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4 weeks ago

Is anything an accident?

California Attorney General Xavier Becerra has suggested charging Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E) with murder in connection with last November’s Camp Fire. The deadliest wildfire in California history, Camp killed 86 people and destroyed the town of Paradise. A cause has not been officially determined, but evidence suggests that PG&E electric transmission wires may have started the blaze. The case illustrates a conundrum implied by the economics of accidents.

I do not wish to accuse PG&E of starting the Camp Fire; that is to be determined. But Mr. Becerra’s comments, numerous lawsuits already filed, and news reports of PG&E’s potential bankruptcy, I think, justify this discussion. I am not a lawyer and wish to focus on the economics, not the legal requirements of sustaining murder charges or winning a civil lawsuit.

The fire was not deliberately started and so in this sense was an accident. But could it have been avoided? Quite likely. Better maintenance on transmission lines and towers could have prevented aging, sagging power lines from sparking. Trimming trees would make high winds less likely to bring down power lines.

PG&E could also have shut down parts of the electric grid on high fire risk days. The company formalized planned blackouts to prevent wildfires earlier in 2018 and shut off power to over 60,000 customers on a high risk day in October. Southern California utilities have also used blackouts to prevent wildfires.

Power lines, of course, are not the only cause of wildfires; lightning and other human actions and carelessness are also causes. All power line related fires, however, could be prevented through enough maintenance, tree-trimming, and blackouts. If the Camp Fire could have been prevented, was it truly an accident?

Diligence and safety can prevent most types of accidents. Workplace accidents claimed over 5,000 lives in 2017. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration has helped reduce workplace accidents significantly over the past fifty years. Still, more can always be done. Railings prevent falls; taller, sturdier railings make falls even less likely. Safety nets can help as well.

Auto accidents kill 35,000, injure millions, and cause billions in property damage each year. Most traffic accidents are due to driver error, mechanical failures, and unsafe roads and bridges and are preventable. Highway redesign could further reduce accidents. And driving very slowly – imagine a 25 mph national speed limit – would dramatically reduce accident severity.

Should we prevent all fires, workplace accidents, and highway crashes? Economics recommends balancing the benefits of preventing accidents against the costs. Such balancing will almost certainly involve accepting some accidents. Even if we think that human lives are infinitely valuable and should be saved whenever possible, accidents often involve fatal consequences either way. For instance, blacking out hospitals and nursing homes can cost lives. We will almost certainly choose a level of safety resulting in some accidents.

If we deliberately choose less than perfect safety, are the fires, workplace mishaps, and traffic crashes truly accidents? This is debatable. We know that drunk drivers do not intend to maim people, but we consider this act so reckless as to be criminal. Some commentators think that deaths from workplace accidents and product defects are best viewed as corporate murder.

Personally, I think that an important difference exists between mishaps occurring while pursuing a valuable and ethical goal and intentionally harming others. Still, many Americans find evaluating accident tradeoffs too explicitly discomforting.

This is costly. As Vanderbilt economist Kip Viscusi notes, corporate America lags behind in applying risk analysis. Jurors find it offensive when a business determines how much it would cost to prevent deaths due to product design flaws or workplace risks and still chooses not to eliminate the risk. Because risk analysis seems to trigger mega-verdicts, businesses forego the analysis. Yet a lack of analysis merely leads to bad decisions, not safety.

Economics suggests that perhaps nothing is an accident. But as humans, we can intuitively distinguish intentional harms and unfortunate events. However we resolve the conundrum, ignorance of risk analysis is definitely not bliss.

Daniel Sutter is the Charles G. Koch Professor of Economics with the Manuel H. Johnson Center for Political Economy at Troy University.

11 mins ago

Auburn Police officer shot in the line of duty

An Auburn Police Department officer was shot in the line of duty Friday evening.

Sources reportedly confirmed the shooting to WVTM. The condition of the officer was not immediately known.

The shooting occurred at the Dollar General near Niffer’s Place off of Opelika Road.

WSFA was on the scene live in the immediate aftermath of the shooting, which resulted in a massive police presence. The suspect is believed to still be at-large, with a “manhunt” underway.

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This comes after Birmingham Police Department Sgt. Wytasha Carter and Mobile Police Department Officer Sean Tuder were shot and killed in the line of duty in recent weeks.

This is breaking news and may be updated.

Update 8:00 p.m.:

WSFA posted a new live stream.

Update 8:15 p.m.:

Police administrators told reporters the incident occurred shortly after 5:30 p.m. as the officer pulled the suspect’s vehicle over responding to an armed robbery call. The officer was talking and alert when he left the scene. More on his condition was not released by law enforcement on the scene. The officer was shot “multiple” times. His name has also not been released.

The suspect is Christopher James Wallace. He is 38 years old. A female was in the vehicle with Wallace at the time of the shooting. Her name is not being released at this time.

Sean Ross is a staff writer for Yellowhammer News. You can follow him on Twitter @sean_yhn

1 hour ago

Del Marsh on Trump declaration: ‘It is an emergency — It is about protecting this country’

Alabama Senate leader Del Marsh (R-Anniston) voiced his support for President Donald Trump’s latest action on border security while blaming Democrats for their inability to fix the long-standing issue.

In an interview with Yellowhammer News, Marsh said he supports Trump’s decision to declare a national emergency along the Mexican border.

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Marsh explained that the urgency of the threat made it necessary.

“It is an emergency,” Marsh stated. “It is about protecting this country. That’s where the threat is. The threat is the southern border. All our borders should be secure. But the threat right now is the southern border. No one can deny that.”

When asked where border security should rank among the country’s priorities, Marsh said border security should be number one.

And he expressed frustration at how policy-makers have approached the issue.

“I cannot for the life of me understand how people in Congress can put people who are not citizens of this country above our citizens’ welfare, and that’s what I see happening,” he remarked.

He cited a single reason why, in his mind, the issue of border security has gone on for so long without resolution.

“Politics,” Marsh declared.

Specifically, he believes Democrats view illegal immigration as providing a pool of potential new voters and that has threatened national security.

“They have put that above the safety of the citizens of this country,” he said. “Democrats are basically saying, ‘Don’t worry about a process. Come on! We’re your buddies!’”

Marsh also pointed out the fact that he has already filed a bill in the Alabama legislature to allow Alabamians to help build the wall.

The legislation would provide taxpayers the option of checking a box on their tax returns should they want to donate to We Build the Wall, Inc.

Marsh has already donated to the fund himself.

“It’s about sending a message to this president, President Trump, that we support him and by sending these dollars to build the wall, showing our support for him,” he explained. “I believe it and I think the people of Alabama believe that security is the most important thing, the most important issue at this point in time. We want to support the wall, and we want to see the wall built.”

Tim Howe is an owner and editor of Yellowhammer News.

1 hour ago

Alabama Supreme Court reinstates Alabama Memorial Preservation Act

Attorney General Steve Marshall announced Friday that the Alabama Supreme Court has granted the state’s motion to stay a recent “[erroneous]” Jefferson County Circuit Court judgment that declared the Alabama Memorial Preservation Act of 2017 to be unconstitutional.

This means the law, which prohibits the removal and alteration of monuments more than 40 years old on public property, will still be in effect while the state appeals the decision. Marshall requested the stay three weeks ago.

“I am pleased that the Alabama Supreme Court has granted the State’s motion to stay the Circuit Court’s ruling,” the attorney general said in a statement. “We think that U.S. Supreme Court precedent clearly demonstrates that the Circuit Court erred in striking down the Alabama Memorial Preservation Act. Thus, we asked the Alabama Supreme Court to preserve the status quo regarding the Confederate Soldiers and Sailors Monument in Linn Park until the Court rules on our appeal.”

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It was reported that the City of Birmingham was considering removing the monument at the center of the controversy after the law was struck down. The Sailors Monument has been covered by a large black wall since August 2017, near the end of former Mayor William Bell’s tenure.

“The Supreme Court’s stay allows the Alabama Memorial Preservation Act to remain in effect until the Supreme Court resolves this appeal over the Act’s constitutionality. We continue to hold that the Circuit Court erred when it ruled that the U.S. Constitution grants cities free speech rights that they can enforce against the State,” Marshall added. “For more than a century, the U.S. Supreme Court has held just the opposite, recognizing that ‘a political subdivision, created by the state for the better ordering of government, has no privileges or immunities under the federal constitution which it may invoke in opposition to the will of its creator.’ We look forward to presenting these arguments to the Alabama Supreme Court.”

The Supreme Court’s order Friday also stayed the accrual of any financial penalties under the law.

Sean Ross is a staff writer for Yellowhammer News. You can follow him on Twitter @sean_yhn

4 hours ago

David Cole departs Alabama Farmers Federation for BCA

The Business Council of Alabama (BCA) is adding another star to its governmental affairs team.

Shortly after breaking BCA’s hiring of Molly Cagle from Manufacture Alabama, sources confirmed to Yellowhammer News that Alabama Farmers Federation Director of State Affairs David Cole is coming on board at the same time.

Cole, like Cagle, is joining BCA’s governmental affairs staff effective February 28, just in time for the March 5 start of the state legislative session. Most recently, Cole spearheaded the federation’s lobbying efforts in the Alabama House of Representatives.

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Sources confirmed to Yellowhammer News Friday that federation Executive Director Paul Pinyan sent out an email announcing Cole’s departure and thanking him for his commitment to Alabama agriculture — the state’s biggest industry. Pinyan also outlined how the staff would be moved around in response to Cole leaving.

Director of External Affairs Matthew Durdin – and his staff members, Director of Agricultural Legislation Preston Roberts and administrative assistant Jessica Mims – will now be involved in some state governmental affairs work. Former Alabama Secretary of State Beth Chapman, who has been working as a political consultant for the federation, will now add governmental affairs work on contract.

An official announcement with details of the federation’s staff changes is expected to be released in the coming week.

Update, 6:15 p.m.:

BCA President and CEO Katie Boyd Britt announced the two major additions in an internal email sent out to the business council’s leadership Friday evening. Britt took the reigns of BCA January 2. Cagle and Cole are her first hires.

The email detailed that Cole is being named senior vice president of governmental affairs and Cagle vice president of governmental affairs.

“These two additions to our team position the BCA to serve our members and advocate effectively on behalf of the business community,” Britt wrote.

Mark Colson, who most recently filled in as BCA’s interim president after serving as chief of staff and senior vice president for governmental affairs, will continue to serve the organization in his new role as senior advisor through the transition period.

Sean Ross is a staff writer for Yellowhammer News. You can follow him on Twitter @sean_yhn

4 hours ago

Molly Cagle joining BCA from Manufacture Alabama

One of Alabama’s rising stars in the governmental affairs world is on the move.

Sources confirmed to Yellowhammer News Friday that Manufacture Alabama (MA) Director of External Affairs Molly Cagle has accepted a governmental affairs position with the Business Council of Alabama (BCA). While an exact title has yet to be released, Cagle is expected to bolster BCA’s legislative affairs team.

The hire marks the first in BCA President and CEO Katie Boyd Britt’s tenure. She was hired by the organization’s executive committee in December and took office January 2.

Cagle’s last day at MA is February 20, according to an email from her to the association’s membership obtained by Yellowhammer News.

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“My time at Manufacture Alabama over the last four and a half years has been incredibly rewarding. The friendships, lessons, and advice are things that I cherish and will take with me throughout my career,” she wrote.

Cagle comes to BCA with an impressive track record in legislative work, including past service as the Senate Liaison for Alabama Senate President Pro Tempore Del Marsh. She received her bachelor’s in Political Science, with a minor in Broadcast Journalism, from Troy University.

Named to Yellowhammer Multimedia’s “Power and Influence: Who’s Next?” list for 2018, Cagle will be a major addition to BCA as the organization refocuses on its pro-jobs mission of “making a sweet home for business” in Alabama.

Cagle’s email noted, “As I prepare to take on my new role, I want to assure everyone that the staff at Manufacture Alabama has taken the steps to make my departure as seamless as possible. A special thank you to George Clark for his guidance and support not only over the last several years but also throughout this process.”

The state legislative session begins March 5.

As of Friday at 2:30 p.m., BCA had taken down its online staff directory. An official announcement of the hire is expected in the coming days.

Update, 6:15 p.m.:

Cagle is being named BCA’s vice president of governmental affairs.

Sean Ross is a staff writer for Yellowhammer News. You can follow him on Twitter @sean_yhn