Friday, July 03, 2015

Memo to billionaires: you can't have it all.

I just saw an amazing video last night. The star of this video is Bernie Sanders. For those of you who are familiar with his politics, I won't bore you with the details of his speech. For those who don't know Bernie Sanders, you can find out more about him here, here and here. If you would like to donate to his campaign, go to berniesanders.com.

The video below is more than an hour, including a brief introduction. The speech is all Bernie. For those familiar with Bernie, you are going to hear familiar talking points. The overarching message is this: To the Billionaires and millionaires, you can't have it all.


Now take a look at that audience (this assumes that the picture in the video stays the same after I post this blog). The entire stadium is packed with 10,000 people. Before the event, there were more than 9,000 RSVPs from people in Wisconsin just to see him on July 1st, 2015. This is from a state that somehow managed to elect Scott Walker to the office of governor. Note to the GOP clown car: none of these people were paid to attend.

If anyone still thinks that Bernie doesn't have a chance of winning the Democratic nomination and the White House, they haven't seen this video. The audience is absolutely fanatical. Near the beginning of the speech, someone yells, "We love you, Bernie!", and he laughs a little to acknowledge what he heard, and smiles. In that audience there is genuine affection for Bernie. I've never seen anything like it for any politician. Note that this just one of many examples of fervently excited crowds where Bernie gives a speech, with many more to come.

Some will say that Bernie is outgunned by Hilary's money. Sure, that's true if you want this election to be about money in politics. But Bernie is not about money in politics. He's about taking money out of politics and replacing it with character, substance and ideas that can stand on their merits.

Bernie is outgunned by money in politics if we expect voters to passively accept what is being advertised on TV, radio, the papers and on the internet. Bernie Sanders for president is not just about getting one man into the highest office in the land. This is a movement far bigger than Bernie. This is a movement to remind the billionaires that they can't have it all. This country and its government belongs to all of us, not just a handful of billionaires and millionaires.

It would seem fitting then to be writing this post on the eve of Independence Day. Bernie notes in his speech that the Walton Family, owners of Wal-Mart, own more wealth than the bottom 130 million Americans. That family, and others like them, have fostered a dependence upon them and their near-monopoly power in the American market. That monopoly power is not possible without relentless influence in public policy. That is what we want independence from.

Bernie Sanders for President is a movement to declare independence from the billionaires and millionaires singular influence in government. It is a movement to wrest enough political power from the monied interests to restore our system of government to a state where it can work for all of us. As Bernie said in the video, "When the people stand together, we can win!"

Thursday, July 02, 2015

Payday loans for Greece

If you're a fan of international news where the only topics ever discussed on NPR are Israel, Palestine and Washington, DC, you might have missed the news about Greece. Greece defaulted on a nearly $1.8 billion payment that was due a couple days ago. Shortly after that, their leader, Alexis Tsipras, indicated there is willingness to accept most of the terms for bailout from the European Commission, the IMF and European Central Bank, also known as "The Troika".

There is some very interesting commentary that can be found on the internet on this topic. First, there is Joseph Stiglitz, a noted economist very well known for his progressive views. He notes that the terms being offered by the Troika are quite punitive and almost totally unnecessary. He also notes that the Troika has exactly zero interest in accepting part of the blame for the current situation with their austerity measures. Two very interesting observations also came to light: the money being paid by Greece to repay the loans is being used to support other banking systems in Europe and that same money will likely be loaned out to Greece again for the bailout. The same money being loaned to Greece will be loaned to them again? Isn't that sort of like a payday loan?

Some economists have noted that the current debt to GDP ratio of Greece, as a country, is about 177%. Supporters of Greece have noted that Greece isn't the only country with a very high debt to GDP ratio. Supporters of the Syriza government in Greece would do well to note that in 2013, Japan had a debt to GDP ration of 240%, but we don't see the IMF hammering them hard for their debt like they're doing to Greece. Funny how the IMF is not pressing them for reform. Maybe that's because they're running big trade surpluses.

There are even a few economists that are comparing the US to Greece and offering warnings that we could be in the same boat with Greece in the not too distant future. I happen to disagree, and I'm not alone. As noted previously, Japan at one time in the recent past, boasted a debt to GDP ratio of 240% yet their interest rates on bonds are still very, very low. No one is worried that Japan will default on their bonds. In 2013, that ratio for the US was about 96% and even now, treasury bonds are still selling at very low rates. The interest rate is what tells us how confident we are about the ability of a government to repay the bonds.

And more than one economist has noticed that austerity policy has cost the region lots of money and economic growth. Even Stiglitz has pointed out that the structure of authority in the European Union was designed to put workers at a disadvantage. It seems to be a backdoor to imposing austerity on workers and putting bankers in the driver's seat of the government.

There is plenty of talk about a "Grexit", where this weekend, Greece will vote on a referendum to accept the bailout terms or not, that vote determines if Greece will stay in the European Union. Even Angela Merkel, the Chancellor of Germany - that country is one of the chief creditors to Greece - is insisting that Greeks have their vote and the time to do it. If Greece leaves the union, everyone else is going to feel the pain. Greece will be fine and should recover nicely from their experiment with the Euro. At least someone is willing to give them the space to make up their minds.

This might be seen as the first really big crack in the European Union, but it's not the only one. It's starting to look like a significant minority wants to leave the union. Adam Ludlow of The Spectator in the UK notes as follows:
"While the German Finance Minister, Wolfgang Schäuble, has been doling out the conditions to Greece about what it will have to do to stay in the euro, one in three people from his own country want to return to the Deutschmark. The same proportion of Italians and French would like to see a return to Lira and the Franc. By comparison, people are most supportive of keeping their current currency in Britain and Sweden, countries with their own national tender and monetary supply."
Notice also, that the countries that retained their own currency are pretty happy with the union as it is. Isn't that interesting? The ability to maintain a reserve currency is what makes the US, Japan, the UK and Sweden so strong. The surrender of that power means subjugation to the entity that controls that power. That is probably the biggest reason yet why the Greeks are so likely to leave the Euro.

Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Sorry. The negotiating restrictions in TPA are all for show

So President Obama signed the Trade Promotion Authority (TPA) he wanted into law and he gets the authority so coveted by the elites, the 1%. The authority to negotiate a trade agreement for a straight up and down vote by Congress. In that act, Congress waives the right to amend or filibuster trade agreements under TPA. That will grease the chute for the Trans Pacific Partnership and the TransAtlantic Trade and Investment Partnership along with 41 other trade agreements. Oh, and that Trade Promotion Authority is for six, very long years.

Here is the TPA bill that was signed into law. I reviewed it and could find only one paragraph for currency manipulation (hey, lets keep the dollar strong). Note also that there is a big section for intellectual property (a trade barrier that will surely be raised). I bet that will get more attention than compliance with international labor and environmental protection laws or an unwanted balance of trade. There are 12 major objectives, but those are the two that I was really looking for. You might find interest in the others.

Orrin Hatch wrote this editorial and got free press in the Deseret News for it. He is my old and crusty Senator for my state, Utah. He gushes eloquent about how great TPA is going to be. He tells us how important free trade is for middle class jobs. He tells us that the authority granted to the President includes restrictions on how trade agreements should be negotiated. He tells us that the new law signed by President Obama yesterday contains numerous "objectives" that must be met by Congress.

Here is what Hatch didn't say. He failed to mention that projected growth in the economy from the two biggest trade agreements mentioned above will amount to a rounding error in calculating GDP (most of which will go to the top 1%). He failed to mention that trade barriers are already at historic lows and that there isn't much else that can be done to lower trade barriers. Finally, after all that he doesn't even mention that when the Fed starts to raise interest rates, as they want to do, all of the projected gains from those two really big (not so free) trade agreements will be wiped out. But wait, there is one more gem our esteemed Senator Hatch forgot to mention.

We can do more to balance trade by eliminating the strong dollar policy that we've maintained for 30 years than we can by all of the trade agreements contemplated by the TPA signed just yesterday. A balance of the dollar against the currencies of our major trading partners will stem the flow of some $500 billion a year to foreign countries. A balanced dollar will bring about 5-6 million jobs home, far more than any of these trade deals promise. But you won't here that from Orrin Hatch.

Hatch is one of the old guard. He's financed by big donors, the relevant donors who think that having a billion is not enough. Having a few billion is still not enough. Having effective legislative control, well, that's really nice, but it's still not enough. I'm not even sure if the elites have any idea of what "enough" means.

There is a silver lining, though. There is a man running for president, a democratic socialist, with a legislative agenda that has remained the same for 30 plus years - an agenda diametrically opposed to trade agreements like TPP and TTIP. He's climbing the polls and if projections are correct, he very likely to beat Hilary Clinton (a supporter of NAFTA) at the Democratic Convention next year for the nomination. The passing of the TPA is lighting another fire under a campaign that is already on fire. That man is Bernie Sanders.

The major media are doing everything they can to put out that fire and frankly, they're using cold water on an electrical fire. That electricity runs through the internet, spreading the news, filling auditoriums, football fields and parks to overflow capacity. The internet is alive with the Bernie Buzz. The passing of the TPA is to me, a tipping point where Democrats, Republicans (!) and independents know they've been had and can now have a genuine alternative come next November.

President Obama has done a great many things with a very difficult Congress that insults him and spits on him like there is no tomorrow. But on the issue of trade, well, we've been played and played hard by Mr. Obama. As president, Bernie will be of even greater help to put an end to all this nonsense about "free trade".

Bring it on, Bernie!

Monday, June 29, 2015

I thought ISDS was only for banana republics

Trade Promotion Authority (TPA) is not just for President Obama, it is also intended for the next president after that (the term for TPA is six long years). There are two big trade agreements that are getting much of the news, the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) and the TransAtlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP). That's what most of the fuss is about with TPA in the news.

I say six long years because TPA will grease the chutes for 41 other trade agreements that will surely beat the stuffing out of the middle class if they are ratified. It's just a wonderful power grab for the elites without having to do all that haggling with a Congress that is trying to look like they love the middle class, when all they really want more money for their next election. TPA means that the president can negotiate an agreement and submit it to Congress for an up or down vote without amendment. That's what removes the haggling from the picture.

Despite all that fuss, there is not that much discussion about a provision common to both agreements called Investor State Dispute System or, ISDS. ISDS is a concept designed for dealing with developing nations with developing legal systems. The point of ISDS is to enable trade between two countries to minimize risk of "nationalization" or expropriation of a business by a government during times of civil unrest or crisis. You know, revolution. Or maybe, the foreign government gets greedy and decides that they want the oil industry for themselves. That's what ISDS is for.

ISDS is not for mature countries with mature legal systems like the US, Canada and just about every other member of the European Union. It is not for Japan, or South Korea, either.

Before ISDS, businesses would buy business insurance to make sure that if their foreign branch was somehow expropriated by a foreign government, they could recover their costs. That worked pretty well, but there are some emerging markets where they want in, but insurance costs are too high. I don't think those emerging countries are a party to the treaties currently in negotiations. Here is list of the TPP partners:

Australia
Brunei Darussalam
Canada
Chile
Japan
Malaysia
Mexico
New Zealand
Peru
Singapore
Vietnam

The point of ISDS is to have some recourse when a banana republic nationalizes your industry. Isn't it? There might be a couple of countries here that qualify as a "banana republic". Brunei still uses caning as a form of punishment in their legal system. All of the other countries are well established in their legal systems and have mature economic systems. Even Vietnam is coming along nicely with major manufacturers like Intel employing thousands there.

So if none of the parties to the agreement are banana republics, what is the point of ISDS? My guess is, legislative control, but not in the way we usually think of it.

In the United States, the government is sovereign. Jurisdiction is invited and you can't sue it directly unless there is a law that gives you standing to sue. Oh, you can try to sue, but if you have no standing, your case will be summarily dismissed.

The TPP would give corporations standing to sue the government directly in the event that the government passes some law that would interfere with a corporation's business. That includes imagined future profits that would be lost due to some law that the corporation doesn't like. This can result in payouts in the billions to said corporation - with taxpayer money. There are numerous examples and truth be told, the number of ISDS suits has exploded in recent years.

There is another aspect of ISDS: the potential for self-dealing. Lawyers working for a corporation can also serve as a judge on an ISDS panel in TPP. The Public Citizen website explains the concept rather well, here:
Comprised of three private attorneys, the extrajudicial tribunals are authorized to order unlimited sums of taxpayer compensation for health, environmental, financial and other public interest policies seen as frustrating the corporations' expectations. The amount is based on the "expected future profits" the tribunal surmises that the corporation would have earned in the absence of the public policy it is attacking. There is no outside appeal. Many of these attorneys rotate between acting as tribunal "judges" and as the lawyers launching cases against the government on behalf of the corporations. Under this system, foreign corporations are provided greater rights than domestic firms.
In a very real and legal sense, ISDS is a backdoor, a way to circumvent the host country's legal system without the checks and balances we already maintain in the US. It is a provision we should not take lightly and we should be ready to fight it.

I believe that the ISDS provisions in any of the treaties before Congress should be removed. But if they remain, then we can challenge them on one simple basis: The Constitution is still the supreme law of the land, and there is nothing in the Constitution that permits subordination of the Constitution to a treaty. Nothing.

Any country that thinks it needs ISDS in the treaty is probably making a tacit admission that it is a banana republic. Could it be that Obama is aware of that admission in his quest to sign treaties with ISDS provisions?

Sunday, June 28, 2015

The best things in life are often unanticipated

Ever notice how some of the coolest things in life are a surprise? Consider the humble birthday. We have one each year of our lives and we take notice of them in whatever way we are comfortable. Some of us get presents that are wrapped so that we know that something is there and elicits some anticipation.

When we open the present, we discover a gift, often, it's a gift we never considered before and it's something we like. That's what this little post is about.

What I want isn't necessarily something I already know about. Let's start with a circle to show what I know:


That's a pretty small circle, huh? Now let's look at something else:


That is what I know I don't know. It's a little bigger, but still small compared to everything else:


Everything else is out there. What you want isn't necessarily what you already know about. I've seen this happen to me countless times and treasure it when it happens. 

There is a great example of how this works in a show called, "Joan of Arcadia". It was a short run TV series that had great writing and character development. That show always put the protagonist, Joan, into situations she didn't like and found herself doing stuff she didn't want to do. But she always found some silver lining at the end.

Expect the unexpected and roll with it. It might turn out to be a really nice day.

Saturday, June 27, 2015

Marriage is not defined by religion. The 1st Amendment says so.

I see that some Christians are very upset with the ruling by the Supreme Court regarding same sex marriage. Some are saying that the decision will lead to polygamy (Utahn Mormons rejoice). Some are saying that the government has no right to define marriage (I'm one of them, but not for the same reasons). Some are saying that they will set themselves on fire in response to the ruling. Some have offered a box of matches and gas.

Justice Kennedy wrote the opinion and the final paragraph provides the nugget of truth everyone was waiting for:
No union is more profound than marriage, for it embodies the highest ideals of love, fidelity, devotion, sacrifice, and family. In forming a marital union, two people become something greater than once they were. As some of the petitioners in these cases demonstrate, marriage embodies a love that may endure even past death. It would misunderstand these men and women to say they disrespect the idea of marriage. Their plea is that they do respect it, respect it so deeply that they seek to find its
fulfillment for themselves. Their hope is not to be condemned to live in loneliness, excluded from one of civilization’s oldest institutions. They ask for equal dignity in the eyes of the law. The Constitution grants them that right.
Equal dignity under the law. That sounds like the 14th Amendment. The paragraph resonates with most, if not all of us. All of us would like union with some other person. I found it myself with my wife from Vietnam, Alice. There was a time in our country when social norms and perhaps some laws would have proscribed our marriage. But we live in a more enlightened age.

This ruling makes same sex marriage legal in all 50 states and provides a measure of security for everyone. For as soon as you prohibit a basic right for someone, it's only a matter of time before someone else finds a reason to limit access to that right for another group or set of people. In this particular case, Christians felt that they were being demonized for trying to corner the definition of marriage to suit their own purpose - to further their ambitions for their religion. A sort of Christian supremacy.

There is another reason that same sex couples should be able to get married. Sure, equal protection under the law is important, but the big one, at least in my mind, is that marriage cannot be defined by religion and recognized by government, without violating the 1st Amendment. What does the 1st Amendment to the Constitution say?
"Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances." (emphasis mine)
If I read that correctly, Congress lacks the authority to define marriage based on any religion. That means the end of the Defense of Marriage Act. Maybe some could see that if Congress is prohibited, that the states have the right to prohibit same sex marriage reserved to them. Or that the states may define marriage as it suits them. Granted, equal protection under the 14th Amendment is the stronger argument, just about every state constitution prohibits establishment of religion. We usually see the following language in their various constitions:

"The State shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof"

Usually, this provision gets top billing, first and foremost just so that we can get it out of the way. This my point. No state in their right mind would allow the government to define marriage. If they did, it's only a matter of time before some other religion (besides good 'ol Christianity) gets a foothold in government to do things *their* way. The Founding Fathers established a secular government and for good reason.

They know that honest people sincere in their beliefs can come to blows when it comes to religion. Getting religion out of the way in civic life makes everything else so much easier. If the government were allowed to use a definition of marriage promoted by one religion or another, there's going to be trouble.

I'm glad to see the ruling and an end to so much suffering. Letting gay people get married is not a problem to me and it doesn't bother me. For those who are bothered by it, there are bigger problems to be concerned about that require much greater attention, time and resources to solve. Let's just get along and move on.

Friday, June 26, 2015

A personal argument against business money in politics

The message in this election cycle, whether implicit or explicit, is corporate money. The Koch Brothers have made it known that they are going to raise more than $900 million for this election. Both major parties are going to raise almost a billion or more to support their candidate for president. Much of that money is from corporations.

Supporters of Fast Track, or Trade Promotion Authority for President Obama have showered this Congress with $200 million on that issue alone. $200 million to say, "You're going to listen to us rather than the people protesting in the streets against it."

Here is the rub. Corporations who contribute to political campaigns have customers. They are making anonymous contributions when and wherever they can. They are making an implicit assumption that their customers either will never know what they're doing or, their customers agree with what they're doing. This is wrong.

Just because I bought your product doesn't mean I agree with your politics.

I know this is going to seem like an incredible segue, so bear with me. I am reminded of the court case, Munn v. Illinois. I'm a fan of that case (a fan? really?) because it demonstrates how we have come to rely upon business for our basic needs like food, water, electricity and shelter. The case concerns grain silos situated between a lake and a railroad. The crux of the matter in the case was whether or not the owners of the silos needed a license to operate them, to make them available to the public to use for a fee.

The opinion notes that when we put property up for hire in a business, we become subject to the police power. The reason for this is that once people become dependent on that property, even if they're paying for use of it, their lives can be disrupted if the property is taken out of use. It doesn't matter why that could happen, the point is, regulation under the police power is designed to ensure consistency in pricing and availability.

This need for regulation under the police power is especially true of networks used for "carriage", like railroads, bridges, tollways, copper and fiber. This is also true of mercantile establishments - think Best Buy and Safeway. There is one other area contemplated for regulation by the police power: monopolies.

AT&T was a government sanction monopoly before its breakup in the 1980s. They were regulated by the police power. Municipal water and power is regulated by the police power as local monopolies. Any business that requires a license is subject to the police power with the ultimate aim of maintaining peace and order in the markets. The license provides some measure of accountability, transparency and consistency.

Most of the big businesses we engage with today are monopolies or quasi-monopolies. The biggest ISPs are a network of local monopolies wherever they happen to do business. They never actually compete with each other and depending on where we live, we really don't have much choice. For example, I have only one choice for an ISP with a wired connection to my home, Centurylink. Is it fair for Centurylink to establish and maintain a local monopoly, with a captive audience, and use a part of their profits to discourage municipal broadband in my city? I don't think so.

90% of the media is owned by 6 parent corporations that pretend to be competing. Whenever we pay the cable bill for TV, we're paying them. Whenever we buy movies or music, we're paying them. It's hard to go elsewhere for content unless, YouTube, Vimeo or The Pirate Bay are enough. Wait. Unless you rent a virtual private network, you're never going to see The Pirate Bay. But when we buy content, Spiderman, Frozen, CSI or, god forbid, Nickelback, we're paying those parent corporations. They are using their profits to make campaign contributions to fight causes we might not necessarily support. You know, like stronger copyright and patent protections in the Trans Pacific Partnership.

90% of what we buy on the store shelves is produced by 10 parent corporations pretending to compete with each other. General Mills, Kellogg, Nabisco, Pepsi to name a few. They don't like the idea that they might have to label genetically modified foods. But they're pumping all kinds of money, money we may have spent on their products, into campaigns to prohibit cities, counties and states from requiring the labeling of GMO foods.

What about the oil companies? A few really big companies provide 90% of the oil we consume as gas and diesel in our cars. You probably know them-  BP, Shell, Exxon, Chevron and ConocoPhillips - just five major corporations. They make huge profits in this country and worldwide. They are also using their profits to fight anti-carbon regulation, to support global warming deniers and to support wars in places like Iraq, Afghanistan and eventually, Iran. Their agenda isn't necessarily ours, yet with their monopoly power, we have almost zero choice but to buy their products and watch as they buy Congress and the President.

This is why corporations and businesses that are not corporations, should not be allowed to make contributions to political campaigns of any kind. If you want to use your own after tax contributions to make a small contribution that's fine. Corporate profits should be off limits.

There is a famous Republican who agrees with me: Teddy Roosevelt. What did he have to say about corporations in politics?
"All contributions by corporations to any political committee or for any political purpose should be forbidden by law."
He knew well the power and profit of corporations and fought hard to limit their power so that the source of their power, The People, could not be usurped and used against them. That kind of Republican is gone today. Republicans (and many Democrats) simply lack the will to resist the temptation of corporate money.

Is it right for a corporation to take our trust in them for a product we like enough to buy, one that we might even be loyal to, and use those profits to support political agendas that do not support us? I don't think so.

Just because I bought your product doesn't mean I agree with your politics. That's why business contributions to political campaigns should be prohibited. It's a moral issue. It's a matter of trust. It's the best way we know how to save our democracy.

Here are two organizations leading the fight to restore order in our elections:

mayday.us
Friends of Democracy