Editorial Roundup: United States
Excerpts from recent editorials in the United States and abroad:
The Washington Post on how to fix freight rail
No community in America wants to be the next East Palestine, Ohio. It will be known for generations as the site of the Feb. 3 Norfolk Southern train derailment and the lingering scars of that day. A slew of toxic chemicals burned in a black cloud over the town and ran off into nearby waterways killing thousands of fish and other aquatic life. Families had to evacuate swiftly. Weeks of panic have followed. Government and company officials have struggled to address safety concerns.
The No. 1 priority now is ensuring the well-being of nearby residents. Norfolk Southern chief executive Alan Shaw vows to “do the right things.” Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine (R) insists the company will “pay for everything.” That has to include immediate clean up and long-term health monitoring. The town of Paulsboro, N.J., should serve as a warning of what could lie ahead. A similar derailment there in 2012 also released vinyl chloride. Some residents did not encounter serious health problems until years later.
Equally urgent is stopping anything like this from happening again. The accident was “100 percent preventable,” National Transportation Safety Board chair Jennifer Homendy said. Her agency issued a preliminary report Thursday outlining what is known about what happened: On the 23rd car of the 9,000-foot-long, 149-car train, a bearing connecting a wheel to its axle was worn out and overheated. Norfolk Southern’s warning system went off. The crew tried to stop the train, but couldn’t in time. In other words, Norfolk Southern’s safeguards didn’t fail; the problem was, they were inadequate.
In the past decade, America’s freight rail companies have become zealots for efficiency. Trains are longer, and they don’t stop as often. Unprofitable customers are gone. Scheduling is meticulous. Nearly 60,000 jobs disappeared since 2015. The companies’ stock prices and profitability have surged. Still, derailments are at historic lows. But the East Palestine accident has shown how deficient the industry has been when it comes to investing in upgrades. Many trains still rely on a Civil War-era braking system, and they aren’t using the latest detectors that experts say could have caught the deteriorating bearing months before that fateful day.
Disappointingly — but predictably — the accident has become political fodder, with Democrats blaming former president Donald Trump for loosening safety rules, and Republicans claiming the Biden administration was slow to react. But even amid the finger-pointing, there are some concrete steps that all sides should agree upon and implement quickly. Here are four:
1 — Catch bearing problems early
By the time Norfolk Southern’s alarm system warned that the 23rd car on the 149-car train had a problem, it was too late for even a state-of-the-art braking system to avert a calamity. This was the equivalent of a car’s fuel gauge coming on when it was a block away from running out of gas.
The current system to monitor the health of bearings relies on temperature. Every few miles, a “defect detector” takes the temperature of hundreds of bearings as the train rolls by. The preliminary report spells out the data from this accident: The 23rd car was 38 degrees above ambient temperature initially. Ten miles later, it was 103 degrees above. The next detector — which came 20 miles later — “recorded the suspect bearing’s temperature at 253°F above ambient,” the NTSB report said. That’s when the alarm went off.
The best way to prevent this kind of debacle would be to detect the bearing problems much earlier. One option, rail safety experts say, is to require more detectors so there isn’t a 20-mile gap. A better one, several said, is to install devices that monitor the vibration of bearings, not just temperature.
“This bearing likely started to fail as early as September,” said Constantine Tarawneh, director of the University Transportation Center for Railway Safety in Texas. “Onboard (vibration) sensors are the answer. They tell you when the bearing starts to fail.”
Such monitors can be installed on individual rail cars (the most expensive option) or at various points along the track. They would flag when a bearing is beginning to weaken, giving crews plenty of time to examine and replace faulty parts. Making this upgrade across the rail system should be a top focus of Congress, President Biden and regulators.
2 — Better tank car design
What escalated the severity of the East Palestine derailment was the need to release and burn vinyl chloride from five rail cars on Feb. 6 — three days after the derailment. There was fear that those cars might explode as the temperature inside one tank car continued rising.
It’s still not clear exactly what went wrong, but the preliminary report indicates National Transportation Safety Board investigators are turning much of their attention to tank car design. In particular, they plan to examine the relief valves and other components on the train cars carrying the vinyl chloride.
“The industry needs to improve the way the tank cars are made,” said Magdy Elsibaie, a former director of research at the Federal Railroad Administration. Safety experts say it’s likely that NTSB will recommend stronger tank cars with thicker walls, especially on ones that carry dangerous materials. Some steps in that direction were taken a decade ago after headline-grabbing derailments involving gas, including the tragic 2013 derailment in Quebec that led to an explosion that killed 47 people.
3 — Better brakes
One of the biggest criticisms of America’s seven major freight rail carriers is their collective resistance to upgrading the brake systems on trains. Widely in use now are antiquated air brakes, which work by sending an air signal throughout the train. It takes time for the signal to reach the caboose, which means that cars in the front brake sooner than those in the back. This is especially true as freight trains have gotten longer.
About three decades ago, a much faster electronic braking system came along, in which all parts of the train get the signal at the same time.
In 2015, in the wake of high-profile gas train derailments and explosions, the Obama administration pushed hard for widespread adoption of these more modern systems, known as electronically controlled pneumatic brakes, or ECP. But the Trump administration repealed the mandate in 2017 after heavy lobbying from the freight industry.
It’s costly to retrofit trains. For ECP to have worked, all 149 cars traveling through East Palestine would have had to be using the updated braking system. While those brakes would almost certainly not have prevented the derailment, they might have lessened its severity. The Biden administration should revive the ECP mandate. It would take time to phase in, but an industry that has seen such a surge in profit margins in recent years can afford to make this safety investment.
4 — High-hazard flammable train definition
Ohio’s governor has zeroed in on another key point: Though the train had numerous cars carrying substances that were toxic and highly flammable, it did not technically meet the definition of a “high hazard flammable train.” Which meant, as Mr. DeWine said, that Norfolk Southern “was not required to notify anyone here in Ohio about what was in the rail cars coming to our state.”
It’s time to revisit the definition. The reality is most freight trains carry different types of cargo, including hazardous and flammable materials, though they may be in only a few cars on a 150-car train. The federal government requires railroads to carry hazardous materials, in part because freight rail has a much better safety record transporting this cargo than trucks do. But the regulations likely need to be revisited.
Other ideas to improve freight rail safety have come up in the wake of the East Palestine tragedy: Increasing fines for companies that violate safety regulations (the current maximum is $225,455, according to federal rules), shortening the length of trains (150 cars is more than double the average train length from 2008 to 2017) and requiring more crew. All have merit, but experts say they are unlikely to be as impactful as addressing bearing monitors, brakes and car design, along with revising the rules around hazmat trains.
Better technology exists for freight rail. Let’s use it.
The New York Times on the next steps in the war on drugs
For a forgotten moment, at the very start of the United States’ half-century-long war on drugs, public health was the weapon of choice. In the 1970s, when soldiers returning from Vietnam were grappling with heroin addiction, the nation’s first drug czar — appointed by President Richard Nixon — developed a national system of clinics that offered not only methadone but also counseling, 12-step programs and social services. Roughly 70 percent of the nation’s drug control budget was devoted to this initiative; only the remaining 30 percent went to law enforcement.
The moment was short-lived, of course. Mired in controversy and wanting to appear tough on crime, Nixon tacked right just months before resigning from office, and nearly every president after him — from Reagan to Clinton to Bush — followed the course he set. Before long, the funding ratio between public health and criminal justice measures flipped. Police and prison budgets soared, and anything related to health, medicine or social services was left to dangle by its own shoestring.
The results of that shift are clear: Drug use is soaring. More Americans are dying of overdoses than at any point in modern history. It’s time to reverse course.
Drug use and addiction are as old as humanity itself, and historians and policymakers are likely to debate whether the war on drugs was ever winnable, or what its true aims even were. In the meantime, it’s clear that to exit the current morass, Americans will have to restore public health to the center of its approach.
The Biden administration has taken some welcome steps in the right direction. In 2021, the Office of National Drug Control Policy began spending slightly more money on treatment and prevention than on law enforcement and interdiction, for the first time in a generation. The Department of Health and Human Services is granting waivers to states that want to activate Medicaid for inmates before they are released from prison. The Labor Department is finally enforcing laws that require health insurance providers to cover addiction treatment at the same level that they cover other types of care.
Laws are changing, too. Doctors who want to treat opioid addiction with medications like buprenorphine no longer have to secure a waiver from the Drug Enforcement Administration. Lawmakers are also pushing for naloxone, the overdose reversal medication, to be sold over the counter — an important measure that could help save thousands of lives.
But there’s still much work for the nation’s leaders to do.
Amend outdated policies. Criminal justice still has a role to play in tackling addiction and overdose. The harm done by drugs extends far beyond the people who use them, and addictive substances — including legal ones like alcohol — have always contributed to crime. There is a better balance to strike, nonetheless, between public health and law enforcement.
One example is the so-called “crack house statute.” This federal law subjects anyone to steep penalties, including decades in prison, if they maintain a building for the purpose of using illicit drugs. It was enacted at the height of the crack epidemic but is currently being used to stymie supervised consumption sites, which are fundamentally different from crack houses.
At supervised consumption programs, people bring their own drugs, including heroin, and use them under the supervision of a staff that has been trained to reverse overdoses, promote safer drug use and in some cases help people access treatment. With several states now considering planning or starting supervised consumption programs, federal officials should make it clear that the people operating them will not face prosecution.
The federal sentencing disparity between crack and powder cocaine should finally be eliminated. The “Len Bias Law,” which enables courts to send anyone involved in an overdose death to prison, should also be amended, so that family members or fellow drug users aren’t criminalized for calling 911 in a crisis.
Invest in treatment. There are not enough programs or trained medical professionals to treat substance-use disorders.
As a result, it is too often left to the criminal justice system to decide who gets care. When wait lists for programs run long, people whose treatment is court-ordered jump to the front of the line. The outcomes have not been great. Judges and probation officers tend to have a paltry understanding of addiction medicine, producing treatment that tends to be punitive instead of therapeutic. For example, people placed on parole or probation for drug-related crimes are often incarcerated when they relapse, instead of getting additional care. (Relapses are a common feature of substance-use disorder and a normal part of the recovery process.)
One way to shift this calculus is to create incentives for more doctors and medical professionals to treat addiction. Lifting the special waiver that doctors need to prescribe buprenorphine — as federal lawmakers recently did — will help.
Other policy tweaks are needed as well: Parity laws, which require health insurers to cover addiction and mental health services as extensively as they cover treatments for other medical conditions, should be expanded to include Medicare. There are a lot of people aging into that program with substance-use disorders. Elected officials should also make basic training in addiction treatment a requirement for medical schools that receive state and federal funding.
Address root causes. People cannot heal from, or live stably with, substance-use disorders if they lack proper housing or suffer from untreated trauma or mental illness. For harm reduction — or any honest attempt to address the nation’s drug use and overdose epidemic — to succeed, communities will need to create more housing options. They will also need to provide clear pathways for people struggling with addiction to achieve food security and to have access to basic medical care. Policies that make it easier for people convicted of drug felonies to get benefits from social safety-net programs — including food stamps and supportive housing programs — would help. So would the Medicaid Re-entry Act, a bill that would reactivate Medicaid for inmates before their release.
Build an actual system. In other advanced nations, harm reduction and treatment for addiction are core public health services funded and protected by the national government. In the United States, syringe service programs and would-be supervised consumption sites have largely been left on their own, forced to design vital public health programs from scratch, then operate them in a legal morass, with little guidance or support.
The Office of National Drug Control Policy could help if it worked to stitch organizations together into a national network, bound to a set of standards and guided by the same policies and procedures. Again, policy changes would help. Among other things, lawmakers should lift the ban on federal funding for syringes used in needle exchange programs.
Study the solutions. Leading public health agencies, including the Food and Drug Administration and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, failed to prevent or even adequately respond to the opioid epidemic that has engulfed the nation. But health officials can still step up. As opioid settlement funds are deployed (along with federal dollars) and harm reduction programs are begun, the C.D.C. especially should impartially study what is working and what is not. The response to this crisis should finally be based on evidence.
The nation’s leaders are not the only ones with work to do. To fully replace the war on drugs with something more humane or more effective, the public will have to come to terms with the prejudices that war helped instill. That means accepting that people who use drugs are still members of our communities and are still worthy of compassion and care. It also means acknowledging the needs and wishes of people who don’t use drugs, including streets free of syringe litter and neighborhoods free of drug-related crime. These goals are not mutually exclusive. In fact, they go hand in hand. But to make them a reality, lawmakers and other officials will have to lead the way.
The Wall Street Journal on subsidies for risky mortgages
Housing prices are falling after surging 40% during the pandemic. This should help buyers frozen out of the market by rising mortgage rates. So why is the Biden Administration seeking to support prices by increasing the government housing subsidy?
The Federal Housing Administration said Wednesday that it will reduce its annual insurance premium for future mortgages by 30 basis points. “On average, homeowners will pay at least $800 a year less on their mortgage, and that’s 800 more dollars in your pocket for household expenses,” Vice President Kamala Harris cheered.
Hasn’t the Administration learned anything about the costs of government subsidies? Pandemic transfer payments helped fuel consumer demand and inflation. At the same time the Federal Reserve’s historically loose policies drove a boom in housing prices, which rendered homes less affordable, especially once it tightened credit conditions.
The average 30-year mortgage fixed rate now stands at 6.5%, more than double what it was during the first two years of the pandemic. Higher home values have helped middle-class and affluent homeowners. But many lower-income and young people can’t afford the down payment and monthly interest.
The Administration’s solution: Ease credit for riskier borrowers. The FHA insures mortgages for buyers with low credit scores and down payments as low as 3.5%. Home-buyers pay a 1.75% fee up front on a 30-year loan and then an annual premium of 0.8% to 1.05%, depending on the loan and down payment size.
The FHA’s plan will slash premiums to 0.55% for most new home-buyers, amounting to $1,400 in annual savings on a median-priced home. We warned last summer that the housing lobby was promoting a premium cut to boost the slowing market, and it succeeded.
Lower FHA premiums will be capitalized in higher housing prices. If a recession leads to layoffs, recent buyers may struggle to afford their monthly payments. The housing lobby says the FHA is well-capitalized, which may be true now. But rising interest rates combined with subsidies for marginal borrowers can be a lethal combination, as the housing bust in the 2000s showed. Caveat taxpayer.
The Los Angeles Times on legal protections for internet companies
The Supreme Court seemed reluctant this week to narrow legal protections for internet companies so that families of the victims of terrorist attacks could sue social media sites they think bear some responsibility for their loved ones’ deaths. The justices’ caution is appropriate.
Congress should determine whether there are to be changes in Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, not the court. That 1996 law protects interactive websites such as YouTube and Twitter from lawsuits stemming from content posted on those sites by third parties, while making it clear that such platforms can exclude objectionable material including content that is “excessively violent.”
On Tuesday the justices heard oral arguments in a case brought by the family of Nohemi Gonzalez, who was killed in Paris in 2015 when Islamic State terrorists fired into a restaurant where she was dining with friends. A lawyer for the family argued that Google, YouTube’s parent company, should be subject to a lawsuit under an anti-terrorism law because the site’s algorithms create recommendations for pro-terrorist videos — for example, by displaying thumbnails of similar videos.
Section 230, a provision that looms large in arguments — some of them misinformed — about government regulation of the internet, serves an important purpose. By protecting websites from lawsuits based on content posted by third parties — while allowing websites to exclude dangerous material — the law has encouraged the growth of companies that rely on user-generated content, to the overall benefit of consumers.
Section 230 also has been good for public-service journalism. A friend-of-the-court brief filed by the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press notes that the law “protects the free exchange of ideas and information on the online platforms on which journalists rely to identify sources, investigate stories, provide accurate coverage on events of public concern, and engage personally with their audiences.”
This doesn’t mean that Section 230 is sacrosanct and can’t be revisited more than two decades after its enactment. In fact, it’s a good idea given how much the internet has evolved over the last 27 years. But Tuesday’s argument demonstrated that the task of refining the law is best left to the branch of government that created it. We agree, as dysfunctional and partisan as the current Congress may be, it’s still the appropriate venue for updating internet regulation. As Justice Elena Kagan put it, the justices of the Supreme Court are not “the nine greatest experts on the internet.”
It’s possible that another case, argued before the court on Wednesday, might make it unnecessary for the justices to rule on the scope of Section 230. In that case, the question is whether Twitter (and other social media companies) may be sued under the federal Anti-Terrorism Act for allegedly failing to take meaningful steps to exclude Islamic State material. The anti-terrorism law, which also figures into the Gonzalez case, defines aiding and abetting to include “knowingly providing substantial assistance” to a person who commits an act of international terrorism — a difficult standard. During Tuesday’s argument, Justice Amy Coney Barrett asked whether “we even have to reach the Section 230 question” if the court were to rule for Twitter.
The Supreme Court has a unique role to play in determining whether laws regulating the internet are consistent with the 1st Amendment. That question looms large in challenges to laws in Florida and Texas that provided for fines and damage claims against Facebook, Twitter and other social media sites if they discriminate against some political points of view. But when it comes to Section 230 immunity, the court should let Congress decide what, if any, changes are to be made.
The Guardian on backing the dissenters to Putin’s war
Although official Russian channels still insist on referring to a “special military operation” in Ukraine, Vladimir Putin is preparing his country for a protracted war. In a long speech earlier this week, the Russian president portrayed the conflict as an existential geopolitical struggle in which the main adversary and initial aggressor was NATO.
This reheated cold war rhetoric predates the invasion of Ukraine. It is the central plank of Mr. Putin’s self-image as national savior, restoring glory to a people whose homeland – defined by the borders of the old Soviet Union – has been dismembered by the west.
That rhetoric has become increasingly important as a distraction from failures of domestic governance. As the Russian economy has stagnated and living standards fallen, the imperative has been to whip up nationalist fervor via aggression against neighbors, and cast dissenting opinion as treason. Last February’s invasion was both a continuation of that pattern and a vast escalation. Failure to achieve a swift military victory turned an already authoritarian system more paranoid and vindictive, for fear that the supposed Kremlin mastermind would be exposed as a fraud.
A report published on Wednesday by OVD-Info, a leading Russian human rights organization, documents the scale of repression since the war began. Nearly 20,000 people have been detained for attending demonstrations, defacing pro-war posters and breaches of a law against “fake news” and “defaming the army”, by telling the truth about Russian war crimes, or the mere fact of a war, in Ukraine. OVD-Info records cases of people detained on the basis of things said in private conversations, and for the views of their relatives. This is Soviet-style totalitarian repression, enforced with routine police brutality and unofficial coercion – anonymous threats, assaults, vandalism and summary dismissal from work.
Under these conditions, it is hard to know how much to believe opinion polls showing 80% approval for Mr. Putin’s leadership. There is little doubt that he has a solid base of devotees, and that state propaganda channels sustain a personality cult. Too many Russians prefer a diet of hate-filled lies, when the alternative is bitter truth about what is being done in their name. But polling is unreliable when voicing dissent is a criminal act. Independent analysts say there is an important swing constituency – people whose patriotic instinct is to see Russia prevail, but who wish the war had never started and doubt the president’s judgment.
Meanwhile, hundreds of thousands have fled abroad. A first wave, driven by horror at the invasion, was followed by a larger group dodging conscription. That depletes the numbers available for internal protest. But dissenters in exile also present an opportunity for Ukraine’s allies.
Western support for Kyiv has been focused on military hardware and financial aid. Pressure on the Kremlin is exerted via sanctions of limited efficacy. Little thought is given to what better government in Moscow is possible. Many fear that the answer is none – that the options are chaos or someone worse than Mr. Putin. That is a counsel of despair and a self-fulfilling prophecy. To give up hope of democracy ever returning is to condemn an already beleaguered civil society to death by slow suffocation. Human rights activists inside the country and in exile are doing heroic work nurturing the idea that Russia could be better than the place it has become under Mr. Putin.
Ukraine will never know lasting security until the truth of Mr. Putin’s murderous criminality is widely understood inside Russia itself. Supporting the minority of Russians who dare to speak that truth aloud to their countrymen is both a moral and a strategic imperative for the west.
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