Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Once Again, This is What a Regulation-Free Universe Looks Like

I used this headline (more or less) a few months ago, in regards to the West Virginia toxic spill that left residents of Charleston without potable water for drinking, cooking, brushing teeth, showering, etc., for days -- and still has them a little jittery (full post, here). Sad to say, the headline is good for lots of occasions.

Just a few days after the one-year anniversary of the explosion of a West, TX fertilizer plant that leveled the plant, destroyed or damaged hundreds of homes, wounded hundreds of people, and killed 14 (ten of whom were volunteer firefighters, there to try to contain the damage), the US Chemical Safety Board has released the preliminary findings of its investigation.

Least surprising headline of the day, courtesy of the New York Times, article by Manny Fernandez: "Lax Oversight Cited as Factor in Deadly Blast at Texas Plant".

Ya think?!?

Per the CSB: "The fire and explosion at West Fertilizer was preventable. It should never have occurred. It resulted from the failure of a company to take the necessary steps to avert a preventable fire and explosion and from the inability of federal, state and local regulatory agencies to identify a serious hazard and correct it."

I found this statement shocking: "The CSB’s investigation found that at the state level, there is no fire code and in fact counties under a certain population are prohibited from having them." (emphasis added)

Fernandez wrote:
White pellets of ammonium nitrate, a fertilizer sold to farmers in the area, were stored in a wooden warehouse in wooden bins, inside a building without a sprinkler system. No federal regulations exist preventing a company from storing the chemical in such a way. The volunteer firefighters who rushed to the plant to fight a fire that broke out there before the explosion were largely unaware of the dangers of ammonium nitrate, and a local emergency planning committee had not adopted an emergency response plan for the plant. Even if they had, Texas has no statewide fire code that would have established a minimum set of standards.

Somewhere in the vicinity of 50 tons of ammonium nitrate were being stored at the warehouse, and another 100 tons was stored in a rail car next to the plant.

Fernandez also noted, laconically, that Texas officials -- who often trumpet their "regulation-free" environment as great for business -- were "muted" in their response to the CSB findings.

The CSB is not authorized to impose fines, but can make recommendations to (among other groups) regulatory agencies like OSHA and the Environmental Protection Agency.

I'm not expecting much from either OSHA or the EPA, and even if a fine is assessed, I predict that it will be absorbed as a "cost of doing business" (April 2013 post on the non-effect of under-punishment, here). Because who cares that people will die?

Friday, April 18, 2014

Is a 50 Cents Off Coupon a Fair Trade-off for Losing Your Right to Sue?

In Thursday's New York Times, an article by Stephanie Strom warned that food giant General Mills "has quietly added language to its website to alert consumers that they give up their right to sue the company if they download coupons, 'join' it in online communities like Facebook, enter a company-sponsored sweepstakes or contest or interact with it in a variety of other ways."

Instead, any dispute would have to be resolved through binding arbitration.


I generally hate the little "accept these terms" policies anyway: they stop you in your tracks when you're trying to do something else, and they're in tiny tiny print (so you know the company is counting on your not reading them carefully, and you also know that a fast one is being pulled on you). But this seemed particularly egregious.

The company insisted later that day that their intentions had been misconstrued. On a General Mills blog, the external communications director wrote the new terms "kick in only when you engage [with the company online] and agree [to the terms], but even then, nothing in the policy precludes a consumer from pursuing a claim." (full post, here) Furthermore:
No one is precluded from suing us by purchasing our products at a store, and no one is precluded from suing us when they “like” one of our Facebook pages. That is just a mischaracterization.

But should an individual agree to the terms, they would then apply. That’s the point. But even then, the policy doesn’t preclude a consumer from pursuing a claim. It merely determines the forum.

Wait: you can sue, but we've already determined that the forum is binding arbitration? Does that sound like a suit to you? Me neither.

As Strom wrote in a follow-up article in today's New York Times, lawyers have commented on the "exceptionally broad" terms of the new policy.

Is it enforceable? This will be up to the courts to determine. Very soon.

Open-Source: From Software to Seeds

I grew up in a rural area of Massachusetts, so I have good memories of the agriculture that surrounded us -- mostly dairy farms and apple orchards. But I'm not a fan of Big Agriculture whose twin goals sometimes seem to be squeezing out more profit while squeezing down more small farmers.

(As an example of what I mean: consider Monsanto's powerful herbicide Roundup which kills pretty much anything. In order to grow, say, corn, a farmer who uses Roundup to control weeds has to use "Roundup-ready" seed, also from Monsanto. Traditionally, farmers set aside a portion of their best crop-seed for next year's planting. But Roundup-ready seeds are second-generation sterile -- known in the business as "terminator seeds" -- so that farmers can't put any seed aside from their crop, but must every year buy the newest version from Monsanto. Monsanto argues that this requirement ensures that their technology helps prevent the spread of Roundup resistance to other species. A side note: there is little evidence that the use of Roundup-ready seed increases either the yields or the profits of the farmers who use it.)

Anyway, you can understand why I was interested by a pair of articles that appeared this week, one in the Washington Post, about a new seed-breeding technology used by the likes of Monsanto, and the second on National Public Radio, about a move to "open-source" plant breeding.

In the first, by Adrian Higgins (full article, published last Wednesday, here), describes the new technique of "marker-assisted breeding":

Marker-assisted breeding... lays bare the inherent genetic potential of an individual plant to allow breeders to find the most promising seedling among thousands for further breeding. Because the plant’s natural genetic boundaries are not crossed, the resulting commercial hybrid is spared the regulatory gantlet and the public opposition focused on such plants as genetically modified Roundup Ready corn or soybeans, which are engineered to withstand herbicide sprays.

Marker-assisted breeding has been embraced not only by the multinational biotech companies here in California’s Central Valley but also by plant scientists in government, research universities and nongovernmental organizations fervently seeking new, overachieving crops. The goal is to sustainably feed an expanding global population while dealing with the extremes of climate change.

But critics of Big Agriculture worry about the needs of small-scale farmers and breeders. Low-tech conventional breeding — judging plants by how they look and perform, not by their DNA — has been the lifeblood of small seed companies and local growers, often in conjunction with breeding programs at land-grant universities. But those programs have shrunk by a third in recent years, and the remaining ones are increasingly gravitating to the trendy sphere of molecular breeding. 

What's a small-scale farmer to do? There may be hope in a new "open-source" seed movement, as reported by Dan Charles on NPR's Morning Edition program (here).

As with open-source software, which is freely available to all for further improvement and development (but not to be converted to a proprietary product), open-source seeds will be made available to all to use and share. At yesterday's inaugural event at the University of Wisconsin - Madison, 29 new varieties of kale, broccoli, quinoa, and other vegetables and grains were released (Wisconsin press release, here).

While many commercial seed companies will not use the open-source seed to breed new varieties (because, as one said, there would be only "limited potential to recoup the investment"), some organic-seed companies have already signed up.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Another Day, Another Automotive Recall

...So why am I feeling optimistic? Or at least semi-optimistic...

Today's New York Times, and many other news outlets, report that Toyota is recalling 6.4 million vehicles worldwide (full article, by Christopher Jensen and Hiroko Tabuchi, here). This follows by only a few weeks the car maker's agreement to pay the largest U.S. fine ever, $1.2 billion, for hiding safety defects (my earlier blog post on the subject, here).

At that time, I quoted U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder: "A recall may damage a company’s reputation, but deceiving your customers makes that damage far more lasting."

The only reason I'm happy about the Toyota news today is that I think, I hope, that it means that the auto giant is taking Holder's comment to heart.

The current recall, involving vehicles as far back as the 2006 model year, relates to potential air bag and seat problems (in the event of a crash, the former may not deploy, and the latter could move). Per the Times report,
Toyota said on Wednesday that it was not aware of any injuries or deaths related to either defect, nor was there any indication that American safety regulators had opened any investigations. Of the vehicles being recalled in the United States, Toyota said it would service 1.3 million to fix the air bag defect and 472,500 vehicles to fix their seats.

The only way to restore Trust is to embrace Transparency.

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Sustainable Coffee Pods, Yay!

It's my belief that coffee is proof of the existence of a God who loves us and wants us to be happy.

Which is why I've been eying those single-serve coffee makers since they came on the market. I work from home, and while I can easily make up a pot of coffee in the morning, by the time I get to the nth cup at the end of the day... well, it's no longer quite as tasty as it was at 8 a.m.

So every time I see a "Sale" ad for a Keurig machine or a Nespresso, or any one of the other variants on the market, I'm tempted (even though I have no available counter space). And every time, I'm stymied by the stupid plastic pods.

I do live in a single-stream we'll-take-anything recycling town, thankfully, but it's still hard to justify the purchase.

But today's New York Times has a piece by Stephanie Strom that tells me that the world is finally changing.

A Canadian company has just introduced the "EcoCup", a clear pod that is recyclable in most municipal systems (No. 5 plastic). And best of all, the company isn't keeping the innovation to itself. According to one company official:
The easy answer to whether we would share these cups with competitors is no, but the right answer is yes....The right thing to do is make the technology available to the industry.

The company will make tea pods available this year, and coffee pods next year.

Is it 2015 yet?

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Who's Collecting the Juiciest Chunk of Your Taxes? The Government, or the Preparer?

How do you define "grownup"? For me, it was when I first realized that I would have to fill out and sign my income tax forms. And I hated it.

I'd read the instructions four times over, and despite an expensive undergraduate degree, the paragraphs made less sense the fourth time than they did the first.

Note that, at the time, I was using the 1040 EZ form.

So I totally understand why people hire tax preparers. In fact, we have a tax accountant prepare our returns, and it makes the whole process way less stressful.

But what makes me crazy now is that, if I wanted, I could hang out a sign saying that I'm a Tax Preparer.

In fact, only four states (Oregon, California, New York, and Maryland) require "tax preparers" to show that they have any relevant skills or knowledge. And while most preparers do their best for their clients, there are all too many whose motivations are shadier.

And guess who those unregulated preparers are most likely to target? You got it: those least likely to make an educated judgment about which preparer to hire.

Today's New York Times has two articles that, combined, made me mad.

The first, by Campbell Robertson, explores how some preparers fleece the unsuspecting [full article, here].
For millions of low-income Americans, tax season means the biggest one-time influx of money all year. It also means the annual sprouting of commercial tax preparers: some of them big-name franchises, some mom-and-pops and some... shockingly expensive.....

[W]ith almost no regulation in the tax preparation industry and a tax code that is forbiddingly complex, the billions flowing into low-income households this time of year, primarily in the form of the earned-income tax credit, present a ripe target for the unscrupulous.
Too many low-income households are paying hundreds of dollars for returns that are often inaccurate. And those taxpayers have no idea what they should have been charged.
In 2009, the Internal Revenue Service introduced a plan to require tests, continuing education and registration for tax preparers. Some professional groups and tax preparation businesses, like H&R Block, supported the rules, but many small tax preparers denounced them as unfair and protectionist.
Given the complexity of the federal tax code, and the constant change in regulations, why wouldn't you want a continuing-education requirement? Hmmm.Well, there are apparently some "philosophical" objections, as reported in today's op-ed piece by Alex Levy:
In 2011, the Obama administration introduced regulations requiring tax preparers to pass a basic competency test, undergo a criminal-background check, pay an annual registration fee, and keep current on tax law through continuing education. But the Institute for Justice, a libertarian group partly funded by the Koch brothers, challenged the regulations in court. The case is part of the institute’s continuing campaign against occupational licensing requirements, which they view as a threat to economic liberty.

A threat to economic liberty? Really? How about the threat to the consumer? After all, if the IRS discovers fraud in my return, I'm the one who's going to go to jail.