Audit Notes: The Massey Report, Objectivity Comics, The Ultrawealthy

Here are the ledes from The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times stories this morning on the Massey Energy coal disaster report out of West Virginia. The Journal:

A 13-month independent investigation into the coal-mine explosion that killed 29 Massey Energy Co. workers last year concluded the accident could have been prevented and was primarily the result of the failure of the company’s safety systems, as well as inadequate oversight by federal and state regulators.

The Times:

In the first comprehensive state report on the 2010 coal mine disaster in West Virginia, an independent team of investigators has put the blame squarely on the owner of the mine, Massey Energy, concluding that it had “made life difficult” for miners who tried to address safety and built “a culture in which wrongdoing became acceptable.”

Needless to say, the Times’s is far better on who’s primarily to blame. “Failure of the company’s safety systems” versus “put the blame squarely on the owner of the mine.” The former sounds like a mechanical failure, reminiscent of the natural-disaster theory of the financial crisis. The latter is crystal clear.

The Times is also good to put this quote up high:

“The story of Upper Big Branch is a cautionary tale of hubris,” the report concluded. “A company that was a towering presence in the Appalachian coal fields operated its mines in a profoundly reckless manner, and 29 coal miners paid with their lives for the corporate risk taking.”

But the paper messes up by not noting until near the bottom of its piece that the report condemned lax regulators for letting Massey get by with repeated violations. The Journal is good to report that in its lede.

Meantime, the Center for Public Integrity reports that the investigation found seventeen of the twenty-four dead miners it could examine had black lung, which is preventable with proper safeguards that Massey clearly didn’t have. That’s a rate twenty times higher than the average for miners. CPI (emphasis mine):

It wasn’t just the long-time miners working for Massey Energy Co. who had the disease. Some were as young as 25, and five had less than 10 years of experience working in coal mines, according to the report, which largely focused on failures by state and federal regulators and Massey to safeguard miners at Upper Big Branch.

Headlines are sure to focus on the explosion and its causes, but black lung claims many more victims each year — perhaps as many as 10,000 between 1995 and 2005, according to estimates of the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health , a federal research agency.

— Brooke Gladstone has a new book on the media called The Influencing Machine, and Slate runs a fascinating excerpt from the chapter on objectivity in journalism, which uses the graphic novel (aka comic book) format to great effect, illustrating the history of the concept and its pitfalls.

Here she explains why she used comics:

More than television, more than newspapers, radio creates a sense of intimacy—the illusion of a one-to-one relationship—because the listener relies on the reporter’s voice to paint pictures. Voices are very personal. I thought that I could re-create radio’s intimacy if I had the ability to look readers in the eye while guiding them through my media manifesto, The Influencing Machine, which starts with the invention of writing and ends in the year 2045.

Another reason for using comics: The world is full of media books with competing predictions of cyber-utopia or annihilating chaos. I steer between those shoals, and sometimes bump up against both of them. My argument (don’t rejoice, don’t panic) is built on many small, historical moments. I want those moments to stick with the reader. Pictures, especially the sly, evocative pictures drawn here by Josh Neufeld, are sticky.

It worked, at least in this excerpt. Go read it.

Research by Deloitte and Oxford Economics that shows the number of ultrawealthy households in the U.S. Ultra-wealthy, meaning households worth more than $30 million.

In the U.S. there are 496,000 such households, out of 113 million total households in the U.S.. That’s much more than the rest of the world combined (I’m deducing that from the fact that the chart gives us numbers for the top 25 countries, which total 376,000 households. But No. 25, Poland, only 1,000, and so all other countries would have less than that).

That means those half a million American families have a minimum of $14.8 trillion of wealth, and the real number is far higher than that since I got it by multiplying the $30 million minimum by 496,000. Presumably, almost none of them are worth exactly $30,000,000.00.

Total household wealth in the U.S. was $57 trillion in the first quarter, so if the Deloitte numbers are correct, it means 0.4 percent of families control, at a minimum, 26 percent of the country’s wealth.

Another 2.2 million American households are super-wealthy, worth between $5 million and $30 million. That would mean a minimum of $11 trillion of wealth and the top 2.3 percent of households would own at least 45 percent of all the wealth and probably more like 60 percent or 70 percent, when considering the billionaires and centimillionaires in that $30 million-plus cohort..

The upshot: Wealth is going to get even more concentrated over the next decade, if Deloitte’s projections prove to be halfway correct.

(h/t Zero Hedge)

Deloitte Millionaire Study

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Ryan Chittum is a former Wall Street Journal reporter, and deputy editor of The Audit, CJR's business section. If you see notable business journalism, give him a heads-up at Follow him on Twitter at @ryanchittum. Tags: , , , ,