Month: November 1998

Nose Dive

The mainstream press has devoted a lot of column inches to the Microsoft vs. Dept. of Justice case and Bill Gates’ Ronald-Reagan-like ability to dodge all blame and forget. But very little space has been given to problems at the other Puget Sound behemoth: Boeing.

Two recent articles in the P-I, both written by James Wallace (who, by the way, has also written critical biographies of Bill Gates), detailed Boeing’s serious problems with foreign object debris left inside new Boeing wide-body jets built at the Everett plant. Foreign object debris is so common in new Boeing jets that it has its own acronym, FOD. FOD usually consists of tools and spare parts that get sealed up inside the wings or rudders of new jets; left to bounce around during flight, these object can cause considerable damage.

Recent cases of FOD damage include a 16 oz. hammer found inside a an EgyptAir 777 rudder; the hammer caused two cracks in the rudder hinge, a critical part of the rudder assembly. It was discovered by EgyptAir mechanics during a routine inspection. United Parcel Service mechanics also recently found a 5 lb. bucking bar banging around inside the rudder of one of their 767s; it had punched a hole in the compartment that holds the rudder control motors. (Notably, UPS recently decided to order their new jets from Airbus, instead of their old standby, Boeing, after citing customer service and “quality control” problems.) Another recent case of FOD damage is the grounding of a 777 after flashlight batteries found bouncing around inside a wing had corroded and shorted out one of the plane’s landing lights.

The B.F. Goodrich airplane maintenance facility in Everett, which does “C checks”–major overhauls of new airplanes after they’ve already been delivered to customers–routinely finds a lot of FOD in new Boeing planes. One B.F. Goodrich mechanic said: “Whenever we get a new Boeing plane in for a C check, the standing joke is, ‘I wonder what tools Boeing has left for us today.'”

Speed-ups in production, mandatory overtime, and under-staffing are undoubtedly the main causes of FOD. Boeing personnel are expected to complete a final visual check of wings and rudder components before sealing them up, to prevent tools and other objects from being left behind. Obviously that’s not happening. Yet Boeing is set to lay off around 10,000 workers by the end of the year, mainly to please shareholders and boost their stock price.

The FOD problem becomes more serious when presented alongside Boeing’s ongoing battle with the Federal Aviation Administration. The FAA has ordered Boeing to install new rudder valves on all 737s, after two crashes were linked to mechanical problems with the rudders on 737s. Tests have shown that the rudder can jam, causing it to swing in the opposite direction from the one the pilot intended (oops!). The two domestic crashes linked to faulty rudders include a Sept. 1994 crash of a 737 near Pittsburgh (everyone was killed) and a 737 that plowed into the ground while landing near Colorado Springs in March 1991 (again, everybody died). Boeing vehemently denies that the rudder was at fault, but the National Transportation Safety Board could find no evidence for any other cause.

The final straw came last December, when an Asian SilkAir 737-300 that was cruising along at 34,000 feet on a perfect, calm, sunny day suddenly plummeted from the sky and plowed into a river in Indonesia, killing everyone aboard. The only cause offered by investigators was a mechanical malfunction in the plane’s rudder–although that didn’t stop racist Australian and other western reporters from proposing pilot suicide as the cause (i.e., all Asians pilots must be “kamikazis”). Notably, less than a month after the SilkAir disaster, Al Gore finally ordered the FAA to force Boeing to fix the faulty 737 rudders.

To top it all off, last week, the St. Petersburg Times reported that cracks have been found in several of the replacement parts used to fix these faulty rudders. Parker Hannifin is the subcontractor producing the key part–a replacement valve that’s already been installed in about 1,000 737s here in the U.S. So the FAA is now contemplating a second recall to order a fix of the fix.

So Boeing’s quality control problems are nothing new, and may be the cause of many “mysterious” airline disasters. The notoriously slow, corrupt, and lax FAA is unable (and often unwilling) to police the U.S.’s only major commercial airplane company. The race for Boeing to improve its stock price and compete with Airbus is unlikely to improve matters, since Boeing is undergoing a strong shift of resources from its commercial airline department–with its low profit margins–to its defense contracting and space departments–both industries that can be assured big, guaranteed profits from the public till for the production of mediocre (and unneeded) equipment.

One final aside: last Friday Boeing was forced to cancel the launch of a Delta 2 rocket at Cape Canaveral when ground controllers realized that the main engine wouldn’t be able to swivel fully to steer the rocket. At least this one didn’t explode…but it didn’t get off the ground, either. This would all be very funny, I’m sure, if it wasn’t so grotesque. And, for taxpayers, expensive.

It’s Getting Hotter

Ironically, at exactly the same time that Hurricane Mitch was dominating the headlines, national leaders were meeting at a global climate summit in Buenos Aires, Argentina. One year ago at the Kyoto summit, participants drafted an agreement for industrialized nations to cut back on their greenhouse gas emissions by 5.2% below current levels by the year 2012. Most environmental groups and scientists agree that the Kyoto agreement won’t be enough to slow the drastic climate changes that are already underway. This year in Argentina, the current summit is proving that even that weak treaty is unlikely to be implemented.

The U.S., which is the world’s biggest polluter in terms of greenhouse gases, didn’t even sign the treaty until the day before the summit ended this month, when it was obvious that the U.S. government wouldn’t have any credibility at the negotiations without doing at least that much. As it was, we were the last industrialized nation to sign it. The Clinton Administration blamed the delay on the Republican-controlled U.S. Senate, which must ratify the treaty to make it law (Senate Republicans have already announced that they will reject it). But few Democrats will support anything that limits the ability of U.S. business to continue expanding forever (until we all fry to death).

The U.S. government is not alone; of those governments that have signed the Kyoto protocols, only one so far has ratified the treaty: the tiny island nation of Fiji (which is concerned that it will disappear completely if ocean levels rise much further).

But even if a miracle were to occur and all the signers were to ratify the treaty, there are still two enormous loopholes. The first is that participation by underdeveloped nations is entirely voluntary. While they have few emissions now and are not responsible for the current sorry state of the ozone layer and global warming, highly populated nations like India and China are on a fast-track to becoming major polluters just like us. Global oil, gas, coal, and automobile companies are already peddling their products and services in those countries–selling SUVs to a growing class of Chinese urban professionals, for example. And the World Bank continues to lend money for coal-burning plants, mining projects, oil extraction, and deforestation projects in these countries–all in the name of “development.”

The second problem is an emissions trading clause that would allow underdeveloped countries that voluntarily sign on to the agreement to sell or trade their unused “quota” of emissions to industrialized nations, thereby defeating the whole purpose of cutbacks for the largest polluters. Honduras, for example, could trade its emissions quota to the U.S. in exchange for food, medicine, or money to rebuild its infrastructure–at least until the next Mitch-sized hurricane blows through.

And that’s becoming more likely with each passing year. At the climate summit in Buenos Aires, a British group, the Hadley Center for Climate Change, presented the findings of a study showing that the greenhouse effect is much worse than anyone realized. After making billions of calculations on the world’s largest supercomputer at the Hadley Center in Berkshire, they found that 1998 is already the hottest year on record (the records began 140 years ago). Some of their other findings include:

  • The number of people subject to flooding will increase from 5 million now to 100 million by the year 2050, and 200 million by 2080.

  • Severe droughts in Africa and severe weather changes in the midwestern U.S. will cause widespread famine in 50 years, threatening 30 million more people with starvation. Most of central and southern Africa will be unable to grow staple food crops.

  • An additional 170 million people will live in areas with extreme water shortages.

  • Malaria, which has already spread to southern Italy, will take hold in Europe and reach the Baltic by 2050.

  • By 2050, a runaway greenhouse effect will occur. Previously, it was thought that re-planting trees and other vegetation could slow or mitigate global warming. But if we continue producing greenhouse gases and cutting down forests at the current rates, by the year 2050 no amount of re-planting will slow or stop the greenhouse effect. This is because we will have lost the main regions that produce cooling rainfall for the planet–particularly the Brazilian Amazon, which will largely be a desert by then. Other areas that are threatened with desertification include large parts of southern Europe and the eastern U.S.

And this is only a conservative calculation of what will happen. While severe droughts, storms, record floods, and “natural disasters” are happening at an escalating pace, governments are continuing to react only to the interests of global corporations. Which means: deny, deny, deny.

More Pies Fly

On Oct. 31 at the Royal Institute of International Affairs in London, the European wing of the Biotic Baking Brigade struck again. This time the target was Renato Ruggiero, Director General of the shadowy World Trade Organization (WTO).

After finishing his speech in which he defended the WTO’s decision to overturn U.S. legal attempts to protect endangered sea turtles from shrimp fishermen, 20 BBB members swooped down and let the cream fly. According to Keith Rockwell, a WTO spokesman, “…one guy shoved the pie hard into his face and another brought a second down on top of his head.” Ruggiero, however, remained calm and replied: “This is not a bad cake!”

No police or security guards were present and none were called, since Ruggiero sustained no injuries–except to his cholesterol count. A statement by the Biotic Baking Brigade said that its pie throwers sent “a sticky message to Ruggiero and the global elite: To those who wish to dominate the world, the world replies, ‘Let them eat humble pie.'”

In mid October, the WTO ruled that the U.S. can’t force shrimp-exporting countries to fit their fleets with $75 devices that would protect sea turtles. This is just one of many WTO rulings that have gutted local and national environmental and labor laws in favor of free trade and profit.

In February, European pie-throwers hit Bill Gates with three pies while he was in Brussels, Belgium, on a tour to promote Windows 98. Two weeks later, U.S. members of the BBB pied Proctor & Gamble Chairman John Pepper in Columbus, Ohio, citing P&G’s scandalous animal-rights record.

Truth and Consequences

Imagine, if you will, that a commission is established to investigate the history of U.S. government and military aggression against Native-Americans. It takes the testimony of victims about murder, rape, and torture committed against them and their relatives and ancestors. It traces the pattern of forced relocations, broken treaties, and the destruction of Native-American cultures, then recommends bringing certain politicians, policemen, and military officers to trial. Or imagine that a group is charged with investigating the history of slavery in the U.S. Of course, it would never happen here–primarily because the disenfranchised remain shut out of our political system. But something very similar to this scenario has been happening for the last three years in South Africa, where a black majority finally controls the political process.

On Oct. 29, South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) released a 3,500 page, five volume report on apartheid-era human rights abuses, the culmination of over two years of testimony from victims of both the apartheid-era government and groups that fought against apartheid from 1960 to 1993. It immediately sparked controversy between South African political parties and individual politicians eager to point fingers at one another; yet, it has also brought an enormous outpouring of grief and anger from black victims, and guilt and apologies from many white people finally forced to confront the crimes of the whites-only rule of apartheid.

Predictably, there was almost no mention of the TRC’s report here in the U.S. press. U.S. coverage of the report focused largely on fighting within the ANC to have the report blocked at the last minute. These same articles often ignored the successful effort of apartheid’s last president, F.W. de Klerk, to have his name excised from the report. Likewise, the Western press happily rehashed the charges of murder and torture brought against members of Winnie Mandikizela-Mandela’s soccer club, and called for her to be tried for gross human rights abuses, while ignoring that former President P.W. Botha, who presided over the worst years of apartheid-era abuses during the 1980s, has never testified before the TRC. In fact, the TRC took Botha to court for contempt; he was later fined $5,600 and given a one year suspended sentence. He continues to live comfortably in retirement in a sea-side community and refuses to answer to charges that he personally ordered bombings, assassinations, and the pursuit of chemical and biological warfare against the black population of South Africa (in spite of the fact that both the former minister of police, Adriaan Vlok, and the former head of the notorious Vlakplass death squad, Eugene de Kock–also known as apartheid’s top assassin–have said that they took orders directly from Botha).

Other big-wigs remain unmolested, too, especially people very high up in the military and police under the former apartheid government. For example, former police commissioner, General Van Dar Merwe, has never come before the commission and still lives in his mansion in north Pretoria, while men directly under his command are in prison. This problem points to a major flaw of the TRC: it can gather evidence, but has no enforcement powers. The TRC uses a “carrot” approach to its mission, without an effective “stick” to back it up; it can grant amnesty to those who voluntarily come forward to admit guilt or testify to their crimes and the crimes of colleagues, although amnesty is not guaranteed (so far 7,000 people have asked for amnesty, but only 125 have received it, while over 4,500 have been rejected–which means they can be prosecuted later for their crimes). But the TRC itself has no specific judicial role–it can’t serve as a court, pass sentence, or impose jail time on those who are not granted amnesty or, more importantly, those who refuse to testify.

The TRC has also been criticized for a terrible double standard: victims who come forward to testify and tell their stories also give up their right to prosecute their tormentors later in court. The TRC has taken testimony from over 21,000 people, most of whom were victims of government repression. The only satisfaction victims receive is the knowledge that their complaints will be heard, and a tiny compensation payment of $345, which is paid only after they’ve been “judged” by the commission to be victims of political aggression.

Others critics have pointed to the limited time period for the investigation (1960 to 1993), arguing that white supremacy in South Africa became institutionalized well over 100 years ago. 1960 was chosen as a starting point because that’s the year when the African National Congress (ANC) began its armed struggle against the apartheid government.

These criticisms are valid and may lead to more strife down the road, but the TRC has nevertheless filled an important and historic role–one that’s been unrivaled anywhere else in the world, except perhaps for the Nuremberg trials after World War II, and current efforts (as yet unsuccessful) to bring Bosnian and Rwandan war criminals to justice.

While ANC leaders, Zulu nationalists, and former apartheid-era politicians squabble over whose crime is really the worst, many ordinary South Africans–including whites–have expressed genuine grief, anger, dismay, and real contrition over the brutalities of the former government. Two years of daily testimony about rape, murder, dismemberment, inhuman tortures, the loss of family members, the destruction of homes, the assassination of political dissident in exile, and many other crimes has combined with mountains of testimony from perpetrators among the ranks of police, military, intelligence agents, covert death squads, former cabinet ministers, and the media to show the real nature of this historical atrocity. The evidence is overwhelming and there’s no escaping its obvious conclusion: the violence was institutional–ingrained in the system–and everyone who supported the government or who simply chose to be apathetic and not fight against it also supported that violence.

This can be seen in the sweeping conclusions of the report itself, which gives findings on nearly every aspect of the apartheid regime. On religion: South African Christianity “promoted the ideology of apartheid in a range of different ways that included Biblical and theological teaching.” On the court system: “The judiciary and the magistracy as well as the … legal profession were locked into an overwhelmingly passive mindset…” On business: “The business sector failed … to take responsibility for its involvement in state security initiatives … specifically designed to sustain apartheid rule.” On the English language media: it “often adopted a policy of appeasement toward the state, ensuring a large measure of self-censorship.” On the Afrikaans language media: “with rare exceptions chose to provide direct support for apartheid and the activities of the security forces, many of which led directly to gross violations of human rights.” If only we could subject our own institutions to the same scrutiny.

The report delves deeply into the specifics of police beatings, soldiers shooting at peaceful demonstrators, suspects jailed for months without trial, civilians killed by the ANC, the black-on-black violence of the Inkatha Freedom Party, and the words and actions of apartheid’s main participants on all sides. It also includes bits and pieces about foreign governments assisting the apartheid government. It’s an unrivaled historical archive of information; and it’s just the sort of collective memory that the Western media regularly shuns.

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s report can be viewed and downloaded from the TRC’s homepage at: www.truth.org.za. Their home page also contains reports from the TRC’s Amnesty Committee, Human Rights Committee, and transcripts of public debates, as well as South African media coverage of the commission’s work. To order a print copy of the five volume report, contact: Bonita Solomons, Juta & Company Ltd., 011-27-21-797-5111 (phone), or 011-27-21-761-5861 (fax) and refer to ISBN number 0620230789. The print copy costs 750 rand (about $130 U.S.), plus postage and handling.

The Group Gets Smaller

When Bill Clinton ran for President in 1992, one of his big campaign issues was affordable healthcare coverage. He was responding to grassroots movements for a single-payer plan similar to Canada’s.

As the idea worked its way up the Democratic party hierarchy and was batted back and forth in national media and political circles, it became watered down to an investigation of ways to “reform” the health care system. Much lobbying ensued–most of it by health insurance companies, drug companies, the AMA, and business groups worried that Clinton and Congress would require all employers to provide healthcare benefits to their employees. In the end, all that was left of Clinton’s promises was a recommendation that Americans should rely on HMOs to provide adequate, affordable healthcare coverage. Now, six years later, that HMO model is falling apart.

Take Group Health Cooperative, for example. Last year, after three continuous years of losses–$11.5 million in 1995, $7.2 in 1996, and $10.4 million in 1997–Group Health, one of the nation’s oldest and highest-rated health maintenance organizations (and a member cooperative, too–virtually unheard of among other HMOs nationwide), announced that it would merge its administrative operations with Kaiser Permanente of California. There were various reasons for the merger, among them the ability to efficiently market their services to large corporations. The reasons all boiled down to one: the need to stop losing money on its operations.

In 1998, however, Group Health has been forced to announce that next year it will increase premiums by an average of 10%. It has already increased co-payments for some members and instituted deductibles for other members. Last month GHC announced that it would stop covering state employees in Clallam County and that it would discontinue services in some counties to Medicaid recipients and members of the state’s Basic Health Plan. In addition, GHC announced that it was expecting to lose at least $10 million again this year. To try and stem the red ink, it will cut $4.3 million from its expense budget in 1999 and will not fill 300 open job positions–in other words, it will run short-staffed–to save money.

On top of all that, GHC’s partner, Kaiser, is expecting to lose $500 million this year. Last week, the two companies announced that they will disband parts of their joint administration, and Kaiser/Group Health president Phil Nudelman (former CEO of GHC) will be replaced by a Kaiser senior VP, Jim Williams, whose office is in Oakland, CA. The merger obviously hasn’t worked to stem the losses for either company … and nothing will, as long as healthcare costs continue to skyrocket.

Nor is GHC alone in its troubles. PacMed has also seen four years of red ink. The state’s Basic Health Plan has been forced to raise rates on a yearly basis, making its mission of “affordable” healthcare coverage difficult to fulfill. And other, private HMOs around the nation have been involved in merger mania: large, profitable companies swallowing up smaller, ailing ones to gain a larger market share (then raising premiums and/or slashing benefits to boost profits and satisfy shareholders). Which, of course, is the main difference between private HMOs and member coops, like Group Health–which actually tries to hold down premium levels so its members can afford coverage. But in a marketplace where everyone–whether private or non-profit–has to buy services, drugs, equipment, and supplies at a price that includes a built-in (and often indecently high) profit margin, Group Health and coops like it are fighting a losing battle.

So the HMO solution has really proved to be no fix at all. While private HMOs have shown themselves to be little different from private insurance companies (and in some cases, worse), the myth still prevails that there is no better option. More than ever, we need people to push for removing the profit motive entirely from the healthcare system. If that means starting all over at the beginning and pushing for a single-payer system all over again, then so be it. This time, let’s not be fooled that a DemoPublican President making vague promises about healthcare “reform” really has the guts to stand up to lobbyists from drug companies and the health insurance industry, or their hired guns in Congress.

ETS! Farmer’s Almanac

Breaking Away

October and November are the months that remind me of escape. Not the I-need-to-get-away-from-the-cold-weather-and-go-someplace-sunny type of escape, but the animals-breaking-out-and-running-wild kind of escape.

Maybe it’s because the holidays are approaching and I think of animals leaving their cages to visit friends and relatives in the neighborhood. Or maybe it’s because nearly every holiday on the farm, the cows would break out and go running off down the road to get as far away as possible. For years we could never figure out why the animals on our farm always broke fences on Christmas, Thanksgiving, and New Year’s. Then one day, the answer became obvious: we always started partying (and drinking) early in the day, then stumbled out to do our chores in the afternoon. At least one of us would forget to latch a gate, and invariably the cows would take the opportunity to party, too.

For example, we’d be halfway through dinner, or just yanking the turkey out of the oven, when one of us would catch sight of Renee–a big, fat, white Holstein cow with lots of black spots all over her–peering near-sightedly in at us through the big dining room window. It was sort of like being on Renee’s cow-TV channel. I can see her now: “hhhmmmmm, I wonder what the people do when they go inside the pointy-roof barn for the evening…hey, let’s go take a look!” (Without realizing until the last moment that if she could see us, then we could probably see her, too.) The rest of the herd would already be running off into the sunset, snatching mouthfuls of grass here and there. Their first stop was always the neighbors’ front yard, where they’d leave deep hoof-prints in the lawn and eat whatever lettuce, greens, or flowers were left over in the garden.

Bringing them back home was a challenge. Well, more like a pain in the butt, really. The weather was cold and usually wet, often it was dark, and I never remembered to grab a hat on the way out the door. By the time we found all of the cows (sometimes a half a mile away), their excitement had vanished and they were frightened by unfamiliar sounds and smells and the voices of strange people screaming at them. So when they heard us, it was easy for the cows to turn around and follow the pickup truck back home.

The bull, on the other hand, was a different matter. On our farm, we had around 200 cows, heifers, and calves–all female–but only one bull. We kept the bull separate from the rest of the herd. He had a big metal ring in his nose (quite a bit larger than the rings you see some people wearing today), and attached to that ring was a long metal chain. The chain was attached to a metal stake and the stake was driven into the ground in our front yard, which looked more like a small pasture, but without a fence. Every couple of days, Dad would pull up the stake and move the bull to another part of the yard to eat the grass down in a new spot. Needless to say, we didn’t need a lawn mower. We also didn’t need a guard dog, because the bull–bored as any lonely herd animal would be in that situation–would immediately come up and check out any car that pulled into the driveway (if it parked within reach of his chain). Like all bovines, he’d rub his nose on the windshield and side windows, scratch his enormous head on the side mirrors (often breaking them off), and–I think just for the hell of it–put his head down and push, rocking the whole vehicle back and forth. Dad rescued a quite a few terrified door-to-door salesmen, and always tried to explain to them that the bull was just “having a little fun.”

But when the bull got loose, it was serious business and, instead of the whole family running out to catch him, Dad made us all stay indoors while he went out alone with the lead-rope. Oddly, when the bull slipped his chain, he didn’t usually run to join the herd. Instead, he did exactly the same thing the cows did: he went directly to the neighbor’s front yard, as if he had been patiently watching all year while the neighbor planted his expensive, ornamental trees, dug up and aerated the soil in his flower beds, pulled the aphids off his roses, and lovingly tended his vegetable garden. All of that work must have been for a reason, right? What better reason than to provide more fun for a lonely bull?

Even now, 16 years later, when my friends complain about their gardens–too much rain, too little rain, late frosts, or early winters–I still think: “Well, at least you don’t have a 2,500 lb. bull wading through your compost pile.”

 

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