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Pride in Ownership: The United States Postal Service

By JT Haines — July 26, 2020

There’s plenty to be concerned about these days. Too much, obviously. With that said, there may not be a single issue more emblematic of the pickle we’re in as a republic than the bizarre and anti-factual attacks on the US Postal Service.

The USPS is an engine of democracy. It is a vehicle for connection. It is a jobs program. It is for many a matter of actual life and death. It delivers to every remote corner of our fair land whether it’s “profitable” to do so or not.

It is a “public good,” and a gem of one at that.

Investment in public services make sense when there are public benefits, as there very obviously are in the case of the USPS. This is true even when — especially when — those benefits are hard to measure. It’s incredible to me how often this needs to be explained.

Nonetheless there has been a lot of debate, especially in the last 15 years or so, about whether the USPS is “losing money.” A lot of this actually has to do with the special accounting for pre-paid retiree benefits required only of the USPS, but let me also have a little bit of an attitude here and say I don’t give a shit. It’s not supposed to be “profitable.” It’s a public service. In addition to doing all the things mentioned above, it also literally subsidizes private mail services simply by existing as the only universal service provider.

Rather than waste time listening to fools bloviate about whether the USPS made or lost $10 billion in a particular year, or whether we should attempt to save a billion dollars paying postal workers less or charging more for shipping, what we should be doing is focusing on how much this public good is worth.

Meanwhile $10 billion dollars is not real money. The Pentagon costs us $700 billion a year, and that doesn’t include all the secret unconstitutional stuff. We just spent multiple trillions of dollars in coronavirus bailouts mostly benefiting private interests and the rich.

It makes less sense to start from a proposition that the USPS should cost zero dollars than it would to just assume it is worth, and should therefore cost, $100 billion dollars. At least the latter would save us from stupidity about whether we should pay APWU members hazard pay during a damn pandemic. In any case, $10 billion is not a real thing, especially during a time when we need to be looking for smart investments not running from them.

Fortunately, it seems most people do actually understand this. A recent Pew poll found that the 91% of us favor the USPS, and 92% of us support direct financial aid as part of coronavirus relief. (Fortune). Thank goodness.

The US Post Office Department was created in 1792. We didn’t expect it to be “self-funded” until the Reagan 80’s. It has been a crown jewel of our democracy. It is real world evidence that good and smart government actually works, and that citizens of a republic are actually capable of understanding the importance of a public good. No wonder the right-wing anti-government forces spend so much time and energy attacking it. We need to ignore them.

And if we find out, as is lightly implied by this Fortune Magazine article, that the Trump White House is actually causing the USPS to impede democracy by (intentionally) slowing mail through (intentionally) terrible management, we must react vociferously. And we certainly cannot waste any time talking about whether the damn thing costs a billion dollars.

“Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds.” These are the words of men and women who actually care about our country. 

JT Haines holds a JD from the University of Virginia and a Masters in Public Policy from the University of Minnesota Humphrey School, with an emphasis on economics. He taught cost-benefit analysis as an assistant for economics Prof. John Brandl (1937-2008).

Update, Washington Post, July 30:

The U.S. Postal Service is experiencing days-long backlogs of mail across the country after a top Trump donor running the agency put in place new procedures described as cost-cutting efforts, alarming postal workers who warn that the policies could undermine their ability to deliver ballots on time for the November election.

Mount Polley and PolyMet: What happened in Canada must not happen here

By JT Haines, Bridget Holcomb and Libby Bent | 02/26/18

Final permit decisions on PolyMet’s proposed NorthMet Mining Project are approaching, and for all the celebration of the process by politicians and company promoters here in Minnesota, we have grave concerns. We bring this message from Duluth, where we live downstream of the proposed PolyMet mine.

Last week we welcomed a delegation from Amnesty International to discuss their experience with a British Columbia copper sulfide mine upstream of their own communities. This is a group that has heard it all before: promises of safety from mining companies, claims of new technology that isn’t, guarantees of zero discharge, and assurances from government officials that it will all be fine.

Unfortunately, in 2014, the dam upstream of them collapsed, sending toxic water and tailings into nearby Quesnel Lake, effectively turning the pristine lake into a waste pit. The Mount Polley dam breach is the worst environmental disaster in Canadian history, and it is ongoing.

Local people who drank straight from the lake now drink bottled water out of fear of cancer, miscarriages, and neurological disorders. Indigenous communities are currently sitting out their fourth consecutive salmon season, a resource as important to them as wild rice is here. These downstream communities have seen no justice.

Troubling similarities

JT Haines

While this is a Canadian story, we are shaken by the similarities. The companies promised safety, but at every turn have promoted their bottom line over best practices and best technology. Government officials repeated assurances of a rigorous environmental process, but have granted continuous exceptions and variances to the company. Unbelievably, downstream communities, including indigenous communities, were not consulted on emergency response planning.

The Amnesty delegation urges us to avoid blind faith in regulatory regimes that are conflicted in mission, limited in scope, lax in enforcement, subject to regulatory capture, and which have yet to protect surrounding waters from this particularly toxic industry. British Columbians believed in their process, and that trust was shattered.

Bridget Holcomb

Here in Minnesota, PolyMet has said that the comparison between its proposal and Mount Polley is unfair, citing that the slope on its proposed tailings dam would be less steep. The Mount Polley dam failure, however, was not attributed to the steepness of the slope, but to an unstable foundation. If permitted, the PolyMet dam would be built on unstable taconite tailings on top of a wetland, at a height of nearly twice that of Mount Polley, with an upstream wet tailings design. DNR’s own consultants have pointed out the similarities. PolyMet officials either did not read the Mount Polley Independent Expert Investigation and Review Report, or they are trying to deceive Minnesotans.

Libby Bent

You might ask, where are our elected officials? Despite the clear importance to her city, Duluth Mayor Emily Larson has so far declined to publicly assert our stake in this matter. (Notably, neighboring Carlton City passed a resolution last week expressing its stake and requesting a moratorium on sulfide mining in Minnesota until a 20-year record of safety is shown.) Gov. Mark Dayton has made baffling statements that oppose sulfide mining as too dangerous for the Boundary Waters but are generally supportive of it where Duluth and Lake Superior would be at risk. Our own Rep. Rick Nolan has promoted legislation that would force a land swap to allow mining on federal lands, limit environmental review of copper sulfide mine proposals, and stop scientific study of the cumulative effects of copper sulfide mining in northern Minnesota.

For their part, the Minnesota Legislature and DNR seem unclear between them whose job it is to actually decide if this is a good or bad idea for Minnesota. Sadly, our own confidence in our elected officials and government is in jeopardy.

Driving a wedge between us

We appreciate that the boom and bust cycles on the Iron Range make the promise of new mining jobs attractive. PolyMet is capitalizing on this and dividing all of us who live in northern Minnesota by playing to emotions of trust and heritage. It is painful to see a foreign corporation drive a wedge between us, despite our shared values, and obscure the facts on which this decision should be based.

This is what PolyMet does not want us to know:

The record of sulfide mining is abysmal. Worldwide, the industry has failed and failed again to store its waste, and has left a legacy of rivers devoid of life from mining waste settling into riverbeds, ensuring that toxic heavy metals will continue to prevent life for centuries. While we may want to believe we have stronger oversight and regulations, performance in the US is horrid. According to the U.S. Forest Service 2016 study, 100 percent of sulfide mines have had spills, and 28 percent have, like Mount Polley, had outright dam failures. A 2017 U.N. report shows that catastrophic spills are actually increasing, as mining companies seek to lower costs and increase profits.

Glencore, PolyMet’s main investor, has a history of broken promises and abuse of union workers and communities across the globe. Worldwide this industry is replacing workers with robots. This is not how we continue Minnesota’s proud union tradition.

At the recent public hearing in Duluth, several PolyMet supporters borrowed a well-worn talking point and tried to shame opponents for using copper in cellphones and cars. Rarely included with such statements is the fact that we Americans throw away more copper every year than the proposed PolyMet mine would produce. To those who are truly concerned about how much copper is being used by consumers: Copper is infinitely recyclable and in abundant supply, and recycling creates jobs and reduces carbon emissions.

Our truly precious resource

The truly precious resource we have in northern Minnesota is our freshwater complex, which includes the headwaters of Lake Superior and 10 percent of the world’s supply of fresh surface water.

It is too late for Mount Polley, and we stand in solidarity with our Canadian friends as they fight for reparations for the unmeasurable harm caused to them.

It is not too late for us. It is not too late to protect northern Minnesota from a catastrophic, irreversible decision that does not have the consent of downstream communities.

The DNR is now accepting comments on the draft permit to mine for PolyMet. Please comment before March 6, and tell the DNR, elected officials, and candidates around the state that this proposal is simply too risky for Minnesota and for Lake Superior.

PolyMet has divided us for too long. It is time for Minnesota to act, and to identify a better option. We stand ready to support leadership that would unify us around true economic development that celebrates our history without risking our future.

JT Haines, Bridget Holcomb, and Libby Bent are residents of Duluth and members of the group Duluth for Clean Water, which welcomed a delegation from Amnesty International to Duluth on Feb. 12 and 13.

This piece also appeared in MinnPost on February 23, 2018.

Diagnosis: Myopia. US Narratives about the Philippines Continue to Miss the Picture

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June 21, 2017 — By Thom Haines

When I think about the presidential election in the United States, I continue to shake my head. As with many things related to the office, Donald Trump has only increased my head shaking. He didn’t start it.

It seems that it is difficult in the US to have a policy discussion that doesn’t focus on the limited reality visible from within our borders. In the presidential debates, for example, virtually the only discussion of how the US should relate to other countries related to ISIS and (a narrow view of) how to contain it. There was no discussion of the obscene “defense” budget or why it supposedly makes sense for the US to have armed forces in every region — indeed, nearly every country — of the world.

What is the role of the US in relationship to other countries? Is it right for our corporations to steal resources and exploit labor? Points made in the debates about NAFTA or the TPP focused on the harm to US workers, rarely the devastation wreaked on our fellow human beings in other countries.

It’s past time to become aware of and take responsibility for US imperialism. The rest of the world sees the US as an imperial power. Myopia, intentional and not, prevents many in the US from seeing our country as such.

Myopia (Merriam-Webster):

1) a condition in which the visual images come to a focus in front of the retina of the eye resulting especially in defective vision of distant objects.

2) a lack of foresight or discernment: a narrow view of something.

We seem oblivious to what is happening beyond our borders except as an extension of what’s happening within them.

Mainstream media reporting on the Philippines is again an example. The city of Marawi on the island of Mindanao has been devastated by recent violence. In a recent Washington Post article, Dan Lamothe writes:

“The United States is grappling with a hardening reality: Islamic State terrorism is on the rise in Southeast Asia, and it could worsen as foreign fighters abandon the battlefields of Iraq and Syria for new regions. The issue has snapped sharply into focus in the past three weeks, as militants and Philippine security forces have been locked in a bloody fight for Marawi, a lakeside city of about 200,000 people in the southern Philippines.”

marawi-residents-3

Residents fleeing Marawi

A little bit of context would help. Washington Post readers might appreciate knowing that this story is about a whole lot more that how ISIS activity on Mindanao is challenging US hegemony in the region. Do most readers know, for example, that Marawi’s population is 99% Muslim? Do they know that virtually the entire city of 200,000 has been forced from their homes by the violence? Do they know that Muslims have lived in this region of what is now a predominately Christian country since about 200 years before the Spanish arrived in the 16th century?

Do readers know about allegations that the US is using the ISIS connection to the violence in Mindanao as a tool to destabilize and overthrow the democratically elected president of the Philippines, hardly a US favorite?

Might they be interested in Dansalan College, a United Church of Christ in the Philippines institution in Marawi attacked and burned in the recent violence where 95% of the students are Muslim and 80% of the staff are Christian?

The rest of the world would much appreciate evidence that those in charge of US foreign policy and those who report on it are beginning to, at least, acknowledge that there are many perspectives from around the world that are of actual value. Meanwhile, of course, these perspectives continue to get short shrift by myopic politicians and reporters.

Thom Haines is a regular contributor at Newspeak Review. An Assistant County Attorney in Minnesota, Thom serves on the Minnesota State Bar Association Data Practices Committee and is active in his AFSCME union. He is a member of the Mayflower United Church of Christ (Minneapolis) Global Justice Advocacy Team, the UCC Minnesota Conference Global Partnerships Team. He recently finished eight years on the UCC board of Global Ministries.

Twin Ports Banker Weighs in on USFS Lease Renewal Question

By JT Haines — July 31, 2016

Brian Waldoch is a banker in the Twin Ports area of Minnesota and Wisconsin. He recently attended the US Forest Service listening session in Duluth on July 13, on the question of whether or not the USFS should renew federal mineral leases currently held by Twin Metals. (Twin Metals Minnesota LLC is a wholly owned operating subsidiary of the Chilean company Antofagasta PLC, “one of the top 10 copper producers in the world.” The leases concern land in the Superior National Forest in Minnesota, and would be required for a proposed copper/sulfide mining project to move forward.)

After the session, Waldoch submitted his own comment to the USFS, published here with permission, edited for length.

***

Screen Shot 2016-07-31 at 10.45.09 AM

The famous economist Adam Smith said that we are all motivated by self interest.

I attended the public comment session held at the DECC in Duluth earlier this month and the arguments I heard boiled down to: 1.) The BWCA is a special place and we should do everything we can to protect it, and the region’s drinking water is at risk. 2.) The Range is struggling economically and we should support the people, families and their way of life. Both have merit, both are important. We could debate which one is more important until we are blue in the face but that isn’t what this is about.

This is about the likelihood of outcomes. On one end, there is the possibility that the mine returns economic stability to the Range for generations and the technologies used to develop the mine do not pollute the BWCA or Lake Superior. On the other, the mine brings jobs for one generation and does irreparable damage do the BWCA, ruining the ecosystem and polluting Lake Superior to the point that it is undrinkable. The likely outcome lies somewhere in between.

“The self interest is the same as for all companies: Profit.”

If you, like Adam Smith, believe that people and corporations are motivated by self interest, it is clear that it is more likely than not that the BWCA will end up damaged and Lake Superior polluted. We are very familiar with the interests of the people who live here. But what of the company?

At the session, I did not hear anyone representing Twin Metals that would speak about the self interest of the company. This is concerning to me because they have the most to gain from this proposal and completely control the outcome. I think it is safe to assume what their self interest is, it is the same as for all companies: Profit. Quick, painless profit. The flashiest presentation we’ve ever seen won’t change this basic reality.

What does this mean for us and the likelihood of outcomes?  What it means is that the company’s interest is to build a mine and strip it of all of its resources as fast as possible, and as cheaply as possible. That’s how their shareholders reward them. That is how they determine how successful the mine is. Sure they will boast that they did it environmentally “safe,” but really what they mean to say is “we complied with the law.” But the law doesn’t have billions of dollars studying the outcomes and does not know the true environmental impacts until it is too late.

“If there is a corner to be cut in the name of profit that sacrifices the environment, rest assured, it will be cut.”

What is perhaps the most alarming to me about this whole situation is that the Twin Metals’ self-interest is directly opposed to the miner’s self interest. The miners believe that this mine will bring economic stability for generations, when really the mine is motivated to keep it open for a short as possible. This just kicks the can down the road so that our children can have this debate 20 years from now. Twin Metals’ self interest is to pay as little as possible for a short as possible. The mine will only keep the BWCA and Lake Superior as clean and quiet as it legally has to. If there is a corner to be cut in the name of profit that sacrifices the environment, rest assured, it will be cut.

“We carry all the risk and little reward.”

All this boils down to this: if we approve this mine, we are placing our trust in a global corporation’s self interest to make the best decisions for our people and our environment. They have all reward and little risk. We carry all the risk and little reward.

All we need to do to validate Adam Smith’s assumptions is to look around the world in countries where there are fewer environmental laws — it is obvious, the mine companies’ self interest is alive and well and environmentally friendly and economically stable mines are not.

We only have one opportunity to not mess this up. Please make the right decision and do not renew the mineral leases.

Thank you,

Brian Waldoch

Brian Waldoch lives in Duluth with his spouse and works in Superior. He is an avid hunter, fisher, and camper, and a lifelong resident of the state. Reader note: Brian and I are friends; he attended the listening session at my invitation. The comment and decision to submit are his.

Naomi Klein and Rethinking PolyMet

By JT Haines, September 24, 2014

“We need an entirely new economic model, and a new way of sharing this planet.” — Naomi Klein, This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs the Climate

There are lots of ways that conversations about copper-sulfide mining in Minnesota conclude, some of them less than pretty. But what about where they start?

If we start with the proposition — and I believe we should — that we all share a stake in the health of the air and the water, as well as the soil and trees and habitats, then isn’t it the case that profits taken, and damage caused, by corporations exploiting these resources is at our collective expense? In other words, isn’t that resource-based corporate welfare? (One might argue the entire economy relies on it.)

If so, shouldn’t it follow that subsidizing public institutions (transit, schools, health, etc) by taxing investors who enjoy these profits is not “giving money away to the undeserving poor,” but reimbursing us for our losses?

Mine Sites, courtesy MN DNR

Mine Sites, courtesy MN DNR

More to the point, when it comes to the public resources at issue in the current copper-sulfide mining proposals in Minnesota (PolyMet, TwinMetals), what if we owned 100% of profits, minus a reasonable fee for the work that produced it, rather than multinational corporations owning the profits and paying taxes on a portion of it? (Incidentally, Tony Hayward, of BP Deepwater Horizon infamy, is deeply invested in PolyMet. MinnPost) Would we not then be better able to invest those revenues back into Minnesota, including a sizable fund for any cleanup-related costs and an international fee for carbon-based pollution produced?

If such a narrative were part of our discussion, then perhaps it would be more possible to have a rational conversation about the wisdom of accepting risks to our waters of generations of pollution. Perhaps it would then also be possible to speak both about jobs and environment.

I haven’t heard it. And without such a narrative, the deal has seemed cooked in the company’s favor from the outset.

Naomi Klein in her new book, This Changes Everything, is right — now is the time to “think big, go deep, and move the ideological pole far away from the stifling market fundamentalism that has become the greatest enemy to planetary health.” The PolyMet debate is an opportunity for us do our part by completely reconsidering how we think about public minerals and resources in Minnesota. According to a recent Star Tribune poll, support for the PolyMet proposal is declining. Perhaps we already are.