ACCOUNTABILITY FOR INSURRECTION AND DOMESTIC TERRORISM

Now that we’ve all had a bit of time to get more information and to reflect on the insurrection and domestic terrorism that occurred at the U.S. Capitol on January 6, I wanted to share two information sources that I found valuable in helping me understand that event, as well as to share some reflections on it. I use the terms insurrection and domestic terrorism purposefully because they are accurate terminology for what happened – as are sedition [1] and treason [2]. I believe it’s important to call the events and the behavior what they are. The significance of what occurred is demeaned by simply referring to it as a protest or a violent mob. I believe it is also important to call out the racism, as well as the white and male supremacy, that were central to and at the root of the chain of misinformation, brain washing, and other events that led to what occurred on January 6.

I strongly urge you to listen to Bill Moyers (one of my long-time heroes) on his Moyers on Democracy podcast interviewing Heather Cox Richardson (rapidly becoming one of my heroes) as they discuss the domestic terrorist attack on the Capitol and the current political situation in the U.S.  Richardson’s historical perspective (she’s a history professor at Boston College) is valuable for putting the attack in perspective. The podcast is 40 minutes and is well worth listening to. Or you can read the transcript. https://billmoyers.com/story/podcast-bill-moyers-and-heather-cox-richardson/

I also found Rachel Maddow’s show on January 7 valuable. First, she reviews the events of the 6th with videos and interviews that provide additional information on how violent and threatening the insurrection was and how close Members of Congress came to being personally confronted or captured by the terrorists. Then, she highlights passages from the book On Tyranny and interviews its author (at 21 minutes into the show). She follows this with a video of the arrest in the Capitol Rotunda in 2017 of five non-white ministers, including Raphael Warnock (who was just elected to the U.S. Senate in Georgia), for a peaceful protest of praying and singing (at 36 minutes into the show). This is followed by an interview with Sherrilyn Ifill, President of the Legal Defense Fund of the NAACP. These latter portions of the broadcast are the ones I found most valuable for gaining perspective on the seriousness of the January 6 events and the importance of holding perpetrators and enablers accountable. https://www.nbc.com/the-rachel-maddow-show/video/rachel-maddow-1721/4282029

The information and perspectives from these sources and others have left me even more convinced that everyone who participated in and enabled these acts of sedition, treason, insurrection, and terrorism needs to be held accountable. The people who stormed the Capitol should be arrested and tried. Thank God D.C.’s strict gun laws discouraged them from bringing guns or I bet there would have been more bloodshed.

Those who contributed to building the false story that the election was stolen are complicit and need to be held accountable. Many of those who stormed the Capitol were motivated by their belief that the election had been stolen and there are many more people across the country who hold this dangerous belief as well. Those who are responsible include Republican Members of Congress, the media and especially the social media platforms, lawyers involved in claiming non-existent election fraud, and others who through silence or action gave credence to the false narrative of a stolen election. This includes the wealthy Americans, corporate leaders, and corporations who have supported politicians who promoted the stolen election story with campaign donations and otherwise, including the President and Members of Congress. There are various ways to hold these co-conspirators accountable, but they all should be held accountable in one way or another.

Some people are now referring to the Republican Party as the Insurrection Party, a name it deserves unless it takes active, very public steps to eliminate the Trump cult and its seditious behavior from its leadership and membership. It would also need to repudiate or reform many policies it supports that undermine democracy, including voter suppression and gerrymandering. Its leaders, many of them Members of Congress, must stop putting their personal political ambitions ahead of their oath of office, i.e., their pledge to uphold the Constitution and our democracy.

The goal of my blog is to promote democracy – government of, by, and for the people – through polices that move us toward the principles and ideals of our democracy, such as social and economic justice. I try to avoid taking sides politically. I have strongly criticized Democrats for their very significant role in our growing economic inequality and their failure to address some social justice issues, such as our criminal justice system. However, the dominant attack on democracy and social and economic justice of the last four years has come from President Trump, his administration, and his Republican enablers in Congress. Therefore, I feel I must, at this time, single out the Republican Party for its undemocratic, to say the least, behavior.

Our country and all of us need to seriously tackle the racism and white privilege, as well as the white and male supremacy, that are at the root of the chain of misinformation, brain washing, and other events that led to what occurred on January 6. Racism and white privilege were not only evident in the explicit messages of the terrorists, but also, as has been widely noted, in the difference between the treatment of these largely white “protesters” and the treatment last summer of the diverse protesters, especially the Black protesters, who were calling for racial and social justice. The arresting and handcuffing of non-white ministers peacefully praying and singing in the Rotunda to protest budget cuts (shown on the Rachel Maddow show) stand in stark contrast to what happened in the Rotunda and the Capitol on January 6.

The big picture for our country is that the insurrection was an attempt to overthrow our democracy by stopping the peaceful transition of power based on a legitimate election. If the insurrection had ultimately been successful, it would have resulted in an authoritarian, fascist [3] government, where the rule of law would be ignored, and where control would rest with a small group of wealthy elites, primarily business executives and owners. I do not use these terms lightly; they are accurate labels for the behavior and rhetoric of Trump and his cult. The trend toward plutocracy [4] and oligarchy [5] has been going on for 40 years in the U.S. as income and wealth inequality have skyrocketed due to federal government policies by and for wealthy individuals and corporations.

I will close by repeating the bottom line of my previous post: Please contact your Members of Congress and ask them to immediately begin impeachment proceedings against President Trump for sedition and incitement of domestic terrorism. Please also ask them to contact the Vice President and the Cabinet to encourage them to invoke the 25th Amendment and remove Trump from power.

Furthermore, the Members of Congress who have aided or abetted the efforts to overturn a clearly valid election have violated their oath of office and should be investigated by Congress’s Ethics Committee and censured or expelled from Congress.

There must be accountability and consequences for the President and others who fostered this domestic terrorism, otherwise it will happen again, sooner or later, and may well be worse next time.

You can find contact information for your US Representative at  http://www.house.gov/representatives/find/ and for your US Senators at http://www.senate.gov/general/contact_information/senators_cfm.cfm.

[1]      Sedition: conduct or speech inciting people to rebel against the authority of the state.

[2]      Treason: the crime of betraying one’s country, especially by attempting to overthrow the government.

[3]      Fascist: far-right, authoritarian, ultra-nationalistic government characterized by dictatorial power and forcible suppression of opposition.

[4]      Plutocracy: government by the wealthy.

[5]      Oligarchy: control of a country by a small group of people.

REMOVING TRUMP AND CO-CONSPIRATORS FROM OFFICE

I urge you to contact your Members of Congress and ask them to immediately begin impeachment proceedings against President Trump for treason and incitement of domestic terrorism to overthrow the U.S. government. Please also ask them to contact the Vice President and the Cabinet to encourage them to invoke the 25th Amendment to remove Trump from power.

Trump must be removed NOW by any legal means before he does more harm. He is a clear and present danger to the country, both in terms of domestic matters and because his and his administration’s instability makes our country vulnerable to a foreign military, cyber, or terrorist attack anywhere in the world.

Furthermore, the Members of Congress who have in any way aided or abetted Trump’s efforts to overturn a clearly valid election have violated their oath of office and should be investigated by the Ethics Committee, potentially leading to their expulsion from Congress. This should also apply to any Members of Congress who aided, abetted, or gave encouragement to the domestic terrorist mob that invaded the Capitol.

There must be accountability and consequences for the President and others who fostered this domestic terrorism, otherwise it will happen again, sooner or later, and may well be worse next time.

You can find contact information for your US Representative at  http://www.house.gov/representatives/find/ and for your US Senators at http://www.senate.gov/general/contact_information/senators_cfm.cfm.

BIDEN’S OPPORTUNITY TO IMPROVE ECONOMIC SECURITY WITH PROGRESSIVE POLICIES

Looking ahead to 2021, many challenges face the country and President-elect Biden. Most of them have negatively affected the economic well-being of many Americans,  including the pandemic, the lack of racial justice, and the economic recession. All of them and others (e.g., climate change) can and should be addressed in a way that will improve the economic security of working and middle-class Americans. This would also go a long way toward restoring their faith in government and their belief that government can and is working for their benefit and not just for the benefit of big businesses and the wealthy.

Since the 1990s, the Democratic Party has joined the Republican Party in aligning itself with large corporations and the wealthy elites that run and own them through deregulation, trade deals, and tax policies that work to their benefit. As a result, the middle class has been decimated and blue collar, often unionized, workers have lost their economic security; 90% of Americans have lost ground economically over the last 30 years. Income and wealth inequality have spiraled to levels unseen since the 1920s and the economy of the 1950s and 1960s that lifted all boats has disappeared. [1]

Abandoned by the Democratic Party, which traditionally had stood up for them, white, blue collar workers and their families have been convinced to support demagogues, including Trump, who promote divisive, anti-immigrant, racist, reactionary, and undemocratic policies.

To address mainstream Americans’ loss of economic security, Biden must implement  progressive policies that will enhance their economic well-being. The public strongly supports such policies as poll after poll shows. For example, polls find that: [2]

  • 68% believe our tax system should require the wealthy to pay more,
  • 75% support paying higher income taxes to support health care, education, welfare, and infrastructure, and
  • 92% say they would rather live in a country with a low level of income inequality than one with high inequality.

There also was plenty of evidence of support for progressive policies and candidates in the 2020 election results. (See my previous post on this topic for some details.)

A key factor contributing to economic insecurity and inequality, and one Americans clearly understand, is that large corporations and their executives and lobbyists have undue influence on U.S. policies. By margins of more than two-to-one they don’t want President Biden appointing corporate executives or lobbyists to positions in his administration. Roughly 75% of poll respondents say that an administration official overseeing or regulating an industry they have a connection to is a “big problem” and about 90% say it is at least “a little bit of a problem.” The public knows that the so-called “revolving door” between positions in large corporations and ones in government lead to policies that benefit the corporations and their wealthy executives and investors. Sixty-seven percent of respondents, including 60% of Republicans, say that this revolving door is “corrupt and dangerous.” [3]

In government, personnel is policy. In other words, the personnel in key positions in the Biden administration will strongly influence who benefits from policies and their implementation – the working and middle-class or the upper class and big businesses. Therefore, it is important that Biden select people for his administration who are committed to working for the good of the people and not for the economic elites, many of whom are big campaign donors.

President Biden has two main avenues for creating needed policy changes: executive actions and legislation. These two are complementary and should both be used. Getting progressive legislation passed by Congress will be difficult even if Senate control is nominally with the Democrats (i.e., with a 50-50 split among Senators if Democrats win the two Georgia runoffs). But Senator Warren and others have shown that bipartisan legislation is possible even in the current contentious and polarized environment in Congress. Her successes include making hearing aids more affordable, enhancing consumer protection in various financial transactions, strengthening oversight and regulation of the financial industry, expanding access to affordable housing, and reining in abuses in housing financing. (I will write a post about this in the near future.)

There are also literally hundreds of executive actions that a Biden administration could take that are well within its existing authority. As many as 277 such actions have been enumerated by the writers at the American Prospect magazine and the document produced by the Biden-Sanders unity taskforce at the end of the Democratic primary last summer. They include steps to make our tax system fairer, to strengthen the safety net (including unemployment benefits and housing and food assistance), to expand access to health care and lower drug prices, to increase pay and benefits for employees of federal contractors, and to make it easier for workers to bargain collectively for better pay, benefits, and working conditions. (I will write a post about possible executive actions in the near future.)

I encourage you to contact your U.S. Senators and Representative to express your support for issues you would like to see them address in 2021, including policies such as the examples above that would improve the economic security of mainstream Americans. You can find contact information for your US Representative at  http://www.house.gov/representatives/find/ and for your US Senators at http://www.senate.gov/general/contact_information/senators_cfm.cfm.

You can get information and sign-up for updates from the Biden-Harris transition at https://buildbackbetter.gov/.

[1]      Lemann, N., 10/19/20, “Losing ground: the crisis of the two-party system,” The Nation (https://www.thenation.com/article/politics/let-them-eat-tweets-the-system-never-trump/)

[2]      Hightower, J., Nov. 2020, “Timeless truths for trying times,” The Hightower Lowdown (https://hightowerlowdown.org/article/timeless-truths-for-trying-times/)

[3]      Demand Progress, Dec., 2020, “Americans want a progressive Biden administration,” (https://s3.amazonaws.com/demandprogress/reports/Americans_Want_A_Corporate-Free_Biden_Administration.pdf)

EXAMPLES OF CORRUPT CORPORATE BEHAVIOR Part 3

Here are three recent examples of corrupt corporate behavior in the financial industry, where corruption is persistent and seems to know no bounds. The exposure of corruption and its triggering of the 2008 financial crash doesn’t seem to have changed anything. It seems that every week there’s another report of serious corruption in the financial industry. Here are three examples that show the depth and breadth of that corruption: one of long-term systemic corruption at a major bank, one of a specific example of corruption from a different major bank, and one from a small, relatively new member of the industry. (This previous post highlighted three other examples of corporate corruption, two from the pharmaceutical industry and one from the financial industry.)

Example #1: Deutsche Bank has fallen from the second largest bank in the world in 2008 to the 21st largest in 2020 due to a wide range of corrupt behavior that finally caught up with it. It postponed its financial collapse and shrinkage by overvaluing its assets, among other fraudulent accounting strategies. Its history of corruption is meticulously detailed in the book, Dark Towers. [1] In 2018, its long-time involvement in tax evasion and money laundering for wealthy individuals resulted in police raiding its Frankfurt, Germany, headquarters. This wasn’t the first time this had happened. In 2012, hundreds of government police had raided its office to gather evidence in a different tax evasion scheme that involved permits for carbon dioxide emissions.

Since 2012, Deutsche Bank has paid over $15 billion in settlements for illegal activities. As-of 2016, it was involved in over 7,000 legal cases and had set aside over $5 billion for the potential impact of those cases. It was a major contributor to the 2008 financial crash, which led to its payment in 2017 of over $7 billion in settlements for fraud in its sales of mortgage-backed securities. In 2015, it agreed to pay a fine of $2.5 billion for manipulating international interest rates, pleading guilty to fraud and agreeing to fire 29 employees who had been involved. (Not a single individual was charged with a crime, however.) In 2017, it was fined over $600 million for money laundering that moved over $10 billion of suspicious money out of Russia. In 2018, it agreed to pay $75 million to settle charges of improperly handling U.S. transactions involving foreign securities.

Deutsche Bank is or has been investigated for numerous other corrupt behaviors including manipulating foreign currency exchange rates and violating international sanctions by engaging in over $10 billion of illegal financial transaction with Iran, Syria, Libya, Sudan, and other sanctioned countries. Some of these transactions involved funding for terrorism and drug trafficking. It is under investigation for participating in a criminal cartel in Australia, $150 billion of money laundering with a Danish bank, and a multi-billion fraud scheme with a Malaysian development fund. And by the way, it has engaged in illegal spying on its critics. Its corruption goes back at least to the 1930s when it cooperated with the Nazis and funded their activities, which it tried to hide for many years thereafter.

Example #2: Goldman Sachs, the fifth largest U.S. bank, has agreed to pay $3 billion to regulators in multiple countries for a massive bribery scheme that stole hundreds of millions of dollars from the Malaysian government. Goldman Sachs took in $593 million in unusually large fees for its role in the underlying transactions. Although two of its executives have been indicted (a partner and a managing director) and its Malaysian subsidiary has pleaded guilty to bribery, many have criticized the settlement as not being a meaningful punishment both because of the scale of the criminal activity and the dollar amount of the settlement, which is less than 3 months of profits. Furthermore, Goldman Sachs has only partially cooperated with the investigation, delayed providing crucial information, and failed to self-report illegal activity that it knew about and is required by law to report. [2] By the way, this will bring the fines it has paid out since 1998 to over $10 billion. [3]

Example #3: Robinhood Financial LLC, a 2015 start-up that provides a smart phone app for buying and selling stocks, has agreed to pay a $65 million penalty to the federal Securities and Exchange Commission for misleading customers and costing them an estimated $34 million. Robinhood advertised no commission trades, however, it generated revenue by executing customers’ trades through companies that paid it fees for the trades. It failed to disclose this to its customers. It had an incentive to select companies that paid it the most for those trades even if customers got worse prices on the stocks they were buying. Nonetheless, Robinhood claimed the quality of its execution of its customers’ trades was as good or better than its rivals. [4] In addition to this federal settlement, Massachusetts regulators are pursuing a complaint against Robinhood for violating state securities laws by not providing accurate information to customers. The complaint also states Robinhood’s website has had several outages that have prevented customers from trading during important periods when stock prices were shifting significantly. [5]

To put financial industry corruption in a larger perspective, often federal cases of financial misbehavior, as in the Deutsche Bank and Goldman Sachs cases above, result in the financial corporations signing a Deferred Prosecution Agreement (DPA). This requires the corporation to pay a fine and agree to a period of probation (during which it promises not to repeat its bad behavior), but usually the corporation and its executives avoid criminal prosecution. However, there are multiple examples of money laundering cases against big banks where the corporations had already signed DPAs in previous money laundering cases, repeated their bad behavior, and received the same lenient treatment all over again. As a result, the big financial corporations appear to view fines for corrupt behavior as a routine cost of doing business. [6]

The persistence of corruption in the financial industry makes clear the need for stronger steps to deter future illegal behavior. Stronger government regulation and significant financial and criminal punishments for the corporations (e.g., truly significant fines and, ultimately, revocation of their corporate charters, putting them out of business) and for their executives (e.g., jail time and personal fines) are needed. The industry and its supporters among our elected officials have fought back hard and largely successfully against efforts to strengthen regulation and consumer protection in the wake of the 2008 financial collapse, so not only is there much work to do but, in addition, it will be a tough fight.

[1]      Enrich, D., 2020, “Dark Towers,” HarperCollins Publishers, NY, NY.

[2]      Woodman, S., 11/2/20, “Goldman Sachs 1MDB settlement: a meaningful punishment for major financial crimes?” International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (https://www.icij.org/inside-icij/2020/11/goldman-sachs-1mdb-settlement-a-meaningful-punishment-for-major-financial-crimes/)

[3]      Collins, C., 11/30/20, “Petulant plutocrat of the week,” Inequality.org weekly blog post from the Institute for Policy Studies (https://inequality.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/11/inequality-newsletter-november-30-2020.html)

[4]      Michaels, D., & Osipovich, A., 12/17/20, “Robinhood Financial to pay $65 million to settle SEC probe,” The Wall Street Journal

[5]      Denham, H., 12/18/20, “Robinhood agrees to $65m penalty to resolve SEC charges,” The Boston Globe from the Washington Post

[6]      Woodman, S., 11/2/20, see above

PROGRESSIVE PROGRESS IN THE 2020 ELECTIONS

Despite the mixed messages of the 2020 elections, there were significant progressive gains and the public continues to strongly support many progressive policies. Despite the claims of some centrist or corporate Democrats that progressive candidates and messages undermined some Democratic candidates, the four most visible progressives in the U.S. House (the so-called Squad) all got re-elected with between 64% and 87% of the vote: Ocasio-Cortez (NY), Omar (MN), Pressley (MA), and Tlaib (MI). In addition, five new, similarly progressive candidates were elected to the House, three of whom beat conservative Democratic incumbents in their primary races: Newman (IL), Bush (MO), Leger Fernandez (NM), Bowman (NY), and Jones (NY). [1] Furthermore, the grassroots organizing and energizing of Representatives Omar and Tlaib were significant factors in Biden’s wins in Minnesota and Michigan. In Omar’s district, her extensive grassroots efforts resulted in 88% turnout, compared to 67% nationally. [2]

Of the 93 sponsors of the Green New Deal in the U.S. House, 92 won re-election. All the congressional candidates running for re-election who supported Medicare for All won. [3] A recent poll found that 72% of the public support “transitioning to a government-run healthcare plan.”

In addition to the U.S. House, progressive candidates are running and winning in state and local races all over the country. Some of these candidates are in places and races you wouldn’t expect, such as an openly lesbian woman running and winning for sheriff in southwestern Ohio  (70% of the vote against the incumbent). [4] In Maine, Chloe Maxmin upset the Republican leader of the state Senate in a rural, Republican district. A one-term Representative, she had introduced Green New Deal legislation and campaigned on progressive issues such as broadband access and public transportation. [5] She won with 51% of the vote. Eight of nine state Senate candidates endorsed by the progressive Maine People’s Alliance, including Maxmin, won. In addition,  nine members of a progressive group of former teachers running for the Maine legislature won their races. [6]

Many progressive ballot initiatives were passed across the country in November: [7]

  • Arizona: Increased its income tax rate by 3.5% on those making over $250,000 to increase funding for public education.
  • Colorado: Provided 12 weeks of paid family leave.
  • Colorado: Joined the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact to bypass the Electoral College.
  • Florida: Increased its minimum wage to $15 an hour by 2026.
  • Mississippi: Required a run-off election in statewide office races if the winner doesn’t receive 50% of the vote.
  • Oregon: Limited campaign contributions and spending, as well as required disclosure of contributions, expenditures, and sponsors of political ads.
  • Virginia: Established an independent redistricting commission to draw electoral district lines rather than letting the legislature do so.

The expansion of Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act (aka Obama Care), which provides free health insurance to low-income families and individuals, continues to enjoy broad public support, including by two-thirds of the adults in the 12 states that have not taken advantage of this federal program. In 2020, Missouri (in August) and Oklahoma (in June) used ballot initiatives to expand Medicaid when their state legislators refused to do so. Idaho, Nebraska, and Utah had done this in 2018 and Maine did it in 2017. An estimated 650,000 essential, front-line workers would get health insurance if the remaining 12 states adopted Medicaid expansion. In states that have expanded Medicaid, only 17% of workers are uninsured compared to 30% in states that haven’t done so. [8]

Finally, without the voter suppression tactics of the Republicans, the November election would have been an overwhelming landslide for Biden. In nineteen states, Republicans have implemented needlessly strict voter ID requirements that keep disproportionately Democratic voters from voting. It is estimated that 25 million citizens do not have a government-issued ID that is required to vote. With reasonable voter ID requirements, Biden would most probably have won Texas and Ohio and the Georgia result wouldn’t have been close. In Florida, the Republicans most probably stole the election from Biden by defying a successful ballot initiative that restored the voting rights of people who had been convicted of a felony and had completed their prison sentences. Republicans’ voter suppression efforts also included limiting the number of drop-off boxes for early voters’ ballots and closing polling locations in multiple states, making it more difficult for voters to vote and leading to long waiting lines to vote. No one knows how many voters were unable to vote or were discouraged from voting by these tactics. [9]

The debacle President Trump and his Postmaster General DeJoy created at the U.S. Postal Service resulted in hundreds of thousands of ballots not being counted. The exact number is unknown but some ballots were simply not delivered and many were delivered after the deadlines for counting them; 30 states do not count ballots that arrive after election day and the others require them to be postmarked by election day and set various deadlines for their receipt. [10]

So, for all of you who are supporters of progressive policies as I am, we’re making progress. Let’s keep organizing, lobbying, and working for our progressive goals of economic and social justice and a democracy that works. Poll after poll shows that the American public supports progressive policies. We need to get our elected officials to act on behalf of all of us rather than on behalf of their wealthy campaign contributors.

[1]      Ballotpedia, retrieved 12/12/20, “United States House of Representatives elections, 2020,” (https://ballotpedia.org/United_States_House_of_Representatives_elections,_2020)

[2]      Stancil, K., 11/5/20, “Omar and Tlaib credited as ‘major factors’ in securing Biden victories in Minnesota and Michigan,” Common Dreams (https://www.commondreams.org/news/2020/11/05/omar-and-tlaib-credited-major-factors-securing-biden-victories-minnesota-and)

[3]      Stancil, K., 11/9/20, “99% of Green New Deal co-sponsors won their races this cycle: analysis,” Common Dreams (https://www.commondreams.org/news/2020/11/09/99-green-new-deal-co-sponsors-won-their-races-cycle-analysis)

[4]      Hightower, J., October 2020, “ ‘Good trouble’ candidates are winning – and rebuilding politics from the ground up,” The Hightower Lowdown (https://hightowerlowdown.org/article/good-trouble-candidates-are-winning-and-rebuilding-politics-from-the-ground-up/)

[5]      Conley, J., 11/6/20, “ ‘I mostly listen’: Offering blueprint for Democrats, Green New Deal champion Chloe Maxmin unseats powerful GOP incumbent in rural Maine,” Common Dreams (https://www.commondreams.org/news/2020/11/06/i-mostly-listen-offering-blueprint-democrats-green-new-deal-champion-chloe-maxmin)

[6]      McFadden, A., 11/4/20, “Maxmin topples Dow as Democrats keep majorities in Maine Legislature,” Maine Beacon (https://mainebeacon.com/maxmin-topples-dow-as-democrats-hold-onto-majorities-in-maine-legislature/)

[7]      Ballotpedia, retrieved 12/12/20, “2020 ballot measures,” (https://ballotpedia.org/2020_ballot_measures#Notable_topics_and_unique_measures_in_2020)

[8]      Covert, B., 10/21/20, “The pandemic sent Americans’ health care coverage into free fall,” The Nation (https://www.thenation.com/article/society/covid-healthcare-unemployment/)

[9]      Kuttner, R., 11/4/20, “The shadow election you didn’t see,” The American Prospect (https://prospect.org/politics/shadow-election-you-didnt-see-voter-suppression/)

[10]     Editorial, 11/7/20, “Louis DeJoy must be investigated,” The Boston Globe

MONEY IN THE 2020 ELECTIONS

Our elections are, sadly, largely about money. The 2020 elections were the most expensive on record by a good margin; roughly $14 billion was spent on federal campaigns. This is over twice as much as the runner up, the 2016 election. The presidential race cost roughly $6.6 billion, a record, up from $2.4 billion in 2016. [1]

The big news is that nine of the ten most expensive U.S. Senate races of all time occurred in 2020. Those nine races cost close to $2.1 billion (so far) with North Carolina ($299 million) and South Carolina ($277 million) leading the way with Kentucky ($180 million) at the bottom of the top ten. Amazingly, these are not states with big populations and expensive advertising markets, which is where the expensive races often occur. The two Georgia Senate races, currently engaged in run-off elections, will almost certainly be in the top ten when the regular and run-off election spending is combined. Of the eight decided 2020 races, Republican incumbents won all of them except the Arizona race where Mark Kelly won the special election against Senator McSally, who had been appointed to replace Senator Kyl. [2]

The candidate who spends the most money typically wins, although this year “only” 72% of Senate candidates who spent the most won, which is a two-decade low. Notably, in very expensive races, incumbents who held onto their seats spent less than their challengers. This reflects the value of incumbency, but may also reflect that there is a saturation point for money, which is largely spent on advertising. At some point, the voters may get overwhelmed by the avalanche of advertising and more spending on more advertising may have diminishing or no benefit. Another unusual characteristic of the 2020 elections was that Democratic congressional candidates out-raised Republicans by $1.2 billion to $691 million. Nonetheless, Democrats lost seats in the House and made only slight gains in the Senate.

The amount of money spent by outside groups (i.e., not by the candidates themselves) set a record. More and more of this outside money is flowing through “dark money” groups that hide the identities of their donors.  Outside spending is theoretically independent of the candidates’ campaigns and therefore lacks any accountability for what is said and done. The top two Senate races for outside spending were North Carolina at $221 million and Iowa at $174 million.

On the other end of the spectrum, small individual donations ($200 or less) to federal candidates set a record at $1.8 billion. As-of mid-October, small donors had already contributed over three times as much as they did through election day in 2016. Their donations represent 27% of contributions to federal candidates (up from 21% in 2016) but still only 13% of total spending. This record giving probably results from the increased ease of contributing using on-line technology and the heightened focus on and polarization of national politics.

Out-of-state contributions to congressional candidates set records, increasing for both Democrats and Republicans in both House and Senate races. Notably, Democrats running for the Senate raised a record 80% of donations from out-of-state; Democratic candidates in Kentucky and South Carolina raised more than 90% of their money from out-of-state.

Campaign contributions by women set a record. Their giving to federal candidates was $1.4 billion or 41% of the total, up from $590 million and 36% in 2016. Their giving represented 45% of Democratic candidates’ fundraising and 33% for Republicans; both of which are records.

In summary, the bad news is that huge contributions are fueling incredible levels of campaign spending. It is important to reflect on who is contributing these huge amounts to candidates and outside groups, why are they doing it, and what they expect in return. People and organizations that give this kind of money don’t just throw their money away, they invest it and are looking for a return on investment. They are looking for policies that benefit them and their companies.

The good news is that contributions from small donors are increasing and can fuel a serious campaign even for our highest elected offices. Increasing participation by women is also good news. Nonetheless, the people who contribute at all to political campaigns are a very small fraction of voters.

A major transformation of our campaign finance system is needed if we want elected officials to be beholden to their constituents and not to wealthy campaign contributors; in other words, if we want democracy instead of plutocracy. Limits are needed on who can contribute (e.g., not corporations) and how much can be contributed – which will require a constitutional amendment given Supreme Court decisions such as Citizens United. In the meantime, increased disclosure of campaign contributions is needed, in part to eliminate “dark money” so voters know who is spending money on a candidate’s campaign.

A campaign finance system that encourages and rewards small contributions to candidates is needed. Such a system would match small contributions with public money. This would allow and encourage a greater diversity of candidates to run for office.  It would also allow limitations on who and how much can be given to anyone who accepts the public funding. The ultimate result would be elected officials who are beholden to voters, not wealthy contributors, and a return to government of, by, and for the people, rather than a plutocracy where the wealthy rule and get favorable treatment from government.

 

[1]      OpenSecrets.org & Followthemoney.org, 11/19/20, “Unprecedented donations poured into 2020 state and federal races,” Center for Responsive Politics (https://www.opensecrets.org/news/2020/11/2020-state-and-federal-races-nimp)

[2]      Miller, E., 12/9/20, “Nine of the 10 most expensive Senate races of all time happened in 2020,” OpenSecrets.org, Center for Responsive Politics (https://www.opensecrets.org/news/2020/12/most-expensive-races-of-all-time-senate2020)

REPUBLICANS ARE ALREADY UNDERMINING BIDEN’S PRESIDENCY

Republicans, led by President Trump and Senator Mitch McConnell (KY), are already  undermining Senator Biden’s presidency. This is all about politics. They want the Biden presidency and the Democrats to be unable to do much to help working people and the economy because that will make it easier for them to win seats in Congress in 2022 and the presidency in 2024. This is the same reason that Sen. McConnell said at the beginning of each of Obama’s terms as president that his goal was to keep Obama from passing any legislation.

Trump and McConnell are working to ensure that Biden begins his presidency with crises to face: a high number of COVID cases; an economy in a shambles; a safety net with as many holes in it as possible; angry divisions in the country over election results, racism, and immigration; and international crises with Iran and China and in Afghanistan and the Middle East.

Moreover, Trump and McConnell are trying to limit the resources and flexibility that President Biden has to tackle these crises. They are undermining efforts to control the pandemic and provide economic relief by:

  • Letting the coronavirus spread with no effort from the federal government to slow it,
  • Retracting funding Congress has appropriated for pandemic relief from the Federal Reserve and perhaps other agencies or programs, and
  • Refusing to pass any significant pandemic relief and predicating any relief on the elimination of employer and business liability for workers or customers who get COVID.

Normally, the outgoing president defers important decisions to the incoming president and refrains from making personnel changes in his lame duck period. George W. Bush did so after Obama was elected and Obama did so for Trump. However, Trump is doing just the opposite. He is aggressively replacing personnel at the Defense Department and elsewhere. He is issuing executive orders and making personnel policy changes that will make it hard for President Biden to undo his actions. He is appointing partisan loyalists to scientific and advisory panels, weakening environmental regulations, and repealing health care regulations. He is carrying out executions, giving out oil drilling leases on public lands, and withdrawing troops from Somalia and Afghanistan. He is inflaming tensions with Iran, which will make it harder for President Biden to re-engage Iran in a treaty to block its ability to build a nuclear bomb. (Iran now has twelve times as much enriched uranium as it would have had if Trump hadn’t abrogated the Iran nuclear accord.) Some of Trump’s advisors have been upfront in stating that their actions are meant to limit President Biden’s policy options. [1]

Treasury Secretary Mnuchin is taking multiple actions that will prevent President Biden from having the flexibility to quickly use remaining resources from the March relief bill to respond to economic hardship. Mnuchin announced that on December 31 he will suspend the Treasury Department’s lending program that supports businesses and local governments. He is also requiring the Federal Reserve to return about $250 billion that was appropriated for pandemic relief and putting $455 billion into a fund that will require congressional authorization before Biden can spend it. [2] Even the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the lobbying arm of big corporations, objected to Mnuchin’s actions and called for Congress to pass additional pandemic relief to support the economy. David Wilcox, a former chief economist for the Federal Reserve, said, “The most obvious interpretation is that the Trump administration is seeking to debilitate the economic recovery as much as possible on the way out of the door.” [3] [4]

Senator McConnell has refused to act on a $3 trillion pandemic relief bill the House passed in May, despite a call from 125 bipartisan economists for a relief package to address the economic crisis, which includes quickly escalating poverty as the benefits of the March relief bill expire. (Just about the only business McConnell has the Senate doing is approving right-wing federal judges.) As poverty and hunger are surging across the country, key components of a relief bill are enhanced unemployment benefits, aid to state and local governments, and increased food assistance. Some sustained relief will be needed until the pandemic is under control and the economy has recovered. [5]

Aid to state and local governments is critical because, faced with plunging tax revenue, they have cut 1.3 million jobs since February. There is no more effective, tried and true way of reducing unemployment and supporting economic recovery than providing aid to state and local governments; we know this from the 2008 recession. If families don’t have jobs and income, if parents can’t work because schools and child care are closed, local economies suffer. Every dollar of assistance to state and local governments boosts local economies by $1.70 due to the spending and re-spending of that dollar as it cycles through local workers and businesses. [6]

Senator McConnell appears to be more focused on limiting the liability of corporations when workers or customers get COVID than providing relief to workers, such as unemployment benefits for the 12 million workers whose benefits will run out before the end of December. He is also talking about imposing austerity on the federal government by focusing on cutting the deficit during Biden’s presidency. He wasn’t concerned about the deficit when President Trump increased it to levels not seen since World War II or when he cut taxes in 2017 for wealthy individuals and corporations, which increased the deficit by over one hundred billion dollars a year. Furthermore, austerity, i.e., cutting federal spending, will weaken and slow the economic recovery, hurting all Americans other than the wealthy, as we know from the aftermath of the 2008 recession. [7]

Despite the good news that vaccines will be ready for distribution soon, Republicans in Congress and the White House are not even talking about providing the funding needed to distribute the vaccines, which is estimated to be $30 billion. It also appears that there’s no or little planning happening in the Trump administration for vaccine distribution. With over a thousand people dying daily of COVID, one would think this would be a bipartisan priority, but Republican politics appear to trump even this essential public health initiative. [8]

Trump, McConnell, and many other Republicans are putting politics ahead of the best interests of the country and its people. This is sabotage and treasonous. We must all speak up against this unprecedented, corrupt behavior. I urge you to contact your U.S. Representative and Senators and ask them to take action to provide necessary relief in the face of this pandemic and to ensure a smooth and respectful transition to the Biden presidency.

You can find contact information for your US Representative at  http://www.house.gov/representatives/find/ and for your US Senators at http://www.senate.gov/general/contact_information/senators_cfm.cfm.

[1]      Shear, M. D., 11/22/20, “Trump using last days to lock in policies and make Biden’s task more difficult,” The Boston Globe from The New York Times

[2]      Mohsin, S., 11/25/20, “Mnuchin to put $455 billion in funds out of Yellen’s easy reach,” The Boston Globe from Bloomberg News

[3]      Richardson, H. C., 11/24/20, “Letters from an American blog post,” (https://heathercoxrichardson.substack.com/p/november-24-2020

[4]      Smialek, J., & Rappeport, A., 11/20/20, “Mnuchin to end some emergency Fed programs,” The Boston Globe from The New York Times

[5]      Johnson, J., 11/24/20, “ ‘Go big, and stay big’: Economists call for $3 trillion Covid relief package to stop nation’s descent into ruin,” Common Dreams (https://www.commondreams.org/news/2020/11/24/go-big-and-stay-big-economists-call-3-trillion-covid-relief-package-stop-nations)

[6]      Tahmincioglu, E., 8/25/20, “The way out through state and local aid,” Economic Policy Institute (https://www.epi.org/blog/state-and-local-aid-bipartisan-economists-video/)

[7]      Johnson, J., 12/2/20, “Critics smell ‘economic sabotage’ as McConnell unveils Covid plan with $0 for unemployment boost, direct payments,” Common Dreams (https://www.commondreams.org/news/2020/12/02/critics-smell-economic-sabotage-mcconnell-unveils-covid-plan-0-unemployment-boost)

[8]      Dayen, D., 11/30/20, “Unsanitized: The COVID-19 Report for Nov. 30, 2020,” The American Prospect (https://prospect.org/coronavirus/unsanitized-vaccine-distribution-gaps-transparency-funding/)

EXAMPLES OF CORRUPT CORPORATE BEHAVIOR Part 2

Here are three recent examples of corrupt corporate behavior. They show the breadth of greed-driven corporate corruption from seriously harming public health to illegal market manipulation to criminal money laundering. (This previous post highlighted three other examples.)

Example #1: As one of the most egregious cases of corporate corruption moves toward an end, Purdue Pharma (the maker and incredibly corrupt promoter of the addictive, opioid pain killer OxyContin) has pleaded guilty to criminal charges. It has admitted to:

  • Impeding the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) in its efforts to stem the crisis of opioid addiction,
  • Failing to have effective procedures to prevent diversion of prescription OxyContin to the black market while assuring the DEA that it did,
  • Lying to the DEA to get approval to produce greater amounts of OxyContin, and
  • Paying kickbacks to doctors and engaging in other illegal schemes to get doctors to increase their prescribing of OxyContin.

These guilty pleas were part of a settlement of criminal and civil charges with the federal Department of Justice that will require the company to pay $8.3 billion in penalties and forfeitures over a number of years. The majority of this money will go to state, local, and tribal governments to pay for treatment and prevention of opioid addiction. Over the last 20 years, the opioid crisis has contributed to over 470,000 deaths in the U.S. and it appears to be getting worse during the coronavirus pandemic. [1] The $8.3 billion amount, if calculated on a per death basis, values each death at less than $18,000, without including any calculation of the harm to those who have or are suffering from OxyContin-related drug abuse but have, so far, survived.

Attorneys general of about half of the states are opposing the settlement, asking for harsher penalties for the company and particularly for the members of the Sackler family who owned and controlled Purdue. Under current settlement provisions, the very wealthy Sackler family will pay only $225 million to settle civil charges. No criminal charges have been filed against them, although that is still a possibility. (Here’s a previous post with more details about Purdue.)

Example #2: Teva Pharmaceutical has been charged by the U.S. Department of Justice with conspiring to fix prices and manipulate the market for generic drugs. The criminal charges allege that these actions resulted in at least $350 million in overcharges over a 3 ½ year period. Five other generic drug makers that were also part of this investigation have pleaded guilty and have agreed to pay a total of $426 million to settle the charges against them. Teva and these other companies are also facing civil lawsuits by states’ attorneys general and others. [2]

Teva fills 10% of the generic drug prescriptions in the U.S. and a criminal conviction could lead to it being banned from doing business with Medicare and Medicaid. A conviction would also weaken its defense against the civil lawsuits.

Example #3: At least $100 billion a year of cash flows through U.S. banks that is abetting tax dodging, fraud, corruption, or money laundering for drug dealers, terrorists, and other unsavory individuals and entities. Banks are required to file Suspicious Activity Reports for transactions that may involve criminal activity. Typically, these reports are not public but over 2,000 of them were recently leaked and they identified over 18,000 suspicious transactions between 1999 and 2017. And this may just be the tip of the iceberg. Banks report these suspicious transactions but go ahead and process them (instead of blocking them) because they earn significant fees on them. Almost half of the suspicious money flowed through Deutsche Bank’s U.S. subsidiary, but just about every prominent U.S. bank was involved. [3]

Exacerbating the problem is the fact that often the corporations that conduct these cash transfers are created and registered in states, notably Delaware, or offshore tax havens (e.g., Cayman Islands and the Virgin Islands) where disclosure of the true owner(s) of the corporation (those who will benefit from its activities) is not required. This combination of corrupt banks, weak banking regulations, and lax corporate registration requirements has led to the U.S. being one of the preferred global destinations for tainted money.

One of the frequent activities of these shell companies (i.e., companies with unidentified owners and no purpose other than to facilitate anonymous movement of cash) is to purchase high-end real estate. A large portion of luxury real estate in Boston and Seattle, for example, is purchased by shell companies, often with cash (i.e., no mortgage loan). Experiments with temporary local transparency rules, such as requiring the disclosure of the true owners on cash real estate transactions of over $1 million, has resulted in declines in such transactions of 70% to 95%. Legislation has been introduced in Congress to require full disclosure of the beneficial owner(s) of all corporations but it is not making any progress.

Clearly, to prevent corrupt corporate behavior, the U.S. needs stronger regulation of corporations, from its biggest banks to drug companies to shell corporations. Without it, greed runs wild and corrupt U.S. corporations will aid and abet drug dealing, terrorism, and harm to the health and financial well-being of mainstream Americans. These corrupt activities also, of course, result in the rich in getting richer at the expense of everyday Americans.

[1]      Mulvihill, G., 11/25/20, “OxyContin maker Purdue pleads guilty to criminal charges,” The Boston Globe from the Associated Press

[2]      Griffin, R., 8/27/20, “Teva fights US claims of price fixing,” The Boston Globe from Bloomberg News

[3]      Collins, C., 9/21/20, “FinCen files shine spotlight on suspicious bank transfers,” Common Dreams (https://www.commondreams.org/views/2020/09/21/fincen-files-shine-spotlight-suspicious-bank-transfers)

FACEBOOK KNOWINGLY PROMOTES DISINFORMATION

Facebook (FB) facilitates an accelerating spread of disinformation; this is widely recognized and well-documented. (See my previous post on this.) Facebook allows toxic speech and dangerous misinformation to spread unchecked on its monopolistic platform. This affects and infects our public discourse and knowledge base, undermining the health of our democracy. However, stopping it runs counter to Facebook’s economic interests because increased activity, regardless of its content, is what increases its revenue. [1]

Recently, damning evidence has come to light of Facebook’s manipulation of its News Feed to favor right-wing sources that are known to be deceptive over trustworthy news sources.

In late 2017, Facebook was in the process of making significant changes in the computer programming code or algorithm it uses to determine which of the overwhelming plethora of sources each of us is shown in our Facebook News Feed. It claimed it was working to bring people together and to prioritize trusted and informative news sources.

It was uncovered recently that FB ran experiments with its first iteration of a revised News Feed algorithm that revealed it would dramatically curtail the dissemination of right-wing, less-than-trustworthy sites, such as Breitbart, the Daily Wire, and the Daily Caller. FB’s software engineers were told to modify the algorithm to reduce the negative effects on these right-wing sites.

A second iteration of the new algorithm was ready in January 2018 and its effects were presented to senior executives at FB. The data showed that it reversed the curtailment of right-wing, less-than-trustworthy sites and instead curtailed distribution of progressive-leaning, credible news sources. The presentation included bar charts showing the impact on a dozen or so specific news sources.

This second iteration of the new News Feed algorithm was, nonetheless, put into use, based in part on support from FB’s Vice President of Global Public Policy, Joel Kaplan, and right-wing-leaning employees working for him. (Kaplan would later loudly support his friend Brett Kavanaugh during Kavanaugh’s Supreme Court confirmation hearings.) This was not the first time Kaplan had acted to promote right-wing disinformation. For example, in December 2016, when an internal investigation found that a group of FB accounts, mostly based overseas, were behind a lot of the promotion of right-wing disinformation, Kaplan objected to disabling these accounts because “it will disproportionately affect conservatives.” He also has defended and protected right-wing sites that violated FB policies, opposing sanctions on them. [2]

The new News Feed algorithm expanded dissemination of content from the right-wing Daily Wire that routinely shares false content and spreads malicious stories such as ones describing being transgendered as a “delusion,”  calling abortion providers “assassins,” and labeling progressive members of Congress as not “loyal to America.” On the other hand, the new algorithm reduced dissemination of content from left-leaning Mother Jones magazine that provides rigorously fact-checked reporting and investigative journalism that has won it numerous journalism awards, including seven National Magazine Awards (three times for General Excellence). It has also been a National Magazine Award finalist 24 other times. In 2017, it won the Magazine of the Year award from the American Society of Magazine Editors.

In the six months after implementation of the changes in Facebook’s News Feed algorithm, FB traffic to trustworthy, left-leaning Mother Jones articles declined 37% from the previous six months. This means that the over one million Mother Jones followers and others on FB saw fewer of its articles in their News Feeds. On the other hand, over the summer of 2020, the deceptive right-wing Daily Wire had more Facebook engagement (i.e., likes, comments, and shares) than any other English-language publisher in the world. [3]

These data belie Zuckerberg’s claim when he announced the News Feed changes in January 2018 that the goals were “bringing people closer together” and fighting “sensationalism, misinformation and polarization.” He didn’t mention that he and FB were tipping the scales to favor less-than-factual right-wing sources.

Why did this happen? Facebook was tweaking its News Feed algorithm because user engagement was falling, which threatened its revenue and stock price. Zuckerberg and FB may also have wanted to avoid antagonizing Trump and the right-wing Republicans in power in the federal government, thereby reducing the likelihood that they would attack FB either verbally or through government investigations and regulations. Right-wing and “conservative” politicians had been criticizing FB for “liberal” bias (without evidence). A former Facebook employee said that it was made clear  that changes to the News Feed algorithm could not hurt Breitbart, Trump-advisor Steve Bannon’s mouthpiece.

Facebook uses its monopolistic power to determine which publishers’ content the public sees. This power of selective partial censorship and propaganda promotion is Big Brother-type power that we all should be concerned about and fear. Free speech in today’s America  is relative; it is based on how much money one has to broadcast one’s voice or on how FB treats you. Zuckerberg’s claim that he supports unfettered free speech is disingenuous given that FB tips the scales to favor certain sources and disfavor others.

FB’s marketplace power and dissemination of harmful disinformation need to be addressed by government policies and regulations. Slowing the spread of  misinformation and malicious content from a handful of the most active and therefore most harmful sites would have a dramatic effect.

Facebook should be held accountable for disseminating false, misleading, or inflammatory content. Regulation is one way to do this and competition is another. As a monopolistic platform lacking competition, FB has no incentive to do anything but pursue profits and/or Zuckerberg’s personal agenda. FB should be regulated like a monopolistic utility as the phone company once was or as private electricity and gas utilities are. Anti-trust laws should be used to stop FB’s anti-competitive practices and its acquisitions of Instagram and WhatsApp should be reversed. Competition should be facilitated, for example, by creating a not-for-profit, free to users, Internet platform for responsible information sharing and journalism akin to public radio and TV.

I’m not a heavy FB user so my expertise on its on-the-ground operation is limited. Therefore, I welcome your suggestions on how we can send a message to Facebook and Zuckerberg that will be heard loudly and clearly on the issue of the quality of content in its News Feed as well as other issues such as its repeated violations of users’ privacy. Would a one-day boycott where we don’t log into FB be effective? Or would a week where we never click on a FB ad be more meaningful? What else can we do? In addition, of course, to lobbying our elected officials to rein in Facebook and Zuckerberg with regulations and anti-trust laws.

[1]      Alba, D., 10/13/20, “False info thriving on social media,” The Boston Globe from The New York Times

[2]      Bauerlein, M., & Jeffrey, C., 10/21/20, “Facebook manipulated the news you see to appease Republicans, insiders say,” Mother Jones (https://www.motherjones.com/media/2020/10/facebook-mother-jones/)

[3]      Bauerlein, M., & Jeffrey, C., 10/21/20, see above

FACEBOOK’S DISSEMINATION OF DISINFORMATION ACCELERATES

 Facebook’s (FB) spreading of disinformation is accelerating, despite any claims to the contrary. Its CEO, Mark Zuckerberg, repeatedly says that he does not want FB to be an arbiter of free speech, but it is the arbiter of what information or speech FB users see.

Zuckerberg also asserts that the best way to fight offensive bad speech is with good speech. [1] However, this is a false equivalency as good speech that tries to counter bad speech has to mention the bad speech which furthers its presence in our public discourse. This has been shown by research to further embed the bad or false speech in people’s minds. For example, reporting on Trump’s tweets and stating they are false or misleading, still puts Trump’s tweets in front of the viewing or reading audience.

Facebook’s current stated standard is that posts that are not calling for harm or violence, however offensive, should be protected as free speech. Its new policy announced in October will finally ban posts that deny or distort the Holocaust. This is a very small and belated step forward against some of the worst and most obviously harmful disinformation that FB has spread. Almost a quarter of Americans between ages 18 and 39 say they believe the Holocaust either didn’t happen or was exaggerated. It may be difficult to link this directly to FB or to harm or violence but it’s hard to believe there is no linkage. [2]

Facebook allows toxic speech and dangerous misinformation to spread largely unchecked on its monopolistic platform. Engagement with FB posts (i.e., liking, sharing, or commenting on them) that are from sources that routinely publish misleading or false content tripled from 2016 to 2020, exceeding the rate of increase for outlets that uphold traditional journalistic standards.

This affects and infects our public discourse and knowledge base, undermining the health of our democracy. However, stopping it runs counter to Facebook’s economic interests because increased activity, regardless of its content, is what increases FB’s revenue. [3]

Over the summer and early fall of 2020, the Digital New Deal (DND) project examined engagement with posts on FB and analyzed the reliability of the posts’ sources. It partnered with NewsGuard, a non-partisan service that rates news and information sources for their accuracy. (See note on its methodology at the end of this post.) The DND project focused on 721 deceptive information sources and compared them with a selected group of non-deceptive sources. It categorized the sources into three types:

  1. False Content Producers: repeatedly publish verifiably false content (396 sources)
  2. Manipulators: fail to gather and present information responsibly (325 sources)
  3. Trustworthy Outlets (46 selected sources for comparison)

Engagement with posts from type 1 and 2 sources (referred to as deceptive sources) has grown 242% since 2016. Engagement with posts from Manipulators (type 2 sources) represents 84% of all deceptive source engagement and has grown from 390 million engagement actions in the 3rd quarter of 2016 to 1,520 million in the 3rd quarter of 2020 (almost fourfold). The deceptive sources with the most engagement on FB, including the top five in each of types 1 and 2, promote right-wing or “conservative” politics.

These deceptive sources, masquerading as news outlets, are spreading false information, manipulative messaging, and concocted conspiracies that degrade democratic discourse. This harms the health of our democracy because it undermines informed participation by citizens and voters. [4]

The top ten deceptive sources are all of the Manipulator type and account for 62% of FB engagement interactions with deceptive sources, while the other 711 deceptive sites are responsible for 38% of these interactions. Fox was the most frequent source in the Manipulator category. It is rated more positively by NewsGuard than many other deceptive sources because it sometimes does correct errors, avoids deceptive headlines, labels advertising, and discloses its ownership and financing. Other examples of Manipulators are the Daily Wire, Breitbart, and The Blaze.

My next post will provide even more damning evidence that FB’s goal is not to bring people together, to provide accurate information, or to fight sensationalism, misinformation, and polarization as Zuckerberg has said, but rather to maximize user engagement and profits, and perhaps to promote right-wing politics and curry favor with those in power in Washington, D.C. The post will highlight FB’s 2018 changes to its News Feed algorithm that determines what information or disinformation is presented to FB users. It will also present some ways to address FB’s monopolistic power and its dissemination of false and harmful content.

Note on the methodology for rating information sources used in the DND study summarized above: NewsGuard rates online news outlets based on nine criteria of responsible journalism including:

  • Does not repeatedly publish false content (22 points)
  • Gathers and presents information responsibly (18 points)
  • Regularly corrects or clarifies errors (12.5 points)
  • Handles the difference between news and opinion responsibly (12.5 points)
  • Avoids deceptive headlines (10 points)
  • Website discloses ownership and financing (7.5 points)
  • Clearly labels advertising (7.5 points)
  • Reveals who is in charge, including any possible conflicts of interest (5 points)
  • The site provides the names of content creators, along with either contact or biographical information (5 points)

Outlets receive points for passing a given criteria or they receive zero for failing. A total score of less than 60 merits a Red rating, meaning the site fails to adhere to basic journalistic standards.

[1]      The Associated Press, 10/12/20, “Facebook bans Holocaust denial, distortion posts”

[2]      Frenkel, S., 10/13/20, “Facebook bans Holocaust denial content,” The Boston Globe from The New York Times

[3]      Alba, D., 10/13/20, “False info thriving on social media,” The Boston Globe from The New York Times

[4]      Kornbluh, K., Goldstein, A., & Weiner, E., 10/12/20, “New study by Digital New Deal finds engagement with deceptive outlets higher on Facebook today than run-up to 2016 election,” Digital New Deal, German Marshall Fund of the United States (https://www.gmfus.org/blog/2020/10/12/new-study-digital-new-deal-finds-engagement-deceptive-outlets-higher-facebook-today)

HOW THE RICH GET RICHER Part 1

I’m planning on doing a series of, hopefully, short posts (although this one’s on the long side) with anecdotes on how the rich get richer, often at the expense of the rest of us. Here’s the first installment with three examples.

Example #1: At least 18 large companies have given executives large payouts just before filing for bankruptcy. These companies have laid off tens of thousands of workers but gave a collective $135 million to executives just before filing for bankruptcy. Bankruptcy attorneys note that the payouts were timed to skirt a 2005 law intended to prevent executives from prospering as their companies failed. The intent was to ban payouts that unfairly enrich the executives who drove their companies into bankruptcy. Such huge payouts are particularly egregious during an economic crisis when employees of the companies are suffering severe hardships. [1]

Example #2: Some members of Congress and some Trump administration supporters, who were privy to private early briefings on the seriousness of the coronavirus, made investment decisions that appear to have  been based on this non-public, inside information. Under the Stock Act of 2012, members of Congress are barred from using non-public information they get as a member of Congress to buy or sell personal stock holdings. However, at least four members of Congress made significant stock transactions in late February just before the stock market crashed. The private briefings they received on the potential seriousness of a pandemic would be considered insider information because this information was not available to the public. Moreover, at that time, the public information from the Trump administration and from an Op-Ed written by Senator Burr was reassuring the public that the U.S. was well prepared for a pandemic and had the coronavirus under control.

Senator Burr of North Carolina, as chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, had received multiple briefings on the seriousness of the coronavirus. On February 13, 2020, less than a week after publishing his upbeat Op-Ed, he sold 33 stocks worth over $600 thousand (and perhaps as much as $1.7 million) in several industries likely to be hard hit by a pandemic. Senator Kelly Loeffler of Georgia made 29 stock transactions in late February, including buying over $100,000 worth of a company providing software tools for working remotely. Senator Inhofe of Oklahoma sold up to $750,000 worth of stock and Senator Dianne Feinstein of California sold millions of dollars of stocks. All four Senators have denied doing anything illegal. Senator Burr’s brother-in-law also sold significant stock holdings on the same day as the Senator. Providing investment tips to others based on inside information is illegal. [2]

On February 24 and 25, at a private meeting of the conservative Hoover Institution’s board, senior members of Trump’s economic team expressed uncertainty about how the coronavirus would affect the economy. However, on these same days, President Trump and the same economic advisers were saying publicly that the coronavirus was under control and that the economy and the stock market looked good. The president’s advisers appear to have been giving an early warning to wealthy party donors that contradicted their public statements. A hedge fund consultant, William Callanan, who is a Hoover board member and attended the meeting, circulated a memo about this to a hedge fund founder and others that gave them the ability to make investment decisions based on this non-public information. [3] This would appear to be illegal insider trading facilitated by the Trump administration’s private briefings.

Example #3: Insiders at companies developing COVID vaccines and treatments have been selling their companies’ stock and making millions of dollars. Insiders, including executives and board members, at a dozen of these companies have sold more than $1.3 billion in company stock since March 2020 when the seriousness of COVID became evident. In the same period last year, insiders at these companies sold just $74 million of stock, less than 6% of 2020 sales. Over $1.1 billion of these stock sales occurred at just three companies – Moderna, Regeneron Pharmaceuticals, and Vaxart. In particular, the chief medical officer (CMO) at Moderna is systematically liquidating all his stock, including stock obtained by exercising stock options granted to him, through planned weekly trades that are making him $1 million a week. Moderna’s chief executive officer (CEO) has sold nearly $58 million in stock, although he still retains substantial company stock.

Insiders are not allowed to sell company stock based on insider information, but can legally sell company stock under plans that schedule the stock sales in advance. However, these plans are relatively easy to change on short notice, which can make them at least appear to be an end run around illegal insider trading. Moderna’s CMO modified his plan on March 13 and its CEO did so on May 21 shortly after the company announced positive preliminary results from its vaccine development. Insiders have an incentive to exaggerate and hype good news while downplaying possible challenges or uncertainties in order to inflate their company’s stock price and increase their personal profit from sales of company stock. Vaxart is being sued by shareholders for misleading them while a hedge fund with ties to a board member was selling hundreds of millions of dollars of company stock.

This insider stock selling at companies working on COVID responses is particularly concerning because many of these companies have received substantial funding from the federal government under Operation Warp Speed, the government’s initiative to accelerate development of a COVID vaccine. Moderna is receiving $1 billion to support the clinical trial of a possible vaccine and has been promised another $1.5 billion to manufacture and distribute a successful vaccine. Taxpayers are paying for the risky up-front investments while executives and shareholders are (already) reaping the financial benefits even though no vaccine has yet completed testing. [4]

These last two examples indicate that selling (and buying) stocks based on non-public information is not uncommon. Some of it is clearly illegal but enforcement is sometimes difficult or lax and some of it either isn’t illegal or has been given a gloss of legality by allowing company insiders to engaged in scheduled stock sales.

In any case, it appears that the Trump Administration and federal government regulations have effectively institutionalized insider trading. Those investing in the stock market without insider connections should stand forewarned.

[1]      Washington Post, 10/28/20, “Failing firms’ executives got millions,” The Boston Globe

[2]      Burns, K., & Millhiser, I., 5/14/20, “Sen. Richard Burr and the coronavirus insider trading scandal, explained,” Vox (https://www.vox.com/policy-and-politics/2020/5/14/21258560/senator-richard-burr-coronavirus-insider-trading-scandal-explained)

[3]      Kelly, K., & Mazzetti, M., 10/15/20, “As virus spread early on, briefings from Trump administration fueled sell-off,” The Boston Globe from The New York Times

[4]      Wallack, T., 10/24/20, “Drug company insiders are profiting handsomely from the world’s desperate hope for a COVID-19 vaccine,” The Boston Globe

THE MOST EXPENSIVE ELECTION EVER

Our elections are, sadly, largely about money. Therefore, an election season can’t go by without a post about campaign spending.

The 2020 elections will be the most expensive on record by a good margin – over twice as expensive as the runner up, the 2016 election – and the amount of that money spent by outside groups (i.e., not by the candidates themselves) will also set a record. More and more of this outside money is flowing through entities that hide the identities of their donors.

It is projected that over $14 billion (yes, that’s billion) will be spent on the 2020 campaigns. Well over $2.5 billion of that total will be spent by outside groups, where candidates (supposedly) don’t control the spending or the message. This means there’s little or no accountability for the content and that the names of donors are often hidden. The spending by outside groups has skyrocketed since the 2010 Supreme Court decision called Citizens United that allowed these groups to raise and spend unlimited amounts of money, including money from corporations. [1] Spending by these groups is roughly double what it was in 2016. Only 30% of outside spending is being done by groups that fully disclose their donors, which is a record low. [2]

The presidential race is projected to see a record $6.6 billion in spending, up from $2.4 billion in 2016. Democratic presidential candidate Senator Joe Biden is setting fundraising records as he and Democratic Congressional candidates are, uncharacteristically, out-raising Republican candidates. After a slow start, Biden has raised $949 million, setting a monthly fundraising record recently – a stunning $282 million raised in September. $368 million of that total (39%) has come from small donors ($200 or less) with the remaining $581 million coming from big donors. President Trump has raised $594 million. His September amount was down significantly after having consistently raised about $100 million a month in 2020. $268 million of his total (45%) has come from small donors with the remaining $326 million coming from big donors. [3]

Races for the U.S. Senate are setting spending records as well. The North Carolina Senate race has already set the record for the most expensive congressional race ever with $265 million in spending by the candidates and outside groups. The Iowa Senate race is second with $218 million in spending. As-of mid-October, 2020 already has eight of the ten most expensive Senate races ever. [4] As has happened before, the highest profile races are raising high percentages of their funding from out-of-state, with races in Maine, Kentucky, and South Carolina receiving over 90% of their funding from out-of-state. [5]

A new wrinkle in this year’s campaigns has been the $1 billion spent on digital advertising. There are over 80,000 on-line political advertisers, which is four times the number of political committees registered with the Federal Elections Commission. The great bulk of this spending is, of course, going to Facebook and Google. [6]

Although more money than ever is coming from small donors ($200 or less), it still represents less than one-quarter of the money raised. More women are donating more money than ever before as well. Democrats have raised $1.7 billion in small donations and Republicans $1 billion. These small donors account for 22% of the money raised in 2020 compared to 15% in 2016. One and a half million women have donated to candidates for federal offices, accounting for 44% of donors and $2.5 billion by mid-October, up from 37% of donors and $1.3 billion for the whole election period in 2016.  Self-funding of campaigns by billionaires was also up, accounting for over 13% of total spending. Democrats Bloomberg and Steyer were responsible for much of this. [7]

Money skews our elections in many ways. First and foremost, the candidate with the most money usually wins. Second, the great majority of the money is contributed by a very small slice of the population. A big chunk of it is given by a very few, very wealthy donors who contribute huge sums. The top ten donors and their spouses have contributed over $642 million with almost all of it (98%) going to outside groups. This has been skewed toward supporting Republicans, although Democrats aren’t too far behind. Sheldon Adelson (a casino magnate) and his spouse set a new individual record with $183 million in donations, all to outside groups supporting Republicans. Business interests have given almost $4.6 billion through mid-October – 40% of total election contributions, compared to $3.6 billion for the whole 2016 election. Contributions from labor interests, on the other hand, are declining and have been only $175 million so far. [8]

The high cost of running a successful campaign, from President all the way down to state representative, skews our politics because it makes it necessary for almost all candidates to solicit large donations from wealthy individuals. (Senators Sanders and Warren have shown that it is possible to run competitive primary campaigns without the majority of campaign funding coming from wealthy donors, but they are the exceptions.) This skews candidates’ time and attention, both when running for office and when they are in office, toward these wealthy individuals rather than toward the needs and interests of the everyday Americans who are their constituents.

In addition, the high cost of campaigning skews our politics because people who can’t raise these large sums of money don’t even bother to run for office.

If we want democracy, where policies represent the needs and wishes of the majority of the population, if we want the government of, by, and for the people that our American democratic vision promised, we must reduce the amount of money it takes to run a successful campaign and dramatically curtail the influence of wealthy individuals and interests who have large sums of money they can spend on our elections.

In a future post, I will discuss the importance of overturning the Citizens United Supreme Court decision and other possible steps for reforming campaign financing.

[1]      Evers-Hillstrom, K.., 10/19/20, “Outside spending surpasses $2 billion as super PACs hammer Trump,” Center for Responsive Politics, OpenSecrets.org (https://www.opensecrets.org/news/2020/10/super-pacs-hammer-trump)

[2]      OpenSecrets.org, 10/28/20, “2020 election to cost $14 billion, blowing away spending records,” Center for Responsive Politics, OpenSecrets.org (https://www.opensecrets.org/news/2020/10/cost-of-2020-election-14billion-update/)

[3]      Evers-Hillstrom, K.., 10/21/20, “Biden heads into final weeks with record cash advantage,” Center for Responsive Politics, OpenSecrets.org (https://www.opensecrets.org/news/2020/10/biden-crushed-fundraising-september)

[4]      OpenSecrets.org, 10/28/20, see above

[5]      Geng, L., 10/22/20, “From South Carolina to Maine, out-of-state donors give big in Senate races,” Center for Responsive Politics, OpenSecrets.org (https://www.opensecrets.org/news/2020/10/senate-races-outstate-donors)

[6]      OpenSecrets.org, 9/3/20, “OpenSecrets unveils new online ads database,” Center for Responsive Politics, OpenSecrets.org (https://www.opensecrets.org/news/2020/09/opensecrets-unveils-new-online-ads-database/)

[7]      OpenSecrets.org, 10/28/20, see above

[8]      OpenSecrets.org, 10/28/20, see above

OUR FEDERAL COURTS HAVE BEEN PACKED WITH RIGHT-WING JUDGES

Republicans are rushing confirmation of a Supreme Court nominee just before the election, which is emblematic of their packing of the federal courts at all levels with right-wing judges. [1] (See my previous post for more details.) Rushing through the confirmation of Judge Barrett threatens to complete the delegitimization of the Supreme Court – and to some extent the whole federal judiciary – by making it clear that the federal court system is not an  impartial arbiter of the law, but a fully politicized institution.

Over 200 federal judges have been confirmed since Trump took office (including over 100 that were carried over from the Obama administration due to Republican blocking of confirmations) and basically all of them are proponents of the extreme right-wing legal philosophy of the Federalist Society. [2] Right-wing Republicans have used a Federalist Society endorsement as a litmus test for nominees while ignoring input from the American Bar Association, which always used to provide an independent analysis of the qualifications of nominees. [3]

This packing of the federal courts with right-wing jurists, which is the result of McConnell and the Republicans breaking the norms of our democratic processes, will benefit Republicans and their wealthy, corporatist backers for a generation or longer because their right-wing judicial philosophy favors corporations and the wealthy over workers, consumers, and the middle and lower classes.

These right-wing, Federalist Society-endorsed judges typically claim to support “originalism,” a legal philosophy that claims the original intent and meaning of the Constitution, written in 1787, should determine judicial decisions. “Originalists” claim that government cannot constitutionally do anything that is not explicitly provided for in the Constitution. This legal philosophy has been very effective in driving right-wing legal politics, although the appropriateness of applying the meaning of the words of the Constitution to today’s technology strains credulity; its writers couldn’t have dreamed of our current medical and health care capabilities, our transportation and communications systems, our financial instruments and guns, or our huge, multi-national corporations.

An alternative legal interpretation of the Constitution, as a living document that requires interpretation in the context of current times, was prevalent from the late 1930s into the 1980s. In the late 1930s, during the recovery from the Depression, judges interpreted the law and the Constitution to allow American democracy to live up to its principles. Right-wing politicians and legal theorists labeled this “judicial activism” or “legislating from the bench.”

The “originalist” legal philosophy was developed by right-wing scholars in the 1970s and 1980s in reaction to laws and judicial support for economic and civil rights. The New Deal worked to level the economic playing field, to regulate business, to provide voice and a balance of power for workers through unions, and to provide a social safety net. After World War II, these efforts continued with more of a focus on leveling the social playing field and treating all people as equals before law, by ending segregation and discrimination, protecting the rights of prisoners and those accused of breaking the law, and providing access to contraception and abortion. The judicial-established principle of one person, one vote and the Voting Rights Act worked to level the political playing field. Judicial decisions supporting economic and civil rights, many of them made by the Supreme Court under Republican Chief Justices Earl Warren and Warren Burger between 1953 and 1986, were, at the time, largely viewed as non-partisan. They reflected a belief that the Bill of Rights applies to state laws and governments, as well as at the federal level. [4] This dramatically expanded civil rights and overturned the “states’ rights” doctrine that had allowed states to, among other things, engage in discrimination, particularly against Black Americans.

“Originalist” judges have ignored and will continue to ignore precedents and are reversing 80 years of legislation and legal decisions on individual and civil rights, as the hearings on the latest Supreme Court nominees and recent Supreme Court decisions have made clear. While the attention of these hearings has been focused on social and religious issues, from abortion to affirmative action and discrimination to LGBTQ rights, the often-overlooked issues about our economy and capitalism, such as the balance of power between employers and workers, the ability to earn a living wage, and the availability of an economic safety net, are critically important as well.

Under “originalist” legal theory, the federal government has little power and much of what it currently does should be left to state governments. Under “originalism,” the federal government does not have the power to regulate corporations or the wealthy, including restricting their use of their money in our elections, as the spending of money is viewed as exercising free speech. Decisions by the federal judiciary at all levels make it clear that “originalist” theory favors private interests over public interests, corporations and employers over consumers and workers, law enforcement over defendants’ rights, and gun rights over voting rights. Such decisions deprive employees and other vulnerable populations of their civil rights. [5] [6]

Moreover, the “originalist” judges assert that the rights of the Bill of Rights, such as freedom of speech, are rights that belong to corporations as well as to natural human beings. I find it hard to believe that this was the intent of the writers of the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. They clearly were focused on the rights of individual human beings. Furthermore, corporations, in anything approaching their current form, were unknown in those times.

Americans for Prosperity and other pro-business groups, many of them backed by billionaire, fossil-fuel businessman Charles Koch (and his deceased brother), have spent tens of millions of dollars on campaigns to pressure Senators to back controversial, right-wing judicial nominations, often using “dark money” (whose donors are hidden from the public).

The weak federal government response to the coronavirus pandemic is emblematic of “originalist” thinking. Some in the Trump administration simply didn’t believe it was the role of the federal government or within the legitimate powers of the federal government to respond, and, therefore, the response should be left to the states and the private sector.

President Trump and the Republicans in the Senate have packed the federal court system from top to bottom with hundreds of right-wing, Federalist Society-endorsed, “originalist” judges who are on the fringe of what was previously considered appropriate for a federal judge. If our Founding Fathers had intended an “originalist” interpretation of the Constitution, I have to believe they would have realized frequent amendments would be required and they would have made it much easier to amend it. I believe that “originalism” is a rationalization for public relations purposes developed by wealthy corporations and individuals as a way to “justify” laws and court decisions that work to their benefit. This is just like their claim of non-existent voter fraud as the public relations rationale for voter suppression tactics.

Our federal court system is currently unbalanced and biased in favor of corporations and the wealthy. Right-wing judges will skew court decisions and harm the well-being of everyday Americans for the next 20 to 30 years unless Democrats are elected and actively work to rebalance the federal courts toward mainstream legal philosophy and historical precedent. This will not be easy given how skewed the system currently is.

Dramatic steps will need to be taken, including expanding the number of judges in the federal court system, possibly including the number of justices on the Supreme Court, given that removing judges is basically impossible. This is the only way to return to laws and government programs that protect and support a fair and just society with civil, political, and economic rights for all, women able to make decisions about their reproductive health, workers able to support their families and have safe working conditions, consumers able to use products and services safely, and a safety net that protects people when they hit hard times.

[1]      Richardson, H. C., 10/11/20, “Letters from an American blog post,” (https://heathercoxrichardson.substack.com/p/october-11-2020)

[2]      The Federalist Society for Law and Public Policy Studies, most frequently called the Federalist Society, is an organization of conservatives and libertarians that advocates for a textualist and originalist interpretation of the United States Constitution. (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Federalist_Society)

[3]      Heer, J., 10/14/20, “Barrett’s evasions show why expanding the Court is necessary,” The Nation (https://www.thenation.com/article/politics/barrett-confirmation-court-packing/)

[4]      Richardson, H. C., 10/23/20, “Letters from an American blog post,” (https://heathercoxrichardson.substack.com/p/october-23-2020)

[5]      Richardson, H. C., 10/14/20, “Letters from an American blog post,” (https://heathercoxrichardson.substack.com/p/october-14-2020)

[6]      Dayen, D., 10/13/20, “Judge Barrett’s record: Siding with businesses over workers,” The American Prospect (https://prospect.org/justice/judge-barretts-record-siding-with-businesses-over-workers/)

WHO’S FOR PACKING OUR FEDERAL COURTS?

As Republicans are ramming through a Supreme Court nominee just before the election, they are also attacking Democratic presidential nominee Senator Biden for not saying whether he will “pack the court.”  The irony of this seems to be lost on them, many in the media, and most of the public.

Republicans are claiming that increasing the size of the Supreme Court (aka “packing the court”) would be “the absolute biggest power grab in the history of our country,” when in fact their packing of the federal courts at all levels with right-wing judges for the last four years and beyond is a far bigger power grab. [1]

Rushing through the nomination of Judge Barrett threatens to complete the delegitimization of the Supreme Court, making it clear it is not an impartial arbitrator of the law, but a fully politicized institution. Senator McConnell and his Republican colleagues in the Senate blocked the appointment of a centrist judge nominated by President Obama, Merrick Garland, for ten months, solely for political purposes. Now, they are ramming through an extreme, right-wing nominee in a matter of weeks, solely for political purposes. And closer to an election than has ever been done before.

If Barrett is confirmed, 15 of the last 19 Supreme Court appointments will have been made by Republican Presidents. Furthermore, five of the nine justices will have been appointed by Presidents who lost the popular vote and they will also have been confirmed by the votes of Senators who represent less than half of the American population. [2]

The Supreme Court has had nine justices since 1869, but its size is not specified in the Constitution. Republicans changed the size of the Court three times between 1863 and 1869 to give appointments to their Presidents and deny them to the opposition. [3] Furthermore, Republicans announced in 2016 that they would not fill any Supreme Court seats with nominees of Hillary Clinton (if she were elected), thereby effectively shrinking the size of the Court. Moreover, in 2013, Republicans proposed shrinking the number of justices on the D.C. Appellate Court, the second most important appellate court in the country, from 11 to 8 to lock in a conservative majority and prevent President Obama from appointing judges to the court. [4]

The packing-the-court issue is far bigger than just the Supreme Court. Senator McConnell and the Senate Republicans blocked dozens of Obama’s nominees to other courts, so that there were over 100 vacancies for federal judges when Trump took office. Over 200 federal judges have been confirmed since Trump took office and basically all of them are proponents of the extreme right-wing legal philosophy of the Federalist Society. [5] (More on this is my next post.) Right-wing Republicans have used Federalist Society endorsement as a litmus test for nominees while ignoring input from the American Bar Association, which always used to provide an independent analysis of the qualifications of nominees. [6] Republicans have also intentionally been installing young judges so their lifetime tenures and influence will last as long as possible.

This packing of the federal courts with right-wing justices, which is the result of McConnell and the Republicans breaking the norms of our democratic processes, will benefit Republicans and their wealthy, corporatist backers for a generation or longer. The only remedy for this political corruption, the only way to keep its perpetrators from realizing on-going benefits, is to increase the size of the federal courts, including the Supreme Court. New judges, appointed by Democrats, will rebalance the courts to reflect the interests and well-being of the American public. Furthermore, the federal district and appellate courts have not been enlarged since the late 1970s, despite a 40% growth in population.

It is important for the Democrats to stand up and make it clear that Republicans can’t steal two Supreme Court seats (and dozens of seats on other federal courts) and get away with it. They should couple an increase in the size of the Supreme Court with a proposal for a Constitutional Amendment to set term limits and/or a mandatory retirement age for Supreme Court justices.

By rebalancing the federal courts, Democrats would demonstrate a needed commitment to America’s democratic principles and promises, as well as to economic and social justice.

My next post will discuss the right-wing judicial philosophy called “originalism” to which these Republican judges typically adhere and its implications for economic and social justice.

[1]      Richardson, H. C., 10/11/20, “Letters from an American blog post,” (https://heathercoxrichardson.substack.com/p/october-11-2020)

[2]      Richardson, H, C., 10/11/20, see above

[3]      Starr, P., 9/23/20, “How to rebalance the Supreme Court,” The American Prospect (https://prospect.org/justice/how-to-rebalance-the-supreme-court/)

[4]      Kuttner, R., 10/13/20, “Biden needs to give a major speech on court expansion,” The American Prospect (https://prospect.org/politics/biden-speech-supreme-court-expansion-court-packing/)

[5]      The Federalist Society for Law and Public Policy Studies, most frequently called the Federalist Society, is an organization of conservatives and libertarians that advocates for a textualist and originalist interpretation of the United States Constitution. (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Federalist_Society)

[6]      Heer, J., 10/14/20, “Barrett’s evasions show why expanding the Court is necessary,” The Nation (https://www.thenation.com/article/politics/barrett-confirmation-court-packing/)

TRUMP’S WAR ON WORKERS

Despite Trump’s rhetoric, his 2016 campaign promises, and an occasional symbolic gesture, his administration has shown a total lack of empathy or concern for the plight of American workers. He has:

  • Undermined workers’ health and safety, as well as job security,
  • Repeatedly supported employers and business interests rather than workers,
  • Depressed workers’ pay and benefits, and
  • Failed to support workers’ rights, including their ability to bargain collectively with employers through unions.

During the coronavirus pandemic, the Trump administration has consistently sided with employers and against protecting workers from the very contagious virus. It has refused to promulgate mandatory standards and safety measures to protect workers. The most notable example has been in the meat packing industry, where the Trump administration has ordered workers back to work using emergency powers meant to ensure the supply of “scarce and critical material essential to the national defense.” Local public health officials are prohibited from closing plants and workers have to obey employers’ orders to return to work or be fired and lose their eligibility for unemployment benefits. [1]

Over 200 workers in the meatpacking industry have died and tens of thousands have been infected. Nonetheless, the Trump administration’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has not issued any regulations to protect these workers. Its fines for violations have been a slap-on-the-wrist few thousand dollars, despite thousands of complaints from workers about unsafe working conditions. The neglect of workers’ health and safety has undoubtedly cost many thousands of lives. [2]

Trump has consistently appointed pro-corporate, pro-employer, anti-worker officials to his cabinet and government agencies, as well as to judgeships. His Secretary of Labor, Eugene Scalia (son of the right-wing Supreme Court Justice), and all but one of his appointees to the National Labor Relations Board have spent their careers fighting for corporate employers and against workers’ rights and protections, despite the fact that they are now, supposedly, enforcing workers’ rights and protections.

On the other hand, Trump has failed to appoint anyone to head OSHA and has reduced its number of inspectors to a 50-year low. It would take these inspectors 165 years to visit every U.S. workplace once, despite an annual toll of 14 workers killed and 5 million injured on the job (not including the impact of COVID-19). [3]

Trump’s Department of Labor (DOL) has relaxed rules on overtime pay, resulting in millions of workers being denied overtime when they work over 40 hours in a week. The DOL and the Trump-appointed National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) have let McDonalds and other corporations that use a franchisee business model escape responsibility for franchisees who engage in wage theft (e.g., by failing to pay overtime, minimum wage, or for all hours at work) and other illegal practices.

The Trump administration and Republicans in Congress have worked relentlessly to weaken and repeal the Affordable Care Act (aka Obama Care), which has increased costs and denied health insurance to millions of workers, including many of those who have lost jobs during the pandemic. On the other hand, the Trump administration and Republicans in Congress have done nothing about increasing the minimum wage (which has been unchanged for a decade) or the Earned Income Tax Credit, which augments the income of low wage workers. They also have done nothing to increase the availability of paid sick time or to provide paid leave for new parents. [4]

The Trump administration has acted favorable on all ten items on an employer-friendly, anti-worker wish list from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the lobbying organization of large corporations. All of these items involved undermining workers’ rights and unions, such as allowing employers more opportunities to interfere in union organizing efforts. The Trump NLRB has stripped Uber drivers and other similar workers of their rights under labor laws and has also proposed a ban on union organizing by tens of thousands of graduate students who work as teaching and research assistants. [5]

Trump’s 2017 tax cut legislation gave billions of dollars in tax cuts to wealthy individuals and corporations, while neglecting workers. It also increased incentives for multi-national corporations to move jobs overseas.

The Trump administration’s mismanagement of the coronavirus pandemic has hurt the economy, increasing the number of jobs lost and the length of unemployment. The administration and Republicans in Congress have limited the amount and duration of unemployment benefits for those out of work. They provided limited pandemic relief for workers in general and have let it run out, refusing to extend it, even though the end of the pandemic is nowhere in sight, unemployment remains high, and millions of households are struggling to make ends meet.

The litany of the Trump administration’s anti-worker actions is long. Here are a few more examples:

  • Repealed the fiduciary rule that required investment advisors to act in workers’ best interests in handling their retirement savings. Instead, the advisors can select investments that pay them higher fees.
  • Relaxed or rescinded safety rules in numerous industries, such as more than a dozen rules protecting mine workers from such things as explosive coal dust and mining chemicals. However, the effort to relax safety inspections in coal mines was blocked by a federal court.
  • Made it easier to award federal contracts to companies with multiple violations of laws on fair wages, sexual harassment, racial discrimination, and workers’ rights to form a union.
  • Relaxed rules on toxic chemicals that harm farmworkers and children.
  • Relaxed requirements on reporting of workplace injuries and ended requirements for large corporations to report payroll data by race and gender, which allowed analysis of possible pay discrimination.
  • Rolled back regulations on usurious practices of payday lenders who prey on financially struggling workers.
  • Supported, both through legal arguments and court appointments, a prohibition on class action lawsuits by workers against employers (instead requiring them to submit grievances to arbitration) and a prohibition on requiring public sector workers to pay union fees or dues for the benefits they receive from union actions on their behalf.
  • Is pushing hard for blanket corporate / employer immunity from lawsuits if workers or customers get sick or die from COVID-19, regardless of any failure by the business to implement appropriate or required protection measures.

I hope America’s workers and voters are paying attention and not letting themselves be fooled by Trump’s rhetoric. Even a quick look at the actions and personnel of the Trump administration make it clear that it supports corporations and employers to the explicit detriment of workers.

[1]      Hightower, J., July 2020, “Something is rotten at Big Meat, Inc.,” The Hightower Lowdown (https://hightowerlowdown.org/article/something-is-rotten-at-big-meat-inc/)

[2]      Lee, T.M., 9/25/20, “Trump’s war on workers,” The American Prospect (https://prospect.org/labor/trump-war-on-workers/)

[3]      Hightower, J., Aug. 2020, “Behind his daily spectacle, Trump is pounding workers and their rights,” The Hightower Lowdown (https://hightowerlowdown.org/article/behind-his-daily-spectacle-trump-is-pounding-workers-and-their-rights/)

[4]      Greenhouse, S., 8/30/19, “The worker’s friend? Here’s how Trump has waged his war on workers,” The American Prospect (https://prospect.org/power/worker-s-friend-trump-waged-war-workers/)

[5]      McNicholas, C., Rhinehart, L., & Poydock, M., 9/16/1/20, “50 reasons the Trump administration is bad for workers,” Economic Policy Institute (https://www.epi.org/publication/50-reasons/)

THE U.S. IS AT A HISTORICALLY SIGNIFICANT FORK IN THE ROAD

Bob Kuttner has written another one of his eloquent, incredibly insightful and provocative articles. This one analyzes the historically significant fork in the road the U.S. is facing, puts this inflection point in historical and political perspective, and offers his views on where we should go and what it will take to get there. [1] He doesn’t mince words and is not afraid to speak truth to political and economic power. I will summarize the article here, but I encourage you to read the whole article at the link in the footnote as I cannot do it justice. The article is relatively short, under 2,000 words; it’s only two pages in The American Prospect magazine.

(Note: Kuttner is the most knowledgeable, thoughtful, eloquent, and insightful progressive policy analyst I know of. The breadth of his knowledge across policy topics and history leaves me in awe. He is the co-founder and co-editor of The American Prospect magazine, which is my go-to source for progressive policy analysis and proposals. He is a professor at Brandeis University’s Heller School, where I got my Ph.D. in Social Policy with a focus on early childhood policies and programs.)

Kuttner starts the article with this statement: “We will soon know whether America will surmount its worst catastrophe since the Civil War. We have every reason to worry.” He goes on to note that “We Americans grow up learning our history as a chronicle of near disasters that narrowly come out right.” He cites the following examples of other historical inflection points where the U.S. surmounted significant challenges and put itself on a positive path for the future:

  • The Revolutionary War
  • The writing of the Constitution in 1787
  • The Civil War and the ending of slavery
  • The Great Depression
  • World War II

He states that “Now, we are at another inflection point where history could go disastrously wrong. … Things have already occurred that were inconceivable to most Americans.” He cites examples of the inconceivable that include:

  • The undermining of the U.S. Postal Service (at least in part to rig the election),
  • The failure to combat Russian interference in our elections,
  • The President stating he might not abide by the election’s results, and
  • The Attorney General failing to stand up for the rule of law.

Kuttner excoriates Republicans in Congress, governors’ offices, and state legislatures who have violated the fundamental principles of the historical Republican Party and our democracy to benefit their wealthy benefactors and maintain their political power.

He states that “America’s corporate and financial elite, given a corrupt, incompetent dictator who serves their economic interests, will choose the dictator over a democracy that might trim their billions. This is full-on fascism — the alliance of the business class with a tyrant who confuses the masses with appeals to jingoism and racism, while the plutocrats steal working people blind.”

His analysis concludes that “Trump is the logical extreme of a long downward spiral. … Trump merely makes flagrant what was tacit.” He states that in addition to Republican presidents, Presidents Clinton and Obama allowed a continuation of the 40-year slide where “money relentlessly crowded out citizenship, while economic concentration and political concentration [of power] fed on each other.” The concentration of economic power has occurred due to the emergence of huge corporations with monopolistic power in numerous industries due to the lack of enforcement of anti-trust laws. This economic concentration has led to great wealth in the hands of a small number of investors and corporate executives. They have used that wealth to gain great political power, which has led to policies that benefit them and their businesses. This self-reinforcing cycle has been a spiral leading to great inequality in income, wealth, personal well-being, and opportunity.

Kuttner states that reversing this long, downward spiral will be difficult and will require repairing damage to essential institutions in government, society, and the economy. These include facilitating voting rather suppressing it, using anti-trust laws to break up monopolistic corporations, reversing growing economic inequality, and supporting workers through higher wages, job security, and the right to bargain collectively with employers. Public agencies that have been hollowed out need to be rebuilt, including the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Environmental Protection Agency, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, and more.

He notes that there are two serious obstacles to accomplishing this revival even if Democrats win the White House and control of the U.S. Senate. First, the Republicans in Congress and President Trump (but also Republican presidents before him) have packed the federal court system at all levels with right-wing judges. Kuttner states that “Reclaiming democracy will require reclaiming an honest judiciary. … Republicans have been so relentless in their blockage of Obama appointees and their ramming through of far-right judges that the very legitimacy of the judicial system is in question.”  Kuttner makes a case for adding judges and expanding the federal courts at all levels as the only way to achieve balance and avoid judicial blockages of needed policy changes.

The second serious obstacle to revival of the American promise is the immense influence of corporate power brokers and the many corporate-leaning Democrats for whom current economic policies are the conventional wisdom. Kuttner believes that absent massive grassroots pressure the likelihood is that a Biden administration will not seriously challenge economic power and concentration, particularly in the financial and high-tech industries. The concentration of market and political leverage in huge corporations and in their executives and large investors has led to dramatic economic inequality, job insecurity, and hardship for American workers.

Kuttner proposes that the trillions of dollars the Federal Reserve has pumped into large corporations to bail them out in the current financial crisis should instead be focused on rebuilding infrastructure, addressing climate change, and ending racism, including paying reparations.

Kuttner closes by stating that if the U.S. returns to the path laid out by its core principles through the results of the November elections and subsequent actions that “it will be the narrowest of great escapes ever.”


[1]      Kuttner, R., 9/17/20, “The terror of the unforeseen,” The American Prospect (https://prospect.org/politics/the-terror-of-the-unforeseen/)

OUR ELECTIONS ARE RIGGED Part 2

Our elections are indeed rigged – by Republicans and the country’s wealthy capitalists to skew results to their benefit. One of their strategies is to reduce voting by those who are not part of their primary constituency of well-off, white voters. [1] My previous post describes the four main barriers to voting that states have been imposing. Studies show they disproportionately disenfranchise non-white, low-income, student, and/or elderly voters, groups who tend to vote for Democrats:

  • Imposing voter identification requirements
  • Reducing places and times for voting
  • Purging eligible voters from voter registration lists
  • Denying people with a felony conviction the right to vote

There are a variety of strategies that are being used to suppress voter participation in general and participation by likely Democratic voters in particular, in addition to the four above. In some states, Republican gerrymandering of state legislative districts has given Republicans undeserved power to enact barriers to voting. In Wisconsin, for example, in 2018, Democrats won a majority of the statewide vote for the state legislature (52%) but got only 36 of 99 seats in the legislature (36%).

Voter suppression strategies being used in various places across the country include:

  • Impeding voter registration: While some states are making it easier to register to vote, for example through election day registration and automatic voter registration at motor vehicle offices and other state agencies, many Republican-controlled states are making it harder to register. For example, some states have made the process for conducting voter registration drives so onerous that the effect has been to ban them. In Georgia, in 2018, the Secretary of State (who oversees elections and was a white male running against a Black woman for Governor) was charged with blocking the registration of 50,000 voters (80% of whom were non-white) due to minor discrepancies in the spelling or spacing of their names. [2]
  • Failing to update voter registration systems with address changes: Without up-to-date addresses for people who move frequently, e.g., young people, students, and low-income workers, these voters (who tend to vote for Democrats) do not receive ballots or voting information, and hence are less able and likely to vote.
  • Undermining confidence in our elections: Spreading lies about the existence of voter fraud and the validity and honesty of our elections creates skepticism about the importance of voting. Failure to combat foreign efforts to affect the outcome of our elections and to undermine faith in their credibility also damages voters’ enthusiasm for voting. Calling ballots that are counted after election day fraudulent (for example, mailed-in ballots that were postmarked on time) contributes to the false perception that our elections are dishonest. All of these techniques and other related ones undermine voters’ motivation to turnout to vote.
  • Providing misinformation about voting and registering to vote: This is a classic “dirty trick” used to confuse voters and keep them from registering to vote and from voting.
  • Creating barriers to or doubts about mail-in or absentee ballots: The President and some Republican-led states are erecting barriers to mail-in voting because it has been shown to increase voter participation, which does not work to their benefit. In addition, the President, in particular, is trying to sow doubt about the validity and effectiveness of mail-in voting despite its very successful use in many states, including as the sole method of voting in Oregon since 1998. Some states are making it complicated to correctly complete a mail ballot. In Alabama, for example, the signature on an absentee ballot must have two witnesses or a notarization. [3] A complicated process increases the likelihood that ballots can be disqualified due to a technical error in completing them and most states do not have a process for remedying a minor technical error; the ballot is simply not counted. Some states are setting strict deadlines for receipt of mail ballots (e.g., they must be received by election day not just postmarked by election day). In one county in Florida, 1,200 ballots were not counted for being too late despite being postmarked on time. And, as I imagine you’ve heard, the Trump administration is working to harm the U.S. Postal Service’s ability to process mail in a timely fashion. Finally, some states prohibit the opening of mail ballots until election day or even until the polls have closed. This delays the finalization of election results and gives Republicans the opportunity to assert that the late counting of ballots is indicative of fraud, as they did in Florida in the 2000 presidential election.
  • Intimidating voters: In Pennsylvania, the Republicans have sued all 67 counties to allow Republican-hired, outside “poll watchers” at the polls. Poll watchers such as these have typically been used to harass, challenge, and intimidate targeted voters, namely those who are likely to be voting for Democrats. They do this by, for example, demanding proof of eligibility to vote. They are typically deployed in low-income, non-white neighborhoods and sometimes wear uniforms and carry badges, cameras, and guns. This kind of intimidation was so bad back in 1982 that a federal judge imposed restrictions on activities that might intimidate voters. However, in 2018, with the Trump campaign’s support, these restrictions were lifted. [4]
  • Refusing to give workers time to vote: In most states, election day is not a holiday and most employers do not give workers time off (let alone paid time off) to vote, although this may be starting to change.
  • Negative campaigning: Negative messages and nasty campaigning create disillusionment with candidates (whether the information is true or not) and with voting in general. The result is lower voting participation both in general and for the targeted candidate.

Republicans have amassed a $20 million fund to bring lawsuits aimed at reducing voting and blocking the counting of ballots, such as provisional ballots cast by people whose voter registration was purged or blocked by voter suppression techniques. In Florida, for example, Republicans have sued to prevent postage-paid return envelopes from being sent with mail-in ballots, hoping to reduce the rate at which they are returned. In Nevada, they have sued to prevent the state from sending mail-in ballots to all registered voters.

President Lyndon Johnson called voting “the first duty of democracy”. However, President Trump and Republicans in Congress and in the states have been doing everything they can to denigrate that duty and to make it as hard as possible for those likely to vote for Democrats to fulfill their duty to vote. [5] This is stunningly unpatriotic and in violation of our Constitution and the founding principles of this country. Democracy’s foundational principle is that all citizens have a right and duty to vote. Undermining the ability to vote and the importance of voting are antithetical to democracy.

There are steps we can take to increase voter participation and, thereby, improve the health of our democracy. Steps to make it easy to vote and to block strategies inhibiting voting are occurring in the courts and in some states. The battle over allowing voting by those convicted of felonies in Florida has gone through three levels of courts already and is on-going, although it appears likely that 775,000 of them will not be able to vote this fall. In Virginia, where Democrats gained control of the state government in the 2019 election, they have repealed the state’s voter ID law, made election day a state holiday, expanded the early voting period to 45 days, and implemented automatic voter registration for people using services from the Department of Motor Vehicles. Mail-in ballots will have pre-paid postage and drop boxes for returning them will be installed throughout the state. Voters will be able to fix technical errors on mail-in ballots, while absentee ballots will no longer require a witness’s signature. [6] In North Carolina, a Democratic Governor, a state Board of Elections with a non-partisan leader, and court orders have reversed the tide in a state that was one of the leaders in voter suppression in 2016. [7]

The ultimate solution is a national one, namely reinstituting the protections that were in place under the Voting Rights Act before the Supreme Court disingenuously eviscerated it in 2013. To this end, I encourage you to contact your U.S. Representative and Senators and let them know you support the Voting Rights Advancement Act, which passed the House in December 2019 but has not been acted on by the Senate. In addition, our election systems need extra financial support to operate safely, effectively, and accurately during the current pandemic. To this end, I also urge you to let your Members of Congress know you support the VoteSafe Act and the funding for election systems in the House-passed HEROES Act. [8] Given that the Republicans in control of the Senate are not likely to act on these bills this year, in the meantime, encourage your state and local election officials to make it as easy as possible for all eligible voters to register and vote.

To live up to our principles, every citizen needs to be readily able to fulfill that first duty of democracy – to vote.

You can find contact information for your US Representative at  http://www.house.gov/representatives/find/ and for your US Senators at http://www.senate.gov/general/contact_information/senators_cfm.cfm.

[1]      Hightower, J., 9/1/20, “Six ways the Right is shredding the right to vote,” Common Dreams from The Hightower Lowdown (https://www.commondreams.org/views/2020/09/01/six-ways-right-shredding-vote)

[2]      Durkin, E., 10/19/18, “GOP candidate improperly purged 340,000 from Georgia voter rolls, investigation claims,” The Guardian (https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2018/oct/19/georgia-governor-race-voter-suppression-brian-kemp)

[3]      Bidgood, J., 9/20/20, “Alabama: ‘They’re doing everything to stop us from voting’,” The Boston Globe

[4]      Hightower, J., 9/1/20, see above

[5]      Graham, R., 9/14/20, “Vote!” The Boston Globe

[6]      Gibson, B., 9/14/20, “How Virginia made voting easier and fairer,” The American Prospect (https://prospect.org/politics/how-virginia-made-voting-easier-and-fairer/)

[7]      Kuttner, R., 9/16/20, “Election night could be smoother for Senate races,” The American Prospect (https://prospect.org/blogs/tap/election-night-could-be-smoother-for-senate-races/)

[8]      Fudge, M., 9/21/20, “The struggle to vote continues,” The Boston Globe

OUR ELECTIONS ARE RIGGED

Our elections are indeed rigged, but not in the direction or way President Trump claims. For decades now, Republicans and the country’s wealthy capitalists have been working to skew election results to their benefit by reducing voter participation. As Republican campaign strategist Paul Weyrich said in 1980, “I don’t want everybody to vote. … Our leverage in the elections quite candidly goes up as the voting populace goes down.” [1]

Low participation in elections works to the advantage of corporations, wealthy individuals, and Republicans. They know that their constituency – white, well-off voters – will continue to vote but that others can be prevented or discouraged from voting by barriers to voting and by spreading doubts about candidates and our elections.

Since the 1980s, Republicans and their wealthy donors have engaged in an escalating, coordinated, well-funded, multi-pronged effort to prevent targeted people from voting and to suppress voting in general. It now seems that no holds are barred; serious distortions of candidates’ positions, beliefs, and experiences and blatant lies are commonplace. One prong of their effort was getting “conservative” judges appointed to courts at all levels including the U.S. Supreme Court. This culminated in the Supreme Court’s ruling in 2013 that key portions of the Voting Rights Act (VRA) were unconstitutional because discriminatory voting practices were (supposedly) no longer a significant issue. This was essential to the escalation of Republicans’ targeted voter suppression efforts.

The states have proved the Supreme Court wrong; every one of the nine states that had been subject to Voting Rights Act oversight (which occurs because of past discriminatory practices) has implemented new discriminatory barriers to voting. All told, over half of the 50 states have enacted hundreds of barriers to voting in the seven years since the Supreme Court’s decision, some literally within days of the decision.

The four main barriers to voting that states have imposed are:

  • Implementing voter identification laws: Eleven states had strict voter ID laws in 2016, where without the required ID a vote will not be counted unless the voter quickly takes the steps required to validate the provisional ballot they are allowed to cast. These strict voter ID laws first appeared in 2006. In 2000, only 14 states had any ID requirement and all of them allowed a voter to cast a ballot that would be counted through a relatively simple, on-the-spot process. By 2016, 33 states had an ID requirement. [2] For example, in Alabama, a state that had been subject to VRA oversight, a strict voter ID requirement was enacted the year after the Supreme Court’s decision. Motor vehicle offices were where most people would go to get the required photo ID. However, soon after enactment of the voter ID requirement many of these offices in predominantly Black communities were closed, although some of them were later reopened. [3] In Iowa, a very strict voter ID law was enacted in 2017, which it is estimated will keep 260,000 people from voting this fall. Studies have shown that voter ID laws disproportionately disenfranchise non-white, low-income, and elderly voters. There is no evidence of voter fraud, however, it is, nonetheless, given as the rationale for voter ID laws. Moreover, voter ID requirements would NOT prevent the kind of voter fraud Republicans claim is happening. [4]
  • Reducing places and times for voting: A number of states have reduced the number of polling places. The nine states subject to the Voting Rights Act before its evisceration by the Supreme Court in 2013 have closed 1,688 polling places, typically in areas with high proportions of Black voters. Some states have reduced the number of days of early voting and Alabama, for example, does not allow early voting.
  • Purging eligible voters: While election officials do need to clean up voting registration lists (e.g., to remove people who’ve died or moved out of the jurisdiction), Republicans have turned the updating of voting lists into a technique for purging likely Democratic voters. Nationally, an unusually high number of voters (17 million) have been removed from voting lists since the 2016 election. The purges often target people who move frequently (e.g., young people, students, low-income workers, and non-white voters). These groups also happen to tend to vote Democratic. Often a postcard is mailed to the targeted voters (but not forwarded) and if it isn’t returned, they are removed from the voting rolls. Sometimes voters who haven’t voted in a couple of elections are summarily removed from voting lists. Georgia, for example, purged more than 534,000 voters from its voting rolls in 2016 and 2017. However, a study found that 340,000 of them were valid voters, predominantly non-white, and still living at the addresses on their voter registration information. [5]
  • Denying people with a felony conviction the right to vote: Forty-eight states deny those convicted of a felony the right to vote while they are incarcerated. Eleven states deny them the right to vote even after they have completed their sentences (including any probation or parole), although there typically is, in theory, a process for regaining their voting rights. [6] These laws denying voting rights reflect the racism of Jim Crow laws, where whites were looking for ways they could legally keep Blacks from voting (among other things). Laws were written and selectively enforced so that Black males were convicted of felonies at a high rate and therefore prevented from voting. (Women couldn’t vote at that time.) In 2016, there were over 4.7 million citizens out of prison but disenfranchised by their criminal record. One-third of them are Black. [7] In recent years, there has been a trend toward reinstating their right to vote often with some conditions. For example, in Florida in 2018, voters overwhelmingly approved a ballot question to repeal the law preventing those who had been convicted of a felony from voting after completing their sentences (except for those convicted of murder or a sex crime). However, the Republican Governor and legislature have gone out of their way to thwart the will of the people. As it currently stands, those who have completed their sentences, now also have to pay all restitution, fines, fees, and court costs before they are allowed to vote. This is effectively a new kind of poll tax and will keep an estimated 775,000 people, who are predominantly Black men, from voting this fall.

My next post will cover some of the secondary techniques for suppressing voting and steps we can take to increase voter participation and, thereby, the health of our democracy.

[1]      Hightower, J., 9/1/20, “Six ways the Right is shredding the right to vote,” Common Dreams from The Hightower Lowdown (https://www.commondreams.org/views/2020/09/01/six-ways-right-shredding-vote)

[2]      National Conference of State Legislatures, retrieved 9/20/20, “History of voter ID,” (https://www.ncsl.org/research/elections-and-campaigns/voter-id-history.aspx)

[3]      Bidgood, J., 9/20/20, “Alabama: ‘They’re doing everything to stop us from voting’,” The Boston Globe

[4]      Gibson, B., 9/14/20, “How Virginia made voting easier and fairer,” The American Prospect (https://prospect.org/politics/how-virginia-made-voting-easier-and-fairer/)

[5]      Durkin, E., 10/19/18, “GOP candidate improperly purged 340,000 from Georgia voter rolls, investigation claims,” The Guardian (https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2018/oct/19/georgia-governor-race-voter-suppression-brian-kemp)

[6]      National Conference of State Legislatures, retrieved 9/21/20, “Felon voting rights,” (https://www.ncsl.org/research/elections-and-campaigns/felon-voting-rights.aspx)

[7]      Wood, E., 2016, “Florida: An outlier in denying voting rights,” Brennan Center for Justice (https://www.brennancenter.org/sites/default/files/publications/Florida_Voting_Rights_Outlier.pdf)

MAKE THE POST OFFICE GREAT AGAIN

The scandalous behavior of Louis DeJoy, the Trump administration’s new Postmaster General for the U.S. Postal Service (USPS), has gotten quite a bit of attention in the mainstream media; my previous two posts presented at least some of the rest of the USPS story. (My last post described the efforts to undermine and privatize the USPS, and, on the other hand, growing interest in reviving postal banking. My previous post described DeJoy’s Friday night massacre of personnel and the role of Treasury Secretary Mnuchin in the USPS shenanigans.)

In case you missed it, two new scandals have emerged involving the Trump administration’s leaders at the USPS. First, Postmaster General DeJoy faces multiple allegations that he pressured employees of his private business to make political contributions and rewarded employees if they did so with bonuses or raises. If true, this is a blatant violation of campaign finance laws. [1] Second, Robert Duncan, the chairman of the USPS Board of Governors (which formally appointed DeJoy), is a long-time major Republican fundraiser (as DeJoy is). Duncan recently was identified as one of three directors of a Republican Super PAC that has already spent nearly $18 million supporting Senate Republican candidates in the 2020 elections. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell basically controls this Super PAC. Duncan’s long-time relationship with McConnell and his role with the Super PAC are coming under scrutiny as concerns are growing about political manipulation of the USPS. [2]

Here are a number of actions and policy changes that Congress should initiate to restore and strengthen the USPS and its ability to deliver quality services, which would make the USPS great again. After all, it is a public good that connects us with each other and supports our democracy and our economy. [3]

  • Investigate Postmaster General DeJoy and ultimately remove and replace him with a qualified, non-partisan leader.
  • End the Treasury Department’s and Secretary Mnuchin’s control over and involvement with the USPS.
  • Repeal the provisions of the 2006 Postal Accountability and Enforcement Act that require the USPS to pre-fund its retiree benefits and instead allow the USPS to account for its retiree benefits and present its finances using Generally Accepted Accounting Principles.
  • Repeal the provisions of the 1970 Postal Reorganization Act that require the USPS to be considered a private business and instead treat it like a public agency and a public service.
  • Rescind restrictions on the USPS’s operations and, for example, allow it to pursue postal banking to provide a valuable service to unbanked Americans and others poorly served by private, for-profit financial corporations.
  • Remove the requirement that the USPS invest its retiree benefits funds solely in Treasury Bonds; no private retirement fund would do this and it negatively affects investment returns and, therefore, increases costs for the USPS.
  • Explore the possibility of enrolling retirees in Medicare to more efficiently provide retiree health benefits.

These steps would allow the USPS to provide efficient, quality, universal service, while providing good jobs for its workers. They would stabilize and normalize the finances of the USPS and benefit the public.

DeJoy, Mnuchin, and Trump are engaged in sabotage of the USPS, plain and simple. They want to discredit it as a public agency, undermine its union workers, and shift its revenue to private companies (namely their friends and campaign contributors).

I urge you to contact your U.S. Representative and Senators to tell them that you support the U.S. Postal Service and oppose efforts to undermine it. Please also ask them to support postal banking to provide affordable and convenient basic financial services to the public, particularly low-income households. Private banks have failed to provide such services to many Americans and payday lenders have emerge to fill this gap but are taking advantage of desperate low-income workers.

You can find contact information for your US Representative at  http://www.house.gov/representatives/find/ and for your US Senators at http://www.senate.gov/general/contact_information/senators_cfm.cfm.

[1]      Queally, J., 9/6/20, “ ‘This is against the law and DeJoy must be fired’: Postmaster General accused of criminal violation of campaign laws,” Common Dreams (https://www.commondreams.org/news/2020/09/06/against-law-and-dejoy-must-be-fired-postmaster-general-accused-criminal-violation)

[2]      Johnson, J., 9/1/20, “ ‘The corruption is bottomless’: Documents reveal chair of postal service board is Director of McConnell-allied Super PAC,” Common Dreams (https://www.commondreams.org/news/2020/09/01/corruption-bottomless-documents-reveal-chair-postal-service-board-director-mcconnell)

[3]      Anderson, S., Klinger, S., & Wakamo, B., 7/15/19, “How Congress manufactured a postal crisis – and how to fix it,” Institute for Policy Studies (https://ips-dc.org/how-congress-manufactured-a-postal-crisis-and-how-to-fix-it/)

THE REST OF THE POST OFFICE STORY Part 2

The scandalous behavior of Louis DeJoy, the Trump administration’s new Postmaster General for the U.S. Postal Service (USPS), has gotten quite a bit of attention in the mainstream media, but there’s more to the story than they have been reporting. This post and my previous post present at least some of the rest of the story. (My previous post described DeJoy’s Friday night massacre of personnel and the role of Treasury Secretary Mnuchin, who obtained sweeping operational control over the USPS and unprecedented access to its information through negotiation of a $10 billion line of credit for the USPS from the Treasury. [1] [2] )

Despite the current characterization of the USPS has operating at a loss, the postal service wasn’t viewed as a profit-making business by our country’s founders or throughout most of its history. Moreover, Congress has put requirements and restrictions on it that mean it can’t be run like a business.

The USPS is a public good that supports our democracy, a civil society, and other economic activity, as roads and schools do; it shouldn’t be run like a business to make a profit. We don’t expect the military or the National Park Service to generate a profit, so why should we expect the USPS to generate a profit? Our country’s founders thought of the postal service as critical to ensuring that citizens of the new democracy were well informed and therefore believed it should, among other things, subsidize delivery of newspapers. According to the Postal Policy Act of 1958, the USPS provides an essential public service that promotes “social, cultural, intellectual, and commercial intercourse among the people of the United States”. The Act also states that the USPS is “clearly not a business enterprise conducted for profit.” [3]

However, in 1970, as the era of deregulation and privatization began under President Nixon, the Postal Reorganization Act made the USPS an independent federal agency (instead of a Cabinet agency like the Departments of Education or Defense) and required it to cover its costs. Nonetheless, the law limited the USPS’s ability to increase prices for its services, expected it to deliver mail to every household and business in America six days a week, and required it to keep postal rates the same across the whole country despite substantial differences in the costs of delivering mail in different areas. [4]

Since then, Republicans have been trying to privatize the USPS because it represents a large revenue stream, $71 billion a year, that they would like to see go to their friends and campaign contributors in the private sector. One strategy for doing this has been to undermine the USPS and make it look bad, to make it look like it’s poorly run, and to make it look like it’s operating at a deficit, in order to build an argument that privatizing it would make sense.

In 2006, in what many observers felt was an effort to make the USPS look financially unstable and therefore ripe for privatization, the Postal Accountability and Enforcement Act (PAEA) was passed. It required the USPS to pre-fund retiree health benefits far into the future, which no other federal agency or private business is required to do. Specifically, it required the USPS to pay $5 billion to $6 billion a year into a retiree health benefit fund from 2007 to 2017. This has made the USPS appear to be running a deficit, when, without these payments, the USPS would have reported operating surpluses from 2013 through 2018. [5]

The current slowing of mail service is just another tactic in the effort to make the USPS look bad. The resultant inability to deliver ballots or medicines in a timely fashion, not only makes it look bad, but also undermines its revenue because mailers and shippers are shifting their business to competing, private service providers. For example, the slowdown is forcing the Veterans’ Administration to use private shipping services to get medicines to patients in a timely fashion and Amazon is building up its in-house delivery capacity and its fleet of vehicles.

The USPS is prohibited by law from branching out into new business lines that could boost its revenue and its services to the public. Offering basic banking services is one example, for which there is historical precedent. From 1911 to 1967, the USPS offered savings accounts. In 1967, the Postal Savings System was terminated at the behest of private bankers who did not want its competition. Today, money orders are the only financial service offered by the USPS. [6]

Postal banking is now receiving renewed attention because there are sizable poor urban and rural areas where bank branches are scarce. In addition, private banks have a track record of charging high interest rates and fees to low-income account holders, as well as failing to provide equitable treatment in access to credit and other financial services. As a result, 9 million U.S. households are effectively excluded from banking services and are described as “unbanked”.

The payday lending business has emerged to fill this gap and has grown into a $90 billion business. However, its usurious interest rates and fees, and its business model of locking customers into a cycle of debt that it’s often difficult to escape from, have led to a search for more consumer-friendly alternatives. In 2014, the USPS’s Inspector General noted that the USPS could make profitable loans at a much lower costs to consumers than what payday lenders were and are providing.

In the presidential primaries, a number of the Democratic candidates proposed allowing the USPS to offer basic banking services and Senator Biden, the Democratic nominee for President, supports this policy proposal. It would make basic banking services more accessible and affordable, particularly for low-income households.

In the face of this revived interest in postal banking, which would help the finances of the USPS and benefit the public, Postmaster General DeJoy and Treasury Secretary Mnuchin have reportedly engaged in discussions with megabank JPMorgan Chase (JPMC) about putting its ATMs in post offices and giving JPMC the exclusive right to solicit banking business from postal customers. This is clearly a backdoor effort to eliminate the possibility of postal banking – competition private sector bankers and payday lenders vehemently oppose. (So much for the private sector’s belief in a free market and competition!) Moreover, this doesn’t address the issue of unbanked people because if they don’t have a bank account, they can’t use the ATM. JPMC has a particularly troubling track record in this regard as it has historically failed to provide branch services in low-income, minority, or immigrant neighborhoods. [7]

A postal banking system would provide free usage of Treasury Direct Express cards and other government payment services. This would have streamlined and simplified the distribution of the pandemic emergency relief funds to low-income households who badly needed the $1,200 but didn’t have bank accounts to which the money could be electronically transmitted. Furthermore, the privacy of users’ information would be much better protected by the USPS, which could only collect limited user information and is barred from sharing it. A private bank, on the other hand, will collect as much information as it possibly can and will use it, share it, and sell it for commercial, profit-making purposes.

Mnuchin and DeJoy are engaged in sabotage of the USPS, plain and simple. They want to discredit it as a public agency, undermine its union workers, and shift its revenue to private companies (namely their friends and campaign contributors).

My next post will review policy changes that would strengthen the USPS and better serve the public.

[1]      Dayen, D., 8/18/20, “Treasury’s role in postal sabotage,” The American Prospect (https://prospect.org/blogs/tap/treasurys-role-in-the-postal-sabotage)

[2]      Queally, J., 8/8/20, “ ‘Friday night massacre’ at US Postal Service as Postmaster General – a major Trump donor – ousts top officials,” Common Dreams (https://www.commondreams.org/news/2020/08/07/friday-night-massacre-us-postal-service-postmaster-general-major-trump-donor-ousts)

[3]      Editorial, 8/21/20, “The US postal service lost $0,” The Boston Globe

[4]      Morrissey, M., 8/11/20, “Trump’s war on the Postal Service helps corporate rivals at the expense of working families,” Economic Policy Institute (https://www.epi.org/blog/trumps-war-on-the-postal-service-helps-corporate-rivals-at-the-expense-of-working-families)

[5]      McCarthy, B., 4/15/20, “Widespread Facebook post blames 2006 law for US Postal Service’s financial woes,” PolitiFact, The Poynter Institute (https://www.politifact.com/factchecks/2020/apr/15/afl-cio/widespread-facebook-post-blames-2006-law-us-postal)

[6]      Shaw, C. W., 7/21/20, “Postal banking is making a comeback. Here’s how to ensure it becomes a reality.” The Washington Post (https://www.washingtonpost.com/outlook/2020/07/21/postal-banking-is-making-comeback-heres-how-ensure-it-becomes-reality/)

[7]      Carrillo, R., 8/30/20, “Postal banking: Brought to you by JPMorgan Chase?” Inequality.org (https://inequality.org/research/postal-banking-jpmorgan/)

THE REST OF THE POST OFFICE STORY

The scandalous behavior of Louis DeJoy, the Trump administration’s new Postmaster General for the U.S. Postal Service (USPS), has gotten quite a bit of attention in the mainstream media, but there’s more to the story than they have been reporting. Here’s at least some of the rest of the story.

First, to provide some context, the USPS delivers 472 million pieces of mail every day, including 182 million pieces of first-class mail. It delivers mail to 159 million households and businesses each year, including 1.2 billion prescribed medications, and generates $71 billion a year in operating revenue. It employs 500,000 career employees, who receive stable jobs with decent benefits and include a disproportionate share of military veterans and Black Americans. The USPS, until recently, had an excellent service record and has low costs compared to other countries. [1] (You know this if you’ve ever bought postage in another country.)

Despite what some people are saying, the USPS has plenty of capacity to handle mail-in ballots, which in the extreme might produce 10 – 20 million ballots on any given day, which is only about 10% of normal daily volume. Delaying the delivery of ballots, however, could be serious as this could mean that ballots aren’t delivered by the required deadlines for being counted. DeJoy’s management edicts have already made delivery delays a reality due to the removal of sorting machines and banning of overtime (despite the fact that thousands of USPS employees are out sick due to the coronavirus).

Again, despite what some people are saying, the USPS has more than enough funds to operate through the end of the year, although it has lost substantial revenue during the pandemic and deserves special support just like businesses are getting. It has almost $13 billion on hand (as-of Aug. 7) and it has a $10 billion line of credit from the U.S. Treasury that was included in the original coronavirus bill enacted in March. [2] By the way, commercial package delivery does not lose money for the USPS. Its agreements with Amazon, FedEx, and UPS, who regularly use the USPS to perform the most expensive portion of delivery service, the “last mile” to places other delivery services won’t bother to go, are profitable. Commercial packages are the only growing line of business for the USPS, especially since the pandemic hit. [3]

Treasury Secretary Mnuchin negotiated the terms of the $10 billion line of credit for the USPS that was included in the coronavirus relief law to give him and the Treasury Department sweeping operational control over the USPS and unprecedented access to its information. As a result, Mnuchin has played a major role in USPS affairs, including in the appointment of DeJoy as the Postmaster General. The Trump administration has claimed that an executive search firm was used to find the new Postmaster General. However, recent evidence has revealed that DeJoy was not one of the candidates from the search process but was put forth by Mnuchin. The USPS Board of Governors, all of them Trump appointees, formally appointed DeJoy the Postmaster General on June 15th. DeJoy is a North Carolina businessman and a major Republican fundraiser. His knowledge of the USPS is limited to the fact that a company of his did some subcontract work for the USPS. The company was a virulently anti-union company and some of his (and Mnuchin’s) initiatives appear targeted at undermining the USPS workers’ union.

Using his negotiated operational control of the USPS, Mnuchin had a Treasury (not USPS) task force set USPS policies that included reducing employee pay and benefits, partially by reducing overtime. He has inserted himself into hiring decisions, including the selection of the new Postmaster General. He also exerted influence on the terms of large USPS contracts. Union leaders warned that the implementation of Mnuchin’s task force’s policies would slow delivery of the mail and lead to privatization. So far, they have been right. [4]

David Williams, vice chair of the USPS Board of Governors and a Trump appointee, resigned in May to protest the handing over of effective operational control of the USPS to Mnuchin. He recently reported that Mnuchin required the members of the supposedly independent Board of Governors to meet with him to discuss the process for selecting the Postmaster General. He stated that the Board interviewed candidates who were qualified, but that DeJoy had to be coached and supported during his interview, demonstrating a lack of knowledge about the USPS and that he was unfit for the job. [5] DeJoy was not a candidate identified by the executive search company the USPS hired to find the new Postmaster General. Williams also stated that the removal of blue, street-corner mailboxes had not been previously planned and that it was specifically promoted by Mnuchin.

DeJoy quietly conducted a Friday night (literally) massacre of personnel while the mainstream media focused on the slowing of mail service and the removal of blue, street-corner mailboxes and sorting machines. (So-called Friday night massacres are done late in the day on Fridays to avoid news coverage and to hide them from public attention.) On Friday, August 7, DeJoy reassigned or displaced 23 USPS senior management personnel. He has also implemented a hiring freeze and is pushing for employees to take early retirement. [6]

The loss of so many people and their expertise through DeJoy’s personnel moves would seem likely to undermine the effective operation of the USPS, given that DeJoy has no experience at and little knowledge of the USPS and its operations. (The previous Postmaster General retired after a 34-year career at the USPS.) Coupled with other operational changes DeJoy has made, the USPS’s ability to deliver the mail in a timely fashion and its longer-term financial outlook seem likely to be harmed.

My next post will provide some historical perspective and identify some steps that should be taken to strengthen the USPS.

 

[1]      Morrissey, M., 8/11/20, “Trump’s war on the Postal Service helps corporate rivals at the expense of working families,” Economic Policy Institute (https://www.epi.org/blog/trumps-war-on-the-postal-service-helps-corporate-rivals-at-the-expense-of-working-families)

[2]      Kuttner, R., 8/17/20, “Postal service has plenty of capacity to deliver mail-in ballots,” The American Prospect (https://prospect.org/politics/postal-service-mail-in-ballots-10-billion-dollar-credit-treasury)

[3]      Brody, B., 8/19/20, “Amazon, USPS deal profitable,” The Boston Globe from Bloomberg News

[4]      Dayen, D., 8/18/20, “Treasury’s role in postal sabotage,” The American Prospect (https://prospect.org/blogs/tap/treasurys-role-in-the-postal-sabotage)

[5]      Johnson, J., 8/21/20, “ ‘Complete bombshell’: Former top USPS official reveals ‘disturbing’ new details of DeJoy selection and Mnuchin sabotage of mail service,” Common Dreams (https://www.commondreams.org/news/2020/08/21/complete-bombshell-former-top-usps-official-reveals-disturbing-new-details-dejoy)

[6]      Queally, J., 8/8/20, “ ‘Friday night massacre’ at US Postal Service as Postmaster General – a major Trump donor – ousts top officials,” Common Dreams (https://www.commondreams.org/news/2020/08/07/friday-night-massacre-us-postal-service-postmaster-general-major-trump-donor-ousts)

EXAMPLES OF CONTINUAL CORRUPT CORPORATE BEHAVIOR

Here are three recent examples of corrupt corporate behavior. They show the breadth of the corruption – the leveraging of undeserved power and wealth – from corrupting government policy making to exacerbating economic inequality to corruptly maximizing profits.

U.S. Representative Richie Neal (Democrat of Massachusetts) received $54,000 in a two-month period from lobbyists for corporations with a financial stake in his actions that blocked meaningful control of health care costs. In December 2019, a bipartisan, House and Senate compromise on controlling health care costs was all set to pass as part of a larger appropriations bill. Among other things, the Lower Health Care Costs Act would have eliminated exorbitant surprise medical bills for out-of-network services by limiting their cost to that of equivalent in-network services. It also would have required pharmaceutical firms to disclose information related to increases in drug prices. [1]

Three days after the Lower Health Care Costs Act was finalized and on track to become law, Neal, Chairman of the powerful Ways and Means Committee, undermined it and got it dropped from the larger appropriations bill that was destined to pass into law. He did this by announcing that he and his Republican counterpart would draft a counterproposal, although no details were presented.

On February 7, 2020, less than two months later, Neal released his alternative bill. Key provisions of the Lower Health Care Costs Act had been eliminated or weakened. For example, rather than eliminating surprise medical bills, it included a weak substitute: voluntary negotiations and arbitration. The previous requirement for disclosures relevant to drug price increases was eliminated. In the two-month window from Neal’s blocking of the original bill to the release of his own much weaker bill, he collected $54,000 in donations from 12 lobbyists who worked for clients opposed to the original Lower Health Care Costs Act. These 12 donations represented two-thirds of his campaign contributions in the first quarter of 2020.

If this isn’t corruption, I don’t know what is. It appalls me that this is a legal and accepted campaign fundraising pattern. Clearly, we need to strengthen our campaign finance laws.

On a different front, a report from the Economic Policy Institute [2] found that in 2019 average pay was $21 million for Chief Executive Officers (CEOs) at the 350 largest corporations in the U.S. This is up 14% from the year before and 1,167% since 1978, while a typical worker’s pay has grown by only 14% since 1978. In other words, each $1.00 of a worker’s pay grew to $1.14 over those 40 years while each $1.00 of a CEO’s pay grew to $12.67. The ratio of CEO pay to the average worker’s pay is now 320 to 1, having grown dramatically from 61 to 1 in 1989 and 21 to 1 in 1965.

Skyrocketing CEO pay is a significant contributor to economic inequality, which continues to rise to unprecedented levels. The economy would not be harmed in the slightest if CEOs were paid less and/or taxed more.

There are many policy changes that would address excessive CEO pay if policy makers had the will to enact them, including:

  • The income tax rate on high incomes could be increased to previous levels (which in the 1970s were roughly double current rates),
  • Corporate tax rates could be increase for firms with high CEO-to-worker pay ratios, and
  • A vote by shareholders could be required annually to approve CEO pay.

And then there’s the pharmaceutical industry that continually engages in corrupt corporate behavior, which displays its greed, market power, and lack of concern for stakeholders other than shareholders and executives. Two recent examples are summarized below.

First, Teva Pharmaceuticals is being sued by the federal government for illegally funneling $300 million through two charitable foundations to support the price and sales of its multiple-sclerosis drug, Copaxone. The Justice Departments suit claims the company used the foundations to insulate some patients from big price increases in order to prop up the excessive price of Copaxone for others. From 2007 to 2015, Copaxone’s price more than quadrupled from roughly $17,000 per year to over $73,000. [3]

In addition, in January 2020, Teva had paid a $54 million settlement for bribing doctors with fraudulent “speaking fees” to prescribe Copaxone and other drugs it makes.

Second, Gilead Sciences announced recently that it will charge patients with private insurance $3,120 for the five-day course of treatment with the experimental COVID-19 drug remdesivir. Some government programs may get a lower price and other developed countries will pay about 75% of the U.S. price. Reaction to the price has been mixed with some advocates and members of Congress saying Gilead is taking advantage of Americans during a pandemic. Taxpayers have invested about $100 million in the drug and some feel it should be public owned and not in private hands as a result. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) recently purchased 500,000 treatment courses, three months’ worth of Gilead’s production, for an estimated $1.5 billion. DHHS will distribute the drug to hospitals around the country. [4]

Clearly, the U.S. needs stronger regulation of pharmaceutical firms, including disclosures relevant to drug pricing (like those in the Lower Health Care Cost Act). We also need to allow and empower Medicare and Medicaid to negotiate drug prices paid to pharmaceutical corporations, as the U.S. Veterans’ Administration, private insurers, and other countries do.

[1]      Shaw, D., 5/5/20, “Neal took big bucks from lobbyists while killing a surprise medical bill fix,” Sludge (https://readsludge.com/2020/05/05/neal-took-big-bucks-from-lobbyists-while-killing-a-surprise-medical-bills-fix/)

[2]      Mishel, L., & Kandra, J., 8/18/20, “CEO compensation surged 14% in 2019 to $21.3 million,” Economic Policy Institute (https://www.epi.org/publication/ceo-compensation-surged-14-in-2019-to-21-3-million-ceos-now-earn-320-times-as-much-as-a-typical-worker/)

[3]      Bloomberg News, 8/19/20, “Talking points: Pharmaceuticals,” The Boston Globe

[4]      Lupkin, S., 6/29/20, ”Remdesivir priced at more than $3,100 for a course of treatment,” National Public Radio (https://www.npr.org/sections/health-shots/2020/06/29/884648842/remdesivir-priced-at-more-than-3-100-for-a-course-of-treatment)

PERSONNEL IS POLICY AND LARRY SUMMERS IS A DISASTER Part 2

As Senator Elizabeth Warren has stated on numerous occasions, “Personnel is policy.” The people who implement policies are the ones who ultimately determine what the policy is; their actions are more important than their or anyone else’s words.

Larry Summers is a classic example of this. My last post summarized his resume and his disastrous performance in President Clinton’s Treasury Department. It also noted that he is currently a senior adviser to Senator Joe Biden’s presidential campaign and that he may well aspire to a senior post under Biden if he is elected president. [1] Here are some additional reasons Biden needs to reject Summers and his policies.

After serving as Treasury Secretary under President Clinton, Summers returned to Harvard as its president in 2001 after George W. Bush won the 2000 presidential election. At Harvard he:

  • Alienated faculty members by denigrating many of them, including the whole sociology department,
  • Questioned the scholarship of Cornel West (a high-profile black professor),
  • Also questioned the ability of women to succeed in math and the sciences, and
  • Commandeered investment decision making, despite Harvard’s well-paid and highly successful money managers. Summers’ investment mistakes cost Harvard roughly $1.8 billion and had serious effects on its budget. [2]

As a result of all of this, and after a no-confidence vote by the faculty, Summers resigned as Harvard’s president in 2006. In 2008, before returning to the government, Summers earned $600,000 as a Harvard “University Professor”, $5.2 million from the private equity firm D.E. Shaw, and $2.7 million from speaking fees, largely from financial corporations. Clearly, Wall St. was the butter on his bread.

In 2009, Summers returned to the federal government as head of the President Obama’s Economic Council. As the Obama administration formulated its response to the Great Recession from the 2008 financial collapse (for which Summers bears significant responsibility), he pushed to reduce the size of the economic stimulus, to minimize the support for state and local governments, and for the budget deficit to be kept as small as possible. As a result, the recovery was slowed and high unemployment persisted. Summers promised substantial spending to provide foreclosure relief for homeowners and a reform of bankruptcy laws so that underwater homeowners could reduce the principal on their mortgages. However, he did not deliver on this rhetoric and seemed much more focused on rescuing the banks than homeowners. He also opposed a financial transaction tax, which would have generated needed revenue and curbed short-term trading that can destabilize financial markets, even though in 1989 he had co-authored an academic article arguing for such a tax. [3]

To summarize, no single person bears more responsibility than Larry Summers for Democrats’ support for Wall St. deregulation, outsourcing of jobs to foreign countries, fiscal austerity at home and abroad (even in the face of recessions and economic hardship for the masses), and privatization of public assets and responsibilities both in the U.S.  and internationally. [4] Summers’ consistent policy prescription has been to apply free market theory (which benefits his cronies in the financial industry, wealthy individuals, and large multi-national corporations), even when this was inappropriate for the situation. Other economists and policy makers raised concerns about Summers’ policies, but he persisted even after they led to disaster after disaster.

For example, Summers’ catastrophic policy decisions or miscalculations led to:

  • The 2008 financial collapse whose key triggers were his blocking of regulations on the financial industry and of all regulation of derivatives,
  • The slow recovery and enduring high levels of unemployment from the 2008 Great Recession due to his prioritizing of support for financial corporations while minimizing support for homeowners, workers, and the economy as a whole, and
  • Hyper-inflation, economic hardship for workers, and the discrediting of democracy as an effective form of government in Russia and Third World countries due to his policies demanding rapid privatization and free marketization.

Although Summers’ rhetoric has turned more progressive lately as he jockeys for a role in the Biden campaign and in the government if Biden wins, he has denounced wealth tax proposals from Senators Warren and Sanders in the presidential campaign, which are supported by many progressives. Moreover, his actions speak louder than his words and he has consistently supported deregulation and policies that benefit wealthy individuals and corporations – including his own work in the financial industry.

If you believe that:

  • Economic inequality is a problem that the U.S. needs to address,
  • The financial industry should be regulated so it doesn’t crash our economy again and again,
  • Consumers should be protected from dangerous, predatory financial products,
  • The world should be protected from destructive free market privatization and speculation, and
  • Workers should be protected from trade treaties that benefit large multi-national corporations and drive a race to the bottom for workers,

then Larry Summers is NOT your man – and he shouldn’t be Biden’s man either. Personnel is policy and if Summers is influential in Biden’s campaign or administration these issues will NOT be tackled through any significant policy initiatives.

I encourage you to keep an eye out for Summers and his policies. If they appear to be gaining traction with Biden or his administration if he’s elected, please be ready to object.

[1]      Kuttner, R., 8/7/20, “Did Summers jump, or was he pushed?” The American Prospect (https://prospect.org/blogs/tap/did-larry-summers-jump-or-was-he-pushed/)

[2]      Kuttner, R., 7/13/20, “Falling upward: The surprising survival of Larry Summers,” The American Prospect (https://prospect.org/economy/falling-upward-larry-summers/)

[3]      Kuttner, R., 7/13/20, see above

[4]      Dayen, D., 5/13/20, “Dr. Jekyll, or Mr. Biden?” The American Prospect (https://prospect.org/politics/dr-jekyll-or-mr-biden/)

PERSONNEL IS POLICY AND LARRY SUMMERS IS A DISASTER

As Sen. Elizabeth Warren has stated on numerous occasions, “Personnel is policy.” Platforms, policy statements, and rhetoric are nice, but the people who are in charge of implementing policies are more influential. In judging personnel, as well as candidates or elected officials, past actions are more important than words.

There is perhaps no better example of this than Larry Summers, who is a senior adviser to Sen. Joe Biden’s presidential campaign. Everyone seems to agree that he is brilliant, politically nimble (or some might say shifty), and a consummate bureaucratic infighter. He is known for his boundless self-confidence and his vindictive retribution against those who oppose or expose him. He is well-connected, particularly to powerful Wall St. elites, and has numerous proteges who are or have been in powerful positions in government and the financial industry.

Summers recently announced that he would not take a job in a Biden administration. This was likely due to the strong resistance to him from progressives, which may have led Biden to decide that Summers should not be part of his administration. Nonetheless, Summers is still likely to be, either directly or through this proteges, an informal and potentially influential adviser to Biden. Summers is also known to covet the job as Chair of the Federal Reserve, a position he previously tried to get. Because it is technically not in the Biden administration but is a presidential appointment at the independent Federal Reserve, this position may not be ruled out by his statement. So, Summers, his influence and his potential to play a major role in a government entity, cannot be ignored. [1]

As background, his resume includes:

  • Harvard economics professor (1983-1991)
  • Chief Economist and Vice President of Development Economics at the World Bank (1991-1993)
  • S. Treasury Department (1993 – 2001 under President Clinton) as Undersecretary for international affairs (1993-1995), Deputy Secretary (1995-1999), and Treasury Secretary (1999-2001)
  • President of Harvard University (2001-2006); faculty member (2006-2008)
  • Simultaneously, Managing Director, D.E. Shaw (private equity firm) and highly paid speaker, typically for Wall St. firms (2006-2008)
  • Director, National Economic Council (2009-2010 under President Obama)
  • Harvard faculty member (2011 – current)
  • Simultaneously, Managing Director, D.E. Shaw (private equity firm) (2011 – current)

In his time at the U.S. Treasury, Summers pressured the former Soviet Union and Third World countries to rapidly adopt free market economies and privatize public assets. These efforts repeatedly proved to be disastrous. Financial crises in Russia, Mexico, and East Asia were the result. Typically, inflation soared, workers’ wages fell, government services were cut, oligarchs became rich and powerful, and in Russia, Putin took dictatorial power after the supposed transition to democracy was a total disaster and democratic governance was completely discredited. [2]

As Summers was driving U.S. Russia policy, his close friend and Harvard colleague, Andrei Shleifer, got a government contract and engaged in insider trading based on it. Shleifer headed up a Harvard-based project in Moscow that was the lead contractor for USAID in helping with Russia’s economic transition. According to federal prosecutors, Shleifer and his wife were making investments based on insider information they got through the USAID project. The case was finally settled in 2004, when Summers was president of Harvard, and Harvard paid a $26.5 million settlement and Shleifer paid $2 million but retained his tenured professorship at Harvard. This was one of the issues that led to Summers departure as Harvard’s president.

Summers also promoted trade agreements that benefited Wall St. financial businesses and large, multi-national corporations, at the expense of American workers. For example, he advocated for admitting China to the World Trade Organization and promoted the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). He also opposed reviving enforcement of antitrust laws, despite the clear growth in size and market power of huge corporations, and ignored the need to address climate change.

Summers aggressively opposed regulation of derivatives (financial instruments / investments based on or derived from other financial instruments such as mortgage-backed securities, options to buy or sell securities, credit default swaps, etc.). Through his efforts and those of his cronies regulation of derivatives by the federal government was banned by the Commodity Futures Modernization Act of 2000. It also banned states from regulating them.

Predatory lending practices (where borrowers had a high risk of default) proliferated under Summers’ deregulation of financial markets. “The interaction of predatory subprime lending with unregulated and opaque derivatives such as credit default swaps was the single most important cause of the 2008 financial collapse.” (page 23) [3]

Summers returned to Harvard as President in 2001 after George W. Bush won the 2000 presidential election. My next post will present a summary of his performance at Harvard and his return to government under President Obama.

[1]      Kuttner, R., 8/7/20, “Did Summers jump, or was he pushed?” The American Prospect (https://prospect.org/blogs/tap/did-larry-summers-jump-or-was-he-pushed/)

[2]      Kuttner, R., 7/13/20, “Falling upward: The surprising survival of Larry Summers,” The American Prospect (https://prospect.org/economy/falling-upward-larry-summers/)

[3]      Kuttner, R., 7/13/20, see above

ENHANCED UNEMPLOYMENT BENEFITS NEEDED BY WORKERS – AND BUSINESSES

The enhanced unemployment benefits provided by the federal government expired this week and whether Congress will extend them is unknown. The federal program added $600 per week to the unemployment benefits provided by the states, which vary substantially from Mississippi’s $235 per week to Massachusetts’s $795. The amount received typically depends on how much a worker was earning and, in some states, the amount can increase based on the number of dependents a worker has.

Republicans are claiming that the added $600 per week serves as a disincentive for people to return to work and therefore this program should not be continued. It is possible that a few people would choose to continue to collect the enhanced unemployment benefit and not go back to work, but this number and its impact would be negligible, especially when compared to the positive effects of continuing the enhanced unemployment benefit.

The assertion that large numbers of workers wouldn’t go back to work is a myth with racist overtones as its premise is that many of “those people” are lazy and happy to collect welfare or other public benefits rather than work. [1]

Here are five reasons that make the case for continuing the enhanced unemployment benefit and that rebut the argument that doing so would mean workers wouldn’t return to work.

First, roughly 24.5 million Americans are unemployed, largely due to the coronavirus pandemic, and need financial assistance. Many of these workers simply cannot support their families on the unemployment benefit amounts provided by their states and a significant number of these families would fall into poverty without the enhanced benefit.

Second, given that consumer spending is roughly two-thirds of economic activity in the U.S., the enhanced unemployment benefit means people have money to spend, which keeps our economy and businesses going. Putting this money directly into workers’ pockets is one of the most effective ways to counter the economic slowdown of the pandemic. If all 24.5 million people without jobs were collecting the $600 per week federal supplement, that would be $14.7 billion that workers would be receiving. The great majority of that would be spent immediately on living expenses. That’s $14.7 billion a week that would not be spent in the U.S. economy if these benefits stop. It is estimated that the loss of this spending would result in the loss of 5.1 million jobs. [2]

Third, Americans were returning to work in record numbers and the unemployment rate was falling in May and June even though the enhanced unemployment benefit was being paid. Clearly, people want to work even if their unemployment benefit is greater than what they would get paid to work, given that for two-thirds of those who qualify for unemployment benefits the enhanced benefit is greater than what they were paid at work. (The fact that the enhanced unemployment benefit is more than they earned is a sad commentary on our low minimum wage and the low wages paid by many employers.) Workers know that the unemployment benefit is temporary and that they can lose the benefit if they aren’t actively looking for work, so if a job is available, the great majority of them will take it. [3]

Fourth, the still high unemployment rate (over 11% at the end of June) reflects the lack of available jobs. Workers can’t be incentivized by reduced benefits to take jobs that don’t exist. Moreover, the biggest disincentive to returning to work is the danger of becoming infected with the coronavirus, which is killing over 1,000 Americans a day.

Fifth, cutting unemployment benefits, when paid sick leave is far from universal, increases the risk that workers will go back to work even if they don’t feel well or have been exposed to the coronavirus because they would need the income from work if they aren’t getting the enhanced unemployment benefit. This obviously increases the risk they will spread the coronavirus to co-workers, customers, and others they come in contact with at work or in getting to and from work. This risk is exacerbated by the difficulty of getting a test for COVID-19 and the lack of quick availability of test results.

For all these reasons, not to mention a basic sense of fairness and humane decency, the $600 per week enhanced unemployment benefit from the federal government should be continued. I urge you to contact your U.S. Representative and your Senators and ask them to support the continuation of this emergency unemployment benefit. Please do this NOW as this decision may well be made this week as part of the pandemic relief bill currently moving through Congress.

You can find contact information for your US Representative at  http://www.house.gov/representatives/find/ and for your US Senators at http://www.senate.gov/general/contact_information/senators_cfm.cfm.

 

[1]      Editorial, 7/30/20, “No, unemployment benefits do not discourage work,” The Boston Globe

[2]      Sainato, M., 7/13/20, “Millions of U.S. workers still unemployed as enhanced benefits set to expire,” The American Prospect (https://prospect.org/coronavirus/millions-workers-still-unemployed-as-benefits-expire/)

[3]      Editorial, 7/30/20, see above

WE CAN’T AFFORD OUR RIGGED TAX SYSTEM

Our unfair tax system is one piece of our rigged economic system. To put our tax system in some perspective, the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) collects nearly 95% of all the federal government’s revenue; it collected $3.5 trillion in taxes in 2018.

My previous post on how our overall economic system is rigged, noted that the CARES Act, the $2.2 trillion coronavirus pandemic response, tilted our tax system further in favor of the wealthy by providing $135 billion in tax cuts for the richest 1% of Americans. This is money that could have been used to provide aid to workers who lost their jobs or to buy personal protective equipment for front-line workers or other needs related to the effects of the pandemic. Ironically, Republicans are now complaining about the cost of the pandemic relief efforts!

Another example of the rigging of our tax system in favor of wealthy individuals and corporations is the substantial tax cuts for corporations and wealthy individuals that were at the center of the 2017 Tax Cuts and Jobs Act (TCJA). The Act failed to deliver any significant benefits to workers and the middle class, despite politicians’ promises. (See this post for more detail.)

However, the tax cuts of the TCJA weren’t enough for the big multi-national corporations, so they lobbied, quite successfully, to rig the tax system even further to their benefit by getting additional tax reductions in the rules and regulations that were written to implement the TCJA. (See this post for more detail.)

A year after the TCJA passed, a study of the largest corporations in the U.S. found that of 379 large, profitable corporations:

  • 91 (almost a quarter of them) paid no federal income tax including Amazon, Chevron, Halliburton, and IBM.
  • Another 56 of them (15%) paid less than 5% of profits in taxes.
  • The average effective federal income tax rate for these 379 large, profitable corporations was 11.3%, barely half of the reduced tax rate of 21% in the TCJA (down from 35%), and the lowest rate in the history of this analysis, which was first done in 1984. [1]

So, not only are wealthy individuals and corporations successful in getting politicians to cut the taxes they owe, but many of them then do everything they can to avoid paying even the reduced (I’m tempted to say, minimal) taxes they owe under our rigged tax system.

Some of them simply don’t pay the taxes they owe. According to a recent report from the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) [2] unpaid taxes averaged $381 billion per year (roughly 14% of federal taxes owed) from 2011 to 2013. The richest 1% of taxpayers are responsible for 70% ($267 billion) of this total. [3]

The amount of unpaid taxes is growing because the IRS’s budget has been cut by 20% since 2010 (after adjusting for inflation), reducing its capacity to crack down on tax avoidance. Audits of the tax returns of the highest income taxpayers have declined by 63% from 2010 to 2018 and now occur at the same rate as for the poorest taxpayers. This has happened because the IRS no longer has the capacity to engage in audits of the complex tax returns of the rich. The number of IRS personnel who handle these complex cases fell by about 40% between 2010 and 2018. [4] Enforcement action against high-income individuals who do not file a tax return has been reduced to simply mailing a notice to them.

The CBO report estimated that for every dollar added to the IRS budget for tax law enforcement, about three dollars in unpaid taxes would be collected. In addition to reduced auditing of wealthy individuals, the frequency of audits of the largest corporations (those with over $20 billion in assets) also dropped from 2010 to 2018; it dropped by roughly 50%.

In his reaction to the CBO report, Senator Sanders stated that “the primary beneficiaries of IRS funding cuts are wealthy tax cheats and large corporations.” [5] In response to an earlier study of audit rates, Senator Wyden stated that “We have two tax systems in this country, and nothing illustrates that better than the IRS ignoring wealthy tax cheats while penalizing low-income workers over small mistakes.” [6]

Our tax system is rigged from top to bottom – from reduced tax rates for wealthy individuals and corporations, to tax loopholes and subsidies for them, to tax dodging by them, to weak enforcement of tax laws to stop their tax avoidance. Hundreds of billions of dollars (actually probably well over a trillion dollars) of tax revenue from wealthy individuals and businesses are lost every year because of unfairly low tax rates, special interest tax breaks, and tax dodging.

When politicians say we can’t afford to support education or unemployment benefits or food assistance or whatever, don’t believe them. What we can’t afford is rich individuals and corporations who don’t pay their fair share in taxes due to our rigged tax system.

[1]      Gardner, M., Roque, L., & Wamhoff, S., Dec. 2019, “Corporate tax avoidance in the first year under the Trump tax law,” Institute on Taxation & Economic Policy (https://itep.org/corporate-tax-avoidance-in-the-first-year-of-the-trump-tax-law/)

[2]      Congressional Budget Office, July 2020, “Trends in the Internal Revenue Service’s funding and enforcement,” (https://www.cbo.gov/system/files/2020-07/56422-CBO-IRS-enforcement.pdf)

[3]      Johnson, J., 7/9/20, “‘An absolute outrage’: Sanders rips ‘wealthy tax cheats’ as CBO estimates $381 billion in annual unpaid taxes,” Common Dreams (https://www.commondreams.org/news/2020/07/09/absolute-outrage-sanders-rips-wealthy-tax-cheats-cbo-estimates-381-billion-annual)

[4]      Congressional Budget Office, July 2020, see above

[5]      Johnson, J., 7/9/20, see above

[6]      Kiel, P., 5/30/19, “It’s getting worse: The IRS now audits poor Americans at about the same rate as the top 1%,” ProPublica (https://www.propublica.org/article/irs-now-audits-poor-americans-at-about-the-same-rate-as-the-top-1-percent)

RECENT EXAMPLES OF A RIGGED ECONOMIC SYSTEM

Here are some recent examples of how our rigged economic system favors wealthy individuals and big corporations.

In the CARES Act, the $2.2 trillion coronavirus pandemic response, Republican Senators slipped in a tax break that will give each of 43,000 wealthy business owners a $1.6 million tax cut, on average. Hedge fund investors and owners of real estate businesses (including President Trump and his family) will receive the great majority of this tax cut windfall. [1]

Overall, the CARES Act provides $135 billion in tax cuts for the richest 1% of Americans. This is money that could have been used to provide aid to workers who lost their jobs or to buy personal protective equipment for front-line workers.

Moreover, the Trump Administration and Republicans in Congress are considering a variety of additional tax cuts for investors and businesses for the next pandemic relief bill. [2] Supposedly, these tax cuts will stimulate the economy and help it return to normal, but what they really do is make the rich richer. And while Trump and the Republicans claim that there should be no more spending on unemployment and payments to individuals because we’ve spent enough, tax cuts are simply spending before the fact of revenue collection rather than after the fact. Conceptually, there is no difference, other than who gets the money.

Perhaps the ultimate indication of how rigged our economic system is, is that the wealth of billionaires in the U.S. increased almost $600 billion or 20% between March 18 and June 17 as the pandemic crushed the lives and livelihoods of mainstream Americans. The 643 U.S. billionaires, who are overwhelmingly white males, saw their aggregate wealth increase from $2.9 trillion to $3.5 trillion, an increase of about $1 billion a piece, on average. [3] [4]

Meanwhile, working and middle-class households lost $6.5 trillion in wealth and over 45 million Americans applied for unemployment insurance. The 643 billionaires’ increase in wealth was twice as much as what the federal government spent on the one-time stimulus checks that went to 150 million Americans.

The billionaires and other wealthy individuals have used their incredible wealth to gain extraordinary influence over our politics and policy making. This led to the tax cuts in the CARES Act, in the 2017 Tax Act, and on numerous other occasions. As a result, the taxes paid by these billionaires decreased by 79% as a percentage of their wealth from 1980 to 2018. [5]

As another indicator of a rigged economic system, as the pandemic hit in early 2020 only the richest 20% of U.S. households had regained the same level of wealth that they had had prior to the Great Recession of 2008. The other 80% of households were still struggling with the economic hangover of the 2008 financial industry crash. The 400 wealthiest billionaires, on the other hand, recovered their wealth in three years and in ten years had increased their wealth by over 80%.

On the corporate front, corporations are rewarding their investors, i.e., shareholders, while laying off their workers. For example, Caterpillar closed three facilities in late March and two weeks later made a $500 million distribution to shareholders. Levi Strauss announced on April 7th that it would stop paying workers and furloughed about 4,000 over the following month. Nonetheless, it paid $32 million to shareholders in April. Stanley Black & Decker announced furloughs and layoffs on April 2nd, but within two weeks issued a $106 million dividend to shareholders. [6]

You may recall that in August 2019 the chief executives of 181 companies from the Business Roundtable released a statement announcing that companies should deliver value to customers, workers, and suppliers, as well as shareholders. To-date, three of the executives who signed that statement – ones from Caterpillar, Stanley Black & Decker, and Steelcase – have furloughed workers while paying dividends to shareholders.

In our rigged economic system, the capitalists in government bailout capitalists (i.e., business owners and investors), not workers, home owners, parents, students, schools, states and cities, our social services, or our so-called safety net. Even small businesses get left behind as wealthy investors and corporations are taken care of first and foremost. This was evident in the 2008 bailout after the collapse of the financial and mortgage sectors and it’s evident again in the response to this pandemic.

I urge you to contact your U.S. Representative and Senators and to tell them that pandemic relief should go to workers, middle-class and low-income households, and small businesses. Not only is this what would be fair and democratic, this would support our economy because two-thirds of economic activity is consumer purchases. If consumers can buy, they will keep the economy going and create demand for the goods and services businesses produce. Bailouts to corporations and investors will make them wealthier but will do little to keep the economy going and very little to help the mainstream residents of America.

You can find contact information for your US Representative at  http://www.house.gov/representatives/find/ and for your US Senators at http://www.senate.gov/general/contact_information/senators_cfm.cfm.

[1]      Stein, J., 4/14/20, “Tax change in coronavirus package overwhelmingly benefits millionaires, congressional body finds,” The Washington Post

[2]      Tankersley, J., 5/6/20, “Trump considers tax-cut proposal for new bill,” The New York Times

[3]      McCarthy, N., 6/22/20, “U.S. billionaire wealth surged since the start of the pandemic,” Forbes

[4]      Americans for Tax Fairness, 6/18/20, “3 months into COVID-19 pandemic: Billionaires boom as middle class implodes,” (https://americansfortaxfairness.org/issue/3-months-covid-19-pandemic-billionaires-boom-middle-class-implodes/)

[5]      Collins, C., 5/11/20, “Billionaires are getting even richer from the pandemic. Enough is enough,” CNN Business (https://www.cnn.com/2020/04/28/perspectives/inequality-coronavirus-billionaires/index.html)

[6]      Whoriskey, P., 5/6/20, “Amid layoffs, investors reap dividends,” The Boston Globe from The Washington Post

EFFECTS OF RACISM Part 2

The murder of George Floyd, a black man, by a white police officer kneeling on his neck for nine minutes (while three other officers facilitated the killing) has put the racism of U.S. society in the forefront. The attention to racism is going beyond this specific episode and is including the underlying, long-term racism of the U.S. economy, our society, and the policies, funding, and practices of federal, state, and local governments. (See my previous post here for more background.)

The effects of racism – of racial prejudice and discrimination – on black people today are broad and pervasive. They are the aggregation of current policies, practices, and characteristics of the U.S. economy and society, as well as the cumulative effects of 400 years of racism. I can’t do justice to all the effects in a couple of posts (Even long ones. My apologies.), but I will start by highlighting some of them. Some, particularly the better-known ones, I will just mention and for some I will present more detail. They are presented in no particular order, in part because they are all intertwined and the relative importance or severity of them is difficult, if not impossible, to determine. (See my previous post for effects in Education and Health and health care.)

Some of the detrimental effects of racism on black people that are evident today include:

Economic inequality

  • The median income for black households is only 60% of that of white households ($37,000 vs. $60,000).
  • Median wealth (assets minus liabilities) for black households is only 8% of that of white households ($11,000 vs. $134,000).
  • Most Blacks were excluded from many of the benefits of the New Deal legislation of the 1930s, including the minimum wage, union membership, and participation in Social Security. Much of this was corrected in the 1960s and 1970s, but the loss of 30 to 40 years of these economic benefits is a big contributor to today’s economic inequality. (See more detail in this previous post.)
  • One-third of low-income black households (incomes under $30,000) do not have a bank account (versus one-ninth of low-income white households). This means they must rely on check cashing services and payday lenders for financial transactions, which involve high fees and often usurious interest rates. This made it difficult (or expensive) for them to get their coronavirus relief checks, for example. [1]

Housing (See my previous post for an overview of government policies and practices that led to housing segregation and low levels of black home ownership.)

  • The effects of federal government and bank redlining are still discernible in the segregation patterns of our cities. Black people disproportionately live in areas with high concentrations of low-income households, poor air quality, and low social capital. These neighborhood characteristics are strongly linked to a whole range of negative life outcomes, including lower educational attainment, more unemployment and lower-wage jobs, shorter life spans, higher stress, and worse health and health care. On the other hand, the (white) suburbs created wealth for their residents and provided strong social capital and healthy, low-stress environments. [2] For example, in the post-World War II period, homes in the suburbs, which typically excluded Blacks, were purchased by whites for around $15,000. Those homes are now worth hundreds of thousands of dollars, a substantial increase in wealth that was denied to Blacks.
  • The home ownership rate for black households is over 30 percentage points lower than for white households. This home ownership gap has increased from just over 20% to over 30% during the last 40 years. It had been relatively stable at just over 20% for the previous 30 years. Given that equity in a home is the primary source of wealth for middle-class and working families in the U.S., the lower rate of home ownership among black households is a significant contributor to racial economic inequality, as well as other unequal outcomes. Equity in one’s home is frequently used to pay for college for children or to cover a short-term financial setback such as the loss of a job or a medical emergency. It is also a key source of retirement savings and inheritance for children. The lack of the economic security that home equity provides also is presumably linked to the higher levels of stress that black people experience.
  • Today, in 2020, interest rates on mortgage loans for black home buyers tend to be higher than for whites because the Federal Housing Finance Agency requires that mortgage interest rates be adjusted based on the borrower’s credit score, down payment, and mortgage type. These adjustments may double the interest rate on a mortgage loan and disproportionately harm black borrowers, either by pricing them out of the market or making the cost of home ownership significantly higher. These mortgage rate adjustments are a dysfunctional and discriminatory holdover from the early 2000s and could and should be changed. [3]

Criminal justice (The pervasive racism of the U.S. criminal justice system – from policing to prosecution and sentencing – that has led to mass incarceration of black males is well known, so I won’t go into it here. I have written about it previously here and here.)

  • Lynching is not a federal crime. Although bills to make it a crime have been introduced in Congress multiple times, no bill has ever been passed and become law.
  • Black people are 23% of those shot and killed by police but are only 13% of the population. Recently released statistics show that in 2019, 69% of the people subject to stop-and-frisk by police in Boston were Black, although Blacks are only 25% of the population. [4]
  • The police (and others) tend to presume that black people, particularly black men and boys, are dangerous and criminals. Being stopped for driving while black is a frequent experience for Blacks, especially if driving a nice car or in a white neighborhood. Former Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick experienced this while he was Governor, riding in an official car. [5] This racial profiling also occurs when shopping while black, walking down the street in a white neighborhood while black, and on and on. In May 2020, a tall, (6’ 8”) black man, a home owner in Newton, MA, an upper-middle class, largely white, Boston suburb, was walking to the supermarket with his wife when four police cruisers descended them. One of the five officers drew his gun. When asked for identification, the black man knew better than to reach into his pocket – a motion police officers in other situations claimed they found threatening and a reason to shoot. He told the officers that his wallet was in his back pocket and let them retrieve it. [6]

Voting

  • Republicans have been leading efforts for decades to make it harder or impossible for black people to vote – stealing an essential democratic right they were supposedly given after the Civil War. Multiple states have enacted laws that make it harder to register to vote and harder to vote through onerous voter ID requirements. States have also imposed what are effectively poll taxes, reduced the number of polling places in black neighborhoods, and reduced the hours for voting (including early voting that many blacks took advantage of, in part because it can be difficult for them to get to the polls on a work day). All these disproportionately harm black voters. In addition, states have purged lists of registered voters in ways that, again, disproportionately remove black voters. States have banned convicted criminals from voting, sometimes for life, which again disproportionately affects black voters. Finally, the boundaries of voting districts, especially for the U.S. House of Representatives and state legislatures, have been manipulated (i.e., gerrymandered) to reduce the impact of black voters.

The documentation of the detrimental effects of racism is not new. For example, the 1968 Kerner Commission Report on the “race riots” of the 1960s, stated that “Segregation and poverty have created in the racial ghetto a destructive environment totally unknown to most of white Americans. … White institutions created it, white institutions maintain it, and white society condones it.” It noted that not only had the racism of white society created this situation, but that the (white) public and policy makers were apathetic to the issue of black poverty. The Report recommended large-scale government programs to undo segregation and build wealth for black communities. Obviously, the Report was largely ignored. [7]

As one Boston Globe columnist recently wrote of the racism in the U.S., “I’ve spent years calling the system broken, but it wasn’t. This system was designed to dehumanize and exploit Black folk and other people of color.” [8] As former Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick, who is black noted, “For America, where freedom was the point from the start, only equality, opportunity and fair play make freedom possible.” [9] He probably should have clarified this by saying freedom for ALL or for black people.

It is long past time to address the racism that has persisted in the U.S. for the 140 years since the Civil War and indeed for the last 400 years since black slaves were first brought to America. We need to reform our police and criminal justice system, our housing policies and practices, and all the factors that lead to economic, environmental, and social injustice.

We need to have a serious discussion about reparations – remedies for the enduring harm that past and current policies and practices have caused to Blacks in the U.S. More on this in a future post.

I encourage each and every one of us to think long and hard about how we can contribute to the effort to end racism in our society and to erase its enduring scars. I’d appreciate your comments and questions on this post, including about:

  • Other policies and practices that need to be remedied,
  • Steps we should take to change policies and practices, and
  • How we should tackle the question of reparations for the enduring, cumulative harm that racism has done to Blacks in the U.S.

Thank you for your comments with reactions, suggestions, and questions. This is a discussion we need to have – and to turn into action.

[1]      Guzman, L., & Ryberg, R., 6/11/20, “The majority of low-income Hispanic and Black households have little-to-no bank access, complicating access to COVID relief funds,” National Research Center on Hispanic Children and Families (https://www.hispanicresearchcenter.org/research-resources/the-majority-of-low-income-hispanic-and-black-households-have-little-to-no-bank-access-complicating-access-to-covid-relief-funds/)

[2]      Baradaran, M., 6/17/20, “No justice. No peace. Underlying the nationwide protests for black lives is the racial wealth gap,” The American Prospect (https://prospect.org/civil-rights/no-justice-no-peace-fix-the-racial-wealth-gap/)

[3]      Levitin, A.J., 6/17/20, “How to start closing the racial wealth gap,” The American Prospect (https://prospect.org/economy/how-to-start-closing-the-racial-wealth-gap/)

[4]      Osterheldt, J., 6/17/20, “An oppression that should have been so clear,” The Boston Globe

[5]      Patrick, D., 6/16/20, “America is awakening to what it means to be Black. Will we also awaken to what it means to be American?” (https://medium.com/@DevalPatrick/america-is-awakening-to-what-it-means-to-be-black-3eb938969f7f)

[6]      Krueger, H., 6/6/20, “A walk to the grocery store, interrupted,” The Boston Globe

[7]      Baradaran, M, 6/17/20, see above

[8]      Osterheldt, J., 6/17/20, see above

[9]      Patrick, D., 6/16/20, see above

EFFECTS OF RACISM Part 1

The murder of George Floyd, a black man, by a white police officer kneeling on his neck for nine minutes (while three other officers facilitated the killing) has brought the racism of U.S. society to the forefront. The attention to racism is going beyond this specific episode and is including the underlying, long-term racism of the U.S. economy, our society, and the policies, funding, and practices of federal, state, and local governments. (See my previous post here for more background.)

The effects of racism, of racial prejudice and discrimination, on black people today are broad and pervasive. They are the aggregation of current policies, practices, and characteristics of the U.S. economy and society, as well as the cumulative effects of 400 years of racism. I can’t do justice to all the effects in a couple of posts, but I will start by highlighting some of them. Some, particularly the better-known ones, I will just mention and others I will present in more detail. They are in no particular order, in part because they are all intertwined and the relative importance or severity of them is difficult, if not impossible, to determine.

Some of the detrimental effects of racism on black people evident today include:

Education

  • Black students, on average, attend K-12 schools of lower quality (e.g., less experienced and qualified teachers, less funding, lower quality materials and facilities) than white students. Housing segregation has been widely acknowledged for decades as the driver of racially unequal access to a good K-12 education. This is a result, in large part, of the fact that funding for K-12 schools comes primarily from local property taxes. As a result:
    • Black students have less success in our K-12 school systems than white students. Notably, their graduation rates are lower.
    • After their K-12 education, black students attend and succeed at lower rates in higher education than their white peers.
  • Good, development-nurturing early care and education (aka child care) is generally less accessible for black families and children than for white ones. Except for the federal Head Start program, good quality early care and education (ECE) is unaffordable and often not conveniently located for black families. The Head Start program, which targets children in families below the federal poverty line (about $22,000 in annual income for a family of three, which could be a single parent with two young children), only receives enough funding to serve about half of the eligible 3 and 4 year olds and about one in ten of the eligible infants and toddlers.

Health and health care

  • Black people have a shorter life expectancy than whites: 75.5 years versus 79.1 years.
  • Black mothers experience higher pregnancy-related maternal mortality rates than whites: 4.1 vs. 1.3 deaths per 10,000 live births. This difference persists even after adjusting for potentially related factors such as age, education, and income.
  • Black infants experience higher mortality rates than whites: 109 versus 47 deaths per 10,000 live births.
  • The coronavirus pandemic has highlighted the inequities in health and health care for black Americans. Black people in the U.S. have had somewhere between 33% and 40% of COVID-19 cases despite being only 13% of the population. Their cases tend to be more severe and the black death rate is over twice that of whites (62 vs. 26 per 100,000). (See previous posts on the disproportionate impact on Blacks and the reasons for this.)
  • Research has found that respiratory conditions (including asthma) that make one more vulnerable to COVID-19 are more common among people with long-term exposure to air pollution and that a small increase in exposure to fine particulate air pollution — tiny particles in the air — leads to a significant increase in the COVID-19 death rate. Low-income and densely populated areas (whose residents are disproportionately black) have higher levels of air pollution due to higher levels of vehicular exhaust, emissions from buildings’ heating systems, and emissions from power generation and industrial facilities.
  • Hospitals that serve primarily white people have 60% higher per patient funding ($8,325) than ones that serve the highest proportions of black people ($5,197). The primarily white-serving hospitals had nearly twice as much capital spending (e.g., for new equipment and modernization) as the hospitals with the most black patients. The white-serving hospitals had more specialty services, better nurse-to-patient ratios, fewer safety hazards, and lower readmission rates. [1]
  • Black people have less access to health care, both based on the locations of services and due to lack of insurance. In addition, they receive lower quality and biased care when they receive health services. For example, a 2003 National Academy of Sciences report, “Unequal Treatment: Confronting Racial and Ethnic Disparities in Health Care” examined 480 studies and found that for every medical intervention black people received poorer-quality care than white people, even when income and insurance were equal. [2] Medical decisions, diagnoses, and treatments have been found to be racially biased with worse outcomes for black patients than white ones.
  • The high levels of stress that black people experience due to racism, economic insecurity, and other factors have been linked, for both children and adults, to chronic health problems (e.g., asthma, obesity, high blood pressure, heart disease, and diabetes) and mental / behavioral health problems (e.g., behavior and anxiety disorders and substance abuse). The stresses of what are referred to as adverse childhood experiences (e.g., child abuse or neglect, violence in the home or neighborhood, parents’ mental health problems) have been found to contribute to a higher prevalence years later of chronic adult health conditions such as high blood pressure, heart disease, diabetes, obesity, and anxiety disorders. The stresses of economic insecurity, neighborhood and household violence, and racism, collectively sometimes referred to as allostatic load, have been linked to higher rates of negative health outcomes, including shorter lifespans and more low birthweight babies. For example, the prevalence of diabetes is 66% higher among Blacks than whites and elevated blood pressure is 49% higher. Blacks have more chronic health conditions even when researchers compare them with whites with similar levels of education and income.
    • Examples of stressors that black people deal with regularly include being presumed to be dangerous or a criminal and being presumed to be in a non-professional or subservient role. For example, black people are often presumed to be staff in a hotel, restaurant, store, or golf club, rather than a customer. Or, as former Massachusetts Governor Patrick stated, “Like every other Black trial lawyer I know, I have been mistaken for a defendant awaiting trial” when arriving in a courthouse or courtroom to argue a case. [3] These types of role misidentification are commonplace. Almost every black person – if not every black person – can cite multiple times when this has happened to them. This requires them to control their anger, frustration, and sometimes their fear time after time after time. This takes a toll on one’s stress level, happiness, and well-being.
    • Black parents routinely feel anxious when their sons and daughters are not in their home because they know of the dangers that discrimination and prejudice present when they are out in public. Black parents know they must have “the talk” with their children, especially their sons, where they tell them that regardless of the situation or provocation they must stay calm, keep their hands visible, and avoid confrontation, particularly with police officers.
  • Because they are concentrated in low-income neighborhoods, black people often live in food deserts, where access to affordable, good quality food is difficult. Supermarkets are typically not located in those neighborhoods, so a long trip, often on public transportation, is required to reach them.

In my next post, I will provide an overview of the detrimental effects of racism on black people in terms of economic inequality, housing, criminal justice, and voting. I welcome your comments with reactions, thoughts, and questions relative to this post and the larger issue of racism in the U.S.

[1]      Dayen, D., 6/19/20, “Unsanitized: Structural racism and the coronavirus crisis,” The American Prospect (https://prospect.org/coronavirus/unsanitized-structural-racism-and-the-coronavirus-crisis/)

[2]      Villarosa, L., 4/29/20, “ ‘A terrible price’: The deadly racial disparities of Covid-19 in America,” The New York Times Magazine (https://www.nytimes.com/2020/04/29/magazine/racial-disparities-covid-19.html)

[3]      Patrick, D., 6/16/20, “America is awakening to what it means to be Black. Will we also awaken to what it means to be American?” (https://medium.com/@DevalPatrick/america-is-awakening-to-what-it-means-to-be-black-3eb938969f7f)

RACISM IN HOUSING HAS BEEN EXPLICIT GOVERNMENT POLICY

The murder of George Floyd, a black man, by a white police officer kneeling on his neck for nine minutes (while three other officers facilitated the killing) has brought the racism of U.S. society to the forefront. The attention to racism has gone beyond this specific episode and has included the underlying, long-term racism of policies, practices, and funding of federal, state, and local governments. (See my previous post for more background.)

Throughout U.S. society, a powerful element of racism is discrimination in housing and the segregation that it has produced. The conventional wisdom in the U.S., including in legal circles and the courts, is that racial housing segregation is de facto, i.e., the result of private practices and personal preferences and not the result of government policies and laws. This belief has led courts to declare that governments have no responsibility to address segregation and its negative effects, other than perhaps in our public schools.

The truth is that housing segregation is clearly the result of government policies and practices throughout the last 140 years, including ones that persist to this day. The legal term for effects that are direct or intentional results of actions is de jure. Therefore, racial housing desegregation in the U.S. is de jure. If legally acknowledged as such, it is a violation of our Constitution, specifically the Fifth, Thirteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments, and of the Bill of Rights. Acknowledgement of this would mean that our governments have an obligation to respond to housing segregation and the harm that it has caused. The definitive case for this is made by Richard Rothstein in his book The Color of Law: A forgotten history of how our government segregated America. [1]

The Color of Law describes in detail the government policies and practices at the local, state, and federal levels that promoted and enforced racial segregation in housing, and even forced the segregation of communities that had been integrated. Some of this dates from the late 1800s and some still exists today. Furthermore, many discriminatory private policies and practices have been supported by the action (or inaction) of government entities, such as the police, the courts, and various government agencies and regulators.

I apologize for the length of this post, but I felt it was important to give a good sense of the breadth and depth of the government policies and practices behind the racism in housing. Skim by reading the bolded portions if your time is limited. Policies and practices that contributed to housing segregation include:

  • In the late 1800s, Jim Crow laws and explicit, enforced segregation became the way of life in the South after the 1878 removal of federal troops that had been protecting blacks and implementing Reconstruction. The discrimination and segregation of the South proceeded to spread throughout the country. For example, in the early 1900s, blacks were systematically expelled from Montana, where they had previously thrived. In 1890, there were blacks in all 56 counties in Montana. By 1930, there were none in eleven counties and few left in the others. In the state capital of Helena, there were 420 blacks in 1910, but only 131 in 1930 and 45 in 1970.
  • Beginning in 1910 and continuing to today, zoning restrictions have been widely and intentionally used to segregate housing, sometimes explicitly and sometimes by banning multiple family housing or requiring large lot sizes (which make property very expensive). These latter types of zoning laws exist quite widely today. In 1910, Baltimore was the first city to adopt an explicitly segregationist zoning law. It prohibited blacks from buying homes on blocks where whites were the majority and vice versa. Implementing the zoning ordinance proved difficult because many areas of the city were quite integrated at the time. West Palm Beach adopted a racial zoning ordinance in 1929 and maintained it until 1960. Kansas City and Norfolk, VA, maintained racist zoning practices until at least 1987. Racist zoning ordinances effectively prevented blacks from moving to the suburbs and, in many cases, effectively prevented them from buying homes, forcing them to rent their homes.
  • In the 1920s, restrictions written into in home ownership deeds prohibiting the selling of a home to a black person spread throughout the country and in some cases persisted into the 1970s. Governments at the local, state, and federal levels promoted and enforced these restrictive covenants. State courts upheld them. In 1948, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that these covenants were private agreements and therefore not unconstitutional. However, it ruled that they represented discrimination that was illegal for the government to be a party to. Therefore, the power and resources of the government, including law enforcement and the courts, should not be used to enforce them. Shockingly, the FHA and other federal agencies, in complicity with state and local governments, effectively ignored this Supreme Court ruling for at least another decade. It wasn’t until 1972 that a federal court ruled that these covenants were illegal as a violation of the Fair Housing Act of 1968.
  • In the 1930s, the Federal Housing Authority (FHA) was created to promote home ownership, including by insuring home mortgage loans. Mortgage loans were newly available to middle class borrowers and insurance against default by the borrower made banks much more willing to make these loans. This insurance was, for all practical purposes, required by banks for mortgage loans. However, the FHA generally refused to insure mortgage loans for blacks, and definitely would not do so if the home being purchased was in a white neighborhood. Furthermore, the FHA would not insure a mortgage for a white person if the home was in a neighborhood where blacks were present. The FHA explicitly stated in its Underwriting Manual that segregated neighborhoods were preferable because segregated schools made neighborhoods more stable and desirable. (See pages 65 – 66 in The Color of Law.)
  • Up until 1962, the FHA also supported financing for developers building whites-only subdivisions in suburbia. It wasn’t until 1962, when President Kennedy issued an executive order banning the use of federal funds to support racial discrimination in housing, that the FHA stopped supporting subdivisions by developers who refused to sell homes to blacks.
  • As mortgage loans proliferated in the 1930s, federal bank regulators allowed banks to deny mortgages to blacks, as well as to whites buying in an integrated neighborhood. State regulated insurance companies that issued mortgages had similar policies. Federal bank regulators also allowed banks to “redline” areas and refuse to make mortgage loans for the purchase of any home within those areas, which were typically neighborhoods where blacks lived. This practice continued at least into the 1980s.
  • Starting in the 1940s, public housing was built. Initially, it was primarily for working- and lower-middle-class white families and was not heavily subsidized. In the late 1940s, as whites increasingly purchased homes in the suburbs and public housing became more available to blacks, most public housing was explicitly segregated until the 1970s and developments for whites were typically better built and built in nicer areas. By the 1960s, urban public housing had mostly poor, black residents and, by government policy, was built almost exclusively in black neighborhoods.
  • In the late 1940s, black World War II veterans were denied the government-guaranteed mortgages for purchasing homes that white veterans used in great numbers to buy suburban homes.
  • Beginning in the late 1940s, violence against blacks trying to move into white neighborhoods was not uncommon. However, law enforcement at the local, state, and federal levels rarely responded to these incidents until the 1980s. The proportion of these incidents where charges were filed against perpetrators grew from only 25% in 1985-6 to 75% in 1990, when roughly 100 such incidents occurred.
  • Numerous studies in the 1960s and 1970s found that blacks paid higher effective property tax rates on their homes than whites. This was typically accomplished by assessing black-owned properties at a high value compared to market value, while white-owned properties were assessed at a low comparative value. A 1973 study of ten cities by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development found systematic under-assessment in white middle-class neighborhoods and over-assessment in black neighborhoods. In Baltimore, it found an effective property tax rate 9 times higher for blacks than for whites; in Philadelphia it was 6 times higher and in Chicago it was twice as high. A 1979 analysis of Chicago property taxes found the effective rate for blacks to be 6 times that for whites.
  • In the early 2000s, federal bank regulators failed to stop banks from providing subprime mortgages disproportionately to black customers – at two to three times the rate of white customers. Subprime mortgages were mortgage loans with onerous provisions or deceptive presentation that made it likely that the borrower would be unable to meet the terms the loan. Defaults on these subprime mortgages were a key factor in the 2008 financial collapse and the resultant foreclosures represented a huge loss of wealth for blacks in the U.S. Moreover, many of the blacks who received these predatory, subprime mortgages qualified for regular mortgages but were steered to these subprime mortgages typically because the mortgage broker made more money on them.

These policies, and others, both reinforced racially segregated housing where it existed and imposed segregation in places where it hadn’t previously existed. “In 1973, the U.S. Civil Rights Commission concluded that the ‘housing industry, aided and abetted by the Government, must bear the primary responsibility for the legacy of segregated housing. … Government and private industry came together to create a system of residential segregation.’” (page 75)

My next post will summarize effects on black people of housing and other discrimination that are evident today. I’ll also ask you to share your thoughts on how we should address racism in the U.S.

[1]      Rothstein, R., 2017, The Color of Law: A forgotten history of how our government segregated America, W. W. Norton & Co., Inc., NY, NY.

RACISM IS AND HAS BEEN EXPLICIT GOVERNMENT POLICY

The murder of George Floyd, a black man, by a white police officer kneeling on his neck for nine minutes (while three other officers aided and abetted the act) has brought the racism of U.S. society to the forefront. The discussion it has spurred is going beyond this specific episode and has embraced the broader themes of racism in police personnel, training, and practices. In addition, the overall racism of U.S. society is being confronted, including the underlying, long-term racism of policies, funding, and practices of federal, state, and local governments.

For several years, the U.S. has been experiencing a simmering discussion about the racist practices and results of our criminal justice system. They typically start with police, or sometimes school disciplinary practices, and extend through prosecutors, courts, and prisons. (I’ve posted about the need for criminal justice reform, in large part because of embedded racism, here and here.)

Some of the racism in criminal justice is the result of public policies – laws defining crimes and penalties for them. Drug laws with much stiffer penalties for crack cocaine (typically used by blacks) than powdered cocaine (typically used by whites) are one clear example. Mandatory sentencing laws and three strikes laws are others. The racism of laws is exacerbated by their implementation, i.e., the practices of police, prosecutors, and courts. For example, blacks have been much more likely to be arrested and prosecuted for marijuana possession than whites, although good research has found no significant difference in use of marijuana (or other illegal drugs) between blacks and whites. Criminal justice system outcomes are different by race in part because whites can afford and have access to better legal representation.

I’ve previously posted on other topics related to racism that are embedded in laws, policies, and practices of governments at all levels, including:

  • The need for a political revolution to restore democracy and overcome economic inequality and other effects of hardcore capitalism as described in Ben Fountain’s book, Beautiful Country Burn Again: Democracy, rebellion, and revolution. [1] The book is based on his reporting on the 2016 presidential campaign. It now looks prescient in its analysis and title. Although this argument didn’t focus on racism, race was certainly an underlying theme. (link)
  • The racism of the Supreme Court in overturning the Voting Rights Act in 2013 (as analyzed in Fountain’s book). (link)
  • The largely racially motivated voter suppression and gerrymandering that has exploded since the Supreme Court decision overturning the Voting Rights Act in 2013.
  • The disparate impact of the coronavirus pandemic on people of color. (here and here)

Underlying all of this, and a powerful element of racism throughout U.S. society, is racism in housing and the segregation that it has produced. Housing segregation has been widely acknowledged for decades as the driver of racially unequal access to education in K-12 schools, which are largely funded by local property taxes. It is also a major driver of economic inequality, the unequal impact of the coronavirus, and many disparities in health and mental health conditions and in access to health care services. Housing segregation is, of course, also linked to the racial biases in law enforcement.

The conventional wisdom in the U.S., including in legal circles and the courts, is that housing segregation is de facto, i.e., the result of private practices and personal preferences, but not the result of government policies and laws. This belief has led courts to declare that because racial housing segregation is de facto, governments have no responsibility to address it and its negative effects, other than perhaps in our public K-12 schools.

The truth is that housing segregation is clearly the result of government actions of the whole 20th century, including policies and practices that persist to this day. The legal term for effects that are intentional results of explicit policies and laws is de jure. Therefore, racial housing desegregation in the U.S. is de jure segregation. If housing segregation is legally acknowledged to be de jure, it is a violation of our Constitution, specifically the Fifth, Thirteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments, and of the Bill of Rights. This acknowledgement would mean that our governments have an obligation to respond to the harms caused by housing segregation. The definitive case for this is made by Richard Rothstein in his book The Color of Law: A forgotten history of how our government segregated America. [2] I will summarize the book in my next post.

An important but less direct way that housing segregation has been created and maintained is by keeping the incomes and wealth of black households low so that they cannot afford to buy homes in white areas. Long after the end of the sharecropping system, which was indentured servitude that was barely distinguishable from slavery, many public policies have kept blacks poor.

In the 1930s, President Franklin Roosevelt needed the votes of southern Democrats to pass New Deal legislation. To get their votes, the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) of 1938 and other legislation that benefited workers excluded industries in which blacks were the predominant workers, such as agriculture and domestic services. Therefore, these occupations and many blacks didn’t receive the benefits of the minimum wage, participation in labor unions, or coverage from Social Security. Furthermore, many of the New Deal’s employment programs rarely employed blacks or restricted them to lower paying jobs. The minimum wage and some, but not all, of the other protections and benefits of the FLSA were finally given to most farm and domestic workers in the 1960s and 1970s.

From the 1930s to the 1960s, blacks who worked in unionized jobs were often in segregated unions, which typically had lower pay and represented less skilled jobs. Federal agencies continued to recognize segregated unions until President Kennedy ended the practice in 1962. In 1964, the National Labor Relations Board finally refused to certify whites-only unions and it was another decade before blacks were admitted to construction trade unions. Even then, their lack of seniority in the union meant that it would be many years before their incomes were comparable to white union members’ earnings.

Although many of the racist policies and practices that were once allowed and facilitated by governments are no longer in place, their effects have never been remedied and their discriminatory results endure. Economic inequality is one of their enduring legacies. In 2017, the median income for white households was about $60,000, while it was roughly $37,000 for black households – only 60% as much. Median white household wealth (assets minus liabilities) was about $134,000 versus $11,000 for black households – only 8% as much. Given that equity in a home is the primary source of wealth for middle-class households in the U.S., housing discrimination and segregation have been big contributors to racial economic inequality.

It is long past time to address the racial discrimination that has persisted in the U.S. over the last 140 years since Reconstruction of the South was abandoned and indeed over the last 400 years since black slaves were first brought to America. We need to reform our police and criminal justice system, our housing policies and practices, and so much more.

We need to have a serious discussion about reparations – remedies for the enduring harm that past and current policies and practices have caused to blacks in the U.S. I encourage each and every one of us to think long and hard about how we can contribute to the effort to end racism in our society and to erase its enduring scars.

[1]      Fountain, B., 2018, Beautiful Country Burn Again: Democracy, rebellion, and revolution, HarperCollins Publishers, NY, NY.

[2]      Rothstein, R., 2017, The Color of Law: A forgotten history of how our government segregated America, W. W. Norton & Co., Inc., NY, NY.

WHY THE CORONA VIRUS HITS PEOPLE OF COLOR HARDER THAN WHITES

The corona virus pandemic has highlighted critical issues in the U.S. economy and society that have led to unnecessary hardship, suffering, and deaths. The infection and death rates have been higher among people of color than among whites. In addition, low-income households and people living in densely populated areas are at higher risk for COVID-19 than others. These three risk factors occur concurrently for many, resulting in a particularly high-risk population. [1] (See my previous post for more detail.)

There are multiple factors that lead to the corona virus hitting people of color harder than whites. It is important to recognize and acknowledge that these disparities are not linked to individual decisions and behaviors, but to longstanding characteristics of the social and physical environments they live in in the U.S. These social determinants of health, as they are called, are most often driven by public policies and spending patterns, as well as by institutional racism. [2]

One of the reasons for the elevated death rate among people of color, low-income households, and people living in densely populated areas is that COVID-19 is especially dangerous to people with underlying health problems, particularly respiratory conditions, given that the virus typically attacks the lungs. Chronic health problems, including asthma, are higher among these at-risk populations. Research has found that respiratory conditions that make one vulnerable to the virus are more likely among people with long-term exposure to air pollution and that a small increase in exposure to fine particulate air pollution — tiny particles in the air — leads to a significant increase in the COVID-19 death rate. Low-income and densely populated areas (whose residents are disproportionately people of color) have higher levels of air pollution due to higher levels of vehicular exhaust, emissions from buildings’ heating systems, and emissions from power generation and industrial plants. Coincidentally, less than two weeks after the research on air pollution and COVID-19 was released, the Trump administration declined to impose stricter controls on the lung-harming particulate pollution that the researchers identified as hazardous.

People of color and low-income households typically live in densely populated areas where they have more face-to-face contact with other people, which makes exposure to the virus more likely. Multi-family housing, crowded living conditions (i.e., many people for the size of the dwelling unit), and more crowded streets and stores increase contact and exposure. Non-white and low-income people are also more likely to rely on public transportation and to work in essential front-line jobs (such caregiving, public transportation, grocery store work, or delivery jobs), which put them in close contact with other people. [3] One dramatic recent example of a high exposure-risk job is work in meat processing facilities, where infection rates have been very high and where workers are primarily people of color.

Research has documented that chronic health conditions are linked to the high levels of stress that people of color experience, including the stress of discrimination and what are referred to as adverse childhood experiences (ACEs). ACEs have been found to contribute to a higher prevalence of chronic adult health conditions such as high blood pressure, heart disease, diabetes, obesity, and anxiety disorders. In addition, the stresses of economic insecurity, neighborhood and household violence, and discrimination, collectively sometimes referred to as allostatic load, have been linked to higher rates of chronic health conditions. Not surprisingly, then, people of color and those in low-income households have higher rates of these chronic health conditions. This puts them at higher risk for infection, serious illness, and death from the corona virus. For example, the prevalence of diabetes is 66% higher among Blacks than whites and elevated blood pressure is 49% higher. People of color have more chronic health conditions even when researchers compare them with whites with similar levels of education and income.

Finally, people of color and low-income households are at high risk because they have less access to health care, both based on the locations of services and due to lack of insurance. In addition, they receive lower quality and biased care when they receive health services, adding to their risk. For example, a 2003 National Academy of Sciences report, “Unequal Treatment: Confronting Racial and Ethnic Disparities in Health Care” documented bias in the medical system. It examined 480 studies and found that for every medical intervention Black people and other people of color received poorer-quality care than white people, even when income and insurance were equal. [4]

All of these factors contribute to COVID-19’s higher infection rate, greater severity of illness, and higher death rate for people of color. This makes it extremely important to have good data on race and ethnicity for COVID-19 tests and patients in order to effectively target testing, response, and treatment. These data are needed for our society as a whole to effectively control the spread of the virus and develop effective treatment. Because these data were not being captured, a group of U.S. Senators and the American Medical Association both sent letters to senior federal officials at the Department of Health and Human Services underscoring the importance of capturing data on race and ethnicity in all COVID-19 response activities.

I hope we will learn lessons from this COVID-19 pandemic and address the issues and risks faced by people of color, low-income households, and those living in densely populated areas. These lessons should include the need to address inequality and racism to make our economy and society fairer and to help our country live up to its ideal of equal opportunity. This would make access to life (literally), liberty, and the pursuit of happiness available to all Americans, both in good times and in the face of the inevitable, next pandemic. To do so, we will need to implement effective long-term fixes for the critical issues of racism and inequality in the U.S., which have been laid bare by this pandemic.

[1]      Ryan, A., & Lazar, K., 5/10/20, “Disparities drive up coronavirus death rates,” The Boston Globe

[2]      Villarosa, L., 4/29/20, “ ‘A terrible price’: The deadly racial disparities of Covid-19 in America,” The New York Times Magazine (https://www.nytimes.com/2020/04/29/magazine/racial-disparities-covid-19.html)

[3]      Osterheldt, J., 4/11/20, “With virus, racism is underlying ill,” The Boston Globe

[4]      Villarosa, L., 4/29/20, see above

CORONA VIRUS PANDEMIC HIGHLIGHTS RACISM AND INEQUALITY IN U.S.

The corona virus pandemic has highlighted critical issues in the U.S. economy and society that have led to unnecessary hardship, suffering, and deaths. These include racism and economic inequality. Despite limited data on COVID-19 by race and ethnicity (because some jurisdictions have not been collecting or reporting these data), clear patterns emerge.

The infection and death rates have been higher among people of color than among Whites. In addition, low-income households and people living in densely populated areas are at higher risk for COVID-19 than others. These three risk factors occur concurrently for many, resulting in a particularly high-risk population. The infection rate for these populations is likely to be understated because there has probably been less testing among them than among well-off, White populations who typically have better access to health care. People of color also have more severe cases when they get the virus. One study of COVID-19 patients, where 18% of the patients were Black, found that 33% of the severe cases were with a Black patient.

The death rate for these at-risk populations may well be understated as well. Research has found that the national 2020 death rate has been significantly higher than usual after adjusting for the known COVID-19 deaths. This almost certainly means there have been COVID-19 deaths that were not recognized as being caused by the virus. These unrecognized COVID-19 deaths are likely to be disproportionately among these at-risk populations because of their reduced access to health care and virus testing.

At the state level, analyses at various points in time in April and May of 2020 have found significantly higher death rates for Blacks (60% to 370% higher than their presence in the overall population): [1]

  • Wisconsin: 33% of deaths were Blacks, who make up 7% of the population
  • Michigan: 40% of deaths were Blacks, who make up 14% of the population
  • Louisiana: 70% of deaths were Blacks, who make up 33% of the population
  • Mississippi: 61% of deaths were Blacks, who make up 38% of the population

Similarly, Chicago and New York City have death rates of minorities that are roughly twice the rate of their presence in the population.

Rates of COVID-19 infections are also significantly higher for Blacks and Latinos than for Whites: [2]

  • Nationally, based on limited data, 33% of people with COVID-19 infections were Black, while they are only 13% of the population.
  • In Massachusetts,
    • 18% of people with COVID-19 infections were Black, while they are only 9% of the population.
    • 23% of people with COVID-19 infections were Latino, while they are only 12% of the population.
  • In Boston, 40% of people with COVID-19 infections were Black, while they are only 25% of the population.

Researchers in Massachusetts have also looked at the density of population and poverty based on the zip codes of COVID-19 patients’ addresses, along with data on race and ethnicity. They found that death rates were: [3]

  • 40% higher in cities or towns with the highest proportions of people of color versus those with the lowest proportions.
  • 14% higher in cities or towns with the highest population densities versus those with the lowest densities.
  • 9% higher in cities or towns with the highest poverty rates versus those with the lowest rates.

Native Americans, especially the Navajo Nation, have been extremely hard hit by the pandemic. The Navajos have experienced an infection rate higher than any U.S. state, with over 4,000 cases and over 140 deaths as-of May 17. As with other low-income communities, this reflects a lack of public infrastructure, including a lack of access to health care, shortages of protective equipment and supplies, and in some places a lack of water and/or sewer systems. [4]

There are multiple factors that lead to the higher coronavirus infection and death rates among people of color, low-income households, and people living in densely populated areas. It is important to recognize and acknowledge that these disparities are not linked to individual decisions and behaviors, but to long standing characteristics of their social and physical environments. These social determinants of health, as they are called, are most often driven by public policies and spending patterns, as well as by institutional racism. [5]

My next post will review the reasons for the disproportionate impact of COVID-19 on people of color, low-income households, and people living in densely populated areas.

[1]      Villarosa, L., 4/29/20, “ ‘A terrible price’: The deadly racial disparities of Covid-19 in America,” The New York Times Magazine (https://www.nytimes.com/2020/04/29/magazine/racial-disparities-covid-19.html)

[2]      Osterheldt, J., 4/11/20, “With virus, racism is underlying ill,” The Boston Globe

[3]      Ryan, A., & Lazar, K., 5/10/20, “Disparities drive up coronavirus death rates,” The Boston Globe

[4]      Goodluck, K., 5/21/20, “Every corner of the Navajo Nation has been hit by COVID-19,” Mother Jones (https://www.motherjones.com/politics/2020/05/every-corner-of-the-navajo-nation-has-been-hit-by-covid-19/)

[5]      Villarosa, L., 4/29/20, see above

CORONA VIRUS PANDEMIC HIGHLIGHTS WEAKNESS OF PUBLIC INFRASTRUCTURE

The corona virus pandemic has highlighted critical issues in the U.S. economy and society that have led to unnecessary hardship, suffering, and deaths. These include the neglect of public infrastructure that led to the inability of governments to respond effectively to a pandemic.

Although the Trump administration’s disorganized and incompetent response to the pandemic (aided and abetted by some in Congress) bears significant responsibility for the high death rate in the U.S. (as documented in this previous post), the long-term neglect of public agencies and capacities shares some of the blame.  [1]

For forty years the U.S. has been neglecting, weakening, and, in some cases, literally dismantling public infrastructure, including government agencies, programs, and capabilities. Much of this has been done because of tax cuts and reductions in government revenue. (By the way, these have disproportionately benefited wealthy individuals and corporations.) When a politician tells you he can cut taxes without harming the services government provides, remind him that there’s no such thing as a free lunch; this pandemic has painfully shown this to be true.

At both the federal and state levels, bipartisan neglect of investments in government infrastructure, typically with Republicans leading the way but with many Democrats jumping on board, is now painfully obvious. Often the people who use the government’s safety net infrastructure are our poor and vulnerable residents who have the least political influence. Now, middle-class Americans are discovering the shortcomings and challenges of these programs, which include unemployment insurance. One particular area of weakness is information technology, where investments in updating and enhancing computer systems has been sorely lacking. It’s important to note that other wealthy countries are not experiencing the same breakdowns of government systems. [2]

A successful response to a disease threat requires not only treatment capacity (personnel and equipment), but the ability to identify individuals who have contracted it, track them and their contacts, and quarantine those individuals to contain, slow, and eventually stop the spread of the disease.

The U.S., theoretically, learned all of this from the 2014 Ebola outbreak. However, the Trump administration ignored the response plan prepared by the Obama administration. It disbanded or weakened the agencies needed to respond. So, in the face of the current pandemic, these lessons learned were ignored. (See more here.) The lack of investment in pandemic preparedness has left the U.S. with an insufficient supply of ventilators, protective masks, and other medical supplies. It also lacks a plan to obtain these supplies, a trigger to initiate a pandemic response, and the capacity to implement testing, tracking, and containment of a deadly disease.

The threat of a deadly virus shouldn’t have come as any surprise. Bill Gates (the Microsoft billionaire) did a TED Talk in 2015 entitled, “The next outbreak? We’re not ready,” in which he states that the biggest threat of mass deaths is not war or terrorism – it’s a virus. Gates states that the U.S. needs to treat pandemic preparedness the same way we treat military readiness: we need to have people, equipment, and plans in place and ready to go at a moment’s notice.

Other warnings were ignored as well. In the fall of 2019, a government exercise revealed that the U.S. was woefully unprepared for a pandemic. In January 2020, U.S. intelligence agencies’ warnings that a pandemic was on its way went unheeded. Also in January, a medical mask manufacturer in Texas contacted senior federal government officials and offered to increase production of masks but was ignored. [3] The country – and the world – later scrambled to address serious shortages of these masks.

In addition to providing a direct response to the disease, public infrastructure is critical to supporting society and the economy in the wake of a pandemic. An essential response to the economic shutdown is to provide unemployment benefits. However, the state unemployment systems that deliver these benefits are a case study example of public sector systems and agencies that have been under-invested in and allowed to decay. State unemployment agencies have been completely overwhelmed and unable to deliver benefits, despite the availability of funding for emergency benefits. Applicants in states across the country report an inability to get a response from their state unemployment agencies. [4] An important factor has been old computer systems that are unable to support the workload and respond to changed eligibility requirements and benefits.

Similarly, the Small Business Administration has been overwhelmed by requests for emergency relief. Its staff and technology have been unable to process applications, let alone get money out the door. The Internal Revenue Service is struggling to get stimulus checks to people due to years of cuts that have resulted in reduced staffing and antiquated computer systems. It has had problems identifying recipients and delivering checks accurately. The people most in need are likely to be the last ones to actually get checks.

The neglect of public investment has left our economy less resilient and our public and private, physical and social infrastructure less able to respond to a crisis, such as this corona virus pandemic. Basic democratic institutions and capabilities, such as holding safe and fair elections and delivering the mail, have been undermined.

In the response to this pandemic, as with the 2008 financial industry implosion, the government has stepped in to bail out corporations (and their wealthy executives and investors) first and foremost, providing them the protections of socialism for their losses in bad times, after having let them take the out-sized profits of capitalism in the good times.

However, despite the public bailout of the private sector, the private sector has let workers go by the millions, leaving them to depend on the public sector for a safety net of unemployment benefits, food and housing subsidies, public health insurance, and other essentials. The pandemic has shown that a capitalistic economy and society built on catering to the rich and their large corporations (a plutocracy), promising (falsely) that some of the riches will trickle down to the masses, is literally willing to sacrifice the lives of its elders and others vulnerable to disease for the sake of the wealth of its plutocrats. [5]

I hope we will learn some lessons from and implement long-term fixes for the critical issues in the U.S. economy and society laid bare by the pandemic. These lessons include the need to invest in public infrastructure (such as pandemic preparedness), address inequality and racism in our economy and society, and provide an effective safety net.

In my next post I’ll explore how the pandemic is exposing the underlying racism in U.S. society and the devastating effects it’s having on Blacks, Latinos, Native Americans, and immigrants.

[1]      Hanauer, N., 4/14/20, “Our uniquely American virus,” The American Prospect (https://prospect.org/coronavirus/our-uniquely-american-virus/)

[2]      Cohen, M. A., 4/12/20, “Decades of neglect in basic services now exposed,” The Boston Globe

[3]      Davis, A. C., 5/10/20, “HHS turned down offer to manufacture N95 masks,” The Boston Globe

[4]      Cohen, M. A., 4/12/20, see above

[5]      Hanauer, N., 4/14/20, see above

CORONA VIRUS PANDEMIC HIGHLIGHTS ILLS OF U.S. ECONOMY AND SOCIETY

The corona virus pandemic has highlighted critical issues in the U.S. economy and society that have led to unnecessary hardship, suffering, and deaths. These include the economic inequality, insecurity, and instability of plutocratic economics, where the playing field is tilted in favor of wealthy corporations and individuals and workers struggle to survive, in some cases literally, with this pandemic.

The neglect of public infrastructure is another such issue highlighted by the pandemic, including the inability of the government to respond effectively to the crisis and the weakened safety net that is now literally leaving people at risk of dying. The pervasive racism of U.S. society has been highlighted by the disproportional rate at which Blacks, Latinos, and Native Americans have gotten ill with COVID-19 and have died from it.

Although the Trump administration’s disorganized and incompetent response to the pandemic (aided and abetted by some in Congress) bears significant responsibility for the high death rate in the U.S. (as documented in this previous post), the larger context is important and provides many lessons that should be learned.

The pandemic has highlighted the value of and risks to front-line workers who meet essential needs, such as providing food, transportation, and care services. They typically receive low pay and often limited benefits (such as paid sick leave and health insurance). They are disproportionately people of color. They interact with the public and therefore are disproportionately likely to be exposed to the virus. Increasing numbers of them are part-time or contract workers who have little if any job security and typically no benefits, including not being covered by unemployment insurance.

Over the last 40 years, safety, health, and economic protections for workers have been undermined. This includes the weakening of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration and more recently the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (see previous posts on this here and here). Unions, which provide important protections to workers, and the ability to unionize have been weakened. This has resulted in stagnant wages, deteriorating working conditions, and increased economic insecurity for the middle- and lower-income households.

One result has been the highest level of economic inequality in the U.S. in one hundred years. Over 40% of households don’t have $400 for an emergency expense, let alone the savings to support months of self-quarantine. Furthermore, over 40% of full-time workers get no paid sick time. And, given the employer-based health insurance system, a worker (and often his or her family) has no health insurance once he or she loses a job – as over 20 million Americans have by early May 2020. [1] (By the way, the Trump administration has refused to allow these workers to enroll in health insurance through the Affordable Care Act’s insurance marketplaces.)

Plutocratic economics’ beliefs that the private sector is the best solution for all of society’s needs and that bigger businesses are better have led to policies that have benefited the private sector and corporate shareholders and executives over everyone else and over the greater public good. Examples include corporate-friendly trade treaties, the failure to enforce antitrust laws, and the relaxation of corporate regulation, or perhaps more accurately, the skewing of it to benefit large, often multi-national corporations.

Plutocratic economics have resulted in near-monopolistic corporations in everything from the food industry to medical equipment suppliers and medicine manufacturers. The pandemic has highlighted the lack of capacity in the U.S. to produce important goods, including reliance on China for medical supplies needed to respond to a pandemic, such as medical masks and ventilators. It has also highlighted dependence on a few huge corporations and their plants for key food items, such as meat.

In the health care industry, forty years of deregulation, lack of antitrust enforcement, and increasing numbers of for-profit entities have led to, among other things, mergers and closures of hospitals in search of greater profits. This has left the U.S. with some of the lowest numbers of both doctors and hospital beds per capita among countries with advanced economies. This is particularly surprising given that the U.S. spends almost twice as much per capita on health care as other wealthy nations. (The U.S. also has notably worse health outcomes than these other countries, even in good times.) Many localities now have a single provider of hospital services and many rural communities have no local hospital services. (See this previous post for more detail.)

Another example of the failure of this privatized, for-profit health care industry, is that the federal government’s plan to produce thousands of ventilators for pandemic preparedness collapsed in 2012 when the government’s contracted supplier was purchased by a large manufacturer that shut the supplier because it didn’t produce sufficient profit.

Another industry where the vulnerability of our dependence on large, dominant corporations has been exposed is meat processing. The presence of a few dominant meat processors and weak regulation has created the conditions for the inability to supply meat that we are now experiencing. The spread of COVID-19 in the huge processing plants is forcing them to shut down. Fourteen major slaughterhouses, each of which may process 10,000 animals a day, have had to close at least temporarily. The huge Smithfield Foods pork processing plant in South Dakota, which had to close, produces about 4% of the country’s supply of pork. [2]

In pork processing, after decades of mergers that receive little or no antitrust scrutiny, the four largest corporations control at least 70% of the market. This is bad for producers and consumers. Pig farmers often face a single local purchaser for their pigs, leaving them vulnerable to monopolistic business practices. Furthermore, U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) regulation favors large slaughterhouses over small ones. The USDA inspection regime for large slaughterhouses has been relaxed to the point that most health and safety inspections are self-performed. The regulation of speed on production lines has been rescinded and workers now report they must move so fast that they can’t stop to cover their faces if they cough or sneeze. In addition, it means they are working shoulder to shoulder, conditions that make it impossible to stop the transmission of disease, such as COVID-19. In the beef market similar concentration has occurred. As a result, the large slaughterhouses are now making a profit of about $550 per cow, while the ranchers make only about $25.

My next posts will discuss the neglect of public infrastructure and the pervasive racism in the U.S. and how they have been exposed by this pandemic.

[1]      Hanauer, N., 4/14/20, “Our uniquely American virus,” The American Prospect (https://prospect.org/coronavirus/our-uniquely-american-virus/)

[2]      Knox, R., 5/4/20, “Monopolies in meat: Endangering workers, farmers, and consumers,” The American Prospect (https://prospect.org/economy/meat-monopolies-endanger-workers-farmers-consumers/)

THE CONSUMER FINANCIAL PROTECTION BUREAU IS NEEDED TO PROTECT US FROM PREDATORY LENDING

The 2008 financial crash was triggered by predatory mortgage loans. As a result, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) was created to protect consumers from dangerous financial products. There’s a Consumer Product Safety Commission to protect us from dangerous physical products, but prior to the creation of the CFPB, there wasn’t an agency dedicated to protecting consumers from dangerous financial products, such as predatory mortgages and other predatory loans.

Predatory loans are loans where the lender isn’t concerned about the borrower’s ability to repay the loan. In many cases, the lender is just as happy – and may benefit financially – if the borrower defaults on the loan. Predatory lenders usually target people who are desperate for cash or dying to purchase a home, a car, or a consumer product they can’t afford. The loans typically charge very high interest rates, as well as high fees for obtaining the loan and big penalties for failing to meet the terms of the loan, such as being late on a loan payment.

Unethical, deceptive, and/or blatantly fraudulent practices are almost inevitably part of predatory lending. These practices include lying to consumers about the interest rate, fees and other charges, or future payments. Borrowers are often convinced to accept unfair terms through deceptive, coercive, or unscrupulous statements and actions. A predatory lender may add costs for insurance or other services that the borrower doesn’t need or benefit from by presenting them deceptively or as a requirement for the loan.

Predatory lenders routinely target the poor, minorities, the elderly, people with low levels of education, those who don’t understand English well, and people who don’t understand loans or finances well.

Predatory lending is what free market capitalism looks like without regulation. It occurs across the financial industry when good regulation and enforcement aren’t in place, from student loans to car loans and from mortgage loans to payday loans.

Predatory lending is the bread and butter of much of the financial industry as it is a source of big profits. Therefore, the financial industry has fought hard against the CFPB and its efforts to regulate lending since the day the CFPB was conceived.

As a specific example, the predatory lending industry fought a CFPB rule known as the payday lending rule. Promulgated under the Obama administration, it required lenders to assess customers’ ability to repay their loans. This was unwelcome, to say the least, in an industry that makes huge sums of money by charging high fees when customers miss a loan payment (as the lender often expected they would) and then rolling the loan over into a new loan so they can repeat this process over and over. [1]

The predatory lending industry bought access to and influence in the Trump administration by making millions of dollars of contributions to Trump’s campaign and engaging in heavy lobbying. Trump replaced the Obama-appointed Director of the CFPB with a person who is much friendlier to the financial industry.

In addition to an industry-friendly Director, Trump further undermined the work of the CFPB by appointing Christopher Mufarrige as an “attorney-advisor” to the Director. Mufarrige had been the owner of a car dealership that used the “Buy Here Pay Here” model of selling used cars, which provides on-the-spot loans to buyers with poor credit ratings. The loans carry high interest rates and Mufarrige was quick to repossess the car if there was a default, i.e., a late payment. Then, he would sell the same car again and do the same deal all over again.

Mufarrige’s business was covered by the CFPB’s payday lending rule that required a lender to assess each borrower’s ability to repay. Mufarrige had stated that this rule was flawed and unnecessary. Nationwide, Buy Here Pay Here model car dealers were making $80 billion in loans annually and an investigation by the New Jersey Attorney General found that roughly one-quarter of their customers default on their loans.

Mufarrige and other political appointees at the CFPB used false statistics and manipulated evidence to claim there was no value to the requirement to assess a borrower’s ability to repay. This allowed the CFPB to justify proposing watered-down regulation of the payday lending industry that does not require it to assess customers’ ability to repay their loans.

Another example of the need for CFPB regulation of predatory financiers is Progressive Leasing, LLC, (a subsidiary of Aaron’s Inc.), which has as its mission “to provide convenient access to simple and affordable purchase options for credit challenged consumers.” It offers rent-to-own programs through major retailers at over 30,000 stores (including Best Buy, Lowe’s, Big Lots, and Kay Jewelers). In effect, its programs are predatory loans to consumers who can’t afford to pay for their purchases up-front.

Progressive Leasing, LLC, has just settled with the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) for the second time in three months over complaints that it uses deceptive practices. It leads customers to believe they are not being charged extra for financing their purchase. In reality, many customers end up paying more than double the sticker price of the item they purchased. In its training materials, Progressive Leasing instructs retail sales staff to say there isn’t an interest rate associated with the rent-to-own program because it is not a loan. They don’t inform customers of the fees and other charges that are part of the program. [2]

In April, Progressive Leasing paid $175 million to settle claims that it misled consumers after having paid another $175 million in February to settle claims about its disclosure practices. Despite tens of thousands of customer complaints, Progressive Leasing had continued to use the same practices. One FTC Commissioner said the most recent penalty did not go far enough, noting that customers had paid Progressive Leasing more than $1 billion in undisclosed fees and charges.

The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau is badly needed to protect consumers from the greed and unethical behavior of unrestrained lenders. Capitalism without regulation will prey on all of us when we are most in need of financial assistance. The financial industry has shown time and again that without good regulation and enforcement it will ruin people’s lives and our nation’s economy.

I urge you to contact your U.S. Representative and your Senators and ask them to support and protect the integrity of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. Encourage them to advocate for strong regulation and enforcement of responsible behavior in the financial industry.

You can find contact information for your US Representative at  http://www.house.gov/representatives/find/ and for your US Senators at http://www.senate.gov/general/contact_information/senators_cfm.cfm.

[1]      Dayen, D., 5/4/20, “CFPB appointee who helped water down payday lending rule operated a high-cost auto lender,” The American Prospect (https://prospect.org/power/cfpb-appointee-helped-water-down-payday-lending-rule/)

[2]      Bhattarai, A., 4/21/20, “Leasing company agrees to pay $175m,” The Boston Globe from the Washington Post

THE PROOF IN THE PUDDING OF TRUMP’S CORONA VIRUS RESPONSE

Although President Trump and his administration have not been wrong about everything they have said and done, they’ve been wrong about most things. The ultimate proof is in the results. Although final results aren’t in yet, of course, the results as-of late April are pretty damning: [1]

  • 4% of the world’s population is in the U.S. (330 million)
  • 33% of the world’s COVID-19 cases are in the U.S. (929,000)
  • 25% of the world’s COVID-19 fatalities are in the U.S. (52,500)
  • The U.S. death rate is 50 times that of Australia and New Zealand (see details below)

I could stop right here, but as long as I’ve started, here are some facts to back up the laying of the blame for these statistics at the feet of Trump and his administration.

In 2018, the Trump administration dissolved the office of pandemic preparedness in the National Security Council and cut funding for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Those groups would have been the leaders in responding to the pandemic, using a plan (that the Trump administration ignored) prepared after the Ebola crisis in 2014. Trump had been briefed by outgoing Obama administration officials about the plan and its importance, but obviously ignored the briefing and the plan. [2]

If the pandemic response plan had been followed, the federal government would have started getting equipment to doctors in late January or February (rather than late March and April), given that by mid-January intelligence reports were warning of a likely pandemic. On January 18, Health and Human Services Secretary Azar warned Trump of the threat of the corona virus outbreak in Wuhan, China, which had begun in December 2019. As U.S. diplomats were being evacuated from Wuhan, cases of the virus were confirmed in South Korea and the U.S. (on Jan. 22).

The week of January 20th, South Korea began mass production of test kits for the virus and the World Health Organization (WHO) declared a global health emergency, while Trump did nothing. When China locked down Hubei Province (where Wuhan is located), Trump banned entry of foreigners from China but did nothing else.

By February, there were fourteen COVID-19 cases in the U.S. but few test kits for it – and the initial ones from the CDC proved faulty. Trump was actively downplaying the threat, saying things like, “We pretty much shut it down.”

On Feb. 25, the CDC announced that daily life could be seriously disrupted. It noted that containment was not in place, nor was the testing needed to effectively execute it. Meanwhile, Trump called the emerging crisis a hoax by Democrats. With 100 cases in the U.S., Trump declined to declare a national emergency. Testing in South Korea was ramping up 40 times faster than in the U.S.

Trump didn’t declare a national emergency until March 13th, when there were 1,645 cases in 47 states. [3] Even then, Trump did not take the steps needed to ensure the availability of sufficient test kits and of the equipment needed by hospitals and front-line workers.

In late April, even the military – the defenders of our country – can’t get enough COVID test kits. It is testing 7,000 troops a day and hopes to be able to test 60,000 a day by June – over eight times as many as it can test now. This would allow it to test all military personnel by some time this summer in order to ensure their readiness to fight.

Trump’s daily press briefings are more misinformation than information because he doesn’t attend corona virus task force meetings and doesn’t prepare for the press briefings. The official in charge of the agency working on vaccine development has been fired, apparently for political reasons, and there’s regular speculation on whether Trump will fire the other experts in the federal government who correct his press briefing statements. Trump appears to be detached from reality, indifferent to the suffering, and focused on the well-being of his ego and on his political popularity rather than the well-being of the American public and managing a public health crisis.

In case you’ve been wondering, the course of the pandemic is different with different leadership. In Australia (AU), with a conservative Prime Minister (PM) and states with significant power as in the U.S., there are just a handful of new cases a day, down from hundreds in March, while there are 25,000 – 30,000 new cases a day (and growing) in the U.S. The situation is the same in New Zealand (NZ) with a progressive Prime Minister.

In both Australia and New Zealand, partisanship has been put aside, experts and data are driving the response, and coordination and collaboration are the operating principles. Leaders in both countries responded to their country’s first case (1/25 in AU and 2/28 in NZ) with strong action and clear warnings. In Australia, the PM labeled the outbreak a pandemic on Feb. 27, two weeks before the WHO did and two weeks before the declaration of a national emergency in the U.S. He formed a national taskforce of federal and state leaders who worked together to build hospital capacity and guide the response. In New Zealand, the PM ordered a total lockdown less than one month after the first case. [4]

The results:

  • Australia (population 25 million): first case Jan. 25
    • 6,670 cases (27 per 100,000 people), <1% daily rate of new cases
    • 78 deaths (0.3 per 100,000 people)
  • New Zealand (population 5 million): first case Feb. 28
    • 1,456 cases (29 per 100,000 people), <1% daily rate of new cases
    • 17 deaths (0.3 per 100,000 people)
  • United States (population 330 million): first case Jan. 22
    • 929,000 cases (282 per 100,000 people), 3.5% daily rate of new cases
    • 52,500 deaths (15.9 per 100,000 people)

Leadership does make a difference. The U.S. would better off if Trump would simply get out of the way and let others lead – and had done so three months ago. His “leadership” has done startling harm. Given that the death rate in the U.S. is 50 times that of Australia or New Zealand, it seems safe to say that Trump’s lack of leadership has led to tens of thousands of unnecessary deaths.

[1]      Cohen, M., 4/26/20, “Say it loud, say it clear: Donald Trump needs to resign,” The Boston Globe

[2]      Reich, R., 4/16/20, “Trump’s failed coronavirus response,” The American Prospect (https://prospect.org/coronavirus/trumps-failed-coronavirus-response/)

[3]      Trump Administration, 3/13/20, “Proclamation on Declaring a National Emergency Concerning the Novel Coronavirus Disease (COVID-19) Outbreak,” (https://www.whitehouse.gov/presidential-actions/proclamation-declaring-national-emergency-concerning-novel-coronavirus-disease-covid-19-outbreak/)

[4]      Cave, D., 4/26/20, “Australia and New Zealand pave the way for virus eradication,” The Boston Globe from the New York Times

THE TRUMP ADMINISTRATION’S SWAMP OF CORRUPTION Part 2

President Trump campaigned on a promise to drain the Washington, D.C., swamp of special interests and insider dealing. This is one promise he clearly hasn’t kept – and probably never meant. I provided some background on this and an overview of the personal corruption of Trump and his family in my previous post.

The level of corruption – of special interests running our government for their own benefit and of outright self-enrichment by individuals in the Trump administration – is stunning. The American Prospect magazine has begun mapping the Trump Swamp of conflicts of interest and unethical behavior agency by agency. [1] They have created an interactive map of Washington where you can click on an agency’s headquarters building and get highlights of the swamp of corruption at each agency.

Here are some examples of Trump appointees who have on-going conflicts of interest, have oversight of industries they used to work in (and may well work in again), and/or have committed serious ethical violations: [2]

  • Steve Mnuchin, Secretary of the Treasury, a former Goldman Sachs (GS) partner. His specialty at GS was mortgage securities, which were at the heart of the 2008 economic collapse. He capitalized on the collapse by buying a failing bank and foreclosing on 36,000 homeowners, many of whom were elderly and who had been targeted with high-risk reverse mortgages, supposedly intended to keep them in their homes. Furthermore, he simultaneously collected federal subsidies that were meant to keep people in their homes. At the Treasury, he has weakened regulation of banks and reduced scrutiny of financial activities, which benefits his colleagues still in the financial industry (and to which he will likely return). Under Mnuchin, the Treasury has provided favorable tax rulings for wealthy individuals and businesses, again rewarding his former colleagues. It also put forth tax regulations that were almost identical to those proposed by a group of large corporations. It tweaked the rules for Opportunity Zone tax credits so they would be more available to real estate magnates including Jared Kushner (Trump’s son-in-law), Chris Christie (former Governor of New Jersey), Richard LeFrak (longtime Trump associate in NYC), Anthony Scaramucci (former White House aide), and Michael Milken (longtime Mnuchin friend and convicted junk bond dealer).
  • Elaine Chao, Secretary of the Department of Transportation (DOT), heiress to a shipping company fortune. While her DOT regulates international shipping, her family runs a huge international shipping business that has ship building done by Chinese government-linked entities, while also getting hundreds of million dollars of loans from them. Numerous actions by Chao and DOT have benefited the family business, including cutting subsidies for competing shippers, public appearances with her father, and a joint trip with him to China to meet with government officials. Until June 2019, she also owned an investment in a manufacturer of road construction materials, an industry very much affected by DOT policies. She sold this investment only when the holding was publicly reported. Kentucky (which her husband, Sen. Mitch McConnell, represents) has seen its transportation projects receive favorable treatment. Kentucky has received at least $78 million in DOT grants, including for a project rejected twice before. A former aide to Sen. McConnell, now a top aide to Chao, provides special attention for Kentucky projects.
  • Wilbur Ross, Secretary of Commerce, a former private equity manager. His firm paid a $2.3 million fine in 2016 for unethically siphoning $120 million from former associates. Companies his firm controlled found ways to escape obligations to provide workers pensions and health benefits. After he became Secretary, and with his department regulating shipping, he retained ownership in a shipping company with ties to Russian oligarchs and members of Russian President Putin’s family. As Secretary, he personally negotiated a deal to ship liquified natural gas (LNG) to China while his shipping company owned the world’s largest fleet of LNG tankers. Ross has conferred on official business with leaders of government-controlled funds in Qatar, Japan, and Singapore who had invested in his private equity firm. He had official meetings with the CEOs of Chevron and Boeing, while his wife held investments in those corporations of $400,000 and $2 million, respectively.
  • Betsy DeVos, Secretary of the Department of Education (DOE), rich, major campaign contributor with no expertise in education other than advocacy for charter schools. For numerous top jobs at DOE, she has hired former employees of private, for-profit college companies that had paid fines or signed legal settlements for deceptive advertising. The DOE has maintained the flow of federal funds (via student loans) to for-profit schools with questionable track records, while insisting that students defrauded by private colleges continue to make loan payments. The DOE also effectively stopped the public-service loan forgiveness program, requiring tens of thousands of teachers, nurses, police officers, and others to continue to pay off their student loans. She has done nothing to help ease the $1.5 trillion student debt crisis, despite promises by President Trump to do so.
  • David Bernhardt, Secretary of the Department of the Interior, former partner in a Denver law and lobbying firm that represented mining, oil, and gas companies. He disclosed 20 separate conflicts of interest, but nonetheless acted at least 25 times to benefit former clients of his law firm. His former law firm has quadrupled its revenue since he became Secretary.
  • Andrew Wheeler, head of the Environmental Protection Agency, a former lawyer and lobbyist for the coal industry.
  • Alex Azar, Secretary of Health and Human Services, a former executive of the giant drug corporation, Eli Lilly, where dramatic increases in drug prices were a common practice.

The list goes on and on and includes many staffers in these and other agencies. Overall, as-of October 2019, less than three years into Trump’s term, there are 281 former lobbyists working in the Trump administration, four times as many as the Obama administration hired in six years.

This is not how a democracy is supposed to operate, let alone our democracy, which is supposed to be the exceptional shining light on the hill. This is how a plutocracy operates – where government is of, by, and for the wealthy.

I urge you to contact your U.S. Representative and Senators to ask them to investigate the conflicts of interest, the self-enrichment, and the ethics of the many members of the Trump administration identified in The American Prospect’s expose. Please ask your Senators to refuse to confirm any Trump appointee with conflicts of interest or histories of unethical behavior. Because of current vacancies and the high level of turnover, additional appointments of senior officials will continue to come before the Senate.

You can find contact information for your US Representative at  http://www.house.gov/representatives/find/ and for your US Senators at http://www.senate.gov/general/contact_information/senators_cfm.cfm.

[1]      Lardner, J., 4/9/20, “Mapping corruption: Donald Trump’s executive branch,” The American Prospect (https://prospect.org/power/mapping-corruption-donald-trump-executive-branch/)

[2]      Lardner, J., 4/9/20, see above

THE TRUMP ADMINISTRATION’S SWAMP OF CORRUPTION

President Trump campaigned on a promise to drain the Washington, D.C., swamp of special interests and insider dealing. This is one promise he clearly hasn’t kept – and probably never meant – although it was good rhetoric for the campaign because many of his potential supporters wanted to hear this. They were working and middle-class people who wanted to see the federal government turned upside down because they had lost their economic security to:

  • Trade deals that sent their jobs overseas,
  • Anti-union policies that made it impossible for them to strike or to organize, so their wages stagnated and their overall compensation (including benefits) declined,
  • Financial policies that let already wealthy executives and stockholders capture the benefits of increased productivity of workers,
  • A health care system that increased their costs while decreasing coverage,
  • A retirement system that either abandoned them or shifted investment risk onto their shoulders, and
  • A government that repeatedly bailed out the financial industry, reduced taxes on huge corporations, and allowed leveraged buyouts and bankruptcies that cut jobs and eliminated retirement benefits.

While these policies were benefiting wealthy corporations and individuals, blue collar and middle-class workers lost their jobs, had mortgages foreclosed on, and saw their credit card balances and their children’s student debt skyrocket. (See this previous post for more detail.)

The American Prospect magazine has begun mapping the Trump Swamp of conflicts of interest and unethical behavior agency by agency. [1] They have created an interactive map of Washington where you can click on an agency’s headquarters building and get highlights of the swamp of corruption at each agency.

The level of corruption – of special interests running our government for their own benefit and the outright self-enrichment by individuals in the Trump administration – is stunning. Much of this flies beneath the radar of all the bluster, lies, and shocking policy proposals the Trump administration throws out daily. It relies on misdirection delivered through words to distract attention from corrupt actions. Our mainstream media is just too focused on the theater of Trump and his minions, and too overwhelmed to report everything that’s being done. And the American public is too distracted – having had its attention diverted from the real action just as a magician does – and too overwhelmed to take it all in.

The personal self-dealing of President Trump is appalling even before one considers what’s going on in executive branch agencies. For example, foreign diplomats and domestic lobbyists are paying untold sums of money to stay in Trump hotels and at Trump resorts. This money is functionally a bribe, buying access, attention, often face-time, and sometimes outright rewards. The President has spent one out of every three days at one of his resorts, giving the resorts free advertising and revenue from the lodging and other expenses of his Secret Service detail and his retinue. The Secret Service, for example, in protecting the President as he golfs, has spent over $500,000 on golf carts alone.

Family members have benefited, too. Perhaps most notably, Ivanka Trump got rare and valuable trademarks from China the same day she dined with China’s leader. Trump’s spokesperson also touted Ivanka’s products in official TV interviews.

In another example of what’s functionally bribery, two large private prison corporations, GEO Group and CoreCivic, after hundreds of thousands of dollars of political spending, have received over $3 billion in payments for their services from Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), a unit of the federal Department of Homeland Security. Together, they run 41 detention centers that house more than half of ICE detainees. They’re providing these services because the Trump administration has reversed the phaseout of the use of private prisons that was occurring under the Obama administration. The phaseout was happening because of a series of scandals at private prisons including deaths, high suicide rates, substandard medical care, and other malfeasance. (See previous posts here and here for more detail.)

This dramatic reversal of policy by the Trump administration didn’t happen by accident; it happened because of a concerted effort by the private prison corporations through campaign contributions and use of the revolving door. GEO-associated executives and entities gave at least $675,000 to Trump’s campaign and inauguration and other Republican campaigns. GEO hired two former aides to Sen. Sessions, the new Attorney General, as lobbyists. When AG Sessions formally reversed the Obama administration’s phaseout of the use of private prisons, GEO stock had already doubled in value and CoreCivic’s stock was up 140%. As a thank you, the private prison industry gave another $1 million to the Trump campaign. [2]

Payday lenders also functionally bribed the Trump administration to get a reprieve from Obama administration policies, which were working to protect borrowers from usurious fees and interest rates (sometimes over 100% a year when annualized). The payday lending industry donated over $2.2 million to Trump’s campaign and inauguration. The CEO of one large payday lending chain told his peers that the money would buy access to top administration officials and the chair of the Republican National Committee, who could get them an audience with the President.

The change in payday lending oversight policy was facilitated by Trump’s appointment of his top budget official, Mick Mulvaney, to head the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB). The appointment process was probably illegal, but the White House Office of Legal Counsel said it was okay in a memo written by a lawyer who had been the lead attorney for a payday lender fighting CFPB regulations. The CFPB dropped that enforcement action after Mulvaney took over.

Trump’s personal corruption is mind boggling, but it is only the tip of the iceberg. The overarching economic philosophy and purpose of the Trump administration has been to handover government regulation and policy making to large corporations, while sending as much as possible of government spending and program operation to them as well in an unprecedented spurt of privatization. As a result, there are numerous issue areas where policies that are widely supported by the public and are clearly in the public interest go nowhere as the corrupt influence of wealthy corporations and individuals blocks them. Instead, policies are often enacted that benefit the self-interests of wealthy corporations and individuals.

Beyond bad policies – ones that are uninformed and dangerous to public health, safety, and well-being – the Trump administration has made no effort to stop its bureaucrats, from Cabinet members on down, from enriching themselves from their work as government employees.

I urge you to visit The American Prospect’s interactive map of Washington and to click on one or more agency’s headquarters building to review highlights of the swamp of corruption at that agency.

In my next post, I will highlight some of the corrupt individuals in the Trump administration and their corrupt actions. I’ll also ask you to contact your elected officials to ask them to crack down on this corruption.

[1]      Lardner, J., 4/9/20, “Mapping corruption: Donald Trump’s executive branch,” The American Prospect (https://prospect.org/power/mapping-corruption-donald-trump-executive-branch/)

[2]      Lardner, J., 4/9/20, see above

BIG BUSINESS HAS FAILED US IN THE PANDEMIC

Big businesses and their executives have failed us in the coronavirus pandemic, but nonetheless they are standing at the public trough getting more bailout money than anyone else. This sounds just like what happened in 2008.

Big corporations and their so smart executives didn’t see the business opportunity and respond to the pandemic when it appeared in late 2019 in China. They could and should have seen what was coming and increased the production of ventilators and personal protection equipment (PPE). This was a great opportunity for them to make a profit and garner good publicity but with their short-term, finance-focused mentality, they totally missed the opportunity.

Corporate executives have failed to push back on the Trump administration and the right-wing movement in their disdain for science and expertise. At times, they have promoted it, for example in climate change denial. In the case of the coronavirus, shortly before Trump made his dangerous call for the country to get back to normal by Easter, he had been on a conference call with financial executives who apparently told him that ending social distancing would be good for the financial markets.

Corporate executives – supposedly leaders – have failed to stand up for rational policies and preparedness. In doing so, they have aided and abetted the right-wing anti-government, anti-knowledge, anti-truth movement. By doing everything they can to avoid paying taxes, corporate executives have undermined government capacity to respond to public health crises, among other things.

Lessons that were learned during the Ebola outbreak in 2014 have been ignored and undermined by the Trump administration and its enablers in Congress. They have weakened our public health system and undermined our global health security, including eliminating the key position that coordinates U.S. global health efforts. [1] The Trump administration ignored the plans the Obama administration gave them, developed based on the Ebola outbreak, on how to respond to a public health crisis.

The right-wing movement reflexively opposes government policies and programs, both because it wants unbridled, unregulated opportunities to make profits at any cost to the public good, and because they don’t want to take the chance that any government action would appear to be valuable or successful. They don’t want voters to ever get the sense that government does important things that serve the public interest. [2]

Deregulation, particularly of the financial industry and financial standards, has undermined the financial stability of multiple corporations and industries. There are many financially unstable corporations in the U.S. that are likely to be in or on the brink of bankruptcy without government assistance in the face of the coronavirus pandemic. This is the result of big banks making high-risk loans, vulture capitalists’ leverage buyouts (with high-risk loans), and corporations using virtually all their profits and even borrowed money to buy back stock and pay dividends (which enriches executives and wealthy shareholders). The systematic weakening of the regulation of the big banks since the 2008 crash, including the undermining of the Dodd-Frank law’s financial safeguards put in place after that crash, have contributed significantly to this dangerous situation. [3]

For example, over the last decade the airline industry has spent 96% of the cash generated by profits to buy back its own shares of stock. Therefore, it failed to build a reserve against tough times and is now standing at the public trough asking for a bailout of $50 billion. Coincidentally, the six biggest U.S. airlines spent $47 billion over the last ten years buying their own stock, endangering the financial stability and future of the corporations. [4]

A corporation buying its own stock boosts the price of its shares, which enriches big stockholders and executives. In 2012, for example, the 500 highest paid executives at public U.S. corporations received, on average, $30 million each in compensation with 83% of it based on stock options and stock awards. Therefore, a boost in the price of the corporation’s stock enriches these executives substantially. [5]

Over five decades, corporate executives have outsourced their supply chains to foreign countries, notably China, while ignoring the risks and hidden costs of being dependent on global trade. They did so to increase profits by dramatically reducing labor costs. The coronavirus pandemic has brought the risks and hidden costs of globalization home to roost. Manufacturing operations in China and other countries have shut down due to the pandemic, which has also made the shipping of goods problematic. Foreign governments, especially authoritarian ones like China, are controlling exports, including of critically needed supplies to respond to the pandemic. As a result, corporations dependent on global operations to produce goods for export to and sale in the U.S., don’t have products to sell and consumers can’t get things they need, including critical health care supplies and drugs.

The risks of global supply chains shouldn’t have come as a surprise to smart corporate executives. In the 1930s, when dealing with the Great Depression, economist John Maynard Keynes argued for the globalization of ideas and arts, but the retention at home of the manufacturing of goods. [6]

The bottom line is that corporate executives exacerbated the coronavirus pandemic by:

  • Failing to respond to the emergence of the coronavirus in a timely and effective manner,
  • Failing to support preparedness for a public health crisis and a knowledge-based response when the coronavirus hit,
  • Supporting deregulation of finances that have made their own corporations and our economy more vulnerable to economic stress, and
  • Outsourcing global supply lines making their own corporations and all of us more vulnerable to disruptions in global trade.

[1]      Warren, E., retrieved from the Internet 4/5/20, “Preventing, containing, and treating infectious disease outbreaks at home and abroad,” https://elizabethwarren.com/plans/combating-infectious-disease-outbreaks

[2]      Krugman, P., 3/28/20, “COVID-19 brings out all the usual zombies,” The New York Times

[3]      Warren, E., retrieved from the Internet on 4/5/20, “My updated plan to address the coronavirus crisis,” https://elizabethwarren.com/plans/updated-plan-address-coronavirus

[4]      Van Doorn, P., 3/22/20, “Airlines and Boeing want a bailout – but look how much they’ve spent on stock buybacks,” MarketWatch (https://www.marketwatch.com/story/airlines-and-boeing-want-a-bailout-but-look-how-much-theyve-spent-on-stock-buybacks-2020-03-18)

[5]      Lazonick, W., Sept. 2014, “Profits without prosperity,” Harvard Business Review (https://hbr.org/2014/09/profits-without-prosperity)

[6]      Prestowitz, C., & Ferry, J., 3/30/20, “The end of the global supply chain,” The Boston Globe

REMEDIES FOR THREATS TO OUR ELECTIONS

My previous post highlighted threats to our election and voting systems. There are remedies for these threats, including the new and exacerbated ones due to the corona virus pandemic.

Surprisingly, there are lessons about cybersecurity that we should learn from Estonia. As a former state within the Soviet Union, it has decades of experience with Russian propaganda. It also has over a decade of experience dealing with Russian cyberattacks. In 2007, Russian hackers executed the first politically motivated cyberattack against a nation, bringing down much of Estonia’s Internet. They disabled government, newspaper, and bank websites. In response, Estonia built a Cyber Defense League based on a small staff and budget ($300,000) and a network of hundreds of volunteers. The volunteers do public education and plan simulated cyberattacks to test the government’s response. Estonia also has an ambassador at-large for cyber diplomacy and a federal Information System Authority that includes a cyber emergency response team. [1]

Estonia’s national government offers free cybersecurity trainings and screenings to candidates and political parties. In the lead-up to each election, it holds a hackathon where security experts try to break into the country’s election systems. Any vulnerabilities and the steps taken to fix them are publicly reported. The State Electoral Office has a working group that meets daily during elections to monitor the media and identify disinformation campaigns.

When Estonia joined NATO in 2004, it proposed hosting a center for cyber defense. Initially, NATO members were cool to the idea, but after Russia’s attack on Estonia in 2007, NATO agreed to create the NATO Cooperative Cyber Defense Center of Excellence housed in Tallinn, Estonia. It now hosts the largest cyber defense exercise in the world with over 1,200 participants from nearly 30 countries. In April 2019, the exercise’s scenario involved a coordinated cyberattack during a national election that affected vital services and also sought to manipulate public perception of the election results.

Estonia has become the model for countries working to counter Russian (and other) electronic meddling. It has developed cybersecurity expertise and a secure on-line voting system (over 40% of Estonians vote on-line). It requires high school students to take a 35-hour course on media and manipulation.

A key underlying element of Estonia’s preparedness for election meddling is broad public understanding that cybersecurity requires eternal vigilance, a sense of urgency, and a unity of purpose that leads to coordination among public agencies and private entities. These elements have, unfortunately, been lacking in the U.S. due to the lack of urgency from the Trump administration and Republicans in Congress about meddling in our elections.

To address cybersecurity and the other threats to our elections, and to ensure that everyone can vote safely and securely the U.S. needs to do the following: [2]

  • Establish an overarching national strategy on election security that coordinates efforts by governments, the private sector, academia, and the public,
  • Replace paperless voting machines with ones that have a paper backup and audit trail,
  • Expand alternative voting opportunities such as early voting and mail-in voting,
  • Enhance the ease of voter registration (e.g., on-line and same day registration) and the security of voter registration databases,
  • Provide federal funding to states to enhance voting systems and election-related security,
  • Increase oversight of and security requirements for vendors of voting systems,
  • Establish national standards for voting machines, registration databases, and voting procedures (e.g., post-election audits to verify the accuracy of results) to ensure that every eligible voter can vote safely and securely, and
  • Enhance the monitoring and response to misinformation and foreign attempts to influence our elections.

I urge you to contact your state election agency, often the Secretary of State, as well as your local, state, and national elected officials to encourage them to enhance the security and user-friendliness of our voting and election systems and procedures.

We need to make it as easy and as secure as possible for every citizen to vote!

[1]      Bryant, C. C., 2/4/20, “Cybersecurity 2020: What Estonia knows about thwarting Russians,” The Christian Science Monitor (https://www.csmonitor.com/World/Europe/2020/0204/Cybersecurity-2020-What-Estonia-knows-about-thwarting-Russians)

[2]      Brennan Center for Justice, retrieved 3/20/20, “Defend our elections,” (https://www.brennancenter.org/issues/defend-our-elections)

HEIGHTENED THREATS TO OUR ELECTIONS

Our election and voting systems were facing serious challenges before the corona virus pandemic hit; it has added new challenges and exacerbated old ones. Although the final federal election isn’t until November, state and local elections are occurring (or getting postponed) now, including primaries for the federal election.

The need to postpone elections or adjust procedures for them due to the pandemic highlight the need for effective voter communication and the threat of misinformation. Voters need to know about changes in the date of an election or the location of a polling place, e.g. to move it out of a senior living facility. Voters also need to know about changes in voting procedures such as expansions of early voting and absentee / mail-in voting.

Changes in election dates and procedures provide fertile ground for misinformation that could suppress voting or manipulate it for partisan or other purposes. The pandemic also provides opportunities for divisive misinformation aimed at stirring up social unrest and manipulating election outcomes. Such misinformation can also be used to undermine trust in government and our elections. [1]

One election strategy for addressing the challenge of keeping a safe social distance from others to limit the spread of the virus would be to conduct as much voting as possible by mail. For state or localities that have the capacity, mail-in ballots could be sent to every registered voter. In other places, absentee voting could be expanded to include anyone who would prefer to vote by mail. The options for requesting an absentee ballot should be expanded to include mail, on-line or email, phone, and in-person requests.

Before the corona virus hit, our voting systems and elections were vulnerable to operational glitches and ill-intentioned manipulation. Most states use electronic voting systems that are at least a decade old and prone to malfunction. Their software is old and doesn’t have up-to-date protections from hacking. Many states have voter registration databases that are similarly antiquated and vulnerable to hacking. Finally, poor design of ballots in some states leads to voter confusion and errors in voting. [2]

Issues with our voting and election systems are of particular concern given Russian cyber attacks on the 2016 U.S. election. Russian hackers probed election networks in all 50 states, breached at least one state voter registration database, attacked local election boards, got into at least two Florida counties’ computer networks, and infected the computers at a voting technology company. Russians hacked into the Clinton campaign’s email system and two units of the Democratic National Committee, stealing hundreds of thousands of documents and emails. These purloined documents then were leaked at multiple times, frequently when the timing had particular benefit for the Trump campaign. [3]

In addition, Russian entities engaged in extensive election-related misinformation campaigns in 2016. Probably most notably, the Internet Research Agency (IRA), a Russian government-linked organization, reached over 100 million Americans via social media using a budget of over $1 million a month. Through 470 Facebook accounts and 3,814 Twitter accounts, the IRA reached over 127 million people.

The goal of the Russian social media campaign was to sow political discord in the U.S. and to build doubts about American democracy by undermining trust in our political institutions, including the validity of our elections. It used hot-button topics such as race, immigration, and religion to inflame political polarization and heighten fear and confusion. Russia seeks to undermine and delegitimize Western democracies in general, both to boost its own international prestige and to discourage democratic aspirations at home. It hopes to exacerbate divisions within the U.S. and also to fracture NATO and other international alliances.

The U.S. Justice Department’s Mueller investigation of Russian interference in the 2016 election led to the indictment of 25 Russian individuals and three Russian organizations. They had infiltrated individual, public, and private computers and networks, including voting lists and banking systems.

Although a federal information clearinghouse for election infrastructure has been created and $380 million was provided to states for election security, most cyber experts believe our election infrastructure is quite vulnerable. In January 2019, the U.S. Director of National Security warned that Russia was looking at opportunities to advance its interests in our 2020 elections and that it would use social media to weaken our democratic institutions, influence U.S. policies, and undermine U.S. alliances and partnerships.

My next post will outline steps we should take to ensure the accessibility and security of voting for all citizens.

[1]      Weiser, W. R., & Feldman, M., 3/16/20, “How to protect the 2020 vote from the coronavirus,” Brennan Center for Justice (https://www.brennancenter.org/our-work/policy-solutions/how-protect-2020-vote-coronavirus)

[2]      Brennan Center for Justice, retrieved 3/20/20, “Election security,” (https://www.brennancenter.org/issues/defend-our-elections/election-security)

[3]      Bryant, C. C., 5/14/19, “Amid growing concerns about 2020, a primer on Russian election interference,” The Christian Science Monitor (https://www.csmonitor.com/USA/Politics/2019/0514/Amid-growing-concerns-about-2020-a-primer-on-Russian-election-interference)

WORKERS’ PAY NOT GROWING AND INEQUALITY STILL HIGH

Despite what President Trump said in his State of the Union speech, workers’ pay is still not growing. While the January 2020 monthly data on the dollar amount of earnings showed an increase from a year earlier, when adjusted for inflation and fringe benefits, workers’ overall compensation has declined.

The detailed quarterly data released in December 2019 showed that the dollar amount of average wages had increased 6.8% over the last three years, but that total compensation had declined after adjusting for inflation and fringe benefits. Over the three-year period from 2016 to 2019, the average dollar amount of wages (i.e., “nominal” wages) had increased from $22.83 to $24.38 per hour (i.e., $45,660 to $48,760 per year).

After adjusting for inflation (i.e., the decline in the purchasing power of a dollar), “real” wages had increased only 0.4% over the three years from 2016 to 2019. [1]

Total compensation (including fringe benefits such as health insurance, retirement contributions, and bonuses) declined 0.2% over the three years. The inflation-adjusted value of fringe benefits declined 1.7%. Since fringe benefits are almost one-third of total compensation, their decline wiped out the small increase in wages.

Meanwhile, income inequality continues to grow as compensation for high income individuals grows substantially while the average workers’ compensation is declining.

For workers with the lowest 10% of wages, increases in the minimum wage have boosted pay. Between 2013 and 2019, 26 states and D.C. (but not the federal government) have increased their minimum wages. This led to wage growth of 17.6% over this six-year period for low-wage workers in these areas, as compared to only 9.3% growth in states that did not increase their minimum wages. [2]

The black-white wage gap is growing and is substantially larger now than it was in 2000. After adjusting for differences in education, age, and other relevant worker characteristics, the black-white wage gap as-of 2019 is 14.9%, up from 10.2% in 2000. (The gap is 26.5% without the adjustment for worker characteristics.) Meanwhile, the Hispanic-white wage gap narrowed to 10.8% in 2019, down from 12.3% in 2000 (adjusted for worker characteristics). [3]

The gender pay gap is still substantial. A woman earns 77 cents for each $1 a man earns: a 23% gap after adjusting for differences in education, age, and other relevant worker characteristics. (The gap is 15% without the adjustment for worker characteristics.) The gender wage gap narrowed slightly from 2000 to 2019.

The defining features of the U.S. labor market over the last 40 years have been slow growth in wages and rising inequality, despite steady increases in worker productivity. The median hourly wage is $19.33, less than $40,000 a year. (The median wage is the point in the distribution of wages where half of workers get less and half of workers get more. The average wage is higher than the median wage because of the very high wages at the top of the distribution.)

The slow growth of wages, despite growing productivity, cannot be explained by education levels, increases in fringe benefits, or factors other than the decreasing clout of workers and the increasing power of employers and corporate executives. This is the result of policy decisions, largely by the federal government, that have reduced the power of workers, mainly by making it harder to organize unions and more difficult for unions to bargain collectively on behalf of workers. [4]

[1]      Salkever, D., 3/1/20, “Blue collar bust,” The Boston Globe

[2]      Gould, E., 2/20/20, “State of working America wages 2019,” Economic Policy Institute (https://www.epi.org/publication/swa-wages-2019/)

[3]      Gould, E., 2/27/20, “Black-white wage gaps are worse today than in 2000,” Economic Policy Institute (https://www.epi.org/blog/black-white-wage-gaps-are-worse-today-than-in-2000/)

[4]      Gould, E., 2/20/20, see above

THE LEGACY OF WARREN’S RUN FOR PRESIDENT

As a policy wonk and someone who believes governments have an important role to play in addressing issues in our economy and society, I’m disappointed to see Sen. Elizabeth Warren drop out of the Democratic presidential race. Her highlighting of the work we need to do on social and economic justice will have a lasting legacy.

Warren has more clearly and specifically laid out a progressive vision for this country than anyone since President Franklin D. Roosevelt. She spelled out not only what that vision looked like but how to achieve it. She focused attention on the role of government, who it is supposed to work for in a democracy, and how those with wealth and power have undermined the basic principles and promise of our democracy. [1]

The detailed roadmap Warren put forth of how to solve problems in our society and economy, and to return to government of, by, and for the people will, fortunately, long outlive her presidential campaign. In February 2019, she put forth the first of her numerous plans to address our problems with a proposal to make affordable, high quality child care available for all children under school age. And she put forth her proposal for a wealth tax on ultra-millionaires as the way to pay for it and a number of her other plans.

Warren next presented a plan to break up and regulate the Big Tech corporations that are engaging in monopolistic practices and abusing the personal information they gather from all of us. She followed this up with a proposal to reverse decades of racist housing policies implemented by governments at all levels along with private sector lenders and the real estate industry. She followed up with plans to tackle the cost of higher education and student debt, a detailed plan to pay for health care for all, and policies to lessen the influence of big corporations and wealthy individuals in our policy making process.

Warren’s meticulous policy proposals set the agenda for the Democratic race for the presidential nomination. Hopefully, they will set the agenda for the final presidential race and future policy debates in Congress and governments at all levels.

Her proposals and arguments on the campaign trail hammered home the message that America’s problems are not inevitable but are the results of choices reflected in government policies. Warren highlighted how these decisions have been driven by the power of wealthy individuals and corporations, and how they have put their profits, power, and personal gain ahead of the common good.

Warren’s abilities as a storyteller made our problems and her solutions resonate with many Americans, as she wove her personal life story and America’s history into a clear, understandable, and persuasive narrative.

In keeping with her message that government needs to better serve the broad public, she raised the majority of her campaign’s $92 million (which, sadly, is necessary to run a competitive campaign these days) from small donors giving $200 or less. She refused to hold big ticket fundraisers where attendees make contributions in the thousands of dollars. She received more than half of her fundraising total from women, which is highly unusual if not unprecedented. This all demonstrated, as Sen. Sanders has as well, that a viable presidential campaign can be run without relying on large sums of money from wealthy individuals (who have vested, special interests). [2]

Warren has changed the way many Americans view our society and economy. Many people have learned about a wealth tax and the racial wealth gap for the first time, for example.

I believe she has changed the course of our country. Only time will tell how quickly and extensively her vision will affect the policies of our governments and the characteristics of our economy and society.

[1]      Voght, K., 3/5/20, “What Elizabeth Warren taught us,” Mother Jones (https://www.motherjones.com/politics/2020/03/what-elizabeth-warren-taught-us/)

[2]      Hasan, I., & Monnay, T., 3/5/20, “Low on cash and delegates, Warren ends her White House bid,” OpenSecrets.org, Center for Responsive Politics (https://www.opensecrets.org/news/2020/03/warren-ends-her-bid/)

BIG MONEY IS ALREADY PLAYING A BIG ROLE IN THE 2020 CAMPAIGN

Big money is already pouring into the 2020 election campaigns. The spending by wealthy individuals and corporations continues to grow. Federal candidates have already raised $2.2 billion (yes, Billion) with $1.6 billion of that belonging to the presidential candidates.

Here’s a quick summary of what the major presidential candidates and (supposedly) independent outside groups have spent so far (with 264 days to go!): [1]

  • Bloomberg: $464 million (self-funded, not accepting any contributions)
  • Steyer: $271 million
  • Trump: $218 million plus $35 million of outside money
  • Sanders: $133 million plus $  4 million of outside money
  • Warren: $  92 million plus $33 million of outside money
  • Buttigieg: $  81 million
  • Biden: $  68 million plus $  8 million of outside money
  • Klobuchar: $  34 million
  • Gabbard: $  14 million
  • Weld: $    2 million

Bloomberg is spending roughly $6 million a day of his own money on his presidential campaign. The bulk of his spending, roughly $400 million so far, has gone to advertising on TV, radio, and digital media. He is paying higher compensation to campaign staff than other campaigns in order, in numerous cases, to steal them away from other campaigns. [2] He is literally trying to buy the presidency with his personal fortune.

The 2010 Citizens United Supreme Court decision allowing unlimited spending in election campaigns by (supposedly) independent, outside groups and wealthy individuals continues to exacerbate the role of money in our elections. The securities and investment industry, for example, continues to increase its campaign spending and was the top industry donor to outside groups in each of the last four election cycles. Since 2012, the industry has spent more than $80 million in each two-year federal election cycle, over $320 million in total. Before the Citizens United decision, it never spent more than $18 million in an election cycle. [3]

Much of the campaign spending by corporations and their industry associations is done through Political Action Committees (PACs). Business PACs have already contributed $179 million to federal candidates and parties in the 2020 election cycle. Business PACs account for 73% of PAC contributions, dwarfing the spending by unions and issue-focused groups. Although the contributions themselves must be made by employees, shareholders, and their family members, the business can pay for all the PAC’s expenses and provide incentives to donors for giving to the PAC. The corporation’s direct spending on PAC expenses does not have to be disclosed. Business interests couple their dominant PAC spending with dominant spending on lobbying to give them great influence in policy making. They target specific candidates, often incumbents, who will be in influential policy making positions (e.g., on committees) relevant to their interests. [4]

PACs are supposedly independent of candidates’ campaigns, but they often share office space, staff, and other resources with candidates, House or Senate leaders, or the political parties. [5]

The amount of “dark money” in campaigns is growing, which means voters know less about who’s spending money to influence their votes. (“Dark money” is money that is laundered through non-profit entities that supposedly don’t have political spending as their main purpose and therefore do not have to disclose who their donors are.) In 2019, $65 million in “dark money” has flowed into PAC spending on 2020 election campaigns. In the 2018 election cycle, $176 million in “dark money” was given to PACs. The total for the 2020 election cycle is all but certain to be higher.

A recent report from the federal Government Accountability Office (GAO) found that campaign finance laws and enforcement capabilities have not kept up with the issues presented by “dark money,” unlimited spending, and on-line political spending. The Internal Revenue Service (IRS) doesn’t have clear standards on what constitutes political activity in non-profit entities or the extent to which non-profit entities can engage in political activity. Furthermore, it is not reviewing donor lists or sharing them with other federal law enforcement agencies for review. The Federal Election Commission (FEC) is non-functional due to partisan deadlock, the President’s failure to appoint Commissioners, and under-funding. As a result, for example, the flow of illegal foreign money into our elections through “dark money” channels is not being monitored and no enforcement is occurring. [6]

One often overlooked effect of our money-driven elections is that people of color and their interests are severely underrepresented by elected officials. Ninety percent of elected officials are white, while only 63% of the population is white. The great majority of campaign money at the federal and state levels comes from less than 1% of the population who make donations of over $1,000. The bulk of these donors come from the richest 1% of the population, which is over 90% white. Money is, of course, crucial to election campaigns, with the candidate with more money winning about 90% of the time. The record spending on campaigns, especially by wealthy individuals and corporations unleashed by the Citizens United decision, has exacerbated the political marginalization of people of color. Wealth and political power have been increasingly consolidated in the hands of a very small, very white portion of the population. The bottom line is that people of color are underrepresented among elected officials, among candidates for office, among donors to campaigns, and as having their interests reflected in policies that are enacted. [7]

Given the obscene amounts of money being spent on election campaigns, voters who wish to make good decisions on candidates must now spend more time and effort to wade through the barrage of self-serving ads, misinformation, and noise to ferret out good and truthful information about candidates. If our democracy is to work, this requires all of us to pay more attention and spend more time researching candidates before we make our voting decisions. Voters will need to be consciously skeptical, so they are less swayed by paid media and slick messaging.

Ultimately, we need to change our campaign finance laws to reduce the influence of money and make it easier for voters to discern candidates’ positions on issues. But until that happens, to be informed voters, we will have to wade through the barrage of political advertising and messaging to discern between quality from quantity and differentiate truth from half-truth or outright fiction.

[1]      OpenSecrets.org, retrieved 2/23/20, “2020 presidential race,” Center for Responsive Politics (https://www.opensecrets.org/2020-presidential-race)

[2]      Evers-Hillstrom, K., 2/20/20, “Michael Bloomberg is spending nearly $6 million per day on campaign,” OpenSecrets.org, Center for Responsive Politics (https://www.opensecrets.org/news/2020/02/bloomberg-spent-6-million-per-day/)

[3]      Monnay, T., 1/23/20, “Wall Street donor influence shows unprecedented growth 10 years after Citizens United,” OpenSecrets.org, Center for Responsive Politics (https://www.opensecrets.org/news/2020/01/wall-street-donor-influence-growth-10-years-citizens-united/

[4]      Evers-Hillstrom, K., 2/14/20, “Why corporate PACs have an advantage,” OpenSecrets.org, Center for Responsive Politics (https://www.opensecrets.org/news/2020/02/why-corporate-pacs-have-an-advantage/)

[5]      Massoglia, A., 2/7/20, “ ‘Dark money’ groups steering millions to super PACs in 2020 elections,” OpenSecrets.org, Center for Responsive Politics (https://www.opensecrets.org/news/2020/02/dark-money-steers-millions-to-super-pacs-2020/)

[6]      Massoglia, A., 2/7/20, see above

[7]      Lioz, A., 12/14/19, “Stacked deck: How racial bias in our big money political system undermines our democracy and our economy,” Demos (https://www.demos.org/sites/default/files/publications/StackedDeck2_1.pdf)

UNDER-TAXED CORPORATIONS AND WAYS TO MAKE THEIR TAXES FAIRER

A year’s worth of data on what corporations are actually paying in taxes under the 2017 Tax Cuts and Jobs Act (TCJA) is now available. The TCJA cut the stated federal corporate income tax rate to 21% from 35%, a 40% reduction. It created many new tax breaks and loopholes, while (supposedly) closing some existing ones. However, as a previous post highlighted, corporations have been lobbying vigorously, and in many cases successfully, to have the rules and regulations implementing the TCJA weaken or eliminate its closing of tax breaks and loopholes.

An in-depth review of the financial filings of the Fortune 500 largest corporations revealed that 379 of them were profitable in 2018 and found enough information to calculate an effective federal income tax rate for them. (Their effective tax rate is the portion of their profits they paid in federal income taxes.)

The average effective federal income tax rate for these 379 large, profitable corporations was 11.3%, which is barely half of the stated rate. Ninety-one (91) paid no federal income tax including Amazon, Chevron, Halliburton, and IBM. Another fifty-six (56) of them paid less than 5% of profits in taxes.

The 11.3% average rate is the lowest rate since this analysis was begun in 1984. [1]  The industries with the lowest effective federal income tax rates, all of which paid less than half of the stated rate, were:

  • Industrial machinery (which paid an average effective tax of a negative 0.6%, meaning that on average they got back money from the government)
  • Gas and electric utilities (-0.5%)
  • Motor vehicles and parts (1.5%)
  • Oil, gas, and pipelines (3.6%)
  • Chemicals (4.4%)
  • Transportation and also Engineering & construction (8.0%)
  • Miscellaneous services (8.3%)
  • Publishing and printing (9.8%)
  • Financial (10.2%)

Twenty-five very large corporations received the bulk of the tax breaks that led to these low effective tax rates. They received $37 billion in tax breaks, half of the $74 billion in tax breaks that all 379 corporations received. This is the result of their capacity to influence public policy through lobbying, campaign spending, and use of the revolving door. (Two previous posts here and here provide more details on corporate manipulation of public policies.)

Five of those very large corporations received more than $16 billion in tax breaks (22% of the total for all 379 corporations): Amazon, Bank of America, J.P. Morgan Chase, Verizon, and Wells Fargo.

Large corporations have succeeded in manipulating tax laws, including through the TCJA and its implementing rules and regulations, to unfairly reduce their taxes. This results in small businesses and individuals having to pay more taxes and to bear an unfair portion of the taxes needed to support government at the federal, state, and local levels. Furthermore, it means governments don’t have the resources they need to perform important functions that are in the public interest and desired by taxpayers.

Here are some examples of changes in tax laws that would lead to large corporations paying a fairer share of taxes: [2]

  • Remove tax incentives and loopholes that reward the shifting of profits and jobs to offshore entities. This includes effective implementation of provisions of the TCJA that were meant to address this problem but have been undermined by successful lobbying by multi-national corporations during the writing of implementation rules and regulations. (See this previous post for more details.)
  • Reinstate a corporate Alternative Minimum Tax to ensure that all profitable corporations pay a reasonable amount of income tax each year.
  • Repeal TCJA and previous tax law provisions that allow corporations to deduct expenses for equipment and other capital expenditures much more quickly than the equipment actually depreciates in value. This is an accounting “trick” that reduces profits and, therefore, income taxes.
  • Stop the fictitious creation of large expenses for granting stock options to executives. This is another accounting “trick” that reduces profits and, therefore, income taxes.
  • Require public disclosure of key corporate financial data, including profits and taxes paid, on a country-by-country basis as a routine part of corporate financial reporting. This transparency will allow policy makers and the public to understand whether corporations are paying a fair share of their income in taxes and to adjust policies accordingly.

I urge you to contact your U.S. Representative and Senators to ask them to fix corporate tax laws so that corporations, particularly large, multi-national corporations, are paying their fair share in taxes. Otherwise, you and I and the small businesses we patronize in our communities will continue to bear an unfair burden in funding the public services we need from our governments at all levels.

You can find contact information for your US Representative at  http://www.house.gov/representatives/find/ and for your US Senators at http://www.senate.gov/general/contact_information/senators_cfm.cfm.

[1]      Gardner, M., Roque, L., & Wamhoff, S., Dec. 2019, “Corporate tax avoidance in the first year under the Trump tax law,” Institute on Taxation & Economic Policy (https://itep.org/corporate-tax-avoidance-in-the-first-year-of-the-trump-tax-law/)

[2]      Gardner, M., Roque, L., & Wamhoff, S., Dec. 2019, see above

CORPORATE LOBBYING AND WHAT THEY GET FOR IT

In 2019, corporate spending on lobbying the federal government grew to a nine-year high of $3.47 billion (yes, Billion).

The health industry spent a record $594 million on lobbying in 2019 as it fought against various proposed reforms of our health care system. Roughly half of this money was spent in opposition to controls on drug prices. As a result, proposals from both the Trump administration and Congress have stalled. [1]

The health industry also lobbied heavily against bipartisan legislation to control surprise medical bills. These are typically bills for services delivered by out-of-network providers that aren’t covered by insurance when patients had no idea this was occurring. New players in this industry, private equity vulture capitalists who have bought emergency medical providers and physician staffing services, opposed this legislation with a $54 million ad campaign funded by “dark money,” i.e., money whose actual source was obscured. As a result of this ad campaign and all the lobbying, despite bipartisan support in Congress and support from the Trump administration, this legislation to limit the dollar amount of surprise medical bills has stalled.

Trade and tariff actions were the target of lots of corporate lobbying; 1,430 lobbyists reported lobbying on trade issues, a record high. The giant corporations with huge resources are lobbying for exemptions from tariffs, while smaller businesses, without the resources to engage in major lobbying campaigns, will probably suffer from the tariffs. One example of lobbying on trade issues is that the Semiconductor Industry Association succeed in getting the Trump administration to reverse its ban on the sale of computer chips to the Chinese corporation, Huawei. [2]

The communications and electronics industry spent a record $435 million on lobbying in 2019. Amazon, Apple, and Facebook all set new records for lobbying expenditures in response to concerns in Congress about their business practices and antitrust investigations in Congress and the Department of Justice.

Corporations are spending huge sums on lobbying because they know there will be a high return on their investment. Success in lowering taxes or tariffs, or in allowing higher prices and revenue, will result in higher profits generally well in excess of the amount spent lobbying.

One argument against allowing huge corporations to exist is that they have huge resources to pay for lobbying and to use to pursue legal actions that skew the balance of power in our society and overwhelm the voice of the people and the public interest.

[1]      Evers-Hillstrom, K., 1/24/20, “Lobbying spending in 2019 nears all-time high as health sector smashes records,” Common Dreams and the Center for Responsive Politics (https://www.commondreams.org/views/2020/01/25/lobbying-spending-2019-nears-all-time-high-health-sector-smashes-records)

[2]      Evers-Hillstrom, K., 1/24/20, see above

HOW CORPORATIONS MANIPULATE PUBLIC POLICY

Big corporations use a variety of techniques to manipulate public policies. The standard tactics that receive the most publicity are lobbying, campaign contributions and (supposedly) independent campaign spending, and the revolving door between jobs in corporations and related jobs in the public sector, including as regulators of the industry where the person formerly worked.

Less recognized and publicized techniques for affecting policy include funding think tanks and (supposedly) independent research and academic publications. Corporations also have funded (supposedly) grassroots organizations to advance their interests. Probably the most famous (or infamous) one is the National Rifle Association (NRA). Although it is a membership organization and is viewed and presented as a grassroots organization, it is heavily funded and supported by the manufacturers of guns and ammunition. It is what is called an “astroturf” organization, i.e., fake grass(roots).

Another tactic that is being adopted by the Big Tech corporations has more traditionally been associated with the military and the defense industry: putting jobs in the districts of key and powerful legislators. The military has for decades worked to have bases, other facilities, and contractors in every state and congressional district. The defense industry corporations have worked to spread their facilities and jobs widely across the country. This meant that when cuts to defense spending, such as closing of some bases, was discussed or when cutting funding for a specific weapon system was raised, it meant that congressional representatives considering voting to cut spending were painted as cutting jobs, often in their own districts. That’s a tough vote to make!

Recently, the four Big Tech corporations, Amazon, Apple, Facebook, and Google, all appear to have adopted this job placement strategy. In late 2017, Rep. Jerry Nadler of New York City became the ranking minority member of the House Judiciary Committee and became its chair when the Democrats won control of the House in the 2018 elections. The House Judiciary Committee is currently investigating the four Big Tech corporations for antitrust violations and anti-competitive behavior.

All four of the Big Tech corporations have announced they are opening offices and bringing jobs to the section of Manhattan which just happens to be in Judiciary Committee chair Jerry Nadler’s district. Amazon has recently signed a lease for space that will house over 1,500 employees. Not only does this put these jobs in Nadler’s district, but if the employees happen to live nearby, they will be voters in his district as well. (Remember that Amazon only months earlier had pulled out of a deal to locate its second headquarters in nearby Queens, despite having been promised (extorted?) $3 billion in public subsidies to locate a promised 25,000 jobs there.) [1]

Apple, Facebook, and Google have either opened new offices in New York City or announced plans to do so. All of them are on the west side of Manhattan in Nadler’s district. There is plenty of real estate elsewhere in the New York City area, so the fact that all four Big Tech firms happen to be locating in Nadler’s district is more than a little suspicious. (By the way, the runner-up for the position Nadler got on the Judiciary Committee was Rep. Zoe Lofgren, whose district includes a chunk of Silicon Valley.)

It is projected that by 2022 the four Big Tech corporations will have over 20,000 employees (and potentially voters) in nine different locations all on the west side of Manhattan in Nadler’s district.

The Judiciary Committee’s investigations, under Chairman Nadler, are the most significant antitrust investigations in decades and their outcomes could have significant effects on how the Big Tech corporations conduct their businesses and on their profits. Placing jobs in Nadler’s district, with the implicit or potential threat that those jobs might be at risk if Nadler and the Judiciary Committee take action that is viewed unfavorably by the Big Tech firms, is an escalation of these corporations’ on-going and persistent efforts to manipulate public policies in their favor. [2]

[1]      Dayen, D., 1/10/20, “Silicon Valley’s big apple gambit,” The American Prospect (https://prospect.org/power/silicon-valleys-big-apple-gambit/)

[2]      Dayen, D., 1/10/20, see above

NO BENEFITS FOR WORKERS FROM THE 2017 TAX CUT ACT DESPITE THE PR

The actual effects versus the claimed effects of the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act (TCJA) are becoming clearer all the time. (The TCJA is the December 2017 tax cut bill rushed into law by Republicans in Congress and President Trump.) A previous post provided a summary of what the TCJA did, the promises made about its effects, and the actual effects of the law. My last post reviewed the largely failed provisions that were supposed to tax the profits of multinational corporations more fairly.

Promised benefits for workers have failed to materialize and claims that the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act resulted in bonuses and wage increases for workers are unfounded. When President Trump signed the TCJA in December 2017, he stated that corporations would give “billions and billions of dollars away to their workers.” This has not happened.

Over the last two years, there has been no increase in workers’ compensation that can be attributed to the TCJA. In the short-term, to support the President and the rationale for the TCJA, some large corporations asserted that the bonuses they gave to workers in late 2017 were due to the TCJA. These bonuses were largely a public relations stunt. A few of those employers, such as AT&T and Walmart, engaged in major publicity around giving workers bonuses and then quietly laid off thousands of workers shortly thereafter.

The TCJA did incentivize the shifting of one-time bonuses from 2018 into 2017. Because expenses recorded in 2017 reduced 2017 profits when the tax rate was higher than it would be in 2018, it was advantageous to book as many expenses as possible in 2017. The value of the deduction of expenses, including the bonuses, from profits was more valuable under the 35% tax rate in place in 2017 than it would be in 2018 when the tax rate would only be 21%. In other words, it was cheaper for the corporations to pay the bonuses in 2017 than it would have been to pay them in 2018. Moreover, the TCJA provided a perverse incentive for the bonuses to be only a one-time occurrence, because in 2018 and beyond there would be increased incentives to maximize profits because of the reduced tax rate, which might not stay at that low level forever.

Nonetheless, bonuses accounted for only 2.7% of workers compensation in 2017, only a slight increase from 2.5% in 2016. Furthermore, this was a one-time blip as bonuses have declined since then.

If the TCJA were to have long-term or permanent effects on pay and the number of jobs, they would only be realized over a period of months or years, not immediately upon passage of the law, because making the necessary investments takes time. For the TCJA’s cut in the corporate tax rate to create a long-term, permanent increase in workers’ pay, corporations would need to use their tax savings for investments in improved equipment, worker skills training, or other steps that would improve workers’ productivity. To permanently increase the number of jobs, corporations would need to invest in increased production capacity. [1] Therefore, any compensation increases or growth in the number of jobs announced in late 2017 and early 2018 that were claimed to be results of the TCJA were public relations (PR) stunts, not effects of the TCJA.

Furthermore, corporate profits and cash reserves were high before the enactment of the TCJA, so corporations already had the resources needed to increase workers’ compensation or expand production if they wanted to. They weren’t increasing workers’ compensation or the number of jobs before the TCJA and they haven’t done so afterwards.

As background, corporate profits had risen dramatically from 5% of Gross Domestic Product (GDP, the total output of the U.S. economy) in 1990 to 9% in 2019, after having been largely in the range of 5% to 7% from 1952 to 1990. Furthermore, corporate taxes have been falling since the 1950s, so corporations have been keeping more of their profits. Taxes on corporate profits were 5% of GDP in 1952 and fell to 4% from the late 1950s to the late 1960s. They fell further to 3% of GDP from 1970 to 1980, and then to roughly 2% of GDP from 1982 until 2017. [2]

The bottom line is that the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017 has delivered none of the promised benefits for workers and low- and middle-income households, but has delivered much greater benefits than were promised (or admitted to) to wealthy individuals and to large, particularly multi-national, corporations. Increases in workers’ compensation that have occurred since the passage of the TCJA are ones that economic analysis indicates would have occurred anyway. Business investment and economic growth have not increased as promised. The promise of more fairly taxing multi-national corporations’ profits to increase tax revenue and discourage the shifting of profits and jobs overseas has been undermined. The multi-national corporations’ lobbying campaign got rules and regulations written for the implementation of the TCJA that significantly reduced the expected taxes on their profits. (See my previous post for more details on this.)

The truth about the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act is that despite the promises and public relations announcements that said otherwise, it has been a huge windfall for wealthy corporations and individuals, and of little or no benefit to workers. Historical experience and economic analysis indicated this would be the result in advance of TCJA’s enactment. The claims of benefits trickling down to workers from tax cuts for corporations and wealthy individuals had been convincingly rebutted. Nonetheless, proponents of the TCJA used this claim to argue for its tax cuts.

I believe many of the people who supported and voted for the TCJA knew what its actual effects would be. They lied about it because admitting that they wanted to enrich their political supporters and big campaign donors would have been unseemly and a political liability.

[1]      Corser, M., Bivens, J., & Blair, H., Dec. 2019, “Still terrible at two: The Trump tax act delivered big benefits to the rich and corporations but nearly none to working families,” The Center for Popular Democracy and the Economic Policy Institute (https://www.epi.org/files/uploads/20191211_Trump-Tax-Bill-R6.pdf)

[2]      Corser, M., Bivens, J., & Blair, H., Dec. 2019, see above

LOBBYING BY MULTI-NATIONAL CORPORATIONS UNDERMINES TAX FAIRNESS & INCREASES THE DEFICIT

The actual effects of the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act (TCJA) (the December 2017 tax cut bill rushed through by Republicans in Congress and President Trump) are becoming clearer all the time. My previous post provided a summary of what it did, noted the promises that were made about its effects, and provided an overview of its actual effects.

One result has been that the promise to tax the profits of multinational corporations more fairly remains largely unachieved. This was supposed to be accomplished by increasing taxes on profits shifted to overseas entities and by incentivizing corporations to repatriate trillions of dollars of profits previously stashed overseas.

Because the 2017 Tax Cuts and Jobs Act was rushed through Congress in a process some experts have called chaotic, it was sloppily written and left lots of details to be filled in by the executive branch agencies writing the rules and regulations implementing the law. (Congressional Republicans and Trump wanted to be able to claim a major legislative victory for their first year in full control of the federal government and to reward their wealthy campaign donors in the run-up to the 2018 elections.) Corporations had lobbied heavily during the writing and passage of the TCJA and they continued to lobby for favorable treatment during the process of writing TCJA’s rules and regulations.

The sloppiness and lack of detail in the law meant that lobbying for favorable rules and regulations was a potential gold mine for the big multi-national corporations. Therefore, in early 2018, shortly after the TCJA was enacted, the Treasury Department, a key agency writing rules and regulations, was swamped by corporate lobbyists. Reportedly, senior Treasury officials were having so many meetings with lobbyists, up to 10 a week, that they had little time to do their jobs.

The TCJA was supposed to be a grand bargain between the federal government and the big multi-national corporations where a big cut in the tax rate (35% to 21%) would occur in exchange for a reduction in tax dodging through the shifting of profits to low-tax offshore locations. Two new taxes were included in the TCJA to fulfill the second half of this bargain: BEAT and GILTI. The Base Erosion and Anti-abuse Tax (BEAT) targeted foreign corporations with major U.S. operations that had been dodging U.S. taxes by shifting profits from their U.S. subsidiaries to their foreign parents. Some payments sent to foreign parents would now be subject to a new 10% tax. The Global Intangible Low-Taxed Income tax (GILTI) targeted U.S. corporations that shifted profits offshore. Some of these offshore profits would be subject to a new tax of up to 10.5%.

At the time of the passage of the TCJA, it was projected that these two new taxes would generate about $26 billion a year of revenue for the federal government. However, lobbying on the writing of rules and regulations has succeeded in significantly reducing the taxes that will be paid. [1] In the lobbying on BEAT and GILTI rules and regulations, the revolving door has been very evident. For example, the senior Treasury official who has been writing them had previously spent decades at a consulting firm and a law firm where he guided corporations in using the tax avoidance strategies BEAT and GILTI were supposed to stop. Lobbyists from the firms he used to work for were lobbying him for rules that were favorable for their corporate clients. One of them had been a top Treasury official in the G. W. Bush administration.

A small group of foreign banks lobbied heavily against BEAT. Treasury Secretary Mnuchin, a longtime bank executive before taking his job at the Treasury, supported the regulatory loophole the foreign banks were asking for. Furthermore, one of the banks’ lobbyists joined the Treasury Department in September 2019 to work in the office that was writing the TCJA rules!

In December 2019, the Treasury Department issued final versions of some of the BEAT regulations and the corporations, foreign banks, and their lobbyists got most of what they wanted. The loophole for the foreign banks alone is estimated to reduce BEAT revenues by $5 billion a year. Experts estimate that BEAT, given the rules and regulations promulgated after all the lobbying, will produce a small fraction for the $15 billion a year that it was projected to raise. [2]

The lobbying around GILTI’s rules and regulations was similarly intense. As background, many multi-national corporations, including Apple, Google, Facebook, Coca-Cola, and drug companies Pfizer and Merck, use elaborate legal, financial, and accounting strategies to make it appear that sizable chunks of their profits are earned by subsidiaries in low-tax offshore countries such as Ireland, the Cayman Islands, Bermuda, or Luxembourg. For example, the drug and technology corporations shift the rights to their patents and other intellectual property (such as trademarks, logos, and copyrights) to offshore subsidiaries. Then these subsidiaries charge their U.S. parent corporations very high licensing fees, which, on paper, shift profits to these offshore entities.

In June 2019, the Treasury Department announced rules and regulations that greatly reduced the profits subject to GILTI’s new taxes, reducing corporate taxes by tens of billions of dollars. This increases the federal deficit while allowing multi-national corporations to continue to shift hundreds of billions of profits to offshore tax havens.

Finally, the multi-national corporations have repatriated far less of the profits they had previously stashed overseas than the projected $4 trillion; only about $1 trillion has been repatriated and therefore subjected to U.S. taxes. Once again, this has substantially reduced the amount of new tax revenue the federal government received, increasing the deficit further beyond the promised level.

The overall result of all the corporate lobbying during the writing of TCJA’s rules and regulations has indeed been a gold mine for multi-national U.S. and foreign corporations. The Treasury’s rules and regulations mean that these multi-national corporations will pay little or nothing in new taxes on profits shifted offshore, saving them tens if not hundreds of billions of dollars. The Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development reported that in 2018 the U.S. had the largest drop in tax revenue among its 36 member countries and had the largest federal budget deficit of any of the countries by a wide margin. [3]

The Treasury Department is likely to finish the last set of rules and regulations for the TCJA shortly. The multi-national corporations have continued their intense lobbying through the fall and some of the U.S.-based ones have even threatened to move their headquarters overseas if the rules and regulations don’t further cut the new taxes BEAT and GILTI were supposed to impose.

The result of the multi-national corporations’ lobbying has been rules and regulations for implementing the BEAT and GILTI taxes that:

  • Significantly reduce the revenue for the federal government from what was projected and, therefore, increase the federal budget deficit much more than what TCJA proponents promised;
  • Dramatically undermine the effort to increase tax fairness; and
  • Have made the supposedly even-handed grand bargain for the big corporate tax rate cut very one-sided.

[1]      Drucker, J., & Tankersley, J., 12/30/19, “How big companies won new tax breaks from the Trump Administration,” The New York Times

[2]      Drucker, J., & Tankersley, J., 12/30/19, see above

[3]      Drucker, J., & Tankersley, J., 12/30/19, see above

LIES ABOUT THE 2017 TAX CUT ARE NOW CLEAR

The effects of the December 2017 tax cut bill, the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act (TCJA), rammed through by Republicans in Congress and President Trump, are now quite clear. I’ll provide a summary of what it did, note the promises that were made about its effects, and then review its actual effects.

The 2017 Tax Cuts and Jobs Act, among other things:

  • Permanently cut the corporate tax rate from 35% to 21% (the lowest level since 1939)
  • Repealed the 20% corporate alternative minimum tax (which had required profitable corporations to pay at least some taxes on their profits)
  • Allowed up to $63,000 of pass-through business profits to go untaxed to help small businesses (supposedly). (These are profits from businesses that are not taxed because they are passed through to and taxed on an individual’s tax return.)
  • Provided significant tax benefits to corporations for investments in facilities and equipment, as well as for borrowing money
  • Adjusted the taxation of multinational corporations to more fairly tax their profits, for example, by increasing taxes on profits shifted to overseas entities and by incentivizing corporations to repatriate trillions of dollars of profits previously stashed overseas
  • Doubled the size of an estate that is exempt from taxation from $5 million to $10 million per person
  • Repealed the requirement of the Affordable Care Act (aka Obama Care) that individuals have health insurance or pay a tax to support the health care system
  • Made changes in the personal income tax system that are generally neutral for most taxpayers, although several of the tax reduction provisions are scheduled to expire in 2025

The supporters of the TCJA, including Members of Congress, the President, corporate executives, and wealthy shareholders all promised that it would:

  • Provide a sizable tax cut for workers and middle-income people, while increasing taxes on high-income people
  • Increase wages and workers’ incomes by $4,000 a year
  • Increase business investment, and hence worker productivity, the number of jobs, and economic growth in the U.S.
  • Limit the increase in the federal government’s deficit to $150 billion a year
  • Discourage the shifting of corporate profits and jobs overseas through new taxes, while also increasing tax revenue by giving corporations an incentive to bring up to $4 trillion of profits stashed overseas back to the U.S. by reducing the taxes they would have to pay on those profits. (More on this topic in my next post.)

The actual effects of the TCJA have been: [1]

  • No discernable wage increase due to the TCJA. In fact, wage growth appears to have slowed in 2019.
  • Clear failure to increase business investment; no increase in 2018 and a significant decline in the first 9 months of 2019. When the TCJA was enacted in 2017, year-over-year investment growth was at 5.4%. However, it has been dropping sharply and was only 1.3% in the third quarter of 2019 (the latest data available). [2]
  • Larger than projected decline in federal corporate tax revenue, which was expected to be $96 billion a year (roughly a 26% tax cut). As a result, the deficit is increasing by about $30 billion a year more than the $150 billion a year that was promised. The deficit is projected to increase to over $1 trillion a year in 2020.

    The latest information suggests that the decline in revenue and the increase in the deficit may be even larger. (More on this in my next post.) The Congressional Budget Office now estimates that the deficit (including interest payments) will be an average of $230 billion a year higher over the next 10 years due to the TCJA and $310 billion a year higher in 2028.

    The federal government’s revenue from corporate taxes had already been declining as a portion of total federal tax revenue, largely due to corporate tax evasion and avoidance. The trend of declining tax revenue from corporations has been accelerated by the TCJA, which cut corporate taxes by about 26% or $96 billion a year. The corporate tax cut has primarily benefited corporate shareholders, at least in the short run; the 10% wealthiest households own roughly 80% of corporate shares and, therefore, these already wealthy households are the primary beneficiaries of the corporate tax cuts. [3]

  • Business profit pass-through tax exemption, supposedly targeted at small businesses, has largely benefited millionaires, which isn’t what most people think of when they think of a small businessperson. This shouldn’t have been a surprise to anyone, as 49% of pass-through income appears on the tax returns of the richest 1% of taxpayers.
  • Increase in income and wealth inequality along both class and racial lines. Rich corporate executives and wealthy shareholders have been enriched at the expense of workers. White households are 67% of taxpayers but are estimated to receive 80% of the TCJA’s benefits, and most of this will go to the 5% of households with the highest incomes, i.e., over $243,000 a year. The average tax cut for a Black household has been $840, but $2,020 for a White household. For families with incomes under $25,000, the average tax cut has been about $40.

    In 2018, the 5% of individuals with the highest incomes received nearly 50% of the TCJA’s benefits. After the individual tax cuts expire in 2025, the 1% of households with the highest incomes will receive 83% of the benefits of the TCJA.

  • A bigger tax cut for foreign investors than for low- and middle-income households in the U.S. Foreign investors, as a group, will receive an estimated $38 billion tax cut from the TCJA in 2020, while the 20% poorest households in the U.S., as a group, will receive an estimated $2 billion.

The bottom line is that the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017 has delivered none of the promised benefits to workers and low- and middle-income households, but has delivered much greater benefits than were promised (or admitted to) to large, particularly multi-national, corporations and to wealthy individuals. Economic benefits for workers and low- and middle-income households have not materialized and there is no reason to expect them to. Business investment and economic growth have not increased as promised. The promise of more fairly taxing multi-national corporations’ profits to increase tax revenue and discourage the shifting of profits and jobs overseas have not lived up to the promises made, and the most recent findings indicate that this failure has been more dramatic than was initially realized. (More on this topic in my next post.)

The loss of revenue for the federal government is significantly larger than was projected and, therefore, the increase in the federal budget deficit is much greater than what was promised.

[1]      Corser, M., Bivens, J., & Blair, H., Dec. 2019, “Still terrible at two: The Trump tax act delivered big benefits to the rich and corporations but nearly none to working families,” The Center for Popular Democracy and the Economic Policy Institute (https://www.epi.org/files/uploads/20191211_Trump-Tax-Bill-R6.pdf)

[2]      Blair, H., 12/17/19, “On its second anniversary, the TCJA has cut taxes for corporations, but nothing has trickled down,” Economic Policy Institute (https://www.epi.org/blog/on-its-second-anniversary-the-tcja-has-cut-taxes-for-corporations-but-nothing-has-trickled-down/)

[3]      Corser, M., Bivens, J., & Blair, H., Dec. 2019, see above

YEAR-END REFLECTIONS ON DEMOCRACY AND THE PROGRESSIVE MOVEMENT

For New Year’s Eve 2019, with a momentous election coming up in 2020, I’m reflecting on the state of progressivism (aka liberalism) and our democracy. One of my heroes in the world of liberal policy and political analysis is Bob Kuttner. The range and depth of his knowledge is truly incredible. His writing is clear and insightful even when covering very complex policy and political issues. A main outlet for his writing and thinking has been The American Prospect magazine, which he co-founded and has run for 30 years. When many print media outlets are disappearing, the Prospect is flourishing.

While the Democratic Party has strayed from its core beliefs and values to shift to the center and the right, especially on economic issues (to allow it to pursue contributions from corporate elites), The American Prospect magazine and Kuttner have stayed true to the progressive cause. They have consistently championed working people’s causes and exposed the abuses of the big, multinational corporations and financial industry. They have connected the dots among the structural corruption of unchecked capitalism, its inextricable link to the corruption of our politics and democracy, how these affect the everyday lives of regular people, and what’s need to reclaim our democracy and country for the people. [1] The Prospect’s most recent issue is an incredibly in-depth analysis of the Green New Deal and the need for urgent and radical, yet practical and doable, actions to address global climate change.

Bob Kuttner’s comments at the October gala celebrating the Prospect’s 30th anniversary, reflecting on the roles of “mainstream” and radical progressives or liberals, struck me as very relevant and insightful in the run-up to the 2020 elections. Here is an excerpt:

One of the things that fascinates me is the uneasy relationship and necessary symbiosis between liberals and radicals. Liberal democracy, at its core, is about the rule of law, democratic representation, the concept of loyal opposition, free inquiry, and due process. It’s polite. But sometimes, power relations become so out of kilter that radicalism has to violate well-mannered liberalism. The industrial union movement could not have succeeded without sit-down strikes that violated property rights. The civil rights movement required sit-ins, and marches, and other forms of civil disobedience. Lyndon Johnson, when he allied himself with Martin Luther King, understood that people had to break the law as it was then understood to redeem the Constitution. And of course the anti-war movement of the 1960s had to break a lot of china.

Just as liberals, however queasily, need radicals, it’s also the case that radicals need liberals. Because drastic change ultimately needs to be enshrined as law.” [2]

Since the 1980s, an important factor driving the shift to the right and the enhancement of the power of corporate America and the wealthy has been an imbalance in financial resources and in the way the wealthy are using them. As Kuttner notes above, liberals and the left tend to be polite, well-mannered, focused on consensus and bipartisanship, and to operate within the context of laws, institutions, and established norms and practices. The right and their wealthy funders have not been similarly constrained. They have readily adopted an extreme agenda, been willing to bend and break the truth and the facts, and have willingly, and at times apparently gleefully, ignored norms and traditions, broken the law, and trashed important institutions of our democracy. [3]

This closing reflection from Kuttner’s speech resonates strongly with me:

… the postwar system of managed capitalism, that my generation assumed was the new normal, was in fact an anomaly. …

It takes enduring continuous political struggle to keep enriching and expanding democracy, both for its own sake and to housebreak capitalism. That is a labor of Sisyphus. You roll the rock up the hill; and the rock tumbles back down the hill. But in Albert Camus’s celebrated essay, The Myth of Sisyphus, the last line is: ‘One must imagine Sisyphus happy. The work, and the joy, is in the struggle.’” [4]

Beginning in the 1980s, the Democratic Party, and we as citizens of a democracy, let too many rocks roll too far down the hill by undoing the oversight and regulation of capitalism and letting it and the wealth of corporate elites corrupt our politics and policies. The middle class and working people got buried in the landslide of rocks rolling downhill.

Many citizens learned from the election of 2016 that democracy is not a spectator sport; citizens need to be engaged and informed for democracy to work. Some in the Democratic Party recognized and others found their voices to say that too many rocks had rolled too far down the hill of economic inequality and of other injustices in our society. Hopefully, the 2020 elections will reflect that learning, which was evident to some extent in the 2018 national elections, as well as in elections at the state and local levels.

One of my New Year’s resolutions is to do whatever I can in 2020 to advance the movement that’s reclaiming our liberal democracy of, by, and for the people. I hope it’s one of your resolutions too.

[1]      Meyerson, H., 10/24/19, “Sisyphus is happy,” The American Prospect (https://prospect.org/blogs/tap/sisyphus-is-happy/)

[2]      Meyerson, H., 10/24/19, see above

[3]      Heer, J., 9/10/19, “In an age of policy boldness, think tanks have become timid,” The Nation (https://www.thenation.com/article/think-tanks-democratic-party/)

[4]      Meyerson, H., 10/24/19, see above

CHARITARIANISM VERSUS PHILANTHROPY

At this time of year, when charity, giving, and philanthropy are receiving lots of attention, it’s appropriate to reflect on their roles, goals, and philosophies. Often, charity and philanthropy are lumped together and not differentiated, but, technically, there is a difference.

Simply put, charity is about the receiver and philanthropy, narrowly defined, is about the giver. Charity is about helping people – reducing hardship and suffering, making other people’s lives better. Philanthropy, narrowly defined, is about the donor feeling good for having done something meritorious, perhaps relieving guilt, and receiving credit, publicity, and acknowledgement for having done a good deed. Lawrence Berenson, a wealthy financier, has been promoting “charitarian” behavior as opposed to philanthropic behavior. [1]

With this perspective, it isn’t hard to see some philanthropy as self-serving, such as when donors give large amounts of money to well-established, already wealthy institutions to have their names on buildings, professorships, or other high visibility items. A current example is the attention that’s now focused on the philanthropy of the Sackler family. They are the owners of Purdue Pharma and the aggressive, unethical purveyors of Oxycontin. Their drug and their actions were huge contributors to the opioid crisis. Tufts University recently announced that it would remove the Sackler name from several facilities given the taint on how the Sacklers made the money used for their donations. The Sackler family has responded by threatening a lawsuit.

An underlying requirement for high-profile, large-scale philanthropy is great wealth in the hands of individuals. Therefore, it is inextricably linked to high levels of economic inequality. [2] This was true of the great industrial fortunes of the Gilded Age at the turn of the 20th century and is true of the large fortunes created in the last few decades from financial investing and speculation, as well as from high technology companies. The large fortunes of today (e.g., Gates, Bezos, Zuckerberg, Buffet, Waltons, etc.) are larger than those of the Gilded Age and have relatively young, living owners.

In both the Gilded Age and today, philanthropy has been viewed simultaneously as a social good and a social menace. The high levels of economic inequality required for large-scale philanthropy are linked to inequality in political power, as important decision-making that has significant effects on the public and society is in the private hands of a few very wealthy individuals (i.e., how to use, including in philanthropic ways, great personal wealth). This is profoundly undemocratic. [3] Large-scale philanthropy, whether directly from individuals or through foundations, is largely lacking in public transparency and accountability; the public is not involved and has no say or oversight. [4] Berenson, the promoter of charitarianism, is a founding member of Patriotic Millionaires, which is promoting discussions of solutions to political and economic inequality in the U.S. (You can watch a 28 minute YouTube interview of him on these topics here.)

By some measures, today’s philanthropy is broader than in the past; tens of thousands of new foundations have been created in the last 30 years. Both today and in the Gilded Age, the philanthropy of the wealthy has often been done through foundations. However, this recent surge in foundation creation is in part stimulated by tax avoidance because by putting money into a foundation the owner can claim it as a charitable deduction and significantly reduce income taxes. [5]

Foundation-based philanthropy can be very inefficient. Many foundations have high overhead expenses, such as nice office space and large staff expenses for running the foundation. In part, this reflects the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) requirement that for foundations’ to be tax-exempt they must spend 5% of their assets (i.e., total value) each year. In addition to donations, this required spending can include operational expenses, such as the costs of office space and staff. Furthermore, there are many examples, particularly among smaller foundations, where many of a foundation’s employees are family members or friends who are paid very nice salaries or where the foundation funds other self-serving activities. Recently, a Donald Trump foundation emerged as a prominent example of this. New York State recently ordered it to pay fines and be shut down because of its inappropriate and self-serving spending. Moreover, many small foundations, for example a family foundation that wants to help address a health issue that afflicted a family member, give their money to another foundation that actually does research or provides medical care for that health issue. Therefore, the amount of money that actually goes to doing social good is reduced by multiple iterations of foundations’ overhead expenses. [6]

A fast-growing vehicle for philanthropy that has entered the mainstream only recently is the donor-advised fund (DAF). A DAF is like a miniature foundation; an individual gives money to a personal account typically setup and managed at a community foundation or an investment manager such as Fidelity, Schwab, or Vanguard. The donor can take an immediate tax deduction for the money put into the DAF but can designate the non-profit organizations to receive the money over time. [7]

Fidelity Charitable, a donor-advised fund manager, received over $9 billion in 2018, nearly triple the amount received by the largest traditional charity, United Way Worldwide. There is no required time window for the money in DAFs to be distributed to charities (such as the requirement that foundations spend 5% of their assets annually). Critics of DAFs note that this means that billions of dollars are sitting in these DAFs that otherwise would be going directly to help those in need if DAFs didn’t exist. Moreover, the DAF managers are making money on management fees; this means they have a disincentive to see the DAF monies donated. The managers also spend significant sums on promoting and marketing the use of DAFs because they make money on them. In other words, they promote these pseudo-charities in ways that real charities don’t or can’t promote themselves.

For over a century, large-scale philanthropy and foundations have had significant effects on public policies and programs. For example, the Gates Foundation had a major influence on the development of the Common Core educational standards. In 2008 and 2009, the Gates Foundation made large grants to the association of the states’ K-12 education commissioners and to the National Governors Association to build (buy?) their political support for the Common Core standards and to facilitate their development. Subsequently, adoption of the Common Core Standards has been incentivized by federal education funding. They were adopted by 42 states (although 4 states subsequently dropped them). [8]

Philanthropy today is more policy-oriented and politically aggressive than it has been in the past. This is both fueling and being driven by the current extreme partisanship in our society linked to political parties and extreme ideologies. It is also both a contributor to and a result of the decline in the effectiveness, respect for, and resources available to our public sector. This clearly has had a negative effect on our democracy and reflects the social menace aspect of large-scale philanthropy and the inequality related to it. Some scholars have made the case that there is a cause and effect link between increased political philanthropy and decreased civic engagement by citizens.

To promote charitarianism as opposed to philanthropy (narrowly defined) and to ensure that philanthropy’s potential for doing good wins out over its potential to be a social menace, oversight is needed to:

  • Ensure that foundations and donor-advised funds are focused on doing social good rather than being self-serving and that their focus is on benefiting the receivers (i.e., helping people and making the world a better place) and not on benefiting the givers (directly or indirectly)
  • Require greater public accountability and transparency, including public input and democratic decision-making
  • Ensure that foundations and donor-advised funds are not simply a vehicle for tax avoidance by the well-off

Without oversight, philanthropy can be a self-serving, self-perpetuating capitalistic enterprise as opposed to a charitarian one. To make philanthropy more charitarian, the inextricable link between philanthropy and economic inequality must be acknowledged and understood. Policies and regulations should be put in place to ensure that charity and a focus on the receivers take precedence over the self-interests and desires for recognition and acclaim of the givers.

[1]      Heffner, A., 11/3/19, “Charitarian patriotism,” The American Prospect (https://prospect.org/power/charitarian-patriotism-lawrence-benenson/)

[2]      Cohen, R. M., 9/21/16, “Q&A: Pulling back the curtain on education philanthropy,” The American Prospect (https://prospect.org/education/q-a-pulling-back-curtain-education-philanthropy/)

[3]      Soskis, B., 8/22/17, “Gift horse or Trojan Horse?” The American Prospect (This is a review of the book The Givers: Wealth, Power, and Philanthropy in a New Gilded Age by David Callahan.) (https://prospect.org/labor/gift-horse-trojan-horse/)

[4]      Soskis, B., 8/22/17, see above

[5]      Heffner, A., 11/3/19, see above

[6]      Heffner, A., 11/3/19, see above

[7]      Preston, C., 10/28/16, “Is Wall Street taking over charity?” The American Prospect (https://prospect.org/economy/wall-street-taking-charity/)

[8]      Cohen, R. M., 9/21/16, see above

VULTURE CAPITALISTS ARE IN OUR HEALTH CARE SYSTEM!

Private equity financiers (I described them as “vulture capitalists” in a previous post) have done extensive damage to individual firms (e.g., Toys R Us and Sears) and whole industries (e.g., food supermarkets and local newspapers). (See this previous post for more detail.) Private equity investing (i.e., “vulture capitalism”) is financial manipulation used to extract profits from companies without regard to the health or survival of the companies, or the welfare of their workers, customers, and communities. Vulture capitalism fails to produce benefits for anyone other than the rich private equity financiers.

Vulture capitalists, driven by profits and greed and nothing else, have taken a truly scary step: they are invading our health care system. The main focus has been on smaller community and rural hospitals.

Perhaps the most dramatic case to-date is the closing of Hahnemann Hospital by its private equity owner. The hospital was a 171-year-old institution in central Philadelphia that primarily served low-income patients of color. It closed in September 2019, 18 months after it was bought by a private equity vulture capitalist who apparently was only interested in harvesting some short-term cash and then closing it to sell the valuable downtown real estate to a developer. The land’s redevelopment will presumably further the gentrification of the area. [1]

Even without the entry of private equity money into the hospital industry, the industry has been consolidating, resulting in growing concentration and monopolistic power as has happened in so many industries in the U.S. in recent years. (See this previous post on the growth of monopolistic power in the U.S. economy.) By 2016, 90% of hospital markets were deemed to be highly concentrated. Nonetheless, in 2017, 115 more mergers and acquisitions were announced. Hospital executives tell antitrust regulators that their mergers and acquisitions will improve quality and increase efficiency (as executives do in other industries).

The result has been increased concentration and reduced competition. Even if costs do decline, consumers do not benefit from lower prices or reduced health insurance premiums. Increased concentration and monopolistic power allow hospitals to increase their profits by negotiating higher prices with health insurers. There is some evidence that with increased concentration health outcomes are worse and the quality of care is more inconsistent. [2]

The pattern of the vulture capitalists in the hospital industry is just like their mode of operation in other industries: buy hospitals using lots of borrowed money (i.e., a leverage buyout) and then make the hospitals pay off the loan and interest. Often the hospital’s real estate or facilities are sold to a separate entity (usually controlled by or affiliated with the vulture capitalist) and then leased back to the hospital, requiring it to pay rent. In addition, the private equity firm often takes large dividend payments and significant management or monitoring fees from the hospitals. (These actions are routine in private equity deals.)

Typically, these vulture capitalists plan to take their profits in 3 to 5 years and then sell off the hospitals or put them into bankruptcy. Rarely is there any commitment to making investments in technology, workers’ skills, or quality. Moreover, the costs the vulture capitalists load onto the hospitals (i.e., debt, rent, and other payments) often require them to cut costs elsewhere, such as through staff reductions or pay cuts, and the termination of services that aren’t the most profitable ones.

One somewhat unique feature of private equity firms’ purchases in the hospital industry is that the hospitals are usually small ones often in geographically dispersed areas. This means the mergers and acquisitions often fall under the radar of antitrust regulators. In some cases, the vulture capitalists will buy a bigger hospital first and then add several smaller ones.

When a private equity firm closes a whole hospital or specific services of a hospital, it can create real hardship for patients in the area. If the hospital, let alone a group of hospitals, is in a rural area, the result may be that hospital services are simply not available to residents without traveling substantial distances. For example, in 1996, the private equity firm Forstmann Little & Co. began building a portfolio of dozens of hospitals. In 2016, amid a series of restructurings and sales, it created Quorum Health Corp. that consisted of 38 small, mostly rural hospitals, 84% of which were the sole provider of acute-care hospital services in their areas. Quorum was saddled with roughly $1 billion in loans to repay. In the next three years, Quorum closed or sold 11 of these rural hospitals, often leaving area residents with no or limited access to acute medical care. [3]

The private equity industry’s model of vulture capitalism, where profits supersede any consideration of the well-being of companies’ workers, customers, communities, or the economy as a whole, might arguably be okay in retail businesses for non-essential goods, but in essential businesses vulture capitalism should not be allowed. It reduces the financial stability and resiliency of companies so they don’t have the resources to invest in innovation or quality and often are so financially stressed that they cannot survive.

In health care, this literally becomes a matter of life and death. The rules that govern our financial system must be changed to rein in the private equity industry and prevent its vulture capitalism from doing serious harm to individuals, communities, and our economy.

[1]      Applebaum, E., 10/7/19, “How private equity makes you sicker,” The American Prospect (https://prospect.org/health/how-private-equity-makes-you-sicker/)

[2]      Applebaum, E., 10/7/19, see above

[3]      Applebaum, E., 10/7/19, see above

WHY OUR MAINSTREAM MEDIA HAVE FAILED IN THEIR COVERAGE OF CLIMATE CHANGE

For decades now, our mainstream media have failed in their coverage of climate change. Earlier this year, Bill Moyers and the Schumann Media Center, which supports independent journalism, announced the creation of the Covering Climate Now project, a partnership of The Nation magazine and the Columbia Journalism Review (CJR). They hope to increase the coverage of climate issues and help journalism live up to its responsibility to connect the dots and tell important stories so that the public can understand them and act on the information presented. As Bill Moyers, the iconic journalist, said in his amazing speech (30 minutes) kicking off the project (there’s a 2.5 minute excerpt on the CJR website if you scroll most of the way down), “Reporting the truth is always the basis of any moral authority we can claim as journalists.” [1]

The first president to mention global warming was President Johnson in a speech to Congress in 1963. However, attention to it in public policy got lost due to a host of other hot issues (no pun intended). The fossil fuel industry, however, was paying attention and undertook a disinformation campaign that continues to this day.

In October 1970, the Mobil Oil Company began paying The New York Times to publish regular Op-Eds, also called advertorials, written by Mobil’s press office. Mobil viewed them as part of a major political campaign to prevent action against fossil fuels due to global warming. By 1983, Mobil’s press office felt they had succeeded in shifting the Times’ editorial positions to those Mobil had been espousing. [2]

Today, it is increasingly common for the mainstream media to present non-advertising “news” content that has been prepared by or for large corporations. For example, The New York Times and The Washington Post have received hundreds of thousands of dollars from fossil fuel companies and organizations, such as ExxonMobil, Shell, Chevron, and the American Petroleum Institute, to create the industry’s advertorials, which they then publish. [3]

The mainstream TV media haven’t done any better: combined coverage of climate change by the three major networks and Fox was just 142 minutes in 2018, down 45% from 2017. That’s an average of only 41 seconds per week per outlet! Not only have the major TV networks basically ignored this story, but they have failed to counter the false and deliberately deceptive propaganda promoted by the fossil fuel industry. [4] For example, extreme-weather events are linked to climate change, but the mainstream media almost never mention the climate change connection. Local weather forecasters are doing more to report the links between weather and climate change than the national networks.

The fight over climate change featuring environmentalists and scientists versus the powerful fossil fuel industry and its political supporters sounds like a David vs. Goliath story to which the mainstream media would love to give lots of coverage. But that has not been the case to say the least. [5] For example, in our general election presidential debates, the moderators who are from the mainstream media have not asked a single question about climate change in 2016, 2012, 2008, or ever.

The mainstream media, both TV and print, have been brainwashed by the fossil fuel industry’s propaganda to view climate change as a political story rather than a science story. The fossil fuel industry has successfully spread confusion and doubt about the science using the same public relations strategies and even some of the same “scientists” as Big Tobacco did in its campaign to spread doubt about the dangers of smoking. For example, Frederick Seitz, a physicist by training, received $45 million from Big Tobacco to obscure the risks of smoking and then, with funding from the fossil fuel industry, became the prominent US denier of human-caused climate change. [6]

The fossil fuel industry has bought enough politicians’ support through campaign spending and lobbying to make climate change appear to be a political issue rather than a scientific one. [7] The Republican Party in particular has bought into using climate change as a campaign issue (or perhaps it has been bought by the fossil fuel industry). Therefore, the mainstream media cover climate change as an issue of politics and not science.

As a result, the media typically give equal coverage to the scientific consensus that human activity is a major contributor to global warming and the fossil fuel industry’s propaganda that global warming is exclusively due to natural fluctuations in global temperatures and therefore not related to fossil fuel use.

Responsibility for the failure to accurately report and act on climate change goes beyond the mainstream corporate media and the fossil fuel companies. In many ways it includes much of corporate America, for example through the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. The Chamber is supported by most of the large corporations in the U.S. and has aggressively opposed action on climate change with multiple tactics: massive lobbying, substantial campaign spending, and extensive involvement in lawsuits and other legal actions. The Chamber spends roughly three times as much on lobbying as the next most active group. It has spent almost $150 million on congressional campaigns since 2010, when the Citizens United Supreme Court decision unleashed corporate campaign spending. In most congressional election cycles, the Chamber is the biggest “dark money” spender, meaning that it shields the identity of the donors for its spending. This provides corporations with a protective veil; they can oppose climate change action through contributions to the Chamber and no one will know. The Chamber is also active in court cases. In a three-year period during Obama’s presidency, it was involved in over 500 court cases. Although not all these court cases and all this spending is in opposition to climate change action, environmental issues were the third most frequent subject of its court cases and energy and environmental issues are a major part of its lobbying activities. The Chamber’s position on energy and environmental issues inevitably is in support of fossil fuels. [8] It would be hard to overstate the political clout of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the laundry list of major corporations that provide its funding.

In summary, the mainstream media have failed in their coverage of climate change in terms of both quantity and quality (i.e., accuracy) because of:

  • Their conflict of interest due to revenue from the fossil fuel industry for advertising and the preparation of advertorial Op-Ed pieces,
  • Brainwashing by fossil fuel industry propaganda, and
  • Being part and parcel of corporate America.

[1]      Moyers, B., 7/15/19, “What if reporters covered the climate crisis like Murrow covered World War II?” The Nation (https://www.thenation.com/article/climate-change-media-murrow-boys/)

[2]      Westervelt, A., May 6, 2019, “Why are The New York Times and The Washington Post creating ads for Big Oil?” The Nation (https://www.thenation.com/article/big-oil-pr-fossil-fuel-lobby-herb-schmertz/)

[3]      Westervelt, A., May 6, 2019, see above

[4]      Moyers, B., 7/15/19, see above

[5]      Hertsgaard, M., & Pope, K., 4/22/19, “The media are complacent while the world burns,” The Nation (https://www.thenation.com/article/climate-change-media-aoc-gnd-propaganda/)

[6]      Hertsgaard, M., & Pope, K., 4/22/19, see above

[7]      Hertsgaard, M., & Pope, K., 4/22/19, see above

[8]      Schumer, C.E., & Whitehouse, S., 11/21/19, “Climate change and dark money,” The Boston Globe

MEDICARE’S PROBLEMATIC PRIVATE OPTION

Medicare was created in 1965 when people over 65 found it virtually impossible to get private health insurance coverage. Medicare made access to health care a universal right for Americans 65 and over. It improved the health and longevity of older Americans, as well as their financial security. Initially, Medicare consisted solely of a public insurance program that included all seniors.

Today, a mixed public-private health insurance market exists under Medicare. An examination of it is very instructive in terms of how a mixed public-private system would be likely to work if extended to people under age 65. The Medicare-eligible population has been able to enroll in private health insurance plans since the 1980s. The private health insurance industry lobbied heavily for access to the large, Medicare market.

Private health insurers argued for a private option under Medicare, stating that they could deliver better quality services at lower cost due to their efficiencies, thereby saving Medicare money. Initially they were paid 95% of what a Medicare enrollee cost based on promised efficiencies. However, once they had their foot in the door, the private insurers successfully lobbied for their payment rate to be increased. In 2009, it was as high as 120% of what a senior enrolled in the traditional, public Medicare program cost.

Not only have private health insurers been getting paid more per enrollee than it costs the government to serve seniors in the traditional, public Medicare insurance pool, but they have healthier enrollees who cost less to serve! Clearly, these private Medicare plans, referred to as Medicare Advantage plans, have not been saving Medicare any money, but rather costing it more than it would have to serve these seniors directly. [1] [2] And there’s no evidence that they are providing better quality services that would justify such a high rate of reimbursement. The Affordable Care Act is now working to lower this over-payment to private insurers.

Since shortly after they began, the private Medicare Advantage plans have been getting over paid, and this is exactly what is likely to happen if private insurers are allowed to participate in a universal health insurance program for people other than seniors.

There are four main strategies the Medicare Advantage plans have used to get paid more than they should. Private insurers in a mixed market for non-seniors would be expected to do the same things: [3]

  • Cherry-picking: The private Medicare Advantage insurers have worked to enroll  healthier seniors who are less expensive to serve. Through targeted advertising, special benefits (e.g., subsidized health club memberships), and specialized outreach they have successfully attracted a healthier than average clientele. In the market for non-seniors, the private insurers can be expected to successfully work to attract younger, healthier, and therefore less expensive enrollees, leaving sicker and more expensive people for the public plan.
  • Lemon-dropping: The Medicare Advantage insurers have implemented strategies to get sick and expensive enrollees to drop out of their plans, even though this is ostensibly illegal under Medicare. For example, they limit access to providers of expensive specialty services, require high co-pays for expensive drugs, and put a complex approval process and other barriers in front of patients trying to access expensive care. The data from Medicare Advantage plans are clear, when patients need expensive services like dialysis or nursing home care they switch back to the public, traditional Medicare in large numbers because the private insurers make it difficult to access these services and get them paid for. In the market for non-seniors, the private insurers can be expected to drop or force out the sicker, more expensive patients, dumping this burden onto the public plan.
  • Over-reporting the seriousness of diagnoses: Medicare Advantage insurers report more and more serious diagnoses than they should. This makes their enrollees appear to be sicker than they are and therefore eligible for more or higher reimbursements from Medicare. For example, knee pain can be reported as arthritis and an episode of distress can be reported as major depression. Medicare’s occasional audits of Medicare Advantage insurers indicate that they are getting paid $10 billion annually for fabricated diagnoses and much more for what appear to be overly serious diagnoses. Private insurers in a non-seniors’ market can be expected to game the payment system this way too.
  • Lobbying Congress for generous payments: Over the 35 years of Medicare Advantage plans, the private insurers have cost Medicare more than it would have cost for Medicare to serve their enrollees directly because Congress has directed Medicare to pay the insurers higher premiums than are warranted. These higher premiums support Medicare Advantage plans’ 14% overhead (e.g., profits, advertising, and executive salaries), which is seven times more than Medicare’s overhead of only 2%. The over-payment of Medicare Advantage plans peaked in 2009 at around 120% of the per patient costs of traditional, public Medicare. Since then, the over-payments have been reduced by provisions of the Affordable Care Act (aka Obama Care). The private health care industry has lots of lobbying clout with Congress and can be expected to strongly and successfully lobby for favorable treatment under any expansion of health care coverage to non-seniors, as they did when the Affordable Care Act was being passed. At that time, for example, they were able to eliminate a public option plan from being offered because they were scared (perhaps even knew) that a public option like Medicare for All might well out-perform them.

As the debate about changing the U.S. health care system to a universal single-payer system, e.g., Medicare for All, has been unfolding, some opponents of a single-payer system have proposed a mixed system with both private health insurers and a public health insurance option, often referred to simply as a “public option.”

Unfortunately, a mixed public-private health insurance market for non-seniors won’t achieve the efficiencies and quality of a single-payer system as is evident in the Medicare Advantage experience. A single-payer system is the only way to both improve quality and control costs. (See this previous post for more details.)

I urge you to contact your U.S. Representative and Senators, as well as candidates in the 2020 election, and ask them where they stand on moving toward a single-payer health insurance system, e.g., Medicare for All. The health care and related industries will lobby strenuously against this, but in the end a single-payer health care system will provide better health care and health outcomes for Americans and will save us all a lot of money.

You can find contact information for your US Representative at  http://www.house.gov/representatives/find/ and for your US Senators at http://www.senate.gov/general/contact_information/senators_cfm.cfm.

[1]      Patel, Y.M., & Guterman, S., 12/8/17, “The evolution of private plans in Medicare,” The Commonwealth Fund (https://www.commonwealthfund.org/publications/issue-briefs/2017/dec/evolution-private-plans-medicare)

[2]      McGuire, T.G., Newhouse, J.P., & Sinaiko, A.D., 2011, “An economic history of Medicare Part C,” The Milbank Quarterly (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3117270/pdf/milq0089-0289.pdf)

[3]      Himmelstein, D.U., & Woolhandler, S., 10/7/19, “The ‘public option’ is a poison pill,” The Nation (https://www.thenation.com/article/insurance-health-care-medicare/

A MIXED PUBLIC-PRIVATE HEALTH INSURANCE MARKET DOESN’T WORK

A serious debate about changing the U.S. health care system to a universal single-payer system, e.g., Medicare for All, is occurring. Some opponents of a single-payer system, who do want to expand access to health insurance, support a mixed system with both private health insurers and a public health insurance option, often referred to simply as a “public option.”

Unfortunately, the mixed public-private health insurance market some are proposing won’t achieve the efficiencies and quality of a single-payer system. It also won’t achieve universal coverage without substantial public expenditures. If universal coverage were achieved under such a mixed market, the government’s costs would be similar to or greater than those of a single-payer system but without its benefits of efficiency and quality.

There are three core problems with including private health insurers in our health care system (see this previous post for more details):

  • The private insurers will fragment the pool of insured people undermining the basic theory and efficiency of insurance – having a large pool of insurees with mixed risk profiles. Furthermore, the private insurers will work to enroll healthier people who are cheaper to serve, therefore maximizing profits, and leaving or dumping the higher cost, less healthy people in the public health plan. This and the ability of some, usually healthier people, to opt out if insurance isn’t mandated, further undermines the basis of an efficient insurance system with a large pool of people with mixed risks.
  • Private insurers have no financial incentive to maintain the long-term health of their enrollees because people change insurers frequently, for example when they change jobs. Therefore, private insurers do not have a long-term relationship with enrollees. Furthermore, profit not quality of care is the driving force for private insurers, so if denying coverage for services or providing low quality services produces more profit, that is what will happen.
  • Private health insurers spend a large portion of premiums (roughly 25%) on overhead, i.e., non-care expenses. This costs an estimated $570 billion a year and represents money that won’t be used to pay for health care services.

In a mixed market system, the presence of multiple payers (i.e., insurers) in the market means that the complexities of billing and administrative paperwork will not be eliminated as they would be with a single-payer system. Potential administrative and overhead cost savings will not be realized; they are estimated at $220 billion per year for insurers’ overhead expenses and $350 billion per year for the administrative costs of providers who have to deal with multiple sets of rules, regulations, co-pays, and forms. [1]

A single-payer system is the only way to both improve quality and control costs, as Dr. Donald Berwick (the former head of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS), the federal agency that oversees those public health insurance programs) has stated. An example he cites to illustrate this point is an action he took when he was the head of CMS in 2010-2011. Data were showing that senior care facilities were using drugs to sedate patients whose behavior was challenging at times, rather than taking the time and energy to handle their behavior more appropriately. Given that Medicare and Medicaid pay for much of the care these facilities provide, he had the leverage to tell the facilities’ managers that they should address this problem or that he would develop regulations to deal with it. The result was that the facility managers reduced drug use and costs, while providing better care to their patients. Berwick could do this because he had the leverage as the primary payer (although not quite the only or single payer) for these services. [2]

The bottom line is that a mixed public-private health care system with multiple private insurers won’t work efficiently because:

  • Administrative and overhead costs will remain high,
  • The pool of people being insured will be fragmented and the private insurers will game the system to serve healthier people and maximize their profits, and
  • Improvements in quality will not occur because private insurers have no long-term incentive to keep enrollees healthy.

I urge you to study the policy proposals for our health care system; pay attention to the facts and ignore the scare tactics. If you do this and reflect on your experiences with our current health care system, I will be surprised if you don’t end up supporting a single-payer system. The transition to a single-payer system will not be easy and there will be bumps in the road.

The health care and related industries will lobby strenuously against it, but in the end a single-payer health care system will provide better health care and health outcomes for Americans and will save us all a lot of money. Remember that every other wealthy country in the world has a single-payer health care system and for half the per person cost of the U.S. system, they get better health outcomes, including everything from longevity to birth outcomes.

A mixed public-private health insurance market exists today under Medicare. An examination of it is very instructive in terms of how a mixed system would be likely to work if extended to those under Medicare’s eligibility age of 65, so I will summarize it in my next post.

[1]      Himmelstein, D.U., & Woolhandler, S., 10/7/19, “The ‘public option’ is a poison pill,” The Nation (https://www.thenation.com/article/insurance-health-care-medicare/)

[2]      Ready, T., 9/20/16, “Donald Berwick calls for ‘moral’ approach to healthcare,” Health Leaders Media (http://www.healthleadersmedia.com/quality/qa-donald-berwick-calls-moral-approach-healthcare) See in particular page 3 of the article.

MEDICARE FOR ALL: ONE WAY TO PAY FOR IT

The main critique of Medicare for All has been that it’s too expensive and that we can’t afford it. Or that the only way to pay for it would be a big tax increase on the middle class. My previous post discussed the big picture in the health care debate – should comprehensive health care be available and affordable for everyone or should it be left to the private market where people buy whatever they can afford. It also documented the consensus that Medicare for All would provide significant savings and reviewed the typically ignored costs of not having universal, comprehensive health care.

To counter criticism that Medicare for All is unaffordable, Senator Warren recently released a detailed proposal for how she would pay for Medicare for All and its estimated cost of $59 trillion over ten years. She identifies $7.5 trillion in savings to offset part of the cost and then identifies $52 trillion in revenue to pay for the remaining costs. The revenue would come from the following: [1] [2]

  • $31 trillion that is already being paid by the federal, state, and local governments for health care.
  • $9 trillion from a fee that employers would pay per employee instead of paying for a portion of employees’ health insurance. This is projected to SAVE employers $200 billion over ten years.
  • $3 trillion from a 3% annual tax on individuals’ wealth of over $1 billion and the annual collection of a tax on the increase in the value of investments (i.e., a capital gains tax).
  • $2.9 trillion from closing corporate tax loopholes on the earnings of multinational corporations and from reducing accelerated write-offs of equipment purchases.
  • $2.3 trillion from improved enforcement of existing tax laws by enhancing the IRS’s enforcement capacity and effectiveness.
  • $1.4 trillion from increased income taxes paid on the roughly $4 trillion increase in workers’ take-home pay because they would no longer have money deducted from their paychecks for the health insurance premiums of their employers’ health plan or for health savings accounts.
  • $900 billion from a financial transaction tax of 0.1% on sales of stocks, bonds, and other financial instruments (that’s a sales tax of $1 on every $1,000) and a fee on too-big-too-fail banks to reflect the risk they present to our economy.
  • $800 billion from eliminating the Defense Department’s Overseas Contingency Operations fund, which is basically a slush fund for military spending that was originally meant to be short-term funding for unanticipated expenses of wars in the Middle East.
  • $400 billion from immigration reform that allows undocumented workers to work legally and therefore pay taxes on their earnings.

Warren’s plan projects that over ten years about $11 trillion would go back into people’s pockets because they would no longer be paying the $20,000 per year the average family pays for private insurance premiums, co-pays, and deductibles. If insurance premiums are viewed as a mandatory expense that is essentially a tax, this would represent the largest tax cut in American history for low and middle-income households. [3]

The Warren plan projects savings of $7.5 trillion over ten years from:

  • Reducing payments to service providers to save $2.9 trillion.
  • Cutting administrative spending by $1.8 trillion, reducing it from the current 12% of private insurers’ premiums to 2.3%, which is what Medicare spends on administrative costs.
  • Saving $1.7 trillion on drug prices by negotiating prices and setting a price ceiling for each drug that is 110% of an international index. If a drug company won’t negotiate a price under that ceiling, the plan calls for revoking the drug’s patent and licensing other manufacturers to make the drug or having the government manufacture it directly.
  • Restraining the growth in health care costs to the rate of growth of the economy to save $1.1 trillion, setting an overall health care budget cap, if necessary.

These projected savings do not include likely savings from the benefits of broad implementation of preventive care or stronger enforcement of antitrust laws. Virtually every part of our health care system has become highly concentrated, which increases costs due to monopolistic power. For example, hospitals in 90% of metropolitan markets are highly concentrated due to the 1,667 hospital mergers that have occurred over the past 20 years.

Now that Sen. Warren has put out a detail proposal for paying for Medicare for All, opponents of Medicare for All will quibble over the specific estimates and whether these revenue sources are the best way to pay for Medicare for All. They may also shift their criticism to other aspects of the transition to Medicare for All. The transition will be complex because Medicare for All is a major restructuring of our health insurance system.

Warren proposes a four-year transition period in two steps. First, soon after she becomes President, everyone would be allowed to buy into Medicare and it would be free for anyone under 18 or with an income below twice the poverty line (about $51,000 for a family of four). Second, three years later, Warren would push legislation that would complete the transition to Medicare for All and eliminate private insurance except for very special situations. [4]

The bottom line is clear: Medicare for All can be paid for, it will lead to significant savings in health care, and most Americans will be better off both health care-wise and financially. Everyone who’s honestly analyzed Medicare for All acknowledges that there will be significant savings from reduced administrative and non-care overhead costs, as well as from cost controls and long-term health benefits due to increased preventive care and reduced barriers to accessing care when needed. As Dr. Donald Berwick, the former administrator of Medicare and Medicaid has said, based on his extensive experience, only a single-payer system can both improve quality and control costs.

Therefore, Medicare for All is a realistic policy option. After all, all the other developed countries in the world have some version of a national health care system that covers everyone, controls costs, and enhances quality. We can do this too!

Medicare for All will improve access to care for many Americans, reduce costs for almost all Americans, and increase people’s choices of doctors, hospitals, and other providers for everyone who now faces restrictions from their private insurers.

My next post will summarize the reasons why a single payer system is necessary for efficiency and quality, and why having a private insurer option undermines the overall health care system.

[1]      Warren, E., 11/1/19, “Ending the stranglehold of health care costs on American families,” Team Warren (https://medium.com/@teamwarren/ending-the-stranglehold-of-health-care-costs-on-american-families-bf8286b13086)

[2]      Dayen, D., 11/1/19, “Warren’s Medicare for All plan includes no new taxes on the middle class,” The American Prospect (https://prospect.org/health/warrens-medicare-for-all-plan-includes-no-new-taxes-on-the-middle-class/)

[3]      Dayen, D., 10/22/19, “The Medicare for All cost debate is extremely dishonest,” The American Prospect (https://prospect.org/politics/medicare-for-all-cost-debate-is-extremely-dishonest/)

[4]      Bidgood, J., 11/16/19, “Warren outlines phased path to Medicare goal,” The Boston Globe

THE REAL HEALTH CARE ISSUES FOR THE PRESIDENTIAL RACE

The mainstream media and their moderators of the Democratic debates have been focused on creating conflict and controversy among the Democratic candidates over their health care proposals. They, and some of the candidates, continually pit Medicare for All against alternative vehicles to provide health insurance to more Americans. They focus on Medicare for All’s costs and who will pay them as opposed to its benefits and savings. They typically ignore the issues of quality and efficiency.

Moreover, the mainstream media, their debate moderators, and some of the candidates miss the big point:

Democrats are talking about health care policies that would:

  • Expand coverage to more Americans,
  • Ensure coverage of a broad set of services, and
  • Reduce out-of-pocket costs for consumers such as co-pays and deductibles.

Meanwhile, Republicans in Congress and the White House are trying to:

  • Reduce the number of Americans who have health insurance by limiting access under the Affordable Care Act (aka Obama Care) and limiting the number of low-income people covered by Medicaid,
  • Limit the range of services that are covered,
  • Increase the number of people in insurance plans with high out-of-pocket costs, such as co-pays and deductibles,
  • Cut $845 billion from Medicare over the next ten years, and
  • Expand the privatization of Medicare by increasing the number of people in private Medicare Advantage plans, even though these plans cost the government more than traditional Medicare, have more restrictions on access to doctors and hospitals, and make it harder to access care, particularly expensive care, when one gets sick. [1]

Despite these major differences between the parties, the media and the debates have been deep in the weeds of policy details, focused on the cost of Medicare for All and how to pay for it. Because Medicare for All is a major restructuring of our health insurance system, there will be major differences between how health care is paid for today and how it would be paid for under Medicare for All. And there would be significant transition issues.

The alternatives to Medicare for All that some of the Democratic candidates support would also be expensive government programs, but no one seems to discuss that. If these alternatives were to cover anywhere near the number of people Medicare for All would cover, their costs would be similar to those for Medicare for All, if not higher, due to the inevitable inefficiencies in a system of multiple, competing, for-profit health insurers. Senator Warren has put forth the most detailed proposal on health care of any of the candidates. I will summarize it in my next post.

Medicare for All will generate significant cost savings. The overall and per patient costs in the U.S. are very high by international standards – almost 18% of our overall economy and more than $10,000 per person per year compared to 7% to 8% of the overall economy in other countries. Even a study by a right-wing think tank estimated that Medicare for All would save $2 trillion over ten years. The Congressional Budget Office recently estimated that a proposal in Congress to have Medicare negotiate prices for just 25 drugs would save $345 billion over ten years. This estimate implies that the savings from the bargaining power of Medicare for All on all health care spending would save far more than $2 trillion over ten years. [2]

Medicare for All would also improve health outcomes, an issue that has been largely ignored by the media and in the debates. From an international perspective, not only are our health care costs very high, but our outcomes are poor.

Also largely ignored by the media and in the debates are the costs of NOT having universal, affordable health insurance:

  • 5 million people without health insurance for all of 2018 and another 63 million who are under-insured (i.e., have plans with high out-of-pocket costs that are likely to cause financial hardship if a covered individual gets seriously ill or injured).
  • Medical costs lead 530,000 people to file for bankruptcy each year. Between 2013 and 2016, the most frequent reason families filed for bankruptcy was health care costs, even though over 90% of Americans had health insurance.
  • 57 million people had trouble paying their medical bills in 2018.
  • Tens of thousands of people die unnecessarily each year due to lack of access to health care.
  • 44% of people didn’t go to the doctor when they were sick or injured due to cost.
  • 37 million adults didn’t fill a prescription in 2018 because of cost.
  • 36 million people skipped a recommended treatment, test, or follow-up because of cost.
  • 34% of cancer patients had to borrow money from family or friends to pay for care.

Roughly a third of the $3.6 trillion spent annually on health care in the U.S. (i.e., $1.2 trillion) goes for expenses other than actual, direct health care services. These include costs such as administrative paper shuffling, advertising, profits, executive compensation, and nice office space for insurance companies, as well as more than $500 million a year spent on 2,500 lobbyists. In Canada, these administrative overhead costs are about a third of what they are here. The U.S. system with multiple payers, multiple forms, multiple sets of rules, and complicated billing spends 12% of overall costs on billing-related administrative expenses, while Medicare spends only 2% on these costs. [3]

A study recently published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) finds that 20% – 25% of our current health care system spending, about $760 billion per year, is waste, which it analyzes in detail. The largest category of waste is the $266 billion per year in administrative costs. Changing to a single-payer system, such as Medicare for All, would largely eliminate the great and wasteful complexity of the multiple payment and reporting requirements of the various private payers. [4] [5]

The second largest category of waste, over $230 billion per year, is prices that are higher than they would be with more competitive markets or the price controls that are common in other countries, particularly on drug prices. A single-payer, Medicare for All-type system maximizes the ability to negotiate prices with providers for services, drugs, and medical equipment.

If identified strategies for reducing waste were implemented, the savings of $200 – $300 billion per year would pay for health insurance for the 27.5 million people (8.5% of the population) who lacked health insurance for all of 2018 [6] – even if our current high costs remain unchanged.

In my next post, I will summarize Senator Elizabeth Warren’s proposal for Medicare for All, including how the federal government would pay for it and the savings for middle and low-income households, for employers, and in the health care system as a whole.

[1]      Johnson, J., 10/3/19, “Warnings of ‘stealth privatization’ effort as Trump signs Executive Order expanding Medicare Advantage plans,” Common Dreams (https://www.commondreams.org/news/2019/10/03/warnings-stealth-privatization-effort-trump-signs-executive-order-expanding-medicare)

[2]      Dayen, D., 10/22/19, “The Medicare for All cost debate is extremely dishonest,” The American Prospect (https://prospect.org/politics/medicare-for-all-cost-debate-is-extremely-dishonest/)

[3]      Hightower, J., July 2019, “Here’s the straight skinny on Medicare for All,” The Hightower Lowdown (https://hightowerlowdown.org/article/heres-the-straight-skinny-on-medicare-for-all/)

[4]      Shrank, W.H., Rogstad, T.L., & Parekh, N., 10/7/19, “Waste in the US health care system,” Journal of the American Medical Association, (https://jamanetwork.com/journals/jama/article-abstract/2752664)

[5]      Frakt, A., 10/7/19, “The huge waste in the U.S. health system,” The New York Times

[6]      Census Bureau, Nov. 2019, “Health Insurance Coverage in the United States: 2018,” https://www.census.gov/content/dam/Census/library/publications/2019/demo/p60-267.pdf)

LOBBYING: HOW TO WEAKEN ITS INORDINATE INFLUENCE

Big companies and their wealthy executives and owners have inordinate influence on our supposedly democratic policy making. They wield their power through the cumulative impact of lobbying, campaign spending, and the revolving door of personnel going back and forth between the private and public sectors. This post presents some steps that can be taken to reduce the ability of lobbying to skew our public policies to the benefit of big business and the wealthy. (See my previous posts for background on lobbying and examples of how it works to thwart policies that benefit the public.)

Multiple proposals have been made for reining in lobbying. Senator Elizabeth Warren has probably made the most extensive and detailed proposal. [1] [2] It would:

  • Require everyone who is paid to influence government decisions to register as a lobbyist
  • Impose strict disclosure of whom lobbyists contact and what information is exchanged
  • Prohibit lobbying on behalf of foreign governments
  • Ban contributions to federal campaigns by federal lobbyists
  • Shut the revolving door between government positions and lobbying jobs
  • Tax any organization that spends more than $500,000 on lobbying in a year (see details below)

Senator Warren proposes a tax on companies spending over $500,000 in a year on lobbying. This would reduce the incentives for what she calls “excessive” lobbying and provide funding to counteract lobbying blitzes when they occur. Any organization that exceeded the $500,000 threshold would pay a 35% tax on lobbying expenditures from $500,000 to $1 million. For spending above $1 million, the tax would be 60% and it would increase to 75% for spending above $5 million.

Experts estimate that under this proposal, over the last ten years, 1,600 corporations and industry groups would have paid $10 billion in excessive lobbying taxes. Fifty-one of these organizations, including the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, fossil fuel-based Koch Industries, drug maker Pfizer, defense contractor Boeing, Microsoft, Walmart, and Exxon, would have paid the 75% rate every year due to lobbying expenditures of over $5 million in each of the last ten years.

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce is the biggest spender on lobbying and would have paid an estimated $770 million in taxes on over $1 billion in lobbying expenditures over the last ten years. The National Association of Realtors, Blue Cross Blue Shield, the pharmaceutical industry association, and the American Hospital Association are the next four organizations on the list of the biggest spenders on lobbying, each having spent between $200 million to $425 million on lobbying over the last ten years. The five industries paying the most in lobbying taxes would have been the pharmaceutical, health insurance, oil and gas, financial, and electric utility industries.

Under Warren’s proposal, the funds raised from the excessive lobbying tax would go into a new Lobbying Defense Trust Fund, which would be dedicated to blunting the influence of excessive lobbying and strengthening the voice of the public interest in policy making. The funding would be used to: [3]

  • Strengthen Congressional expertise so members aren’t relying on lobbyists for information and expertise. For example, the Congressional Office of Technology Assessment (which was eliminated by Speaker Newt Gingrich) would be resurrected and the Congressional Budget Office would be strengthened.
  • Support federal agencies that are facing an onslaught of lobbying. They would be provided funding, for example, to allow them to hire personnel to complete rule-making more quickly when being inundated by lobbyists’ comments, to which they are required to respond. When an organization goes over the $500,000 expenditure threshold (triggering the lobbying tax) and spends money lobbying against a proposed rule or regulation, the tax on the spending would go to the federal agency doing the rule-making to help it respond.
  • Establish a new Office of the Public Advocate that would fight for the public interest in the rule-making process.

Senator Sanders also has a plan to reduce the influence of businesses and their lobbying in policy making. It would prohibit political contributions by federal lobbyists. It also calls for a lifetime ban on lobbying by former members of Congress and senior Congressional staff. [4]

The ethics and election reform bill, H.R.1, the first bill introduced after Democrats took control of the House in 2016, would tighten lobbying regulations. It would reduce from 20% to 10% the amount of time an individual could spend on lobbying activities before having to register as a lobbyist. The American Bar Association, among others, has proposed eliminating the 20% threshold and replacing it with a less arbitrary and more enforceable criterion. Numerous calls for a lifetime ban on lobbying by former members of Congress have been put forth, but the effectiveness of such a law is questionable given the amount of shadow lobbying, i.e., lobbying activities by unregistered persons, that currently exists. [5]

Big companies and their wealthy executives and owners work relentlessly through lobbying, campaign spending, and the revolving door to block or weaken policy changes that would benefit workers and the public. They attack legislation as it goes through Congress. They work to get the President to oppose or veto proposed laws. Failing that, they work to block or weaken the implementation of laws, including the issuance of relevant rules and regulations. If they can’t block the issuing of rules or regulations, they sue in court to block their implementation. At best, this delays policy changes that would benefit workers and the public by years; often it succeeds in killing them completely.

I urge you to contact your elected officials at the federal level, and at the state and local levels too, and to ask them to pass laws that require full disclosure of paid lobbying activities. Ask them to ban campaign spending by lobbyists and to close the revolving door between public sector positions and related private sector jobs, including as lobbyists. Finally, ask them to use tax laws and other mechanisms to provide financial disincentives for excessive lobbying spending.

We need to take these steps to reduce the inordinate and undemocratic influence of companies and wealthy individuals in our policy making.

You can find contact information for your US Representative at  http://www.house.gov/representatives/find/ and for your US Senators at http://www.senate.gov/general/contact_information/senators_cfm.cfm.

[1]      Warren, E., 10/2/19, “Excessive lobbying tax proposal,” Team Warren (https://medium.com/@teamwarren/excessive-lobbying-tax-fca7cc86a7e5)

[2]      Tusk, B., 10/14/19, “Lobbyists should embrace Warren’s anti-corruption plan,” The Boston Globe

[3]      Warren, E., 10/2/19, see above

[4]      Sanders, B., retrieved from the Internet on 10/15/19, “Get corporate money out of politics,” Sanders for President (https://berniesanders.com/issues/money-out-of-politics/)

[5]      Evers-Hillstrom, K., & Auble, D., 10/3/19, ‘Shadow lobbying’ in Trump’s Washington,” Open Secrets, Center for Responsive Politics (https://www.opensecrets.org/news/reports/shadow-lobbying-2019#reforms)

LOBBYING: HOW THE WEALTHY WIELD POWER

Wealthy individuals and their companies have inordinate influence on our supposedly democratic policy making through the reinforcing combination of lobbying, campaign spending, and the revolving door of personnel going back and forth between the private and public sectors. This post presents two examples of how lobbying has successfully blocked policies with strong public support and benefits for the public. My next post will focus on how to control lobbying and curb its use as a tool for undue influence. (See my previous post for background on lobbying.)

Drug price controls are one example of how lobbying, campaign spending, and the revolving door all come into play when corporate America and its wealthy executives and investors want to influence policy making. The costs of prescription drugs have been increasing dramatically and growing numbers of people can’t afford their drugs. In the first half of 2019, prices of 3,400 drugs surged an average of 10.5%, which is five times the rate of inflation. The cost of insulin, an old drug that is essential for many diabetics, has tripled in price over the last ten years for no reason other than greed. A third of uninsured Americans report they cannot afford their prescribed drugs and, as a result, millions of people are not taking needed medications.

With strong public support, Congress and the President have been considering ways to control and reduce drug prices. In response, the pharmaceutical industry is ramping up its lobbying and campaign spending. It is launching an advertising campaign opposing such steps and trying to blame others for high drug prices. In addition, courtesy of the revolving door, the pharmaceutical industry has one of its own on the inside in President Trump’s cabinet. Alex Azar, the secretary of Health and Human Services, which oversees Medicare and Medicaid among other things, was the president of a branch of drug maker Eli Lilly. Eli Lilly faced a class action lawsuit over its tripling of the price of insulin while Azar worked there. Eli Lilly has spent $4.2 million on lobbying so far in 2019 and has hired a former assistant to President G.W. Bush, who went through the revolving door to lobbying, as one of its lobbyists. In addition, Joe Grogan, a former lobbyist for Gilead Sciences, a drug company, is President Trump’s top policy adviser.

The pharmaceutical industry association has spent $16.3 million on lobbying so far this year and more than 70% of its lobbyists are revolving door participants, having previously worked for the government. It has spent $3.5 million on social media ads over the last 15 months, which typically blame others for high drug prices. It spends millions through affiliated advocacy groups and on election campaigns, including $2.5 million in 2017 to a pro-Trump dark money political group (i.e., one that hides the identity of its donors). Individuals and entities in the pharmaceutical industry have given millions to Congresspeople already this year, including $135,486 to Senate leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) and $205,100 to Kevin McCarthy (R-CA), the House Minority Leader and the biggest recipient of pharmaceutical industry contributions so far this year. [1]

The  pharmaceutical industry has been very successful in blocking attempts to rein in drug prices . Even though the public identifies drug prices as the number one issue it wants Congress to do something about, no meaningful relevant legislation has been passed in the ten months this Congress has been in session. For example, Senator Cornyn (R-TX) launched tough attacks in a Senate hearing on AbbVie, a pharmaceutical company, and its CEO for filing more than 100 patents for its arthritis drug Humira. This “patent thicketing” as it’s called, is a way to prevent competition from generic drugs. Cornyn filed legislation to address this problem but lobbying and campaign contributions from the pharmaceutical industry convinced him to eliminate his own proposal that would have given the Federal Trade Commission the power to address the abuse of patent laws. Similarly, numerous other proposals to address drug prices and patenting issues have been dropped or dramatically weakened, and none have been passed. And the pharmaceutical industry was able to overturn in court the Trump administration’s recently issued rule that would have required drug prices to be disclosed in TV ads. [2]

Even when policies have been passed into law, the business lobbyists are experts at killing or weakening their implementation. In these efforts, they count on assistance from their friends in Congress (both elected members and staff) and from allies in the executive branch (who often have entered through the revolving door).

For example, in October 2010, the Department of Labor (DOL) proposed a “fiduciary rule” as part of the implementation of existing law. It would have required investment advisers for retirement savings accounts to act as fiduciaries, meaning that when providing investment advice they would have to put the best interests of their clients first, ahead of benefits for themselves, such as commissions, fees, etc. Some advisers have been recommending that their clients make investments that paid the advisers high fees and commissions but were not the best options for the clients and, in some cases, were clearly inappropriate investments for retirement savings.

Because this fiduciary rule could potentially reduce the incomes of financial advisers and the profits of their employers in the financial industry, the corporate lobbyists undertook an extensive and unrelenting campaign to kill the rule. First, during the public comment period on the proposed regulation, the financial industry and the Chamber of Commerce literally buried the DOL with hundreds of written comments and lots of testimony at public hearings. Because agencies are required by law to respond to every concern presented in public comments, a deluge of comments takes significant time and resources from the sponsoring agency. This delays the rule making process and can kill a proposed rule.

After 11 months of work, the DOL withdrew the proposed rule but said it would try to implement something similar in the future. The financial industry lobbyists continued their campaign against the fiduciary rule, trying to dissuade DOL from proposing a similar rule. In June 2013, a lobbyist drafted a letter urging Obama’s DOL to delay a second attempt and got 32 members of Congress from both parties to sign it. Nonetheless, the DOL persisted and re-proposed the rule in February 2015. The Wall Street lobbyists again geared up to fight the rule and submitted thousands of comments.

The DOL and its supporters persisted and got the rule through the process. However, the delay of five years meant that the rule couldn’t be fully implemented until after President Trump was elected.

After another $3 million of lobbying by the financial industry, the Trump administration delayed implementing the fiduciary rule and then its Department of Justice refused to defend it when the financial industry sued to block the rule from going into effect. So, after 7 years of work by DOL to protect workers’ retirement savings, the financial industry succeeded in killing this broadly supported, common-sense protection. Then, rubbing salt in the wound, President Trump appointed Eugene Scalia (son of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia), the corporate lawyer and lobbyist who filed the lawsuit to block the fiduciary rule, as the Secretary of the DOL. [3]

This same pattern of industry lobbyists blocking implementation of laws passed by Congress and signed into law by the President happens repeatedly. For example, it happened when the Environmental Protection Agency tried to regulate methane emissions. And it happened when the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau tried to regulate payday lenders who rip off desperate borrowers with incredibly high interest rates and fees that often lock low-income individuals into an inescapable debt trap.

Companies and their wealthy executives and investors work relentlessly through lobbying, campaign spending, and the revolving door to block or weaken policy changes that would benefit workers and the public. They attack legislation as it goes through Congress. They work to get the President to oppose or veto proposed laws. Failing that, they work to block or weaken the implementation of laws, including the issuing of relevant rules and regulations. If they can’t block the issuing of rules or regulations, they sue in court to block them from going into effect. At best, all of this delays policy changes that would benefit workers and the public by years; often it succeeds in killing them completely.

My next post will discuss how to control lobbying and curb its use as a tool for undue influence.

[1]      Stella Yu, Y., 9/25/19, “Big pharma invests millions as Congress readies drug pricing bills,” Open Secrets, Center for Responsive Politics (https://www.opensecrets.org/news/2019/09/big-pharma-invests-millions-drug-pricing-bills/)

[2]      Florko, N., & Facher, L., 7/22/19, “How Big Pharma keeps winning in Washington,” The Boston Globe

[3]      Warren, E., 10/2/19, “Excessive lobbying tax proposal,” Team Warren (https://medium.com/@teamwarren/excessive-lobbying-tax-fca7cc86a7e5)

LOBBYING: A KEY PIECE OF PLUTOCRATS’ POWER

Plutocrats and their companies have inordinate influence on our supposedly democratic policy-making through the reinforcing combination lobbying, campaign spending, and the revolving door of personnel going back and forth between the private and public sectors. This post focuses on presenting background information on lobbying, how much of it is occurring and who lobbyists are. My next posts will focus on a couple of specific examples of how lobbying works, and then present some ways to control lobbying and curb its use as a tool for undue influence by plutocrats and their companies. Lobbying, by the way, is defined as an individual or organization interacting directly with government officials, either elected ones or employees, in an effort to influence public policy.

In 2018, corporate interests spent more than $2.8 billion (yes, that’s BILLION) on lobbying; that’s more than we spend to fund the entire operation of Congress. More than $58 billion has been spent on lobbying the federal government since 1998; an average of almost $3 billion a year. Currently, there are about 11,000 registered lobbyists in Washington, D.C. [1]

The Lobby Disclosure Act of 1995 requires lobbyists to register if they are:

  • Paid to lobby on behalf of a client,
  • Make more than one contact with government officials, and
  • Spend more than 20% of their time on lobbying and related activities.

In addition to registered lobbyists, lots of “shadow” lobbying occurs by individuals who are paid to lobby but are not registered, either because of loopholes in the law or failure to abide by the law. Conservative estimates are that the number of paid employees who lobby the federal government is at least double the number of registered lobbyists (22,000 instead of 11,000) and some people estimate the number might be close to 90,000.

The registration requirement that 20% of an individual’s time be spent on lobbying and related activities serves as a big loophole. Many unregistered lobbyists claim they don’t spend 20% of their time on lobbying activities. For example, former members of Congress who advise lobbyists and corporate officials who oversee lobbying activity but who infrequently engage in direct lobbying often don’t register. Every year, hundreds of registered lobbyists from one year don’t register as lobbyists the next year even though they remain in the same job or move to a similar job for a different employer. In 2019, 1,621 registered lobbyists from 2018 did not re-register although 769 (47%) of them remained with the same employer and 298 (18%) moved to similar jobs. In addition, giving a glimpse into who goes through the revolving door, 138 (8.5%) of them moved into government jobs.

Enforcement of the Lobby Disclosure Act has been limited. Of 19,705 cases of potential non-compliance reported to the U.S. Attorney for enforcement, only nine violations have been substantiated in 24 years. All of them resulted only in fines.

Despite his pledge to “drain the swamp” in Washington, President Trump has already hired 177 registered lobbyists into his administration in less than three years. Seven of those former lobbyists are in his cabinet running major federal agencies. In comparison, Obama hired 223 lobbyists in eight years and neither he nor President G.W. Bush had as many lobbyists in their cabinets over eight years. In 2018, 138 registered lobbyists left lobbying and took jobs as government employees. [2]

The Members of Congress who leave and go to lobbying firms are another stream of people going through the revolving door. Since January 2011, 176 members of Congress left to go to work influencing public policy, either as registered lobbyists or in other roles. Most of them went to high-profile lobbying firms with addresses on K Street in Washington, D.C., (aka K Street firms) or to the big law firms that engage in lobbying. However, of the 176, only about half (53%) registered as lobbyists.  [3]

The thousands of people who leave Congressional staff positions or executive branch agency jobs to become lobbyists represent another stream of people going through the revolving door.

In addition to the influence lobbyists have due to their personal contacts and knowledge of policy and the policy-making process, they also wield influence by giving or raising money for election campaigns. The timing of campaign contributions often coincides with the targeted Congressperson’s active involvement in a policy decision the lobbyist wants to influence. Or contributions may be made around the time of a meeting with a Congressperson, i.e., just before or just after the meeting, apparently to facilitate getting the meeting or as a reward for having the meeting or for commitments made during the meeting.

My next post will present a couple of specific examples of how lobbying works to influence policy. The subsequent post will review some ways to control lobbying and curb its use as a tool for undue influence by plutocrats and their companies.

[1]      Evers-Hillstrom, K., & Auble, D., 10/3/19, “‘Shadow lobbying’ in Trump’s Washington,” Open Secrets, Center for Responsive Politics (https://www.opensecrets.org/news/reports/shadow-lobbying-2019#reforms)

[2]      Evers-Hillstrom, K., & Auble, D., 10/3/19, see above

[3]      Evers-Hillstrom, K., 10/9/19, “Congress to K Street: 176 members left for influence gigs over the last decade,” Open Secrets, Center for Responsive Politics (https://www.opensecrets.org/news/2019/10/congress-to-k-street-176-members/)

THE WEALTHY PAY A LOWER TAX RATE THAN YOU DO

It’s now official: the 400 wealthiest Americans pay taxes at a lower rate than everyone else, thanks to tax cuts, loopholes, and lax enforcement. For the first time in history, wealthy Americans’ federal, state, and local taxes are a lower percentage of their incomes, 23%, than anyone else.

The portion of income paid in taxes by the wealthy has plummeted over the last 70 years, contributing substantially to growing income and wealth inequality. In the 1950s, wealthy Americans paid 70% of their incomes in taxes. This dropped to 47% in 1980 and then was cut in half, to 23%, by 2018. Meanwhile, middle-income households’ tax burden increased, rising from 20% to 30% and then falling back to about 25%. Low-income households experienced the largest proportional increase in their tax burden, which rose from under 20% to roughly 25%.

This animated graph dramatically illustrates how the effective tax rates experienced by all households, from the lowest income households on the left to the 400 wealthiest households on the right, have shifted from 1950 to 2018 for the aggregated total of federal, state, and local taxes. [1]

Not only have tax rates on the wealthy been cut and loopholes added, but tax enforcement has been weakened. Driven by Republicans in Congress, the enforcement budget of the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) has been cut by 25% (adjusted for inflation) since 2010.

Since 2010, the auditing of high-income taxpayers has declined sharply, although the audit rate for taxpayers with under $100,000 of income has remained roughly the same. In 2015, 34.7% of taxpayers with over $10 million of income were audited; in 2018, 6.7% were audited – an 80% decline. For taxpayers with between $1 million and $5 million in income, audit rates fell from 8.4% to 2.2% – a 74% decline. This reduction in audits is happening at the same time as tax avoidance schemes used by the rich, such as using overseas accounts and business entities, are proliferating. Partnerships, which are typically used by high-income individuals such as lawyers and investment managers, had an audit rate in 2017 of only 0.2%, half of what it was in 2015. [2]

Audits of low-income households that are poor enough to claim the earned income tax credit [3] account for 39% of all IRS audits. The IRS claims this is because auditing the poor is quick and easy; it can often be done by mail and by lower level employees. The IRS says this is the most efficient use of limited enforcement resources and that it can’t increase audits of higher-income taxpayers until it has the money to hire more skilled employees and have them devote the time required to do more complex audits. [4] However, audits of low-income tax returns can only yield small amounts of additional taxes when mistakes or problems are uncovered. Audits of high-income returns, on the other hand, can yield millions of dollars of additional taxes and may reveal illegal tax avoidance that has been going on for years.

The share of income paid in taxes by the wealthy has declined because politicians have cut every tax that falls more heavily on those who are well-off: income tax rates on high incomes have been cut by more than half, taxes on income from investments (i.e., wealth) have been cut, and the estate tax has been dramatically cut. The justification for this has been the supply side plutocratic economics theory that the economy as a whole, and even tax revenue, would benefit. This has been proven wrong. The wealthy – and only the wealthy – have benefited. Incomes for workers and the middle class have been stagnant since 1980 and the growth of the economy has been disappointingly slow. The American economy hasn’t done well when inequality is extremely high and rising, and tax rates on the rich are low and falling. [5]

Raising income tax rates on very high incomes, implementing a small, annual wealth tax, and increasing taxes on large estates would increase the fairness of our taxes and begin to slow or reverse growing income and wealth inequality. Moreover, this would provide the public sector with the revenue needed to make critical public investments that will actually spur economic growth.

I encourage you to contact your elected officials and candidates for office to tell them you are outraged that the wealthy pay taxes at a lower rate than you do. Tell them that it’s crystal clear that income and wealth inequality are the result of policy choices made by elected policy makers. Ask them what they will do to reduce income and wealth inequality, and to make the American tax system fair again.

[1]      Leonhardt, D., 10/6/19, “The rich really do pay lower taxes than you,” New York Times

[2]      Fleischer, V., 9/26/19, “Create a more progressive tax policy,” The American Prospect (https://prospect.org/day-one-agenda/create-a-more-progressive-tax-policy/)

[3]      The earned income tax credit provides its greatest benefit of $6,400 to families with three or more children and incomes under $19,000. The benefit is then phased out at higher incomes and goes to zero at an income of $49,000 for a family with 3 or more children and at lower levels for smaller families.

[4]      Kiel, P., 10/2/19, “IRS: Sorry, but it’s just easier and cheaper to audit the poor,” Pro Publica (https://www.propublica.org/article/irs-sorry-but-its-just-easier-and-cheaper-to-audit-the-poor)

[5]      Leonhardt, D., 10/6/19, see above

REVITALIZING DEMOCRACY TO END PLUTOCRATIC ECONOMICS

This is the final post of an eight-part series on the failures of forty years of plutocratic economics that have harmed workers, the middle class, our economy, and our democracy.

The basic arguments of plutocratic economics are 1) markets work and government doesn’t and 2) markets are the best way to foster life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Supporters of plutocratic economics believe that the highest form of freedom is the opportunity to engage in individual transactions in the marketplace. However, they oppose public or community-based efforts to ensure an equal opportunity for all to participate in the marketplace. (See this previous post for more details.)

Supporters of plutocratic economics believe that markets and businesses, on their own without regulation or oversight by government, are efficient and will meet human and societal needs. They believe that an individual’s lack of economic resources to buy the necessities of life is indicative of a personal failing. This means that they do not support efforts to level the playing field when structural inequities exist (or have existed), including discrimination, oppression, and subjugation. [1]

Plutocrats (i.e., people whose power comes from their wealth) believe that power and privilege are rightfully earned. Therefore, they support public policies that systematically favor wealthy individuals and business interests. They view corporations as the ultimate expression of market efficiency and believe businesses should be endowed with the rights of persons (e.g., free speech) and the powers of sovereign states.

Plutocrats use their economic power (i.e., their wealth) to control markets and policy making. They control policy making by effectively buying elected officials through campaign spending and government bureaucrats through lobbying and the revolving door (i.e., by having either themselves or their employees become government bureaucrats or by promising lucrative jobs to government bureaucrats whenever they leave their government jobs). Plutocrats also have provided a scholarly veneer to plutocratic economics by funding think tanks and academic scholars to promote supportive theories and provide supportive data.

Plutocrats use their economic power to enhance their political power in what becomes a mutually reinforcing spiral. For example, they have gotten campaign finance laws changed to allow them to engage in unlimited campaign spending and to hide their identities when they do so. They have changed the rules of the market so their businesses can become ever bigger and more powerful (e.g., by weakening the enforcement of antitrust laws). (See these previous posts for more details on the weakening of antitrust enforcement and what we should do about it.)

In addition to efforts that actively promote plutocratic economics, plutocrats actively work to undermine support for democracy. They work to discredit the belief that a democratic government can enhance life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness for its citizens.

For example, supporters of plutocratic economics have misused antitrust laws to discredit and undermine public support for antitrust enforcement. [2] They have used antitrust laws to prevent collective actions by workers and small businesses. [3] The Trump administration recently opened an antitrust investigation into four large automakers (Ford, Honda, Volkswagen, and BMW) for agreeing to abide by California’s auto emissions standards (which are more stringent than national standards). By politicizing the use of anti-trust laws, many experts feel that the administration is trying to create the public perception that all use of antitrust enforcement is simply political.

The forty-year track record of failures for plutocratic economics has shown it to be a smoke screen for a self-serving grab for wealth and power by economic elites, i.e., a vehicle for plutocrats’ greed and desire for political influence. The failures are big and small – the 2008 financial collapse, out-of-control carbon emissions and climate change, skyrocketing inequality in incomes and wealth, and repeated failures to protect individuals’ privacy and personal data – and have harmed everyone – workers, taxpayers, small business people and entrepreneurs, and consumers – as I’ve documented in previous posts. Market failures have been widespread in the absence of effective government regulation and oversight. [4]

When plutocratic economics’ effects overwhelm society and government, preventing many residents from enjoying life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, there is a significant risk that citizens will turn to authoritarian and tyrannical leaders who promise a return to the good old days. Whether in the U.S. today or at other places and other times, these politicians promise resurgent economic well-being (often falsely) through nationalistic and emotional rhetoric. They typically blame immigrants, minorities (racial, ethnic, gender identity, and / or religious), and even the growing presence of women in the job market for workers’ loss of economic security. Supporters of plutocratic economics will also use other emotional, hot-button issues (such as gun control, abortion, and contraception) and even voter suppression to win political support and elections so they can implement their economic agenda.

Real freedom to pursue life, liberty, and happiness requires government and community-based entities that work to equitably balance economic and social power among all members of society. Democratic governments and institutions, including civic associations, are the vehicles that can and should serve as the guardians of this true freedom.

The antidote to the plutocrats and their plutocratic economics is the revitalization of democracy through increased participation by informed citizens. We need our democratic government institutions to assert their power over the plutocrats and their economic and political power. This will restore policy making to being of, by, and for the people and to promoting the lives, liberty, and pursuit of happiness of all residents. (See this previous post for more detail on policies to reverse plutocratic economics and its effects.)

[1]      Kuttner, R., 6/25/19, “Neoliberalism: Political success, economic failure,” The American Prospect (https://prospect.org/article/neoliberalism-political-success-economic-failure)

[2]      Dayen, D., 9/10/19, “Is Trump’s Justice Department trying to discredit all antitrust?” The American Prospect (https://prospect.org/article/trumps-justice-department-trying-discredit-all-antitrust)

[3]      Dayen, D., 6/24/19, “In the land of the giants,” The American Prospect (https://prospect.org/article/land-giants)

[4]      Kuttner, R., 6/25/19, see above

HOW TO REIN IN MONOPOLISTIC BUSINESSES

The failure to enforce antitrust laws during forty years of plutocratic economics has produced dominant businesses in numerous sectors. The resultant concentration of economic power, and, along with it, political power, has undermined our democracy both economically and politically. It has also led to rapidly growing income and wealth inequality. (See my previous post for details.)

The monopolistic, unregulated markets created by plutocratic economics since the late 1970s have made it clear that well-managed markets, where real competition thrives, are more efficient and equitable. There is a stark contrast between the economy of well-managed competition from the 1950s through mid-1970s and today’s plutocratic economy. In the post-World War II period, income and wealth were much more evenly distributed and workers’ compensation rose with their increases in productivity. In the latter period, economic inequality has grown tremendously and workers’ compensation has been stagnant, despite increasing productivity.

The economic security of the middle class has disappeared, in part because of increased economic and financial instability. After a period of over 30 years without an economic crash or major economic scandal, from 1980 on there have been three major economic crashes or scandals: the Savings and Loan crisis, the bursting of the dot com bubble, and the 2008 financial collapse and Great Recession.

There are a variety of solutions that would reverse the trend toward greater industry concentration, [1] [2] [3] as well as steps that can be taken to reduce the power of monopolistic firms. [4] There is much the U.S. can learn from Europe where more vigorous antitrust enforcement has produced more competitive markets, lower economic inequality, and more equitable sharing of corporate earnings. [5]

  • Reviving vigorous use of antitrust laws to block mergers and acquisitions, including:
    • Declaring a moratorium on approvals of large mergers and acquisitions (e.g., those above $6 billion in value or ones creating firms with over 10% of local market share)
    • Banning mergers or acquisitions that would reduce the number of major firms in a local market to less than four
    • Expanding the antitrust judgment criteria from the simplistic focus on lower prices for consumers and “productive efficiency” to include a broader interpretation of the public’s interests
    • Reinvigorating enforcement of laws limiting predatory pricing, and
    • Considering monopsony power (i.e., a dominant buyer) as well as monopoly power (i.e., a dominant seller)
  • Using antitrust laws to break up companies with monopolistic power
  • Imposing much bigger fines for violations of antitrust laws
  • Making the merger and acquisition review process more public and transparent
  • Banning “exclusive dealing” where dominant firms require customers, wholesalers, and suppliers to sign contracts banning them from doing business with rivals or rewarding them for not doing so
  • Banning pharmaceutical companies from paying potential competitors not to introduce generic versions of drugs
  • Stopping pharmaceutical companies from extending their patents on drugs through trivial changes in a drug, erroneous patent filings, and outright patent fraud
  • Restoring consumers’ ability to repair durable products (e.g., smartphones, computers, cars, and tractors and other farm machinery) themselves or at independent repair servicers by banning product designs intended to prevent servicing and prohibiting restrictions on the availability of spare parts, repair tools, and detailed owners’ manuals

There are also a variety of solutions that would ameliorate some of the negative effects of industry concentration:

  • Making the formation of a union easier and less susceptible to employers’ efforts to block and delay unionization
  • Allowing workers of franchisees or ones in the gig economy to unionize
  • Banning non-compete agreements for low-paid, low-skill workers and ban non-poaching agreements for franchisees
  • Increasing the minimum wage

Recognition of the importance of antitrust enforcement is growing. It is being discussed in the presidential campaign for the first time in many years. Congress is holding hearings on monopolistic practices by businesses for the first time in decades. This included a hearing in May where a military spare parts supplier was called to task for charging over 40 times its costs for some parts and where a bipartisan group of legislators called for the company to return over $16 million in excess profits. [6]

Democratic society is threatened by dominant, market-controlling businesses. Huge monopolistic corporations can transcend the power of elected government to effectively control them. Every entrepreneur and businessperson should have the opportunity to compete without unfair competition and domination by monopolistic firms. Regional-level businesses should be able to thrive without being throttled by giant, national, monopolistic companies.

A functioning democracy relies on citizens who are free from domination by employers and sellers of goods and services. I encourage you to listen to what candidates for public office have to say about reducing the presence and power of monopolistic businesses and to ask them questions about what they would do to restore a vibrant, competitive economy in the U.S. – an economy that is fair for consumers, workers, small businesses, and entrepreneurs.

[1]      MacGillis, A., Jan./Feb./March 2019, “Taking the monopoly threat seriously,” Washington Monthly (https://washingtonmonthly.com/magazine/january-february-march-2019/taking-the-monopoly-threat-seriously/)

[2]      Cortellessa, E., April/May/June 2019, “Meet the new trustbusters,” Washington Monthly (https://washingtonmonthly.com/magazine/april-may-june-2019/meet-the-new-trustbusters/)

[3]      Sussman, S., July/Aug. 2019, “Superpredators: How Amazon and other cash-burning giants may be illegally cornering the market,” Washington Monthly (https://washingtonmonthly.com/magazine/july-august-2019/superpredators/)

[4]      Vaheesan, S., 9/24/19, “Unleash the existing anti-monopoly arsenal,” The American Prospect (https://prospect.org/day-one-agenda/unleash-anti-monopoly-arsenal/)

[5]      Horowitz, E., 7/30/16, “Europe may do capitalism better than US,” The Boston Globe

[6]      Dayen, D., 6/24/19, “In the land of the giants,” The American Prospect (https://prospect.org/article/land-giants)

MONOPOLISTIC COMPANIES HARM THE ECONOMY AND DEMOCRACY

Forty years of plutocratic economics has resulted in monopolies and near monopolies in many business sectors due to the failure to enforce antitrust laws. This concentration of economic power, and, along with it, political power, has undermined our democracy both economically and politically. It has also contributed to rapidly growing income and wealth inequality. (For information on plutocratic economics in general, see this previous post. For more on the effects of its deregulation of business, see this post.)

The Sherman Antitrust Act of 1890 laid the groundwork for antitrust regulation. Its purpose was to reduce the size and economic power of large, monopolistic companies. It was based on the federal government’s responsibility to regulate interstate commerce. At the time, the conglomeration of companies under trusts had come to dominate several major business sectors, such as the oil industry under the Standard Oil Trust. These trusts were monopolistic and destroyed competition.

The Sherman Act banned business activity that was “in restraint of trade or commerce among the several states, or with foreign nations”. The Sherman Act sought to balance the power of commercial, for-profit enterprises and the public interest. [1] The Clayton Antitrust Act of 1914 built on the Sherman Act and states that any merger is illegal if “in any section of the country, the effect of such acquisition may be substantially to lessen competition, or to tend to create a monopoly”. The reference to “any section of the country” is significant because when a few companies dominate an industry, they often have effectively divided the country up geographically so each one has a monopolistic position in some areas. Therefore, to effectively enforce antitrust laws, industry concentration should be analyzed in markets properly defined by product or service AND geography. Such an analysis often finds that market concentration is much higher than a nationwide analysis would suggest. [2]

In the 1960s, a concerted effort to undermine the historically broad economic and public interest goals of antitrust enforcement began. It was spearheaded by a group from the Chicago Law School with Robert Bork playing a leading role. (He was nominated for the Supreme Court by President Reagan in 1987 but was rejected by the Senate.) Bork and others argued that the only legitimate use of antitrust laws was to maximize consumer welfare, narrowly defined as low prices (often presumed to be the inevitable result of the economies of scale possible for large companies). This theory was adopted by pro-business economists, judges, and policy makers, including President Reagan.

Under President Reagan, antitrust enforcement was significantly scaled back and the Federal Trade Commission actually stopped collecting data on industry concentration. In eight years, President George W. Bush’s administration did not initiate a single antitrust case. [3] [4] The number of mergers grew from 2,308 in 1985 to 15,361 in 2017. [5]

Since 2000, three-quarters of U.S. industries have become more concentrated, including the technology, health care, communications, defense, and agriculture industries. This is perhaps most noticeable in the high-tech industry where Google and Facebook now control over 60% of all digital advertising and Amazon controls over half of all e-commerce. [6] From 1997 to 2012, the top four firms in any given industry saw their share of industry-wide revenue grow from 24% to 33%. [7]

There’s clear evidence that entrepreneurship and the number of start-up companies is down in the U.S. This is mostly due to dominant companies suppressing competition in multiple ways. They can block the entry of new firms simply by dominating the consumer and supplier markets. They can simply acquire competitors, especially given the lack of antitrust enforcement. Or these large companies can overwhelm start-ups in the market through fair and unfair competition using their vast resources. Among the evidence of reduced entrepreneurship and start-ups is that from 1987 to 2015 employment by companies under 10 years old has declined from 33% of the workforce to just 19%. [8]

Fewer, bigger employers have negative effects on workers and their compensation. Industry concentration means employees have fewer options, reducing their bargaining power. One reflection of this is the reduction in employment by newer companies. Furthermore, increasing numbers of companies, including low-wage, franchise businesses like McDonald’s, are forcing workers to sign non-compete agreements and franchisees to sign non-poaching agreements (banning solicitation or hiring of employees from other franchisees), further limiting workers’ options for employment, advancement, and wage growth. [9]

The growing size and reduced number of companies have exacerbated the economic divide between urban and rural areas. The large, highly profitable companies tend to be in urban areas, and people and economic vitality are drained from rural areas. Furthermore, the relatively small number of highly profitable, very large companies has made a handful of big cities the big economic winners, leaving many other cities behind.

The growing number of large, dominant companies also gives them power over suppliers. The condition of having a dominant buyer in a marketplace is called monopsony. It allows buyers like Wal Mart or Amazon to drive down suppliers’ prices, often forcing them to reduce the compensation of their workers, or in some cases, to drive the supplier out of business and take over the business for themselves. [10]

The result of industry concentration in the U.S. economy has been soaring profits, stagnant wages, and falling investment in companies’ equipment, research, and product development. In addition, service quality has fallen, along with entrepreneurship and innovation. This combination of rising profits with falling investment and stagnant worker pay violates the basic economic theory of competitive markets.

There is only one explanation: monopoly or near-monopoly conditions that allow companies to give their increased profits to owners while under-investing in human and physical capital, as well as service quality and innovation, because they can squelch competition, for example by buying up or crushing competitors and innovators. [11]

My next post will present solutions to the problem of large, monopolistic companies dominating our economy and democracy.

[1]      Paul, S., 6/24/19, “The double standard of antitrust law,” The American Prospect (https://prospect.org/article/double-standard-antitrust-law)

[2]      Abdela, A., & Steinbaum, M., Sept. 2018, “The United States has a market concentration problem,” The Roosevelt Institute (https://rooseveltinstitute.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/09/The-United-States-has-a-market-concentration-problem-brief-final.pdf)

[3]      MacGillis, A., Jan./Feb./March 2019, “Taking the monopoly threat seriously,” Washington Monthly (https://washingtonmonthly.com/magazine/january-february-march-2019/taking-the-monopoly-threat-seriously/)

[4]      Dayen, D., 6/24/19, “In the land of the giants,” The American Prospect (https://prospect.org/article/land-giants)

[5]      Abdela, A., & Steinbaum, M., Sept. 2018, see above

[6]      MacGillis, A., Jan./Feb./March 2019, see above

[7]      Shambaugh, J., Nunn, R., Breitwieser, A., & Liu, P., 6/16/18, “The state of competition and dynamism: Facts about concentration , start-ups, and related policies,” Brookings (https://www.brookings.edu/research/the-state-of-competition-and-dynamism-facts-about-concentration-start-ups-and-related-policies/)

[8]      Shambaugh, J., Nunn, R., Breitwieser, A., & Liu, P., 6/16/18, see above

[9]      Covert, B., 2/15/18, “Does monopoly power explain workers’ stagnant wages?” The Nation (https://www.thenation.com/article/does-monopoly-power-explain-workers-stagnant-wages/)

[10]     Abdela, A., & Steinbaum, M., Sept. 2018, see above

[11]     Covert, B., 2/15/18, see above

PROGRESSIVE POLICIES TO REVERSE PLUTOCRATIC ECONOMICS AND ITS FAILURES

Forty years of plutocratic economics has produced a high level of economic inequality and numerous business sectors dominated by a monopoly or near monopolies. This has undermined democracy in our economy and in our political institutions.

A high level of economic inequality is bad for the economy. The Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), an international organization of 36 economically developed countries, estimates the U.S. lost almost 5% in economic growth over the period from 2000 to 2015 ($1 trillion a year in a $20 trillion economy) due to its high level of inequality. Part of this loss is due to limited access to education for people with lower incomes, which wastes human capital and reduces the productivity of the workforce. [1] In addition, our high level of inequality has undermined the consumer spending that is close to 70% of our economy because workers and the middle class simply have less money to spend.

There are multiple policy changes that are needed to reverse the failed plutocratic economic policies (see more information in previous posts here and here) that have been put in place over the last four decades and their effects. Some of them directly address the high levels of economic inequality in incomes and wealth that have been created. Others address the underlying issues that have allowed the plutocrats to amass wealth and power. Both are needed to reinvigorate our democracy and its commitment to equal opportunity, fairness, and the ability of all to pursue life, liberty, and happiness.

Policy changes that would directly address the dramatically increased and increasing economic inequality include: [2]

  • Increasing incomes of workers and the middle class by raising the minimum wage and strengthening unionization
  • Increasing spending on public education and making it equitable so all students are prepared to be productive members of society and the workforce
  • Raising taxes, partly by eliminating loopholes, on wealthy individuals and businesses
  • Raising the estate tax (which was meant to prevent wealth from accumulating and being passed down from generation to generation thereby creating a plutocracy [3])
  • Requiring the payment of a tax on the gain in value of appreciated property when it is passed on to heirs
  • Implementing a wealth tax

Policy changes that would address underlying issues that have enriched and empowered plutocrats include: [4] [5] [6]

  • Building progressive, grassroots, inclusive, and broad-based participation in our democratic policy making and elections, including through reforming campaign financing
  • Strengthening business and financial industry regulation, including strong anti-trust enforcement that limits the size and power, both economically and politically, of businesses (my next post will provide more detail on this important policy)
  • Reforming trade policies to protect workers and the environment and reduce the power of multi-national corporations over nations’ sovereignty
  • Updating labor laws for the gig economy, including clarifying standards for who is deemed an employee vs. an individual contractor
  • Strengthening regulation of public utilities from electric power to phones to airlines and of services that are essential to everyday life such as the Internet and financial services (which is what the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau was created to do but has been undermined in carrying out)
  • Stopping privatization of assets and functions best managed by democratic public entities, such as roads, bridges, basic education, prisons, health insurance, and public assistance programs
  • Building a robust system of public banking and mortgage finance perhaps through the U.S. Postal Service (which used to provide basic banking services)
  • Creating publicly owned, mixed-income, highly desirable social housing (as is widely done in Europe especially Austria) as opposed to the poorly performing privatized or public-private partnership subsidized housing we now have
  • Regulating the flow of capital and valuation of currency to reduce financial manipulation, speculation, and tax avoidance
  • Adding employees to corporate boards of directors

These are some of the key policy changes needed to reverse plutocratic economics and support workers and the middle class. I urge you to listen to and ask candidates running for public office which of these policies they support.

[1]      Ingraham, C., 7/25/19, “The richest 1 percent now owns more of the country’s wealth than at any time in the past 50 years,” The Washington Post

[2]      Reich, R., 7/9/19, “The four biggest conservative lies about inequality,” The American Prospect (https://prospect.org/article/four-biggest-conservative-lies-about-inequality)

[3]      Collins, C., & Hoxie, J., October 2018, “Billionaire Bonanza 2018: Inherited Wealth Dynasties of the United States,” Institute for Policy Studies (https://inequality.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/11/Billionaire-Bonanza-2018-Report-October-2018.pdf)

[4]      Sabeel Rahman, K., Summer 2019, “The moral vision after neoliberalism,” Democracy Journal (https://democracyjournal.org/magazine/53/the-moral-vision-after-neoliberalism/)

[5]      Kuttner, R., 6/25/19, “Neoliberalism: Political success, economic failure,” The American Prospect (https://prospect.org/article/neoliberalism-political-success-economic-failure)

[6]      Warren, E., 6/4/19, “A plan for economic patriotism,” Office of Senator Elizabeth Warren (https://medium.com/@teamwarren/a-plan-for-economic-patriotism-13b879f4cfc7)

PLUTOCRATIC ECONOMICS HAS FAILED WORKERS

Forty years of right-wing, plutocratic economics (see this previous post for background) has produced stagnant worker compensation, decimating the middle class and leaving growing numbers of low-wage workers struggling to survive. The plutocratic economics of wealthy, elite members of society has intentionally and dramatically weakened public policies that provide support for workers and an economic safety net (including the minimum wage, unemployment benefits, and the right to join a union).

After adjusting for inflation, workers’ compensation has barely increased since 1980, in large part because:

  • The minimum wage’s value has been eroded by inflation and
  • Workers’ negotiating power with their employers has been decimated by concerted attacks on unionization and by the growing size and economic power of employers.

Currently, we are in the longest period since the establishment of the minimum wage, 12 years, without an increase in it. The $7.25 per hour federal minimum wage (about $15,000 per year for a full-time worker) has lost 17% of its purchasing power (or more than $3,000) over those 12 years. Since its peak value in February 1968 at about $22,000 per year for full-time work (adjusted for inflation), the federal minimum wage has lost 31%, or almost one-third, of its purchasing power ($6,800). [1]

As a result, minimum wage workers at Wal Mart, fast food outlets, and elsewhere do not earn enough to survive without public benefits such as food stamps, housing subsidies, subsidized health insurance, and the Earned Income Tax Credit. These public benefits for workers mean that the government and we as taxpayers are subsidizing large, very profitable companies when they pay their workers too little to live on. This is one example of government welfare for companies.

The proponents of plutocratic economics claim that raising the minimum wage will reduce the number of jobs and, therefore, hurt workers, but this ignores the obvious benefits for workers. A high estimate is that 1.3 million jobs might be lost – half of them for teenagers and many of those for adults being part-time jobs. On the other hand, wages would increase for over 27 million workers (roughly one out of every six workers). With an increase to $15 per hour (up from the current $7.25), workers would receive an overall increase in income of $44 billion. This would lift 1.3 million Americans out of poverty and significantly increase consumer spending in local economies. On the downside, companies would raise prices by an estimated 0.3% and business owners would lose $14 billion of profits (a small amount [0.07%] in a $21 trillion economy).

A study of the actual experiences in states and cities that have recently raised their minimum wages found no reductions in the number of jobs or hours at work. It did find that workers’ incomes increased and that poverty declined. [2]

Unionization is important because it allows workers to band together and increase their negotiating power when bargaining with employers for pay and benefits. The rate of unionization in the United States today is 10.5% overall (down from over 25% in the 1950s) and only 6.4% of private-sector workers are unionized. In the early 1950s, unions included over 40% of workers in manufacturing, over 60% in mining, and over 80% in the construction, transportation, communications, and utilities sectors. The attacks on unions have been very successful, to say the least, in reducing unionization and workers’ negotiating strength. By way of comparison, the rates of unionization in Scandinavia range from 81% in Iceland to 71% in Sweden to 52% in Norway. Under pressure from global trade, these rates have come down in recent years; for most of the postwar period the rate in Sweden was in the mid-80s, for example.

The disparity in unionization rates between the U.S. and the Scandinavian countries has produced a dramatic difference in economic inequality. The best measure of economic inequality is a nation’s Gini Coefficient, where a higher number indicates greater economic inequality. The scale is from zero to one with zero indicating complete economic equality (everyone has the same income) and one indicating that all of a nation’s income goes to just one person. In Denmark and Sweden, the Gini Coefficient is 0.25; in Finland and Norway, it’s 0.27; and in Iceland, it’s 0.28. However, in the United States, it’s 0.47. [3]

Employers’ power over workers has grown, not only due to reduced unionization, but also due to the growing economic power in the marketplace of fewer, larger employers. Overall, workers’ compensation has grown less than their increases in productivity since 1979 (productivity has grown 69.3% while compensation has grown only 11.6%). Previously, compensation tracked productivity growth quite closely (from 1948 to 1979 productivity grew 108.1% while compensation grew 93.2%). [4] In other words, workers are not receiving increases in pay despite increases in the value of their output per hour of work.

Instead of paying workers more for their increased output, companies have increased profits and, therefore, returns to shareholders, owners, and executives –  in other words, they have increased income and wealth for plutocrats. As a result, income and wealth inequality have increased dramatically. Just three white men ‒ Jeff Bezos of Amazon, investor Warren Buffett, and Microsoft’s Bill Gates ‒ now own more wealth (a combined total of $248 billion) than the least wealthy half of all Americans (160 million people with combined wealth of $245 billion). The wealthiest 1% of Americans own 40% of all wealth. This is the highest level in at least 50 years and is higher than in any other country with an advanced economy. (Germany is closest with 25% of wealth in the hands of the top 1%). The 400 wealthiest Americans own an astonishing $2.9 trillion. [5]

Government policies set the rules for our economic markets and balance the power and interests of various parties. For 40 years, plutocratic economic policies have put returns to owners (i.e., wealthy investors including executives) ahead of the interests of workers. The result of these policies has been a dramatic growth in income and wealth inequality; the U.S. has the most unequal income distribution of any well-off democracy. [6] Economic security and the standard of living for many in the middle class has fallen dramatically, while many low-income workers are struggling just to make ends meet.

Future posts will review the politics of plutocratic economics and how it has damaged our democracy. They will also identify progressive policies that are needed to reverse its harmful effects.

[1]      Economic Policy Institute, 7/15/19, “Minimum wage,” (https://www.epi.org/research/minimum-wage/)

[2]      Dayen, D., 7/9/19, “Conservatives grasp at straws after CBO minimum wage analysis shows clear benefits,” The American Prospect (https://prospect.org/article/conservatives-grasp-straws-after-cbo-minimum-wage-analysis-shows-clear-benefits)

[3]      Meyerson, H. 7/2/19, “How centrists misread Scandinavia when attacking Bernie and Elizabeth,” The American Prospect Today (https://prospect.org/article/how-centrists-misread-scandinavia-when-attacking-bernie-and-elizabeth)

[4]      Economic Policy Institute, 8/27/19, “How well is the American economy working for working people?” (https://www.epi.org/files/pdf/174081.pdf)

[5]      Anapol, A., 12/6/17, “Study: Wealthiest 1 percent owns 40 percent of country’s wealth,” The Hill (https://thehill.com/news-by-subject/finance-economy/363536-study-wealthiest-1-percent-own-40-percent-of-countrys-wealth)

[6]      Tyler, G., 1/10/19, “The codetermination difference,” The American Prospect (https://prospect.org/article/codetermination-difference)

SUPPLY-SIDE, TRICKLE-DOWN TAX CUT THEORY HAS FAILED

Plutocratic economics (see this previous post for background), and specifically so-called supply-side or trickle-down economics, claims that cutting taxes, particularly on the wealthy and businesses, will stimulate economic growth so much that 1) government tax revenue will actually increase, 2) the number of jobs will grow, and 3) workers’ pay will increase.

There have been at least six significant federal tax cuts between 1978 to 2019 and, in every case, federal government revenue did NOT increase as promised. These tax cuts, under Presidents Carter, Reagan, G. W. Bush, and Trump, each produced some short-term economic stimulus, but federal revenue declined and the budget deficit increased. Furthermore, these tax cuts have been neither fair (economic inequality has increased) nor efficient (some of the country’s most profitable corporations and wealthiest individuals pay little or no taxes). [1]

Some states have also cut taxes based on supply-side economic theory, most notably Kansas in 2012. Like the federal cases, the results have not been what was promised. Kansas’s Republican Governor Brownback and the state’s overwhelmingly Republican legislature eliminated state income taxes for more than 100,000 businesses and greatly reduced taxes on wealthy individuals. Invoking supply-side, trickle-down economic theory, Brownback predicted the tax cuts would more than pay for themselves, i.e., that state tax revenue would grow. Instead, revenues fell so precipitously that shortages in funding for schools required that the school year had to be considerably shortened to save money, public construction projects ground to a halt, and the health coverage of the state’s Medicaid program had to be greatly reduced. The state’s economy ceased producing jobs and Kansas’s economy performed more poorly than its neighboring states on virtually every economic indicator. (See this previous post for more details.)

In 2016, Kansas voters – including Republicans who objected to seeing their children’s educations shortchanged – revolted. Republican primary voters, joined by Democrats, ousted legislators who had refused to repeal the tax cuts, and in 2017, the new legislature overrode Brownback’s veto of a bill repealing the cuts. In 2018, voters elected Democrat Laura Kelly as their new governor, and today, with adequate funding restored, Kansas has resumed its support for education, infrastructure spending, and the other basic governmental functions. As a result, in 2019, Kansas leapt from 35th (in 2018) to 19th on CNBC’s list of the top states for business. [2]

Nonetheless, in 2017, supply-side, trickle-down economic theory was invoked by President Trump and the Republicans in Congress in justifying their $150 billion a year tax cut primarily for corporations and wealthy individuals. The results of these tax cuts have been, predictably, NOT what was promised. Rather than stimulating higher economic growth, growth and job creation have been slow.

The federal budget deficit has grown substantially and workers’ compensation remains stagnant. Huge rewards have gone to large corporations and their executives, so economic inequality has grown sharply. The corporations are using the windfall to buy back their own stock at record rates. This enriches executives and other large stockholders. Corporations have not been increasing workers’ compensation, nor hiring additional workers, nor investing in innovation. (For more detail see this previous post.)

Furthermore, the Trump administration and Republicans in Congress, citing the growing budget deficit, argue that cuts need to be made in economic safety net programs including food assistance for the poor, health care for the poor and seniors (i.e., Medicaid and Medicare), and Social Security.

Future posts will summarize the harm plutocratic economics has done to workers and our democracy. They will also discuss the politics of neoliberalism and identify progressive policies that can reverse the harmful effects of plutocratic economics.

[1]      Kuttner, R., 6/25/19, “Neoliberalism: Political success, economic failure,” The American Prospect (https://prospect.org/article/neoliberalism-political-success-economic-failure)

[2]      Meyerson, H., 7/23/19, “Going up in economic ratings? Then lose trickle-down,” The American Prospect Today (https://prospect.org/blog/on-tap/going-economic-ratings-then-lose-trickle-down)

DEREGULATION HAS FAILED

The failure of 40 years of right-wing, wealthy elites’ plutocratic economics (see my previous post for background) is evident from multiple perspectives. The outcomes for workers and the middle class, along with those for the economy as a whole, have been resoundingly negative.

Proponents of plutocratic economics’ “free” markets and deregulation promised that:

  • Markets would be more efficient without government regulation,
  • Businesses would regulate themselves for the good of all, and
  • Social goals could be more effectively achieved by using market forces. [1]

In concert with their economic and political theories, plutocratic economics’ proponents (aka neoliberals) pushed to eliminate government regulation, stop anti-trust enforcement (which had limited the size and marketplace power of companies), reduce progressive taxation, and dramatically weaken support for workers and the economic safety net (including the minimum wage, unemployment benefits, unions, and public assistance for the poor).

Deregulation of businesses has failed more often than not, perhaps most notably in the financial industry. There, deregulation led to a series of financial scandals and collapses since the 1970s including the Savings and Loan crisis, the Enron scandal and collapse, the bursting of the Dot-com bubble, and, of course, the 2008 financial industry collapse and Great Recession. Today, we are left with a handful of bigger than ever, too big to fail, financial corporations that still have taxpayer insurance and present a significant risk to our economy.

Electricity deregulation has, contrary to the promises, raised costs for consumers, failed to stimulate green power generation, failed to modernize and strengthen the power transmission grid, and failed to provide meaningful choice to consumers.

Airline deregulation has produced bankruptcies at every major U.S. airline, resulting in cuts in workers’ compensation and in many cases costing workers their pensions. In the airline industry and elsewhere, the federal government and taxpayers, through the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation, have frequently had to step in to pay pension benefits to workers of corporations that declared bankruptcy. Although airline ticket prices declined somewhat after deregulation, customers face a bewildering fare system, shrinking seats and legroom, declining food service and other benefits, increasing add-on costs for luggage and even seats, fewer non-stop flights, and exorbitant penalties when plans and tickets must be changed. Studies have found that fares declined more in the 20 years before deregulation than in the 20 years afterwards, in part because more fuel-efficient planes have been the primary source of cost-savings for the airlines. [2]

Deregulation of the fossil fuel industry has led to huge oil spills into our water and onto our land, as well as accidents that have caused huge fires with the loss of lives and toxic smoke at refineries and oil platforms at sea.

Rather than the increased competition and better deals for consumers that the neoliberals promised, anti-competitive market concentration has grown – and continues to do so – with consumers and workers ending up worse off. The number of mergers has increased from 2,308 in 1985 to 15,361 in 2017. [3] In industry after industry, without anti-trust enforcement to prevent it, monopolies or near monopolies have emerged. Large companies frequently buy up innovative competitors or crush them in the marketplace. In some cases, rather than using their innovations, competitors are simply eliminated after being bought.

For example, in the technology sector, the giants, Google, Amazon, and Facebook, use their market power, control of Internet platforms, and superior access to consumer data and other resources to out-compete or steal the markets of potential rivals. [4] They use theoretically illegal predatory pricing – the selling of goods and services at below cost – and their ability to sustain financial losses in the short-term to drive competitors out of business. [5] The financial services and airline industries are also highly concentrated, along with the beer, health insurance, and medical devices industries, to highlight a few. The telecommunications, telephone / smart phone, and entertainment industries have all experienced substantial concentration with little consumer-benefiting competition.

Market concentration makes it hard for new businesses to enter the market and for small businesses to compete because suppliers and customers are tied to the dominant firms in the market. Dominant firms increase profits not by increasing efficiency, but by minimizing employees’ compensation; reducing investment in research, development, and productivity improvement; and driving down costs by using their marketplace power to squeeze suppliers. [6]

Plutocratic economics has resulted in anti-competitive consolidation, resulting in many industries with a few large, dominant companies. This does not stimulate economic growth as without competition, companies control prices, hire fewer workers, produce less, and pocket more in profits for executives and owners. [7] Huge rewards have gone to large companies, their executives, and big shareholders. As a result, economic inequality has grown sharply, workers’ wages have stagnated, the middle class has been decimated, and the number of low wage workers struggling to survive has grown substantially.

Market concentration is not good for the economy, for workers, nor for consumers. It reduces healthy competition, decreasing the incentives for innovation and investment to keep up with competitors. It depresses wages and worker mobility because there are fewer employers to choose from. As a result, economic security has disappeared for many workers and much of the middle class. Furthermore, market concentration and marketplace power have reduced entrepreneurship and the number of start-ups. [8]

Concentrated economic power in the marketplace also leads to concentrated political power for large companies and their wealthy executives and shareholders. The result is a self-reinforcing feedback loop where political power produces policies that further expand and entrench marketplace power and economic inequality.

Subsequent posts will summarize other failures of neoliberalism and plutocratic economics.

[1]      Kuttner, R., 6/25/19, “Neoliberalism: Political success, economic failure,” The American Prospect (https://prospect.org/article/neoliberalism-political-success-economic-failure)

[2]      Kuttner, R., 6/25/19, see above

[3]      Abdela, A., & Steinbaum, M., Sept. 2018, “The United States has a market concentration problem,” The Roosevelt Institute (https://www.ftc.gov/system/files/documents/public_comments/2018/09/ftc-2018-0074-d-0042-155544.pdf)

[4]      Kuttner, R., 6/25/19, see above

[5]      Sussman, S., July/August 2019, “Superpredators,” Washington Monthly (https://washingtonmonthly.com/magazine/july-august-2019/superpredators/)

[6]      Abdela, A., & Steinbaum, M., Sept. 2018, see above

[7]      Shambaugh, J., Nunn, R., Breitwieser, A., & Liu, P., 6/13/18, “The state of competition and dynamism: Facts about concentration, start-ups, and related policies,” Brookings (https://www.brookings.edu/research/the-state-of-competition-and-dynamism-facts-about-concentration-start-ups-and-related-policies/)

[8]      Shambaugh, J., Nunn, R., Breitwieser, A., & Liu, P., 6/13/18, see above