Friday, August 29, 2014

Labor Day rolls around in a Right to Work state

We are about to enjoy a nice Labor Day weekend, something that came about as a result of union activism and representation. Unions have done more for the working class than any other social movement, with gifts like the 40 hour week, overtime, and observed holidays, you know, like Labor Day.

I find this ironic since I live in a "Right To Work" state. A right to work state is one where I have a right to work any place I want to work so long as I have an agreement with the employer. The right to work includes the right to work in a union shop, with all union negotiated benefits, without having to pay for them if I don't want to pay for them.

Many states, such as Utah, have so-called "Right to Work" laws. Upon reading the laws for this state, I see that the state has declared activities such as boycotts, work stoppages and picketing to be illegal if they are used to compel anyone to violate the Right to Work law. Essentially, the government has intervened in the market in favor of employers to weaken bargaining rights of employees.

To put it differently, when men and women assemble to form a union and act in concert to negotiate for better working conditions or higher pay, any act they do in concert is illegal. Picketing is a peaceful activity to the extent that no violence is perpetrated and people are allowed to pass through, but the state declares picketing to be illegal. Boycotts are peaceful actions in and of themselves, but the state declares that to be illegal, too. Work stoppages are peaceful and workers are not expecting to get paid for that time off, and that is illegal as well. Yet, the government intervenes to prevent any of this from happening so that employers can enjoy a bargaining advantage over their employees.

In the same context, when a business joins an association, and the members of that business act in concert to limit the bargaining power of employees, that's OK. Conservatives will tell you that business are free to join together and act in concert in a free market. But they won't tell you that employees are not free, by law, to do the same.

The right to work laws are government intervention in the marketplace, but that is not how conservatives paint it. They want us to believe that the right to work laws create freedom in the marketplace, when the reality is, they are design to discourage collective bargaining. Collective bargaining concerns the right to contract for hire, but on a group level, rather than an individual level. Collective bargaining is a logical response to the efforts of those who own capital to marginalize the labor that makes capital productive. Did someone say, "Divide and conquer"?

Economist Dean Baker has thoroughly documented the hypocrisy of the conservative agenda. "The right gets to be portrayed as the champions of hard work and innovation, while progressives are seen as the champions of the slothful and incompetent. It should not be surprising who has been winning this game."

Until we reframe the debate to include how government intervenes in the marketplace on behalf of conservative interests, it will be very difficult for progressives to be heard and understood. This is what I will be considering the next time I vote.

Thursday, August 28, 2014

No big deal - it's just an inversion

Taxes are collected for the benefit of the people who pay them. This is a golden rule of taxation that is ignored by any government at their own peril. The best example is the gas tax. The gas tax is collected to support the maintenance of the roads we drive on every day. When governments raid the coffers for some other purpose, they are violating this rule.

So it should come as no surprise when people find that their tax money is being spent for the benefit of other people who didn't pay the tax. I speak of corporations, the group of taxpayers who now make up about 9% of federal revenue, down from 35% they used to pay back in the 1950s. Yes, it's been a long, long slide down to the current revenue scheme, but we're here.

Unfortunately, 9% is still too much for some of the biggest corporations, and I mean this with absolutely no sympathy. What we have seen during this transition is a shift in tax burden from corporations to the individuals who buy from them and work for them. The trend is continuing as corporations become global and find even more ways to mitigate their tax liability.

This is ironic considering all of the benefits they receive from US residency. They enjoy protection from a military force that is second to none in the world, around the world, 24/7. They enjoy access to one of the largest consumer markets in the world. They enjoy copyright and patent protection that is second to none. For some of the largest corporations, their employees dine on food received through government assistance programs to subsidize low, low wages for low, low prices at the checkstand. Let us not forget a skilled labor pool built on government subsidies in education, research and development.

Now comes corporate inversion, the latest fad. Yes, with corporate inversion, corporations can renounce their citizenship and finally doff the last remaining tax burden off on the middle class in what amounts to 100% pure contempt. There is no altruism here, that's for sure.

Given the slide in corporation tax payments over the last 60 years, we would expect wages to rise, but they didn't. In fact, over the last 30 years, they have either gone sideways or fallen when adjusted for inflation. It seems that with every tax cut, shareholders would rather take profits than invest in employees. Oh, wait. They could make capital investments that reduce their need for employees. So there's a temporary boost to the economy, but that won't help wages, you know, for the people who actually buy things.

This kind of behavior by bad actors like Burger King, the most recent applicant for inversion, has not gone unnoticed. There is legislation pending that would exclude "inverted" corporations from consideration in lucrative federal contracts. Proponents of this legislation say that the people who benefit from government programs should pay the taxes that support them. Inverted corporations intend to extract government benefits without paying for them. With public, legislative and legal scrutiny, we can stop the inversions or at the very least, make the process embarrassing or to expensive to pursue.

Consumers can do their part by shopping somewhere else. Just ask Walgreens.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Reagan the false idol

I grew up with Ronald Reagan for president. I remember the hope, the optimism and the charges against the liberals. I was conservative then. I really believed that Reagan was going to clean things up. But then there was the Savings and Loan Scandal. People got killed over that, but you didn't see that in the mainstream news. To learn about that, you had to read a book. There was Iran-Contra and many more. Reagan even put the unions on a slide to oblivion, a move that was disastrous for the middle class. So Reagan was far from perfect and maybe he was starting to slide into dementia towards the end of his term. But there are some on the right who want to idolize him. I don't.

Some say that we experienced the greatest economic boom ever under Reagan. Actually, we didn't. Reagan wasn't the greatest job creator. That was Clinton. Even President Carter was a better job creator than Reagan. Obama is having a tough time, but that is because he has a Tea Party faction in Congress that is defying him at every opportunity rather than working with him. Why? They idolize Reagan.

They sincerely believe that Reagan was the bomb, that Reagan did for our country what no other president could do. But they refuse to admit the truth: the conservative agenda is not about free markets. It's about economic policy that drives money up to the top, rather than allowing everyone to participate in a prosperous economy.

Economists are going over the history and they are seeing the failure of neoliberalism, the economic policies that support the wealthy and leave everyone else out to dry. Under Carter and Clinton, we were creating jobs. Historians and economists have documented an interesting trend: Democrat presidents are far better at creating jobs than Republicans. This has held true pretty much since the Great Depression.

Why is this? I see the Republican Party, as of now, as the party of the wealthy. Wealthy people hold capital and capital does not like labor. Labor is expensive because they're humans and employees need insurance. But if assets can be rented, borrowed, consumed, well, capital loves that. Much of that borrowing and using can be tracked by computers, and all we really need is customer service, right?

A look at the fastest growing jobs shows that there is very little building going on and lots of service. God forbid us from investing in infrastructure say the Republicans in Congress (In my state, at least, Republicans believe in infrastructure). We have crumbling bridges and roads all over our country and yet, hardly anyone in Congress is talking about rebuilding our bridges and roads. Remember Hurricane Katrina? Most of the damage was caused by inadequate care of the levees. Had the levees been maintained properly under Bush, New Orleans would not have been flooded.

See the difference in priorities? Conservatives are very busy taking profits out of the country and will put profits before infrastructure. They seem more concerned with what has been taken away in taxes than with what they have been given by work, luck and circumstance.

Reagan was not a god, and much of what is said about him and his policies is myth, unsupported by a thorough economic analysis. Remember that the next time you are confronted with the prospect of voting for a candidate who idolizes Reagan.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Smooth English

As an impressionable young boy, I had the good fortune to be exposed to the Schoolhouse Rock videos that were prominently featured on the ABC television network. I can remember titles like "My Hero Zero" a story about the powers of ten, "I'm Just a Bill" a civics lesson and "Interjections!". But the one video that made the greatest impression on me was Conjunction Junction, the story of conjunctions. Looking back, I'm surprised that any television network would air such high order thinking in front of kids. I mean, who needs critical thinking skills when you're trying to sell something?

What are conjunctions? They are just some of the little words between other words, phrases and clauses. As the video "Conjunction Junction" shows us, words like "but", "or", and "and" allow us to string words together to communicate a thought. As I write or speak, I look for places where they are needed to make sure that what I say is clear, so that I'm properly understood.

This article is wider in scope than just conjunctions. I think of all the 1, 2, 3 and even 4 letter words that I tend to find missing in articles I read on the internet. Words like "a", "is", "that", "was", "be", and of course, "the". Those little words are the grease in what I write and what I read.

When I write a complex sentence, I read it aloud in my head to make sure that it flows nicely, just like they taught me in school. I want you to be able to read my prose without stopping to think, "Hey! You're missing a word! Now I have to fill it in for myself!" See? The preceding quoted passage had a few more of those itty-bitty words.

As you can see, there are lots of ways to make a sentence flow better in text. But what about speech? I used to be a member of Toastmasters and there, I became acquainted with the "Ah counter". In Toastmasters, I became painfully aware of the dreaded Ahs, Ums and Hmms, in speech. Whenever I did that during a speech, I heard someone dropping a coin in a can to remind me of what I just did.

Those sounds are not words, but we use them to pause our speech and give us more time to access memory or formulate new thoughts while keeping our hands on the virtual podium before us while we talk to our friends and family. I call that behavior, "holding the floor". That one exercise in Toastmasters created discipline in my speech that has never left me since. Even in casual conversation, you won't hear me saying any of that because I want every word to count.

Just as I speak, when I write, I want every word to count, too. I want every passage to be smooth and unbroken in your mind as you read them. If you're correcting my grammar in your mind while you read my words, you won't enjoy the article quite as without correcting me. So look for those little words the next time you read or write anything, anywhere. You'll find that those little words make every passage a little easier to traverse.

Monday, August 25, 2014

Fiction: Awake in a clean world again, Part 1

Jack wakes up to a bright, clean room. Soft white light fills the room as sunlight bounces from wall to wall. The scene is eerie, almost as if Jack is in heaven, but he's not really sure.

As he squints from the bright sunlight, Jack scans the room for anything familiar. Although he has memories of his home in Carmel, California, he doesn't see any sign of his comfortable abode off Pacific Coast Highway. The sheets, the blanket, the walls, even the bed frame are all white. Jack is the only color in the room save for a screen showing what appears to be his pulse. He smells what seems to be iodine wafting into the room. That smells like a hospital and another memory stirs in his mind.

He has a faint memory of cancer. It was advanced and during his last waking hours, before the big sleep, he had a conversation.

"What do you mean I have cancer?" he asks, hardly containing his shock, his grief, as all of the ramifications that come with the diagnosis filled his mind. He ate well, he exercised, no drinking no smoking, nothing, really. Except maybe some aging.

"Jack, we've gone over everything 3 times just to be sure. We caught it early, but it's aggressive and at this point in time, there is no cure." Dr. Klugman was firm in his resolve to help Jack recover from the shock of the diagnosis, but unable to do more than play messenger. Another day, another diagnosis, and it was wearing thin on him. "We'll do what we can to extend your life, but I'm sorry, Jack. There isn't much we can do."

Jack had the means and the determination to beat this. He had spent months doing his own research to see if there was a way out. There was none. Except time.

Jack had heard about cryogenics and searched for weeks to find the right outfit to do the job. He just wanted to stay alive long enough to find a cure. He had seen his friends go through the same trial. Diagnosis, surgery, chemo. They all lived seemingly happy lives thereafter with no recurrence, no complications. But when his turn came up, well, it just wasn't that simple.

He met with his family and put all of his affairs in order. His wife Theresa cried and knew that this was the end, at least for him. She begged him not to do it, not to go in the deep freeze, but he was undeterred. They were still fairly young and Jack figured that cryogenics would slow the cancer long enough for someone to find a cure.

What he had depended on was odds, long odds, with a fervent hope that he wouldn't be waiting that long to find a cure. He remembered going under, but after being awake for awhile, still unsure how long he had been under. There were no calendars in the room, only clocks. It was 9:30 in the morning and the day felt young. His eyes had adjusted to the light and looked out the window. No landscape, but there, the sky...it was bluer than he could remember. So where is everybody....?

The door to his room was ajar, he began to notice that he could hear activity outside, voices, footsteps, clattering of hardware and bottles, doors sliding open and shut. The scope of his attention was starting to expand as he sized up his surroundings again with better vision. Suddenly, a sharp pang hit his gut. He was hungry. Surely someone must have noticed that he's awake with all this gear taped to him.

He could now clearly see the tiny screens showing his heartbeat, his breathing, his blood pressure. It was all green and he was glad. There was water in a glass on the table nearby. He reached for it, grasped it and failed to retrieve it as it tumbled to the floor in a crash.

A nurse stepped in. "Good morning, Jack. Are you OK?"

"I'm fine, thanks. Just a bit groggy. Hungry. Thirsty. Can I have a glass of water?"

The nurse was attentive and reviewed the screens as she poured another glass of water for Jack. She handed it to Jack and this time, Jack got a firm grip on the glass and started with sips. Then glugs and in a few swigs, finished the glass off with a sigh. "This water tastes almost sweet. It's like I haven't had water in a long, long time. What's in it?"

"Just water, but you really didn't need it. You've been on an IV since we revived you." The nurse had a curious expression. Jack knew he was under observation, but was not entirely sure what she was looking for. She was slim from walking room to room every day, but she looked a bit tired. Jack thought that maybe she was burdened with the fatigue of seeing so many people die in these rooms.

"Your charts look good, Jack. How do you feel?"

"Oh, I'm OK, I guess. I just feel a little weird in this room. Kind of like I don't really belong here. Where am I?"

The nurse drew a breath through her lips and looked at him carefully. "You're in Missoula, Montana."

Missoula, Missoula, Missoula, he wondered to himself. Now just how did he get here again? He tried to scavenge his memory but all he remembered was talking about cryogenics.

A lot has changed since he went to sleep that fateful day. As the nurse disconnects the IV, she notes his vital signs and smiles at him. "We've notified a doctor that you're awake. He should be here in about 20 minutes. Would you like something to read, or maybe to watch TV?"

Jack considered the options for a moment and settled on something to read. "Sure, if you have a few magazines, I'd like to browse while I'm waiting."

The nurse left the room and came back with a tablet. Now Jack was curious because this was no ordinary tablet, to him, anyway. It was thin and flexible, like a sheet of mylar. But sure enough it had a display and responded to his touch. The nurse slipped away as Jack absorbed himself in the tablet.

The tablet was intuitive and responded well to his touch. He had used tablets before and was comfortable using his fingers to navigate. "The date. What's the date today?" That's what he wanted to know.

He found that he could browse the web. He looked for a familiar news source. "Where the hell is Google!?! I can't find Google!" But he did manage to find Time Magazine. He found a story, the byline and the date. It was...

Friday, August 22, 2014

A tiny town in Maine takes on Time-Warner Cable and wins

Rockport, Maine isn't a very big town. With 3300 people, it hardly counts as a blip in a nation of 300 million. Struggling to get decent speeds from the government-protected, local private monopoly ISP, Time-Warner, the citizens of Rockport took matters into their own hands and built the network they wanted despite Time-Warner Cable.

In order to finance the construction of the network, they raised their own taxes. They voted twice to get the laws just right. Then they worked with a private firm to do the engineering and get it right. The total cost was about $60k, and it will only service 70 homes on a 1.2 mile network. But now they have a foundation to build upon should they decide to expand.

I've read about many other networks on a much larger scale, the most famous of which is the network built in Chattanooga, Tennessee, by the Electric Power Board (EPB). Such networks are becoming more common. Unfortunately, the bigger networks meet with all kinds of resistance from the incumbents. From legislation to litigation, community broadband gets hammered by private interests seeking to extend or maintain their private monopolies - that local governments protect through franchise agreements.

So I am surprised to see that this very small town was able to see their network through to completion. Perhaps it was easier because, if TWC didn't see enough money to build a decent network there, in Rockport, then perhaps it wasn't worth the fight to stop them, either. Rockport now has a network that provides symmetrical gigabit access for only $70 a month - far outperforming the TWC network that the carrier was unwilling to improve.

It might be cliche to say that the community broadband movement is the nightmare incumbent carriers were hoping to avoid, but it's here, that nightmare. Let's not forget that incumbent carriers were handed the monopolies they have, on a silver platter, more than 20 years ago. It was a gift that just kept on giving. But the cable and telco monopolies refused to give back. Worse, they refused to keep up with the rest of the world.

To add insult to injury, Comcast and Verizon throttled big internet players like Netflix and asked for more money to keep Netflix customers happy. The foot-dragging and anti-competitive practices of the incumbent carriers is very well documented. But we don't have to put up with it much longer.

Yes, they can file lawsuits, but they always lose. No community broadband project has ever been completely defeated by litigation. Oh, that'll slow them down, but eventually, they come back.

Yes, they can work with ALEC to write and pass legislation that stifles community broadband efforts at the state level, but look at what incumbent carriers like Comcast and Verizon are fighting: jobs, economic progress, better access to the worldwide community, a voice in government. Yes, Comcast would prefer its profits over a better economy.

In Missoula, Montana, they are also pursuing a fiber project. At the same time, Google Fiber has been investigating setting up shop there, too. But people local to the area are beginning to question the wisdom of getting involved with Google Fiber. Maybe they heard about Provo, and how Provo sold it's network to Google Fiber for a dollar and still has to pay off a mountain of debt left over from a failed network effort by Utopia. Had they waited, they might have had a chance to work with Macquarie Capital in a much better deal.

Community broadband isn't a fad. It is a rational response to incumbent service providers that have taken the public trust for granted. When citizens have been shorted by companies like Comcast, Verizon, Time-Warner and AT&T, those same citizens have every right to pool their resources in their local government to build a better network. Just like they did in Rockport, Maine.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Reading upon sight

I remember my first reading classes. I was one of the early birds and got into the early reading groups in 1st grade. I don't remember the process of learning to read so well, other than that we read in groups and that I started to get into it with enthusiasm. I can remember at some point, starting to alter my voice for humor, something my teacher, Mrs. Sweeney, seemed to frown upon.

I also remember the I Can Read Book Club. Books like "Johnny the Firecat" would come in the mail with my name on it. I had no idea that Mom had set up a subscription for me, but I loved getting those books in the mail.

There is something that I noticed about reading, around the time that Dad decided that in order to take a nap, I needed to sit in the corner when I made any noise that happened to disturb his sleep. There were items nearby with words on them, words that I could read. I was bored, so I just kept reading them over and over again.

What was significant about this experience is that I discovered that I could not look at a word without reading it. Reading was automatic for me and anytime I saw a word, I read it and could hear the voice in my head go off with the sound of the word, whatever that might be. No word passes my eyes without reading it. Unless it's advertising. Then I find ways to avoid reading or to focus somewhere else.

It is estimated that there are 3 billion people on the planet who do not know how to read. That suggests that reading is not something we're necessarily evolved to do. We've adapted to reading for communication and education. Honestly, I could not imagine what life would be like without reading, other than, it would be be like grinding dirt all day. Hard, manual labor, for no particular purpose other than just survival. I'd be alive, but not living.

I've known some who were functionally illiterate when they graduated high school, but somehow they made it. Not knowing how to read today is worse than not knowing how to type. I took typing just to meet girls in school, with a voice in the back of my head saying that someday, I may need to know how to type. Today, I work as a writer, well not really a writer, but my job requires me to read and write emails, service request logs and other forms of communication.

Technology requires us to read in order to use it. Just to get started, we have to read instructions to know how to use it, too. Despite the criticism pointed at the internet, many have recognized that the internet, the world wide web, and the proliferation of free software with all the coding required to create it and maintain it, has fostered a sort of revolution or renaissance of literacy. The internet is, as one researcher put it, "saturated in text", and only the most literate societies can enjoy it. The US is one of those societies.

The implications of this reading revolution are profound and few if any of us will know all of the implications for quite some time. People read the internet in a way that is different than print. I like to read the internet because it feels more alive than print. Even printed books converted to PDF that can be read on a screen are not quite as appealing as reading a website with a recent article. Like today.

Without this "second nature" of reading that I experience when I do read, I could not really enjoy the internet in all of its permutations. Sure, I could watch video, listen to music or voice, and maybe even play games. But my mind wanders and wants to know more.

I've found that although I can watch video and learn something from it, reading offers a special experience that I can't get from video. For one, I am hard of hearing, so I never miss a word when I read. Second, when I hear the words as I read them, in my own voice, I'm asking questions that I could not ask while listening to someone else talk. Comprehension is a very big part of taking in new information, and I find that comprehension is far easier while reading than while listening.

So when you're in a waiting room, or standing in line somewhere, try to look at a sign without reading it. If you can't help but hear the words you see in your mind, you have a gift that will never stop giving. If you have kids, you can give it to them, too. It's automatic once you learn how to do it.