The Widdershins

Archive for April 11th, 2014

Good afternoon Widdershins.

My general rule is to steer away from stories of a local flavor since they represent limited interest, but there are exceptions. This is one of them since this story perfectly illustrates a point worth considering.

Coal Miner

Without the intricacies and political intrigue, here is the gist: The Kentucky General Assembly just met. During the session, a law was passed at the behest of the coal barons to reduce the number of yearly mine inspections. The mine owners waxed poetic and yearned for a time when they had a friendlier, more cooperative relationship with mine safety inspectors — unlike the overzealous Obama mine inspectors.

The crescendo of this kinder, gentler love affair sprinkled with coal pixie dust was 2006. It was the halcyon days where mine inspectors could be counted upon to do the “right thing” when it came to the owner’s quest to dislodge those clumps of black gold. Sadly, it wasn’t such a joyous time for the miners.

By comparison, in 2006 almost two and a half times more miners were killed than in 2012, the most recent year available for comparison. According to the mine owners, the “Obama War on Coal” was rampaging in 2012 — even though more miners were working in 2012 than 2006. In addition, there were more injuries in 2006 than in 2012 when those jack-booted state inspectors were spending too much time nosing around in mines. Since unions were run out of eastern Kentucky, mine inspectors are the only people who understand safety applies to miners’ well-being more than it does to owners’ profiteering.

Placing your tag in case you don't come back...

Placing your tag in case you don’t come back…

Now switch your mind’s eye to Congress where coincidentally Rep. Hal Rogers, (5th KY) Chairman of the House Appropriations Committee holds a hearing about funding for the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA).  MSHA is responsible for enforcing mine-safety laws at the federal level. Rogers represents eastern Kentucky where the state has just curtailed state mine safety inspections.

Testifying before the Appropriations Committee, the mouthpiece of the Kentucky-based Coal Operators and Associates urged Congress to gut MSHA since “there is a complete secondary layer of inspection at the state level and states do things the right way.” The spokesman urged the reining in of MSHA since it was full of adversarial “rule sticklers” and couldn’t be counted on to be the “friendly” agency of 2006 gone by. When asked about instances of the adversarial nature, the spokesman gave not one example — not one — because conveniently, “operators fear retaliation” from MSHA.

Now keep both the Congressional and the Kentucky legislative hearings in mind as I tell you, both these hearings took place in front of the sobbing widows and children of dead miners. Dead miners like those killed in the 2006 explosion and fire in the Darby mine in Harlan County. Good old 2006, a time when the grief over killed miners could be eased by the friendliness of the infrequently visiting mine inspectors.

Coal awaiting its trip to China or India before it makes it way back by way of atmospheric carbon particulates...

Coal awaiting its trip to China or India before it makes it way back by way of atmospheric carbon particulates…

The agonizingly wretched part of this whole story isn’t just maximizing profits for coal operators. This whole charade is about making economically precarious mines more marketable to be sold to “wildcat local operators.” Large, publicly traded companies are reacting to the steep decline in coal demand by selling their mines to shoestring capitalized local operators. Fewer safety regulations equates to more marketability — no one wants a gift that eats.

Here’s the learning — the central motivation isn’t about miners living or dying or even mining itself — it is about reducing a budgetary line item at the expense of miners’ safety in order to make the mines more marketable and ultimately more valuable.

As repugnant as this example is, just look at the headlines in any newspaper. GM knew about the Ninety Cent ($0.90) ignition spring problem as early as 2001. Toyota knew about its sudden acceleration problem and decided to pay the settlements. The financial markets knew about the oncoming 2008 financial meltdown three years before it happened. As you are reading this, proprietary colleges owned by hedge funds are sentencing veterans and unsuspecting students to decades of exorbitant student loans. The list is endless or so it seems.

DilbertThere was a time when everyone believed in corporate responsibility, but it has been replaced by “moral hazard” — meaning a business person will take risks because the ultimate cost will not be felt by the individual or the company. In other words, because of insurance or quick profits or bailouts, executives will now gladly bite the hand feeding them. The time when corporations could be implicitly trusted to do the right thing has long passed.  This is but another all-too-often glossed over similarity to the Gilded Age.

What we have now are corporate oligarchs enslaved to “Occam’s Razor” — “After all other possibilities have been exhausted, the simplest explanation is most likely correct.” As a scientific postulate Occam’s Razor is true, but only if and only when, you have exhausted “all other possibilities.”

Occam's Razor

Today, whether it be the coal barons blaming meddlesome inspectors, GM fretting about a .90 cent ignition spring, or Wall Streeters banking their billions before an implosion, no one took the time to look at other possibilities — they merely took the simplest rhetorical answer and draped themselves in it. More likely than not, that rhetorical shroud consisted of “it’s the government’s fault” or “everyone else does it” or “what will it hurt to cut this corner?”  All quick and efficient enough to forestall any honest policy discussions.

We have one party that is an active, willing participant in this deceit and the other is just as guilty by acts of omission.  At the end of the day it makes little difference as to the party since the results are the same. Until our policies are dictated by something more than an intellectually corrupted and bastardized Occam’s Razor, we might as well enjoy being played for unknowing and trusting dullards.

This is an open thread.


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