FEDERAL LEGISLATION NEEDED TO PROTECT CHILDREN ON SOCIAL MEDIA

The harm that social media can do to children and youth is well documented. (See this previous post for more detail.) Clearly, the social media platforms are not going to do what’s necessary to keep our kids safe online on their own. No significant relevant federal legislation has been passed since the 1998 Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA). A lot has changed since then and new federal legislation is 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.

Europe has done a better job than the U.S. of protecting everyone’s privacy and well-being on social media, including that of children. Its General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) is four years old and provides greater protections than U.S. laws. Meta (formerly Facebook) was recently fined $400 million because its Instagram subsidiary violated European regulations on the protection of children’s data. [1]

The social media platforms’ business model is to hook kids at a young age, amass extensive personal information about them and their online and consumer behavior, and then use these to engage in lucrative (for them) marketing to the kids in ways that too often promote toxic content and harm kids’ well-being and mental health. [2]

Two pieces of relevant federal legislation are being considered in the U.S. Senate:

  • Kids Online Safety Act (KOSA, Senate bill 3663) and
  • Children and Teens’ Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA 2.0, Senate bill 1628)

These bills seek to provide privacy protections for children and youth, limit individually targeted advertising (referred to as surveillance advertising), and require the social media platforms to put the interests of young people first. For example, KOSA would:

  • Provide families with the tools and safeguards to protect children’s well-being and health,
  • Require transparency from the social media platforms about the data they are capturing and the algorithms they are using for promoting content and advertising, and
  • Establish accountability for harms caused by social media.

COPPA 2.0 would, for example:

  • Extend to 13 to 16-year-olds the prohibition on social media platforms capturing children’s personal information without their consent and require the platforms to delete any such information they collect if requested to do so,
  • Ban individually targeted marketing to children,
  • Establish a “Digital Marketing Bill of Rights for Minors,” and
  • Create a Youth Privacy and Marketing Division at the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) to monitor and regulate data privacy for and marketing to minors.

Some concerns have been raised, particularly about KOSA. Some privacy advocates have raised concerns that it would allow parents to spy on and control children’s activities online. They worry about unsupportive parents spying on LGBTQ+ youth. They worry that politicians could force the social media platforms to block information on topics the politicians dislike, such as abortion information. And they worry that the social media platforms will block broad arenas of information to avoid liability for possible harm to children.

Trying to regulate social media platforms to keep children safe is complicated, but it’s clear that steps need to be taken to reduce the significant harm that’s occurring. The first laws and sets of regulations won’t be perfect, but we need to act. Then, we can figure out what is and isn’t working and make improvements.

I encourage you to contact your Representative and Senators in Congress and to tell them you support regulation of the social media platforms to prevent them from harming our children and youth. Urge them to support the Kids Online Safety Act (KOSA, Senate bill 3663) and the Children and Teens’ Online Privacy and Protection Act (COPPA 2.0, Senate bill 1628).

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.

If you’re interested, you can sign-up here for an online information session and Rally for Kids’ Online Safety next Tuesday, September 13, from 6:30 – 7:00 p.m. eastern time. You’ll learn more about how you can support the Kids Online Safety Act (KOSA) and the Children and Teens’ Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA 2.0). Senators Ed Markey and Richard Blumenthal will discuss how these bills would revolutionize social media platforms’ treatment of kids and teens, requiring them to put young users’ wellbeing ahead of their profits. If passed, the bills would ban surveillance advertising to minors, extend privacy protections to teens, and  set the stage for a safer internet for children and youth. They would also hold the platforms accountable for exploiting kids’ vulnerabilities. Advocates, including Fairplay and members of its Screen Time Action Network, will discuss how you can take action to help get these bills passed.

[1]      Business Talking Points, 9/6/22, “Instagram fined over protection of teenagers’ information,” The Boston Globe from the New York Times

[2]      Corbett, J., 7/27/22. “ ‘Critical’ online privacy protections for children advance to Senate floor,” Common Dreams (https://www.commondreams.org/news/2022/07/27/critical-online-privacy-protections-children-advance-senate-floor-vote)

CORPORATE SUPPORT FOR SEDITION CAUCUS DESPITE ANTI-DEMOCRACY ACTION

Corporations value having political power and influence to the point that they seem to care little about politicians’ ethics or actions on issues other than those that directly affect their corporate interests. Furthermore, they don’t seem to recognize that customers and employees care about the ethics and political activity of the corporations they do business with or work for.

Immediately after the January 6, 2021 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol, 248 corporations and corporate business organizations voiced support for democracy, condemned the insurrection, and suspended contributions to the 147 members of Congress who voted to overturn the 2020 election by rejecting the Electoral College results. These 139 Republican U.S. Representatives and 8 Republican U.S. Senators have been labeled the “Sedition Caucus” because they voted against the peaceful, democratic transition to a new, duly-elected President.

However, over 100 corporations and industry groups out of the 248 that suspended contributions to the Sedition Caucus have resumed supporting them. (See this previous post for more details.) Corporate business organizations and the political action committees of Fortune 500 companies have donated $21.5 million to them in the 19 months after January 6th. [1]

Furthermore, the hearings of the House Select Committee to Investigate the January 6th Attack on the U.S. Capitol and the alarming details it has presented of a serious coup attempt, have not slowed the corporate contributions to the Sedition Caucus. In June 2022, its members received over $800,000 from corporate interests. [2] These corporations claim to support democracy but apparently value political influence more than they value democracy.

Members of the Sedition Caucus, aided by corporate support, have raised huge amounts of money for their campaigns. For example, in the first nine months of 2021: [3]

  • Senator John Kennedy (R-LA) raised over $14 million,
  • Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) raised over $9 million,
  • Steve Scalise (R-LA) raised $7.4 million,
  • Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-GA) raised over $6 million,
  • Jim Jordan (R-OH) raised over $5 million, and
  • Matt Gaetz (R-FL) raised over $3.5 million.

Many corporations try to avoid a direct link to Sedition Caucus members by letting industry groups they belong to and support financially make these political contributions. For example, top contributors to Sedition Caucus members have been the political action committees (PACs) of the American Bankers Association, the National Beer Wholesalers Association, and the National Auto Dealers Association.

Corporations whose own PACs have been big contributors to Sedition Caucus members include Home Depot, Verizon, Boeing, Charter Communications, Eli Lilly, Cigna, Northwestern Mutual, Pfizer, State Farm Insurance, Chevron, AutoZone, and Procter & Gamble.

I encourage you to let these corporations know, as a customer, employee, or citizen, that their support for members of the Sedition Caucus does not sit well with you. Boycott them if that makes sense for you and, if possible, let them know you’re doing so.

[1]      Johnson, J., 7/26/22, “Corporate interests have given $21.5 million to GOP ‘Sedition Caucus’ since Jan. 6 attack,” Common Dreams (https://www.commondreams.org/news/2022/07/26/corporate-interests-have-given-215-million-gop-sedition-caucus-jan-6-attack)

[2]      Accountable.US, 7/25/22, “June 2022: Fortune 500 companies and corporate trade groups contributed at least $819,980 to the Sedition Caucus,” (https://accountable.us/wp-content/uploads/2022/07/2022-07-21-June-Sedition-Caucus-Report.pdf)

[3]      Holzberg, M, 1/4/22, “Election objectors are among the GOP’s highest fundraisers ahead of Jan. 6 anniversary,” Open Secrets (https://www.opensecrets.org/news/2022/01/election-objectors-among-gops-highest-fundraisers-ahead-of-jan-6-anniversary)

CORPORATE PROFITS, “INFLATION,” AND THE FEDERAL RESERVE

Soaring profits at the big oil and gas companies are again making headlines. Combined, Shell, Exxon, and Chevron reported $41 billion in profits for the second quarter of 2022 –  record setting figures. Profits in the oil and gas industry are up 235% from a year ago. Meanwhile, almost half of the increase in “inflation” over the past few months has been due to soaring gasoline prices.

(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 companies’ executives indicated that they plan to spend those profits on buying up their own stock (on top of $19 billion already spent on buybacks this year). This enriches shareholders and executives. The executives do NOT plan to reinvest those profits in their companies, for example to expand production or refinery capacity, or invest in modernization, research, and development. This underscores that these record profits from record high gasoline prices are price gouging and a huge transfer of money from the pockets of working Americans to the wealth of rich shareholders and corporate executives. [1] The oil and gas companies did used some of their huge profits – $200 million last year – to influence policy makers in Washington, D.C.

Price hikes and price gouging are not occurring just in the oil and gas industry, however. Overall, U.S. corporate profits are at their highest level since the 1950s. Markups – the difference between the actual cost of producing a good or delivering a service and the price charged the consumer – are at the highest level on record and saw their largest year-to-year increase in 2021. As a result, as U.S. companies increased their prices, their profit margins jumped from an average of 5.5% from 1960 to 1980, to 9.5% in 2021. [2] (See this previous post for more evidence that much of the current “inflation” is price gouging.)

All of these price hikes have created the highest “inflation” in 40 years. The primary measure of inflation that the Federal Reserve uses, the personal consumption expenditures (PCE) price index, was up 6.8% over prices a year ago. Excluding typically volatile food and energy, the so-called core PCE, was up 4.8% over the last year.

The Federal Reserve likes to see inflation at 2% and historically has used interest rate increases to slow down the economy and reduce inflation. This approach works by slowing consumer buying and business expansion by increasing the cost to borrow money for these purposes. This slows business growth and therefore the need for employees. This increases unemployment and reduces wage increases needed to hire or keep employees. This reduces businesses’ labor costs and their need to increase prices to pay their workers. Hence, price increases, i.e., inflation, are reduced.

The Federal Reserve has increased its key interest rates (which is what it charges financial institutions) by a hefty 1.5% over the last two months, from a range of 0.75% – 1.0% to 2.25% – 2.5%. This is the most aggressive increase in rates in 30 years. There are already signs that economic growth, gasoline price increases, and wage increases have slowed. The economy overall actually shrank a bit in each of the last two three-month periods.

Many economists are worried that the Federal Reserve is raising interest rates too aggressively and that a recession will be the result. Our economy is in an historically uncharted situation. The Covid pandemic has resulted in unprecedented changes in the global economy, in work and the workforce, and in supply chains. On top of this, climate change is affecting food production and natural disasters (from droughts to wildfires to storms) in ways not previously seen. And the war in the Ukraine is disrupting the global economy, especially supplies of and prices for food and fossil fuels, in ways never experienced before. [3] Finally, the widespread presence of huge, monopolistic corporations with the power to increase prices and profits has not been seen for 100 years. [4]

All of this suggests that the Federal Reserve’s effort to fight inflation with interest rate increases is not likely to work as it has in the past. Interest rate increases are not effective in controlling the drivers of today’s inflation. Federal Reserve Chairman Powell was asked by Senator Warren at a recent congressional hearing if he thought interest rate increases would bring down food and gas costs and he replied, “ I would not think so, no.” [5]

A recession, if the Federal Reserve triggers one, would increase unemployment and disproportionately hurt lower-wage employees and workers of color. It would also negatively affect the world economy and have major impacts on poor countries globally.

President Biden has appealed to oil and gas company executives and foreign leaders to increase production and reduce prices. They have refused. So, what’s needed to rein in inflation, curb corporate price gouging, and help consumers deal with high inflation is a windfall profits tax, as was done in 1980. A tax on excessive profits would make price gouging less attractive to companies and provide the government with revenue that could be used to assist families suffering from the effects of inflation and to invest in the transition from fossil fuels.

Multiple countries have already implemented windfall profits taxes. Britain’s Conservative government has implemented a 25% windfall profits tax on oil and gas companies. It will use the $19 billion in revenue generated to support low-income households struggling due to inflation. Italy raised its 10% windfall profits tax to 25% and will use the revenue to subsidize households’ energy costs. Spain implemented a windfall profits tax back in September 2021; Romania and Bulgaria have windfall profits taxes. All of them are using the revenue to provide inflation relief to working people. (See this previous post for more on tackling inflation and its effects.)

Bills in Congress would put a windfall profits tax on oil and gas companies. Senator Bernie Sanders has introduced legislation that would put such a tax on a broader range of companies. [6] Eighty percent (80%) of U.S. voters support a windfall profits tax. [7]

I encourage to you contact President Biden and your Representative and Senators in Congress. Tell them you support a windfall profits tax on companies that are price gouging, like the big oil and gas companies. You can email President Biden at 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. 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.

[1]      Corbett, J., 7/29/22, “Price gouging at the pump results in 235% profit jump for big oil: Analysis,” Common Dreams (https://www.commondreams.org/news/2022/07/29/price-gouging-pump-results-235-profit-jump-big-oil-analysis)

[2]      Johnson, J., 6/21/22, “Study shows excess corporate profits in the US have become ‘widespread’,” Common Dreams (https://www.commondreams.org/news/2022/06/21/study-shows-excess-corporate-profits-us-have-become-widespread)

[3]      Lehigh, S., 7/20/22, “A Nobel laureate’s polite plea to the Fed: Go slowly in fighting inflation,” The Boston Globe

[4]      Reich, R., 6/16/22, “The Fed is making a big mistake,” (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4xcrdDnDR-c)

[5]      Johnson, J., 7/25/22, “Elizabeth Warren accuses Fed Chair of fomenting ‘devastating recession’,” Common Dreams (https://www.commondreams.org/news/2022/07/25/elizabeth-warren-accuses-fed-chair-fomenting-devastating-recession)

[6]      Corbett, J., 7/29/22, see above

[7]      Johnson, J., 6/15/22, “With US consumers ‘getting fleeced,’ Democrats demand windfall profits tax on big oil,” Common Dreams (https://www.commondreams.org/news/2022/06/15/us-consumers-getting-fleeced-democrats-demand-windfall-profits-tax-big-oil)j

FIXING THE RADICAL, REACTIONARY SUPREME COURT

The Supreme Court’s rulings over the last year have clearly shown that the six radical, reactionary justices [1] (Roberts, Alito, Barrett, Gorsuch, Kavanaugh, and Thomas) are not guided by any coherent legal or judicial reasoning. Their decisions are driven by the outcomes they desire based on their ideological and political beliefs. They will ignore precedents, facts, and history that don’t align with the outcomes they want to achieve.

(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.)

These six justices’ rulings disregard the rule of law; they are making up their own rules, principles, and rationales as they see fit on a case-by-case basis. They are not consistently applying the law so current and future results are predictable. They are also not enforcing the law equally on all persons and institutions. [2] (See this previous post for more detail.)

It appears that the six reactionary justices intend to return us to pre-1930 America – a patriarchal (and even misogynistic), racist, xenophobic, and conservative Christian society. It is a plutocracy (i.e., where wealthy elites rule), not a democracy. In it businesses and the private sector are dominant and government does little to regulate them – at least for businesses run by executives who are in favor with those in elected or judicial offices. [3]

There are multiple ways to move the Supreme Court back toward upholding the rule of law and our democracy. None of them are quick and easy. They all rely on either increasing the number of Democratic Senators (to a solid majority that would limit or overcome the filibuster’s requirement for 60 votes) or on at least some Republican Senators breaking with their party’s current radical, reactionary agenda.

First, it’s important to note that many of the Court’s radical, reactionary rulings could effectively be overturned by passing legislation. Voting rights, same-sex marriage and other LGBTQ+ rights, interracial marriage, and access to contraception are all examples of issues where the passage of legislation could be very effective. Others, such as limiting access to guns, clarifying separation of church and state, and limiting money in political campaigns, would require constitutional amendments. As noted above, achieving these changes would require an increase in the Democratic majority in Congress or changed behavior from Republicans.

In terms of fixing the Supreme Court itself, the most straightforward and potentially near-term approach would be to increase the size of the Court. The size of the Court has been changed by Congress seven times in the past (it’s had between five and ten justices), so this is not unprecedented. In addition, Republicans and Senate leader Mitch McConnell in 2016 informally reduced the size of the Court to from nine to eight for roughly a year by refusing to consider President Obama’s nominee for a vacancy.

A prominent proposal is to add four justices to the Court. This stems from the fact the Republicans, led by Senator Mitch McConnell, denied President Obama an appointment and also rammed through confirmation of a justice days before the 2020 election that President Trump lost. The votes of these two justices would be offset by two other justices and two additional justices would be added to reflect the appointments Presidents Obama and Biden should have gotten to make. (Note that these two appointments by Trump, and the one other he made, are the only three Supreme Court justices ever appointed by a president who lost the popular vote and who were confirmed by Senators who represented less than half the country’s population (44.7% in 2016 and 48.0% in 2018). This is possible because every state, regardless of population, gets two Senators.)

The Judiciary Act of 2021 has been introduced in Congress to add four seats to the Supreme Court “to restore balance, integrity, and independence to the extremist Court that has been hijacked, politicized, and delegitimized by Republicans.” [4] It has 60 co-sponsors.

Other proposals for increasing the number of justices have been put forward including one where there would be 15 justices: five Republicans, five Democrats, and five others chosen by the ten partisan justices. This would mean that the balance of power would be held by the five justices acceptable to both parties’ justices, which would presumably have a moderating and stabilizing effect. [5]

Another reform proposal would have the nine Supreme Court justices selected randomly from the roughly 170 federal appeals court judges. They would serve for a defined period that might be as short as two weeks, and then another random group of nine Supreme Court justices would be chosen.

Term limits are a way to reduce gamesmanship by Congress and improve the likelihood of adherence to the rule of law. With an 18-year term limit and staggered terms, a justice would be appointed every two years and two justices would be appointed in every presidential term.

There are a variety of other ways to improve the likelihood of adherence to the rule of law and to reduce the volatility of the effects of Supreme Court rulings. One would be to require a super-majority vote (say 7 to 2) to overturn precedents that have been in place for more than a certain number of years or that have been affirmed by a certain number of other rulings by the Supreme Court and other courts. Or a super majority vote could be required to overturn recently passed laws (e.g., the Voting Rights Act) or executive branch regulations.

Congress could also give itself the power to expedite laws overturning or rejecting Supreme Court rulings, as they have done for executive branch regulations through the Congressional Review Act. Congress could also limit the jurisdiction of the Supreme Court so it can’t overrule certain laws or regulations.

I encourage to you contact President Biden and your Representative and Senators in Congress. Tell them you support action to restrain the radical, reactionary justices on the Supreme Court and to overturn their rulings. Ask them to support the Judiciary Act of 2021, which would increase the size of the Supreme Court by four justices to correct the Court’s imbalance due to the two appointments stolen by Senate Republicans.

You can email President Biden at 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.

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.

[1]      See this previous post for an explanation of the appropriateness of calling these six justices radical and reactionary.

[2]      Millhiser, I., 7/9/22, “The post-legal Supreme Court,” Vox (https://www.vox.com/23180634/supreme-court-rule-of-law-abortion-voting-rights-guns-epa)

[3]      Cox Richardson, H., 4/6/22, “Letters from an American blog,” (https://heathercoxrichardson.substack.com/p/april-6-2022)

[4]      Senator Elizabeth Warren, 12/15/21, “Judiciary Act of 2021”,   (https://www.warren.senate.gov/newsroom/press-releases/in-op-ed-senator-warren-calls-for-supreme-court-expansion-to-protect-democracy-and-restore-independent-judiciary)

[5]      Millhiser, I., 7/2/22, “10 ways to fix a broken Supreme Court,” Vox (https://www.vox.com/23186373/supreme-court-packing-roe-wade-voting-rights-jurisdiction-stripping)

GUN VIOLENCE’S HIDDEN ACCOMPLICES

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.

Nowhere else in the world does civilian gun violence take anywhere near the toll that it does in the US. Other countries have and are taking strong, effective steps to reduce gun violence. We, too, can substantially reduce gun violence but it will not be easy or quick. It will take sustained, hard, and at times uncomfortable advocacy to achieve the changes in policies, practices, and attitudes that are necessary to substantially reduce gun violence here.

While the media coverage of mass shootings almost always says the shooter or shooters acted alone, their indirect or hidden accomplices are many and we cannot continue to let them avoid responsibility. The radical reactionaries on the Supreme Court are accomplices because they have given individuals the right to own arms, including semi-automatic assault weapons with large magazines that have no purpose other than killing as many people as possible as quickly as possible.

Members of Congress who block a ban on assault weapons and high-capacity magazines are accomplices. State legislators and Governors who have acted similarly are accomplices. This also applies to the blocking of other gun violence prevention measures, such as comprehensive background checks, waiting periods on taking possession of a gun, increasing to 21 the age requirement for buying a gun, laws keeping guns out of the hands of people most likely to use them to harm themselves or others, red flag laws that allow guns to be taken away from people who have indicated a likelihood to use them to harm themselves or others, etc.

The top of the list of accomplices today includes Governor Abbott of Texas, who proudly signed seven bills weakening regulations that reduce gun violence. In addition, despite saying that mental health services are what’s needed to prevent to mass shootings, he has refused to accept the Affordable Care Act’s expansion of Medicaid eligibility for low-income residents of TX (Medicaid pays for more mental health services than any other health insurer) and he used over $200 million from the state agency that provides mental health services to bus immigrants to Washington as a stunt to support Trump’s border policies. [1]

Also high on the accomplice list is Fox TV (it’s not news), which promotes grievance, hate, and sometimes violence to a largely white, male audience. The social media companies are on the list as well. They allowed the video of the May 14th mass shooting at the Buffalo food market to be seen by millions and to still be widely available two days after the shooting. Facebook took over ten hours to remove a link to the video. Twitch, where the shooter live-streamed the attack, is owned by Amazon. The ability to share video of a mass shooting with millions is what multiplies its impact and makes it real terrorism. [2]

Some of these accomplices are attacking those who are calling them out for their complicity, claiming we are using a tragedy for political purposes. They are hypocrites. First of all, they have used tragedies, fear, hate, and misinformation (let’s call it what it is – lies) for years to expand access to guns and foment their use. Second, while these accomplices appeal to our natural instinct to take the high-road in moments of crisis, they take the low-road time and time again – and appear to have no shame for doing so.

The time for being polite and civil in the face of gun massacres, which are terrorism, has long since passed. After fifty-five years of mass shootings in schools – going back to the University of Texas at Austin in 1966 – defenders of gun “rights” for individuals no longer deserve any presumption of good faith or restraint on our part given the hundreds of thousands of lives lost, including so many children. A polite and civil response has only led to an ever-mounting death toll. [3] (Please see my previous post for why claims of individual gun “rights” are the result of a manipulation of the meaning of the 2nd Amendment to the Constitution.)

It will require a strong and loud, and yes, confrontational, movement to produce meaningful action to reduce gun violence in this country. I urge you to speak out and act out however you are comfortable to contribute to this movement.

[1]      Jeffery, C., 5/26/22, “He did not act alone,” Mother Jones (https://www.motherjones.com/politics/2022/05/uvalde-texas-massacre-accomplices/)

[2]      Harwell, D., & Oremus, W., 5/16/22, “Only 22 saw the Buffalo shooting live. Millions have seen it since.” The Washington Post

[3]      Hubbell, R., 5/28/22, “He did not act alone,” Today’s Edition Newsletter (https://roberthubbell.substack.com/p/he-did-not-act-alone?s=r)

GUN VIOLENCE, THE SECOND AMENDMENT, AND THE “ORIGINALISTS”

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 rash of recent gun violence has refocused attention on the Second Amendment to the Constitution, which reads:

“A well regulated Militia, being necessary for the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.”

The radical reactionaries on the Supreme Court, who are supposedly “originalists,”  have interpreted this language as giving individuals the right to bear arms and an individual right to security through armed self-defense.

Somehow the “originalists” have forgotten (or choose to ignore) the first two phrases of the amendment’s language which link the right to bear arms to a well-regulated militia and the security of the state. Clearly, the original writers of the Second Amendment did NOT have in mind the right of each individual, on his or her own, to bear arms. And they had no possible conception that arms would include semi-automatic weapons that could fire multiple bullets per second; the arms they knew took many seconds to reload for a second shot. So much for originalism! (I’ll write more about the hypocrisy of the “originalists” on the Supreme Court in a future post.)

Actually, what the writers of the Second Amendment had in mind was security against slave revolts. The Second Amendment was pushed by Patrick Henry (Governor of Virginia) and George Mason (intellectual leader of the anti-Constitution anti-federalists). They were worried that the new Constitution would give the federal government the sole power to form militias, preventing states and local entities from doing so. They were also concerned that Northerners would dominate the new federal government. Given that parts of Virginia, for example, had more enslaved Blacks than Whites, Henry and Mason (and others) wanted to ensure that southern states had the power to form militias to protect white slave owners from slave revolts. [1] Therefore, if there’s any originalism in the right-wing justices’ support of an individual right to bear arms, it’s originalism that has strong racist overtones.

The ”originalists” supposedly don’t support any evolution of the meaning of the Constitution over time; according to them, it’s the original language and intent of the writers that should govern judicial decision making. Furthermore, a leading “originalist,” Justice Alito, just wrote in his draft decision overturning Roe vs. Wade, that for an unwritten right to be legitimate, it must be deeply rooted in the nation’s history and have been understood to exist when the 14th Amendment was ratified in 1868. Under either of these originalist principles, an individual right to bear arms, particularly the types of arms available today, would be impossible to assert in a truly originalist interpretation of the Constitution. Again, so much for honest originalism!

A constitutional right to individual gun ownership is a relatively new interpretation of the Second Amendment, invented by the gun industry in the 1970s and aided and abetted by the National Rifle Association (NRA). It wasn’t until the mid-1970s that the Republican Party adopted support of individual gun ownership as a core belief and policy position. In the 1960s, Republicans were strong supporters of gun control, in part because they were strong supporters of law and order. Furthermore, during the 1960s, with the rise of the Black Power movement and pushback from the Black community against racism by police, Republicans were concerned about Blacks having guns. So, for example, in 1967, California passed the Mulford Act, the most sweeping gun control law in the country. It banned personal possession of a firearm without a permit and was signed into law by Governor Ronald Reagan. At the federal level, the Gun Control Act of 1968 was passed, which restricted the sale of firearms across state lines. Neither of these laws raised any constitutional concerns at the time.

Until 1959, every legal article about the Second Amendment concluded that it was not intended to guarantee an individual’s right to own a gun. In the 1970s, legal scholars funded by the gun and ammunition industry, and their front group the NRA, began to make the argument that the Second Amendment did establish an individual right to gun ownership. [2]

In 1972, the Republican Party’s policy platform supported gun laws restricting the sale of handguns. However, in 1975, as he geared up to challenge President Gerald Ford for the 1976 presidential nomination, Ronald Reagan took a stand against gun control.

In 1977, an at-the-time radical wing of the NRA took control of the organization and shifted its focus from marksmanship and responsible gun ownership by hunters to assertion of a right to individual ownership of guns for self-defense and to opposition to any restrictions on gun ownership. In 1980, the Republican Party platform opposed the federal registration of firearms for the first time and the NRA, for the first time, endorsed a presidential candidate: Republican Ronald Reagan. This led to the Firearms Owners Protection Act of 1986, which repealed much of the Gun Control Act of 1968 and dramatically weakened federal gun control. Ironically, it was signed into law by President Reagan (who 19 years earlier had signed California’s strong gun control law).

Nonetheless, after three mass shootings in four years, the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994 included a ban on assault weapons and large capacity  ammunition magazines, as they had been used in the mass shootings and were key to making  the horrific carnage possible. However, this ban had a ten-year sunset provision. Therefore, the ban expired in 2004 and has not been renewed despite numerous attempts to do so.

These are key elements of the history of the Second Amendment and policies on gun ownership that have gotten us to where we are today. There have been over 230 mass shootings in the US already in 2022 – well over one per day. (A mass shooting is defined as one where four or more people are injured or killed, not including the shooter.) There were 20 in the week after the May 24th Uvalde, TX, school shooting. In the 230 mass shootings so far this year, 256 people have been killed and 1,010 injured. Historically, there were nearly 700 mass shootings in 2021, a significant increase from 611 in 2020 and 417 in 2019. [3]

I urge you to speak out and act out however you are comfortable to contribute to the movement to take strong action to reduce gun violence in this country. Nowhere else in the world does civilian gun violence take anywhere near the toll that it does in the US. Other countries have and are taking strong, effective steps to reduce gun violence. We can too. We have a long way to go; the sooner we start the better.

[1]      Mystal, E., 2022, “Allow me to retort: A Black guy’s guide to the Constitution,” NY, NY. The New Press.

[2]      Richardson, H. C., 5/24/22, “Letters from an American blog,” (https://heathercoxrichardson.substack.com/p/may-24-2022?s=r)

[3]      Ledur, J., & Rabinowitz, K., 6/3/22, “There have been over 200 mass shootings so far in 2022,” The Washington Post

FOUR WAYS TO TACKLE INFLATION AND ITS HARMFUL EFFECTS

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.

This post will summarize four ways to attack the current inflation and its harmful effects, as well as one traditional way of reducing inflation that will probably be counterproductive.

Because what we are experiencing is not traditional inflation, interest rate increases by the Federal Reserve are not likely to be effective in reducing inflation and may well do more harm than good. Typically, interest rate increases slow the economy and job growth, which increases unemployment and slows the rate of wage increases. In the current conditions, this would have little effect on inflation because it is not being driven by wage increases and labor costs, but rather by price gouging by monopolistic corporations, supply chain problems from the pandemic, and the war in Ukraine. In this environment, slowing job and wage growth would increase economic hardship for workers and likely do them more harm than any good due that might come from decreased inflation.

There are other ways to more effectively address the harm that price increases are doing to household budgets. One way is to decrease household costs. The Biden Administration has proposed and taken a number of steps to do this. It is working to increase the supply of oil to put downward pressure on gasoline prices, but the big oil corporations are not cooperating. It is trying to reduce drug costs, but Congress is not cooperating. It is doing what it can to address supply chain problems and to reduce monopolistic power that lets companies increase prices unjustifiably, but these two tactics are not ones that will quickly produce benefits by reducing prices. (See this previous post for more detail on these efforts.)

A second way household budgets can be helped is by increasing incomes. An enhanced child tax credit and/or an expanded earned income tax credit would do this, but these have been blocked by Republicans in Congress with the complicity of a few corporate Democrats, most notably Senators Manchin and Sinema. An increase in the minimum wage would also be helpful but has not made progress in Congress.

Helping families pay the costs of child and elder care would have a three-fold benefit, but again, Congress, particularly the Senate, has not passed legislation to do this. Help with child care and elder care expenses would reduce costs for families, helping alleviate the hardship of increases in other prices. Increased affordability and access to child and elder care would allow parents and caregivers to increase their participation in the workforce, thereby increasing household income. Furthermore, this increase in workforce participation would expand the labor supply, reducing the upward pressure on labor costs of the currently tight labor market. This would reduce the albeit relatively small contribution of labor costs to inflation. [1]

A way to attack the “inflation” that is actually corporate price gouging would be to implement a  windfall profits tax. Senator Bernie Sanders (Independent of VT) has filed the Ending Corporate Greed Act, which would implement a 95% tax on the windfall profits of large corporations (those with more than $500 million in annual profits). The bill defines windfall or excess profits as profits in excess of a corporation’s average profits from 2015 through 2019, adjusted for inflation. (See these previous posts for examples of the extraordinary profits big corporations have been making recently:

The proposed tax closely parallels the World War II windfall profits tax. Windfall profits taxes were also implemented in the 1980s on oil and gas companies and during the Korean War and World War I. [2]

The goal of a windfall profits tax would be to get corporations to stop price gouging because their ability to inflate profits would be significantly reduced. However, if corporations continue to charge high prices and generate big profits, the tax revenue from the windfall profits tax could be used to provide assistance to working families facing economic hardship due to increased prices.

Price gouging can also be tackled directly. Senators Elizabeth Warren (Democrat from MA) and Tammy Baldwin (D-WI), along with Representative Jan Schakowsky (D-IL), have introduced the Price Gouging Prevention Act of 2022. It would prohibit price gouging during market disruptions such as the current pandemic. It would empower the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and state attorneys general to enforce a ban on excessive price increases. It would require public companies to report and explain price increases in their quarterly filings with the Securities and Exchange Commission. [3]

I encourage to you contact President Biden and your Representative and Senators in Congress. Tell them you support a windfall profits tax, as well as other steps to combat price gouging, inflation, and the hardships they are causing.

You can email President Biden at 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.

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.

[1]      Bivens, J., 4/8/22, “Child care and elder care investments are a tool for reducing inflationary expectations without pain,” Economic Policy Institute (https://www.epi.org/blog/child-care-and-elder-care-investments-are-a-tool-for-reducing-inflationary-expectations-without-pain/)

[2]      Avi-Yonah, R., 4/18/22, “Time to tax excessive corporate profits,” The American Prospect (https://prospect.org/economy/time-to-tax-excessive-corporate-profits/)

[3]      Johnson, J., 5/12/22, “New Warren bill would empower feds to crack down on corporate price gouging,” Common Dreams (https://www.commondreams.org/news/2022/05/12/new-warren-bill-would-empower-feds-crack-down-corporate-price-gouging)

FACEBOOK KNOWS IT PROMOTES MISINFORMATION AND WILL CONTINUE TO DO SO WITHOUT GOVERNMENT REGULATION

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’s promotion of low-quality, right-wing content and disinformation has been clearly documented. For example, in April 2021, The Daily Wire, a bigoted, sexist, anti-immigrant, far-right website that produces no original reporting and a low volume of articles had by far the highest distribution / engagement on Facebook. Second highest was the British tabloid, the Daily Mail, followed by Fox News. Four of the top six sources of content engagement on Facebook were right-wing publishers of disinformation. Credible media got much less engagement due to Facebook’s content promotion algorithm. For example, for April 2021: [1]

  • The Daily Wire (1st)          74.9 million Facebook engagements based on 1,385 articles
  • CNN (4th)                         23.1 million Facebook engagements based on 4,765 articles
  • NBC (7th)                         18.7 million Facebook engagements based on 2,596 articles
  • New York Times (8th)      18.6 million Facebook engagements based on 6,326 articles
  • Washington Post (14th)   12.3 million Facebook engagements based on 6,228 articles

Facebook’s reality, driven by its content promotion algorithm, is NOT the reality outside of Facebook. The Daily Wire is NOT more popular than CNN, NBC, the New York Times, and the Washington Post in the world outside of Facebook, let alone more popular than all four of them combined – and the almost 20,000 articles they publish per month compared to the less than 1,400 articles of The Daily Wire, none of which contain original reporting. Facebook promotes this alternative reality because it maximizes its profits. (See this previous post for more detail.)

The election-related disinformation that flourishes on Facebook is a global crisis. There are 36 national elections in countries around the globe in 2022 and many of them will be affected by disinformation on Facebook. Some may be affected to an even greater degree than what has occurred in the U.S., where a strong case can be made that disinformation on social media (with Facebook as a major if not the major player) led to the election of Trump in 2016.

Facebook (and its parent Meta) know how to stop the proliferation of disinformation and have done so for short periods of time at least twice. Meta refers to these instances as “break the glass” emergencies, but the emergency is not short-term and specific incident related, it’s long-term and endemic.

For five days after the 2020 U.S. national election, Facebook’s News Feed and other features operated very differently. Facebook adjusted its content promotion calculations, i.e., its algorithm, to more strongly promote credible news sources. By implication, it deprioritized or down ranked sources publishing disinformation and divisive or hateful content. Facebook did this to slow the spread of disinformation about election fraud and the presidential election being stolen. However, it was too little and too late, lasting only five days in the face of many months of spreading lies about the election. Nonetheless, during the life of the adjusted algorithm, Facebook engagement for credible sources such as the New York Times, CNN, and NPR spiked up and the engagement dropped for the extreme right-wing sources, as well as for hyper-partisan left-wing sources.

Some Facebook staff pushed to make the algorithm change permanent, but were overruled by Facebook’s senior management, including Joel Kaplan, a Republican operative who had previously intervened on behalf of right-wing sources and the Facebook algorithm that promotes them. Moreover, as Facebook returned to “normal” operation, Facebook also eliminated its civic-integrity unit.

After the January 6, 2021, insurrection at the U.S. Capitol, Meta and Facebook again “broke the glass” and instituted more preferential promotion for credible news sources, but again, only for a few days.

Many concerned people from across the globe and from all walks of life – from policy makers to advocates to marginalized people – are calling on Facebook (and other social media platforms, including Instagram [also owned by Facebook’s parent Meta]) to take three steps: [2]

  1. Be transparent: disclose business models, algorithms, and content moderation practices; and release internal data on the effects and harms of the current mode of operation. This would allow independent verification of whether content amplification and moderation are effectively combatting disinformation, protecting elections and democracy, and keeping people, especially young people and children, safe.
  2. Change content promotion algorithms: stop preferential promotion of the most incendiary, hateful, and harmful content to the most vulnerable audiences.
  3. Protect all people equally: bolster content moderation to protect all people, especially marginalized and vulnerable groups, in all countries and all languages.

Facebook and the other social media companies won’t do this on their own. Without government regulation, they will continue to put profits before social responsibility . We must take steps to reduce the disinformation and divisiveness spread by Facebook and other social media platforms. Doing so is critical to the well-being of all of us, especially our children, and to the well-being of society and democracy. Government regulation clearly has to be an important part of the answer.

I encourage to you contact President Biden and your Congress people. Tell them you want strong regulation of Facebook and other social media platforms, including requirements to implement the three steps outlined above. (See this previous post for more on fixes for the harmful behavior of Facebook and other social media platforms.)

You can email President Biden at 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.

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.

[1]      Legum, J., 5/6/21, “Facebook’s problem isn’t Trump – it’s the algorithm,” Popular Information (https://popular.info/p/facebooks-problem-isnt-trump-its)

[2]      Change the Terms Coalition, retrieved from the Internet 5/2/22, https://www.changetheterms.org/

STOP SUPPORTING FOX TV WITH MONEY FROM YOUR CABLE BILL

National Fox “News” TV [1] is a major contributor (if not THE major contributor) to the disinformation, divisiveness, hate, and lack of civility that are undermining our society and democracy. It also drives the nationwide hyper-partisanship and the gridlock in Congress. Since its debut in 1996, Fox TV’s primetime viewership has grown to 2.5 million, with evangelical Christians as its most reliable audience. Its penetration and impact have been facilitated by its claim to be news and, moreover, to be fair and balanced. It has grown increasingly radical and extreme over time, including noticeably more so since 2019. Its core themes have been:

  • Stoking racism and the belief that anti-white bias is a serious problem (most recently and notably in its constant, withering, distorted attack on critical race theory),
  • Fanning the flames of “culture wars” against same sex marriage, LGBTQ+ rights, abortion, etc. as a fight against evil with white evangelical Christians as a key target, and
  • Promoting the belief that “liberals” are literally trying to destroy the country.

As national Fox TV consciously strives to generate outrage based on white resentment and supposed threats to Christianity, Trump and his acolytes in the Republican party have provided a reinforcing feedback loop that amplifies and exacerbates the disinformation, divisiveness, hate, and lack of civility. There is no mechanism for slowing this runaway train. [2]

Although social media play a critical role in amplifying disinformation and fostering divisiveness and other negative outcomes, much of the misinformation originates with national Fox TV. The content of other extremist channels like One American News Network (OANN) and Newsmax raise similar concerns but their audiences are minimal when compared to Fox TV’s audience. (See the Defenders of Democracy Against Disinformation website and this page about Fox TV in particular for more information.)

A significant portion of Fox’s revenue comes from the fees it receives from cable TV providers like Verizon and RCN, which transmit Fox programming to more than 100 million consumers every day.

Therefore, if you are paying Verizon or RCN (or any other provider that includes Fox TV) for your TV service, you are providing revenue to Fox, possibly as much as $2 per month. I do not want to provide one cent to Fox, but when I contacted Verizon multiple times to say I didn’t want to pay for the Fox channel, I was told that Fox can only be removed from my cable package if ALL news channels are removed. Verizon includes Fox in its News Bundle and it is inseparable from the other News channels. RCN customers have had a similar experience. This is unacceptable, in part because Fox isn’t news – it’s disinformation and propaganda. Therefore, it shouldn’t be in the News bundle to begin with.

I’m contacting senior executives at Verizon (see contact information and a sample letter below) to ask that Fox be removed from the News Bundle so that I don’t have to pay for Fox’s propaganda. I do want access to credible news on my TV but I don’t want to give money to Fox. Two of the four executives I’m targeting have email contact forms on the Internet. The other two (as far as I can tell) are only available by regular mail. I’ve also included contact information below for the CEO of RCN for those of you who are RCN subscribers. If you have another cable TV provider, please do an Internet search to find contact information for senior executives.

I encourage you to join me in contacting executives at your cable TV provider to ask that Fox be dropped from your service so we don’t have to give it money as part of our cable bills. I’ve drafted a letter to Hans Vestberg, the Verizon Chairman and Chief Executive Officer (see below). Please feel free to modify it as you see fit – particularly, of course, if you have a different cable TV provider but have the same Fox problem. Please send it by regular mail to him and to the Corporate Social Responsibility officer listed below at the address provided. Please email it to the other two executives using the webpage links for them presented below.

If you would like to call Verizon’s corporate headquarters, the number is 212-395-1000.

Senior executives at Verizon
Hans Vestberg, Chairman and Chief Executive Officer
Rose Stuckey Kirk, Corporate Social Responsibility Officer
Jim Gerace, External Communications and Media Relations, email form: https://www.verizon.com/about/our-company/leader/contact/916685
Manon Brouillette, Verizon Consumer Group, email form: https://www.verizon.com/about/our-company/leader/contact/922789

Chief Executive Officer at RCN
John Holanda, Chief Executive Officer
RCN
PO Box 11816
Newark, NJ
07101-8116

Sample letter to Verizon CEO

April 24, 2022

Mr. Hans Vestberg, Chairman and Chief Executive Officer
Verizon
1095 Avenue of the Americas
New York, NY
10036

Dear Mr. Vestberg,

We have been Verizon customers for many years. We are very unhappy that we have to pay money each month through our Verizon bill to Fox TV. We have called and asked multiple times to have Fox removed from our cable TV package but have been told that it’s part of the News Bundle and cannot be removed unless all news channels are removed.

Fox TV is NOT news. Much of its content is inaccurate information and could more properly be described as propaganda. It fuels divisiveness and hate. We do NOT want our money supporting an organization that undermines our democracy and civility in our society.

If a resolution to this issue cannot be provided by Verizon, we will consider changing or eliminating our cable TV service, along with our Internet and landline services that are currently bundled with our cable TV service.

Please let us know what you are doing to stop forcing your customers who want good, informational news channels from paying money to Fox TV. If we don’t hear from you, we will assume nothing is being done and will pursue alternatives to our Verizon FIOS service.

Thank you for your time and attention to this important matter.

<Note: I’d recommend signing your letter by including your name(s), address, phone number, and an email address to indicate that you are serious and want an answer.>

[1]      I put News in quotes because Fox TV delivers more disinformation than news. Hereafter, I will refer to it as Fox TV and drop “News” because I don’t want to imply that it provides news. I also use “national” before Fox TV to make clear that my focus is on the national programming and not the programming of local Fox affiliates.

[2]      Drum, K., Sept.-Oct. 2021, “The real source of America’s rising rage,” Mother Jones   (https://www.motherjones.com/politics/2021/07/american-anger-polarization-fox-news/)

FIXES FOR INSTAGRAM AND FACEBOOK

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 evidence that Facebook and Instagram are harmful, especially to teens and young people, goes back to 2006 and has been growing consistently more definitive over the last fifteen years. (See my previous post for more detail.) The pressure from the public, especially parents, and most recently from Congress to address this problem is mounting.

In response, in mid-March, Meta Platforms (the new parent corporation for Facebook and Instagram) made an announcement of some new and coming parental supervision tools for Instagram. Note that teens will have to consent to their parents’ use of supervision tools! Furthermore, teens will know what their parents are seeing about their account and activity. Rather than building in universal safety controls, Meta claims it wants to enable parents to control teens’ social media activity because parents know their teens best and teens have different maturity levels. This sounds to me like a classic blame the victim – and the victim’s parents – strategy.

Moreover, Meta knows that many parents aren’t tech savvy and/or won’t have the time and energy to effectively control teens’ social media activity. It also knows that teens tend to be far more tech savvy than their parents and will often be able to evade parental controls. It could easily institute universal strategies to eliminate or greatly reduce the potential for harm from its platforms. Finally, it knows that teens’ vulnerability changes over time and that having harm protections in place by default would be much more effective than relying on parents to recognize and quickly react to teens’ changing vulnerability.

Here’s what Meta announced about new parental supervision tools for Instagram: [1]

  • A Family Center providing information to teach parents how to talk about social media with teens.
  • An ability for teens to invite a parent to supervise their social media account.
  • Parental ability to see how much time their teens are spending on Instagram, whom they are following, who is following them, and when they complain to Instagram about another user. However, a parent will have to have an Instagram account themselves to do so.
  • Future plans for:
    • Parental ability to limit when teens can use Instagram (e.g., not during school or after bedtime),
    • Blocking of access to inappropriate content by parents and/or based on ratings by the International Age Rating Coalition, and
    • Parental supervision tools for its Oculus Quest virtual reality program, where parents, experts, and the British government have raised concerns about exposure to violence and harassment.

Meta acknowledged in its statement that many parents are not on social media and are not tech savvy – meaning that these parental controls are often meaningless. Furthermore, many of these controls, including the future plans, seem like controls that should have been put in place years ago and before these products ever went on the market, i.e., they’re too little too late.

A bipartisan bill has been introduced in Congress, the Kids’ Online Safety Act (KOSA), requiring Facebook, Instagram, and other social media platforms to provide parents with more control over their children’s online interactions. The bill reflects months of congressional investigations and a history of failures by the social media platforms to respond to their documented harmful effects on young users. [2] Congress last passed legislation to protect children when they’re online, including their privacy, 24 years ago. [3] Needless to say, much has change since then and the current business model of Facebook, Instagram, and the Internet as a whole is simply not healthy for kids and teens.

KOSA would require social media platforms to provide “easy-to-use” tools to limit screen time, protect personal data, and keep kids under 16 safe. It holds the online platforms accountable by establishing an obligation for them to put the interests of children first and to make safety the default. It requires them to prevent the promotion of bullying, sexually abusive behavior, eating disorders, self-harm, and other harmful content. The bill mandates an annual independent audit of risks to minors, steps taken to prevent harm, and compliance with KOSA. [4]

The bill would require the social media platforms to be transparent about how they operate. It would require giving parents the ability to disable addictive product features and modify content recommendation algorithms to limit or ban certain types of content. It would require the social media platforms to provide researchers and regulators with access to company data to monitor and investigate actual and potential harm to teens and children. This would allow parents and policymakers to assess whether the online platforms are actually taking effective steps to protect children.

The root of the problems with social media platforms is that there is greater profit in promoting unsafe behaviors, creating animosity, encouraging extremism, and fueling pseudo-science than there is in creating a safe place for civil discourse based on facts. Our system of capitalism and the deference to and alignment of our policymakers with large corporations has allowed this business model that commodifies and exploits human attention to explode unchecked. In the world of social media, you, your time and attention span, and your clicks are the products that are being sold – to advertisers. This means the social media business is a race to the bottom; an enterprise based on stimulating, titillating, and capturing our most base emotional and subconscious responses. Social media’s ability to do harm to individuals, our society, and our democracy is well-documented and endemic to the current business model. Without strong and effective public oversight and control, the social media platforms will continue to inflict substantial harms.

I urge you to contact President Biden, as well as your U.S. Representative and Senators, to let them know that you support the Kids’ Online Safety Act and additional actions to regulate social media platforms.

You can email President Biden at 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.

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.

[1]      Peng, I., 3/17/22, “Meta adds parental tools to Instagram,” The Boston Globe from Bloomberg News

[2]      Zakrzewski, C., 2/17/22, “Senators introduce children’s online safety bill after months of hearings,” The Boston Globe from the Washington Post

[3]      Monahan, D., 3/22/22, “Diverse coalition of advocates urges Congress to pass legislation to protect kids and teens online,” Fairplay (https://fairplayforkids.org/march-22-2022-diverse-coalition-of-advocates-urges-congress-to-pass-legislation-to-protect-kids-and-teens-online/)

[4]      Blumenthal, Senator R., retrieved 2/16/22 from the Internet, “Blumenthal & Blackburn introduce comprehensive Kids’ Online Safety legislation,” (https://www.blumenthal.senate.gov/newsroom/press/release/blumenthal-and-blackburn-introduce-comprehensive-kids-online-safety-legislation)

THE HARMS OF INSTAGRAM, FACEBOOK, AND SOCIAL MEDIA

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 news that Facebook and Instagram are harmful, especially to teens and young people, is not new. In 2006, a college professor, Joni Siani, whose class on Interpersonal Communications had access to Facebook a year before the public, found almost immediately that the Facebook experience was stressful and depressing for her students. Her class effectively became a Facebook group therapy session. That’s the beginning of a story I’ll come back to in a minute. [1] (By the way, Facebook and Instagram are now part of a new corporate entity, Meta Platforms. This name change seems to me to be an effort to obfuscate responsibility and accountability for the harms caused by Facebook and Instagram.)

In 2019, the docudrama The Social Dilemma came out, which highlights the manipulation and harms of social media. I encourage you to watch the film (on Netflix) or at least watch the 2 ½ minute trailer that’s available on the website. I urge you to explore the website; there’s a wealth of information under the button “The Dilemma” and a variety of ways to pushback under the “Take Action” button.

The Social Dilemma was created by the Center for Humane Technology, which was founded in 2013 by a Google design ethicist. The Center’s website provides terrific resources for understanding the effects of social media platforms and how to use them intelligently. It has modules for parents and educators on how to help teens be safe, smart users of social media.

Last fall, a former Facebook employee, Frances Haugen, blew the whistle on Facebook’s practices with testimony to Congress, an appearance on 60 Minutes, and a trove of inside documents that the Wall Street Journal reported on extensively. (Blogger Whitney Tilson in one of her posts provides links to Haugen’s interview on 60 Minutes and to the Wall St. Journal’s investigative articles based on documents provided by Haugen. Tilson also wrote a letter to Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg that’s part of her blog post.)

Haugen documented that Facebook is a threat to our children and our democracy. Furthermore, she made it clear that Facebook knows this but fails to take steps to reduce the harm because doing so would hurt profits. I previously wrote about the threats of Facebook to our children and our democracy here and what can be done about them here.

Instagram, a Facebook partner under the Meta Platforms umbrella, says it only allows users on its platform who are 13 or older, but its age verification tools are weak. Its algorithm (i.e., its decision-making processes) for what information to direct to individual users has been shown to promote harmful content to youth who are particularly susceptible to such messages, such as material promoting eating disorders. Instagram was developing a separate product targeting children under 13 until criticism and pushback from parents and child advocacy organizations caused it to announce that it had paused (but not terminated) development.

A resource for responding to social media’s threats to children is an organization called Fairplay and its website. Formerly the Campaign for a Commercial Free Childhood, Fairplay has been fighting for years to protect kids from the manipulation and harm from commercial advertising and social media platforms. If you want to get updates from Fairplay, click on “Connect” under the “About” button to sign-up. Fairplay helps parents manage kids’ screen time and provides alternatives to screen time. It sponsors a Screen-free Week every spring. It has established the Screen Time Action Network to support parents concerned about the effects of screen time and social media platforms on their children.

Returning to the story of that college professor, Joni Siani, who in 2006 saw the harm that Facebook did to her college students, in 2013, she wrote a book about the love-hate relationship between users and their digital devices titled Celling your soul: no app for life. And she started an organization called No App for Life.

In 2021, Siani and No App for Life partnered with Fairplay and its Screen Time Action Network to create three podcasts titled The Harms. They present three stories of parents who lost a child due to social media platforms’ harmful impacts on their children. One describes the ruthless assaults of social media “friends” that led to a suicide. One describes how “fun” online challenges can lead to horrible results. And one describes how drug dealers sell their products on social media, even posting ads amongst all the other ads seen on social media constantly. These horrific examples are from strong families who were trying to do everything right in managing their children’s social media activities but were overwhelmed by the power of social media.

My next post will summarize Meta Platforms recent announcement of new and planned parental supervision tools, as well as the bipartisan Kids Online Safety Act, which has been introduced in Congress.

[1]      Rogers, J., & Siani, J., 3/6/22, “What do I do now? Unthinkable stories Big Tech  doesn’t want to tell,” Fairplay’s Screen Time Action Network and No App for Life Podcasts (https://fairplayforkids.org/harms-podcast/)

MORE EVIDENCE THAT “INFLATION” IS PRICE GOUGING

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.

More evidence is emerging that price gouging, particularly by big corporations, is responsible for a good portion of recent consumer price increases. Inflation is normally the result of increases in production costs. In a competitive market, production cost increases result in decreased profits. However, currently, corporate profits are increasing, often dramatically. With production cost increases, profits would be expected to decline because producers will be competing for consumers based on price. Therefore, they would restrain price increases to avoid losing customers. Some of the cost increases might be passed through to consumers in order to reduce the decline in profits. With real competition in a free-market, a producer’s prices and profits can’t increase dramatically because other producers in the market (or new ones who will enter it) will take advantage of the opportunity to make good but lower profits by charging a lower price.

When consumer prices increase and profits increase dramatically, real competition is NOT occurring. Rather, it shows that producers have monopolistic power and are able to increase prices and their profits because consumers have no or few choices. In some cases, the few producers in the market may collude and raise their prices in tandem rather than actually competing with each other. This is illegal price fixing.

In 2019, before the pandemic, big U.S. corporations had about $1 trillion in profits. In 2021, during the pandemic, their profits were $1.7 trillion, a 70% increase. One estimate is that these increased profits account for 60% of the price increases that consumers are experiencing; it’s supposedly “inflation” but it’s really price gouging. [1]

For example, Proctor & Gamble (P&G) increased the prices of its Pampers brand diapers last April blaming increased costs. However, its previous quarterly profits had been $3.8 billion and, six months later, its profits were over $5 billion. These exorbitant profits allowed it to spend $3 billion buying back its own stock. Corporate stock buybacks increase the price of a corporation’s stock, benefiting big, wealthy shareholders, including corporate executives. (Note: Until 1982, stock buybacks were considered illegal market manipulation.)

In a competitive market, consumers would buy other brands of diapers to avoid the P&G price increase. However, effectively, there is only one other brand of disposable diapers, Huggies, which are made by Kimberly-Clark. These two corporations control 80% of the global disposable diaper market. Kimberly-Clark just happened to increase its prices for Huggies at roughly the same time as P&G increased its prices for Pampers.

As another example, as gas prices at the pump skyrocket, the big oil corporations’ 2021 profits were at seven-year highs, even before the most recent dramatic gas price increases:

  • Exxon Mobil: $23 billion, highest since 2014
  • Chevron: $15.6 billion, highest since 2014
  • Shell: $19.3 billion, highest since 2014
  • BP: $12.9 billion, highest since 2013

Big oil is using the smoke screen of the war in Ukraine and inflation elsewhere in the economy to engage in price gouging. The U.S. gets only about 7% of its imported petroleum products from Russia and this represents just 3% of the oil the U.S. consumes. Moreover, in 2020, the U.S. exported more petroleum products than it imported. This is hardly a situation where the loss of Russian oil would result in such dramatic price increases if the oil market was a truly competitive one.

One way to tackle price gouging is with a windfall profits tax. Democrats in Congress have introduced the Big Oil Windfall Profits Tax bill. It is estimated that this tax would raise $45 billion per year. That money would be used to provide rebates to middle and lower income households of $240 (single tax filers) to $360 (joint tax filers) per year. [2] A windfall profits tax would seem to be called for in many other sectors of the economy as well, such as meat packers, diaper makers, drug manufacturers, car dealers, and shipping corporations.

Other ways to fight price gouging include:

  • Price controls,
  • Stronger enforcement of anti-trust laws including breaking up giant corporations that have monopolistic power in their markets,
  • Stronger action to stop and penalize anti-competitive market behavior including criminal charges against executives who engage in price fixing, and
  • Banning stock buybacks, which provide corporate executives with a strong incentive for price gouging to increase profits. [3]

As President Joe Biden said, “Capitalism without competition isn’t capitalism, it’s exploitation.” He’s right. Price gouging is one important manifestation of that exploitation. This exploitation of consumers is one result of the current extreme capitalism in the U.S. that has allowed the emergence of huge corporations that reduce or eliminate competition. We need to fight price gouging and anti-competitive capitalism with both short-term and long-term strategies.

I urge you to contact President Biden and your U.S. Representative and Senators to let them know that you support a range of actions to stop price gouging. Tell them you support the Big Oil Windfall Profits Tax bill and urge them to pass it quickly. Urge them to institute a windfall profits tax on all businesses that are engaging in price gouging, not just big oil. Ask them to support stronger enforcement of antitrust laws and to penalize anti-competitive market behavior. Tell them to ban stock buybacks and, if all else fails, to institute price controls on price gouging companies.

You can email President Biden at 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.

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.

[1]      Hightower, J., 2/1/22, “Corporate profiteers’ pandemic strategy: Gouge consumers and blame Joe Biden,” The Hightower Lowdown (https://hightowerlowdown.org/article/corporate-profiteers-pandemic-strategy-gouge-consumers-and-blame-joe-biden/)

[2]      Germanos, A., 3/10/22, “Dems introduce windfall tax on big oil so companies ‘pay a price when they price gouge’ ,” Common Dreams (https://www.commondreams.org/news/2022/03/10/dems-introduce-windfall-tax-big-oil-so-companies-pay-price-when-they-price-gouge)

[3]      Hightower, J., 2/1/22, see above

PRICE GOUGING BY BIG PHARMA

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.

Big increases in the prices of many drugs from multiple manufacturers in January appear to be price gouging by the big drug companies. Price gouging by big corporations is increasingly being blamed as a major contributor to the current high level of inflation. (See this previous post for more detail.)

Thirteen Members of Congress have sent a letter to the industry trade group (the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America [PhRMA]) asking for an explanation and justification for the price increases. [1] The letter alleges that the big drug companies are using their monopolistic power in the market to raise prices to increase their already large profits, i.e., to engage in price gouging. [2]

The broad price increases by virtually every manufacturer of popular prescription drugs appear to be coordinated and perhaps timed to coincide with (and therefore go unnoticed due to) the high inflation the economy is experiencing. These drug price increases will contribute to keeping inflation high. Although drug companies often increase some prices in January, they also often increase prices in July as well. Therefore, these drug price increases are probably not the only increases in drug prices consumers, Medicare and other health insurers, and the economy are likely to experience this year. [3]

A study of drug prices over the first 25 days of January found that drug companies increased the prices of 72% of the 187 different formulations of the 100 top selling drugs and on 26% of all brand name drugs. While the average increase for brand name drugs was 5.1%, for 118 drugs the increase was 10% or more. The highest price increase was 60%!

A separate study of price increases on the 20 drugs with the highest expenditures by Medicare found that prices were raised on 16 of them. Twelve of them had increases of 4.0% or more and four of those had increases of 6.0% or more. These price increases are estimated to cost Medicare and seniors $2.5 billion this year. Many of these drugs have been on the market for years and some for decades, so it appears that these price increases are only occurring to increase the already high profits of the drug companies.

The pharmaceutical drug industry’s profits (i.e., operating margin) are 26.4% of revenue compared with an average of 13.2% across all U.S. industries. [4] A profit margin of 10% is generally considered good and one of 20% is considered high. So, the pharmaceutical drug industry’s 26.4% is very high and price increases are possible only because of a lack of competition, i.e., a lack of other manufacturers that would sell at lower prices and be happy to have somewhat lower, but still healthy, profit margins.

Pfizer Inc., for example, is the manufacturer of eight of the twenty drugs with the highest price increases in January 2022, all of which were 10% or higher. In 2021, it reported revenues of $81.3 billion and profits of $25.2 billion, both of which had roughly doubled from 2020. Its 2021 profit margin was 31.0%. Nonetheless, it significantly increased drug prices in January 2022 and projects that in 2022 its revenue will grow 23% and its profit margin will grow to 37%. [5] It’s hard to view its price increases as anything but monopolistic power in the market for its drugs and greed for even more exorbitant profits.

The Build Back Better Act (BBBA) included some provisions to address high drug prices, including allowing Medicare to negotiate drug prices with manufacturers (which the Veterans’ Administration and every private health insurer and other country do). With the BBBA stalled, a standalone bill was introduced in the U.S. Senate to cut drug prices. However, Republicans blocked voting on the bill.

President Biden, in his State of the Union speech on March 1st, called for Congressional action to cut drug prices, including allowing Medicare to negotiate drug prices and putting a cap on the price of insulin at $35 per month. The price of insulin in the U.S. is eight times what it is in Canada and ten times the average price in three dozen other countries. [6]

I urge you to contact President Biden and your U.S. Representative and Senators to let them know that you support a range of actions to control and reduce drug prices. Allowing Medicare to negotiate drug prices is one. Price controls and a windfall profits tax are others. (By the way, price controls and a windfall profits tax should be considered for all businesses that are engaging in price gouging, not just the drug companies.)

You can email President Biden at 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.

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.

UPDATE: I wrote about price gouging by drug companies in 2016, including highlighting the huge price increases ($100 to $608) for EpiPens, which inject a drug to treat severe allergic reactions, such as to peanuts or a bee sting. On Feb. 28, 2022, the EpiPen price gouger, Mylan (now Viatris), agreed to a $264 million class-action lawsuit settlement for illegal monopolistic behavior. EpiPens are made by two subsidiaries of Pfizer, which settled its piece of the lawsuit for $345 million last July. [7]

[1]      Corbett, J., 3/2/22, “Warren demands big pharma end ‘corporate price gouging’,” Common Dreams (https://www.commondreams.org/news/2022/03/02/warren-demands-big-pharma-end-corporate-price-gouging)

[2]      Price gouging typically refers to price increases when businesses are taking advantage of spikes in demand or shortages of supply and charge exorbitant prices for necessities, often after a natural disaster or another type of emergency. Here it refers to businesses that are taking advantage of having monopolistic power, which means they control the supply in the market.

[3]      Senator Elizabeth Warren et al., 3/1/22, “Letter to PhRMA on January 2022 drug price increases,” (https://www.warren.senate.gov/imo/media/doc/2022.03.01%20Letter%20to%20PhRMA%20on%20January%202022%20Drug%20Price%20Increases%20(1).pdf)

[4]      Stern School of Business, Jan. 2022, “Margins by sector (US),” New York University (https://pages.stern.nyu.edu/~adamodar/New_Home_Page/datafile/margin.html)

[5]      Pfizer Inc., 2/8/22, “Pfizer reports fourth-quarter and full-year 2021 results,” (https://s28.q4cdn.com/781576035/files/doc_financials/2021/q4/Q4-2021-PFE-Earnings-Release.pdf)

[6]      RAND Corporation, 1/6/21, “The astronomical price of insulin hurts American families,” (https://www.rand.org/blog/rand-review/2021/01/the-astronomical-price-of-insulin-hurts-american-families.html)

[7]      Jimenez, J., 2/28/22, “Viatris agrees to settle EpiPen antitrust litigation for $264 million,” The New York Times

PRICE GOUGING BY BIG PHARMA (3/5/22, #452) Categories:

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.

Big increases in the prices of many drugs from multiple manufacturers in January appear to be price gouging by the big drug companies. Price gouging by big corporations is increasingly being blamed as a major contributor to the current high level of inflation. (See this previous post for more detail.)

Thirteen Members of Congress have sent a letter to the industry trade group (the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America [PhRMA]) asking for an explanation and justification for the price increases. [1] The letter alleges that the big drug companies are using their monopolistic power in the market to raise prices to increase their already large profits, i.e., to engage in price gouging. [2]

The broad price increases by virtually every manufacturer of popular prescription drugs appear to be coordinated and perhaps timed to coincide with (and therefore go unnoticed due to) the high inflation the economy is experiencing. These drug price increases will contribute to keeping inflation high. Although drug companies often increase some prices in January, they also often increase prices in July as well. Therefore, these drug price increases are probably not the only increases in drug prices consumers, Medicare and other health insurers, and the economy are likely to experience this year. [3]

A study of drug prices over the first 25 days of January found that drug companies increased the prices of 72% of the 187 different formulations of the 100 top selling drugs and on 26% of all brand name drugs. While the average increase for brand name drugs was 5.1%, for 118 drugs the increase was 10% or more. The highest price increase was 60%!

A separate study of price increases on the 20 drugs with the highest expenditures by Medicare found that prices were raised on 16 of them. Twelve of them had increases of 4.0% or more and four of those had increases of 6.0% or more. These price increases are estimated to cost Medicare and seniors $2.5 billion this year. Many of these drugs have been on the market for years and some for decades, so it appears that these price increases are only occurring to increase the already high profits of the drug companies.

The pharmaceutical drug industry’s profits (i.e., operating margin) are 26.4% of revenue compared with an average of 13.2% across all U.S. industries. [4] A profit margin of 10% is generally considered good and one of 20% is considered high. So, the pharmaceutical drug industry’s 26.4% is very high and price increases are possible only because of a lack of competition from companies that would be willing to sell at lower prices and have lower profit margins.

Pfizer Inc., for example, is the manufacturer of eight of the twenty drugs with the highest price increases in January 2022, all of which were 10% or higher. In 2021, it reported revenues of $81.3 billion and profits of $25.2 billion, both of which had roughly doubled from 2020. Its 2021 profit margin was 31.0%. Nonetheless, it significantly increased drug prices in January 2022 and projects that in 2022 its revenue will grow 23% and its profit margin will grow to 37%. [5] It’s hard to view this as anything but monopolistic power in the market for its drugs and greed for even more exorbitant profits.

The Build Back Better Act (BBBA) included some provisions to address high drug prices, including allowing Medicare to negotiate drug prices with manufacturers (which the Veterans’ Administration and every private health insurer and other country do). With the BBBA stalled, a standalone bill was introduced in the U.S. Senate to cut drug prices. However, Republicans blocked voting on the bill.

President Biden, in his State of the Union speech on March 1st, called for Congressional action to cut drug prices, including allowing Medicare to negotiate drug prices and putting a cap on the price of insulin at $35 per month. The price of insulin in the U.S. is eight times what it is in Canada and ten times the average price in three dozen other countries. [6]

I urge you to contact President Biden and your U.S. Representative and Senators to let them know that you support a range of actions to control and reduce drug prices. Allowing Medicare to negotiate drug prices is one. Price controls and a windfall profits tax are others. (By the way, price controls and a windfall profits tax should be considered for all businesses that are engaging in price gouging, not just the drug companies.)

You can email President Biden at 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.

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.

UPDATE: I wrote about price gouging by drug companies in 2016, including highlighting the huge price increases ($100 to $608) for EpiPens, which inject a drug to treat severe allergic reactions, such as to peanuts or a bee sting. On Feb. 28,2022, the EpiPen price gouger, Mylan (now Viatris), agreed to a $264 million class-action lawsuit settlement for illegal monopolistic behavior. EpiPens are made by two subsidiaries of Pfizer, which settled its piece of the lawsuit for $345 million last July. [7]

[1]      Corbett, J., 3/2/22, “Warren demands big pharma end ‘corporate price gouging’,” Common Dreams (https://www.commondreams.org/news/2022/03/02/warren-demands-big-pharma-end-corporate-price-gouging)

[2]      Price gouging typically refers to price increases when businesses are taking advantage of spikes in demand or shortages of supply and charge exorbitant prices for necessities, often after a natural disaster or another type of emergency. Here it refers to businesses that are taking advantage of having monopolistic power, which means they control the supply in the market.

[3]      Senator Elizabeth Warren et al., 3/1/22, “Letter to PhRMA on January 2022 drug price increases,” (https://www.warren.senate.gov/imo/media/doc/2022.03.01%20Letter%20to%20PhRMA%20on%20January%202022%20Drug%20Price%20Increases%20(1).pdf)

[4]      Stern School of Business, Jan. 2022, “Margins by sector (US),” New York University (https://pages.stern.nyu.edu/~adamodar/New_Home_Page/datafile/margin.html)

[5]      Pfizer Inc., 2/8/22, “Pfizer reports fourth-quarter and full-year 2021 results,” (https://s28.q4cdn.com/781576035/files/doc_financials/2021/q4/Q4-2021-PFE-Earnings-Release.pdf)

[6]      RAND Corporation, 1/6/21, “The astronomical price of insulin hurts American families,” (https://www.rand.org/blog/rand-review/2021/01/the-astronomical-price-of-insulin-hurts-american-families.html)

[7]      Jimenez, J., 2/28/22, “Viatris agrees to settle EpiPen antitrust litigation for $264 million,” The New York Times

SUPPORTING CHILDREN AND FAMILIES: SOMETHING EVERY DEMOCRAT OUGHT TO BE CAMPAIGNING ON NOW

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.

Democrats in Congress and the Biden Administration enacted a nearly universal Child Tax Credit as part of the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) in March 2021. It provided almost every family in America with $3,600 annually for each child under age 6 and $3,000 for each child age 6 and up. Importantly, the credit was paid on a monthly basis rather than having to wait until one filed a tax return at the end of the year to get the money. In effect, it provided a universal basic monthly income for families with kids, something most wealthy countries do. [1]

The effect of this enhanced Child Tax Credit was dramatic – the child poverty rate declined by almost half. However, ARPA authorized these payments for only one year. Many politicians and policy analysts thought that the program would prove so effective and so popular that it would be extended. This is what was proposed by the Biden Administration and most Democrats in Congress as part of the Build Back Better bill.

Last summer, as the Build Back Better (BBB) bill was taking shape, the debate between Democratic progressives and centrists was whether to make the enhanced Child Tax Credit permanent or just extend it for five years. But then, Senators Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema went rogue. They claimed they were concerned about the budgetary impact, but voted for an increased defense budget many times more expensive. They claimed that families were benefiting from it that didn’t need it or deserve it. I’ll come back to these arguments below.

Now, the question is whether any form of the enhanced Child Tax Credit will survive in whatever the Build Back Better bill becomes.

Longstanding research shows substantial benefits for child outcomes from family economic support. This research was bolstered very recently by a research paper published in the prestigious Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. In a randomized control trial, the most definitive kind of scientific study (the same approach as is used for testing new drugs), monthly cash support of $4,000 per year given to poor mothers with infants was found to result in changes in the infant’s brain activity that are associated with better development of important cognitive skills. [2]

Despite the strong body of research that documents that economic support for families improves children’s cognitive, school success, and life success outcomes, the Republicans and a few Democrats in Congress let the enhanced Child Tax Credit expire in January. As a result, 3.7 million more children are now in families living in poverty. The overall child poverty rate increased from 12.1% to 17.0% (a 41% increase in the poverty rate) and the impact on non-White children was greater:

  • White children in poverty increased from    7.5% to 11.4% (+3.9%)
  • Black children in poverty increased from   19.5% to 25.4% (+5.9%)
  • Latino children in poverty increased from  16.8% to 23.9% (+7.1%)
  • Asian children in poverty increased from   11.9% to 15.1% (+3.2%) [3]

The Child Tax Credit is a potent anti-poverty program. It is also extremely efficient. There are no middlemen, no application hassles, and no bureaucracy required to determine who’s eligible and who’s not; the government just provides money to all families with children, the same way it provides money to all seniors through Social Security. And the benefits are taxable, so higher income families who have less need for the money pay some of it back in income tax.

Senator Manchin has said he might support an enhanced Child Tax Credit if it had strict income limits or a work requirement. This would make it an inefficient, counter-productive policy because it requires a large bureaucratic effort to determine who is eligible and who isn’t, and mistakes will undoubtedly occur. It creates complexity and confusion because parents’ work status and income can change, often frequently for low-income workers and those in part-time jobs. Furthermore, it creates what are called “cliff effects” where as a parent’s earned income increases, they fall off the eligibility cliff and lose benefits. This creates a perverse incentive for low-income workers to refuse increases in pay or hours, or even to refuse a new job, because this might reduce their eligibility for benefits from the Child Tax Credit.

It would also make the Child Tax Credit less politically popular because middle-class parents wouldn’t get it. This reduced political support means that it will be more likely to be cut or eliminated in the future.

The Child Tax Credit is an issue that exposes the hypocrisy of many Republicans and some conservative Democrats. They claim they support family values and a right to life (as well as to liberty and the pursuit of happiness), but don’t support the enhanced Child Tax Credit that supports families and improves a child’s likelihood of leading a successful and fulfilling life.

I urge you to contact President Biden and your U.S. Representative and Senators to let them know that you support the enhanced Child Tax Credit, which would provide economic support to over 36 million families and over 61 million children. Tell them that this is what family values really are all about and that this is what a right to a life is all about for children in America.

You can email President Biden at 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.

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.

[1]      Kuttner, R., 2/18/22, “Save the Child Tax Credit,” The American Prospect blog (https://prospect.org/blogs/tap/save-the-child-tax-credit/)

[2]      Troller-Renfree, S. V., et al., 2/1/22, “The impact of a poverty reduction intervention on infant brain activity,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (https://www.pnas.org/content/119/5/e2115649119)

[3]      Center on Poverty and Social Policy, 2/17/22, “3.7 million more children in poverty in Jan 2022 without monthly Child Tax Credit,” Columbia University (https://www.povertycenter.columbia.edu/news-internal/monthly-poverty-january-2022)

WHICH CORPORATIONS SUPPORT SEDITIOUS REPUBLICANS AND WHICH SUPPORT DEMOCRACY

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.

A year after January 6, 2021, when, even after the insurrectionists’ attack on the Capitol, 147 Republicans objected (with no factual basis) to certifying the Electoral College vote that made Joe Biden President, it’s important to identify the corporations that are supporting the 147 objectors who opposed the peaceful, democratic transfer of power to the new, overwhelmingly elected President.

Remember that in reaction to the insurrection and the votes of those 147 Republicans against a peaceful transfer of power based on the will of the voters, hundreds of corporations stated they were suspending political contributions to the objectors, or in some cases all political contributions. Many pledged never to support the objectors in the future.

Corporate support of politicians and political committees is done through corporations’ political action committees (PACs). Popular Information has been monitoring corporate PACs through their reporting to the Federal Election Commission (FEC). It has published its findings in a corporate accountability index that lists 183 corporations and whether or not they have kept their pledges not to support the objectors.

GOOD NEWS: So far, 79 major corporations have kept their pledges and not donated directly to any of the 147 objectors or to committees that support them, typically the fundraising committees of the Republican National Committee. These include Airbnb, Allstate, Amazon, American Express, CBS, Clorox, Coca-Cola, eBay, Facebook, General Mills, Hallmark, Hilton, Kraft Heinz, Lyft, Marriott, Mastercard, McDonalds, Microsoft, Nike, Sony, Target, Walgreens, Walt Disney, and Zillow. (See the full list at the corporate accountability index.)

Charles Schwab, one of the country’s biggest brokerage firms, went even further. Immediately after the insurrection, it announced the dissolution of its PAC and said it would no longer make donations to politicians. The PAC’s remaining funds were donated to The Boys & Girls Club of America and historically Black colleges and universities. Hewlett Packard also shut down its PAC soon after January 6. Hallmark Cards actually requested that two objectors, Senators Josh Hawley (R-MO) and Roger Marshall (R-KS), return its PAC’s donations. [1]

Overall, Popular Information found that corporate PAC donations to objectors was down roughly 60% in 2021 as compared to 2019 (the comparable year from the previous election cycle). Of the 183 major corporations it contacted, seven explicitly pledged not to support objectors in 2022: Airbnb, BASF, Eversource Energy, Lyft, Microsoft, Dow, and American Express. [2]

BAD NEWS: To-date, 103 corporations have either given directly to objectors or to committees that support them, despite pledges not to donate to objectors, to suspend all PAC donations, or to re-evaluate their donation criteria.

  • Four corporations have broken their pledges and given directly to objectors and to committees supporting them: PriceWaterhouseCoopers: $184,000; Eli Lilly: $72,500; Cigna: $60,000; and Pacific Gas & Electric: $44,500.
  • Fifty-two corporations pledged to suspend all PAC contributions but then gave directly to objectors and often to committees supporting them as well, including Boeing: $375,500; Lockheed Martin: $323,000; GM: $158,500; as well as Aflac, American Airlines, Jet Blue, Kroger, Molson Coors, Stanley Black and Decker, T-Mobile, and UPS. (See the full list at the corporate accountability index.)
  • Seventeen corporations pledged to re-evaluate their donation criteria but then donated directly to objectors and sometimes to committees supporting them as well, including: Toyota; $95,500; Chevron: $71,000; Ford: $59,000; as well as Delta, Exxon Mobil, and FedEx. (See the full list at the corporate accountability index.) Toyota, after substantial public attention and pushback, announced in June, 2021, that it would change course and stop contributing to objectors. A clear indication that public pressure can be effective. (See more about how to do this at the end of this post.)
  • Thirty corporations have violated the spirt of their pledge by giving indirectly to objectors through committees that support them, despite pledging not to donate to objectors, to suspend all PAC donations, or to re-evaluate their donation criteria. These include: NextEra: $105,000; Dell: $60,000; Walmart: $60,000; Cozen O’Connor: $55,000; AT&T: $35,000; and $30,000 each from Comcast / NBC, Genentech, General Electric, Google, Intel, and Verizon. (See the full list at the corporate accountability index.)

The organization Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW) has also been monitoring corporate and industry trade groups’ donations to the objectors. [3]

GOOD NEWS: One hundred thirty-four (134) out of 248 corporations and industry groups that said they were suspending donations to the objectors have not contributed to them to-date.

BAD NEWS: Over the last year, despite promises made to hold the objectors accountable, 717 corporations and industry groups have given over $18 million to objectors and the Republican National Committee’s fundraising committees that support them.

The four largest corporate donors to objectors and committees supporting them are: Koch Industries ($308,000), American Crystal Sugar ($285,000), General Dynamics ($234,000), and Valero Energy ($208,000). These corporations never pledged to stop or alter political donations despite the Jan. 6 insurrection and the unfounded objections to the Electoral College vote.

The five top donors among industry trade groups are: Council of Insurance Agents & Brokers ($432,000), National Association of Realtors ($303,000), Independent Insurance Agents & Brokers of America ($270,000), National Electrical Contractors Association ($222,000), and the Credit Union National Association ($217,500).

GOOD NEWS: Activism by consumers, voters, and stakeholders in general (i.e., us) can have an effect of corporations. For example, as noted above, Toyota stopped its financial support of objectors after public attention and push back from consumers. I encourage you to take action however you see fit. Here are some ideas for steps you can take:

  • Patronize businesses that support democracy (i.e., they are not donating to the objectors).
  • Boycott businesses that are donating to the objectors.
  • Send letters, emails, or social media postings to corporations to thank them for doing the right thing or highlighting their bad behavior and asking them to change it. Address your communication to the CEO and/or the shareholder or customer relations office. This is particularly effective if you are a shareholder, customer, employee, retiree, or other stakeholder in the company, which you should note in your communication.
  • Submit a letter to the editor of a local media outlet (hardcopy or on-line), post to social media, and/or spread the word to your family and friends.

Every action makes a difference and together, many small actions add up to something bigger than the apparent sum of those actions. We all need to do our part to save our democracy from the forces that are undermining it. Corporate America must stand up for our democracy and stop supporting those who are undermining it. In the 2020 election cycle, five of the objectors received over 60% of their campaign donations from corporate PACs. [4] This has to stop and it’s our job to make it happen, as we did with Toyota.

[1]      Li, A., & Shah, A., 1/3/22, “The corporate insurrectionists: How companies have broken promises and funded seditionists,” CREW (https://www.citizensforethics.org/reports-investigations/crew-reports/the-corporate-insurrection-how-companies-have-broken-promises-and-funded-seditionists/)

[2]      Legum, J., Crosby, R., & Zekeria, T., 1/4/22, “Seven major corporations pledge not to support GOP objectors in 2022,” Popular Information (https://popular.info/p/seven-major-corporations-pledge-not)

[3]      Li, A., & Shah, A., 1/3/22, see above

[4]      Evers-Hillstrom, K., 1/8/21, “Exploring the top donors to GOP Electoral College objectors,” OpenSecrets (https://www.opensecrets.org/news/2021/01/objectors-to-electoralcollege-donors)

STOPPING CYBERCRIME AND CIVILIAN HARM FROM CYBERWARFARE

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.

This is the final post of my nine-part series on computer hacking and cyberwarfare based on New York Times cybersecurity reporter Nicole Perlroth’s outstanding book, This Is How They Tell Me the World Ends. [1] These posts have summarized the book’s information on the scale of computer hacking, cybercrime, and cyberwarfare; and have shared a number of examples. The previous post provided an overview of steps that can be taken to counter cybercrime at the personal, organizational, and governmental levels. This post discusses steps that are being taken to counter ransomware and to stop cyberwarfare from harming civilians.

The Biden Administration is working to reduce the frequency and profitability of ransomware attacks. It is disrupting the infrastructure ransomware hackers use to collect their ransom. It has put sanctions on cryptocurrency exchanges that are frequently used for ransomware payments and warned U.S. companies not to pay ransomware. In June, it was able to recover over half of the $4.4 million in cryptocurrency that Colonial Pipeline had paid to its ransomware attacker. [2] The U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) reports that ransomware attacks have cost the U.S. almost $600 million in the first six months of 2021.

In November, the DOJ announced that a Ukrainian hacker had been arrested and charged in connection with a group of ransomware attacks. It also announced the recovery of $6.1 million from ransomware attacks by a Russian who was charged separately and is listed as wanted by law enforcement. In December, the head of the U.S. Cyber Command and the Director of the National Security Agency announced that the military had taken offensive actions against ransomware attackers who had targeted critical infrastructure. [3] These actions represent the strongest U.S. government response to ransomware attacks to-date and reflect a marshalling of resources across multiple agencies. European law enforcement officials also announced that seven ransomware hackers have been arrested in Europe since February. [4] Recently, a multi-national effort succeeded in shutting down, at least temporarily, a major Russian ransomware entity. In October, the Biden Administration convened over 30 countries to develop plans to combat ransomware attacks around the globe. [5]

Back in April, the Biden Administration announced tough sanctions on Russia for previous cyberattacks and, in June, President Biden warned Russian President Putin that future Russian cyberattacks would be grounds for additional retaliation.

Three former U.S. cyber intelligence agency employees, who had been hired by the United Arab Emirates (UAE) to conduct cyberespionage, pleaded guilty in September to cyber hacking and violating export laws by transferring military cyber technology to a foreign government. The DOJ is deferring criminal prosecutions of them if they pay hundreds of thousands of dollars in fines and abide by the terms of a three-year settlement agreement. They are also prohibited from ever receiving a U.S. security clearance. [6] Numerous former U.S. cyber intelligence employees have been lured to work for private companies and foreign governments to do cybersecurity or cyberespionage. Many do legitimate cybersecurity work but more than a few have done illegal or at least unethical work for their new employers.

In October, Biden’s Commerce Department announced a rule that limits the export and sale of hacking software to authoritarian and repressive governments. This effort is difficult for many reasons, in part because it needs to avoid inhibiting cybersecurity collaboration among countries and among companies located in different countries. Furthermore, some private companies and some other countries don’t share this goal of keeping hacking tools out of the hands of such governments. For example, the Israeli company NSO Group (with suspected but unproven connections to the Israeli government) sells spyware that can be hacked onto an individual’s phone, allowing the hacker to track the person’s location and monitor their communications. Governments and others have used it to track dissidents, activists, lawyers, politicians, and journalists. Saudi Arabia used it to track associates of Jamal Khashoggi, the journalist that it murdered. Most recently, it was identified as being used to spy on Palestinians. [7]

For 25 years, the U.S. and 42 other countries have blocked the sale of weapons and military technology to authoritarian and repressive governments. The Wassenaar Agreement on Export Controls for Conventional Arms and Dual-Use Goods and Technologies, originally signed in 1996, sets voluntary export controls on a list of weaponry. The list of controlled products is updated every December and cyber hacking and surveillance products were added to the list in 2013. However, the U.S. did not adopt controls on these products until now. This new Commerce Department rule will allow the U.S. to coordinate efforts to control the export of hacking tools with the 42 other countries that are part of the Wassenaar Agreement. [8]

Also on the international front, there have been calls for a treaty banning cyberwarfare from targeting civilians and civilian infrastructure, similar to the Geneva Convention for traditional warfare. Brad Smith, Microsoft’s president, called for such a treaty in 2017 after vulnerabilities in Microsoft software had been the vehicle for Russia’s devastating cyberattack on Ukraine’s civilian infrastructure and for North Korea’s worldwide ransomware attacks. Noting that the 1949 Geneva Convention protects civilians during traditional warfare, he called for a new convention to protect civilians from cyberwarfare – from attacks on hospitals, electric power grids, elections, and the intellectual property of private parties. Previously, after the 2010 U.S. attack on Iran’s uranium enrichment facility, European, Russian, and some U.S. officials had also called for such a treaty.

However, the U.S. has not pursued such a treaty, at least in part because it has been the world’s dominant cyber superpower. Nonetheless, U.S. businesses and civilians, as the most Internet-dependent ones in the world, are bearing the brunt of escalating cybercrime and cyberwarfare. Furthermore, the U.S. has continued to engage in its own cyberwarfare, including building its capacity to attack civilian infrastructure such as the Russian electric power grid.

I urge you to contact President Biden and thank him for his efforts to stop ransomware attacks and to keep cyber hacking tools out of the hands of authoritarian and repressive governments. Ask him to continue this work and to do more to protect civilians from cyberwarfare. You can email President Biden at 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.

I also urge you to let your U.S. Representative and Senators know that you support strong steps to reduce ransomware attacks and the potential harm to civilians from cyberwarfare. 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.

[1]      Perlroth, N. This Is How They Tell Me the World Ends. Bloomsbury Publishing, NY, NY. 2021.

[2]      Perlroth, N., 10/25/21, “A rare win for the good guys in cat-and-mouse game of ransomware,” The Boston Globe from the New York Times

[3]      Barnes, J. E., 12/6/21, “US military has acted against ransomware groups, NSA chief says,” The Boston Globe from the New York Times

[4]      Tucker, E., & Suderman, A., 11/9/21, “US charges 2 suspected ransomware operators,” The Boston Globe from the Associated Press

[5]      McLaughlin, J., 10/13/21, “White House brings together 30 nations to combat ransomware,” National Public Radio (https://www.npr.org/2021/10/13/1045248842/white-house-brings-together-30-nations-to-combat-ransomware)

[6]      Mazzetti, M., & Goldman, A., 9/15/21, “Former intelligence officers admit crimes,” The Boston Globe from the New York Times

[7]      Kingsley, P., & Bergman, R., 11/9/21, “Spyware aimed at activists, group says,” The Boston Globe from the New York Times

[8]      Nakashima, E., 10/21/21, “US aims to limit sale of hack tools to dictators,” The Boston Globe from the Washington Post

STOPPING CYBERCRIME AT THE PERSONAL, ORGANIZATIONAL, AND GOVERNMENTAL LEVELS

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.

This is the first of my final two posts (out of nine total) on computer hacking and cyberwarfare. These two posts discuss steps that can be taken to counter cybercrime at the personal, organizational, and governmental levels, as well as efforts to stop cyberwarfare from harming civilians. This series of posts presents my overview of New York Times cybersecurity reporter Nicole Perlroth’s outstanding book, This Is How They Tell Me the World Ends. [1] These posts have summarized the book’s information on the scale of computer hacking, cybercrime, and cyberwarfare; shared a number of examples; and the previous post provided an overview of Russia’s continuing attacks on the U.S., including on the 2018 and 2020 elections.

It is clear today that passwords, antivirus software, and firewalls will not protect a computer from reasonably sophisticated cyber hacking. With entities willing to pay over a million dollars for a vulnerability in a widespread piece of basic software, such as Microsoft Windows, Apple operating systems, Adobe, Java, and countless others, cybersecurity needs to be designed into these basic pieces of software and to have many layers of protection. Traditionally, basic software has only been tested to make sure it works, not to identify and eliminate vulnerabilities that hackers could use. This needs to change. When complex software is everywhere, even in cars, software vulnerabilities are ubiquitous and our whole mindset about cybersecurity must change to include preventing vulnerabilities, as well as protecting computers when they are attacked.

Individuals and businesses should assume that passwords alone are no longer effective protection from serious hackers because passwords are likely to have been stolen in one of the hacks of a large customer database or some other way. Two-factor or multi-factor authorization (2FA or MFA) is the best basic defense against cyber hacking and cybercrime. This is the process where when one logs into a system, a one-time code is sent by phone text or email that has to be entered to gain access. Turn on 2FA wherever it’s available and for any function where security is important, such as banking and financial transactions.

Voting simply cannot be safely conducted on-line according to Perlroth. She notes that as-of the date of her book, there was not a single on-line voting system that hackers had not been able to penetrate – often quite quickly and easily. [2] Voter registration databases and other election support systems need to be rigorously protected and audited to ensure their security.

While the Trump Administration largely ignored cybercrime and civilian harm from cyberwarfare, the Biden Administration has already been aggressive in tackling them. The U.S. Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency has recently announced that it is working to develop a national cybersecurity strategy. It noted that public-private collaboration will be essential as critical infrastructure must be secured whether it is in private or public hands.

The U.S. needs to establish strong mandates for cybersecurity for public entities and private companies that are part of critical infrastructure. The U.S. lags far behind other countries in doing this. Norway in 2003 and Japan in 2005, for example, implemented national cybersecurity strategies that have made them among the safest countries in the world in terms of cyberattacks.  [3]

However, Congress has repeatedly failed to pass legislation that would establish even basic standards for companies operating critical infrastructure such as hospitals, fuel pipelines, the electric power grid, dams, and nuclear power plants. Such standards would, for instance, require operators of critical infrastructure to use up-to-date, well-maintained software; to change passwords regularly; to use two-factor authorization for system access; and to conduct regular, sophisticated tests of their protections against hackers.

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce and other business leaders have argued against even voluntary standards, claiming they are too onerous. Current events are proving that NOT having such standards and NOT having solid cybersecurity in place are far too dangerous and too costly for businesses and customers.

The Biden Administration is urging all companies to enhance their cybersecurity practices, including requiring two-factor authorization for employees to log in to computer systems. [4] It also needs to educate the American public about cybersecurity and about on-line disinformation campaigns; these need to be part of our national consciousness.

Public and private entities should be required to report and make public successful cyberattacks so:

  • Customers and the public can be appropriately warned and protected,
  • The entities have an incentive to fix problems and prevent successful future attacks, and
  • Appropriate law enforcement and national security responses can occur.

On the flip side, when U.S. intelligence agencies become aware of a vulnerability in computer software or hardware, they should be required to inform the product’s vendor and work with it to eliminate the vulnerability.

The private sector is not only stepping up its defensive measures against hacking but also going after hackers directly, rather than leaving this work to law enforcement as has been the practice. Google is suing two Russia-based individuals for using a massive network of hacked computers for a range of criminal activity. It is also working with other private companies to disable the computers used by the hackers. The hacked network has been tracked by law enforcement and cybersecurity experts for years and is estimated to include about a million Microsoft Windows-based computers around the globe. In cleaning up the damage that has been done and the vehicles the hackers used to spread their harmful software, Google has removed from the Internet about 63 million Google Docs, more than 1,000 Google accounts, and over 900 Google Cloud projects. Microsoft has also been active in this direct action, deleting from the Internet websites used by a China-based hacking group. [5]

I urge you to contact President Biden and thank him for his work to improve cybersecurity, including his efforts to create and implement a national cybersecurity plan. Ask him to continue this work and to do more to require private entities operating critical infrastructure to strengthen their cybersecurity. You can email President Biden at 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.

I also urge you to let your U.S. Representative and Senators know that you support strong steps to improve cybersecurity, including requiring private businesses, especially those operating critical infrastructure or large aggregations of consumer data, to take meaningful steps to improve their cybersecurity. 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.

My next post will provide an overview of the Biden Administration’s efforts to combat ransomware attacks, address cybersecurity internationally, and protect civilians from harm from cyberwarfare.

[1]      Perlroth, N. This Is How They Tell Me the World Ends. Bloomsbury Publishing, NY, NY. 2021.

[2]      Perlroth, N., 2021, see above, page 397

[3]      Perlroth, N., 2021, see above, page 398-399

[4]      De Vynck, G., 9/22/21, “Treasury’s fight against hackers targets crypto payments,” The Boston Globe from the Washington Post

[5]      De Vynck, G., 12/8/21, “Google sues hackers tied to vast ring of infected devices,” The Boston Globe from the Washington Post

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/)