Morning Ed: Business {2017.09.06.W}

[Bu1] I’m pretty sure this was the plot of a Whoopi Goldberg movie, and also the premise of Remington Steele.

[Bu2] Victor Keegan makes the case that sometimes a social media company can become so powerful that it can’t be beaten. {More}

[Bu3] Relatedly, how Google is using its market position to silence people it doesn’t like.

[Bu4] Can you spare a couple of Whoppercoins? Meanwhile, in the US, Chuck E Coin appears to be failing to launch. The Crackled series StartUp is about a digital currency outfit, which makes it weird, since I watch believing the protagonists are selling a bill of goods.

[Bu5] Will the cost of Unlimited Data be the carriers micromanaging how our data is used?

[Bu6] What if Big Brother got you to pay for the privilege?

[Bu7] How not to build a nuclear power plant.

[Bu8] Mark Penn and Stephen Ansolabahere advocate extending the First Amendment to the workplace. I’m not on board with this yet, but as a society we’re moving to a place where I might get there.

[Bu9] Mark Perry argues that the private sector rose to the occasion of Hurricane Harvey.


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Will Truman is a former professional gearhead who is presently a stay-at-home father in the Mountain East. He has moved around frequently, having lived in six places since 2003, ranging from rural outposts to major metropolitan areas. He also writes fiction, when he finds the time. ...more →

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103 thoughts on “Morning Ed: Business {2017.09.06.W}

  1. [Bu8] Oh hell no. The workplace is a private entity. Let’s actually try and keep public and private separate. God only knows what pandora’s box this could open up.

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    • Well, its consistent, but lots of people think that firing people for their religious beliefs (with some exceptions*) should be illegal. IANAL so I wouldn’t know if it is. Maybe it should be legal, but that would be a hard pill to swallow. Also given sexual harrassment law, the workplace as purely private entity is an idea that’s dead in the water (even if not entirely indefensible)

      *Obviously you should be able to fire a Catholic priest if he declares that he has left the church. Here, particular religious speech seems to be properly part of the job description. Its a much harder question about whether you can fire your non-Catholic accountant even if you are the Catholic church.

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      • We, as a society, are willing to carve out exceptions to the general rule when it turns out that it causes problems–as it has with sexual harassment and religious discrimination. That hardly means we want to discard the general rule when there isn’t a clear problem.

        Also, with religious discrimination, cordial indifference to other people’s ridiculous religious beliefs[1] is one of the cornerstones of American civil society.

        [1] And, to a lesser extent absurd headgear and strange dietary restrictions.

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      • “but lots of people think that firing people for their religious beliefs (with some exceptions*) should be illegal.”

        Yeah, a lot of people thing that lots of things they don’t like “should be illegal”. God forbid something they disagree with is legal and people do it. The horror! Or there should be “something done for the children”. I was reading a few days ago about a consumer advocacy site insisting on more regulation for laundry pods because 6 people had tried to eat it and died over the last few years. 6 people. These things are a 100 B dollar market and we have 6 deaths. God knows how many pods this actually is. My god, it’s a crisis of apocalyptic proportions!

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      • Well, to start with, I think if you fire people, it should be for their behavior, not for a belief. So a religious belief is fine until they refuse to do tasks that are part of their job. Then they are out. Or belief is fine until they start burning incense and chanting and disrupting the workplace. And so on.

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    • This seems like one of those things that needs to be treated on a case-by-case basis, but some are advocating for what is essentially Zero Tolerance, either one way or another – so under one set of rules, I could be told wearing a cross pendant into the classroom is forbidden, under another the guy (1) who leers and makes sexist jokes at me could be free to keep it up because Freeze Peach.

      (1) there is not actually anyone in my workplace who is That Guy, thank God.

      I mean, I look at stuff and go “a reasonable person should see….” but it seems like there’s a shortage of reasonableness in our world right now. I have colleagues who advocate opinions I strongly disagree with buy my reaction is to roll my eyes to myself and go, “Okay, don’t bring that issue up around Bob” rather than going to HR to have him fired or something. I don’t know.

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      • “I mean, I look at stuff and go “a reasonable person should see….” but it seems like there’s a shortage of reasonableness in our world right now.”

        And it has nothing to do with Trump…just saying..’cause it don’t. A guy in my jujitsu class and I were talking and we go on the subject of guns. He basically said we need to “get rid of those gun nuts”. Note….”get rid”. Not bad guns, but eliminate the people who have guns. It’s amazing what people will say to you when they think you’re “one of them”. What their opinions really are.

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        • Yuuuuuuuup. I’m a gun owner and have frequently heard this kind of nonsense. There was also a representative (not sure if state or fed) from Missouri (I think) who said gun owners should be put on a list, like sex offenders. Think about that. I do every time some one tries to say the NRA is why we can’t have a “serious discussion” about gun control.

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              • We can’t have a registry because the President we support to the hilt

                Let me stop you right there:

                The DACA registry is not being abused by the same President who got everybody to sign up.

                In the same way, gun owners might be fine with a Trumpian Gun Registry, but would oppose what President Zuckerberg would do with it and that might be sufficient to oppose Trump setting one up.

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                      • The NRA never claimed to be opposed to abuse of governmental power on principle, in general, did they?

                        AFAIK they’ve only ever claimed to be opposed to use of government power, abusive or otherwise, to the detriment of the interests of gun owners and manufacturers.

                        There are some indications they may become less concerned about the interests of gun owners, as those owners skins shade darker…

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                        • For a long time they extolled the virtues of civilian gun ownership as a check on a potentially tyrannical government.

                          Then Trump won and they changed their tune fast. Suddenly guns are there to protect the government from protesters and reporters.

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                        • The NRA, as best I can tell, only cares about gun rights because it cares about gun sales. They exist to promote sales.

                          They focus on the US because, well, we are THE civilian market.

                          And they’ve gone so over the top lately because the gun sales trends aren’t pretty. Fewer households own guns (those that do own more guns), and they’re really not making a dent in that — it’s a pretty long-term trend, going back decades.

                          So they’re focusing on getting existing gun owners to buy new guns (right as the Boomers are dying off — inheriting a gun is cheaper than buying, so another painful bump) and selling a gun to a guy that already owns a dozen is… difficult.

                          There aren’t that many who just collect them (there are some, but not enough as a %) so the NRA has to convince them they need it.

                          Fear and hysteria works better than anything else. Of course, when a Democrat isn’t President you’ve got to work harder to gin up the fear. Not that any recent Democratic president has done jack to take anyone’s guns, but that’s clearly because of the tiger-repelling rocks.

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                          • Plausible… surely they want the gun producers to survive and make guns.

                            But then if that’s their motive, why isn’t the left offering a new, better business model… the National Rifle Access Association? Buy off the NRA and the Gun Maunfacturers with the new NRAA subscription fees.

                            Just like many “disruptive” models, reduce the capital cost of guns in exchange for ongoing usage fees. Better yet, NRAA.com and the proceeds don’t go to Govt, they go right to the Manufacturers and their sales org.

                            Then the manufacturers would be all over the idea of a crypto lock, and NRAA.com would be in the business of harvesting subscriptions… and monitoring compliance with End-User-License-Agreements.

                            Maybe the way forward isn’t attacking Gun ownership, its making Gun ownership fully accessible through a fee based program… more guns, more revenue, more oversight.

                            My counter intuitive thought for the day.

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                            • Because they don’t want to? By and large, despite the screaming otherwise, the Democrats have backed off gun control. The ones that are still for it are largely urban representatives (who, to be honest, have an understandably different issue with guns than, say, people representing suburbs or rural areas).

                              Seriously, the Democrats have backed so far off gun control that schools full of dead children not only did not result in any new legislation, it was insufficient to renew old legislation.

                              The gun control debate is over. The pro-gun side won.

                              But as noted, if your gun rights aren’t under assault — why would you buy more guns to “fight off the government”? Without that frisson of fear, the belief that Evil Libtard Democrats Is Comming For Your Guns — why would you stockpile ammunition every election season?

                              I find it freaking hilarious how “gun control” is held up as this giant boogeyman. Dude, you guys won. Schools full of dead children, and the result was less gun control.

                              Regular mass shootings. Less gun control.

                              But nope. Gun-owners still clutch their guns in terror and fear of the inevitable Great Gun Confiscation.

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                              • I have a slightly different perspective on this. Even when you include the atrocities, the overall gun homicide rate has plunged by fifty percent in the last 20 or so years, for reasons that no one is really quite sure of.[1]

                                One thing that’s always driven gun control has been fear of street crime[2], and when that drops sharply, so does the general salience of gun control.

                                I think a lot of political shifts over the past decade can be explained, at least partially, by the huge drop in violent crime rates, and it’s weird how rarely people note that.[3]

                                [1] Lead abatement? Demographic shifts? In any event, it is the kind of thing that should give anybody interested in policies to reduce violent crime pause.

                                [2] Yes, often racialized fears.

                                [3] One exception to this is the way that the Clinton crime bill played out in the 2016 Dem primary, as many noticed that supporting it at the time was a mainstream Dem position that has since become anathema.

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                      • So we’ve established that we’ve got a government list that is:

                        1. Established by one president
                        2. Abused by the one that gets elected after that one president

                        And we’re using that as an argument that the NRA shouldn’t mind a new list because the president currently in power wouldn’t abuse the list?

                        Am I mischaracterizing this at all?

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              • There was a great article I read about a year ago that interviewed long-time burglars about what they looked for when selecting a house and how they operated once they were in there. NRA bumper stickers and signs that threatened to shoot them on sight were a huge +1 because it meant a cache of guns to steal. They’re not going to go in there while you’re home anyway, so all you’re doing is advertising cool stuff to steal.

                “Trespassers will be pelted to death with wads of $100 bills” would be as effective.

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                • This, and it is rarely some random thing anyway. Its the new pool boys cousin, the cleaning lady’s idiot sons friends, etc. Its people listening to what those who are going out into the wealthy neighborhood said when they have had a few. It isn’t the person who may have had a background check, its the casual “friend”.

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          • Gun owners most certainly should be put on a list. Not “like sex offenders,” but “like car owners.” Comparing gun ownership to sex offending is just stupid and counter-productive — hope the person that said that paid an appropriate political price. Worrying that registering your firearm will result in losing your freedom is pretty silly as well. (FWIW — ex-Marine; non-gun owner).

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            • What good, exactly, is the list? It’s not silly for gun owners to question such proposals because the people funding gun control issues (versus the average person who is vaguely for gun control/concerned with gun violence) absolutely want no private ownership; they want to ban ownership and confiscate private firearms; they say so (Bloomberg is pretty clear about this). Registry would be a good step for these people because it makes the later confiscation easier. Is this really hard to see or imagine?
              semper fi, rex

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                • “Never” does a lot of work there. Where and when are you talking about?

                  Again, FWIW, I have the feeling that if someone really wants to take away your rights and freedoms, their first moves would be less gun confiscations and more gerrymandering and making it difficult for some classes to vote. Am I accusing anyone of actually making those moves in hopes of erecting a tyranny? Not really. But if I were to be planning that sort of social upheaval in this time and place I would be much more interested in ballot boxes than AR-15s.

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                  • “Where and when are you talking about?”

                    Australia.

                    And there’s plenty of quotes out on the interweb of politicians being quoted about wanting to eliminate guns. I remember watching them after the assault rifle ban back in the Clinton days.

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                    • Thanks for the heads up. I really don’t pay much attention to gun debates these days (did my “totin’ a gun” thing back in ’69-70). So a quick Google about Australia and I’m back, obviously not having researched the matter in depth in the past, say, 9 minutes. ;)

                      I’m not sure that you really want to use the Australia situation as support for the evils of gun control. I’ll do some more reading, but things seem to have been studied pretty well over the 20 years since their gun control measure (is “buy-back” the same as “confiscation?”), and the results seem very largely positive.

                      I really don’t think we could do that here with anywhere near the same results, but I kinda wish we could. Twenty years of decreased everything bad related to guns. Sounds good to me.

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                      • I can only find one word for “mandatory gun buy back”. That’s confiscation under color of law. I don’t pay that much attention to it either, generally, since I’ve seen their stripes: Always good to know your opponent and what they really think

                        https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NeRR7MwllH8

                        Feinstein’s a supporter of total gun control. Said so herself.

                        And frankly, sacrificing my, and everyone one else’s freedoms for “safety” isn’t a trade off I’m willing to concede, mainly because it’s a moving target. Once the first barrier comes down, the rest will too.

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                        • Played the Feinstein video. It seemed, from the context, that it was at least possible that she was referring to “assault weapons,” but I can’t really argue that. It was a pretty broad, pretty blanket statement and, context or not, it was surely fightin’ words to those concerned. Point made.

                          Second point: “sacrificing…freedoms for ‘safety’ isn’t a trade off I’m willing to concede.” Really? I don’t actually have to start listing all of the trade-offs of people’s freedoms that we are all, including you, glad to make for the sake of safety, do I?

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                            • Roads. Vehicles. Air traffic. Drugs. Food. Construction. Sports. Environment. Chemicals (Additives). Chemicals (Polluting). Pets. Crops. Sewage. Labor. Medicine. Jeez, that took me all of thirty seconds. Each and every one of those is just a topic heading, with multiple sub-headings and specifics. Each of those subheadings are governed by laws, rules, regulations, standards — every one of which denies someone the freedom to do something they would like to do concerning that category. And darn near all of them, I am willing to bet, you are in agreement with. Back to you.

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                  • I don’t think he said you were trolling. QFT usually means “quoted for truth” IE he agrees with you.

                    I realize there’s another interpretation of the acronym but since you seem to be on the same side of the argument, quoted for truth makes more sense.

                    It’s probably a breech to tell people to shut the fish up but you did it so politely that it’s okay – it’s more of a problem to jump on the worst interpretation of something without taking a second. Also not a huge problem right here, just something to consider in future.

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              • You know, it actually is hard to imagine for me. I know a guy who thinks all religion should be banned. I know a guy who thinks atheists should be deported. (dang, I know some pretty goofy guys!) I know several people who would like to ban outright the internal combustion engine and burning coal. Like now. But nothing is going to make any of those things happen. Do you really think there is any chance of banning and confiscating firearms? Man, I don’t. I truly don’t think that particular slope is all that slippery. More regulations? Some restrictions? I hope so. But draconian measures? Not much of a chance. So I think that the benefits of requiring licensing, training, and testing (just like cars) far outweigh the dangers of the Feds knocking down the doors of deer hunters. FWIW the very first words of the Sacred Second are “A well regulated…”

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                • Are there any recent examples of the government using a registry to target the people who voluntarily signed up on the registry?

                  If there are, then the argument that we’re talking about how slippery a slope is is an argument that fails to take into account how we’re already at the bottom of the slope we’re arguing about.

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                  • Kinda half-analogous: Canadian police raiding medical (or “medical”) marijuana dispensaries.

                    Analogous part – the dispensaries register with the city, and more or less comply with whatever zoning laws it has set, and the police use the city registration to confirm addresses for the raids.

                    Not so analogous part – selling medical marijuana from a store-front remains illegal in Canada – so they haven’t registered a legal business, but an illegal one, explicitly declaring that they will be violating the criminal code there…

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                • Yeah, I get that. Many of us know extremists of some sort. Again, my example is Bloomberg. He spends lots of money trying to push restriction, with a goal to ban. You may be right; bans are not as likely. They probably won’t be enacted. I can acknowledge that and at the same time acknowledge that their are people who have more resources than my crazy FB friend I know from high school.

                  As a counter example, many thought Trump would never be elected. And look what happened.

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                  • I think it is very hard to eliminate by fiat things that are deeply and successfully entrenched in society. Possible? Maybe. But tough. A federal law banning all smoking everywhere would never have worked, but lots of publicity, education, local laws, etc., have cut back dramatically at least public smoking. Smokers are still free to smoke, but that freedom is curtailed in public places, and Ole Nanny State me thinks that’s been a pretty good idea.

                    Federal law to banish MacDonald’s? Not gonna happen. Small bites (so to speak) taken out of their food service strategy until maybe, someday, a Big Mac is a kind of salad. Maybe. And again, probably a good thing. But nobody is going to pass an absolute “No MacDonald’s” law.

                    Fearing the smack-down “turn in your guns” moment seems very misguided and paranoid to me. LaPierre obviously wants that fear to exist, but I can’t see much more than some local reactions to violence, etc., happening. A spate of AR-15’s interacting with dozens of innocent schoolchildren might bring some restrictions into play, but a ban? An across-the-board confiscation? Really can’t see how that would happen.

                    As per the Trump election — I was as surprised as anyone. I have come to think that was a distinct character flaw in me. Even a cursory look with newly opened eyes at the flow of American history reveals that Trump isn’t really the outlyer (tempting to make lots of puns there) that I thought a few months ago. Metaphorically speaking, he has been with us a long time.

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                    • I agree that a total ban is unlikely, but I don’t agree that it’s as far-fetched as you think.

                      Look, there are politicians and political groups that do want to eliminate private firearms ownership. These people are more politically powerful than the various people we see calling for stuff to be banned. For them, each “reasonable” restriction is a step towards that goal. Do you really deny this is true? The whole “paranoid” argument (as used by gun control folks) is a straw man argument–gun control advocates aren’t being honest about their motives. You even advocated for an Australian type ban in this thread, right?

                      You made the “car regulation” comparison earlier. When hardcore gun control (I’m not assuming you’re one of these people, btw) folks bring this up, they’re working towards requiring insurance, in order to price people out of firearms ownership (because they never suggest that my CO CCL should be accepted in New York or New Jersey–which have some pretty draconian restrictions, btw). So I don’t fear the smack-down moment, but I do fear the moment when the “reasonable” restrictions add up to a total ban, and it seems to be quite silly that people pretend this isn’t a possibility. And when the gun control advocates say this, they’re being dishonest.

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                        • 1. Proving my point, thanks.
                          2. Because I never said there were large numbers of gun control advocates pushing for bans; I only said there were people, with resources pushing for this.
                          3. I have no idea how many people there are who support total bans. Bloomberg is, and he has a fair amount of cash to spend. He spent about half a million in my town to oppose a recall election. Various politicians have the power, if not the numbers. As do groups like Moms Demand Action.
                          4. I repeat myself–I have no idea how many gc advocates are pushing for a total ban, but I do know that there are groups who have influence.
                          5. Finally, to push the “confiscation is paranoia” canard, one has to be totally ignorant of (or perhaps ignore) gun control groups and advocates.

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                      • I’ll parse out my thoughts a bit. Is a complete ban possible? Yeah, I suppose. To me, exceedingly unlikely.

                        Is a ban on “assault weapons” possible? (scare quotes intentional — it’s an ill-defined and very laden term). More possible, particularly if we have a few nasty school shooting incidents in quick order. Not a very effective response, since my understanding is that, despite the big publicity they get, assault rifle shootings aren’t much of a blip on the stats.

                        Handgun ban? Kinda possible. This is where the death toll really adds up, and maybe someday it might get some traction. Not likely, but I could imagine it happening. Big city mayors and police chiefs would probably push for it. IMO I’d probably vote for it. Handguns are nasty little buggers.

                        Long rifles, hunting rifles, shotguns, and I’ll throw in black-powder? No way. The big city folks will be satisfied with the assault and handguns being gone and big swaths of the country still hunt. PETA will raise a fuss, but we need hunters and the conservation efforts they support and enact. Put bluntly: we should be killing more deer.

                        Maybe that’s a nice work-around sometime in the future, harking back to some comment I made about MacDonald’s earlier. Outlaw the use of beef in Big Macs and encourage range-fed locally harvested venison. An idea anyway. ;)

                        (Full disclosure — I don’t hunt and I don’t care for game meat.)

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      • I think firing people for opinions–even ones stated at work–is more often than not going to be a pretty bad idea. But, given that it’s not a categorically bad idea, I just don’t see the rush to impose a legal requirement that employers not do it, especially when one cause celeb after another either did something ridiculously dumb (like Googlebro) or is a flagrantly repellent idiot who nobody sane would want to work with in the first place (like the Hot Dog Nazi).

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        • We’re running into a problem of rules vs norms the same way our government is. There’s no good rule for this, so we have norms that keep things more or less in line. If you have kooky beliefs that make you hard / impossible to work with, you don’t bring them to work. In exchange, the boss doesn’t have investigators sniffing around what you do at night and weekends to find reasons to fire you on Monday.

          Now that we voluntarily broadcast everything we do and think on the Internet, the second half of that agreement doesn’t really matter, so the whole “norms of behavior” thing is eroding and we’re stuck looking for a hard-and-fast rule. I predict that we will not find one and people being fired for kooky things they say and do on weekends is the new normal.

          At least we got a good way to share photos of our brunch efficiently with our friends in exchange.

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      • This is my big beef with our tax-funded Catholic school system here.

        To meaningfully be a Catholic school board, it has to be able to fire / refuse to hire people for their insufficient adherence to Catholic doctrine in their private lives (not being Catholic, being gay and non-celibate, cohabiting outside of marriage, etc. etc.). It also has to teach a curriculum with respect to human sexuality whose relationship with human rights protections is going to be… strained.

        To be a publicly funded board with trustees elected during municipal elections, makes them a branch of government.

        And I just don’t see how we can acceptably have a branch of government that gets religious-grounds exemptions from human rights legislation.

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        • I taught at a Catholic school for a while. My Lutheranism was never a problem. I traded classes with another teacher when it was time for religious instruction, and when I trooped the class across the parking lot to mass each week I didn’t take communion. Had I felt a compulsion to teach the kids the Doctrine of the Two Kingdoms or, more plausibly, Simul Justus et Peccator, this would have been a problem (though I might have gotten points for the use of Latin). I didn’t, and it wasn’t.

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          • Did you do so in Alberta, Ontario, or Saskatchewan? (These are the three Canadian provinces where Catholic and secular schools enjoy full taxpayer funding, and where the Catholic schools are also exempt from certain human rights protections.)

            In practice, most publicly funded Catholic schools in those provinces might not fire teachers, janitors, or cafeteria cooks for being gay, marrying a divorced person, being Muslim, etc. But others definitely have used the “Catholicity clause” in their employment contracts to fire staff for living with their same sex partners.

            They enjoy exemptions from the Charter such that it’s entirely up to the school boards whether to do so or not.

            Some years ago a friend of mine was teaching at a Catholic school in Saskatchewan and clandestinely living with her boyfriend. She was paying rent on a room in an apartment with a “roommate” who actually lived alone and thus had a subsidized guest room. She kept enough stuff at this apartment to maintain plausible deniability, and occasionally made an appearance there. She did this out of a quite reasonable fear of losing her job.

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  2. Bu2: Kagan’s article got a thorough mocking recently but MySpace has been replaced by Facebook rather than multiple social media apps for the most part. One big company replacing another big company doesn’t seem like a miracle of the market. Like the first Gilded Age, a lot of Internet companies seem to operate as trusts with one or a few firms dominating one aspect of Internet life.

    Bu8: With Bu3, this might be a good idea.

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    • It’s not a huge problem to have only one, if that one is under threat of being replaced if it’s not responsive. Where it gets really dicey is when there’s one that can afford to be bad because it’s market position insulates it from any vulnerability.

      That said, I’m not sure it’s true. Twitter and LinkedIn are both also relevant.

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  3. Re Bu8: How shocked I am that Mark Penn would be advocating a ridiculously terrible idea. If you want to somehow legally protect people from losing their jobs for off-the-job speech and political activity, I can see how that would be workable. I’m not convinced it’s a good idea or solves a problem that really needs solving, but it’s not obviously nuts.

    Penn and Ansolabahere, however, want to extend First Amendment protection to on-the-job speech, like memos distributed by company email or the content of a diversity training session. This is completely bananas, and it’s pretty hard for me to see how this could possibly work within the framework of an employer-employee relationship. This is the sort of thing I would expect to see from a Tweep with a rose or black flag emojus in their name, and if we’re totally reorganizing our economy into democratic worker’s collectives, well, sure, shoot for the moon.

    But coming from Mr Triangulation himself? Give me a break.

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  4. Bu3 – This seems to be much more of a problem between her and Forbes than with her and Google. I don’t see anything limiting her from publishing her piece on her own or someone else’s blog – except, probably, restrictions maybe in place between her and Forbes.

    Of course, she also probably wants to get paid, but sometimes you have to chose between getting paid and getting in your ideas out there. (some people, in fact, pay large sums of money to get their ideas out there)

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  5. I ran across Bu3 earlier, and it struck me as rankly dishonest. NDA’s are indeed a thing, a common thing. And since people bonking a +1 button will have positive consequences for a pages rating on Google, it follows that leaving it off will have none of those positive consequences, and hence “hurt” it.

    Yes, the salepeople might have been heavy handed, but somehow I don’t think that’s how we are expected to understand this story. Furthermore, they weren’t shaking down anyone for money, just “put the +1 button on your page”. And this is fascism?

    Full disclosure: I am a former Google employee.

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  6. Bu7 Nuclear Plants Construction

    How can I say this? Utilities are complicated things. And people, including people that run, and people that oversee, utilities, do not understand them very well.

    The article, interesting as it is, mixes several issues and jumps from one to another, making it difficult to understand what really went wrong (spoiler alert: many things went wrong, none surprising in itself, none particularly nuclear related; it’s only in the context of the huge size of the project, that we get the shock value).

    Project costs and schedule:

    In the last decades we have all being seized by the fad of the “turn-key project”. As Business School and Law School graduates hav taken over engineers in running utilities, utilities management embraces the concept of turn-key. Project construction, they said, it’s not a core competence of a utility. Better to outsource it. Regretfully, by outsourcing, management understood “be there for the corner stone and return for the inauguration; all in between in the EPC Contractor’s business and risk” .

    Fresh out of college, projects were done in stages: conceptual engineering was done in house: basic engineering was done by a specialized company, who would also write the whole detailed specs for equipment and construction, and a complete schedule with thousands of activities. Only when all the paper products were ready, we started the construction, to be executed by a different firm.

    Soon thereafter, we started wrapping up projects: the whole project would be contracted based on the conceptual engineering. There would be no equipment or construction specifications: just some delivery and performance metrics that the project had to meet, and liquidated damages if it didn’t. See you at inauguration.

    You wouldn’t build your house like this, but utilities’ management (and oil companies, and the military, and highway commissions, etc.) were happy to abdicate the management of their projects…..

    …. and found out that the projects were not built on time and on spec. And that the liquidated damages, if paid -because bankrupting a construction company with a messy project is easy and fairly frequent, did not make up for the problems…..

    ….. so we created the concept of the Owner’s Engineer. A complete parallel structure, far more costly than your wildest dreams, that would scrutinize every single thing the Contractor did. An OE organization in a power plant project site might total several hundred people. In a project like this you would need OEs not only at the site, but in the design offices and manufacturing facilities of the main contractor and all the subcontractors. We are talking thousands.

    SCANA, who had no experience in projects this massive, did not plan for this. The idea of hiring -and paying for- an organization of thousands to oversee a turn-key contract didn’t cross their mind. Isn’t the idea of turn-key that ALL is the contractor’s responsibility? Am I not paying the contractor to handle everything? (*) Wall Street would laugh at them, they thought.

    No one had control of the Project. Not SCANA, obviously, and not Westinghouse either, because no one DIS a project before the Project started. Construction, fabrication and engineering were being run in parallel, with no blueprint to follow, which brings us to…

    New Design

    Normally, when a manufacturer wants to introduce a new design, it finds a customer that is willing to be the guiney pig in exchange for a huge discount. Normally it’s a lose-lose situation: The utility gets a project that will be late and plagued with issues (but cheap), and the manufacturer will lose money (but gets to identify and solve the issues).

    I don’t know if SCANA was getting a “below market” price. If they didn’t, management should be fired just because of that. But the reality is that Westinghouse, and its suppliers, were making it up as they went. There were no detailed, fabrication or construction ready designs when they started; fabrication techniques had not been tested. Suppliers had not been vetted. As different parts of the chain failed (for instance, one manufacturer had to be replaced) the whole schedule got out of synch. The crews arrived to install the equipment that had not been produced and had been moved to a new supplier, and these crews had to be paid standby, doing nothing (yes, they can broom, but having 80 $/hr welders just brooming the grounds is silly, and you cannot let them go because then the piece will come and there conf be welders to install it).

    Normally, these mishaps are for the account of the Contractor, but in this Project, there were so many, and, because of the size of the Project, each one so costly, it was impossible for any contractor to bear that cost. So the Owner had two options: fire the Contractor, write off everything do so far, and start anew, or share the burden and increase price and schedule. Had SCANA hold Westinghouse to the contract, there would have been no contract, actually, no Contractor, to speak of much sooner, and SCANA could be flexible because it had a payer of last resort: the ratepayer.

    The State of South Carolina

    I haven’t read SC’s Base Load Review Act, so it might be just a giveaway to Wall Street (it probably is) but in general I’m sympathetic to the objective. Ratepayers are better served when utilities are allowed to engage in long-term planning of long-lead projects, and are able to start bringing those in the rate base. I’m deeply skeptical of the deregulated model and I’ve seen pure deregulation fail over and over in different jurisdictions and markets. But it requires a strong, competent, technically savvy regulator. And, in their gut, Americans of all stripes distrust regulators, and experts, and refuse to empower them. We had a similar discussion when we discussed the Flint crisis, where managers made decisions that were, from a technical point of view, completely irrational, because they will save us some pennies in the short run.

    I’ve abused of your patience long enough -Thank you

    (*) This is a typical attitude. Business school (**) graduates like the simplicity of just one price, and ignore all the other ancillary costs. In my company we “forgot” to budget $ 2MM to catch and release fauna in the construction area of a wind farm. And oversight equal to the whole budget for contingencies. Alas, not the only contingency we suffered.

    (**) Apologies to all Business School graduates here, but I have little patience with people that do not understand that things ARE complicated, and cannot be summarized in no more than three bullet points.

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    • I agree about the article; I got the gist, but would have liked a bit more depth and perhaps some sort of tick tock (or (gasp) even an infographic on the timeline)

      Now, I do think there’s some validity to putting a lot of blame of Westinghouse, as the failure of not only this project but also another one in Georgia was such a financial disaster that the company went bankrupt.

      I don’t think though that it was self evidently dumb to trust that Westinghouse knew what it was doing – they used to be one of the two big nuke plant builders and were in on the birth of the entire industry. Obviously, in hindsight, a thirty to forty year abyeyance was too great an obstacle to overcome.

      But the SCANA thing to me reads a bit more cynically. At a glance, it seems to me SCANA got into this because most, if not all of the downside risk has been covered by the ratepayers and the govt owned Santee Cooper utility – which now has 3 billion bucks more in debt, if I’m reading the article correctly, and nothing to show for it.

      But in a way, it’s hard to blame SCANA, because to paraphrase Clay Davis “I’ll take any motley fool’s money if they’re just giving it away”.

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    • Excellent comment.

      Now add that the official policy of the federal government for >20 years has been that utilities — in the sense of companies that handle distribution of power to consumers — aren’t supposed to be in the generating business. Unsurprisingly, this has led to lots of new gas generating capacity* and in some circumstances, wind**. Before fracking, the new gas-fired capacity was for peak periods; with cheap enough prices and a new generation of turbines, natural gas was attractive for base load as well. Coal is politically risky for a private company. Nuclear construction is so expensive and slow that private funding is impossible to get. In both South Carolina and Georgia (where I put the odds at better than 50/50 that another pair of new reactors will also be abandoned) the utilities were pressed into service as financiers, with the reactor costs included in the rate base years/decades before any power was delivered.

      * The reliability planning authority for New England says their number one risk is over-dependence on natural gas for fuel.

      ** The key is having the wind operator get paid for every megawatt they can generate. In some places, that’s done by dispatching priorities. In others, it’s done by paying for electricity that could have been generated but wasn’t. At least IMO, the FERC rules for how electricity is supposed to be done puts wind at an enormous disadvantage; wind is successful in places where those rules have been finessed.

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  7. [Bu7] : For the record, when some people have issues with nuclear power — it’s stuff like this. This didn’t get built, but had it been salvaged — who knows what shortcuts, design flaws, errors, and problems would lurk within it?

    Mistakes baked into the cake, from the ground up?

    yeah, some people find radiation scary. But a lot of people — myself included — just look a nuke plant and think “Lowest bidder” and shudder. You want to know which is which? Ask them what they think about nuclear submarines.

    I trust the Navy, because their engineers and sailors have serious skin in the game. I don’t really trust a conglomerate based four states away, using government subsidies, to build a design they don’t understand through contracts they’re not watching, to be turned over to yet another party in the end. Especially not when there’s so much profit, on all layers of the deal, when corners are cut.

    Now, to be fair — I don’t really trust quite a few large, explosive or otherwise dangerous, things for the exact same reason. I live next to the biggest petrochemical refineries in the US, and one of the biggest chemical manufacturing centers. But nuclear power plants, when they go bad…frankly, if the local gas refinery blows up the fires will eventually burn out and a lot of people will die. If the one that makes cyanide suffers a release, it’ll just kill tens of thousands.

    But, you know, it won’t be an ongoing catastrophe for generations.

    Nuclear messes are, bluntly, just so much harder to clean up…

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    • Is this actually true? Have any actually occurring nuclear disasters had a human cost higher than, say, the Union Carbide disaster in Bhopal?

      From desultory Googling, I gather the death toll from Chernobyl is comparable, but spread over three decades.

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        • I’d rather have 6000 deaths spread over a few decades than over a few minutes. For one, the people dying prematurely often nonetheless enjoy many more years of life, and for another, there’s much more time to deal with the fallout (um), minimize social disruption, and maybe even develop new, effective treatments.

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        • But they don’t, that’s not how radiation works.

          The isotopes with very long half lives are the ones not releasing a lot of radiation, and the ones that are very dangerous decompose within days, or less.

          The problem with reactors is not the fuel itself, it’s containment and control of the fuel, so that if things get biblical, the fuel stays in the reactor as a rapidly cooling lump.

          This is where ‘s point about ‘lowest bidder’ is pertinent, because modern PBWRs are a challenge when it comes to control and containment, since the design requires considerable cooling even after the reactor is scrammed. Although even these, when there is a release of radioactive gas, that gas is isotopes with really short half lives. The real danger isn’t a gas release, it’s groundwater infiltration of the core. The isotopes that will dissolve in water are the ones that give me pause.

          There are better, much safer designs (like damn near Homer proof), but no one in the US is willing to take on the cost or risk to get one working and figure out the regulatory environment for one (I honestly don’t blame them). I guess we get to let the Chinese take that risk for us.

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          • The worrisome isotopes are those that (a) are produced in quantities by fission, (b) have moderately long half-lives and (c) are biologically “active”. Strontium-90 and cesium-137 are at the top of the list. Half lives for both are around 30 years. Living things mistake strontium for calcium and incorporate it into bones, and mistake cesium for potassium and incorporate it into soft tissues. Both are likely to enter the food chain and wind up in us.

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            • They also readily dissolve in water, which is why I worry about them if ground water gets into the reactor containment vessel. They tend not to be present in gas blowouts.

              But again, that’s the thing. If the core can be kept contained, life is good. As said, if your mitigation strategy involves having to actively manage core cooling and containment, your design is going to bite you in the ass.

              Remember, all our reactors are based on the Navy design, whose mitigation strategy is, “drop the core in the deepest marine trench you can find and let trillions of gallons of water do the rest”, which is kinda hard to do anywhere close to land.

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      • That’s pretty much the thing. Nuclear accidents basically just wreck the area. Nobody’s going to clean that up. Hell, we can’t seem to clean up the waste we knew we were generating. or even store it safely.

        In short, there seems to be a lot of kick-the-can down the road and magical thinking I don’t like.I mean in addition to “You proofed this versus earthquake but didn’t expect flooding? On the coast?”” and “Why were you going to build this on an active fault line again”?

        Admittedly, I’m totally ALSO not a fan of “Active intervention is required to keep it from going critical” as a design.

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    • See, nuclear submarines are the thing I have greater doubts about.

      Nuclear power plants for the grid can be specifically placed at geologically stable places, built with however many tonnnes of concrete around them makes sense for safe containment, then a whole bunch extra just to be on the safe side, etc. They can be put in locations where emergency services can reach them in the event they’re needed, the access roads kept clear of obstructions.

      Nuclear power plants inside submarines have all kinds of conflicting engineering goals – they have to be made small and light enough to cram into a submarine, for one thing. The whole point of a submarine is to send it into unsafe places – war zones – underwater where it’s maximally hard to reach.

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      • And Naval reactors are surrounded by trillions of gallons of water. If the sub is hard for rescue and salvage to reach, it is as safe as possible. There is probably orders of magnitude more radioactive isotopes dissolved in the ocean (thanks to volcanic activity) than contained in all the reactors in all nuclear navy ships.

        For nuke ships, the danger is if they are close to a port or a shallow water fishing ground, but then they are more often than not accessible to salvage and recovery teams.

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          • Oscar covered the big one – most of the operations of nuclear subs at power are not near population centers, relatively speaking.

            But the one ‘conflicting engineering goal’ that is at the root of most engineering projects is some sort of cost effectiveness.

            The Navy doesn’t have that problem. It’s not trying to turn a profit, and so can lavish money on machines and personnel (and utilize quantity and quality for both) which make a lot of engineering tradeoffs just go away.

            On top of that is an layer of generic military discipline, but also a specific culture that is, frankly, overbearing and micromanaging, but also, gets the job done, because everyone knows the consequences are dire. And not just personally ‘I’d rather not grow a third arm, please’, though that’s the biggest one, but also the knowledge that any significant nuclear accident probably *will* cause the public to sour and pull the plug on the whole thing.

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      • I worry more that every retired naval reactor sits in open-air storage in Washington State. Every pound of spent naval fuel sits in dry cask storage in the open air in Idaho. The first site is above aquifers that are connected to the Columbia River, the second above aquifers linked to the Snake. Both are locations with very large contamination problems that the Department of Energy has been trying (unsuccessfully) for decades to clean up.

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    • If it wasn’t Pelosi, it’d be…whomever replaced her.

      Does anyone actually think ANY Democrat in a leadership position wouldn’t be thoroughly demonized by the GOP?

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      • In my ideal Earth v2.0 the minority leader is Rep. Nancy Pelosi, (D. TX), from Harris or Bexar counties.

        Regretfully, being from San Francisco is adding insult to injury for most Republicans.

        Perhaps she and Sheila Jackson-Lee would agree to swap constituencies. Jackson-Lee would be a perfect fit (or perhaps too liberal) in San Francisco

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      • I don’t actually believe the first part for the most part (there may be a small segment of the population that is turned off specifically by Nancy Pelosi, San Francisco liberal woman), but most of those people hate Democrat’s for other reasons already.

        The crossover between people who’d vote for the Democrats consistently if Tim Ryan were leader instead of Nancy Pelosi is almost nil. The truth is, those voters would quickly be turned off when the Democrat’s starting doing Democratic things like being for environmental regulations, civil rights, higher taxes, et al

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