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Tinfoil Hat Session

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I must admit – I often enjoy a good conspiracy theory.  That’s just one of the reasons why I wrote a posting back on January 28, 2010 entitled, “The Conspiracy Against Conspiracy Theories”.  That particular piece concerned President Obama’s appointment of Cass Sunstein to the position of Administrator of the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs (OIRA).  My beef about Sunstein was a reaction to an article written on January 12, 2010 by Daniel Tencer of The Raw Story website.  Dan Tencer pointed out that Mr. Sunstein co-authored a paper with Adrian Vermule, published in the Journal of Political Philosophy in 2008 entitled, “Conspiracy Theories: Causes and Cures”.  In the published paper, Sunstein and Vermule advocated for a government program to target “conspiracy groups”.  I concluded my posting with this statement:

A program to conspire against conspiracy groups could serve no other purpose but to validate the claims made by those groups.

(As an aside, for a recent update on the antics of Cass Sunstein, read this essay by Dan Froomkin of the Huffington Post.  It exposes Sunstein’s true function as the Obama administration’s saboteur of financial and environmental regulations, which somehow made it through Congress, despite the boatloads of payoffs “campaign contributions” from lobbyists.  Obama’s use of Sunstein, as well as his appointment of Jacob “Jack” Lew, who replaced his fellow Citigroup tool, Peter Orszag, as Director of the Office of Management and Budget – the subject of this rant – will likely alienate a large number of former Obama supporters.)

The latest event, which has motivated me to don my tinfoil hat, concerned the mainstream news media silence concerning the Level 4 Emergency, which began on June 6, 2011 at the Fort Calhoun nuclear reactor, located 20 miles north of Omaha, Nebraska.  The situation resulted from the Missouri River flood. The event involved an electrical fire, requiring plant evacuation because the fire evaporated some of the cooling water from the reactor’s spent fuel pool.  As a result of the Fukushima disaster, most of us know what happens when the pool containing spent fuel rods loses its water.  On the other hand, most of us don’t know that this event happened at the Fort Calhoun reactor last week.  I found out about it when I read this piece at The Business Insider website.

As of this writing, the only “mainstream news” article I could find from a Google search on the subject was this item from The Washington Post.  The short, “nothing to see here – move along” article began with this statement:

A small fire briefly knocked out the cooling system for used fuel at a nuclear power plant in Nebraska, but temperatures never exceeded safe levels and power was quickly restored, federal officials said Wednesday.

To learn just how dangerous the Fort Calhoun situation really was, listen to this 40-minute, WBAI Radio interview with Arnie Gundersen of Fairewinds Associates.  (A review of the Fairewinds Associates website reveals that Mr. Gundersen is a respected authority in the field of nuclear power engineering, who is no stranger to CNN.)  During the WBAI Radio interview, Mr. Gundersen made a number of points, which made me wonder about the caliber of chuckleheads we have working at the NRC, who are supposed to be protecting us from radiation hazards.  Worse yet, I began to wonder what decision the NRC might reach in considering the Tennessee Valley Authority’s request to reactivate “the zombie reactor” – Bellefonte 1 – in Hollywood, Alabama.  Scary stuff!

Pondering the question of why the Fort Calhoun reactor incident was “spiked” by most mainstream news outlets might lead many to suspect that the “big media” are out to protect the nuclear power industry – a big advertiser.  My own theory is focused on the possibility that there is a good deal of “self-censorship” taking place with respect to the subject of nuclear power plant hazards, out of fear that terrorists might somehow attempt to exploit those vulnerabilities.  This would be yet another area where the reaction to the September 11 attacks could end up causing more harm to Americans.  The pretext of “not educating the terrorists” is used to keep the American public in the dark – about how regulatory capture can compromise public safety.  I was reminded of what Dan Rather said about media “self-censorship” in a BBC interview during the early days of the “war on terror”, back in May of 2002:

Rather says:  “It is an obscene comparison – you know I am not sure I like it – but you know there was a time in South Africa that people would put flaming tyres around people’s necks if they dissented.  And in some ways the fear is that you will be necklaced here, you will have a flaming tyre of lack of patriotism put around your neck.  Now it is that fear that keeps journalists from asking the toughest of the tough questions, and to continue to bore in on the tough questions so often.  And again, I am humbled to say, I do not except myself from this criticism.”

Rather admits self-censorship:  “What we are talking about here – whether one wants to recognise it or not, or call it by its proper name or not – is a form of self-censorship.  It starts with a feeling of patriotism within oneself.  It carries through with a certain knowledge that the country as a whole – and for all the right reasons – felt and continues to feel this surge of patriotism within themselves.  And one finds oneself saying:  ‘I know the right question, but you know what?  This is not exactly the right time to ask it’.”

For the mainstream media, it’s never the “right time” to ask the tough questions.  That’s why so many people primarily rely on internet-based sources for the news.

June 18 Update: The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists published an article on June 16 entitled, “Rising water, falling journalism”, which characterized the news coverage of the Fort Calhoun situation as a “failure of the fourth estate”:

Newspapers and websites all over the country have reported on the flooding and fire at Fort Calhoun, but most articles simply paraphrase and regurgitate information from the NRC and OPPD (Omaha Public Power District) press releases, which aggregators and bloggers then, in turn, simply cut and paste.

*   *   *

Admittedly, it’s not easy finding information about Fort Calhoun, even if you’re a local reporter without a tight deadline.  OPPD press releases and the company’s online newsroom do not provide details about the plant’s layout and components.  Some of that information was available before 9/11 but was removed because of concerns about terrorism.  In protecting ourselves from enemies, we have also hidden vital information from ourselves.

Meanwhile, Arnie Gundersen has disclosed some disturbing information about the ongoing Fukushima crisis.  Did an American news outlet run the story?  Nope.  You can read the bad news at Al Jazeera.  This raises the question of why the American news media might believe that they have the power to determine whether terrorists could gain access to this type of information


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Failed Financial Reform And Failed Justice

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April 26, 2010

As the long-awaited financial reform legislation finally seems to be headed toward enactment, the groans of disappointment are loud and clear.  My favorite reporter at The New York Times, Gretchen Morgenson, did a fine job of exposing the shortcomings destined for inclusion in this lame bill:

Unfortunately, the leading proposals would do little to cure the epidemic unleashed on American taxpayers by the lords of finance and their bailout partners.  The central problem is that neither the Senate nor House bills would chop down big banks to a more manageable and less threatening size.  The bills also don’t eliminate the prospect of future bailouts of interconnected and powerful companies.

Too big to fail is alive and well, alas.  Indeed, several aspects of the legislative proposals sanction and codify the special status conferred on institutions that are seen as systemically important.  Instead of reducing the number of behemoth firms assigned this special status, the bills would encourage smaller companies to grow large and dangerous so that they, too, could have a seat at the bailout buffet.

*   *   *

It is disappointing that none of the current proposals call for breaking up institutions that are now too big or on their way there.  Such is the view of Richard W. Fisher, president of the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas.

“The social costs associated with these big financial institutions are much greater than any benefits they may provide,” Mr. Fisher said in an interview last week.  “We need to find some international convention to limit their size.”

*   *   *

Edward Kane, a finance professor at Boston College and an authority on financial institutions and regulators, said that it was not surprising that substantive changes for both groups are not on the table.  After all, powerful banks want to maintain their ability to privatize gains and socialize losses.

“To understand why defects in in solvency detection and resolution persist, analysts must acknowledge that large financial institutions invest in building and exercising political clout,” Mr.Kane writes in an article, titled “Defining and Controlling Systemic Risk,” that he is scheduled to present next month at a Federal Reserve conference.

But regulators, eager to avoid being blamed for missteps in oversight, also have an interest in the status quo, Mr. Kane argues.  “As in a long-running poker game in which one player (here, the taxpayer) is a perennial and relatively clueless loser,” he writes, “other players see little reason to disturb the equilibrium.”

At Forbes, Robert Lenzner focused on the human failings responsible for the bad behavior of the big banks with his emphasis on the notion that “a fish stinks from the head”:

No well-intentioned reform bill that will pass Congress can prevent the mind-blowing stupidity, hubris and denial utilized by the big fish of Wall Street from stinking from the head.

*   *   *

Transparency won’t help if the Obama plan does not absolutely require all derivatives to be registered at the Securities and Exchange Commission.  It’s an invitation for abuse as five major market making banks like JPMorgan Chase account for 95% of all derivatives transactions and a very large share of their profits.  We haven’t seen evidence that they police themselves satisfactorily.

Derivatives expert Janet Tavakoli recently expressed her disgust over the disingenuousness of the current version of this legislation:

Our proposed “financial reform” bill is a sham, and the health of our society and our economy is at stake.

Ms. Tavakoli referred to the recent Huffington Post article by Dan Froomkin, which highlighted the criticism of the financial reform legislation provided by Professor William Black (the former prosecutor from the Savings and Loan crisis, whose execution was called for by Charles Keating).  Froomkin embraced the logic of economist James Galbraith, who emphasized that rather than relying on the expertise of economists to shape financial reform, we should be looking to the assistance of criminologists.  William Black reinforced this idea:

Criminologists, Black said, are trained to identify the environments that produce epidemics of fraud — and in the case of the financial crisis, the culprit is obvious.

“We’re looking at incentive structures,” he told HuffPost.  “Not people suddenly becoming evil.  Not people suddenly becoming crazy.  But people reacting to perverse incentive structures.”

CEOs can’t send out a memo telling their front-line professionals to commit fraud, “but you can send the same message with your compensations system, and you can do it without going to jail,” Black said.

Criminologists ask “fundamentally different types of question” than the ones being asked.

Back at The New York Times, Frank Rich provided us with a rare example of mainstream media outrage over the lack of interest in prosecuting the fraudsters responsible for the financial disaster that put eight million people out of work:

That no one at Lehman Brothers has yet been held liable for its Enronesque bookkeeping deceit is appalling.  That we still haven’t seen the e-mail and documents that would illuminate A.I.G.’s machinations with Goldman and the rest of its counterparties amounts to a cover-up.  That investigative journalists have consistently been way ahead of the authorities, the S.E.C. included, in uncovering Wall Street’s foul play is a scandal.  If this culture remains in place, the whole crisis will have gone to waste.

Unfortunately, the likelihood that any significant financial reform will be enacted as a result of the financial crisis is about the same as the likelihood that we will see anyone doing a “perp walk” for the fraudulent behavior that caused the meltdown.  Don’t expect serious reform and don’t expect justice.



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