The Politics of Asbestos: Banned in EU, But Not China, Russia, Brazil or US

Deadly Asbestos

DW (2019)

Film Review

This documentary is about the international asbestos industry and its aggressive penetration of developing countries following the EU’s decision to ban it in 1998. The first study linking asbestos to lung cancer and mesothelioma was published in 1964. Asbestos also causes a chronic (eventually fatal) lung condition known as asbestosis. Sadly, as with smoking and lead poisoning, it took decades of sustained organizing to get western governments to acknowledge the fatal health consequences of asbestos exposure. The US enacted a “partial ban” on asbestos in 1989.*

Because mesothelioma can result from a brief single exposure to asbestos fibers, EPA rules regarding asbestos removal from old buildings are far more stringent. In fact, an entire industry has evolved around asbestos removal.**

The filmmakers focus primarily on the Belgian asbestos manufacturer Etex-Eternit (aka Everest) and its expansion into India in the 1990s. India has been a primary industry target of the industry, owing to its lax regulation of asbestos manufacture, use and disposal.

Asbestos sheets are sold widely in India for use as walls and roofs in makeshift shacks. Over 100,000 Indians develop asbestosis annually.

India has more than 50 asbestos manufacturing plants. Filmmakers visit an asbestos factory Everest built in 1995 and sold to an Indian family in 2002. In addition to filming a 600,000 square meter asbestos waste dump, they also visit a makeshift clinic treating thousands of local residents for asbestos-related problems. They also talk with Indian lawyers and activists who are bringing a lawsuit against Everest in Belgium.

The film concludes by looking at World Health Organization efforts to institute a global ban on asbestos. Brazil, China, and Russia, which still mine asbestos, continue to vociferously block the ban.

Last year, the Trump EPA approved new rules that soften regulations against asbestos use in the US.  In response, one Russian asbestos manufacturer now proudly displays features Trump’s image on all their products.


* History of EPA asbestos regulation

  • 1989 Partial Ban on the manufacture, import, processing, and distribution of some asbestos-containing products. EPA also banned new uses of asbestos which prevent new asbestos products from entering the marketplace after August 25, 1989. These uses remain banned. The April 2019 final rule does not provide a way for these uses to return to the marketplace.
  • April 2019 Final Rule to ensure that asbestos products that are no longer on the market cannot return to commerce without the Agency evaluating them and putting in place any necessary restrictions or prohibiting use. The uses covered under this rule were not already prohibited under the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) and could have returned to the market at any time.
  • Risk evaluation of asbestos under TSCA. EPA is reviewing a handful of very limited, still ongoing uses of asbestos. The evaluation of the risks associated with ongoing uses of asbestos is required under TSCA section 6. If EPA finds unreasonable risk, the Agency will take prompt action to address those risks.

** See https://www.epa.gov/asbestos

 

 

 

Inside the White House: A Question of Competence?

Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House

By Michael Wolff

Little Brown Book Group (2018)

Book Review

The most remarkable aspect of this book is its blow-by-blow account of Team Trump – from his nomination in July 2016 to Steve Bannon’s firing in August 2017. Unlike prior presidential administrations, which are extremely guarded about their inner workings, Trump’s White House offered the media virtually unfettered access during his first nine months. According to Wolff this occurred for four main reasons: 1) Trump’s impulsive daily tweets 2) the constant “weaponized” leaks from warring Trump staffers* 3) Trump’s nightly rambling calls to wealthy supporters** and 4) his willingness to allow more public access to the Oval Office than any previous president.

While Wolff cite sources for his factual statements and quotes, the book has been carefully fact checked, in addition to being reviewed by two libel attorneys.***

As a psychiatrist, what I found most interesting about Fire and Fury is the insight it reveals into Trump’s psychological functioning. The current President is described by nearly everyone who has worked with him as extremely childlike, guileless, impulsive, undisciplined, incapable of following a game plan and impossible to communicate with. He trusts no one.

One of the few direct quotes in the book is from his former scheduler Katie Walsh: “It’s like trying to figure out what a child wants.”

My favorite quote, though, comes from Trump himself during a staff discussion about repealing Obamacare: “Why can’t Medicare simply cover everyone?”

Toning down Trump’s impulsiveness has been virtually impossible, though some staffers have been able to influence his behavior by winding him up.

Trump categorically refuses to read written briefings or watch PowerPoint presentations. He also refuses to listen to long verbal briefings and tends not to follow scripted statements. He always prefers to be the one talking, typically coming out with long rambling statements in which he frequently repeats himself.

Wolff’s introduction also confirms what many analysts have surmised: Trump didn’t intend to win the Presidency. His original plan was to use the media exposure to launch his own TV network. In fact, Trump refused to invest any of his own money in the campaign (although he loaned them $10 million).


*Prior to Bannon’s departure in August 2017, there was no White House chain of command and no clearly defined duties for any of its staff. Four discrete factions – Bannon, Jared Kushner/Ivana Trump (Bannon called them Jarvanka) nominal Chief of staff Reince Priebus and Counselor to the President Kellyanne Conway were at continual war with one another in controlling Team Trump. According to many sources, Trump essentially served as his own chief of staff and press secretary, in that he phone reporters, dictated quotes and personally reviewed all press releases.

**The recipients of these calls (concerning unfavorable media and Trump’s “incompetent” staff) were so alarmed by them that they often felt compelled to pass on their content to White House staff and/or reporters.

***The Trump family is notoriously litigious, and Wolff and his publisher must be able to document the book’s assertions in a libel suit.

 

 

 

Hidden History: Inside the Bungled Trump Transition

The Fifth Risk

By Michael Lewis

W W Norton (2018)

Book Review

This is a fascinating book about the bungled Trump transition following his 2016 election. As of February 2016, federal law required all remaining primary candidates to set up transition teams – in the off chance they actually won the presidency. Two million people work for the US government, with 70% employed in national security. Of these, 4,000 are political appointees who lose their jobs on the day the new president takes office.

Although the federal government provides office space for transition teams, the candidates have to pay transition staff from their campaign coffers. No one (including Trump himself) believed he would win in November. In fact he was livid on discovering former New Jersey governor Chris Christie was running his transition team from campaign funds.

Lewis’s book is a collection of in-depth interviews with the Obama appointees who spent most of 2016 attempting to orient a handful of Trump appointees to take on the massive work of these three federals departments. Their main fear was that without understanding the essential work undertaken by key agencies, the incoming Trump administration might eliminate or massively downsize vital work. In the end, this is exactly what happened.

Largely because there was no one on the Trump campaign team (other than Chris Christie or Rudolph Giuliani) with prior political experience, Christie was unable to send teams of 30-50 people (as Obama had done) to accept the handovers. So essentially they didn’t happen.

Lewis focuses on three departments, the Department of Energy, the Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the Department of Commerce. I found his book a real eye opener concerning the actual work they do. For example:

  • The Department of Energy (DOE) has a $30 billion budget, of which half goes to safeguard the US nuclear arsenal. This $15 billion covers programs to detect and prevent espionage and to prevent accidental loss or explosion, as well as the international monitoring of all weapons grade uranium and plutonium stores, the training of all international nuclear inspectors and the clean-up of the extremely hazardous (and leaking) Hanford nuclear reservation in Washington State. When Trump took office on Jan 20 2017, the Obama appointee in charge of the nuclear weapons program notified a number of senators that Trump had failed to appoint his successor.*
  • The USDA runs the US Forest Service and its massive firefighting program. This is in addition ensuring the safety (?) of all meat Americans eat (the FDA regulates other foodstuffs). The are also responsible for food stamps, school lunches and programs offering catastrophic crop insurance to farmers and (using Weather Bureau data) advising them on the best dates to plant, fertilize and harvest their crops. Ironically they also run a Rural Development Program** providing grants and loans to the struggling rural communities that turned out for Trump in such large numbers.
  • The Department of Commerce runs the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the Weather Bureau and the Census, as well as a massive data bank created to assist other departments (eg global atomic weapons numbers, violent crime statistics, consumer complaints against banks, cop shootings of civilians). Much of this data has disappeared from government websites since Trump took office.

*These Republican senators forced Trump to temporarily re-appoint him.

**Which Trump cut by roughly 16%. See https://www.dailyyonder.com/trump-budget-cuts-usda-16/2018/02/12/

White Supremacy and the Obama Legacy

We Were Eight Years in Power: An American Tragedy

By Ta-Nehisi Coates

One World (2017)

Book Review

This remarkable book is a collection of essays about white privilege, Obama’s inability to live up to his campaign promises, and the role of his presidency in setting the stage for Donald Trump.

Coates’ approach to the topic of white privilege is largely historical. He traces the brutal reversal of Reconstruction reforms and re-institution of de facto slavery with Jim Crow laws; the Great Migration north of 6 million African Americans during the early 20th century; the deliberate exclusion of African Americans from New Deal programs such as Social Security, Aid to Families with Dependent Children and FHA (Federal Housing Administration) mortgage insurance; as well as the War on Drugs and mass incarceration of African Americans.

Coates has the best definition of white supremacy I have seen anywhere. In his words, white privilege is “banditry.”

“To be black in America is to be plundered. To be white is to execute and benefit from it.”

Coates gives numerous examples to justify this view: the exclusion of African Americans from wealth creation programs such as FHA and VA (Veterans Administration) mortgage loans, long time job discrimination and wage suppression, the recurrent decimation of prosperous Black communities via white race riots, predatory owner “contract” financing of home purchases, and predatory targeting of Blacks for subprime mortgagae they can’t repay.

My favorite essay is the one advocating for African American reparations, based on the argument that systematic exploitation of Blacks didn’t end with slavery but continues to the present day. As a precedent Coates cites the $7 billion (in today’s dollars) West Germany paid Israel in 1953 in compensation for Germany’s genocidal treatment of European Jews during World War II.

 

Cards Against Humanity: Stopping the Wall

According to the November 19  New Zealand Herald, Cards Against Humanity is a politically incorrect party game in which players complete fill-in-the-blank statements with offensive, risqué or politically incorrect statements (see their website).

In 2018, they launched a Kickstarter campaign which enabled donors to purchase tiny parcels of vacant land on the US-Mexican border for $15 each. More than 150,000 people who bought parcels now collectively own thousands acres of land on which Trump plans to build his wall.

Cards Against Humanity has also hired a prominent eminent domain law firm to protect the new owners’ property rights. Their hope is to make construction of the border wall prohibitively expensive and time consuming.

They explain their campaign in this holiday video:

For more information about the organization and their border wall campaign, go to Cards Against Humanity Stops the Wall

The Foreign Emoluments Clause and the Washington DC Lawsuit Against Donald Trump

All the President’s Profits

Al Jazeera (2008)

Film Review

All the President’s Profits is a documentary about the current lawsuit again Donald Trump by the attorneys general of Washington DC and Maryland. The suit concerns the continued operation of the Trump International DC hotel, which they assert violates the Foreign Emoluments Clause of the Constitution.* The latter expressly forbids any sitting president from personally accepting payments from foreign governments.

Since Trump’s election in 2016, many delegations from foreign governments have stayed in the DC Trump hotel or held lavish events there. In nearly all cases, their motives – to curry favor with the President (eg favorable trade deals, foreign/slash military aid packages, etc) – have been really obvious.

In framing the Constitution, the founding fathers sought to prevent foreign policy decisions that enabled sitting presidents to line their pockets to the detriment of the American people.

Trump is the first president in history to refuse to either divest himself of his businesses or to place them in a blind trust.* * Instead he has turned them over to his family to run. The lawsuit alleges he continues to have knowledge of and influence over the operation of the Trump DC hotel (he has visited the hotel 12 times since his election). He’s also able to draw profits from it any time he chooses.

The lawsuit seeks to force him to divulge exactly which foreign governments have stayed or entertained there and how much they have paid for this privilege. It also seeks to make his tax returns public.

The US Justice Department is defending him against the suit.


*Foreign Emoluments Clause: “No Title of Nobility shall be granted by the United States: And no Person holding any Office of Profit or Trust under them, shall, without the Consent of the Congress, accept of any present, Emolument, Office, or Title, of any kind whatever, from any King, Prince, or foreign State” (from Article I).

**A blind trust prevents a business owner from having any knowledge, influence or benefit from the operation of their business.

 

The Deceptive Promise of Free Trade

A Game of No Rules: The Deceptive Promise of Free Trade

DW (2018)

Film Review

Produced in response to the protective tariffs Trump has enacted, this documentary shows the negative side of globalization and free trade. It maintains that most free trade treaties are one sided and significantly increase inequality. According to the filmmakers, the primary purpose of free trade is to give wealthy countries cheap access to the resources of developing countries.

Most of the film focuses on the  protective (aka “punitive”) tariffs Europe has been using for years to protect their domestic industries from cheap imports. In contrast, most US politicians have rejected protective tariffs in favor of free trade. The result has been the failure of many domestic American industries unable to compete with cheap Asian imports.

The film starts with the example of Germany, which charges punitive tariffs (50%) on imported Chinese bicycle frames. In all, the EU imposes punitive tariffs on 53 Chinese products, including steel, porcelain and ironing boards.

At the same time the EU imposes tough “free trade” treaties on African countries, prohibiting them from enacting protective tariffs to protect their farmers. This allows European countries to dump cheap agricultural surpluses on their economies, putting local farmers out of business when they can’t produce food cheaply enough to compete.

A Game of No Rules argues that local food production should be sheltered (by protective tariffs) in both developing and developed countries and that Third World countries should be allowed to enact protective tariffs while they establish local industries. Prohibiting Third World countries from enacting protective tariffs ultimately creates mass unemployment and a flood of economic refugees to the industrial North.