March 11th, 2011

Pixel Stained

Forgive me while I get political

About the earthquake in Japan.

It's not that I don't care. I have friends in Japan (who all seem to be fine, thank you). This is actually about the story which won't get much play; how gov't regulation saved lives.

That NYT story is almost certainly an outlier, and will sink without much trace, lost in the more gripping narrative of the disaster.

From seawalls that line stretches of Japan’s coastline, to skyscrapers that sway to absorb earthquakes, to building codes that are among the world’s most rigorous, no country may be better prepared to withstand earthquakes than Japan.

They do some pointless, even wrongheaded, cavilling, about how the measures (esp. seawalls) might give a false sense of security/not work well enough.

Which is nonsense, because there is no way to build a wall capable of stopping all tsunami which might hit. But if people don't get the 30+ minutes of gap between the origin of a tsunami and the wave hitting the shore, then a wall is going to save lives.

To put things in a bit more perspective is this quotation from the Guardian, "Aftershocks continued hours after the first tremor struck, many of more than magnitude 6.0. Joseph Tame, a Briton living in Tokyo, said concrete buildings shook as if they were made of jelly and high-rises swayed back and forth as the quake hit..

So they got, "Shake, rattle and roll," not devastating collapse.

Government regulation is why emergency exits 1: open out, and 2: have a "failure mode" which leads to people being outside. Why? Because a press of people in a panic will make a door which opens on a traditional tongue as completely unable to open as one which opens to the inside.

Fire escapes don't go past the ground floor; so people don't end up trapped in the basement.

Pool filters are supposed to be baffled, so that people don't get stuck to them and drown (or have their guts sucked out of their bodies).

Milk is sold in closed containers, that water isn't added to it (see Thoreau's comment, "Some circumstantial evidence is very strong, as when you find a trout in the milk.").

Seatbelts save lives. Mandating them into cars made them 1: ubiquitous, not alien, and 2: made them affordable. Those sorts of things don't happen without gov't intervention. (if you don't think so, look at some of the libertarian arguments about seat belts: the gist of it is people ought to opt in, not be forced to pay the, "opportunity" cost of them. If the present cost, of uniform manufacture adds $600 US to the cost of a car, what would it cost to design them as, "options", and how many people would forgo it? That doesn't address the second order effects [what economists call, "externalities"] which come of not having seat belts in all cars, but I digress).

It is enshrined right there in the Constitution of the United States:

We the people of the United States, in order to form a more perfect union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.

This is the big difference, IMO, the big difference between the two poles (I can't really say parties) in American politics. One side believes promoting the general welfare is best done by working directly on the mass of people, most especially on those who are not having the best of it.

The other pole seems to think that helping well-to-do is the best way to help the rest of us. The distribution of wealth and the relative contribution to the "general welfare" is skewed, and they don't take that into account.

But even if we accept the theories behind that, the way they want to help the well-to-do is screwed up. Lowering their taxes might make jobs, but it won't keep bridges in good repair, nor the highways, nor ensure that employers aren't overworking air traffic controllers.

Those are the sort of things we expect our governments to do for us. It's why we have them. To do that we need to admit that government regulation is needful, and what is needful is legitimate. There is no way the "libertarian paradise" would build seawalls. The past tells us so.

We have public fire departments because the private ones let houses burn, why? Because they didn't pay. The side effect was that more houses burned down, even those who did pay (because it's kind of hard to keep a house from catching fire when the place next to it is pushing superheated air, and sparks, onto it).

We aren't living alone, in some self-sufficient house of sod on the vast prairie. We are conjoined, part of a greater whole, and we need standard, and regulations to deal with the scale of our problems (how many bridges are there? How many million miles of roads? How many ports?), and the scope of human perfidy (watered milk, chalk in the flour, melamine in the baby formula).

That's what the, "drown gov't" types are inviting back.

Japan is hurting. They just had a 9.0 on the Richter scale. Two-thirds of the population is urban. That's 84 million people. The dead are known to be in the hundreds, probably in the thousands. But this could have been a lot worse.

That it wasn't is purely because of gov't regulation.
Pixel Stained

We are saved

The Republican controlled House did what we needed. Sadly the Senate has blocked them from cutting the budget in the ways which "are necessary to show that we are serious about returning our nation to a sustainable financial path, according to Hal Rodgers (R Ken). Rodgers is the head of the House Appropriations committee.

What's in that list of needful cuts (realise the military budget isn't up for negotiation, all that's available for reducing the deficit/balancing the budget is the 740 billion which is "discretionary".

Since the budget has a projected shortfall of about 1.6 trillion, the needed cuts to balance the budget are... impossible. This is correctable, all it takes is the willingness of the "fiscally responsible" types: the ones who are, "serious" about making the budget balance, the people who threatened to close down the gov't by refusing to allow the amount of the deficit to be expanded to meet the obligations the government already has, those people, the one's lecturing about "living within our means, to let the taxes in effect when Bush took office to be returned to normal. That, and looking at what we are getting for the money we're spending on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

If those two wars are that important, then we need to raise the money to pay for them.

So, we have a deficit of twice the "discretionary spending. What do they want to cut? What was in that essential slashing of funding?

The National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration. You know, the guys who track the weather. Things like tornadoes, hurricanes and tsunami.

Think Progress has a breakdown of what's in that cut.

The tsunami watch is actually, all things being equal the least of the problems. The rationale here is that, according to Ralph Hall (R Tex), this is the, "first step in cutting spending, putting Americans back to work." One of those steps is 27 day furloughs. In plain english, that's an unpaid vacation. One hasn't been laid off, so there is no way to collect unemployment. One just has to make do on less money. Heckuva Job Hall. Put people back to work by laying them off.

They also want to cut funding to the CDC, because... well I don't know why. Are we supposed to believe that germs will stop being infectious because the CDC can't pay as much attention to them?

I remember, back in the '80s, NASA had a publication, "Spinoff" which was all about the things that had been second, or third, etc., level benefit to the world. Things like microwave ovens, osmotic filters, specialised polymers, medical techniques, telemetry, etc..

That's what the Republicans are cutting, in the interest of "putting America back to work." Busting unions, that's good for America. Research, and the fruits that come of it, that's bad.

First responders to disaster, also set to be cut.

And hurricanes, tornadoes, and tsunami? We can fend for ourselves, first, last and always.

Heckova job guys.