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Category: General

And Now, M.I.T.

[ 25 ] April 19, 2013 |



And Watertown.

This week sucks. I want a new one. Or, as The Onion would put it.

…I’m reluctant to link, given the amount of false reporting there’s been, but since the Globe has earned some credibility…one of the suspects in the Boston Marathon bombings is apparently in custody.

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Zoning and Nuisance Industries

[ 64 ] April 18, 2013 |

One of the fundamental questions about the West, Texas fertilizer plant explosion is why a fertilizer plant was located right in a town, with a nursing home, middle school, and homes close enough to be destroyed if the plant blew up. Fertilizer plants are a ticking time bomb. We don’t know too much yet about the history of the plant, though we do know that it filed a document with the EPA saying it presented no risk for fire or explosion. Given the lack of regulatory capability in the modern American government (with current staffing, it would take OSHA inspectors 129 years to inspect every worksite in America), we have decided to trust corporations to self-regulate. Last night is an example of why that is a very bad idea and why we need a much more activist government with regular inspections of all workplaces and significant fines for violations.

Part of the problem here is the history of American land use and the lack of state control over development. Texas is especially bad on this point, since several cities, including Houston, have no zoning at all. But there is a history, albeit relatively limited, of cities declaring industries as nuisances and banishing them outside of town. Between 1692 and 1708, several Massachusetts towns, including Boston, Salem, and Charlestown, banished so-called “nuisance trades” outside of town. These were mostly slaughterhouses and tanneries.

But outside of New England, there was never much tradition of separating people from industry no matter how bad the health risk. The meatpacking district of Gilded Age Chicago might be the most notorious, but there are any number of examples. The rise of zoning in the 20th century helped alleviate some of these problems. By creating industrial districts, it served to protect Americans from the health hazards of manufacturing. But industrial zoning was largely a municipal rather than federal or state project, meaning that corporations had a tremendous amount of influence on the process. Zoning is not a perfect solution, largely because its local control means that racial prejudice can easily be replicated onto the landscape, but for the purpose of keeping Americans safe from hazards, it’s the best tool we have.

As commenters have pointed out, the fertilizer plant in West is hardly the only example we have of poorly sited industrial projects that threaten large numbers of people. But in examining this tragedy, we have to ask what we could have done to mitigate it. One question revolves around how the fire started and turned into an explosion. That’s under investigation, but when you are dealing with fertilizer there are very real risks. A vigorous regulatory program and strong unions would help a lot, but neither would completely eliminate risks in a nuisance industry like fertilizer. So given the inherent dangers of nuisance industries, why are they located near cities? The answer of course is corporate control over American life.

The move of meatpacking out of Chicago and into the rural Midwest was in part a union-busting move, and in fact meatpackers treat their largely immigrant labor forces terribly, but it actually does make sense to site meatpacking plants in southwestern Kansas, where they will harm fewer people. The same is true of fertilizer production. The government needs to play a more active role in deciding where dangerous and nuisance industries will be located. I am a historian and not a journalist, so I don’t have the time to investigate the specific history of the factory in West. But it doesn’t really matter for the broader point. If factories preexist neighborhoods, zoning needs to keep residents out. If neighborhoods preexist factories, zoning needs to move factories to more isolated places. After all, it’s not like you couldn’t build that factory 10 miles west of West and have it in a much less populated and safer place, basically the scrub country where George W. Bush used to show off his brush-cutting skills in order to score cheap political points.

Let me close by quoting Bill Minutaglio from the Texas Observer:

Because I wrote a book about The Texas City Disaster, my phone began ringing last night with reporters asking about parallels between West and Texas City. A public radio producer who said he wasn’t from Texas wanted to know if it was common to have industrial facilities, like the ones in West, close to residential areas, to schools, to a nursing home. He wanted to know if that kind of thing was “grandfathered” in.

I told him it was complex, and we talked about an inherited political and economic ethos in Texas. That the anti-oversight credo runs deep. It’s in the state’s bedrock. And that, over time, the results are painfully predictable: There will be another explosion (there have been others, more recent ones, in Texas City). There will be more loss of life. And the same questions will emerge—and probably dissipate: What could have been done? Was there enough oversight?

Of course there wasn’t enough oversight. But it’s a cultural problem. We believe capitalists look out for everyone’s interests and that as a society we should cater to the needs of the rich. When we do that, people pay with their lives.

….Here’s an aerial map of West, showing the fertilizer plant’s proximity to the rest of town.

Not A Newspaper, A Social Menace

[ 70 ] April 18, 2013 |

The editors of the New York Post, the worst people in the world of journamalism.

…Waldman’s point about the general worthlessness of “scoops” in this kind of context is also important, although the obsession with scoops is magnified through the racist and incompetent lens of the Post.

Jew just say what I think you said?

[ 88 ] April 18, 2013 |

Jew know that’s considered offensive to those people? It’d be good for them if you made a sincere apology:

But we shouldn’t criticize him, because he “has brought and will continue to bring integrity and common sense to the House of Representatives,” and this is basically what passes for “integrity” and “common sense” in Oklahoma. No? It isn’t?

Maybe the people of Oklahoma should ask their representatives to wipe those snide “you’re not supposed to say that aloud” looks off their faces. I’m not actually offended by this sort of casual racism — I grew up Jewish in the South after all — nor am I even surprised by it. The father of one of my best friends nicknamed me “Good One,” not because he thought I was one of the good ones, but because he thought I was the good one.

What offends me isn’t the casual racism, then, but the smile that accompanies the apology. Because Dennis Johnson is a man who knows his audience and is absolutely certain he’s delivering a punchline.

The Problem With Gun Control Politics

[ 122 ] April 18, 2013 |

I guess I’m supposed to be outraged that a handful of red-state Senate Democrats cast meaningless votes against the background check bill instead of meaningless votes in favor of it.  But I’m not really, for these reasons:

Being in a position like that requires choices. You’re not going to win reelection in Arkansas by compiling a Chuck Schumer–esque voting record. You need to pick your battles. Red state Democrats need to cast votes against their party sometimes, or else they’ll be replaced by somebody who will vote against it all the time. That is a moral argument, and while it can be taken too far, the Senators in question are not taking a terribly unreasonable stance. As Politico reports, one Senator told the administration, “Guns, gays and immigration — it’s too much. I can be with you on one or two of them, but not all three.””

If you’re picking your battles, background checks are as good an issue as any to lay down. For one thing, as I’ve suggested, guns loom disproportionately large in the political world of red state Democrats. Guns are the way they signal home state cultural affinity, giving themselves a chance to get their economic message heard. Their A rating from the National Rifle Association is powerful shorthand. And yes, the NRA is crazy and partisan, and was opposing a bill it used to support and that most Republicans support. But none of those facts overcomes the blunt reality of the A rating’s political value.

What’s more, this particular gun vote was an especially good time for Democrats to defect. None of them cast the deciding vote; it fell six votes shy of defeating a filibuster. The bill was already a compromise of a compromise, something that would have stopped a tiny fraction of gun crimes. Even if it passed the Senate, it faced steep odds of passing the House, where it probably would have died, been weakened further, or even turned into a law that weakened existing gun laws.

The last point is particularly important. The fact that the votes were meaningless two ways — not only because they wouldn’t have been enough to break a filibuster but because the legislation was DOA in the House — makes this an easy call; I really don’t understand the point of putting Senate seats at risk in exchange for absolutely nothing.

The more interesting question is whether Reid and Obama should have pulled out all the stops in a hypothetical alternative in which Democrats still controlled the House and had the votes to break a filibuster. In the case of something like the PPACA, if some red-state Democrats have to give up their seats the sacrifices have to be made; there’s no point in keeping the seats blue if you’re never going to do anything. But the effects of the gun control legislation being considered here were likely to be so trivial that it’s not obvious that risking red-state Democratic seats would be worth it. But in that scenario, there’s at least a debate to be had. When the benefits of voting against your district are “none,” though, the choice is pretty easy.

Today in the Sports Owner Grift

[ 88 ] April 18, 2013 |
  • Charlotte shaken down for $300 million by the Panthers.   Admittedly, I’m sure those 8 home dates a year have a massive impact on the area’s economy.
  • Who could have anticipated that creating lavishly taxpayer-subsidized expensive parking garages for the Yankees would be a terrible idea?

Clearly, the solution to this problem is just to let the owners keep all the money, because then they would have no incentive to get free taxpayer money or charge what the market will bear for tickets, because…look, aurora borealis! In fairness, it is true that NCAA sports are free to attend and never result in taxpayers getting soaked for new facilities, so clearly not paying the players is a very effective way of stopping the grift. And you can’t deny that taxpayers never shelled out for new stadiums when there was a reserve clause.

Rheeism in One Quote

[ 161 ] April 18, 2013 |

Like most elite supporters of destroying public eduction unions and handing the future of education over to capitalists and flawed testing systems that make or break people’s careers, Michelle Rhee is a total hypocrite when it comes to her own kids.

In the interview, Rhee also confirmed that one of her two daughters attends a private school in Tennessee, where the girls live with their father, that state’s top education official. Rhee is now married to Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson.

She has previously described herself as a “public-school parent.” An aide repeated that phrase when The Times asked directly if Rhee’s children were in public or private school.

“I try to maintain some level of privacy for my kids by not divulging too much information,” Rhee said. “I say I’m a public-school parent when my kid goes to private school.

“I believe in parental choice,” she said. “I think I should be able to choose … and every parent should have that option too.”

As is the norm for so-called education reformers, Rhee advocates a form of testing for everyday children to which she would never subject her own child.

Extremely Complicated Concepts Explained For Michelle Malkin Fans

[ 119 ] April 18, 2013 |

The lack of appropriate zoning restrictions did not cause the fertilizer plant explosion in West, TX. It did, however, make the consequences of the explosion far more devastating than was necessary. You’re welcome!

The West, Texas Disaster

[ 403 ] April 17, 2013 |

As you may have heard, a fertilizer plant has exploded in the town of West, Texas. This town, the Czech cultural capital of Texas and home of a mighty fine kolache at the Czech Stop, not to mention outfielder and stolen base maven Scott Podsednik, is a town well-known throughout the state. It’s also a place where, as of the most recent reports, 60-70 people have died, a nursing home has caved in, and every house within a 4 block radius was destroyed. Hopefully, it is not this bad. Yes, that’s right, a fertilizer plant was placed in a neighborhood. Or a neighborhood grew up around a fertilizer plant. In any case, there are already lessons we can draw from this developing story. First, non-union states often have terrible working conditions that can lead to horrible accidents. They might rarely be this bad, but they kill. Second, a state with notoriously bad zoning and where capitalists are effectively allowed to do whatever they want is going to be a state where terrible things happen.

I’m sure I’ll have more on what seems to be the worst workplace disaster in the United States in many years.

…I don’t actually recommend watching this, but this is footage of the explosion taken by some guy. Not embedding and I warn you. But this is what happened.

And Michelle Malkin sends her flying monkeys at me for talking about this event in terms of unions. Classy!

…In February, a school in West evacuated because of a fire at this fertilizer plant. PDF.

…As much as I want to keep following this story, at some point I need to sleep. Like now. As we speak, there are at least 2 confirmed dead and the town’s emergency management system director is saying 60-70 possible dead. By the time I wake up, I hope this was just a nightmare and didn’t occur.

…[SL] Welcome flying monkeys! I know the points here are hard to understand, but here’s a primer.

Williams on Winters

[ 16 ] April 17, 2013 |

Robin Williams can be annoying, but this is a wonderful reminiscence of the great Jonathan Winters.

A Message to Certain Administrators at a Certain Ocean State Institution

[ 116 ] April 17, 2013 |

Dear People Who Hold My Future in Your Hands,

When you distanced yourself from this lowly history professor last fall for daring to use a violent metaphor against moral monster and NRA head Wayne LaPierre, this awful individual, one Glenn Reynolds, is the person who did more than anyone to spearhead the attacks against me and is the person you empowered through your actions.

Obviously I’m the one involved in these debates who speaks outside of acceptable conversation……

The World’s Greatest Deliberative Body, Everybody!

[ 59 ] April 17, 2013 |

Even the highly popular, watered-down background check bill was killed by a Senate minority. I blame Obama’s failure to use the bully pulpit.

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