Opinion L.A.

Observations and provocations
from The Times' Opinion staff

Category: Regulation

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.


Candidates go PG-13 on the press

Gov. Brown's tax-the-rich pitch looks like a winner

Did an open mic catch Obama making promises to Russia?

-- 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.


Romney's car problem

McManus: Will Romney be the GOP's Dukakis?

Americans Elect -- bring democracy into the digital world

--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

'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.


Jimmy Carter, shortchanged again

War on drugs' big catch -- 'Viagra man'

$3 billion in U.S. humanitarian aid buys little respect 

-- Paul Whitefield

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.


The vernacular landscape of medical marijuana

Will Santa Monica call off Christmas in the park?

Birth control: What do bosses get to decide about us?

-- Paul Whitefield

Photo: Los Angeles Times


Bursting the GOP's housing bubble nonsense

Protest in Watts over foreclosures
In Republican circles, one common assertion about the mortgage meltdown is that it was caused by the government -- specifically President Clinton and Democrats -- who forced banks to make loans to people they knew couldn't pay.

This week, though, we were given proof that this assertion is -- what's the legal term for it?; oh yea -- baloney: In New York, Citigroup Inc. agreed to a $158-million settlement with the Justice Department.

As The Times reported:

Citi admitted that it provided misleading information about the quality of its mortgages to a federal insurance program run by the Department of Housing and Urban Development. The government provided backing for the mortgages and ended up losing millions when the borrowers defaulted.

Notice that phrase: "misleading information about the quality of its mortgages."

And who were some of these borrowers?  Yep, you're right, some were the folks Clinton and the Democrats wanted to help achieve the American dream of homeownership:

The government insurance allowed Citi to give cheaper loans to less-creditworthy borrowers and then to sell the loans to investors.

But is wasn't the government forcing Citigroup's employees to make bad loans. In fact, here's what the government demanded:

The major banks were part of a program that allowed them to get automatic approval for government insurance for the mortgages they were issuing. As part of the program, the banks were supposed to aggressively pre-screen the mortgages to make sure they were not too risky and report any signs the mortgages were having trouble.

Hmmm. Wonder which part of "aggressively pre-screen the mortgages to make sure they were not too risky" the bankers didn't understand? Because here's how they apparently did business:

The complaint said Citi systematically ignored these rules, leading the government to insure lower-quality loans. More problematically, employees in Citi's mortgage unit are accused of asking members of the compliance department to not report problems with the mortgages to the government.

In legal circles, I think you call that "a smoking gun."  I guess Citi thought so too, since it agreed to fork over $158 million.

Admittedly, this settlement is pretty small potatoes, given the enormity of the mortgage mess.

And yes, you can't excuse people who took out mortgages they knew they couldn't afford.

But can we at least stop spouting the nonsense that the government forced banks to make bad loans?

Clearly, that's one claim that just doesn't hold up in a real court, and it shouldn't hold up in the court of public opinion either.


Santorum: The personal isn't always political

Mitt Romney picks the wrong fight over the auto bailout

The payroll tax deal isn't a sign of a more harmonious Congress

-- Paul Whitefield 

Photo: A protest in Watts this month against foreclosures. California is working through its backlog of troubled loans faster than many states, trade economists say. Credit: Al Seib / Los Angeles Times

Will PETA stop Kansas 'and your little dog too'?

Dorothy and Toto in Kansas
I was reading the top news stories of the day -- violence in Egypt after a deadly soccer riot, the U.S. jobless rate falling again, the Susan G. Komen group reversing course on funding for Planned Parenthood -- when I ran across this item: "Toto as state dog of Kansas? Bad idea, PETA says."

OK, enough about whether Israel will bomb Iran. Let's get to the tornado-in-a-teapot stuff.

Seems that state Rep. Ed Trimmer wants to make Dorothy's cairn terrier from "The Wizard of Oz" the state dog of Kansas. Harmless enough, right?

Not so, says PETA, which fears that the designation would mean that there would be more puppy mills churning out cairn terriers for folks who just have to have the official state dog.

Now normally, I find PETA a bit, well, strident.  But I also agree with its stance on puppy mills. So I checked out the "state animal" listings, to see if Kansas has company.

California, as you may know, does not have a state dog.  It does have a state animal -- the grizzly bear. Yes, the same one that's on the state flag -- the one we killed off, shooting the last one in 1922. (Should we ever decide to designate a state dog, I would think the breed might want to decline the honor.)

And we have a state mammal -- the gray whale.  Which, of course, we also tried to kill off, though thankfully its numbers have rebounded.  Also, it doesn't actually live in California, though it does visit the state's waters on its way to and from the places it does live. Which in some ways makes it the perfect metaphor for a state filled with transients, both legal and otherwise.

It also seems that California trails its nemesis, Texas, in the animal recognition race.  The Lone Star State has an official flying mammal (Mexican free-tailed bat), a large state mammal (Texas longhorn), a small state animal (the armadillo, naturally),  a state horse (American quarter horse, of course), and, yes, a dog (Texas Blue Lacy).

Texas, though, doesn't lead the nation in this particular form of silliness. That would be, of all places, South Carolina, which not only has a state dog (Boykin spaniel)  but five other official animals  (including dolphins, whales and mules).

But I digress.

Here's PETA's advice to Kansas:

PETA vice president Daphna Nachminovitch said in a news release announcing the group's opposition to Trimmer's plan. "If Kansas is set on naming an official state dog, PETA suggests the humble, healthy, and 100 percent lovable all-American mutt."

And here's the other side:

Brenda Moore of the South Central Kansas Kennel Club as among those in favor of elevating Toto's status.

"We've got to find little bits of happiness along the way," she said. "To me, the cairn terrier is as much of Kansas as sunflowers are."

And here are the facts on the ground:

In December 2010, 1,200 dogs at a large-scale breeding operation in Kansas were put to death after an outbreak of distemper. An internal government report that year said dogs were dying and living in poor conditions because of lax enforcement of puppy mills nationwide.

States vary in their laws governing puppy mills, and according to the Humane Society of the United States, Kansas requires them to be licensed and subject to inspections. But the state didn't fare well in the Humane Society's latest survey of states' treatment of animals, scoring 23 of 66 possible points and ranking 33 out of the 50 states. California topped the list; South Dakota was at the bottom.

(That would be the same South Dakota whose official state animal is the coyote.)

So, after extensive research, here's my bottom line:   

"The Wizard of Oz" was, and is, a scary movie for kids.  The dog is cute. I didn't know sunflowers were a big deal in Kansas.  Nor do I identify the state with the cairn terrier. Actually, when I think of Kansas, I think of flat.

So I'm with PETA on this one.  Want a cute dog to make you happy?  Go to the pound.

It may not have been in a movie, but the one with the wagging tail is the one for you.


Super Bowl: The right way to combat big-game pirates

It's Groundhog Day, for Ben Bernanke and Punxsutawney Phil

Florida's Burmese pythons: Will they make a meal out of (gulp) us? 

--Paul Whitefield

Photo: Dorothy and her cairn terrier Toto in "The Wizard of Oz." Credit: Turner Entertainment / Warner Bros.

Should consumers boycott Apple?

Apple's profits may have soared last quarter, with revenue up 74% (to $46.3 billion), but I wonder how celebratory they feel in Cupertino as reports emerge about the company's business practices, specifically how it keeps production costs low so that it can "make a 60%, 70% margin per phone" sold?

In the last few days, the New York Times has published bombshell reports ("How the U.S. Lost Out on iPhone Work," "In China, Human Costs Are Built Into an iPad") that expose the appalling working conditions at the Foxconn plant in Shenzhen, China, where Apple's products are made. Here's an excerpt describing the troubling environment:

[T]he workers assembling iPhones, iPads and other devices often labor in harsh conditions, according to employees inside those plants, worker advocates and documents published by companies themselves. Problems are as varied as onerous work environments and serious -- sometimes deadly -- safety problems.

Employees work excessive overtime, in some cases seven days a week, and live in crowded dorms. Some say they stand so long that their legs swell until they can hardly walk. Under-age workers have helped build Apple's products, and the company's suppliers have improperly disposed of hazardous waste and falsified records, according to company reports and advocacy groups that, within China, are often considered reliable, independent monitors.

More troubling, the groups say, is some suppliers' disregard for workers' health. Two years ago, 137 workers at an Apple supplier in eastern China were injured after they were ordered to use a poisonous chemical to clean iPhone screens. Within seven months last year, two explosions at iPad factories, including in Chengdu, killed four people and injured 77. Before those blasts, Apple had been alerted to hazardous conditions inside the Chengdu plant, according to a Chinese group that published that warning.

It should be noted:

--Apple is not alone among electronic companies employing Foxconn and other such plants.

--Apple has responded to scrutiny over workplace conditions by disclosing names of suppliers and manufacturing partners.

--If the New York Times' anonymous sources are to be trusted, Apple execs don't seem to care how the work gets done so long as it's fast and cheap. Here are two unabashed (and nameless) quotes from the New York Times stories:

"The speed and flexibility is breathtaking," the executive said. "There's no American plant that can match that." […]

 "We shouldn't be criticized for using Chinese workers," a current Apple executive said. "The U.S. has stopped producing people with the skills we need."

They should have just come out and said they'd rather not abide by U.S. regulations that protect worker rights -- regulations that would slow down productivity and increase costs. ("By some estimates, each iPhone includes $190 in hardware costs, $10 in Chinese labor," Scott Tong said on Wednesday's "Marketplace.")

Earlier this month "This American Life" dedicated an entire episode to the issue of human rights abuses taking place at Foxconn. On the program, Mike Daisey performed from his one-man show, "The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs," in which he shares his experience from Shenzhen, where he went with the intention of learning about the people who made his beloved Apple products. Here's an excerpt of his heartbreaking findings:

While I'm in-country, a worker at Foxconn dies after working a 34-hour shift. I wish I could say that's exceptional, but it's happened before. I only mention it because it actually happened while I was there.

And I go to the dormitories. I'm a valuable potential future customer. They will show me anything I ask to see. The dormitories are cement cubes, 12-foot by 12-foot. And in that space there are 13 beds, 14 beds. I count 15 beds. They're stacked up like Jenga puzzle pieces all the way up to the ceiling. The space between them is so narrow, none of us would actually fit in them. They have to slide into them like coffins.

There are cameras in the rooms. There are cameras in the hallways. There are cameras everywhere. And why wouldn't there be? You know, when we dream of a future where the regulations are washed away and the corporations are finally free to sail above us, you don't have to dream about some sci-fi dystopian Blade Runner/1984bull [BLEEP]. You can go to Shenzhen tomorrow. They're making your crap that way today.

When I leave the factory, as I can feel myself being rewritten from the inside out, the way I see everything is starting to change. I keep thinking, how often do we wish more things were handmade? Oh, we talk about that all the time, don't we? "I wish it was like the old days. I wish things had that human touch." But that's not true. There are more handmade things now than there have ever been in the history of the world.

Everything is handmade. I know. I have been there. I have seen the workers laying in parts thinner than human hair. One after another after another. Everything is handmade.

Beyond the working conditions, Daisey also sheds light on an environment in which people live in fear and are eventually disposable. "And so when you start working at 15 or 16, by the time you are 26, 27, your hands are ruined," he says. "And when they are truly ruined, once they will not do anything further, you know what we do with a defective part in a machine that makes machine. We throw it away." And there's no one to protect workers, he goes on, in this "fascist country run by thugs."

"It's barbaric," the Daily Beast's Dan Lyons says bluntly. And it's up to us, the consumers, to do something about it rather than turn a blind eye. He writes:

As the Times article points out, this isn't just Apple. It's every company. It's every product we use. It's our entire way of life, built on the backs of people who are being treated in ways that we would not allow ourselves or our countrymen to be treated.

Ultimately the blame lies not with Apple and other electronics companies -- but with us, the consumers.

And ultimately we are the ones who must demand change.


Apple reports record sales of iPhones, iPads and Macs

iPad down to 58% of tablet sales as Android catches up

Apple discloses names of suppliers, manufacturing partners

--Alexandra Le Tellier

Photo: A representative from Foxconn Technology Group speaks to applicants outside the computer component maker's plant in Shenzhen last year. Credit: Associated Press

Keystone XL: America's Italian cruise ship?

Keystone XL protesters in Washington

Why is it that when I picture the Keystone XL pipeline, I see a half-submerged cruise ship in the Mediterranean?

Maybe it's because the wreck of the Costa Concordia off Italy's coast is a reminder that, well, stuff happens.

Which is why it's good news that the Obama administration has decided against issuing a permit for the Keystone project just yet.

Like it or not, pipelines -- like cruise ships and nuclear reactors and the things people make, or operate -- aren't foolproof. Stuff happens.

I'm against building the Keystone. But if we are going to go ahead with it, we'd better make sure we've done everything we can to make it as safe as possible.

And that means not rushing the permit process.

Sadly, President Obama's Republican opponents never miss an opportunity to make political points, even when it's their voters -– such as the ones in Nebraska -– who are also objecting to the project. As The Times reported Wednesday:

"President Obama is about to destroy tens of thousands of American jobs and sell American energy security to the Chinese," said Brendan Buck, a spokesman for House Speaker John Boehner. "The president won't stand up to his political base even to create American jobs. This is not the end of this fight."

Which is utter nonsense. The pipeline's oil would go into the global pool. U.S. refiners would probably continue the growing trend of selling their products to foreign markets. And the number of jobs created would be a relative handful -– 20,000 according to proponents, 6,000 according to the State Department and others.

All for what? So we can put at risk a precious aquifer in the nation's breadbasket?

And then there's the questionable strategy of our dependence on oil in the first place. Go read 350.org founder Bill McKibben's Op-Ed article in Wednesday's Times, "Burning America's future," for a chilling analysis of where that path will lead the planet.

If you don't have the time, here's his kicker:

It may not be aerosol cheese or cryogenics, but can't we all agree that burning every molecule of fossil fuel we can find is a spectacularly bad idea?

We're stuck with oil, and gas, and coal, and, yes, nuclear for now. But we don't have to stay stuck. 

And we certainly don't have to take giant risks for the small return that the Keystone XL pipeline would bring.

After all, the Costa Concordia wreck will probably prove to be a job creator too. 

For cleanup workers.


Graphic: No permit for pipeline

Full coverage: Keystone XL pipeline

Italy's Costa Concordia catastrophe: Why?

-- Paul Whitefield

Photo: Protesters march against the proposed Keystone XL oil pipeline during a demonstration in Washington in November. Credit: Daniel Lippman / MCT


More opponents of PIPA and SOPA emerge on the right

Wikipedia prepares blackout to protest PIPA and SOPA
House and Senate bills to combat "foreign rogue websites" remain on track for important votes in the coming weeks, but opposition to the measures is extending across the partisan spectrum. Today's example: Heritage Action, a nonprofit advocacy group aligned with the conservative Heritage Foundation, announced its opposition to the Protect IP Act, or PIPA, and the Stop Online Piracy Act, or SOPA, and said it would include any votes on those issues on its election-year scorecards.

Heritage Action's move is significant because conservative groups have traditionally been strong supporters of copyright and trademark protection. To them, intellectual property is property. But they have also been skeptical of government regulation, and the more libertarian-minded among them have been downright hostile to regulating the Internet. A good example of the latter is the Tech Liberation Front blog, which has long criticized PIPA, SOPA and their 2009 precursor, a Senate bill that went by the acronym COICA.

Heritage Action's blog expressed relief that the bills' sponsors have backed away from their proposal to require Internet providers to block offending sites' domain names. But it wasn't happy with other elements of the bills:

[T]he legislation would put a tremendous legal burden on websites accused of third-party copyright infringement and would cause them to be removed from search engines.  Opponents have compared the legislation to China's online censorship. Even if they made an honest mistake, they would be faced with litigation from the U.S. Attorney General. Fighting the accusations would cost so much time and money that smaller sites would likely go out of business fighting. Private lawsuits could also be brought against the websites. This would open up the potential for massive lawsuit abuse -– even though the vast majority of online piracy occurs through a small number of websites.

The emerging opposition from mainstream conservatives like Heritage Action complements the resistance that civil liberties groups, left-of-center activists, tech industry hotbeds on both coasts and venture capitalists have been putting up since the measures were introduced. Support for the bills is equally bipartisan, however, suggesting that this issue won't be decided by ideology. Instead, it's coming down to a lobbying battle between bill supporters (entertainment companies and trademark owners) and opponents over how best to respond to foreign sites that promote piracy.

Meanwhile, work on the bills continues. The bills' authors have promised to release new versions of the measures that address the complaints about domain name blocking and other issues. And the last time I checked, Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) was still planning to bring PIPA to the Senate floor for a cloture vote early next week, and Judiciary Committee Chairman Lamar Smith (R-Texas) said Tuesday that his committee will take up the bill again next month in an effort to move it to the House floor.


Piracy vs. an open Internet

Consensus needed on Web piracy bills

A bipartisan alternative to the Stop Online Piracy Act

-- Jon Healey

Photo: Crowd-sourced online encyclopedia Wikipedia alerts users to its plan to go offline Jan. 18 to protest PIPA and SOPA. Credit: Karen Bleier / AFP/Getty Images

'Bonanza' is alive and well at the Supreme Court

The FCC's rules on what can, and can't, be shown or said on the public airwaves may have a quaint feel to most Americans, but the Supreme Court seems to like them just fine
Franklin D. Roosevelt famously called them "the nine old men." 

If Roosevelt were alive today, he might change that to "the nine old ladies."

That's because -- practically to a man, and woman -- the justices of the Supreme Court on Tuesday spoke in favor of FCC rules regulating what can or can't be shown, or said, on the public airwaves.

In an editorial about the decency rules Tuesday, published before the oral arguments, The Times argued that the court "needs to recognize that the day is fast approaching when it will have to decide whether the FCC should be in the business of policing indecency at all."

On Tuesday, the justices seemingly gave their answer: That day isn't approaching all that fast after all.

First, let's hear from the chief justice:

"All we are asking for, what the government is asking for, is a few channels where you ... are not going to hear the 'S-word,' the 'F-word.' [Children] are not going to see nudity," said Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr., the father of two young children. "There are 800 channels where they can go for that."

Next, everyone's favorite conservative:

"These are public airwaves. The government is entitled to insist upon a certain modicum of decency," said Justice Antonin Scalia, who has nine grown children. He compared broadcast offerings with "the vulgarity of cable."

What about the court's moderates, you ask?

Justice Anthony M. Kennedy said he would not relish a time when "every celebrity and want-to-be celebrity ... can feel free to use one of these words" when interviewed on TV. It would be "inevitable" that the airwaves would become filled with such talk if the indecency rules were tossed out, he said.


Under the FCC rules against so-called fleeting expletives, Fox TV faced potential fines when celebrities, including Cher, Bono and Nicole Richie, used the "F-word" on awards programs that were broadcast live. This "seems to be naturally part of their vocabulary," observed Justice Stephen Breyer.

OK, OK, but surely a liberal ...

"We have had this for decades and decades that broadcast is treated differently," said Justice Elena Kagan. "It seems to work, and it seems to be a good thing that there is some safe haven."

Wow. In much of America, it's 2012, and we're watching shows such as "Californication" and "Mad Men." But in the marble halls of the Supreme Court, it's 1963 -- and hold up, honey, call the kids, it's time for "Bonanza" and "Gunsmoke."

But perhaps the unkindest cut of all came from another court conservative:

Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. commented that broadcast TV was "living on borrowed time." It is "going the way of vinyl records and eight-track tapes," he said.

Ouch. I guess that's his free-market side coming out. 

Or perhaps he's just being practical: Why bother to throw out rules that will be moot in a few years anyway?

And maybe that's also why this issue doesn't seem to be generating much heat. 

No one really believes that the rules are protecting children: The commercials for Cialis and various beers that accompany coverage of practically every sports event render that a silly notion.

But everyone has cable these days, and if you want shows featuring sex and drugs and bad language -- well, to paraphrase: It's your party and you can swear if you want to.

Meanwhile, though, the Rip Van Winkle justices are content to cling just a little longer to the fantasy of "Father Knows Best."

Shhh. No sense trying to wake them.


Let the preschoolers play

Supreme Court intervenes in Texas redistricting case 

FCC passes rules against excessively loud TV commercials 

-- Paul Whitefield

Photo: The justices of the Supreme Court, shown in their official 2010 portrait. Credit: Tim Sloan / AFP/Getty Images



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The Opinion L.A. blog is the work of Los Angeles Times Editorial Board membersNicholas Goldberg, Robert Greene, Carla Hall, Jon Healey, Sandra Hernandez, Karin Klein, Michael McGough, Jim Newton and Dan Turner. Columnists Patt Morrison and Doyle McManus also write for the blog, as do Letters editor Paul Thornton, copy chief Paul Whitefield and senior web producer Alexandra Le Tellier.

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