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March 19, 2011

fukushima:" 60% man-made"

The Wall Street Journal gets some behind-the-sceners to comment on why the Fukushima situation was handled so left-handedly — namely an unlucky confluence of a chaotic situation following a devastating cataclysm and a utility company that dragged its feet for fear that they might damage the plant irreparably.
"This disaster is 60% man-made," said one government official. "They failed in their initial response. It's like Tepco dropped and lost a 100 yen coin while trying to pick up a 10 yen coin."

I bet that turn of phrase sounds a lot cooler in Japanese.  But, if this is the truth, and if Fukushima results in loss of life, the the utility company, Tepco, is gonna have to answer some pretty uncomfortable questions.  Well, not like they don't already have a bunch of questions to answer, but, I guess it's just another case of, "Way ta go, asshole corporation." 

And I feel like a seventeen year old to continually resort to "asshole corporation", but what is the grown-up response supposed to be?  Are we supposed to congratulate Tepco for keeping a weather eye on the bottom line, and then commiserate for the rum bit of luck?

Actually, what this is, is an excellent example of why corporations should not have the benefits of personhood granted them, because they are incapable of moral judgment.  Corporations can only see decisions as cost-benefit analysis, and cost-benefit has nothing to do with right and wrong.  There is not a price tag on a nuclear accident, no level of liability under which the accident should be permitted to occur.  (Disclaimer: I have no idea what kind of entity Tepco is, but the example stands.)

This is not cheery stuff.

Posted by mrbrent at 1:57 PM

yay! gilded age

I had a new piece up yesterday at The Awl, which ended up being titled "A New Gilded Age? Yay!"  I am very proud to finally have a piece published with the word "Yay!" in the title.

It's intended as a little bit of dark comedy (Yay!).  It is conceptually flawed, as username DeepOmega points out in the comments, as it was a depression that ended the Gilded Age and not the other way around, so I am very guilty of "wishful class-warfare thinking".  But, sorry: history is only funny if you get it wrong.

Posted by mrbrent at 9:37 AM

March 17, 2011

back to atm fees

Here's a follow-up to that hot mess of a piece I wrote about ATM fees, which asked the question no one's asking: are they fair?  Well, now that the news has broke that the Banks are flirting with in some cases doubling their off-network ATM fees (with Chase, who generally treats me well, testing five dollar fees), the question is a lot more askable.

But why oh why?

These fees are big business for banks: ATMs generated $7.1 billion in profits from them last year, according to consulting firm Oliver Wyman. According to the WSJ, the new fees are due to changes in federal regulations on overdraft charges and debit cards—banks are scrambling to replace billions of dollars in revenue expected to be lost any way they can.

It's whack-a-mole: the Banks were accustomed to certain unhealthy profits borne on the backs of their customers, and to the extent that any one of these is regulated, then the Banks will create a new one.  This is the "competition" that free-marketeers like to tout — after twenty years of loosened regulations we have a handful of mega-banks that collude in ways to siphon cash out of customers.

I am not anti-banks, but I do not appreciate having my business treated like a right and not a privilege, all so Jamie Dimon can make another six million dollars in dividends alone.

Posted by mrbrent at 4:43 PM

i learned something

I was doing some quick US history research for a thing I'm working on, and I was pleasantly surprised that pretty much everything I read rang a bell.  Mugwumps?  Definitely.  The Pullman Strike?  For sure.  The Crédit Mobilier of America scandal?  Yeah, even that.  I mean, I probably couldn't have explained any of those accurately, but there was some learning lodged in my head that shook loose.

And this is not a "gosh I'm smart" post — I totally blame this on my rigorous public schooling.  So I just want to say, thank you, public school and awesome public school teachers that taught me.  You did me pretty well.

Posted by mrbrent at 11:10 AM

March 16, 2011


Read this story today, if you have time.  It's about a small town on the Ohio River, Gallipolis, and it's about how there is no longer any such thing as a middle class there anymore, just a bunch of people grateful to at least make the bills:
While that might not seem like much, jobs like theirs, with benefits and higher-than-minimum wages, are considered plum in this depressed corner of southern Ohio. Decades of industrial decline have eroded private-sector jobs here, leaving a thin crust of low-paying service work that makes public-sector jobs look great in comparison.

Tell me that isn't the same with the small town you're from, or that your grandma is from, or that you drive through on the way to somewhere else.  The American Dream is not eroding there, in Gallipolis, it already left.

It's hard to think that being the case if you're living in, say, New York, where there are options for employment, gainful and subsisting.  But the middle class was not built on the media industry, or the financial services industry — it was built on good jobs for everyone.  As in, a trade school or a associate's degree could get you in the door and you could expect to be able someday to buy a house and put your kids through school.

I'm sorry to hit this story over and over again, but this is the story when you're talking about something like the economic well-being of the nation.  You've got the haves, and they can fit into one city, and then you've got everybody else.  And I don't know how to fix this, but I do know that breaking the unions and tax-cutting for billionaires is not going to do it.

Count how many more stories like this one we see in the next month, or year.

Posted by mrbrent at 12:17 PM

carl hegelman on parasites

Good reading (as usual) at The Awl — a Carl Hegelman essay on the wherefors and OMGs of debt in the context of our national economy.  Interesting numbers on the size of debt across all sectors, and an even more interesting point on how the ultrarich are vulnerable thanks to us, their vassals:
In other words, income inequality is, in the long run, a recipe for economic disaster. And economic disaster isn't good for anyone —- not even rich guys. It might, for example, do the wealthy well to remember that, between 1928 and 1933, the number of millionaires in the US went from around 30,000 to around 5,000 (see Kevin Phillips, Wealth & Democracy). You can only suck so much blood before the victim dies, and then what are you going to do for food?

Hegelman is not another amateur free-market-hater without any financial industry experience like me.  The man or woman who is "Hegelman" (a pen name) is a self-described "corporate bond analyst," which I assume implies professional experience and not a hobby on the weekends.

But the piece is excellent, and that vampire analogy means that there was little chance that I would not link it.  Remember, ultrarich, someday we'll have no more equity for you to suck out of us, and then where will you pillage?

Posted by mrbrent at 9:36 AM

March 15, 2011

i am a bad know-it-all

So I was one of the types over the weekend that was circulating links to that post, the one about how the nuke crisis in Japan was crisis-y but not quite Chernobyl crisis-y, with long technical explanations of how reactors work and the layers of redundancies and design parameters and all that.  In fact, I've also been spouting the talking points of said post like the know-it-all I am.  And now it looks really really bad.  So, important lesson learned by this know-it-all about the relative value of being a know-it-all and worst-case scenarios.

Though to be a jerk for just a second, the nuclear facilities that may or may not be located near you are exactly as safe/dangerous as they were before the earthquake/tsunami.  I just say this because The Takeaway was devoting its show to explaining nuclear physics while speaking very slowly.

Yeah, my peripheral vision is being crowded a bit by the eschaton.

Posted by mrbrent at 10:47 AM

March 14, 2011


This is a teaser that the NY Times put up in social media to promote this story of the ongoing Japan nuke crisis:
The second explosion on Monday underscored the difficulties Japanese authorities are having in bringing several stricken reactors under control.

Not to be a dick, but I'd say that "underscore" is not the verb you're looking for there — I'd hate to think what could be so colossally bad as to be "underscored" by an explosion.

But things are pretty bad.  The push-pull of trying to focus on anything other than Japan is swinging back towards pull.

Posted by mrbrent at 10:04 AM