Guest Post from Max Sawicky

by Max Sawicky

Hillary’s getting a huge free ride on her purported mastery of the mechanics of policy, in contrast to Bernie. I decided to look into just one of her campaign initiatives. She likes to throw around the phrase “universal child care” or “universal pre-K.” But she isn’t proposing universal either. She’s proposing new money for pre-K, which is fine, but a) false advertising, and b) it’s not clear how it would “work.”

Google “Hillary universal child care.” The first thing you get is one of her web pages. On it we are told “Her proposal would work to ensure that every 4-year old in America has access to high-quality preschool in the next 10 years. It would do so by providing new federal funding for states that expand access to quality preschool for all four-year olds.” There’s nothing else from the campaign as far as I looked — 4 or 5 pages of google results.

“Would work to” means “won’t” in this context.

Most of the page is about how great preschool will be, for those who get it, and I’d be the first to agree that it would be. Think Progress informs us, again under that “universal” headline, that HRC also favors a “middle class tax cut” to help parents pay for childcare. To be clear, both of these initiatives deserve praise and point in the right directions.

The rub is that they are no more specific or rigorously motivated than the Sanders proposals that people have been blathering about.

On the strength of rousing approval by a compliant Congress unavailable to Bernie, HRC would supposedly provide a grant to those same evil state governments who couldn’t be trusted to implement single-payer, under a defunct Sanders proposal. Who could say whether the results would be “universal”? Is the money adequate, assuming full participation by the states? Is there anything that would prevent them substituting the money for their own limited programs? These are the usual questions applying to grants-in-aid. There are no wonky answers on her web site.

A published journalist of my acquaintance thinks the page is a real policy proposal, rather than an advertisement. She couldn’t tell the difference. She thought I was talking about a ‘brief summary’ of the proposal and gave me a link to what I was going on, which actually IS a brief summary.

Note that bumping up Head Start does not get you to universal either. It’s fine, but Head Start is a tiny program, relative to the relevant population.

How to “pay for it”? Forget it. They don’t say, not that I care. All the critics of “unpaid-for” single-payer BernieCare evidently don’t care either. Criticisms of Sanders’ vagueness on policy can be applied to HRC as well, if one delves just a little bit.

I look forward to all the deep-dive analyses of HRC’s projected path to universal health care coverage. Are there any? Why not? Because Hillary advocates are too busy blathering about Bernie. Those with policy expertise don’t apply it to Hillary’s treacle.

Guest Post on Portugal

(In comments to one of the posts here on Greece, Tiago Lemos Peixoto posted some observations on the situation in Portugal. In response to some questions from me, he sent the message below. We don’t hear much in the US about the the political-economic situation in Portugal, and I thought Tiago’s discussion was interesting enough to post on the front page. I’ve posted his original comment first, and then then the followup. My questions to him are in italics. JWM.)

I am a 37 year old Portuguese, born merely 4 years after a semi fascist dictatorship that furthered our already geographical peripheral position to one of political isolation. We joined the EEC 10 years after that, while still trying to recover from the aftermath of the democratic transition on the promise of cooperation, solidarity, prosperity, and a helping hand in developing our economy to the european standards of living.

Now, let’s forget for a while the fact that such a thing never happend. Instead of modernizing and improving our competitiveness, the EEC brought in fact production quotas to our industries and agriculture, and effected a great many deals that turned out to be unilateral. One example out of many would be our milk and dairy production, which is capable of producing in vast quantities, but due to said quotas are, to this day, often destroyed and wasted so that we don’t outperform.

We didn’t readily see that, however. Along with our joining in 1986 came communitary funds which were generously abundant, almost trickle down. Why would we think about our lack of competitiveness when Europe paid our producers subsidies to cut down excess? Who could really complain when great and bloated artistic endeavours, ambitious new infrastructures were being developed via communitary funds? Or with the tearing down of the old borders, the freedom to move within anywhere in the Schengen space? After the years of dictatorship and extreme poverty, after all that crippling isolation, it seemed like the dawn of a new age. And there are striking paralels to Greece here as well, what with their being a peripheral country who survived a period of dictatorship.

Add to that the promise of the €. Now, that one was harder to sell, since it actually doubled a lot of the prices, but hey, all seemed to be going so well, surely it would all adjust soon, and this is just another step to an unified Europe of progress.

That’s what we’ve been pretty much conditioned to believe, and that is the mindset that made people equate the European project with prosperity. For the Greeks, it’s very likely that any Greek between 50 and 60 grew up in a dictatorship, and same goes to every Portuguese between 40 and 90. Adults like myself grew up with the European Union and its promise of a better world and barely know any world outside of it. And communitary funds, even if they’re all almost universally badly applied, worked like a Skinner’s box of sorts.

And now, they threaten us, the adults who barely know a world outside EEC/EU, the young adults who grew up on the possibilities given by Erasmus projects, the older people who grew up or lived through overt dictatorships, that all this can go away. And that with it comes fire and brimstone, that we HAD to join the € because our currency was too weak (and what better argument to NOT join the Euro?) and would be even more worthless if we were to readopt it. They throw the ghosts of market anathema at us, “leaving the Euro would be catastrophic, the markets react just from your mere mention of it, you really want to go back to those bad old days? Do you really want to be out of the cool kids’ club, and have no EU funding for your arts association anymore?”

That is why we fear the alternative, even as we begin to see the bars that hold our gilded cage.

Is there any kind of organized challenge to austerity there? Is there any kind of left opposition party?

Well, there is, and there isn’t. The most consistent and organized opposition is the local Communist Party (PCP), which commands a respectable position in parliament (about 11%). What’s more significant, the vote on PCP has been relatively unchanged since the 1974 revolution, so they’re a familiar presence in our democracy, and relatively well respected outside of its circles for the fact that they were the “vanguard” against Salazar’s regime. They’re incredibly well organized and have the support of the majority of the unions. They’re also relatively less “orthodox” than something like the KKE, for the most part. However, despite all this, their voting base is incredibly stable for better and for worse.

Then there’s Bloco de Esquerda (Left Bloc or BE) which could be seen as our own Syriza: a broad front of minor leftist parties of different traditions, disgruntled communists and modern socialists which formed 15 years ago and was on the rise in parliament. They took a huge hit in the last elections, though, through a combination of leadership bickerings, lack of cohesive message, and the center left Socialist Party (PS) being able to sideline them via pushing BE’s social issues agenda on issues like women and LGBT rights. Many saw BE a bit redundant after PS pushed those issues through parliament. They managed to have around 12% at their best, got 5-6% on the last election.

And that’s the extent of organized opposition. BE and PCP do work together a lot better both in parliament and on the streets than in other countries and are a lot closer than say, KKE and Syriza. But whereas PCP’s strength and weakness lies in the rigidity of its speech, BE has failed to have an open discussion on issues like debt restructuring and the like.

Social movements were strong for a while in 2010-2012, and were a ineffectual, uncohesive mess after that, I’m sad to say. There was a strong grass roots response to the austerity packages with absolutely gigantic demonstrations occuring in 2011-2012. But there was also failure to plainly articulate a political alternative, as well as the prevalent “sibling rivalries” that so often fracture these kinds of movements. The government and mainstream media narrative effectively pushed back via Thatcher’s “TINA”, and it’s not so much that people bought the narrative, but they’re failing to see anyone present anything else.

Dairy has been an issue in Greece too, it’s specifically mentioned in the new agreement. It seems as tho the crude mercantilist arguments, which I think mostly miss the larger picture, really may be the story in agriculture.

There is an apparent mercantilist side to the way that the EU is constructed. In many ways, it’s a paradox: its current ruling minds come from that neoliberal school of Thatcher and Reagan policies, but the actual construct is almost neo-colonial, with very apparenty peripheries and semi peripheries forming around the German epicenter. Any analysis of trade relations will show Germany as either the no. 1 or no. 2 exporter to other European countries: Spain, Italy, Greece, Portugal, all of those have Germany in their top 2 of imports. Which is, I believe, all the more significant when you cross that data with the prevalence of production quotas.

Though I’d argue that in Portugal’s specific case, these quotas end up helping Spain, especially in terms of food products. Germany’s our second larger import origin, but we import a staggering 27% from Spain alone. Now, though I’m no economist and my field lies in History, I do believe this is a rabbit hole worth chasing.

Has there been significant liberalization in Portugal over the past five years? Rolling back of labor laws, weakening of unions, cutting back pensions, etc.? In other words, has the crisis worked?

It has. Completely. Nearly anything that could be privatized, including energy, our airfields, our air company, our telecommunications grids our energetic infrastructure, our mail service, all have been sold off at the time we’re speaking. It’s worth mentioning that, while it could be argued that there were severe deficiencies in the management of these companies, nearly all of them actually turned a profit. So, selling off, say, our energy for €3 billion 5 years ago stops being an impressive feat when we see that the company’s profits were at about €1 billion/year, and we’d have €2 billion more at our disposal by not selling.

Collective bargaining took a major hit. Most new jobs are being created on a temporary basis. People have in fact been “temps” without social welfare benefits for more than ten years now in many cases (this did not start with the crisis, but did speed up considerably). Others work under weekly renewable temp contracts, which can prolong themselves for months. Our minimum wage is net €505/month, but many make less than that by working 6.5 hour long “part time” jobs for €300-400. Any company can hire you and sign temp contracts with you for a period of 3 years during which the rules are more or less “at will”; firing you sometime during those 3 years, waiting a couple of months and then calling you back to rehire you (obviously resetting that 3 year grace period) is a very common occurence. Unpaid internships are the norm, with some of them taking on surreal form. Unpaid internships for bartender or hairdresser are things we can see on job websites and ads papers.
Unemployment is predictably high, currently at 14% after a 18% peak. We should account for the fact that Portugal measures unemployment by the number of people who have enrolled in our unemployment centers. Which are ineffective to Kafkaesque levels, often summoning you by letter to interviews which have already happened by the time you received that letter, at which point you’re out of the center (and the stats) and have to justify your absence or wait for four months before you can enroll again. Add to those numbers the fact that half a million left the country in the last 5 years. In a country of 10 million, that means 5% of our population, most of them college educated youths between 20 and 35 is absent from the active population.

But despite all that, despite the 6% GDP contraction, or the fact that the austerity measures actually skyrocketed the debt from 95% to 130%, we’re told (in an election year, no less) that we can rest assured in the fact that we’re not Greece (which if one wants to argue that we’ve been put under a slow burn as opposed to Greece’s scorched earth can be a point I do concede), and that “though the Portuguese are worse off, the country is better” (actual quote from Luis Montenegro, Parliamentary leader to the majority party), and that the worst has passed, and austerity is a thing of the past… though they need to make an extra 500 millions in pension cuts this year alone.

Fukushima Update: How Safe Can a Nuclear Meltdown Get?

by Will Boisvert

Last summer I posted an essay here arguing that nuclear power is a lot safer than people think—about a hundred times safer than our fossil fuel-dominated power system. At the time I predicted that the impact of the March, 2011 Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant accident in Japan would be small. A year later, now that we have a better fix on the consequences of the Fukushima meltdowns, I’ll have to revise “small” to “microscopic.” The accumulating data and scientific studies on the Fukushima accident reveal that radiation doses are and will remain low, that health effects will be minor and imperceptible, and that the traumatic evacuation itself from the area around the plant may well have been unwarranted. Far from the apocalypse that opponents of nuclear energy anticipated, the Fukushima spew looks like a fizzle, one that should drastically alter our understanding of the risks of nuclear power.

Anti-nuke commentators like Arnie Gundersen continue to issue forecasts of a million or more long-term casualties from Fukushima radiation. (So far there have been none.) But the emerging scientific consensus is that the long-term health consequences of the radioactivity, particularly cancer fatalities, will be modest to nil. At the high end of specific estimates, for example, Princeton physicist Frank von Hippel, writing in the nuke-dreading Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, reckons an eventual one thousand fatal cancers arising from the spew.

Now there’s a new peer-reviewed paper by Stanford’s Mark Z. Jacobson and John Ten Hoeve that predicts remarkably few casualties. (Jacobson, you may remember, wrote a noted Scientific American article proposing an all-renewable energy system for the world.) They used a supercomputer to model the spread of radionuclides from the Fukushima reactors around the globe, and then calculated the resulting radiation doses and cancer cases through the year 2061. Their result: a probable 130 fatal cancers, with a range from 15 to 1300, in the whole world over fifty years. (Because radiation exposures will have subsided to insignificant levels by then, these cases comprise virtually all that will ever occur.) They also simulated a hypothetical Fukushima-scale meltdown of the Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant in California, and calculated a likely cancer death toll of 170, with a range from 24 to 1400.

To put these figures in context, pollution from American coal-fired power plants alone kills about 13,000 people every year. The Stanford estimates therefore indicate that the Fukushima spew, the only significant nuclear accident in 25 years, will likely kill fewer people over five decades than America’s coal-fired power plants kill every five days to five weeks. Worldwide, coal plants kill over 200,000 people each year—150 times more deaths than the high-end Fukushima forecasts predict over a half century.

We’ll probably never know whether these projected Fukushima fatalities come to pass or not. The projections are calculated by multiplying radiation doses by standard risk factors derived from high-dose exposures; these risk factors are generally assumed—but not proven—to hold up at the low doses that nuclear spews emit. Radiation is such a weak carcinogen that scientists just can’t tell for certain whether it causes any harm at all below a dose of 100 millisieverts (100 mSv). Even if it does, it’s virtually impossible to discern such tiny changes in cancer rates in epidemiological studies. Anti-nukes give that fact a paranoid spin by warning of “hidden cancer deaths.” But if you ask me, risks that are too small to measure are too small to worry about.

The Stanford study relied on a computer simulation, but empirical studies of radiation doses support the picture of negligible effects from the Fukushima spew.

In a direct measurement of radiation exposure, officials in Fukushima City, about 40 miles from the nuclear plant, made 37,000 schoolchildren wear dosimeters around the clock during September, October and December, 2011, to see how much radiation they soaked up. Over those three months, 99 percent of the participants absorbed less than 1 mSv, with an average external dose of 0.26 mSv. Doubling that to account for internal exposure from ingested radionuclides gives an annual dose of 2.08 mSv. That’s a pretty small dose, about one third the natural radiation dose in Denver, with its high altitude and abundant radon gas, and many times too small to cause any measurable up-tick in cancer rates. At the time, the outdoor air-dose rate in Fukushima was about 1 microsievert per hour (or about 8.8 mSv per year), so the absorbed external dose was only about one eighth of the ambient dose. That’s because the radiation is mainly gamma rays emanating from radioactive cesium in the soil, which are absorbed by air and blocked by walls and roofs. Since people spend most of their time indoors at a distance from soil—often on upper floors of houses and apartment buildings—they are shielded from most of the outdoor radiation.

Efforts to abate these low-level exposures will be massive—and probably redundant. The Japanese government has budgeted $14 billion for cleanup over thirty years and has set an immediate target of reducing radiation levels by 50 percent over two years. But most of that abatement will come from natural processes—radioactive decay and weathering that washes radio-cesium deep into the soil or into underwater sediments, where it stops irradiating people—that  will reduce radiation exposures on their own by 40% over two years. (Contrary to the centuries-of-devastation trope, cesium radioactivity clears from the land fairly quickly.) The extra 10 percent reduction the cleanup may achieve over two years could be accomplished by simply doing nothing for three years. Over 30 years the radioactivity will naturally decline by at least 90 percent, so much of the cleanup will be overkill, more a political gesture than a substantial remediation. Little public-health benefit will flow from all that, because there was little radiation risks to begin with.

How little? Well, an extraordinary wrinkle of the Stanford study is that it calculated the figure of 130 fatal cancers by assuming that there had been no evacuation from the 20-kilometer zone around the nuclear plant. You may remember the widely televised scenes from that evacuation, featuring huddled refugees and young children getting wanded down with radiation detectors by doctors in haz-mat suits. Those images of terror and contagion reinforced the belief that the 20-km zone is a radioactive killing field that will be uninhabitable for eons. The Stanford researchers endorse that notion, writing in their introduction that “the radiation release poisoned local water and food supplies and created a dead-zone of several hundred square kilometers around the site that may not be safe to inhabit for decades to centuries.”

But later in their paper Jacobson and Ten Hoeve actually quantify the deadliness of the “dead-zone”—and it turns out to be a reasonably healthy place. They calculate that the evacuation from the 20-km zone probably prevented all of 28 cancer deaths, with a lower bound of 3 and an upper bound of 245. Let me spell out what that means: if the roughly 100,000 people who lived in the 20-km evacuation zone had not evacuated, and had just kept on living there for 50 years on the most contaminated land in Fukushima prefecture, then probably 28 of them—and at most 245—would have incurred a fatal cancer because of the fallout from the stricken reactors. At the very high end, that’s a fatality risk of 0.245 %, which is pretty small—about half as big as an American’s chances of dying in a car crash. Jacobson and Ten Hoeve compare those numbers to the 600 old and sick people who really did die during the evacuation from the trauma of forced relocation. “Interestingly,” they write, “the upper bound projection of lives saved from the evacuation is lower than the number of deaths already caused by the evacuation itself.”

That observation sure is interesting, and it raises an obvious question: does it make sense to evacuate during a nuclear meltdown?

In my opinion—not theirs—it doesn’t. I don’t take the Stanford study as gospel; its estimate of risks in the EZ strikes me as a bit too low. Taking its numbers into account along with new data on cesium clearance rates and the discrepancy between ambient external radiation and absorbed doses, I think a reasonable guesstimate of ultimate cancer fatalities in the EZ, had it never been evacuated, would be several hundred up to a thousand. (Again, probably too few to observe in epidemiological studies.) The crux of the issue is whether immediate radiation exposures from inhalation outweigh long-term exposures emanating from radioactive soil. Do you get more cancer risk from breathing in the radioactive cloud in the first month of the spew, or from the decades of radio-cesium “groundshine” after the cloud disperses? Jacobson and Ten Hoeve’s model assigns most of the risk to the cloud, while other calculations, including mine, give more weight to groundshine.

But from the standpoint of evacuation policy, the distinction may be moot. If the Stanford model is right, then evacuations are clearly wrong—the radiation risks are trivial and the disruptions of the evacuation too onerous. But if, on the other hand, cancer risks are dominated by cesium groundshine, then precipitate forced evacuations are still wrong, because those exposures only build up slowly. The immediate danger in a spew is thyroid cancer risk to kids exposed to iodine-131, but that can be counteracted with potassium iodide pills or just by barring children from drinking milk from cows feeding on contaminated grass for the three months it takes the radio-iodine to decay away. If that’s taken care of, then people can stay put for a while without accumulating dangerous exposures from radio-cesium.

Data from empirical studies of heavily contaminated areas support the idea that rapid evacuations are unnecessary. The Japanese government used questionnaires correlated with air-dose readings to estimate the radiation doses received in the four months immediately after the March meltdown in the townships of Namie, Iitate and Kawamata, a region just to the northwest of the 20-kilometer exclusion zone. This area was in the path of an intense fallout plume and incurred contamination comparable to levels inside the EZ; it was itself evacuated starting in late May. The people there were the most irradiated in all Japan, yet even so the radiation doses they received over those four months, at the height of the spew, were modest. Out of 9747 people surveyed, 5636 got doses of less than 1 millisievert, 4040 got doses between 1 and 10 mSv and 71 got doses between 10 and 23 mSv. Assuming everyone was at the high end of their dose category and a standard risk factor of 570 cancer fatalities per 100,000 people exposed to 100 mSv, we would expect to see a grand total of three cancer deaths among those 10,000 people over a lifetime from that four-month exposure. (As always, these calculated casualties are purely conjectural—far too few to ever “see” in epidemiological statistics.)

Those numbers indicate that cancer risks in the immediate aftermath of a spew are tiny, even in very heavily contaminated areas. (Provided, always, that kids are kept from drinking iodine-contaminated milk.) Hasty evacuations are therefore needless. There’s time to make a considered decision about whether to relocate—not hours and days, but months and years.

And that choice should be left to residents. It makes no sense to roust retirees from their homes because of radiation levels that will raise their cancer risk by at most a few percent over decades. People can decide for themselves—to flee or not to flee—based on fallout in their vicinity and any other factors they think important. Relocation assistance should be predicated on an understanding that most places, even close to a stricken plant, will remain habitable and fit for most purposes. The vast “costs” of cleanup and compensation that have been attributed to the Fukushima accident are mostly an illusion or the product of overreaction, not the result of any objective harm caused by radioactivity.

Ultimately, the key to rational policy is to understand the kind of risk that nuclear accidents pose. We have a folk-conception of radiation as a kind of slow-acting nerve gas—the merest whiff will definitely kill you, if only after many years. That risk profile justifies panicked flight and endless quarantine after a radioactivity release, but it’s largely a myth. In reality, nuclear meltdowns present a one-in-a-hundred chance of injury. On the spectrum of threat they occupy a fairly innocuous position: somewhere above lightning strikes, in the same ballpark as driving a car or moving to a smoggy city, considerably lower than eating junk food. And that’s only for people residing in the maximally contaminated epicenter of a once-a-generation spew. For everyone else, including almost everyone in Fukushima prefecture itself, the risks are negligible, if they exist at all.

Unfortunately, the Fukushima accident has heightened public misunderstanding of nuclear risks, thanks to long-ingrained cultural associations of fission with nuclear war, the Japanese government’s hysterical evacuation orders and haz-mat mobilizations, and the alarmism of anti-nuke ideologues. The result is anti-nuclear back-lash and the shut-down of Japanese and German nukes, which is by far the most harmful consequence of the spew. These fifty-odd reactors could be brought back on line immediately to displace an equal gigawattage of coal-fired electricity, and would prevent the emission of hundreds of millions of tons of carbon dioxide each year, as well as thousands of deaths from air pollution. But instead of calling for the restart of these nuclear plants, Greens have stoked huge crowds in Japan and elsewhere into marching against them. If this movement prevails, the environmental and health effects will be worse than those of any pipeline, fracking project or tar-sands development yet proposed.

But there may be a silver lining if the growing scientific consensus on the effects of the Fukushima spew triggers a paradigm shift. Nuclear accidents, far from being the world-imperiling crises of popular lore, are in fact low-stakes, low-impact events with consequences that are usually too small to matter or even detect. There’s been much talk over the past year about the need to digest “the lessons of Fukushima.” Here’s the most important and incontrovertible one: even when it melts down and blows up, nuclear power is safe.