In an attempt to improve Italy's debt ratio, Prime Minister Matteo Renzi says the country will include illegal drug sales and prostitution when it figures its gross domestic product.
While most of our focus this week while in the U.K. has been on our series, Mind the Gap: Exploring Income Inequality in London, there was just one story we couldn’t resist: The sewers of London!
London’s sewer system is perhaps the most notorious sewer system in the world. In the 1800’s, the sewer’s overflow into the (then) main source of drinking water for Londoners, the Thames River, resulted in tens of thousands of deaths from cholera and other diseases. A more advanced system was built as a result that boasted the best of Victorian engineering and craftsmanship. It’s the same system that is still being used today, more than 150 years later.
Last week in the U.S., President Obama called for an increase in the amount of investment in infrastructure.
Here in London, similar pushes for infrastructure enhancements are being made. The two most controversial are proposals to create a high speed rail that would extend from London to Birmingham, and a campaign for a super sewer system that would prevent the existing overburdened sewer system from overflowing into the Thames River.
Right now the sewer system overflows once a week, on average.
Imagine our luck when we learned that it just happens to be Sewer Week in London. This helped us gain rare access for a tour. We were told yesterday during our tour that in some cases, the public has to wait for up to five years for a tour like the one we experienced.
Marketplace's Nicole Childers wrote her take of the tour:
We set off early in the morning and we were whisked off by Thames Water to Abbey Lane, home of the historic Abbey Mills Pumping station that was built in the 1800’s and served as the central transfer point of several of London’s sewers. We started our day learning about the history of the system before getting a tour of the Abbey Mills Pumping Station. Within Abbey Mills exists several stations. One of the most decorated is the B station, which has garnered quite a few media appearances throughout the years. The Arkham Asylum in the movie Batman Begins was filmed there as was part of Coldplay’s “Lovers in Japan” music video.
Marketplace's Nicole Childers (Marketplace)
We then made our way over to Wick Lane Depot for a tour of an operational sewer. After changing into protective gear that included rubber boots and gloves, a bright white full body protective suit reminiscent of a hazmat suit, and a hard hat to top it all off, our tour guide, Danny Brackley, led us through standard safety procedures. Then, one by one we were hooked up to a protective cable before climbing down a ladder into a hole that left us more than 30-feet below ground in a pool of raw sewage that included everything from fecal matter to cooking fat irresponsibly poured down many a London kitchen sink.
For someone like me who is terrified of heights, the last step off the ladder and into raw sewage was not as comforting as I’d anticipated. Before descending into the tunnels we had been warned that the water level could be as high as 2-3 feet in some parts. Instead of feeling solid ground beneath my feet, I was met with shaky gravel and cloudy brown water flowed through and around my legs. What was in the milk chocolate-y water that now surrounded me, you may ask? The raw sewage included everything from what you flush down your toilet to the drainage from your shower, washing machine, and sink.
As we made our way through the sewers, the smell wasn’t as bad as I’d anticipated. It was more of a musty moldy smell than the smell you generally associate with a sewer. Our guide explained that generally our experience with sewer smells is after a blockage when the raw sewage gets stuck and turns septic; emanating that recognizable but stomach turning odor. These sewers flow at a pretty steady rate, which prevents the waste from rotting before it reaches the water treatment plan.
I thought I’d be most surprised to see fecal matter floating by, but the real surprise was the astounding number of spoons, yes, real spoons that made their way into the sewers. Our guide, Dan, explained his theory: In jail, prisoners often smuggle spoons into their cells from the canteen to transform them into sharp weapons, but they end up getting flushed down the toilet right before guards perform cell searches. Seeing cutlery cascading past me didn’t hold a candle to what we saw at the end of our time in the sewer. As I made my way up the ladder at the end of the tour, someone still down in the sewers spotted a ring. The discovery led us all to ponder whether it was flushed down the toilet by an angry and disenchanted spouse seeking an incontrovertible end of matrimony, or whether it belonged to one half of a happy couple who removed the ring only to have it slip unwittingly into a kitchen or bathroom sink and down the drain.
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Four years ago, I accompanied then-Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner to India.
He was there for the U.S.-India Economic Summit, and I was one of the few journalists along for the ride. I’d traveled with Geithner a few times before, and what struck me most was how relaxed he was on this trip. Geithner had grown up in India, in part. And he was, unmistakably, having fun there.
He blanched a bit when I suggested it then. But then considered the question. Part of his comfort level, he agreed, was his childhood. But another part, he suggested, was being in a part of the world familiar with economic crises. And unorthodox responses to them. Everyone was simply not as panicked.
I met with him again this week. His publisher invited a handful of journalists to an on-the-record coffee to discuss Geithner’s new memoir, Stress Test, much of which is spent defending his response to the financial crisis. It’s a philosophy very clearly shaped by his time at the Treasury Department during the Asian financial crises of the 1990s: act fast to prevent a panic, and then, he reiterated this week, “you go figure out how to bring a measure of justice.”
That approach is clearly controversial. It’s something economists and regular Americans will argue about for decades, especially as they see large banks continue to prosper. Geither is spending a heck of a press tour defending his view. Is he being disingenuous? I think it’s hard to say.
His contention is that punishment for malefactors is important, “but you need to make sure you’re not putting that ahead of what I think is the primary moral imperative: which is to prevent mass unemployment in the country.”
The book has come under criticism from many of the sharpest economic reporters around. From Felix Salmon, who was at this coffee, for overselling his role as a change agent at the New York Fed. And from Jesse Eisinger for many of the watered down solutions the Obama economic team was willing to accept.
Geithner has a strong preference for the art of the possible. Several of the reporters at this coffee asked him about the administration’s woeful record on housing. At one point, for example, the Obama team was behind a proposal that would have allowed some borrowers to reduce the principal of their mortgage if they filed for bankruptcy. The plan ran into trouble on Capitol Hill, and it was abandoned. “The president had a very talented legislative team,” Geithner said. “They tried. He told them to try, and they were not successful.”
He added: “You need a congress that can do stuff. And our system is set up so that it’s easier to block stuff than to do stuff.”
Perhaps the subject that resonates most for regular Americans is the hardest for Geithner, Hank Paulson, or anyone in either the Bush or Obama administrations to prove. That without TARP, or the subsequent lending programs, bailouts and what-have-you; we’d be worse off. I don’t envy anyone who has to prove that negative.
Geithner himself agrees that he was terrible at explaining it. Reflecting on his opening policy speech in office, he writes: “It was a bad speech, badly delivered, rattling confidence at a bad time.” As someone who covered the crisis closely, I remember watching the markets plummet as he spoke, wondering what cataclysmic shoe would drop next.
And that brings us to the bitterest aftertaste of all the bailouts: the sense that those who gambled and were rescued with public money have never paid. Geithner calls himself “a big believer in a powerful deterrent on the enforcement side.”
Yet when I asked him for an example of successful deterrence, he couldn’t name one. “You’ve gotta remind people, “ he said, “that I don’t get to make those judgments.” He added that the Justice Department’s prosecutors “were massively focused.”
Still, he said “its relative absence hurt us. Hurt the president a lot.” And perhaps that perception always will.