Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Proof that people are not naturally born to be lazy

Conservatives in Congress will tell us that the welfare state makes us a lazy nation. They tell us that we should pull ourselves up by our own bootstraps and find a way to make a living. Yet, there is compelling evidence that people do not want to live on other people's money. Most people would rather have a job, a sense of industry, a sense of contributing to society. The problem is, nowadays, most people don't have any influence on how the rules are written.

I'm a dad as some of you may know already. I've been observing my kids to see how they find their own sense of autonomy, of independence. Based on what I've seen so far, kids don't grow up to be lazy. I offer three examples for you to consider.

The first of course is walking. Every kid grows up from a peanut to a crazy kid running around, walking, talking, jumping on the bed and grabbing things they shouldn't grab. Locomotion is the first sense of autonomy that kids get as they grow up. They do not want to be carried as they grow older until they are too big to carry, and by then there is simply no desire to be carried.

My oldest daughter Emily has a child safety seat. It's a nice big captains chair of a seat that I had to attach to the car seat. I used to carry her and set her into that seat. Then about a month ago, she decided that she wanted to climb into the car herself, and then climb into the car seat herself. She would refuse any help if I offered it to her. She saw a puzzle and wanted to figure it out for herself.

She has a little rainbow chair that we got from Ikea. Months ago, she figured out she could use the chair as a sort of ladder to gain some elevation to reach things she wanted to touch, to climb places she wanted to go. But when she first started working with the chair, she asked me for help to carry it. After awhile, she insisted on carrying it herself. Again, if I offered help, she refused. Kids are like that, they only ask for help if they want it.

Then there is YouTube. Some time ago, Mom got in the habit of showing our daughter kid cartoons on YouTube. Then Mom left the computer unattended with our daughter at the chair. Over time, she figured out how to use the mouse and how to find the videos she wanted to see. Left to her own devices she can keep herself entertained for quite awhile.

In every case, she asked for help, got it, then learned how to do it herself and refused the help. This is what a safety net looks like in adult life. Most adults, when faced with a situation where their family might be short on food, shelter or water, will ask for help. They will continue to ask for help until they return to self-sufficiency again.

In past generations, that's how it worked. The government filled in the gap when the economy went south and then when things got good, the government could relax and didn't have to lend support. This support was financed with very high taxes on the wealthy as well as payroll taxes on the working class. Most working class people understand that payroll taxes are social insurance so that if they get into a jam, they can get help because they bought insurance.

Insurance is designed to distribute risk. Everyone buys insurance, even the wealthy. In a sense, social insurance, like social security and medicare, are really "social unrest" insurance for the wealthy. If you don't give people a way to help themselves, you're going to have social unrest.

For the past 30 years, there has been an unrelenting effort to remove that social insurance. Its  as if, somehow, the wealthiest among us have figured that if they keep pushing their agenda, that if they remove all of the social insurance, that we'll somehow be forced to pick ourselves up by our bootstraps. But at much lower prevailing wages than before.

During those 30 years, they've been finding ways to deny or remove social insurance for the rest of us, while keeping it for themselves. They've built what is best known as The Conservative Nanny State. The way things are going now, if we get a Republican president, with a Republican controlled Congress, the most likely outcome is far more social unrest.

That's why I work to educate my kids and help them when they need help. For the only way they will know how to help themselves is if I help them first.

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

You know how important a court case is by the way the media enforces a blackout

I "like" a fair number of pages and entities on Facebook. I was actually going to mention the source of the post here, but Facebook is like a river. One moment you see a bottle in the river, the next moment it's gone. It's gone.

Wait. I found it. I had the presence of mind to share it so it's on my profile page. The source of the post is Occupy Monsanto. I "like" them, so l follow them when they post. Their post points to this article here.

So let me re-start by saying that I found an interesting story about a class action lawsuit filed in state court in California. The lawsuit names Monsanto as defendant and alleges that Monsanto falsely advertised that its product, RoundUp, does not target enzymes present in humans. In fact, the lawsuit alleges that the active ingredients in RoundUp target enzymes that happen to be present in our gut bacteria.

Once you start interfering with the gut, a fair number of health problems can ensue because if you can't digest food properly, you can't assimilate the nutrition you need for the growth and maintenance of your body. The lawsuit even makes a connection between autism and glyphosphate, something that I've mentioned before on this blog.

What I find so interesting is that I did a search on the case number, "Case No: BC 578 942" just to see what would come up. I found only 7 hits on Google search. Of them, only one was a newspaper, a local newspaper in Seattle. There were no major media outlets to speak of. The rest were not even relevant.

After reading all of that, I am reminded of films depicting the dogged reporter trying to get the story out, but his editor won't run the story. So he has to go somewhere else to get it published. That somewhere else is the internet. The internet makes "leaks" possible. The internet makes it easy to go "worldwide" with a story. The internet has no gatekeeper. The internet is information and information loves to be free - it has a natural tendency to propagate, just like light.

The fact that not even the LA Times is running this story is instructive. The lawsuit was filed in LA and the attorneys that filed the lawsuit have contacted many major news outlets including the LA Times about their work and no one even took a bite. Not even the Huffington Post. The lawsuit was filed on April 20th, so I would expect that the major media would have had plenty of time to read the pleadings and figure out if the story was worth publishing.

My guess is, advertising revenue is at stake here and the major media are ready and willing to remind us that we didn't buy the newspaper. The advertisers did. I recall a term I read of a long time ago: "newshole". That's the hole in ever page where the story is surrounded by advertising. You didn't buy a paper for 50 cents. That's a token of your appreciation. The paper, and all the news in it is supported by advertising dollars. Advertisers have enormous sway over the contents of the paper and they have proved it once again with this blackout.

I guess when 6 media giants own all of the major media outlets, they are entitled to a blackout when one of their biggest advertisers, with perhaps one of the greatest legal teams assembled, might come calling with a cease and desist letter.

Monday, May 25, 2015

What's this? Bernie beat a billionaire to the US Senate?

More than a few pundits have repeated the following quote from Bernie Sanders, "Don't underestimate me." When I first read that, I figured that his statement was typical for a politician. But then I noticed an article mentioning how in 2006, he beat a billionaire in a hotly contested election for a Senate seat, and won.

The opponent running against Bernie was Richard Tarrant, a Republican candidate who spent $7 million of his own money and still lost. He was almost completely self-funded and ran the gamut of negative ads, doing everything he could to smear Bernie. Of course, it might have helped if Tarrant actually had his residency verified. Since he didn't get that part cleared up, most people figured him for a cocky billionaire living in Florida, thinking that he could pick off a Vermont socialist from Congress. That didn't work out quite like he planned.

Bernie never ran a negative ad against Tarrant. He only rebutted the ads that Tarrant ran to show that the statements made by the Tarrant campaign were wrong. Bernie still does not run negative ads, and has nothing negative to say about Hilary Clinton, his likely opponent in the Democrat primaries coming soon, and in the debates for the Democrat nomination.

Seeing a man run for the highest office in the land, unbeholden to corporate cash is really quite a sight to behold. Here we have a man who doesn't owe anything to anyone in Wall Street, the military industrial complex or Monsanto. What can we extrapolate from a man who doesn't make uncomfortable alliances based on money? We know that some kids might find that unsettling, but someone has written a guide for how to talk to your kids about Bernie Sanders.

We know that without alliances based on money, he can look at legislation and make an assessment based on the merits. Instead of determining if the legislation will benefit his relevant funders, he can look at the legislation with new eyes. You know, to see if that legislation will actually help everyone in the country more than hurt them. That sort of attitude is sorely missing from even many Democrats in Congress. Bernie is an independent, but he's running for nomination as a Democrat.

Hilary on the other hand, has a lot of Wall Street cash piled up on her side. She's very friendly with corporations like Monsanto and has hired long time Monsanto lobbyist Jerry Crawford to help run her campaign. That action speaks of a candidate beholden to the interests of the Monsanto corporation rather than the people she purports to represent.

As to the Republican clown car, I doubt there is a single candidate in there who is not beholden to corporate money. If the election comes down to choosing between two corporate cronies, I'm going to put my vote somewhere else. But if Bernie gets the nomination at the Democrat convention, we will finally have a truly progressive Democrat we can send to the White House.

How important is this? We haven't had someone we can describe as a true progress running for president since Jimmy Carter. To put this in perspective, let's compare Jimmy Carter to George W. Bush. What is Jimmy Carter doing these days? He's been building houses, working as an activist for social causes, and generally trying to make the world a better place.

How about George Bush? Well, he suffered extensive brain damage from serving 8 long years as president, a job that he really wasn't prepared to do. Now he is resting comfortably at home, sipping wine and painting pictures. That's it. That's all he can do. At least he can rest assured that his friends have made plenty of money from two wars.

To me, that's the difference between Bernie Sanders and everyone else. Bernie is unafraid to speak the truth that Americans so desperately want to hear from our president. He's not working for any corporation. He's working for the rest of us.

Saturday, May 23, 2015

What public policy looks like when it's written by the 1% for the 1%

It has been proven that big business and elites (that's the top 1% and up to you and me), have independent influence over Congress. The rest of us are ignored. Scientists have reviewed the data to show that across more than 1700 policy issues, Congress doesn't listen to us. They listen to them. The 1%.

Given this result, it can be fairly said that the 1% and only the 1% are writing public policy. Some have even gone so far as to identify the United States an oligarchy, not a democracy. I'm inclined to agree.

There are a few bright spots in Congress, though. Elizabeth Warren is working hard to show the hypocrisy of the conservative right, bought and paid for by Wall Street (I know, some of them are Democrats). Bernie Sanders is running for president and promoting crazy ideas like free education for everyone, a more progressive taxation system and even breaking up banks that are too big to fail. And then there is Rand Paul. He's a nut, but he's doing something I never thought I'd see anyone in Congress do - filibuster a bill to reauthorize the Patriot Act.

Other than that, most of Congress could care less about the average citizen. They spend on average, about 60% of their time on the phone and on their knees, begging for money from the relevant funders. Contrast that with Bernie Sanders who won't take money from corporations and requires attestation online that you're using your own money to donate to his campaign. I made my first political contribution in my life to him even though I hate giving money to politicians. Bernie has my vote if he gets the nomination.

What is important here is to understand that most of the stuff that average Americans are willing to protest against, are public policy agendas that serve the 1% and only the 1%. Hundreds of Americans are taking time off to protest low wages at McDonalds at their headquarters. Thousands of people are marching today against Monsanto. That's apparently the 3rd annual March Against Monsanto. Occupy Wall Street was a protest against the finance industry and their fetish for self-dealing. The list goes on. In almost every case, we see self-dealing.

Monsanto has former employees working in the FDA to pooh-pooh any notion of danger with genetically modified foods. Yet, the bees are dying off due to their pesticides designed to work with genetically modified crops designed to withstand their insecticides and herbicides. Nevermind that superweeds are building resistance to their poisons and that the UN released a report saying that small scale organic farming is the most sustainable and economical way to feed the world. But large corporations can't seem to figure out how to make money with an organic seed market. Why? There are no patents in it for them.

The fracking industry is literally screwing the earth to force out oil and gas. The wasteland they leave behind cannot support life as we know it, unless you can see it under a microscope. Fracking is approved all the way up the chain in the federal government and for many state governments. When small towns ban fracking, they get the state government to ban the bans. They often use leases on public land for the right to destroy the land and leave the taxpayer holding the bag to clean it up. Worse, they are pumping their waste back into the ground, poisoning water supplies. So break out your reverse osmosis water filters boys and girls. Our water supplies will not be potable after the frackers get to it. And they will when they sue town after town for access to water supplies.

The final example of self-dealing I want to talk about is Wall Street. Sure, they like to talk about the free market, but they don't seem to mind taking turns manipulating the market for personal gain. We found yet another example of this recently with a $5 billion settlement among the 5 biggest banks in the world. Currency traders among competing banks were found to be coordinating their trades for maximum profit while messing with currency exchange rates. What they did was a felony, but no one is going to jail. Why not? They're too big to fail - without government intervention in the market.

These are just a few examples, but they are all a result of public policy written by and for the 1%. They get their money without taking any risks or accepting accountability for their errors, mistakes or crimes. Ordinary people go to jail for possession of marijuana. They go to jail for protesting. They are shot and killed by police. They have no say in public policy.

This is the choice we are facing in the next presidential election. Do we want someone in the Oval Office and in Congress who is thinking of us, or not?

Friday, May 22, 2015

The double standard of fitness as a utility in Utah

Having a membership at a fitness center is considered a luxury. The odd thing is, Salt Lake County has a network of fitness centers. I know, I finally went to one so that we can provide some recreation for my kids. I was blown away by what I saw.

For a very reasonable fee, my entire family gets access to everything: gym, pools, table tennis, classes and God knows what else. I haven't been able to see everything since our focus lately has been to introduce my oldest daughter to the pool. She's had a blast in the pool, splashing in the water, playing in the fountains, riding the slides (all with Daddy within arms reach) and wading in the pool with Mom and Dad.

Membership options in Salt Lake County provide for one or all, and even for access to every fitness center, the pricing is very reasonable. They're probably not as good as privately run fitness centers, but they are good enough. They're not exclusive like some fitness centers, but if you want to appeal to the middle class, you can't be exclusive. Besides, they're partially funded by taxes we all pay here in the county.

Fitness as a public utility competes with private fitness clubs. Yet, there are still plenty of fitness centers here like Gold's Gym, 24 Hour Fitness and get this, there is a place called Gym Jones. How ironic.

I live in a Red State so it would seem that conservatives would scream "bloody socialist" if someone were to even suggest that public fitness centers should exist in Utah. But here, where it's pretty cold for half the year, they take their health and fitness very seriously. Someone in power here knows that not everyone can afford to buy their own fitness equipment or a membership at some exclusive club. So making fitness a public utility provides greater access to exercise at an affordable price to all. This is a fantastic arrangement for everyone concerned and I take part by signing up and showing up with my family.

Fitness as a utility in Utah is not just ironic, it demonstrates a double standard. Utah is mostly rural and people can have a hard time getting broadband where they live. There is a public utility for internet access. It's called Utopia, short for the Utah Telecommunication Open Infrastructure Agency. The promise of Utopia was to provide high speed internet access to every home and every business in the service area - but that promise wasn't kept by the lawmakers of Utah.

Instead of being allowed to thrive, Utopia was attacked by politicians and private enterprise alike. Spokesmen for Comcast and Centurylink go on and on about how government should not provide access to the internet. Legacy incumbent providers that use copper for transmission backed legislation written by ALEC to hobble or prohibit public internet access service in this state. That service is collectively known as municipal broadband.

At the same time, those same companies profit from a business model based on scarcity and, at least in my neighborhood, they don't compete directly, probably by tacit agreement not to. Every month or so, I read another story about terrible customer service by companies like Comcast and ATT.

In the last week, I've read at least two stories about homeowners who telecommute to work but could not get wired service from incumbent providers. They were so unhappy with the situation, that they each started their own initiatives for municipal broadband. But that can't happen here in Utah. Municipal broadband is mostly prohibit since Utah conservatives like to cheer private enterprise while intervening in the market in favor of private enterprise.

If government can build a network of fitness centers when the need arises, then surely they can build a public internet service. The need arises when incumbents are too busy managing a business based on scarcity to ensure profits at the expense of the people they are supposed to serve. That seems like a betrayal of the public trust to me.

Thursday, May 21, 2015

An existential quandary for opponents of the Export-Import Bank

I see in the news that conservatives in Congress are declaring victory over the Export Import Bank of the United States. Despite the loss of thousands of jobs, they want to see the Ex-Im Bank go. Seems like anything that costs jobs is a good thing for conservatives in Congress, doesn't it?

Let's see if we can put this situation in context. The Ex-Im Bank exists to provide loans, insurance and guarantees to American businesses to ensure that American products can meet demand in foreign countries. It's not allowed to compete against private banks, yet, that is what it does. To put it simply, the Ex-Im Bank takes the business that commercial banks don't want.

Getting rid of the Ex-Im Bank actually makes sense, if you have balanced trade or even a trade surplus. But we haven't seen that in decades. According to this chart, we haven't see a surplus since 1982:

Seems rather interesting that we haven't seen a trade surplus since Reagan was elected to office. Granted, the Ex-Im Bank was created in 1945 so it would seem that even during surplus years, there was a need for the bank. But considering the trade deficits of the last 30 years, wouldn't the need for the Ex-Im Bank be even more pressing? Why would anyone be so hot to see it go?

Robert Samuelson, an economics journalist and contributor to the Washington Post has this to say:
"The central fact about the Ex-Im Bank is that, in the $3.5 trillion federal budget, it is a pygmy. It has about 400 employees. In 2013, its operating budget — its overhead — totaled $90 million, according to a report from the Congressional Research Service (CRS). But these expenses were fully paid by fees and interest from Ex-Im’s private customers. There was no direct drain on taxpayers. Indeed, the bank turned a profit in 2013 and paid $1.1 billion to the Treasury. If it were eliminated, future deficits would probably increase, albeit by small amounts."
Wow. They pay their own way and they gave money back to the Treasury. Yet, Republicans want to toss thousands of people on the street looking for jobs just to eliminate a government bank that makes money for the government? Shouldn't *that* be the news?

If Republicans really want to get serious about trade, they should look no further than the strong dollar policy they started in 1981. The shortest path to balanced trade is fighting currency manipulation. Sure, there are some who like to manipulate currency for fun and profit, you know, like the traders at the 4 biggest American banks that just pleaded guilty and agreed to pay more than $5 billion in fines. None of the C-class executives or traders who took part will ever see jail time, but no one is talking about their impact in trade either. Besides, that's pocket change compared to the broader context.

China has $4 trillion in currency reserves, the largest of any reserve in the world, 3 times larger than #2. They don't say much about the composition of the reserve, but most economists say that it is almost all denominated in US dollars. This is currency manipulation, to keep the trade deficit looming large in the United States. China isn't the only one, either. Many of the Asian countries have amassed large dollar reserves to keep the dollar strong, to ensure that their exports are competitive.

Asian countries have been collecting dollars since the currency crisis in Asia in 1992. But the trade deficits started long before then. All this dollar hoarding has been largely unreported by the mainstream press. What I mean to say is that the dollar hoarding has been unreported in the context of maintaining a strong dollar. It's almost as if the intention is never allow the middle class to notice that the hoarding is permitted in order to keep the dollar strong.

If you want to profit from imports, keep the US job market weak to suppress wages and not get noticed, ensuring that the link between large foreign reserves and the trade deficit are obscured would be a priority. If Congress wants to let the Ex-Im Bank die, so be it. But they need to be clear about the trade deficit and do something about it. Instead they're letting the debate over the Ex-Im Bank obscure the real problem with trade, the strong dollar.

Maybe a threat of default on the debt would be a good thing. But it might not be enough to balance US trade with the world.

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Right to Work laws are government intervention in the markets - for conservatives

I see that the Deseret News has noticed a problem with wages in Utah. Utah ranks about 37th in the nation for wages and wage growth. The article notes that wages are not even keeping up with inflation. Worse, wages have detached from productivity. That is we can learn from the source of the article, the Utah Department of Workforce Services.

Utah is a right-to-work state. That means that wherever there is a union, non-union employees can get the same pay and benefits without paying the dues. Utah has a right to work law that makes this possible. Proponents of such laws say that right to work allow the market to work. No, not really. If that were so, employers would find a market based solution rather than run to government seeking help.

Unions started before there were even laws regulating them. They were a market response to employer behavior. Unions enjoyed great popularity in the United States up until Reagan started his first term as president. I remember how Reagan fired all of the air traffic controllers and set a new tone for the debate on unions in the marketplace. That new tone is this: when government intervenes in the market, they will side in favor of the employer not the employee.

The Utah Department of Workforce Services recognizes the detachment of wages from productivity and inflation as a national trend. Utah just happens to be at the lower end of the trend. It is worth noticing that there is a pocket of brightness in Utah: The information sector - companies that work with storing and managing very large amounts of data. Data processing and management has been one of the biggest contributors to productivity in recent years.

When we say "data processing", think of applications that went from being an application you installed on your PC to an application that runs through a web browser. The application in a browser has been a revolution in production in the office. The browser interface that the employee sees is connected to a database on the back end. Such an application is easy to maintain, easy to manage and easy to update relative to the applications we install on our PC. This increase in productivity is not attributed to the employee, it's attributed to the IT department. Information technology workers in Utah are seeing unemployment rates of about 1/2 of one percent.

The detachment of wages from inflation and productivity is a symptom of a public policy decision, it is not simple economics. For the past 30 years, the government has intervened in the market in favor of capital rather than labor. Now that people are getting wise to that fact, and the mass media can no longer ignore it or cover it up, the emphasis has shifted to trade agreements negotiated in secret. You know, like the Trans Pacific Partnership and the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership. They are called "free trade agreements" but really, they are business friendly legal frameworks designed to give even more cover to business. As if helping businesses any more would grow the economy.

Sure, that plan will work to direct all the growth in the economy to the top 1%. That kind of public policy is simply not economically sustainable. Henry Ford knew this when he first produced automobiles on an assembly line. He knew that unless he paid his workers enough, no one would be able to buy his cars. He linked wages to productivity and profited handsomely for it. Employers these days seem to have forgotten the lessons of Henry Ford.