CORPORATE CRIMINALS GET OFF SCOT-FREE

Note: If you find my posts too long or too dense to read on occasion, please just read the bolded portions. They present the key points I’m making and the most important information I’m sharing.

Corporate criminals in the U.S. almost always get off scot-free regardless of how serious their crimes or how many offenses they have committed. Federal prosecutions of white-collar crime have been rare over the last 40 years and, nonetheless, dropped dramatically during the Trump administration to a 25-year low in 2020.

The Department of Justice (DOJ) announced last week that it would take a new, more aggressive approach to corporate crime. A similar statement was made in 2015 by the Obama administration, but nothing of substance changed. Therefore, this current announcement won’t be taken seriously until the DOJ begins taking significant actions. [1]

Typically, corporate crime has been settled with fines and signed agreements with the DOJ promising not to engage in the same illegal behavior again for a specified period of time, typically only three years. These agreements are called deferred prosecution agreements (DPAs) or non-prosecution agreements (NPAs). The corporations typically do not admit to being guilty of any crimes.

Furthermore, these settlement agreements have rarely been enforced and there are numerous examples of corporations engaging in prohibited behavior again without penalties being imposed. The watchdog group Public Citizen reviewed 500 of these settlement agreements and found only seven cases where the corporation had even been notified that they had violated the agreement and only three where any prosecutorial action was taken.

Public Citizen recently issued a report identifying 20 major corporations with current settlement agreements. [2] In an indication that the DOJ may be stepping up enforcement of such agreements, two corporations were recently notified that they were in violation of their agreements: Ericsson, a Swedish telecom company, and NatWest, a British bank.

The 20 corporations with active settlement agreements ALL had previous violations; in 16 cases over ten violations and in five cases over 90 violations. The list includes seven banks and financial corporations, including Merrill Lynch (a subsidiary of Bank of America) with 97 total violations, JP Morgan Chase with 92 violations, Wells Fargo with 92, Deutsche Bank with 41, and Goldman Sachs with 38. Also included are United Airlines with 533 violations (464 of them from the Federal Aviation Administration), Walmart with 330 (292 from the Labor Department), Boeing with 84, and the pharmaceutical company Novartis with 18.

The DOJ announcement included a statement that when determining penalties for violations it will consider the corporation’s overall record, not only previous violations of the same type as had been the practice. It also stated that the DOJ will require corporations to disclose the individuals involved in corporate crime. In the last 30 years, it has been very rare that individuals at corporations have been held personally accountable for corporate crime.

The non-prosecution of corporate, white-collar crime stands in stark contrast to the aggressive prosecution of non-corporate, non-white-collar crime by individuals. For crimes by individuals, the U.S. has had a tough-on-crime approach for 40 years, which includes mandatory sentences and three strikes you’re out laws. Clearly, anything approaching this type of tough-on-crime prosecution of corporate criminal behavior would have put corporations out of business, i.e., their corporate charters would have been revoked, and would have put their executives in jail. Similarly, the practice of ignoring corporate violations of different types when determining penalties for a crime is unlike individual sentencing when all types of crimes are considered, e.g., theft, assault, drug crimes, and gun violations. Finally, individuals (with the exception of juveniles) don’t get a clean slate after three or so years as corporations do when their non-prosecution agreements expire.

I urge you to contact President Biden to let him know that you support strong action by the Department of Justice to hold corporate criminals accountable, both the corporations themselves and their executives.  You can email President Biden at https://www.whitehouse.gov/contact/ or you can call the White House comment line at 202-456-1111 or the switchboard at 202-456-1414. You can also send letters to the White House; details are here: http://www.whitehouse.gov/contact/submit-questions-and-comments.

[1]      Dayen, D., 11/12/21, “The corporate most-wanted list,” The American Prospect (https://prospect.org/power/corporate-most-wanted-list/)

[2]      Claypool, R., 11/12/21, “The usual corporate suspects,” Public Citizen (https://www.citizen.org/article/usual-corporate-suspects-report/)

HOW TO REIN IN FACEBOOK’S THREATS TO OUR CHILDREN, OUR DEMOCRACY, AND ALL OF US

Note: If you find my posts too long or too dense to read on occasion, please just read the bolded portions. They present the key points I’m making and the most important information I’m sharing.

Facebook IS a serious threat to our children, our democracy, and all of us, as my previous post documented. Facebook is finally getting the attention and scrutiny it deserves, with a former insider turned whistleblower being the catalyst. Without government regulation Facebook and other social media sites will facilitate a race to the bottom driven by our basest proclivities and instincts. This will occur because there is greater profit in spurring anger, encouraging extremism and violence, promoting false information, and triggering emotional responses than there is in creating a safe place for people to have healthy relationships and to engage in civil discourse based on facts. [1] Facebook has consistently chosen profits over the health and safety of children, the sharing of factual information, and the public good, so it isn’t going to fix itself. Meaningful action by Congress will take time, so regulatory action by the executive branch is needed now. [2]

Here are possible actions that could be taken to address the problems with Facebook and its harmful behaviors: [3]

  • Require Facebook to publicly share its internal data and algorithms. This transparency would allow independent experts to analyze how its algorithms prioritize and promote content so we would know what messages they are amplifying and if they have toxic effects and bias. This would also allow monitoring of Facebook’s use of consumer data and its adherence to privacy standards. These data are also necessary to be able to design effective regulation. [4] They are also important for monitoring and ameliorating toxic effects on children and for the protection of children’s privacy – areas where Facebook does not have a good track record.
  • Break up Facebook through use of antitrust laws, forcing it to spin off Instagram, WhatsApp, and perhaps other business units, while prohibiting it from making acquisitions of other companies. (See rationale for this below.)
  • Institute a fairness or balance standard requiring Facebook to show users content with opposing views. (Prior to deregulation in the 1980s, there was a “fairness doctrine” that applied such standards to TV and radio stations.)
  • Investigate Facebook for withholding or distorting significant financial information provided to investors.
  • Require Facebook to substantially expand its efforts and meet standards for success in blocking harmful and inaccurate content (i.e., engage in effective content moderation).
  • Strengthen or pass laws regulating Facebook’s pushing of inappropriate content and inappropriate marketing on children, e.g., strengthen the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA) and pass the KIDS Act.
  • Make Facebook and other social media sites liable for promoting, and perhaps even for allowing users to post, hateful, threatening, violence-promoting, and other harmful content.
  • Create and invest in public Internet sites that provide news and human interaction opportunities as an alternative to Facebook. These public sites would not have profit-driven motives and, therefore, would adhere to consumer and ethical standards, as well as a commitment to serving the public good.

Regulating Facebook and other social media will not be easy and multiple iterations of regulatory steps and efforts will be needed as regulators learn what works and adjust to changes by Facebook and other social media. Given Facebook’s tremendous financial resources, its fight against efforts to control and regulate it will go on in the courts, in regulatory agencies, and in Congress for years.

Breaking up Facebook (and other huge corporations) is necessary to:

  • Reduce monopolistic power and allow the power of the marketplace and competition to rein in harmful practices on privacy, misinformation, manipulation of users, etc.
  • Reduce the almost limitless financial resources of huge corporations, which are used to overwhelm (or buy) our policymaking, regulatory, and judicial processes.
  • Reduce the massive aggregation of consumer data that allows the manipulation of users, including children.

I encourage you to pay at least some attention to the unfolding expose of how Facebook (and social media generally) works and what its effects are, because it has a significant impact on each of us and our families, as well as broad impacts on our society and democracy.

Government regulation of social media is needed to protect children, our democracy, and all of us. Facebook and its CEO Mark Zuckerberg have been skillful at ducking accountability. This must end. For example, Facebook knows of the harm it does to children and how to mitigate it, but it has chosen not to take action because it prioritizes profits over the safety of children (and everything else). Moreover, internal documents disclosed by the whistleblower reveal that in 2020 Facebook studied better ways to market products to preteens, even though it supposedly bars anyone under 13 from having an account. [5]

I encourage you to sign up for the Facebook boycott on November 10 here. Staying off of Facebook and Instagram for a day or two is probably the best way to send the message that we’re not happy with their behavior.

I also urge you to let your U.S. Representative and Senators, along with President Biden, know that you support strong regulation of Facebook (and other social media) to reduce the harm it is doing to us, our children, our society, and our democracy.

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

You can email President Biden via http://www.whitehouse.gov/contact/submit-questions-and-comments or you can call the White House comment line at 202-456-1111 or the switchboard at 202-456-1414.

[1]      Hubbell, R., 10/6/21, “Today’s edition: Progress, at last” (https://roberthubbell.substack.com/p/todays-edition-progress-at-last)

[2]      Verma, P., 10/8/21, “What’s next for Facebook,” The Boston Globe

[3]      Bernoff, J., 10/7/21, “Facebook must be stopped,” The Boston Globe

[4]      Ghaffary, S., 10/5/21, “Facebook’s whistleblower tells Congress how to regulate tech,” Vox (https://www.vox.com/recode/22711551/facebook-whistleblower-congress-hearing-regulation-mark-zuckerberg-frances-haugen-senator-blumenthal)

[5]      Boston Globe Editorial Board, 10/12/21, “If Facebook won’t protect kids, Congress should force the company’s hand,” The Boston Globe

THE DAMAGE THE RADICAL REACTIONARIES ARE DOING TO THE SUPREME COURT AND OUR DEMOCRACY AND HOW TO FIX IT

Note: If you find my posts too long or too dense to read on occasion, please just read the bolded portions. They present the key points I’m making and the most important information I’m sharing.

The radical, reactionary decisions of the Supreme Court’s six-justice majority not only affect society (see my previous post), they have implications for our democracy and the future of the Court itself. Their decisions undermine the credibility of the Court, the rule of law, and American democracy. They mean that government will not be able to regulate businesses, protect workers, or protect people’s civil rights. They mean that our government will not be able to provide a safety net for individuals when they fall on hard times and will not be able to promote public health and infrastructure.

The way the Supreme Court is making decisions is undermining its credibility and eroding respect for it among the public. The majority of the Court’s decisions since 2017 have been on the “shadow docket,” i.e., decisions made without the benefit of written or oral arguments. These decisions are often made and released in the dead of night, and often with an unsigned written statement (aka opinion). These opinions are typically short and fail to present a rationale for the decision. They almost exclusively advance a right-wing political agenda. Prior to 2017, such emergency rulings were rare and were used for uncontroversial decisions or when time was of the essence, such as death penalty executions. In less than three years, the Trump administration filed for at least 28 such rulings (an average of almost 9 per year), while there were only eight in the previous 16 years (an average of one every other year). [1]

The Court is emasculating the rule of law and degrading American democracy. It is failing to enforce federal laws, making decisions without considering the merits of cases, and allowing states to do as they please, even when they violate the Constitution and people’s rights. As Justice Sotomayor wrote in her dissent on the case on the Texas law limiting pregnancy terminations, “The Court should not be so content to ignore its constitutional obligations to protect not only the rights of women, but also the sanctity of its precedents and of the rule of law.” [2]

Justice Kagan, in her dissent on the Texas case, noted that the Court’s recent actions, “which every day becomes more unreasoned,  inconsistent, and impossible to defend,” are undermining the legitimacy of the Court. She noted, by way of example, that the Court failed to intervene to protect the rights of millions of Texas women, despite having intervened aggressively to protect alleged religious rights, such as when a California church had been prohibited from meeting in-person by Covid restrictions. Since Justice Barrett was seated in October 2020, the Court has issued seven emergency injunctions (e.g., blocking state coronavirus restrictions), while only four such injunctions had been issued during the previous 15 years of Justice Robert’s tenure. [3]

Making things even worse, the Supreme Court is treating its shadow docket decisions, promulgated without any reasoning to back them up, as creating new legal precedents that lower courts must follow. According to precedent, shadow docket cases do not establish new law, in part because the merits of the case have not been argued and considered. However, the current Court has had no problem asserting that its shadow docket decisions establish new law and legal precedents, particularly when infringements of religious rights have been alleged.

Given that the Court is ruling inconsistently, ignoring even its own recent precedents, making decisions without hearing or considering the merits of a cases, and promulgating its decisions without justifications, it is clear that the Court is advancing an ideological and partisan political agenda and not a legal one. This dramatically undermines the legitimacy of the Court and powerfully supports the case for Court reform.

In addition to the behavior of the radical, reactionary majority on the Court, the way two of the justices got on the Court also argues for reform. As you probably remember, in the spring of 2016, Senate Majority Leader McConnell (Republican of Kentucky) refused to even consider President Obama’s nomination of Merrick Garland for an open seat on the Supreme Court, supposedly because it was an election year and the decision should be left to the new president. This reduced the size of the Court from nine to eight justice for roughly a year. However, when an opening occurred in September, 2020, also an election year, McConnell and the Republicans were happy to rush through the nomination of Amy Barrett, literally days before the election. So, the Republicans stole two seats on the Court and filled them with radical reactionaries.

These appointments raised issues about the appointment process and the lifetime terms of justices, given that it was the deaths of two sitting justices that led to these openings. However, there are other long-term issues with the Supreme Court. For example, there is no Code of Ethics that covers Supreme Court justices; they are exempt from the ethics rules that apply to other federal judges.

President Biden has appointed a Presidential Commission on the Supreme Court of the United States to study the issues with the Court and the need for reform. Testimony was received from a long list of people, including Harvard Law Professor Michael J. Klarman, who has written a 260-page Harvard Law Review article on the degradation of American democracy and the Supreme Court’s role in it. In his testimony to the Commission, Klarman recommends and provides a strong rationale for: [4]

  • 18-year, non-renewable, staggered terms for justices, so that a seat is filled every two years, and
  • Expanding the Court by four seats immediately.

Others have recommended adding two seats to the Court to make up for the two that were stolen by Republican shenanigans. Robert Hubbell, a retired lawyer, recommends: [5]

  • Expanding the Court, noting that this would require bypassing the filibuster,
  • Limiting the terms of justices,
  • Implementing a code of judicial ethics for the justices, and
  • Limiting the Court’s ability to decide substantive issues on the shadow docket.

I urge you to let your U.S. Representative and Senators, along with President Biden, know that you support reform of the Supreme Court to restore its legitimacy and non-partisan operation. Urge them to push for a strong, substantive report and set of recommendations from the Presidential Commission on the Supreme Court to achieve these goals. Then, we will all need to work to ensure that needed changes in the Supreme Court are implemented.

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

You can email President Biden via http://www.whitehouse.gov/contact/submit-questions-and-comments or you can call the White House comment line at 202-456-1111 or the switchboard at 202-456-1414.

[1]      Richardson, H. C., 9/1/21, “Letters from an American blog,” (https://heathercoxrichardson.substack.com/p/september-1-2021)

[2]      Sotomayor, S., 9/3/21, “Sotomayor’s defiant dissent,” The Nation (https://www.thenation.com/article/society/sotomayor-abortion-dissent/)

[3]      Vladeck, S., 9/3/21, “The Supreme Court doesn’t just abuse its shadow docket. It does so inconsistently,” The Washington Post

[4]      Klarman, M. J., 7/20/21, “Court expansion and other changes to the Court’s composition,” Written statement to the Presidential Commission on the Supreme Court of the United States (https://www.whitehouse.gov/wp-content/uploads/2021/07/Klarman-Testimony.pdf)

[5]      Hubbell, R., 9/2/21, “Today’s Edition: Susan Collins should resign in disgrace,” (https://roberthubbell.substack.com/p/todays-edition-susan-collins-should)

HOW THE GOVERNMENT CAN SUPPORT THE ECONOMY AND WORKERS

Note: If you find my posts too long or too dense to read on occasion, please just read the bolded portions. They present the key points I’m making and the most important information I’m sharing.

Effective governments are critical components of our societal infrastructure. They are needed to combat public health threats such as the coronavirus, to keep people safe, and to provide a safety net for workers and families in economic hard times, among other things. Government programs and actions can provide important supports for our economy and its workers. Economic growth and workers’ pay and employment are inextricably linked as consumer spending, i.e., workers spending their pay, is what drives our economy, representing about two-thirds of all economic activity.

My previous two posts (here and here) focused on efforts to undermine and weaken government. They outlined negative effects of weak government infrastructure and of privatization of public sector work. This post highlights the benefits of government action.

The “Biden Plan,” as the President calls it, uses aggressive federal government action to combat the coronavirus and to stimulate the economy. The first piece of it was an aggressive effort to get people vaccinated along with other steps to reduce the impact of Covid on people’s health. The second major piece, the American Rescue Plan (ARP), was passed in March 2021 and provides $1.9 trillion to combat the pandemic and its harmful effects on workers, businesses, and the economy. It strengthens our healthcare system; provides funding for schools, housing, small businesses, and local governments; and supports low- and middle-income workers by extending unemployment benefits and providing monthly support checks for families with children.

Given the popularity of the American Rescue Plan (75% of voters like it) and support from local and state governments (including a number of Republican governors), it wouldn’t seem to be a partisan issue, but every Republican member of Congress voted against it. Every President, Democrat or Republican, from WWII to 1980 used government actions to support the economy and workers, and to ensure that the rising tide did indeed lift all boats somewhat equitably. [1]

However, since 1980, Republican ideology has opposed such government action, taking the position that government action is unnecessary because the private sector, stimulated by tax cuts, will meet society’s needs even in the face of crises and economic recessions. This ideology claims that cutting taxes, particularly for wealthy individuals and corporations, will stimulate the economy, generate growth that will more than make up for the revenue lost due to the tax cuts, and that benefits will “trickle down” to workers.

Republican Presidents Reagan, George W. Bush, and Trump all cut taxes and in every case the economy did NOT boom, tax revenue did NOT grow, and workers did NOT benefit, but the deficit DID grow substantially. Republicans’ concern about the federal government’s deficit seems to only apply to Democratic initiatives. Moreover, Republican President George H. W. Bush promised not to raise taxes when he ran in 1988, but when the previous Reagan tax cuts led to dramatic growth of the  deficit, Bush raised taxes to reduce the deficit – for which he was basically disowned by the Republican Party.

According to Republicans, the American Rescue Plan and any government actions like it will (supposedly) kill economic growth and job creation, leading to high unemployment and growing deficits.

However, recent economic data show that Republican predictions have NOT come true. Rather, the data show growth in the number of jobs, falling unemployment, increased pay for workers, a growing economy, and a falling deficit. This provides solid validation for the government actions President Biden and Democrats in Congress have taken in response to the pandemic and its negative effects on workers and the economy. By the way, economic and job growth also occurred after Democratic President Clinton raised taxes. Moreover, the resultant increase in revenue and economic growth made the deficit disappear! Both the current experience and that under President Clinton clearly debunk Republican fear mongering about tax increases, a strong safety net, and government intervention in the economy.

Perhaps convinced by these data, 19 Republicans in the U.S. Senate (out of 50) along with all 50 Democrats voted for a $1 trillion infrastructure bill that will make major government investments in roads, bridges, railroads, mass transit, water systems, pollution clean-up, and high-speed Internet access among other things. This spending over the next ten years is projected to create 3 million jobs.

However, Republicans are still unified in opposition to an additional $3.5 trillion infrastructure bill that would address climate change and more directly support workers and their families through funding for education, health care, housing, paid family leave, elder care, early education and child care, and making the temporary child tax credit of the ARP permanent. This last provision alone is projected to cut child poverty in half – disproportionately benefiting children of color – and would keep families with children from slipping back into poverty if the temporary ARP child tax credit were allowed to expire. The climate change investments in clean energy and reduction of carbon emissions are likely to save trillions of dollars in damages and mitigation measures that would occur if climate change continues unabated.

In response to Republicans’ concerns about the costs for the infrastructure bills, Treasury Secretary and former Chair of the Federal Reserve Janet Yellen said: “My largest concern is not: What are the risks if we make these big investments? It is: What is the cost if we don’t?” [2]

I encourage you to let your U.S. Representative and Senators, along with President Biden, know that you support government investments in our infrastructure to support a strong economy, and workers and their families as well.

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

You can email President Biden via http://www.whitehouse.gov/contact/submit-questions-and-comments or you can call the White House comment line at 202-456-1111 or the switchboard at 202-456-1414.

[1]      Richardson, H. C., 8/10/21, “Letters from an American blog,” (https://heathercoxrichardson.substack.com/p/august-10-2021)

[2]      Richardson, H. C., 8/10/21, see above

WE NEED SOLID GOVERNMENT INFRASTRUCTURE Part 2

Note: If you find my posts too long or too dense to read on occasion, please just read the bolded portions. They present the key points I’m making and the most important information I’m sharing.

Governments are critical components of our societal infrastructure. Effective governments are needed to deliver the services, supports, and public amenities that Americans want and need. For 40 years, small government advocates – led by Republicans but with the acquiescence or assistance of many Democrats – have successfully shrunk and weakened government infrastructure and capacity. (My previous post focused on the targeting of public employees.)

One reason for the attacks on government infrastructure has been to privatize government functions so the private sector can make profits by performing work previously done by public employees. This has always been justified by the claim that the private sector will do things more efficiently and save taxpayers money. However, numerous real-life experiences have shown that this is often not the case.

The Internal Revenue Service (IRS), the nation’s tax collector, is a classic example of the harm that results from privatizing and weakening public infrastructure. In 2004, President G. W. Bush privatized the efforts to collect hundreds of billions of dollars owed to the IRS, claiming the private sector would do a better job. The private collectors brought in $86 million from the easy to win cases. The IRS then brought the work back in-house and its agents collected about $140 million in just a few months from more difficult cases that the private collectors had skipped over. This experience demonstrated that privatizing the collection of owed taxes was inefficient and a waste of money. [1]

Nonetheless, the Republicans persisted in slashing the budget, staff, and enforcement capacity of the IRS. From 2010 to 2018, the Republicans slashed the IRS’s budget by 20% and its staff by 22%. The number of audits of taxpayers with over $1 million in income dropped by 72% and money collected from audits dropped by 40%. Now, President Biden is proposing increasing funding for the IRS and its enforcement activities, which will more than pay for itself in increased tax collections. (See my previous post on the IRS for more details.)

Other examples of privatization that have been problematic include:

  • Privatized prisons and detention centers are less safe, less secure, and more costly than government-run facilities. (See my previous posts on this here and here.)
  • Disaster response to hurricanes Irma and Maria in Puerto Rico was privatized by the Federal Emergency Management Administration because of insufficient staff. The results were substantial delays in the delivery of critical supplies, cost overruns of $179 million, and another $50 million in questionable costs.
  • Paying bills, monitoring quality of care, and transmission of funds to states for Medicaid and Medicare have been privatized leading to a labyrinthian maze that is challenging to navigate when problems or questions arise.
  • Housing for refugees arriving at the Mexican border has been privatized resulting in an unresponsive amalgamation of contractor-run shelters.

With privatized services, quality problems and cost overruns are frequent, but it’s the government that gets blamed. A classic example is the problem with the Affordable Care Act (aka Obama Care) website rollout. The problems stemmed from the 62 contracts with private firms that were hired to build the website. The government’s failing, beyond perhaps the decision to privatize this work, was that it didn’t have the capacity to effectively manage this complex set of private contractors.

Good management and oversight of contractors requires time and skill, which costs money. Privatization deals rarely provide for this because the focus is on cutting costs. So, the government can end up with private contractors managing other contractors. Contractors also end up writing policies – that sometimes benefit themselves. Private employees under long-term contracts end up sitting in the same offices and doing the same work as government employees, often at significantly greater cost. Members of the public dealing with the government have no idea whether they are interacting with a government employee or a contractor, but if things don’t go well the government gets the blame.

The number and complexity of privatization arrangements and a lack of transparency about some of them (often very intentional) mean that the number of private, contracted personnel and their cost to taxpayers are impossible to accurately aggregate. The effectiveness and efficiency of their performance is also often impossible to determine.

Reversing the trend toward privatization will be difficult for multiple reasons, but partly because companies with federal contracts are active lobbyists and campaign contributors. A 2011 study found that of the 41 companies making the most in campaign contributions over the previous 20 years, 33 had federal contracts.

I encourage you to let your elected officials at all levels, particularly the federal and state levels, know that you support strong government infrastructure as an essential component of a well-functioning society. We need President Biden and Members of Congress to support the rebuilding of government infrastructure and capacity, and to oppose privatization of core government responsibilities. The importance of this has become particularly evident during the pandemic, when the capacity of government public health agencies was essential to keeping people safe, through everything from economic assistance to eviction moratoriums to the distribution of vaccines and personal protective equipment. As Bob Kutner wrote in a recent blog from The American Prospect, “Face it, the only way to keep relatively safe is to elect people to run the government who believe in the government, and who operate it competently and relatively free of corruption.” [2] In other words, the only way to have the effective government that we need is to have solid, well-run government infrastructure.

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

You can email President Biden via http://www.whitehouse.gov/contact/submit-questions-and-comments or you can call the White House comment line at 202-456-1111 or the switchboard at 202-456-1414.

[1]      Kettl, D. F., & Glastris, P., 7/1/21, “Memo to AOC: Only you can save the government,” Washington Monthly (https://washingtonmonthly.com/magazine/july-august-2021/memo-to-aoc-only-you-can-fix-the-federal-government/) This blog post is primarily a summary of this article.

[2]      Kuttner, R., 7/2/21, “The Condo, the Inspector, the Market, and the Government,” Today on The American Prospect blog (http://americanprospect.activehosted.com/index.php?action=social&chash=61b4a64be663682e8cb037d9719ad8cd.839&s=6009966078bda0f5056f960a346ead8a)

HOW THE RICH GET RICHER #4

Note: If you find my posts too long or too dense to read on occasion, please just read the bolded portions. They present the key points I’m making and the most important information I’m sharing.

The inability of the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) to enforce tax laws has resulted in a high level of tax evasion by wealthy individuals and corporations. Some experts estimate that as much as $1 billion a year in taxes owed are not paid.

As the country’s tax collector and tax enforcer, the IRS has never been a popular agency among the public or politicians. However, the importance of the IRS’s work in enforcing tax laws, maintaining a fair and functional tax system, and collecting the revenue the government needs to operate had been broadly respected.

This changed when Republicans gained control of the U.S. House of Representatives and Newt Gingrich became the House leader in 1994. Republicans began vilifying the IRS and using “abolish the IRS” as a sound bite. Republican presidential candidates, including Sen. Lugar in 1996 and Sen. Cruz in 2016, made abolishing the IRS a central policy proposal. In 1998, Republicans introduced a bill in Congress to repeal the Internal Revenue Code (the country’s tax laws) and abolish the IRS. [1]

The Republicans have held congressional hearings on alleged abuses by the IRS. Despite the fact that in most cases investigations by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) and others have debunked the alleged abuses, the IRS’s reputation has been seriously undermined. This gave Republicans cover for passing laws weakening the IRS and its tax enforcement.

Beginning in 2010, Republicans in Congress undertook a multi-year initiative to cut the IRS’s budget and enforcement capacity. Since 2010 when its budget peaked at $14 billion, the IRS’s budget has been cut by about 20% (adjusted for inflation). Its staff has been cut by nearly one-quarter to 76,000 full-time employees and the number doing enforcement has fallen from 23,500 to 6,500, a 72% reduction. [2] It has the fewest auditors it has had since the 1940s and it has the oldest computer technology in the federal government.

The IRS recently announced a backlog of 35 million unprocessed tax returns, three times the number from a year ago and four times what it was in 2019. This means taxpayers have to wait longer for their refunds, payments from the Earned Income Tax Credit to low-income families will be delayed, and some transactions, like mortgage approvals, that require current income tax documentation will be delayed. It also revealed that only 3% of the calls to its most popular, toll-free hotline reach a real person. Despite its challenges, it has processed 137 million individual tax returns and sent refunds of more than $281 billion.

Tax obligations expire (i.e., become uncollectible) after ten years if the IRS doesn’t pursue them. In 2017, $8.3 billion of tax obligations expired, up from $482 million in 2010 (a 17-fold increase). Investigations of people who didn’t file a tax return have fallen from 2.4 million in 2011 to 362,000 in 2018 (down 85%). Similarly, collections from people who file but don’t pay have dropped dramatically. In 2017, the IRS conducted 675,000 fewer audits than in 2010, a 42% drop in the audit rate. The audit rate has dropped roughly 70% on those with incomes over $200,000 and but only about 40% for those with incomes under $200,000. This is a key contributor to increased tax evasion by the wealthy.

The impact of the IRS’s budget cuts has been exacerbated by substantial new responsibilities that it has been given under the Affordable Care Act and the response to the pandemic. In responding to the pandemic, the IRS has been tasked with distributing three rounds of relief payments, implementing changed rules on unemployment benefits and tax credits, and, most recently, sending out monthly checks to most families with children. With a significantly reduced budget and staff, it has been expected to do all of these things while trying to maintain its core business of processing tax returns. [3]

President Biden has proposed increasing the budget of the IRS by $40 billion over ten years to reduce tax evasion and generate revenue to help pay for infrastructure investments. He estimates that this increased IRS funding would raise government revenue by $140 billion over those ten years. The Congressional Budget Office (CBO) estimates added revenue of $103 billion and others have other estimates, but everyone agrees that increased enforcement would generate significant revenue. It would also make our tax system fairer by reducing tax evasion, which is largely done by wealthy individuals and corporations. However, it might well take five years to make the upgrades to the IRS’s computer systems and to hire and train the new staff needed to achieve these results.

Initially, the Republicans who were part of the bipartisan group of 21 Senators working on the infrastructure investment bill endorsed the increased funding for the IRS, but now they are backing away from it after hearing opposition from some of their wealthy backers.

Support for increased funding for the IRS has come from five former Secretaries of the Treasury, from both Republican and Democratic administrations. They state that increased funding for the IRS would “raise significant revenue and create a fairer, more efficient” tax system. [4]

The IRS and our income tax system depend, in large part, on the voluntary compliance and honesty of taxpayers. If taxpayers’ come to believe that the tax system is not fairly administered, voluntary and honest tax compliance is likely to decline. This could have dire implications for government revenue and for the IRS’s ability to do its job. It is important that the public believe that people pay the taxes the law says they owe. This encourages compliance with tax laws even if the overall perception is that the wealthy are not paying their fair share under our current tax laws. Then, the focus can be on making our tax laws fairer.

I urge you to contact your U.S. Representative and Senators and to ask them to support additional funding for the IRS so it can effectively enforce our tax laws. You can find contact information for your U.S. Representative at  http://www.house.gov/representatives/find/ and for your U.S. Senators at http://www.senate.gov/general/contact_information/senators_cfm.cfm.

Please also contact President Biden and thank him for proposing increased funding for the IRS because this will mean it can more effectively implement our tax laws. You can email President Biden via http://www.whitehouse.gov/contact/submit-questions-and-comments or you can call the White House comment line at 202-456-1111 or the switchboard at 202-456-1414.

[1]      Kiel, P., & Eisinger, J., 12/11/18, “How the IRS was gutted,” ProPublica and The Atlantic (https://www.propublica.org/article/how-the-irs-was-gutted)

[2]      Puzzanghera, J., 7/5/21, “Aggressive IRS could help with roads bill,” The Boston Globe

[3]      Stein, J., 6/30/21, “IRS faces 35 million unprocessed tax returns as backlog swells, watchdog says,” The Washington Post

[4]      Puzzanghera, J., 7/5/21, see above

TODAY’S VOTER SUPPRESSION IS HISTORY REPEATING ITSELF

Note: If you find my posts too long or too dense to read on occasion, please just read the bolded portions. They present the key points I’m making and the most important information I’m sharing.

The efforts of states to suppress voting of Blacks (and other targeted groups that tend to vote for Democrats) are an historical repeat of what happened after the Civil War. These and other efforts that assert states’ power to restrict individuals’ rights are confronting the 14th Amendments’ provisions (from 1868) that give the federal government the power to protect individuals’ rights in the face of state efforts to deny them. Historian Heather Cox Richardson’s daily blog puts these current events in the perspective of our history, which is a very valuable insight to have.

The Declaration of Independence, when it stated “that all men are created equal,” meant white men. Nonetheless, this was a radical concept at the time – that no man’s birthright made him better than any other man. The Civil War was fought, in effect, to maintain a system that elevated America’s white men above African Americans, Native Americans, other men of color, and even Irishmen. As in the mid-1800s, we are now facing efforts that reject the principle of the equality of all human beings and seek to recast America as a country where certain people are better than others. These efforts are being led by white men for the most part, and are empowered by a relatively small group of wealthy white men (and a few women). [1]

In 1865, the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution banned slavery in an important step toward equality. However, this did not stop white men in the South from working to establish systems that continued to make African Americans unequal and subservient to whites. These white men worked to deny African Americans the right to vote, to testify in court, and to sit on a jury. The infamous 1857 Dred Scott Supreme Court decision furthered this effort by denying citizenship to African Americans. The contorted opinion for the 7 to 2 decision was poorly reasoned and written by Chief Justice Roger Taney. These steps to institutionalize inequality occurred despite the fact that the 1870 Census would count African Americans as whole persons for the first time. Ironically, this would give the southern states more representation and power in Congress and in the Electoral College. [2]

To counter efforts to keep African Americans subservient, in July 1868, the 14th Amendment was passed, declaring that “All persons born or naturalized in the United States … are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside.” It guaranteed all citizens due process and equal protection under the law. To counter white southern men’s and the Dred Scott case’s assertion of states’ rights to write laws that determined who could vote, among other things, the 14th Amendment gave the federal government the power to protect individuals’ rights when state legislatures passed laws that were discriminatory and infringed on those rights.

Nonetheless, two months later in September 1868, the Georgia legislature voted to expel the 33 newly elected African American state legislators. In 1870, with African American voting reduced by the terrorism of the Ku Klux Klan, African Americans were not elected. Similar events took place in other southern states. [3]

In response, the federal Department of Justice was created in 1870 with a primary mission of stopping the Ku Klux Klan (KKK) and its suppression of the rights and voting of African Americans. The KKK was a domestic terrorist group then as it is today.

In February 2021, Black legislators in Georgia opposed proposed voting restrictions noting that they reminded them of the 1870s when Jim Crow laws and lynching were used to deter African Americans from voting. Nonetheless, Georgia legislators passed the voting restrictions. Although the means have changed, they are still presented as supposedly race-blind restrictions. However, the fact that white men (for the most part) are rewriting the rules of our democracy to protect white power is unchanged. Similar actions are taking place in other states, not all of which are in the South.

There are striking similarities between the voting suppression efforts of the late 1800s and what’s happening today. For example, in 1890, the U.S. House of Representatives passed a bill empowering the federal government to oversee voter registration, voting, and ballot counting in the South. Then, Senate Democrats blocked its passage by staging the first of many southern-led filibusters that killed civil rights legislation.

The civil rights laws and court decisions of the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s are based on the 14th Amendment giving the federal government the power to protect individuals’ rights. For example, the Brown vs. Board of Education decision that outlawed public school segregation and separate but supposedly equal treatment of Blacks, and the Loving vs. Virginia decision legalizing inter-racial marriage, were possible because of the 14th Amendment.

Opponents of civil rights laws and decisions revived the post-Civil War states’ rights arguments in the 1960s and 1970s. They began advocating for “originalism” in interpreting the Constitution when making court decisions. “Originalism” asserts that the Constitution should be interpreted as its writers envisioned it at the time they wrote it and that this would mean much stronger state governments and a weaker federal government, including in the establishment and enforcement of individuals’ rights.

In 1987, President Reagan nominated an “originalist,” Robert Bork, to become a Supreme Court Justice. He was rejected on a bipartisan basis. Bork had advocated for a rollback of Supreme Court civil rights decisions and of federal protections of individuals’ rights under the 14th Amendment. As Senator Ted Kennedy pointed out, rolling back such protections would not only raise the specter of re-segregation, but also the reduction of women’s rights to reproductive health services, citizens’ protections from rogue police officers, the teaching of evolution in schools, protection from censorship, and other individual rights.

Nonetheless, today’s Supreme Court is dominated by “originalists” and the individual rights protections of the 14th Amendment for voting, women’s and LGBTQ people’s health services, and the teaching of factual material, for example, are again being challenged by state governments, led mostly by white men.

On July 1, 2021, by a 6 to 3 vote, the Supreme Court decided that the state of Arizona did not violate the 1965 Voting Rights Act or the 14th or 15th Amendments with voting restrictions that disproportionately affect non-white racial or ethnic groups. President Biden stated that this “decision by the Supreme Court undercuts voting rights in this country and makes it all the more crucial to pass the For the People Act and the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act to restore and expand voting protections. … Our democracy depends on it.” [4] However, to pass these bills, which have already passed in the House, the Senate will have to either eliminate or limit the use of the filibuster to block them. The Republicans have made it clear that they have no intention of providing any support for these bills.

I urge you to contact your U.S. Senators and ask them to support the For the People Act and the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act, and to support eliminating or limiting the filibuster as the only way to pass these bills. The protections for voting rights in these bills are critically important to our democracy. You can find contact information for your U.S. Senators at http://www.senate.gov/general/contact_information/senators_cfm.cfm.

Please also contact President Biden and ask him to support eliminating or limiting the filibuster as the only way to pass these bills that he’s said our democracy depends on. You can email President Biden via http://www.whitehouse.gov/contact/submit-questions-and-comments or you can call the White House comment line at 202-456-1111 or the switchboard at 202-456-1414.

[1]      Cox Richardson, H., 7/3/21, “Letters from an American blog,” (https://heathercoxrichardson.substack.com/p/july-3-2020-bad)

[2]      Cox Richardson, H., 7/9/21, “Letters from an American blog,” (https://heathercoxrichardson.substack.com/p/july-9-2021)

[3]      Berman, A., 6/2/21, “Jim Crow killed voting rights for generations. Now the GOP is repeating history,” Mother Jones (https://www.motherjones.com/politics/2021/06/jim-crow-killed-voting-rights-for-generations-now-the-gop-is-repeating-history/)

[4]      Cox Richardson, H., 7/1/21, “Letters from an American blog,” (https://heathercoxrichardson.substack.com/p/july-1-2021)

HOW THE RICH GET RICHER #3

Note: If you find my posts too long or too dense to read on occasion, please just read the bolded portions. They present the key points I’m making and the most important information I’m sharing.

The Internal Revenue Service’s webpage on Individual Retirement Accounts (IRAs) says, “IRAs allow you to make tax-deferred investments to provide financial security when you retire.” However, they allow the wealthy to do much more.

When IRAs were first created in 1974 and then expanded to all workers in 1981, the goal was to encourage saving for retirement by offering a tax incentive, given that Americans were notoriously bad at saving. Initially, the maximum annual contribution was $2,000. It’s now $6,000 or $7,000 if one is over 50. The contribution can be deducted from one’s income, so it isn’t taxed up-front. Tax on the increased value of the investments in the IRA is deferred until the money is removed from the IRA. Money had to be taken out of the IRA starting at 70 ½ years of age (now 72) at a rate the would be expected to deplete it within the lifespan of the owner of the IRA. All earnings and any contributions that had been deducted from income up-front are subject to income tax, which for most taxpayers will probably be at a low rate due to lower income in retirement than when working. This all made good sense and was good policy.

Then came the Roth IRA in 1997. Contribution limits were the same as for the traditional IRA, but the contributions were subject to income tax up-front. However, when money is taken out of a Roth IRA there is NO income tax due on the increased value of investments nor on the contributions. There also is no requirement that money be taken out in one’s lifetime.

The wealthy and their tax / financial advisers quickly recognized that this was a huge opportunity for tax avoidance. It’s clear that some policy makers were aware of this and had no problem with it; in some cases, it may have been their intent. As a further example of how tax policy in general and Roth IRA policies specifically favor the wealthy, if a U.S. citizen renounces their citizenship they are taxed on the value of their assets, including ones that have increased in value even if they have not been sold. However, there are exemptions from the tax for certain kinds of assets, one of which is assets in a Roth IRA! [1]

ProPublica’s investigative reporting on how the wealthy pay very little in income taxes, perfectly legally, while their wealth is growing by leaps and bounds, [2] has also revealed how extensively Roth IRAs are being used for tax avoidance. Their reporting reveals that, among others, investors Warren Buffett and Ted Wechsler of the Berkshire Hathaway fund, Randall Smith of the Alden Capital hedge fund, Robert Mercer of the Renaissance Technologies hedge fund, and Peter Thiel and Max Levchin of PayPal all have Roth IRAs with hundreds of millions of dollars in them. [3]

Clearly, these mega-million-dollar Roth IRAs have nothing to do with saving for retirement and everything to do with avoiding taxes. Thiel has $5 billion in his Roth IRA. He and all the others will pay NO taxes on any money they take out of their Roth IRAs. Keep in mind that these huge IRA balances have supposedly come from contributions of a few thousand dollars a year. The huge gains on the investment of those small contributions will be subject to NO income (or other) tax when they are removed from the Roth IRAs. By the way, Thiel renounced his U.S. citizenship in 2011, allowing him to take advantage of this exemption from taxation for Roth IRA assets. (He became a citizen of New Zealand, which happens to have no estate tax.)

Recognition of the abuse of Roth IRAs for tax avoidance is not new. Forbes magazine and others have written about it since at least 2012. Senator Wyden proposed legislation to reform Roth IRAs in 2016, but it went nowhere in the Republican-controlled Senate. Simple policy changes could address the problem. For example, the dollar amount of investment gains in Roth IRAs that are exempt from taxation could be limited, to say a few million dollars. And the exemption of these gains from taxation could end when the account owner dies instead of allowing them to be passed on tax-free to heirs. [4]

One strategy for creating huge IRA balances is to put knowingly under-valued assets into them. When Thiel contributed 1.7 million shares of the company that would become PayPal into his Roth IRA in 1999, he claimed that they were only worth one-tenth of a cent per share ($0.001 per share). (They were not publicly traded at the time so a fair market value was subject to interpretation.) This meant that his contribution was under the $2,000 limit in place at the time. PayPal later admitted that this per share value was “below market value.” The shares are now worth billions.

Senator Wyden’s 2016 Roth IRA reform proposal would have addressed the problem of under-valuing assets contributed to an IRA by removing the tax exemption of any IRA that received an asset for less than fair market value. Others have proposed requiring IRAs to only receive assets that are traded on a public market so their true value is clearly established.

The financial industry opposes reforms to Roth IRAs because they make significant money from them by acting as custodians for IRAs (and other retirement accounts) and by processing the transactions that these accounts generate.

The IRA was originally designed to enhance the retirement security of working Americans, but it has become another way for the wealthy to avoid paying taxes, even when passing their wealth on to their heirs. Note that there are other types of retirement savings vehicles that also provide tax avoidance and other benefits to the wealthy. “Retirement” savings policies are one example of how the wealthy have gotten elected policy makers to tip the economic playing field in their favor. This is oligarchy in America. (Oligarchy “refers to a government of and by a few exceedingly rich people or families who control the major institutions of society and therefore have power … no one should be fooled. Oligarchs wield power for their own benefit” as Robert Reich writes in his latest book, The System: Who rigged it, how we fix it. (See my previous posts summarizing the book starting here.)

I urge you to contact your U.S. Representative and Senators and to ask them to support reforms that would end the abuse of retirement savings accounts by the wealthy. You can find contact information for your U.S. Representative at  http://www.house.gov/representatives/find/ and for your U.S. Senators at http://www.senate.gov/general/contact_information/senators_cfm.cfm.

Please also contact President Biden and ask him to support reform of retirement savings accounts. You can email President Biden via http://www.whitehouse.gov/contact/submit-questions-and-comments or you can call the White House comment line at 202-456-1111 or the switchboard at 202-456-1414.

[1]      Elliott, J., Callahan, P., & Bandler, J. 6/25/21, “The ultrawealthy have hijacked Roth IRAs. The Senate Finance Chair is eyeing a crackdown,” ProPublica (https://www.propublica.org/article/the-ultrawealthy-have-hijacked-roth-iras-the-senate-finance-chair-is-eyeing-a-crackdown)

[2]      Eisinger, J., Ernsthausen, J., & Kiel, P. 6/8/21, “The secret IRS files: Trove of never-before-seen records reveal how the wealthiest avoid income tax,” ProPublica (https://www.propublica.org/article/the-secret-irs-files-trove-of-never-before-seen-records-reveal-how-the-wealthiest-avoid-income-tax)

[3]      Lord, B., 6/29/21, “Peter Thiel will pay zero in federal income tax on his $5 billion in gains,” Common Dreams (https://www.commondreams.org/views/2021/06/29/peter-thiel-will-pay-zero-federal-income-tax-his-5-billion-gains)

[4]      Elliott et al., 6/25/21, see above

THE CASE FOR A WEALTH TAX

Note: I apologize for the infrequent blog posting. I’m on sabbatical with out-of-town grandchildren visiting.

Note: If you find my posts too long or too dense to read on occasion, please just read the bolded portions. They present the key points I’m making and the most important information I’m sharing.

Recent revelations about how little federal income tax the ultrawealthy pay and how they legally avoid income tax liability make the case that a wealth tax is essential for a fair tax system. A fair tax system is necessary a) to provide sufficient funds for the public programs needed to serve the public and the public good, and b) to preserve public support for the tax system.

ProPublica, an independent, nonprofit newsroom that does investigative journalism in the public interest, has obtain and analyzed 15 years of data on the tax returns of thousands of the country’s wealthiest households. Its analyses show the wealthy pay very little in income taxes, perfectly legally, despite the fact that their wealth is growing by leaps and bounds. [1] (This post is largely a summary of this ProPublica reporting.)

The median American household earns about $70,000 a year and pays about 15% of this in income taxes. For the period from 2014 to 2018, a typical middle class American household paid a total (for these five years) of about $62,000 in federal income tax on total earnings of around $350,000. Meanwhile, its wealth, primarily the value of its home, grew by $65,000. Its effective tax rate on the combine total of earned income and increase in wealth was about 15%.

ProPublica’s detailed analysis of the 25 wealthiest Americans found that collectively their wealth increased by $401 billion in the five-year period from 2014 to 2018. Their earned income was tiny by comparison. They paid an aggregate total of $13.6 billion in federal income taxes. Their effective tax rate on the combined total of their earned income and increase in wealth was about 3.4% (versus the 15% paid by a typical middle-income taxpayer).

Another analysis found that in 2018, in comparison to their wealth, a typical middle-income household paid 75 times as much in income tax as those 25 ultrawealthy Americans. At the end of 2018, the 25 wealthiest Americans had an estimated wealth of $1.1 trillion and in 2018 paid federal income taxes of $1.9 billion. It would take 14.3 million typical American households to have this much wealth and those 14.3 million households paid federal income taxes of $143 billion in 2018.

This disparity in income tax paid when wealth is factored in is the result of a 1920 Supreme Court decision where the Court ruled that the income tax laws as written apply only to income received in cash and not to an increase in wealth (i.e., the value of assets), unless assets are sold and cash (or other forms of proceeds) are received. Before this decision, the income tax had applied to increases in wealth.

This decision provided the wealthy with a huge loophole for tax avoidance. The ultrawealthy own billions of dollars worth of stock, often in companies they own or control. The 25 wealthiest Americans have seen the value of their stocks skyrocket in recent years. To minimize earned income (and income tax), they often take modest salaries from their companies; some take salaries of only $1.

Some of the ultrawealthy avoid having income (and therefore paying income tax) because they are able to pay their living expenses by borrowing large sums of money, sometimes billions of dollars, using their stock wealth as collateral for loans. These loans are not considered income and therefore are not subject to income tax. Furthermore, the interest on the loans is often tax deductible and can be used to offset (i.e., cancel out) income, reducing or eliminating taxable income and the amount of income tax owed.

The wealthy often avoid income tax by reducing taxable income with deductions. Deductions can be losses on various investments or business ventures, such as real estate or sports teams. Charitable contributions are another deduction that reduces taxable income. And, of course, if they do sell some of their stock or other assets, the profits on those sales, as well as the dividends and interest they get from their investments, are unearned income, which is taxed at a lower rate than earned income (if it isn’t eliminated by deductions).

The wealthy have gotten these tax breaks (and others) written into U.S. tax laws through their spending on and donations to the political campaigns of many of our elected officials, as well as through their lobbying of elected and appointed officials. (See my previous posts on how the U.S. tax system favors the rich and what can be done to make it fairer.)

The degree to which the wealthy control the debate on tax policy is reflected in the fact that the current tax reform proposals from President Biden would have little impact on the wealthy. Nonetheless, these tax reform proposals are reported as being big and controversial changes in our income tax laws. One proposal is to raise the income tax rate on high earned incomes back to 39.6% from 37%. (For perspective, it was over 90% in the 1950s and 70% in 1980.) This would have little effect on the wealthy because only a small portion of their income is earned income and this is a small percentage increase. A second proposal, would make the income tax rate on unearned income (e.g., dividends and the gain on the sale of assets) the same as the higher rate on earned income. This would have more of an effect on the wealthy, but little effect on the ultrawealthy that ProPublica analyzed in detail as they rarely sell their assets or they have deductions that reduce or eliminate their taxable income.

The failure of the wealthy in America to pay their fair share in taxes harms our country in two main ways. First, government is under-funded and can’t do the things we need it to do – from maintaining and building infrastructure, to investing in human capital, to maintaining a just and sufficient safety net for those who fall on hard times, to building and maintaining a public health system that can save lives during a pandemic or other health crisis. Second, taxes are citizens’ collective contributions to having a civil society and supporting the public good. Such a system is viable only if citizens believe it is fair and everyone is contributing their fair share.

ProPublica’s investigative reporting on the U.S. tax system is performing a valuable public service. An informed debate about our tax system and the design of policies for a fair system can only happen if there is good data and an accurate picture of how the tax system is working.

These data and the picture they paint make it clear that the only way to have a truly fair tax system is to tax wealth (as Senators Warren and Sanders have proposed) or to tax increases in wealth as income even if assets are not sold and no cash or other proceeds are received (i.e., to tax unrealized capital gains).

I urge you to contact your U.S. Representative and Senators and to ask them to support a tax on wealth or increases in wealth as the only way to make our tax system fair. You can find contact information for your U.S. Representative at  http://www.house.gov/representatives/find/ and for your U.S. Senators at http://www.senate.gov/general/contact_information/senators_cfm.cfm.

Please also contact President Biden and ask him to support a tax on wealth or increases in wealth, in addition to his current proposals, as such a tax is essential to making our tax system truly fair. You can email President Biden via http://www.whitehouse.gov/contact/submit-questions-and-comments or you can call the White House comment line at 202-456-1111 or the switchboard at 202-456-1414.

[1]      Eisinger, J., Ernsthausen, J., & Kiel, P. 6/8/21, “The secret IRS files: Trove of never-before-seen records reveal how the wealthiest avoid income tax,” ProPublica (https://www.propublica.org/article/the-secret-irs-files-trove-of-never-before-seen-records-reveal-how-the-wealthiest-avoid-income-tax)

REGULATION OF THE FINANCIAL INDUSTRY IS BADLY NEEDED Part 2

Note: If you find my posts too long or too dense to read on occasion, please just read the bolded portions. They present the key points I’m making and the most important information I’m sharing.

My previous post made the case for strong regulation of the financial industry to protect consumers with a strong Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB). The financial industry needs strong regulation because it has repeatedly shown that without regulation it will rip off consumers and engage in practices that put our economy and our whole financial system at-risk.

In addition to the Trump administration’s weakening of the CFPB and other regulation of the financial industry, pro-business judicial decisions have also weakened consumer protections from abusive financial industry practices. However, Congress can restore these consumer protections through appropriate legislation.

First, the Supreme Court ruled that the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) cannot seek monetary compensation for consumers defrauded by payday or other short-term lenders. The Consumer Protection and Recovery Act has been introduced in Congress and would make it clear that the FTC can seek financial compensation for these consumers. [1]

Second, the Comprehensive Debt Collection Improvement Act would strengthen a variety of protections for borrowers that were weakened by judicial decisions. For example, it would limit email and other electronic harassment by debt collectors and restrict abusive practices by medical debt collectors.

Finally, the Non-judicial Foreclosure Debt Collection Clarification Act would regulate any business involved in home foreclosures without a judge’s authorization as a debt collector under the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act. In 30 states and D.C., lenders can foreclose and repossess a home without going to court and getting a judge’s ruling. A Supreme Court ruling limited home owners’ rights in these states. This legislation would give these home owners the protections of the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act.

The Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) is an independent federal regulatory agency responsible for protecting investors and maintaining the fair and orderly functioning of securities markets. It works to ensure full public disclosure of information so all investors are on an equal footing. To that end, it works to prevent, identify, and punish insider trading, where some people have information that is not available to the general public and therefore have an unfair advantage in making decisions about buying and selling securities. [2]

Classic insider trading was in the news a year ago. Some members of Congress, who had received private, closed-door briefings on the coronavirus, made substantial stock market trades that appeared to be informed by this non-public information. Similarly, some executives of firms working on coronavirus vaccines, who had knowledge of the progress of their vaccine development that was not public, made substantial stock market trades that appeared to be informed by this non-public information. There were also situations where an insider shared non-public information with an outsider who then appears to have made investment transactions based on this non-public information.

However, there is another type of insider trading that may be more insidious – using sophisticated computers to make large trades moments before other trades that are in the pipeline are executed and become public knowledge. This is referred to as “front-running” and is a systemic problem in securities markets. It allows those with these sophisticated computer systems to make profits at the expense of everyone else who’s buying and selling securities.

Although the SEC has the power to address these problems under existing laws, it has failed to stop these practices which unfairly disadvantage run-of-the-mill buyers and sellers of securities.

The SEC is also charged with preventing large-scale speculation, particularly with borrowed money, that puts banks and financial corporations at-risk of bankruptcy if a large speculative investment goes bad. This is exactly what caused the 2008 financial collapse. This type of systemic risk is substantial today in large part because the financial industry has created “investments” that are called derivatives – financial instruments that are derived from or based on other financial instruments. In 2008, for example, the core problem was derivatives based on home mortgages. These were packages of home mortgages, and portions of them (e.g., the interest and principal portions of payments), and speculation on how interest rates would change, etc. These and many other derivatives are hard for most investors to understand, can be very volatile, are hard to put a value on, are hard to regulate, and it’s almost impossible to predict how they will perform as an investment. Therefore, investing in them is basically gambling and the securities market for them is basically a casino.

The laws and regulations that were put in place after the 2008 collapse to prevent a recurrence have been watered down or unenforced to the point that many experts believe we are likely to see a repeat of that collapse, and possibly a worse one. The largest 40 banks across the world are larger than ever and so interconnected through derivative “investments,” loans, and other financial transactions, that governments would have no choice but to bail them out again to prevent a total collapse of the financial system if any piece of this complex, opaque, and highly speculative financial casino were to crash in value.

I urge you to contact your U.S. Representative and Senators and to ask them to support strong, effective regulation of the financial industry through federal agencies such as the Federal Trade Commission and the Securities and Exchange Commission. Consumers and our financial markets need to be protected from the no-holds-barred greed and hubris of those in the financial industry. The consistent, aggressive, and risky practices across the financial industry, including by its largest corporations, require no less. You can find contact information for your U.S. Representative at  http://www.house.gov/representatives/find/ and for your U.S. Senators at http://www.senate.gov/general/contact_information/senators_cfm.cfm.

Please also contact President Biden and ask him to appoint individuals who will implement strong regulation of the financial industry at the Federal Trade Commission, the Securities and Exchange Commission, and other federal agencies. This is important because Biden has not always supported strong regulation of corporations and the financial industry. He is from Delaware, which is the legal home of many U.S. corporations because of its lax regulation of corporations. You can email President Biden via http://www.whitehouse.gov/contact/submit-questions-and-comments or you can call the White House comment line at 202-456-1111 or the switchboard at 202-456-1414.

[1]      Cohen, R. M., 4/27/21, “Congress looks to judicial overrides to strength consumer protections,” The Intercept and The American Prospect (https://theintercept.com/2021/04/27/supreme-court-ftc-consumer-debt/)

[2]      Turner, L., & Kuttner, R., 2/18/21, “The financial reforms we need,” The American Prospect (https://prospect.org/economy/financial-reforms-we-need-lynn-turner-interview/)

REGULATION OF THE FINANCIAL INDUSTRY IS BADLY NEEDED

Note: If you find my posts too long or too dense to read on occasion, please just read the bolded portions. They present the key points I’m making and the most important information I’m sharing.

The financial industry needs strong regulation because it has shown time and time again that without regulation it will rip off consumers and engage in practices that put our economy at-risk. Apparently, greed and hubris are endemic in the financial industry – from the CEOs on down. However, many Members of Congress resist strong regulation because of the campaign money they get from the industry. In addition, some members of the Executive Branch have opposed strong regulation of the financial industry, particularly those who have come through the revolving door from the industry.

Enforcement of existing regulations was quite lax under President Trump’s administration and needs to be strengthened. Furthermore, new regulations are needed to rein in problems that weren’t previously addressed and ones that have newly cropped up. The industry is always inventing new ways to circumvent regulations and developing new, risky, financial transactions. It remains to be seen whether President Biden and the Democratically controlled Congress will implement strong regulation of the financial industry.

Federal regulators asked the financial industry to forego overdraft fees because of the financial hardships of the pandemic. Despite this, the industry collected $4 billion in overdraft fees from consumers during 2020. JPMorgan Chase alone collected almost $1.5 billion in overdraft fees, which contributed to its $29 billion in 2020 profits. Overall, the financial industry collected $17 billion in overdraft fees in 2019. Clearly, regulation is needed of overdraft fees and the circumstances in which they are charged. Both have been the subject of abuse by financial corporations.

To protect consumers from abusive financial industry practices, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) needs to be powerful and aggressive. It was created in the aftermath of the 2008 financial collapse, which revealed huge fraud by the financial industry in the home mortgage market. The lack of any agency focused specifically on protecting the public from abusive financial practices was a key contributing factor. However, the financial industry has lobbied hard to weaken the CFPB. As a result, both Republicans and Democrats in Congress and many in the Executive Branch, particularly under President Trump, have worked to weaken the CFPB.

As an example of lax enforcement under President Trump, the CFPB recovered just $700 million for consumers in 2020, down from $5.6 billion in 2015. Meanwhile, consumer complaints to the CFPB rose to record levels in 2020. In the four years of the Trump administration, the CFPB recovered an annual average of less than $600 million for consumers, while under President Obama it had recovered an average of $2.1 billion a year, three and a half times as much. Furthermore, under Trump the focus was on small firms rather than the major financial industry corporations. [1]

Fortunately, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau is being revitalized under President Biden and will:

  • Enforce legal protections for debtors, including renters behind on their rent and student borrowers, while limiting abusive debt collection practices,
  • Strengthen regulation of payday lenders, including requiring them to assess a borrower’s ability to repay a loan,
  • Strengthen regulation of overdraft fees, and
  • Seek systemic change in the industry not just penalties for individual cases.

Wells Fargo is one of the notoriously bad actors in the financial industry. For example, in 2016 it admitted to creating millions of unauthorized accounts for customers to meet high sales and revenue targets. This led to the resignation of CEO John Stumpf, who was replaced by Tim Sloan, the bank’s president and chief operating officer. Sloan, four months earlier, when the fake accounts scandal was well known and had been going on for years, said in an interview that Wells Fargo’s aggressive sales tactics were appropriate and were not going to change. After Sloan took over as CEO, the bogus accounts scandal worsened and Wells Fargo also admitted to fraud in other business areas from car insurance to mortgages, as well as using faked customer signatures to satisfy anti-money laundering rules. Regulators imposed fines and took the dramatic step of prohibiting Wells Fargo from growing its business. [2]

When CEO Sloan left Wells Fargo in March 2019, he had been paid $40 million in his 2 ½ scandal-laden years as CEO and tens of millions of dollars in his previous 30 years at Wells Fargo. Now, he wants to collect another $20 million in deferred compensation. Government regulators could block this compensation under a law allowing them to limit “golden parachute” payments to senior executives who were involved in illegal activity at a financial institution. Whether they will do so remains to be seen.

I urge you to contact your U.S. Representative and Senators and to ask them to support strong regulation of the financial industry and a strong Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. Consumers and our economy need to be protected from the no holds-barred greed and hubris of those in the financial industry. The consistent, repeated fraud and risky practices across the financial industry, including by its largest corporations, requires no less. You can find contact information for your U.S. Representative at  http://www.house.gov/representatives/find/ and for your U.S. Senators at http://www.senate.gov/general/contact_information/senators_cfm.cfm.

Please also contact President Biden and ask him to appoint individuals who will implement strong regulation of the financial industry and to fully support Rohit Chopra, the strong regulator he has nominated to lead the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. (Confirmation is pending in the Senate.) This is important because Biden has not always supported strong regulation of corporations and the financial industry. He is from Delaware, which is the legal home of many U.S. corporations because of its lax regulation of corporations. You can email President Biden via http://www.whitehouse.gov/contact/submit-questions-and-comments or you can call the White House comment line at 202-456-1111 or the switchboard at 202-456-1414.

[1]      Newmyer, T., 1/28/21, “CFPB muzzled under Trump, prepares to renew tough industry oversight,” The Boston Globe from the Washington Post

[2]      Rucker, P. 3/10/21, “Bank regulator could block disgraced ex-Wells Fargo CEO from $20 million payout,” The American Prospect (https://prospect.org/power/bank-regulator-could-block-disgraced-ex-wells-fargo-ceo-from-payout/)

KEEPING THE RICH FROM GETTING EVEN RICHER

The rich have been getting dramatically richer, generally at the expense of the rest of us, for the last 40 years. My previous post identified four ways the U.S. tax system favors the rich:

  • Lower tax rates on the types of income (i.e., unearned income) that are prevalent among the wealthy,
  • Weak enforcement of tax laws that allows the wealthy to engage in substantial illegal tax evasion,
  • The lack of a wealth tax on anything other than one’s home, and
  • Tax loopholes that allow the wealthy to significantly reduce the amount of income tax they pay.

Federal tax laws and regulations are, obviously, the result of policy decisions made by elected officials (i.e., Congress and the President) and bureaucrats in the executive branch who report to the President. Therefore, these four ways that the tax system is tilted in favor of the wealthy can and should be changed.

First, the tax rates on unearned income should be raised. There’s a strong argument for making the tax rates on unearned income the same as on earned income and there’s no good reason to tax unearned income at a lower rate than earned income. It would be fairer to treat all kinds of income the same and this would eliminate the perverse incentive to manipulate income to have it fall into a category with a lower tax rate.

Tax rates in general, for both unearned and earned income, should be made more progressive. This would make our tax system fairer. The current top income tax rate is 37%. In the 1950s, the top tax rate was over 90% and in 1980, it was 70%. [1] So, the rich have gotten huge tax cuts over the last 70 years. And by the way, the economy was doing just fine in the 1950s with those higher tax rates. Raising the top rate by 1% would increase government revenue for needed programs and investments by about $12 billion per year. President Biden has proposed increasing the top rate to 39.6% (where it was before the 2017 Republican tax cut). This would generate about $31 billion in annual revenue.

Second, the budget of the IRS needs to be increased to strengthen enforcement of tax laws. It is estimated that every dollar spent on enforcement will reduce tax evasion by about $10. President Biden has proposed increasing IRS funding by about $8 billion per year and estimates that this would decrease tax evasion and increase government revenue by about $70 billion per year.

The IRS’s funding has been cut dramatically in recent years. This has reduced its ability to enforce tax laws and stop tax evasion. According to a Congressional Budget Office (CBO) report, from 2010 to 2018, the IRS’s annual budget declined by 20% and its staff decreased by 22%. Funding for enforcement fell by nearly 33%. Reviews of individual tax returns fell by 46%, while reviews of corporate tax returns fell by 37%. With less money and fewer staff, the IRS has had reduced capacity to enforce tax laws. [2] Nonetheless, the IRS is auditing low-income households, particularly those claiming the Earned Income Tax Credit for low-wage workers, at about twice the average rate that it audits the overall population.

The CBO estimated that $381 billion per year of taxes owed are not collected, mostly because of under-reporting of income by wealthy Americans. Because nearly all wage income is reported to the IRS by employers, unearned income and business income are far more likely to be under-reported. Wealthy Americans receive far more of these kinds of income than middle- and lower-income households. Therefore, the wealthy are the primary ones guilty of tax evasion by under-reporting income and are the beneficiaries of reduced IRS enforcement.

Third, a wealth tax would be an important step in making our tax system fairer, reducing economic inequality, and limiting the ability of families to perpetuate multi-million-dollar fortunes across generations, which is contributing to the emergence of an oligarchy in American society and politics. (See my previous posts on oligarchy in America here and here.) Senators Warren and Sanders have proposed a wealth tax that would place a 2% annual tax on wealth over $50 million, rising to 3% on wealth over $1 billion. It is estimated that such a wealth tax would raise $300 billion a year in revenue for the federal government.

Fourth, tax loopholes for the wealthy should be closed. There are too many of them to go into detail or provide an exhaustive list. As a starting point, we should:

  • Eliminate the “carried interest” loophole for managers of real estate, venture capital, private equity, and hedge funds that lets them pay the lower unearned income tax rates on the income they earn from their jobs,
  • Reduce the amount of money that can be given as tax-free gifts,
  • Reduce the amount of money that can be put tax-free into retirement accounts,
  • Reduce the amount of money that can be transferred tax-free in an estate, and
  • Eliminate the “stepped up basis” law that allows for tax-free transfers of assets that have increased in value. (See my previous post for more details on these tax loopholes.)

I encourage you to contact your U.S. Representative and Senators and tell them you support policy changes such as those above that would make our tax system fairer, stop the runaway increase in economic inequality, and generate revenue to pay for needed government programs, such as improving infrastructure and providing better supports for children and families. You can find contact information for your US Representative at  http://www.house.gov/representatives/find/ and for your Senators at http://www.senate.gov/general/contact_information/senators_cfm.cfm.

I also encourage you to contact President Biden and to tell him you support his policy changes and others that would make our tax system fairer, reduce economic inequality, and generate revenue to pay for needed government programs. Contact the White House at https://www.whitehouse.gov/contact.

[1]      Reich, R., 4/2/21, “Tax the rich. Here’s how,” Common Dreams (https://www.commondreams.org/views/2021/04/02/tax-rich-heres-how)

[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

CORPORATE INVOLVEMENT IN POLITICS & VOTER SUPPRESSION

Note: If you find my posts too long or too dense to read on occasion, please just read the bolded portions. They present the key points I’m making and the most important information I’m sharing.

The role of large, wealthy corporations in our political system is coming under scrutiny again, this time in relation to voter suppression laws in states. Advocates for democracy and its basic principle that all citizen should vote are urging corporations and their executives to speak out against states’ voter suppression efforts. Given that these voter suppression efforts target black, brown, and/or low-income citizens, advocates for racial and economic justice are also urging corporate opposition to these efforts.

As-of March 24, 361 bills that would suppress voting have been introduced in state legislatures in 47 states. Five bills have already passed, including, perhaps most notably, in Georgia. In 24 states, 55 bills are actively moving through the legislative process; 29 have passed in one chamber and 26 have seen action in a legislative committee. These bills would restrict absentee and by-mail voting, cut back on early voting, impose strict, onerous voter ID requirements, make registering to vote harder, and / or expand purges of voter rolls. [1]

The rationale for these efforts is, of course, the big lies that the 2020 presidential election was stolen from Trump and that there was extensive voter fraud. As I imagine you know, the number of cases of voter fraud is miniscule and totally insignificant in terms of election outcomes. Furthermore, the voting restrictions in these bills do NOT specifically address the kind of rare fraud that does occur.

After the January 6th attack on the capitol, at least 123 corporations and corporate trade associations announced a rethinking of their political spending – a pause in political spending by their corporate political action committees (PACs), a cutoff of donations to the 147 members of Congress who voted against certifying the presidential election results, or a review of their corporate PAC spending.

However, they did not announce a rethinking of their giving to politically active non-profits, including industry trade associations (such as the Chamber of Commerce). Twenty-four of the corporations that announced a rethinking their PAC spending have given more than $100 million to politically active non-profits since 2015. These “dark money” non-profits (so-called because they don’t have to disclose their donors) spent $750 million on the 2020 elections. [2] (Note: Tracking the money flowing to these non-profits is difficult and slow because they don’t have to report donors and only infrequently report any information at all.)

In 2019 alone (the latest data available), many of the corporations announcing a rethinking of their PAC spending gave more to politically active non-profits than their PACs spent in the whole two-year 2020 election cycle. For example, CVS Health spent less than $1 million through its corporate PAC in the 2020 elections but disclosed giving nearly $9.6 million to political non-profits in 2019 alone. From 2015 to 2019, CVS Health gave over $31 million to political non-profits, Intel gave $18 million, Anthem Blue Cross Blue Shield health insurance $16 million, Dow $16 million, AT&T $9 million, and Microsoft $6 million.

Corporations have also been active political spenders at the state level. An analysis of the legislators supporting 245 state voter suppression bills found, as of March 1, 2021, corporate campaign spending of over $22 million in the 2020 election cycle to benefit state legislators who supported voter suppression. These legislators wrote voter suppression bills, co-sponsored them, or voted for them. Of the 100 largest U.S. corporations, 81 gave money to these state legislators, and of the 500 largest corporations, 225 did so. In addition, corporate trade associations gave $16 million to these state legislators in the 2020 election cycle. Of the 123 corporations or corporate trade associations that announced a rethinking of corporate PAC spending after January 6th, 94 have given money to state legislators who supported voter suppression. Among the top 12 of these corporate spenders are Altria / Philip Morris, AT&T, United Health, Comcast / NBC, Walmart, Pfizer, Koch Industries, State Farm, and Verizon. [3]

By the way, when some corporations and their leaders made statements opposing voter suppression, Senator McConnell (Republican of KY and Senate minority leader) called on them to stay out of politics. This is beyond disingenuous as McConnell and his Republican colleagues have been the beneficiaries of hundreds of millions of dollars of corporate campaign contributions and spending. If the corporate leaders actually heeded McConnell’s call, the Republican Party would be bankrupt.

I urge you to speak out against voter suppression whenever and wherever you get the chance – with state-level elected officials, with national office holders, and with business leaders. Ask them to support efforts to make it simple and easy for every citizen to vote, and to oppose all efforts to make voting harder. Please also speak out in support of full disclosure of all political spending by corporations and others and in opposition to efforts to hide the identities of donors, particularly through the use of  “dark money” non-profits.

If you would like to email the CEOs of companies with a significant presence in Georgia to ask them to speak out against the voter suppression bill just passed in Georgia, here’s a list courtesy of Robert Hubbell’s daily newsletter of 4/5/21. (Sign up for his “Today’s Edition” newsletter here.)

  • The Home Depot               Craig Menear           craig_menear@homedepot.com
  • United Parcel Service         Carol B. Tomé           carol@ups.com
  • Delta Air Lines                    Ed Bastian                bastian@delta.com
  • Arby’s                                 Paul Brown               pbrown@inspirebrands.com
  • The Coca-Cola Company   James Quincey         asktheboard@coca-cola.com
  • Cox Media Group              Daniel York                york@cmg.com
  • Genuine Parts Company    Paul D. Donahue       paul_donahue@genpt.com
  • Georgia Pacific                   Christian Fischer       cfischer@gapac.com
  • Porsche                              Oliver Blume             blume@porsche.de

[1]      Brennan Center for Justice, 4/1/21, “Voting laws roundup: March 2021,” (https://www.brennancenter.org/our-work/research-reports/voting-laws-roundup-march-2021)

[2]      Massoglia, A., 1/15/21, “Corporations rethinking PACs leave the door to ‘dark money’ open,” OpenSecrets.org, Center for Responsive Politics (https://www.opensecrets.org/news/2021/01/corporations-rethinking-corporate-pacs-leave-dark-money-open/)

[3]      Tanglis, M., Lincoln, T., & Claypool, R., 4/5/21, “The corporate sponsors of voter suppression,” Public Citizen (https://www.citizen.org/article/corporate-sponsors-of-voter-suppression-state-lawmakers-50-million/)

SABOTAGE BY HOLDOVER TRUMP APPOINTEES

Note: If you find my posts too long or too dense to read on occasion, please just read the bolded portions. They present the key points I’m making and the most important information I’m sharing.

Throughout his term, President Trump appointed some very political people to executive branch positions and worked to make them difficult for a successor to remove. He accelerated these efforts in his lame duck days in office after he’d lost the election. These appointments were across the whole executive branch from the Defense Department to the Justice Department, as well as in the Social Security Administration and the U.S. Postal Service.

In addition, in his final days in office, Trump did everything he could to sabotage President Biden and his administration. Some of Trump’s appointees continue this work to this day. Some of them and their actions have gotten a fair amount of attention and coverage in the media, notably some actions at Defense, Justice, and the Postal Service. However, many of these appointees and their sabotage have gotten little if any attention.

For example, Andrew Saul, Trump’s 2018 appointee for Commissioner of the Social Security Administration (SSA), delayed the $1,400 American Rescue Plan pandemic checks to 30 million of the country’s poorest and neediest people. Saul refused to send information on recipients of Social Security and Supplemental Security Income (SSI) to the IRS so checks could be sent to them. SSI recipients are people with disabilities or seniors with very low incomes. Two weeks after the Rescue Plan had passed, when many people had already received their $1,400 payments, Democratic Members of Congress wrote to Commissioner Saul demanding that he send the information to the IRS. He complied the next day. [1]

As another example, Commissioner Saul and his Trump appointed Deputy Commissioner David Black proposed a rule that would have required disabled SSI recipients to undergo more frequent and more stringent benefit eligibility reviews, which would have caused tens of thousands of people to lose benefits. This rule change was very similar to one enacted by the Reagan administration that led to a rash of suicides, among other harm, and was seen as so cruel that it was unanimously overturned by the Senate. In another example, Saul and Black tried to deny benefits for older and severely disabled non-English speakers that would have caused an estimated 100,000 people to lose $5 billion in benefits.

These are examples of Saul’s and Black’s consistent efforts to undermine the effective functioning of the SSA. They are emblematic of Republicans’ efforts to harm the credibility and effectiveness of government through sabotage from the inside. This makes their claims that government programs don’t work well and are a failure a self-fulling prophecy.

Saul and Black have terms that don’t expire until 2025. Many advocates for SSI recipients (and others) are calling on President Biden to fire them, but so far, he has not done so. If he does, Republicans will, of course, claim that partisanship is the reason rather than their failure to responsibly do their jobs. We’ve heard this before from Republicans and we will hear it again and again as Biden cleans house of Trump’s government saboteurs. Don’t fall for it. The politics and partisanship are on the Republican side in their work to undermine the functioning of our government.

In December, 88% of the members of the Association of Administrative Law Judges, who handle SSA disputes, voted no confidence in Saul and Black. Recently, the American Federation of Government Employees called on Biden to fire Saul and Black. It stated that they were sabotaging the SSA, undermining its mission, obstructing its operation, and asking employees to deny injured workers and veterans their rightful benefits, which would be a major ethical violation.

I urge you to contact President Biden and ask him to fire Commissioner Saul and Deputy Commissioner Black from the Social Security Administration. Tell him you support firing all the Trump appointees who are sabotaging the valuable work our government does. Contact President Biden at the White House at https://www.whitehouse.gov/contact.

[1]      Sammon, A., 3/26/21, “Trump appointees are sabotaging Biden’s stimulus checks,” The American Prospect (https://prospect.org/politics/trump-appointees-sabotaging-bidens-stimulus-checks/)

PANDEMIC RELIEF, UNITY, AND BIPARTISANSHIP

Note: If you find my posts too long or too dense to read on occasion, please just read the bolded portions. They present the key points I’m making and the most important information I’m sharing.

Passage of the American Rescue Plan (ARP), i.e., the pandemic relief package, is a milestone for unity because it fosters economic recovery and fairness for all Americans. Although it was a great opportunity for bipartisanship, unfortunately it has only been another milestone in the continuing, now decades-long, hyper-partisanship of Republicans.

President Biden had Republicans to the White House to try to obtain bipartisan support. He compromised by cutting unemployment benefits and reducing the number of Americans who qualified for relief payments by 17 million to address Republicans’ and conservative Democrats’ concerns about the costs of the bill and the targeting of benefits to those most in need. Nonetheless, the Republicans did everything they could to delay the bill, including demanding that the whole 628-page bill be read aloud in the Senate. And then, not one single Republican voted for it despite its overwhelming, bipartisan support for it among Americans. Roughly 75% of Americans supported the bill, including about 60% of Republicans.

Many in the media reported inaccurately that the passage of the ARP was also the death of bipartisanship because no Republican voted for it. The truth is that Republicans killed bipartisanship in the 1990s with their impeachment of President Clinton and put another nail in its coffin in 2008 with their pledge to make President Obama fail and to block every one of his legislative initiatives.

The ARP will cut the number of children living in poverty by one half. Child poverty in the U.S. is significantly higher than any other wealthy country and is incredibly harmful to children. Children in poverty in the U.S. are, of course, disproportionately children of color. The ARP will cut the overall number of Americans in poverty by 1/3. By the way, the official poverty line in the U.S. is well below any minimally realistic standard of living in many parts of the country at $26,500 for a family of four, which can be a single parent with three children.

The ARP provides a huge boost to middle-income families, increasing their after-tax incomes by an average of 5.5%, or about $2,750 for a family with a $50,000 income and $5,500 for a family with a $100,000 income.

Perhaps not surprisingly, Republicans’ calls for unity seem to have disappeared in the shadow of their blatantly partisan actions on the ARP. They have made it clear that their primary goal is obstruction of any initiative proposed by President Biden and supported by Democrats, even if it would do tremendous good for the country, its people and small businesses, as the ARP will. The Republicans will even obstruct policies that have broad bipartisan support among the public if somehow they believe that doing so will help them politically, i.e., in retaining their power and elected positions.

Perhaps not surprisingly as well, some Republicans are already trying to take credit for the benefits of the ARP, making it sound like they supported it. For example, Senator Wicker (R-MS) tweeted positively about the bill the same day that it passed, noting that it would help small businesses and restaurants, and giving the false impression that he had voted for it.

Republicans’ obstructionism has extended to President Biden’s nominees for his Cabinet and other positions. The precedent is that every President should be allowed to have whomever he wishes in his Cabinet, regardless of political differences. Unqualified and inappropriate nominees have been smoothly confirmed for President Trump and other Republican Presidents. Nonetheless, Senate Republicans have been dragging their feet and opposing some of Biden’s nominees solely for political reasons. They are even opposing nominees because of their partisan social media activity – a standard that would have disqualified a number of Trump nominees.

Looking ahead a bit, the For the People Act and the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act were recently passed by the House and would take strong steps to guarantee the right to vote for all, a key step toward unifying America. (See this previous post for more details.) These bills have the broad, bipartisan support of about 70% of Americans. However, the Republicans plan to block them in the Senate with the filibuster. Meanwhile, Republicans in many state legislatures and Governors’ offices are pushing bills that would suppress voting, particularly of people of color and those with low-incomes. (See this previous post for more details.) The House has also passed the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act, which will presumably be blocked by a filibuster by Senate Republicans. Clearly, most Republicans in Congress and those in many states across the country have no interest in bipartisanship and no interest in unifying America.

The hypocrisy of Republicans in Congress was just highlighted by their filing of a bill to repeal the estate tax. Over the next ten years, this would give $350 billion to 2,000 very wealthy people (i.e., those with estates of over $11 million for an individual or $22 million for a couple). Yet, the Republicans pushed to stop 17 million middle class Americans from receiving the $1,400 pandemic relief payments to save $24 billion (7% of the estate tax giveaway) and also to reduce weekly unemployment benefits by $100. So, Republicans support a big tax cut for some of the wealthiest people in America but oppose a little help for those in the middle class. This makes it clear that their purported concern about government spending and the deficit is hypocritical. Clearly, their calls for unity are hypocritical as well.

On a personal note, I’m dismayed to be writing so negatively about most Republicans and the Republican Party. I believe in political competition and an honest debate over policies. I grew up in New York State when Nelson Rockefeller, a Republican, was a well-respected Governor for 16 years. Up until the 1980s, I was a proud Independent voter, not registered in either party. My first significant political involvement was in 1980 when I worked hard for John Anderson for President, a Republican running as an independent against Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan.

However, the 1980s made it clear to me that the Republicans had become wedded to an anti-government, anti-worker, anti-civil rights agenda. And their agenda has only gotten more extreme since then. In the 1990s, I became quite disillusioned with the national Democrats who adopted much of the Republican deregulation, pro-big business, pro-Wall Street agenda.

The Republican Party, for the most part, has now adopted an anti-democracy agenda that supports voter suppression, big corporations, and wealthy individuals without reservations. I hope President Biden can change the direction of the country and the Democratic national party while standing up to the radical revolutionaries of the Republican Party.

I urge you to contact the White House and let Biden know that you support his and the Democrats’ efforts to restore our democracy and its commitments to equal opportunity for all, the rule of law, and government of, by, and for ALL the people. You can contact the White House at https://www.whitehouse.gov/contact.

UNITY MEANS VOTING FOR ALL: FEDERAL LEGISLATION

In a democracy built on the premise that all people are created equal and a commitment to one person, one vote, the electoral goal should be a guaranteed right to vote (which does not currently exist) and 100% voter participation. Work toward these goals would be a strong unifying force. Unfortunately, there are many Republicans who are working to restrict voting in ways that give them an electoral advantage. As my previous post documented, the good news is that at least 37 states are considering over 540 bills to expand or ease access to voting. This is almost three times as many such bills as had been introduced a year ago. The bad news is that 33 states are considering 165 bills that would restrict access to voting. This is almost five times as many such bills as were under consideration a year ago. [1]

There’s more good news at the federal level where there are  two important pieces of legislation that will protect and support every citizen’s right to vote: [2]

  • For the People Act (H.R. 1 in the House and S. 1 in the Senate) which addresses many issues related to making it easier to vote; promoting one person, one vote; controlling campaign spending; and enhancing ethical standards for public officials.
  • John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act which focuses on eliminating racial discrimination in states’ electoral systems and addresses election oversight shortcomings that the Supreme Court created when it gutted the Voting Rights Act in 2013.

The For the People Act was passed by the House in 2019 but ignored by Senate Republicans led by Senator McConnell (KY). It has been reintroduced in both the House and the Senate and would:

  • Improve access to voting by:
    • Streamlining voter registration
    • Expanding early voting and taking other steps to reduce waiting times at the polls
    • Expanding and simplifying voting by mail
    • Restoring voting rights to people who have completed their sentence for a felony
  • Promote one person, one vote, as well as voting integrity and security by:
    • Ending gerrymandering of districts
    • Regulating purges of voting rolls to prevent partisan voter suppression
    • Providing $1 billion for upgrading the security of state voting systems, including requiring auditable paper ballots
    • Increasing oversight of voting machine vendors
    • Restructuring the Federal Election Commission (FEC) to strengthen its enforcement of election laws
  • Increase disclosure of campaign spending by:
    • Requiring all organizations engaged in political activity to disclose large donors
    • Requiring disclosure of spending on on-line political ads
    • Eliminating the funneling of campaign spending through multiple entities in order to prevent donor identification
  • Enhance the value of small campaign donations and limit the influence of wealthy donors by:
    • Creating a 6 to 1 match for small donations to candidates who opt into a system that matches small donations with public funds (Note: This is a critically important strategy that is working in New York City and elsewhere to enlarge and diversify the pool of candidates who run, engage and amplify the voices of regular people, and limit the influence of wealthy donors. [3])
    • Raising the funds to match small donations through a surcharge on fines corporations pay for illegal activity and on tax cheating by the wealthy
    • Dramatically lowering the maximum campaign contribution limit for candidates who opt into the matching system
  • Enhance ethics laws governing public officials and strengthen their enforcement by:
    • Requiring Presidents to disclose their tax returns
    • Strengthening conflict of interest and financial divestment standards for public officials
    • Slowing the revolving door between related private and public sector jobs
    • Prohibiting Members of Congress from serving on corporate boards
    • Strengthening the Office of Government Ethics and its enforcement powers
    • Closing loopholes in the regulations governing lobbyists and foreign agents
    • Creating a code of ethics for Supreme Court Justices

The John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act is designed to respond to the Supreme Court’s 2013 decision that gutted the Voting Rights Act, fixing what the Court said made the law unconstitutional. The implementation of voting restrictions accelerated sharply immediately after the Supreme Court’s decision, with Republicans using them to target non-white and other voters who tend to vote for Democrats. The bill would also address other issues related to racial discrimination in voting systems. This bill was passed by the House in 2019 but was ignored by Senate Republicans led by Senator McConnell (KY). It has been reintroduced in both the House and the Senate and would:

  • Establish new criteria for determining which states and political subdivisions must obtain preclearance before changing voting procedures. (Preclearance means receiving approval from the Department of Justice before making changes to voting procedures.)
    • The new criteria focus on particular practices that have been problematic in the past because they restricted access to voting, often in a discriminatory way. These practices include onerous vote ID requirements and the changing of district boundaries, voting locations, early and mail-in voting opportunities, and voter registration list maintenance procedures.
    • All jurisdictions (e.g., counties, cities, and towns) would be required to obtain preapproval for implementing more stringent requirements for documentation to vote (such as IDs) than those established by federal law for vote by-mail registration or than those present in state law.
  • Require appropriate notification to the public of changes in voting procedures.
  • Clarify the circumstances under which a court must immediately block changes to voting procedures that have been challenged.
  • Establish standards and procedures for deploying federal election observers when problems with voting access are identified, particularly a serious threat of racial discrimination.

There is strong bipartisan support for the provisions of these bills that move toward guaranteeing the right to vote and making it easy to do so, as well as protecting the integrity of our elections. It is particularly noteworthy that this level of support exists despite all the Republican attacks on many of these aspects of our voting systems, especially voting by mail. For example: [4]

  • 86% support working to prevent foreign interference; 7% are opposed.
  • 84% want enhanced election security; 8% are opposed.
  • 74% support non-partisan determination of electoral districts; 11% are opposed.
  • 68% want 15 days of early voting; 19% are opposed.
  • 60% support same day voter registration; 29% are opposed.
  • 59% support automatic voter registration; 29% are opposed.
  • 58% want to vote by mail; 35% are opposed.

I encourage you to contact your U.S. Representative and Senators and urge them to support efforts to make it easier to vote, to encourage every citizen to vote, to end racial and partisan discrimination in states’ election systems, and to enhance the integrity and security of our elections.

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]      Brennan Center for Justice, 2/8/21, “Voting laws roundup 2021,” (https://www.brennancenter.org/our-work/research-reports/voting-laws-roundup-2021-0)

[2]      Perez, M., & Lau, T., 1/28/21, “How to restore and strengthen the Voting Rights Act,” The Brennan Center for Justice (https://www.brennancenter.org/our-work/research-reports/how-to-restore-and-strengthen-voting-rights-act)

[3]      Vandewalker, I., 2/4/21, “How to change incentives for both politicians and donors,” The Brennan Center for Justice (https://www.brennancenter.org/our-work/analysis-opinion/how-change-incentives-both-politicians-and-donors)

[4]      Cox Richardson, H., 2/25/21, “Letters from an American blog,” (https://heathercoxrichardson.substack.com/p/february-25-2021)

UNITY MEANS VOTING FOR ALL

In a democracy built on the promise of all people created equal and a commitment to one person, one vote, the electoral goal should be 100% voter turnout. Working toward this goal would be a strong unifying force and would provide a strong unifying message for the country. The states, which run our elections, and their election officials should work to make it easy to vote and to encourage people to register and vote.

Unfortunately, there are many Republicans who are working to restrict voting in ways that give them an electoral advantage. This is anything but unifying. A national law establishing election standards and overseeing states to ensure they live up to our democracy’s voting goals would make sense.

At the federal level, there are  two pieces of legislation (which I will describe in more detail in a future post) that will protect and support every citizen’s right to vote: [1]

  • For the People Act (H.R. 1 in the House and S. 1 in the Senate) which addresses many of the election oversight issues that the Supreme Court eliminated in its 2013 decision gutting the Voting Rights Act
  • John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act which focuses on racial discrimination in voting.

At the state level, the very high voter turnout in 2020, partially propelled by no-excuse mail-in voting and early voting implemented as a response to the coronavirus pandemic, is a great starting point to work toward further increasing voter participation. Indeed, to-date, 37 states are considering 541 bills to expand or ease access to voting. This is almost three times as many such bills as had been introduced in 29 states at this point a year ago. [2]

However, 33 states are considering 165 bills that would restrict access to voting. This is almost five times as many such bills as were under consideration in 15 states a year ago. In general, these restrictive bills have been introduced by Republicans in Republican-dominated legislatures, particularly in states where Donald Trump, the Republican presidential candidate, lost. These efforts are not the way to unify America. [3]

The 541 bills to expand or ease access to voting have been introduced in a wide variety of states, from New York (87 bills) and New Jersey (38 bills) to Texas (67 bills), Mississippi (38 bills) and Missouri (26 bills). These bills primarily focus on:

  • Making it easy to vote by mail. Eleven states will consider bills allowing all voters to vote by mail without requiring a reason or “excuse” for needing an absentee ballot. Twelve states have bills that would give voters the opportunity to correct technical mistakes on their mailed-in ballots. Twelve states have bills that would allow or require drop boxes for returning mail ballots. Nine states might extend the postmark or delivery date deadline for mailed ballots. Fourteen states will consider allowing election officials to start processing mail ballots before election day, which would speed up the counting of votes and the availability of election results.
  • Expanding opportunities for early voting. Eighteen states will consider allowing early voting for the first time, lengthening the early voting period, and/or increasing the number of early voting sites.
  • Making it easier to register to vote. Fifteen states have bills that would allow same-day registration, i.e., registering to vote on the same day that one votes. Fifteen states will consider implementing automatic voter registration, e.g., registering people to vote when they get a driver’s license or have some other interaction with a state agency. Five states will consider adding on-line voter registration.
  • Restoring voting rights to those with criminal convictions. Nineteen states have bills to restore voting rights to or ease voting restrictions on people with a criminal conviction.

The 165 bills that would restrict or complicate access to voting are under consideration in 33 states, with Arizona (19 bills), Pennsylvania (14 bills), Georgia (11 bills), and New Hampshire (10 bills) having the most such bills. The rationale for these requirements is almost always the supposed danger of fraud, which is non-existent for all practical purposes. However, President Trump’s unrelenting but false assertion of voter fraud and a stolen election have fed this narrative. These bills primarily focus on:

  • Making it harder to vote by mail. Nine states will consider eliminating no-excuse voting by mail or tightening the excuse requirement. Seven states have bills to prevent the sending of a mail ballot to a voter unless they specifically request one, while four states might prohibit sending an application for a mail ballot without a request. Six states have bills that would reduce the ability of voters to register permanently for a mail ballot. Some states will consider bills that require witnesses or notarization for mail ballots or requests for mail ballots. Some states will consider restrictions on how mail ballots can be returned, including requiring an ID, prohibiting the use of drop boxes, and even prohibiting returning them by mail. Some states have bills proposing restrictions on the counting of mail ballots based on deadlines for postmark or receipt date, or through requiring signature matching.
  • Imposing stricter voter identification (ID) requirements. Eighteen states will consider imposing new or more stringent voter ID requirements for in-person or mail voting.
  • Making it harder to register to vote. Five states have bills that would eliminate same-day registration and ten more have bills that would cut back on same-day registration. Four states have bills that would require proof of citizenship to register to vote and four states have bills that would eliminate, prohibit, or suspend automatic voter registration.
  • Allowing more aggressive purges of registered voters. Twelve states have bills that would expand the purging of voters from the rolls of registered voters.

So, the good news is that there are more efforts in the states to expand and streamline access to voting than there are efforts to restrict voting. The bad news is that there are significant efforts to restrict voting plus there is much damage to be undone, given that Republicans have been engaged in successful efforts to restrict voting in ways that benefit them politically for at least ten years.

The efforts to and success in restricting voting accelerated after the Supreme Court gutted the Voting Rights Act in 2013. Republicans have blocked efforts in Congress to replace parts of the Act that are clearly necessary to prevent states from engaging in targeted voting restrictions, often aimed at non-white voters (who tend to vote for Democrats).

Targeted voter suppression has been a successful strategy for the Republicans. For example, the 2018 Governor’s race in Georgia and the 2016 presidential race were almost certainly stolen by the Republicans due to the success of their voter suppression activities. The 2000 presidential race, Gore versus Bush, was also almost certainly stolen, not by the vote counting debacle, but by the permanent disenfranchisement of hundreds of thousands of people with felony convictions in Florida (who are disproportionately Black and likely to vote for Democrats).

At the state level, I encourage you to contact your state officials – your Governor, State Senator, State Representative, and Secretary of State or whomever runs your state’s elections – and urge them to support efforts to make it easier to vote and to encourage every citizen to vote.

[1]      Perez, M., & Lau, T., 1/28/21, “How to restore and strengthen the Voting Rights Act,” The Brennan Center for Justice (https://www.brennancenter.org/our-work/research-reports/how-to-restore-and-strengthen-voting-rights-act)

[2]      Brennan Center for Justice, 2/8/21, “Voting laws roundup 2021,” (https://www.brennancenter.org/our-work/research-reports/voting-laws-roundup-2021-0)

[3]      Wines, M., 1/31/21, “After record turnout, GOP tries to make it harder to vote,” The Boston Globe from the New York Times

PRESIDENT BIDEN: STAND UP FOR A STRONG PANDEMIC RELIEF BILL

I just sent the following message to President Biden about the pandemic relief bill that he is meeting with ten Republican Senators today to negotiate. I had to break it into two pieces because of the limit on how many words you can submit in their contact form.

I urge you to contact him at https://www.whitehouse.gov/contact/ with your thoughts about the  pandemic relief bill.

President Biden,

Please stand up firmly for a strong pandemic relief bill. Americans need economic security in the face of this pandemic. Many Americans need financial assistance, including direct payments and enhanced unemployment benefits. Over 1 million workers are still applying for unemployment each week. Millions of families are facing hunger and homelessness. Many small businesses need financial assistance too. Thousands of small businesses have gone out of business and thousands more are on the verge of doing so.

Funding for the COVID vaccination program and other steps to fight the pandemic are essential and should not be short-changed. This is a matter of life and death. It is also about reducing suffering by reducing the numbers of people that get COVID.  And it is essential to the recovery of the economy. If there’s an area where we should not worry about allocating more money than may eventually be needed, this is it.

Finally, state and local governments need financial assistance. They’ve seen their revenues fall dramatically and their costs increase with the pandemic. Without assistance, state and local governments have been laying off tens of thousands of workers which hurts the workers, the economy and its recovery, and the delivery of badly needed government services. Support for getting children back in schools is a critical component of this. We know from the Great Recession in 2008 how harmful cutbacks in state and local spending were.

While I support bipartisanship, please do not let the Republicans undermine support for working families, the COVID programs, small businesses, or state and local governments. Many Republicans’ concerns about the cost of the benefits and the deficit are hypocritical. Their concern about the deficit did not stop the bailout of large corporations nor the huge tax cuts for wealthy individuals and corporations back in 2017. If they are truly concerned about the deficit, ask them to support repealing the 2017 tax cuts.

President Biden,

Please stand up firmly for a strong pandemic relief bill. Do not let Republicans give the cold shoulder to working Americans and small businesses after they very generously – and successfully – provided financial assistance to large corporations. The financial assistance to large corporations has their stocks at record high prices and their executives and large shareholders taking in billions of dollars.

I urge you to approach the negotiations with Republicans with caution. There are multiple examples where Republicans have not negotiated in good faith. They have pushed for compromises, then pushed for more compromises, and then have failed to support the final, compromise legislation. The Affordable Care Act is a classic example of this. Their supposed negotiations on pandemic relief bills that never passed this summer were similar. They demanded poison pills, moved the goal posts, and added new demands at the last minute. Their threat that failing to meet their demands will poison the well of bipartisanship rings very hollow; their lack of bipartisanship and bad faith negotiations through the Trump presidency and the whole Obama administration poisoned the well of bipartisanship long ago.

Please do not let your commitment to bipartisanship blind you to the Republicans’ disingenuous and divisive partisan tactics over the last 12 years and beyond. Their tactics had nothing to do with unity and everything to do with dividing and conquering or delaying and killing legislation.

Unity means providing economic security and equal opportunity for all Americans. Calling for unity is hypocritical without a commitment to honestly work toward the vision of our democracy and our Constitution for liberty, justice, and equal opportunity for all. In the face of the pandemic, Americans need you to act boldly to move toward that vision. The danger is not in doing too much, it’s in doing too little.

BIDEN-HARRIS ADMINISTRATION CAN DO A LOT WITH EXECUTIVE ACTIONS Part 2

There are literally hundreds of important executive actions that the Biden-Harris Administration could take on day one (or shortly thereafter) that are well within its existing authority. The American Prospect magazine and the Biden-Sanders unity taskforce (which was created at the end of the Democratic primaries last summer) have identified 277 executive actions that it could take. All of them are policies that have broad support within the Democratic Party. Many of them simply more fully implement or better enforce current laws. They would take important steps toward addressing important problems. [1] [2]

In summary, the Biden-Harris Administration could, without having to wait for Congress to act:

  • Revamp many aspects of our immigration system (specific examples were in my previous post),
  • Address climate change along with energy and environmental issues (see my previous post),
  • Improve our education system and reduce the burden of student debt (see my previous post),
  • Make our tax system and economy fairer (see specific examples below),
  • Make important reforms in the criminal justice system (see below),
  • Expand access to health care and lower drug prices (see below), and
  • Strengthen the safety net by expanding unemployment benefits as well as housing and food assistance (see below).

Specific executive actions could include:

  • Change economic and tax policies
    • Require federal contractors to pay a $15 minimum wage and not to oppose unionization of their workers, not to move jobs overseas, and not to have violated labor laws
    • Enforce antitrust laws and broaden antitrust criteria to include factors other than hypothetical consumer cost savings
    • Strengthen the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and regulation of the financial industry, especially payday lenders and the vulture capitalists of private equity
    • Ensure strong and binding labor, environmental, and human rights standards in every trade agreement
    • Direct the National Labor Relations Board to make unionization easier and to penalize companies that don’t bargain in good faith with their workers
    • Enforce existing tax laws to reduce tax avoidance and close tax loopholes, including ones created under the 2017 tax cut and especially those for multi-national corporations
    • Re-prioritize and expand IRS tax law enforcement with a focus on high-income individuals and large corporations instead of on low-income individuals [3]
    • Roll back policies that gutted fair lending and fair housing protections
    • Restore the requirement for net neutrality by Internet Service Providers (ISPs)
    • Catalyze the creation of public banking by initiating banking and financial services through the U.S. Postal Service
    • Ban arbitration clauses in consumer and employment contracts that prohibit aggrieved parties from suing in court
    • Direct government procurement of goods and services to prioritize purchasing from small businesses and those owned by people of color, women, and veterans
    • Expand job training programs particularly for green and environmental jobs, as well as for formerly incarcerated persons
  • Reform the criminal justice system
    • Rescind the policy directing prosecutors to pursue the harshest criminal penalties possible
    • Stop executions of federal prison inmates
    • Withhold funds from states that use cash bail
    • Reduce criminal penalties for drug possession and increase availability and use of treatment instead of incarceration for drug crimes
    • Investigate racial discrimination by police departments, prosecutors, and others in the criminal justice system
    • Enforce the requirement that police departments capture and report data on use of force
    • Establish national standards on police use of force and create a national police review commission to provide oversight and make recommendations to local departments
    • Empower the Civil Rights Division of the Department of Justice to aggressively fight racial discrimination within the federal government and in all federal policies
    • Nominate judges with backgrounds as public defenders, legal aid attorneys, and civil rights lawyers
    • Prosecute white collar crimes from illegal polluting to money laundering
    • Prosecute employers who violate wage and labor laws
    • Launch a federal restorative justice program
  • Improve health and health care
    • Re-join the World Health Organization
    • Allow new enrollments in health insurance through the Affordable Care Act (aka Obama Care) outside of the normal enrollment period due to COVID-19
    • Direct Medicare to reduce excessive prices and price increases for drugs
    • Issue and enforce strong workplace safety standards related to infectious diseases
    • Commit to study gun violence as a public health issue
    • Enforce the Mental Health Parity and Addiction Equity Act
  • Address other issues
    • Reestablish the White House’s pandemic response unit
    • End the work requirement for receiving food stamps
    • Change the definition of poverty and the eligibility for government assistance programs based on it
    • Make housing subsidy vouchers an entitlement to all those who qualify
    • Direct the Federal Communication Commission to use its Lifeline program to offer subsidies for high-speed internet access to low-income households
    • Strengthen enforcement of the Americans with Disabilities Act

Once President Biden and Vice President Harris have been inaugurated, I urge you to contact them and encourage them to act boldly using executive orders to improve racial and social justice as well as the economic well-being of every working American. Taking these bold policy actions will go a long way toward restoring the public’s 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. This is essential to rebuilding our economy, strengthening our society, and unifying our country by showing that the Biden-Harris Administration and the federal government are actively working to advance the principles and ideals of our democracy, namely liberty, justice, and equal opportunity for all.

[1]      Moran, M., 7/28/20, “The 277 policies for which Biden need not ask permission,” The American Prospect (https://prospect.org/day-one-agenda/277-policies-biden-need-not-ask-permission/)

[2]      Dayen, D., Fall 2019, “The day one agenda” and related articles, The American Prospect (https://prospect.org/day-one-agenda)

[3]      Wamhoff, S. & Gardner, M., 12/16/20, “The day one agenda for corporate taxes,” The American Prospect (https://prospect.org/day-one-agenda/day-one-agenda-for-corporate-taxes/)

BIDEN-HARRIS ADMINISTRATION CAN DO A LOT WITH EXECUTIVE ACTIONS

The Biden-Harris Administration can make needed policy changes through executive actions or legislation. These two approaches are complementary and should both be used. Getting progressive legislation passed by Congress will be difficult but possible with narrow control of both the Senate and the House. However, there are literally hundreds of important executive actions that the Biden-Harris Administration could take on day one (or shortly thereafter) that are well within its existing authority.

President Franklin D. Roosevelt (FDR) issued 99 executive orders in his first 100 days and 3,721 over the course of his presidency. Some of them were monumental, such as the creation of the Rural Electrification Administration, which addressed a major infrastructure issue, and the Civil Works Administration, which created millions of jobs to address the unemployment of the Great Depression. These times call for the Biden-Harris Administration to be bold and to aggressively use executive orders to address the serious problems facing our country. Similar to FDR’s situation, Biden and Harris are facing a country in need of relief from a serious recession and high unemployment coupled with a need for major infrastructure investments. They also, of course, have to deal with the coronavirus pandemic and its effects.

The American Prospect magazine and the Biden-Sanders unity taskforce (which was created at the end of the Democratic primaries last summer) have identified 277 executive actions that the Biden-Harris Administration could take immediately. All of them are policies that have broad support within the Democratic Party. Many of them simply more fully implement or better enforce current laws. They would take important steps toward addressing important problems. [1] [2]

In summary, the Biden-Harris Administration could, without having to wait for Congress:

  • Revamp many aspects of our immigration system (see specific examples below),
  • Address climate change along with energy and environmental issues (see specific examples below),
  • Improve our education system and reduce the burden of student debt (see specific examples below),
  • Make our tax system and economy fairer (specific examples will be in my next post),
  • Make important reforms in the criminal justice system (specific examples will be in my next post),
  • Expand access to health care and lower drug prices (specific examples will be in my next post), and
  • Strengthen the safety net by expanding unemployment benefits as well as housing and food assistance (specific examples will be in my next post).

Specific executive actions could include:

  • Change immigration policies
    • Enact a 100-day ban on deportations while reviewing current immigration and border practices
    • Rescind the “Zero Tolerance” immigration policy, which is effectively a family separation policy
    • Rescind policies limiting admissions of refugees and asylees
    • End the freeze on issuing new green cards, which allow non-citizens to permanently live and work in the U.S.
    • Rescind the declaration of an emergency for the purpose of funding a Mexico border wall
  • Address climate change, energy, and environmental issues
    • Rejoin the Paris Climate Agreement
    • Re-protect federal land including reinstituting bans on mining and drilling
    • Reinstate the Clean Power rule limiting carbon emissions from power plants
    • Re-institute and then strengthen auto and truck emissions standards
    • Reinstate the Cabinet-level Interagency Council on Environmental Justice
    • Tighten regulations on the release of methane, sulfur dioxide, ozone, mercury, and coal ash
    • Make all 3 million government vehicles at all levels of government zero-emission vehicles
    • Buy clean energy and require federal contractors to do so as well
    • Make home energy efficiency programs accessible for low-income households
    • Establish a task force for planning the transition to clean energy including supports for displaced workers
  • Improve our education system
    • Reduce student debt through various loan forgiveness programs and suspend debt payments during the pandemic
    • Reinstate the program to eliminate racial disparities in school discipline
    • End federal contracts with student loan servicers who have a history of misleading clients
    • Encourage states to develop and adopt a “multiple measures” approach to assessment
    • Appoint a federal task force to study charter schools’ impact on public education and make recommendations to strengthen public schools
    • Aggressively enforce the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act
    • Facilitate pathways for early childhood educators to obtain higher education degrees
    • Require for-profit colleges to demonstrate their return on investment before allowing their students to be eligible for federal student loans

Once President Biden and Vice President Harris have been inaugurated, I urge you to contact them and encourage them to act boldly using executive orders to improve racial and social justice as well as the economic well-being of every working American.

My next post will present examples of executive actions the Biden-Harris Administration could take on economic, criminal justice, health and health care, and other issues.

[1]      Moran, M., 7/28/20, “The 277 policies for which Biden need not ask permission,” The American Prospect (https://prospect.org/day-one-agenda/277-policies-biden-need-not-ask-permission/)

[2]      Dayen, D., Fall 2019, “The day one agenda” and related articles, The American Prospect (https://prospect.org/day-one-agenda)

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)

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/)

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

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

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/)

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

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

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 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

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)

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

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/

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)

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

DRUG COMPANY PRICE GOUGING: THE INSULIN CASE

A quintessential case of price gouging by drug companies, with serious and sometimes fatal consequences, is that of insulin. Roughly 30 million Americans have diabetes, a chronic disease where the body’s mechanism for controlling blood sugar levels isn’t working properly. About 7 million of them must take multiple doses of insulin daily to control blood sugar. Those with Type 1 diabetes, formerly referred to as early-onset or juvenile diabetes, suffer from a pancreas that doesn’t produced adequate amounts of natural insulin so they must use three to four 20-milliliter vials of manufactured insulin a month (or other equivalent forms of insulin). Failure to use insulin regularly to control blood sugar levels can be fatal or have serious long-term impacts on health, including on vision and mobility.

Insulin is a 100-year-old drug whose three developers at the University of Toronto in 1922 sold their patent rights to the University for $1 apiece. They thought this would guarantee affordable access to those needing it in perpetuity. They sold manufacturing and distribution rights to Lilly in the U.S. and Nordisk in Europe. After a year, competitors were free to enter the market.

Today, three big pharmaceutical corporations make the worldwide supply of insulin: Lilly, Novo Nordisk, and Sanofi. Their prices for insulin have skyrocketed, tripling from 2007 to 2017, resulting in their making billions of dollars in profits from their insulin sales.

The U.S. market has 15% of global insulin users but generates 50% of worldwide revenue because prices here are so much higher than they are elsewhere. [1] For example, vials of insulin that sell for close to $300 in the U.S. sell for $30 in Canada.

Insulin for a Type 1 diabetic costs about $1,300 a month in the U.S. Because the U.S. does not regulate drug prices as other countries do, insulin’s manufacturers have increased U.S. prices dramatically in recent years. For example, a 20-milliliter vial of insulin that cost $175 fifteen years ago costs $1,487 today, eight and a half times as much. Because Medicare, the U.S. health insurance for seniors, is prohibited by law from negotiating drug prices (a gift to the industry from friendly Congress people and a friendly President), Medicare spending on insulin grew from $1.4 billion in 2007 to $13.3 billion in 2017. While some of this increase is due to increased numbers of patients using it, per patient Medicare spending on insulin increased 358% from $862 to $3,949. Out-of-pocket spending by Medicare patients themselves also increased, going from $236 million to $968 million. [2]

Estimates of the cost to produce a vial of insulin range from $2.28 to $6.16 depending on the version of insulin and other factors, [3] so the $300 retail cost represents a huge mark-up and huge profits for the drug makers. Until the 1970s, the price of insulin stayed relatively low. In the 1940s the U.S. Department of Justice leveled small anti-trust fines on entities in the Lilly supply chain, indicating the U.S. regulators would intervene if prices were jacked up. [4]

Starting in the late 1970s, changes in politics and laws created increased opportunities for drug makers to profit from the exclusive rights granted by patents on drugs and to effectively extend the longevity of patent protections by tweaking a drug or its delivery mechanism. This set the stage for the pharmaceutical industry to become the most profitable industry in America. For example, Sanofi filed for 74 different patents on its version of insulin, which meant that it could go 37 years without any competition. As of 2014, the three big insulin makers held 19 active patents on their insulin products.

Often the new, patented versions of insulin provide limited benefits to patients, despite their significantly higher prices. However, aggressive marketing campaigns and partnerships with improved delivery devices lead to prescriptions for the new more expensive, and more profitable, products.

A study published in the Internal Medicine edition of the Journal of the American Medical Association found that one in four insulin users (26%) in the U.S. had rationed their insulin use due to high costs; in other high-income countries the rate was only 6.5%. [5] Diabetics who couldn’t afford their insulin have died when they tried to do without or to ration their supply. Many others have endured financial hardships that have required them to use retirement savings, move to cheaper housing, sell possessions, or limit purchases of food and other drugs.

Even for individuals with health insurance, the high price of insulin is problematic because of increased co-payments for drugs and because deductibles they must pay before insurance coverage kicks in have, on average, quadrupled over the last 10 years.

The grassroots organizers of the #insulin4all campaign are working to change U.S. policies and make insulin affordable. Their campaign may prove to be the spark that leads to regulation and negotiation of all drug prices in the U.S. Advocacy is increasing in energy and urgency because diabetics are literally fighting for their lives as insulin makers jack up the price and they don’t see government standing up for them.

The issue of drug prices and particularly insulin prices is, finally, getting increased attention. Congress is holding hearings on insulin prices. Federal and state legislation is being considered. Colorado has passed legislation capping co-payments for insulin. Some advocates have called for nationalizing the insulin market and public manufacturing of generic drugs, including insulin.

I urge you to contact your state and federal elected representatives and to ask them to pass legislation to control the price of insulin and stop price gouging by the drug industry.

[1]      Shure, N., 6/24/19, “The insulin racket,” The American Prospect (https://prospect.org/article/insulin-racket)

[2]      Silverman, E., 6/22/19, “Insulin rationing high in US, survey finds,” The Boston Globe

[3]      Silverman, E., 6/22/19, see above

[4]      Shure, N., 6/24/19, see above

[5]      Silverman, E., 6/22/19, see above

ON-GOING RUSSIAN ELECTION INTERFERENCE MUST BE STOPPED

Since the release of the Mueller report, the focus has been on obstruction of justice by and possible impeachment of President Trump. The report’s documentation of Russian election interference has gotten little attention. Concomitantly, there has been little attention to the need to protect our future elections from on-going Russian meddling.

Based on the Mueller team’s finding of “sweeping and systematic” interference by Russia in the 2016 presidential campaign, it indicted 25 Russians. Russian operatives used every major social media platform, and used them extensively, to spread false information, exacerbate social divisions, and influence the election.

The Mueller report spells out in detail the blatant and illegal efforts by Russia to affect the 2016 presidential election specifically to benefit Donald Trump and to undermine Hillary Clinton. It presents substantial evidence “that the Russian government perceived it would benefit from a Trump presidency and worked to secure that outcome, and that the [Trump] Campaign expected it would benefit electorally from information stolen and released through Russian efforts.” [1] [2]

Highlights from a much longer list of events related to Russian interference in the election include the following: [3]

  • September 2015: The FBI warns the Democratic National Committee (DNC) that at least one of its computers has been hacked by Russians.
  • June 2016: The Washington Post and others report that hackers working for the Russian government have stolen DNC emails and other information. Wikileaks announces that it has Clinton and DNC emails and documents. It begins publishing them in July.
  • July 2016: Russian intelligence agency hackers target Hillary Clinton’s home office.
  • October 2016: The Department of Homeland Security and the Office of National Intelligence on Election Security officially state that the U.S. intelligence community is “confident that the Russian Government directed the recent compromises of emails from U.S. persons and institutions” and are behind the releases of stolen documents by Wikileaks and DCLeaks. DCLeaks is later identified as a front for Russian military intelligence.
  • Late November and December 2016: Various media outlets report that the CIA has determined that Russia’s goal in interfering with the election wasn’t just to undermine confidence in the election and the U.S. government, but was also to support Trump and hurt Clinton. They also report that this intelligence has been shared with Congress.
  • Late December 2016: President Obama issues an executive order naming six Russians who took part in the presidential election hacking and imposing sanctions on Russia.
  • June 2017: A Department of Homeland Security official testifies before the Senate that hackers linked to the Russian government targeted voting systems in up to 21 states and compromised at least one email account at an American voting machine company. Although no evidence of effects on vote counting were found, voter information may have been accessed.
  • July 2018: The Justice Department, as part of Mueller’s investigation, indicts 12 members of Russian intelligence for persistent efforts to hack emails and computer networks associated with the Democratic Party.
  • September 2018: Facebook announces that more than 3,000 ads posted between June 2015 and May 2017 had undisclosed links to Russia. CNN reports that these ads targeted voters in Michigan and Wisconsin, two states Trump won narrowly and that were key to his victory.

In January 2017, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence issued an Intelligence Community Assessment entitled, “Assessing Russian activities and intentions in recent US elections.” [4] It states that it is a “declassified version of a highly classified assessment; its conclusions are identical to those in the highly classified assessment.” It concludes that Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election was the most recent example of Russia’s longstanding efforts to undermine US democracy but represented a significant escalation of their efforts.

It finds with “high confidence” that Russian President Putin ordered the efforts with goals of aiding Trump and hurting Clinton. It also concludes with “high confidence” that Russian military intelligence was behind the release of hacked information. It states that “Russian intelligence obtained and maintained access to elements of multiple US state or local electoral boards. … We assess Moscow will apply lessons learned from its Putin-ordered campaign aimed at the US presidential election to future influence efforts.” (p. iii)

The Trump campaign was happy to accept the help of the Russians, apparently without actively conspiring (i.e., colluding) with them. It nonetheless engaged in a variety of contacts with Russian agents and did not report offers of help from them to the FBI or others. Members of the Trump campaign and family, including the President himself, lied to the FBI and others on multiple occasions about their contacts with Russians.

To respond to the evidence of on-going Russian attempts to influence our elections, the House and the Senate should continue the investigation and identify remedies. Based on their findings, they should formulate legislation and allocate resources to ensure the integrity of our future elections.

One would think that any American president and any Members of Congress, regardless of party or ideology, would support a thorough investigation of Russian interference to determine how to block future threats to our elections, and ultimately our national sovereignty and security. The Republican-controlled Senate and the formerly Republican-controlled House have refused to do so. The Republicans in Congress have abandoned their oath of office and American democracy in the interests of their re-election and political power.

President Trump, as the Mueller report spells out in detail, has repeatedly tried to terminate, limit, or impede the investigation of Russian interference in our elections. Trump’s actions make it clear that his concern is not for American democracy, but reflects three things: [5]

  • Acknowledgement of Russian meddling on his behalf undermines the credibility of his election in 2016,
  • On-going Russian efforts benefit his presidency, and
  • Russia’s activities improve his likelihood of re-election in 2020.

Former President Ronald Reagan, who branded Russia the “evil empire” and worked assiduously to win the Cold War with Russia, must be turning over in his grave to see his Republican party failing to protect America’s elections from Russian interference.

Despite President Trump’s resistance to an investigation, the FBI, intelligence agencies, and the Department of Homeland Security have made their task forces on election interference permanent. The FBI recently moved 40 agents and analysts to its Foreign Influence Task Force. [6] However, without leadership from the President, and the cross-agency coordination and support that would provide, the efforts by these agencies will be less effective.

I urge you to contact your U.S. Representative and your Senators and urge them to take action to protect our elections from meddling by Russia or other foreign actors.

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]      Cole, D., 4/23/19, “An indictment in all but name,” The New York Review of Books (https://www.nybooks.com/articles/2019/05/23/robert-mueller-report-trump-indictment/)

[2]      Mueller, R. S., III, May 2019, “Report on the Investigation into Russian Interference in the 2016 Presidential Election,” U.S. Department of Justice (www.justice.gov/storage/report.pdf)

[3]      CNN, 4/18/19, “2016 presidential campaign hacking fast facts,” CNN Library

[4]      Office of the Director of National Intelligence, January 2017, “Intelligence Community Assessment: Assessing Russian activities and intentions in recent US elections,” (https://assets.documentcloud.org/documents/3719492/Read-the-declassified-report-on-Russian.pdf)

[5]      Cole, D., 4/23/19, see above

[6]      Barnes, J. E., & Goldman, A., 4/26/19, “F.B.I. warns of Russian interference in 2020 race and boosts counterintelligence operations,” The New York Times

WHO WAS BAILED OUT AFTER THE 2008 FINANCIAL CRASH?

The 2008 financial crash and resultant bailout have been in the news recently for two reasons: 1) some critiques have been leveled at Sen. Bernie Sanders’ statement on the presidential campaign trail that no Wall St. executives went to jail and that they got a trillion-dollar bailout, and 2) a new book has come out: Crashed: How a decade of financial crises changed the world by Adam Tooze. The book has been described as insightful and telling a story that is both “opaquely complex and dazzlingly simple.” [1] In terms of Sen. Sanders’ statement, it takes a real spin doctor to dispute the truth of it (see below).

In the aftermath of the 2008 implosion of the huge Wall St. corporations, the U.S. government and Federal Reserve Bank came to the rescue. The government quickly made $700 billion available to bailout the Wall St. firms. Otherwise, twelve of the 13 largest ones probably would have gone bankrupt in late September or October of 2008 (as Lehman Brothers did before the rescue was in place and the scale of the disaster was clear). The government also bailed out the auto industry, insurance companies (e.g., AIG), and the quasi-public mortgage-purchasers Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.

In addition, the Federal Reserve Bank (Fed) made unprecedented purchases of assets from the technically bankrupt financial corporations under the innocuous-sounding banner of “quantitative easing”, to the tune of over $4 trillion. The six largest firms alone (JPMorgan Chase, Bank of America, Citigroup, Wells Fargo, Goldman Sachs, and Morgan Stanley) also borrowed about $500 billion from the Federal Reserve Bank in peak periods of need. [2] Furthermore, the Fed extended what were effectively loans to the central banks of other countries of an also unprecedented $10 trillion. Estimates of the overall contribution of the Fed to the bailout range from $7.7 trillion to $29 trillion.

In addition, the U.S. government supported the big financial corporations in a variety of other ways. For example, short-selling of 799 financial stocks was banned in 2008 to protect these companies from free market speculation, which boosted their stock prices. Emergency bank charters were given to Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley on Sept. 21, 2008, so they could borrow from the Fed as only banks can do. In October, the Fed, for the first time in history, paid interest to the banks on required reserve deposits. Shortfalls in required reserves and failed stress tests were effectively ignored. And except for one relatively low-level officer at Credit Suisse, no one and no company was criminally prosecuted or went to jail. The value of all these benefits is truly incalculable.

Therefore, pinning down a single figure for the total bailout is impossible because there were so many different pieces and the amounts in some of them fluctuated daily, given that banks borrow money from the Fed daily to meet their reserve requirements. However, to state that it was a trillion-dollar bailout is definitely true and to say that no Wall St. executives went to jail is also true for all meaningful purposes.

With all this bailout money and support for the financial corporations and the financial system, one might think that some significant money or support would have been made available to bailout out the workers and homeowners caught in the maelstrom of Wall St. malfeasance. However, precious little assistance was made available to the millions of homeowners trying to pay mortgages on homes where the mortgage was now greater than the value of the home, given that many homes had lost half their value. Very little was done for the millions of homeowners who suffered foreclosure. And it was not only individuals who suffered; whole communities – usually minority and low-income communities – were underwater due to predatory and discriminatory mortgage lending by the big financial corporations and their agents. Moreover, millions were unemployed as the economy went into a severe recession due to the malfeasance on Wall St. [3]

Two things make all this truly galling. The first is that despite the massive intervention of the U.S. government and the Fed, the rescued financial corporations were not required to change their basic mode of operation. The instability of speculative financial transactions that is endemic in their model of profitability and the huge financial rewards for employees, especially executives, was left intact, along with public insurance against losses that threaten consumers’ deposits.

The second galling outcome is that no executives of the financial corporations were punished, either through significant loss of compensation or criminal prosecution, let alone jail time. Remember, that in the 1980s Savings and Loan crisis, which was much smaller in scale, nearly 900 executives of Savings and Loan banks went to jail.

“The contrast between the solicitous care shown the culpable financial sector and the negligence shown to the innocent homeowner was startling.” [4] As a result, class-based economic inequality in the U.S. was exacerbated and economic gaps in income and wealth between Whites and Blacks grew dramatically.

The bailed out financial corporations were expected to make loans available to help households and businesses, as well as to avoid foreclosures whenever possible. When foreclosure was unavoidable, it was expected that the financial corporations would promptly resell those homes. These actions would have helped individuals, businesses, and communities recover. However, no requirements were placed on bailed out banks to do these things and, therefore, they did not happen.

The programs that were supposed to assist homeowners typically had draconian rules to prevent “undeserving” homeowners from benefiting. The story line from Wall St. and its backers on Capitol Hill was that home buyers were the ones at fault; they should have known better than to be duped by the predatory practices of the mortgage brokers or that the home buyers were simply trying to live above their means. This concern about benefiting undeserving individuals clearly did not extend to the undeserving bank and financial sector executives responsible for perpetrating fraud in the mortgage business and crashing their companies and the economy.

Similar opposition blocked the expansion of unemployment benefits and job training for workers who had lost their jobs. On the other hand, there were no significant limits put on the pay of executives whose corporations were bankrupt without the bailout, let alone requirements that executives pay back compensation they had received based on profits generated by fraudulent activities.

As the Great Recession lingered on and jobs, homes, and economic security did not return (still true today for many people), the deep anger and discontent that set in was the breeding ground for support for Trump.

The 2008 financial crisis and the bailout of the financial corporations and their executives, but not the homeowners and workers who suffered from the resultant crash, are exhibit one in the indictment of the corporate takeover of U.S. policy making. I urge you to contact your elected officials and ask them to stand up against corporatocracy and demand democracy back. Our government should work for the people, the workers and homeowners of America, not the big corporations.

[1]      Bloom Raskin, S., Winter 2019, “Whose recovery was it?” The American Prospect (This article is a review and commentary on Tooze’s book.)

[2]      Taibbi, M., 3/18/19, “Turns out that trillion-dollar bailout was, in fact, real,” RollingStone

[3]      Bloom Raskin, S., Winter 2019, see above

[4]      Bloom Raskin, S., Winter 2019, see above, page 86

RACISM ON THE SUPREME COURT?

On June 25, 2013, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled, in a 5 to 4 decision, that key provisions of the Voting Rights Act (VRA) were unconstitutional. The case was formally known as Shelby County, Alabama v. Eric H. Holder, Jr., Attorney General. Chief Justice Roberts wrote for the majority (which included Justices Scalia, Kennedy, Thomas, and Alito) that “Our country has changed” and claimed that it had done so so dramatically since the initial passage of the VRA in 1965 that the VRA was now not only unneeded but unconstitutional.

This decision was shocking to many, in part because the Act had been reauthorized in 2006 by overwhelming majorities in Congress and signed into law without controversy by President George W. Bush. The Congressional vote, with Republicans in control of both the House and the Senate, was 390 to 33 in the House and 98 to 0 in the Senate in favor of reauthorizing, i.e., extending, the Voting Rights Act.

The over 15,000 pages of evidence compiled by Congress in its review of the VRA in 2006 indicated that it was still badly needed. The Chair of the House Judiciary Committee, Republican Representative James Sensenbrenner of Wisconsin, a conservative, noted that evidence had been “assembled to show the need for the reauthorization of the Voting Rights Act” and that it documented “the extensive record of continued abuse” of voting rights. [1]

This extensive evidence clearly established that the country hadn’t changed much since the VRA’s enactment in 1965 with respect to efforts to impede voting by Blacks in some areas, particularly the South. It documented relentless efforts in some states to counter the effects of the VRA. The on-going nature of these efforts was confirmed by actions taken almost immediately after the Court’s ruling overturning the VRA. (See some specifics below.)

The Supreme Court in effect ruled that Congress had acted irrationally in 2006 in reauthorizing the VRA. Chief Justice Roberts’ and his colleagues’ decision was based on their version of reality, which was in contradiction to the evidence amassed by Congress. Roberts probably wouldn’t have been persuaded by any evidence, given that he had worked zealously in 1981, when he was at the Justice Department, to roll back the protections of the VRA.

At best, the Court’s decision was a failure of empathy or a triumph of ideology, but more likely it reflected racism.

Justice Scalia, in the oral arguments leading to the decision, described the VRA as being a “perpetuation of racial entitlement” and stated that he didn’t believe any legislator would vote to end such an entitlement once society had adopted it. Therefore, it was up to the Court to declare it unconstitutional, because this was the only way to end this racial entitlement. [2] Why the right to vote, which is a core principle of our democracy, would be considered a “racial entitlement” is hard to understand except from the perspective of racism.

The irony here, of course, is that the racial entitlement that exists in U.S. society is the entitlement of Whites. For most of the two hundred years of its existence, there were all White elected officials, police forces, corporate executives, judges and juries, as well as schools, colleges, and teachers, to list a few examples. And while our country has begun to change in this regard, there still is a long way to go to achieve anything close to equity.

What occurred after the elimination of the protections of the VRA has made it clear how virulent efforts to suppress voting, particularly of Blacks, are today. Within two hours after the Supreme Court issued its decision on the VRA, Texas took steps to reinstitute its strict photo ID law, which had previously been struck down by a federal court. The day after the decision, North Carolina amended a pending bill to make its voter ID law stricter and added other provisions eliminating or restricting opportunities to vote that targeted minority voters. Changes in voting procedures in other states, which had previously been blocked by the federal government under the VRA, were quickly implemented.

After years of litigation, federal courts have forced the reversal of the actions of Texas and North Carolina because their changes in voting laws were found to be intentionally racially discriminatory. However, in the intervening years, the discriminatory provisions were in effect. Overall, federal courts have now ruled that at least 10 of the new, state restrictions on voting were illegal.

In the five years since the Supreme Court’s overturning of the VRA, nearly 1,000 polling places have been closed, many of them in predominantly Black areas. Access to early voting has been cut, voters have been purged from the lists of eligible voters, and requirements to show a voter ID or provide proof of citizenship have been implemented. [3] Nine states had been subject on a statewide basis to VRA oversight of changes in voting procedures (Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina, Texas, and Virginia). In every one of them at least one of the above five impediments to voting has been implemented (the average was 2.3 impediments). Eight of the 9 moved or eliminated polling places and 8 of 9 implemented new voter ID requirements. Four of these impediments to voting were implemented in each of two other states, where only parts of the states had been subject to the VRA (Florida and North Carolina).

Clearly, the Supreme Court majority was in error when they concluded that the country had changed and the protections of the VRA were not only no longer needed, but had risen to the level of being unconstitutional oversight of states’ elections by the federal government. Given that the Court is extremely unlikely to reverse itself, it is up to Congress to pass a new VRA that will fill the gaps in the protection of voting rights created by the Court’s decision.

I urge you to contact your U.S. Representative and Senators to ask them to support a new Voting Rights Act. Our democracy should be encouraging and supporting voting by all eligible voters, and not allowing states or local jurisdictions to implement impediments to voting – especially when those impediments have disproportionate effects on Black 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.

[1]      Fountain, B., 2018, Beautiful Country Burn Again, HarperCollins Publishers, NY, NY. Quotations from page 406.

[2]      Fountain, B., 2018, see above. Quotation from page 409.

[3]      U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, 2018, “An assessment of minority voting rights access in the U.S.: 2018 statutory report.” (https://www.usccr.gov/pubs/2018/Minority_Voting_Access_2018.pdf)

CONTROLLING DRUG PRICES

Clearly, we need better regulation of drug prices and the drug industry in the U.S. Unwarranted, steep increases in drugs’ prices and higher prices than in other countries are key indicators of the need for better regulation to lower prices. And, as recent investigations have uncovered, this applies to the generic drug makers as well as the brand name drug makers. It is estimated that if there were a truly free market for prescription drugs in the U.S., they would cost $80 billion instead of $430 billion, an annual savings of $350 billion. (See my previous post for more information.)

Three bills have been introduced in Congress to address the high and rapidly rising costs of prescription drugs in the U.S. They have been introduced in the Senate by Senator Sanders of Vermont and in the House by Representatives Khanna of California and Cummings of Maryland.

First, the Prescription Drug Price Relief Act would terminate patents, ending monopoly rights, for any drug whose price exceeded the median (middle) price among five comparable countries: Canada, the United Kingdom, France, Germany, and Japan. Drug prices in these countries are roughly half of what they are in the U.S., so our drug prices would come down substantially under this law. It is expected that drug companies would lower prices voluntarily if this law is passed; they wouldn’t want to lose their patent protections because, if they did, competition would likely drive prices even lower.

Second, the Medicare Drug Price Negotiation Act would allow Medicare to negotiate the prices it pays for drugs. Given that it spends roughly $100 billion a year on drugs, almost a quarter of all drug purchasing, it has substantial negotiating power. When the Medicare drug benefit was created, the Republicans in control of Congress and President George W. Bush did the pharmaceutical industry a huge favor by prohibiting Medicare from negotiating drug prices and also prohibiting the importation of drugs. The Veterans’ Administration and every private health insurance company, as well as every other country, save substantial amounts of money by negotiating drug prices with the drug manufacturers.

(In a classic case of the revolving door between government and industry, Representative Tauzin, chair of the committee that wrote the Medicare prescription drug law, resigned two months after the bill was signed into law to become the head of the pharmaceutical industry’s trade association at an estimated salary of $2 million. His pay would increase to $11.6 million five years later.)

Third, the Affordable and Safe Prescription Drug Importation Act would allow the importation of drugs from other countries with safety standards comparable to those in the U.S., such as Canada and Germany. This would be a step toward a truly free market, something our business community rhetorically supports, and would significantly reduce drug prices given that prices in these countries are roughly half of what they are in the U.S. The charge by opponents that this would let unsafe drugs into the country rings hollow because many of our drug companies themselves import the drugs they sell or ingredients for them – largely from China.

I urge you to contact your U.S. Representative and Senators to ask them to support these three bills. It is time to reduce the exorbitant profits of the drug makers by reducing the exorbitant prices of the drugs they sell. Furthermore, reducing their high profit margins would reduce the incentive to engage in fraudulent practices to promote additional sales of their drugs.

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.

RAISE THE MINIMUM WAGE? FEDS: NO! VOTERS: YES!

The bad news is that Congress and the President have not raised the federal minimum wage since July 2009 when it was set to $7.25 (about $14,500 per year for a full-time worker). After adjusting for inflation, it is now worth only $6.19. At its peak in 1968, the minimum wage was worth $11.39 in today’s dollars. If it isn’t raised by this July, which seems unlikely, it will have been 10 years that low-income workers governed by the federal minimum wage have gone without a raise; the longest period without an increase since it was first establish in 1938. [1]

Failing to raise the minimum wage as inflation increases prices shifts money from low-income workers’ pockets and the local economies where they spend their earnings to the pockets of their employers’ executives and shareholders. This is borne out by the fact that executive pay and corporate profits are at record levels. The minimum wage does not get increased because employers are greedy and politicians cater to wealthy campaign supporters rather than regular voters and workers. By the way, the best data available show that increasing the minimum wage does NOT reduce overall employment.

The good news is that some states and communities, often driven by grassroots activists, are increasing the minimum wage. On January 1, 2019, the minimum wage in 20 states and 24 communities went up, increasing pay for over 5 million workers. Over the course of the year, workers will earn over $5 billion more as a result. In eight states, the minimum wage is linked to inflation and is automatically adjusted each year. Alaska is one; there the minimum wage will go up, but by just $0.05 per hour, the smallest of the increases. [2]

The minimum wage increases were set by legislative action in six states and by local governing bodies in the communities where the wage increased. In New York City, for example, the minimum wage went up by $2.00 per hour.

In six states, increases in the minimum wage were the result of ballot measures that voters approved. Increasingly, as the federal government and some state governments (Arkansas and Missouri for example) are refusing to increase the minimum wage, grassroots activists are taking matters into their own hands and putting increases on the ballot.

The bad news is that in Michigan and the District of Columbia (D.C.) legislators blocked, reduced, and/or delayed increases in the minimum wage that had been put forth by voters! In D.C., city councilors overturned a law approved by 55% of voters that would have increased the minimum wage of tipped workers so that over time it would be the same as the minimum wage for other workers. [3]

In Michigan, the Republican legislature and Governor went out of their way to deny the will of the voters. Over 300,000 citizens had signed a petition to put a minimum wage increase on the November ballot, where its approval seemed certain. The ballot measure would have increased the minimum wage from $9.25 to $10 on January 1, 2019, to $12 by 2022, and then had it increase automatically based on inflation.

In September, the Michigan legislature and Governor, in an effort to circumvent the proposed minimum wage increase, adopted the language of the ballot initiative. This meant it would not appear on the ballot, thereby denying voters the opportunity to approve it. Then, the legislature voted for (and the Governor signed) a delay in the minimum wage increases with the increase to $12 delayed from 2022 to 2030! They also eliminated the automatic increases based on inflation. This would likely mean that minimum wage workers would see their real wages (after adjusting for inflation) decline over this period.

The good news is that the Michigan law that allows the legislature and Governor to intercept a ballot measure and prevent it from appearing on the ballot by approving it, states that the approved measure cannot be amended in the same legislative session. However, this is exactly what they did. Therefore, a lawsuit to the state’s Supreme Court is likely and would appear to have a good chance of succeeding. [4]

Given the almost 10 years since the federal minimum wage was increased and the 40 years of other policies that have left workers’ wages stagnant, raising the minimum wage at the state or local level is perhaps the most effective way to lift the incomes of our lowest-paid workers. Unfortunately, 21 states still rely on the federal minimum wage of $7.25.

The resistance of our elected officials to increasing the minimum wage reflects the extent to which many Republican and some Democratic elected representatives are more responsive to large employers and their wealthy executives and shareholders than to every day workers. The fact that every minimum wage increase that’s appeared on the ballot has been approved by voters shows the strength of support for a higher minimum wage among the voting public.

[1]      Ingraham, C., 12/27/18, “Here’s how much the federal minimum wage fell this year,” The Washington Post

[2]      Cooper, D., 12/28/18, “Over 5 million workers will have higher pay on January 1 thanks to state minimum wage increases,” Common Dreams (https://www.commondreams.org/views/2018/12/28/over-5-million-workers-will-have-higher-pay-january-1-thanks-state-minimum-wage) or Economic Policy Institute (https://www.epi.org/blog/over-5-million-workers-will-have-higher-pay-on-january-1-thanks-to-state-minimum-wage-increases/)

[3]      Cooper, D., 12/28/18, see above

[4]      Anzilotti, E., 12/6/18, “Michigan Republicans decide that people can live on $9.25 an hour for the next decade,” Fast Company (https://www.fastcompany.com/90277788/michigan-republicans-decide-that-people-can-live-on-925-an-hour-for-the-next-decade)

ELIMINATING NUCLEAR WEAPONS

Many Americans are concerned that the belligerent and impulsive behavior of President Trump could lead us into war and, in a worst-case scenario, into nuclear war. The President can independently order the launch of nuclear weapons at any time and for any reason. Furthermore, Trump’s announced intention to withdraw from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (which has been in force for over 30 years) and to spend $1.7 trillion to update the U.S.’s new nuclear arsenal increase the likelihood of nuclear war.

With these and other factors in mind, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists has moved its Doomsday Clock to 2 minutes from midnight (i.e., doomsday). The clock had been at 17 minutes from midnight in 1991 but has been moving closer since then and has moved from 3 minutes away in 2016 to 2 minutes today.

Any nuclear war would have catastrophic consequences for human beings and our planet. Detonation of one-tenth of the 15,000 nuclear weapons that exist (with all but about 1,000 of them in the hands of the U.S. and Russia) would almost certainly kill all humans on the planet via the huge radioactive cloud that would circle the Earth and rain down everywhere.

Even the detonation of a single nuclear weapon would, of course, be locally devastating. Today’s nuclear weapons are up to 100 times more powerful than the two bombs the U.S. dropped on Japan at the end of World War II, each of which destroyed an entire city and killed roughly 100,000 people.

The U.S. should reduce the likelihood of accidentally launching a nuclear weapon, many of which are still on a quick-launch protocol that dates from the Cold War with the Soviet Union. We could change our policies on the initial use of nuclear weapons, re-evaluate missile defense, and strengthen diplomacy. We could also do more to reduce the possible use of a nuclear weapon by terrorists or other countries around the world. The Union of Concerned Scientists has excellent information on all of this on their website.

The most encouraging news on the nuclear weapons front is the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW), which is now in the ratification process around the world. On July 7, 2017, a United Nations conference adopted this Treaty by a vote of 122 countries in favor, one opposed, and one abstention. The conference met for over 40 days in 2017 with all U.N. member countries, along with non-governmental organizations, encouraged to participate.

The Treaty will go into effect 90 days after the 50th country ratifies it. The Treaty includes comprehensive prohibitions on developing, producing, testing, possessing, or threatening to use nuclear weapons. [1] The Treaty’s introduction states that given “the catastrophic humanitarian consequences … from any use of nuclear weapons, … the only way to guarantee … [they] are never used again” is to “eliminate such weapons.” It notes that “any use of nuclear weapons would be contrary to the rules of international law … abhorrent to the principles of humanity and the dictates of public conscience. … Concerned by the slow pace of disarmament … and the waste of economic and human resources on … the production, maintenance and modernization of nuclear weapons” the conference participants agreed that the elimination of nuclear weapons was necessary and appropriate. [2]

The International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN), a coalition of over 500 organizations in over 100 countries and the winner of the 2017 Nobel Peace Prize, is working to get the Treaty ratified. So far, 69 countries have signed it and 19 have ratified it. Once 50 countries ratify it, nuclear weapons will be banned under international law. [3]

The U.S. has not ratified the Treaty, but California, the U.S. Conference of Mayors, and several cities and towns, including Los Angeles and Baltimore, have endorsed it. Raising the issue of unnecessary, expensive, and dangerous nuclear weapons may serve as a vehicle to more broadly address the U.S.’s militarism, which is harmful geopolitically and economically.

I urge you to contact your local, state, and national elected officials and to ask them to endorse the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons. These weapons serve no rational purpose and their existence is an existential threat to humankind. The costs and dangers of simply having and maintaining them, of terrorists capturing and using a nuclear weapon, and of working with and disposing of the radioactive material involved are not justifiable. A world free of nuclear weapons would be a safer and saner planet to live on.

[1]      United Nations Office for Disarmament Affairs, Retrieved from the Internet on 1/5/19, “Treaty on the prohibition of nuclear weapons” (https://www.un.org/disarmament/wmd/nuclear/tpnw/)

[2]      United Nations Conference to Negotiate a Legally Binding Instrument to Prohibit Nuclear Weapons, Leading Towards their Total Elimination, 7/7/2017, “Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons” (https://www.un.org/disarmament/tpnw/)

[3]      Fihn, B., 11/8/18, “The fate of the earth depends on women,” The Nation (https://www.thenation.com/article/nuclear-prohibition-beatrice-fihn/)

INVESTING IN INFRASTRUCTURE AND A GREEN ECONOMY: THE PROPOSALS

My previous post outlined the need for investing in our infrastructure while simultaneously taking advantage of opportunities to make our economy more environmentally friendly and fairer for workers. Here are overviews of some of the infrastructure investment proposals that various groups have developed to address these issues.

The Democrats have proposed “A Better Deal to Rebuild America” which calls for a $1 trillion federal investment in infrastructure that would create more than 16 million jobs. It would invest in green infrastructure and ensure opportunities for small businesses. It would incorporate strong environmental protections and labor standards. It proposes investing in roads, bridges, rail, and public transit; high-speed internet; schools; airports, ports, and waterways; and water and energy systems.

The infrastructure proposals from the Congressional Progressive Caucus, [1] the Campaign for America’s Future, [2] and Demos [3] have much in common and share similar underlying visions. The Campaign for America’s Future’s proposal is put forth as a “pledge to fight for good jobs, sustainable prosperity, and economic justice.” It incorporates investment in traditional and green infrastructure along with ensuring that workers can form unions to bargain collectively for better wages and benefits. It supports a living wage, affordable health care and child care, and paid family leave, sick and vacation time for workers. It advocates for full employment with particular attention to helping individuals and communities harmed by discrimination, de-industrialization, and privatization.

Demos proposes an economic agenda that addresses issues of race and class, while motivating working people to “engage in the civic life of their communities and our nation.” Its 25 policies mirror the goals of the Campaign for America’s Future’s pledge. They also call for investment in affordable housing and for guaranteed employment for everyone who wants to work, with the federal government as the employer of last resort (as was done during the Great Depression).

In an article in The American Prospect, Jon Rynn recommends considering health care, education, and financial infrastructure as part of the infrastructure investment paradigm. This reflects the inclusion of human capital and public goods, not just physical capital, as important components of overall infrastructure. Universal health insurance, such as Medicare for All, would expand health care infrastructure and support the productivity of human capital. Affordable public college and early care and education (aka child care) are both pieces of educational infrastructure and are investments in the current and future workforce’s human capital. Finally, regulating the financial industry and creating public banks would be ways of strengthening and democratizing financial infrastructure. [4]

A recent addition to the infrastructure proposals being promoted in Congress is the Green New Deal. It isn’t as detailed as the proposals mentioned above; it’s more of a vision statement. It envisions a substantial investment in infrastructure and the green economy. It would transform our economy by decarbonizing it to address climate change, while also making it fairer. [5]

After the October release of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report that presented ominous data and predictions about global warming, a series of events occurred that have pushed the Green New Deal into the spotlight. After the November election, Representative (and soon-to-be House Speaker) Pelosi announced that she planned to revive the Select Committee on Energy Independence and Global Warming to pursue bipartisan action. However, climate change activists viewed the Committee and a bipartisan approach as likely to continue to be fruitless.

So, the youth-led Sunrise Movement organized a sit-in in Rep. Pelosi’s office, calling for a committee charged with developing a plan to meet the goals deemed essential by the IPCC report. Sunrise approached Representative-elect Ocasio-Cortez, who had campaigned in support of a Green New Deal, and asked her to help publicize the sit-in. She not only agreed to do so and to reach out to other new representatives, but agreed to attend the sit-in. Roughly 200 activists occupied Pelosi’s office on November 13 with significant media attention.

Sunrise, Rep. Ocasio-Cortez, and others in or coming into Congress developed a proposal for a Select Committee on a Green New Deal. By December 10, forty members of Congress had endorsed the proposed committee and an even larger occupation of Pelosi’s office occurred.

While the specifics of a Green New Deal are to be determined, its four core elements are:

  • Decarbonizing the economy
  • Large-scale public infrastructure investment
  • Federally-guaranteed employment for everyone who wants to work
  • A just transition to a green economy with remediation for those most negatively affected by historical discrimination, climate change, and the shift to a green economy

For any infrastructure investment program, the first question usually is, can we afford it? Many people would argue that we can’t afford not to make these investments and that the cost of climate change will be much larger than these costs if we don’t take aggressive steps to green our economy.

To put the suggested costs of roughly $500 billion per year for a significant infrastructure program in perspective, the Works Progress Administration’s budget in the 1930s was roughly 2.2% of Gross Domestic Product (GDP, the size of the overall economy). This would be about $450 billion per year today with U.S. GDP at $20.66 trillion. The tax cuts passed in 2017 cost roughly $200 billion per year. Congress and President G.W. Bush approved, on short notice, a $700 billion bailout of the financial sector after the 2008 crash and, in addition, by March 2009, the Federal Reserve had committed $7.8 trillion, more than 50% of GDP at the time, to rescuing the financial system. So, the answer to whether we can afford the proposed infrastructure investments is YES; we can afford it if we have the public and political will to make the commitment to repairing and modernizing our infrastructure while greening our economy and making it work fairly for the benefit of all.

If Democrats are willing to commit to a Green New Deal (GND), which means standing up for a fair economy and taking aggressive steps to address climate change, they could reap the benefits of the current grassroots energy behind these issues. Some Democrats will resist endorsing a GND, fearing the loss of campaign donations and support from wealthy individuals and corporations. However, not supporting a GND would risk squandering a tremendous opportunity, both politically and to do what’s good for our people, our democracy, our country, and our planet.

I encourage you to communicate with your U.S. Senators and Representative about infrastructure investment and the Green New Deal. Nothing is more likely to persuade them to support a GND than hearing from constituents who care about climate change, well-maintained infrastructure, and an economy that works for everyone. I welcome your comments and feedback on steps you feel are needed to make our economy fairer and more responsive to regular Americans, as well as to tackle global warming and climate change.

[1]      Blair, H., 7/24/18, “‘The People’s Budget’: Analysis of the Congressional Progressive Caucus budget for fiscal year 2019,” Economic Policy Institute (https://www.epi.org/publication/the-peoples-budget-analysis-of-the-congressional-progressive-caucus-budget-for-fiscal-year-2019/)

[2]      Campaign for America’s Future, 2018, “The Pledge” (http://campaignforamericasfuture.org/pledge/)

[3]      Demos, 1/31/18, “Everyone’s economy: 25 policies to lift up working people” (https://www.demos.org/publication/everyones-economy)

[4]      Rynn, J., 6/28/18, “What else we could do with $1.9 trillion,” The American Prospect (https://prospect.org/article/what-else-could-we-do-19-trillion)

[5]      Roberts, D., 12/26/18, “The Green New Deal explained,” Vox (https://www.vox.com/energy-and-environment/2018/12/21/18144138/green-new-deal-alexandria-ocasio-cortez)

ELECTION AND ETHICS REFORM

With Democrats taking over control of the U.S. House in January, there’s a wide range of issues they might tackle. Even if many of the bills they propose, and hopefully pass, don’t become law (because they aren’t passed by the Senate or are vetoed by President Trump), they will frame the debate going forward and into the 2020 elections. Furthermore, policies can become law by attaching bills or provisions to must-pass bills such as those funding the government. This is a tactic that has been used for many, many years and has been used frequently by Republicans over the last 12 years. Talking about substantive issues will shift the discussion to ideas from personalities and to meaningful, long-term policies to address important problems rather than short-term, idiosyncratic, one-off deal making.

Two key topics will be the focus of the first bill in the new House in January. They were the first two topics on my previous post’s list of possible issues for House Democrats to address. They are:

  • Elections: stop voter suppression, encourage voting, stop gerrymandering, and reform campaign financing (e.g., limit contributions, provide matching public funds, and require full disclosure of spending and donors)
  • Ethics: address conflicts of interest for Congress and all federal workers; stop the undue influence of special interests obtained through lobbying, the revolving door, and campaign expenditures

Rep. Nancy Pelosi, the current leader of the House Democrats (and likely Speaker of the House come January), has stated that the first bill in the new House in January, known as H.R. 1, will address the restoration of democratic principles and procedures. It will address election and integrity issues where government of, by, and for the people has been undermined by wealthy individuals and corporations. The overall goal of the bill will be to end the ability of special interests to bend public policies to their benefit and against the interests of hard-working Americans and our democracy. This will restore Congress’s and the federal government’s abilities to enact policies that address the problems of average Americans. This is essential to renew the public’s faith in our democracy. [1]

Pelosi’s bill would do many of the things President Trump promised to do during his campaign when he stated he would “drain the swamp” in Washington, D.C. His actions and appointments have done nothing to drain the swamp and have probably made things worse.

This bill will address the huge amounts of money in our elections and the significant portion of that money that is “dark money” – money where the identity and interests of the true donor are hidden. The bill would require all organizations making donations to or expenditures on campaigns to disclose who their donors are. [2]

The proposed legislation would also take steps to increase the impact and number of small-dollar campaign donors. Incentives would be provided for individuals to make small campaign donations and the impact of those donations would be multiplied by matching them with public funds. Candidates who agree to accept these matching funds would have to limit the size of donations they accept and, perhaps, their overall spending.

The Pelosi bill would re-establish the Voting Rights Act’s protections of every citizen’s right to vote and would stop voter suppression. It would make it easier to vote through automatic and on-line voter registration while strengthening election infrastructure to prevent hacking and ensure accurate, auditable, tabulations of votes. To ensure that everyone’s vote has a fair chance of being meaningful, it would end gerrymandering, probably by requiring that an independent redistricting commission in each state draw congressional district boundaries.

The bill would strengthen ethics and conflict of interest laws governing Congress and federal government workers. It would ban members of Congress from serving on the boards of for-profit companies, which presents a clear conflict of interest. It would also enhance disclosure of who’s lobbying the federal government, so these efforts would be publicly known and not hidden in the shadows. And it would require Presidents to disclose their tax returns.

Pelosi’s bill would implement a code of ethics for Supreme Court Justices, who are currently exempt from the code of ethics that applies to other federal judges. [3]

It would close the revolving door of personnel between government positions and private sector jobs, which creates major conflicts of interest and is a major avenue for undue influence by special interests. It would prohibit employers from giving bonuses to reward employees for moving into public sector positions (as Wall St. has done repeatedly in the past). These individuals often go back to the same private sector employers later. The bonuses present the individuals with a significant conflict of interest from day one in their public sector job, particularly if the bonus is being paid out over time and, therefore, is being received when they are in their public sector role.

Tackling elections and ethics reform as a top priority makes sense for several reasons. First, these issues are very much on voters’ minds. Voters passed several ballot measures addressing them at the state and local levels in November, as was summarized in a previous blog post. Publicity about voting and ethical scandals in the Georgia election, as well as in Florida and North Carolina, have heightened the public’s awareness and concern about these issues. [4] In addition, candidates who refused corporate and PAC money fared very well in November. Noting incumbents’ acceptance of special interest money and linking it to specific votes was an effective tactic for beating them. [5]

Second, over the longer-term, addressing elections and ethics issues is critical to restoring democratic decision-making to government by ending the undue influence of wealthy individuals and corporations. This is essential to making progress on every other issue that would advance the public good. A fairer political process, where government is truly of, by, and for the people, is necessary to eliminate the system-rigging power of wealthy individuals and corporations. This will actually drain the Washington swamp. [6] Restoring faith in the fairness and integrity of our elections and policy making is a necessary first step toward restoring trust in our government.

If Democrats are willing to commit to a new code of conduct and to stand up for true democracy, they could reap the benefits of the current backlash against corrupt behavior by elected officials and the overall corruption of our political processes. There’s an opportunity to lead on re-establishing fairness and integrity in our politics. Some Democrats will resist this, fearing the loss of campaign donations and spending by wealthy individuals and corporations, but not doing so will risk losing a tremendous opportunity, both politically and for the good of our democracy.

I encourage you to communicate with your elected officials at the national and state levels about these issues. Nothing is more likely to persuade them than hearing from constituents who care about fair and ethical elections and behavior by government officials. I welcome your comments and feedback on steps you feel are needed to make our elections and policy making fairer and more responsive to regular Americans.

Thank you for your feedback on the list of topics in my previous post. In upcoming posts, I will delve into infrastructure investment and environmental policy issues since these were the two topics that were most frequently identified as priorities.

[1]      Pelosi, N., & Sarbanes, J., 11/25/18, “The Democratic majority’s first order of business: Restore democracy,” The Washington Post

[2]      Wertheimer, F., 10/10/18, “House Democratic challengers demand campaign-finance reforms,” The American Prospect (http://prospect.org/article/house-democratic-challengers-demand-campaign-finance-reforms)

[3]      Mascaro, L., 12/1/18, “House Democrats’ bill seeks reforms,” The Boston Globe from the Associated Press

[4]      Carney, E. N., 11/29/18, “Read it and weep: Georgia lawsuit paints stark portrait of voter suppression,” The American Prospect (http://prospect.org/article/read-it-and-weep-georgia-lawsuit-paints-stark-portrait-voter-suppression)

[5]      Lardner, J., 11/30/18, “What the Democrats must do first,” The American Prospect (http://prospect.org/article/what-democrats-must-do-first)

[6]      Lardner, J., 11/30/18, see above

BALLOT MEASURES IN THE 2018 ELECTIONS

For a variety of reasons, but often because the established policy-making process has been unresponsive to citizens’ desires, proposed laws are put on election ballots for direct voter approval. This occurs both at the state and the local levels. In 2018, there were many such ballot measures on a great variety of topics from election reforms to energy and financial regulations to health care and financial matters to ethics and criminal justice issues to marijuana legalization to abortion and government administrative issues.

In the 2018 election, voters in 37 states decided 155 statewide ballot measures. Of those where a final result is available, 107 were approved and 47 were defeated. Of the 64 citizen-initiated measures, 32 were approved and 32 were defeated, for a 50% approval rate. For the 89 ballot measures initiated by legislative action or a commission, about 82 percent were approved. [1]

A number of these ballot measures addressed issues related to elections. To reduce gerrymandering, four states’ voters approved ballot initiatives that establish independent redistricting commissions to draw lines for congressional and state legislative districts after the 2020 Census. In Missouri, voters approved the establishment of the first ever state demographer position and enacted some unique competitiveness and partisan fairness criteria for state legislative districts. Ohio voters approved a ballot measure back in June that created a new redistricting system requiring super-majority, bi-partisan votes to approve new congressional districts. [2]

Automatic voter registration was approved through ballot measures in two states and two states’ voters approved same day registration. In Florida, a ballot measure passed that will restore voting rights to roughly 1.4 million citizens who have completed their sentences for felony convictions. Six states and more than a dozen local jurisdictions passed ballot measures strengthening ethics laws, requiring greater disclosure of campaign contributions, or regulating money in politics. [3] On the downside for access to voting, two states approved ballot measures establishing voter ID requirements.

Voters in Idaho, Nebraska, and Utah approved ballot measures expanding Medicaid eligibility, a state option under the Affordable Care Act (aka Obamacare). Some Republican Governors and legislatures have opposed this expansion of Medicaid simply because it was part of Obamacare, even though it was very low cost to the states and would have provided health insurance to tens of thousands of low-income residents. A ballot measure to extend Montana’s Medicaid expansion beyond June 2019 failed, although the legislature and Governor could still extend it. Recreational marijuana sales were legalized in Michigan and Missouri but defeated in North Dakota, while medical marijuana was approved in Utah.

Some of these ballot measure had large amounts of money spent on campaigns for and against them. In general, state laws do not restrict spending on ballot questions, so where corporate interests are at issue, corporations often spend large amounts of money on ballot measure campaigns. For example, a California ballot measure to limit dialysis clinic’s revenue had over $130 million spent on it, of which $110 million was spent in opposition to the measure, which failed. A California local rent control measure had over $100 million spent on it, three-quarters in opposition, and it failed. An energy market-related measure in Nevada had almost $100 million spent on it, with two-thirds in opposition, and it failed. In Arizona, an energy market-related measure with over $50 million in spending failed with 57% spent in opposition.

Among the 10 ballot measures in 2018 with the most spending (all had over $30 million in spending), the side spending more money won in every case.

So, although the results varied, there were a number of distinctly progressive ballot measures that were approved as part of the 2018 election. In several cases, they were approved by margins of over 60% even when the state’s partisan candidates’ races were very close. This was true, for example, for Florida’s restoration of voting rights to those with felony convictions and in Michigan for voting and redistricting reform.

In my next post, I will share some thoughts on policy issues that should be high on the House Democrats’ agenda when they take over control in January.

[1]      Ballotpedia, retrieved 11/23/18, “2018 election analysis: Notable ballot measure results,” (https://ballotpedia.org/2018_election_analysis:_Notable_Ballot_Measure_Results)

[2]      Rapoport, M., 11/9/18, “Tuesday’s verdict on voter suppression and gerrymandering,” The American Prospect (http://prospect.org/article/tuesday%E2%80%99s-verdict-on-voter-suppression-and-gerrymandering)

[3]      Weiser, W., & Weiner, D. I., 11/9/18, “Voters are hungry for democracy reform,” Brennan Center for Justice (https://www.brennancenter.org/blog/voters-are-hungry-democracy-reform)

STOPPING VULTURE CAPITALISM

The term vulture capitalism is used to refer to financial manipulation techniques used to extract profits from companies without regard to their health or survival. [1] Workers, consumers, suppliers, and the communities where a company is based, as well as taxpayers, typically end up getting the short end of the stick while the vulture capitalists realize significant financial gains. In previous posts, I outlined the vulture capitalist business model and highlighted several examples of vulture capitalism in action.

Vulture capitalism is allowed and facilitated by existing laws and regulations. These need to be changed to restrict private financial gain at the expense of our society and economy. Vulture capitalism is like pollution, it harms the public good while private interests benefit.

Here are some steps that should be taken to rein in vulture capitalism:

  • Reduce the amount of debt (i.e., loans) a company is allowed to have. Pass laws setting limits or institute bank regulations limiting lending to companies with high levels of debt.
  • Limit the payment of dividends to vulture capitalists in the period right after they buy a company. Dividends could be banned for two years after the acquisition of a company, which is what Europe does.
  • Require increased transparency from vulture capitalists, including the disclosure of all fees and expenses they charge to companies they control, as well as the share of profits they take.
  • Stop the favorable tax treatment of the income of vulture capitalists (aka the carried interest loophole). Currently, their income is taxed at only 15% while other high-income individuals typically pay 35% to 40%. Vulture capitalists’ income should simply be treated the same way as everyone else’s earned income.
  • Reduce the tax benefit of companies’ large interest payments by reducing the deductibility of interest expenses when debt exceeds a certain level. (Note: The 2017 Tax Cuts and Jobs Act took a step in this direction by limiting the deductibility of interest when calculating corporate income tax. Businesses with revenues over $25 million are only able to deduct interest expenses of up to 30 percent of adjusted taxable income. This targets the biggest leveraged buyout deals and was included in the tax bill because it raises $253 billion in government revenue over ten years.) [2]
  • End the favorable tax treatment of commercial real estate ownership so that sale / lease back deals are not profitable.
  • Make stock buybacks, which artificially boost the price of a stock, illegal, as they were before 1982, especially if borrowed money is used to pay for them.
  • Treat vulture capitalists as owners of companies (which they are) instead of passive investors (which is how they are typically treated in court today). This would make them liable for unsafe working conditions and illegal treatment of workers, such as wage theft. They could also be held responsible for worker retraining and pension liabilities, for example, instead of being able to avoid these responsibilities when they put companies through bankruptcy.
  • Establish strict rules about conflicts of interest for vulture capitalists, so they can’t engage in self-dealing that enriches them while the company they own is stripped of assets and stability. Prohibit them from being both a shareholder (e.g., owner) and a creditor who has made loans to the company. Prohibit them from buying assets sold by the company. Prohibit them from keeping or reacquiring control of the company after it has gone through bankruptcy.
  • Change bankruptcy laws so that lenders to a company are not the first ones to get paid in a bankruptcy. Workers (and their pension benefits), suppliers and other business partners, and even communities that are harmed should not have to wait in line behind those who have loaned a company money, which usually means they get nothing in a vulture capitalism bankruptcy. The priority for paying lenders first in bankruptcy provides too great an incentive to provide big loans to companies for leveraged buyouts, dividend payouts, and acquisitions of other companies.
  • Give workers voting representation (or increased representation) on the Board of Directors of a company in return for concessions workers make in pay, benefits, working conditions, or workforce levels. This would reflect the fact that the workers have made a major investment in the viability of the company. In Europe, it is routine for workers to have voting representation on companies’ Boards. A strong argument can be made that US companies would be more equitably run if this were the case here.

I urge you to ask your elected officials to take action to stop vulture capitalism. It undermines our economy and society, contributes to economic inequality, and does substantial harm to workers, suppliers, consumers, communities, and taxpayers. The only people who benefit are the greedy vulture capitalists.

[1]      Wikipedia, retrieved 10/24/18, “Vulture capitalist,” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vulture_capitalist

[2]      Dayen, D., 3/20/18, “Private equity: Looting ‘R’ us,” The American Prospect (http://prospect.org/article/private-equity-looting-r-us)

WHY WE NEED A POLITICAL REVOLUTION

Bill Moyers – one of the most savvy and respected commentators on US politics and society over the last 40+ years – just published an interview with the author of a book Moyers describes as the best political book of the year. [1] The author is Ben Fountain and the book is Beautiful Country Burn Again.

Fountain, an acclaimed novelist, was hired by The Guardian (a respected British daily newspaper with a US edition) to cover the 2016 US presidential race. His reflections on and analysis of the current US political environment are poignant and very relevant to this fall’s election.

Fountain found that millions of Americans are experiencing significant confusion, frustration, and anger. Working and middle-class people are finding it harder and harder to make ends meet and, therefore, are feeling more and more beleaguered. Their financial and psychological security has been undermined by the shredding of the social contract of the 1950s – 1970s, which promised that if they worked hard and played by the rules, they would have a secure middle class life. They are working harder than ever but, nonetheless, are falling further behind in their efforts to have a decent life, provide for their children, and have a secure retirement. Meanwhile, they see the wealthy doing better and better, getting richer and richer.

Fountain states that this is “not a situation that can be sustained long-term in a genuine democracy.” (p. 3 of the interview transcript). The tremendous increase in the inequality in income and wealth over the last 40 years has led many Americans to have a “basic, pervasive sense that the system is not fair.” (p. 4) Given this legitimate sense of grievance among the millions living economically precarious lives, the declaration by candidate Trump, Senators Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, and others that “The system is rigged” resonated strongly.

These beleaguered, aggrieved Americans are resentful and looking for an explanation for why they are experiencing such hard times. This makes them vulnerable to false narratives and scapegoating from politicians. This resentment is exacerbated by the fact that for many white Americans their position of power and privilege has been (rightfully) challenged over the last 50 years. The uncomfortable truths of the racism of America have presented “a challenge to some people’s identity and sense of personal integrity.” (p. 4)

Trump was a master at playing on this resentment, vulnerability, and discomfort. He gave many white Americans “psychological, emotional affirmation as an antidote for all the anxiety, all the resentment they’d been feeling.” (p. 5) Despite the obvious contradictions of Trump’s wealth, New York background, and anti-worker business practices, he provided easy-to-digest explanations and solutions for beleaguered white, working people (especially men). Fountain describes this as the “classic con man dynamic” that shows “how easily we’re taken in when we’re hearing what we want to hear … [which has] more to do with emotion and raw attraction than anything that might be called rational thought.” (p. 7)

Fountain says that the gullibility of the American public is in part due to what he calls the “Fantasy Industrial Complex.” The public believes in the possibility of the fantasy lifestyle we see in the advertisements and commercial propaganda that bombard us day and night from our screens in movies, TV, celebrity news, and social media. The cumulative effect is that this “numbs us out and dumbs us down.” (p. 8) As a result, “it takes a supreme effort of will on the individual’s part to distinguish advertising and propaganda from facts,” (p. 8) lies from truth, and fantasy from reality.

Fountain states that both of our political parties have lost their way. Trump, with the help and acquiescence of many others, has taken the Republican Party’s “politics of paranoia and racism, cultural resentment, xenophobia, misogyny and all the rest” to new extremes. The Democrats, during the 1990s with leadership from the Clintons, maintained their commitment to civil rights and diversity, including based on sexual orientation, but abandoned their commitment to workers, the poor, and Main Street for financial support from Wall Street and the wealthy. They stopped making the case for the important roles of government in maintaining a safety net and regulating business and the economy. As a result, the economic security of working and middle-class people collapsed, while income and wealth inequality skyrocketed.

The political power of the wealthy has been super-charged by changes in laws governing the financing of our political campaigns. Unlimited amounts of money can now be spent on campaigns and the sources of much of it may be kept secret. Without wealth, everyday citizens are left speechless in our elections and, therefore, underrepresented in the halls of government. The big campaign spenders have unprecedented access to and influence on policy makers, resulting in policy outcomes they favor and that benefit them further.

Democracy is overwhelmed by the hyper-capitalism in the US today with its great concentrations of wealth and power, both in our economy and in our political system and government. This is the result of the deregulation of business and the economy over the last 40 years, which has been supported by both political parties. The big corporations and the capitalists will overreach if they are unregulated and unrestrained. The 2008 crash demonstrated this again, as the savings and loan crash of the 1980s had, along with the dot com bubble crash and the crash that led to the Great Depression. Today, the system is indeed rigged, and the result is plutocracy – where the wealthy elites rule.

The American identity, and the exceptionalism of the US that the right-wing asserts, are based on democracy and the foundational principles of equality and representative government that is responsive to all the people. This is not the America we have today. Citizens can’t be equal with corporate CEOs and wealthy investors if they can’t earn enough to support a family and don’t have time to devote to public civic and political responsibilities, often because they are working multiple jobs or long hours.

Fountain concludes that “corporate power and concentrations of wealth have such a hold over our economic system that for the country to wrest some of that power from them, it can’t be incremental. It will take a political revolution.” (p. 12) The New Deal, responding to the 1929 financial crash and the Great Depression, was, in fact, a bloodless political revolution. It saved capitalism from itself, building the regulatory infrastructure that we relied on with great success for 50 years. It also built the physical infrastructure of sewers and water mains, parks, libraries, public buildings, the power grid, and many of the roads and bridges that we rely on to this day. We take all this largely for granted today, forgetting about the trauma that triggered it and the public sector response that turned the country around and built the foundation for the future.

Fountain notes that the American commitment to and understanding of the importance of public civic, political, and physical infrastructure “has been stunted the last 40 years by a very aggressive sales program on behalf of free-market fundamentalism and hard-core capitalism.” (p. 13) The subtitle of his book, Democracy, Rebellion, and Revolution, highlights his belief that we need a political revolution to save our democracy – and to save capitalism from itself.

You can be part of the political revolution:

  • By being an informed voter in this fall’s election, and
  • By encouraging and helping everyone you know to also be an informed voter this fall.

As I’ve written about previously, voter participation in the US is dismally low and higher voter turnout will produce different election and policy results. This is how the political revolution must happen.

[1]      Moyers, B., 10/12/18, “The bold bravery of ‘Beautiful Country Burn Again’”, Common Dreams (https://www.commondreams.org/views/2018/10/12/bold-bravery-beautiful-country-burn-again)

OUR DEMOCRACY NEEDS MORE VOTERS

The United States has very low rates of participation in our “democracy,” which is perhaps most dramatically evident in our very low voter turnout. In our last presidential election – a very visible and hotly contested race – only a bit over one-half (roughly 56%) of those eligible voted. In the upcoming 2018 elections for Congress and state offices, it is likely that only a bit over one-third of those eligible will vote.

This low voter participation is not healthy for a democracy and is inconsistent with our democratic ideals and principles of government of, by, and for the people. Worldwide, most other democracies have higher voter participation; Belgium leads among the 34 advanced democracies at 87% with the US’s 56% in 27th place. [1]

Our voting system, with most voting procedures determined by the states, does little to encourage voter participation. For example, voting on Tuesdays, a work day, has never been convenient for working people. Moving election day to a weekend or making it a holiday would make voting more convenient and almost certainly increase participation. The voter registration rules set by the states have historically set deadlines to register to vote well before election day and required residents to appear in a government office to register, neither of which encourages voting.

In the 2016 presidential election, voter participation varied among the states from 74% in Minnesota and 71% in New Hampshire and Maine, to 42% in Hawaii and 50% in West Virginia. [2] Some states have encouraged voter participation by allowing early and expanded absentee voting, as well as same-day registration.

Many states are putting hurdles in front of potential voters rather than encouraging participation. In most cases, these efforts to restrict or discourage voting have political motivations, usually to reduce voting by groups that tend to vote for Democrats. Some states have reduced early or absentee voting. Some have reduced the number of voting locations, making it more difficult for some voters to get to the polls or resulting in waiting lines to vote, sometimes waits of over an hour.

Thirteen states have imposed more restrictive identification requirements for voting since 2010, typically requiring voters to produce a government-issued ID. It is estimated that 21 million eligible voters do not have a such an ID. So, in the states that require them, voting becomes much more difficult, requiring these potential voters to obtain a government ID in advance of the election. This and other policies that suppress voting are profoundly anti-democratic and have no valid, non-political rationale. [3]

Four states have laws that prohibit Americans who have been convicted of a felony crime from ever voting, even after they have completed their sentences. It is estimated that over 6 million Americans cannot vote because of this felony disenfranchisement.

In general, people who are better-off economically, have more education, and are older are more likely to vote and those who are low-income, young, and non-white are less likely to vote. For example, 41% of registered voters over 70 vote regularly while only 1% of those between 18 and 29 vote regularly.

Research has found that voters and non-voters support different economic policies. Not surprisingly, given their demographics, non-voters are more supportive of policies that promote economic equality and provide a safety net for those experiencing economic hardship. [4] Therefore, getting significant numbers of non-voters to vote would likely change election results and policies.

Some eligible voters don’t vote because they feel that their vote doesn’t matter. Gerrymandering of district boundaries means that indeed some voters don’t matter because the district they live in is overwhelming tilted to a party or ideology that they don’t support. In primary elections, some states require that you be registered in a party to vote in that party’s election. This means that the large number of voters who are independent or unenrolled in a party have no say in deciding which Democrat or Republican will appear on the ballot for the final election.

Some eligible voters feel, with good reason, that our electoral and political systems are rigged in favor of large corporations and employers, as well as the wealthy individuals who are typically the executives or investors in those corporations. Because our election campaigns are almost exclusively funded by wealthy individuals and corporations, and backed up with lobbying and the revolving door of personnel moving between corporations and positions in government, these alienated voters see no difference between the two political parties and feel their voices are inevitably drowned out at the ballot box and in policy debates.

Some analysts make the case that the lack of participation in our democracy and voting reflects not just a loss of faith in government and the efficacy of participation, but also a loss of experience with civic activity more broadly. A decline in volunteer participation in civic organizations and groups in the US has been documented since the 1960s. One study found that from 1994 to 2004 memberships in civic organizations and groups fell by 21%. This trend is likely accelerating. A 2010 census survey found that only 11% of respondents had served on a committee or as an officer of any group or organization in the previous year. Voluntary participation in churches, clubs, fraternal organizations, and labor unions, for example, provide individuals with experience with self-governance, democratic decision making, and participation in civic life focused on building community and working together for a greater good. As participation in local civic life has withered, the orientation to and understanding of the importance of participating in our democratic political process has declined as well. [5]

Higher voter participation would produce elected representatives that more accurately reflect the priorities of the public and, if participation were consistently high, would result in less partisanship and more stable policies. Currently, the Republicans in particular, but the Democrats too, are focused on low turnout elections where they pander to their hardcore supporters, known as their “base.” Therefore, their candidates and those who get elected tend to be focused on appealing to this small group of supporters who often have relatively extreme views. Higher voter participation would require the parties and their candidates to work to appeal to a broader set of voters. This would make a big difference in election results.

I encourage you to ask candidates and elected officials what they are doing to increase voter participation. This is a core issue that we must address if our democracy is to live up to its promise and potential.

[1]      The Sanders Institute, May 2018, “Why don’t Americans vote?” (https://www.sandersinstitute.com/blog/why-dont-americans-vote)

[2]      Khalid, A., Gonyea, D., & Fadel, L., 9/10/18, “On the sidelines of democracy: Exploring why so many Americans don’t vote,” National Public Radio (https://www.npr.org/2018/09/10/645223716/on-the-sidelines-of-democracy-exploring-why-so-many-americans-dont-vote)

[3]      Brennan Center for Justice, retrieved 9/18/18, “New voting restrictions in America,” (https://www.brennancenter.org/new-voting-restrictions-america)

[4]      Khalid, Gonyea, & Fadel, 9/10/18, see above

[5]      Appelbaum, Y., Oct. 2018, “Americans aren’t practicing democracy anymore,” The Atlantic (https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2018/10/losing-the-democratic-habit/568336/)

CONSUMER FINANCE PROTECTIONS UNDER ATTACK

Many in Congress and the Trump administration are openly working to weaken the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB). It was created as part of the Dodd-Frank Law, the major piece of legislation passed to reform the financial industry after the 2008 crash. The CFPB protects consumers from abusive and fraudulent practices of financial corporations, such as mortgage loans that consumers can’t afford (which were a major element of the 2008 crash and the foreclosures that destroyed many families’ savings), abusive and discriminatory practices on student and auto loans, usury by payday lenders, and deceptive marketing. The CFPB also reduces the risk of future financial industry crashes by stopping the marketing of financial products that can create financial bubbles and lead to high rates of loan defaults and bankruptcies. These can threaten the stability of financial corporations, as happened with mortgages in 2008.

The CFPB’s role is to protect consumers from unsafe financial products and practices in the same way that the Consumer Product Safety Commission protects consumers from unsafe physical products – from appliances to toys. The financial industry has opposed the CFPB from when it was first included in drafts of the Dodd-Frank legislation. The financial industry does not want to be held accountable. It wants to be able to make profits with no holds barred. It has been lobbying hard to have the CFPB emasculated.

Despite the valuable roles the CFPB can and has been playing, Congress and the Trump administration, at the urging of the financial industry, have been working to keep the CFPB from being an effective advocate for consumers by:

  • Blocking or repealing its consumer protection regulations
  • Stopping its enforcement actions
  • Weakening its independence and effectiveness

For example, in April Congress passed and the President signed a law repealing a Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) regulation that prevented car dealers and corporations making car loans from discriminating based on race. The CFPB had fined several lenders and dealers millions of dollars for charging higher interest rates to Black and Hispanic borrowers, even when they had the same credit scores as White borrowers. Consumer advocacy groups note that this discriminatory behavior is pervasive and repeal of this regulation will allow it to continue. [1]

In October, a law was passed repealing a CFPB regulation that allowed consumers to band together in class action lawsuits against financial corporations and prohibited financial corporations from forcing consumers into arbitration. Many financial institutions include mandatory arbitration clauses in the agreements consumers sign when they open a bank account, take out a loan, or get a credit card. This legal language, buried in the fine print, requires the consumer to pursue any claim against the company only through arbitration and not through the courts or a class action lawsuit. The arbitration process is skewed in favor of the financial institution and a typical consumer doesn’t have the time and resources to pursue their claim on their own. [2]

Forced arbitration language initially protected Wells Fargo and Equifax by preventing large-scale consumer scandals from coming to light. Forcing consumers to pursue claims individually in arbitration hid Wells Fargo’s opening of and charging millions of customers for unauthorized accounts. Only after many months did the authorities and the public become aware of the scandal and its scale, and force Wells Fargo to compensate customers. The same pattern occurred with Wells Fargo’s requirement that auto loan borrowers buy insurance they didn’t need and with Equifax’s huge data breach.

To respond to these problems, the CFPB issued a regulation banning the use of mandatory arbitration clauses by financial corporations in individual consumer agreements. However, at the behest of the financial industry, Republicans in Congress pushed through a bill repealing the regulation; Vice President Pence cast the tie-breaking vote in the Senate.

Separate from Congressional action, Mick Mulvaney, the acting director of the CFPB appointed by President Trump in November 2017, has delayed regulation of payday lenders, who charge usurious interest rates and often trap customers into loans they can never repay, while the lender collects huge amounts of interest and fees.

Mulvaney has also stalled the CFPB’s investigation of the Equifax data breach, which allowed hackers to obtain the personal information, including Social Security numbers and birth dates, of 145 million people. Equifax’s breach was particularly egregious because it was preventable: Equifax did not install a software patch that had been available for months. Equifax failed to disclose the breach for months while people’s identities and accounts were at-risk. And Equifax executives sold $2 million of stock in the months between the breach and its becoming public knowledge. [3]

Not content to just attack the regulations and enforcement actions of the CFPB, Mulvaney, the Trump administration, and members of Congress (mainly Republicans) have worked to weaken the CFPB’s organizational effectiveness and independence. In June, Mulvaney fired the agency’s 25-member advisory board which included consumer advocates, experts, and industry executives. It had played, and was created to play, an influential role in advising CFPB’s leadership on regulations and policies. Two days before their firing, eleven of the 25 members held a press conference to criticize Mulvaney for canceling legally required meetings of the advisory board, ignoring them and their advice, and making unwise changes at the CFPB. [4]

Mulvaney has stripped enforcement powers from the CFPB unit pursuing discrimination cases. He has undermined the consumer complaint system. [5] He has asked Congress to weaken CFPB’s power and independence by giving Congress and the executive branch more control over its budget and regulations. [6]

The reasons we need a strong and independent Consumer Financial Protection Bureau are clear. Its enforcement actions have led to a $1 billion fine on Wells Fargo for a series of misdeeds in consumer banking, lending, compliance with regulations, and overall management, [7] [8] as well as to a $335 million settlement with Citigroup for overcharging 1.75 million credit card customers over eight years. [9]

Since its creation, the CFPB has protected consumers from financial corporations that violate the law. It has gotten compensation of over $12 billion for more than 31 million victimized consumers. In less than 8 years, it has responded to over 1.5 million consumer complaints and issued, for example, new standards that make home mortgage documents clearer and easier to understand. At CFPB’s website, you can find information that will help you understand your credit score and make a good decision about a car or student loan. (See my earlier post about the CFPB here for more information.)

I urge you to contact your U.S. Representative and Senators and to ask them to support the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and the very valuable work it does. The efforts to weaken the CFPB and regulation of the big financial corporations are putting consumers at-risk and increasing the likelihood of another collapse of the financial sector and our economy. You can find your US Representative’s name and contact information here and your Senators’ information here.

[1]      Merle, R., 4/18/18, “The Senate just voted to kill a policy warning auto lenders about discrimination against minority borrowers,” Washington Post

[2]      Freking, K., 10/25/17, “Senate votes to end consumer credit rule,” The Boston Globe from the Associated Press

[3]      Rucker, P., 2/4/18, “Exclusive: U.S. consumer protection official puts Equifax probe on ice – sources,” Reuters (https://www.reuters.com/article/us-usa-equifax-cfpb/exclusive-u-s-consumer-protection-official-puts-equifax-probe-on-ice-sources-idUSKBN1FP0IZ)

[4]      Merle, R., 6/7/18, “Consumer bureau chief fires advisers,” The Boston Globe from the Washington Post

[5]      Singletary, M., 4/8/18, “Switching from watchdog to lapdog,” The Boston Globe

[6]      Merle, R., 4/3/18, “Trump-appointed head of consumer watchdog asks Congress to hamstring his agency,” Washington Post

[7]      Dreier, P., 2/7/18, “Wells Fargo gets what it deserves – and just in time,” The American Prospect (http://prospect.org/article/wells-fargo-gets-what-it-deserves-and-just-time)

[8]      Flitter, E., & Thrush, G., 4/20/18, “US to slap $1b fine on Wells Fargo,” The Boston Globe from the New York Times

[9]      Hamilton, J., 6/30/18, “Citigroup will repay $335 million to customers,” The Boston Globe from Bloomberg

THE DISMANTLING OF POST-CRASH FINANCIAL INDUSTRY REFORMS

Many in Congress and the Trump administration have either forgotten or don’t care about protecting us from the risky and corrupt behavior of Wall St. financial corporations that caused the 2008 economic collapse and Great Recession. They are repealing, weakening, or failing to implement the policies that were put in place to reduce the likelihood that such behavior and events would happen again. Keep in mind that those policies didn’t go far enough to prevent such as event from happening again – such as breaking up to too-big-too-fail financial corporations or separating risky financial trading activity from federally-insured consumer banking.

The Dodd-Frank Law was the major piece of legislation passed to reform the financial industry and reduce the likelihood of another meltdown. It included the creation of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) to protect consumers from unsavory practices by financial corporations, such as the making of mortgage loans that were highly likely, if not certain, to be unaffordable for the home owners.

The financial industry has fought the implementation of these new safeguards; industry-friendly regulators have moved so slowly that some of the provisions of the Dodd-Frank Law are just finally getting implemented eight years later. For example, the simple requirement that corporations disclose the ratio of the pay of the corporation’s Chief Executive Officer (CEO) to that of the midpoint of workers’ pay is just now being implemented. Honeywell Corporation just reported that its CEO made 333 times what it’s median employee earns. And it didn’t include the pay of employees in developing countries, which undoubtedly would have increased the ratio. Most measures of the CEO-to-worker pay ratio have found CEO pay to be between 200 and 350 times the pay of the median worker. Fifty years ago, the ratio was roughly 20 and even Harvard Business School gurus felt at the time that this ratio should be a ceiling on CEO pay. [1]

Meanwhile, Congress and the Trump administration, at the urging of Wall St. lobbyists, have been dismantling the Dodd-Frank financial reforms, including:

  • Weakening regulations that reduce the risk of big financial corporations going bankrupt
  • Blocking or repealing consumer protection regulations from the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB)
  • Stopping enforcement actions of the CFPB
  • Weakening the CFPB’s independence and effectiveness

Regulations that limit the risks from speculative financial transactions by big financial corporations are being weakened. Industry-friendly regulators plan to weaken the so-called Volcker Rule, thereby giving banks more flexibility to engage in financial trading activity that can be highly profitable but also vulnerable to big losses. Given that these banks also have consumer deposits that are federally insured, big losses could lead to the need for taxpayer bailouts (again). [2] Paul Volcker, the former head of the Federal Reserve banking and oversight system, had recommended this regulation to limit financial corporations from engaging in financial risk-taking when government-funded-insurance would end up covering any big losses. The six largest US financial corporations have spent millions of dollars lobbying for this change. (They are Bank of America, Citigroup, Goldman Sachs, JPMorgan Chase, Morgan Stanley, and Wells Fargo.)

Federal regulators are also proposing to reduce that amount of a financial corporation’s own money that must be available to cover any losses from lending, trading, speculating, and other activities. Currently, financial corporations must have only 6 cents of their own money (reserves) for every dollar of potential financial liability. This would mean that if the corporation sustained losses of just 6% on the tens of trillions of dollars of loans, trades, speculative investments, etc. that it has, that it would be bankrupt and looking for a government (i.e., taxpayer) bailout.

In 2008, the reserve requirement was only 3 cents on every dollar and the big financial corporations had losses of twice that amount. Therefore, the government and taxpayers had to provide trillions of dollars to bail them out and prevent bankruptcies that would have caused a much more severe economic collapse.

Given the experiences of 2008, it seems foolish to be reducing the reserves that financial corporations must hold to cover losses. However, reducing reserves and increasing leverage (as it is referred to) allows the financial corporations to make more and bigger financial transactions, which, if all goes well, can increase their profits. However, it also increases the risk that a bailout will be needed. [3]

The financial corporations claim that a reduction in reserve requirements will allow them to make more loans to spur business growth and the economy. However, there is no evidence of unmet demand for loans and experience indicates that the financial corporations will actually use the reduction in reserves to pay more to shareholders and executives, buyback stock, and engage in speculation and non-banking activities.

Note that the big financial corporations are all reporting record profits even before any of these changes goes into effect. Banks, overall, reported $56 billion in profits during the first quarter of 2018, up 28% from a year earlier. [4]

In May, Congress passed, and the President signed, a law reducing the stringency of the oversight of banks, weakening the oversight that the Dodd-Frank Law put in place to reduce the risk of bankruptcies and government bailouts. The 26 banks with between $50 billion and $250 billion in assets (including American Express and Ally Financial) are now exempt from the strictest oversight. The 12 biggest banks will still be subject to the strictest oversight, although they can probably take advantage of some of the weakening of oversight in the law.

One result of the law is expected to be mergers of small and medium size banks because they can get bigger without triggering stricter oversight. The law also exempts “small” banks (under $10 billion in assets) from the Volcker Rule banning risky financial speculation and from reporting detailed data on borrowers that was targeted at preventing discrimination. [5]

I urge you to contact your U.S. Representative and Senators and to ask them to support strong regulation of the big financial corporations. Encourage them not only to oppose efforts to weaken the regulations and oversight put in place by the post-collapse Dodd-Frank Law, but to strengthen regulations and oversight to prevent, not just reduce the likelihood of, another financial industry collapse and crisis for the economy. The weakening of the regulations and oversight of the big financial corporations is increasing the likelihood of another financial sector collapse that would do serious damage to our economy and require a government, taxpayer-funded bailout.

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

[1]      Meyerson, H., 2/22/18, The American Prospect blog (http://prospect.org/blog/on-tap?page=6)

[2]      Flitter, E., & Rappeport, A., 5/30/18, “Big banks to get a break from limits on risky trading,” The New York Times

[3]      Hoenig, T.M., & Bair, S.C., 4/26/18, “Relaxing bank capital requirements would risk another crisis,” Wall Street Journal

[4]      Thomhave, K., 5/25/18, “A Great Deal for Banks, Not So Much for American Jobs,” The American Prospect (http://prospect.org/blog/tapped/great-deal-banks-not-so-much-american-jobs)

[5]      Werner, E., 5/25/18, “Trump signs bill easing banking rules passed after crisis,” The Boston Globe from the Washington Post

STOPPING GERRYMANDERING; RESTORING DEMOCRACY

Gerrymandering, the manipulation of the boundaries of electoral districts to predetermine outcomes, has become more blatant, dramatic, and effective in the 21st century. Please see my previous post for a discussion of how extreme partisan gerrymandering is undermining our democracy. The redrawing of electoral districts is done every ten years after new population data is available from the Census. Typically, state legislatures do the redistricting, and these partisan, elected officials have a built-in incentive to engage in partisan and other types of gerrymandering.

Gerrymandering can be stopped through multiple strategies:

  • Challenging gerrymandered districts in court,
  • Establishing standards for districts and the redistricting process, and
  • Creating non-partisan commissions to do the redistricting.

Districts that appear to be gerrymandered are being challenged in state and federal courts. In Pennsylvania, state courts ruled that the districts drawn after the 2010 Census were illegally gerrymandered and the US Supreme Court upheld this finding. There are currently two other cases before the US Supreme Court, one from Wisconsin challenging Republican gerrymandering and one from Maryland challenging Democratic gerrymandering. Decisions are expected to be announced this month. Unfortunately, these decisions will probably be too late to allow the gerrymandering to be fixed before the 2018 elections. [1]

Another solution to gerrymandering is to write standards into state or federal laws that govern how districts are drawn and the redistricting process used to draw them. There are several statistical tests that can be done of historical election results to identify whether gerrymandering is likely to have played a role in the outcomes. These tests can also be applied to projected results based on party enrollment and past voting patterns in proposed districts. [2] [3] These tests are valuable because they can be used during the redistricting process or by courts afterwards to determine if districts are being drawn fairly.

Perhaps, most promising is the creation by states of truly non-partisan, independent redistricting commissions that remove redistricting from the hands of partisan legislatures. Currently, twenty-one states use some form of redistricting commission for redrawing either or both of state legislative districts and congressional districts. Some are more independent of partisan political influence than others. [4]

The use of and interest in redistricting commissions is growing. In 2017, 29 state legislatures considered bills related to creating redistricting commissions. In the Pennsylvania legislature, a bill to create a redistricting commission is gaining significant support. In other states, citizens are putting measures to create redistricting commissions on the ballot. In Ohio, a badly gerrymandered state, 75% of voters recently approved a proposal on the ballot to extend the role of their independent redistricting commission to include congressional districts, in addition to state legislative districts. This was forced on elected officials by a grassroots campaign that collected nearly 250,000 signatures. Michigan is likely to have a proposal on its November 2018 ballot to create such a commission because of a grassroots organization that collected 425,000 signatures. Redistricting reforms are likely to appear on the ballot this fall in Arkansas, Colorado, Missouri, and Utah. These redistricting reform efforts are backed by strong bipartisan coalitions. [5] [6]

Gerrymandering is a significant threat to representative democracy as it undermines the basic tenet that every voter has an equal voice. It distorts democracy and lets the voices of a small subset of voters, often those with extreme views, dominate elections. The elected representatives, therefore, tend to reflect these minority and often extreme views, leading to extreme partisanship and gridlock in our legislative bodies.

In gerrymandered districts, many voters, with good reason, don’t feel they have a voice and that their elected officials don’t represent their interests and points of view. The broad support for ending extreme partisan gerrymandering is bipartisan: 80% of Democrats, 68% of independents, and 65% of Republicans back efforts to end it.

I urge you to contact your representatives in your state legislature and ask them to ensure fair redistricting after the 2020 Census. If you’re in one of the states mentioned above as likely to have a relevant ballot question in November, I encourage you to find information on the effort to reform redistricting and then get involved if you can. To learn more about the redistricting process in your state, the National Conference of State Legislatures has information here, and if you’re interested in knowing if there was a bill filed in your state legislature relative to the creation of a redistricting commission look here. For more information on ending gerrymandering and other reforms to our voting systems in general, Fair Vote has lots of information on its website.

[1]      Wheeler, R., 2/28/18, “The Supreme Court and partisan gerrymandering cases,” The Brookings Institution (https://www.brookings.edu/blog/unpacked/2018/02/28/the-supreme-court-and-partisan-gerrymandering-cases/)

[2]      Wang, S., & Remlinger, B., 9/25/17, “Slaying the partisan gerrymander,” The American Prospect (http://prospect.org/article/slaying-partisan-gerrymander)

[3]      Royden, L., Li, M., & Rudensky, Y., 3/23/18, “Extreme Gerrymandering & the 2018 midterm,” Brennan Center for Justice (https://www.brennancenter.org/publication/extreme-gerrymandering-2018-midterm)

[4]      Wikipedia, Retrieved from the Internet 6/4/18, “Redistricting commission” (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Redistricting_commission)

[5]      Rapoport, M., 12/7/17, “Prospects brightening for redistricting reform,” The American Prospect (http://prospect.org/article/prospects-brightening-redistricting-reform)

[6]      Daley, D., 6/14/18, “Voters take charge in making elections more fair,” The Boston Globe

THE EFFECTS OF THE FEDERAL TAX CUT

The initial effects of the federal tax cuts enacted in December 2017 by the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act (TCJA) are now visible; they are not what their Republican architects promised.

Although it’s too early to know definitively if the tax cuts will have an effect on the overall economy, growth in the first quarter of 2018 was steady but not noteworthy. There is no evidence of the tax-cut-fueled acceleration of economic growth the Republicans promised. [1] The latest projections, as well as experiences elsewhere, strongly suggest that the effects on economic growth will be small at best.

The effects of the tax cut on the deficit are becoming clearer. The latest projections from the non-partisan Congressional Budget Office (CBO) are that the federal government’s revenue will be reduced by $1.3 trillion over the next 10 years. When the costs of paying interest on the growing debt are included, the CBO projects that the cumulative deficit will increase by $1.9 trillion over the period from 2018 to 2028 due to the tax cuts, despite the Republicans’ promise of no increase in the deficit. [2] Furthermore, the growth in the deficit will be exacerbated by the spending bill that was enacted in early 2018, which increases spending by $300 million over the next two years.

The CBO projects the federal government’s deficit will be $804 billion for fiscal year 2018, up 21% from 2017. Furthermore, it projects the deficit will be over $1 trillion a year by 2020, despite President Trump’s campaign promise to eliminate the deficit. From 2021 to 2028, the CBO estimates the deficits will average 4.9% of Gross Domestic Product (GDP), the total of all economic activity in the U.S. This is higher than at any time since World War II, except during the Great Recession of 2008 – 2009 when tax revenue slumped with the collapsing economy and spending was high to bail out Wall St. and to stimulate the economy.

The growing deficit reflects the gap between what the Republicans who control the federal government want to spend and their unwillingness to enact the taxes necessary to pay for it. This is blatant fiscal irresponsibility. Moreover, growing deficits are of serious concern when the economy is doing well and unemployment is low. In this situation, many economists and responsible officials recommend reducing the deficit and even generating a surplus, as President Clinton did, so that the country has the capacity to weather the next economic downturn.

Analysis of the individual tax cuts finds that the wealthiest households will receive the biggest tax cuts, both in terms of dollars and percentage increase in after-tax income. Households with incomes under $25,000 will receive an average tax cut of $40. Meanwhile, those with incomes from $49,000 to $86,000 will receive an average tax cut of about $800, those with incomes of $308,000 to $733,000 will get about $11,200, and those with incomes over $733,000 will get a tax cut of about $33,000. [3]

As an example of the benefits of the corporate tax cuts, the six biggest, multi-national banking corporations (JPMorgan Chase, Citigroup, Wells Fargo, Goldman Sachs, Morgan Stanley, and Bank of America) together paid at least $3.6 billion less in taxes for the first quarter of 2018 than they would have without the 2017 tax cut law. Before the tax cut, these corporations had paid 28% to 31% of their income in taxes; for the first quarter of 2018 they paid between 17.2% and 23.7%. Their tax rate is estimated to be 20% – 22% for the full year, meaning they will receive a tax cut of $19 billion for this year. [4] By the way, the tax cut law also provides benefits, and therefore incentives, to corporations to move jobs and profits overseas to dodge U.S. income taxes. [5]

The Economic Policy Institute projects that roughly 80% of the benefits of the corporate tax cuts will be passed on to shareholders and executives, and not used to pay employees or re-invest in the business. Although some corporations gave small raises or bonuses to their workers – thanks to intense public visibility and pressure – a huge chunk of the tax cut has been used to buy back company stock.

In just the four months since the tax cuts were enacted in December, corporations have announced more than $250 billion in stock buybacks. This rewards stockholders and executives as it pushes up the price of the corporation’s stock. These buyback announcements are an acceleration from an already record-high, $5.1 trillion of buybacks over the previous decade. Virtually all the profits of the country’s 500 largest corporations from 2005 to 2015 went to share buybacks and dividends, and not to workers’ wages or investments that would increase productivity, both of which have stagnated. [6]

Stock buybacks give huge rewards to corporate executives because much of their compensation is paid in shares of stock. For example, the CEO of Wells Fargo bank got a $4.6 million raise for the year due to the increase in the corporation’s stock price from stock buybacks.

Stock buybacks were illegal until 1982, which is roughly (and probably not wholly coincidentally) the same time wages stopped rising for most Americans. Before then, a bigger share of corporate profits was used to increase workers’ wages and re-invest in the business, rather than for less economically productive stock buybacks. [7]

Some corporations have announced bonuses or pay increases for workers. However, so far these announcements have applied to only 4.1% of workers and roughly 80% of them are one-time bonuses not on-going pay increases, even though the corporations’ tax cuts are permanent and on-going. [8] In some cases, the workers have not received (and may never receive) actual increases in pay. For example, some corporations have made the pay increases the subject of negotiations with unions. Corporations have announced spending 42 times as much on stock buybacks as on increases in employees’ pay. [9]

To put all this in some perspective, it is estimated that the Koch brothers, extremely wealthy corporate executives, will see their incomes increase by about $27 million per week or $1.4 billion per year. Not coincidentally, they have pumped hundreds of millions of dollars into Republican election campaigns over the last four years. Meanwhile, the few workers lucky enough to get a pay increase are typically getting, at most, a one-time bonus of a few hundred or maybe a thousand dollars for the year. [10]

I encourage you to contact your U.S. Representative and Senators and to ask them to support the Reward Work Act. This bill would significantly limit stock buybacks, give employees of publicly traded corporations the power to elect one-third of the corporation’s Board of Directors, and force corporations to use their tax cuts to reward their workers, instead of executives and stockholders.

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

[1]      Horowitz, E., 4/28/18, “So far, tax cuts aren’t noticeably driving growth,” The Boston Globe

[2]      Stein, J., 4/9/18, “Deficit to top $1 trillion per year by 2020, CBO says,” The Washington Post

[3]      Sammartino, F., Stallworth, P., & Weiner, D., 3/28/18, “The effect of the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act individual income tax provisions across income groups and across the states,” Tax Policy Center (http://www.taxpolicycenter.org/publications/effect-tcja-individual-income-tax-provisions-across-income-groups-and-across-states/full)

[4]      Sweet, K., 4/20/18, “Big banks saved $3.6 billion in taxes last quarter under new law,” Associated Press

[5]      Thomhave, K., “Even the CBO says the GOP tax reform will incentivize corporate offshoring,” The American Prospect (http://prospect.org/article/even-cbo-says-gop-tax-reform-will-incentivize-corporate-offshoring)

[6]      Heath, T., 4/13/18, “America’s biggest companies are announcing buybacks. But whose cash is it, anyway?” The Washington Post

[7]      Reich, R., 3/21/18, “The buyback boondoggle is beggaring America,” The American Prospect (http://prospect.org/article/buyback-boondoggle-beggaring-america)

[8]      Madrid, M., 4/13/18, “Waiting — and waiting– for corporate tax cuts to deliver those wage hikes,” The American Prospect (http://prospect.org/article/waiting-and-waiting-corporate-tax-cuts-deliver-those-wage-hikes)

[9]      Americans for Tax Fairness, retrieved 4/28/18, “Trump tax cut truths,” (https://americansfortaxfairness.org/trumptaxcuttruths/)

[10]     Hoxie, J., 4/18/18, “Five tax myths debunked,” Institute for Policy Studies (http://otherwords.org/five-tax-myths-debunked/)

THE UNDERMINING OF THE 2020 CENSUS

The 2020 Census is coming up soon and preparations for it are underway. You’ve probably heard about the controversy over the Trump administration’s effort to add a question on citizenship to the Census. Unfortunately, the politicization and undermining of the Census runs much deeper than just this question.

The Census is supposed to enumerate every person living in the U.S., regardless of whether they are a citizen or not. This is the Constitutional mandate of the Census. It’s used to determine boundaries for Congressional Districts and state legislative districts, as well as votes in the Electoral College (which, of course, elects the President). It’s also used every year to apportion $675 billion in federal funding for health care, schools, housing, and roads. Essentially every major U.S. institution uses Census data, from businesses analyzing markets to countless researchers analyzing demographics and driving policy decisions.

The 2010 Census was the most accurate one in history, but it over-counted white residents by almost 1% (e.g., people with more than one home) and under-counted Blacks by 2%, Hispanics by 1.5%, and Native Americans by 5% – failing to count 1.5 million residents of color. [1] The fairness and accuracy of the Census, as well as trust in it and its process, are essential elements of the core infrastructure of our democracy.

The undermining of an accurate count in the 2020 Census began in 2012 and has accelerated more recently. In 2012, Congress directed the Census Bureau, over the objections of the Obama White House, to spend less on the 2020 Census than it had on the 2010 Census, despite inflation and a population that was expected to grow by 25 million residents (about 8%). After Trump’s election in 2016, the Bureau’s budget was cut by another 10%, although some of that funding was just restored last month.

The Census Bureau’s Director resigned in June 2017 after Congressional budget cuts. The Deputy Director position was already vacant; however, the Trump administration has not yet nominated anyone to fill either of these posts. A rumored nominee was an academic without any Census experience who had supported racial and partisan gerrymandering of Congressional Districts. Meanwhile, the Trump administration has installed a “special adviser” at the Census Bureau who is from a partisan polling firm and who reports directly to the White House. These personnel issues undermine the Bureau’s ability to effectively run the 2020 Census.

Budget cuts have forced the Census Bureau to cancel crucial testing of the Census process. These tests are particularly important because for the first time the Census will be conducted primarily through on-line responses. Rather than mailing Census forms to every household, a postcard will be sent with instructions on how to fill out the on-line form. As in the past, Census workers, called enumerators, will visit households that don’t respond to the initial Census mailing to ensure the counting of those residents. Even though the initial response rate is likely to fall because of low-income or elders’ households that lack the technological capability to respond on-line, the number of enumerators has been cut by about 200,000, from 500,000 to 300,000. (Roughly a third of low-income households and a third of Black and Hispanic households lack Internet access and a computer.) The enumerators are also charged with finding and obtaining Census responses from residents who did not receive the mailing.

Budget cuts also forced the Census Bureau to cancel trial runs specifically designed to help it figure out how to reach hard-to-count populations. It also canceled two of three “dress rehearsals.” It has half as many field offices as it had in 2010. The development of the Bureau’s technology systems is behind schedule and the launch of its website is not scheduled until April 2020. Cybersecurity for the new on-line Census is a major concern as well. A group of 51 economists from across the country and across the political spectrum have written a letter to Congress supporting “robust funding of the 2020 Census sufficient to ensure a fair and accurate count of the U.S. population.” [2]

The budget cuts mean that the outreach and publicity the Census Bureau will do to encourage responding to the Census have been reduced substantially. Currently, the Bureau has only 40 employees working on outreach, compared with 120 at this point 10 years ago. States, cities, and private foundations are already working to fill this void, but they will be hard pressed to match the 2010 effort where the Census Bureau spent $340 million on promotional advertising.

As if these challenges to accurately counting every resident weren’t enough, the Trump administration recently announced its intention to add a question to the Census that would ask whether the respondent is a citizen. The Census Bureau was already concerned that the Trump administration’s anti-immigrant actions and rhetoric were going to make it harder to get an accurate count of immigrant residents, both documented and undocumented ones. A citizenship question will only exacerbate this challenge. Not only will non-citizens be less likely to respond to the Census, but citizens in the 16 million households with some undocumented members may refuse to respond out of fear of exposing their undocumented family members. [3]

The Trump administration says that getting citizenship data in the Census is necessary to enforce the Voting Rights Act and prevent discrimination against minorities. This claim would be laughable if its implications weren’t so serious. There hasn’t been a question on citizenship on the Census for 70 years. [4] Furthermore, the American Community Survey, which is done annually with a statistically accurate sample that consists of 3.5 million residents, does have a question on citizenship that provides the data needed to analyze issues where citizenship information is needed.

The opposition to adding a question on citizenship has been swift and broad. Six former Census Bureau Directors who served under both Republicans and Democrats wrote a letter in opposition. Two dozen states and cities have announced a lawsuit aimed at blocking the inclusion of this question. [5] Normally, adding a question to the Census is a careful process with testing to determine effects on response rate and other factors. In this case, there is no opportunity to test the effect of adding this question given that very limited field testing is being done and that it is already underway.

An under-count of immigrants and people of color would shift economic and political power to rural, white, conservative populations. These effects would last for at least the next 10 years until the 2030 Census. California estimates that each resident who is not counted will cost the state $1,900 in federal funding each year. It receives about $77 billion annually in federal funding and could lose about $2 billion each year for the next 10 years if its low-income and immigrant populations are significantly under-counted. This could also cost the state one or two seats in the House of Representatives and in the Electoral College.

A significant under-count in the 2020 Census would undermine the commitment of our democracy to treat each resident fairly. The Trump administration and the Republicans in Congress, by significantly under-funding the Census, by adding a question on citizenship, through their anti-immigrant actions and rhetoric, and by refusing to use more accurate statistical techniques, seem to be working hard to under-count hard-to-reach populations. Not surprisingly, these low-income, minority, young, and student populations are the same ones they are trying to keep from voting through ID requirements and other steps that make voting more difficult. They appear to be more than happy to undermine the 2020 Census and our democracy to achieve political goals.

The Census has an extraordinary reputation for counting all residents regardless of income, race, ethnicity, or immigrant status. Undermining confidence in the integrity of the Census by politicizing the process will erode trust that is essential to a functioning democracy. [6]

I urge you to contact your members of Congress and urge them to support adequate funding for the Census, to oppose a question on citizenship, and to strongly advocate for as accurate a count of all residents as is possible. You can find your US Representative’s name and contact information at: http://www.house.gov/representatives/find/. You can find your US Senators’ names and contact information at: http://www.senate.gov/general/contact_information/senators_cfm.cfm.

[1]      Berman, A., May/June 2018, “Hidden figures: How Donald Trump is rigging the Census,” Mother Jones (https://www.motherjones.com/politics/2018/03/donald-trump-rigging-2020-census-undercounting-minorities-1/#)

[2]      Economic Policy Institute, 4/2/18, “An open letter from 51 economists to Congress urging robust funding of the 2020 Census” (https://www.epi.org/publication/an-open-letter-from-51-economists-to-congress-urging-robust-funding-of-the-2020-census/)

[3]      Loth, R., 4/9/18, “Turning the apolitical Census into an anti-immigrant tool,” The Boston Globe

[4]      Cerbin, C. M., 3/27/18, “Citizenship question to be put back on the 2020 Census for first time in 70 years,” USA Today

[5]      Kamp, J., & Adamy, J., 4/13/18, “Citizenship question rankles in trial run of 2020 Census,” Wall Street Journal

[6]      Wines, M., 12/9/17, “With 2020 Census looming, worries about fairness and accuracy,” The New York Times

CRUELTY BY ICE

The Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agency’s practice of detaining and often deporting undocumented immigrants who are leading up-standing, productive lives and have no criminal record is disturbing. However, even more disturbing is ICE’s practice of separating law abiding – and in some cases asylum-seeking – parents from their children, including quite young children.

In one case, four months ago, a mother and her seven-year-old daughter from the Congo, fleeing threats to their safety, crossed the U.S.-Mexico border near San Diego and asked for asylum. Four days later, the mother was in a Southern California detention center, while her seven-year-old daughter was sent, without explanation, to a children’s detention center in Chicago. The government has filed no charges against them, nor alleged that they pose any kind of threat, nor contended that the mother was in any way unfit to take care of her young daughter. They have been permitted only infrequent phone calls and the girl is reported to have sobbed throughout each of the calls.

In another case, a Brazilian woman with a 14-year-old son sought asylum back in August. She was detained in Texas while her son was taken to a detention center in Chicago. In a third example, in November, a 30-year-old El Salvadoran arrived at the U.S. border with his infant son and asked for asylum. After a short detention, ICE officials took the 1-year-old son away from his father. The father remained in detention and for weeks he had no idea where his son had been taken. His son was subsequently released to the mother, while the father remained in custody. [1] This practice is not only inhumane, it violates US and international laws on the treatment of asylum-seekers.

The ACLU has filed a class-action lawsuit to compel ICE to reunite hundreds of parents and children, and to enjoin it from continuing the practice of separating children and parents. [2] No formal policy of separating parents from their children has been announced. However, administration officials have said that efforts are made to deter people from trying to enter the US and that one strategy is to separate children from their parents.

A complaint against the practice of separating children from parents has been filed with the Department of Homeland Security’s Inspector General. [3] Separating children from their parents when there are no allegations of abuse or neglect or of parent criminality is cruel and unusual punishment. It is also traumatizing for children, especially young children, in the best of situations – and these are often families fleeing violence in their home countries, which is likely to have traumatized children already. Further traumatizing these children by separating them from their parents will probably harm these children – and perhaps their parents – for life with symptoms akin to post-traumatic stress disorder. To intentionally do this to any child is unthinkable; it is truly an affront to basic humanity.

Perhaps not quite as horrible, but nonetheless inhumane, is the detention, and deportation in some cases, of undocumented parents who are here in the US pursuing legalization, who have no criminal record, and who are long-time, productive members of their communities. For example, in January, a Providence mother of a 2-year-old and a 4-year-old was detained when she met with immigration officials to pursue permanent resident status because she is married to a US citizen – the father of her two children. Totally without warning, she was detained for nearly a month. This 30-year-old mother has been in the US since she was brought here by her parents when she was 3 years old. [4]

In the last year, at least 14 immigrants in Massachusetts, Connecticut, and Rhode Island, who had applied for permanent residency, i.e., they were playing by the rules and were doing the right thing, have been detained. They are typically detained when they come to ICE for a scheduled appointment to pursue their residency application. Many are married to US citizens, which has traditionally been a common, straight-forward path to being granted permanent resident status. Arresting undocumented immigrants who are working with authorities on obtaining legal status is a new and aggressive tactic by ICE.

We must stop ICE’s inhumane separation of children from their parents. This practice traumatizes these children and has no humane rationale. Please sign this petition to the Secretary of Homeland Security, Kirstjen Nielsen, and ask her to stop ICE’s practice of separating children and parents: https://action.momsrising.org/sign/Separating_Children_from_Mothers_at_the_Border_Inhumane/?akid=10559.2198800.aG1I1P&t=19

I also urge you to call, email, and / or write your federal elected officials and ask them to do everything they can to stop ICE’s inhumane practice of separating children from their parents. You can find your US Representative’s name and contact information at: http://www.house.gov/representatives/find/. You can find your US Senators’ names and contact information at: http://www.senate.gov/general/contact_information/senators_cfm.cfm.

[1]      Harris, L.M., 12/21/17, “Our government must stop separating asylum-seeking families,” USA Today

[2]      Merchant, N., 3/10/18, “ACLU files suit over family breakups,” The Boston Globe from the Associated Press

[3]      LA Times Editorial Board, 3/5/18, “Separating children and parents at the border is cruel and unnecessary,” The LA Times

[4]      Cramer, M., 3/12/18, “Detained and bewildered,” The Boston Globe

GUN VIOLENCE PREVENTION POLICY CHANGES NOW!

In the wake of the tragic gun violence at a high school in Florida, surviving students have inspired the nation with their commitment to reduce gun violence in the US. They and many others are pushing states and the federal government to enact laws that will reduce gun violence. (See my previous post for ways to support this movement.)

Here are examples of policy changes that we should make at the state and federal levels to reduce gun violence. If you have any doubts about whether these policies would make a difference, please see the data on the results of the ban on semi-automatic weapons that Australia instituted after a mass shooting there in 1996 that are in this previous blog post. (Those statistics are from 2013 and I’m sure they would present an even more dramatic contrast today.)

  • Ban the sale of semi-automatic weapons. There was a federal ban on these weapons from 1994 to 2004, but Congress let it expire and has refused to re-enact it. Eight states have bans on semi-automatic weapons. At the very least, we should raise the age for purchasing a semi-automatic weapon from 18 to 21, which is the current requirement under federal law for the purchase of a handgun.
  • Ban the sale of high capacity magazines that often hold 30 bullets. Six or ten bullets are plenty for any reasonable civilian use. Again, at the very least, we should raise the age for purchasing a high capacity magazine from 18 to 21.
  • Institute a waiting period for the purchase of any gun. Florida, like many states, has a three-day waiting period (sometimes referred to as a cooling off period) for the purchase of a handgun but not for a semi-automatic weapon.
  • Institute a strong, effective background check requirement for ALL gun purchases.
  • Limit the number of guns and amount of ammunition an individual can buy in a given time period, such as a week or a month. At a minimum, require gun sellers to report to law enforcement any sales of multiple guns or large amounts of ammunition to a single buyer within a five-day (or longer) period. This is currently required for handguns but not for semi-automatic weapons or ammunition.
  • Enact Extreme Risk Protection Order (ERPO) laws that allow family members to petition a judge for an order to confiscate an individual’s firearms when it is determined that the individual’s access to a gun poses an extreme risk to him or herself or others.
  • Enact reasonable requirements for obtaining a gun, such as a license and training. We require a license and training to drive a car; there’s no reason we shouldn’t for the owning of a gun. Furthermore, we could require gun owners to have insurance, as we do car owners, to protect themselves and others from injuries, deaths, or property damage that occur due to gun usage.
  • Require gun owners to report to law enforcement the loss or theft of a gun.
  • Any gun or ammunition seller who violates the law and allows an individual to obtain a gun or ammunition illegally should be treated as an accomplice under criminal and civil law to murder or any other crimes committed with the gun or ammunition.

Gun violence, and the deaths and injuries that result, is a public health epidemic in the US. Keeping guns from killing our children and others at the rate of 30,000 deaths a year is ultimately about the right to life. This is not about balancing gun rights with other rights; it’s about keeping our children, our teachers, and everyone else safe and alive.

Clearly, all these policy changes aren’t going to happen quickly or all at once. But we must start taking meaningful steps to reduce gun violence.

I urge you to call, email, and / or write your federal and state elected officials and demand reasonable gun laws that will prevent future gun massacres. We must insist that our elected officials pass sensible gun violence prevention laws or, if they won’t, we must elect other candidates at the state and national level who will. You can find your US Representative’s name and contact information at: http://www.house.gov/representatives/find/. You can find your US Senators’ names and contact information at: http://www.senate.gov/general/contact_information/senators_cfm.cfm.

I also encourage you to participate in on-line or local actions to express your support for the students from Parkland and the movement they have inspired, as well as for common-sense gun violence prevention laws. It’s past time to take serious steps to reduce gun deaths and violence, as well as hopefully, eventually, to eliminate the occurrence of gun massacres – as Australia successfully did in 1996.

GUN VIOLENCE PREVENTION NOW!

In the wake of the latest gun violence tragedy, surviving students from the high school in Florida where the incident occurred have inspired the nation with their commitment to reduce gun violence in the US. Here are four things we can all do to work to achieve that goal:

  • Support the students from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, FL, and others who join their movement to change laws in states and federally on access to guns, particularly semi-automatic weapons and magazines with dozens of bullets.
  • Support organizations that are fighting to reduce gun violence.
  • Know how to refute the arguments of the National Rifle Association (NRA) and others that are opposing efforts to reduce gun violence.
  • Know what meaningful policy changes should and need to be made to reduce gun violence.

If you’d like some inspiration to act, please watch this short video of the new anthem for gun control written and performed by Stoneman Douglas High School students in response to the shooting at their school: https://www.facebook.com/justicechoir/videos/1677544419005142/.

Ways to support these students and the movement they have inspired are evolving, but here are three actions you can participate in or support in other ways:

  • Women’s March Youth EMPOWER is calling for students, teachers, school administrators, parents, and allies to take part in a #NationalSchoolWalkout for 17 minutes at 10 am on Wednesday, March 14, to protest inaction on gun violence prevention. More information is at: https://www.actionnetwork.org/event_campaigns/enough-national-school-walkout
  • Students from Stoneman Douglas High School are calling for people to join them on Saturday, March 24, in Washington, DC, and cities across the country for the March for Our Lives to demand legislation to stop gun violence. More information is at: https://www.marchforourlives.com/
  • Public rallies will be held nationwide on Friday, April 20, as part of a National Day of Action to Prevent Gun Violence in Schools. More information is at: https://networkforpubliceducation.org/national-day-action/

There are a number of organizations that you can join or support with contributions or volunteer activities that are on the front lines in working to prevent gun violence. Here are three major ones:

The NRA and others who oppose meaningful steps to reduce gun violence have crafted their arguments and media strategy over many years. Here are some responses to their arguments:

  • No civilian needs to have or should be allowed to have a semi-automatic weapon or a magazine with more than 6 bullets. Semi-automatic weapons are military weapons that are designed to kill human beings and to kill as many as possible as quickly as possible. There is absolutely no need for anyone other than law enforcement and military personnel to have one.
  • Some people will kill other people. But guns mean those people will kill many more people. And semi-automatic weapons and magazines that hold dozens of bullets mean they can kill LOTS of people very quickly.
  • Mental illness is NOT the issue; guns are. Every country has individuals with mental illness, but no other country has anywhere near the level of gun violence that we have in the US because no other country allows the level of civilian gun ownership that the US does. The great majority of people who experience mental illness – and there are many who experience some mental illness at some point in their lives – are not violent. Moreover, a violent person without a gun can do very limited harm. (See the bullet above.) By the way, the Republicans in Congress and President Trump in the budget he presented just days ago significantly cut federal spending to address mental illness. Furthermore, by reducing access to health care by cutting Medicaid and the Affordable Care Act, fewer people will have access to mental health services.
  • The Second Amendment to the US Constitution states: “a well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.” Beginning in the 1970s, the gun manufacturers, along with the NRA, undertook an extensive campaign to get activist judges to interpret the Second Amendment as giving civilian individuals the “right” to possess guns. The goal was to allow the gun industry to sell more guns and ammunition and, therefore, to make much bigger profits. Keep in mind that at the time the amendment was written, the arms referred to were muzzle loading weapons that took many seconds to reload, not weapons that fired multiple bullets per second. This individual “right” to have a gun represented a major change in interpretation of the Second Amendment, which for the first 200 years of this country’s existence was understood to apply only to arms for military purposes. Furthermore, until this re-interpretation, the power of state and local governments to regulate gun ownership had NOT been viewed as limited whatsoever by the Second Amendment. [1] The efforts to change the interpretation of the Second Amendment were so successful that by 1991 retired US Supreme Court Chief Justice Warren Burger stated that the Second Amendment “has been the subject of one of the greatest pieces of fraud, I repeat the word ‘fraud,’ on the American public by special interest groups that I have ever seen in my lifetime.”
  • Every serious piece of research on the presence of a gun in a home or elsewhere has found that the presence of a gun increases the chance of death or injury from gun usage. Having a gun does not make you safer, it makes it more likely that you, a family member, or someone else will be injured or killed by gun violence, accidental or intentional. (Some statistics on this are in my earlier blog post here.) (In response to this research, the gun industry and the NRA got a federal law passed that effectively bans federal agencies from doing or funding research on gun violence.)

I urge you to support the emerging movement to reduce gun violence through common-sense guns laws. Please participate in or provide financial or other support to one (or more) of the events and organizations listed above. In my next post, I’ll list some of the common-sense policies that should be enacted and would reduce gun violence.

[1]      Stevens, J.P., 4/11/14, “The five extra words that can fix the Second Amendment,” The Washington Post (The author, John Paul Stevens, was a judge on the US Supreme Court from 1975 to 2010.)

 

CORPORATE MEDIA THREATEN OUR DEMOCRACY Part 2

Senator Bernie Sanders’ book, Our Revolution: A Future to Believe In  [1] includes a chapter titled, Corporate Media and the Threat to Our Democracy. I summarized its information on the six huge media corporations that control 90% of what we see, hear, and read in my previous post.

Senator Sanders experienced firsthand the control and power the six huge media corporations have when he ran for President. Certainly initially, and probably throughout the whole campaign, his candidacy received less coverage than other candidates. Perhaps this was because many of the issues he raised and discussed were ones that made corporate executives uncomfortable. Senator Sanders summarized his experience as follows: “as a general rule of thumb, the more important an issue is to large numbers of working people, the less interesting it is to the corporate media. … Further, issues being pushed by the top 1 percent get a lot of attention.” (page 421)

As an example, Sanders cites the coverage of the assertion that Social Security’s benefits needed to be cut because, supposedly, money to pay them would soon run out. The financial challenges facing Social Security were exaggerated and solutions other than cutting benefits were largely ignored by the corporate media. Sanders and others organized a broad coalition in opposition to Social Security cuts that included AARP and virtually every other seniors’ organization in the country, the American Legion and every major veterans’ group, the AFL-CIO representing 13 million workers, the largest organizations in the country representing people with disabilities, the National Organization of Women (NOW), and others.

A press conference opposing cuts to Social Security benefits was held by this broad coalition, which represented tens of millions of Americans, along with U.S. Senators and Representatives. It received almost no coverage from the corporate media. Similarly, throughout the presidential campaign, many issues that Sanders raised got little to no coverage from the big media corporations, including economic inequality, poverty, Native American issues, the housing crisis, climate change, fracking, and a single-payer health care system. On the other hand, the topics of how much money each candidate had raised, when Sanders was going to formally announce his candidacy, and when he was going to drop out and endorse Clinton received lots of attention from the corporate media.

The corporate media view politics and elections as entertainment and a way to capture attention (and therefore revenue). They do not take responsibility for helping to build an informed American electorate. They are large corporations whose goal is to make as much money as they can for their shareholders and executives.

These media corporations rely on billions of dollars in advertising from the pharmaceutical, auto, financial, health insurance, and fossil fuel industries (among others). This advertising revenue presents conflicts of interest for the media corporations’ executives’ decisions on the reporting of news. Viewers and readers would be naïve to think that news coverage – or lack of coverage – is not influenced by the interests of large advertisers.

The media corporations have a perspective on what is important and worthy of coverage, and what is not. Few of the journalists who work for them cross the boundaries of the corporate perspective. As Senator Sanders writes:

“Over the course of my political life [roughly 45 years] I cannot recall a mainstream journalist coming up to me and asking what I was going to do to end the scourge of poverty in this country, or how I was going to combat the disgraceful level of income and wealth inequality, or what role I would play in ending the influence of big money in politics. Those, and many similar issues, are just not what the corporate media considers important. And my strong guess is that if by mistake, or in some state of confusion, a reporter for the corporate media started asking those types of questions, he or she would not last long with the company.” (page 436)

Concentrated, corporate ownership of the media limits the points of view and the information Americans receive. It limits cross-cultural and cross-class awareness and knowledge. It tends to break us into factions rather than building community in our diverse country. This is not good for democracy.

Furthermore, mergers are in various stages of consideration that could reduce the six corporate media giants to only three. Therefore, media concentration is likely to increase further in the near future, unless we and regulatory government agencies take a stand against it.

Meanwhile, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has eliminated net neutrality, which gives more market place power to the big media corporations through their control of Internet access.

I encourage you to take action to stop mergers among the giant media corporations and to work to ensure net neutrality. If you want more information about these issues, including how you can take action on them, go to freepress.net. There, you can join with hundreds of thousands of other engaged Americans to fight to save the free and open internet, curb runaway media consolidation, protect press freedom, and ensure diverse voices are represented in our media.

You can also review my earlier post, Our failing mainstream media, that encourages the support of not-for-profit, public or consumer-funded media as a better model for a democracy than the current giant, for-profit, advertising-funded corporations. It identifies six broadcast, on-line, and print media outlets you can patronize and support as good sources of information and good alternatives to the corporate media.

[1]      Sanders, B., 2016, Our Revolution: A Future to Believe In. St. Martin’s Press, NY, NY.

THE GREED OF THE PHARMACEUTICAL INDUSTRY Part 2

The pharmaceutical industry can engage in the unethical and sometimes illegal practices that I’ve highlighted in previous posts [1] because they have:

  • Monopolistic power in the market place due to limited competition,
  • An absence of government regulation, and
  • Political power to block or weaken regulation and oversight due to campaign spending, lobbying, and the revolving door of personnel moving between these corporations and government regulatory positions.

The result is that the greed of the executives of these corporations is unconstrained by market place competition, government regulations, their ethics, or, in some cases, even legality. The examples presented in my previous posts have not been isolated incidents or past bad behavior that has been rectified. This behavior by the pharmaceutical corporations is an on-going pattern.

A 2010 study found that the U.S. prices of prescription drugs were, on average, double what those same drugs cost in Canada, Australia, and the United Kingdom. And things have only gotten worse since then. As a result, one out of five Americans was unable to afford medicines prescribed by their doctors, while the five largest drug corporations had profits of a combined $50 billion in 2015. As Bernie Sanders wrote, “people go to the doctor because they are sick, they get a diagnosis from their doctor, but they can’t afford the treatment. Then they get sicker. Does this make any sense to anyone?” [2]

As part of their price gouging strategies, drug companies will go to great lengths to block competition. For example, Allergan corporation has transferred six drug patents to the St. Regis Mohawk Indian tribe. Because the tribe is a sovereign entity, it is immune from a type of challenge to drug patents that low-cost generic drug makers sometimes use to get the right to produce a generic version of a drug. It is expected that this will become a popular strategy to delay the availability of cheaper, generic versions of drugs, unless Congress intervenes and changes the law. Allergan will pay the tribe only $15 million a year under the deal for the right to continue to sell the drugs, which had $1.4 billion in sales last year.

For a different drug, Allergan tried to avoid competition from a generic version by pulling the drug from the market and forcing patients to buy a new, more expensive version. This move was blocked by a federal appeals court. By the way, Allergan has also moved its headquarters to Ireland to avoid U.S. taxes. [3]

There is no reason to believe that the behavior of pharmaceutical corporations is going to change on its own. Clearly, the free market and competition are not going to stop it. Public outrage, negative publicity, and criticism from elected officials may blunt the worst of the behavior, but it will not stop it.

The behavior of the pharmaceutical industry (which is evident in other industries like the financial industry as well) is not the way the economy should work in a democracy. This behavior is that of a corporatocracy, where large corporations are in control of both our (supposedly free) market place and our (supposedly democratic) government.

Only strong legislation from Congress and strong leadership from regulatory agencies in the executive branch of government will stop these harmful and greedy business practices of the pharmaceutical corporations (and other large corporations). The opioid crisis and the fueling of it by illegal and irresponsible marketing of narcotic prescription drugs has made this absolutely clear.

I urge you to contact your U.S. Representative and Senators and ask them to:

  • Support strong legislation to regulate the pharmaceutical industry,
  • Only confirm executive branch appointees (include the Secretary of Health and Human Services) who have a clear track record of supporting strong regulation of the drug corporations, including their drug pricing and marketing of narcotics, and
  • Pass legislation that not only allows, but requires, Medicare and insurance companies participating in the Affordable Care Act to negotiate drug prices with suppliers to receive the best price based on what other countries pay. A good place to start would be to ask them if they support the Medicare Drug Price Negotiation Act of 2017, which would allow the government to negotiate directly with drug companies to lower drug prices for Medicare beneficiaries, much like the Veterans Health Administration and Medicaid do today.

As we approach the Congressional and state level elections of 2018, I encourage you to scrutinize and ask about candidates’ positions on these issues. Then we can elect candidates who support strong regulation of drug corporations, who will take meaningful steps to control drug prices, and who will seriously tackle the opioid crisis and the pharmaceutical industry practices that have led to it.

 

[1]      You can go to any of the blog posts on my site and click on the categories in the right hand column to find other posts on corporate behavior or corporate power and influence to read more about unethical and illegal practices by large corporations.

[2]      Sanders, B., 2016, “Our revolution: A future to believe in,” St. Martin’s Press, NY, NY. Page 327.

[3]      Silverman, E., 9/19/17, “This CEO’s latest move is raiding eyebrows,” The Boston Globe

PURDUE PHARMA AND OXYCONTIN CAUSED THE OPIOID EPIDEMIC Part 2

Purdue Pharma, a privately-owned corporation, and its narcotic pain-killer, OxyContin, caused the current opioid epidemic. My previous posts gave an overview of Purdue’s development and marketing of OxyContin, as well as of the complicity of Congress and the Executive Branch in allowing OxyContin to cause the national opioid epidemic.

This post describes Purdue’s efforts to conceal the harm that OxyContin is causing, while continuing to aggressively market – and profit – from it. The most detailed reporting of the role of Purdue and OxyContin in the opioid epidemic that I am aware of is the article that appeared in the October 30th issue of The New Yorker, “The family that built an empire of pain”. [1] This blog post is largely drawn from that article.

OxyContin is a large dose of oxycodone that can be taken all at once due to Purdue’s innovative time release formula, which means that the pain killer’s effect lasts for 12 hours (supposedly).

Purdue claimed that OxyContin’s time release formula made it virtually non-addicting and hard to abuse. However, ironically, the information sheet provided with it basically gave instructions on how to abuse it. The information sheet warned against crushing the pills and then ingesting them. Abusers quickly figured out that snorting the crushed pills gave a heroin-like high. The information sheet also warned against dissolving the OxyContin pills in liquids. Abusers quickly figured out how to dissolve the pills and inject the solution, which was just like shooting heroin.

Soon after OxyContin’s release, signs of abuse were evident in Maine and Appalachia. Purdue’s own sales data indicated that doctors were over-prescribing OxyContin and that some were engaged in writing large numbers of clearly fraudulent prescriptions. Evidence that patients were selling extra pills on the black market also surfaced.

Problems with the use of OxyContin as prescribed also quickly became evident. Some patients were displaying signs of addiction and withdrawal within the 12 hours between scheduled doses. Many patients were finding that the pain-killing effect didn’t last 12 hours, so they took the pills more often, which increased the likelihood of addiction. A 1999 study found that 13% of patients who used OxyContin for headaches became addicted.

Purdue said the concerns over addiction were overblown. It told sales reps to say that less than 1% of OxyContin patients became addicted. Purdue claimed that patients were not experiencing addiction and withdrawal symptoms, but were just feeling their underlying pain. It coined the term “pseudo addiction” to describe this supposed phenomenon. It claims there is no inherent problem with OxyContin, saying the problem is individuals who misuse it.

However, internal Purdue documents, which have emerged due to litigation, reveal that it knew, even before it got approval to market OxyContin, that not all patients achieved 12-hour pain relief and that more frequent use was a recipe for addiction. Purdue’s records show that in 1998 it was aware that taking OxyContin at 8-hour intervals was becoming more and more common. A Purdue employee called this “very scary.” It appeared that in some cases these more frequent doses were due to addiction and to keep the patient from going into withdrawal, rather than to treat pain.

In 2001, the Attorney General of Connecticut wrote to Purdue expressing his alarm over the growing abuse of OxyContin. Three years later, having received no response, he filed a lawsuit. In 2003, the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) found that Purdue’s aggressive marketing had “very much exacerbated OxyContin’s widespread abuse.” It concluded that Purdue had “deliberately minimized” the risks of OxyContin. The DEA sent Purdue a warning letter saying that its ads “grossly overstate the safety profile of OxyContin by not referring in the body of the advertisements to serious, potentially fatal risks”. Nonetheless, Purdue continued to aggressively market OxyContin and no government agency took steps to – or was allowed to – regulate its sale. (See my previous post for more detail on the lack of regulation.)

Purdue currently faces thousands of OxyContin-related lawsuits, including 10 from states and numerous ones from cities and counties. To-date, it has settled or pled guilty in the cases that have reached a conclusion. Many experts believe this is a strategy to avoid going to trial where it would have to disclose internal documents that would reveal very damaging information about what Purdue knew about the dangers and harm of OxyContin.

In 2006, Purdue paid $75 million to settle a case brought by 5,000 patients. In another case, it pled guilty to criminal misbranding and acknowledged marketing OxyContin “with intent to defraud or mislead.” Three senior officials pled guilty, but no one from the Sackler family that owns Purdue was punished. The 3 officials all got off with probation and fines totally $35 million. Purdue itself paid a $600 million fine.

The total of $700 million in fines and settlements to-date seems small and hardly a sufficient deterrent, let alone punishment, for Purdue’s blatantly irresponsible marketing and selling of OxyContin. It is only about 2% of the roughly $35 billion in revenue that Purdue has received from OxyContin. Furthermore, it is only about 1% of the $50 billion estimated cost of treatment for those with opioid addiction problems.

In 2010, Purdue reformulated its OxyContin pills, so they are harder to crush or dissolve and, therefore, to abuse. As a result, many of those who had become addicted to OxyContin have now turned to illegal drugs, such as heroin and fentanyl.

Many industry observers believe that an important motivation for the reformulation of OxyContin was not to make it safer, but to extend its patent, which would have run out in 2013. Purdue is now working to block sales of generic versions of the original OxyContin by claiming that they are unsafe.

Purdue continues to fight any restrictions on the prescribing of OxyContin, claiming that such steps would deny law-abiding patients needed pain medication. It has continued to spend heavily on lobbyists and campaign contributions to block enactment of restrictions by government regulators. And, taking a page from the tobacco industry, it is expanding its marketing of the original OxyContin overseas.

I urge you to contact your US Representative and Senators to ask them to support the regulation of prescriptions for opioid pain killers. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) has introduced guidelines that would reduce the use of OxyContin and other opioid pain medicines. The guidelines state that “Opioids should not be considered first-line or routine therapy for chronic pain”. The guidelines recommend the use of non-drug pain treatment, such as physical therapy, and of non-opioid drugs as the first responses to pain.

Please urge your elected officials to support the implementation of the CDC guidelines on opioid pain killers and to fund opioid treatment, along with addiction prevention and education programs.

[1]      Keefe, P.R., 10/30/17, The family that built an empire of pain, The New Yorker (https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2017/10/30/the-family-that-built-an-empire-of-pain)

THE OPIOID CRISIS: SAVING LIVES VS. SAVING PROFITS

President Trump pledged months ago to declare the nationwide opioid crisis a national emergency. He now says he’ll do so this week. The crisis has claimed well over 200,000 lives and the death rate continues to climb.

Declaring opioid deaths a national emergency would be nice, but taking effective action is even more important. So far, the Trump administration and key Republicans in Congress have shown no interest in doing so.

Trump recently nominated Representative Tom Marino, a Pennsylvania Republican, to be his national drug czar. Marino withdrew his name from consideration last week after it was revealed that he had spearheaded a successful effort in Congress to block the Drug Enforcement Agency’s (DEA) efforts to stop fraudulent distribution of prescription opioids. [1]

In April 2016, as the deadliest drug epidemic in US history raged, Congress passed a bill stripping the DEA of its ability to stop the distribution of large quantities of prescription narcotics. Drug industry experts blame the origins of the opioid crisis on the over-prescribing, some of it fraudulent, of narcotic pain killers. [2] The pharmaceutical corporations’ marketing of these drugs has also come in for blame, as they downplayed the potential for addiction to the drugs and promoted the supposed under-treatment of pain.

At the behest of the drug industry, Representative Marino in the House and Senator Hatch in the Senate (a Utah Republican) led the efforts by a handful of members of Congress to undermine DEA enforcement efforts aimed at blocking the supply of narcotic pain killers to corrupt doctors and pharmacists who were selling them on the black market. They passed a law making it impossible for the DEA to freeze suspicious shipments of narcotics by drug distributors who had repeatedly ignored DEA warnings while selling millions of pills for billions of dollars. Marino had spent years working to pass such a law.

The drug industry contributed at least $1.5 million to the campaigns of the 23 members of Congress who sponsored the bill and spent over $100 million lobbying Congress.

Besides the sponsors of the bill and the drug industry, few members of Congress or others outside of Congress knew of the impact the bill would have. It was passed in Congress by “unanimous consent,” an expedited process supposedly reserved for non-controversial bills. Former White House officials say they and President Obama were unaware of the bill’s impact when it was signed into law. Requests for interviews with current and former officials, as well as dozens of Freedom of Information (FOI) Requests, have been submitted to the DEA and the Justice Department by the media to try and find out who knew what when. The interview requests have been declined or ignored, and the FOI requests have been denied or delayed; some have been pending for 18 months. [3]

This is a powerful example of the incredible influence and control our large corporations have over policy making in Washington, D.C. The large pharmaceutical corporations and their distributors have gotten Congress to make their profits from illegally selling narcotic painkillers more important than the 60,000 deaths that are occurring each year from opioid use. These deaths are roughly twice the number that occur due to gun violence or car accidents. The number of deaths last year was roughly 50% more than occurred at the peak of the HIV/AIDS crisis. Drug overdoses have become the leading cause of death among those under 50. [4]

I urge you to contact your US Representative and Senators and ask them to take real action to fight the opioid crisis. This includes spending money on addiction treatment and drug enforcement. And it requires repealing the 2016 legislation that undermined the DEA’s efforts to control the distribution of prescription, narcotic pain killers. We must assert that people’s lives, as well as recovery from and avoidance of addiction, are more important than profits for large pharmaceutical corporations.

[1]      Superville, D., & Daly, M., 10/18/17, “Marino pulls name from US drug czar consideration,” The Boston Globe from the Associated Press

[2]      Higham, S., & Bernstein, L., 10/16/17, “Drug industry quashed effort by DEA to cut opioid supply,” The Boston Globe from The Washington Post

[3]      Higham, S., & Bernstein, L., 10/16/17, see above

[4]      Katz, J., 6/5/17, “Drug deaths in America are rising faster than ever,” The New York Times (https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2017/06/05/upshot/opioid-epidemic-drug-overdose-deaths-are-rising-faster-than-ever.html)

PROTECTING CONSUMERS FROM WALL STREET

The collapse of the financial corporations in 2008 was due in large part to their predatory and illegal practices in pushing unaffordable home mortgages onto gullible home buyers. Congress and President Obama enacted the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act (known as Dodd-Frank) to help protect consumers from such abusive behavior.

Dodd-Frank’s most notable consumer protection provision was the creation of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB). The CFPB’s role is to protect consumers from illegal and predatory practices, as well as discrimination, by financial corporations and to work to ensure that consumers receive the information necessary to make good financial decisions and to avoid “unsafe” financial products and services.

Since its creation, the CFPB has been hard at work punishing financial corporations that violate the law, returning almost $12 billion to over 29 million victimized consumers. In less than 8 years, it has helped consumers by responding to over 1.2 million complaints and issuing, for example, new standards for home mortgage documents that are clearer and easier to understand. At CFPB’s website you can find information on understanding your credit score and to help you make a good decision about a car or student loan.

Given that financial products and services (such as bank accounts, credit cards, and car and student loans) are essential for individuals, families, and our economy, appropriate regulation of them is necessary. Before the creation of the CFPB, financial services regulation was spread among 6 federal agencies and state regulators. None of them had consumer protection as its sole or primary role nor had the power to establish a single set of regulations for the whole financial industry. The CFPB has this power and a sole focus on consumer protection, much as the Consumer Product Safety Commission does for non-financial products. [1]

In July, the CFPB finalized a rule prohibiting financial corporations from putting mandatory arbitration clauses in their customer contracts. These clauses, which are in most agreements consumers sign when they open a bank account or get a loan or credit card, prohibit customers from suing the financial corporation in court. (They are also in many contracts or agreements for other consumers products and services, such as cell phones and cable TV, Internet, and phone services.) They require the customer to submit any complaint, even one due to illegal activity, to an arbitrator, who is usually selected by the financial corporation. They eliminate the ability of customers to band together in a class action lawsuit, and require them to pursue any grievances only through individual arbitration cases.

In addition to preventing class action lawsuits, the mandatory arbitration clauses often prohibit customers from sharing their experiences with regulatory or law enforcement agencies and the media. Corporations know that consumers will rarely spend the time and money (the typical cost to file an arbitration claim is $161) to pursue arbitration, given that the amount of money at stake is usually small. The result is that corporations evade accountability and can hide illegal or unethical behavior. [2]

The CFPB rule banning mandatory arbitration clauses was put in place after 5 years of study and development pursuant to a Congressional directive to study mandatory arbitration clauses and restrict or ban them if they harm consumers. The CFPB study found that customers win only 1 out of 11 arbitration cases and when they win they receive an average of $5,389. However, when a financial corporation makes a claim or counterclaim against a customer, it wins 93% of the time and the customer is ordered to pay, on average, $7,725 to the financial corporation! [3]

The CFPB study also found that in an average year 6,800,000 consumers get cash awards due to class action lawsuits while only 16 do so in arbitration cases. Consumers in these lawsuits receive a total of $440,000,000 (after deducting lawyers’ and courts’ fees), while consumers across all arbitration cases receive a total of $86,216.

Three recent examples of practices by Wells Fargo & Company make clear the significance and importance of banning mandatory arbitration clauses and allowing class action lawsuits by customers. (By the way, Wells Fargo is the third largest US bank and a multi-national financial corporation headquartered in San Francisco with $22 billion in annual profits.) It recently paid $185 million to settle with the CFPB and other regulators for having illegally opened and charged customers for over 2 million unauthorized checking and credit card accounts. When customers tried to sue Wells Fargo for this starting back in 2013, it forced them to make their claims in individual arbitration cases. This allowed Wells Fargo to continue its illegal behavior and theft from customers for 3 more years (5 years in total) before its behavior came to the attention of regulators.

In July, another class action lawsuit was filed against Wells Fargo based on illegal behavior on car loans. Apparently, Wells Fargo was requiring customers with car loans to buy car insurance they didn’t need (it was typically redundant with insurance they already had). And Wells Fargo was getting kickbacks from the company selling the insurance. The extra cost of the unneeded insurance pushed 250,000 car loan customers into default on their loan payments and resulted in 25,000 cars being repossessed. If these customers are forced into arbitration and are unable to participate in a class action lawsuit, it’s likely that most of them will not receive any compensation from Wells Fargo for its illegal and harmful behavior.

Finally, Wells Fargo is the defendant in an on-going, 8-year-old case over overdraft fees and practices. It is arguing in court that these customers’ claims must be handled in individual arbitration cases rather than a class action lawsuit, despite complaints from customers in 49 states. [4]

Despite these examples, and the fact that Congress has banned mandatory arbitration in home mortgage agreements, members of Congress have quickly introduced legislation to repeal the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau’s new rule banning mandatory arbitration clauses in financial product and service agreements. [5] Weakening or eliminating the CFPB in general, not just its ban on mandatory arbitration, has been a goal of Wall St. corporations and their friends in Congress ever since its creation by the Dodd-Frank law.

I urge you to contact your US Representative and Senators and ask them to support the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and its ban on mandatory arbitration clauses in consumer product and service agreements.

[1]      Servon, L.J., 7/17/17, “Will Trump kill the CFPB?” The American Prospect (http://prospect.org/article/will-trump-kill-cfpb)

[2]      Germanos, A., 7/12/17, “Serving Wall Street predators, GOP launches swift attack on new rule protecting consumers,” Common Dreams (https://www.commondreams.org/news/2017/07/12/serving-wall-street-predators-gop-launches-swift-attack-new-rule-protecting)

[3]      Shierholz, H., 8/1/17, “Correcting the record: Consumers fare better under class actions than arbitration,” Economic Policy Institute (http://www.epi.org/publication/correcting-the-record-consumers-fare-better-under-class-actions-than-arbitration/)

[4]      Brumback, K., 8/25/17, “Wells Fargo wants customer suits tossed,” The Boston Globe from the Associated Press

[5]      Germanos, A., 7/12/17, “Serving Wall Street predators, GOP launches swift attack on new rule protecting consumers,” Common Dreams (https://www.commondreams.org/news/2017/07/12/serving-wall-street-predators-gop-launches-swift-attack-new-rule-protecting)

PROTECTING OUR ECONOMY FROM WALL STREET SPECULATION

After the collapse of the financial corporations in 2008 due to their greed, predatory and illegal practices, and malfeasance, Congress and the President enacted legislation to try to prevent such a collapse in the future. This was the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act (known as Dodd-Frank).

The Dodd-Frank law is not as strong as many people thought it should be, because Wall St. executives, along with their lobbyists and friends in Congress, worked hard to weaken it as it was being written and passed. For example, it did not break up the “too-big-too-fail” financial corporations or limit their growth. (They are now all bigger than they were in 2008.)

A key provision of Dodd-Frank, known as the Volcker Rule, restricts banks from making certain kinds of speculative investments that do not benefit their customers and actually put customers’ deposits (and the banks and the economy) at risk if large investment losses result. Such speculative investments and big losses from them played a key role in causing the 2008 financial collapse. The Volcker Rule restricts but does not ban such investments, as many people thought it should and as had been the case from 1933 to 1999 under the Glass-Steagall Act. [1] In particular, many people believe that banks with deposits insured by the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC) should be prohibited from making such risky investments because these investments, which only benefit the bank’s executives and shareholders, are, in effect, insured against big losses by the FDIC, i.e., the federal government and taxpayers.

The Volcker Rule was supposed to be implemented in 2010, but continuing opposition from Wall St. and its supporters has continued to delay (and further weaken) the rule. It finally went into effect in 2015, but banks continue to be granted extensions for when they have to come into compliance with its provisions.

The Trump Administration, through the five agencies that regulate the financial industry, is currently working to rewrite and further weaken the Volcker Rule. They are moving to loosen the restrictions on risky investments, even though they were a major cause of the 2008 financial collapse. [2]

The Dodd-Frank law in general, not just its Volcker Rule, has been a target for weakening and delaying tactics ever since its original drafting and passage, as well as at every step in its implementation. The US House recently passed the so-called Financial Choice Act that would significantly weaken Dodd-Frank’s regulation of the financial industry.

I urge you to contact your US Representative and Senators and ask them to:

  • Oppose efforts to weaken the Volcker Rule and to support an outright ban on speculative investment activity by banks that have customer deposits and FDIC insurance, and
  • Oppose efforts to weaken the Dodd-Frank law in general and its regulations that reduce the likelihood of another financial industry collapse.

[1]      Wikipedia, retrieved 8/15/17, “Volcker Rule,” (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Volcker_Rule)

[2]      Bain, B., & Hamilton, J., 8/1/17, “Wall Street regulators are set to rewrite the Volcker Rule,” Bloomberg News (https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2017-08-01/volcker-rewrite-is-said-to-start-as-trump-regulators-grab-reins)

THE CASE FOR SINGLE-PAYER HEALTH INSURANCE

Our private health insurance system is not working. As I outlined in my previous post, there are three core problems with our private health insurance system:

  • By fragmenting the pool of insured people and allowing some to opt out, the basic theory and efficiency of insurance is undermined.
  • Private insurers have no financial incentive to maintain the long-term health of their customers because customers change insurers frequently.
  • Private insurers spend a large portion of their health insurance premiums on overhead, i.e., non-medical expenses (roughly 25%, which adds up to hundreds of billions of dollars each year).

An alternative that would address these major problems with the U.S. health insurance system is a Medicare-for-All, single-payer system. This type of a system is supported by a growing majority of Americans (62%), most Democrats in Congress, many doctors, and a growing number of public figures, such as former President Jimmy Carter [1] and former Vice President Al Gore. [2] Physicians for a National Health Program is one of a number of groups advocating for a single-payer system. An interview with its President, Dr. Carol Paris, on why the group supports single-payer health insurance is here. (She joins the newscast at 17 minutes 25 seconds into this 28-minute segment. The link starts 14.5 minutes into the newscast, when the topic turns to health care.)

A universal, single-payer system provides the most efficient health insurance for multiple reasons. First, it maintains a single, large pool of insurees who have differentiated risks and health care needs. A large, differentiated pool of insurees is what the basic theory and efficiency of insurance is predicated on.

Second, a single-payer insurance system has people as customers for life, thereby providing a strong incentive to invest in preventive care and the long-term health of its customers. A focus on preventive care and wellness produces the best health outcomes and does so at the lowest cost.

Third, switching to a single-payer, Medicare-for-All type health insurance system would save about $500 billion per year by eliminating the administrative overhead of our health insurance corporations. [3] In addition, health care providers would have only one set of forms, procedures, and paperwork to deal with, greatly simplifying the processing of billing the insurer for their services and reducing their costs and frustrations in doing so. [4]

A single-payer system is the only way to both improve quality and control costs, as Don Berwick (a doctor and 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. Data was 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, and also provided better care to their patients. Berwick could do this because he had leverage as the primary payer (although not quite the only or single payer) for these services. [5]

Bills have been introduced in Congress to create a single-payer, Medicare-for-All health insurance system. Over half of the Democrats in the House, over 100 Representatives, have endorsed H.R. 676, The Expanded and Improved Medicare for All Act, sponsored by Rep. Conyers. Senator Bernie Sanders will introduce a similar bill in the Senate.

I don’t understand why Democrats in Congress haven’t been making more of a push for a single-payer health insurance as an alternative to the Affordable Care Act repeal-and-replace legislation that the Republicans have been promoting. [6] I am disappointed that our mainstream, corporate media haven’t provided more coverage of this as an option, although at some level I’m not surprised as it would make significant changes for the health insurers and drug companies that provide them significant advertising income. [7]

I urge you to contact your US Representative and Senators to ask them to support a single-payer, Medicare-for-All health insurance system. Every other economically advanced country has a universal, single-payer health service system that covers everyone at far lower costs than our current privatized system and produces better health outcomes with longer lifespans. [8]

There has been a concerted effort in the U.S. to discredit other countries’ universal, single-payer health care systems, particularly Canada’s, often with inaccurate information. An excerpt from a recent Congressional hearing where a Canadian doctor very effectively rebuts attacks on the Canadian health care system can be viewed here. (It’s just under 7 minutes.) Or you can watch or listen to a Canadian businessman rebut attacks on the Canadian health care system here (a short, less than 3-minute YouTube video).

I encourage you to engage, however you can, in the movement to make universal, single-payer health insurance a reality in the U.S. We need to pressure our elected officials to adopt this solution to our failing health insurance system. If you need further convincing that this is the way we need to go, please watch or listen to the interview with Dr. Carol Paris referenced above. (She joins the newscast at 17 minutes 25 seconds into this 28-minute segment. The link starts 14.5 minutes into the newscast, when the topic turns to health care.)

[1]    Nichols, J., 7/27/17, “Jimmy Carter calls for single payer,” The Nation (https://www.thenation.com/article/jimmy-carter-calls-for-single-payer/)

[2]      Johnson, J., 7/21/17, “Message to Democrats: Get on board with Medicare for All or go home,” Common Dreams (https://www.commondreams.org/news/2017/07/21/message-democrats-get-board-medicare-all-or-go-home)

[3]      Goodman, A., & Moynihan, D., 6/30/17, “Medicare for All: It’s a matter of life and death,” Common Dreams (https://www.commondreams.org/views/2017/06/30/medicare-all-its-matter-life-and-death)

[4]      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 2 of the article.

[5]      Ready, T., 9/20/16, see above. See in particular page 3 of the article.

[6]      Cho, J., 6/30/17, “The cynical opposition of some Democrats to universal health care,” Common Dreams (https://www.commondreams.org/views/2017/06/30/cynical-opposition-some-democrats-universal-health-care)

[7]      Goodman, A., & Moynihan, D., 6/30/17, see above

[8]      Cho, J., 6/30/17, see above

GENERATING THE REVENUE NEEDED TO INVEST IN AMERICA

The People’s Budget, an alternative budget for the US, presents a coherent vision and a detailed plan for generating the revenue needed to invest in America’s infrastructure and people. It includes specific proposals for increasing revenue, decreasing tax expenditures (i.e., loopholes and deductions), and increasing efficiency in the public and private sectors. These will more than pay for its spending proposals (which I summarized in my previous post). [1]

Current tax policy is failing in multiple ways. Tax cuts and tax avoidance have reduced government revenue so that it is insufficient to pay for needed spending. Tax policy changes over the last 35 years have exacerbated economic inequality and created complexity that favors politically powerful special interests and those who can afford sophisticated tax accountants and lawyers. The theoretical progressivity of income taxes has been lost through tax cuts, tax deductions, tax avoidance, and favored tax rates and loopholes for high-income individuals.

The People’s Budget addresses the inequities in our tax system through changes in individual and corporate tax laws. Income taxes on the richest individuals would be increased. The tax on income from investments would be raised so it is at the same rate as income earned from working. The People’s Budget also would reduce tax deductions that favor the wealthy, such as interest deductions for mortgages on vacation homes and yachts. It maintains a tax on estates worth over $3.5 million, which current proposals would eliminate. It would also reduce income inequality by increasing tax deductions for low-income families. [2]

Inefficient corporate tax loopholes would be eliminated. Corporate tax benefits from moving jobs, profits, and a corporation’s legal home overseas would be ended. The People’s Budget would ensure that corporations pay their fair share of taxes and that large, multi-national corporations do not enjoy more favorable tax treatment than small, US-based companies. Current tax loopholes make it hard for small businesses to compete with large multi-national corporations.

A small tax would be placed on financial transactions. This is essentially a small sales tax on the buying and selling of financial products, like (but at a much lower rate than) the sales taxes many of us pay on non-financial products we buy. In addition to generating hundreds of millions of dollars in annual revenue, it would also discourage quick turnaround, high-volume, speculative trading of securities that can destabilize markets and that provide no benefit to our economy.

The People’s Budget would close tax loopholes and end subsidies for fossil fuel corporations, while putting a price on carbon pollution. This would end the unjustifiable public subsidies of fossil fuel extraction and use, requiring those burning carbon fuels to pay the true costs of doing so. In addition, the People’s Budget would invest in energy efficiency and clean, renewable energy production.

Income and wealth inequality would be reduced by the tax reforms in the People’s Budget, as well as by its spending proposals, which were summarized in my previous post. The Economic Policy Institute’s (EPI) analysis of the People’s Budget concludes that it “would have significant positive impacts, including improving the economic well-being of low- and middle-class families, … and increasing tax progressivity and adequacy while reducing the deficit in the medium term.” [3]

The People’s Budget would reduce the federal government’s projected debt level by trillions of dollars over the next 10 years. This makes it clear that we can afford investments in our human and physical capital if we reform our individual and corporate tax systems. Furthermore, we can simultaneously reduce income and wealth inequality.

I believe that candidates and the party(ies) who fully embrace the vision and goals of the People’s Budget will find that the American public and voters will strongly support them. Senator Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign was built on a very similar vision and received tremendous grassroots support. Although President Trump’s rhetoric supported elements of the People’s Budget and many people voted for him believing or hoping that he would bring this kind of change in direction to Washington, his actions to-date have not reflected the vision or goals of the People’s Budget. The Republican Party appears to have a totally different vision for America – one where the rich and large corporations do very well and where everyone else struggles to make ends meet.

The Democratic Party would seem to have every reason to embrace the People’s Budget’s vision and goals. Although the Congressional Progressive Caucus has 75 Democratic members in the House (out of 194 Democratic Representatives), the national Democratic Party has not adopted many of the key proposals of the People’s Budget. The Party has not committed itself to goals and a vision for America that puts the working and middle class before wealthy individuals and large corporations.

Our democracy is threatened. Plutocracy, where a relatively small number of wealthy individuals control the government, might be a more accurate description of our current political system. Currently, neither of our major political parties is committed to government of, by, and for the people, as opposed to wealthy individuals and corporations. The People’s Budget would change this.

I encourage you to contact your Representative and Senators in Congress to encourage them to support the Congressional Progressive Caucus’s comprehensive, well thought out proposals that make up the People’s Budget. We need to support the working and middle class, decrease income and wealth inequality, and invest in preparing America and Americans for the future. The People’s Budget makes it clear we can do this and lays out a realistic plan to do so.

[1]      Vanden Heuvel, K., 5/9/17, “Trump’s budget betrays his supporters. Here’s one that doesn’t.” The Washington Post

[2]      Congressional Progressive Caucus, retrieved 7/7/17, “The People’s Budget: A roadmap for the resistance,” https://cpc-grijalva.house.gov/uploads/FINAL%20CPC%20Budget%20FY18%20Executive%20Summary.pdf

[3]      Blair, H., 5/2/17, “‘The People’s Budget’: Analysis of the Congressional Progressive Caucus budget for fiscal year 2018,” Economic Policy Institute Policy Center (http://www.epi.org/publication/the-peoples-budget-analysis-of-the-congressional-progressive-caucus-budget-for-fiscal-year-2018/)

MAKING REGULATION WORK

For society to function, regulatory agencies must protect consumers, workers, and the public from self-interested and unscrupulous individuals, employers, and businesses. In a democracy, this requires a concerted effort and leadership from elected officials to put appropriate regulations in place and to ensure that they are enforced.

In a recent speech, Senator Elizabeth Warren (MA) noted that an essential piece of regulating large corporations is to use anti-trust laws to stop mergers that create huge corporations that have the power to distort our economy and policy making. The Justice Department, the Federal Trade Commission, and state attorneys general all have the power to do this. However, the political climate and, to some extent, the judicial climate have left anti-trust regulation withering on the vine in recent decades. [1]

Due to weak anti-trust law enforcement, a few giant corporations now control major U.S. industries including the airline, banking, health care, pharmaceutical, agriculture, telecommunications, and technology industries. Today, two-thirds of the 900 U.S. industries that are tracked by The Economist are more concentrated than they were in 1997, i.e., have fewer and larger corporations making them up. Competition is increasingly choked off. Small businesses and innovators are shut out of the market place, either by being bought up or squashed.

With this reduced competition, consumers pay more and get lower quality, while workers have their pay and benefits cut. A classic example of this is the cost and speed of Internet access. The U.S. has some of the most expensive Internet access among the developed countries of the world. And the speed of access is among the slowest in the world, particularly when comparing major cities. [2] Furthermore, cost and speed of access in the U.S. varies tremendously among urban and rural areas, as well as among wealthier and poorer communities.

The poor Internet service in the U.S. occurs because we have a small number of large, private, lightly regulated telecommunications providers that often have a monopoly or near-monopoly on service in a geographical area. To improve access, cost, and speed, a handful of U.S. cities have chosen to create their own municipal broadband services to compete with private Internet service providers: Chattanooga, Tennessee; Bristol, Virginia; Lafayette, Louisiana; Cedar Falls, Iowa; and Wilson, North Carolina. However, the private providers are working to get states and the federal government to ban the creation or expansion of these municipal providers because they do not want the competition. The private providers are also lobbying hard to weaken regulation, such as the net neutrality rules that the Federal Communications Commission recently put in place.

The argument that corporations and competition in a free market will result in effective self-regulation has been shown to be false time and again. The financial industry is probably the poster child for refuting this argument. The deregulation of the financial industry led, not to effective self-regulation as the proponents promised, but to the savings and loan crisis of the late 1980s and early 1990s, as well as the financial collapse of 2008. The lack of regulation led to risky and abusive business practices that spiraled out of control and eventually collapsed, causing major disruption to the financial industry and the whole economy.

In another example, U.S. industry has not, on its own, kept our air and water clean. Without regulation, it is much easier and cheaper for industry to dump its waste products into our air and water.

Corporations have a knee-jerk reaction against regulation because they want unfettered control of their products, their markets, and their marketing. They highlight the (often exaggerated) costs of regulations and ignore benefits. Unfortunately, this has been a very effective strategy for resisting regulation in our current political climate. It seems that no one is highlighting the benefits of regulation or standing up for consumers, workers, and the public.

Corporations always claim (with little evidence) that regulation will hurt business and reduce the number of jobs. However, as the financial collapse demonstrated, a lack of regulation can lead to a crisis that dramatically hurts businesses and reduces the number of jobs.

In fact, studies have shown that regulation has a neutral or modestly positive effect on the overall number of jobs, although it may cause some shifting of jobs, for example from the coal industry to the wind and solar power industries. [3]

Furthermore, the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) reported to Congress that the cost-benefit analyses of new, major federal regulations from 2009 to 2015 showed that benefits exceeded costs by between $103 billion and $393 billion annually. These findings are corroborated by other reports.

In another report, OMB reviewed major regulations from 2000 to 2010 and found that the average annual benefits of regulations were about 7 times the costs. This finding is especially significant given that almost all costs are included in such analyses and are often over-estimated, while many benefits are not monetized and, therefore, are not included (e.g., the lifetime benefit of better cognitive functioning when children’s exposure to lead and mercury is reduced). In other words, benefits outweigh costs by 7 to 1 even though costs are over-estimated and benefits are under-estimated. [4]

So, what will it take to get good regulations in place that protect workers, consumers, and the public? Senator Warren in a recent speech called for 4 policy changes to reduce corporate power and allow appropriate regulation to occur:

  • Enforce anti-trust laws to limit the size and power of corporations,
  • Reform campaign finance laws, including enhancing the value of small contributions from individuals by matching them with public funds,
  • Close the revolving door of personnel who move between industry and government jobs, creating conflicts of interest and an industry-friendly mindset among regulators, and
  • Reform the process for implementing regulations to limit corporate influence. [5]

We as citizens and voters need to work with our elected officials to make sure that the influence and interests of large corporations are appropriately balanced with the interests of workers, consumers, and the public. This means we need to be active and engaged in our democratic processes – in our elections and in communicating with our elected officials. Senator Warren notes that the concentrated money and power of large corporations and wealthy business people influence nearly every decision made in Washington, D.C. We must ensure that the voices of we the people are heard and have every bit as much influence as those of wealthy individuals and large corporations.

[1]      Marans, D. 5/16/17, “Elizabeth Warren has a real plan to drain the swamp in Washington,” HuffPost (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/elizabeth-warren-clean-up-washington-trump_us_591b6f2ae4b0a7458fa3f3d8)

[2]      Yi, H., 4/26/15, “This is how Internet speed and price in the U.S. compares to the rest of the world,” PBS NewsHour (http://www.pbs.org/newshour/updates/internet-u-s-compare-globally-hint-slower-expensive/)

[3]      Shierholz, H., & McNicholas, C., 4/11/17, “Understanding the anti-regulation agenda,” Economic Policy Institute (http://www.epi.org/publication/understanding-the-anti-regulation-agenda-the-basics/)

[4]      Shierholz, H., & McNicholas, C., 4/11/17, see above

[5]      Marans, D. 5/16/17, see above

SAVING OUR REGULATORS FROM THE WAR ON REGULATION

The war on regulation is a war not only on regulations themselves, but on the regulatory agencies that work to protect consumers, workers, and the public. The federal regulatory agencies that we rely on include the:

  • Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) that protects us from deceptive financial products (e.g., loans and credit cards) and abusive financial corporations (e.g., banks, payday lenders, and loan sharks);
  • Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) that protects us from dangerous physical consumer products (e.g., toys, children’s car seats, cribs, power tools, appliances, cigarette lighters, and household chemicals);
  • Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) that protects us from pollution of our air and water;
  • Federal Trade Commission (FTC) that protects us from unfair and deceptive practices in the marketing of consumer goods (e.g., products that promise that your baby can learn to read);
  • Food and Drug Administration (FDA) that protects us from tainted food and unsafe medications;
  • National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) that protects workers from unfair treatment on the job;
  • Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA) that protects workers from unhealthy and unsafe working conditions; and
  • Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) that protects investors from unfair or deceptive practices in the buying and selling of securities.

The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) is the newest of these agencies. It was created after the financial collapse of 2008 as part of the Dodd-Frank financial reform act. Its creation was spearheaded by Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren. It is stopping the abusive and deceptive mortgage loans that were a major contributor to the financial collapse and to the loss of over 9 million homes by middle and working-class Americans.

The CFPB works to protect consumers from unfair, discriminatory, deceptive, and abusive practices by banks and other financial institutions. It provides consumers with information and tools to make good financial decisions. It receives and responds to consumer complaints. And it takes action against financial corporations that break the law. In its short life, it has handled over 1 million consumer complaints and obtained $12 billion in relief for over 29 million consumers.

Because the CFPB regulates Wall Street firms and holds them accountable, it has been in the crosshairs of the big banks and investment corporations. Since before the CFPB came into existence, Wall Street, through its campaign spending, its lobbyists, and its friends in government offices (both elected and appointed ones), has worked to weaken, delay, and eliminate the CFPB and its regulations. Currently, CFPB’s opponents are working to reduce the power of its director or to get him to resign so Trump can appoint someone who won’t stand up for consumers and take on the big financial corporations. They are also trying to cut its budget and weaken its independence by putting it under the control of the President and Congress. [1] [2]

President Trump and Scott Pruitt, his head of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), are working hard to weaken the EPA. They have proposed dramatic budget cuts for it and significant weakening of its regulations promoting clean air and water, as well as its efforts to reduce global warming and climate change. The proposed budget cut, from $8.2 billion to $5.65 billion (31%), is the greatest percentage cut proposed for any federal agency. It would have so many very serious implications that many of them will get very little if any attention from the media.

For example, the proposed budget for the EPA would eliminate federal funding for protecting children from poisoning by lead paint. According to a 2014 report from the Centers for Disease control, 243,000 children in the U.S. have lead levels in their blood that exceed the danger threshold for permanent neurological damage. Moreover, there is compelling evidence that significantly lower blood lead levels can cause serious harm.

The Lead Risk Reduction Program at the EPA educates the public and certifies home renovators on the safe removal of lead paint. This program’s $2.5 million and 73 employees would be eliminated in the Trump budget. The supposed rationale for this is that state and local governments can do this better than the federal government. However, the proposed budget also eliminates the $14 million for grants to state and local governments to help them address the risks of lead paint. [3]

I urge you to contact your U.S. Representative and Senators. Ask them to stand up for children and all of us by supporting a strong, well-funded EPA, as well as a strong and independent Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. Strong consumer and worker protections, in general, should be the priority, not kowtowing to large corporations.

[1]      Frank, B., 5/2/17, “The art of the deal: Bait and switch division,” The Boston Globe

[2]      Freking, K., & Gordon, M., 5/5/17, “GOP-led House panel votes to overhaul Dodd-Frank,” The Boston Globe from the Associated Press

[3]      Mooney, C., & Eilperin, J., 4/6/17, “EPA programs to protect kids from lead paint may end,” The Boston Globe from the Washington Post

FIGHTING RESISTANCE TO NEEDED REGULATIONS

We need rules and regulations to protect workers, consumers, and the public. However, opposition to regulations comes from organizations and individuals that have strong self-interests at stake and often lots of resources. Typically, it’s large corporate employers and producers of goods and services that oppose regulation. They use campaign spending and lobbying to persuade public officials to side with them. They use public relations campaigns to try to win support from voters and the public, often using deceptive messages. They claim that the costs of regulation are too high, but they almost never discuss the benefits.

My previous two posts described the war being waged on regulation by the Trump administration and some Members of Congress, particularly Republicans. (You can read them here and here.) My last post highlighted examples of rules and regulations that have been repealed or delayed. Every one benefits corporations at the expense of workers, consumers, or the public.

How does this happen in a democracy? There are several factors, but ultimately it comes down to the concentrated self-interests of large corporations and their political power.

Regulation typically has immediate and sometimes significant costs that are concentrated on a small group of organizations or individuals. The benefits typically are spread over a much broader group of people and often over a longer time period. The costs are typically easy to identify and measure in dollars, while the benefits are often much more difficult to monetize and some are even hard to identify.

As a result, those bearing the costs of regulation have strong self-interests in opposing and stopping or weakening regulation. When they are large corporations, they have tremendous resources to use in their opposition (e.g., money, people [including lobbyists], and the ability to sustain efforts over time).

Those who benefit (i.e., workers, consumers, and the public) have a self-interest in regulation. However, the impact is much smaller at the individual level and often gets lost among the many demands of every-day life. Furthermore, individuals’ resources (e.g., time, energy, and attention span) to use in supporting regulation are generally quite limited. Although the aggregate benefit may be huge, it is often very diffuse – spread over millions of people and across many years.

Therefore, the politics of regulation tend to favor weak or no regulation and even de-regulation. It typically takes political leadership that stands up for the broader public interest to push through (and maintain) strong regulation. With our corporations growing larger and more powerful all the time, the ability to stand up to them has become more difficult.

Let’s look at a specific, current example of regulation that is being considered.

Scientists at the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and other agencies, along with advocates for public health and the environment, are urging that certain pesticides need to be regulated. However, to-date, the Trump administration has failed to act on findings that the pesticide chlorpyrifos (for example), a Dow Chemical product, can cause significant harm. (By the way, Dow Chemical contributed $1 million to Trump’s inauguration activities and its chairman heads a White House working group on manufacturing.)

Chlorpyrifos has been widely used on fruit crops since the 1960s. Dow Chemical sold 5 million pounds of it in the US last year. Traces of it are commonly found in drinking water and umbilical cord blood, which is the blood a mother provides to her baby while pregnant. It can harm children’s brain development at very low exposure levels. Scientists have also compiled over 10,000 pages of evidence that chlorpyrifos harms animals, presenting a risk to 1,778 out of the 1,835 animals and plants that were studied, including endangered species of frogs, fish, birds, and mammals. [1]

The costs of the regulation of chlorpyrifos, i.e., a reduction in its use, fall immediately and directly on Dow Chemical, an $8 billion corporation (that is about to merge with DuPont and get even bigger). The benefits of regulating chlorpyrifos are clear but are hard to monetize. They occur over time to a broad range of people and to animals and our ecosystem.

Dow Chemical has strong political connections and lobbying capacity. It has spent about $12 million per year on lobbying in each of the last 5 years. [2] The political resources and clout of the beneficiaries of regulating chlorpyrifos are nowhere near as great as those of Dow Chemical.

Unless there is strong political leadership on behalf of the public and the environment, regulation of chlorpyrifos probably won’t happen or will be very weak. Given the current political environment in Washington, D.C., I’d bet that Dow Chemical corporation’s efforts to block regulation of chlorpyrifos will succeed.

This is a classic example of why democracy won’t succeed if the public and voters treat it as a spectator sport. We need to be informed, sometimes down to the level of detail of this example, and engaged. We must insist that our elected officials – and candidates during elections – are committed to standing up for the public interest despite the power and resources that large corporations can bring to bear on our political system.

We need to join and support advocacy groups that will act on our behalf on issues such as these, and that will let us know when there are opportunities for us to act and have an impact. We need to support the regulatory agencies (more on them in a future post) that are working to protect us. Many of them are under attack by President Trump, corporations, their lobbyists, and some of our other elected officials. And finally, we need to pay attention to and support information sources that will cover these issues.

We certainly can’t do all of these things all the time. But each of us, as a voter and citizen in a democracy, needs to be an active participant in our political system, and to do what we can to ensure that government works for us, not for the big corporations.

[1]      Biesecker, M., 4/21/17, “Dow wants Trump to set aside report on pesticide risks,” Associated Press in The Boston Globe

[2]      OpenSecrets.org, retrieved from the Internet on 5/27/17, “Dow Chemical,” Center for Responsive Politics (https://www.opensecrets.org/lobby/clientsum.php?id=D000000188&year=2016)

CORPORATE BEHAVIOR DRIVES INEQUALITY

Several corporate practices, particularly those of large, multi-national corporations, are major contributors to income and wealth inequality. One is their avoidance of taxes, which means other taxpayers must make up the difference. Another is their employee compensation practices.

The huge and growing differential between the compensation for corporate executives and workers needs to be reduced. Increasing the minimum wage is one step. However, taxing or limiting compensation for executives should also occur.

Wall Street gave out $24 billion in bonuses last year to 177,000 workers who got an average of $138,200 each. The average Wall Street bonus has increased 900% since 1985, while the minimum wage has increased a little over 100%. This $24 billion in bonuses for 177,000 workers is over one and a half times the total pay for the year for all 1,000,000 (1 million), full-time, minimum wage workers. [1]

This excessive Wall Street compensation not only contributes to overall inequality, it contributes to gender and racial income disparities. Roughly 85% of Wall Street executives and senior managers are white and over two-thirds are male. By contrast, 56% of minimum wage workers are non-white and almost two-thirds of them are female.

Huge Wall Street bonuses and “performance pay” provide incentives to Wall Street to engage in the kind of high risk, high return financial strategies that led to the 2008 financial collapse. The Dodd-Frank financial reform law called for regulation of these bonuses but these regulations have been blocked and delayed. Furthermore, the 20 largest US banks gave out over $2 billion in so-called performance pay to their top executives between 2012 and 2015. Not only do these huge amounts provide incentives for risky behavior, they are also tax deductible for the corporations, saving them $725 million in taxes.

A recent study of corporate taxes showed that many large, profitable corporations frequently pay no federal taxes. The analysis found that 258 large corporations that were consistently profitable from 2008 to 2015 and had $3.8 trillion in profits rarely paid the 35% tax rate that they, President Trump, and Republicans in Congress say needs to be cut. On average, the study found they paid only 21% of their profits in taxes – a lower rate than many individuals pay on their incomes.

In fact, 18 of these large, consistently profitable corporations paid no federal tax over the study’s 8-year period. And 100 of them paid no taxes in at least one year of the 2008 and 2015 period studied, despite reporting a profit. They did this by using tax loopholes and avoidance strategies such as shifting profits to overseas entities, depreciating assets very quickly, deducting the cost of huge stock options given to executives, and using special industry-specific tax breaks they’ve gotten slipped into our tax laws.

These tax breaks are highly concentrated with most of them going to a few, very large, multi-national corporations. Just 25 corporations received over half of the tax subsidies of all 258 corporations in the study. The study reported that the corporations with the biggest tax subsidies over the 8-year period were AT&T ($38 billion), Wells Fargo ($31 billion), JPMorganChase ($22 billion), and Verizon ($21 billion). [2]

The study refutes the argument that the US’s corporate tax rate is higher than that of foreign countries and that it makes the US an unfavorable location for doing business. The tax rates paid over the 8-year period by certain industries were quite low: gas and electric utilities – 3%, industrial machinery – 11%, telecommunications – 12%, oil, gas, and pipelines – 12%, and Internet services and retailing – 16%. The industry-specific tax breaks that lead to these low tax rates are unfair and unnecessary.

The study’s report recommends five changes to US tax laws to remedy these problems:

  • Repeal the tax exemption for overseas profits,
  • Limit the deduction for the phantom costs of executive stock options,
  • Eliminate tax provisions that allow for rapid, let alone immediate, depreciation of assets,
  • Reinstate a strong corporate Alternative Minimum Tax, and
  • Increase transparency by requiring full, country-by-country disclosure of corporate financial information. [3]

I urge you to contact your members of Congress and ask them to support these changes to our tax laws so that large, multi-national corporations pay their fair share of taxes. Please also ask them to support increasing the minimum wage and implementing regulations on Wall Street compensation to reduce incentives for risky behavior that could lead to another financial disaster.

[1]      Anderson, S., 3/15/17, “Off the deep end: The Wall Street bonus pool and low-wage workers,” Moyers & Company (http://billmoyers.com/story/wall-street-bonus-pool-2017/)

[2]      Cohen, P., 3/9/17, “Profitable companies, no taxes: Here’s how they did it,” The New York Times https://www.nytimes.com/2017/03/09/business/economy/corporate-tax-report.html?_r=0

[3]      Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy, 3/9/17, “The 35 percent corporate tax myth: Corporate tax avoidance by Fortune 500 companies, 2008 to 2015” http://itep.org/itep_reports/2017/03/the-35-percent-corporate-tax-myth.php#.WM6CaYWcHIU

DAMAGE IS BEING DONE BEHIND THE TRUMP SMOKESCREEN

What you don’t know can hurt you. Behind the smokescreen of President Trump’s high profile Executive Orders and public statements, he and Congress are undermining public health and safety, as well as government revenue. By undoing or weakening existing policies, they are allowing, among other things:

  • Underpayment of royalties on fossil fuel extraction,
  • Use of unsafe and inefficient private prisons,
  • Dumping of coal mining wastes into streams, and
  • Weakened background checks for gun purchases by people unable to manage their own affairs.

President Trump rescinded a rule that stopped corporations from paying royalties based on artificially low prices. When a corporation extracts oil, gas, and coal on public lands, it will (if it can) sell them to a subsidiary at an artificially low price that allows it to pay an artificially low royalty to the federal government. Its subsidiary then sells the extracted fossil fuel at a much higher, market price. The result is a windfall for the corporation and a rip-off of taxpayers. [1]

Trump’s Attorney General has rescinded the decision to eliminate the use of unsafe and inefficient private prisons. Last August, a Department of Justice Inspector General’s report found that the private prisons used by the Bureau of Prisons did not provide the same level of safety and security as government owned and operated prisons. Therefore, Obama’s Deputy Attorney General announced a decision to eliminate this use of private prisons. In her announcement, she also noted that the private prisons did not provide the same level of correctional services, programs, and resources to prisoners as government-run prisons, and that they did not substantially reduce costs.

Despite this evidence, the Trump administration has decided that 13 private federal prisons, which hold 22,000 inmates, will continue to be run by private corporations. Thus, hundreds of millions of taxpayers’ dollars will pay three corporations to run unsafe, substandard, inefficient prisons. (See my previous posts here and here for more details.) Perhaps not surprisingly, these three corporations have given significant amounts of money to politicians, including to President Trump. One of them, CoreCivic, formerly the Correction Corporation of America, gave $250,000 to Trump’s inaugural festivities. GEO Group, another one of the three private prison corporations, also gave $250,000 to Trump’s inaugural festivities, on top of the $275,000 it had given to a Super PAC that supported the Trump campaign. [2]

Congress has also taken steps to roll back regulations that are in the public interest. A measure to rescind a rule banning the dumping of coal mining debris into streams has passed the House and Senate. President Trump is expected to sign it. The House and Senate have also voted to rescind a regulation requiring oil and gas corporations to disclose payments to foreign governments for mining and drilling rights. The House has voted to overturn a rule that reduced the harmful atmospheric emissions from burning unused natural gas at drilling operations on federal lands. [3] The House has also passed a resolution weakening background checks for gun purchases by Social Security recipients who have been declared incompetent to manage their personal affairs. [4]

Republicans in Congress are employing a rarely used tool, the Congressional Review Act, to roll back rules issued in the final months of Obama’s presidency. The Act provides a temporary window in which a simple majority of both chambers can rescind a newly promulgated rule. Trump must sign these measures to complete the rescinding of the targeted rule. The Act also prevents the executive branch from enacting a substantially similar rule in the near future. [5]

Furthermore, Congress is considering two new laws that would make it even easier for it to exercise its political judgement and overrule science-based regulations. One of the new laws, dubbed the Midnight Rules Relief Act, is described as the Congressional Review Act on steroids and would, among other things, prohibit federal agencies from re-proposing a rejected regulation indefinitely. The other new law, called the Regulations from the Executive In Need of Scrutiny (REINS) Act, would require any new regulation to be approved by Congress. If Congress failed to approve the regulation, it would not go into effect. Both of these laws are being pushed by corporate lobbyists who want to block the implementation of science-based standards for air and water quality, among other things. [6]

Behind the smokescreen of Trump’s high-profile actions, his administration and Congress are undermining public health and safety. It seems clear that the current Congress and administration are committed to benefiting corporate America and ignoring the well-being of every-day Americans. Furthermore, sweetheart deals for large corporations are providing them a financial windfall at the expense of every-day taxpayers.

I urge you to tell your Representative and Senators in Congress that you believe it is government’s job to protect the health and safety of the public, even if it is an inconvenience for big corporations. And that corporations should pay their fair share of taxes and government fees, because otherwise you and I and all the other individual taxpayers have to make up the difference. Tell your Congress men and women that our democracy is supposed to be of, by, and for the people, not large corporations.

[1]      Sierra Club, 2/14/17, “Trump ends rule blocking corporate polluters from paying themselves,” Common Dreams (http://www.commondreams.org/newswire/2017/02/24/trump-ends-rule-blocking-corporate-polluters-paying-themselves)

[2]      Zapotosky, M., 2/23/17, “Justice Department will again use private prisons,” The Washington Post (https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/national-security/justice-department-will-again-use-private-prisons/2017/02/23/da395d02-fa0e-11e6-be05-1a3817ac21a5_story.html?utm_term=.f631c1be57d2)

[3]      Daly, M., 2/3/17, “House votes to overturn Obama rule on natural gas ‘flaring’,” Associated Press (http://bigstory.ap.org/article/d84e8dd2a74042ed8d9e864fdb59d069/house-poised-overturn-obama-rule-natural-gas-flaring)

[4]      Freking, K., & Daly, M., 2/2/17, “Congress scraps Obama rules on coal mining, guns,” Associated Press (http://bigstory.ap.org/article/bf29ce0c4ba84550b51f503e7618d901/house-gop-aims-scrap-obama-rule-gun-background-checks)

[5]      Freking, K., & Daly, M., 2/2/17, see above

[6]      Kothari, Y., 1/4/17, “Attacking science in week one: How Congress is trying to dismantle public protections,” Union of Concerned Scientists in Common Dreams (http://www.commondreams.org/views/2017/01/04/attacking-science-week-one-how-congress-trying-dismantle-public-protections)