Sunday, December 20, 2015

Straining at gnats, swallowing camels

This Saturday's Kittanning Leader Times published two editorials critical of governmental actions. The tone and focus of both are excellent illustrations of the need for the current editorial writers to either up their game or be fired. The first editorial attacks the EPA for using social media platforms to promote the EPA's own clean water rules that were under threat by Republican members of congress. BTW, those rules have survived so far Republican attempts to kill them. A rider attached to the omnibus budget bill passed by congress this week failed to make it into the final version. The senate passed a separate bill specifically to prevent implementation of the rules. That bill is likely to pass in the house as well and will almost certainly be vetoed by President Obama. Say what you want about Obama's failures to achieve progressive goals; without his administration our country would be in a much worse place in many areas.

What exactly did the EPA do wrong, and who found out about it? The editorial mentions a report by the General Accounting Office which found that the EPA's social media outreach in two cases amounted to "impermissible 'covert propaganda.'" The editorial doesn't go into details on precisely what the GAO report found illegal. I am not so bound by space restrictions here -- nor by any allergies to inconvenient truths -- so I can report the details. The EPA has been using multiple social media platforms to publicize its work. You can get a glimpse of its rather extensive list of social media outreach sites here. Out of all this content the GAO report found two social media posts that violated federal rules restricting federal agencies from advocating for policies via covert grassroots campaigns. One was a blog post by Travis Loop, Communications Director for EPA’s Office of Water. This post includes links to websites of other organizations. The other websites include prominent sections advocating readers to contact members of congress to protect the EPA's clean water rules. The GAO report concludes that these links constitute an attempt by a federal agency to indirectly generate grassroots action influencing congressional action, which would be against a law passed by congress in 2014. The GAO's assessment appears to be correct.

The second was an EPA post to Thunderclap. This site is designed to amplify publication efforts of a social media post by attracting others with a social media presence to join a publicity campaign. The result is supposed to lead to a huge number of people who watch the social media feeds of the other people to see the originator's post. The EPA's Thunderclap post clearly identifies the EPA as the source of the post. Based on Thunderclap's own description of what appears to the end reader when the Thunderclap-formatted message is broadcast, the EPA logo identifying them as the source of the post would not appear to the end readers. That fact, plus the wording of the message makes it appear as if the supporter rather than the EPA is the origin of the message. In that regard the GAO report's criticism of the EPA is correct. The EPA staffer(s) responsible for the post should have worded it to make it clear that the EPA is the source of the message or not used Thunderclap at all.

Of course, since the GAO is a government body, I didn't fully trust its report any more than I fully trust the EPA. I checked the Facebook posts of the organizations that signed on to the campaign myself, just to see what EPA the post looks like when it was carried over. First, I checked to see what happened if I tried to embed the EPA post's Thunderclap link into my own Facebook page. It came up showing the link to the Thunderclap post and the images, including the EPA logo, clearly displayed. Next, I tried finding the EPA post reposted on the Facebook pages of a couple of the groups who signed up as supporters of the EPA post. I checked the Facebook pages of the National Wildlife Foundation, the Natural Resources Defense Council, and Cindy Skrukrud. Nothing going back all the way to the beginning of 2013. According to the GAO report, the Thunderclap campaign should have reposted the EPA post to the Facebook pages of all these supporters simultaneously on September 29, 2014. Out of frustration I searched Facebook for 'September 29, 2014 clean water.' I turned up tons of posts dated September 29. 2014, tons of posts containing the phrase 'clean water,' a bunch of posts about Lee Min Ho and only one -- ONE -- f*cking post that had to do with the EPA's Thunderclap campaign. It was posted to the page of the Santa Cruz Water Authority. Based on that post, the GAO report is correct that the message does not clearly identify the EPA as the source of the message. Trouble is, this post is NOT one auto-generated by Thunderclap. Rather, it appears to have been posted by someone at the Santa Cruz Water Authority, urging readers to check out the Thunderclap campaign page. I did the same search on Twitter and turned up squat regarding the EPA's Thunderclap post again. In short, I can't find any evidence to support or disconfirm the GAO's report. WTF? Did all 908 of these supporters delete the EPA post? I find that highly unlikely. So I'm going to ask the obvious question: Did the GAO bother to check whether the EPA campaign ever got carried out? Did they talk to Thunderclap to find out what happened to all these simultaneous posts that have now completely disappeared? How about the owners of the Facebook pages on which these posts were supposed to appear? I'm certainly not going to quiz readers of the various supporters' Facebook pages or Twitter feeds whether they actually saw the EPA post on September 29, 2014. I've already spent too much of my precious time on this issue. The GAO staff does get paid to answer this question. Why didn't they?

Conclusion? The GAO, a federal government body, reports correctly on the illegal activities of staff in another government body, the EPA. Those in charge at the EPA need to take steps to ensure that this type of activity stops. But there are larger lessons here: 1. Government -- in this case EPA staff -- can do wrong. 2. Government -- in this case the GAO staff responsible for their report -- can work. 3. Government -- in this case the same GAO staff responsible for their report -- can make mistakes. Not very profound, I know. That's the point. The fundamental problem with government is that it is made up of people. Want to fix government? Fix people. Of course, the editorial board is so worked up about this particular case because they agree with critics of the clean water rules that they are regulatory overreach. If a government agency guilty of illegal advocacy happened to be influencing legislation in a way that conforms to the board's own views and was caught by the GAO, do you think we would be reading an editorial criticizing the agency? ROFL

Now, about that people problem. Never fear, the editorial board has a fix for that. Just look at their second editorial, in which they criticize the outcome of the UN climate conference. Of Ban Ki-moon's claim that the agreement to reduce carbon emissions is a "monumental success for the planet and its people" the board had this to say:

Such delusions. Such a pig in a poke.

The Paris accord will do little to "save" the planet and much to hurt its people

How does the editorial board support this assessment? With a quote from a Heartland Institute "scholar" named James Taylor? Seriously? This "scholar" complains that the agreement ignores sound science in favor of political corectness and international wealth transfers. He's a f*cking lawyer. Don't worry, though, the board has more than "expert" opinion on its side; it has facts. Like, "human civilization developed and excelled at temperatures warmer than what the U.N. brokered deal calls for." Where do they get this factoid from? Not from NOAA. Maybe from here. If so, the source they are using is just wrong. But no, this factoid actually comes from an article by the same scholarly James Taylor. Taylor's article includes no citations to justify his factual claims. The other "facts" asserted by the editorial are pulled from the same source and likewise no references justify these claims either. I won't bother repeating them in detail.

What inspired this phony piece of right-wing B.S. masquerading as a piece of serious editorial craft? It could be that the editors buy into the misguided arguments floating around the web that an increase in global temperatures of the magnitude and rapidity suggested by mainstream climate models is neither unique to human history nor particularly threatening. I'm not even going to bother arguing this point. The editorial board is not a group of ignorant teenagers who could benefit from some patient, detailed explanation. Maybe they are premillenialist Christians and think that Jesus will return sometime in the very near future. In that case we don't need to worry about what would otherwise happen in 75-100 years. Ha, ha, ha! Maybe they aren't premillenials but still hold the misguided idea that God has somehow placed limitations on humans' ability to influence global climate, limitations enough that modern industrial society could not change the climate. Anybody who believes this -- yes, I'm talking to you, Senator Inhofe -- is an idiot. Maybe the board realizes that, like me, they will all be dead by the time the worst effects of rising global temperatures appear. Putting off expensive and disruptive solutions to this problem will allow them and their corporate sponsors to hang on to their money. Anything bad that happens afterwards will no longer matter to them. So, who cares? This is the most cynical interpretation of their persistent stupidity. Whatever motivates these psychopaths, you can be sure of this: If we fail to invest significant resources in reducing and counteracting the effects of AGW, hundreds of millions, perhaps billions, of human lives will be lost to starvation, disease, and violence. With so many fewer people, we won't need so much government. See how the editorial board fixed the EPA problem? Brilliant!

Sunday, December 13, 2015

Nuts and Nutsier

I'm a week late with this post. Today I will be commenting on the editorials posted in the Kittanning Leader Times on Saturday, December 5, 2015. By now anyone who reads this post has probably forgotten the details of the editorials in question. The first editorial in praise of Oklahoma Wesleyan University president Everett Piper for his blog post chastising self-absorbed and narcisstic students I just can't find online anymore. Therefore, I will forego comments on that editorial. The second editorial, entitled "A 'climate' for nuts" in the Leader Times, can be found here.

The basic thrust of the editorial is that the world leaders meeting at the UN-sponsored Paris climate conference are nuts. Rather than concentrating their efforts on combatting the evils already afflicting a large segment of the world's population -- disease, poverty, political oppression, etc. -- they are trying to figure out a way to reduce global warming and mitigate its effects. According to the board, scientific predictions of global warming are way off. We may be headed for a period of global cooling instead. Furthermore, the plans likely to be hatched at the conference will not only misdirect billions of dollars needed to solve real the real problems listed above to expensive, inefficient, and ineffective alternative energy-generation projects, they will also sink capitalism and cripple the global economy.

Here is my summary of their argument:

  1. There is good scientific evidence that the global climate will cool in the coming decades.
  2. Any solutions to anticipated global warming likely to be adopted at the Paris climate conference will cripple the global economy.
  3. Any solutions to anticipated global warming likely to be adopted at the Paris climate conference will end capitalism.
  4. Therefore, the world leaders who are likely to adopt these solutions are nuts

Of the three premisses in this argument the editorial only presents supporting evidence for premiss one:

Not only has there been significant pause in Earth's warming, there's credible scientific research — based on solar activity — suggesting a significant cooling decade beginning in 2030.
Apparently, they assume the evidence in favor of premisses two and three is common knowledge. Ha, not only is it not common, it's not even knowledge! More on that later in the post.

It is not helpful to the board's wafer-thin argument that the "significant pause in Earth's warming" is a myth. What about "a significant cooling decade beginning in 2030?" The board is referring to a recent study that predicted solar activity will drop to a level not seen since the 1640s, a 50-year period of reduced sunspot activity called the Maunder minimum that occurred during the "Little Ice Age," a period of relatively cooler global temperatures that extended from about 1300 - 1850 AD. Many media reports about this study extrapolated from the study's conclusions about solar activity that global cooling will result. The study's authors did not draw this conclusion in their paper but two of them have subsequently offered their opinions on the consequences of the predicted "solar minimum" on earth's climate, namely that we can expect global temperatures to drop. Both have also stated that they believe changes in the level of solar irradiation make a larger contribution to changes in earth's climate than current human activity. Here is Dr. Helen Popova's statement. Dr. Valentina Zharkova, the study's lead author, comments about it here and here.

Neither of these researchers is a climate scientist. If you already believe that climate scientists as a whole are already too invested in the theory of man-made climate change to accept the idea that reduced solar activity could interrupt or cancel out the climatic effects of greenhouse gases, then the fact that Popova is a physicist and Kharkova a mathematician might lead you to trust their opinions more. If, on the other hand, you already believe that climate scientists as a whole have it basically correct, then you are likely to discount Zharkova and Popova's opinions on the relative climatic effects of reduced solar activity. It's worth pointing out that solar activity has already been on the decline while global temperatures have been increasing. There are other studies that argue changes in the levels of greenhouse gases and other resulting atmospheric changes have contributed more to changes in global climate than changes in solar activity/output. See here and here.


Bottom line. The debates over AGW remind me of the debates over evolution vs. creationism. On the one hand, you have a body of scientists that claim they have extensive, multiple lines of independent evidence supporting a dominant theory. On the other hand you have outliers who question the theory, most of whom have a prior commitment to another explanation for the evidence that comes, not from careful investigation of evidence but from a take-no-prisoners commitment to "revealed religion." Many climate science deniers come from the same group of religious zealots. Others are not so religiously precommitted. Nevertheless, when I read detailed debates about the specifics conducted on various blog sites and in academic articles, I get the same overall impression I got when following creation/evolution debates on The outliers critique a mainstream position and mainstream responders reply with a detailed explanation of the position that shows 1.) the critique misunderstood the position; 2.) the critique uses evidence incorrectly; 3.) the critique makes fundamental logical errors, and/or 4.) the critique, if correct, would undermine the critiquer's own position.

Readers will get their own mileage out of reading these climate debates. I can only speak for myself. IMHO this editorial is a poorly-argued piece of right-wing propaganda. I can't wait until the Leader Times passes out of the control of the nuts at the Tribune Review!

Monday, November 30, 2015


This week's Saturday Kittanning Leader Times presented an editorial so shamelessly crafted to place blame in favor of the editorialists' own prejudices that it scalds. The editorial comments on recent reports that many non-profit co-ops offering a low-cost alternative to traditional medical insurance plans, initially funded by loans provided by the ACA (Obamacare), have shut down or have plans to do so in the near future. The editorial labels this outcome a "fiasco" that provides further evidence the ACA was a poorly-designed law that should be repealed. Trouble is, the editorialist failed to mention the role Rethug legislative extortion played in the debacle. Turns out that in order to negotiate its way out of threatened or real government shutdowns the Obama administration bargained away (or was forced to surrender) much of the funding originally set aside to assist co-ops through the first three years of operation, when they would be expected to operate in the red. As a result, many of the co-ops experiencing funding shortfalls were provided far lower compensation for unfunded payouts than the law originally promised.

Don't expect to find a clear explanation of the problem in very many places though. The conservative media have been all over this story, but hardly a one mentions the role reductions in the "risk corridor" played in the co-op failures. You can find a detailed explanation of what is really going on here.

Analogies can be dangerous, but this one seems to fit. Imagine you were starting a new business, calculated your expected starting and ongoing costs and expected income for the first three years of your new business. Your calculations showed that you could expect to spend about $100,000.00 more than you would realize in revenues over the first three years of operation After that, you expect revenues to increasingly exceed expenses. With that expectation in mind, you go to the bank seeking a business loan. The bank promises you a line of credit up to $100,000.00 for the first three years of your business. You walk out happy. Then, after your first or second year of operation and about $50,000.00 into your credit line you get a call from the bank's lending officer. "Sorry," he says, "but as an austerity measure we will have to cut your line of credit. Basically, we are limiting the amount of credit we can extend to you this year to the amount of loan payments we receive from your competitors who have loans with us. You can expect something in the range of about $7500.00 to be available this year." Yikes! Unless you can cut expenses and raise tons of revenue in a hurry, your business is going down the tubes.

Of course, banks can't get away with such shenanigans (I know; I work for one). On the other hand, since when did House and Senate Rethugs ever think they should be constrained by such silly fantasies as keeping promises? It has been their strategy ever since the ACA passed to undermine it any chance they get and when their efforts succeed in hamstringing the law to yell loudly, "See, we told you it wouldn't work!" These co-op failures are likely to cost taxpayers some 2.5 billion dollars in unrecovered loan losses. Managers of many of the folding co-ops have claimed that if they had received enough of the promised subsidies to remain in operation, next year they would have raised enough revenue to meet expenses. I don't know how much trust to put in such claims, but if even only some of them are right, it seems that cutting down the "risk corridor" payments actually cost the government more in the long run than it would have cost to pay at the originally-promised rates. One more example of Rethugs, in the name of protecting the taxpayers, actually costing us more to get less.

But to focus on the Leader Times editorialists again, it is worth pointing out that their supposed advocacy for the American taxpayer is hypocritical. In a quick Google search for editorials on the ACA by the Tribune-Review (parent paper of the Kittanning Leader Times) editorial staff I turned up five editorials in the last couple of years, all bemoaning the folly and expense of the ACA. Oddly enough, their criticism of the federal government's excessive and wasteful spending habits managed to overlook the F-35 debacle. I won't take much time to rehearse this, but the military has spent almost 15 years on a plan to modernize the branches' fighter aircraft using the Lockheed-Martin F-35. So far, the Pentagon has invested nearly 400 billion dollars on this plane and has yet to get a single one into active military service. No need to go into details on the history here. It's easy enough to find. What isn't so easy to find is evidence of the Tribune-Review's self-vaunted watchdog service on taxpayers' behalf. I turned up exactly one editorial on the F-35, published in August of this year. The editorial recommended that the military consider finding alternatives to the F-35 for at least some of its planned uses. That's nice.

What's really going on here is simple. The ACA is a law designed to help the poor. It is a social welfare program. Therefore, in the doctrine of the Randian psychopaths who lead the Trib's editorial boards, the government spending money on it is bad. In fact, it is so bad that government leaders who spend large sums of taxpayer dollars to sabotage the program are heroes. On the other hand, the F-35 is a military program. Not only that, it is largely contracted out to the patriotic heroes that oversee or work in large private enterprises. Therefore, the government spending money on it is good. It is so good we should overlook the faults of government leaders who waste large sums of taxpayer dollars mismanaging the program.

Saturday, November 28, 2015

All we want you to know

This week's Saturday Leader Times had two editorials, one of which was ignorant and the other positively evil. The first editorial criticized PA governor Tom Wolfe and Pittsburgh mayor Bill Peduto for announcing that they would not change their positions on welcoming Syrian refugees after the terrorist attacks in Paris sponsored by ISIS. There are plenty of published articles and blog posts refuting the first editorial, so I will let it pass.

The second editorial was a thinly-disguised hit piece against Bernie Sanders' proposal to make education at a public college free. The ostensible focus of the editorial was Neil Cavuto's interview of Keely Mullen, an organizer of the Million Student March held on November 12. The editorial is largely made up of select quotes from the interview meant to highlight Mullen's inability to describe a realistic plan to pay for the march's three demands: free education at public colleges, student debt forgiveness and a $15.00/hour minimum wage for student employees at colleges and universities. The editorial opens like so:
 All one needs to know [italics added] about the ignorance of the "free college" crowd can be found in the words of Keely Mullen, the national organizer of last week's Million Student March ....
 After a selection of quotes from the interview the editorial concludes,
Ms. Mullen and Co. plant lots of "gimme" seeds.  They then expect others to water, weed, harvest and hand over the fruits of their labors.  Thinking Americans should find grotesque this ignorant, if not narcissistic, sense of entitlement.
 Let's dispose of Ms. Mullen before we get to the problems of this editorial.  She was a poor choice as a spokesperson for this group.  First, she comes from an upper-middle class family.  Second, she attended an expensive private high school and attends Northeastern University, an expensive private college.  Third, she is personally indebted to the tune of $150,000.00 in college loans.   For these reasons she does not represent the bulk of the young people who would most benefit from free public college education.  This background would not make her an inappropriate choice for the group's leadership.  History is full of people from upperclass backgrounds who were able to advocate effectively for the less fortunate.  The problem is that the group's goal of student loan forgiveness puts her in a compromised position.  It is not just that she would personally benefit from forgiveness of her college debt, but also that her deep indebtedness is a consequence of  very avoidable choices.   This makes her advocacy for that cause is transparently self-serving.  What's worse, in the interview she lied about her background, claiming that her family is working-class and dependent on government assistance.    The conservative blogosphere has since understandably erupted in outrage and contempt over her comments.

I have no idea how the national leadership of the Million Student March is organized but it clearly lacks in accountability and common sense.  There is no way Ms. Mullen should have accepted this interview.  A more articulate, better-prepared and more representative spokesperson should have been selected.   There is no doubt such a person could have been found.  If the Leader Times editorial board doubts this, they are still mired in the same immaturity that led Ms. Mullen to accept the Cavuto interview.

And that's the point.  Mullen is a college kid.  A narcissistic sense of entitlement is just one of many serious character/personality issues that people in their late teens and early twenties can struggle with.  Among the others: overly-legalistic idealism, self-doping, the Dunning-Krueger effect, depression, sexual manias, etc.  This is just a short list from memories of my own college experience.  Do I have to remind the editorial board of how many student leaders of conservative campus organizations have been guilty of ignorant behavior and/or statements?  

Of the organization's three key positions, the call for cancellation of college debts is the most controversial, for reasons that Cavuto and this editorial either state or imply.  But the editorial, while clearly taking shots at the entire movement because they regard Ms. Mullen's heavily leveraged investment in an expensive private institution as typical, explicitly mentions only the first position:  free tuition.  Furthermore, the editorial does so without qualifying the organization's position:  free tuition at public institutions.

Since the editorial takes specific aim at the position that public college education should be tuition-free, why not take on a seriously-considered proposal by someone with some governmental experience, e.g., Bernie Sanders' position papers on financing higher education?  A competent editorialist would have taken aim at the best version of an opposing viewpoint and would have made an argument against it and in favor of a better proposal, rather than indulging in guilt by association and related sleaze. I'm sure you'll claim the "liberal" media started it by reporting on the Million Student March and giving the students a public forum to express their views. Then you can point to the fact that Fox broadcast the Cavuto interview. If you want to stoop to Cavuto's level, go get a job with Fox. Cavuto is no college kid, but in the interview he managed to peddle the ridiculous claim that people with incomes over $250,000.00 are now paying nearly 50% of their income in taxes. Forget what Cavuto thinks of his audience; the man is an idiot. So, Leader Times Editorial board, what's your excuse? This sleazy piece of contemptuous redirection you've attempted to pawn off as an editorial is the kind of writing I'd expect from an entitled, snotty and rather stupid undergraduate propagandist. Except that you are not undergraduates; you think you're too clever for that. Instead, you are hoping that your audience will associate Sanders' proposals with "entitled brats" like Mullen and reject it as hopelessly unrealistic and unfair without bothering to learn anything further about the issue. After all, you've already given your readers all they need to know, right?

Clearly, you assessed your readership as largely older and already resentful of young people who go to expensive private colleges, e.g., the kind of kids that most of the older readers in Armstrong county don't have.   Many of them don't have any college-age kids at all anymore, which means that their knowledge of the financial challenges facing families tyring to get their kids through college right now is outdated and unrealistic.   Rather than challenging your readers to get updated on the facts and think strategically about the educational needs of a modern society, you indulge their resentments, saying in effect, "Nothing more to see here, move on sheeple."    Whoever is responsible for putting this editorial in the paper ought to lose his/her job.

Tuesday, November 3, 2015

Against working people

I'm back after a week off.  In the interim Trib Total Media has announced that it has agreed to sell the Kittanning Leader Times to Sample Media, Inc.   I don't know what this will mean for the future of the Leader Times or its editorial policies, but we can hope.  One hopeful sign is the editorial stance of the Ocean City Sentinel, a Sample Media, Inc. newspaper covering Ocean City, NJ.  Their editorials tend to focus more on local issues.  Their editor, David Nahan, is absolutely not a conservative Republican.  How promising this may be depends on whether the Ocean City Sentinel's editorial board is executing the parent company's editorial policies or is simply allowed to use its own discretion.  If the latter, the future direction of the Leader Times will depend on the composition of its editorial board.  Based on what we have been told, the current Leader Times editorial board may very well remain in place.  Unless they have been champing under the leadership of their Tribune-Review superiors, we can expect the current policy to continue, perhaps with minor modifications.  If that's the case, expect this blog to heat up.

In the meantime, the two editorials that appeared in the Leader Times on October 24 were as predictable as they were disappointing.  In the first editorial the board praises PA Senate for passing the "paycheck protection" bill.  This bill is a watered-down version of a proposed constitutional amendment that would make it illegal for PA state or local governments to collect union dues or fees for any purpose from state or local government employees.  The bill approved by the Senate is more narrowly focused.  It only prohibits collection of political contributions from employees.   The political motivation behind this bill is obvious.  The proposed amendment, even if it eventually passes, will not take effect until after the 2016 election.  Clearly, the Republicans in the state senate want to do something to reduce the influence of PA state employee unions on political races in the interim.  The language in this bill was originally much closer to the proposed amendment, but has subsequently been amended to allow for the continued collection of "fair share" union dues.  The amendments to the bill were probably the result of concessions to more moderate Republicans, such as Dominic Pileggi, who otherwise would not have supported it.

The editorial doesn't discuss any of this; whether the board likes the amended version better than the original is uncertain, but there is good reason to doubt it, in the form of an editorial column by Colin McNickle, the libertarian zealot in charge of the editorial staff at the parent Tribune Review.  In that column, written in reaction to this bill's amendments, McNickle makes it clear that governments should not be collecting any money from their employees on behalf of unions.    Given McNickle's role at Trib Total Media, we have reason to suspect that the Leader Timed editorial board would lean in the same direction.  As it is, they'll take what they can get.

Oddly enough, the editorial apparently has no objections to other deductions governments perform on behalf of their employees, such as retirement and insurance payments. I guess that means no insurance companies use any of the money collected from government employees to lobby the government. Hahahahahahaaaaah! Seriously, if the bill's sponsors were genuinely interested in keeping any taxpayer funds from being funneled to political causes, they should either require all private entities that receive funds deducted from the paychecks of government employees to report on amounts contributed to political campaigns or superPACs and refuse to deduct that percentage from the employees' paychecks or simply refuse to collect any monies on behalf of any third party from employees' paychecks. As it is, this law in all its forms is a naked attempt to influence elections in favor of Republicans. That the editorial board supports it speaks volumes.

The other editorial is a lament that Canada elected Justin Trudeau as Prime Minister. What is their problem with Trudeau? That he's an intellectual lightweight? A fashion plate? Inexperienced? Son of Pierre Trudeau, and so resembling too closely the American candidates who are riding the coattails of previous family members who attained high office? I can find plenty of Canadian commentaries that agree with these accusations. Nope. He's a liberal.

Sunday, October 4, 2015

Signs of the Times

This week the Leader Times published an editorial criticiing the PA Turnpike Commission for dragging its feet on implementing fully-automated toll collection and another editorial criticizing the defense attorney for Michael Cinefra, the Plum School District substitute teacher indicted for having sex with a 15 year-old student.  Both editorials make good points based on what we know so far about the situations.  The board deserves kudos for the second editorial.  Not so much for the first.  It is a bit misleading on the facts and leaves unanswered larger questions about our society that the toll collection program raises.

The first editorial supposes that at least one of the reasons the Turnpike Commission has decided to initiate a study of full automation rather than implementing it system-wide is the desire to preserve the jobs of as many toll-takers as possible as long as possible.  Under the assumption that full automation will save the state large sums of money in the form of toll-collector salaries and benefits and the costs of upgrading toll booths, the editorial board complains that the Turnpike Commission is just wasting taxpayer money, money that could be better spent on ... oh wait, the editorial board didn't say anything about that at all!    So, what is the point of the editorial besides taking shots at state government spending money?

Of course the editorial mentions that the toll-collectors are unionized, (i.e., lazy, overpaid beneficiaries of bloated government make-work).  Because, according to the free-market orthodoxy of conservative/libertarian religion, the costliest single resource that just about every organization must account for in pricing its products and services is its employees, and therefore, the proper target of our anger, resentment, and downright hatred about the costliness of the products and services we pay (too much) for is other people.  The editors of the paper would never say this, of course, because that would make them sound like sociopaths. 

The editorial also implies that Democratic (you know, the party that always wants to spend more taxpayer money, especially when it can be spent generating government-dependent voters, securing permanent electoral majorities for Democrats) Commission Chairman Sean Logan is dragging his feet in the implementation of automated toll collection.  But the actual timetable for the study was established during the Corbett administration, years before Logan became chairman or Tom Wolfe became governor.  Not only that, but the plan to automate the toll collection system was already on the drawing board in 2012.  In short, the foot-dragging accusation is bullshit.  Logan has expressed some scepticism about the long-term cost savings of a fully-automated system.  You could attribute that to a pro-union bias, but an article in the Tribune-Review -- which I suppose is the factual basis for the editorial -- points out that Colorado's experience with automated tolling has not realized the cost savings they anticipated.

None of this is to say that fully automating toll collection on the Turnpike is a bad idea.  There are plenty of good reasons to do so, as pointed out here and here, for example.  Converting to a fully-automated system will most likely reduce toll-collection costs eventually, if done correctly.   The commission anticipates upfront conversion costs of about $320 million.  One article estimates that about $70 million in annual costs will be saved by eliminating the jobs of toll collectors.  Taxpayers further benefit in several ways.  They avoid slowdowns at toll booths, auto emissions are reduced, engineering connections to other roadways are simplified, some physical maintenance costs are reduced.  These savings are offset by the higher ongoing cost of the toll collection technologies and higher enforcement costs.  I could not find a detailed estimate of how these costs balance out over the long term, but it will probably result in the savings of millions of dollars annually.

Now for the larger question that this brief editorial leaves unanswered.  Or, to be quite frank, trivializes.  I've seen different numbers, but it appears that an estimated 600-800 toll booth collector positions will be eliminated.  The Turnpike Commission has been talking about this project with their employees to prepare them for the eventual job reductions.  The commission hopes to transfer some of these employees to the enforcement positions that will need to be filled as part of the conversion.  Other jobs simply won't be filled as current employees retire.  For the rest the commission is likely to offer other incentives to find work elsewhere.

This relatively small workforce reduction is one example of a larger trend that has been going on for a long time and will likely accelerate in the coming decades.   Automation has been replacing human labor for a long time now.  In most cases, economies that invested in labor-saving devices eventually expanded enough to create new forms of employment that absorbed the excess labor displaced by automation.  Unfortunately, this did not always happen in the right magnitude, with the right speed, or with compensating jobs that matched the abilities and skills of displaced workers.  As a result, there were large numbers of losers, people whose livelihoods were ruined and as a result were plunged into poverty or at least a much lower income level.  This was especially the case before national governments adjusted better to the problems caused by worker displacement.  Modern, post-industrial societies tend to do a better job helping displaced workers transition to new opportunities.  But better is just better, not good in many cases.  

Many leaders view improved educational and training programs as the key to helping displaced workers quickly transition to new employment in a high-tech economy.  This approach assumes that automation mostly replaces rather low-skill workers while opening up new opportunities for more highly-trained workers.  In general this is true, although the number of highly-skilled workers needed to maintain a more highly-automated process is usually far less than the number of low-skill workers replaced by the automation.  Many economists argue that the difference is made up indirectly, by future investments of the money saved via automation in other economic activities from which displaced workers obtain new employment.  Whatever its merits, this arrangement only works when automation replaces low-skilled workers.  When automation is able to replace highly-trained, highly-skilled, or experienced workers, improved and training and education will not by themselves enable many displaced workers to find new employment.  First, some of these workers may simply lack the native talents needed to succeed at a higher level of intellectual effort.  Second, as the level of skills and knowledge needed to outcompete machines rises, so does the time and money needed for a displaced worker to obtain the needed retraining.

We are fast approaching a new phase in workplace automation in which the machines are becoming capable of replacing knowledge workers.  This is already happening in information technology, although only to a very limited degree.  Information security anomaly detection and incident response, automated legal discovery, algorithmic optimization are just a few of the areas that have become increasingly automated, reducing the number of human beings needed to fulfill such roles.  Examples like this could be repeated for any number of other fields usually classified as knowledge-focused or knowledge-intensive.   It is true that up until now, no large numbers of knowledge workers are losing their jobs to machines.  Instead, what is happening is that as AI and related technologies make incremental progress, human knowledge workers have been gaining in productivity.  The machines have served as very sophisticated tools.  What has changed is that many entry-level or low-level positions are now filled by machines.  The result is a net loss of job opportunities for new workers

Artificial Intelligence researchers may not be able to produce machines capable of human-level intelligence for decades, or more.  But incremental progress along these lines is likely to continue, and as it does it should eat up more and more of the upper-level employment opportunities that white-collar workers assumed would be safe from automation.  When machines do attain human-level intelligence, they are bound to quickly surpass it as well.  From a purely market-based perspective, at that point most highly-valuable work will be altogether beyond human capabilities, and the occupations humans are capable of will be accomplished more effectively and cheaply by machines.  In short, we become virtually unemployable, no matter how smart and well-educated we are. 

What to do about this?  You can always make the argument that it's not our problem.  Some future generation will have to deal with it when the time arrives.  Really, that is precisely the attitude taken by the editorial board in this case.  Toll collectors losing their jobs?  Not my problem.   Trouble is, if it isn't the editorial board's problem now, it will be sooner or later.

So, to the editorial board of the Leader Times: There are already automated systems that have become capable of writing basic financial news articles  that to an unsuspecting reader appear to be written by a human reporter.  Research and development along these lines will not stop in order to save the jobs of free-market zealots.  Those zealots may hope that the fawning they have done at the knees of the 1%'ers who pay their salaries will save them from the unemployment line, but I doubt it.  The machines are coming for your jobs and mine, editors. 

We can act now to prepare for this eventuality.  This is not a natural disaster; it can be averted or remedied by economic policy changes.  One change, hinted at by this open letter, involves changing the rules of capital ownership (Gasp!).   If current trends continue those who own the machines or the businesses using machines will see their wealth grow, while the rest of society slips into poverty.    (Well, it would continue that way until the machines surpass human intelligence.  At that point they may decide to thrust their owners into poverty or worse along with the rest of us.)   Clearly, only the most immoral, committed Randian would find this outcome appealing.   Would the editorial board be willing to engage in examining economic policy alternatives that would reverse our current slide?

 None of this has ever perturbed the editorial board of the Leader Times enough to broach the subject before ... why should it?  "Who gives a f*ck about union members, most of them probably Democrats, losing their jobs?  Why don't they all just move to Sweden and suck from the government teet over there?"  Like I said, sociopaths.  Editors, are you listening?  Do you realize that your excessive admiration for free-market principles not only makes you sound like sociopaths, it makes you act like them?

Sunday, September 27, 2015

The editors get it right this time ... for the wrong reasons

This week's Leader Times' editorials get it right.   The first editorial is based on a set of NY Times reports that the US military has been instructing soldiers to look the other way when US-trained Afghan military and police commit sexual abuse of children.  You have to read the Times articles to get a sense of the evidence for the claims.  IMHO it's quite good, which means that the editorial's conclusion is entirely correct:  "The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan proved painfully that the US. cannot change engrained cultures.  But enabling their worst elements, or simply ignoring them, is an abomination."

The second editorial decries recent questions raised by government officials about pay-to-play fantasy football companies such as FanDuel and DraftKings.   The officials are questioning whether this is gambling and/or should be subject to the same laws and tax policies as gambling.  It seems to me that ultimately the editors are right that fantasy football is a relatively-harmless diversion and that charging people money to play and paying the winners part of the proceeds is not gambling.  Well, maybe not so harmless, if you assume that players would find something more constructive to do with the time they spend on fantasy football.  In any event, they may be right that the government officials raising these questions are eyeing FanDuel and DraftKings as an additional revenue source.    Both the companies and the money winners are already subject to taxes. 

My problem is not with these editorials.  My problem is with the larger goals of the editorial board.  They are not raising these particular issues for the same reasons I would.  They raise the issues  because 1.) they object to taxes generally and 2.) the government actors in each case are Democrats, and they are inherently against Democrats because of the policies they represent.  Anything that makes Democrats look bad should be highlighted so that Democratic policies are less likely to get enacted.   We already know that the editorial board has had a long history of Randian libertarianism when it comes to economics and militarism when it comes to foreign policy.  These editorials are simply subtle ways of achieving these skeevy goals.

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

BAP, Illustrated

This week's Saturday Leader Times editorial page included one pleasant surprise. As usual, they published only two letters from readers, but both letters were from readers who expressed relatively progressive opinions. One letter was written by a former union member who encouraged the members of the USW who were locked out of ATI to stick together. The other was a plea to voters to stop blaming PA governors for the nearly annual budget impasses we have experienced over the last decade and instead to vote out of office the local house representatives who keep refusing to compromise.

The editorial board added two editorials. The first criticized attorney general Kathleen Kane's office for opposing the release of staff emails to the Philadelphia Inquirer on the grounds that they are not public records since they do not address matters related to agency business. IOW, they were emails dealing with personal matters delivered through a government email system. The editors are correct that this is a bad argument, but I just don't have the time or proclivity to dig into the Kane case in any detail. The editorial board, along with the editorial board of the parent Tribune-Review, has had it in for Ms. Kane for several years. They will tell you it is because of public corruption and/or incompetence. I haven't been following any of these stories closely enough to agree or disagree and don't plan to now. It seems that a lot of bad things were going on in the attorney general's office before she got there, but her tenure may have made things worse. It's a sad story all around. That's all I've got to say on that matter.

The second editorial attempts to argue that the Obama administration's Clean Power Plan will be too costly and should be rejected by the states. They base this argument on two major points drawn from a study by Nicolas Loris of the right-wing think tank, the Heritage Foundation. Yeah, that Heritage Foundation, the one that draws support from people like the Koch brothers and -- surprise, surprise! -- Scaife family foundations, the same people who founded the Tribune-Review and whose endowments help keep papers like the Leader Times in print. As for Loris himself, he was an employee of a Koch brothers foundation before joining the Heritage Foundation. OK, that's enough information to raise suspicions about the reliability of the source, given the history of the Heritage Foundation's prior advocacy efforts and the supposed public-mindedness (cough, cough) of its funding sources.

The editorial's first main point is that California's Clean Energy Jobs Act "increased taxes on corporations to fund energy-saving inititatives and green programs, primarily at schools. The initiative was supposed to generate more than $550 million annually and create 11,000 new green jobs, notes Nicolas Loris of the Heritage Foundation. Three years later, more than half of the $297 million doled out to schools has been sucked up by consultants and energy auditors. A board created to oversee California's initiative and provide annual progress reports has never met the Associated Press reports. So, of course, fumbling politicians who foisted this farce on Californians are calling for better oversight."

The second main point is that the section of the 2009 Federal stimulus bill that was dedicated to promoting green energy initiatives produced only 11,613 jobs that lasted more than 6 months, about 16% of the goal. Conclusion? "Unless states intend to follow California's abysmal example, they must reject the feds latest green scheme."

This editorial is a classic illustration of the BAP ("bullshit asymmetry principle"). I cannot hope to uncover every misrepresentation or refute every bad argument in this editorial, much less in Loris's report, especially since a lot of the refutation depends on first telling you what Loris and the editorial board fail to mention. My goal is to present enough of the missing information to demonstrate the logical error that invalidates the editorial's conclusion.

OK, now for the missing context regarding California's Clean Energy Jobs Act (AKA Proposition 39). First off, "fumbling politicians" did not foist this on Californians. The editorial board was apparently too apoplectic to remember that in California propositions are enacted by a plebescite. The proposition passed during the 2012 elections and was put into effect at the beginning of the 2013 fiscal year. The law rolled back a previous arrangement whereby corporations were given two different ways to calculate their state income tax liability. The previous arrangement had the pernicious effect of rewarding corporations that moved facilities and employees out of California with lower tax rates. The changes instituted by Proposition 39 mostly affected a small number of large corporations. Both Loris's report and the editorial skip over that little detail.

It turns out that the factual claims about the goals and results of Proposition 39 in both Loris's report and the editorial come from an Associated Press article written by Julia Horowitz. Why they treat this article as an oracle of God I don't know. As far as I can tell the factual data she includes in the article is correct, but she fails to provide supporting evidence and misleads by failing to put the apparent shortcomings of the law's results in context. As has been pointed out here and here the law's requirements lead to precisely the pace of development that has taken place so far. I could figure that out for myself, since the target of the funds raised was schools. Had the funds gone directly to utilities there would not have been as much money spent on auditing and consulting in the early stages. It could be argued that this is a flaw in the design of the program if the intent was to stimulate job growth quickly, but the law is written to prioritize genuine energy efficiency gains over quick job growth. Obviously schools are not experts in efficient green energy projects and so needed plenty of lead time to obtain metrics and guidance on how to meet the requirements for the stimulus money. Furthermore, by directing the money to schools rather than utilities, the projects will be "off-grid" in the sense that the schools are not likely to invest directly in efficient generation of utility power. For many schools that will mean infrastructure changes, including major building renovations or new buildings. These types of changes can take years to get completed. The law stipulates that schools have until June 21, 2020 to submit green energy project plans and June 21, 2021 to submit a final report on project completion. Therefore, it is not at all surprising that many schools have not even applied for stimulus money yet. They may simply not be ready to begin a major building project. Since a lot of the generated employment will be in construction and related fields, it is again not surprising that only a few new jobs have been created so far. Assuming that the stimulus funds raised are all eventually distributed, there should be significant job gains in the next five years. None of this makes the law a failure. Ms. Horowitz simply does not have enough experience to offer a realistic evaluation of the law. Loris and the Leader Times editorial board don't have this excuse. Oh, and let me point out that conservatives have been screaming about how the administration's Clean Power Plan timeframe is too ambitious and will force utilities to make costly upgrades too soon. Why do they now insist that California must rush to complete its energy efficiency projects or the program is a failure?

On the other hand, the law also required an oversight board keep watch over distribution of the funds and monitor funded projects to ensure that the requirements are met. That board has not met yet, and the article's exposure of that failure has stimulated overdue action to get the board moving. It is also true that the law has failed to generate the revenue originally projected. While that may be disappointing, it doesn't at all entail that the law should not have been passed or that the energy efficiency projects that can be funded are not worth the investment. The law's supporters can be faulted for promising too much, but that doesn't mean the law itself is bad or the money raised is being wasted.

There is no point in ignoring the failed green enterprises, e.g. Solyndra, funded by the 2009 federal stimulus bill. On the other hand these failures pale besides the huge increase in green power generation kicked into high gear by that stimulus money. Just don't expect the Leader Times editorial board to tell us about that. It doesn't fit into their narrative that government ruins everything it touches (except, of course, the military). The editorial board is correct that as of 2012 the 2009 stimulus bill had failed to produce anywhere near the number of "green" jobs originally promised. But that is not the whole story by any means. For one thing, they fail to mention that the stimulus bill's kickstart has propelled a lot of growth in renewable energy generation in the intervening years. Of course, conveniently for conservatives, the 2013 sequester killed the government program that was tracking "green" job growth, making it far more difficult to come up with reliable numbers. But the green energy stimulus was never just about jobs; it was also about jump-starting migration away from fossil fuels, and in that regard the stimulus has had significant impact. And there is every reason to believe the Clean Power Plan will do the same.

This leads me to the editorial's conclusion. Since the results of California's Proposition 39 are not abysmal, the editorial no longer has a valid basis to predict that the Clean Power Plan will be an abysmal failure either. Could Proposition 39 yet fail spectacularly? Anything is possible, but it doesn't look likely. Did the federal green energy stimulus fail spectacularly? No. It didn't accomplish everything President Obama promised, but it has accomplished much. Therefore, the narrative that government ruins everything it touches is false. Without that narrative, the editorial's conclusion doesn't follow even if Proposition 39 had failed spectacularly. Just because one government program fails doesn't mean that another government program administered by a different jurisdiction and targeted at a different set of objectives will also fail. In short, the editorial's argument is bullshit.

Sunday, September 13, 2015

Letting readers do the dirty work

This week the Leader Times is 1 for 2 on the Saturday editorials page.  The first editorial urges all other law enforcement agencies to adopt policies similar to  new the Federal Justice Department policy requiring warrants in order to use cellphone-tracking devices.  The editors and I are on the same page here, as are most Americans.  We want all levels of government to obtain warrants before performing mass surveillance.

The second editorial praises the REINS act, which would require Congress review and approve any new regulations issued by Federal agencies that would have a cumulative economic effect greater than $100 million.  This legislation has been approved by the House but is unlikely to pass the Senate and would be vetoed by the President if it did pass.  The editors believe this law will "more than likely expose faults and reduce litigation."  After all, they argue, it is better to have elected representatives review regulations rather than allowing "diktats typically drafted behind closed doors" to be "dumped on the public."

This opinion is misleads the readers about how federal agencies typically introduce new regulations.  First, no regulations get issued in the first place without a law passed by Congress authorizing the executive branch to establish some means to derive details regulations from the law passed by Congress.  In most cases, the law includes an authorization for a new or existing agency to develop regulations that implement in some detail the requirements of the law.   Second, as time passes and circumstances change, federal agencies may need to modify, remove, or add regulations in order to continue administering existing laws as they were intended.  Third, changes to federal regulations are subject to review by Congress via committees.  Typically, federal agencies announce periods for comments on proposed regulatory changes.   During this period interested parties can review and offer suggestions and criticisms of the regulations.  They can also petition their Congressional representatives to press for changes to the proposed regulations.  Finally, Congress has collective options to restrain regulatory agencies whose actions they find unacceptable.  They can use budgets to force agencies to redirect their resources in a way more pleasing to Congress.  They can even change the law so as to remove regulatory authority from an agency or even eliminate it altogether.    Federal regulations are not "diktats typically drafted behind closed doors" and suggesting they are is dishonest.

Congress and the people already have plenty of options available to them to limit the regulatory powers of federal agencies.  People are already generally frustrated with Congress's inability to get anything useful done.  This law will just gum up the works even more. 

My real complaint for this week, however, is with the letters from readers appearing on the Opinion page.  For the third week in a row, only two letters appear, both of them taking hardline right-wing stances on topics not addressed by the editorials.  I am beginning to think that the editors are hand-picking for publication letters whose opinions they approve of.  Are we to believe that the only readers who bother to send letters to the editors of the Leader Times are conservative Republicans?  Sorry, I doubt it.  Therefore, I intend to test their sincerity by sending them a series of letters from a clearly progressive standpoint until they publish one.  To increase the chances that they will publish, I will keep each letter short and restrict it to topics addressed by articles published in the Leader Times during the previous week.  Since they probably have a policy of publishing letters from as many different readers as possible, I will assume that once they have published one of mine I can expect no further letters of mine will be published for at least a few years.   Therefore, once one is published the experiment will end.  Furthermore, the week following that Saturday's Leader Times I will post to this blog the contents of each letter sent.  Let's see what happens. 

Sunday, September 6, 2015

Supporting the First Amendment and Dumping on the Down and Out

Back after a week's vacation!  This Saturday the Leader Times posted two  editorials.  The first involved the recent US District Court decision by judge Terrence McVerry that ruled the monument of the Ten Commandments on the property of a Connellsville Area School District junior high school unconstitutional but allowed the monument to remain on the property because the complainant no longer attends the school.   The editors call this decision a non sequitur and complain that it leaves the taxpayers of the district exposed to the costs of another lawsuit to have the monument removed.   They point out that the judge should have ordered the monument removed on the grounds that its presence is unconstitutional, regardless if anyone comes forward to complain about it or not.  In this the editors are entirely correct.   The editors could have urged the school district to remove the monument anyway, but since Connellsville is in Fayette County, they may have felt that's somebody else's job.  Fine with me.

The second editorial comments on a recent action by the PA Ethics Commission threatening fines against Department of Human Services caseworkers who have failed to submit the required annual financial disclosure statement.   The editorial is a follow-up on a recent news article that appeared on the TribLive website.   (If that article also appeared in the Leader Times, I missed it.)   The editors approve of the Ethics Commission's action, as it protects the interests of PA taxpayers against possible malfeasance the delinquent caseworkers may be trying to hide.  As a matter of prudence, I have no problem with the financial disclosure requirement.  But I have to wonder why this is a matter worthy of comment in an editorial?  First, has there ever been sufficient evidence of widespread corruption on the part of DHS caseworkers to warrant annual financial disclosures?  As it turns out, caseworkers were not required to submit annual disclosures because of a change in the law resulting from discoveries of corruption, but because of legal advice offered by the state Ethics Commission to Gov. Rendell's office in 2008.  Since the caseworkers decide whether taxpayer dollars go to welfare recipients, they should submit financial disclosures, the advice said. So, there was no scandal or evidence of widespread DHS caseworker corruption that led to the change; it was simply a matter of being consistently transparent.

I bring this up not to excuse the delinquent caseworkers.  Since the job requires it, they should have submitted their disclosures.  Rather, I sense here is an underlying animosity toward the entire concept of public assistance.  The linked article above quotes Rep. Darryl Metcalfe questioning what the delinquent caseworkers are trying to hide and reports that he is pressing for severer penalties for caseworkers who don't comply.  Why am I not surprised that Metcalfe, of all people, has a bee under his bonnet about 273 DHS caseworkers?  It is true that the department with the largest number of delinquents is DHS.  Of course he could instigate an investigation, but since he is likely not to find enough evidence of corruption to justify the time and expense of investigating, he can score cheap political points with his rabid anti-welfare constituents (see the comments section of the linked article above for a sampling) by attempting to ratchet up the penalties.  What about the other 483 state employees who failed to submit financial disclosures in 2015?   I'll bet plenty of them are responsible for much larger sums of taxpayer money than DHS caseworkers and that corruption on their part could cost the state a lot more money.  Why isn't Metcalfe making public statements about them?  And why is the Leader Times bothering to comment about this in the first place?

I call it exploiting readers.  Humans have an innate tendency to suspect that we are being cheated and get especially incensed when the cheaters are considered peers.    Readers of the Leader Times are largely working-class rural folk, who are more likely to be incensed about alleged cheating by a poorly-paid DHS caseworker supplying welfare benefits to the ineligible (aka "lazy") than, for example, a more highly-paid DEP regulator taking bribes to overlook violations of environmental law at natural gas wellsites or a Department of Banking regulator accepting bribes to look the other way at safety and soundness shortcuts made by a state bank to increase its profit margins.  Dishing up a piece of red meat regarding welfare increases the chances that target readers will continue buying the Leader Times.

Sunday, August 23, 2015

End-game for Ford City Borough Government?

This week the Leader Times editorial board returned its focus to local issues.  The lead editorial rehearses the borough's recent history of missed opportunities to find a reasonable alternative to repayment of a $581,000.00 debt to the Federal Economic Development Administration.  The borough incurred this debt as a result of a failed effort to redevelop the old PPG factory property on the edge of the Allegheny River.  See herehere, and here for details.  As a matter of full disclosure, I am an employee of NexTier Bank.  NexTier Bank merged with F&M Bank in 2014.  F&M Bank foreclosed on the property in 2010 when the Ford City Community Development Corporation went into default.

Under the terms of the EDA grant the borough was supposed to maintain ownership of the property until 2017.  As a result of the foreclosure the EDA decided to demand repayment of the grant from the borough.  Over the last couple of years the borough has been wrangling with the EDA over the repayment of the grant, but somehow managed to pass up a deal that would have allowed the borough to settle the debt by repaying only $116,000.00 over three years.  Having failed to secure the borough's agreement to this generous repayment plan, the EDA has decided to demand payment for the entire amount of the grant.

In the view of  nearly everyone but the members of the Ford City borough government the Feds have been more than fair, and the failure of the borough government to agree to the EDA's repayment plan is gross negligence.  The editorial board is completely right to excoriate them.  It is already too late for the borough government to find an honorable way out of its predicament.  The Feds may yet find a way to regain some of the taxpayers' money without strangling Ford City to death, but in no way should the Ford City officials responsible for this fiasco escape the consequences.

My only criticism of the Leader Times editorial board is that they did not call explicity for the removal of the responsible officials by the next election if not sooner.  And the editorial board may yet do so.

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

The editorial board reveals its true loyalty

This Saturday the Kittanning Leader Times posted two editorials.  Well, to be more precise, the Leader Times reproduced two editorials written under the supervision of its parent newspaper, the Tribune-Review.  See here and here for the originals.  The first criticized the recently-announced Clean Power Plan for being too expensive.  It based its arguments on a Wall Street Journal article by Thomas Pyle.  Pyle, in turn, uses a study authored by Thomas Stacy and George Taylor that purports to do something heretofore not attempted, namely  compare the cost of bringing new power sources advocated by the Clean Power Plan -- especially solar and wind -- online to the cost of living with our existing power sources over the same timeframe.  Their study focuses on the relative LCOE (levelized cost of operation of electricity) for existing power generations sources to the cost of bringing new sources online to replace them prior to their natural end of life.  Trouble is, the federal Energy Information Administration already has described a measure called LACE (levelized avoidance cost of electricity) and provided estimates for precisely the comparative costs of bringing new power generation facilities of various sorts online vs. leaving existing facilities in operation for both 2020 and 2040.  Generally, the EIA report did find that bringing new sources online would cost more than doing nothing in 2020 but would yield cost benefits in 2040.  Significantly, the EIA report does not take into account external costs such as the larger societal effects of the use of or transition from/to any particular type of power source.   The Stacy and Taylor study does not use LACE estimates in its study, an oversight or a purposeful misreprentation?  The study includes no explanation for the failure to use or at least acknowledge the existence of the EIA's LACE estimates.

The study avoids discussing external costs imposed by power generation choices, such as the inability to use resources elsewhere once they are invested in building and maintaining new power generation facilities or handling the effects of power generation on the environment, including climate.  If rapid climate change is happening due to the release of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere by human activity, it hardly makes sense to omit the costs to society of pollution and climate change in a discussion of public power generation policy.  Yet, that is how Pyle and the Times Leader editorial board use the study.  Surprising?  No, given that the Times Leader editorial board, Pyle, and at least Thomas Stacy all agree that any climate change taking place now is not caused by humans and humans can do little or nothing to stop it.  If George Taylor has a position on human-caused climate change I couldn't find it.

Another major criticism of the study is that it grossly overestimates the cost of adding wind power to the electric grid.  According to the authors, wind energy costs 3 to 4 times as much as other power sources over its lifetime as well as causing other energy sources to be used less efficiently.  Critics challenge both of these claims, arguing that the authors used old data and ignored crucial mitigating factors in their estimates.  You can find a summary of these criticisms here.   To this non-specialist it appeared as if both sides could be making valid points and I have to admit I'm suspicious that the people making the pro-wind arguments may be trying to protect their financial stake in the spread of power generation by wind.

In general, it has to be said that the whole issue of the costs of power generation is complex and it is difficult to generalize, as the relative costs of one type of power generation compared to another are to some extent dependent on local factors.  Still, from the reading I've done a good argument can be made that alternatives to fossil fuels, considered singly or in combination, will not be able to replace fossil fuels as the major power source for electricity generation for the foreseeable future, unless something major changes the equations.   By major I mean something like a ground-breaking technical discovery that makes storage of wind or solar-generated power storable in large quantities for long periods of time at a low cost.  Or, a huge reduction in human population.  Or, massive gains in energy conservation.  Or, finally, the discovery of a way to exploit an alternate power source at a massive scale, nuclear fusion, for example.  I don't claim to know whether the Stacy and Taylor study is correct or not.

What I do know is that Pyle, Stacy, Taylor and/or the organizations for which they work have long-standing ties to oil, gas, and coal interests.  Pyle  used to be a lobbyist for Koch Industries and the non-profit he currently works for, the Institute for Energy Research, is also largely funded by oil, gas, and coal interests.  Thomas Stacy and George Taylor have also been involved in anti-wind power political activities for a good while.  Taylor is a fellow at E&E Legal, a right-wing non-profit, formerly known as the American Tradition Institute.  Here is the dirt on this organization.   But you don't need a Sourcewatch expose to figure out that E&E Legal is rabidly anti-regulation, pro-corporate organization; just look over their own blog!
Why didn't the editors of the Leader Times warn their readers that the source they were using as the factual basis for their arguments may be prejudiced and that some of the key figures they cite from this study are open to dispute?  The editorial concludes by citing the conclusion of Pyle's summary of the study: building new power plants "'would impose expensive and unnecessary costs -- and the public would foot the bill,' with low-income households hit the hardest."  That last phrase is a laugher.  Since when did the Leader Times editorial board really care about low-income households unless the interests of these low-income households happened to align closely with the interests of the 1%'ers that the Leader Times editorial board usually goes to bat for?  Let's say for argument's sake that the Stacy and Taylor study is right.  Who said that a future administration supporting the implementation of the Clean Power Plan would let the cost burden fall heaviest on low-income households?  In fact, an administration in favor of this plan, in the event that its costs ended up regressive, would attempt to implement policies to adjust the burden more fairly.  That fact highlights the real fear of the people behind the Leader Times editorial.  The 1% is afraid they will be forced to pay for the transition to power sources that generate less carbon dioxide over the long term.

If you think I am just pulling this accusation out of a hat, consider the editorial posted just beneath.  In that editorial, the board castigates people who purchase electrically-powered automobiles for paying extra money for a product that at least in some regions of the country -- including the Northeast -- is actually worse for the environment than a comparable gasoline vehicle when all factors are taken into account.  They base their conclusions on a study published by the National Bureau of Economic Research.  The study itself is behind a paywall, but you can find a helpful and nuanced summary here.  The study includes many factors in its conclusions, including the amount of carbon dioxide generated to provide the energy to drive the car!  In fact, the main problem with driving an electric car in the  Northeast is that the electricity needed to power the car is most likely generated by coal or nuclear power plants, both of which impose heavy environmental costs.  The study is making a legitimate point.  The Northeast is not a good place to drive an electric car right now, unless you happen to live near Buffalo, NY.

 Didn't the first editorial just triy to make the point that preventing carbon dioxide emssions is not worth the costs?     So, maybe the editors think there are more economically viable ways to reduce carbon emissions.  If they believed there were and they believed climate change were a genuine threat to human well-being, you would think they would advocate for a different solution.  But in fact the editorial board does not believe climate change is a genuine threat.  It must be, then, that they are concerned about the other types of environmental damage caused by the use of elecrically-powered vehicles, perhaps the mercury, particulate matter, and other noxious gases emitted by coal-fired plants or nuclear wastes.  But no, there are no recent editorials by the Leader Times suggesting that any action is needed to reduce pollution from coal-fired plants or reduce the amount of nuclear waste generated by nuclear plants.

So what is the point of the second editorial?  It appears to be that attempts by ordinary consumers to act in an environmentally-responsible manner are bound to be counter-productive, especially if the government rewards them for doing so.  Only in this way does the second editorial dovetail with the first.  The real point of both is to turn readers against coordinated government action to protect the environment, because it costs too much money.

The editorial board's overriding concern with the costs would be admirable if it was coupled with some advocacy in favor of less costly and/or more effective ways to prevent or fix environmental damage caused by pollution or climate change.  Every once in a great while, the parent Tribune-Review has published an editorial criticizing one government agency or another for regulations that damage some industry involved in the environment.  Interestingly enough, though, the only example I could find was an editorial in favor of preserving the waste coal processing industry, which according to the editorial provides a positive service for the environment.   More to the point, it provides a positive service for the rest of the coal industry by protecting it from the charge of causing even greater environmental damage, which is the real reason the editorial board rose to its defense.

In short, what you can pretty much always count on from the editorial board is hostility to government action that will require money be taken out of the wallets of the 1% and used to achieve goals that have nothing to do with the 1% extracting more profits from the rest of the citizenry. 

Saturday, August 15, 2015


Welcome to my new blog! This blog is a temporary project whose purpose is to publicize the abuses perpetrated by the editors of the Kittanning Leader Times newspaper, in hopes that shining a light on their misdeeds will lead to positive change.

For the most part, posts to this blog will appear once a week or less, as the Leader Times only publishes editorial content on Saturdays. Occasionally news stories are so slanted that they beg for criticism. As I have time I may post about those. If it happens that the paper shows significant improvement I will post about that too.

For a long time I let my frustrations with the paper's editorial stance fester. I figured their parent company was already taking plenty of hits from over the editorial content of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. Trouble is, out here in Armstrong County, PA people generally don't pay much attention to what goes on in the Tribune-Review and they certainly don't visit the 2 Political Junkies blog. People who are exceptions to this observation are welcome to correct me (please!). Every once in awhile I would write a letter to the editor which invariably did not get published.

This last week the editorial staff took a series of steps that finally provoked me to action. First, they published an editorial critical of the Clean Power Plan finalized and presented by President Obama August 3rd. This editorial was based on a post to a right-wing website by Joe Bastardi, a meteorologist who has a track record of opposing the consensus of climate science with bad data and bad arguments. It was bad enough that the editors relied on Joe Bastardi, but they also told their readers that his opinions on the Clean Power Plan were "all they needed to know" about it. Oh really? I wrote them a letter pointing out that it would be in their readers' interest to know that Bastardi is a serial kook when it comes to climate science. Not only did they not publish the letter, they doubled down the next Saturday with another editorial critical of the Clean Power Plan, this time based on an article in the Wall Street Journal written by Thomas Pyle. See my next post for a detailed debunking of the editorial. Let me just say here that somehow the editors did not see fit to inform their readers that Mr. Pyle is a former lobbyist for Koch Industries and whose current employment at a D.C. non-profit is largely funded by gas, oil, and coal interests. I guess if the editors cite the study rather than publishing it directly they don't have to tell their readers that the author whose arguments they rely on may have a bias?

If anyone finding this blog wants to contribute, please let me know via a comment.  I could sure use help.