Opinion L.A.

Observations and provocations
from The Times' Opinion staff

Category: Business

Cheap coal? Tell that to the dead miners' families

President Obama in Oklahoma
The Obama administration announced new EPA rules Tuesday that sharply limit the output of carbon dioxide emissions from new power plants.

And not surprisingly, the mining industry objected.

"Requiring coal-based power plants to meet an emissions standard based on natural gas technology is a policy overtly calculated to destroy a significant portion of America's electricity supply," said Hal Quinn, chief executive of the National Mining Assn. "This proposal is the latest convoy in EPA's regulatory train wreck that is rolling across America, crushing jobs and arresting our economic recovery at every stop. It is not an 'all of the above' energy strategy." 

Of course, what Quinn doesn't want to talk about is what types of jobs the EPA rules are "crushing."

To get a better idea of that, you need to read another Times story Tuesday, one headlined "Report: Safety agency failed to enforce laws at deadly mine."

That story tells of the regulatory and safety lapses at the Upper Big Branch mine in West Virginia, where an explosion in 2010 killed 29 coal miners and seriously injured two others.

It's a story of lax regulatory enforcement, of inspectors simply not doing their jobs, and of a mine operator that, as the Department of Labor's Mine Safety and Health Administration said in a report on the deadly incident, engaged in  "systematic, intentional and aggressive efforts ... to avoid compliance with safety and health standards, and to thwart detection of that non-compliance by federal and state regulators."

How bad were conditions at the mine?  Bad enough that "Alpha Natural Resources, the company that acquired Massey Energy Co. after the explosion, reached a settlement late last year with the Department of Justice in which it agreed to pay a record $209 million in compensation and fines and federal prosecutors agreed not to pursue criminal charges against the company," according to The Times' story.

Even so, some former officials at the mine are under criminal indictment. 

Last month, prosecutors charged the then-superintendent of the mine with conspiring with others to block federal regulators from enforcing safety requirements -- a charge that suggests other individuals are likely targets of action as well.

Prosecutors allege that the former superintendent altered the mine’s ventilation system while an inspector was taking an air sample and ordered that a monitor be rewired so that mining could continue despite elevated levels of methane.

What industry spokesman Quinn also didn't talk about is that EPA regulations would apply only to new power plants, and that, as The Times story said, "the proposed regulations further bolster a trend that the power industry began years ago, as more utilities replaced aging coal-fired plants with new natural gas plants. Very few new coal plants are now on the drawing boards."

Coal is a relatively cheap power source, but it's only really cheap if you ignore the costs in lost lives mining it and the health effects from burning it, not to mention the environmental costs from digging it up.

As The Times story concludes:

"[W]hat this essentially says is we will never be building dirty old coal plants ever again," said Michael Brune of the Sierra Club, one of the litigants in the lawsuit that led to the development of the new rules. "The dominant power source of the 19th and 20th centuries won’t be built the same again."

This isn't about "crushing" jobs.

This is about progress. And it's time to move on.

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-- Paul Whitefield

Photo: President Obama speaks about energy on March 22 at a TransCanada pipe yard near Cushing, Okla. Credit: Larry W. Smith / EPA

Regulation or rule of law, Gov. Romney?

Mitt Romney
There's a line that former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney must know well, the one about the vast difference between campaigning and governing.

He's in ''campaigning'' mode now. In a speech at the University of Chicago on Monday, the Republican presidential candidate was seeking his inner Ronald Reagan when he cited supply-side Nobel economist and University of Chicago legend Milton Friedman:

"Milton Friedman knew what President Obama still has not learned, even after three years and hundreds of billions of dollars in spending: The government does not create prosperity; free markets and free people do."

COMMENTARY AND ANALYSIS: Presidential Election 2012

Well, after a fashion.

Regulations, he said, ''erode our freedoms.'' Yet much of the "freedom" he talks about for business and markets can't exist, much less thrive, without government.

Businesses don't want to do business in countries that don't have the government structures in place to protect them -- look at Iraq, for starters.

Businesses want to do business in nations that have law enforcement that isn't corrupt and court systems that can guarantee that contracts are enforced by laws, not by guns.

Businesses want a culture and a legal climate that operate by the rule of law, not by bribery or nepotism. They want a government that enacts and enforces regulations and laws that guarantee and protect intellectual property, patents and copyrights laws, and thus make it easier for enterprise and creativity to flourish.

Businesses also enjoy the advantages of publicly planned and publicly built and publicly maintained railroads and harbors and roads and highways that make the movement of goods and services and workers and customers possible. I don't see Wal-Mart constructing its own ports and railroads.

Businesses depend on deep-pocket, government-created, reliable infrastructure networks and systems like sewers and electricity and water. It's hard to do business in a place where power and water sources are haphazard, available for just a few hours a day. Businesses need to know that when a client or employee or they themselves flip on a light switch or flush a toilet or turn on a tap, the light comes on, the sewage is processed and cleaned and not dumped raw into the water supply, and the water that comes out of the faucet is potable and free of diseases that can weaken the health and therefore the buying power of consumers and workers alike.

Schools -- good schools -- can provide a competent workforce to businesses and prosperous customers to buy their products.

Business and government work hand in glove; good government is one big reason that business can work. As governor of Massachusetts, Romney crafted a climate protection plan, and he praised a regional greenhouse gas initiative as "good business."

Government can be the safety net for business at its best -- and its worst, protecting business from its own excesses and pitfalls.

Regulations can help to keep the public's -- meaning the customers' -- faith in business. Republican President Theodore Roosevelt created the precursor to the FDA, which gives consumers the confidence to buy the products, to eat the food and to  take the pills that businesses produce.

"Caveat emptor" only goes so far. If you choose an airline flying planes whose standards of construction and material quality are not quality-inspected, and the plane crashes, then you, the passenger, never get the chance to make the consumer's choice to fly another airline.

When tainted food gets into the food chain and people die (it's happened, from fast food beef burgers to spinach) people stop buying it until they hear reassurances -- not from the food producer but from federal inspectors -- that the problem has been found and addressed, and the food is safe to eat.

And business and consumers are the beneficiaries. People make choices about what restaurants are safer to eat in, what cars are safer to buy, even what amusement park rides are safe enough to put their kids on, in part because someone who doesn't work for the company that made those products -- a government inspector or regulator -- set some quality and safety standards, and enforced them.

There are similarities here to what I wrote when Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger inveighed against taxation "in principle" -- and presumably the things taxes pay for. I suggested that if he really wanted to do without taxes, he, like all of us, would be faced with paving his own roads, pouring his own sidewalks and digging his own sewers. In which case, I said, I'd be over to borrow a shovel.

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--Patt Morrison

Photo: Mitt Romney speaks on economic freedom and the threat the U.S. deficit has for future generations at the University of Chicago on March 19. Credit: Tannen Maury / EPA

Excuse me, my tattoo is ringing

Vibrating tattoo illustration
Meet Nokia, the king of synergy.

Many young people today seem to covet two things -- smartphones and tattoos. So Nokia has filed a patent for, as my colleague Deborah Netburn writes, "a tattoo that would send 'a perceivable impulse' to your skin whenever someone tried to contact you on the phone."

And you thought those Bluetooth things stuck in people's ears were silly!

Still, coming on the heels of a report that Apple sold more than 3 million new iPads in the first three days of its release, I'm not about to rain on a company's technology parade.

So how would this "tattoo ringer" work?

According to the patent filed with the United States Patent and Trademark Office, the phone would communicate with the tattoo through magnetic waves. The phone would emit magnetic waves and the tattoo would act as a receiver. When the waves hit the tattoo, it would set off a tactile response in the user's skin.

The patent also suggests that it would be possible to customize the physical response depending on who is calling -- similar to having a different ring tone for different family members. So if your husband calls, you might only feel a dull tingling, but if it's your teenage daughter calling you'd feel a mighty itch.

Isn't technology great?  I can envision the future:  The whole family stops at the smartphone store, then troops next door to the tattoo parlor for customized "tattoo ringtones." 

Or more likely, the tattoo artist will be right there in the smartphone store. Heck, maybe it'll even be a robot tattoo artist.  How cool would that be? You pick a tattoo from a screen, press a button and presto, off with your shirt and on with your tattoo.

I'm sure apps will be written to take advantage of this; there's an app for most everything now. Perhaps you'll be able to download the app to your phone and it would instruct little brother in how to tattoo a ringtone.

Maybe there will be ringtone tattoo parties.

Yes, in this brave new world, a tattoo that says "Mom" will mean just that: Mom calling.

Of course, there are obstacles.  Girlfriends and boyfriends come and go, as do husbands and wives. So, I'd advise caution: Stay away from "I love Kate" or "My sweet Phil" tattoos. 

Something generic, perhaps. Like "I love her/him."

Yes. That has a certain ring to it, I'd say.

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--Paul Whitefield

Photo: Nokia's patent for a vibrating tattoo. Credit: U.S. Patent and Trademark Office

Big government won't build you a snore room, that's for sure

Del Webb home offers snore roomWhen it comes to domestic issues, Americans should trust the private sector.

That's a Republican Party mantra, and two stories in The Times this week have me convinced as well.

Now, I know you think one concerns gasoline prices. Really, though, who cares about that? Snore.

That's right: I'm talking about snoring.  As The Times' Lauren Beale reported:

A so-called snore room is the latest offering from Del Webb, which builds communities for people 55 and older.

Buyers whose marriages are plagued by a spouse who snorts, grunts and wheezes while he or she sleeps can opt for an adaptable bedroom plan marketed as the "owners retreat" at Sun City Shadow Hills in Indio. Designed for couples who start out in the same bed but end up apart because of ear-piercing snoring, insomnia or late-night TV viewing habits, this secondary bedroom is connected to the bathroom of the master bedroom.

See?  Big problem; private-sector solution. You leave that to government, and pretty soon you've got government-run snore insurance instead.

Still, even the private sector can stumble. For example, I'm a bit puzzled by Del Webb's logic:

"A nice enclave that shares the master bathroom provides a civilized alternative to the family room sofa," said Jacque Petroulakis, corporate communications spokeswoman for PulteGroup Inc., the parent company of Del Webb.

About a quarter of couples in the 55-and-older age group sleep apart to get a good night's rest, according to PulteGroup, which got the data from a third party but also conducted focus groups and interviews as it developed the bedroom plan.

Now first of all, the sofa isn't for snoring husbands; it's for misbehaving husbands, or came-home-late-drunk husbands -- which, come to think of it, is redundant. (It's never for wives, of course, who are too savvy to choose the sofa, regardless of their transgressions.)

Second, if you're 55 or older and still married to someone who snores, isn't it a bit late to be dealing with the problem? Seems to me the snore room should be marketed at 30-year-olds, who need all the help they can get keeping their marriages together.

But, staying true to the private sector's can-do spirit, in addition to the snore room, Del Webb is offering other conveniences:

Among other new life-easing features the builder is offering are pass-throughs from the closet to the laundry room. A door large enough to push a hamper through connects the two spaces.

Which brings me to my second domestic issue story of the week: widespread thievery of Tide detergent.

The Times Dalina Castellanos reported:

Thieves seem to be embarking on an anti-grime spree, some media outlets are reporting, saying thousands of dollars in Tide detergent is being swiped from shelves across the country.

One Minnesota man stole about $25,000 worth of the liquid laundry detergent from a West St. Paul Wal-Mart over 15 months, authorities there say.

And who's to blame for this crime wave?  Sadly, dear liberals, it appears that Rush and Sean and Glenn are right: It's the government -- or, in this case, at least one peson who apparently has fallen prey to the liberal-nanny-state mentality.  

Lt. Matt Swenke of the West St. Paul Police Department said in an interview with The Times that Patrick Costanzo, 53, was the suspect in the Minnesota thefts.

"He told [police] he didn't have a job and the state didn't help him in any way so he did what he had to do to get by," Swenke said.

Yes, it's true, liberals: You do a man's laundry, he's clean for a day. You teach him to do his own laundry, and he won't steal Tide.

Which doesn't make a lot of sense, I'll admit. But then again, my wife keeps me awake a night -- either snoring or doing the laundry.

Speaking of which:  Why do we have so much Tide?

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--Paul Whitefield

Photo: A so-called snore room is the latest offering from Del Webb, which builds communities for people 55 and older. Credit: Handout

Sherwood Rowland, the scientist who saved the world

F. Sherwood Rowland
It's not often you can say that someone saved the world -- and mean it literally.

But that's the case with F. Sherwood Rowland. The UC Irvine chemist, who died Saturday at 85, was one of three scientists who won the 1995 Nobel Prize in chemistry, The Times reported, for their work "explaining how chlorofluorocarbons, ubiquitous substances once used in an array of products from spray deodorant to industrial solvents, could destroy the ozone layer, the protective atmospheric blanket that screens out many of the sun's harmful ultraviolet rays."

In hindsight, it seems straightforward: Bad stuff was eating away a vital part of Earth's environment. So get rid of it.

But it wasn't so simple in 1974, when Rowland and fellow scientist Mario Molina published their concerns in the journal Nature.

As The Times says, the findings "were met with scorn by the chemical industry and even by many scholars. For a decade, Rowland and Molina persevered to prove their hypothesis, publishing numerous scientific papers and speaking to sometimes hostile audiences at scientific conferences. It took almost 15 years for the international scientific community and chemical industry to accept the pair's findings."

Hmmm, starting to remind you of a little something called "climate change," is it?

But here's something of a vital difference between the ozone debate and the current climate change one:

Manufacturers began to phase out chlorofluorocarbons in the late 1980s, prompted by the discovery of an ozone "hole" over Antarctica that formed each winter in response to weather conditions and the falling worldwide levels of ozone. The Montreal Protocol, a landmark international agreement to phase out CFC products, was signed by the United States and other nations in 1987.

The protocol was proof that nations could unite to address common environmental threats, Rowland contended. "People have worked together to solve the problem," he said.

Rowland was right then.  Nations did unite to address a common environmental threat.

But have we taken that lesson to heart?  Will we accept the scientific consensus on climate change and work together to save the planet?   

Or will it continue to be a political football, at least in the United States, where too many politicians are opting for short-term partisan gains at the risk of the planet's future?

Donald Blake, a colleague of Rowland’s at UC Irvine, told The Times that Rowland considered the phase-out of CFCs his greatest achievement.

It would be a shame if Rowland won the ozone battle -- but the rest of us lost the war for Earth’s survival.

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Photo: F. Sherwood Rowland, shown in his UC Irvine lab.  Credit: Rick Loomis / Los Angeles Times

The CEO for Silicon Valley's CEOs

Carl Guardino
Carl Guardino is a CEO, but perhaps like no other -- head of a group of more than 350 CEOs. That may not sound out of the ordinary, but these CEOs head some of the most important companies in Silicon Valley.

In a place where the really important people are in "cutoffs and flip-flops," Guardino is the guy in the suit, the guy with a degree in political science -- "the only true science" -- not in engineering.

But he grew up in Silicon Valley when the area was still the "Valley of Heart's Delight" and full of orchards, not start-ups. The Silicon Valley Leadership Group he heads is a business organization like few others. It endorses many business-friendly reforms in governance and tax matters, but it is also committed, like its founder David Packard of Hewlett-Packard, to making Silicon Valley livable for the have-nots as well as the super-haves. His board members are on board with measures that put housing and transit within reach for teachers and police officers and firefighters and waitresses and car repair shop employees who live and work there too. "The fabric of the valley," he says, "is contingent on all of those people's success."

Silicon Valley is a model many other places would like to copy. "A friend once designed a map of the U.S. called 'the Siliconia of the United States,' all the regions wanting to capture the magic and imagination [of] Silicon Valley." To make that happen, says Guardino, those places too will have to care about the quality-of-life issues for all of the local population, not just the CEOs' employees.

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-- Patt Morrison

Photo: Carl Guardino talks with reporters after meeting with Gov. Jerry Brown in March 2011. Credit: Rich Pedroncelli / Associated Press

'Obamacare' plaintiff Brown's bankruptcy: Instant karma?

Supreme Court in Washington
What do you call it when someone who is suing to overturn the healthcare reform law files for bankruptcy, listing $4,500 in unpaid medical bills?

Karma? Fate? A lucky break for President Obama?

Really, you can't make this stuff up. Here's what The Times' David Savage wrote Thursday:

Mary Brown, a 56-year-old Florida woman who owned a small auto repair shop but had no health insurance, became the lead plaintiff challenging President Obama's healthcare law because she was passionate about the issue.

Brown "doesn't have insurance. She doesn't want to pay for it. And she doesn't want the government to tell her she has to have it," said Karen Harned, a lawyer for the National Federation of Independent Business. Brown is a plaintiff in the federation's case, which the Supreme Court plans to hear later this month.

But court records reveal that Brown and her husband filed for bankruptcy last fall with $4,500 in unpaid medical bills.

Now, you might expect Brown to be a bit, well, chagrined at this turn of events.  But remember, as Savage wrote, she "was passionate about the issue."

And she apparently still is:

Brown, reached by telephone Thursday, said the medical bills were her husband's. "I always paid my bills, as well as my medical bills," she said angrily. "I never said medical insurance is not a necessity. It should be anyone's right to what kind of health insurance they have.

"I believe that anyone has unforeseen things that happen to them that are beyond their control," Brown said. "Who says I don't have insurance right now?"

Who says? Well, Mary, your lawyer for one. Remember: She "doesn't have insurance. She doesn't want to pay for it. And she doesn't want the government to tell her she has to have it."

Oh yeah, that.  Those lawyers, always running their mouths.  

And for that matter, Mary, those aren't your husband's medical bills, at least not anymore.  Now that you've filed for bankruptcy, they are probably our medical bills, aren't they? 

Although it's not as though Brown is totally anti-government: The couple's Chapter 7 bankruptcy petition said her income was $275 a month in unemployment benefits.

So perhaps she intends to put that toward what she owes: "$2,140 to Bay Medical Center in Panama City, $610 to Bay Medical Physicians, $835 to an eye doctor in Alabama and $900 to a specialist in Mississippi."

Or maybe, as the story says, there's that other way out:

"This is a very common problem. We cover $30 million in charity and uncompensated care every  year," said Christa Hild, a spokeswoman for the hospital center. "If it's a bad debt, we have to absorb it."

Although when the hospital center says "we," it means "us"  -- as in you and I, the ones who do pay for health insurance.  We absorb it, in higher premium costs.

It's called the free market, or "there's no free lunch."  (It's also why a single-payer system such as Medicare would've been a better option than the law we've got, but that's another post.)

But it's also why the "individual mandate" requiring all Americans to purchase health insurance was put into the law.

Why that is so hard for Brown and millions of other citizens to understand is beyond me. 

This isn't Charles Dickens' London: We don't have debtors' prisons.  If Brown and her fellow travelers have their way and the healthcare law is ruled unconstitutional, many others will take the risk "of unforeseen things that happen to them that are beyond their control." 

And if they get sick, and have medical bills they can't pay, then they won't pay.  And neither will the Tooth Fairy, or the Easter Bunny or Santa Claus.

The rest of us will pay.

You see, Mary, the requirement that everyone buy health insurance isn't big bad government taking away your freedom.

It's just common sense.

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Photo: The U.S. Supreme Court plans to hear a challenge to the healthcare reform law. Credit: Win McNamee / Getty Images

More legal mumbo-jumbo on medical marijuana

Medical marijuana

Really, you have to wonder what these judges were smoking.

Here, read for yourself (quick version for those with short attention spans), courtesy of Times staff writer Maura Dolan:

California cities may not ban medical marijuana dispensaries, but the operations may sell only weed that is grown on site, an appeals court ruled in an Orange County case.

The unanimous decision by a three-judge Court of Appeal panel in Santa Ana was the first in the state to prohibit cities from enacting zoning restrictions that effectively ban all marijuana dispensaries. The court was also the first to rule that dispensaries must grow the marijuana they sell, a requirement that would force most of them out of business.

To which I say: Dudes, what?

You can't bar dispensaries but you can require them to grow their own, right at the store?

Will this also mean that pharmacies can only sell Viagra if they make it on site? That markets have to become wineries or breweries to sell Chardonnay and Bud Light? Is Trader Joe's going to have to slaughter the cows and pigs right there in the store? What about Starbucks?  It’s gonna be tough growing all that coffee in the little shops.

OK, not perfect analogies perhaps. But really, how does this ruling bring clarity to an issue that seriously needs some? As the story says:

The Lake Forest decision added to a stack of rulings that have befuddled local governments and was unlikely to add much clarity.

One appeals court upheld the right of cities to use zoning laws to prohibit dispensaries. Another said city regulations that allow any medical marijuana violate federal law. A federal judge this week threw out a lawsuit to prevent the federal government from shutting down dispensaries.

And it's not even about political ideology. Two of the three judges were Republican appointees, the other a Democratic appointee. 

The real problem here is -- to paraphrase Jack Nicholson's famous line in "A Few Good Men" -- "We can't handle the truth."

Both sides on this issue are trying to achieve something without actually admitting it. Many supporters of medical marijuana, for example, are really advocates for legalizing marijuana, period. And cities that enact ordinances such as Lake Forest's may say they're trying to regulate the industry, but in fact they're trying to shut down legal businesses that they don't want.

For example, from Dolan's story:

Jeffrey Dunn, a lawyer who represented Lake Forest, said the court's requirement that dispensaries sell pot grown only on site would shut down most storefront operations.

"I don't see how you can grow in a tiny, rented space enough pot for over 1,000 customers," Dunn said.

Exactly. You can't. 

Except, the sale of medical marijuana is legal. Californians voted for it. Californians want it. Laws restricting it won't change that.

[For the record: OK, yes, that is incorrect.  The sale of marijuana is not legal in California.  Rather, I should have said that Proposition 215, which Californians passed in 1996, allows people, with a doctor's permission, to grow, possess and use marijuana for medical purposes.]

The real solution, of course, is simple: Just legalize marijuana. 

But if we can't do that, we should at least stop with these silly ordinances, which only spawn equally silly court rulings.

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Photo: Los Angeles Times

 

Napoleon's comeback, in 360 3-D?

Mayor Yves Jego in Montereau-fault-Yvonne

Vive la France! Vive l'Empereur!

Vive l'Empereur's French theme park?

Oui!  Just as some U.S. politicians today are busy venerating "American exceptionalism,"  the French are apparently having, as Times staff writer Devorah Lauter put it, "something of a Napoleon moment."

And in the town of Montereau-fault-Yonne, she writes, scene of one of Napoleon Bonaparte's final victories -- over Austrian troops and their allies 198 years ago -- that fervor has sparked plans for a theme park  "complete with snowy battle reenactments and a ride in the shape of Napoleon's famous arched hat."

Oh boy, you can't say the French don’t know how to have fun. Still:

The idea is not to vaunt a bygone glory, [Mayor Yves] Jego insisted, but rather "to give a little pride to France, to show that the figure of their history has an international dimension," and to use "innovative" ways to illuminate his unappreciated sides.

Well, OK, if you say so. Because his other sides are pretty well known, and somewhat less savory:

Yes, the hero's grandiose ambitions led to war after war, countless deaths and, finally, the collapse of his empire.

Oh, that.

Now here in California, we know from theme parks.  We've got Disneyland (which has been exported to France, of course), Knott's Berry Farm, Six Flags Magic Mountain and Universal Studios Hollywood, to name a few.

But we just honor cartoon characters, and movie creatures.  Sometimes we do take note of famous American leaders -- like Abraham Lincoln at Disneyland -- but no one much cares. Kids today would much rather throw up on Space Mountain than listen to a robot that looks like Lincoln "perform."

Sure, Jefo can argue that Napoleon was "a legal authority of great standing, an extraordinary conqueror, an incredible soldier, strategist and a romantic."

"I think that history should be shared with the people," he said. "And visiting a historic park is more enriching than visiting a park about a cartoon character, however great he is."

But Jefo obviously hasn't ridden on Space Mountain or King Kong 360-3D lately.

No, if he wants his Napoleon theme park to succeed, it had better be more "Austerlitz: Kill Zone 360" and less "Hello, Josephine, My Little Buttercup."

Instead, although details are sketchy, Lauter writes:

One sketch shows a giant N-shaped water feature running through a landscape sprinkled with carefully trimmed parks typical of the period, castles, a cathedral, a small mountain range and a likeness of the Sphinx.

Which, except for the Sphinx, just sounds like a smaller version of France itself.

Heck, I've visited the country twice.  The whole place is like a theme park already.  I mean, Mont St. Michel is way better than Cinderella's Castle. Most of Paris is far more charming than Universal CityWalk.  (Although much of the country does shut down every day from noon to 2 for lunch -- and for all of August, naturally. On the plus side, you can eat dinner all night long.)

This is the Old World, though, so of course there's this "never miss a chance to rub it in" critique from across the English Channel:

"A country which can still partly revere such a man surely has a problem," wrote Stephen Glover of Britain's Daily Mail, describing Napoleon as "a man whose actions led to the deaths of millions of people -- and whose defeat paved the way for British 19th century supremacy, reducing France to the rank of a second-rate power where, let us be honest, it has remained."

Which is pretty funny when you think of it: A columnist from a second-rate power calling out another second-rate power. And one from a paper that's busy celebrating the Diamond Jubilee of that ultra-modern institution, the British monarchy.

No, I'm not so ready to kill Mayor Jego's dream.

And especially not when Napoleon's tomb was one of my favorite stops in Paris.

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-- Paul Whitefield

Photo: Montereau-fault-Yonne Mayor Yves Jego with performers dressed in Napoleonic uniform. Credit: Devorah Lauter / For The Times

Rearview cameras on cars by 2014? It's so 21st century

Honda Crosstour rearview camera

Forget healthcare reform's "individual mandate." Now the government is looking to take away your right to back into stuff with your own car.

That's right: The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration is proposing that by 2014 all new cars sold in the United States have rearview cameras.

Now, full disclosure: In four decades of driving, I personally have backed into one car, one pole and the side porch of my house -- twice. (In my defense, none of this happened until the kids came along and I had to buy that stupid minivan!) And showing that the apple doesn't fall far from the tree, my teenage son's first, and only -- so far -- accident came when he backed into an iron railing. (I'm so proud!)

And, as The Times story Tuesday said:

Each year, 228 people die after being struck by passenger vehicles going in reverse -- including about two children a week, according to the New York Times.

Accidents caused by drivers backing up also injure 17,000 people annually.

Plus the cost to automakers of the rearview cameras, now found on fewer than half of 2012's cars, isn't prohibitive: about $160 to $200 for each car.

So, on balance, I count this rule as a good thing -- for the nation and individually.

(Although I must confess that when I rented a car a few years back with a rearview camera, the kids couldn't resist taking turns checking themselves out on the dashboard screen. Which both seemed to defeat the purpose of the camera and led to a severe scolding by their mother.)

What's most interesting about this, though, has been the sea change in attitude among Americans about cars and safety. 

When seat belts were introduced in the late 1950s, for example, the U.S. auto industry resisted efforts to make them mandatory, arguing that people didn’t want them -- as evidenced by the fact that, when they were offered as extra-cost options, few people ordered them.

Thankfully, automakers lost that fight. But for quite some time, many people also resisted state laws requiring the wearing of seat belts.

Airbags were also controversial when mandated, with automakers arguing, again, about cost, and with others doubting the claim that they would improve passenger safety.

But somewhere along the way, Americans went from penny-pinching, throw-caution-to-the-wind, I'll-die-a-gruesome-death-behind-the-wheel-if-I-want-to rugged individualists to consumers of safety at all costs. (See the silly "Baby on Board" phenomenon.)

Now, the more airbags the merrier. Cars have collapsible steering columns, anti-lock brakes, safety glass, crush zones, reinforced doors and roofs, and loads of other safety features.

Sure, we still sometimes show vestiges of our wicked past: People -- very unsafely -- call and/or text while driving, for example.

But for the most part, we embrace all the new gadgetry.  And safety now sells. So automakers bring us more of it.

For example, as The Times story says:

Automakers unveiled an assortment of other preventative safety features at the L.A. Auto Show in November.

Infiniti showed off its backup collision intervention technology, which not only beeps when its sensors detect potential obstacles but also automatically brakes to avoid a crash.

A similar function from Ford offers blind-spot warnings. Cadillac has a virtual bumper feature that stops the car before it hits anything.

That's right: Soon your car may do more of the driving -- and the accident avoidance -- than you do.

The bright side of that equation? You may be able to call or text in complete safety.

"Passive Driver on Board," anyone?

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-- Paul Whitefield

Photo: The dashboard of the Honda Crosstour features a rearview camera and monitor that are used when the car is backing up. Credit: Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times

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