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Tom Friedman’s Fantasy Dream Is America’s Nightmare

9:30 pm in Uncategorized by Scarecrow

Tom Friedman seems to alternate between days with provocative ideas that challenge conventional wisdom, for better or worse, and days with fantasies built on absurd notions, massive ignorance or delusion, which if implemented would be catastrophic. He’s equally certain and proud of both, so you have to be careful.

Judging by today’s New York Times column, today is Tom Friedman’s catastrophic fantasy day.

In a column in which he fantasizes a joint media appearance with Speaker Boehner and President Obama, Friedman dreams of the two men making humble concessions, then walking hand in hand into the White House to negotiate a “grand bargain” that resolves all the country’s outstanding budget deficit/debt issues. Everything’s on the table, and both sides are earnestly committed to bargain in good faith and reach a reasonable compromise. On seeing this, the market immediately rises a zillion points.

There’s only one problem. The deal Friedman assumes these men would likely produce could wreck the economy and harm millions of people.

Like all too many in Washington, Friedman believes that a grand bargain that dramatically reduced near- and medium term deficits and long run debt would actually help the economy and benefit the nation’s citizens. But instead, it would do exactly the opposite. That’s because the prevailing ideas for what goes into this grand bargain do not include solving any of the nation’s actual problems. And though the debt crisis is phony, the proposals are only superficially about reducing debt. But they have everything to do with crippling the federal government’s ability to function in the public interest.

What Mr. Boehner’s Republicans want is not a trimmer, more efficient government; they want a government that can only support a much smaller public sector and is significantly weaker in dealing with the private economy and those it affects. They want a government so weak it cannot threaten the ability of the financial sector to continue looting the economy and so politically constrained and captured it cannot induce industries to internalize the costs of health, safety and environmental measures needed to protect the public from harm; it would function only to enable what industries want. They want to protect the rich from taxation and do nothing to prevent the relentless transfer, through unfettered non-competitive markets, of the nation’s income and wealth from the bottom 90 percent or so to the extreme wealthiest individuals and corporations, whose actions would become essentially unaccountable to consumers, shareholders and investors.

Against this massive looting, wealth transfer, and frontal assault on the public interest, it’s not clear what values President Obama wants to protect, even assuming he’s competent to do so. He doesn’t seem committed to tax equity, seems little concerned about massive inequality, has rarely if ever mentioned the near 15 percent poverty (nearly 20 percent of America’s children relying on government assistance). He clearly does not favor reducing the power or influence of the financial sector that has ravaged the economy, nor has he fought to check other politically powerful industries and corporations that continue to victimize the public.

Further, Mr. Obama refused to consider any form of universal health care that could effectively challenge rising private health care costs. That’s a principal driver of long-run spending. Mr. Boehner’s Party, of course, regards such solutions as evil socialism. So their “compromise” could remove people from the program by making them wait longer.

On top of this, neither Mr. Obama’s team nor Mr. Boehner’s Party has an intellectually coherent grasp of economics, a credible framework for understanding the nature of our current economic problems nor any affinity for the only solutions known to be workable. Indeed, almost every statement both men make on the economy is wrong-headed and often absurd.

In short, any negotiation between Mr. Obama and Mr. Boehner is highly likely to produce a worse mess, as best, or possibly a calamity. Their deal would likely harm the economy or even produce a recession.

If their grand bargain succeeds in reducing government spending by $4 trillion or more over the next decade, it will slow growth, increase unemployment, cause even more foreclosures, throw more people into poverty, increase the number of uninsured, decimate state and local governments. It would leave the country’s future poorer from a serious deficit in investments in everything a country needs to prosper. And the huge inequities in American life will remain, with an even weaker government available to address them.

Dear Tom: Be careful what you ask for. There’s no one protecting the public interest in that grand bargain. So please use your next alternate day to point this out. — John Chandley (Scarecrow).

Update: Dean Baker has a dream.

NYT Economist: Economy Gasping for Air, So Cut off Air Supply Slowly

8:47 am in Uncategorized by Scarecrow

Catherine Rampell, the New York Times’ usually sensible economist, provides a good commentary on today’s depressing Commerce Department report on our stagnant economy. If you read the first two thirds of her article, you’d logically conclude that unless we can find a replacement for the rapidly fading federal stimulus, there isn’t anything on the horizon to raise GDP growth and boost employment. Logically she ends with this:

“There’s not going to be additional monetary stimulus, and it’s hard to imagine any fiscal stimulus given the current discussion in Washington,” Mr. Ryding said. “So what’s going to get us out of this? The inevitable conclusion is time, and that’s not very satisfactory.”

But somewhere in the middle, without warning or logic, Rampell gets captured by Pod People.

The Commerce Department report tells us the economic recession was much deeper than previously believed — we are still not back to the GDP levels of 2007. And the second dip this year, while not yet technically a “recession” because GDP growth hasn’t gone negative yet, was worse than originally reported.

As Dean Baker reminds us, demand was crushed, the 2009 stimulus helped reverse that, but the stimulus is quickly winding down and is now offset by severe reductions in state government spending.

The result is entirely predictable: Depressed demand from people losing $6 or $7 trillion in wealth, plus declining or negative stimulus, equals a declining economy, with little or no growth and worsening unemployment. You couldn’t ask for a clearer confirmation of Keynes and the need for immediate, substantial new stimulus.

So what happens when a sensible economist becomes a Pod Person? They say things like this:

Washington, therefore, has a delicate balancing act in its current debt ceiling debates. Given the unsustainable debt trajectory that the economy is on — primarily because of the country’s growing health care obligations — Congress needs to impose greater fiscal discipline. But imposing too much too soon, or being too focused on the wrong types of spending cuts, could be self-defeating by weakening growth so greatly that tax revenue falls and requires the country to borrow even more.  

Given inflation concerns, it also seemed unlikely that the Federal Reserve will swoop in with another round of monetary easing to goose growth.

Shorter Rampell: The economy is gasping for air, so we need to cut off the oxygen supply more slowly. Since core inflation is very low, the Fed should worry about hyper inflation. And because our private health providers charge too much to provide less than universal coverage, we have a debt crisis and should cut Medicare.

You can’t argue with Pod People.

(For a human interpretation of today’s dismal economic report, see Dean Baker.

Mitt Romney: Obama Failed Because We Needed a Larger, Longer Stimulus

6:39 am in Economy, Politics by Scarecrow

Mitt Romney - Caricature

Mitt Romney - Caricature by DonkeyHotey

The Washington Post’s Philip Rucker caught Mitt Romney explaining how to think about economic policy when the labor market is depressed, housing has tanked, households are broke and the Fed is limited by near-zero interest rates:

Romney criticized Obama’s $787 billion stimulus package, saying it did not create long-lasting jobs. He said he would have lowered tax rates, instituted fair trade policies and boosted energy independence to help create sustainable private-sector jobs.

“The challenge with so-called stimulus is it tends to be throwing a little gasoline on the fire,” Romney said. “It causes some heat. . . . It just doesn’t cause permanent heat. It’s not like putting a log on the fire.”

Translation from Chameleon-speak: Romney is hinting that the economy — the fire — needed not just more stimulus, but longer-lasting stimulus. Instead of pouring on a little gasoline to kick start the fire, we’d needed a slow-burning log that would provide fuel for a longer period. Except for the implied nonsense that spending on workers and goods/services by the private sector creates jobs but the same spending by government doesn’t, he almost sounds like all those liberal economists — Krugman, Thoma, Stiglitz, Galbraith, Baker, et al.

But didn’t Obama’s 2009 and late 2010 stimulus packages contain a large percentage of tax cuts, some that have been extended? Are there no trade agreements with Columbia or Korea, or programs to promote domestic energy production?

I don’t follow what Mitt Romney says everyday, because sooner or later a policy chameleon will say everything once, mimic all positions, and then switch back in case you missed something. So I probably missed that other time, back in early 2009, when Mitt insisted the stimulus needed to be big enough to produce some real effect on the economy, and it needed to avoid the “shovel ready” trap and last longer because the economy would take a long time to recover from a finance and credit shock the size we suffered. He surely wouldn’t be making this up now, saying “I told you so,” to prove what a prescient leader he’d make.

But he’s right about the failed leadership in Washington, D.C. From the NYT’s reliable stenographer on the deficit hysteria debate, here’s the White House’ Press Secretary, Jay Carney:

. . . Jay Carney, said Republicans must be willing to consider tax changes, including the elimination of “loopholes” that benefit corporations.

“It’s the only way to get it done if you want to do it right and you want to do it in a way that is fair and balanced and ensures that the economy continues to grow and continues to create jobs,” Mr. Carney told reporters.

What is Carney talking about? Whatever you think about long-run deficits, it doesn’t make sense to be slashing spending for deficit reasons now, and that conclusion doesn’t change if you couple the spending cuts with eliminating tax breaks for oil companies. There are valid reasons for ending needless subsidies for rich people and hugely wealthy industries, but doing that doesn’t make it okay to slash programs to help the elderly, poor women and children, now or later. Read the rest of this entry →

Does the New York Times Know Our Politicians Speak Gibberish about Deficits?

9:02 pm in Uncategorized by Scarecrow

For reasons known only to its publishers, the New York Times has chosen to assign reporters and editors to the budget/deficit negotiations who seem oblivious that the politicians they routinely quote are speaking gibberish, without any effort by the Times to explain it’s gibberish.

In this article about the “breakdown” of the deficit reduction talks around Joe Biden’s dining table — a “breakdown” occurs when Eric Cantor chooses not to attend a meeting — Times reporter Carl Hulse dutifully repeats politicians’ nonsense without any further explanation or context:

From Eric Cantor:

“As it stands, the Democrats continue to insist that any deal must include tax increases,” Mr. Cantor said in a statement. “There is not support in the House for a tax increase, and I don’t believe now is the time to raise taxes in light of our current economic situation. Regardless of the progress that has been made, the tax issue must be resolved before discussions can continue.”

Here’s similar gibberish from Senators McConnell and Kyl:

“President Obama needs to decide between his goal of higher taxes, or a bipartisan plan to address our deficit,” Mr. McConnell and Mr. Kyl said in a joint statement. “He can’t have both. But we need to hear from him.”

Any first grader knows that 2 + 2 = 4. Any fourth grader knows that if you lower spending by $2 and raise income by $2 it adds up to a $4 effect. But apparently, any Tea-GOP representative is allowed to pretend this is not true, and the Times will report their statements without noting that senior officials in a major party are speaking gibberish.
Read the rest of this entry →

NYT’s Harwood: Democrats Should Cut Medicare So Republicans Don’t Get Blamed

6:30 am in Uncategorized by Scarecrow

That’s not the title of John Harwood’s NYT column today, but it might well have been. In a typical example of sloppy, one-sided Beltway thinking, Harwood opens with,

Soon enough, Democrats will have to identify new Medicare cuts they can support.

. . . and having swallowed whole that false Tea-GOP talking point, he explains why the Democrats must eventually not just cut federal spending on Medicare but do so by cutting benefits. His “logic” goes like this:

1. I understand that Medicare costs are rising because private health care costs are rising too fast for the whole country . . . but let’s forget that’s the real problem — implying a very different set of solutions aimed at the structure of health provision in America, not Medicare — and forget that ignoring it will still leave the economy, the nation and especially seniors in trouble. Instead let’s pretend the problem is too many old people and that the government can’t afford to provide them the same health care as they get today.

2. I understand that we pay providers — hospitals, doctors, drug makers, device makers — too much, but the Tea-GOP will oppose efforts to rein in those private costs — they only care about government spending — so we can’t fix that.

3. I understand that the Affordable Care Act contains an Advisory Board to identify and encourage ways to provide equal or better care at lower costs, but the Tea-GOP says that’s a “death panel,” so we can’t do that or expand its reach.

4. I understand that the ACA exempted hospitals from the Advisory Board for the first ten years [another WH deal], but since the Tea-GOP opposes the “death panel” Board anyway, we can’t fix that.

5. I understand that we’ve given special breaks to drug makers, exempting them from negotiations when the Bush-GOP passed the Medicare Part D drug benefit, but since the Tea-GOP opposes any government takeover, we can’t fix that.

6. I’m supposed to know, but neglected to mention, that Medicare provides care at lower costs than private systems, and the CBO just explained that moving to Paul Ryan’s voucher plan to pay private insurers will increase seniors’ health costs by about $34 trillion over 75 years, but that devastating and inconvenient fact just embarrasses the Tea-GOP, so let’s not mention it.

7. So that means we can only cut costs by reducing benefits. We can make seniors pay more for their doctors, “saving” [shifting] $240 billion, or we can make them wait until they’re 67 before getting benefits, saving [shifting] $124 billion, or we can just stop paying for some benefits they need and save [shift] even more. See? Saving [shifting] on Medicare is easy! We know non-Pod Democrats oppose this, and the American public strongly opposes and thinks this is morally wrong. But that’s what the Tea-GOP insists, so that’s what we Beltway grownups say we have to do.

8. The Tea-GOP won’t compromise on anything sensible, so it’s up to the Democrats and the White House to make all the concessions.

9. Everyone, including all of us adults, know this to be true.

10. Therefore, the Democrats are just stalling about cutting Medicare by hundreds of billions, but sooner or later, they’ll do what Mitch McConnell wants.

Now, John Harwood is a decent enough fellow, trying to be reasonable. An adult, as they say. But he’s just expressing the Beltway mindset in a nutshell. That leads me to two conclusions:

First, we need live cameras and reporters at Joe Biden’s place. Open up those discussions and let the American people watch the “adults” and listen as the Administration/Dems and Tea-GOP leaders, the Pods and the Zombies, explain their proposals and bargain away protections for senior citizens while they protect the wealthiest of the wealthy and the most destructive of the corporate looters and avoid facing the underlying cost problem.

Obama once said the health care reform debate should be televised. Good idea! We need more adult television. How about asking for that, John.

Second, America should have a party. Invite the austerity-suffering, enraged, courageous and unrepresented populations of Spain, Ireland, the UK, Egypt, Tunisia, Syria and have them occupy Capital Mall and Lafayette Square until this stunningly irresponsible, unresponsive, undemocratic government resigns. We could phone in pizzas and watch on BBC or Al Jazeera.

Or we could just do it ourselves.

What To Do In 2012? First, Stop Funding the Oligarchs

5:50 am in Uncategorized by Scarecrow

When President Obama visited Texas yesterday, my FDL colleague, Blue Texan, lamented the fact he could neither meet with his President nor afford even the public, lesser-income fund raiser, let alone the private orgy of those who would be writing checks for $30,000 or more just to share a cocktail with Mr. Obama. It is a perfect symbol for the impossible dilemma we might label, “the Obama problem.”

A week ago, wealthy, former Obama fundraisers announced they had formed non-transparent fundraising organizations for oligarchs who wished to keep their millions in unlimited campaign donations secret, though they would say, “anonymous.” The justification given was to match equivalent secret fundraising efforts by Karl Rove, the Koch Bros, and other right wing organizations who have promised to raise hundreds of millions from anonymous donors for the 2012 elections.

In last Sunday’s lead editorial, the New York Times decried both efforts, but particularly singled out the President’s men for stooping to Rovian/Kochian levels, destroying transparency and undermining hopes for campaign financing reform. Though deservedly harsh, that critique still does not capture the affront to the democratic process and to the vast majority of Americans.

What these efforts tell us is not that both sides do it, so it’s only fair, and they cancel out, so no harm. Instead they reveal that the wealthiest oligarchs in the country can now freely and secretly buy the government. All that is happening now is the wealthiest oligarchs are preparing the paperwork to complete the sale to the anonymous buyers. It is a coup by contract.

This is no longer a government “of the people, by the people, and for the people,” if it ever was. Rather, as the Nobel economist Joseph Stiglitz recently wrote, we have a government “of the 1%, by the 1%, and for the 1%.”

It’s no use pretending that what has obviously happened has not in fact happened. The upper 1 percent of Americans are now taking in nearly a quarter of the nation’s income every year. In terms of wealth rather than income, the top 1 percent control 40 percent. Their lot in life has improved considerably. Twenty-five years ago, the corresponding figures were 12 percent and 33 percent. . . . While the top 1 percent have seen their incomes rise 18 percent over the past decade, those in the middle have actually seen their incomes fall. For men with only high-school degrees, the decline has been precipitous—12 percent in the last quarter-century alone. All the growth in recent decades—and more—has gone to those at the top. In terms of income equality, America lags behind any country in the old, ossified Europe that President George W. Bush used to deride. Among our closest counterparts are Russia with its oligarchs and Iran. . . .

I’m guessing that if you’re reading this, you’re not one of the 1%. So the first question you have to ask yourself is, “what is the point of my attending the President’s fundraiser, even if I can get in the cheapside $25 event. What is this money for, and how will my donation be portrayed?”
Read the rest of this entry →

NYT: White House Tells Media It was Ready to Risk War with Pakistan

7:09 pm in Uncategorized by Scarecrow

I thought that after the White House’s initial embarrassing screwups in misrepresenting what happened at the compound in which bin Laden was killed — basic facts like whether bin Laden was armed or used human shields — the White House would carefully explain to staff how important it was not to be caught giving conflicting stories again to the media, let alone conflicting messages to the already humiliated Pakistanis. Nope.

The New York Times has a story Monday night in which senior administration officials tell them, on the one hand, how important it is to repair the damaged relationship with Pakistan and, on the other, how Obama himself insisted on having sufficient US forces available during the raid in case the Seals who stormed the bin Laden compound had to “fight their way out” against Pakistani armed forces.

On Sunday, National Security Adviser Donilon intimated on the Sunday shows that there was no evidence specifically showing Pakistan had knowingly harbored bin Laden. That was presumably intended to give the Pakistan government some wiggle room. The Times reports that Admiral Mullen called the Pakistani Army chief to smooth ruffled feathers, and C.I.A. Director Leon Panetta called his Pakistan counterpart “to discuss the way forward in the common fight against Al Qaeda.” And the Times quotes Press Secretary Carney on why this is important:

“We believe that it is very important to maintain the cooperative relationship with Pakistan precisely because it’s in our national security interest to do so,” said the White House spokesman, Jay Carney.

Okay. If smoothing things with Pakistan is so important — as in, they do have nukes that could fall into the wrong hands — then why did senior officials also emphasize to the Times we not only didn’t trust Pakistan to know about or participate in the operation, but we were prepared to engage in an act of war against Pakistan forces defending their own country? And which idiot official(s) thought it was helpful or necessary to provide this information?

“Their instructions were to avoid any confrontation if at all possible. But if they had to return fire to get out, they were authorized to do it.” . . .

About 10 days before the raid, Mr. Obama reviewed the plans and pressed his commanders as to whether they were taking along enough forces to fight their way out if the Pakistanis arrived on the scene and tried to interfere with the operation.

That resulted in the decision to send two more helicopters carrying additional troops. . . .

“Some people may have assumed we could talk our way out of a jam, but given our difficult relationship with Pakistan right now, the president did not want to leave anything to chance,” said one senior administration official, who like others would not be quoted by name describing details of the secret mission. “He wanted extra forces if they were necessary.”

Translation: the US was prepared to enage in an act of war against a supposed ally and to fight a battle against the ally’s armed forces on their own territory, in order to pull off an armed intrusion and killing of an enemy living in that country.

Now, this wasn’t planned as a suicide mission; once you’ve decided to intrude into Pakistan to kill or capture bin Laden, it’s only logical you give your guys sufficient contingent authority and backup to protect themselves to get out. But why publically blurt this out to Pakistan?

Perhaps the White House thinks this story will add to the President’s image of a take charge, macho military leader. Presidents tend to like that.

But if the broader strategic policy requires a continued non-belligerent relationship with Pakistan, then I think it’s just as likely this is another case of another (the same?) thoughtless official saying something that will need an almost immediate retraction or clarification. So who was this anonymous official?

Economists Debunk Hysterical NYT Story on S&P Credit Downgrade Threat

2:22 pm in Uncategorized by Scarecrow

The lead front page story in today’s delivered New York Times reported that the stock market fell after the rating firm S.&P. threatened to downgrade the US credit rating unless the US got its spending under control.

The GOP, led by noted economist Eric Cantor, was quick to predict a US economic collapse unless we used the debt limit vote to eliminate Medicare.

So naturally, I immediately slashed my personal spending by cancelling my Times Saturday and Sunday delivery subscription, hoping to save the economy from imminent collapse. That seemed to help, as the stock market was back up today. The market knows everything, it seems.

Not knowing what else to do, I was later greatly relieved to learn that having grasped the seriousness of S.& P.’s warning, the Times invited several economists to explain the impending doom. Here’s a sample of what they said.

First, Tyler Cowen seems to think S&P was right to warn us of our profligacy, but he worrys the stock market didn’t panic enough:

The fall in the stock market on Monday just wasn’t big enough to put a scare into most of these people. Few political leaders see realism as a winning political message, and making realism scarier, as the S.&P. announcement did, won’t get them there easily.

It’s a common argument that the U.S. need not worry about its borrowing because interest rates on Treasury debt are so low. That’s a mistake. The low rates mean that investors expect to be paid back; they don’t mean that U.S. debt levels are healthy.

So, the market went down because investors think the US can pay its debt obligations, but the market isn’t smart enough to know it won’t. Huh.

Next, Mark Thoma thinks we shouldn’t be stampeded into hurting the vulnerable when there’s no immediate threat:

. . . Don’t let the downgrade allow those with wealth and power to push through the wrong solution. . . .

The main worry about the debt is that, at some point in the future, interest rates will rise as the world becomes reluctant to lend more to us. A rise in interest rates would lead to reduced investment, growth and employment. So far, however, bond markets show little sign of worry and interest rates remain low.

So if there’s no immediate threat, what’s going on? Barry Ritholz says he stopped paying attention to S.& P.:

After Standard & Poor’s missed the greatest collapse in history – indeed, they helped create it by rating junk mortgage backed securities Triple AAA – they are now over-compensating. As I mentioned on The Big Picture, there is an old Wall Street joke about analysts: “You don’t need them in a Bull Market, and you don’t want them in a Bear Market.” That especially seems apt with regard to S.&P.

The deficit has been with us for a long time. Since investors are continuing to lend money to Uncle Sam at exceedingly low rates, there does not appear to be any real fear of a default. That is what matters most to bond buyers — and it why I never care what S.&P. thinks on this.

Next, L. Randall Wray thinks this is just S.& P. doing politics instead of credible ratings based on sound economic analysis:

Mind you, this has nothing to do with economics, government solvency or involuntary default. A sovereign government can always make payments as they come due by crediting bank accounts — something recognized by Chairman Ben Bernanke when he said the Fed spends by marking up the size of the reserve accounts of banks.
Similarly Chairman Alan Greenspan said that Social Security can never go broke because government can meet all its obligations by “creating money.”

Instead, sovereign government spending is constrained by budgeting procedure and by Congressionally imposed debt limits. In other words, by self-imposed constraints rather than by market constraints.

And Yves Smith says S.& P. should be embarrassed:

The United States is simply not at risk of default. Default is impossible for a sovereign currency issuer.

The Standard & Poor’s rating firm should be embarrassed. If there is any political judgment at work here, it is S.&P. falling for politically motivated scare mongering. But given its track record with mortgage securities and collateralized debt obligations, why should we be surprised to see a rating agency relying on conventional wisdom rather than analysis?

Yves and many others note that in addition to complicity in misrepresenting the risks of mortgage-based securities, the rating agencies were consistently wrong about Japan’s experience and that repeated ratings downgrades had essentially no effect on Japan’s ability to borrow at low rates.

There are more derivise opinions from James Galbraith, Paul Krugman, Dean Baker and others listed at Naked Capitalism.

The bottom line is this: The New York Times got duped by the Beltway conventional wisdom driving deficit hysteria. The credit rating companies have little or no credibility and suffer from massive conflicts of interest and their own political agenda; S.& P.’s views are particularly suspect.

The economic theory they’re hawking is wrong and the available evidence contradicts them. And plenty of people easily available to the Times knew this, but the Times neglected to ask them before it wrote its misleading story. The only thing worse is to have the Administration send Secretary Geithner to implicitly confirm the flawed theory by promising to do what the deficit hysterics want.

Given that track record, there is only one thing left for the Times to do, as it prints a retraction and apology to its readers: fire the incompetent editors who went with the phony scare story.

Japan Nuclear Watch, Wed: Radiation Leak to Sea Stopped, But Other Concerns Grow

7:39 am in Uncategorized by Scarecrow

Japanese officials announced early Wednesda they have managed to stop the serious leak of water with high radiation levels that had been flowing into the Pacific Ocean from the pit and sea-water intakes near Unit 2.

That was the good news. The bad news is what’s still unsolved and may be getting worse.

[Update: David Dayen reports Congressman Markey claims NRC officials told him some portion of the core in Unit 2 has "probably" melted through the reactor vessel, into the containment floor. That would be very bad news if confirmed.]

[Update II: The NRC disputes this interpretation even though Markey received an e-mail from an NRC staffer saying some NRC experts had speculated there might have been a reactor vessel breach]

The bad news, compiled by the New York Times, listed the very serious threats still facing the Fukushima Daiichi Units 1-4, as the Japanese stuggle with what are, as lobster points out, the potential for four simultaneous INES level 7 accidents. Be sure to read lobster’s post on how the situation at any of these Units could be credibly rated in the same category as Chernobyl.

From the New York Times:

United States government engineers sent to help with the crisis in Japan are warning that the troubled nuclear plant there is facing a wide array of fresh threats that could persist indefinitely, and that in some cases are expected to increase as a result of the very measures being taken to keep the plant stable, according to a confidential assessment prepared by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

Among the new threats that were cited in the assessment, dated March 26, are the mounting stresses placed on the containment structures as they fill with radioactive cooling water, making them more vulnerable to rupture in one of the aftershocks rattling the site after the earthquake and tsunami of March 11. The document also cites the possibility of explosions inside the containment structures due to the release of hydrogen and oxygen from seawater pumped into the reactors, and offers new details on how semimolten fuel rods and salt buildup are impeding the flow of fresh water meant to cool the nuclear cores.

Paraphrasing the Times’ list of serious causes for concern:

– Continuing potential for exposure of the cores in Units 1-3, all of which have suffered varying degrees of “meltdown” from loss of cooling water, leaving the possibility of further fuel rod cladding breakdown and release of radioactive materials, plus hydrogen gas. Hence the need for injecting nitrogen gas to inhibit explosions and boron to prevent recriticality.

– Continuing potential for further hydrogen explosions that could damage/breach containment and/or cause further radiation releases into the environment.

– Growing concern about the non-spent fuel stored in Unit 4′s storage pool, which is outside containment and thus open to the outside environment and has already suffered fire/explosion after the pool’s cooling water was partially or fully lost for some period.

– Concern that earlier explosions, especially from Unit 4′s exposed spent fuel storage pool, could have spewed radioactive materials up to a mile away.

– Growing concerns about possible containment vulnerability at Units 1-3 from the weight of massive water injections already made into the containment structures. These structures surrounding the reactor vessel are not designed to hold that much water, increasing the potential for containment breach in the event of further quakes.

– Concerns about the ability to continue, without fail, essential fresh water injections indefinitely, with no near-term solution yet available for how to get beyond this stage.

– Growing concerns about sea-water salt deposition on fuel assemblies, restricting water flow around them and thus reducing any water’s ability to carry away heat.

Because slumping fuel and salt from seawater that had been used as a coolant is probably blocking circulation pathways, the water flow in No. 1 “is severely restricted and likely blocked.” Inside the core itself, “there is likely no water level,” the assessment says, adding that as a result, “it is difficult to determine how much cooling is getting to the fuel.” Similar problems exist in No. 2 and No. 3, although the blockage is probably less severe, the assessment says.

It’s good that TEPCO was able to stop the flow of contaminated water into the Pacific Ocean, though radiation levels remain high as of Wednesday night. It’s at least better for workers who must function outside the reactor buildings. Still, radiation levels inside the reactor buildings are so high they’re literally off the scale.

Stopping the sea leak won’t change the decision to dump other supposedly less contaminated water from storage areas directly into the ocean, to make room for pumping out somewhat worse contaminated water from each unit’s turbine buildings and outside trenches. But I wonder what stopping the leak to the sea means.

After failing to stop the leak with concrete, shredded paper and other mixtures, they apparently succeeded with liquid glass — sodium silicate.

On Tuesday, the plant operator drilled a hole into a layer of gravel around the pit, and poured a hardening agent called liquid glass, or sodium silicate, to stop the leak of highly radioactive water into the sea.

TEPCO says the flow was confirmed to have stopped on Wednesday morning, and that there has since been no change in the water level in the pit and the nearby turbine building.

But where was the water coming from? And if the flow to the sea has been stopped, where is that water going or pooling now?

Sources:

NHK World
Kyodo News
Hi-res photos
IAEA Updates
Union of Concerned Scientists

To NYT Editors: It Helps to Use Facts, Analysis To Explain Paul Ryan’s Budget Plan

9:53 am in Uncategorized by Scarecrow

One of the more distressing habits of today’s badly managed/edited New York Times news section is to cast the mindlessly destructive Congressional budget battles as some political phenomenon happening to President Obama and Republicans, and not something that’s being inflicted on real people, the public interest and particularly America’s most vulnerable citizens.

The Times’ editors chose as Sunday’s lead article Carl Hulse’s story, “Budget Battle to Be Followed By a Bigger One,” with the subheading in my delivered dead-tree version, “Clash on Programs LIke Medicaid and Size of Government.” It sounds ominous, urgent, and the real story is indeed urgent, since it involves the Tea-GOP and Congressman Paul Ryan’s proposals to make draconion changes to Medicare and Medicaid.

So one would expect the article to provide facts and logical analysis explaining what the Tea-GOP’s budget leader, Paul Ryan, is planning to do about Medicare, Medicaid. But either Mr. Hulse doesn’t know, or his editors don’t think that’s important. Instead, we read that whatever it is, it will have some political effect on Obama and the Republicans. No kidding, but is that what really matters?

The article suggest we just don’t know the details of what Ryans wants. Not true. We do know what Paul Ryan wants to do, because he’s told us in his “Roadmap” and numerous statements since. And those details have been analysed and found not merely wanting but total flim flam by many analysts, including the Time’s own economics and health care writers, none of whose analysis is even hinted at in Hulse’s article.

There have been dozens of media articles and reports explaining that the cost problem with Medicare and Medicaid is not that poor and elderly people get too much health care via government programs. Instead the problem is the cost charged by private health care providers is way to high, about twice the cost paid by every other advanced nation. If we paid the same or even slightly more than what other nations do for care just as good and more univeral coverage, there would be no long-run US debt problem.

For the umpteenth time, we don’t have a public “entitlements” problem, as the Tea-GOP zombies claim; we have a problem with private health costs. Do Hulse’s editors not know this?

We know that drug makers have oligopoly price-fixing cartels, that government limits its own ability to bargain for better prices, that drugs are protected by patents that are too long, that companies routinely sign non-compete agreements that violate antitrust laws against price fixing with impunity. We know hospital ownership is becoming increasingly concentrated, that most states have no meaningful competition between health insurers, and medical specialization and health care management practices have driven up total costs. And some believe some of the Medicare payment structure reforms in the Affordable Care Act, which the Tea-GOP would repeal, will help fix that, though everyone thinks much more is needed.

But none of what we know and the Times should tell its readers appears in the Time’s article. Instead it mentions Paul Ryan’s efforts to extract trillions from Medicare and Medicaid without noting that Ryan has zero proposals to control the actual costs that are the underlying problem. Nor does the Times note that even if Medicare and Medicaid were eliminated — so they wouldn’t be a federal budget issue — the underlying private cost problem Ryan neglects would still swamp the private economy as private health care costs continue to grow much faster than GDP.

In other words, everything Tea-GOP budget genius Paul Ryan is doing is misguided, even stupid and counterproductive, not to mention cruel, because he knee caps the only enitity with sufficient authority and market power to tackle the cost problem. Then Ryan wants to shift the unmitigated risks of rising health care costs onto the very people — seniors and the poor — least able to fight back.

Under Ryan’s Medicare plans, the government would put powerless individuals into unregulated individual markets dominated by oligopolies, cartels and price fixing arrangements and force them to choose between paying excess prices or going without health care. For Medicaid (see David Dayen’s post), Ryan would provide less money, package it in block grants to states, and force them to provide less coverage or knock people off the system.

And we know what that means, because credible studies find that when 50 million people can’t afford health insurance, tens of thousands of them die, every bloody year. So Mr. Ryan’s “budget” plan is, in effect, a death sentence for many of those who can’t afford to pay the rising costs for necessary care.

Those would seem to be important facts, analyses, logic to explain to readers if you’re telling them on your front page that there’s this bigger budget battle looming that involves health care. Numerous articles and studies available to the Times — try Google — some even appearing in the Times, have explained this, but neither Hulse nor his editors think their readers need to know that.