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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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Listening To Smart People

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As the mid-term election cycle reaches its climax, we find ourselves exposed to an increasing amount of stupid pronouncements by desperate politicians, overworked commentators and plain-old idiots, who managed to attract the interest of television news personnel.  I was particularly amused by the recent outburst from Juan Williams about the fact that he gets nervous when he sees people in “Muslim garb” boarding a plane in which he is a passenger.  NPR saw fit to fire him for making a remark described as “inconsistent with our editorial standards and practices”.  Despite the widespread hand-wringing over the “bigoted” nature of the statement, I was more focused on its stupidity.  Does Juan Williams seriously believe that terrorists would board a plane dressed in Muslim garb?  I would assume that all terrorists learn in Jihad 101 that the traditional garb for airborne martyrdom is the Adidas warm-up suit.  Wearing “Muslim garb” for such an occasion would serve only as an offer to be waterboarded.

Another example of election year asininity is the thought that someone could get elected to the Senate by claiming that the incumbent opponent of said candidate “actually voted to use taxpayer dollars to pay for Viagra for convicted child molesters and sex offenders”.  It was beginning to appear as though stupid has become the “new normal”.

Finally, some fresh air came along when a few news outlets reminded us that there are still some smart people among us.  The Los Angeles Times was kind enough to publish an interview with Elizabeth Warren, conducted by Jim Puzzanghera.  President Obama decided to appoint Professor Warren to launch the newly-created Consumer Financial Protection Bureau out of fear that a protracted confirmation battle would ensue if he appointed her as director of that agency.  With non-stop news coverage currently focused on the recent disclosures of fraudulent conduct extending from the mortgage origination process right through the foreclosure process, it would seem that the election-eve interview would provide an opportunity to assail the targets of the new agency.  When asked whether she would support the scattergun approach of seeking a nationwide foreclosure moratorium “while bank paperwork problems are being worked out”, Professor Warren gave us a glimpse of some traits we haven’t seen in a while:  restraint and common sense.  Here is her response to that tough question:

This agency will not veer from its support of American families, whether it’s in the foreclosure crisis or elsewhere.  But no one would want this agency … to act before it had collected all of the necessary data and thought through the options.  The (state) attorneys general are moving fast, and at this moment, I think that’s the right response … with emphasis on “at this moment.”

Professor Warren wasn’t the only smart person to draw some curiosity from the ADD-addled news media this week.  My favorite stock market guru, Jeremy Grantham, released his latest Quarterly Letter on Tuesday.  Its Halloween-based theme made it impossible to overlook.  As usual, Mr. Grantham gave us his unique, brilliant perspective in exposing how the Federal Reserve’s reckless (if not actually criminal) monetary policy helped cause the financial crisis and how Chairman Bernanke’s anticipated move toward more quantitative easing could make a bad situation worse.  Here are a few gems from Grantham’s must-read essay:

And these are most decidedly not normal times.  The unusual number of economic and financial problems has put extreme pressure on the Fed and the Administration to help the economy recover.  The atypical disharmony in Congress, however, has made the Federal government dysfunctional, and almost nothing significant – good or bad – can be done. Standard fiscal stimulus at a level large enough to count now seems impossible, even in the face of an economy that is showing signs of sinking back as the original stimulus wears off. This, of course, puts an even bigger burden on the Fed and induces, it seems, a state of panic.  Thus, the Fed falls back on its last resort – quantitative easing.  This has been used so rarely that its outcome is generally recognized as uncertain.

*   *   *

And of all of the many mistakes of the current Administration, the worst, in my opinion, are directly related to this fiasco:  the inexplicable choice of Geithner, who was actually placed at the scene of the crime in New York and whose fingerprints were on the murder weapon, and the reappointment of  … gulp … Bernanke himself, about whose reappointment much juicy Republican criticism was made, all of it completely justified in my view.  There may, however, be a small ray of hope.  The recent Fed appointee, Vice Chair Janet Yellen, said not long ago, “Of course asset bubbles must be taken seriously!”  She also said, “It is conceivable that accommodative monetary policy could provide tinder for a buildup of leverage and excessive risk taking.”  Yes, sir!  Or rather, madam!  A promising start.  These sentiments, of course, are completely contrary to the oft-repeated policies of Greenspan and his chief acolyte, Bernanke.  Perhaps she will slap some good sense into her boss on this issue.

*   *   *

Since it is customary in polite society to apologize for causing distress, on behalf of the Fed, let me apologize for the extraordinary destructiveness of its policies for the last 15 years.  Bernanke’s version of an apology, delivered in January this year to the American Economic Association, was to claim that the Fed’s monetary policy during the 2000-08 period was appropriate, and that there were no major failings, such as missing the housing bubble completely, that were worth mentioning.  This stubbornness in the face of clear data is right up there with efficient market believers.  And very impolite indeed.

Now I have to go back to waiting another three months for Jeremy Grantham’s next Quarterly Letter.  As always, the current one will be tough to beat.  In the mean time, it’s nice to know that there are some smart people around, capable of providing solutions to our most pressing problems.  If only those vested with the authority to implement those ideas were paying attention   .   .   .



If Joe The Plumber Knew Bill Ayers

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October 16, 2008

The final Presidential debate turned an ordinary, hard-working American into a cult hero.  Not since the introduction of Sarah Palin onto the national political scene, have we seen such an “overnight sensation”.  Once again, we have John McCain to thank.

It all started on Sunday, October 12.  Senator Barack Obama was working the crowds in the battleground state of Ohio.  While meeting the people in Holland, Ohio, the television camera crews caught an exchange between Obama and a gentleman named Joe Wurzelbacher.  On the evening of Wednesday October 15, after the debate, the Associated Press informed us that Joe had been interested in buying a plumbing business.  He was concerned about Obama’s tax plan.  Apparently, this plumbing business generated enough income to put it over Obama’s $250,000 tax threshold, although not significantly above that.  Joe would likely be getting “the worst of both worlds” under the Obama plan:  He would have to pay the 39-percent tax instead of a 36-percent tax and as a result, he might pocket a net income lower than what the business would get if that company had earned less than $250,000.  According to the Associated Press report on the conversation, the following exchange took place:

“It’s not that I want to punish your success,” Obama said.  “I just want to make sure that everybody who is behind you that they’ve got a chance at success, too.”

At a later point in the discussion, Obama said:  “I think when you spread the wealth around, it’s good for everybody.  But listen, I respect what you do and I respect your question, and even if I don’t get your vote, I’m still gonna be working hard on your behalf because small businesses are what creates jobs in this country and I want to encourage it.”

McCain seemed excited that the Obama campaign had abandoned that huge demographic of small business owners earning between $250,000 and $300,000.  His campaign finally found its target audience!  Better yet, Obama had used the expression:  “spread the wealth around”  — a catch-phrase validating the claim that “liberals” are on  a mission to redistribute the wealth.  Of course, this concern resonates only with rich people.  It has never caused America’s (now disappearing) middle class to lose any sleep.

Joe Wurzelbacher was identified during that final debate as:  “Joe The Plumber”.  He would become the archetype for those segments of the voting public, not yet ready to accept Obama as their choice for the Presidency.  If Obama wants to sweep all 50 States (and The District) in this election, he will need to win the support of “Joe The Plumber” and most of Joe’s peers.  Joe appears to be a man who is very street-wise.  He resembles the character on the label of Mister Clean, an ammonia-based cleaning solution that many of us recall from childhood.  He might not be from a big city like Chicago … but he knows how to “read” people.  We could see this during the video clip of his conversation with Obama.  After the Democrat placed his left hand on Joe’s right shoulder – Joe immediately recoiled, folding his arms over his chest.  That was some great body language!  McCain’s handlers must have loved this.  Joe saw through the “politician’s trick” of attempting to win the trust of a voter by touching that person.  Joe was not about to be “played” by a politician on national TV – Presidential candidate or not!

Poor Joe is now being set upon by a mob of bloggers, reporters and wonks.  They will be in his face from now until Election Day.  Rest assured that during the final weeks of this campaign, Obama will be presenting his case to the Joe Wurzelbachers of America.  News analysts will be dissecting the candidates’ tax plans to determine which is better for Joe.  For his part, Joe will suffer through a huge invasion of his own privacy.

In a perfect world (my imagination) the non-stop interviews would eventually turn up an interesting coincidence:  that Joe had once crossed paths with the vilified Bill Ayers (the other star of that final debate).  If only …       The press would ask Joe about this and he would say:

I worked a job about ten years ago.  I did the plumbing for a redevelopment effort in Gary, Indiana, to help the neighborhoods affected by the closing of the steel mills there.  It was called the Community Rescue Advancement Project.  We just called it “The Project”.  We couldn’t use the initials.  That Bill Ayers guy was a leader of the project.  It was a charity.  His real job was a college professor or college dean or something.  I met him a few times.  In fact, he signed the checks I got.  He didn’t really sign them himself … It was just his signature printed by a computer.  You know:  embossed – like with the little holes punched into a multi-colored signature that said: “William Ayers”.  I found out later that he was a radical from the 1960s.  They use the term “terrorists” now but we used to just call them: “Hippie Radicals”.  The first real terrorist here was the guy in Oklahoma City who blew up that Federal Building.  These hippies just fought with the police and blew off bombs that damaged equipment and stuff.  I don’t know if they really hurt anybody.  In fact, I read somewhere that all of these 60s radicals were actually working with the CIA and using police officers as guinea pigs to test riot weapons they could use to overthrow communist dictators in the banana republics and stuff.  These hippies ended up getting stock options from the companies that made these weapons – really weird stuff, you know: like mace with LSD in it  — kinky, perverted stuff like the CIA would come up with.  Anyway, these guys are all jillionaires right now.  Look at Jerry Rubin!  He’s a HUGE guy on Wall Street!  Anyway, I learned during the campaign that this Ayers guy used to be a radical.  When I met him, he didn’t seem like a hippie.  His hair was short but he did have John Lennon glasses.  I couldn’t imagine him fighting the police because he looked … you know, uhh … kinda’ gay.  Besides, he was too old to be fighting police when I met him.

Unfortunately, the real “Joe The Plumber” will probably not have any such information to share with his bothersome inquisitors.  In a perfect world, he would.  In a perfect world:  the Dow Jones would be climbing past 14,000.  In a perfect world  . . .

Our Generation Got Old

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October 13, 2008

As John McCain’s Presidential campaign goes swirling down the toilet during the final desperate weeks of its existence, we see its surrogates cling to the non-issue of Obama’s contact with 1960s radical activist, Bill Ayers.  As I said on October 2, McCain missed his chance to take control of this race by opposing the 700-billion-dollar “bailout bill”, which has yet to inspire the confidence of the investing public, foreign markets or the banks.  By reuniting with his old ally from the “campaign finance reform” days, Democratic Senator Russ Feingold of Wisconsin, as well as Democratic rising star, Senator Maria Cantwell of Washington, the “Blue Dog” Democrats and the so-called “House Republicans” led by Jeb Hensarling and Mike Pence, McCain could have secured his position as the man who would take the Republican Party into the new century.  Instead, he chose to follow the advice of the lobbyists who run his campaign:  Steve “Skinhead” Schmidt and (Jeffrey Dahmer look-alike) Rick Davis.  These “Guys on the Plane” (if I may steal an expression from Peggy Noonan) have their careers rooted in the negative campaigning strategies created by Lee Atwater and refined by Karl Rove.  These operatives have no other cards to play.  They have no experience in successful reliance upon a strategy, based solely on portraying their own candidate in a positive way.

As the nation’s economic condition becomes more perilous, the McCain campaign leans more heavily on its claim that Obama’s contacts with Bill Ayers should determine the outcome of the 2008 Presidential election.

At this point it’s starting to get funny.  Worse yet  … it is an indicator (to me, at least) of how old I am and how old my generation has become.  Back in my old home town (a place called Chicago) there is a writer for a local paper called the Chicago Tribune.  His name is John Kass.  Kass is an outspoken opponent of Chicago’s current mayor, Richard M. Daley and Kass has a nickname for him, just as I have nicknames for such worthy characters as Senator Joe “The Tool” Lieberman.  On Sunday, October 12, Kass expressed his outrage that Marilyn Katz, Ayers’ fellow member of the 1960s radical group, Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), is involved in Obama’s Presidential campaign.  Kass took particular umbrage at the fact that Marilyn Katz now has a successful public relations firm called: MK Communications.  According to Kass, MK Communications now represents the Chicago Police Department, City Colleges of Chicago, the city’s “Law Department” (actually referred to as the Office of the Corporation Counsel for the City of Chicago), and numerous other city departments  … including the venerable “Streets and San”.  Kass seemed like a shoe salesman trying to fit an old foot that was accustomed to the “militant radical” style of the 1960s, into the new, 21st century, “Terrorist” model. It  doesn’t fit.  The militant radicals of the 1960s used small bombs to make political statements.  There is an absence of information about the number of alleged casualties or injuries resulting from such bombings.  Today, “terrorists” use small bombs to take down airplanes and they use airplanes to take down skyscrapers.  The use of the “terrorist” label to a 1960s radical is an obvious stretch.

The rant by the Tribune’s Kass about how former radical, Marilyn Katz, has become a “mainstream” figure in Chicago’s Public Relations business community, reminded me of an old song.  On August 17, 1969, Grace Slick and her band, Jefferson Airplane, woke up the crowd at the Woodstock Music and Arts Fair with what she described as “morning maniac music”: the title song from their upcoming album, Volunteers.  Included among the song’s lyrics was the following passage:

One generation got old.
One generation got soul.
This generation got no destination to hold.

The Marilyn Katz story and the Bill Ayers story tell me that our generation got old.  The former radicals of that era are now playing important roles within what they used to consider an archaic milieu, referred to as “the establishment”.  Nevertheless, many members of this latest “establishment” generation are in a fight to retain the claim of having “soul” by helping to bring an African-American to The White House for the first time in this nation’s history.  The crowds at the McCain and Palin rallies have expressed their fear of what an Obama Administration might bring to America.  These McCain supporters have been able to replace their fears of how they are going to economically survive from day to day and how to fund their retirement plans with the fears conjured up by Schmidt, Davis and their ilk.  The ball is now in the court of the Obama campaign to help establish a legacy for these people and all Americans – by righting the ship capsized by the “perfect storm” of greed, corruption and deregulation.  Another three-pointer would be nice.