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On Universities And Such, Or, If Obama’s A Kettle, Is Donald Trump Black? May 1, 2011

Just about 40 seconds after (Yes, He’s Actually The) President Barack Obama brought forth his Certificate of Live Birth unto the world Donald Trump was accusing Obama of somehow sneaking his way into some University or another.

If Trump’s to be believed, Obama was a terrible student at a College, and then he somehow snuck his way into a University; after that he basically grifted his way into becoming the President of the Harvard Law Review.

Trump would tell you that he’s a hustler, that Obama is, and we’ve got to do whatever it takes to figure out what kind of semi-illegal shenanigans Obama’s University experience was all about.

But here’s the thing: Donald Trump has his own history of semi-illegal University shenanigans—and it appears that some of his semi-illegal shenanigans continue to this very day.

”I don’t lie. When I speak, I believe it to be true. One week later, it may no longer be.”

–French raconteur Bernard Tapie

So here’s the deal: just like there are people who want to Be Like Mike, there are those who wish to emulate The Donald; in 2005 it was announced that Trump University would be formed to help make that possible (the name was trademarked in 2004).

According to the announcement, the University:

“…will offer a rich mix of products and services, including online e-learning courses, multimedia home study programs, and a series of publications. These diverse offerings are geared to a broad range of consumers, from small business owners and entrepreneurs to investors and other professionals looking to advance their careers and to create wealth. Trump University’s innovative, world-class business curriculum will be designed according to the Learning by Doing method. Content will be delivered through interactive learning experiences, including evaluating business plans, simulating real estate purchases, and developing marketing strategies.”

You first meet the “Admissions Office” by either signing up online or by attending one of Trump U’s free one-day seminars—and the Admissions Office is looking to get you to sign up for the $1495 three-day “conference”.

If you do, you are, according to those who’ve been there, instructed to immediately increase the credit limits on your credit cards (immediately as in during the next coffee break), so that you might take advantage of the real estate investment opportunities you’re going to be turned on to at the end of the weekend.

But it appears that investment opportunities aren’t what end up being presented to the conference attendees. Instead, they’re being presented with the opportunity to invest in more courses, this time for numbers ranging from $9,500 to $35,000.

If you jump in for the full package, you’re told that it’s “the next best thing to being Trump’s Apprentice”, and, thanks to your personal mentor (you’ll have a year’s access to this service), you’ll be connected to Realtors, contractors, and other investors (a “Power Team”); all this will allow you to become a Real Estate Professional, doing profitable real estate deals, just as Trump does.

You’ll make enough on your very first deal, it is claimed, to pay for the entire $35,000 course.

(There are other courses as well, including one known as the CEO Success Codes, intended to help you “Learn how to run your business The Trump Way”.)

What is the Trump Way, precisely?
Here’s how Stephen Goff, one of the Trump U trainers, lays it out, as described in a Houston Chronicle article:

You find a property worth $200,000, but the owner’s willing to take $125,000. Why?” Pause. “Because he’s in trouble.”

You put in an offer, even if you don’t have the money. Then you sign a contract, giving yourself 60 days to close. The next day, you put an ad in the paper, advertising the $200,000 property for $150,000. You get that money — in cash — before the 60 days is up, and voila: $25,000 profit without putting down a penny of your own money.

The same article quotes an expert who suggests that this strategy:

“…can be done, but it’s also just as easy for me to audition for American Idol and become the next Justin Timberlake…”

Fun Fact: in his book Trump University Real Estate 101: Building Wealth With Real Estate Investments, Dr. Gary Eldred, the Real Estate Mastery Program “Content Expert” for Trump U, quotes The Donald thusly:

“The worst things in history have happened when people stop thinking for themselves, especially when they allow themselves to be influenced by negative people. That’s what gives rise to dictators. Avoid that error at all costs…

…People who take responsibility have no need to blame others or to be continually finding fault. The naysayers never manage to contribute much and never amount to much either. Don’t join their club. They’re the lowest common denominator.

I knew a guy that I used to call up just to see who and what he would be blaming that day. I don’t think that guy ever thought he had personally made a single mistake in his entire life. From day one, nothing was ever his fault. His biggest blind spot was himself, and, sad to say, he became a total loser because he never thought of the remedy for his biggest failure: himself…” (emphasis is original)

There is a bit more to this story than we have revealed so far: a lot of the information I discovered about the University came from documents related to a lawsuit, filed in 2010 by former students Tarla Makaeff, Brandon Keller, Ed Oberkrom, and Patricia Murphy; that suit is today seeking class-action certification on behalf of all Trump U “students”.

The Plaintiffs allege that Trump U doesn’t live up to its own hype, that Trump is not involved personally, that the expensive seminars offer no real value (a trip to Home Depot to view building supplies is reportedly part of one seminar), and that the mentors and the “Power Teams” either disappear completely after the three-day course ends, or they appear to offer deals that are self-serving and marred by conflicts of interest—and all of that means no “one year apprenticeship”, followed by tons of income every month, which is what the courses seemed to promise in the first place.

(Page 24 of the complaint shows an image of the Trump U homepage, with a picture of The Oddly Haired One next to the words ““Are YOU My Next Apprentice? Prove it to me!”)

There was also a signed letter sent to potential enrollees:

…You can do it, even if you only have five or ten hours a week to spare. With our simple instructions and practice exercises – and ongoing support from your own Trump Team of Experts – you’ll have what you need to succeed!” (Emphasis in original). The letter closes with Donald J. Trump’s name, signature, and at the Trump University address, at 40 Wall Street, 32nd Floor, New York, NY 10005.

It is also alleged that efforts made to obtain promised refunds have come to naught; the refunds are apparently always “just about to be issued”, or the appropriate person is never available to answer the calls that are coming in seeking information about refunds.

Trump University countersued, claiming various forms of defamation; the action is being defended as a SLAPP suit.

(For the record, it’s easy to find Web pages with complaints about Trump U; those complaints, for the most part, mirror those in the lawsuit.)

This whole real-estate hustle turned educational hustle has caused a reaction from the world beyond Trump; that’s something he noted in his Trump U blog:

Recently Gary Trudeau spent a week lampooning Trump University in his comic strip Doonesbury. The basic premise of each strip in the series revolved around the disparity between Trump University and a traditional university. . . .
Trump University has also been mocked in one of Jay Leno’s monologues, in the New York Post’s Page Six cartoon, and probably in a lot of other places.

It’s nice to see that my new venture is making a splash in popular culture.
As they say, no press is bad press. (emphasis is original)

(Doonesbury’s August 8th, 2010 edition is one of those comics which mentions Trump’s “school”.)

The New York State Education Department informed Trump that an educational institution with no degree-granting programs and no differentiated graduate and undergraduate divisions can’t be a University; as a result Trump University is now known as The Trump Entrepreneur Initiative.

(Despite the State’s order, the Trump University name seems to have lived on, however: The Trump Store website, as of the time this was written, still sells “Trump University Audio Books” and “Trump University Books” and “Trump University DVD and Audio Packages”.)

And remember Gary Eldred, Trump’s “Content Expert”? It turns out he has a few credibility problems of his own: he co-hosted a radio show with another expert in running a successful real estate development business, Fredric “Rick” Dryer—and in July of 2008, we found out the secret of how Dryer was able to be so successful.

He was convicted on 44 counts of real estate fraud.

So that’s our story for today: Donald Trump couldn’t wait to trash Barack Obama’s University experience, but Trump has some experience of his own regarding Universities—and from what we can see, when Trump opens a University, unsavory practices and questionable associations and lawsuits and regulatory actions follow in his path.

That’s no way to run a University, and, more to the point, it looks like The Trump Way is no way to run a country—except for maybe Blowhardistan.

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On Fighting To Win, Or, A Tale Of Two Kinds Of Democrats April 17, 2011

If your view of politics is filtered by a lens marked “Progressive” or “Liberal”, there’s a pretty good chance that you’ve been gnashing your teeth and pulling your hair in frustration over the “give away the store, then negotiate” approach professional Democrats have used when facing the challenges from the Tea Party last year, and all that’s come after.

Over and over and over people like me have written stories wondering why Democrats, starting with this President, don’t get out in a very public way and slam Republican policies, over and over and over—especially when most Americans hate the things Republicans seem to love to support.

Turning over Government to the highest bidder?
Not so popular.

Going back to a heathcare system run by, for, and of the insurance industry?
Again, not so much.

Jacking up taxes and healthcare costs for you and me in order to provide another trillion in tax cuts for millionaires and billionaires?
So unpopular pollsters hardly believe it.

But there is another way, and today’s story is in two parts: we’re going to talk about how hard it is to get Democrats, as a group, to get loud and get aggressive—and then we’re going to talk about Montana Governor Brian Schweitzer, who is out there showing any reluctant Democrat just exactly how you can “grow the brand”.

We are, all, North and South, engaged in the White Slave Trade, and he who succeeds best, is esteemed most respectable. It is far more cruel than the Black Slave Trade, because it exacts more of its slaves, and neither protects nor governs them. We boast, that it exacts more, when we say, “that the profits made from employing free labor are greater than those from slave labor.” The profits, made from free labor, are the amount of the products of such labor, which the employer, by means of the command which capital or skill gives him, takes away, exacts or “exploitates” from the free laborer. The profits of slave labor are that portion of the products of such labor which the power of the master enables him to appropriate. These profits are less, because the master allows the slave to retain a larger share of the results of his own labor, than do the employers of free labor.

–From the book Cannibals All!, by George Fitzhugh, 1857

So let’s start with the “how hard is it?” part:

I get to participate in conference calls these days, and I was recently on a call with a Member of Congress who shall remain nameless (to protect the moderately guilty). The Member was unable to remain on the call until my question, but I was able to get an email off to the press rep over there, who was kind enough to get back to me.

After an exchange of emails, we got down to the real question:

How should I explain to readers why they don’t hear every Democrat saying something like this, every single day: “We get that there’s a financing problem in the future, and the good news that it can be fixed without raising the retirement age, and without cutting benefits, and we can even lower the payroll tax rate at the same time–and that’s why we will never let the Republicans destroy Social Security, even under cover of a budget fight”?

Now I post on almost 30 blog sites, from Kos to Docudharma to Left In Alabama to The Bilerico Project, and all sorts of others in between, and if there is one theme that is consistent across all these sites, it’s that readers do not understand why so many Democrats, over and over, don’t avail themselves of the obvious political advantages that are there to be had when they get in front of the public and, well, frankly, act like Democrats?

So that was the question I sent…and it’s a good thing I didn’t hold my breath waiting for an answer, because that answer never came.

I sent the same question to the office of a very liberal Member with whom I’ve had good relations in the past—and again, nothing.

Here’s another “what does it take to get Democrats to act like Democrats?” story:

I was in Olympia, Washington, on April 8th for a big ol’ labor rally, and the featured speaker was Senator Spencer Coggs (he’s one of the 14 Democratic State Senators who left Wisconsin to make Scott Walker’s life a whole lot less comfortable), and he tore up the crowd pretty good…but there was at least a couple of hours of speakers, and the event was held right in front of the State Capitol, and the (Democratically controlled) Legislature was in session, right at that very moment…and the (Democratically occupied) Governor’s Mansion is literally right next door…and yet, somehow, not one single elected official of the Democratic persuasion from anywhere in the entire State of Washington could manage to find their way past the kids ringing bells under the Dome and out the front door to greet the thousands of voters standing just outside.

OK, so that’s the problem—but as you know, I like to offer solutions as well, and with that in mind, it’s time to meet the Governor of Montana, Brian Schweitzer.

Now, as you might imagine, Montana is not exactly a haven for lefty liberals, but Schweitzer, a Democrat, is not only not caving under pressure…he’s showing Democrats everywhere how to send a message—and how to send it with style.

The Republican-led Legislature passed a slew of bills he didn’t like (he reported that none of ‘em created new jobs—and doesn’t that sound familiar?), and he could have given in and signed them—or he could follow the advice of Denny Lester, ace political cartoonist for the Helena (MT) “Independent Record”, and veto the hell out of those bills, preferably with a branding iron.

There is a Montana Department of Livestock, and if you intend to register a new cattle brand, they are the folks you need to see—and sure enough, on February 23rd, an “Official Brand Certificate” was issued to the Governor for the brand “VETO”.

Then the Governor went out and created a job in Montana: he had a series of branding irons made, each carrying the new brand in various sizes (“calf”, “yearling”, and “bull”, depending on how much he wanted to veto any particular bill).

“…so my Mom called to find out if there was a branding going on, and I said well, not really, it’s a sort of a branding, and she said, uh, do you need somebody to bring the beer?…”

–Governor Brian Schweitzer, April 13, 2011

The Governor got a few friends together last Wednesday, and he vetoed not one, not two, but 17 bills he felt were “either frivolous, unconstitutional or in direct contradiction to the expressed will of the people of Montana”…and he did it, with the cameras rolling, by using the branding irons to brand a red-hot “VETO” on those bills, all to the cheers of the assembled crowd.

You can see it for yourself, right here, in a video produced by the Montana Democratic Party—and trust me when I tell you, it’s a hoot:

Now if you watched that video, you might be thinking: “Hey, maybe that guy should be President…”—and that’s how we get to the real point of this story.

We have in front of us a President and a Democratic Party apparatus who can either negotiate with Republicans who want to kill both Social Security and Medicare (the likely end result being two programs and a Democratic Party that will basically be “circling the drain” from then on)…or they can take the branding iron to Paul Ryan’s “Catfood Plan v 2.0” and a lot of other Republican ideas besides, and they can help their own Party and make every Republican in the country feel the burn, all at the same time.

Since negotiating away Medicare and Social Security is hugely unpopular…that’s pretty much what I expect far too many Democrats to do, unless we can grab ‘em by the lapels and show ‘em that voters want Democratic Democrats—you know, the kind of Democrat who understands how to grow a brand, and how to keep it strong, and how to set fire to bad ideas, loudly and publicly, when that’s the right thing to do.

Tell your Member of Congress about this video, and your President, too; and let’s see if we can show our elected “followers” how to get on the road to becoming elected ”leaders”.

 

On Being A Titan, Part One, Or, See It, Say It, Sue It March 9, 2011

Got a simple little story for you today of a multinational corporation that wants to build a great big cement plant in North Carolina really, really, bad, and the local opposition to what appears to be a corrupt and distorted decision process.

Two local activists in particular have drawn the ire of Titan Cement, the Grecian corporation who seeks to build the plant—and because the Company doesn’t like what the activists have been saying about what the impact of that plant will likely be or how the deal’s going down…they’re suing Kayne Darrell and Dr. David Hill, residents of North Carolina’s New Hanover County, and the two folks who are doing the complaining the Company dislikes the most.

The Company further claims that they were slandered and defamed by the damaging statements that were uttered by the two at a county commissioners’ meeting and that they have lost goodwill and the chance to do business with certain parties as a result of these statements.

But what if everything the Defendants said was not only true…but provably so—and the Company was, maybe…just looking to shut people up by sending teams of lawyers after them?

As I said, it’s a simple story today—but it’s a good one.

We have tomorrow
Bright before us
Like a flame.

Yesterday, a night-gone thing
A sun-down name.

And dawn today
Broad arch above the road we came.
We march!

–From The New Negro, by Alain Locke

So here’s the deal, as it sits today: for a number of years now Titan Cement has been looking to build this great big cement plant near the environmentally sensitive North Carolina coast (part of the site includes 600 acres of “pristine wetlands”), and part of running a cement plant is running cement kilns.

Ya gotta cook limestone, sand, and clay, along with some other ingredients, at very high temperatures (above 2700 degrees F), which sort of fuses everything together; that makes “clinker”, which eventually becomes cement, and that’s why you need giant kilns and, often, pre-heater towers.

You need fuel for those really hot kilns and towers, and our friends at the Army Corps of Engineers advise that, in the kiln fuel game, you can actually kill two birds with one limestone by burning hazardous waste as a substitute for anywhere from 20% to 50% of your original “fuel of choice” (which is often coal).

According to the Corps, you can burn 12 tons of fuel an hour in one kiln, and that means up to six tons of…

byproducts of pharmaceutical, cosmetic, and electronics manufacturers;
solvents and inks used to print newspaper and other publications;
solvents used to recycle paper;
dry-cleaning solvents;
paint thinners and paint residues;
sludge from the petroleum industry;
used motor oil;
agricultural wastes;
and scrap tires.

…might be going into the mix every hour—and as it turns out, that stuff might contain:

…arsenic, cadmium, chromium, lead, nickel, thallium, and zinc.

Now if you’re burning that stuff, it’s either going up the smokestack or out the door as a component of the clinker you just made, and if you live anywhere near this plant, you’re going to be at least a little concerned…and if you have the impression that the people who are trying to get the permits are running a big ol’ hustle to get those permits, you’re going to be even more concerned…and it looks like that’s what’s been going on…and if you put all this together, and you lived in the neighborhood, you might show up at a local County Commissioners’ meeting and say something like this

“From lawsuits for price fixing and court-ordered mine closures of Titan’s Florida plant, to allegations of corruption coming from Raleigh, to emails raising suspicion whether Titan was ever even considering any other location, which would make incentives completely unnecessary, the clouds of corruption grow dark as new controversies emerge almost daily.”

…or this…

“The bottom line is we know from numerous studies that if we build this thing, more children will get sick, a handful of them will die. We also know from the adult studies that more adults will get sick and quite a few more of them are going to die as well. Which ones? Can’t tell you. That makes it difficult, but there will be some.”

…which are the two utterances which are today at legal issue. (Ms Darrell is being sued for the first statement, Dr. Hill, the second.)

The reason we are all gathered here today is to figure out whether either of those statements are truthful or not…because if the statements are truthful, they cannot be either slanderous or defamatory.

So let’s break it all down, one clause at a time:

Ms. Darrell talked about lawsuits for price fixing, and sure enough, CemWeek (“Global Cement Industry. Knowledge”) ran a story in October of ’09 entitled “Nine US cement companies accused of price fixing”, describing a lawsuit filed for price fixing in which Titan was one of the Defendants.

Court-ordered mine closures? Coffey Burlington, attorneys at law, recount their success with a certain case on their website (Sierra Club v. Army Corps of Engineers, Rinker Group, Tarmac America, Florida Rock Industries, APAC-Florida and Miami-Dade Limestone Products Association), which did in fact result in a court-ordered mine closure of Florida facilities operated by Tarmac America, which is a Titan subsidiary.

Allegations of corruption? How about this, reported in January of 2010 by the Wilmington, NC, StarNews:

A corporation that shares an address and president with a Titan America subsidiary bought a Wilmington office building for more than twice its tax value from Democratic fund-raisers under scrutiny by state and federal prosecutors.

To add to this element of the story, the current Governor, Bev Perdue, has asked the State Bureau of Investigation (SBI) to look into Titan’s permitting process, which is something that usually follows allegations, if I recall correctly.

Let’s move on: the folks in the Wilmington, NC, area have a private economic development committee that has negotiated secretly with Titan for some time; the result of that effort was the decision to provide $4.2 million in local government incentives to Titan.

But here’s the thing: if Titan never meant to build anywhere but on that one site, and they still hustled the community for the incentives by using the threat of building somewhere else…well, that’s why Ms. Darrell was talking about:

“…emails raising suspicion whether Titan was ever even considering any other location, which would make incentives completely unnecessary…”

In 2008, Keith Barber, he of Wrightsville Beach Magazine, documented Titan’s multi-decade interest in this particular location:

Titan has made very little effort to conceal the fact it plans to move forward with construction of a cement plant and limestone mining operation on the banks of the Northeast Cape Fear River. In a 2005 interview with Titan CEO Aris Papadopoulos in Cement Americas magazine, Papadopoulos confirmed the Greece-based company had been considering building a plant in Castle Hayne for nearly two decades…

… In addition, even though the permitting process is 18 months to 2 years out, the North Carolina Department of Transportation (NCDOT) Web site reveals that CSX Railroad is already constructing a new spur track at the site of the proposed Carolinas Cement Company.

The Charlotte News & Observer documents the existence of those pesky emails in a January 2010 editorial:

…[Titan lobbyist John] Merritt said he would talk to then-Commerce Secretary Jim Fain. Earlier, he had advised a company spokeswoman on how to respond to questions without raising suspicions that Titan might not qualify for a state grant.

“It is very important that the company not do anything that suggests that this is the only site you are looking at,” Merritt e-mailed. And sure enough, in its application for incentives Titan asserted that it was considering sites elsewhere.

Let’s jump in for just a second and take a look at where we are:

Ms. Darrell made this statement…

“From lawsuits for price fixing and court-ordered mine closures of Titan’s Florida plant, to allegations of corruption coming from Raleigh, to emails raising suspicion whether Titan was ever even considering any other location, which would make incentives completely unnecessary, the clouds of corruption grow dark as new controversies emerge almost daily.”

…and based on what we’ve seen so far, every single word of that statement turns out to be absolutely, provably true:

–There was a price-fixing lawsuit.
–There was a court-ordered mine closure of Titan’s Florida plant.
–It’s alleged that something funny was going on with that office building, and North Carolina’s SBI is investigating.
–We did in fact discover that emails exist raising suspicions as to whether Titan was considering any other location.
–And here we are, talking about one of the new controversies that emerge almost daily.

Today’s tale of legal bullying is running pretty long already, and we still have half of the story to go…so let’s take a break for today, and we’ll pick this up by looking at the statement made by Dr. Hill when we get together next time.

In the meantime, if you’re keeping score…I’m thinking that after Round One, it’s Defendants, 1, Titan, 0.

 

On Rugged Individualism, Or, Meet The Ghost Of Government Past January 15, 2011

It is about time for the 112th House to come back into session, and the first thing on the agenda appears to be an effort to take away any healthcare reform that have been passed by this Administration.

Next comes an effort to slash Social Security and Medicare, an effort to reverse financial reforms, and proposals to “slash” spending—but only on domestic discretionary items.

If the House majority had its way there would be no restrictions on offshore drilling, no rules designed to prevent climate change—in fact, few if any environmental protections at all…and all of this is intended to bring to life the philosophy that government, for all intents and purposes, should just go away and leave us all alone.

I don’t buy into that kind of thinking—not even a little bit—and today we’re going to look around the world and see if we can’t figure out why.

There is an unalterable rightness about the best Florentine paintings of the period. It is wholly lacking from the late works of Tintoretto. In the schoolmasterly phase, even his greatest pictures could be improved. Only it would need another Tintoretto to do the improving.

–From Old Masters: Great Artists In Old Age, by Dr. Thomas Dormandy, RSM

So when it becomes tougher and tougher for old folks to get by on whatever the national pension system can provide…what do you suppose they do?

As it turns out, they turn to crime to supplement their incomes—and they’re doing it all over the world.

In the UK, local officials in Croyden saw a 15% jump in elderly crime in 2008-2009, Japan has had a multi-year elderly shoplifting problem that tripled in size from 1999 to 2008 (nearly 50,000 elderly Japanese were arrested that year—and a third of them were repeat offenders). Even in Germany, about three times as many elderly people are charged with committing crimes as report that they are the victims of crimes.

Then there’s Elizabeth Grube, 70, and her sister, Elaine Volkert, 65, both of Stroudsburg, Pa, who had been dealing about $10,000 worth of heroin a week when they were busted.

What happens when you give up on urban planning, and you empower the market to decide where people should build their homes?

Well…how about Bhopal?

Nobody should have been allowed to build homes next to a chemical plant—but in India, there’s not really a lot of control over that sort of thing…so the poor folks built around the plant, and one night, at least 3700 people died from a toxic leak.

In Haiti, lots of “empowerment” combined with lots of poverty has led to so much deforestation that it is possible, from space, to easily discern Haiti’s border with the Dominican Republic…because the Dominicans have trees. As often happens, however, the market addresses imbalances, and now the Haitians have a surplus of a new natural resource that the Dominicans don’t: landslides.

Building codes are such a pain, aren’t they?

Not so much in China, where, in one survey, nearly half of apartment dwellers said they fear the buildings they live in might fall over or something…which they sometimes do. Poor school construction kills Chinese schoolchildren, too—by the thousands—which even the Chinese Government now acknowledges.

Now all of this is theoretical and much of it takes place overseas…but what about right here in the USA?

Consider Detroit: there is a lot less of it these days, for a variety of reasons both economic and social, and what with giving another $4 trillion in tax cuts to the rich…well, there’s just not much money available to help Detroit out.

As a result, the city is considering something that sounds like the prequel to Robocop: withdrawing services from about 25% of “Old Detroit”, tearing down thousands of abandoned buildings, and turning the open space into a sort of “urban prairie”.

In fact, “undevelopment” has become so bad that, within the city, wildlife is now abundant: pheasants roam the streets, a coyote was “arrested” inside the Federal Courthouse, and Glemie Dean Beasley makes a fair bit of money selling raccoon (fur or meat, take your choice) to Detroit’s chapeau and soul food connoisseurs.

And finally, a few words about the Second Amendment:

There are those among us who wish to advance the concept that anyone can own any weapon they choose, and that, if you carry it to the right political event, it makes the perfect “accessory of intimidation”.

To them I would say: “There are lots of examples, already, of countries where that is a part of the culture…and those countries are Somalia, and Afghanistan, and Yemen, and Columbia…and if I’m looking for examples of what I want my own country to be like…it ain’t Afghanistan, or Yemen, or Somalia, or Columbia.”

I believe in the necessity of Government, just as Thomas Paine did…because it’s just plain Common Sense…and I do not believe that “this is my land, and all that matters is me and mine…” is going to work as a substitute for a United States of America…and if you believe in a vision of this country that looks like mine, you’re going to have to stand up for it, right now, as this Congress gets its crazy on, and make it real clear to those folks that extremism in the defense of liberty, misdirected, is not only a vice—but a good way to lose your liberty altogether.

Those of you who are discouraged are going to have to get up off the proverbial floor and start over, those of you who think you can’t win a political fight anymore are going to have to constantly remind themselves that we can and do win in this environment…and those of you who think the only thing left is to grab your guns, hunker down in the bunker, and wait for Jesus to save you…you need to have a cookie.

Or go play in the snow.

Or spend some time fingerpainting with the kids.

Or maybe you just need to knit something.

Whatever it is, do something that reminds you that we’re all OK here, and that things aren’t really that desperate, and that all that snow, and the yarn, and the kids and the fingerpaints…that is Jesus, right here on Earth, saving you right this very second, and if you’re not enjoying it every day for all it’s worth, then you will have missed out on your real Earthly reward…and your Heavenly one as well.

 

On Making Mining Safer, Part Two, Or, “Can We Appeal Safety To Death?” April 23, 2010

Filed under: Accountability,Labor Issues,Mine Safety,Politics,US Elections — fakeconsultant @ 3:48 pm
Tags: , , ,

It was about a week ago that we last got together to talk about safety in coal mines, and we have some new developments in the story that deserve a bit more of your attention.

As we discussed last time, there are a huge number of hazards inherent in the operations of underground coal mines, and there are a series of “mitigators” that can be applied to reduce those hazards.

Ironically, the biggest hazard these miners face today might not be underground at all.

In today’s story we’ll consider the possibility that the most dangerous location in the mining industry might actually be at the Federal Mine Safety and Health Review Commission, where an enormous backlog in enforcement actions is keeping dangerous mines open that might otherwise be closed.

It’s a “bad news, good news” story—but it really does have a potential happy ending, and with a bit of pressure, we can actually make life a whole lot better for miners, and their families, all across the country.

“A Texas rancher shot a man dead and telegraphed a slick lawyer in Fort Worth, three hundred miles away, offering a $5000 fee. The attorney wired back, “Leaving for your town on next train, bringing three eye-witnesses.””

–Bennett Cerf, A Texas Sampler

In the previous story we had a long conversation about how coal is mined and how fines and closures can help to, shall we say, “provide the proper motivation” for mine operators.

Congress seems to agree, and after a series of incidents in 2006 that killed a number of miners new legislation was put into place that allows the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) to close a mine, temporarily, if it should be warranted.

However, this can only occur if MSHA can establish that the mining operation has a history of ongoing violations that officially qualify as a Pattern of Violations (POV), which basically comes down to this:

“…(1) a history of repeated significant and substantial violations of a particular standard; (2) a history of repeated significant and substantial violations of standards related to the same hazard; or (3) a history of repeated significant and substantial violations caused by unwarrantable failure to comply…”

Once that pattern has been legally established, any additional findings of “serious and substantial” violations (S&S is the fancy insider term) in that mine by MSHA inspectors become closure orders, meaning that the miners have to either “withdraw” from the area that’s in violation, or that the entire mine may be closed down until things are fixed.

Mines that have new S&S violations while in this POV status also get bigger fines for each violation than if they weren’t in that position.

Would you be amazed if I told you there’s a loophole available to mine owners that can keep them out of this status?

I didn’t think so…and there is: violations don’t count unless and until they are fully adjudicated, which means administrative law judges have to rule on the merits of each and every violation that a mine operator might choose to appeal (a service provided by the independent Federal Mine Safety and Health Review Commission, hereinafter referred to as “the Commission”)…and by an amazing coincidence, the number of appeals of violations since the 2006 legislation went into effect is suddenly way up.

There has also been a lot more actual enforcement over at MSHA these days than in days past, and the number of enforcement actions brought by the agency has climbed from about 1500 cases a year in the Bush Administration’s first term to about 14,000 cases in Fiscal Year 2009; the total amount of fines assessed grew from $25 million to almost $200 million over the same time period.

The Commission’s administrative law judges also have to rule on the settlements that result from cases being worked out by negotiation between MSHA and mine operators; this is to try and ensure that MSHA doesn’t get too cozy with mine operators when making deals, a problem that has been attributed to the agency over the years.

The combination of these three factors has created, as of this writing, a backlog of about 16,000 unresolved cases that are moving around between MSHA and the Commission…and mine operators seem to have figured out that appeals are the smart way to game the process, as the outcome of any enforcement or POV designation is delayed by at least a year, and any potential penalty is likely to be reduced during the appeals process, often by as much as one-half.

Mine operators, by the way, disagree with this analysis: they would tell you that before the 2006 legislation the informal conferences they used to be able to have with MSHA inspectors helped to keep many potential violation cases out of the adjudication process entirely, keeping the caseloads, and backlogs, low.

Those on the other side would basically respond that the conferences were indeed an effective tool for mine operators to make enforcement orders go away, quickly and quietly; unfortunately, it wasn’t doing much to improve miners’ safety.

There are some numbers that we can look at that tell us a few things:

There is a group of 32 coal mines that would probably be in POV status today if it wasn’t for the fact that they have lots of violations that are still in the appeals process. Operators like Patriot Coal Company and Massey Energy have mines that are appealing more than 50% of the violations MSHA hands out, and a couple of operators have coal mines that contest up to 72% of violations.

It’s not just coal, either: there are 6 other mines that would likely be in POV status if they weren’t appealing more than 75% of their violations, including various cement and gold producers and Williams & Sons Slate & Tile, Inc., of Wind Gap, Pa., who have been appealing 100% of their violations.

Is all this appealing taking place because MSHA is writing huge numbers of frivolous violations?

“…if you look at the data, what it tells you is less than one-half of one percent of the violations issued by MSHA inspectors, uh, are vacated or thrown out. That means almost every violation that they issue is a violation…”

–Assistant Secretary Of Labor for Mine Safety and Health Joseph Main, February 23, 2010

The upshot of all of this is that the 2006 legislation’s POV enforcement provisions have essentially been rendered useless; the effort now is to make a bad situation better.

How is that going to happen?

First, MSHA is considering plans to institute several technical changes in the flow of paperwork, most of which would result in filings either being presented sooner in the process or being prepared by the involved parties instead of the Commission’s administrative law judges.

Other proposed changes would combine multiple portions of the current system into more of a “one-stop” approach and combine multiple violations from one operator into one combined case.

Portions of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure could also be adopted to replace some of what is today a more “proprietary” method of moving a case along.

A more controversial aspect of the new case management approach MHSA is considering would include a sort of “pretrial conference” that would conduct the fact-finding portion of the process before the case moves over to the Commission, leaving the judges only to apply the law to those facts and to decide the severity of any sanctions that the facts of the case warrant.

Another way to reduce the caseload facing each judge would be to increase the number of administrative law judges. The Commission’s current number of 10 is already scheduled to grow to 18 by the end of 2011. We’re told that because of the growth in the number of new filings this will not reduce the time to resolve cases; instead, this will essentially be an exercise in “treading water”.

MSHA and Commission senior managers have laid out two scenarios that would increase the number of judges to 28. The less aggressive scenario, when combined with the other changes, could reduce the backlog by 2014, the more aggressive, by January of 2013.

Where, you might ask, are these new judges to be found?

As it turns out, the Social Security Administration is a sort of “farm team” for the other Federal agencies that require such services, and the Commission expects they’ll be able to “poach” a few from over there if the budget authority is granted to do so.

I sent an email to a House staffer I know, looking to get a sense of how all this might play out; the on-the-record response being:

“We are looking at how to aggressively work down the backlog.”

And with all that said, let’s wrap this thing up:

Because of the new rules for handling violations, mine operators have benefitted, wittingly or unwittingly, from the new giant backlog of cases.

Certain mine operators are either aggressively protecting their interests in every way the law allows or interminably stalling just to save themselves from big fines and the annoying process of not killing their workers, depending on whom you ask; the outcome of that effort has been to make the POV regulations that were designed to compel better behavior unenforceable.

There are proposals that would reduce this backlog, and it appears that in Congress there is support for such an effort.

If you want to have an impact on this process, this would be a good time to let either Patty Murray (D-Recent Death Threat), who chairs the Senate’s Employment and Workplace Safety Subcommittee, or George Miller (One Of My Favorite Democrats-California), who is Chair of the Committee on Education and Labor in the House, know how you feel.

I’m told that there are Republicans, at least on the House side, who are also willing to help move this along, and Minnesota’s John Kline (the Education and Labor Committee’s Ranking Member) would be an excellent person to reach out to as well.

Since 1900 104,674 workers have died in the coal mines (we were still killing over a thousand a year well into the 1940s), and we’re finally to the point where fewer than 50 a year are dying…but that’s not good enough.

We still have a group of mine operators who see non-compliance with safety regulations, and the deaths that go with it, as a reasonable cost of doing business; we need to offer some friendly support to Congress, right now, to keep the reforms moving if we want to make that behavior stop.

We have a good situation here: the House appears to have bi-partisan support for such a move, and if there are Senators who want to stand up and threaten a filibuster, because they support a mine operator’s right to kill miners…well, that’s a pretty good place not to be if you’re in the getting elected business.

There are people running for both the House and the Senate who would like to advance this effort, and if you personally come across a candidate this political season…ask ‘em about all this, and see what kind of response you get.

Now I don’t know about you, but when I sit down to type these stories I’m not worried about the roof caving in, or the computer exploding, and there’s nobody around here trying to figure out whether it’s cheaper to let me die or do to some repairs so that I might survive another day on the job.

There is no reason why that should not be true for miners as well, and it’s about time we did what we have to do to make sure that what starts out as “just another day at the office” for nearly 135,000 Americans doesn’t end with you, and everybody you used to work with, going home in body bags.

 

On Catching Up, Or, Good News Told, And The Bush Book Reviewed March 26, 2009

So many times when we get together you have to put up with me complaining about something…and there are lots of other times when it’s me warning about events that are looming in our future.

Even though they’re conversations we need to have, they’re often not very emotionally satisfying.

Today we depart from that pattern, in a very good way.

It’s “follow-up day”; and the conversation takes us to three “happy places”: two “problem” stories that have recent positive progress to report—and, just because I care about you, Gentle Reader, an exclusive preview of the George W. Bush autobiography, obtained with considerable effort from an unnamed and particularly well-placed source.

There’s a lot to cover, so let’s jump right in and tell you what you need to know.

“Why don’t you like girls?”
“They’re too biased.”
“Biased?”
“Yeah…bias this and bias that—until I’m busted.”

–Joke 5997, 10,000 Jokes, Toasts, & Stories, Lewis and Faye Copeland

In June of 2007 we ran the first of a series of stories describing how some school kids who had parents that owed money to the school—in one case, $7.50–were being served “alternate meals”…which meant that if Mom or Dad forget to send the money, the kid gets a cheese sandwich, while everyone else gets the regular hot meal…which meant that, in some cases, the hot meals were literally taken from the hands of children at the cash register…after which the kids are sent to classrooms where we spend about half a billion tax dollars annually to try to teach them healthy life habits—like not using food as a weapon.

We became aware of all of this because parents in Chula Vista, California decided to take on the local Elementary School District; who felt that implementing this policy in the District made so much financial sense that it outweighed the potential harm to the affected students.

Well, lots of parents didn’t like it…and sometimes parents win.

A partial victory was achieved in February of 2008, when the parents (led by Will and Cyndi Perno, and Alice Coronado) were able to influence first the California Food Policy Advocates…and then, even more importantly, Fabian Nuñez, the former Speaker of the California State Assembly.

Pressure was applied…resulting in this:

“Irrespective of a student’s financial ability to pay for a meal, the laws cited above require that all students eligible for free and reduced-price meals receive a reimbursable meal during each school day. The reimbursable meal shall be the same meal choice offered to students who do not qualify for free or reduced-price meals [EC 49557(c)]. Therefore, school districts/county offices of education (COEs) cannot serve an alternate meal to a student eligible for a free or reduced-price meal who does not have the ability to pay or provide a medium of exchange for his/her meal on a given day.

School districts/COEs need to formulate a plan to ensure that children eligible to receive free or reduced-price meals are not treated differently from other children with respect to meal service.”

–From the Nutrition Services Division Management Bulletin, California Department of Education, February 2008 (emphasis is from the original document).

It took another year of pressure, but Will Perno sent an email to let me know that the new policy the Chula Vista Elementary School District adopted just this month ends the practice of serving these lunches altogether:

“…Our research has shown that the alternate meal program is no longer an effective intervention tool for managing unpaid balances. Thus, we are eliminating the alternative meal.”

–Letter to parents, March 2, 2009, from Superintendent Lowell J. Billings

(Victory in California is not, however, victory nationwide…and just last month Albuquerque Public Schools started a “cheese sandwich policy” of their own—which is already causing trouble.

Does your District have this sort of policy?
Take a few minutes this week and find out…)

New Butler: “At what time, Sir, would you wish to dine as a rule?”
Profiteer: “What time do the best people dine?”
New Butler: “At different times, Sir.”
Profiteer: “Very well. Then, I, too, will dine at different times.”

–Joke 6767, 10,000 Jokes, Toasts, & Stories, Lewis and Faye Copeland

Regular readers are likely to have also noticed a series of four stories in this space on aspects of Egyptian politics.

We have discussed the fact that opposing the ruling National Democratic Party, represented by President Hosni Mubarak, can be construed as unconstitutional—and criminal to boot—and we described how running against Mr. Mubarak for President of Egypt in 2005 was the reason Ayman Nour of the El-Ghad Party had been spending the past several years in prison.

The imprisonment of Nour had not marked the end of violent State harassment against the El-Ghad party…so it was quite a surprise to hear that Ayman Nour had been unexpectedly released about four weeks ago.

Wa’el Nawara, who leads El-Ghad today, sent me these comments regarding Nour’s release:

“Ayman Nour was released today around 6pm where he just walked into his home at Zamalek, Cairo, unexpectedly. A media frenzy broke out and in a few minutes, his home was packed with reporters from local and international news agencies.

His release came as a result from the Egyptian Attorney General, on medical grounds! Nour was first arrested on 29th January 2005, 90 days after El Ghad Party was given legal status in October 2004. Ayman Nour was first released on 12th March 2005 and he ran against Mubarak in Egypt’s first multi-candidate presidential election Egypt witnessed where he came first runner up after Mubarak.

Nour was then re-arrested on 5th December 2005 – merely 90 days (again) after his participation in Presidential Elections, sentenced to 5 years in Jail on 25th December 2005. Appeal was turned down in May 2006.

Upon his release 2 days ago, Ayman Nour announced that he seeks no revenge, that he is calmer and more patient than ever and that he will focus his efforts to rebuild El Ghad party to advance the cause of reform, liberty and democracy in Egypt.

We hope that this may be the start of a new era in Egypt’s political scene, where a new social contract can be drafted through a package of comprehensive reform…

…We shall strive to create a national dialogue with opposition leaders to reach some consensus on an Agenda of Reform. We have no reservations to even engage reformist wing from NDP in such an agenda. But we need to agree that the outcome of such dialogue must be some sort of a meaningful political process built on the principles of pluralism, real democracy and freedom.”

(It has been hazardous to be a blogger in Egypt as well, and the recent release of Mohamed Adel, combined with the news of Nour’s release, means we need to take a fifth look at the view from Egypt. Stay tuned.)

And finally…we review the preview chapters of the George W. Bush autobiography.

To give you an idea of what the book is about, a few words from the Random House press release:

“Tentatively titled “Decision Points,” the book will not be a conventional memoir, but instead will focus exclusively on approximately a dozen of the most interesting and important decisions in the former President’s personal and political life. Mr. Bush will write candidly about, among other topics, his decision to run for the presidency; how he chose his closest advisors, including Dick Cheney, Karl Rove, and Condoleezza Rice; the terrorist attacks of 9/11; the decisions to send American troops to Afghanistan and Iraq; the response to Hurricane Katrina; his commitment to fight AIDS around the world; the formation of his stem cell research policy; his relationships with his father, mother, siblings, and wife; his decision to quit drinking; and how he found faith. The former President will write the book himself, with the assistance of researchers, and has already commenced the writing process.

“My goal is to bring the reader inside the Oval Office for the most consequential moments of my personal and political life. I look forward to painting a vivid picture of the information I had, the principles I followed, and the decisions I made. I am spending time on the book every day, and I am thrilled to be working with the team at Crown,” said the former President.”

As I said, I’ve seen some of the advance pages of the book, and here are a few impressions:

–We are fortunate that this book was written after 1998, because before then it would not have been possible to really do the subject justice.

Of course, that was the year 24 new colors were added to the Crayola palette…and as far as I’m concerned, Jungle Green, which is what I would have used in the past to color in Dubya’s flight suit on the “Iraq and Afghanistan” page, is just not as authentic as Mountain Meadow Green.

The same was true on the “Katrina” page. To simulate the color of the water coming into New Orleans from the Gulf of Mexico I combined Caribbean Green and Fuzzy Wuzzy Brown…and mixing Macaroni and Cheese and Olive Green captures the exterior of the Superdome so, so, nicely.

None of this would have been possible without those 24 extra colors…and as so often happens, better tools make the telling of history ever more engaging and accurate—enriching our understanding of events in the process.

–I was worried that I would have trouble sharpening my crayon enough to make Bin Laden Determined To Attack Inside The U.S. legible…but lucky for me, that page was missing from the preview copy.

–What I’ve seen of the book prompts a quick—and admittedly snarky–question: when Mr. Bush says that he’ll be “working with the assistance of researchers”…isn’t that kind of like OJ Simpson telling reporters that he’s busy “looking for the real killers?”

(I was disappointed, I must admit, that the advance copy did not include the “Orange Jumpsuit” page, either: choosing between Atomic Tangerine, Burnt Orange, Neon Carrot, and Mango Tango had taken nearly an hour and two replays of a Ted Nugent song…and with the page missing all that time was expended, with no tangible result produced.

I had also picked out Burnt Orange, by the way, for the fiber optic cables in the AT&T network switching center in San Francisco, but, again, the regret of a missing page…)

So there we are: for today we have three great stories…and two of them don’t even require you to stay within the lines, which is always nice.

Ayman Nour is out of jail, which may be part of a bigger story, school lunches are no longer punishment in California…and we had a spot of fun with Mr. Bush and his impending book, for which I hope Laura Bush will forgive us.

And as for me?
Time to get online and see if I can order another Macaroni And Cheese to replace the one I used up on the Superdome.

Ah, the troubles of a writer…