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:

Brunei Darussalam
New Zealand

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:

Friends of Democracy

Thursday, June 25, 2015

Free trade agreements have almost nothing to do with growth

Try doing a search for "how much growth is predicted under TPP or TTIP" and see what you find. I did. According to this article at TechDirt (the top link), the best estimates for TPP and TTIP combined is about 0.9% GDP over 10 years. That means that estimated growth is really about 0.09% per year, cumulative and after full implementation. That is equivalent to a rounding error.

A quick note to explain how search works at Google. Google ranks pages according to reference. The more people link to a page, the higher up it goes in the list. Google is indexing all the time to get the best search results. Linking is just a part of it, but the goal at Google is to get you want to see, fast. I've tried others and by far, Google has the best search experience for me.

It is worth noting that the TechDirt article relies in part on work by Dean Baker at the CEPR (a liberal organization). I'm a big fan of Dean Baker, so to be sure my search results were clean, I did an incognito search, in other words, I used Chrome without being logged in or using any cookies. The same TechDirt article came in at the top. Back to the story...

If we want to go conservative, then look no further than the Brookings Institute. They are predicting $77 billion a year in growth from TPP. That's still a tiny fraction of a $16 trillion economy in the US or roughly 0.48% GDP. That agrees with the other figures I've seen out there.

The Brookings Institute estimates $77 billion in new growth from the TPP. They also point out that TPA would provide a range of restrictions on the President's authority to negotiate and sign agreements:
"Under TPA Congress determines the administration’s negotiating objectives and agrees to refrain from seeking to amend a signed agreement and instead to limit itself to an up or down vote on the entire TPP agreement. The president is also required to consult Congress during the negotiations and notify Congress 90 days prior to signing an agreement. Without TPA, following presentation of the signed TPP agreement to Congress, Congress could require USTR to seek additional concessions from other TPP parties. Therefore, the TPP parties are unlikely to put their last best offer on the table in the absence of TPA."
All of this got started because I saw this article in my Facebook stream from Al Jazeera. That article is by economist Dean Baker (hey, he's a rising star) and many of the points above are discussed. Most public discourse that I see on these trade agreements is about the growth. Well, Baker says that the best estimates of growth are small and would not be felt by most of us until the agreements are fully implemented 10-12 years down the road.

But what we don't see in public discourse is the distribution of that growth. According to Baker, most of that growth would go to the top 1% and that growth is so small that it might never trickle down to the middle class. Baker also notes that the biggest concerns for the middle class are the price increases of pharmaceuticals due to stronger patent protections and higher prices for media content due to stronger copyright protections. Baker has noted that these provisions are actually trade barriers because they increase rents on inventions, drugs and entertainment (think Disney).

Baker rightly notes in the same article that the Fed is considering raising interest rates just when the economy is picking up steam. Raising rates would slow down the economy, throwing people out of work and reducing the bargaining power of the working class. When unemployment hits 4% or lower, bargaining power increases, but the 1% might prefer not to have to deal with turnover. So it looks almost certain that the Fed will raise rates.

Baker is also one of the few economists that I know who will talk about the trade deficit in the context of currency exchange. He has rightly noted that the strong dollar policy kept in place since at least the early 90s has also eroded middle class purchasing power and cost jobs by making our products more expensive to foreign markets.

To put it differently, if our products cost less, foreign markets would buy them. Balancing the trade deficit with better exchange rate management would bring about 5-6 million jobs home, equivalent to about $600 billion in economic growth. That is almost ten times as much as the TPP is estimated to generate and a fair chunk of that would get to the middle class.

Under all of this is a subtext that few if any pundits are willing to talk about. Maybe they are not even consciously aware of it: public policy is made by the 1%. Sure. We're going to see protests all over if these agreements even look like they might pass and after they pass if they pass. Congress will likely ignore the rest of us and pass those agreements. The press would have us believe that it's a done deal - well why not? 90% of the media is owned by just 6 parent corporations.

Here is an interesting point concerning job losses from trade in the Brookings Institute article that caught my eye:
"Some of these jobs losses have been due to trade: The estimates of job losses in the manufacturing sector attributable to trade range from 15-25 percent of the total. [3] The rest has been due to long-term, above-average productivity gains in the manufacturing sector that have allowed companies to produce the same quantities of goods with less labor, which has reduced the relative price of manufactured products. At the same time, demand for goods in the U.S. has not kept pace with rising productivity and lower prices, with the result that the U.S. spends less on goods. For instance, in 1960, U.S. consumers spent approximately 50 percent of their income on goods, compared with 33 percent in 2010." (emphasis mine)
This is the point about trade and economic policy in general. The middle class has seen an enormous erosion of their purchasing power since the 1960s. This is what economic policy - public policy - by and for the top 1% has done to the middle class. The middle class is running out of money and is working harder to get the money they now earn. These trade agreements will only make it harder to for the middle class to stay afloat.

I guess that's the point of those agreements.

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

CEO pay doesn't have much to do with talent

NakedCapitalism has an interesting article by Yves Smith on stratospheric CEO pay. It is a fascinating exploration of the ways in which CEO pay has been on the rise over at least the last 30 years.

The article is a nutshell look at CEO pay, supported by a recent study by Lawrence Mishel and Alyssa Davis of the Economic Policy Institute on the reasons for such high pay in the first place. The short summary is that it's all about peer pressure. Every company wants to be sure that their CEO is paid more than the others so that 1) they will attract talent, 2) they will not have their talent poached and, 3) CEOs just love to have bragging rights in the sauna at the club. It's also worth noting that the study is intended to bust the myth that CEOs earn the big bucks due to talent. Apparently, their pay has more to do with collusive negotiation rather than talent.

Even so, that would be fine if the productivity of the executives justified the pay. But a number of economists have noticed that pay for labor got off the track of productivity back around 1980. For employees, that meant stagnant wages. For CEOs, that meant a lot more compensation. The study referenced in the article at NakedCapitalism points to compensation consultants doing everything they can to jack up pay. This will only help increase the fees earned by the consultant, but it does nothing for productivity.

Still, it's hard to see, as economist Dean Baker points out, how any amount of talent or work could justify an $84 million pay package. Rather, Mr. Baker would have told us long ago that CEO pay is a matter between friends. How is it that friends can be so noble? Well, when you're on the board of directors of a Fortune 500 company, it's cool to take turns earning that kind of dough. It's even better if your compensation is not determined in an adversarial procedure. Why not let friends determine each other's compensation in the company?

Stratospheric pay has a lot more to do with corporate governance than talent, too. If ordinary shareholders had more say in CEO compensation, that would help to moderate pay. But there is yet another factor at work here: public policy. The Securities and Exchange Commission regulates corporate finance. They can require reports to show the gap in pay between management and employees. They can also require certain rules to allow for better control of the company by ordinary shareholders. But they haven't.

Government is happy to intervene to minimize or mitigate the power of unions and labor, but not so happy to intervene on the subject of CEO compensation. The trends in CEO pay are allowed due to government intervention in the market. Stratospheric compensation packages for top management can only be economical if the pay of everyone else is suppressed. If government intervened to regulate CEO pay the way they regulate the pay of wage earners, I suspect that the gap might not be as wide as it is today.

Unfortunately, only the top 1% have any influence on public policy, so I guess we'll have to ask them for permission to rewrite the rules.

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Huckabee says we need more guns in church? Not so fast.

In a story that seems to have received little attention, presidential candidate Mike Huckabee has offered a solution to prevent more shootings in church: more guns. He offers the following insights:
“All the proposals this president and others have put forward on gun control would not have stopped this shooting anymore than it would have stopped Sandy Hook,” Huckabee said. “The one thing that would have at least ameliorated the horrible situation in Charleston would have been that if somebody in that prayer meeting had a conceal carry or there had been either an off duty policeman or an on duty policemen, somebody with the legal authority to carry a firearm and could have stopped the shooter.”
So if churchgoers pack more heat, they just might be able to stop a shooter in his tracks, right? I'm pretty sure that his observation applies to all mass shootings. If only there had been a good guy with a gun, the people would have been safe, according to Mike Huckabee.

America has more guns per citizen than just about any other nation in the world. We have higher homicide and murder rates to go along with that. A recent study by the Violence Policy Center shows that guns are rarely used in self-defense:
"In 2012, across the nation there were only 259 justifiable homicides involving a private citizen using a firearm reported to the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s Uniform Crime Reporting (UCR) Program as detailed in its Supplementary Homicide Report (SHR). That same year, there were 8,342 criminal gun homicides tallied in the SHR. In 2012, for every justifiable homicide in the United States involving a gun, guns were used in 32 criminal homicides. And this ratio, of course, does not take into account the tens of thousands of lives ended in gun suicides or unintentional shootings that year."
32 to 1 against self defense? Those are not very good odds, even for the honest, law abiding gun owner. There is lot going on when someone buys a gun and considers how it should be used. The claim of self defense would hold water if the stats were there, but they simply aren't there. Most people who buy guns rarely use them, and fewer still have regular training on how to use them properly. Like anything we buy, we must study it, train to use it and be prepared to use it when the time comes.

The elephant in the room that no one wants to talk about? Mental health. I think we can all agree that every mass shooter, from Columbine to Sandy Hook to Charleston had or has mental problems. The National Alliance for Mental Illness has released a report showing that funding for mental health treatment has been trending down again, and it's still down from pre-recession levels:
"In 2014 momentum in the states to improve funding and quality of services for people living with mental illness slowed. While 29 states and the District of Columbia increased funding for mental health services, this was down from 36 states and DC in 2013. Moreover, when current state funding for mental health services is compared with state funding prior to the beginning of the recession in 2009, funding in many states is still down. Between 2009 and 2012, states cut $4.35 billion from their mental health budgets, literally decimating access to services for many people living with mental illness. This damage is a long way from being repaired."
It should also be worth noting that Republicans have enjoyed majority status in a majority of states since the last census in 2010. It would seem that conservatives are cutting funding to mental health while at the same time, passing permissive legislation on gun controls. Doesn't that just seem like the perfect storm?

Albert Einstein once said, "We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them." This is true for anyone, including gun owners who make the decision to take the life of another. Worse, a gun owner cannot solve a problem while loaded with adrenaline, anger and possibly, legal medication like anti-depressants, with a gun in hand. Therefore, we cannot expect people who have problems to solve them on their own. Everyone needs help sometimes.

If guns could save lives everyone would have one. I'd rather have friends and family than a gun.

Monday, June 22, 2015

You'll never get felon bankers in jail - how about public banking?

Robert Reich has the news that the city of Santa Cruz has voted to move it's business away from the 5 biggest banks pleaded guilty to a very serious crime:
"Five giant banks – including Wall Street behemoths JPMorgan Chase and Citicorp – recently pleaded guilty to criminal felony charges that they rigged the world’s foreign-currency market for their own profit." 
True enough those are serious crimes and everyone involved "made" a ton of money, more than most of the rest of us would see in a lifetime. What they did was theft and none of them are going to prison for it. They are, in a sense untouchables.

While it is true that we can move our municipal investments somewhere else, that somewhere else is almost always a private bank. Private banks are in a unique position. They can loan money to other people at interest and at risk. But what is it that they are actually risking? Money created from nothing. I find it odd that any sovereign nation would grant the power to create money to private individuals.

If we can't put the men responsible for high crimes in jail, crimes like foreign currency market rigging, LIBOR rigging and the housing bubble collapse of 2008, then we need to look at another option. An option that, thankfully, is getting more and more attention by the day: public banking.

The concept of public banking is simple (more details by The Public Banking Institute). Municipalities, states and the federal government keep their money in a private bank and they earn a pittance for interest. Then they borrow that money from a private bank at much higher interest when they need to cover deficits or do really big stuff, like infrastructure. That's how it's done now. With public banking, the money is kept in a bank owned by the government. That bank makes the loans needed to keep the economy moving. The bank returns interest earned to the treasury.

One state has been doing this for almost 100 years: The Bank of North Dakota (BND). The BND has been making local loans to farmers and commercial banks in order to avoid sending money away from the state. It has been returning money to the state treasury every year in its existence and continues to provide generous returns today.

Considering how lucrative municipal finance has been for the 5 biggest private banks, they would get really unhappy if public banking were to get traction and public banks were to start up everywhere. Government finance is one of their biggest sources of revenue. If they were to lose that business to public banking, they would not just be upset, they'd be working hard to repeal laws that enabled public banking, but with a lot less money for influence.

Public banking works for the people, not private monied interests that give us the boom and bust cycle. Public banks return interest earned to their respective treasuries. Public banks are a natural exercise of the sovereign power, a power derived from the people. Public banks would be far more accountable to the people than private banks and would actually act in the public interest first because their first duty is to the state, not shareholders seeking yet another profit center. And finally, public banking would be transparent, subject to intense scrutiny, limited to just really boring financing. You know, like financing infrastructure, education and health care.

Private banks would prefer that you consider them first, and they will give you every reason they can think of not to use public banking - except putting the public interest first. If we really want to punish the biggest banks doing the biggest crimes, then we must agitate, lobby and write our local representative to support and implement a public bank. The loss of business to private banks will be punishment for sure, but a shift to public banking might also create and encourage the political will to put the private bankers in jail. Without parole.

Sunday, June 21, 2015

Drinking anything but water inhibits thirst for water

I've been a water fan almost all of my life, and I don't mean it just in the sense of I need water more than anything else just to live. I mean it in the sense that I've tried every other beverage, from sodas to juices and there is nothing that makes me feel better than drinking water.

At some point in my early adult life, I got in the habit of carrying a bottle of water around. I was in my 20s and I distinctly recall how I just hated the taste of water at the drinking fountain. I still had not so fond memories of the water from the drinking fountain at the playground and the park. I worried about how the city water may not be filtered and I didn't like drinking ice cold water. I had read somewhere that drinking cold water is not good for digestion. So I started carrying a refillable bottle around.

I was also allaying my concerns about the environment by using a refillable bottle. I even went from plastic to metal in my bottle choices. I preferred something with a wide mouth that made it easy to fill, easy to drink. I liked having a cap with a smooth round loop that made it easy on my fingers to carry.

Then I began to consider Perrier. It's bottled, it has minerals and it's a little bubbly. Sure, they add the bubbles when bottling, but it still tastes pretty good. I have a few relatives that drink it, so I thought it might be worth a try to see if it would work for me. It did for awhile.

I'd bring one to work every day with my lunch and drink it in the morning with my snacks while I'm working. I found Perrier to be refreshing after a salty snack. So I made a habit of drinking Perrier. I felt like my conscience was clean by making sure to always put the empty bottle in the recycle bins at work or at home. Costco was there to enable the habit even more by making cases available at reasonable prices.

It turns out that Perrier is just another beverage in a long list that I've tried and found wanting. What was it that I wanted? Something that would not inhibit my thirst for water. The reason for this is that I've found that water, filtered, unflavored, unsweetened, is the only beverage to truly quench my thirst.

Over the past few months as I observed my behavior with Perrier, I began to notice a curious pattern with my drinking habits. When I drank Perrier, I drank less plain water, and I don't think it was because Perrier quenched my thirst. Rather, I think it inhibited my thirst. So I dropped the Perrier from my lunch bag to see what happened.

Immediately, I noticed that I drank more water and I made more trips to the bathroom, but I felt better. I felt cleaner. It is fortunate that at my work place, they have reverse osmosis filtered water with hot and cold taps. I use both to warm the water up to something like room temperature. I do that because I'm also starting to get the impression that very cold water also inhibits thirst.

I've always enjoyed my water at room temperature. At home, I have a room temperature water source from another reverse osmosis filter. If I have to take water that's chilled, I let it wait until its had some time to warm up. I might put the bottle next to the fan from a laptop computer to warm it up. Then when it's warm enough, I start to drink it. Even in the hot summer sun, I prefer to drink lukewarm or tepid water.

I don't even think that drinking cold water really cools us down. Sweating is what cools us down. Evaporative cooling is far more effective than drinking cold water. As we sweat, water forms on our skin and then evaporates, taking heat with it to the air. Dogs use the same principle when they hang their tongue out. So you won't see me drinking some chilled beverage in the hot sun unless there is no other choice. But remember that when we sweat, we need to drink more water.

As much as I like Perrier, the best I can say is that my Perrier habit was an interesting experiment, one that I won't have to repeat. I might have a Perrier on occasion here and there, but I won't make it a habit again. Plain filtered, room temperature water is what works best for me.

Friday, June 19, 2015

The bill mill that is ALEC

Muninetworks.org has this tip on the American Legislative Exchange Council, aka, ALEC. Their article includes a link to a video from a local television station in Savannah, Georgia. The video is professionally produced and is really quite a refreshing example of news reporting on TV. What we see in the video is a very nice expose of ALEC as proxy, providing corporate access to legislators and how bills are written and introduced into state legislatures around our country. 

It's a total pay to play system designed just for big money in politics. One former member describes an ALEC meeting as a "bill mill" in the video. The audacity of ALEC and their supporters should not be surprising in the age of Citizens United, except that ALEC is 40 years old.

It seems interesting that people who support ALEC and participate in their meetings crave so much secrecy, yet seem so proud of what they're doing on the outside. If legislators and ALEC are fighting for a worthy cause, then their efforts would not dry up in sunshine. What has happened is that under increased scrutiny, corporations and legislators are dropping their memberships for fear of being associated with ALEC.

Of course, we should be mindful that the draw of money without work will always be there, so we can expect some other non-profit organization to form to replace ALEC if a replacement is needed. But this video is a reminder that even 4 armed off duty peace officers (in full uniform???) can be paid to protect their meetings. I could actually feel adrenaline building up as the officers in that video threatened the fully credentialed members of the press with removal from the hotel as a guest.

This video, and others like it are an uncomfortable reminder that the cost of liberty is eternal vigilance. I guess we have to decide if we prefer regulation of our lives to be by elected government or by private corporations.

Thursday, June 18, 2015

How the establishment loves to dismiss Bernie

Lately, I've noticed in the social media pontifications and predictions that Bernie Sanders will eventually realize that he can't win, that he'll have to give up the ghost and allow Hilary Clinton to move forward without further challenge. Most of the sources promoting this view predict that Hilary will win by virtue of her overwhelming endorsements from governors, legislatures, and the vast pile of money backing her. I don't believe them.

When we read the news predicting the almost certain demise of Bernie's candidacy for presidency at the hands of the Democratic National Convention next year, it's important to remember that we may not necessarily be reading the news at all. If 6 parent corporations own 90% of the major media outlets available for news, you have to look for alternative sources that are not owned by one of those parent companies.

There was a time, for example when Huffington Post was considered an alternative media outlet. But they were acquired indirectly by one of those parent companies. Look at any major site that is owned or related to the legacy media conglomerates and you will see an irrepressible bias against Bernie and in favor of Hilary.

Nearly every article talks about Bernie only in the context of Hilary. Will Bernie push Hilary to the left? Will Bernie cost her this state or that state? Will Bernie consider being VP to Hilary. None ever offer the possibility that he could win for serious consideration by the mainstream voter. He is already being cast as a fringe candidate with socialist views that are not mainstream - when they are.

These predictions and pontifications that are paraded before us day in and day out, are intended to wear us down and condition us to believe that there is simply no way out. We must accept Hilary and let Bernie go. Either that, or we get in the clown car with the Republicans and do a protest vote for the fire rather than the frying pan.

Every time I see one of those articles telling me that Bernie has no chance, I check the source. If the source has any connection to major media, I recognize it for what it is. A tacit admission that the elites will use whatever force necessary to make sure that the people do not get their choice, that only the candidate with the backing from the relevant funders will reach the White House and no other.

Bernie is clued in on this tactic. He understands that countervailing forces will gather. But he also sees and has been stunned by enormous crowds showing up to hear him speak. He's a bigger draw than any Republican wherever he goes. He's starting to rise in the polls against Hilary and we can be fairly certain such a showing is very uncomfortable for her.

Eventually, there is going to be a contest for the Democratic nomination. No matter what happens before that, the nomination is what counts as long as Bernie is going to run as a Democrat. It is entirely possible that the delegates at the Democratic National Convention will not listen to their constituents, give in to the temptation, and take the big money over the wishes of the people that put them there.

It is also possible that, with more than 30 years of experience in politics, Bernie will be able to show us what a farce an election can be when the support he receives from ordinary people is not reflected in the news or the contest for the nomination at the convention. Or he could simply win the nomination and transform American politics. How about that?

Here are some places to consider for alternative news and opinion:

Reader Supported News
Naked Capitalism

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Can treaty power be used to lock away the ladder of upward mobility?

Talk to any Nobel Prize winning economist and you will hear that inequality is a problem in America. While inequality tends to steal the show, upward mobility barely gets a mention.

Prior to the 1980s, upward mobility was much easier. People could more easily start businesses and become rich doing so, and when I say "easily" I acknowledge that starting a business takes hard work and dedication. What I mean is that it was much easier then than it is now.

Consider the 1950s, 60s and 70s. College was either free or very inexpensive. Young adults on their own could afford a small apartment, work part time and still go to school. They weren't being loaded up with debt and could buy a home after finishing college. The minimum wage kept pace with inflation and productivity. People had money to spend and that made the economy grow.

Before the 1980s, we didn't have giant monopolies like we do now. 6 parent corporations own 90% of the media. 10 corporations own 90% of the food we can buy on store shelves. There are 4 really big banks that are too big to fail and control a majority of the assets in America. There are only a couple of oil companies running the show here. That is what can make it so hard to start a new business.

We tend to think of upward mobility as a sort of ladder that everyone could use if they had the talent and skill to use it. Beginning in the 1980s, there was a campaign mounted to hide the ladder, to make it very expensive to use if it was found, and to make it more difficult to discuss. Anyone who talked about the ladder was labeled a socialist, you know, like Bernie Sanders now. The term socialist is not normally a pejorative, but in current political discourse, it is supposed to be bad if you're labeled a socialist. It's almost as if being labeled a capitalist is a good thing.

What happened to the ladder of social mobility? Keen observers will note that many current and former members of Congress used that ladder. Paul Ryan is noted for his desire to cut community college funding, yet in his early adult life, he went to community college on the government dime. Many of our leaders relied upon government help to "lift themselves up by their bootstraps", yet they often maintain that the rest of us should do the same - but without the same help they got from the government.

Allowing minimum wage to track productivity and inflation was another part of the ladder. As economist Dean Baker notes, sometime around 1980, a decision was made to decouple wages from productivity. This is a public policy decision made by men who prospered in an economy when wages were tracking productivity and inflation very well.

Most of the work of hiding the ladder has been done by old men who seemed to believe that whatever riches they had, it wasn't enough, they did it all by themselves and that it didn't seem fair for them to have to compete with younger people. Better to remove all the help and make the following generations really work for it - without getting anywhere. This is what is being done to our younger generations and anyone else who didn't catch the ride like "The Greatest Generation" and older did.

With the rise of Bernie Sanders on the presidential campaign trail, it is becoming clear to the elites that the people are on to them. They are unable to pass ordinary laws in obscurity to do what they want, so they're turning to treaties and trade promotion authority as a way around the public. The treaties are negotiated in secret, and their working drafts are highly classified. Two treaties under current consideration are well publicized. What isn't generally known is that there are 43 treaties in the hopper, ready for consideration by Congress.

All of them are written with one general purpose in mind: the subversion of the free world into one giant privatized profit center for the lucky few who get to sit under the spigot. The thinking is that the treaties are designed to be invulnerable to court rulings and that once they are signed and ratified, we cannot back out. That is what the major media would have us believe.

The treaties that will parade through Congress are being used not just to remove the ladder, but to lock it away and put it up for rent by those who can afford it. As long as we believe that treaties are not subordinate to Constitutions, that is what will happen.

But there is a way out. The Founding Fathers were not comfortable with foreign entanglements and alliances. So they wrote the Supremacy Clause into the Constitution:
"This Constitution, and the Laws of the United States which shall be made in pursuance thereof; and all treaties made, or which shall be made, under the authority of the United States, shall be the supreme law of the land; and the judges in every state shall be bound thereby, anything in the constitution or laws of any state to the contrary notwithstanding."
In Reid v. Covert, 354 U.S. 1 (1957), the Supreme Court held that the U.S. Constitution supersedes international treaties ratified by the U.S. Senate. The Reid Court stated as follows:
"... No agreement with a foreign nation can confer power on the Congress, or any other branch of government, which is free from the restraints of the Constitution. Article VI, the Supremacy clause of the Constitution declares, 'This Constitution and the Laws of the United States which shall be made in pursuance thereof; and all the Treaties made, or which shall be made, under the Authority of the United States, shall be the supreme law of the land...’
"There is nothing in this language which intimates that treaties and laws enacted pursuant to them do not have to comply with the provisions of the Constitution nor is there anything in the debates which accompanied the drafting and ratification which even suggest such a result...
"It would be manifestly contrary to the objectives of those who created the Constitution, as well as those who were responsible for the Bill of Rights – let alone alien to our entire constitutional history and tradition – to construe Article VI as permitting the United States to exercise power UNDER an international agreement, without observing constitutional prohibitions. (See: Elliot’s Debates 1836 ed. – pgs 500-519).
"In effect, such construction would permit amendment of that document in a manner not sanctioned by Article V. The prohibitions of the Constitution were designed to apply to all branches of the National Government and they cannot be nullified by the Executive or by the Executive and Senate combined."
So all that talk about freeing up trade is really a facade. The US government cannot confer any new power upon itself by means of a treaty. Investor State Dispute Systems? If they are unconstitutional, they are out. The US government cannot confer sovereignty upon a corporation. Period. Privatizing public utilities as personal profit centers for the miscreant CEO? It's out if found unconstitutional. Preventing states from passing laws you don't like? Well, the courts have found that treaties can help with that. But that doesn't mean we have to accept what is said about treaties as truth.

Organizations like Public Citizen, Electronic Frontier Foundation, The American Civil Liberties Union and The Roosevelt Institute are all non-profit organizations that can help us cull the bad laws from these treaties and assert our rights. They have attracted and collected some of the best talent and skill needed to set the most onerous provisions of these treaties aside.

But they cannot do it alone. We need to be there with them, agitating, lobbying, protesting, organizing, doing whatever it takes to ensure that our rights under the Constitution are respected. With enough effort, talent and skill, we can return the ladder of upward mobility to their rightful owners. The people.

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

The man who told Reagan to speed it up

For the last few days, I've had this video playing in my mind from time to time. Here, we see Ronald Reagan giving a speech to Wall Street at the New York Stock Exchange. During the video, we see Reagan fumbling for words. While he's gathering himself up, Donald Regan is telling the president to "speed it up".

Seeing that video also reminded me of the storyline in Doonesbury called "Reagan's Brain". The point of the strips by Garry Trudeau are to show that Reagan is really just a front man for someone else. Donald Regan was one of those other people.

Who was Donald Regan? Donald Regan was appointed Secretary of the Treasury and later served as Chief of Staff under Reagan. Most notably, he was CEO of Merrill Lynch for 11 years prior to his public service in the White House and the Treasury. He was also one of the chief engineers of "Reaganomics". The results of Reaganomics have been a disaster for the American middle class, and when Donald Regan asked the President to speed it up, this was part of the plan.

We can learn more about the plan from this video from Moyer's and Company where two economists explain just what happened. From 1980 to now, at least 40% of all the economic gains from growth in the economy went to the top 1%. Regan was one of the chief architects of the inequality we see now in our economy. Reagan probably wasn't smart enough to see all of this coming.

In my view, the colossal failure of Reaganomics should be self-evident to anyone viewing the empirical data and literature on the subject. But it has apparently been lost on the Republican Party. Two governors server as prime examples: Governor Brownback of Kansas and Christie of New Jersey. Both have cut taxes for the very wealthy and cut social services and education to pay for it.

It is important to notice not just the results of the promoters of Reaganomics in public policy. It is also important to notice the results in private businesses. There is Eddie Lambert who is working hard to impose his libertarian fantasy upon Sears, trying over and over again to make it work. Sears will probably declare bankruptcy in the not too distant future as a result of terrible stewardship.

As noted previously, Donald Regan was CEO of Merrill Lynch. You might remember them as the company that helped Orange County slip into bankruptcy. They also received a giant dollop of welfare from the federal government when they revealed that they too, had gulped the credit fault swap kool-aid that led up to the collapse of the housing bubble.

The same people who started Reaganonics and the slide of the middle class into oblivion, apparently feel they haven't finished the job. Sure, some of them are dead, but there are fervent believers still wanting in to give the middle class one last shove off the cliff. One of them would be Jeb Bush. The Bush family wants back in a 3rd time, waving a flag of deficit reduction and war, two policy objectives that have proven incredibly difficult to reconcile, even without tax breaks to the wealthy.

Most of us know Jeb Bush as the former governor of Florida. But few of us are old enough to remember the Savings and Loan Scandal of the 1980s under Reagan's watchful eye. Sure, many executives were prosecuted and sent to prison, the opposite of what we did after the collapse of the housing bubble. Some, however, escaped prosecution. Jeb was one the lucky few that went untouched.

Jeb would like us all not to remember his part in the Savings and Loan Scandal. It would be nice if we could just forget the role all of the Bush men played in that scandal, but as for Jeb, check this out:
"Jeb Bush defaulted on a $4.56 million loan from Broward Federal Savings in Sunrise, Florida. After federal regulators closed the S&L, the office building that Jeb used the $4.56 million to finance was reappraised by the regulators at  $500,000, which Bush and his partners paid. The taxpayers had to pay back the remaining 4 million plus dollars."
That is probably what Donald Regan meant when he said "speed it up". We did the same thing again for the biggest banks in the nation after the housing bubble collapsed. Before the GOP decides to nominate a Bush to be the front man for the presidency again (a very likely prospect), the rest of us should take a more careful review of history to see who it is they have selected and what kind of mindset he promotes.

Apparently, accountability is not part of that mindset.

Saturday, June 13, 2015

What happens when the people leave?

I have a particular fascination with ghost towns. I'm not exactly obsessed about them, but I find them to be very interesting curiosities when they do pop up in my browser. My interest in them arises from my experience as a kid in elementary school.

I remember visiting the Calico Gold mine in California on a field trip in school. I remember seeing the little doorways and thinking that in 5th grade, I was already taller than most everyone of that time. I was fascinated by the thought that there were people living there, trying to make the best of a difficult place to live. They didn't have TVs, dishwashers or even light bulbs.

Then there was Bodie, California. I visited that ghost town on a family road trip. Again, I never forgot the way everything looked and even to this day, consider that men, women and children lived together in a very dangerous and difficult town. All of them fighting in some way, over gold.

From time to time I wonder about what happen when we leave our buildings and roads behind. Much of the American West is desert so nature tends to leave them largely untouched. Old buildings, cars and wagons will stand, largely untouched for decades if not centuries.

In more humid and fertile climates, the plants really do take over. A few days ago, someone posted a very nice collection of pictures of an abandoned fishing town in China. Here is just one of the pictures:

There are other pictures on the same page, and upon closer inspection, we see that the buildings are covered in ivy. Notice how foggy the mountaintops look. That's humidity and those plants are just loving life on these buildings.

Over time, as they work to maintain their links to the building, they slowly break the building down into dust. That's what nature does. The water, the wind, the sun, the bacteria and the plants, will all work together to breakdown and dissolve the work of mankind.

That ghost town is a reminder that nothing is permanent. No building, no roads, nor even the laws we write, are permanent. Some may say the meek shall inherit the earth. That may be so, but the plants and the animals that came before us made it into what we know of it today. Earth is and will remain a wonderful place to be if we can just stay out of their way.

Friday, June 12, 2015

James Dimon, Elizabeth Warren and international banking

The word on the internet is that James Dimon, CEO of JPMorganChase, want's to "mansplain" international banking to Elizabeth Warren. I find that ironic for a number of reasons. But first, let's look at who we're talking about in some detail.

Here is the opening paragraph for the Wikipedia entry on Elizabeth Warren:
"Elizabeth Ann Warren (née Herring; born June 22, 1949[3]) is an American academic and politician, who is the senior United States Senator from Massachusetts and a member of the Democratic Party. She was previously a Harvard Law School professor specializing in bankruptcy law. A prominent legal scholar, Warren is among the most cited in the field of commercial law. She is an active consumer protection advocate whose scholarship led to the conception and establishment of the U.S. Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. Warren has written a number of academic and popular works, and is a frequent subject of media interviews regarding the American economy and personal finance."
She's essentially a law professor in the field of commercial law, specializing in bankruptcy and serves as a member of the United States Senate. Given her broad experience in finance, she might be right when she says this:

Now let's have a look at Jamie Dimon:
"James 'Jamie' Dimon (/ˈdaɪmən/; born March 13, 1956) is an American business executive. He is chairman, president and chief executive officer of JPMorgan Chase, one of the Big Four banks of the United States, and previously served as a Class A director of the Board of Directors of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York. Dimon was named to Time magazine's 2006, 2008, 2009, and 2011 lists of the world's 100 most influential people. He was also named to Institutional Investor‍ '​s Best CEOs list in the All-America Executive Team Survey from 2008 through 2011."
Mr. Achievement, right? He is also one of the highest paid CEOs in America and still managed a $20 million compensation package after his company was fined $20 billion for certain wrongdoing. His company stock was essentially worthless on September 30, 2008 when assets were compared with liabilities. But he thinks he still knows more about banking than Elizabeth Warren. Maybe he does. Maybe not.

It would seem to me that Dimon knows more about where is friends are in government than about running a bank. If the free market had it's way with JPMorganChase, and their peers, the banking landscape would have been transformed. The biggest banks would have declared bankruptcy and in a normal capitalist economy, other people would buy what's left over and run a new business with it.

That's what happened in Iceland. They let their banks fail, put criminals in jail and let the economy recover. That's not what happened here. We constipated our economy by saving the banks and hosing consumers.

Had we taken the Iceland route, we'd be in a boom right about now. Sure there would be pain at first, but it's only temporary. That's because the market learns more from failure than success. Perhaps Mr. Dimon didn't realize that lesson upon receipt of the bailout from the government. The bailout he received from the government might not disqualify him to be an expert on international banking, but it doesn't help him, either.

Thursday, June 11, 2015

Religion and despair in the classroom

It is becoming harder and harder to miss the news getting out about a growing fraction of schools in America. It seems that in Louisiana, they're putting the Bible in the hands of kids in science class. Someone honestly believes that the book of Genesis is relevant in science class and that creationism (it's not a theory - not even close), should be taught alongside the Big Bang.

This is, of course, a violation of the First Amendment. But there is something more to it than that. It smacks of desperation. Under the veil of "criticism of evolution" state legislators hope to keep the Bible in classrooms to "debunk" Evolution and the Big Bang. This is all approved by Bobby Jindal, the right-wing governor with presidential aspirations. Jindal says, "What are we afraid?" Oh, I don't know. How about persecution?

In Idaho, Republicans want the bible in astronomy, biology and geology classes. Apparently, they too are afraid that kids will not get the "full spectrum" of materials and instruction so lavished upon the kids in the state of Louisiana. So far, it looks like 10% of high school teachers are promoting or advocating creationism in the classroom across America.

In every case where creationism is taught, the preferred text used to challenge scientific theory in the classroom is the Bible. No word yet on whether the Torah, Quran or the Tipitaka (the Buddhist holy text) will get honorable mentions. Given the fact that all the other religions are shut out, there appears to be a subtext of this agenda.

I can smell the fear in the words and actions of the so-called leaders who profess that American is a Christian Nation when not a single Founding Father has ever concurred. Most of the Founding Fathers were deists and Freemasons who believed that all men should practice religion according to their own conscience. They were building a country where you are free to believe or not. They knew well how explosive the mixture of religion and government can be.

What Christians are practicing today smacks of using the force of government to indoctrinate kids into Christianity. That kind of behavior suggests that they will not rest or find peace until everyone else believes as they do. As if the use of government force to bring their book, and only their book into the classroom, would bring about an era of peace and freedom.

I have tried to read the Bible myself and I must admit, even as a kid, I could not accept the sense I had of reading someone else's fairy tales and being asked to accept all of it as true. It was far and away, one of the most uncomfortable intellectual experiences I have had in my life. I simply cannot accept what the Bible says as a true account of the creation of our world. Yet, I respect those who do believe it and support their right to maintain and nurture that belief. I have a problem when they seek to force that belief system upon me or my kids.

Even in their own book, Jesus (if such a man really existed) said to follow him if you want to. He never expressed any desire to use force. He maintained that people must make a choice to follow him and nothing more. He never said anything about using government to expose kids to his teachings. I suggest that to do so would be to encourage an attitude I think we should call, Christian Supremacy.

Christian Supremacy says that there is no better religion than Christianity. All others must stop what they're doing and follow The Way of Jesus. The subtext of the message is this: "Please, follow us so that we will not be persecuted again as a minority". That's the desperation I observe in the politics of Christians who want to put their book in science class and teach it as fact.

Christians are certainly entitled to their believes, just as anyone else may choose to believe or not to believe. I say that the diversity and expression of human opinion is essential to human survival. I encourage everyone to speak up and consider the opinions of others not as fact, but as information we can use to survive as a species. It all adds up. Just be sure to back up what you say with evidence so that we all know what we're working with.

Given the mounting damage we've done to the earth, we're going to have to cooperate or perish. Indoctrinating kids into one religion or another probably won't help us to survive.

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

The stakeholders of the TPP are 600 corporations

There is a lot of news about trade agreements these days. But one thing you won't see in the mainstream news is the work of former Secretary of Labor under the Clinton Administration, Robert Reich. He did an interesting thing. Instead of using a computer to hack his way to get a copy of the Trans Pacific Partnership, he made a phone call (and a video about the TPP):

“I’d like to see the text of the Trans Pacific Partnership trade deal,” I told the person I reached in the office of the U.S. Trade Representative.
“I’m sorry,” she said, “it’s classified.”
“But representatives from some 600 private corporations have access to it by way of a secured Internet portal,” I said. “I’d like the password to the secured portal, please.”
“That’s not possible,” she said.
“But I’m a former cabinet official. I had security clearance. Why can representatives from 600 private corporations have access to this text and not me?”
“I’m very sorry,” she said.
“Look, Congress will be voting shortly on whether to fast-track this deal without amendment or discussion. Several members of Congress have called me to get my advice before they vote. All I’m asking for is the same access to it that people who work for 600 corporations are getting.”
“I can't help you,” she said.
"WikiLeaks has already published three leaked chapters and is selling the entire thing for $100,000. Wouldn't it be cheaper and simpler just to give it to me?" She laughed and said goodbye.
600 corporations have access? Where are the Non-governmental organizations? Where are the people? Aren't we stakeholders?

If you ask Bernie Sanders, a United States senator, probably not.
Bernie is the only presidential candidate to openly call out the class war that is currently being prosecuted by the 1% and the richest corporations in the world against virtually everyone else. He seems to understand that the TPP like many other "free trade" agreements is really all about self-dealing, nothing more. It is truly astonishing that some 600 corporations have access and influence to the agreement where ordinary people do not.

The most interesting aspect to this entire charade is that no one is talking about the one thing we could do to wipe out the trade deficit. Balance the dollar against other currencies, and Blamo! 6-7 million jobs could be created here. Oh, wait. There is someone talking about doing that, but he's not a part of the negotiations and the mainstream press hasn't noticed him, or worse, is trying to ignore him.

That would be an economist named Dean Baker. He's consistently called for weakening the dollar to match other currencies to eliminate the trade deficit. He also predicted the collapse of the housing bubble long before it came down. But all that doesn't matter to the negotiators. Better to lard up the agreement with a legal framework that allows corporations to sue nations that are party to the deal. Or to pump up copyright and patent protection for corporations that own them.

Then they can call it a free trade deal when they're done.

Tuesday, June 09, 2015

How student debt depresses the economy

It would seem that housing prices are on the rise, but they are going to run head on into a massive wall: student debt. According to USAToday, total student loan debt is estimated to be $1.2 trillion for everyone who has a student loan. Banks are aware of the trend since they're in the best position to help stem the tide. But given the attitude of Congress in the last few years, like passing laws that exclude student loans from bankruptcy, there is no sign of abatement.

While we're loading our students up with debt on the way out from college, let's look at the mood on the internet:

Isn't that something called usury? Banks just love this. How about this one?:

Remember, some of these kids will run for office and they will assume that debt is normal. They are probably not Keynesians. But then there is this one:

This last graphic says it all. We went from a society where the kids can go to college, get a job in their career choice and leave college with little or no debt. They could even buy their first home, finish up college and start raising a family.

Remember that wall of debt? That is what we have led our children into, thinking that somehow, debt will build character, that they will earn the money they need to pay off the loan if they work hard. There are many people with two or three jobs out there, trying to make ends meet. They don't have time for family, much less the money to buy a home. They are working hard, very hard.

Given the sentiments out there, and the general knowledge among those who care to look, that a few European countries provide free education to anyone who wants it, a revolt on the debt seems likely. Consider this article in the New York Times, "Why I defaulted on My Student Loans". It is a fascinating tale of revolt against usurious banks, their collection agents and the decision to just give up. I know some people with tremendous student loans and no means to pay them back, despite their coveted degrees.

A free and prosperous people must be educated, or they will not remain free. Why not? How can they possibly read the contracts they sign or click through on the computer and know what they mean? How can they know the meaning of the laws their supposed leaders will write for them? How can they get a job and comprehend the technology they're going to use without an education?

Not everyone is a brainiac, capable of learning anything anytime. Not everyone has the talent, discipline, luck or connections to start a business, become an athlete, musician or actor, with success. This is why we need free public education for everyone. $60 billion a year will give that to everyone who wants it. I'll leave you with one more meme:

This last meme shows the priorities of the Reagan Revolution. When we voted "Grandpa" into office, we had no idea what we were getting into. Student debt is no way to create a thriving culture, capable of solving the problems we face and meeting world class competition head on. And it is certainly no way to revitalize the housing market, unless of course, you're a landlord. Then it's cool, right? 

Loading up our kids with debt is the road to serfdom.

Monday, June 08, 2015

The correlation between glyphosphate and autism

In November of 2014, I wrote an article covering a statistical link between autism and the use of glyphosphate. As you can see in the chart below, the trend in autism and the use of glyphosphate is nearly a perfect fit, but no one could say why there was such a close fit.

The source of the chart is Stephanie Senneff. She is controversial, often referred to as a quack and even admits to being new to biology. Yet her work is still supported by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). Senneff is roundly criticized by the scientific community as a search around the web will reveal. What is hard to miss is the condescension in that criticism.

There are many, many chemicals that are sprayed on the food we buy in the store. It may well be that it's hard to pin down the source of autism to one chemical. But consider this: Glyphoshate is pretty much everywhere. It's the key ingredient in RoundUp Ready, the weed killer you can buy at Home Depot or Lowes. It's sprayed even more on crops genetically modified to resist glyphosphate. The GMOs give farmers the confidence to spray even more of this stuff on our food.

There is a Snopes article claiming that the link between autism and glyphosphate is unproven and suggests that we should look more to genetics than to the chemicals on our food. Yet I would find it hard to believe that autism rates can go from 1 in 150 in 2000 to 1 in 68 in 2012 (CDC site stats here) on the basis of genes alone. The chart above shows that autism rates have gone up rather quickly since 1994, when glyphosphate was first introduced.

In this article, Senneff makes the case the biological pathway to autism is in the gut bacteria. The same mechanism that kills genes could also be killing off the bacteria in our gut. If you kill the gut bacteria, you're going to have problems all over your body. Gut bacteria provide nutrients that we can't provide on our own.

I note with interest that Senneff claims that the rate was actually about 1 in 10,000 in 1970. The actual numbers seem to be in dispute in the past as WebMD puts the number closer to 1 in 2,000. What matters is that with better technology and the internet we can check the facts. There is general agreement that the rate has gone up from something like 1 in 150 or less, to 1 in 68. That is a pretty alarming spike, especially for people with young children.

We may not have all the facts now, but I prefer to take the insurance and look for organic everything, especially corn and soy. I'd rather not look back and wish I had something different. Going organic is quite possibly the safest route. Sure, it's more expensive. But I would rather pay the farmer than the doctor.