage hiring more workers for jobs that pay well. There’s lots that could be done if we have the will.

The result is that our political system has not been willing to care for workers. They are not the only ones our politics has left to hang in the breeze. Our unwillingness to insist on decent, honest and ethical behavior for everything from payday lending to mortgage loans, from manufacturing to toxic waste, leaves masses of people at risk, unable to protect themselves or their families.

We need statutes that protect all workers when employers reduce their workforce. Protections need to be reliable so that people don’t have to fear for their jobs when they demand safe working conditions and decent contractual terms that don’t shift all the risks to the people who are most vulnerable and least able to protect themselves. We need reliable worker protection so that people needn’t fear for their jobs when we demand safe products and safe byproducts of business activity. We need to rethink how we protect American workers so that they don’t become the losers whenever we try to improve the American environment and working conditions for everyone.

— This commentary posted by WAMC on their website on June 5, 2018 but the audio was pre-empted by the Pledge Drive. It was broadcast in its usual spot the following week on WAMC Northeast Report, June 12, 2018.


Workers’ Rights Dishonored Again by the Supreme Court’s Conservative Majority

May 29, 2018

Once again, President Trump’s nominee to the Supreme Court demonstrates the Court’s and the president’s hostility to worker rights. In cases testing whether companies can require their employees to sign agreements that abandon any right to go to court or bring class actions, Gorsuch’s opinion for the Court sides with the companies. That prevents employees from pooling their resources when contemplating expensive litigation.

The Norris-LaGuardia Act, passed in 1932, protects workers’ right to collective action on labor issues:

the individual unorganized worker is commonly helpless to exercise actual liberty of contract . . . , wherefore, . . . it is necessary . . . that he shall be free from the interference, restraint, or coercion of employers . . . in … concerted activities for … mutual aid or protection . . . .

The National Labor Relations Act, passed and signed in 1937, reaffirms that

[e]mployees shall have the right . . . to engage in other concerted activities for the purpose of collective bargaining or other mutual aid or protection.

Both statutes were passed with the understanding that “the individual unorganized worker is commonly helpless” against employers. But the Court held that the Federal Arbitration Act, passed and signed in 1925, protects arbitration agreements. Usually, later statutes are held to overrule or limit earlier ones, not the other way around. So the Court decided that the later statute didn’t mean to limit the Arbitration Act. Of course, Gorsuch and the Court didn’t and couldn’t know that. What they threw at us was pure preference – anything that helps companies against their employees fits their labor policy. Gorsuch and this Court doesn’t read the law, as they like to claim; they make it. And they have been consistently turning against workers’ rights.

There was a time in this country when workers were completely dependent on their employers. They were required to live in company homes, buy from company stores, and were paid in scrip that was only honored by the company. Thus any attempt to leave left employees bereft of everything.

This Court will not be satisfied until workers have to sign away their right to seek better jobs, leave town, or buy their goods anywhere but the company store. There is a term for that, serfdom, and it is still practiced in some countries. When the Tsar of Russia freed the Russian serfs, the change there rivaled the end of slavery here. We needn’t go into all the other rights that serfdom gave the masters, like the right to violate the women. Serfdom stank. The claim that employers can get anything they want by putting it into a contract shreds all our rights.

We’ve been seeing that lately in the sexual abuse claims that have been made since the Harvey Weinstein revelations. Employers didn’t put those claims into the contracts but their right to reject applicants or fire people at will worked for a long time.

Law exists to protect people – except that the U.S. Supreme Court with Gorsuch solidifying its position doesn’t think ordinary people deserve any rights. In my view, it’s the Court that deserves none.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, May 29, 2018.


Are We Overplaying Our Hand?

May 29, 2018

I’ve tried to state these comments not in all or nothing terms but in more realistic degrees. My question is what happens to the extent that a country overplays its hand?

That the U.S. pulled out from the nuclear agreement with Iran, China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, Germany and the United Nations Security Council means, first, that the U.S. will surrender some commerce and trade to Iran’s other trading partners and that some of the others will move to fill some of the gap. If the U.S. tries to assert secondary sanctions against companies based abroad that trade with Iran, that will certainly offend others of our trading partners, including the E.U. and its members. They are likely to conclude that they cannot allow the U.S. to determine their trading practices and rules. If so, they can look elsewhere. Some companies can decide that trade with the U.S. is unpredictable and decide to scale it back. In other words, one consequence of the pull out can be that the U.S. becomes a smaller, less attractive country to trade with and a less powerful international voice. We may want to isolate Iran but we might increase our own isolation instead.

I objected to the arbitration provisions of the Trans-Pacific Partnership because it gave too much power to corporations to free themselves from labor and environmental regulation – grounds of little interest to the Trump Administration. But when the U.S. pulled out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, China stepped up to fill the vacuum. That’s a real cost that could have benefitted from continuing diplomacy rather than precipitate withdrawal. Insisting on having our own way can leave us celebrating our purity of principle but also isolated and irrelevant. And to the extent other countries can’t trust American politics and reach agreements with the U.S., America’s power and influence shrink.

Democracy generally depends on compromise. When people refuse to compromise, they lose the ability to reach a policy that the country can pursue successfully. We pursued a policy of containing communist countries for more than 50 years and it succeeded because the two parties preferred to work together than make a political issue out of that strategy. Republicans like to credit Reagan, but it was initiated under Truman, in line with the recommendations of George Kennan, and followed by Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, Ford, Carter, Reagan and Bush – presidents from both parties. These men were too wise and honorable to follow or reject policies because someone else started it. The ability to reach a consensus across party lines meant that it was stronger than party and America was strengthened as a result.

Some people who portray themselves as patriots want the U.S. to act independently of what other countries and international organizations want. But it’s questionable whether that’s actually patriotic because ignoring real world constraints runs us up against walls of resistance and sacrifices too much. The U.S. has about 1/23 of the world’s population. Running the other 22/23rds by sanctions, threats and intimidation is a heavy lift, likely to backfire. Wisdom comes harder. But it is important.

  • This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, May 22, 2018.

Realism in Foreign Policy

May 29, 2018

May I have the luxury of going back to basics?

It’s important to understand the different dynamics of foreign policy. Countries often see foreign affairs through the lens of the balance of power. If the balance gets out of whack, conquest is likely, further upsetting a regional balance.

Balance of power thinking can be important but we often miss the complexities. Seeing communist states only as Red blinded us to the hostilities between Vietnam and its larger neighbors. Whether or not we could have defeated Vietnam, we never had to fight them to protect our own interests. In fact, the war in Vietnam was a great gift to China much as the war in Iraq was a gift to Iran.

Before the first Gulf War, Iran and Iraq balanced each other in the region. And Iran and Israel had a decent working relationship. It was true that Ahmadinejad said some hateful things, but both countries understood that public language between countries often had little to do with their actual policies. In that case, Shi’a Iran was trying to suppress the potential enmity between it and its Sunni neighbors. But that was largely confined to talk.

When the U.S. defeated Iraq, it upset the regional balance of power in Iran’s favor. Israel then surprised everyone by screaming about the danger of Iran. Cooperation no longer mattered. Iran was large, without significant local enemies. And Israel wanted the U.S. to need Israel as its regional agent. Friendship between Iran and the U.S. made Israel less important. Woops. For all its bluster, that made Israel feel both vulnerable and reckless. Ironically, power is often greatest before it’s exercised, and Iran’s clerics actually had a broader view of Iranian interests, but the U.S. refused to discuss it with them.

Ideological rivalry was the major dynamic of the cold war. We built radio towers and beamed broadcasts into the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe. Unscrupulous politicians can use ideological and ethnic divides to stir up trouble. Ideological unity can hold people together. But like the balance of power, ideological unity is fragile, and keeps changing. In the Middle East, before Trump, we largely tried to balance the ideological power of Islam with a commitment to democratic revolution and to Israel. But we’ve always limited our commitment to democracy by our own economic preferences, leading others to perceive us as hypocritical.

The European Union reflected a third approach. France and Germany fought a succession of brutal wars culminating in World War II in which France was overrun and which made refugees of a large portion of the continental population. In response, after the war, statemen in Europe brought the two countries and others in Europe together in a customs union which united former adversaries and built a sense of unity among them. The E.U. gave America the blessing of a powerful ally plus the freedom not to worry about divisions among the countries of western Europe. A declining E. U. also weakens American power.

Rock, paper, scissors? Nothing is pure or stable. Thinking about foreign affairs in terms of a single demand, issue or policy while ignoring everything else is equivalent to an infant’s temper tantrum. Thinking about Iran as if all we need to know is its clerical ideology, as if that can be simplistically defined as an axis of evil, is an invitation to disaster.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, May 15, 2018.

 


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