Friday, August 9, 2013

Another Take on Obama's EPA Attacks on Coal and Power Plants

Obama's attacks on power plants and coal mining threaten to take us back to the bad old days, as described by many state historians.

Many historians, chief among them John Alexander Williams of Appalachian State bashed the early industrial development of the state.  Most who have ever taken West Virginia history have been taught that companies extracted wealth, shipped it out, and the state never got any benefit.

First off, that assertion is wrong.  Historians and others blame the lack of sufficient taxation.  But how much could the state have raised taxes before eliminating the competitive advantage enjoyed in attracting the companies in the first place?  Benefit comes through the attraction of supporting and satellite industries that expand the ripple effect of wealth extraction.

Coal, timber, and oil companies did bring added economic value to extraction.  They employed workers and professionals.  Some satellite industries, such as paper mills, grew up in the area.  Some railroads were built to support the transport of materials in and out. Could the state's community of capital and political leaders have done a better job in enticing other industries to come in? Certainly.  But to say there was no benefit is wrong.

There are at least three stages to development of wealth in extractive industries like coal.  First comes the work to get the coal from the ground.  Second comes the processing of the material into something useful.  A hundred years ago, coke, iron, and steel production used tremendous amounts of coal.  Now, much of the coal produces electric power for this part of the nation.

The third part comes in dissemination of the final products.

Unlike our forefathers, the state has succeeded in getting companies interested in taking West Virginia coal and turning it into a useful product within the borders of the state.  That would be crucial electric power.  Huge facilities such as at Mount Storm and John Amos employ hundreds of state residents in good paying jobs.  This is the best way to make sure that the wealth derived from coal stays in the state.  Make sure that as much of the production process as is possible remains in West Virginia.

Add to that the fact that cheaper power helps to produce advantages that state officials can use when trying to woo new companies to the state.

But Obama and his EPA have looked at every way possible to shut these plants down, which will have the result of removing wealth and productivity from the state.  Whatever coal gets mined will be shipped away with minimal added value to the state and the people.

Exactly what state historians bemoaned about the early industrial period.

Hopefully. West Virginia Democrats made it clear in their EPA meetings that they will not stand for Obama kicking the legs from underneath our chair, economically speaking.

Thursday, August 8, 2013

Common Core Resistance Growing More . . . Common

Underlying themes for the rambling wreck of Obama's presidency can be hard to spot.  But one looks pretty clear.  Obama and his followers believe that the federal government can take better care of Americans than state and local governments, or even the individuals themselves.  Obamacare represents one initiative designed to yank decision-making within the beltway.  Farther under the radar lies the Common Core initiative.

Common Core attempts to create national standards of student achievement in key subjects.  It relies heavily on standardized testing to quantify learning outcomes.  

But now, several states have opted out of the program.  

Last week, Georgia joined Alabama, Pennsylvania, Utah, and Oklahoma in making the decision to use their own standardized tests instead of the common national test advocated by Common Core.  With such a large defection of key populous states from different regions, Common Core backers complain that the sampling (now at 22) will be unable to give experts a handle on what national standards ought to be.

The Atlanta Journal Constitution reported that state education officials cited cost and efficiency in their judgment to not implement the test.  An official said “Georgia can create an equally rigorous measurement without the high costs associated with this particular test. Just as we do in all other branches of state government, we can create better value for taxpayers while maintaining the same level of quality.”

States originally signed onto the program to receive a bribery grant from the Department of Education related to the Race to the Top program.  Since receiving the money, many states have balked at certain aspects or dragged their feet.  According to a Breitbart evaluation, the tests are long, cost too much money, and assume a higher level of technology than many school systems have.

In other words, Washington education bureaucrats designed something perfect for their suburbs, but not the inner cities or backcountry districts.  

The Cato Institute accuses advocates of Common Core of purposeful silence on the issue of how deeply Washington experts were involved in establishing the standards.  They say that Common Core may be hoist by this petard.  The standards depend upon state testing participation.  If states do not participate, the system collapses.

Opposition to Common Core testing does not just come from conservative and libertarian groups.  A National Education Association delegate expressed concern over "overtesting and the diminution of instructional time."  California Teachers' Association president Dean Fogel adds his concern that "There's nobody in this room, in any town in the whole country, that doesn't understand that this high-stakes testing has raged way out of control. It's time for NEA to tell the truth and be that voice. We have to come out strong and be very clear with people that this high-stakes-testing mania has got to stop."

Why do opponents want to kill Common Core?  Besides the expense and time involved, testing in more subjective areas, such as English, could be biased against students from backgrounds different than suburban and affluent urban areas.   For example, different regions and communities have different usages of words that are still proper English, but of different usage than elsewhere.  States and local districts have a better chance of constructing a test, or different tests, fair to the students in their care

Common Core relies heavily on testing to demonstrate its effectiveness.  With opposition coming from teachers' unions and state legislatures to that very thing, national standards advocates may have to go back to the drawing board.

Or the federal government can look at its long record of failure in education  and give up its self-assumed role as guider of state and local policy.

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Far East Dangers Rising On the Horizon

With all the news of China's blue water navy development in the past few years, another country's response fell under the radar.  Yesterday, however, the unveiling of Japan's newest "destroyer" raised questions.

The "destroyer" surpasses the size of any Japanese ship built since World War II.  To the uneducated (or, perhaps cynical) eye, the Izumo looks suspiciously like an aircraft carrier.  Its flat top deck, allegedly meant for helicopters, is four fifths as long as an American Nimitz class deck.  It also outstrips by about 200 feet the length of the Royal Navy's Illustrious class carriers

Izumo pointedly responds to China's purchase and reconstruction of a Soviet era carrier from Ukraine.

The bigger issue lies in the deteriorating relations between China and her neighbors, specifically Japan, Vietnam, and the Philippines.

Territorial disputes between these nations lay dormant for years.  Recently, technological advances in identifying and extracting sea floor resources have raised the stakes in who owns what stretch of ocean bottom.  Vast natural gas and oil resources interest nations, such as China and Japan, that have little of either.
Interestingly, this issue has also separated Cold War partners Japan and the Nationalist Chinese government based in Taiwan.

Throughout the Cold War, the United States played referee to the region.  Although domestically debated later, the willingness to fight in Korea and Vietnam gave friends assurance and enemies pause.  Few doubted America's willingness to fight for Japan, South Korea, Nationalist China, or other friends.  Moreover, few believed that the US had any goals in the Far East beyond maintaining the status quo.

American power, relatively speaking, has receded in the region as China spent more on expanding and modernizing its warmaking ability.  It also has launched cyberattacks against its opponents' government and business concerns.

Unfortunately for the United States, the Chinese urge to revise the Far East balance of power echoes the shadows of a century ago.

In 1913, the British Empire managed the world power dynamic through a powerful navy and economic productive might.  The German Empire under Kaiser William II aspired to "a place in the sun."  This meant military might, colonial expansion, and international respect on par with the British.

They made an unwise alliance with unstable Austria-Hungary, which was locked in perpetual disputes with Russia over control of southeastern Europe.  When Russia's client state of Serbia served as the base of a devastating terror attack on Austria-Hungary, the clumsy attempt to settle the score touched off World War I.

Similar dynamics are emerging now.  China is setting itself against Japan, the Philippines, and Vietnam in its territorial disputes.  It has an unstable client in North Korea whose unpredictability could touch off a war with Japan or South Korea.  It is trying, like Germany in the early 1900s, to build a fleet that can regionally challenge the first rank power.

In other words, a pattern is emerging that could unravel decades of generally peaceful relations among states that despise and fear each other.

China's bold actions mirror those of other states that fear internal discord and try to rally the people around external successes.  It built a middle class, but never allowed it political participation.  That has been the downfall of many authoritarian regimes.  Questions about its debt and actual production numbers lend uncertainty to the perception that it is an economic power fated to outstrip the United States.

This also comes at a time when the Middle East's foundations of stability are collapsing, leftist regimes have come to power in Latin America, and Europe continues to live on the precipice of debt disaster.

Events have pushed the world's nations and people towards a time where only the brilliance of a Prince Otto von Bismarck could restore the balance.  It would be in America's interest to produce such a figure because a war in the Far East would inevitably draw us in.  And like Germany in the late 1800s and early 1900s, very few possible scenarios, even in victory, leave the US better off.

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Abuse of Information Database Is Too Commonplace

Last week, the nation was jarred by the news that a couple searched "backpack" and "pressure cooker," then found armed police at their door soon thereafter.  While it turned out that their internet provider actually turned in the tip, other NSA scandals have enraged and frightened many.

Defenders of information collection argue that what is collected rarely gets used.  And then, only by professionals with good reason to use it.  Unfortunately, people being who they are, abuse can always happen.

The Washington Guardian recently reported that New York City Police Department detectives have routinely abused the privilege of accessing the FBI's National Crime Information Center database.  While only authorized to use it during car stops and investigations, some officers have used it to snoop on fellow officers and even tip off criminals.  Some of the most egregious cases involve officers identifying drug criminals so that they can rob them.

Safeguards exist, but experts claim that abusers can easily circumvent them. 

This adds to worries that the National Security Agency has distributed information to agencies that investigate domestic crime and not national security.  Reuters reports that the NSA sent information to the Drug Enforcement Agency's Special Operations Division.  Although the information shared cannot be used because of Constitutional restrictions, DEA investigators are trained to backtrack and build a conventional looking investigation that does not use illegal data.

Many fear that high level politicians will always face temptations to misuse information at their disposal. The administrations of Franklin Roosevelt, Richard Nixon, and Barack Obama all misused IRS information.  Eliot Spitzer, while governor of New York, misused police documents to smear a Republican opponent. 

Information gained for law enforcement and/or national security purposes can help to protect the nation, lives, and property.  Living without it means accepting complete vulnerability.  But like any other extension of government power, the intelligence and law enforcement fields need to have strong boundaries and competent oversight.  Rule of law and natural rights principles demand no less.

Monday, August 5, 2013

The Power of Old, New, and Social Media to Right a Wrong

Jake Tapper, once of ABC, now with his own show on CNN, tweeted at about 9 PM last night at TMobile's corporate Twitter.  Apparently, they had been billing a KIA's widow for three years for an old phone that was not in her name.

She sent death certificates and pleas to stop sending her husband the bill to no avail.

So Jake Tapper called TMobile out on it.  He asked

what does she have to do for you to stop sending her dead KIA soldier ex-husband these bills???

This morning the CEO of TMobile, John Legere sent several responses apologizing and thanking Tapper for bringing the story to light.

He also tweeted:

don't thank me. It's a sickening shame it happened . I am deeply sorry and have already handled it. Thank you for speaking out.

This is exactly how we want our companies to respond when something is clearly wrong.  Take responsibility, apologize, fix it.

Great job to Tapper and Legere.

The Rise of the Sports Mass Media Industrial Complex Oligolopoly

In Boston, the owner of the Red Sox threw some petty cash around and bought one of the town's major metropolitan dailies.

In Morgantown, disputes over Tier 3 broadcasting rights threw the old college town into a tizzy, hammered a wedge between two state Republican Party titans, and smashed a decades old relationship between the university and a media company.

ESPN long ago absorbed a traditional television network and an entertainment company.  Then it ran its bull through college sports' china shop, smashing conferences and forcing decisions on what defined a college sports program as "viable."  The American free market has sent two St. Georges, Fox Sports and NBC, to slay the dragon.

But that story is still developing.

These developments lead observers to ask, is the current fast inflation of the sports industry and its media handmaidens economically or ethically good for either?

Columbia Journalism Review analyzed the sharp rise in the value of sports franchises, as well as the coincidental correlation with the decline of traditional media, especially print.  It posed the question, can a hometown media outlet report fairly on a sports issue if it is linked with the franchise?

CJR answers the question by pointing out how poorly ESPN has covered stories in which it plays a central role.

Media tend to perform poorly when interests collide.  CJR speculates that the Boston Globe will have a harder time covering the team honestly when its parent company owns the Red Sox.  But this is hardly a unique situation.  When owned by General Electric, NBC tread very carefully when covering stories about its parent company.  Media outlets often face important decisions and criticism when dealing with stories involving critical advertisers.

Another problem with the sports mass media blobonomy is that there has to be a saturation point.  There are only so many sports fans.  There can be only so much interest here and abroad. Rules changes done for safety or (more often) public relations transform the games, frustrating traditional fans.

Rising prices have created an impact as well.  The cost of tickets and merchandise either now, or soon will, exceed the value of the product.  Players' and owners drives to profit as much as possible rely on a steep willingness of the market to pay.  What is the cost to the sport's profitability if children have less and less opportunity to see the games in person?

Franchises and media increasingly aim at sports followers instead of fans.  Serious differences separate the devoted latter from the fickle former.

A warning comes from the fate of American boxing.  Once one of the most popular sports in the nation, it died because the sports' foremost figures decided that it could thrive by forcing anyone interested in watching premiere events to pay through the nose.  Boxing still makes money, but how many Americans can name the heavyweight champion right now, let alone any contenders?

Anyone who thinks that bad decisions by the major sports could not reduce any of them in a generation to the status of boxing is delusional.

Sports teams' value comes entirely from the perception by their markets that an experience involving them has value.  No one needs to consume the product to survive. No one needs the product to help them understand the world better. That is why the notion of franchises worth over a billion is troubling.  At the end of the day, they don't make anything of substance.  How long can the market sustain them, especially given a seemingly never ending economic slump?

In other words, the sports media industry displays many of the classic features of an economic bubble, except for the availability of too easily obtained credit.  Nothing grows this fast forever and leisure spending is fickle.

And this is not meant to be a hand wringing, what-is-to-be-done, kind of commentary.  Making money honestly is no sin.  But, like any other industry, those invested and involved need to understand that no sure fire never fail model has ever existed.  What goes up tends to come down. And if mass media outlets tie themselves too securely to the sports industry ship, they may sink with it should market priorities change.