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Thursday, February 28, 2013

We knew something was wrong when it exploded

Today at the BP trial, BP's safety officer Mark Bly is testifying. Bly compiled BP's official report on the Macondo blowout.
But the report laid most of the blame on Transocean, setting the tone for finger-pointing among the companies.

Allocation of blame is one of two focuses in this first phase of the non-jury trial before U.S. District Judge Carl Barbier, which will run for months if it does not settle first. The other focus is severity of negligence among the companies.

Bly said BP and Transocean crews missed critical signs of well pressure changes that signaled the well was not under control until it was too late to stop the blowout. If pressure in the oil reservoir deep under the seabed is higher than that in the well, oil and gas will flow upward.

Bly said BP's well site leader and Transocean crews misinterpreted a pressure test that showed that change, as well as later pressure changes, losing key reaction time.

"That risk was neither recognized or addressed until it was too late?" Sterbcow asked.

"There were signs that the well was flowing," Bly said. "It didn't seem to be recognized or reacted to."
Yes, yes, mistakes were made, but by whom? Key to Bly's testimony is whether the Transocean crew's "misinterpretation" happened independently or in consultation with BP overseers back in Houston.
A Justice Department lawyer, Mike Underhill, asked Bly about a certain call that was made between a BP well-site leader on the rig and a BP manager on shore about a pressure test on the well. Bly said the call wasn’t mentioned in his report, though a presidential commission that investigated the spill determined that the call in question had been made. Lawyers for the plaintiffs and Justice Department have asserted the call an hour before the blast concerned anomalies in the pressure test.

BP has admitted that it misinterpreted the test as a success and moved forward with procedures related to temporarily abandoning the well. By removing heavy drilling mud from the well, gas was allowed to freely flow up the well because the cement plug wasn’t holding.

Bly acknowledged under intense questioning that he was in charge of BP’s global safety operation at the time of the disaster and that his company has pleaded guilty to causing the deaths of 11 workers on the rig. But even though his probe didn’t look at management causes, he defended management’s actions.

“Obviously there was a terrible tragedy. I completely see that,” Bly testified. “But that doesn’t mean the management system we were using was an absolute failure.
Not to get too bogged down in the semantics but "absolute failure" isn't the standard being applied in this case.  We're only looking for "gross negligence." Even though such distinctions may become academic to most of us once the rig catches on fire, it actually means quite a lot.

If U.S. District Judge Carl Barbier rules that the company was grossly negligent, then it could be fined up to $4,300 per barrel spilled under the Clean Water Act. (Barbier is hearing the case without a jury.) The government says 4.1 million barrels spilled, having reportedly backed away from an earlier estimate of 4.9 million barrels. If the judge accepts that figure, and also rules that BP was grossly negligent, the company may have to fork out $17.6 billion to the American people in Clean Water Act fines alone.

And that figure doesn’t include additional fines and compensation for damage that the spill caused, which is expected to be billions more, over and above the tens of billions of dollars in settlements and cleanup costs to date.

If Barbier rules that the company was just plain ol’ negligent, however, the Clean Water Act fines would be capped at $1,100 per barrel. If he also accepts BP’s claim that no more than 3.1 million barrels of oil was spilled, then the company could be liable for up to $3.4 billion in Clean Water Act fines.

And because Louisiana intends to apply Clean Water Act fines toward crucial coastal restoration projects, this decision is of the utmost import. Well, okay, maybe not utmost utmost, depending on whom you ask but you get the idea. It's a big deal.

On the other hand, Moseley offered this unsettling comment as part of The Lens news round-up yesterday.
The Environmental Trial of the Century — Gulf Restoration Network | GRN’s Aaron Viles advocates maximum penalties for BP and says approximately $50 billion in total restitution would fulfill BP’s promise to make things right. ” … [R]estoring our environment restores our economy,” Viles contends. (While I agree in principle, I think the time value of money must be factored in. If BP gets the maximum penalty, there’s no chance we’ll see that money soon. Remember that Exxon appealed judgments for nearly two decades after the Valdez disaster in Alaska, and then the U.S. Supreme Court slashed the amount owed in damages.)
In other words, this whole argument may only be to determine the difference between Louisiana receiving a woefully unhelpful sum now or a perhaps even more woefully unhelpful sum twenty years from now.  I'm sure after those two decades pass we'll all be able to look back from the decks of our floating cottages and/or fire ant rafts and laugh. But for now... maybe not so much.

Progress!

Today is the last day of February and I've still got a Mardi Gras re-cap post in draft which no one will care about when I post.  So I'm glad to see it's still at least slightly topical today.

The use of public space on the Mardi Gras parade routes improved slightly this year, City Councilwoman LaToya Cantrell said Wednesday night, but the city laws need to be reviewed starting now to make sure that less of the sidewalks and neutral grounds are unfairly co-opted by furniture, ropes and improperly-placed ladders.


Parade-route conduct has long been a sore spot for some New Orleanians, and the proliferation of living-room furniture and portable toilets definitely seems to have worsened in recent years, said Cantrell, whose City Council district includes almost the entirety of the Uptown route. But her direct involvement as a councilwoman began just before the parades did, when she told a Gambit reporter that she had yet to hear from her new constituents specifically about that issue.

Sure enough, she said, she began to hear from them almost immediately afterward.

“It was a call to action, and then I began to hear from you,” Cantrell told members of the Bouligny Improvement Association, which represents the area just upriver of Napoleon Avenue between Magazine and St. Charles. “By phone, by email — but it was a good thing.”
Good on Councilwoman Cantrell for being one responsive mo-fo. Sure, the Endymion Orleans Avenue situation may seem like the belly of the beast when it comes to this stuff but if we're going to work toward normalizing good behavior the place to work on that is in District B where most of the parading happens. 

Oh by the way, the Gambit article they're talking about can be found here.

As to the "improved slightly" aspect of this, I can confirm that to some degree.  On more than one occasion this year, we witnessed NOPD asking people to move ladders and other obstructions out of the intersection.
That bodes well for everyone's safety since it allows emergency vehicles to cross if needed. But it also makes the intersection a pleasant oasis for parade watchers among a wasteland of tent and ladder hell on the neutral grounds.

But it could still be better. Here are two photographs from Sunday (float rider's perspective) that illustrate the difference pretty well.  This one was taken at Napoleon Avenue.

Napoleon and Magazine

Because there are no massive obstructions in the street, people can stand 10 or 11 rows deep and all share a pretty nice view of the parade. They also have plenty room to move forward or backward during the day.  Sure a parade is a spectacle, but it's also a street party.  People like to move around rather than be stuck in one specific "seat" the whole time.

Contrast that with this scene on St. Charles Avenue.

St Charles

The people behind the great wall of ladders and roped-off tent seating are barely participating. Or at least they're having a significantly different experience from that of the people on the other side.  During the second weekend of Carnival, this scene is unchanged all the way through once the parade turns onto Napoleon from Magazine.    It's nice that it gets broken up a little at the intersections but, in order to accommodate the ever-increasing crowds, this needs to be managed better along the neutral grounds as well.

Moving Forward

Very glad to know that Tony Hayward has allowed himself to heal from the terrible tragedy that happened to him.
Mr Hayward was speaking the day after part of his 2011 video deposition on the Gulf of Mexico disaster was screened in a New Orleans court, where BP is facing trial for the accident. Mr Hayward resigned as BP chief executive after facing criticism for his handling of the spill.

He said he was “not really” keeping an eye on the proceedings, adding: “For me it’s the past. I have no role to play.”

His role at BP had not been an issue when seeking exploration access for Genel and was raised “only ever in a positive way”.
"Positive ways" in which Hayward's role at BP could be raised: "It blew up real good, didn't it?" "Before this, nobody knew how magical microbes could be!" "The boys who sell us Corexit say business has never been better!"

Serpas Signal

It's our first such event since before Super-Carnival-Bowl.  The celebrations must have occasioned some sort of general amnesty, although we didn't see it announced anywhere. Or maybe attentions were focused on other means of harassment.

In any case, they're back.  This announcement went out last evening which means the "tomorrow night" in the message refers to tonight. 

Sobriety Checkpoint

New Orleans, LA - As required by the Louisiana Supreme Court, the New Orleans Police Department is issuing a public advisory regarding a sobriety checkpoint that will be conducted tomorrow night.

The New Orleans Police Department’s Traffic Division will conduct a sobriety checkpoint in the Orleans Parish area beginning at approximately 9:00 P.M., and will conclude at approximately 5:00 A.M. Motorists will experience minimal delays and should have the proper documentation available if requested, i.e., proof of insurance, driver’s license, etc.

In which Jindal ruins NOLA's biggest economic development project in decades

Oh and public health services too.
The initial agreements inked by the nonprofit, the LSU hospital system and the state calls for the company to put up lease payments that will be used to draw down federal dollars to run the hospital. Employees at the Interim LSU Public Hospital will lose their jobs as state employees, but can reapply with the new company.

Some have raised questions about whether the UMC's future finances depend on the state taking the federal Medicaid expansion envisioned under Obamacare, which Gov. Bobby Jindal has said he will reject. The final business plans for the hospital assumed the state would be expanding Medicaid to hundreds of thousands of currently uninsured people.

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Yes, but was it "grossly negligent"?

I mean, sure, we know it was all these other things.
The damning testimony from industry veteran Alan Huffman came during the third day of a civil trial over the 2010 disaster off Louisiana. It heightened the pressure on BP, with billions of dollars at stake from the outcome of the trial.

Drilling ahead in this environment was not only unsafe, it violated every standard I know in how wells are drilled in deep waters,” said Huffman, chief technology officer of SIGMA³ Integrated Reservoir Solutions.

Huffman, who has over 30 years of experience in the oil and gas industry and has previously worked for Exxon and Conoco, said BP in drilling the well repeatedly violated the safe drilling margin, in some cases drilling with no margin at all.

“That is not what a prudent operator does,” Huffman said.

Huffman said there were several kicks, or evidence of gas or oil intrusion, in the well during the drilling of the well. The work should have stopped at that point, he said.  But BP decided to continue to drill ahead when it reached 18,220 feet, endangering the lives of the workers on the Deepwater Horizon rig above.

“I would have been very concerned for everyone on that rig,” he said.
Actually that article leaves out the most damning statement from Huffman.




Still.. couldn't he have worked in the word, "gross"? Somewhere between the "unsafe" and "egregious" maybe?

The Fuel Fix article does, however, include a link to Tony Hayward's video testimony which was also presented today. No, he does not do the Harlem Shake.



After lunch, there will be a cross-examination of Huffman and, I think, more video testimony from Spill Cam. 

One that works

More from Bob Bea yesterday at the BP trial:
But when Brock also tried to show that BP took the steps necessary to properly develop the well, including the use of a blowout preventer, Bea's answers didn't quite go as planned.

"A safety conscious operator would want to have in place a BOP?" Brock said. "That works," Bea said, referring to the failure of the preventer on the Macondo well to block off the flow of oil. Testimony on Monday focused on dead batteries and a failed solenoid on the preventer as reasons it didn't work properly.

"And that was approved by MMS?" Brock asked, referring to the federal Minerals Management Service, whose safety regulations are now implemented by the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement. The Macondo blowout preventer was approved by the MMS. "That works," Bea repeated.
This being New Orleans, there are several circumstances under which I can pick up a new brake tag regardless of whether or not any of the safety features on my vehicle are working properly. So I would have been approved by the regulating agency, technically, but if my brakes fail and I plow into a school knowing all of this... well that's probably "gross negligence."

Just dump the thing

The sequester "crisis" is not a real crisis.  All Congress has to do is click its heels together and we all go home.
The AFL-CIO is coming out today for a repeal of the sequester. The labor federation will press the case in the days ahead that the sequester perpetuates destructive government-by-crisis, and that more austerity — replacing the sequester with other spending cuts — is exactly what the country doesn’t need at a time of mass unemployment and lackluster growth.

“We need to repeal the sequester,” Damon Silvers, the policy director of the AFL-CIO, told me in an interview this morning. “It’s bad economic policy, and it feeds a dynamic that encourages hostage taking. We are calling on elected officials not to play this game of substituting one bad thing for another bad thing. We’re insisting that our elected officials not buy into this inside Washington game of manufactured crises.”
But  Congress prefers all of those bad outcomes.

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

And in NOLA government they call this "doing more with less"

More from Bob Bea today at the BP trial.

BP had a safety system known as the operating management system (OMS) that executives described as the "cornerstone" of their safety practices, but that was not applied in the Gulf, the court heard.

Cunningham asked what share of blame BP management should take responsibility for the accident. "When you are talking about the system you are not just talking about the rig, you are talking about the system all the way onshore and all the way to London," said Cunningham. "Yes," said Bea.

The court was shown documents signed by Tony Hayward, BP's former chief executive, describing OMS as "the cornerstone for safety at BP". Hayward will appear in video testimony later this week.

Bea was asked why he believed the company had not implemented that system on the Deepwater Horizon. Bea said the main factor was cost-cutting.

Earlier the court had been told of Bea's work on other disasters including the Exxon Valdez, the Petrobas P36 oil rig disaster in 2001 and Nasa's disastrous Columbia launch in 2003. Nasa's management mantra had been: "Better, faster, cheaper," said Bea.

"This is the equivalent to Nasa's mantra that got them into so much trouble. 'better, faster, cheaper'; in this case it's a mantra of 'every dollar counts'," he said.
And it always works so perfectly until the space shuttles and drilling rigs start exploding.  That's when the lawyers are called in to do the dollar disaster mitigation.  Speaking of which, here's a fun fact for today. BP attorney Mike Brock was an All-American offensive lineman at Alabama.





Recall at various points BP has claimed that reported incidences of oil spoiling beaches or harming marine life could be attributed instead to Crimson Tide algae events. Which puts Mr. Brock in an even more difficult position.

Great moments in gross negligence

Was reminded of this episode on the Twitternet just now.

Tony Buzbee, a lawyer representing 15 rig workers and dozens of shrimpers, seafood restaurants, and dock workers, says he has obtained a three-page signed statement from a crew member on the boat that rescued the burning rig's workers. The sailor, whom Buzbee refuses to name for fear of costing him his job, was on the ship's bridge when Deepwater Horizon installation manager Jimmy Harrell, a top employee of rig owner Transocean, was speaking with someone in Houston via satellite phone. Buzbee told Mother Jones that, according to this witness account, Harrell was screaming, "Are you fucking happy? Are you fucking happy? The rig's on fire! I told you this was gonna happen."

Whoever was on the other end of the line was apparently trying to calm Harrell down. "I am fucking calm," he went on, according to Buzbee. "You realize the rig is burning?"

At that point, the boat's captain asked Harrell to leave the bridge. It wasn't clear whether Harrell had been talking to Transocean, BP, or someone else.

By all accounts, Daily Kingfish is badly out of touch

Geeze:
By all accounts, his reign as Mayor of New Orleans has been spectacularly successful. If you’ve visited the city recently like we have, you’ll note it is alight with improvements.
As we've attempted to document at several turns here, Mitch is deliberately selling New Orleans out to tourism magnates, developers, and gentrifiiers.  Everyone's rent is up. Water bills are up. Entergy bills are about to go up.

Anyone who complains is told by the Mayor that their problem is they just don't want to "make sacrifices."
And sacrifice... this is what sacrifice means, you know we hear it like it's a very good thing. Sacrifice means waiting in line longer. Sacrifice means paying more. Sacrifice means working harder. And it, by nature, hurts. And it's something that we don't want to do. And sometimes I think we here don't understand that that's part of really getting good
Meanwhile, the citizens continue to clamor for a constitutionally sound police force that maybe doesn't randomly beat them senseless.

 But the mayor has decided that might call for too much sacrifice.

Seen this somewhere before

Isn't this precisely the sort of thing that got the last administration's technology department in trouble?

Still, the foundation’s work goes on largely outside the usual scope of accountability, even though documents abundantly demonstrate a working relationship between the foundation and city officials in the Office of Information Technology and Innovation.

The official line from City Hall is that the foundation isn’t working for the city.

“The New Orleans Police and Justice Foundation is not signing a contract or doing business on behalf of the city,” said Landrieu spokesman Berni, speaking on the proposed Sierra contract before it was scuttled.
But employees of the city of New Orleans were directly involved in the Sierra Systems proposal, according to emails obtained by The Lens. At least one thought Sierra was the wrong choice.

In an email to Weaver, city employee Lamar Gardere said he “was swayed by Geocent’s specific knowledge of ITI and NOPD environment and the feeling that we may be able to negotiate a lower price based on previously delivered exploratory work.”

Gardere’s opinion did not sway the rest of the selection committee, which included other city IT workers and members of the foundation’s tech team.

In another email from late summer, a city information-technology contractor, Bill Garbee, warned other employees involved in the bid evaluation to “keep these documents confidential and do NOT distribute the documents to anyone else as the evaluation is ongoing and no decision on award has been made.”

Typically, decisions about the public’s right to check out bids under review by the city of New Orleans emanate from the City Attorney’s office, and not from the email account of a contract worker.
And, of course the larger issue is a private foundation has purview over loads of sensitive data with regard to any individual's interfacing with the criminal justice system. Another triumph for "public-private partnerships" no doubt. 


"It's a classic failure of management and leadership in BP"

Robert Bea's testimony at the BP trial
"It's a classic failure of management and leadership in BP," said Bea, a former BP consultant who also investigated the 1989 Exxon Valdez spill and New Orleans levee breaches after Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

The London-based company has said its "Operating Management System" was designed to drive a rigorous and systematic approach to safety and risk management. Yet it was only implemented at one of the seven rigs the company owned or leased in the Gulf.

Bea said it was "tragic" and "egregious" that BP didn't apply its own safety program to the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig before the Macondo well blowout triggered the explosion that killed 11 workers and spawned the massive spill. Transocean owned the rig; BP leased it.
Yeah yeah "tragic" "egregious" but was it "gross"?

One of the biggest questions facing U.S. District Judge Carl Barbier, who is hearing the case without a jury, is whether BP acted with gross negligence.

Under the Clean Water Act, a polluter can be forced to pay a minimum of $1,100 per barrel of spilled oil; the fines nearly quadruple to about $4,300 a barrel for companies found grossly negligent, meaning BP could be on the hook for nearly $18 billion.
The plaintiff's lawyers should coach every witness to use the word "gross" as often as possible. 

“He’s got a large number of people in Louisiana who just do not like him”

I'm still intrigued by Jindal's possible strategies.

He could his diminishing statewide political capital into a Senate race. The benefits of a win there would be renewed "rising star" momentum and a return to Washington where he'd be politically insulated from the various time bombs his policies have set in Louisiana .  And, of course, he could continue to build his Presidential campaign which is inevitable either way.

Or he could wait it out here in the sinking paradise.  No matter how low his approval ratings get among Louisiana voters, his program is sure to continue impressing the national Republican donors it's designed to play to.
He’s pushing to eliminate all corporate and personal income taxes, in favor of sales tax increases. He’s refused to expand Medicaid under Obama’s health care overhaul, and he’s dismantling the state’s unique public hospital system, in no small part through his control over the leadership of the LSU System that runs the health care enterprise. He has privatized parts of the Medicaid insurance program for the poor along with state workers’ health care plan.

He’s dramatically cut the number of state workers, though mostly by issuing contracts to pay private firms to do the same work. He’s created one of the nation’s largest school voucher programs, with a price tag of $25 million this year and more than 4,900 students enrolled.
Plus, by staying in the Governor's chair, Jindal doesn't run the risk of losing an election to Mary Landrieu which is the one thing most likely to kill his ambitions. 

Update: Mary is already firing preemptive shots across the bow

U.S. Sen. May Landrieu blasted Gov. Bobby Jindal on Tuesday morning saying he is putting his political ambitions ahead of the health and economic interests of Louisiana.

Her comments came over Jindal’s rejection of “Medicaid expansion” as part of the federal Affordable Care Act, called ‘Obamacare,’ which goes into effect in 2014. The expansion would allow people who earn too much money or otherwise don’t qualify for Medicaid, but too little to buy their own insurance, to get coverage under the government program.

“He just seems to be adamant about pushing his political future ahead of the economic interests of the people of Louisiana. It’s very disheartening to me and a growing number of people in our state,” said Landrieu. D-La. “It’s his quest to be the next president and to check off the tea party ‘I am the most conservative person in America’ check list. If he were to get his mind and heart on the people he’s representing, we might have better outcomes.”

Monday, February 25, 2013

Winning

The Democrats are "poised and confident" because they believe they are going to "win" the public opinion fight over the sequester.
Democrats enjoy a massive public relations advantage over the GOP. Voters are prepared to blame Republicans. The Democrats have an unusually steady message. Republicans are lurching from message to message as they try futilely to blame Obama for sequestration’s very existence, while contending that its consequences won’t be so dire (except when they contend it will hollow out the military) and to argue just as futilely that Obama’s revenue demand is an act of duplicity.
Unfortunately this is very different from "winning" the policy fight.  In terms of their party's (nominal, anyway) policy goals, we're likely to see the Democrats lose a lot.  Whatever deal is eventually reached will undoubtedly contain lots and lots of horrifying cuts to many necessary social services that people rely on.  But because the Democrats have maneuvered things in such a way that Republicans will take most of the "blame" for these cuts (at least initially) then this constitutes a big win for team D.

Way to go, guys.

MacFarlane

I'm not surprised this didn't go well.  I know Family Guy is supposed to be the current marquee animated comedy inheriting that mantle from The Simpsons and South Park.  I watch it and I think it's a funny show. But it's also never struck me as being quite as smart or even sweet as each of those other two shows can often be.

If you're a fan of this kind of comedy you've likely got a high tolerance for crudity.   But Family Guy often falls into a trap where the meanness of a gag overtakes any other aspect of it.   This is a difficult distinction to describe. But when, for example, a crude South Park gag posits that Bono is literally a walking piece of poo, one never loses sight of the fact that Bono is the object of a pointed ridicule.   A Family Guy gag like that often quickly jumps off the rails into something that sounds like, "Oooh look at us! We said poo! Aren't we naughty!"

I'm not saying this is always the case with Family Guy, but it does happen.  And this problem doesn't necessarily relate directly to the show's "blue" humor either.  The show's other trademark, its frequent de-contextualized random pop-culture references, often fails for the same reason.  They seem designed to impress via the strength of their own trivia rather than their relevance to a narrative. And I know that's MacFarlane's schtick, and I often find it funny, but there are times when it seems... overly nerdy... like he's just trying to impress the audience with his recall of ephemera rather than put it to any use.

And this is why I'm not surprised he bombed last night.  I like Joan Walsh's take in the article I've linked above.
Still, I don’t entirely blame MacFarlane for his insulting, sexist shtick. It’s a symptom of the people who run the awards ceremony – they still call themselves “The Academy” though the awards now have the folksy name “The Oscars” — utterly losing their way. The Shatner bit mocked the way the show, sadly, has become all about the host, and how badly he or she bombed. Or maybe didn’t bomb, but didn’t do well enough to come back the next year. And let’s face it: The main thing hosts are judged on is whether they skewer the winners, and the entire process, with exactly the right tone. But no one has decreed exactly how nasty that tone should be: How much are we supposed to hate these people, anyway?

Where I depart from that, though, is if the Oscars really wanted to roast themselves they brought on the wrong guy to meet that purpose.  MacFarlane is, in essence, a shock jock. In a strange irony, irreverent humor needs to be grounded in sincerity in order to be effective. And MacFarlane isn't sincere enough about anything apart from making an impression. I think if you're actually looking for a host with the "daring" to be deliberately nasty to the entire scene, then you'll have to hire someone who actually hates it enough to sell that instead of someone who really just wants to be liked for his nastiness. But what person meeting that criteria would accept... or even be offered... that job, really?

Sequestration is a bad bad thing

Here is a list of some of the very bad things that will happen in Louisiana if the sequester is allowed to go into effect.

Sequestration was sold as an arm-twisting mechanism that would goad congress into action.  But it's really just a game of chicken that can be called off at any time. Also Republicans, despite their whining, are mostly happy if the sequester cuts happen anyway.  This is the tax cut extension standoff in reverse. That time the Democrats had all the leverage but caved anyway.  This time Republicans are going to get most of what they want either way.

But everyone will continue to talk about how badly they're being beaten for some reason.

CourtTV kind of day shaping up

Aaron Broussard sentenced to 3 years 10 months and it's not even 11 o'clock yet

I expect we may see a thing or two on Slabbed later. 

Looks like someone has a case of the Mondays

I know the feeling, coach. Really.



I'm trying hard to let it go, but the inability of the joyless and humorless to comprehend a (not all that funny.. but still)  tweet by a satirical news organization last night has me seriously concerned that the world is broken.

The most insidious threat to free speech isn't government censorship (although it is bad and getting worse). Instead, it's our own susceptibility to the hypersensitivity programmed into us by the brand-conscious marketers who run most of our media.  Eventually we do their dirty work for them and shout each other down to the point where the only acceptable things for any of us to talk about are the movies we want to see and the products we enjoy.  

So good job enabling that, thought police.  You win this one.

Will BP let us eat cake?

BP Cake

As much fun as it was to watch Ray Nagin walk into federal court, say "Not guilty" 21 times, and then turn around and leave last week, the courtroom action most relevant to Louisiana's future begins Monday.
The long-awaited civil trial against BP and its partners in the ill-fated Macondo oil well is slated to begin Monday in federal court in New Orleans, setting the stage for a three-month proceeding to assign liability potentially worth tens of billions of dollars for the explosion and collapse of the Deepwater Horizon rig in 2010, which killed 11 workers and caused one of the worst environmental disasters in U.S. history.

More importantly for BP and the other companies, the first phase of the complex court case will focus on whether their actions leading up to the accident constitute gross negligence or willful misconduct, which would result in a four-fold increase in the billions of dollars of Clean Water Act penalties expected to be levied.
The size of the Clean Water  Act fine is critical to the future of the Louisiana coast.  Under the terms of the RESTORE Act, this would be the money Louisiana would dedicate to implementing its 50 year coastal rebuilding master plan.  The scope of the dire emergency the state is facing may be even worse than what the authors of that plan anticipated as Bob Marshall explains in this recent Lens piece.
NOAA’s Tim Osborne, an 18-year veteran of Louisiana coastal surveys, and Steve Gill, senior scientist at the agency’s Center for Operational Oceanographic Products and Services, spelled out the grim reality in interviews with The Lens. When new data on the rate of coastal subsidence is married with updated projections of sea-level rise, the southeast corner of Louisiana looks likely to be under at least 4.3 feet of gulf water by the end of the century.

That rate could swamp projects in the state’s current coastal Master Plan, which incorporated worst-case scenarios for relative sea-level rise calculated two years ago— which the new figures now make out-of-date.
So that's not good.  But, in the meantime, it only underscores the importance of what's about to happen this week.  And that's where it gets confusing.  As late as Friday, we were still reading about 11th hour settlement talks.  Interestingly, though, the Restore Act may have rendered such a settlement too complicated to hammer out.
But the statute worsened what were already growing tensions among the states over how they could use any funds from BP, between environmental damage and economic losses. “Up until last year, all the states were rowing together,” said one lawyer who also spoke on the condition of anonymity. 

The split among the Gulf Coast states surfaced again in November when the Justice Department announced the $4.5 billion settlement of criminal charges against BP. At the time, federal and state officials were also seeking to resolve the civil damage claims. 

But those talks failed largely because of disagreements between Louisiana and other states on issues like the size of the settlement that BP was offering, said people briefed on the talks.
The issues coming out of the talks last fall were even more complicated than that, actually.  For a time, it seemed like Governor Jindal and Senator Vitter were in favor of ditching the Restore Act altogether, although their reasons never became clear to me.  I did make some guesses here, though.

Still if this thing does actually go to trial Monday, the key will be pinning the "gross negligence" charge on BP.  A week ago, their lead attorney seemed confident of wriggling out of that one.

Bondy argued that BP acted rapidly and with extraordinary efforts to attempt to plug the well and limit the effects of the oil spill on both the environment and the public.

On the public side, those efforts included the company's decision not to limit its liability under provisions of the Oil Pollution Act of 1990; to create a $20 billion trust fund within weeks of the accident to begin paying for damages; and to appoint Kenneth Feinberg to handle financial claims.

"And we went to pretty extraordinary lengths and efforts to seal the well" and limit the amount of oil reaching the surface, he said. "At one point, we had 48,000 people working on the response," with so many ships and airplanes involved that the fleets were larger than many nations' armed forces.

"I'm not telling you all this to tout our behavior because this was a tragic accident that took 11 lives and created devastating effects on the Gulf Coast," he said. "But when you look at the legal process to determine what the penalty should be for this spill, this is highly relevant and needs to be taken into account."
You might remember BP's series of "extraordinary efforts to plug the well." A series of stunts with colorful names, "Top Kill" "Junk Shot" etc. which many observers surmised were done specifically for the sake of limiting liability while the long process of drilling a relief well could proceed? Well you're about to see that card played from the top of BP's deck. 

Still at issue is exactly how many barrels of oil were released into the water during the spill. The 4.9 million barrels used in most accounts, based on government estimates, includes 820,000 barrels that BP recovered directly. That oil was sold, and the money collected was donated to Gulf Coast charities.

But Bondy said the remaining 4.1 million barrel estimate is at least 20 percent too high. That would drop the range for maximum fines to between $3.3 billion and $14.1 billion.

Federal prosecutors, on the other hand, say their evidence shows that BP officials lied to the Coast Guard and Congressional investigators in claiming soon after the accident that only 5,000 barrels of oil a day were being released from the well, when internal documents indicated the company's own experts believed as many as 100,000 barrels a day were pouring from under the sea floor.
Ah yes, the never-ending flow-rate dispute. Another case of no-surprise here. Thanks to BP's constant obfuscation and misinformation campaign, the estimates varied from as little as 1,000 barrels per day to greater than 62,000. And now we're going to court with tens of thousands of barrels worth of wiggle room.  Mission accomplished, I guess.

Meanwhile, just this weekend, Dambala toured the Wisner Trust land near Port Fourchon and shot some video.  Watch both videos he has posted there but pay special attention to the one where workers are still collecting tarballs along the beach.  According to Dambala's guide, the beach itself is already 75 yards further inland from where it was when oil first started washing up there.

Sunday, February 24, 2013

Kisses to the crying cooks

Bill Moyers this week features a talk with Saru Jayaraman, co-director of the Restaurant Opportunities Centers United. ROC's goal is to create a more stable fair wage and work environment for the country's 10 million restaurant workers.  The minimum wage for workers in "tipped" positions is $2.13 and hour and has been for over 20 years.

Now sure, some of them earn tips on top of those wages, but there are plenty of workers, particularly imagine your average server in an IHOP in Texas earning $2.13 an hour, graveyard shift, no tips.  The company’s supposed to make up the difference between $2.13 and $7.25 but time and time again that doesn’t happen.

They live on tips, and when slow night happens and you don’t earn anything or very little in tips you often can’t pay the rent. And I guarantee you in every restaurant in America there’s at least one person who’s on the verge of homelessness or being evicted or going through some kind of instability.

It’s an incredible irony that the people that who put food on our tables use food stamps at twice the rate of the rest of the U.S.workforce.  Meaning that the people who put food on our tables can’t afford to put food on their own family’s tables, and they don’t use food stamps because they want to, they use food stamps because their wages are so low and they face higher levels of what’s called food insecurity than other workers. So they can’t afford to eat!

The other key issue that we find that workers face is the lack of paid sick days and healthcare benefits; two-thirds of all workers report cooking, preparing, and serving food when they’re ill, with the flu or other sicknesses.  And with a wage as little as $2.13, so reliant on tips for their wages, these workers simply cannot afford to take a day off when sick, let alone risk losing their jobs. 

 The video segment with Jayaraman only lasts about 10 minutes.



ROC is active in hospitality-dependent New Orleans as well.  In a city where we hear constant talk from political and business leaders about the importance of hospitality and the so-called "cultural economy" it's good to see someone talk about making our leading industry sustain the people who provide it with the bulk of the labor necessary for it to operate.

Not that many servers don't do quite well, of course. But by nature, tipped workers live with a great deal of uncertainty depending on seasonal variances, and often have no or extremely poor access to health and other benefits.

A similar set of problems is faced by musicians (another key component of the "cultural economy") who because of the structure of their careers, often have to rely on charitable services , or at least maintain a "day job" to look after their basic needs.  Varg wrote about this at length last fall.
So, while the selling of our culture by corporate entities is indeed dirty and whorish. The main ingredient in the argument must always be the continued viability of those who contribute to it. And not just getting by like they always have but actually prospering, having health benefits, raising children, buying homes, getting resources, tools, supplies to better contribute and perhaps even inspire?

While locals do their best and certainly supplement a lot of incomes, corporate, tourist and civic dollars help tremendously. Musicians may bemoan corporate gigs, but they take them and sometimes, they even have a good time there. And most of the time the corporate gigs pay far more than the local establishments like, oh I don’t know, Balcony Music Club for example.

My wife was taught early by a local trumpet player that $50 makes “a gig.” You may show up and put a tip jar out and get a percentage of the bar but if you make under $50, it wasn’t “a gig.” Corporate gigs are always “a gig.” Now understand, we are talking about $50 fucking dollars for a night’s work by what we like to call the best musicians in the country.

Sometimes my wife comes home and shakes her head and says, “It wasn’t a gig.”
The Super Bowl New Orleans recently hosted was lauded as a grand success for the city's image and the future of its so-called cultural economy as a major money maker.  The kinds of reforms ROC is pushing for, such as a fairer wage, or better benefits, could ensure that the producers in this economy share more equitably in its benefits.  For some reason, though, Mayor Landrieu doesn't spend much time on such concerns during his many many speeches and initiatives on behalf of the hospitality industry.  But if we are going to talk about how important hospitality and entertainment jobs are for  New Orleans, we should be willing to talk about making sure those are jobs worth having.

Saturday, February 23, 2013

Backblogged

Bead pile

Still busy shoveling out from under all the Mardi Gras-Superbowl stuff so I've got a number of nearly finished items to post (including some Mardi Gras and Superbowl stuff) so bear with me over the next few days.

In the meantime, if you're a local news junkie, you'd do well to keep up with The Lens's new "What we're reading" feature.

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Ya think?

Kevin Drum (At the bottom of a load of questionable musings I don't have time to unpack right now):

However, there's certainly one profession where I think this has changed a lot, and probably not for the better: mine. Reporters of the past were a mix of everything from Walter Lippman to the working class strivers from The Front Page. But there aren't many Hildy Johnsons left today. That may not be an unalloyed bad thing, but on balance it's a loss. No matter how hard you try, it's tough to really empathize with the common problems of half the population if you don't have, and have never had, any real connection to them. I suspect that our modern trivia-centric, narrative-obsessed style of DC journalism owes a lot to this.
Um.. yes. This is specifically the problem. And not just in DC either. Even in the wild and free internet age,  your news is presented through a filter of elitism greatly at odds with your own particular outlook and interests. Read carefully.

Memories

Harkening back, yet again, to the heady days of our "rock star" former Mayor

Ever since the July day when Mayor Ray Nagin announced that 84 arrest warrants had been issued in a massive campaign against public corruption, New Orleans has been a changed city. The simple fact that such a thing could take place in the town called the Big Easy is a signal of change in itself. But even more striking has been the way Nagin's efforts have been embraced by the public.

The arrest warrants arose from an investigation of the city's car inspection and taxi licensing bureaus that Nagin launched shortly after taking office in May, and they were just the beginning. In the months since, his administration has dismantled the city's Utilities Bureau, announced that it had found graft in contracting and revealed extensive fraud in federal housing contracts. In addition, the acting U.S. attorney in New Orleans announced late in August that the FBI is two years into an ongoing probe of graft in city hall. "Everyone's settling in for two or three years of probes," says one local reporter.
The "massive campaign against public corruption" turned out to be a joke.  The immediate effect at the time was a number of cab drivers, themselves little more than more victims of the mess at the taxicab bureau, were arrested and frog marched for TV cameras. Nagin was cheered as a hero.

After that nothing happened. Before retiring, DA Harry Connick declared much of what Nagin's crackdown had yielded to be unprosecutable garbage.
By late last week, Connick had refused charges against all but eight city workers out of nearly 100 cabbies and municipal employees arrested in the mayor's corruption probe arrests in July. "The courts have actually agreed with Connick on issues of probable cause for those arrests, but his decision is unpopular," (criminologist Peter) Scharf says.

Political pollster Ed Renwick concurs: "He has reasons for not prosecuting those cases -- but with the public, it's gone over like a ton of bricks."

Connick not only refused the charges, he called on the mayor, the police chief and the media to apologize for the arrests, which were televised and announced in advance by The Times-Picayune.

"For [Nagin] to lead the public to believe that the police gave us good evidence is grossly unfair, and this is what he has done," Connick says.

In response, Nagin continued to demagogue welcoming the arrival of "a new DA and a fresh perspective."  In time, New Orleanians would render a different judgment on Eddie Jordan's "perspective." At the time, though, Nagin's comment allowed Connick to get in one particularly prescient parting shot.
Responding to Nagin's comments, Connick says, "I consider that to be insulting because it questions my integrity. ... I think he's become involved in something and he's, in fact, over his head. This is new to him, and I don't think he knows what to do."
Yesterday's arraignment of Nagin was mostly a distraction; an occasion for the same local press that cheered Nagin's bogus taxicab bureau crackdown to come out and gawk at him now.  Still there's a certain symmetry to appreciate in watching Nagin take the same sort of walk of shame he had himself subjected those cab drivers to for his own cynical purposes.  At least that's what I thought about when I watched this video.

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

The MA School would have had less of a ring to it

It's not clear from these statements exactly why Xavier Prep is closing. One assumes the usual reasons; low enrollment, money, etc. In any case a nearly hundred year old institution and a landmark of an Uptown neighborhood is shutting down. Obviously the only thing to do now is wait to see which developer will convert the school into luxury apartments and "boutique" retail space conveniently located on the "Magazine Street Parade Route."

WWLTV cites here some of the school's notable alums.
Xavier Prep has educated generations of local African-American and minority students since opening in 1915.  It opened as a coeducational school but became an all-girls' school in 1970.

Located on Magazine Street, the school was founded by St. Katharine Drexel and the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament, who also founded Xavier University.

Among the notable Xavier Prep alumni are Judge Edwin Lombard, former New Orleans first ladies Sybil Morial and Mickey Barthelemy, as well as singer Wanda Rouzan, who also taught at the school.
But most New Orleanians with no personal connection to the school are familiar with its marching band as an annual Carnival institution.

Xavier Prep

Xavier Prep Bannner

In 2006, Xavier Prep took in students from Katrina-damaged St. Augustine High and St. Mary's Academy to form what was called the M.A.X. School that year.
While Xavier Prep’s campus housed the students, it was the smallest of the three campuses so only a an allotted number of students attended. Faced with a small space and a lot of students, the MAX still flourished even if only for the spring semester. It managed to send its class of 2006 into the world, and unite its underclassmen in a way that had never been done before.
Naturally, the MAX school had a band.

MAX Band

 I watched it debut in the Krewe Of Carrollton parade that year.  I remember the two cops on the corner watching the band with us were ribbing each other.  Apparently one of them was a St. Mary's alum.  As the band approached, her partner teased, "That sounds like a Xaaaavier Prep band to me!"  In the future no one will be able to claim they can tell you what that sounds like.

Fortunately, I managed to get this video of the MAX band passing.  Sorry about the grainy video. It was way back in 2006, after all, so I had trouble getting the hand crank on my 16mm Cine-Kodak to turn.  The sound is okay though.  Maybe even Xaaaavier Prep quality.




May God, or perhaps Darwin, bless the "troublemakers"

I can't imagine a more honorable title that could be bestowed upon a person than "Troublemaker of the Year."
Zack Kopplin, the 19-year-old Rice University student and Louisiana native who's spent the last two years advocating for repeal of the Louisiana Science Education Act, was named the inaugural "Troublemaker of the Year" by a private foundation that seeks to honor people in their teens who stir up, well, trouble.
Congratulations to Zack. You can read more about Zack's exploits by consulting most of the internet since he's been speaking out against creationism in science curricula just about everywhere in recent years. Unfortunately the nutty anti-science climate has necessitated his ubiquity.  But if you don't feel like reading the whole internet right now, Mark Moseley has compiled most of it in one column for you right here.

Believe it or not, though, despite Moseley's Herculean effort of Kopplin-ology, there is still one link we can add to the compendium.  In 2012, Zack appeared at the prestigious Rising Tide Conference in New Orleans where he participated in a panel discussion about education reform in Louisiana. You can watch the video here. It lasts about an hour and fifteen minutes.

More than you care to chew

From the opening press event announcing Restaurant R'evolution, something seemed wr'ong. Two celebrity chefs put their "brands" on a sprawling baroque concept for a hotel restaurant in the middle of the Quarter.  It was clear the object was to gather the attention of the mega-Super Gras Bowl dining bonanza (which, incidentally, wasn't as big as advertised). Certainly it didn't seem like the sort of thing meant to sustain a consistent local customer base, anyway.

What I take form  this Blackened Out "R'ant" is they're probably just looking to coast on their branding, location, and volume.

We are well past the days where one expects to see a chef owner in the kitchen. Usually a chef with other concerns leaves a lieutenant or two to watch over and to make sure his or her vision is executed.  I left unclear as to what the vision at R'evolution even is. Is it fresh spins on classic Creole and Cajun cooking? A high end steakhouse? A time capsule of two men's cooking careers? What are they trying to do?
Or worse, maybe the whole thing really is just meant as a temporary installment. I wouldn't be surprised to learn it was a garish, unwieldy catering spread intended to impress the Super Bowl crowd before striking the set. 

The other day, on a parallel internet, Lunanola (who often publishes here) had a thought about this.

A few years back a friend of mine suggested that a surprisingly high number of bad restaurants survive in New Orleans (ones that offer not particularly well-prepared clich├ęd "local" fare coupled with bad service). She suggested that because they draw tourists day after day, it doesn't matter if they're capable of drawing repeat business when there's an endless supply of first-and-only-timers.

I'm wondering if this endless stream of events hosted by our city is a like a row of bad restaurants and the event attendees are the one-time visitors. And I wonder if we're turning off the repeat visitors who would like to enjoy our city for what it is instead of what it hosts
If this is the model for dining in the Quarter, I won't be surprised if we see some scaling down of R'evolution's concept sometime after Jazzfest.... unless they want to hang in there until Wrestlemania shows up.

Meanwhile, this is a slightly different situation but I wonder if a similar problem might be facing this place.
The latest salvo in the city’s burger boom, however, is pulling out all the stops. Charcoal’s Gourmet Burger Bar is a two-story restaurant with a build-your-own format, a huge menu and a catalog of bells and whistles big enough for any two or three concepts.

Things get started with 10 types of patties, so if the “house beef blend,” the veggie burger or even the shrimp burger gets old you can try out venison, bison, elk or antelope burgers. Next you pick your bun (four options), but you’re nowhere near done because the various toppings range from aged goat cheese and gorgonzola piccante to fresh herbs, tasso and four types of bacon (conventional, boar, turkey or praline).

Oh dear.   The thing about Charcoal is they're actually not "the latest salvo in the city's burger boom." It's more accurate to call them a much delayed salvo for a host of complicated reasons. Here's an Uptown Messenger report from two years ago.

Charcoal’s Gourmet Burger Bar is a proposed two-story hamburger restaurant with diner-style counter service on the ground floor and full table service upstairs designed by the owners of Somethin’ Else cafe in the French Quarter, said architect Kimberly Finney. The project was originally proposed several years ago, but troubles with the contractor stalled the project until its permission from the city to build expired.



Charcoal’s requires a conditional use to build on the Magazine Street site because its two-story floor plan is larger than the 5,000 square feet normally allowed by its zoning. It has six on-site parking spaces, and will also require a waiver for the other 10 spaces that its size would technically require. Finney said that she did not anticipate parking to be a major hurdle because the area, especially during dinner hours, has a substantial amount of on-street parking available.

The application received votes in favor from all but one commissioner, Craig Mitchell. Charcoal’s has signed a good-neighbor agreement with the neighboring Irish Channel and Garden District neighborhood associations, but that agreement was not included in the materials compiled by the planning staff. Mitchell said his vote was merely to signify his frustration with the incomplete information.

“I don’t know what I’m signing off on,” Mitchell said. “It (the no vote) was more principle than anything.”

Charcoal’s lot is very near where Vera Smith died during Hurricane Katrina, and the memorial marking the former site of her makeshift grave will be reconfigured by artist Simon Haldeveld once construction begins in the next several weeks.

There's actually even more backstory, but the point is, when this restaurant was proposed, the gourmet burger craze hadn't even really hit New Orleans yet.  Now they are opening at a point when it has reached a saturation point.  In a way it's fitting that their elaborate menu reflects the decadence of the possibly played out fad.  One wonders, though, whether they can sustain such a thing.  Personally, I'm still recovering from the dietary decadence of Carnival season. I'll give them a try some time after Lent.

Circus is back in town

Now that all the high class company has departed, it's okay for us to let Crazy Uncle Ray back out of the garage.

NEW ORLEANS - Former New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin is scheduled to appear in federal court Wednesday. It's the first time he's been in court since his arraignment on public corruption charges.
I do hope someone thinks to bring a camera.

Update: LMFAO Someone did, indeed, have a camera on hand.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Efficiency experts

Serpas' hiring and promotion procedures have been ignoring standard Civil Service practices

Superintendent Ronal Serpas and the Landrieu Administration did not recommend $147,000 the Civil Service Department requested for sergeant exams in this year's budget. That budget item has gone unfunded for the last several years. During budget talks in November, personnel administrator Lisa Hudson told City Council that the department has not performed promotional exams for sergeants since 2007. As a result, sergeant and captain registers have expired and the NOPD has made at-will appointments, FOP attorney Donovan Livaccari said today.
NOPD, as we all know, is a very efficient city agency

I blame the planners

If the professional masters of the urban universe would spend less time telling us where we can and cannot put a bar or a music venue, we wouldn't be saddled with the problem of rapidly gentrifying "entertainment districts" and so would have less of this problem.
The changes in the music scene on Frenchmen are becoming obvious, as the eccentric, laid-back atmosphere of the city’s traditional entertainment industry is being influenced by younger entrepreneurs. To be sure, some of the nature of the city’s indigenous club music may get lost in the process, and the bohemian vibe of St. Claude may also be a thing of the past before too long. The homogenization of American culture is an inexorable historic inevitability, and New Orleans is apparently no longer immune to it.
Instead we've chosen to go the "Boutique City" route where everything is carefully staged, and planned, and.. of course.. ultimately more expensive. 

Update: Faith in humanity restored.

As the owners of Jimmy’s Music Club continue to seek the reopening of their landmark Willow Street venue, they are employing an unusual legal strategy to get around the temporary ban on new alcohol licenses in the Carrollton area.

 Instead of asking the City Council to grant them an exception to the moratorium, they are asking the city’s alcohol commissioners to rule that the latest iteration of that moratorium is illegal altogether and thus inapplicable to Jimmy’s.

Why sell what we can share?

The tolls result was upheld.  Nobody is surprised. It's still a depressing thing to think about.

The result was  partially due to bad information.  A lot of voters mistakenly believed voting for the tolls would ensure continued ferry service.  But the tolls and ferries had been decoupled by the legislature several months beforehand.  This was reported in the media but I don't think it was given the emphasis it deserved especially considering the fact that toll proponents were still attempting to sell their case based on a falsehood.

But even among voters who understood what they were voting for, too many voted in favor of the tolls based on some pretend-world theory that one piece of infrastructure vital to a metro and state-wide transportation system should pay for its own maintenance. We all benefit from the fact that there is a bridge there. There's no reason why only some of us should bear the brunt of its cost. Anyway that's not what the toll money even does in reality. In any case, if the tolls are ended, the bridge isn't going to collapse into the river.  It is federally mandated that the structure be maintained.  The money to do that would have been found.

Or at least it should have been.  Unfortunately our default policy response in these matters has favored selling the things we should be sharing.  Last week the President's State of the Union address called for what sounded like a new infrastructure repair initiative. Although, on further examination, he may be proposing something very different.

"So, tonight, I propose a ``Fix-It-First'' program to put people to work as soon as possible on our most urgent repairs, like the nearly 70,000 structurally deficient bridges across the country. And to make sure taxpayers don't shoulder the whole burden, I'm also proposing a Partnership to Rebuild America that attracts private capital to upgrade what our businesses need most: modern ports to move our goods; modern pipelines to withstand a storm; modern schools worthy of our children,” he said. 
 
Couched as a way to save taxpayers’ money, the President actually just dangled a considerable carrot in front of corporations: construction grants and partial ownership of nearly all of the United States’ infrastructure. Public private partnerships are essentially a stepping stone to full privatization of our roads, bridges, railways, power grids and--yes--even our public schools

The implications of this proposal are so scary that they even startled a Fox News reporter who commented, “It’s unnerving to hear the suggestion that the best way to guard against corporate excess is by crafting ever-closer public/private partnerships.” 

As a concept, public-private partnerships can be considered a metaphor for any type of privatization: they sound smart in a capitalist society, but they’re never what they’re cracked up to be.
No they aren't. In fact, they are usually con jobs.  As we turn over more of our public goods to private interests, they become profitable for the owners, of course, but much more expensive for the rest of us.  

The chart below shows what happened. When Medicare was run traditionally, overhead was fairly low and getting lower (dashed blue line). Then private plans were introduced and total overhead costs started to flatten (black line). By 1997, total overhead was about 1.4 percentage points higher than traditional Medicare alone. In that year, Medicare Advantage was introduced, and by 2005 the gap had widened to 2.1 percentage points. Then privately run prescription drug plans were introduced, and now the gap is 4.5 percentage points.

In the case of prescription drugs, it's possible that higher overhead is justified by the lower overall program costs we get from having a lot of competing plans. In the case of Medicare Advantage, it's just pure waste. We have higher overhead and higher overall costs, with very little benefit to show for it. As Sullivan says, this should "long ago have triggered inquiries within Congress and the US health policy community as to whether the higher administrative costs associated with the growing privatization of Medicare are justified."

Here's the chart Drum is talking about.



And, as we've mentioned many times, the same movement is afoot with regard to what was formerly public education. What was once considered a crucial piece of the social contract where we all shared the costs and benefits of an educated and informed population, has given way to a profit center for management companies, a tool of social stratification, a cudgel against organized labor, not to mention a cesspool of corruption and abuse far worse than the neglected system it was meant to replace.

The argument over whether the investment in and benefit from essential aspects of public welfare (health, education, infrastructure, information) should be shared by all of us or hoarded by an increasingly isolated elite among us is the most fundamental problem of maintaining a vital democracy.    But so long as President Obama and Mayor Landrieu and other leaders on the somewhat liberal-flavored side of our politics continue to cede this argument it is doomed to remain an unsolved problem.

In the meantime, have your dollar ready when you cross the bridge.

Update: I buried a link in all of that which really should get more attention.  Please see this Bill Moyers interview with Susan Crawford on how news and information is becoming increasingly limited from public access.

SUSAN CRAWFORD: Us, all of us. What's happened is that these enormous telecommunications companies, Comcast and Time Warner on the wired side, Verizon and AT&T on the wireless side, have divided up markets, put themselves in the position where they're subject to no competition and no oversight from any regulatory authority. And they're charging us a lot for internet access and giving us second class access. This is a lot like the electrification story from the beginning of the 20th century. Initially electricity was viewed as a luxury. So when F.D.R. came in, 90 percent of farms didn't have electricity in America at the same time that kids in New York City were playing with electric toys. And F.D.R. understood how important it was for people all over America to have the dignity and self-respect and sort of cultural and social and economic connection of an electrical outlet in their home. So he made sure to take on the special interests that were controlling electricity then who had divided up markets and consolidated just the way internet guys have today, he made sure that we made this something that every American had.

You read a lot these days about the "digital future" of journalism.  We could be talking about a future where where technology liberates us and democratizes information in a way that levels our stratified social order.  The decade or so I've spent fiddling around with the internets has taught me that ordinary people tend to be a lot smarter, funnier, and just better than what the corporate media model assumes them to be. 

Unfortunately,  the model now coming into dominance discounts this and treats us cynically as consumers; passive recipients of what we're fed rather than active participants in the public discourse. What this implies is a future where the few who can afford to keep up with public affairs will be allowed to follow.  My impression is only a distinct minority among our professional journalists themselves even grasp this. 

Upperdate: Check out how Mitch's signature "public-private partnership" initiative is doing now

Monday, February 18, 2013

Do they get the neighborhood or will they get the neighborhood?

Luxury high rise apartments proposed for Ninth Ward Holy Cross neighborhood. It's all part of building that "Boutique City" you hear so much about.

Anyway Clancy Dubos is ecstatic.
Gambit newspaper owner Clancy DuBos, a former member of the Holy Cross School board, spoke at the Thursday night meeting. He said he “thanked Jesus” when Perez Architects contacted the school about purchasing the site, because, Dubos said, they “get” the neighborhood.

Poltical economy

A minimum wage of $9.00 is really the... um... minimum we could do for people right now. But the usual people will make the usual hay out of it for the usual insincere reasons.

So Mr. Obama’s wage proposal is good economics. It’s also good politics: a wage increase is supported by an overwhelming majority of voters, including a strong majority of self-identified Republican women (but not men). Yet G.O.P. leaders in Congress are opposed to any rise. Why? They say that they’re concerned about the people who might lose their jobs, never mind the evidence that this won’t actually happen. But this isn’t credible. 

For today’s Republican leaders clearly feel disdain for low-wage workers. Bear in mind that such workers, even if they work full time, by and large don’t pay income taxes (although they pay plenty in payroll and sales taxes), while they may receive benefits like Medicaid and food stamps. And you know what this makes them, in the eyes of the G.O.P.: “takers,” members of the contemptible 47 percent who, as Mitt Romney said to nods of approval, won’t take responsibility for their own lives.

The challenge of economic policy isn't simply "growth", it's ensuring that the benefits of growth benefit the greatest portion of the polity in the most efficient and equitable manner.  Or, at least, that should be the primary challenge of economic policy in the context of a democracy.  Not sure what context we're working within, though.
WASHINGTON — Incomes rose more than 11 percent for the top 1 percent of earners during the economic recovery, but not at all for everybody else, according to new data. 

The numbers, produced by Emmanuel Saez, an economist at the University of California, Berkeley, show overall income growing by just 1.7 percent over the period. But there was a wide gap between the top 1 percent, whose earnings rose by 11.2 percent, and the other 99 percent, whose earnings declined by 0.4 percent. 

Mr. Saez, a winner of the John Bates Clark Medal, an economic laurel considered second only to the Nobel, concluded that “the Great Recession has only depressed top income shares temporarily and will not undo any of the dramatic increase in top income shares that has taken place since the 1970s.”
Update: This morning Mayor Landrieu hosted a press conference celebrating the coming of Wrestlemania 30 to New Orleans in 2014. This event is owned and presented by Vince and Linda McMahon. Linda is a recently failed ultra-conservative Senate candidate from Connecticut who opposes raising the minimum wage and even suggested we consider lowering it.   Someone should ask Mayor Landrieu if it's in our best interest as a city to expend our time, money, and energy hosting these kinds of people.  No one will ask that, though.

White smoke?

We'll all be watching City Hall tomorrow for something miraculous.

NEW ORLEANS —It's been out of the headlines for months, but the Crescent City Connection toll vote is back on voters' radars with recount results expected Tuesday.

Election officials met Saturday at City Hall to review thousands of votes from Orleans Parish. The officials met behind closed doors in City Council chambers to recount 3,650 mailed-in absentee ballots and early voting ballots from Orleans Parish.
Let us hope the Cardinals are moved by divine inspiration since it will already be difficult for us to divine the inner workings of this conclave

NEW ORLEANS - A partial recount of ballots cast in last fall's Crescent City Connection toll vote is currently underway in the New Orleans Council Chambers at City Hall. The results, however, will not be released until Tuesday because of the Presidents' Day holiday, on Monday. Multiple media outlets, including Eyewitness News, were denied access to observing the recount.
On the other hand, this is probably a good thing.  They let Clancy Dubos watch the last time they counted these votes and look what happened then. 

Friday, February 15, 2013

Near miss

Sometimes the things that just barely don't happen can be even scarier than the things that do. We don't perceive it to be so but our existence is a pretty tenuous proposition.  One minute you're minding your own business, the next minute, boom...  you're swimming with the floating fire ants.

We see so many things go boom on a regular basis that you'd think we'd be more conscious of the ever-present threat.  But for whatever reason our minds just don't work that way.  And that's probably for the best, especially when you also consider all the things just barely miss going boom on a regular basis.

Oh and no, I'm not talking about the asteroid. 

Apache Corp. evacuated 15 workers from a drilling rig in the Gulf of Mexico and is preparing kill the well after tests found natural gas migrating below the seabed.

The Houston-based company has contracted with specialists Boots & Coots to kill the natural gas well, located in 218 feet of water about 50 miles east of Venice, La. A drilling rig is heading for the site in case it’s needed to bore a relief well to intercept the one being plugged.

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Sinkhole envy

Well sure, I guess, just because yours is technically bigger they'll all come out and take pictures of it. 

NEW ORLEANS —A sinkhole that started out small has grown to about 10 feet in diameter -- and several feet deep. That's according to some who work in the 4000 block of Michoud Blvd., near Gentilly Road, where the once pothole-sized crevasse has expanded dramatically over a 3-month span.
Maybe size matters to WDSU, but I've always been told the important thing was what you do with it.  Our sinkhole has not only been around nearly 3 years instead of 3 months (so stamina counts for something), but it's also been put to a variety of creative uses as the slideshow here indicates.

Of course, the One True Sinkhole will always put the imitators to shame.

The sinkhole in northern Assumption Parish got a little larger on Tuesday.

Parish officials reported roughly 5,000 square feet of land sloughed off into the sinkhole Tuesday morning and that by Tuesday afternoon, the land-loss had grown to an estimated 7,500 square feet, said John Boudreaux, director of the Assumption Parish Office of Homeland Security.

Boudreaux said he hadn’t remeasured the sinkhole, which was last determined to be 8.6 acres at its surface, but it possibly could cover as many as 9 acres after the 75-foot-by-100-foot parcel of land crumbled and fell into the slurry hole on Tuesday.
It's probably best not to compare, for the sake of everyone's confidence. 

Scorecard

Is there somewhere we can keep an eye on the grand total of Macondo fines and how they're going to be applied going forward? A few weeks back, Bob Marshall pointed us to this distribution of BP's part.  And now here's Transocean's tally after their settlement was approved today.
The payment Transocean will make to compensate for its criminal actions includes a $100 million criminal fine to be paid within 60 days of sentencing, and $300 million in additional "criminal relief."

Of that, $150 million will be paid over two years to the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, half of which will pay for barrier island restoration or freshwater and sediment diversions in Louisiana and half for natural resource projects in Alabama, Florida, Mississippi and Texas.

The other $150 million will go to the National Academy of Sciences in five payments over four years to fund an endowment for programs focusing on human health and environmental protection, including some related to offshore drilling, hydrocarbon production and transportation in the Gulf and elsewhere on the U.S. outer continental shelf. The academy has said that payment and a similar payment by BP will finance a 30-year research and education program.

Transocean also has agreed to pay $1 billion in civil penalties for violations of the Clean Water Act and the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, and will be required to implement major safety improvements in all of its offshore drilling operations.

Said it before but will keep at it. There is nothing more important to Louisiana's future than making sure our eroding coast is secured.  And seeing these funds spent appropriately is a huge part of that.