GOOD ECONOMIC NEWS AND THE FIGHT AGAINST INFLATION

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.

President Biden gave an important speech last Tuesday on the economy, including both the good news and an update on the fight against inflation. However, I saw very little coverage of the speech in the mainstream media. Here are some highlights:

  • 3 million jobs have been added to the economy in the first 15 months of Biden’s presidency – a record.
  • The unemployment rate is down to 3.6%.
  • 4 million new businesses were started in 2021 – 20% more than any other year on record.
  • The federal deficit declined $350 billion last year and is projected to decline by $1.5 trillion this fiscal yearwhich would be the biggest decline in history. Biden noted that this will decrease inflationary pressures. This quarter the U.S. will actually have a surplus and will reduce the accumulated federal debt. This is the first time this has happened since the Clinton presidency in 2000. (Note that under President Trump, who pledged to reduce the debt, it instead grew by $8 trillion [40%] – from $19.6 trillion to $27.5 trillion. The growth of the debt in Trump’s last year was almost $5 trillion, while in Biden’s first year it was $2 trillion.)

Biden stated that inflation is a serious problem and that reducing it and its impact on families will be his top priority. It is a major problem worldwide and the strength of the U.S. economy has put us in a better position to deal with it than almost any other country. It is driven by supply chain problems and the war in Ukraine that have put supply and demand out of synch. (Why Biden didn’t include corporate price gouging I don’t know. More on this in my next post.) He noted that 60% of inflation in March was due to gasoline prices. Food prices are up in part because Ukraine and Russia are major producers of wheat and corn. However, their shipments of these food supplies have effectively stopped. The Biden Administration and European allies are working to get the 20 – 30 million tons of grain in Ukrainian silos shipped out and into world markets. Biden also noted that four meat processors control the U.S. market and set meat prices. The Administration is working to increase competition in the meat industry as well as elsewhere. Biden repeated his statement that “capitalism without competition isn’t capitalism, it’s exploitation.”

The Biden Administration has also worked with allies to release 240 million  barrels of oil from strategic reserves to increase supply and put downward pressure on prices. Biden noted that the price of a barrel of oil has been steady for weeks but that gas prices have continued to go up. In addition, the Administration is working to increase domestic oil production, the production of biofuels, and the generation of clean energy. These steps could reduce household utility bills by up to $500 per year. (Note that the big oil corporations are not responding to requests to increase oil production, presumably because low supplies and high prices fuel high profits for them.)

The Biden Administration has been fighting to decrease other costs for families in addition to those of food and gas. It has asked for authority to negotiate drug prices in Medicare and cap the price of insulin. However, the U.S. Senate has not passed these proposals. It is tackling supply chain problems by working with labor and port operators to speed up the movement of goods at ports. It has also been working with trucking companies and truckers to speed up the movement of goods to markets.

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/

EXAMPLES OF CORRUPT CAPITALISTIC BEHAVIOR Part 5

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 on-going saga of corrupt, extreme capitalistic behavior by big corporations is manifesting itself dramatically in the wake of the pandemic in price gouging for the sake of increasing profits. This enriches wealthy shareholders, including corporate executives, while ripping off consumers. Some recent examples are presented below. (See this previous post for some background, ways to fight price gouging, and previous examples ranging from disposable diapers to gasoline.)

Giant meat processor Tyson Foods posted a $1 billion profit last quarter, a 48% increase, while increasing meat prices for consumers by double digits. The price of beef is up 16% over the last year, a significantly bigger increase than the already high 7.5% increase in the price of food in general. The four biggest meat processing corporations (Tyson Foods, Cargill, JBS, and National Beef Packing Co.) control over 70% of the market for beef and have tripled their profit margins during the pandemic. The Justice Department is investigating them for price fixing. [1]

Nike’s profit increased by 125% last year to $5.7 billion, but it’s blaming “inflation” for a 10.5% price hike on its expensive sneakers, which are made in Vietnam by workers earning less than a dollar an hour. Phil Knight, Nike co-founder and previous chairman and CEO, became $26.7 billion richer during the pandemic as the price of Nike’s stock doubled from March 2020 to April 2022, largely due to the growth in profits.

Price gouging of a slightly different sort is evident at Moderna, which received $2.5 billion from U.S. taxpayers to develop its COVID vaccine. Its pricing of its vaccine and its refusal to share production of it with others to serve the global need have led to a $12.2 billion profit in 2021, a huge turnaround from a $737 million loss in 2020. As a result, its stock price has increased from $20 in Feb. 2020 to $165 in April 2022. It has given its CEO a $923 million golden parachute and handed out $360 million in stock options to two top executives.

At Amazon, profits increased by 75% last year to a record $35 billion. A $20 price hike in a Prime membership was blamed on “inflation” while Amazon denied workers a $3 raise and illegally underpaid drivers. Executive Chairman Jeff Bezos became $81 billion richer during the pandemic as Amazon’s stock price increased 50% from March 2020 to April 2022.

Price gouging by the pharmaceutical industry has been routine for years. (See this previous post from Jan. 2022 and this one from Jan. 2019 for background.) Outrage over drug price gouging is growing and, with a specific focus on insulin, the drug diabetics require to stay alive, President Biden is calling for a limit on its price and the U.S. House has taken action to implement one. Price controls are one way to counter price gouging.

On March 31, 2022, the U.S. House of Representatives passed a bill, 232 to 193, to limit what diabetics have to pay for insulin to $35 a month or 25% of one’s insurance companies’ negotiated price, whichever is lower. One hundred ninety-three (193) Republicans (all but 12 of them) voted against reducing the cost of insulin for the 30 million Americans with diabetes who require it to live.

The fate of the bill in the Senate is uncertain. Last November, House Democrats passed a bill that would have addressed drug costs more broadly, including allowing Medicare to negotiate drug prices. However, Republicans and a couple Democrats blocked that bill in the Senate. [2]

The price of insulin in the U.S. has soared from $21 in 1999 to $332 in 2019 and now costs ten times more in the U.S. than in any other wealthy country. This could happen only because there is no regulation or negotiation by the U.S. government to keep the price reasonable. There is no reason for the high price other than corporate price gouging as insulin is a 100-year-old drug. [3] However, only three companies – Novo Nordisk, Sanofi, and Eli Lilly – supply insulin in the United States. 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, [4] so the over $300 retail cost represents a huge mark-up and huge profits for the drug makers. (See this previous post for more detail.)

[1]      Puzzanghera, J., 2/19/22, “Why are beef prices so high? Some ranchers and White House say it’s more than just inflation,” The Boston Globe

[2]      Sprunt, B., 3/31/22, “House passes bill to cap insulin prices,” NPR (https://www.npr.org/2022/03/31/1090085513/house-passes-bill-to-cap-insulin-prices)

[3]      Richardson, H. C., 4/1/22, “Letters from an American blog,” (https://heathercoxrichardson.substack.com/p/april-1-2022?s=r)

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

WHY AMERICANS ARE SO PESSIMISTIC ABOUT THE ECONOMY

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.

Americans are pessimistic about the economy, the Biden administration, and Democrats in Congress despite the good news about jobs, unemployment, and wages. Although inflation, pandemic fatigue, partisanship, and the negativity of the mainstream media have a role to play, Americans’ economic insecurity probably plays a significant role. [1]

Over the last 40 years, economic insecurity has been increasing for middle and lower-income households. Many of these households see government policies undermining their economic security and are not optimistic that government is doing or will do much that will improve their economic well-being.

Middle and lower-income households in the U.S. have seen very little income (or wealth) growth in the last 40 years, while the rich have experienced big increases in income and wealth. This growth in economic inequality has been much more dramatic in the U.S. than in other wealthy democracies.

Furthermore, these households are now exposed to much more financial risk than they were 40 years ago. Jobs are much less stable due to off-shoring and the growth of contract, gig, and part-time work. When a job is lost, new jobs with similar pay and benefits are often hard to find. And unemployment benefits are generally not available to workers who are not full-time employees.

Retirement benefits are much less secure. They have been shifted from company sponsored plans with income and often health insurance guarantees to individual savings plans where the individual assumes the risks and responsibilities of saving and investing for their retirement.

Unions used to help by ensuring jobs had good pay and benefits, as well as some stability. Unionization had an impact not only on union jobs but on the economy as a whole because non-union employers had to compete with union employers to hire workers. However, unionization in the private sector has plunged from 35% in the 1950s to 6% today. This greatly reduces the power of workers in the job market and has led to an erosion of economic well-being and stability for workers.

The risk of bankruptcy due to a health crisis is very real as private insurance has introduced limits on coverage and increased co-pays, although access to reasonably good health insurance has been improved to some extent by the Affordable Care Act (aka Obama Care). The security of the equity in one’s home was shattered by the housing market collapse and the Great Recession of 2008. Debt from higher education has skyrocketed at the same time as the good jobs needed to pay back student loans have become harder to find and keep for many.

The effect of the pandemic on jobs and earnings was dramatic. Everyone is now aware of the risks of a pandemic and this undermines middle and lower-income workers sense of security. Many of the emergency pandemic economic measures made a real difference for these workers, but now it’s clear they were only temporary relief. Furthermore, the stress of the pandemic, along with that of political divisiveness, climate change (and the related crises from forest fires to more frequent and powerful storms), as well as international conflicts, are additional unsettling influences on people’s state of mind.

Finally, Americans are not optimistic that government and its leaders will effectively address their economic insecurity and stress. The failure of the Build Back Better bill – which would have supported families by extending the Child Tax Credit, helped them pay for child care, strengthened the health insurance system, reduced the price of drugs, reduced the cost of higher education, etc. – does not give middle and lower-income households any faith that help is on the way. By the way, all of the factors increasing economic insecurity have, of course, hit Black and Latino households harder the white households.

The termination of pandemic economic assistance policies, despite their popularity, indicates to middle and lower-income households and workers – the bulk of the American public – that the U.S. political system is broken and does not, and cannot be expected to, work for them and reduce their economic insecurity.

Given all of this, it’s not surprising that the public is pessimistic about the economy and the government, even if there are jobs to be had and pay is increasing.

[1]      Hacker, J. S., & Kapczynski, A., 3/22/22, “The great disconnect,” The American Prospect (https://prospect.org/economy/great-disconnect-american-economy/)

GOOD AND BAD NEWS FROM THE ECONOMY AND FOR 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.

The good news: First, the U.S. economy is creating lots of jobs: 1.7 million in the first three months of 2022. Wages are up 5.6% over the last year while unemployment continues to fall and is near its all-time low at 3.6%. The number of Americans getting unemployment benefits is at a 50-year low. [1] (These figures are particularly impressive given that many workers are re-entering the workforce after dropping out during the pandemic.)

This economic recovery in the U.S. is extraordinary; it has happened eight years faster than the recovery after the Great Recession of 2008 and is stronger than in other countries. Much of the credit belongs to the American Rescue Plan, passed in March 2021, which injected $1.9 trillion into the economy, spurring its recovery. It was passed by Democrats in Congress without a single Republican vote and enthusiastically signed into law by President Biden, who had been championing its passage.

Second, consumer spending is rising. This indicates that individuals and families are doing better economically and have money to spend. It’s also good for the overall economy, which is fueled by consumer spending. Business at restaurants, hotels, and airlines is increasing.

Third, workers at Amazon’s huge warehouse in New York City voted strongly to unionize (2,654 to 2,131). They overcame strong opposition from Amazon to form the first union of Amazon employees. This is one of the biggest wins for union organizing in decades, in part because Amazon is the country’s second largest employer and has 1.6 million employees globally. It also comes in the face of decades of declining unionization where the percentage of workers in unions has dropped from roughly 33% (one in three) in the 1940s to 20.1% (one in five) in 1983 to 10.3% (one in ten) in 2021. There has also been a series of unionization victories at Starbucks. [2]

The bad news: First, inflation is high at 7.9%; its highest in 40 years, but similar to what it is in other countries. Increasing evidence is pointing to corporate price gouging as a significant contributor to “inflation.” Corporate profits rose 25% in 2021, the biggest increase since 1976, while hitting record highs and totaling $2.8 trillion. [3] Corporations are able to increase prices and profits because of a lack of competition, which gives them monopolistic power. This is profiteering, i.e., making an unreasonable profit on sales of essential goods, especially during emergencies. (See previous posts here, here, and here for more about price gouging, which is profiteering by a different name.) As a first step to stop price gouging, there is a Big Oil Windfall Profits Tax bill in Congress. [4] (See this previous post for more information.)

Second, soaring profits on Wall St. sent the average bonus senior employees received to a record $257,500! This is 20% higher than last year and the overall bonus pool is estimated to be $45 billion. [5] The U.S. system of extreme capitalism allows our elite financiers to make huge sums of money while many workers struggle to make ends meet. Thus, economic inequality continues to grow.

Third, the gender pay gap in the U.S. remains stubbornly high, declining only 1.1% in the last 37 years from 23.2% in 1994 to 22.1% in 2021. From 1979 to 1994, it had declined from 37.7% to 23.2%, in part because men’s wages were stagnant. The wage gap has persisted over the last 37 years despite the fact that the percentage of women with a four-year college degree has grown to 43.8% (from 23.8%) and now exceeds that of men (37.4% now and 25.1% in 1994). [6]

Fourth, David Weil, an expert on how employers cheat workers out of their pay, was rejected for confirmation to a key post in the Labor Department. The Senate voted not to confirm him with “No” votes from all Republicans and three Democrats: Manchin (WV), Sinema (AZ), and Kelly (AZ). The only explanation for this vote effectively condoning wage theft by employers is that these Senators value campaign funds from corporate donors more than they care about fairness for American workers. Employer wage theft is increasingly happening because employers misclassify workers as contractors instead of employees, thus bypassing labor standards such as minimum wage and overtime pay laws. [7] It also means that workers don’t get benefits such as paid sick and vacation time, health insurance, and retirement benefits. Employers also steal pay from employees by failing to pay extra for overtime, not giving workers their tips, and not including all hours on the job as paid time.

[1]      Ott, M., 3/25/22, “US jobless claims per week lowest since 1969,” The Boston Globe from the Associated Press

[2]      Weise, K., & Scheiber, N., 4/2/22, “Amazon workers on Staten Island vote to unionize in landmark win for labor,” The Boston Globe from The New York Times

[3]      Johnson, J., 3/31/22, “ ‘Their inflation strategy is working’: Corporate profits soared to record high in 2021,” Common Dreams (https://www.commondreams.org/news/2022/03/31/their-inflation-strategy-working-corporate-profits-soared-record-high-2021)

[4]      Corbett, J., 3/17/22, “New campaign aims to ‘Stop the Oil Profiteering’ of fossil fuel giants,” Common Dreams (https://www.commondreams.org/news/2022/03/17/new-campaign-aims-stop-oil-profiteering-fossil-fuel-giants)

[5]      Associated Press, 3/24/22, “Average Wall Street bonus last year reached record $257,500,” The Boston Globe

[6]      Gould, E., 3/10/22, “Equal pay day,” Economic Policy Institute (https://www.epi.org/blog/equal-pay-day-there-has-been-little-progress-in-closing-the-gender-wage-gap/)

[7]      Kuttner, R., 4/1/22, “The shame of corporate Democrats,” The American Prospect (https://prospect.org/blogs-and-newsletters/tap/shame-of-corporate-democrats-david-weil-labor/)

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)

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

GOOD AND BAD ECONOMIC NEWS YOU MAY NOT HAVE HEARD

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 mainstream media continue to downplay extraordinarily positive economic news, not to mention the successes of the policies of the Biden Administration and congressional Democrats. In case you didn’t hear this, the number of Americans needing unemployment benefits fell to a 52-year low, i.e., the lowest number since March 1970. The unemployment rate is quite low at 4.0% and employers added 467,000 jobs in January. The estimates of job growth in November and December were revised upward by a combined 709,000 jobs. (Note: In the Boston Globe, this great economic news was not presented until page 6 of the second section and only warranted a short article, written by the Associated Press, that was about half of one column in length.) [1]

Employers added a record 6.4 million jobs in 2021, in good part due to actions of Democrats and the Biden Administration. Spending authorized by the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA), which was passed in March, boosted economic activity. Vaccination programs and other steps to control Covid allowed businesses to reopen and workers to go back to work.

Economic growth for all of 2021 was 5.7%; the highest since 1984. This continues the historical pattern over the last 100 years of the economy performing better under Democratic Presidents than under Republican ones. (See this previous post for more details.)

There are two pieces of bad news from recent economic data. One is that consumer prices are increasing; more on that below. The other is that while unemployment is down overall, unemployment is higher and falling more slowly for non-White workers than for White workers. This is especially true for Black women. As-of the end of 2021, unemployment rates and their declines since October were as follows: [2]

  • White workers: 2% unemployed (down 20%)
  • Asian American workers: 8% unemployed (down 11%)
  • Latino / Hispanic workers: 9% unemployed (down 14%)
  • Black workers: 1% unemployed (down   9%)

Consumer prices have increased 7.5% over the last year; the highest rate since 1982. Although Covid-related supply chain problems and growing consumer demand are responsible in part, growing attention is focusing on price gouging by large corporations. The extreme capitalism that our policies have allowed to flourish over the last 40 years has resulted in a dramatic decrease in competition in many industries and markets. (See this previous post for more details.) The lack of competition and monopolistic control of markets has allowed huge corporations in many industries to raise prices and increase profits more than a competitive market would allow (i.e., to engage in price gouging [3]). This has been evident in the prices of gasoline, food, and many consumer products due to large, monopolistic corporations in everything from trans-oceanic shipping to oil and gasoline production to food production.

Analysis of car prices shows that dealers are engaging in price gouging in the face of growing demand and limited supply. Manufacturers’ prices to dealers for new cars are up only 2% over a year ago but consumers are paying 12% more than they did a year ago. Edmunds, a car-shopping research company, found that 82% of consumers paid more than the manufacturers’ suggested retail price (MSRP) in January 2022, compared with just 3% in 2021 and almost no one in 2020. Profits for large car dealer networks have, not surprisingly, skyrocketed. [4] Prices for used cars and trucks are up 40.5% from a year ago. This is another indication that car dealers are price gouging. [5]

The Federal Trade Commission is investigating the market behavior of the large oil and gas corporations. [6] Gasoline prices in January (i.e., before the Ukraine war) had jumped 40% over a year earlier to $3.49 a gallon from $2.49. Natural gas prices were almost four times what they were a year ago. Costs are not driving these price increases; the oil and gas corporations are taking advantage of the pandemic to increase profits by price gouging.

The Federal Maritime Commission is examining the large shipping corporations for price gouging. There are three alliances of nine trans-oceanic shippers that transport 80% of all seaborne cargo (up from 40% in 1998). The price of transporting a standard shipping container from China to the U.S. has increased from about $2,000 before the pandemic to $20,000 last August and roughly $14,000 in January. The shippers’ profits in 2020 were around $25 billion; it’s estimated that their profits were 12 times as much, $300 billion, in 2021. This is a clear indication that the increases in shipping prices are price gouging. [7]

As a final example, the handful of huge slaughterhouses and meatpackers that control the market for beef, poultry, and pork have tripled their profit margins during the pandemic. The Justice Department is investigating them for price fixing. The four biggest meatpacking corporations (Cargill, JBS, Tyson Foods, and National Beef Packing Co.) control over 70% of the market for beef. The price of beef is up 16% over the last year, significantly higher than the already high rate of increase of 7.5% for food in general. Cattle ranchers filed an anti-trust lawsuit against the four big meatpacking corporations in 2019; food retailers and wholesalers sued them in 2020. Ranchers now receive only 39% of the retail price of beef; down from 45% in 2017. JBS previously paid $52.5 million to settle a lawsuit over beef price fixing. [8] Again, these are clear signs that the increases in meat prices are price gouging.

[1]      Ott, M., 2/25/22, “Jobless aid numbers now lowest since 1970,” The Boston Globe from the Associated Press

[2]      Broady, K., & Barr, A., 2/11/22, “December’s jobs report reveals a growing racial employment gap, especially for Black women,” Brookings (https://www.brookings.edu/blog/the-avenue/2022/01/11/decembers-jobs-report-reveals-a-growing-racial-employment-gap-especially-for-black-women/

[3]     Price gouging refers to when businesses take 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.

[4]      Elizalde, R., 2/23/22, “Car prices are above MSRP because of price gouging rather than inflation,” Forbes (https://www.forbes.com/sites/raulelizalde/2022/02/23/car-prices-above-msrp-reflect-price-gouging-rather-than-inflation/?sh=61d09cabb60a)

[5]      Shen, M., 2/13/22, “Used cars cost 40.5% more than last year as gas prices rise. New car prices also climbing,” USA Today

[6]      Tankersley, J., & Rappeport, A., 12/25/21, “As prices rise, President Biden turns to antitrust enforcers,” The Boston Globe from the New York Times

[7]      Khafagy, A., 2/2/22, “The hidden costs of containerization,” The American Prospect (https://prospect.org/economy/hidden-costs-of-containerization/)

[8]      Puzzanghera, J., 2/19/22, “Why are beef prices so high? Some ranchers and White House say it’s more than just inflation,” The Boston Globe

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)

MEDICARE PRIVATIZATION CAN’T BE FIXED; IT MUST BE ELIMINATED

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 private health insurers in America have been working for decades to privatize Medicare, our public health insurance for all seniors, so they can profit from this large public funding stream. If we want to improve quality and control costs in our health care system, the privatization of Medicare must be stopped and rolled back. This and two other posts summarize:

  • The history and background of Medicare and efforts to privatize it (this previous post),
  • The unsuccessful efforts to control the costs and improve the quality of the privatized Medicare Advantage plans (this previous post), and
  • What needs to happen to save Medicare (this post). [1]

Theoretically, the problems of cost, quality, and access to health care services that arise with the privatized Medicare Advantage (MA) and Direct Contracting (DC) programs can be fixed with technical changes in laws and regulations. However, these approaches have been tried in the past without success. Some of the practices the MA and DC companies use to increase their revenues and profits are illegal. The Department of Justice has filed lawsuits against large MA providers for their “upcoding” gamesmanship to get more revenue per enrollee (see this previous post for more details). However, even lawsuits are unlikely to solve this problem permanently. And it won’t solve the gaming of the Medicare payment system in other ways.

The lengths the MA insurers will go to protect their profits was underscored by their active opposition to improving Medicare by adding hearing, vision, and dental benefits as was proposed by the Build Back Better Act. Recognizing that a more level field of competition from an improved public Medicare program was a threat to their profits, they engaged in a multi-million-dollar public relations campaign against the enhanced Medicare benefits. Despite the private sector’s rhetoric about believing in competition, in health care (as elsewhere) private providers do NOT want competition from the public sector on an even playing field. This is evident here with MA insurers and it was evident in the development of the Affordable Care Act (ACA) when private health insurers opposed and killed the inclusion of a public, Medicare-like option among the subsidized health insurance alternatives in the ACA marketplaces.

Both the MA insurers and the new DC entities are private companies that will pursue profits relentlessly. They can be constrained only by government regulation, which is extremely difficult if not impossible to implement effectively. Moreover, doing so would be costly and therefore inefficient. These corporations are timeless and soulless legal entities that have shown through past behavior that their only commitment is to maximizing profits. The MA insurers have shown time after time that they will find ways around government regulations or ways to game the regulations for their profit.

The delivery of key societal services, such as health care, by the public sector, i.e., government, is not only fairer and more compassionate than delivery by the private sector, it is also more efficient, effective, and streamlined. The private sector’s profit motive adds costs (i.e., profits, advertising, and administrative overhead) and incentivizes cost-cutting, often through denying needed services and cutting corners on quality. Furthermore, the private sector has no incentive to address inequality, bias, or discrimination; its only goal is to maximize profits.

To reverse the scourge that Medicare privatization has clearly become, and that is exacerbated by Direct Contracting, we need to assert strong public control over Medicare. This can and should be done by changing or reversing past policy decisions.

The privatization of Medicare is an example of the extreme capitalism that has come to dominate the U.S. economy. Bob Kuttner wrote about this in his powerful and poignant article analyzing the history of capitalism in our democracy. [2] (I summarized his article in this previous post.) This hyper-capitalism, as he calls it, includes the privatization and/or deregulation of important public services and public goods, including health care and health insurance.

Based on historical experience, Kuttner concludes that nothing short of full public control will stop the private sector’s relentless drive to capture – and profit from – Medicare spending. This large, public funding stream, currently $800 billion and projected to double by 2028 as more baby boomers become Medicare-eligible, is seen by private sector capitalists as a tremendous, irresistible profit opportunity.

Kuttner notes that without strong and effective public constraints capitalism evolves into an extreme form (which he calls hyper-capitalism) that serves wealthy individuals (i.e., plutocrats) and large corporations but leaves everyone else behind. This is antithetical to the ideals and principles on which our democracy was founded – equal opportunity for all, including the ability to realistically pursue happiness and a good life through access to health care and true freedom to make important life choices, such as where to live and work. These ideals and principles, as well as the public goods and basic societal functions that effectuate them, can only be ensured by an assertive government of, by, and for the people, not one that’s controlled by the plutocrats and wealthy corporations for their benefit.

A first step for saving Medicare is to eliminate the Direct Contracting privatization option created by the Trump Administration. Over 50 Democratic members of Congress, along with Physicians for a National Health Program (a  membership organization of 24,000 doctors and other health professionals), are calling on the Biden Administration to eliminate the Direct Contracting Medicare privatization program. A majority of the 53 current Direct Contracting companies are investor owned (i.e., owned by private equity or hedge fund vulture capitalists not by a health insurer or a healthy services provider). They are allowed to spend as little as 60% of their Medicare payments on patient care with the rest going to profits and overhead. So far, the Biden Administration has only paused the most extreme form of DC, while letting the other DC pilot programs proceed, despite questions over their legality. [3] [4]

I urge you to contact President Biden and ask him to eliminate the Direct Contracting Medicare privatization scheme. You can also let him know that you support reducing and eventually eliminating other Medicare privatization, while strengthening the public Medicare program. 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 contact your U.S. Representative and Senators to let them know that you support elimination of the Direct Contracting Medicare privatization scheme. You can also let them know that you support reducing and eliminating Medicare privatization, while strengthening the public Medicare program. 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]      Caress, B., 1/24/22, “The dark history of Medicare privatization,” The American Prospect (https://prospect.org/health/dark-history-of-medicare-privatization/)

[2]      Kuttner, R., 12/1/21, “Capitalism vs. liberty,” The American Prospect (https://prospect.org/politics/capitalism-vs-liberty/)

[3]      Johnson, J., 2/3/22, “Warren warns, ‘Corporate vultures’ circling Medicare on Biden’s watch,” Common Dreams (https://www.commondreams.org/news/2022/02/03/warren-warns-corporate-vultures-are-circling-medicare-bidens-watch)

[4]      Johnson, J., 2/16/22, “Physicians slam industry push to ‘fix’ – not end – Medicare privatization scheme,” Common Dreams (https://www.commondreams.org/news/2022/02/16/physicians-slam-industry-push-fix-not-end-medicare-privatization-scheme)

PRIVATIZED MEDICARE CAN’T BE CONTROLLED

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.

For decades, the private health insurers in America have, step by step, been privatizing Medicare, our public health insurance for all seniors, in order to make profits off this large public funding stream. Not surprisingly, they made dramatic new inroads during the Trump administration.

If we want to improve quality and control costs in our health care system for seniors, the privatization of Medicare must be stopped and rolled back. This and two other posts will summarize:

  • The history and background of Medicare and efforts to privatize it (a previous post),
  • The unsuccessful efforts to control the costs and improve the quality of the privatized Medicare Advantage plans (this post), and
  • What Medicare needs to do to fix what’s wrong, control runaway costs, and improve quality. [1]

Over the last 30 years, multiple efforts have attempted to control the costs of the privatized Medicare Advantage (MA) plans and to protect MA enrollees’ access to health care services (i.e., to reduce unwarranted denials of services or payments). However, the MA insurance companies always seem to find a way to dodge or get around new laws or regulations with these goals. Sometimes they block or weaken them before they’re ever enacted (e.g., through lobbying and campaign spending). Sometimes they alter their practices to skirt and undermine them.

When the privatized Medicare Advantage plans came into existence in 1985 (see my previous post for more details), reimbursement rates for MA plans were set at 95% of what seniors cost Medicare because the private insurers claimed they would be more efficient than the public Medicare program and would save Medicare money. However, MA insurance companies ended up spending 6% more per enrollee than Medicare, so they lobbied for and got higher and higher payments from Medicare. Instead of saving Medicare money, they cost it more and more. In 1997, the Clinton Administration’s Balanced Budget Act cut the excessive payments to MA plans and stopped the MA insurers from creaming-the-crop by enrolling healthier-than-average (i.e., less expensive) seniors. However, in 1999 and 2000, the MA companies got Congress to weaken these initiatives and then, under the pro-privatization George W. Bush Administration, they actually got increases in their payments from Medicare. The Obama Administration, as part of the Affordable Care Act (ACA) in 2010, tried again to cut excessive payments to MA insurers. The ACA cut about $14 billion from MA plans’ excess costs by limiting them to only 1% more per enrollee than traditional, public Medicare costs. In response, an extensive and expensive ad and media campaign was initiated by the MA health insurers and Republicans claiming that Obama and the ACA were hurting seniors by cutting Medicare – a  campaign you may well remember. As a result, two years later, under tremendous pressure, the Obama Administration backed off and instead of cutting MA rates by 2.3% to move toward the targeted savings, it increased them by 3.3%

The private Medicare Advantage insurers have been successful time after time in overcoming Medicare’s efforts to control their excessive costs. They are so big and profitable that they can spend the money needed to stymie Medicare’s efforts by engaging in campaign spending, lobbying, and advertising. Any time there is an effort to cut their funding, they run a massive media and lobbying campaign saying that the government is trying to cut spending on Medicare. This scares seniors and legislators into opposing efforts to make MA more cost effective. [2]

The private Medicare Advantage insurers also find innovative (and sometimes fraudulent) ways to dodge cost controls and increase their revenue. A major one is claiming that their enrollees are sicker than they actually are because the payments they receive are greater for sicker seniors. Codes indicating the presence of diseases and negative health conditions are added to enrollees’ records even if the MA provider is providing no treatment or services for those ailments. It is estimated that in 2019 this “upcoding” (as it is referred to) cost Medicare $9 billion. [3]

Another way that the private Medicare Advantage insurers are gaming Medicare is through its five-star quality rating program that provides bonuses to MA plans with high ratings. The original purpose of the quality rating program was to help seniors pick high quality plans. When the program was initiated in 2009, 15% of plans got 4 or 4.5 stars and none got 5 stars. Today, 86% of plans are rated at 4 or 5 stars and, therefore, get about $6 billion in quality bonuses. Yet research finds that MA plan quality has not improved. The only thing that has improved is the MA insurers’ ability to game the system to get billions in bonus payments.

When the pro-privatization Trump Administration came into power, it created a program to fully privatize Medicare called Direct Contracting. Some experts have described it as Medicare Advantage on steroids. For example, one of the three Direct Contracting models would allow all seniors in designated geographic areas to be enrolled in a privatized Direct Contracting health care plan with no right to opt out. In addition, for the first time, Direct Contracting would allow investor-controlled firms – as opposed to firms controlled by health service providers – to provide Medicare services. This would turn over the delivery of Medicare’s health care services to private investors like hedge fund and private equity vulture capitalists whose only goal is to make money. [4]

In a recent 18-month period, private investors spent $50 billion buying Medicare Advantage insurers and these new Direct Contracting firms because of the opportunities they see to make large profits. These deals value the purchased firms at an average of $87,000 for each senior they estimate they will enroll. This is indicative of the level of profit investors believe can be generated from Medicare payments to these firms. [5]

My next post will describe what Medicare needs to do to fix what’s wrong, control runaway costs, and improve quality.


[1]      Caress, B., 1/24/22, “The dark history of Medicare privatization,” The American Prospect (https://prospect.org/health/dark-history-of-medicare-privatization/)

[2]      Caress, B., 1/24/22, see above

[3]      Gilfillan, R., & Berwick, D., 9/29/21, “Medicare Advantage, Direct Contracting, and the Medicare ‘money machine,’ Part 1: The risk-score game,” Health Affairs (https://www.healthaffairs.org/do/10.1377/forefront.20210927.6239/full/)

[4]      Gilfillan, R., & Berwick, D., 9/30/21, “Medicare Advantage, Direct Contracting, and the Medicare ‘money machine,’ Part 2: Building on the ACO model,” Health Affairs (https://www.healthaffairs.org/do/10.1377/forefront.20210928.795755/full/)

[5]      Gilfillan, R., & Berwick, D., 9/29/21, see above

MEDICARE IS BEING PRIVATIZED AND IT’S A RIP OFF

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 private health insurers in America have been working for decades to privatize Medicare, our public health insurance for all seniors, so they can make profits off this large public funding stream. Not surprisingly, they made dramatic new inroads during the Trump administration.

If we want to improve quality and control costs in our health care system, the privatization of Medicare must be stopped and rolled back. This and two subsequent posts will summarize:

  • The history and background of Medicare and efforts to privatize it (this post),
  • The unsuccessful efforts to control the costs and improve the quality of the privatized Medicare Advantage plans, and
  • What Medicare needs to do to fix what’s gone wrong and to control runaway costs while improving quality. [1]

The U.S. health care system is the most expensive in the world with some of the worst outcomes. It costs nearly twice as much per person as in peer countries. It is eating up nearly $1 out of every $5 spent in the U.S. economy. Our policies (i.e., laws and regulations, or lack thereof) have allowed our private health care system to rip off consumers with high prices and poor quality for the sake of profits that enrich shareholders and executives.

The public, meanwhile, is less healthy and its economic security is at-risk, because even with insurance a major health problem is often astronomically costly. Surveys have found that of the adults who are not old enough to be eligible for Medicare roughly one in four (26% or about 52 million people) face challenges paying medical bills. Roughly 1 million individuals declare bankruptcy each year and for many of them (estimates range from 26% to 62%) medical bills are a significant – if not the driving – factor. This makes medical costs the number one cause of personal bankruptcies. [2]

Medicare was created in 1965 to provide health insurance for seniors that would pay their doctor and hospital bills. The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) oversees Medicare (and Medicaid which is for low-income families and individuals) and sets the regulations for health insurance plans for seniors. Private insurance companies process the payments for health care services under a contract with CMS. The insurers get paid for services according to CMS regulations. However, the insurance companies manage the payments to health care providers and the processing and paperwork requirements.

Privatized Medicare Advantage (MA) plans were introduced in 1985 because private insurers claimed they were more efficient and, therefore, could save Medicare money and deliver better services – despite their poor performance record in the general health care market. MA plans are publicly funded, privately run, currently enroll 26 million seniors (40% of Medicare enrollees), cost $343 million a year, and are very profitable for the private insurers. Moreover, two corporations, Humana and UnitedHealthcare, are the insurers for half of all MA enrollees. As is true in so many sectors of the U.S. economy, this market has a few huge corporations with a very large portion of the market. Due to this limited competition, these huge corporations have monopolistic power (e.g., to raise prices and lower quality). This is a classic example of the hyper-capitalism that emerges when corporations aren’t strongly regulated.

The portion of Medicare that is privatized through Medicare Advantage (MA) plans is growing and has resulted in increased costs and a bewildering array of choices that often confuse and manipulate seniors – 3,834 MA plans are offered by nine different health insurance companies. This makes seniors’ health care complex, confusing, and costly, thereby undermining confidence in Medicare and in government programs in general.

Seniors buy MA plans because they typically cover services Medicare doesn’t cover (such as vision, hearing, and dental services) and/or reduce Medicare’s out-of-pocket costs (e.g., deductibles and co-pays). To cover their overhead and make a profit, MA plans aggressively control costs by requiring enrollees to only use in-network providers and to get prior approval for many services, especially expensive ones.

MA plans deny 4% of requests for prior approval of health care services and 8% of requests for payments for services that have been delivered. There is an appeal process but few people use it. When they do, the denials are reversed 75% of the time. Denying coverage for health care services not only saves the MA plans money, it also tends to drive seniors who have serious and expensive health issues off their MA plan and back onto traditional Medicare. This is a creaming-the-crop technique that leaves healthier, less expensive (and more profitable) seniors in MA plans and shifts the less healthy, more expensive seniors onto the public Medicare program. As a result, MA plans spend 10% to 25% less per enrollee than traditional Medicare does for comparable enrollees.

Nonetheless, over the 12 years from 2009 to 2021, Medicare paid MA private insurance companies $140 billion more than it would have spent if those seniors had stayed in traditional, public Medicare. (A further explanation of how this happens is in my next post.) MA plan insurance companies made a gross profit of $2,256 per enrollee in 2020 (which is more than double what they make on non-senior enrollees in the general health care market).

The bottom line is that the partial privatization of Medicare through Medicare Advantage plans has not saved Medicare money as promised (quite the opposite) and it has not produced better outcomes for seniors.

My next post will summarize the unsuccessful efforts to control the costs and improve the quality of the privatized Medicare Advantage plans. A subsequent post will describe what Medicare needs to do to fix what’s gone wrong and to control runaway costs while improving quality.

[1]      Caress, B., 1/24/22, “The dark history of Medicare privatization,” The American Prospect (https://prospect.org/health/dark-history-of-medicare-privatization/)

[2]      Amadeo, K., 1/20/22, “Medical bankruptcy and the economy,” The Balance (https://www.thebalance.com/medical-bankruptcy-statistics-4154729)

THE FUNDING OF THE JANUARY 6 INSURRECTION

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.

I’m surprised we haven’t heard more from the U.S. House Select Committee to Investigate the January 6th Attack on the U.S. Capitol about the funding for the insurrectionists and the rally that preceded the attack on the Capitol. This, of course, was the rally at which Trump spoke for an hour, stated that our elections are corrupt, and then said to the crowd, “We fight like hell. And if you don’t fight like hell, you’re not gonna have a country any more. … So, we’re going to walk down Pennsylvania Avenue … we’re going to the Capitol … to take back our country.” After which, of course, the crowd walked to the Capitol and attacked it and the people there.

The organizations, people, and funding that organized and paid for that rally are a tangled web of inter-related people and entities. Many of them were also involved in the Trump campaign. The trail of the money, as well as the overlap and connections among people and organizations, was intentionally obscured. Money was run through multiple organizations before actually being spent on-the-ground. This served both to hide who the actual donors and funders were, as well as to hide who was actually paid to do the work.

Many of the entities the money flowed through are “dark money” groups; these are non-profit, social welfare organizations that do not have to reveal their donors, but are supposed to only engage in limited political activity. They are organized under section 501(c)(4) of the IRS regulations. However, the IRS is not enforcing any limitation on their political activity. (Note: Charitable non-profits, to which donations are tax deductible, are organized under section 501(c)(3) of the IRS regulations and are strictly limited in their political activity. Donations to 501(c)(4)  non-profits are not tax deductible.)

So, here’s some of the information that has been uncovered about some of the organizations involved in the January 6th rally that preceded and fomented the attack on the Capitol. [1] [2]

  • Women for America First (W4AF): got the permit for the rally from the National Park Service. It is a dark money group and Women for Trump is an affiliate. Julie Jenkins Fancelli (heir to the Publix supermarket money) donated $300,000 to W4AF for the rally.
  • Rule of Law Trust: a sponsor of the rally and a dark money group. It is affiliated with the Republican Attorneys General Association. It received $150,000 from Julie Jenkins Fancelli and often receives money from opaque non-profits including the Judicial Crisis Network (see below) and ones that are part of the right-wing Koch brothers’ funding network.
  • Turning Point: a sponsor of the rally and a dark money group. It received $39 million from undisclosed donors in fiscal year 2020. Turning Point USA and Turning Point Action are affiliates.
  • Tea Party Patriots: a sponsor of the rally and a dark money group. It has received over $4.7 million from the Judicial Crisis Network (see below) and nearly $4.3 million from 2016 through 2020 from Richard Uihlein (see below).
  • Judicial Crisis Network: a dark money group that gave money to multiple groups that were involved in organizing the rally. It is now known as the Concord Fund and gave over $4.7 million to the Tea Party Patriots and $50,000 to Turning Point. It has also given over $1.9 million to the Rule of Law Trust since 2013 and millions more to the Republican Attorneys General Association.
  • Event Strategies Inc.: was named on the permit for the rally and two individuals who were organizers for the rally were on its payroll. It was also used by the Trump campaign, receiving over $2.5 million from it, including over $800,000 in 2021 after the official election campaign was over.
  • American Made Media Consultants LLC: created by the Trump campaign apparently to hide the recipients of the over $770 million funneled through it by the campaign. It spent over $200,000 on text messages on January 6.
  • The Trump Campaign: in the 2020 election cycle, the Trump campaign paid over $4 million to individuals and organizations that were organizers of the January 6 rally. Because the campaign funneled hundreds of millions of dollars through layers of shell companies and opaque firms, it is unknown when and for what purpose these payments were made. What’s known is that there was a significant overlap between people and organizations working for the campaign and organizing the January 6 rally.

Here’s some of the information that has been uncovered about some of the people involved in the January 6th rally that preceded and fomented the attack on the Capitol.

  • Caroline Wren: a major fundraiser for the Trump campaign, she was named on the permit for the rally and boasted that she’d raised $3 million for the rally. She funneled this money through two dark money groups and a super PAC. This served to obscure the links between the donors and the use of the funds. She was paid over $170,000 for her work for the Trump campaign. She has been subpoenaed by the House Committee.
  • Richard Uihlein: CEO of the Ulinebusiness supplies company, he has given over $1 million to Turning Point over the last few years, about $4.3 million to Tea Party Patriots since 2016, and an undetermined amount of money to Women for America First.
  • Megan Powers: was listed on the rally permit as one of two operations managers. She was paid roughly $300,000 by the Trump campaign as its director of operations. She has been subpoenaed by the House Committee.
  • Justin Caporale, Maggie Mulvaney, and Tim Unes: were all organizers of the January 6 rally and have also been paid by the Trump campaign. They have been subpoenaed by the House Committee.

The catch phrase of the Watergate investigation of the 1970s was “Follow the money.” That may well apply to the January 6 insurrection as well. Although the House investigation seems to be focused on the flow of communications, I hope it’s also looking at the flow of money. Despite the fact that the rally organizers and the Trump campaign have worked hard to obscure the flow of money, I hope it can be traced because its flow would shed a lot of light on the scale of the conspiracy and who was involved in it.

The cost of the rally was at least half a million dollars and the costs of people getting to Washington and their staying overnight was greater than that. Knowing where that money came from and who coordinated the expenditures would undoubtedly be a very telling and important tale.

[1]      Massoglia, A., 10/25/21, “Details of the money behind Jan. 6 protests continue to emerge,” OpenSecrets (https://www.opensecrets.org/news/2021/10/details-of-the-money-behind-jan-6-protests-continue-to-emerge)

[2]      Massoglia, A., 8/30/21, “Trump’s political operation paid more than $4.3 million to Jan. 6 organizers but questions remain about the full extent of its involvement,” OpenSecrets (https://www.opensecrets.org/news/2021/08/trumps-political-operation-paid-more-than-4-3-million-to-jan-6-organizers-questions-remain-about-full-involvement)

LET’S JUST SAY IT: THE REPUBLICAN PARTY DOES NOT BELIEVE IN DEMOCRACY OR THE CONSTITUTION

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.

It’s long past time to stop the charade that the Republican Party has any commitment to making democracy work. Or that it supports the Constitution. Or that it is patriotic. There are people who identify as Republicans who are at odds with these statements (Rep. Liz Cheney jumps to mind), but they are few and far between and are not the ones who are setting the official Republican Party agenda or messaging.

The Republican Party supports freedom of speech only when it’s speech it likes. Threats, violent speech (and acts), and name calling are fine when they serve its purposes and when they are aligned with its goals. However, speech by others, including peaceful protests, should be severely limited and if those peaceful protesters are injured or killed by a vehicle, the vehicle driver, not the protesters, should be protected by laws. [1]

According to the Republican Party and its judges, freedom of religion is paramount when it is Christianity practiced by white people, but others don’t deserve this freedom, despite its inclusion in the Constitution. For example, Muslims are, by definition, terrorists and should be monitored and restricted.

Democracy and the electoral processes laid out in the Constitution are valid, according to Republicans, only if Republicans win elections. Otherwise, the results of voting are fraudulent and should be disregarded and overturned by any means necessary, including violence.

No American, let alone member of Congress, is a patriot if they are willing to aid and abet an undemocratic and unconstitutional overturning of election results, or if they are unwilling to denounce and reject such efforts. Yet the great majority of Republicans are doing or have done these things, particularly in relation to the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection at the U.S. Capitol. [2]

No American can claim to be a patriot if they are working to make it harder for citizens who might disagree with them to vote. However, Republicans in many states and in Congress are doing just this.

No member of Congress can claim to support democracy or the Constitution if, based on partisanship, they simply refuse to work meaningfully to pass important legislation. Such a blatant undermining of the functioning of a democratic government is unpatriotic at best and treasonous at worst.

Yet most Republicans in Congress have no interest in actually governing and, instead, are doing everything they can to keep the Democrats from governing, i.e., from actually doing things that the people of the country support doing and that a democratic government should do. For example, Senate Republicans are blocking confirmations of nominees for dozens of ambassadorships, at least a dozen high-ranking jobs at the Treasury Department, and roughly 200 other executive branch positions. This is nothing other than an effort to keep the Biden Administration and our democracy from functioning effectively; this presents a clear and present danger to America’s national security. [3] Again, it is unpatriotic at best and treasonous at worst.

The Republican Party is claiming that modest policies that support working men and women, as well as their families, are unaffordable and are socialism that would destroy democracy. First of all, it is hypocritical to say it is unaffordable because the expenditures of the Build Back Better bill (at which it levels these charges) is somewhere between one-fifth and two-fifths (20% – 40%) of the Defense Department budget that it supports. The Build Back Better bill would spend an amount equal to roughly 1% (one-hundredth) of the U.S. Gross Domestic Product. This wouldn’t put the U.S. anywhere close to the government spending of European countries, let alone that of Scandinavian countries and their social democracies. And by the way, all of those countries, despite a greater degree of socialism than in the U.S., are democracies! So, second of all, socialism and democracy are NOT incompatible; they co-exist in all the other wealthy countries and to some degree in the U.S. in Social Security, Medicare, and the Veterans Administration, for example.

The Republican Party does not want to play by the rules established by our Constitution or our democratic traditions because if it did it would lose elections and power. It is out to win at all costs as it struggles to retain its power and that of its wealthy and generally white backers. It has given up on democracy because success for democracy means failure for it. [4]

Sadly, the current Republican Party’s rhetoric about supporting democracy, the Constitution, and patriotism is a sham. It is the language and lies of autocrats who are desperate to hang on to power and are willing to say and do anything to do so. Actions speak louder than words and the Republican Party’s actions, and the hypocrisy and lies it engages in to try to justify them, make its true beliefs and character crystal clear.

[1]      American Civil Liberties Union, retrieved from the Internet 1/7/22, “Anti-protest bills around the country,” (https://www.aclu.org/issues/free-speech/rights-protesters/anti-protest-bills-around-country)

[2]      Lehigh, S., 1/7/22, “What real America patriotism means,” The Boston Globe

[3]      Boston Globe Editorial Board, 10/22/21, “US ambassadors, State Department officials held hostage,” The Boston Globe

[4]      Blow, C. M., 6/20/21, “Stop hoping the G.O.P. will play ball,” The New York Times

SOCIALISM IS THE ANSWER FOR SAVING DEMOCRACY FROM CAPITALISM

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.

Bob Kuttner has written a powerful and poignant article raising the question of whether capitalism is compatible with democracy – or at least a version of democracy that lives up to the American ideals of equal opportunity and government of, by, and for the people. [1] The New Deal of the late 1930s and 1940s created a form of government-regulated capitalism that for 40 years (until 1980) produced a thriving working and middle class, as well as an economy where income and wealth inequality were stabilized, if not narrowed. However, in the last 40 years, the U.S. economy has evolved into a new form of hyper-capitalism (some call it vulture capitalism) that has destroyed the ability of many workers to thrive. (See my previous post for more detail.)

This post presents Kuttner’s thoughts on where we need to go from here to restore our democracy and create more equitable economic and political systems. It’s a bit long, so just read the bolded parts if it’s too much, but do read Kuttner’s conclusions at the end.

Kuttner writes that we need to reverse the deregulation and privatization of important public services and public goods. Health insurance is one example:

  • Deregulation allowed the transformation of health insurance from non-profit Blue Cross Blue Shield programs into for-profit insurance corporations. This is a key reason the U.S. health care system is the most expensive in the world with some of the worst outcomes.
  • Private insurers have been allowed to provide Medicare coverage. This has resulted in increased costs and a bewildering array of choices that often confuse and manipulate seniors. This privatization of Medicare ultimately makes health care more complex, confusing, and costly for seniors, thereby undermining confidence in Medicare and our government.

The overall result of this deregulation and privatization is that health insurance plans are so complex that it takes hundreds of pages to explain their benefits and limitations; no consumer fully understands what they are getting or can shop intelligently among plans.

Other examples of harmful deregulation and privatization include:

  • Drug companies that are allowed to charged exorbitant, unregulated prices in the U.S. that are almost always much higher than in Canada and other countries.
  • Deregulation of the airlines that allows fares and fees to fluctuate widely. It is also the reason it costs so much more to fly to closer but less frequent destinations than for longer trips to bigger cities.
  • Privatization of housing subsidies has resulted in the grafting of some incremental public objectives onto a capitalistic, for-profit system run by landlords, developers, and financiers. The results have been both totally inadequate and dramatically inefficient.

Weak regulation has allowed private sector capitalists to aggressively promote products that have caused serious harm to public health, often while lying about their ill effects. Examples include cigarettes and other tobacco products, oxycontin (the prescription, addictive opioid), and fossil fuels and other products that have polluted our air and water. The promotion of fossil fuels, of course, has far-reaching effects that go well beyond public health.

In summary, the privatization and deregulation promoted by capitalists are not improvements or solutions to problems, they are problems. They have provided windfall profits to private investors as evidenced by unprecedented and growing economic inequality. Meanwhile consumers pay added costs and get degraded services, while the values and principles our democracy was founded on are debased. Successful privatization requires strong, effective public oversight to ensure that public goals and values are met, but this rarely happens. Important public goods, such as water and sewer systems, roads and bridges, parking on public property, etc. should not be privatized – as they have been – without strong regulation and reasonable provisions for terminating the privatization contract if goals are not achieved.

Attempts to remedy or ameliorate the problems of capitalism with incremental reforms or weak regulations (some have even argued for self-regulation by private companies) are not only ineffective, they also make service systems, government programs, and even markets for consumer goods convoluted, complex, confusing, and unfair. They create enormous, expensive, administrative bureaucracies that attempt to implement regulations or remedies. The resulting complexities benefit the capitalists and not workers or consumers. Perhaps the classic example of complexity that benefits wealthy individuals and corporations is our tax code. The exemptions, deductions, special provisions, and other loopholes benefit the capitalists to such an extent that average workers and middle-class households are paying a much higher portion of their incomes in taxes than the wealthy.

Delivery of services by the public sector, i.e., government, is not only fairer and more compassionate than delivery by the private sector, it is also more efficient, effective, and streamlined. The profit motive adds costs (i.e., profits, advertising, and administrative overhead) and incentivizes cost-cutting through denying services and cutting corners on quality. The private sector has no incentive to treat customers equitably; its only goal is to maximize profits.

Kuttner notes that “the history of the past century proves again and again, when market forces [i.e., capitalism] overwhelm the security and livelihood of working people, they are far more likely to turn to ultra-nationalism and fascism” than to collective action through democratic advocacy or labor unions. (page 11) This is particularly likely if there are demagogic “leaders” or “information” sources pushing them in that direction. The result typically is a rise in racism and xenophobia, as well as plutocratic control of the economy and policy making by wealthy individuals and corporations through the politicians they buy with campaign spending or otherwise.

Kuttner writes that “The signal disgrace of our era is the ease with which the corporate center-right has gone along with Trump and the Republican efforts to destroy what remains of democracy.” (page 14) He also notes that since 1980 “much of the Democratic Party has been so compromised and bedded down with Wall Street that displaced middle- and working-class people are skeptical that Democrats and liberal remedies can make much of a difference in their lives.” (page 13)

To ameliorate the economic hardship and insecurity of working Americans, Kuttner recommends providing public supports for workers and families, while resisting and reversing privatization and deregulation. Public supports should include paid family leave, cash support for families with children, subsidies for child care, easier access to good health insurance, regulation of drug prices, and free tuition at community colleges – all parts of the original Build Back Better bill proposed by President Biden and most Democrats in Congress.

Republicans will try to brand these programs as socialism and they do have a socialistic flavor when compared to our current, very individualistic, hyper-capitalism. However, they are immensely popular with the U.S. public and exist in all other wealthy countries. Moreover, socialism doesn’t elicit the negative reaction that it used to; 70% of millennials (i.e., people born between 1980 and 1995 who are 26 to 40 years old now) have a positive view of socialism. While Republicans will try to conflate socialism with communism, keep in mind that in communism the government owns all property and businesses. Not even the most aggressive policy proposals of Senator Sanders (a socialist) take any step in that direction. Also keep in mind that the branding of public policies as socialism was used by white supremacists in the post-Civil War years as their rationale for keeping Blacks from voting. Therefore, calling Democrats’ proposals socialism has racist undertones. (See this previous post for more detail.)

To reverse the scourge that the current version of hyper-capitalism has clearly become, we need to assert strong public control of our economy. Strong oversight and regulation of employers to protect workers and of companies to protect consumers are essential.

Promotion of the public good as the primary goal of government will drive workplaces and the economy to be fairer and more efficient, and to treat people with decency and respect. Think about how different our health care system would be if the public good was foremost instead of maximizing profits. Think about how different our financial system would be if we had public banks (as North Dakota does) and basic banking functions through the post office (as we once did). Think about having public broadband Internet service, which Chattanooga and Europe have, that is cheaper and higher speed than what most of us get in the U.S. Think about patent-free drugs that aren’t controlled and priced by monopolies. Think about the original Health Maintenance Organizations (HMOs) of the early 1970s that were cooperatively owned and run. Think about Medicare for all, especially without the distortions of the private insurers who’ve been allowed to offer complicating alternatives to Medicare. Think about savings and loan banks and health and other insurance companies that were non-profit, mutually-owned (by customers), and prevalent up until the 1970s. Think about publicly-owned, high-quality, mixed-income housing that is a major part of the housing market in Vienna, Austria.

Kuttner concludes that “Saving democracy, the planet, and decent lives for regular people requires moving beyond capitalism. To be an effective liberal today, you need to be a socialist.” (page 2) He states, “I’ve come around to this view gradually, not because my values have changed but because reality has changed.” (page 4)

He notes that our history has shown that the social democracy [2] of the New Deal did not stand up to the test of time. It deteriorated into a capitalistic welfare system with a supposed safety net that was politically vulnerable and, therefore, eroded over time. This produced today’s grossly inequitable U.S. economy where many workers and their families simply cannot survive on the compensation they are given.

Therefore, he concludes that the U.S. must move to democratic socialism [3] where there is substantial public or social control or ownership of important functions in our society that serve the public and the public good. This is necessary to dethrone capitalism as the dominant system of our society. Otherwise, as we’ve experienced, capitalism in a democracy will evolve into hyper-capitalism that serves wealthy individuals and corporations but leaves everyone else behind.

[1]      Kuttner, R., 12/1/21, “Capitalism vs. liberty,” The American Prospect (https://prospect.org/politics/capitalism-vs-liberty/)

[2]      Social democracy is a system of government that attempts to assert values to similar socialism, but within a capitalist framework. The people have a say in government, but the capitalistic, money-based, competitive economy means that a public safety net is needed to help people whose low-paying jobs do not support subsistence.

[3]      Democratic socialism is defined as having a socialist economy in which the means of production are socially and collectively owned or controlled, alongside a liberal democratic political system of government.

IS CAPITALISM COMPATIBLE WITH 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.

Bob Kuttner has written a powerful and poignant article raising the question of whether capitalism is compatible with democracy – or at least a version of democracy that lives up to the American ideals of equal opportunity and government of, by, and for the people. [1]

In the post-Depression and post-World War II era, the New Deal created a fundamental shift in ideology and power in American society and in our economy from laissez-faire capitalism to regulated and managed New Deal capitalism. It was based on a strong social contract that gave substantial power to government to regulate private companies and manage the economy. It gave substantial power to workers through collective bargaining over pay, benefits, and working conditions via their unions.

The results were a thriving working and middle class, where the rising tide of the economy did indeed lift all boats. Income and wealth inequality were stabilized, if not narrowed.

The era of New Deal capitalism lasted for 40 years until 1980. However, in the last 40 years, Kuttner argues, we’ve not just moved back toward the laissez-faire capitalism of pre-Depression days, but gone beyond it to a new form of hyper-capitalism that some call vulture capitalism. It has destroyed the ability of many workers to thrive by driving down wages, employment security, and benefits (including reducing retirement benefits and paid sick time). It has destroyed the ability of many working parents to provide their children with a safe, secure, and healthy childhood due to unaffordable and inaccessible child care, a lack of paid family and medical leave, unstable work hours, and poverty-level wages.

The life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness promised by the Declaration of Independence are a myth to many workers. They are unable to pursue any meaningful happiness for themselves due to their economic insecurity and low incomes, let alone provide happiness for their families. Any true feelings of liberty are constrained by their lack of the economic resources required to have meaningful freedom in making choices in our capitalist system. And life, literally in some cases, is at risk. Workers are getting injured, disabled, and killed in meat packing plants and other dangerous jobs, even without Covid. Sweatshop working conditions of the 1920s have returned in places like the meat packing industry and Amazon warehouses. When people have health problems or suffer injuries, many of them are bankrupted, and some die, because of our capitalistic health care system.

Deregulation at home and in global trade have produced giant corporations that often have monopolistic power nationally or regionally. These companies have the power as huge employers to strip workers of pay, benefits, and even their jobs, typically by moving jobs overseas (or threatening to do so). Similarly, consumers have limited choices and get reduced value in many important areas from health care to Internet service because of the monopolistic power of providers. These giant, monopolistic companies, particularly in technology-driven markets, have also stripped our economy of many small businesses and entrepreneurs through predatory acquisitions or market place practices that stifle competition.

Deregulation of financial practices has also fed these trends through venture capital, private equity, and hedge fund profiteers that aggressively minimize labor costs, strip companies of assets, and often drive companies into bankruptcy while they pocket huge profits. These vulture capitalists, as they have been called, are at the leading edge of the predatory, hyper-capitalism that Kuttner identifies as taking the laissez-faire capitalism of the early 1900s to a whole, new level of greed and economic inequality.

Kuttner states that rather than the theoretical “invisible hand” of capitalism creating efficient markets that work smoothly and produce high quality goods and services at competitive prices for consumers, the current U.S. version of capitalism creates inefficiency and market failure as its norm. It is efficient only from the perspective of profit and wealth maximization for large, wealthy companies and shareholders, including corporate executives.

Nonetheless, the capitalist market mentality is so deeply embedded in our collective psyche that we have allowed capitalistic values and market norms to overrule other norms and values, such as the importance of the public good, providing access to affordable health care, reducing child poverty, and addressing climate change.

Moreover, the incredible wealth of the giant companies and their shareholders has given them substantial power in our political system. Through their campaign spending, extensive lobbying of public officials, and the movement of senior company employees into and back from policy making positions in government (the revolving door), they have gotten public policies and regulation (or lack thereof) that work to their benefit.

We have seen the result of this political power in recent weeks in the opposition of many members of Congress (i.e., almost every Republican and a handful of Democrats) to the Build Back Better legislation that would support workers and their families in ways that are favored by over two-thirds of the country’s voters – for example, through paid family leave, support for families with children and for child care, and enhanced access and affordability for health care and drugs. Members of Congress have been weakening, undermining, and outright opposing these policies that their constituents overwhelmingly support. Congress is also opposing investments in human capital and in slowing climate change that have broad support among the public.

The Build Back Better opponents in Congress are reflecting the wishes of their wealthy campaign donors, not their constituents. This is emblematic of the power and influence of wealthy capitalists and a direct outgrowth of the hyper-capitalism of the last 40 years.

As a result of this hyper-capitalism in the U.S., many workers have had their economic security, their middle-class lifestyle, and their plans for retirement stripped from them. The frustrations of these workers, their feelings of helplessness and hopelessness, are what has led to the appeal of Senator Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump – both of whom promised to upset the current political system and restore economic security for workers.

In my next post, I will review Kuttner’s thoughts on where we need to go from here to restore our democracy and have fairer, more equitable economic and political systems.

[1]      Kuttner, R., 12/1/21, “Capitalism vs. liberty,” The American Prospect (https://prospect.org/politics/capitalism-vs-liberty/)

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

CYBERWARFARE: RUSSIA’S ATTACKS ON THE 2018 AND 2020 ELECTIONS AND THE TRUMP ADMINISTRATION’S RESPONSE

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 my seventh post on computer hacking and cyberwarfare and part of my overview of New York Times cybersecurity reporter Nicole Perlroth’s outstanding book, This Is How They Tell Me the World Ends. [1] My first post summarized the book’s information on the scale of computer hacking, cybercrime, and cyberwarfare; the 2017 North Korean ransomware attack; and the 2009 U.S. National Security Agency (NSA) cyberwarfare attack on Iran. My second post covered the leaks from the NSA, electronic surveillance in the U.S., and the use of encryption to protect privacy. My third post described Russia’s cyberattacks on Ukraine. The fourth and fifth posts described China’s cyberattack on Google and Google’s response. The sixth post described Russia’s cyberattack on the 2016 U.S. election.

This post summarizes Russia’s attacks on the 2018 and 2020 U.S. elections and the responses of the Trump and Biden administrations.

Under the Trump Administration, concern for cyberwarfare and cybercrime seemed absent. For example, the Obama Administration had reached an agreement with China to stop its industrial espionage, however this ended when Trump began his very public trade war with China. Similarly, the Iran nuclear agreement worked to keep Iranian hackers at bay. Trump’s voiding of the nuclear deal resulted in levels of Iranian cyberattacks that were unprecedented. Furthermore, as Trump backed off both sanctions and rhetoric against Russia for its hacking and election interference, Russia continued to hack our election systems and infrastructure, as well as to spread division, distrust, and chaos through social and other media. Even Saudi Arabia, with no sanctions from the Trump Administration for its murder of Washington Post journalist Khashoggi, was emboldened to engage in cyber espionage targeting the U.S. Cybercriminals engaged in ransomware attacks on cities, towns, and other infrastructure with regularity – and with little response from the Trump Administration.

By 2018, Trump had eliminated the position of White House cybersecurity coordinator and had made it clear that he never wanted to hear anyone in his administration, including the director of Homeland Security, mention election interference or election security. As the 2018 elections approached, the Russian social media propaganda agency, the Internet Research Agency (IRA), was engaging in sophisticated election disinformation on social media. In the six months before the elections, it spent at least $10 million on its efforts to influence the U.S. elections and to sow division, distrust, and chaos.

Fortunately, in September 2018, Trump had ceded decision-making for offensive cyberattacks to the new director of the NSA, General Paul Nakasone, who also served as the head of the Pentagon’s Cyber Command. John Bolton, in his brief tenure as Trump’s national security advisor, had developed a new cyber strategy that gave the Cyber Command increased flexibility. So, in October, the Cyber Command posted warnings directly to the IRA’s computers threatening indictments and sanctions if Russia continued to meddle in the 2018 elections. Then, on Election Day, the Cyber Command shut down the Russian hackers’ computer servers and kept them offline for several days as votes were tabulated and certified. No one knows what might have happened if the Cyber Command had not done this, but the 2018 election results were processed without any serious glitches.

“By 2020, the U.S. was in the most precarious position it had ever been in the digital realm,” according to Perlroth. [2] More than 1,000 local governments had been hit with ransomware attacks over the previous year. Russian cybercriminals were getting billions of dollars because local governments and their insurers calculated that it was cheaper to pay the ransom than to have to recreate computer systems and data. Cybersecurity experts worried that the ransomware attacks were a smokescreen to probe municipal computers and develop the capability to disrupt voter and election related systems during the 2020 election. Some of these experts also thought the election hacking and interference in 2016 and 2018 might be trial runs for more extensive efforts planned for the 2020 elections. Apart from the elections, in September 2020, over 400 hospitals were the subject of ransomware attacks, coming, of course, at the worst possible time – in the middle of the pandemic.

In Congress, a number of efforts were made to address concerns about election security, including bills requiring paper trails for every ballot and rigorous post-election audits, banning voting machines from being connected to the Internet, and mandating that campaigns report contacts with foreign entities. These were largely uncontroversial security measures that generally had bipartisan support and were deemed critical by election integrity experts. However, Senator Mitch McConnell, the Republican Majority Leader, refused to let any election security bill move forward toward passage. Only after critics took to calling him “Moscow Mitch” did he relent and begrudgingly allow approval of $250 million to help states protect election infrastructure – a tiny amount of money when split among the 50 states (only $5 million each on average), especially given the seriousness of the threats their election systems were facing.

In early 2020, U.S. intelligence officials warned the White House and Congress that Russian hacking and election interference were working hard at promoting Trump’s re-election. Trump was so incensed that this information had been shared with Democrats that he fired his acting director of national intelligence and publicly dismissed the intelligence findings as misinformation. Beginning in August, Trump’s new head of intelligence refused to provide in-person briefings on election interference to Congress. The U.S. intelligence agencies had always been non-partisan, but the Trump administration increasingly manipulated their actions and statements to serve their political interests. Meanwhile, Microsoft revealed that in one two-week period Russian hackers had attempted to access 6,900 personal email accounts of politicians, campaign workers, and consultants of both parties.

During the 2020 election cycle, the Russians didn’t have to create “fake news” to foster distrust, division, and chaos; Americans, including President Trump, were providing plenty of such content on a daily basis. The Russian trolls simply worked to amplify, among other things, the vaccination debate, the lockdown protests, the misinformation about the benefits of mask wearing, and the blaming of the racial justice protests and any violence that occurred on violent, left-wing radicals.

As the 2020 election approached, the Cyber Command, the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) in the Department of Homeland Security, the NSA, and the FBI worked diligently to protect election infrastructure in the states and nationally, as well as to actively counterattack. Many of the officials involved figured it was likely that Trump would fire them for their hard work as soon as the election was over, but they persisted in doing their jobs. On Election Day, CISA officials briefed reporters every three hours and, in the end, Election Day came and went with no evidence of fraud, outside efforts to alter vote tallies, or even a ransomware attack.

Perlroth notes that while she would like to credit the work of our cybersecurity agencies for the uneventful Election Day, she feels that the 2020 election went as smoothly as it did, not because the Russians were deterred, but because they (and specifically Russian President Putin) concluded that their work here was done and had been successful. Discord, distrust, and chaos were being created by American actors without the need for Russian interference. If Putin’s goal, in the U.S. elections and otherwise, was to undermine American democracy and American influence in world diplomacy, he had probably succeeded beyond his wildest dreams.

Nonetheless, Russian cyber hacking continues. In 2020, Russia’s premier intelligence agency, SVR was responsible for the cyberattack via the Solar Winds security software, a highly sophisticated attack that affected many government agencies and large companies. It gave the Russians access to tens of thousands of users’ computer systems. (By the way, SVR was also the first hacker to gain access to the Democratic National Committee’s computers in 2016.)

In October 2021, the Russians engaged in another massive campaign to hack into computer networks in the U.S. Microsoft announced that it had notified 600 organizations that they had been targeted by SVR with about 23,000 attempts to illegally access their computer systems in October alone. It noted that the attacks were relatively unsophisticated and were or could have been blocked by basic cybersecurity practices. It also stated that, for comparison, there had been only 20,500 such attempts by all other international governmental actors over the past three years. [3]

This Russian cyberattack occurred only six months after President Biden imposed sanctions on Russian financial and technology companies in April 2021 as punishment for previous cyberattacks. At the time, he noted that the sanctions could have been more severe but that he was trying to de-escalate confrontation between the two superpowers.

My next post will review things that can be done to counter cybercrime and warfare at the individual and governmental levels.

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

[2]      Perlroth, N. This Is How They Tell Me the World Ends. Bloomsbury Publishing, NY, NY. 2021. page 347

[3]      Sanger, D.E., 10/26/21, “Russia tests US again with broad cybersurveillance,” The Boston Globe from The New York Times

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/)

CYBERWARFARE: RUSSIA’S ATTACKS ON UKRAINE AND USE OF NSA’S CYBER WEAPONS

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 my third post on computer hacking and cyberwarfare, part of my overview of New York Times cybersecurity reporter Nicole Perlroth’s outstanding book, This Is How They Tell Me the World Ends. [1] My first post summarized the book’s information on:

  • The scale of computer hacking, cybercrime, and cyberwarfare,
  • The 2017 worldwide ransomware attack by North Korea using a Microsoft Windows vulnerability stolen from the U.S. National Security Agency (NSA), and
  • The 2009 cyberwarfare attack by the NSA on Iran’s uranium enrichment plant.

My second post provided an overview of the book’s reporting on:

  • Electronic surveillance in the U.S. and the use of encryption to protect privacy, and
  • Leaks from the NSA, including of its cyberwarfare weapons.

This post provides an overview of Russia’s cyberattacks on Ukraine. Russia is and has been a formidable and active player in espionage and international warfare since the 1950s Cold War, which Perlroth touches on as background for her reporting on cyberwarfare.

Not surprisingly then, Russia has been an early, active, and formidable participant in cyberwarfare. It has attacked Ukraine both to demonstrate its capabilities to the world and to display its ongoing displeasure with independence in Ukraine, which threw out the Russian puppet government in 2014. Russia’s cyberwarfare has interfered with Ukraine’s elections and its everyday life. In 2014, Russia planted disinformation during Ukraine’s election and engaged in serious cyber hacking of its election infrastructure. Ukrainian election officials discovered the hacking just before manipulated results would have been announced to the media. It was the most brazen cyberattack on a national election ever at the time.

For its next attack, on Christmas Eve in 2015, Russia’s cyber warriors flipped off circuit breakers in the Ukrainian power grid, turning off electricity for hundreds of thousands of people. They also shut off backup power in many locations and shut down emergency phone lines. Things were turned back on roughly six hours later, but the message and the capabilities were clear. This represented an escalation of cyberwarfare; no country had ever shutdown another country’s civilian power grid before. A year later, Russia did it again, this time shutting down the power and heat in the Ukrainian capital of Kyiv.

On June 27, 2017, Russia launched another, much more devastating cyberattack on the Ukraine, this time using weapons from the U.S. National Security Administration (NSA) that had been stolen and leaked in 2016 and 2017. (See my previous post for more details on this leak.) Russia specifically timed its attack to occur on Ukraine’s independence day to underscore its political message. The attack shutdown government offices, trains, ATMs, the postal service, and almost all financial systems so people couldn’t get paid and electronic cash registers didn’t work so people couldn’t buy anything, even food and gas. Even the radiation monitors at the Chernobyl nuclear disaster site were shutdown. The attack destroyed the data on 80% of the computers in Ukraine. The damage was so severe that it took over two years for Ukraine to recover from this Russian cyberattack.

Not unexpectedly, the cyberweapons (i.e., malicious computer programming) that Russia used in the attack on Ukraine self-propagated through the Internet and other computer networks so that any company doing business in Ukraine was vulnerable. The cyberweapons shutdown factories in Tasmania, destroyed vaccines at pharmaceutical companies Pfizer and Merck, infected FedEx’s computer systems, and brought the world’s biggest shipping company, Maersk, to a halt. The cyberweapons even spread back to Russia, destroying data at the giant, Russian government-owned oil company, Rosneft, and at the Russian steelmaker, Evraz.

When author Perlroth visited Ukraine in the winter of 2019, a year and a half after the attack, the damage estimate there was $10 billion and climbing, and significant disruption of daily life was still evident. Railroad and shipping systems were still not back to normal, pension checks still hadn’t been received, and people were still trying to find packages that had gone missing when shipment tracking data was lost, for example. It was also estimated that the attack cost just Merck, Fed Ex, and all the other companies that were affected billions of dollars. Some insurers refused to pay for damages from this cyberattack, claiming it was an act of war and therefore fell under a war exemption clause in their policies.

This Russian cyberattack made it clear that cyberweapons are weapons of mass destruction. Russia could have done much worse. It could have crashed trains and planes instead of just disabling scheduling, ticketing, and payment systems. It could have created explosions or toxic incidents at manufacturing plants or nuclear power plants.

Some experts believe Russia used the NSA’s tools in this attack to discredit and expose the NSA and the U.S. government.  Others believe Russia was just using this attack, and the earlier ones in the Ukraine, to test its capabilities and prepare or signal its capability to execute even more devastating attacks in the future. By the way, Russia has continued to harass Ukraine. For example, in 2019, it inundated Ukrainian Facebook accounts with anti-vaccination propaganda as the worst measles outbreak of recent times spread there.

In subsequent posts, I will outline the Perlroth book’s reporting on:

  • The Chinese attack on Google and Google’s response,
  • The cyberattacks on U.S. elections and the Trump administration’s response, and
  • What can be done to counter cybercrime and warfare at the individual and governmental levels.

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

CYBERSECURITY AND THE DEVASTATING LEAK OF THE NSA’S CYBER TOOLS

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 on computer hacking and cyberwarfare began my overview of New York Times cybersecurity reporter Nicole Perlroth’s book, This Is How They Tell Me the World Ends. [1] My post summarized the book’s information on the scale of computer hacking, cybercrime, and cyberwarfare, while also outlining two examples from the book:

  • The 2017 worldwide ransomware attack by North Korea using a Microsoft Windows vulnerability stolen from the U.S. National Security Agency (NSA), and
  • The 2009 cyberwarfare attack by the NSA on Iran’s uranium enrichment plant.

This post provides an overview of the book’s reporting on:

  • Electronic surveillance in the U.S. and the use of encryption technology to protect privacy, and
  • Leaks from the NSA, including of its cyberwarfare tools.

After the September 11, 2001, attacks, the U.S. greatly expanded its electronic surveillance within the U.S. In 2013, Edward Snowden, a consultant for the NSA and a former CIA employee, released thousands of classified NSA documents. They described activities the NSA was engaged in, including mass surveillance of Americans. Among many other things, the documents revealed that the NSA was secretly surveilling users of Microsoft, Facebook, Google, and Yahoo and that in a single day it had collected roughly 445,000 Yahoo email address books, 105,000 from Hotmail, 83,000 from Facebook, 34,000 from Gmail, and 23,000 from other providers.

Snowden was charged with espionage. He left the country prior to releasing the NSA documents and is living in Russia under a grant of asylum. In 2020, a U.S. federal court ruled that the NSA’s mass surveillance program exposed by Snowden was illegal and possibly unconstitutional.

As a response to U.S. government surveillance and cyber hacking, software and hardware providers started offering users’ the ability to encrypt their data. Initially, intelligence agencies and law enforcement had ways to overcome the encryption and access the data, typically with the assistance of the product’s provider. Then in 2014, in the wake of the Snowden revelations, Apple announced that the iPhone 6 would automatically encrypt everything on the phone using the phone user’s unique password, making the data impossible to unencrypt by anyone else. Previously, Apple had a key that could unencrypt a user’s data when requested by law enforcement. The FBI and those running government surveillance programs were upset and concerned about this truly secure encryption, but there was strong support from users because they valued their privacy.

A year later, two terrorists, who had sworn allegiance to ISIS, shot and killed 14 people and injured 22 at the San Bernadino, CA, health department. The terrorists fled and were killed in a shootout within hours. One piece of evidence recovered was an encrypted iPhone. The FBI demanded that Apple unencrypt the phone, which apparently it could not, and also demanded that Apple change its software to allow the FBI to unencrypt data in the future. Apple refused, pointing out that if there was such a capability others would want access to it too and that hackers would be able to find it as well.

The FBI initiated a court case to force Apple to allow it access to iPhone data, but four months after the shooting it abruptly dropped the case. It turned out that an unidentified hacker had sold the FBI a way to overcome the encryption. Surprisingly, the FBI Director, Comey, admitted that it had paid the hacker at least $1.3 million for this capability. This was the first time the U.S. government had admitted to paying a hacker a large sum to give it access to a vulnerability in a widely used electronic device or piece of software. The FBI claimed that it did not know what the underlying flaw was and that it had no intention of letting Apple know so it could fix it.

Apple was correct, of course, in stating that any ability of the FBI or U.S. intelligence agencies to circumvent the encryption of users’ data would eventually be available to others, including those with less scrupulous intentions (assuming you believe U.S. intelligence agencies and the FBI always have scrupulous intentions). International adversaries and individual computer hackers are constantly uncovering computer software and hardware vulnerabilities. They use or sell these vulnerabilities to obtain unauthorized access to data, for use in international cyberwarfare, or for use for private gain through theft of money, trade secrets, or other valuable information. These computer vulnerabilities can also be used in ransomware attacks, where computer systems are disabled or data stolen for nefarious use unless a ransom is paid.

Probably the worst piece of news for the U.S. intelligence agencies in the history of cyberwarfare was the leak of the NSA’s tools and techniques in 2016 and 2017. While Snowden’s leaks revealed what the NSA was doing, these leaks revealed, in detail, specifically how it was doing its cyber espionage and cyberwarfare.

Over a nine-month period, an unknown individual or individuals leaked specific software vulnerabilities and the computer code the NSA was using to exploit them. These NSA hacking tools had been stolen and were now being released publicly on the Internet, sharing the world’s most powerful cyber arsenal with anyone and everyone who might want to use it. These NSA cyber weapons were used, for example, by North Korea in its global ransomware attack (described in my previous post) and by Russia in its devastating attack on the Ukraine in 2017 (to be described in my next post).

The leak of the NSA’s cyber weapons exposed what was probably the biggest federal program the public had never heard of, a cyber espionage and warfare effort so classified it was invisible: hidden through blacked out budgets, large cash transactions, shell companies, contractors, and nondisclosure agreements required of everyone involved in it.

In subsequent posts, I will outline the Perlroth book’s reporting on:

  • Russia’s cyberattacks on Ukraine,
  • The Chinese attack on Google and Google’s response,
  • The cyberattacks on U.S. elections and the Trump administration’s response, and
  • What can be done to counter cybercrime and warfare at the individual and governmental levels.

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

THE COST, DAMAGE, AND THREAT OF CYBERCRIME AND WARFARE

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 lines between computer hacking, cybercrime, and cyberwarfare are blurry. They are threats to our national security and also to you. At risk is not only your financial welfare and identity, but also your health and well-being. Cyberwarfare is at a level of threat that has similarities to nuclear weapons in that it can inflict major societal harm and is restrained or deterred only by the threat of retaliatory harm and damage, similar to the mutual assured destruction that deters nuclear war.

This is not an exaggeration, as the book by New York Times cybersecurity reporter, Nicole Perlroth, This Is How They Tell Me the World Ends, [1] makes clear in great detail. She presents the development and evolution of cyber hacking, crime, and warfare since she began reporting on it for the Times in 2013. She also puts it in an historical context of espionage going back to the Cold War and the 1950s and then outlines its transition from human agents to cyber capabilities over the last 40 years. I encourage you to read her 406-page, revealing, convincing, and downright scary book if you are so motivated. I will attempt to summarize it in this and subsequent blog posts.

The scale of computer hacking, cybercrime, and cyberwarfare is much greater than I had any idea it was. The costs to individuals, businesses, governments, and other organizations (such as hospitals) are enormous. A 2018 RAND Corporation report, the most comprehensive study of cyberattacks at the time, estimated that the worldwide losses for the year from cyberattacks were hundreds of billions of dollars. By comparison, the estimated cost of terrorist attacks in 2018 was just $33 billion. Some current estimates put the costs of cyberattacks at over $2 trillion a year and growing.

The number of ransomware attacks, where hackers prevent an organization from accessing its computer systems and data until a ransom is paid, more than doubled from 2019 to 2020, for example. [2] Much of this is done by cyber criminals looking to make money. However, back in May 2017, one of the cyber hacking tools stolen from the U.S. National Security Agency (NSA) (more on this in a subsequent post) was put to use by North Korea in ransomware attacks all around the globe. Within 24 hours, 200,000 organizations in 150 countries were attacked. For example, nearly 50 British hospitals were incapacitated as were Russian railroads and banks, Indian airlines, Germany’s railroads, Spain’s largest telecommunications company, Japanese police, South Korean movie theaters, many gas stations and universities in China, and small electric utilities and Fed Ex in the U.S. Russia and China suffered the most, partially because vulnerable, pirated software was widely used there.

The attack used a vulnerability in Microsoft’s Windows operating system that the NSA had discovered and exploited for years. When knowledge of it was stolen from the NSA and released publicly, the NSA notified Microsoft, but, needless to say, there was not enough time to fix the vulnerability (aka bug) and get the fix onto millions of customers’ computers before the vulnerability was exploited by North Korea and others. Exacerbating the problem, many customers are not always quick to install Microsoft’s Windows updates, particularly at companies using it on computers performing critical functions where software updates must be closely managed to minimize downtime. Making matters worse, many computers, including ones controlling critical infrastructure, were running an old version of Windows that Microsoft had stopped updating three years earlier. Now, Microsoft had to go back and update this software so its users wouldn’t be held hostage by cyberattacks from North Korea or run-of-the-mill cyber criminals.

Microsoft’s President, Brad Smith, was angry; this was not the first time the NSA had put Microsoft in this position. He publicly criticized the NSA for withholding the Windows vulnerability from Microsoft and then, when it became a problem, dumping it in Microsoft’s lap to fix on short notice. At the time, this story got short shrift in the U.S. media because of all the focus on the new Trump administration and the controversies it was generating. The administration was, however, quick to identify North Korea as the culprit, in stark contrast to its failure to out Russia for its cyberattacks, including its meddling in the 2016 U.S. election. (More on this in a subsequent post.)

Initially, government-sponsored cyber hacking, with the U.S. leading the pack, was used for espionage and surveillance of foreign governments and agents. The U.S. has multiple agencies spending billions of dollars developing and using cyber hacking capabilities. It has large teams of computer experts identifying vulnerabilities in computer software. Rather than alerting companies to the vulnerabilities in their products, U.S. intelligence agencies developed the software vulnerabilities into weapons for spying on adversaries (e.g., by stealing data from their computers). This use of cyber hacking is considered defensive as it is used to protect the U.S. and not to harm others.

The U.S. government also bought software vulnerabilities from private hackers who had discovered them, sometimes paying millions of dollars for them. Private computer hackers’ uncovering and selling of software vulnerabilities is a worldwide entrepreneurial business, given that any computer-savvy individual with a computer can do this.

However, as was probably inevitable, computer hacking shifted to being used offensively, to harm adversaries, given that it has the inherent capability to disrupt computer-controlled equipment and communications. In 2008 and 2009, the U.S. government, led by the NSA, probably with Israel’s participation, successfully executed a cyberwarfare attack on Iran’s nuclear enrichment plant. It damaged the centrifuges used to enrich uranium in order to delay Iran’s ability to generate enough, sufficiently enriched uranium to build an atomic bomb. Many experts view this attack as marking the shift of cyberwarfare from espionage and defensive uses to offensive uses.

After a cyberattack, given time, effort, and expertise, the target can almost always identify the source of the attack. So, when U.S. intelligence agencies say they “think” a cyberattack came from say Russia, they know that it came from Russia. Furthermore, they usually know what organization was behind the attack, although sometimes it can be difficult to ascertain whether it was a government-sponsored attack or private hackers physically located say in Russia (or China, Iran, or North Korea, etc.).

After the successful attack on its nuclear enrichment plant, Iran, not surprisingly, was looking for revenge. When it discovered the cyberattack, it also then had possession of the weapon – the software that had been used – and could turn it back on the attacker.

Furthermore, the weapon, as cyber weapons often do, spread itself out from the Iranian centrifuge plant over the Internet and around the globe, eventually reaching the U.S. and infecting computers at Chevron. Fortunately, because it was designed to specifically attack the Iranian centrifuges, it didn’t do a lot of damage at Chevron or at other sites it infected.

Despite this experience, the U.S. government continued to focus on its offensive cyberwarfare programs and largely ignored building cyber defenses. Surprisingly, it ignored the clear vulnerability of U.S. computers and systems to the types of attacks it was undertaking, despite the fact that the U.S. is more dependent on computers and the Internet than other countries, making the U.S. more vulnerable to a cyberattack than anyone else.

In subsequent posts, I will outline the Perlroth book’s reporting on:

  • Electronic surveillance in the U.S. and the use of encryption technology to protect privacy,
  • Leaks from the NSA, including of its cyberwarfare tools,
  • Russia’s cyberattacks on Ukraine,
  • The Chinese attack on Google and Google’s response,
  • The cyberattacks on U.S. elections and the Trump administration’s response, and
  • What can be done to counter cybercrime and warfare at the individual and governmental levels.

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

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

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

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)

WE NEED STRONG GOVERNMENT INFRASTRUCTURE

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. As I noted in my last post, an important reason that massive unemployment insurance fraud occurred during the pandemic was that government infrastructure wasn’t up to the task of effectively administering expanded benefits. State computer systems and personnel didn’t have the capacity to accurately enroll and pay the wave of new beneficiaries. And law enforcement lacked the capacity to identify and punish fraudulent applicants.

For 40 years, small government advocates – mostly Republicans but with the acquiescence or assistance of many Democrats – have successfully pushed to shrink government infrastructure and capacity. President Reagan (a Republican) asserted in 1980 that government was the problem and not the solution – a claim that went unanswered by Democrats. This marked the beginning of a concerted effort by Republicans to downsize the federal government – except for the Defense Department – in terms of number of personnel, regulatory capacity and responsibility, provision of a safety net, emergency response and public health capacity, scientific and policy analysis expertise and data, etc. President Clinton (a Democrat) in 1992 declared the end of the era of big government and of welfare as we’d known it – supporting and furthering the weakening of government infrastructure.

One component of this attack on government infrastructure has targeted public employees, both to reduce their numbers and to denigrate them. One reason for this has been to discredit government by claiming that its employees are inefficient, incompetent, and overpaid. Another reason has been to undermine unions, which today are strongest in the public sector given the very successful efforts by corporatists and oligarchs to undermine private sector unions. (The percentage of private sector workers represented by a union has fallen to 20% of what it was 60 years ago – from over 30% to under 7%.)

Federal civilian employment is a little over 2 million, roughly the same as it was in 1966, despite a quintupling of federal spending and a population that has grown by 68%. The government has added agencies in that time such as the Environmental Protection Agency, the Department of Homeland Security, and the Department of Energy. In these new agencies and others, the government’s roles and responsibilities have grown and have also become much more complex. Nonetheless, the number of federal employees has not grown to meet these needs. Moreover, under the Trump administration, employment at the Department of Labor declined 11%, 9% at the State Department, and 8% at the Education Department, although their workloads were not declining. Scientists were a particular target of the Trump administration. For example, the Agriculture Department had 50% of its research jobs vacant under Trump. [1]

To maintain the services that Americans want and the functions government must perform (such as tax collection) with a limited number of federal employees has required a dramatic increase in the number of consultants and contractors working for the government. This has become big business for many companies including some of the well-known consulting companies such as McKinsey and Booz Allen. Booz Allen now gets 96% of its revenue from federal government contracts.

There are now over twice as many private contractors working for the federal government as there are employees. The Government Accountability Office has warned for years that the extensive use of contractors was eroding the government’s ability to govern, including the making of important policy decisions. President Obama worked diligently to reduce the number of contractors, having noted that they are “often unaccountable and often less efficient than government workers.” His administration succeeded in reducing the ratio of contractors to employees from 3.38 to 2.34. Trump reversed this trend and the contractor workforce grew by about 1.4 million people in his four years as President.

A 2010 study by the Project on Government Oversight examined 35 government job categories and found that for 33 of them government employees were less expensive than private contractors even when federal fringe benefits were included. For one job category, contractors were almost five times more expensive.

As a result of the weakening of the federal government’s infrastructure and the extensive use of privatization and contractors, the rate of highly visible failures of government services as risen from 1.6 per year in the 1980s to 4.3 during the Trump administration.

My next post will more closely examine the privatization of government functions and its effects.

Note: In addition to personnel, computer systems are another essential component of government infrastructure. Many government computer systems, at the federal and state levels, are out-of-date, if not antiquated, due to a lack of investment over the last 40 years. As a result, many government computer systems can barely perform essential functions, are difficult to update, and are unable to share data with other systems. This is a story for another day and another post or two.

[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.

CAUSES OF MASSIVE UNEMPLOYMENT INSURANCE FRAUD

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 massive unemployment insurance (UI) fraud that occurred during the pandemic was caused by a failure to invest in public infrastructure (broadly defined). Three types of public infrastructure were not adequate to accurately perform and police the distribution of enhanced unemployment benefits that were put in place due to the high job losses of the pandemic.

  1. States’ unemployment computer systems that pay out UI benefits are, in general, antiquated.
  2. Law enforcement capacity to detect and punish UI fraud is inadequate.
  3. Government regulation and oversight of Internet platforms, as well as detection and punishment of Internet-based criminals, has lagged far behind their explosive growth and sophistication.

The convergence of these three failures to invest in public infrastructure allowed as much as $400 billion in fraudulent UI claims to be paid – a staggering loss for taxpayers. This is perhaps the largest wave of fraud in U.S. history. Fraudulent claims for UI benefits occurred through:

  • The use of stolen identities,
  • The use of false identities, and
  • The filing of multiple claims for the same identity, usually in multiple states.

Warnings of weaknesses in states’ UI systems, which often use aging or obsolete technology, have been on-going since a 1998 federal Labor Department’s Inspector General’s report about the proliferation of UI fraud. In 2002, a subsequent report highlighted the use of stolen or fake identities to apply for UI benefits and the repetitious use of an identity across multiple states. A 2015 report, detailed systemic weaknesses that made states’ systems vulnerable to fraud. Both the Obama and Trump administrations proposed efforts to boost information sharing among states and with the federal government to reduce fraud, but Congress failed to enact their proposals. [1] Despite over 20 years of warnings, needed investments in this public infrastructure haven’t been made.

State funding for UI administration has fallen in recent years, in part because unemployment was low. At the start of 2020, as the pandemic hit, states’ funding for UI administration was at a 30-year low and states had cut funding to detect fraud. Federal regulations require states to cross-check UI benefit applicants against other state and federal databases to determine eligibility and to detect fraud. However, many of the states’ systems do not have the technological capability to do those cross-checks efficiently and electronically. Furthermore, the surge of UI claims during the pandemic overwhelmed the capacity of state systems from both a technological and a human resources perspective. As a result, 20 states did not perform all of the required cross-checks and 44 states did not perform all the recommended ones.

Budget cuts have also occurred at the federal level. Between 2012 and 2020, the number of criminal investigators at the Labor Department declined by 28%.

It is projected that from March 2020 to September 2021 (when enhanced federal UI benefits expire) roughly $1 trillion in UI benefits will have been paid out – which is done through state UI systems using state and federal funds. A very conservative estimate is that $100 billion of this will represent fraudulent payments and some experts think the number could be as high as $400 billion.

Multiple Internet platforms host forums and ads explicitly offering tips and techniques, often for a price, for obtaining UI benefits fraudulently. For example, the messaging app Telegram, hosted dozens of chat forums, some of which had thousands of participants, that provided state-specific instructions on how to file fake UI claims and how to avoid fraud detection efforts. These guides provided lengthy step-by-step instructions, with screenshots, on how to enter information. One Telegram user, with the handle “VerifiedFraud,” provided regular updates to his 1,300 chat room participants on how to file state-specific claims and avoid fraud detection as states enhanced their anti-fraud efforts.

In addition, these Internet sites also regularly offer stolen identities for sale. Ads would offer an identity for sale for $70 along with $200 for detailed instructions on how to use the information to defraud a specific state’s UI system. (Incidentally, the chats also reflected serious concerns about fraud by the sites, e.g., that the instructions purchased might not work.)

This UI fraud represents part of an explosion of Internet-based crime that has occurred over the past 25 years. Much of this criminal activity is based on the use of stolen or fraudulent identities, which are often used to file claims for public benefits. From 2010 to 2019, over 2,000 large-scale data breaches of business and government sites have occurred that have accessed 6.9 billion records with personal identities. In 2020, nearly 400,000 complaints of identity theft were reported, up from 13,000 in 2019. Law enforcement needs to be beefed up, both in capacity and sophistication, to reduce identity theft and Internet-based crime.

The scale of the UI fraud is truly mind-boggling. During the pandemic, the number of UI claims far exceeded the number of jobs lost. From March to December of 2020, the number of UI benefit claims was over 110 million while 38 million workers were out of a job or underemployed at the peak of the pandemic. (A small piece of this discrepancy is explained by the fact that if a person lost more than one job during this period, they could legitimately claim UI more than once.) In five states, the number of UI claims was larger than the entire civilian workforce. Maryland reported detecting 508,000 fraudulent UI claims in the six weeks from the beginning of May through mid-June of 2021. In Vermont, 90% of claims in some months were determined to be fraudulent. In Rhode Island, 43% of claims in March were suspected cases of fraud. California confirmed that 10% of its UI payments were fraudulent and it is investigating another 17%. In Washington State, auditors have identified 250,000 potentially fraudulent claims costing $1.1 billion.

The most fraud-prone piece of UI benefits was the federally funded Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA) program, which funded 39 weeks of benefits for workers typically outside of UI systems such as self-employed individuals, “temporary” contractors, and gig workers. Congress did not require the normal verification of prior income and employment for the PUA program, so it was ripe for fraud. Pennsylvania estimated that 84% of its PUA claims were fraudulent and California found that 95% of its confirmed cases of fraud were PUA claims.

The Biden Administration is taking steps to reduce fraud in UI claims. The Labor Department’s Inspector General’s office is getting increased access to states’ UI payment date so they can more quickly and efficiently look for fraud. The $1.9 trillion coronavirus stimulus bill passed in March contains $2 billion to help states modernize their UI systems. There have been some prosecutions of individuals who are repeat offenders, often not just of UI fraud but also of tax and other fraud. Furthermore, a company called ID.me, which verifies claimants by having them submit pictures to match to those in identifying documents, has been hired by 27 states since mid-2020 and the Biden Administration is providing $1 billion to expand its services to other states. The experience with ID.me has highlighted the degree of fraud. In New York, new claims under the PUA program fell by 89% after ID.me was implemented in late March. Data from five states indicated that 50% of UI claimants did not respond when asked by ID.me to submit a picture to confirm their identity.

So, investments in this public infrastructure are being made – better late than never – to improve fraud detection and reduction in state UI systems and to enhance law enforcement. However, the regulation and oversight of Internet-based entities seems to be largely unaddressed. Although some platforms and sites have been shamed into taking some steps and shutting down some users by unfavorable publicity, this is not a long-term or efficient solution. The federal government needs to enhance its regulation and oversight of Internet-based entities whose explosive growth and sophistication resulted in massive fraud in the UI system during the pandemic.

[1]      Podkul, C., 7/26/21, “How unemployment insurance fraud exploded during the pandemic,” ProPublica (https://www.propublica.org/article/how-unemployment-insurance-fraud-exploded-during-the-pandemic) This blog post is primarily a summary of this article.

THE RADICALS ON THE SUPREME COURT STRIKE AGAIN

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 current “conservative” majority on the Supreme Court is actually a group of ideologically-driven, radical, judicial activists who have no intention of honoring precedents, despite their promises during confirmation hearings to do so. Although some of their radical precedent-breaking decisions get covered by the mainstream media, such as the recent voting rights case and the upcoming decision on pregnancy termination, many of them do not.

A recent Supreme Court case, known as Cedar Point Nursery vs. Hassid, involves the ability of union organizers to visit farms to talk to farm workers (as allowed under a 1975 California regulation). It’s a very significant decision that got very little attention in the mainstream media. A 1975 California regulation has required corporate farmers like Cedar Point (a 300-acre strawberry farm) to allow union organizers on its property to talk to workers for up to three one-hour periods on up to 120 days out of a year (one hour each before work, at lunch time, and after work to avoid interrupting work). Cedar Point sued claiming this was a government seizure of their property without compensation and was a violation of the Fifth Amendment (which states that “No person shall be … deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor shall private property be taken for public use without just compensation.”). Cedar Point claimed that this was a “taking” of its property because it is deprived of the “right to exclude” trespassers from its property, which, it claimed, is fundamental to true property ownership rights.

A lower court had ruled against Cedar Point, but it appealed to the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court ruled 6 to 3 in favor of Cedar Point, finding that the regulation was a “taking” of private property and therefore Cedar Point was entitled to compensation. The six radical “conservative” justices were the majority.

This ruling overturns important elements of a 1978 Supreme Court precedent. That ruling established a framework for evaluating whether a governmental restriction on personal property rises to the level of a “taking”. The framework’s criteria include the economic impact of the law or regulation and the extent of its interference with a business. The requirements of the California regulation specifically minimized these impacts and had been in place and operating since 1975.

This ruling has potentially far-reaching implications. For example, a property owner’s “right to exclude” is the argument segregationists used to defend their exclusion of Blacks from places of business and other private venues. By giving new life to this argument (which the Supreme Court rejected in 1964), Roberts and his six-justice majority are opening the door to a whole range of lawsuits against anti-discrimination laws. Sooner or later the argument will probably be made that preventing a business, a private club, or an employer from excluding men or women, pregnant women, people of color (POC), or LGBTQ+ people is a “taking” of property rights. Also, it may well be argued that fair housing laws are a “taking” because they limit landlords’ “right to exclude” people, such as POC, LGBTQ+ people, families with children, or renters with a low-income governmental housing subsidy. [1]

Furthermore, worker safety inspectors from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), food safety inspectors from the Department of Agriculture, and pollution inspectors from the Environmental Protection Agency could be banned from companies’ property unless the companies are compensated. Although some language in the decision written by Chief Justice Roberts would appear to allow these inspections without compensation, challenges to them are likely. The possibility of challenging endangered species laws that require landowners to protect a species’ habitat has already been raised and a challenge to anti-pollution regulations would seem to be possible as well under the Supreme Court’s redefinition of what constitutes a “taking”.

In the Cedar Point decision, the six radical “conservative” justices on the Supreme Court have again shown their willingness to toss aside well-established precedents and to prioritize the rights of property owners over the civil rights of individuals. This decision may well lead to a variety of challenges from property owners – including landowners, landlords, employers, and businesses – to laws and regulations that protect civil rights, the safety of workers and consumers, and the environment, including initiatives to counter global warming and climate change.

[1]      Mystal, E., 6/24/21, “Yesterday’s union-busting Supreme Court decision was a segregationist throwback,” The Nation (https://www.thenation.com/article/society/cedar-point-court/)

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

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

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/)

OPPOSITION TO “SOCIALISM” IS A DOG WHISTLE FOR RACISM

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.

As I imagine you’ve heard, Republicans are attacking President Biden’s and Democrats’ policy proposals as “socialism.” I thought, naively, that Republicans were just trying foster opposition based on Cold War fears by conflating socialism with communism and identifying it as the existential threat to American democracy.

Heather Cox Richardson, with her historical perspective, has opened my eyes to the fact that the opposition to “socialism” has deeper roots in our history and is a dog whistle for racism. (If this use of the term dog whistle is new to you, please see this footnote. [1])

First, socialism is formally defined as an economic and political system where workers own the means of production (e.g., factories, farms, and organizations that provide services as well as the raw materials, machines, tools, and physical facilities used in producing goods and services). This is NOT, by any stretch of the truth, what Biden and Democrats are proposing. Socialism recognizes workers as the essential input to the economy and, therefore, posits that they should own the means of production and be the beneficiaries of the fruits of the economy.

Social democracy, on the other hand, is a political and economic system where a democratic government manages and regulates capitalism (i.e., private ownership of the means of production) to ensure social and economic justice. In our democracy, the government’s commitment to social and economic justice for all is stated in our founding documents – that all people are created equal, that all people should be guaranteed life, liberty, and the ability to pursue happiness, and that all people have the rights delineated in the Bill of Rights.

The explicit recognition that equal opportunity and true freedom require economic security was stated by President Franklin D. Roosevelt in his proposal for an economic bill of rights [2] and by Senator Bernie Sanders in his statements on what democratic socialism means to him (although technically speaking, he was describing social democracy and not democratic socialism). [3] [4] (See this footnote for a definition of democratic socialism and communism. [5])

Currently, Republicans are using “socialism” as a dog whistle to mean the use of government resources to promote racial equity and justice. Their dog whistle definition of “socialism” is the use of taxes paid by hardworking white men (and women) to benefit lazy people of color who are happy to live on government benefits. Today’s Republicans claim this “socialism” will undermine American democracy and freedom. The dog whistle is that these policies will undermine the “freedom” and privilege of white people.

This use of “socialism” goes back to 1871 when southern Democrats claimed they opposed voting by Blacks, not due to racism, but because Black voters would elect policy makers who would promote “socialism,” i.e., taxing white property owners to pay for roads, schools, and hospitals that would benefit Blacks. [6] They argued that Black voting would lead to “socialism” that would destroy America (namely the America of white supremacy). [7] [8]

After the Brown v. Board of Education decision in 1954, which found racial segregation in public schools unconstitutional, the use of government resources to enforce desegregation and civil rights was attacked as “socialism” because the costs of implementing desegregation and civil rights (for “undeserving” Black people) would be paid for by taxes on hardworking white men (and women). In 1958, Republican Senator Barry Goldwater accused his own party’s President Eisenhower of succumbing to “the siren song of socialism” for his use of government resources (troops) to enforce desegregation of Little Rock, Arkansas, High School. The irony was that the Goldwater family had made its money from government funding for dam construction in Arizona. [9]

Republican attacks on government, on a public safety net, and on beneficiaries of public assistance (inaccurately stereotyped as people of color) took on new strength and significance with the election of President Reagan in 1980. Remember Reagan’s attack on the mythical “welfare queen” with her Cadillac and mink coat? The attacks on “socialism” as a dog whistle for racism have only escalated since then.

Today, Republicans are vigorously charging that President Biden and Democrats are working to bring “socialism” to America. They claim that a no-holds-barred fight is necessary to save American from “socialism.” They are even willing to dispense with a commitment to democracy to “save” America. This disregard for democracy dates to at least 1980 when Republican strategist Paul Weyrich stated, “I don’t want everybody to vote …our leverage in the elections quite candidly goes up as the voting populace goes down.” That’s why Republicans have been and are actively engaged in voter suppression efforts. (Weyrich was a co-founder of the Heritage Foundation, which today is deeply involved in promoting state voting suppression laws and with the “audit” of voting in Arizona and elsewhere.) In October 2020, Utah Senator Mike Lee tweeted, “Democracy is not the objective … liberty, peace, and prosperity are. … democracy can thwart that.” [10]

Republicans are claiming today, as white southern Democrats did after the Civil War, that keeping “socialism” from coming to America requires keeping Black and other likely Democratic voters from voting; democracy, our Constitution, and our founding principles (which make America exceptional) be damned. The racism of the post-Civil War white Democrats’ attacks on “socialism” was made clear by the brutal Jim Crow laws they implemented to keep Blacks in their place and to prevent them from voting.

The implications of today’s Republicans’ claims of needing to prevent “socialism” in America aren’t completely clear, but civil rights, police reform, and social and economic justice are definitely targets. However, the racism behind their attacks on “socialism” is clear and these attacks should no longer be a dog whistle; every American should hear the racism in their attacks on “socialism” loudly and clearly.

[1]      The term dog whistle here is a political adaptation of the fact that a dog whistle can’t be heard by humans but can be heard by dogs. In politics, it refers to language that will be heard as supporting white privilege and supremacy by those people attuned to such sentiments, but won’t be heard by many other people as being racist and where the politician opposing “socialism” – or using other dog whistles – can deny racist intent.

[2]      President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, 1/11/44, “The economic bill of rights,” retrieved from the Internet 5/22/21 at https://www.ushistory.org/documents/economic_bill_of_rights.htm

[3]    Senator Bernie Sanders, 11/19/15, “Senator Sanders on Democratic Socialism and Defeating ISIS,” retrieved from the Internet 5/22/21 at https://www.c-span.org/video/?400961-1/senator-bernie-sanders-address-democratic-socialism (Sanders begins speaking at 8 mins., defines socialism at 12 mins., and presents his and FDR’s vision at 30 mins. into this 1 hr. 40 min. video)

[4]    Golshan, T., 6/12/19, “Bernie Sanders defines his vision for democratic socialism in the United States,” Vox (https://www.vox.com/2019/6/12/18663217/bernie-sanders-democratic-socialism-speech-transcript)

[5]     Democratic socialism is socialism where both the economy and society are governed democratically, with decision making by citizens with a focus on economic and social justice. Democratic socialism is not compatible with capitalism, which is based on private ownership of the means of production and, therefore, where the benefits, economic and also social and political power, flow to the owners of capital, i.e., the owners of physical and monetary assets.

Communism is formally defined as an economic and political system where the workers own the means of production and that is dedicated to equality for all, implemented through an authoritarian government. The main difference between communism and socialism is that socialism is compatible with democracy and liberty, while communism requires authoritarianism and denies basic individual liberties.

[6]      Cox Richardson, H., 4/19/21, “Letters from an American blog,” (https://heathercoxrichardson.substack.com/p/april-19-2021)

[7]      Cox Richardson, H., 5/14/21, “Letters from an American blog,” (https://heathercoxrichardson.substack.com/p/may-14-2021)

[8]      Cox Richardson, H., 1/16/21, “Letters from an American blog,” (https://heathercoxrichardson.substack.com/p/january-16-2021

[9]      Cox Richardson, H., 4/19/21, see above

[10]     Cox Richardson, H., 5/14/21, see above

THE GAMES OLIGARCHS PLAY

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.

In three previous posts, I’ve summarized the three major systemic changes identified by Robert Reich in his latest book, The System. These systemic changes have occurred since 1980 and have shifted power, both economic and political, to a small group of very wealthy Americans. As a result, our democracy operates in many ways like an oligarchy. (Oligarchy “refers to a government of and by a few exceedingly rich people or families who … have power … . Oligarchs may try to hide their power … . But no one should be fooled. Oligarchs wield power for their own benefit.” pages 13-14) [1]

Reich’s three systemic changes have shifted power:

  • From a broad set of corporate stakeholders to shareholders (see this previous post for details),
  • From workers and their unions to large employers (see this previous post for details), and
  • From manufacturing and a broad set of stakeholders in our economy to the financial sector and Wall Street (see this previous post for details).

A dramatic result of these shifts in power has been rapidly growing inequality in income and wealth. A cause and symptom of this inequality is that a small number of wealthy people dominate as the sources of funding for the campaigns of elected officials. These are the oligarchs. In the 2016 election cycle, the wealthiest 25,000 people in America (0.01% of the population) made a record-breaking 40% of all campaign contributions – up from 15% in 1980. Over the period from 2009 through 2020, twelve very wealthy individuals and their spouses gave a total of $3.4 billion to federal candidates and political groups. This is over 7% of the total money raised. The 100 highest giving zip codes hold less than 1% of the U.S. population, but were responsible for 20% of the $45 billion that federal candidates and political groups raised from 2009 through 2020. The increasing amount and share of campaign money coming from oligarchs was accelerated by a series of U.S. Supreme Court decisions, including the 2010 Citizens United decision. [2]

This high level of campaign spending gives these oligarchs access to our elected officials that you and I don’t have. When one of them calls or requests a meeting, that call is answered or that meeting is scheduled. Because their voices are heard and elected officials want the money to keep flowing to them, these oligarchs generally get the policies they want and that benefit them.

Throughout the book, Reich uses Jamie Dimon, the CEO of JPMorgan, as an example or case study of how the oligarchs operate; how they have abandoned public responsibility and advance their self-interest. Dimon appears to believe that corporations do have social responsibilities and not just responsibility to maximize returns for shareholders (as pure shareholder capitalism asserts). Dimon touts JPMorgan’s financing of $2 billion in affordable housing annually, its lending in low- and moderate-income neighborhoods and to small businesses, its 5-year $350 million job training program, and its $500 million AdvancingCities initiative to help financially-strapped large cities.

Although JPMorgan’s social responsibility efforts are notable, they are small relative to the size of the problems they are tackling and small in comparison to JPMorgan’s yearly profits of $30 billion. Moreover, they are contradicted by other actions of JPMorgan and Dimon. Dimon has not supported raising the minimum wage or paying all JPMorgan workers a livable wage, which would do a lot to help many of the people targeted by JPMorgan’s philanthropy, despite his 2018 compensation package worth $31 million and his wealth of around $1.5 billion. In addition, JPMorgan paid $55 million in 2017 to settle charges that it discriminated against minority mortgage borrowers.

Furthermore, Dimon personally lobbied hard for the 2017 tax cut that reduced the corporate tax rate from 35% to 21% and increased JPMorgan’s profits by billions of dollars annually. The tax cut increased the federal deficit by $190 billion annually; a figure that has to be covered, sooner or later, by cuts in federal government programs or increased taxes on others.

JPMorgan, with Dimon in charge, paid $13 billion to settle claims that it defrauded borrowers and investors in the mortgage scandal that led to the 2008 economic collapse. In 2019, it required forced arbitration for credit card disputes, preventing aggrieved customers from suing in court or through a class action lawsuit.

Although Dimon publicly opposed President Trump pulling the U.S. out of the Paris Climate Agreement, JPMorgan is the biggest bank investor in fossil fuels, to the tune of $196 billion between 2016 and 2018. A 2019 report by an environmental coalition named Dimon the “world’s worst banker of climate change.” JPMorgan is also the largest U.S. bank providing financial services to the gun industry and loans to gun buyers.

So, a few hundred million dollars a year of philanthropy is a good investment in public relations for a wealthy Wall Street bank that has had numerous ethical lapses and that was a significant contributor to the economic collapse in 2008, resulting in millions of people losing their jobs, homes, and savings, while it got hundreds of millions of dollars in bailouts.

However, Dimon and JPMorgan are just one example. In 2019, the Business Roundtable, in an effort to counter unfavorable publicity about corporations being solely focused on benefiting shareholders, issued a highly publicized corporate responsibility statement signed by CEOs of 181 major U.S. corporations (including Dimon) stating they believed in “a fundamental commitment to all our stakeholders.” The statement included a commitment to treat employees fairly, support communities, and embrace sustainable practices. [3]

However, actions speak louder than words. Just weeks after the statement appeared, Whole Foods, a subsidiary of Amazon, announced it would cut health benefits for its part-time workers, despite multi-billionaire Jeff Bezos, CEO of Amazon, having signed the corporate responsibility statement. During the pandemic, billionaires did very well and big corporations did well (45 of the 50 biggest were profitable). Despite this, 27 of the 50 big corporations laid off workers, totaling more than 100,000 workers. For example, Walmart, whose CEO was a corporate responsibility statement signer, distributed $10 billion to shareholders while laying off over 1,200 workers. [4]

If the CEOs (i.e., oligarchs) signing the corporate responsibility statement were serious about their commitment to all stakeholders, they would support federal legislation to make those commitments laws (i.e., legally binding). Or, at least, they’d pay a fair share of taxes to the federal government so it could support workers, communities, and a sustainable economy. However, in 2020, 55 of the largest U.S. corporations paid no federal income tax on $40 billion in profits. Moreover, they received more than $3 billion in federal tax rebates, giving them an effective tax rate of negative 9%; a bit different than the stated tax rate of 21%. Twenty-six of them have paid no federal income tax since the 2017 tax cut (and received $5 billion in rebates) while generating $77 billion of profits.

In actuality, the corporate responsibility statement appears to be part of a PR campaign by oligarchs that, along with corporate philanthropy, is designed to slow or stop proposed legislation and regulations that would require oligarchs and their corporations to:

  • Share their power and wealth by treating workers and communities more fairly, and
  • Engage in sustainable business practices.

Reich quotes the theologian Reinhold Niebuhr as noting that “ The powerful are more inclined to be generous than to grant social justice.”

These are the games that oligarchs play to try to hide their power and to try to fool the rest of us into believing that they care about fairness and social responsibility.

[1]      Reich, R.B., 2020, The System: Who rigged it, how we fix it. NY, NY: Alfred A. Knopf.

[2]      Beckel, M., retrieved 4/21/21, “Outsized influence,” Issue One (https://www.issueone.org/wp-content/uploads/2021/04/Issue-One-Outsized-Influence-Report-final.pdf)

[3]      Business Roundtable, 8/19/19, “Statement on the Purpose of a Corporation,” https://system.businessroundtable.org/app/uploads/sites/5/2021/02/BRT-Statement-on-the-Purpose-of-a-Corporation-Feburary-2021-compressed.pdf

[4]      MacMillan, D., Whoriskey, P., & O’Connell, J., 12/16/20, “America’s biggest companies are flourishing during the pandemic and putting thousands of people out of work,” The Washington Post

OLIGARCHY OR DEMOCRACY: THE FINANCIAL INDUSTRY RULES OUR ECONOMY

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.

Robert Reich’s latest book, The System, presents his analysis of how our democracy is more like an oligarchy these days, how it got that way, and how to fix it. Oligarchy “refers to a government of and by a few exceedingly rich people or families who … have power … . Oligarchs may try to hide their power … . But no one should be fooled. Oligarchs wield power for their own benefit.” (pages 13-14) [1]

Reich identifies three major systemic changes that have occurred since 1980 that have shifted power, both economic and political, to a small group of very wealthy Americans. They are:

  • The shift of big corporations from stakeholder to shareholder capitalism (see this previous post for a summary of this shift),
  • The shift in bargaining power from unions to large employers and corporations (see this previous post for a summary of this shift), and
  • The shift in power in our economy and politics to the financial sector and Wall Street (see below).

The dramatic increase in power and influence of the financial sector and Wall Street began in the 1980s. It included two components:

  • The increased size and marketplace power of large financial corporations, and
  • The increased influence of these large financial corporations in our economy and politics.

The increased size and marketplace power of financial corporations, starting with banks, began in 1980 as the federal government began deregulating banking. After the financial crash of 1929, which was a significant contributor to the Great Depression, laws were enacted to prevent banks from crashing the financial system and the economy again. Laws and regulations banned banks from operating in more than one state and prohibited mergers of banks. A law named the Glass-Steagall Act separated consumer and commercial banking (i.e., taking deposits and making loans) from investment banking (i.e., making investments that were speculative with significant risks of losses).

In 1980, the ban on interstate banking and bank mergers was repealed and banks quickly began merging. This, of course, meant that there were fewer banks and bigger banks, and eventually we got the too-big-to-fail banks of 2008. As the banks and financial corporations increased in size and wealth, they also gained political power through campaign spending, lobbying, and the revolving door. The repeal of the Glass-Steagall Act under President Clinton in 1999 alone was the subject of $300 million of lobbying by the big financial corporations. Clinton’s Treasury Secretary from 1995 – 1999, by the way, was Robert Rubin, a former senior executive at Wall St. powerhouse Goldman Sachs, who returned to Wall St. at Citicorp in 1999.

Starting in the mid-1980s, federal regulators began easing the restrictions separating consumer and commercial banking (where customers’ deposits were insured by the federal government) from investment banking. The favorable policies and deregulation the financial sector was able to get led to the Savings and Loan crash of the late 1980s that cost taxpayers billions. The bursting of the dot.com stock market bubble and the collapse of various hedge funds were just bumps on the road to the huge financial collapse of 2008 which caused the Great Recession and cost homeowners trillions of dollars and taxpayers trillions more to rescue the too-big-to-fail financial institutions.

Between 1980 and 2008, $6.6 trillion in wealth was captured by the big financial corporations, sucked out of consumers and others, as the U.S. economy shifted from a focus on making things (i.e., manufacturing) to creating new, speculative financial instruments and from product entrepreneurship to financial entrepreneurship and vulture capitalism.

The big financial corporations’ control of our economy and politics was so profound that they, with an assist from their banker friends at the Federal Reserve, could tell President Clinton that he had to balance the federal budget and could not spend money on programs to benefit the American people as he had promised during his campaign. Today, the financial sector represents over 8% of our economy, while in the 1950s it was just 2.5% of the economy.

The big financial corporations made money funding corporate raiders and vulture capitalists. They made money aiding and abetting multi-national corporations as they moved jobs and facilities overseas, undermining U.S. workers. They made money providing debt to consumers on credit cards, student loans, and mortgages, while often not so secretly hoping that borrowers would fall behind on payments so they could collect big fees and escalated interest rates. Along the way, the financial corporations got bankruptcy laws written so that consumers could not escape mortgage or student debt in bankruptcy and had limited ability to reduce credit card debt. (Meanwhile, corporations can eliminate all debt and break contracts, including union contracts and retiree benefit contracts, when they file for bankruptcy and can be back on their feet in literally no time.)

The big financial corporations fueled the dramatic rise in home values – the average home cost $64,600 in 1980 and $246,500 in 2006 – by handing out more and more mortgages on more and more risk terms. They knew that the default rate on these riskier mortgages would be higher and, in some cases, very high because they made some of these loans using fraudulent lending practices. Nonetheless, they continued to sell securities backed by these mortgages as low risk investments.

In 2008, when homeowners started to default on their risky and sometimes fraudulent loans, the whole financial system built around these mortgages and securities based on them collapsed. This caused a collapse in home prices, causing many more homeowners to default on their mortgages. Millions of homeowners lost their homes and, as a result in many cases, lost all their savings – to the tune of trillions of dollars.

The federal government and we, the taxpayers, bailed out the too-big-to-fail financial institutions to the tune of trillions of dollars. For example, the financial giant Citigroup (parent of Citicorp and Citibank) received $45 billion in cash and a guarantee against any loss in value for an additional $300 billion of speculative investments.

The shift of wealth to the big financial corporations and their executives and traders (i.e., their high stakes gamblers using speculative financial instruments) has exacerbated economic inequality in America. For example, the typical bonus paid on Wall Street in 2020 was $184,000 and the total bonus pool was $31.7 billion for the roughly 170,000 people receiving bonuses. [2]

Huge and wealthy companies, as well as their extremely wealthy executives and shareholders, are a threat to workers, our economy, and our democracy. Policies that were put in place as part of the New Deal in the 1930s maintained a balance in our economy, including a reasonable level of economic inequality, and protected our democracy from oligarchy. Since 1980, these policies have been changed, economic and political power has shifted, and we are suffering for it. We need to reinstitute policies similar to those of the New Deal to preserve our democratic principles of equal opportunity and promotion of the general welfare.

The bottom line of Reich’s book is that, as Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis (1916-1939) said, “We must make our choice. We may have democracy, or we may have wealth concentrated in the hands of a few, but we can’t have both.” Similarly, H.D. Lloyd, in his 1894 book, Wealth against Commonwealth, wrote, “Liberty produces wealth, and wealth destroys liberty.”

I urge you to read Reich’s book and/or check out his writing and videos at https://robertreich.org/ and/or https://www.inequalitymedia.org/. His analysis of the current economic and political landscape is always insightful and clear, and often entertaining as well.

[1]      Reich, R.B., 2020, The System: Who rigged it, how we fix it. NY, NY: Alfred A. Knopf.

[2]      Surane, J., 3/26/21, “Wall Street bonuses rose 10% in 2020, N.Y. Comptroller says,” Bloomberg News (https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2021-03-26/wall-street-bonuses-rose-10-last-year-n-y-comptroller-says)

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/)

OLIGARCHY OR DEMOCRACY: CORPORATIONS VS. 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.

Robert Reich’s latest book, The System, presents his analysis of how our democracy is more like an oligarchy these days, how it got that way, and how to fix it. Oligarchy “refers to a government of and by a few exceedingly rich people or families who … have power … . Oligarchs may try to hide their power … . But no one should be fooled. Oligarchs wield power for their own benefit.” (page 13-14) [1]

Reich identifies three major systemic changes that have occurred since 1980 that have shifted power, both economic and political, to a small group of very wealthy Americans. They are:

  • The shift of big corporations from stakeholder to shareholder capitalism (see my previous post for a summary of this change),
  • The shift in bargaining power from unions to large employers and corporations (see below), and
  • The shift in power in our economy and politics to the financial sector and Wall Street.

The shift in power from workers and their unions to large employers and corporations began in the 1980s. It included three components:

  • The increased size and marketplace power of corporations,
  • The increased influence of large corporations and employers in policy making, and
  • The weakening of the power of workers and their unions.

The increased size, marketplace power, and political influence of corporations has occurred in large part because the federal government has, starting in the 1980s under President Reagan, basically abandoned enforcement of anti-trust laws limiting mergers and acquisitions. As a result, two-thirds of the business sectors of our economy have become more concentrated since the 1980s. This means that ever larger corporations have gained monopolistic power, allowing them to raise prices or reduce customer service or quality without losing business to the competition, because there is little or no competition in many local markets.

The resultant large companies have the resources to engage in extensive political activity including lobbying, making sizable campaign donations and expenditures, and moving employees through the revolving door to positions in government (and often back again). This has provided them with substantial political power and influence.

Because payroll costs are typically 70% of a business’s costs, reducing personnel costs is the quickest way to increase profits and share prices, the goals of shareholder capitalism. The increased size and reduced number of employers inherently suppress worker pay by leaving workers fewer choices of whom to work for in many locales. This means there is less competition among employers in hiring workers, and therefore less need to increase pay or benefits to attract workers.

On the policy front, a central focus of large companies’ political influence has been on undermining and weakening enforcement of laws supporting unionized workers. In addition, relaxed laws governing international trade have allowed employers to shift jobs overseas to cheaper labor markets. Finally, a bankruptcy filing, a technique frequently used by vulture capitalists (i.e., private equity investors and corporate raiders), allows employers to void union contracts, as well as benefits for retirees. Simply the threat of bankruptcy has become enough to get unions and workers to agree to cuts in pay and benefits. All of these factors mean that large employers have gained the ability to undermine and eliminate unionized workers, as well as to block the formation of new unions.

As a result, unionization of private sector U.S. workers has dropped precipitously from 35% in the 1950s to 6% today. Reduced unionization leaves employees with less power to bargain for good pay and benefits. It also means employers are able to effectively require workers to agree to disadvantageous employment conditions such as signing agreements prohibiting them from working for a competitor (i.e., non-compete agreements) and agreeing to engage in arbitration rather than going to court with a lawsuit when mistreatment or other grievances occur. Moreover, the economy-wide boost to pay and benefits due to employers having to compete against unionized jobs to attract workers, has effectively disappeared as unionization has dropped to today’s very low levels.

In addition, large employers have gotten states to enact so-called “right-to-work” laws. These laws allow workers at a unionized workplace to refuse to pay union dues, even though they benefit from the union’s negotiation of pay, benefits, working conditions, and grievance procedures. This undermines the financial resources and bargaining power of unions.

The increased size and reduced number of businesses has increased corporate profits and economic inequality. It has also stifled innovation as large companies block access to customers for newer companies and buy up smaller companies that are seen as threats to their monopolistic dominance. The rate of new business formation today is half of what it was in 1980.

The economic result is that today a greater share of businesses’ income goes to profits and a smaller share to workers’ compensation than at any time since World War II.

The societal result is that workers are economically insecure, frustrated, and angry. Therefore, they are susceptible to demagogues like Donald Trump selling racism, xenophobia, and oligarchic authoritarianism as the solution to their insecurity and anger.

The declining value of the minimum wage since 1968 is indicative of the decline of workers’ power and compensation. Increasing the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour in 2025, as is currently being proposed in Congress, would be a step in the right direction but would still not give workers the full value of their increases in productivity. Using 1968 as the reference point, today’s current federal minimum wage of $7.25 would be roughly:

  • $11.00 if it had kept up with inflation. (In other words, the minimum wage today has roughly 1/3 less purchasing power than it had in 1968.)
  • $22.00 if it had kept up with the increases in workers’ productivity, i.e., the increases in the value of the output of today’s workers over those in 1968. Instead, this increased value is going to profits and shareholders. [2]

I will summarize Reich’s book’s description of the shift in power in our economy and politics to the financial sector and Wall Street, the last of his three big systemic changes, in a subsequent post.

In the meantime, I urge you to read Reich’s book or check out his writing and videos at https://robertreich.org/ and/or https://www.inequalitymedia.org/. His analysis of the current economic and political landscape is always insightful and clear, and often entertaining as well.

[1]      Reich, R.B., 2020, The System: Who rigged it, how we fix it. NY, NY: Alfred A. Knopf.

[2]      Lee, T.M., 2/25/21, “Our deeply broken labor market needs a higher minimum wage,” Economic Policy Institute (https://www.epi.org/publication/our-deeply-broken-labor-market-needs-a-higher-minimum-wage-epi-testimony-for-the-senate-budget-committee/)

OLIGARCHY OR DEMOCRACY: THE SYSTEM BY ROBERT REICH

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.

Robert Reich’s latest book, The System: Who rigged it, how we fix it, presents his pointed, insightful, and relatively succinct analysis of how our democracy is more like an oligarchy these days, how it got that way, and how to get back to democracy. 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 over other people’s lives. Oligarchs may try to hide their power behind those institutions, or … through philanthropy and ‘corporate social responsibility.’ But no one should be fooled. Oligarchs wield power for their own benefit.” (page 13-14) [1]

Reich identifies three major systemic changes that have occurred since 1980 that have shifted power, both economic and political, to a small group of very wealthy Americans. They are:

  • The shift of big corporations from stakeholder to shareholder capitalism,
  • The shift in bargaining power from unions to large employers and corporations, and
  • The shift in power in our economy and politics to the financial sector and Wall Street.

The shift of big corporations from stakeholder to shareholder capitalism began in the 1980s with “corporate raiders,” who were wealthy investors who would buy enough shares of a corporation’s stock to force the Chief Executive Officer (CEO) to make changes to increase the stock price or lose his job due to the raider taking control of the Board of Directors in what was called a hostile takeover. There were 13 hostile takeovers in the 1970s of corporations worth over $1 billion; there were 150 in the 1980s.

In addition, financial entrepreneurs or engineers, as they were referred to then and who more recently have been labeled vulture capitalists, developed the leveraged buyout technique that has been widely adopted by private equity funds. This technique, made possible by our tax and financial laws and regulations, allows the “investor” to borrow the huge sums of money needed to buy a corporation and then put the debt and risk on the corporation that was purchased, while receiving favorable tax treatment for the huge interest payments on the debt. In the 1980s, there were more than 2,000 leveraged buyouts of corporations worth over $250 million.

During the 1980s and 1990s, almost one out of every four U.S. corporations was the target of a hostile takeover and another quarter were the target of a takeover that was not deemed hostile because the CEO supported it (sometimes reluctantly).

As a result of all of this, CEOs shifted to focusing solely on maximizing the short-term price of the corporation’s stock and, therefore, the wealth of shareholders. Previously, the CEO’s job had been seen as having responsibility to a range of stakeholders, including employees, customers, the communities employees lived in, and the public, in addition to shareholders.

This shift from stakeholder to shareholder capitalism could not have occurred without tax and financial laws and regulations that allowed it or without lax enforcement of laws and regulations that could have stopped it. Some laws and regulations were changed to allow the corporate raiders’ practices. President Reagan’s administration in the 1980s failed to take enforcement actions that could have stopped or slowed corporate raiders and leverage buyouts, such as enforcement of anti-trust laws or a crackdown on large, risky loans by federally regulated and insured banks. Furthermore, the Reagan administration testified before Congress in opposition to laws that would have curbed the practices used by the corporate raiders.

Starting in the 1970s and growing in the 1980s, academic economists including Milton Friedman (University of Chicago) and Michael Jensen (Harvard Business School) gave academic and theoretical support to the takeovers (and threatened takeovers), asserting that they were increasing economic efficiency. They ignored the costs to workers and communities, focusing narrowly on the corporation, its profits, and its stock price. In other words, their focus was benefits to stockholders while ignoring costs to other stakeholders.

As a result, the mantra for CEOs, the business community, and many economists has become that the sole purpose of the corporation and its management is to maximize shareholder value at the expense of any and all other stakeholders.

Under the shift to shareholder capitalism, the “efficiency” gains go to shareholders, who are generally wealthy investors (including CEOs), while other stakeholders suffer the costs and burdens. This “efficiency” ignores any acknowledgement of a broader common good or the general welfare (which the preamble to the Constitution says our country was created to promote).

I will summarize Reich’s book’s description of the other two big systemic changes in subsequent posts:

  • The shift in bargaining power from unions to large employers and corporations, and
  • The shift in power in our economy and politics to the financial sector and Wall Street.

In the meantime, I urge you to read Reich’s book or check out his writing and videos at https://robertreich.org/ and/or https://www.inequalitymedia.org/. His analysis of the current economic and political landscape is always insightful and clear, and often entertaining as well.

[1]      Reich, R.B., 2020, The System: Who rigged it, how we fix it. NY, NY: Alfred A. Knopf.

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.

CRACKING DOWN ON CORPORATE CORRUPTION AND SHELL COMPANIES

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.

There’s a piece of very good news in the battle against corporate corruption and the use of shell companies to engage in criminal and unsavory activity. You may recall the defense spending bill, called the National Defense Authorization Act, that Congress passed last December and then, on New Year’s Day, overrode President Trump’s veto of it. (Trump vetoed it because it renames military bases currently named for Confederate generals and because it doesn’t repeal the liability protection for social media platforms when third parties post offensive or libelous material.) Given that it was one of a very few pieces of legislation actual passed by Congress, a number of unrelated items (called riders) were attached to it as the only way to get them passed.

One of the riders attached to the recent defense spending bill was the Corporate Transparency Act (CTA), which will significantly inhibit the use of shell companies for money laundering and other illegal or unsavory activities. A shell company is a legal entity established without any actual business operation or significant assets that is typically used to obscure ownership and hide financial transactions from law enforcement and/or the public. The CTA is the most significant financial industry reform addressing money laundering since the Patriot Act, which was passed after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. [1]

The CTA will require a company to disclose the names of its owners, i.e., anyone with a 25% or greater ownership share or who exercises substantial control over the company. This information will be in a confidential registry maintained by the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (FinCEN) at the U.S. Treasury Department. FinCEN captures and analyzes financial transactions in order to combat money laundering, terrorism financing, drug trafficking, and other illegal activity. Its data is available only to law enforcement and to financial institutions (that use it to scrutinize the entities involved in financial transactions). The CTA also increases penalties for money laundering, streamlines cooperation among banks and foreign law enforcement, and significantly expands the rewards for whistleblowers, allowing them to receive up to 30% of money seized by law enforcement. [2]

The CTA responded to a decade of disclosures of the abusive uses of shell companies led by the reporting of the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ). The ICIJ has repeatedly documented how criminals and the rich have used shell companies to hide their wealth and move their money. It investigated and reported on the use of shell companies based on the leaked Panama Papers in 2016, the 2017 Paradise Papers leak, and its Secrecy for Sale project, which began in 2012 and continues to today. ICIJ reporting has disclosed that Delaware, Wyoming, and Nevada are favorite locations to set up shell companies, in addition to offshore tax havens. [3] Its analysis in 2020 of leaked FinCEN reports of suspicious financial transactions identified shell companies transferring money through U.S. banks for criminals in Russia, China, Iran, and Syria.

ICIJ’s reporting has made it clear that the U.S. has been the country of choice for criminals and wealthy individuals to set up anonymous shell companies that, in addition to tax evasion, have facilitated bribery and other illegal payoff schemes, as well as money laundering for terrorism, political corruption, and a variety of criminal enterprises including drug, arms, and human trafficking.

The U.S. political system is a swamp of money and increasingly the true sources of political contributions and campaign spending are hidden, a trend exacerbated by the use of shell companies. While it is illegal for foreign individuals or entities to contribute to U.S. campaigns, a shell company makes the true source of campaign spending anonymous. Therefore, it is highly likely that illegal foreign money has been going into U.S. political campaigns via shell companies.

The Trump campaign created a shell company, American Made Media Consultants, that spent more than $759 million of Trump’s campaign funds (over 50% of the campaign’s spending). This obscured the flow of money including who was paid when and how much. Nonetheless, it is clear that at least eight individuals who were paid by the Trump campaign were also paid in connection with the January 6, 2021, rally that led to the storming of the Capitol. [4] Previously, Trump had personally used shell companies, including to pay off Stormy Daniels, the pornography actress who says Trump had an affair with her. [5]

The Corporate Transparency Act is an important step forward in increasing the transparency of financial transactions. It will, among other things, reduce corporate and political corruption, inhibit criminal and terrorism finances, and reduce tax evasion. This is a good step but there’s lots more to do, such as strengthening prosecution of white-collar crime. More on that in a future post.

[1]      Talking Points, 1/11/20, “New law cracks down on shell companies to combat corruption,” The Boston Globe from the Associated Press

[2]      Cox Richardson, H., 12/27/20, “Letters from an American blog,” (https://heathercoxrichardson.substack.com/p/december-27-2020)

[3]      Mustufa, A., 12/11/20, “Advocates celebrate major US anti-money laundering victory,” International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (https://www.icij.org/investigations/paradise-papers/advocates-celebrate-major-us-anti-money-laundering-victory/)

[4]      Massoglia, A., 1/22/21, “Shell companies and ‘dark money’ may hide details of Trump ties to DC protests,” Center for Responsive Politics (https://www.opensecrets.org/news/2021/01/trump-tied-to-dc-protests-dark-money-and-shell-companies/)

[5]      Cox Richardson, H., 12/27/20, see above

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)

EXAMPLES OF CORRUPT CAPITALISTIC BEHAVIOR Part 4

Here are eight recent examples of corporate corruption and of the overall corruption of our current system of capitalism, in which a lack of regulation of large corporations and Wall Street allows greed to run rampant. The frequency of these incidents is astounding; they are reported on a daily basis. The varied examples below document a breadth of greed-driven corruption that puts lives in danger, destroys news reporting that is essential to a well-functioning democracy, and makes the stock market vulnerable to manipulation and our financial system vulnerable to criminal money laundering. (This previous post highlighted three other examples of corrupt capitalistic behavior.)

Example #1: The power outage in Texas has dramatically illustrated what happens when the private sector is not properly regulated. This is, of course, particularly important when we rely on the private sector to deliver a vital public service (e.g., electricity or water) or an essential public product (e.g., health care supplies or food). In Texas, the private electric power generation companies and the private electric grid manager decided in the 1930s to avoid federal regulation by refusing to participate in the national power grid. Then, they got Texas regulators to let them cut corners to maximize profits. The result is an electric power system that doesn’t have the capacity to respond in an emergency and, therefore, left millions of people in the dark and cold, jeopardizing their health, safety, and, indeed, their lives, during a recent mid-February cold snap. [1]

Example #2: The wild fluctuations in GameStop stock, a small, previously little-known company, have focused attention on weaknesses in the regulation of the stock market and of the companies that facilitate stock trading. GameStop stock shot up from $4 to $5 a share in August to $20 in mid-January to $483 in late January. It then fell back to $41 by mid-February. This roller coaster ride has highlighted the risks and often unfair environment that individual investors face in the stock market, which is dominated by sophisticated, powerful, and wealthy traders, who too often are further advantaged by access to inside, non-public information. [2]

Example #3: Three big drug distributors (Cardinal Health, AmerisourceBergen, and McKesson) and Johnson & Johnson are paying big fines (a total of $26 billion) as part of the settlement for fraudulently marketing and selling opioids, which led to drug addictions, overdoses, and tens of thousands of deaths. However, they are deducting these fines from their taxes, reducing what they owe the government by a combined $4.6 billion. Under the settlement, the four companies will avoid having to admit to any guilt, wrongdoing, or legal responsibility. Many people involved with this case feel that the fines are too low based on the damage that was done and that the tax deductions and the lack of any admission of guilt are insulting to the victims. [3]

Example #4: Tribune Publishing, one of the last newspaper chains not already owned and gutted by private equity or hedge fund vulture capitalists, is being bought by the Alden Global Capital (AGC) hedge fund. AGC, along with other vulture capital newspaper purchasers, has consistently maximized financial returns by cutting the newspapers’ staffs, selling their real estate, busting their unions, and eliminating their pension liabilities, while pocketing as much cash as possible and loading debt onto the newspaper companies, often pushing them toward bankruptcy. The Tribune papers that will almost certainly be similarly decimated are in Chicago, Baltimore, Hartford, Orlando FL, New York (the Daily News), Annapolis, Allentown, Newport News, and Norfolk VA. AGC now owns over 200 newspapers. This purchase (and the others like it) is possible because of a lack of antitrust enforcement and special tax law provisions that favor debt-financed acquisitions and payment of special dividends from companies operating at a loss. [4]

Example #5: An investor lawsuit against Boeing is moving forward based on claims that the Board of Directors and management failed to uphold their responsibilities to shareholders relative to the safety issues and crashes of the 737 Max airplanes. Two of the planes crashed in the spring of 2019 killing 346 people. The suit questions the Board’s and management’s roles both in the initial testing of the plane and its software, and their actions after the crash of the first plane, when they decided not to ground all the 737 Max planes. Boeing has already agreed to pay more than $2.5 billion to resolve criminal charges that it conspired to defraud the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) during the plane’s safety review and certification. The Board did fire Boeing’s CEO in 2020, but gave him a $62 million severance package. [5]

Example #6: Bristol-Myers Squibb and Sanofi, who jointly market the blood-thinning drug Plavix, were ordered by a judge to pay the State of Hawaii over $834 million for illegally marketing the drug. For 12 years, they failed to properly warn consumers about health risks and didn’t disclose that the drug was ineffective for up to 30% of users, both of which put some users’ lives at risk. They engaged in these practices in order to maximize their profits. [6]

Example #7: Google has agreed to pay a $1.3 million fine to French fraud and competition regulators for displaying misleading rankings for French hotels on Google Maps and in Search results. [7]

Example #8: Citigroup, parent of Citibank, was fined $400 million for deficient financial controls and related technology. In an ironic example of its lack of controls, Citibank, in what it says was a mistake, transferred over $500 million to a client’s lenders while intending to make a much smaller interest payment. A judge recently ruled that the lenders do not have to return the money. [8]

[1]      Cox Richardson, H., 2/16/21, “Letters from an American blog,” (https://heathercoxrichardson.substack.com/p/february-16-2021)

[2]      Rosen, A., 2/18/21, “Mass. Investor ‘Roaring Kitty’ says he wasn’t part of any coordinated effort to boost GameStop,” The Boston Globe

[3]      MacMillan, D., & Schaul, K., 2/12/21, “Drug companies seek billion-dollar deductions from opioid settlement,” The Washington Post

[4]      Kuttner, R., 2/17/21, “Private equity swallows up yet another newspaper group,” The American Prospect blog (https://prospect.org/blogs/tap/private-equity-swallows-up-yet-another-newspaper-group/)

[5]      MacMillan, D., 2/17/21, “Boeing directors misled on safety, investor lawsuit claims,” The Boston Globe from the Washington Post

[6]      Bloomberg News, 2/16/21, “Bristol-Myers, Sanofi must pay $834 million over Plavix,” The Boston Globe Talking Points

[7]      Associated Press, 2/16/21, “Google fined $1.3M for misleading French hotel rankings,” The Boston Globe Talking Points

[8]      Bloomberg News, 2/17/21, “Citigroup loses $500 million legal battle over transfer blunder,” The Boston Globe Talking Points

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

POLICIES FOR UNIFYING AMERICA

Unifying America requires economic security and equal opportunity for all. If one’s choices in life (i.e., one’s liberty and freedom) are constrained by an unfair criminal justice system or unaffordable necessities of life such as food, shelter, health care, and education, the result will be anger, frustration, and divisiveness. The fear and stress of economic insecurity, especially the loss of economic security one thought one had, make people susceptible to demagoguery and manipulation.

Among the public, there is strong bipartisan support for policies that support the well-being of all Americans and of our democracy. Most Americans actually agree on the problems we face and the solutions for them, so long as politicians do not make them partisan issues. This can be seen in the strong support President Biden is getting for his executive actions and his push for a strong pandemic relief bill, which will support the general welfare, i.e., the well-being of all Americans. (See my previous post for more detail on these.) Beyond these immediate steps, there are other policies that are needed to unify Americans by moving toward the aspirations of our democracy for liberty, justice, and equal opportunity for all.

Unity requires fair and even-handed accountability based on the rule of law. Ignoring violations of the law and “moving on” without accountability is unfair and divisive because it means some people are not held to the same standard of accountability as others are. Unity is not achieved by turning a blind eye to sedition, insurrection, and domestic terrorism (see my earlier post on this topic) or to other criminal behavior. If accountability does not make clear what is unacceptable behavior in our society, lawlessness and anarchy will be the result. Pardons of criminal behavior by allies are antithetical to the rule of law and accountability.

Accountability for white collar crimes is an essential part of achieving unity. When employers’ violations of labor laws (e.g., on pay, union organizing, and safe working conditions), when insider trading and financial manipulation on Wall Street, when corporate pollution and unsafe products, when conflicts of interest and self-dealing by government officials, and so forth are not punished, our criminal justice system is unfair and will be viewed, accurately, as biased. Lax enforcement of the law for certain types of crimes or criminals creates disunity, not unity.

Unity in our democracy means allowing and encouraging every citizen to vote and giving each vote equal impact. The suppression of voting, particularly when targeted at certain groups, is antithetical to our democracy’s promise of equality for all. Voting should be easy and convenient in terms of the places and times for voting. Early voting and mail-in voting (including drop boxes for mail-in ballots) should be broadly and easily available. Efforts to restrict voting do not promote unity. Onerous identification requirements for voters are voter suppression; there is absolutely no evidence of any voter fraud, except very occasional, isolated, local incidents that ID requirements typically would not address. Gerrymandering of districts for state and federal offices reduces the impact of some voters’ votes and has no place in our democracy; it fosters divisiveness, not unity. The standard of one person, one vote, means that each vote should have as equal an impact as possible.

Unity requires acknowledgement and healing of the effects of the deep and long-standing racism in our country. Racism and white supremacy are key components of our current disunity and of the heightened focus on the Confederate flag and Confederate statues and symbols.

The failure to hold the leaders of the Confederacy accountable after the Civil War and the “moving on” that let them resume control of state and local governments in the South was devastating to African-Americans.  It resulted in Jim Crow laws and a racist criminal “justice” system that subjugated the supposedly emancipated African-Americans after the Civil War. This failure to demand accountability led directly to the racism in our society today. Racism has been used politically by the Republican Party since Nixon’s Southern Strategy in 1968 and it exploded with Donald Trump and his presidency and takeover of the Republican Party. Our society’s racism has been aided and abetted by many Democrats and non-partisans, as well, over many years.

In the late 1700s, equal opportunity and “all men are created equal” applied only to white men with property. Over the past 230 years, the United States has slowly and fitfully moved toward its aspirational vision of equal opportunity for all people, regardless of race, ethnicity, country of origin, gender and gender identity, religion, and other characteristics. But we still have a long way to go. Our democracy’s vision has been and is undermined by intolerant white men and other white people who fail to realize or accept that it requires extending rights and equality to everyone – liberty, justice, and equal opportunity for ALL. [1]

America needs a Truth and Reconciliation Commission along the lines of what South Africa did to end apartheid and what Canada has done to address its treatment of its native populations. We must acknowledge the harm done and implement restorative justice for both Blacks and Native Americans. We need to act aggressively now to stop current discrimination, while pursuing a serious, in-depth examination of what has transpired and how to achieve justice.

On these issues and many others, unifying America requires that Congress, state legislators, and our political parties work together on policies that are in the public interest and support the well-being of all Americans. Obstructionism must end. It is anti-democratic and divisive. Ideas and policy proposals need to be considered based on whether they are fair and good for the general welfare, not whether they are Democratic or Republican. Decisions need to be made based on whether they move our society toward the aspirational vision of our democracy, not based on some politicizing label someone may try to attach to them or to a proposed solution.

Polling of the public can provide important guidance on what people want, but true leadership by our elected officials is also needed. There’s strong evidence from polling and elsewhere that people want:

  • Health care for all and reduced drug prices;
  • Serious actions to address climate change;
  • Steps to reduce gun violence;
  • Wealthy individuals and corporations to pay their fair share of taxes and other steps to reduce economic inequality;
  • An end to special interest influence on policy making through campaign spending, lobbying, and the revolving door;
  • Actions to increase economic security, including increasing the minimum wage and addressing housing and food insecurity;
  • Improvements to our education systems: affordable higher education; affordable, universal, high quality early education and child care; and equity and quality in K-12 education; and
  • Strong enforcement of antitrust laws to reduce the monopolistic marketplace power of large corporations as well as the undemocratic concentration of economic and political power they hold.

President Biden is taking actions that are unifying America. He is making all Americans feel like the government is doing something good for them, for the good of our country, and not just for special interests and wealthy individuals and corporations. Biden has stated repeatedly that he will work for the good of all Americans whether they voted for him or not, and that he will reach out for sincere bipartisanship. This rhetoric and these actions are essential if we want unity.

People calling for unity are being hypocritical if they aren’t committed to honestly working toward the vision of our democracy and our Constitution for liberty, justice, and equal opportunity for all. Without such a commitment, both in action and in rhetoric, there can be no unity. Our aspirational principles and ideals are what make our democratic republic exceptional. To work toward unity and achieving our democracy’s goals, we and our elected leaders must undertake an honest search for the common good, common ground, and how to best to promote the general welfare via government of, by, and for all the people.

[1]      Baptiste, N., Jan.-Feb. 2021,  “Trump lost. But racism will probably win again,” Mother Jones  (https://www.motherjones.com/politics/2020/12/trump-lost-but-racism-will-probably-win-again/)

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.

POLICIES FOR UNITY, i.e., FOR LIBERTY, JUSTICE, AND EQUAL OPPORTUNITY FOR ALL

What unites all truly patriotic Americans are the promises of our democracy: liberty, justice, and equal opportunity for all. These aspirational principles and ideals are what make our democratic republic exceptional. (See my previous post for more detail.) To work toward unity and achieving our democracy’s goals, we and our elected leaders must undertake an honest search for the common good, common ground, and how to best promote the general welfare via government of, by, and for all the people.

Unity requires economic security and equal opportunity for all, so one’s choices in life (i.e., one’s liberty and freedom) are not constrained by economic deprivation or unaffordable necessities of life such as food, shelter, health care, and education. Unity means equal opportunity for all, particularly for every child. This is what valuing families or “family values” should mean to all of us.

We can’t have unity when a million people a week are requesting unemployment benefits and millions are struggling to put food on the table and avoid eviction, while 660 billionaires have added $1.1 trillion (an average of $1.7 billion each) to their wealth since March.

Unity requires adherence to facts and a commitment to seeking and promoting truth. Without this, there is no common ground on which to formulate policies and make decisions. Unity requires acknowledging the results of the 2020 election and stating that they were legitimate and fair. The media must stop promoting false equivalencies – of truth with untruth and alternative “facts” (which aren’t facts, of course) – and either ignore or prominently label false narratives and statements as such. A return to the Fairness Doctrine governing broadcast media (TV and radio), which was repealed in 1987, should be considered to require those using the public airwaves (which requires a public license) to present information on issues of public importance and to do so honestly, equitably, and in a balanced manner. Similar regulation of social and cable media should also be explored.

Unity requires a fair and unbiased application of the rule of law. Everyone must be held accountable to the same set of legal standards or a society cannot function; it would be riven with divisiveness and fighting among factions. Violent protesters of all stripes need to face equal justice and those who aided and abetted violent protests must be held accountable under the law as well. There needs to be acknowledgement of racial bias and harm. Then, there needs to be restorative justice if unity is to be achieved.

Unity requires our elected officials to work together in good faith to promote the general welfare. Certainly, there will be differences of opinion, but they must be resolved through good faith negotiations and compromise. Obstructionism is antithetical to unity.

Hypocrisy is also antithetical to unity. Different standards or principles cannot be applied in the same or similar situations. There are too many examples of this in our politics and society today to do justice to them all, but examples include:

  • Condemning violence against police that occurs in demonstrations for racial justice but not when it occurs in an insurrection targeted at stopping the democratic transition of power.
  • Blocking the confirmation of a Supreme Court justice nine months before the end of a Democratic president’s term but confirming a Republican President’s nominee on short notice just three months before the end of his term.
  • Opposing deficit spending when proposed by Democrats to help working Americans but not when proposed by Republicans to cut taxes on wealthy individuals and corporations.

Here are some specific, largely short-term, actions and policies our elected leaders must embrace if they truly wish to strive for unity:

  • President Biden’s appointees must be approved in a timely fashion, with appropriate oversight of course. This applies to Cabinet members, other executive branch positions, and to judges.
  • Financial assistance must be provided to working Americans. Over 1 million workers are still applying for unemployment each week. The economy has not rebounded to the point where emergency assistance is no longer needed; millions of families are facing hunger and homelessness. Additional direct financial assistance is needed, as Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen, among many others, has stated. Furthermore, unemployment benefits need to be extended and enhanced and the minimum wage needs to be raised – for those who have jobs and those re-entering the workforce.
  • For workers doing face-to-face work, their safety must be assured. Strong, enforceable and enforced safety standards are a necessity.
  • Financial assistance must be provided to small businesses. Thousands of small businesses have gone out of business and thousands more are on the verge of doing so. Financial supports for large corporations through Federal Reserve and Treasury programs that operate largely out of the public eye have been very generous (trillions of dollars) and very successful. This is evidenced by the fact that the stock markets are at all-time highs, believe it or not, despite the struggles of small businesses and working Americans.
  • Funding is needed for COVID vaccinations. Money is needed for distribution of the vaccines and to help financially strapped states and communities implement vaccination programs. The quicker and more effective the rollout of vaccinations, the greater the number of lives that will be saved and of illnesses that will be prevented. The Federal Reserve and others have also noted the importance of vaccinations to the recovery of the economy.
  • Financial assistance is needed for state and local governments, as they have seen their revenue fall dramatically and their costs increase with the pandemic. Without this 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.
  • Criminal justice system reform must be undertaken aggressively. Racism needs to be eliminated from all components of the system. Police need strong national standards and oversight on the use of force and racism. The school (and even preschool) to prison pipeline needs to be ended and more appropriate interventions and discipline instituted. Mental health services need to be made available to children, youth, and adults instead of throwing these problems to the criminal justice system. Prosecution and sentencing need to fair and the use of restorative justice needs to be expanded. Rehabilitation and successful re-entry to society need to be the focus of imprisonment, probation, and parole.

President Biden’s Executive Orders are beginning to address many of these issues. They are promoting unity (despite claims otherwise by some Republicans) because they are implementing policies that most Americans support, but which haven’t made it through Congress due to partisanship. For example, 83% of Americans support a ban on workplace discrimination based on sexual identification, 77% want the government to promote racial equity, 75% support the government requiring masks on federal property, and 68% support the continued suspension of federal student loan repayments. A majority of Americans support rejoining the World Health Organization and the Paris climate accords. [1]

People calling for unity are hypocrites unless they are committed to honestly working toward the vision of our democracy and our Constitution for liberty, justice, and equal opportunity for all or, in other words, for promotion of the general welfare. Without such a commitment, there can be no unity.

My next post will highlight more specific and longer-term policies that will promote unity and our shared vision of liberty, justice, and equal opportunity for all.

[1]      Richardson, H.C., 1/29/21, Letters from an American blog post,” (https://heathercoxrichardson.substack.com/p/january-29-2021)

UNIFYING AMERICA

We do need to unify America, both among the public and our policy makers, particularly our partisan Members of Congress. However, there are some people whose minds are like concrete, thoroughly mixed and permanently set – often based on false information – who cannot be convinced to share in a unified vision of America. We will need to ignore them at times and at other times to counter their destructive messages and acts.

What we have that truly unites us all are the promises of our democracy: its principles and ideals of liberty, justice, and equal opportunity for all. As the preamble to Constitution states, the United States of America was formed to create “a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity.”

These principles and ideals are what make our democratic republic exceptional – not what was actually established in 1789, not what it looks like today, and not what it has been at any time in between. The aspiration to achieve this vision is what is exceptional and we have struggled to live up to it to this day.

There is great diversity in America – which can and should be one of our strengths – and significant differences of opinion on how to achieve the promises of our democracy. We need to approach these differences rationally and collegially, with an eye on the overarching vision.

To unify America, we need a unity of purpose, driven by our vision for our democracy, and to be delivered by government of, by, and for all the people. Unifying America requires an honest search for the common good, common ground, and how to best to “promote the general welfare”. Loyal opposition is fine but not destructive opposition, not obstructionism, nor radical revolutionaries trying to tear down our democratic institutions and processes.

In today’s economy and society, we need to reconceptualize the commitments to liberty, freedom, and the promotion of the general welfare. President Franklin D. Roosevelt (FDR) in his State of the Union Address in 1944 argued that the “political rights” guaranteed by the Constitution and the Bill of Rights had “proved inadequate to assure us equality in the pursuit of happiness”. FDR proposed an “economic bill of rights” to guarantee equal opportunity and freedom from want that included the:

  • Right to a job and a fair income that could support a family,
  • Right to a decent home,
  • Right to health care and health,
  • Right to social security in old age, sickness, unemployment, and injury,
  • Right to a good education, and
  • Freedom from unfair competition and domination by monopolies.

To unify America, we need to work toward liberty and freedom for all built on economic security and equal opportunity so one’s choices (i.e., one’s liberty and freedom) in life are not constrained by poverty, economic deprivation, or unaffordable necessities of life such as food, shelter, health care, and education.

To ensure liberty and freedom for all in our new democratic republic, the Bill of Rights, the first ten amendments to the Constitution, was adopted in 1791. These rights remain critically important. However, we need to review the implementation of some of them in light of current technology and current politics.

On freedom of speech, we need to figure out how to regulate free speech on social media; to figure out what is the social media equivalent of yelling “FIRE” in the middle of a crowded theater. Recent events have made it clear that unbridled free speech on social media has contributed to violence and terrorism (i.e., speech that puts people in fear or psychological distress). In addition, social media have contributed to the dissemination of harmful misinformation. How to appropriately control speech on social media – allowing robust speech and conversations while limiting harm – is something we need to figure out.

Freedom of speech in our democracy, where all people are promised equality, means giving equal volume to every voice in America. Giving a bullhorn to those with money and a muzzle to those without money is antithetical to our vision for American democracy. Current legal interpretations equate spending money with free speech, including spending by corporations (not just spending by human beings). This needs to be reconsidered if we want to unify America.

Freedom of religion was meant to allow each individual to practice his or her own religion without the government dictating what an individual could believe or practice. Today, legal interpretations have gone beyond this and, for example, given employers the right to deny contraceptives and other health care to women because of the employer’s religious beliefs. Legal interpretations have also given health care provider institutions and individuals, who are licensed by the government, the right to deny both services and information to patients based on the provider’s religious beliefs. If we want to unify America, freedom of religion should not impede an individual’s right to make decisions with full information and with all choices available to her or him. Individual’s choices should not be dictated or constrained by others’ religious beliefs.

Justice for all means that everyone’s treatment in our society and justice system should be equal and fair, and that the rule of law should be applied fairly and equally to everyone. Anyone and everyone who violates the law must be held accountable. If some people are allowed to violate the law with impunity and others are prosecuted and punished, there won’t be unity. A dramatic, historical example is that after the Civil War we failed to hold the leaders of the Confederacy accountable. We allowed them to return to power in state and local governments. The result was Jim Crow laws and the re-subjugation of African Americans. This underscores the importance of holding white supremacists and racists accountable for their domestic terrorism and other violations of the law today, 150 years later.

Justice for all also means that if some people have received unfairly harsh treatment from our laws and criminal justice system, there cannot by unity until those wrongs are acknowledged and corrected, including providing just compensation.

Unifying America means providing equal opportunity to everyone, particularly to every child. This is what valuing families or “family values” should mean to all of us. One test for a just society is what ethicist John Rawls called the veil of ignorance. He defined a fair society as one where, if confronted with a veil of ignorance about our position and role in society, we would be willing to accept anyone’s position and role in the society. As an early childhood advocate, I’ve presented this as thinking that you are the baby that the stork is about to deliver and if you are comfortable being delivered to any parent in the society, then it’s a fair society. But if there are some parents (or for the previous description, some positions and roles in society) that you would not want to be delivered to or put in, then the society is unfair and unjust, as it does not provide equal opportunity for everyone.

If people truly want to unify America, they must be committed to honestly working toward the vision of our democracy and our Constitution for liberty, justice, and equal opportunity for all or, in other words, for promotion of the general welfare. Without this, there can be no unity.

In my next post, I will discuss these topics more specifically in terms of public policies and actions that are needed to unify America.

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)

BIDEN’S OPPORTUNITY TO IMPROVE ECONOMIC SECURITY WITH PROGRESSIVE POLICIES

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

EXAMPLES OF CORRUPT CORPORATE BEHAVIOR Part 3

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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/)

TRUMP’S WAR ON WORKERS

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

OUR ELECTIONS ARE RIGGED Part 2

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

OUR ELECTIONS ARE RIGGED

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

MAKE THE POST OFFICE GREAT AGAIN

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

THE REST OF THE POST OFFICE STORY Part 2

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

THE REST OF THE POST OFFICE STORY

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

PERSONNEL IS POLICY AND LARRY SUMMERS IS A DISASTER Part 2

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

If you believe that:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

PERSONNEL IS POLICY AND LARRY SUMMERS IS A DISASTER

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

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

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

As background, his resume includes:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

WE CAN’T AFFORD OUR RIGGED TAX SYSTEM

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

RACISM IN HOUSING HAS BEEN EXPLICIT GOVERNMENT POLICY

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

RACISM IS AND HAS BEEN EXPLICIT GOVERNMENT POLICY

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

CORONA VIRUS PANDEMIC HIGHLIGHTS WEAKNESS OF PUBLIC INFRASTRUCTURE

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The results:

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

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

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

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

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

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

THE TRUMP ADMINISTRATION’S SWAMP OF CORRUPTION Part 2

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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