I reached across the canoe to the opposite gunwale, ready to hoist, flip it upside down and put it on my head.  Suddenly, I felt a sharp, quick, not-real-painful-but-you-know-it’s-going-to-bleed-like-stink sensation, as my finger encountered a razor sharp aluminum strip.  With a big OW, I managed to get the canoe up and started walking from Meadows Lake to Agnes, a 160 rod, (1/2 mile) portage on rocky trail, annoyed at the pain, the blood, and wondering what happened.  I forgot at least two other times later, had several fingers bandaged at the end of the trip, when I told the outfitter that the strip was a design error and needed to be fixed.  These things happen; if nobody speaks up, they continue to happen, and others get hurt.

Volkswagen, in Wolfsburg, Germany, north of the Deutsche Bahn tracks, got in serious trouble on my side of the Atlantic. It began when their cars’ emissions were a lot worse than the lab tests showed.  A small clean air group here, led by an individual, ironically named John German, asked to have tests done in the US, where we have the world’s strictest emission standards.  A car was driven from San Diego to Seattle, and the emissions were 30-40 times higher than the standards set by the Clean Air Act.  German, who believed that diesel was a clean fuel, was stunned. VW put a software patch on the cars, and they passed our emission tests, but open road tests still showed discrepancies. Only then, did VW admit they designed the software patch to turn on emission controls during testing but turn them off afterwards.  How can somebody work for a company when they know they are deliberately falsifying emissions data?  Money.  VW only polluted air.  GM killed people.

For that same week, GM got hit with big fines— only fines, no jail time—for a faulty ignition switch which shut off the engine and critical systems, like air bags, killing 124 and injuring nearly 1000 others.  One death was not counted by GM, because the airbag in the back seat worked, although the young woman still died as a result of the crash caused by the faulty switch. A root cause analysis leads straight back to the ignition switch, which was known in 2002 not to produce enough torque. GM had held meetings about this problem since 2005, and the investigation has continued since then, hindered by GM’s hiding key papers, making it difficult to find out which accidents were due to cars’ having a faulty switch.  Yes, hiding papers.  For that, 15 people lost their jobs (not lives) and 5 others were disciplined.  At the Senate hearing, the CEO, who had worked at GM for 33 years, claimed not to know anything about a defective switch.  As my late father would have said, “She was either stupid or lying.”  GM knew they had a faulty device, and they took the chance that a recall of the cars would be more expensive than having to pay lawsuits, $575 million now in a contingency fund, run by Kenneth Feinberg (the man who doled out 9/11 compensation), fix twenty-nine million recalled cars, and pay a $900 million fine.

By the way, had it not been for a Georgia plaintiff attorney, we might never have known about this problem.  Not only do we appear to have a Congressional culture against regulation, we need better regulators in those instances where there is supposed to be regulation.

Congress makes laws, like the Clean Air Act, back in the days when Congress did the people’s business, and Republican presidents signed environmental laws. Congress has failed since 2003 to compensate illnesses among the 70,000 who cleaned up the wreckage at the Twin Towers.  We know the air they breathed was toxic (1000 tons of asbestos, 200,000 pounds of jet fuel, mercury from computers to name three), yet the people involved were told the air was safe.  We don’t know how many of the 874 who have died did so from the cleanup; many others have chronic illnesses. My God, is the country so desperate for money that we can’t cover medical costs for these people?  Why, because somebody might cheat? These people cleaned up hallowed ground. We call poor people who get something for nothing cheaters (the few that cheat on Food Stamps, half that of Medicare); we call businesses that get something for nothing “blue chip.”

Systems are complex and imperfect.  Sometimes, products don’t work the way they are designed to, like metal strips on a canoe, and need to be fixed.  Product recalls are annoying when one sits in an auto showroom waiting for a vehicle to be fixed.  But when the product is known to be defective, put on the market anyway, and a financial choice is made as to whether this should be recalled or deal with the consequences, I become irate.  I’m uncertain what the cost of a life is, although Mr. Feinberg might know.

That brings me sadly back to Congress.  The same people who swear on their Saint Ayn Rand don’t get it.  I’ve read her books, which presuppose a perfect world, where businessmen don’t cheat, do insider training, accept the wrong ignition switch, deliberately program software to do the wrong thing, or have poorly designed gas tanks.  These “self made” people didn’t make it just because they worked hard; no, they made it because of genetics and an infrastructure and educational system paid for by others, connections, and sometimes dumb luck.  The notion that hard work succeeds, and failure is just the absence of hard work, is wrong.  Go to the Olympic Trials sometime, and look at the athletes that didn’t quite make the Team.  They worked just as hard, maybe harder, were very skilled, but not third best, only fourth.

What is this hard work?  Some is truly genius and a lifelong devotion.  No question.  Some were deliberately creating financial instruments people didn’t understand, like CDOs with NINJA mortgages (No Income No Job Applicant), and market them as AAA securities.  This isn’t capitalism.  It’s cheating.  Ayn Rand knew a lot about cheating, too, although few publicize her biography.

We have certain realities in this country: any of us is a virus, an aneurysm, a mutation, a blood clot, a head-on away from a disaster that isn’t our fault.  Does America have compassion or is it survival of the fittest?.

As I write this, I am going into the wilderness, created by law in 1964 to protect land and allow man to visit it but not live there.  This country was almost dammed 80 years ago and had aircraft flyovers restricted 65 years ago to preserve solitude. Now, the current risk is sulfide mining, one of the most polluting industries there is.  Yes, we need to mine, but there are places where mining is too risky to consider, bad consequences irreparable. The EPA was only the proximate cause of the pollution in the San Juan River, and hydroplaning and crashing was the proximate cause of the women’s deaths.  The bankrupt company that abandoned the mine without cleaning it up was the root cause, without which nothing would have happened, just as the faulty ignition switch stage was the root cause for the women’s deaths.


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