Thursday, March 17, 2011


Japan nuclear crisis, Pt. 2.

People panic even in faraway places where they are basically safe and don't need to panic. Iodine is hard to find on store shelves. People are ineffectively stockpiling iodized salt (this would do no good.) These are the stories on the Japan nuclear disaster in the press today. Meanwhile there are articles that try to calm people, (readers and viewers that were previously told about the clouds of radioactivity heading their way) stating that "This is no Chernobyl"   

Or there is this idea that the fears outweigh the risks:  It's really not difficult nor expensive to buy a bottle of iodine, but...  they want us to believe that Chernobyl was not as deadly as popularly believed to stop people from what? Buying iodine? Oddly, the automobile breaking systems on Japanese cars are also probably not as deadly as popularly believed. If you have ever heard that audio recording of the family that died trying to get on the freeway... you know the visceral nature of fear.

The idea that fears now outweigh the risks is on the exact opposite tack from the early stages of the crisis. Didn't the risks in the beginning (risks that actually became more and more apparent as time went on) outweigh the fear, rather than the other way around? People's fears were calmed by a belief in their government's statements that downplayed the crisis. Remember the workers who cleared the rubble after 9/11 and their health problems? I think possibly here is another example of how the risks outweighed the fears. These were fears that were certainly not fanned by New York officials who knew the risk, knew the danger, and warned none of the hard working men. Risk is very risky to measure.

Interviews I have seen on television of the Japanese public have given me one general impression. While not wanting to believe their government is misleading them or withholding information, they believe that the government trusts too much in the electric company's statements and statistics. The government there is not as responsible for problems as we think our government is in America.

When a drug company withholds information from our government, we blame the regulating authority for lack of diligence (this even after cutting the regulating authority's budget to critically low levels.) No one goes to jail. The drug companies are free to lie and falsify data all over again the next time. There is another crucial example - when the finance companies were encouraged by the government to help with increasing home ownership in America, the companies did so in incredibly irresponsible ways. Home ownership is honestly quite a good thing. People settle down, feel like they have something to work for, feel like they have something to protect... the benefits are amazing. However, the finance companies didn't stop with just helping people, they helped themselves to the money they believed was raining from the sky (money that might otherwise be doing good in the world.) They begin to trick people into loans they could not afford. They hinted that no one was checking the salary figures in the documentation. They encouraged people to buy houses using "teaser" rates. (Here is where I get all worried and upset. Why isn't anyone in jail who had anything to do with loans clearly marked as fraudulent... "teaser?" What values have changed here that no one is in jail for this?) Who is to blame? A little more than two years ago it was the Republicans, recently it was the Democrats. The companies? Why, they were lured by the government (Senator Barney Frank is my all time favorite nonsensically picked usual suspect) to cause this depression.  Through no fault of their own these companies invented all these confusing and blatantly dishonest mortgages, packaged them into securities that looked oddly as if they were designed to fool the ratings companies, and passed the risk off to others, purely by chance. Buyer beware.

Using what little knowledge I have of the Japanese people, I would say that the reason they distrust the companies instead of the government, is that they usually put their trust in these companies. In business school we learned of this feeling of extended family which Japanese workers had with their companies. Japan was our biggest competitor when I was in business school. So, it makes sense to me that when you find out there is reason to mistrust, it is the people you trusted that you must blame.

There was once a cigarette named "Barclay" that had a filter that "coincidentally" fooled the FTC machines that were supposed to measure tar content.  If I remember right, the filter had holes that funneled outside clean air through the filter and thus reduced the amount of smoke coming out upon each inhalation. It did a great job of this on the tar measuring machine, but that all changed when the cigarettes were pressed between actual human lips. At that point the moisture from the lips would collapse these airways thus providing more "taste," an industry advertising catchphrase to denote nicotine and tar amounts. Sound like a jailable offense? Especially considering how many Americans died each year and trusted the government data on tar content figures?  Nope, I think it took a lawsuit to even stop the company from making the things that obviously were made just to fool the measuring machines, to fool the government.

I see no real difference in the press coverage of Japanese events lately than I did before. At what point again do the Japanese start to trust the what they are told? And I have said before, I do not put this past our own government who did the very same thing during the 3 Mile Island incident. Perhaps there should be a color coded system to distinguish levels of misinformation. "It's ok, the crises has passed, we are at Condition Green, you can go back to trusting now." Condition Red would mean "We're telling you this utter propaganda for your own good, or capitalism's own good. We are lying so badly now we're not even sure why."  We may be at condition "orange" right now. "We are now telling you a larger part of the truth so that you won't panic when you justifiably should because what we said earlier was utter balderdash and you know it."

From what I gather, there are specific reasons this crises is very different from Chernobyl. Some are good, some are bad. The reactors are newer in Japan, were built to better standards, and have much better containment possibilities. Yet, there are many more reactors at risk this time. To my mind, only one containment vessel needs to be breached sufficiently so that workers will be unable to go near the area. And I believe it will be harder to ask workers to commit suicide here than it was in a Russia* which, at the time, placed much more emphasis on the interests of the many over the interests of the few. There are lots of differences I see.

I confess, I may be talking out of my hat on this but what is there in the news that gives anyone calm? "Scientists say..."  Scientists have said so many contradictory things in my lifetime that I have become completely unresponsive to newspaper articles that quote scientists, or that write advisory articles based on what they believe scientists have discovered. Television is far worse than news articles. Facts seem like playthings to television anchors. The number of times a lady in an intentionally short dress says "But I was under the impression that..." or "Here is a breathtaking fact..." should tell you that they are not specialists in knowledge. They seem to be basing their education of the public on things they have learned on the job. And their job is finding new and shocking facts, or finding a new angle on an old fact. To put it bluntly, entertainment is their specialty; what they have learned about life is merely coincidental and only comes in handy to further entertain. Is there any reason to doubt that their out of touch audience might panic at the wrong times and fail to panic at the right ones?

*After writing this I heard "pop" stories later in the day portraying the heroes (which apparently only number 50) who were working on the nuclear problem despite the risk to their own health and the effects this might have on the lives of their families. They are very brave, indeed. And they are very self sacrificing so I am probably wrong about this assessment that Russia could more easily convince people into giving up their lives for the safety of the general populace. But I swear, my hand to God, the press compared these people to kamikaze pilots of WWII. Beyond the blatantly obvious racism implied by the use of this term which was most widely known and used at a time when the Japanese people were considered to be less than human, even the analogy between the suicide bombers of WWII and those of  9/11 seems fairly hard to miss. I was stunned. The suicide bombers of 9/11 were oddly labeled cowards, not heroes. (Rumsfeld objected to the use of the word "coward," to describe them, by the way.) I know that the kamikazes were not particularly thought of as heroes by my father, who fought in WWII. I am aghast that right wingnuts were circulating the false email and tweet fact that someone at CNN had used the term "Godzilla" while a few days later numerous news sources can't resist using the term "kamikaze" to descibe very brave men and women.

Also,  I heard a Star Trek Spock analogy as well today. Remember Mr. Spock dying in the radiation to save the many over the one?  Entertaining news people remember this, too.