Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Japan: An Argument Against "Deregulation" and "Government is the Problem not the Solution"

For 30 years Americans have been propagandized that regulation is always bad, that governments are necessarily incompetent, and that the market system will magically look after you by finding the optimum solution to all problems.

Here's a reality check from Robert Reich:
Can we please agree that in the real world corporations exist for one purpose, and one purpose only — to make as much money as possible, which means cutting costs as much as possible?

The New York Times reports that G.E. marketed the Mark 1 boiling water reactors, used in TEPCO’s Fukushima Daiichi plant, as cheaper to build than other reactors because they used a comparatively smaller and less expensive containment structure.

Yet American safety officials have long thought the smaller design more vulnerable to explosion and rupture in emergencies than competing designs. (By the way, the same design is used in 23 American nuclear reactors at 16 plants.)

In the mid-1980s, Harold Denton, then an official with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, said Mark 1 reactors had a 90 percent probability of bursting should the fuel rods overheat and melt in an accident. A follow-up report from a study group convened by the Commission concluded that “Mark 1 failure within the first few hours following core melt would appear rather likely.”

Sound familiar?

The National Commission appointed to investigate the giant oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico last April recently concluded that BP failed to adequately supervise Halliburton Company’s work on installing the well.

This was the case even though BP knew Halliburton lacked experience testing cement to prevent blowouts and hadn’t performed adequately before on a similar job. In short: Neither company bothered to spend the money to ensure adequate testing of the cement.

Nor did Massey Energy spend the money needed to ensure its mines were safe.

And so on.

Don’t get me wrong. No company can be expected to build a nuclear reactor, an oil well, a coal mine, or anything else that’s one hundred percent safe under all circumstances. The costs would be prohibitive. It’s unreasonable to expect corporations to totally guard against small chances of every potential accident.

Inevitably there’s a tradeoff. Reasonable precaution means spending as much on safety as the probability of a particular disaster occurring, multiplied by its likely harm to human beings and the environment if it does occur.

Here’s the problem. Profit-making corporations have every incentive to underestimate these probabilities and lowball the likely harms.

This is why it’s necessary to have such things as government regulators, why regulators must be independent of the industries they regulate, and why regulators need enough resources to enforce the regulations.

It’s also why the public in every nation is endangered if the political clout of its biggest corporations — BP, Halliburton, Massey, G.E., or TEPCO — grows too large.
How many examples does it take to turn the tide against 30 years of propaganda? Lots and lots. There are almost two generations that have been raised as fully indoctrinated as any Hitler Youth. There are true believers everywhere.

But the 2008 financial crisis was proof that banks can't be trust to turn mortages into AAA "safe" bonds. The dot.com meltdown in 2008 was proof that innovative companies can't be trusted that their business plans are as "solid" as they pretend they are. Of course BP and the oil producers can't be trusted to do everything to protect the environment or people living around their oil fields or refineries, even the workers can't trust that these companies won't find them "expendable" in favour of bigger profits. Japan has demonstrated that a company like TEPCO can't be trusted to build as "safe enough" nuclear reactor.

The role of government is to make sure that when a corporation is busy listening to the demands of stockholders for "more profit" that other stakeholders -- like the next generation that doesn't want to be irradiated -- get a fair shake. There is nothing in the pricing structure of electricity markets or nuclear power plant construction that inherently listens to other stakeholders. Sure, the right wing fanatics for the last 30 years have assured everybody that "the market" will look after them. But surely it is clear by now that that is as much of a fairy tale as stories about the "tooth fairy".

Where is "the market" when it comes to the Fukushima 50? From an article in the UK's Guardian newspaper:
Between 50 and 70 employees – now known in English as the Fukushima 50 – all in protective gear, were left at the plant to battle myriad problems. Some are assessing the damage and radiation levels caused by the explosions, while others cool stricken reactors with seawater to try to avert a potentially catastrophic release of radiation.

The workers are the nuclear power industry's equivalent of frontline soldiers, exposing themselves to considerable risks while 80 of their evacuated colleagues watch from a safe distance. Fifteen people on the site, including members of the self-defence force, have been injured in the blasts.
People don't sell themselves into slavery. Nobody sells themselves into a job that is pretty well guaranteed to kill them within three months. But that's what the Fukushima 50 are doing. They have volunteered to fight to stop the radiation leaks with great risk to themselves (it is very likely that a third of them will die within 3 months). This fight to bring the reactors under control is essentially a death assignment. Do you think any Wall Street billionaire would volunteer for that kind of job? No.

I still remember a wealthy Manhattanite on September 11, 2001 coming on camera to tell how "grateful" she was for a fireman who used his body to protect her when the World Trade Center collapsed and sent a black cloud up the streets of Manhattan. She was amazed and so grateful. That's because in her world nobody does anything without "negotiating" a price. There is no sense of duty, patriotism, or empathy in the cold calculations of "the market". And that is all she knew. I firmly expect that this woman is one of the "true believers" who is now busy trying to remove the rights of collective bargaining for firefighters. One day she is overwhelmed with gratitude, but a few years later, she is convinced that this guy who makes less that 4% of her annual salary has a "gold plated pension" and she wants him to give it up to save the state's budget.

This is the propaganda of privilege and ignorance and "free markets" which has poisoned the minds of two generations. It will take an awful lot to recover the humanity of those whose minds have been captive to the right wing creed.

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