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Saturday 26 April 2014

Biased Journalism and Capital in the Twenty-First Century

It's been way too long since I last posted. The delay was due to my "day job" of running a small business. One can only procrastinate so much when it comes to accounting and taxes. Trying to sort out the needless complexity of federal income taxes is enough to convert anyone into a progressive on tax reform - but I'll save that rant for some other day.

Piketty and his Book, Capital in the Twenty-First Century

Today's blog offering is about the recent brewhaha over Professor Thomas Piketty's brand new book Capital in the Twenty-First Century (we will refer to this book as just Capital for the rest of the post).

There are whole farms of editorial misstatements in this week's and last week's newspapers and sponsored blogs over this book. When I compare op-ed pieces on Piketty's opus, it seems like every editorial or review is about a different book. For example, Capital as read by Nobel-Prize winning economist Krugman ( appears to be a different work compared to the Capital read by right-leaning editorialist David Brooks (, by Wall Street fund manager Daniel Shuchman (, or by engineer and part-time journalist David Auerbach ( I could list more articles on Piketty's Capital, like the ones found in the venerable weekly Economist ( or the American Business flagship magazine Forbes ( It seems like the world has exploded with numerous reviews and commentary on this French economist's book while I was on vacation for the last two weeks.

I have not read Piketty's book and therefore am not in a position to produce my own critique. Regardless of what Piketty actually wrote, I am both intrigued and disappointed that I can predict the overall tone and much of the content of most reviews and commentary on Capital by author or publication for most of the news outlets I visit (with the one exception of Salon, as discussed below). For example, Krugman uses Piketty's analysis of growing income equality to go straight for the jugular of the voodoo economics favored by the modern American neo-con rightwing. But that's Krugman's bread-and-butter for his New York Times column. The man just can't resist taking those potshots at the supply-side economic theories of the American right wing because the former lives in a data-driven universe and latter does not.

Obligatory Tangent: Voodoo Economics

Okay, I admit it - that was a cheap shot. You caught me red-handed. I like Krugman's stuff and therefore must come clean that the above statement may be biased. Let's look at that for a moment before moving on. The term "voodoo economics" was coined by George Bush Sr. when he was running against Ronald Reagan for the Republican nomination as the party's presidential candidate in 1980. Voodoo economics was Daddy Bush's label for what is known as supply-side economics or "Reaganomics" on this side of the Atlantic. The lynchpin of Reaganomics is the theory that cutting taxes on capital-based income will create incentives to reinvest this formerly-taxed income in new business development, thus stimulating the economy and creating jobs. The tax revenue lost would be recouped through taxes on the new economic growth, namely the newly-created wages and business profits. By reducing the tax expense for businesses, the money saved would then "trickle-down" to the rest of the economy through new business spending. Deregulation of industry and shrinking the size of government were also part of Reaganomics, on the grounds that removing governmental meddling for both businesses and individuals would also stimulate the economy. The BBC has a nice bite-sized overview of voodoo economics at and the Stern School of Business at NYU has a nice in-depth overview at

Federal deficit reduction has been and still is integral to the current economic philosophy of the right wing; but if you give it a minute of thought, I believe you will realize that deficit reduction is actually a separate issue from supply-side economics. This is important only because right-wing pundits believe that policies which are the opposite of those recommended by supply-side theory, namely increasing taxes, regulating industry and not shrinking government, will lead to recession along with a growth in the federal deficit and in interest rates. The irony here is that the federal deficit exploded under Reagan's and Bush Senior's terms as President with their policies of deregulation and tax cuts, from $40 billion in 1979 to $221 billion in 1986. As to the economic impact of Reaganomics, numbers from the Congressional Budget Office show that the growth in GDP abruptly slowed during the Reagan administration, indicating a drop in economic activity.

In actual fact, the Clinton administration approach to federal deficit reduction did everything that supply-siders hate: taxes were increased while the growth of federal spending was slowed but not reversed. By the start of Clinton's second term, the federal deficit was cut in half. When Clinton left office, he left Bush Jr. a budget surplus of $236 billion. During that time, real interest rates and the growth rate of the GDP were both stable. (Federal deficit data is from the Congressional Budget Office,; GDP data is from the U. S. Bureau of Economic Analysis,

So what's the gig with voodoo economics? Simply that they don't work as advertised, particularly in recessionary economies. At the risk of sounding like Krugman, cutting both taxes and government spending make recessions worse. This isn't arm waving. This is a statement based on data, and more data than just comparing Reagan/Bush Sr., Clinton and Bush Jr. The numbers aren't even exclusively American, especially when looking at the effect of taxes or consumer and government spending on measurements of economic health, namely unemployment, real wages, and prices indices. Krugman covers much of this ground in his 1995 book, Peddling Prosperity (ISBN 978-0393312928) but for an up-to-date look at the failure of supply-side economics, I refer the reader to the 2013 data-intense analysis of Stuckler and Basu in their book The Body Economic (ISBN 978-0-465-06398-7). Don't be fooled into thinking it's a book on public health policy. Read this book for its number crunching of international economic and societal data. Admittedly, the progressive rhetoric of the authors is strident but what they have to say is backed up by data, lots of data, and even more data. I'm a data-driven person and so I recommend this book highly.

To conclude this verbose tangent on voodoo economics, it was no surprise to me that Krugman's op-ed piece on Piketty was really just another another platform for one of his attacks on right wing economic theorists who are long on wind and arm waving and short on real numbers. I don't like Krugman because I'm a liberal because I'm not a liberal. I like Krugman because he pays attention to real-world economic data and eschews theoretical economic models regardless of the political orientation of their supporters. So much for my bias on Krugman.

More Predictable Reactions to Piketty's Capital

David Brooks is one of the New York Times' token op-ed conservatives. Mind you, what I have to say here is personal opinion and that the reader's opinion may be different from mine. I find that Brooks is no Krugman and that most of his stuff is unfocused and underwhelming, though I do enjoy his regular tiffs with New York Times liberal editorialist Gail Collins because of their good-natured humor. Brooks' piece on Piketty is like Brooks himself: full of fuzzy thinking and fuzzy, often incorrect assumptions. Here's an example from Brooks' Piketty article:

If you are a young professional in a major city, you experience inequality firsthand. But the inequality you experience most acutely is not inequality down, toward the poor; it’s inequality up, toward the rich. You go to fund-raisers or school functions and there are always hedge fund managers and private equity people around. You get more attention than them at parties, but your whole apartment could fit in their dining room. You struggle with tuition, but their kids go off on ski weekends. You wait in line at the post office, but they have staff to do it for them.

The first time I read this, my inner smart aleck protested that you'd never see the Wall Street elite at school functions since all their kids are off at Choate or Emma Willard or some other private school. And what's that bit about struggling with tuition? Young professionals I know in New York or San Francisco can't afford private schools for their kids, many of which carry price tags as expensive as tuition at an Ivy League university. Most professionals of my acquaintance, like my sister or my cousins, have to settle for moving to a bedroom community with a good public school system. And somehow, I find his take on inequality really very odd: that Brooks believes that observing the wealthy 1% is more common than seeing the homeless in Union Square or MacArthur Park, or seeing the slums every commuter observes from the windows of the subway or BART or from one's car on the Nimitz Freeway on the south side of Oakland. I have a hard time with that since the signs of poverty are as common and frequent as every person holding a "will work for food" sign at busy intersections and highway onramps, an unavoidable sight unless you live in a gated community that you never leave. This is just one example of why I find Brooks to be a fuzzy thinker and a fuzzy writer.

The quality of the New York Times' conservative editorialists has suffered since the late William Safire retired, sad to say. I do find it interesting that Brooks seems to assume that the reader has already read Piketty's book with its hefty retail price of $39.95 (and only $21.99 on Kindle!) but the devil's advocate in me wants to point out that Brooks' piece is an editorial, not a book review.

Out of the several of pieces from the Wall Street Journal ("WSJ") on Piketty's book, I will use just the one I mentioned above since I find it representative of many of the WSJ editorials I've read in recent years. I have to delineate between the old WSJ and the new because I find the WSJ just isn't what it used to be after Murdoch bought it. The amount of criticism of business and politics on the editorial page has declined and some topics, like racism and workplace discrimination, don't even appear anymore. I'm not alone in thinking the WSJ has strayed from its former standards of superior business reporting and analysis as any search on "Wall Street Journal changes since Murdoch" will show. The discussions on the changes at the WSJ at would be a good place to start for those who are interested.

For me, the new style of WSJ editorials tend to feel like varsity versions of the junior varsity "commentary" reporting at Fox News. Strawman arguments, name calling and other forms of ad hominem attacks never used to show up at the WSJ but subtle forms of these are now not uncommon. Here's an example from the WSJ book review by Wall Street insider Shuchman:

"the author believes that no CEO could ever justify his or her pay based on performance. He doesn't say whether any occupation—athletes? physicians? economics professors who sell zero-marginal-cost e-books for $21.99 a copy?—is entitled to higher earnings because he does not wish to 'indulge in constructing a moral hierarchy of wealth.' "

Wow. Strawman and ad hominem all in one sentence! I'm going to resist the temptation here to ponder whether Shuchman perhaps found Piketty's commentary on exploding executive salaries a little too close to home. Someone please pass me my 6-pack of mice! For myself, I find nothing wrong with Piketty's desire to avoid the creation of a "moral hierarchy of wealth" where one's worth in life is measured only in terms of how much you earn. Despite the common American failing to use wealth as a measure of social standing and personal worth, it is not true that any given physician is a better person than a house wife raising a pack of children, or that a best seller author is a better person a truck driver, or that a Wall Street fund manger is a better person than a bank teller. Methinks that Shuchman doth protest too much.

I find that this sort of subtle nastiness has infected the op-ed pages of the WSJ since its takeover by Murdoch's media empire. As I pointed out in an earlier blog post (, this is the new Murdoch-owned WSJ where one editorialist claimed that:

"Pipelines also tend not to go straight through exposed population centers like Lac-Mégantic."

If you recall, this brilliant example of cluelessness was out of an editorial titled "Can Environmentalists Think?" It makes me wonder if the op-ed page editor was asleep when this was submitted. Unfortunately, this is the sort of snarkiness one can expect out of the WSJ these days. I find it incredibly sad because I used to really love the WSJ with its deep and nuanced reporting on business, which was unique and every bit as good as the Economist but on a daily basis. But things have changed since the buy-out of the WSJ's parent corp Dow Jones and over a hundred journalists fled for other news outlets, which would be a devastating loss for any news organization (ref: I think the only reason I still subscribe to the WSJ is for fodder for this blog. Really.

Moving on to the book review in the Economist, it has everything that one expects from this premier European economic weekly: a good overview of what the book is about, an appreciation of Piketty's attempt to tie economic trends to modern philosophical and cultural trends and a list of both good and bad aspects in Piketty's analysis. Where the WSJ book review ridiculed Piketty's invocation of literature and culture in his analysis of the use of capital in modern societies, including Communist ones, the Economist's review discussed the value of examining economic theory from different cultural perspectives that change over time. This review was comprehensive, nuanced and sophisticated. The unnamed author of the review did not pull punches where he or she saw gaps in Piketty's assumptions or disagreed with Piketty's conclusions, but those criticisms were delivered ever so politely, demonstrating that disagreement doesn't have to be wrapped in nastiness or sarcasm. The review in the Economist makes me want to read Piketty's book for myself. This is the sort of journalism that one expects from the Economist and it's one of the reasons why I adore this weekly. If you have never sampled the joys of intelligent business-oriented news and analysis in the Economist, you should take the time to check it out.

The treatment of Piketty's book by Forbes is interesting and in-character for this maverick of American business reporting. While the article I cited earlier is intelligent and perceptive, it's only one in a whole series of a planned examination by Forbes on the different aspects of Piketty's book. Going over to the Forbes website, a search on "Piketty" returns 15 already-written articles and blogs on his book plus several others discussing Piketty in general or in comparison to other economists of international standing. Well, that's Forbes for you. Like the eccentric and flamboyant members of the Forbes family who founded and ran this magazine, one never knows quite what to expect but whatever it turns out to be, it will be interesting. Given the sheer number of divergent opinions on Piketty reflected in the Forbes articles, I know I have revised my opinion on Forbes upwards.

Red Bashing

Now there's one thing about the Piketty book that I've not discussed yet, and that is Piketty's treatment of Marx. Piketty's specialty in economics is economic inequality and on that subject he apparently takes some of what Marx said seriously. Keep in mind that Piketty is a French economist working and teaching in France, a place where words like "socialist" or "communist" are not necessarily the lies of Satan straight out of the Necronomicon. Since he doesn't have to worry about the American tenure system for academics, examining the theories of Marx with something other than condemnation does not carry the risk of career suicide that it would be in the U.S. of A. Apparently, Piketty makes some very un-American suggestions to combat what he believes is an irreversible run-away spiral of wealth inequality a la Marx, like a world-wide 80% tax on income from capital gains - well, that's the impression I get from that pile of informative Forbes articles. David Brooks at the New York Times was dead on the money for once when he wrote that such a global wealth tax was the product of a utopian idealist.

Now saying that something in Marx might be right is enough to invoke a lynch mob in these parts. Only one of the Piketty reviews (Auerbach at Slate) noted that not only did Piketty agree with some observations by Marx but that he also had lots to say about where Marx got it wrong. This left me wondering about the potential lack of balanced reporting on Piketty's book and about possible trends of pinko commie bashing in Piketty book reviews and editorials. So I made a completely unscientific random survey of reviews and commentary, and my results are listed below:

  • New York Times - Krugman: no mention of anything like Marx or commies (
  • New Tork Times - Brooks: offhand neutral remark about Marxism (
  • Wall Street Journal - Shuchman: red bashing (
  • Wall Street Journal - Paletta: no mention of Marx (
  • National Review - Pethokoukis: red bashing (
  • Slate - Auerbach: neutral observation on Piketty's treatment of Marx (
  • Slate - Weissmann: offhand neutral mention of Marx (
  • Economist - anon.: neutral mention of Marx's theories (
  • Forbes - Winship: neutral mention of Marx's theories (
  • American Enterprise Institute - Hassett: neutral mention of Marx's theories (
  • Salon - O'Hehir: rightwing conservative bashing (
  • Salon - Donovan: rightwing conservative bashing (
  • New Yorker - Cassidy: neutral mention of Marx's theories, neutral observations on Piketty's treatment of Marx (
  • Rush Limbaugh Show - Limbaugh: red bashing squared (
  • Bloomberg - Crook: minor neutral mention of Marx (
  • Naked Capitalism - "Rumplestatskin": no mention of Marx (

This list is interesting. I was surprised by the lack of red bashing from Hassett at the right-wing American Enterprise Institute. Pethkoukis, a career red basher at the the National Review also publishes stuff through the American Enterprise Institute and he seldom passes up the opportunity to spout anti-commie utterances. I guess this means that the American Enterprise Institute doesn't insist on red bashing but they don't ban it either.

What really surprised me was Salon, which I have liked over the years. A double whammy of conservative bashing was not what I expected but the facts are staring me in the face: Salon does not ban the bashing of conservatives and conservative ideas. My opinion of Salon has been revised downward. Sic transit gloria salon.

Biased Journalism

My big point in this digression is that a review or commentary of someone's controversial work can be more reflective of the person who writes it or the publication in which it appears than it is of the work being discussed. This idea popped into my brain after I read Krugman's column and Brooks' column back-to-back. Neither column told me much about Piketty's book but each spoke volumes to me on the signature writing styles of these two columnists. I then visited several other newspaper and magazine websites to test my hypothesis. To a first approximation, I think my observation is correct with one caveat. Here's the caveat: the shorter the review or commentary, the more likely it reflects the opinions of its author or publisher and the less likely it is to inform the reader about the content of the work under discussion. But don't take my word for this. Run your own test of this hypothesis and make up your own mind on this matter.

I think it's good to test this hypothesis on a subject you don't care much about or on a issue where you don't already have a strong opinion formed. Like me this morning, if you know nothing about the celebrated international French economist Thomas Piketty, then run your experiment on his book Capital. If you are already informed about Piketty's Capital, then pick a different subject you don't know much about. Next, make a list of news outlets and/or authors along with your own evaluation of whether they are liberal vs. conservative and cursory vs. detailed. Then visit each news outlet or author on your list and look at the political orientation for each article you find discussing your chosen subject. The gig here is not whether you agree or disagree with the opinions you find, but rather what the political orientation might be for any author or news outlet. Also look at each piece of reporting as to whether it delivers facts and observations and whether it resorts to arm-waving, grandstanding, ad hominem attacks and other opinion-manipulation tricks like strawman arguments. Be aware that any given piece of writing may include both factual content and rhetorical tricks. The purpose of the exercise is to measure factual reporting vs. political bias. You might learn something new about who does a good or bad job reporting the news. I certainly did.

Post Script 1:

I haven't read Piketty's book. At $22 for an ebook version, I find the price a bit too high. I'll wait for the library to get a copy or will pick up a copy in a few months for a few bucks at a used book store. While I will slap down $40 for a good science book, like the American Chemical Society overview on the chemistry of paper that I just picked up, I find that most tomes on economic theory are tedious and uninteresting. Molecules are much more engaging that monetary supply and macro-economibarf. I dropped the one economics class I tried in college. I'd rather decline verbs in Latin or wash dishes. So no, I'm going to pass on reading this tome of economic theory until I can borrow it or buy it cheap. That's why this post is about bias in the journalistic reactions to this book and not about the book itself.

Economics. Blech!

Post Script 2:

Of all the articles I've read on this book, John Cassidy's review in the New Yorker ( is by far the best: balanced, detailed and interesting. I almost bought a copy of Capital in the Twenty-First Century after reading this review before sanity reasserted itself.

Economics. Blech! Just because I sometimes write about economics doesn't mean that I like economics.

Notes on References: all the URLs listed in this blog post were accessed on 26 April 2014.

Thursday 7 November 2013

The Great Obama Healthcare Cover-Up!

Today's subject is an article by Ann Coulter. Looking at the lead article on her website, Health Care for the Pushy, (, accessed 07 Nov 2013), I could not fail to notice several misstatements.

The premise of Coulter's article is that Obama lied about people being able to keep health insurance they like. Regardless if one agrees or disagrees with Coulter's opinion on Obamacare, she doesn't seem to have a good handle on her facts. For instance, she says:

Eighty-five percent of Americans were happy with their health care before Obamacare, according to the American Customer Satisfaction Index -- higher than almost any other product or service polled.

Well, if you go and look at the American Customer Satisfaction Index (, accessed 07 Nov 2013), 72% of people with health insurance in 2012 were satisfied with what they had. If we consider that approximately 85% of Americans had some kind of health insurance in 2012 (ref:, accessed 07 Nov 2013), this means that approximately 61% of Americans had health insurance that they were happy with. I have no idea where Coulter got her numbers - certainly not from the American Customer Satisfaction Index.

In the first 100 words of Coulter's article she cites sources for two statements. The first is simply "Obama lied." Her citation link takes you to the page for her new book, Never Trust a Liberal Over 3, Especially a Republican. That crackling noise you hear is the sound of my mind boggling. I don't think can we hold up Ann Coulter as someone to emulate for her citation style though her marketing style has much to admire.

Coulter's second citation is attached to this statement:

Even without the 2010 Health and Human Services (HHS) report admitting that 93 million Americans would lose their health insurance, anyone with half a brain (which is a pre-existing condition) knew that millions of Americans would be thrown off their insurance plans under Obamacare.

That's quite a statement, and since Coulter was so obliged to provide a link as citation, of course I had to check it out. It turns out that Coulter's citation-by-link takes you not to a government report but to an October 31 article on the Forbes magazine website. The article is Obama Officials In 2010: 93 Million Americans Will Be Unable To Keep Their Health Plans Under Obamacare, in a regular column called The Apothecary by Avik Roy (, accessed 07 Nov 2013).

In the Forbes article, the author cites "an obscure" 2010 study in the Federal Register as support for his contention that:

Obama administration knew that Obamacare would disrupt private plans. If you read the Affordable Care Act when it was passed, you knew that it was dishonest for President Obama to claim that “if you like your plan, you can keep your plan,” as he did—and continues to do—on countless occasions. And we now know that the administration knew this all along. It turns out that in an obscure report buried in a June 2010 edition of the Federal Register, administration officials predicted massive disruption of the private insurance market.

The Forbes article bravely gives the reader a workable link to the study in the Federal Register and even goes so far as to quote and cite the study's contents by page:

The Departments’ mid-range estimate is that 66 percent of small employer plans and 45 percent of large employer plans will relinquish their grandfather status by the end of 2013,” wrote the administration on page 34,552 of the Register.

Have you ever spent time trying to read statutes and regulations issued by the federal government? My sympathy to those, like me, who have had to do so in pursuit of employment. (Frankly, if I never have to see another EPA rule on drinking water standards, I will die a happy camper.) It is well known that federal regulations have off-label uses for curing insomnia and driving mothers-in-law into long-term care in a sanatarium. The Federal Register document cited here is no exception.

If you visit page 34,552 of the 2010 Federal Register, what you will find is a page that's in the middle of an analysis to estimate how many grandfathered employer-provided health insurance plans would be retained or relinquished for new plans as a function of different market conditions. It looked at existing patterns of insurance plan turn-over, the availability of plans with more competitive pricing, annual increases in insurance costs and factors that might lead a small business to drop employee health insurance altogether, to name some of the variables examined.

It's worth looking at this section of the Federal Register document a little closer. Here's the section and sub-section titles:

Estimates of Number of Plans and Employees Affected
  1. . Methodology for Analyzing Plan Changes Over Time in the Group Market
  2. . Impacts on the Group Market Resulting From Changes From 2008 to 2009
  3. . Sensitivity Analysis: Assuming That Employers Will Be Willing To Absorb a Premium Increase in Order To Remain Grandfathered
  4. . Sensitivity Analysis: Incomplete Flexibility To Substitute One Cost-Sharing Mechanism for Another
  5. . Estimates for 2011–2013

In a nutshell, this analysis began by explaining how the estimates would be derived, looked at data from 2008 and 2009 as an aid in making estimates, pushed the data through two different scenarios to test how different market conditions would impact the numbers calculated, and then made estimates based on all of that. Forbes neglected to say anything about the character of this speculative analysis, and in fact, Forbes managed to leave off the first clause of the sentence it quoted directly. Here's the whole statement, including what Forbes left out:

Under this assumption, the Departments’ mid-range estimate is that 66 percent of small employer plans and 45 percent of large employer plans will relinquish their grandfather status by the end of 2013.

Did you catch that? "Under this assumption..." This statement is conditional on an assumption. What assumption is that? Let's the Federal Register speak for itself:

Estimates are provided above for the percentage of employers that will retain grandfather status in 2011. These estimates are extended through 2013 by assuming that the identical percentage of plan sponsors will relinquish grandfathering in each year. Again, to the extent that the 2008–2009 data reflect plans that are more likely to make frequent changes in cost sharing, this assumption will overestimate the number of plans relinquishing grandfather status in 2012 and 2013.

Basically, this document looked at employer-provided insurance plan turnover data from previous years and then used it to extrapolate those rates for 2012/13.

This is a far cry from saying that Obama knew that 93 million people would have their insurance cancelled on them.

Here's the kicker, at least for me - the title of this Federal Register document is:

Interim Final Rules for Group Health Plans and Health Insurance Coverage Relating to Status as a Grandfathered Health Plan Under the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act

Right below this title you will find:

ACTION: Interim final rules with request for comments.

This analysis included in this Federal Register document isn't a "2010 Health and Human Services (HHS) report" as Coulter described it, nor an "obscure report buried in a June 2010 edition of the Federal Register" as it was described in Forbes. This analysis was the internal commentary of the proposed final form of the regulations governing grandfathered health insurance under the Affordable Care Act, complete with a call for commentary to be considered prior to the issuance of the final regulations.

Were there any statements in these Interim Final Rules on grandfathered health plans that the Obama administration knew 93 million Americans would have their insurance cancelled on them in 2013? I think there are two ways to answer that. The first is easy: no, there is no such statement in this Federal Register document. The second is similar: an estimate that approximately half of all employer-provided health plans will relinquish grandfathered status due to market conditions is not the same things as saying 93 million people will have their health insurance cancelled on them. Those statements may look the similar but they are not the same. A citron is not an orange despite the fact that they are both round juicy citrus fruits. And I don't buy the sudden discovery by pundits that the current administration knew the sky would fall back in 2010 and knowingly kept it from everyone. Publication of proposed regulations with requests for commentary in the Federal Register is not at all obscure. In addition, are conservative pundits really so dense that they missed calling Obama out on the keep-your-health-plan comment when folks like took him to task in 2009 for it? Say it ain't so!

The real issue at hand is not the misquoting the Federal Register. The real issue is that President Obama said that people would be able to keep the health insurance plans they liked. The patent absurdity of that statement was blown out of the water in the same year that Obama uttered it, by no less than that great non-partisan debunker of political hyperboles, (see, accessed 07 Nov 2013).

I think Obama is going to regret what he said about people keeping their health care plans. I think it's going to be the greatest foot-in-mouth moment of the Obama presidency, one just as reknowned as "Read my lips - no more taxes" and "I'm not a crook!"

As far as legacy quotes are concerned, it's nowhere as good as "I did not have sexual relations with that woman!"

Monday 23 September 2013

Pipeline Pathways and Foot-In-Mouth

Sometimes a journalist or pundit says something so stupid and so amazingly clueless that it takes my breath away. Back in July this happened. The blog software my website provider uses has its moments though and it ate the wonderful blog post I wrote on today's subject. It has taken me two months to return to this, one of the lamest things I have ever seen in print.

How lame it is? Let me preface the target of today's blog post with a little personal history. I have worked in rail yards. When you hang out in rail yards, you learn all sorts of cool things about what gets moved around by rail. One of things you learn is that rail roads are really cool. They move freight cheaper than trucks on the interstate for all long hauls greater than a few hundred miles. They are three times cleaner per ton of freight than 18-wheelers and they have really small carbon footprints compared to cars and trucks.

There are some other things I learned about railroads while working at them. I worked as a contractor in the two rail yards around Sacramento owned by Southern Pacific ("SP") back in the late 80s before Union Pacific bought them out. The company I worked for did the environmental engineering and remediation for SP at the time. The Roseville Railyard was a Superfund site back then. I did a lot of environmental stuff there and managed all the environmental activities in the yard for a time, before I flipped the jerks who ran the environmental engineering firm the bird and quit. Having done environmental stuff in a railyard left me with an understanding of the transport of all kinds of hazardous stuff that travels by rail.

On the flip side, I've also worked in and around pipelines, the kind that carry oil and gas, and yes, crude. My first pipeline carried jet fuel from a US Navy dock facility on the central California coast, over the California Coast Ranges, and into the Naval Air Station at Lamar, in the middle of the San Joaquin Valley. There was an indication it had a small leak somewhere. My work partner and I went leak hunting.

In the environmental geology world, the biggest concern over pipelines, though, is in the context of running drill rigs during environmental investigations. It's not a good thing to accidentally drill through a pipeline. Back when I was running all the field activities at the Roseville Railyard, I had one sampling location along the street right by the railyard's diesel repair shop. There was a PG&E pipeline scant feet from the sample location. In fact, we moved that location away from the pipeline. Regardless, being 4 feet removed was still too close for PG&E, who sent a crew out to dig out the pipeline by hand and then shore their excavation while we drilled our sampling well. That's just a sample of two of the pipelines I've run into in my day.

All of this is germane, which you'll appreciate in just a moment more when I unveil the reason for this post.

So, what is this marvel that compelled me to rant and rail (pun intended) for your benefit herein? Well, it's a rather astounding utterance in print from our friends at the Wall Street Journal in the aftermath of the ongoing tragedy in Lac Megantic.

Y'all remember Lac-Mégantic, Quebec, n'est pas? Where there was that horrific train derailment and explosion, a pile of people dead, a beautiful little town on a lovely lake destroyed? Did I mention anywhere yet that I've been there? I've driven through Lac-Mégantic twice, going to and from Trois Rivieres last October. It was a pretty place surrounded by forests and the last gasps of the northern end of the Appalachian Mountains. The view from downtown out over the lake was breath-taking. I don't look forward to revisiting. By all reports, the entire center of the town is gone. Photo: @sureteduquebec, Twitter

So what was this utterance in the Wall Street Journal? It was in an editorial with the provocative title of: "Can Environmentalists Think?" by one Bret Stephens, published on July 8, 2014 (, accessed July 8 and September 23, 2013).

The editorial is a rant about all the environmental types wailing over the transport of crude by train vs. pipeline in the aftermath of the Lac-Mégantic disaster. Of course, a lot of hand-wringing was done by the environmentalist types about how Lac-Mégantic shouldn't be used as a reason to support pipelines like the Keystone XL project. The tone of the editorial is rather caustic and the author laments, rightly so, about the lack of common sense and practical knowledge of most environmental activists about the real-world compromises that modern society has to make to support our industrial infrastructure. His points were apt though his sarcasm and tone were distasteful to me. Granted as someone who has a legitimate claim to having made a living as a professional in environmental science, I can't say that I have a lot of respect for your average environmental eco-idiot. Most of them have little real understanding of the science of the field they espouse to champion. I'm not sure who I dislike more: the businesses I've worked for who would let their environmental damage sit and be ignored if not forced by law to do something about it or the environmental crusaders who have no clue as to the real issues and science behind the causes they espouse. The former are near-criminals and the latter are living examples of my favorite adage that thinking is work and people are lazy...

You can see that I didn't much like the editorial. It wasn't respectful in a bad-manners kind of way. In fact, it was insulting and annoying and I'm not even one of the folks being insulted. It was needlessly nasty in my opinion (yours, of course, may differ). But that's not why I'm dissing this piece of work...

What set me off badly enough to make it the target of my blog? It's the following really clueless statement:

"Pipelines also tend not to go straight through exposed population centers like Lac-Mégantic."

The author was arguing the virtues of pipelines environmentally and this was one of his points about their safety in comparison to railroads. Now, I think I might know a thing about railroads and pipelines both.

So here's a short list of just a few places that pipelines make a beeline straight through exposed populations centers larger in size than Lac-Mégantic and its approximate 5000 souls. Population figure are from the 2010 US Census. To be absolutely rigorous, I have limited this list to places that I can personally go and stand on the pipelines in question. This is not a theoretical list made from using someone else's reference material. These are crude oil pipelines I know myself professionally, can stand on their path and point to the downtowns or residential neighborhoods they transit.

  • Conroe, TX pop. 56207
  • Taft, CA pop. 9327
  • South St. Louis, MO pop. 318172
  • Salt Lake City, UT pop. 189314
  • Farmington, UT pop. 18275
  • Bountiful, UT pop. 42522
  • Layton, UT pop. 67311
  • Eureka, CA pop. 27191
  • Rawlins, WY pop. 9259

Did the author of this editorial even bother to do any research on pipelines before suffering from verbal diarrhea?