Archive for October, 2019

Nostalgia Isn’t What It Used To Be

The other day I read an editorial/article talking about the good old days of the early 1960s, where the author reminisced about how the middle class family could make it easily on wages of $10 an hour. At that point, I lost all patience, because no one in what I’d call the middle class was making $10 an hour back then.

In 1962, the minimum wage was $1.15/hour, equivalent to roughly $10/hour today, but a $10 an hour wage back then meant an annual income of $20,000 – equivalent to an annual income of $168,000 today. That summer, after my first year of college, I’d managed to get a job as a lifeguard at a commercial pool that paid $1.75 an hour, equivalent to $15.00 an hour in today’s dollars, in order to earn money for the next year of college expenses, and I knew I had a great summer job. I also worked every extra hour I could get, because there were no benefits, and no limits on overtime and no additional pay for overtime. Federal overtime regulations were phased in during the mid-1960s

In 1962, the average factory worker made around $2.50 an hour ($22 in 2019 dollars) or about $5,000 annually, equivalent to $42,000 today, not including any benefits. Auto workers made more, on average somewhere over $3.00 an hour for an annual wage of $6,000 – $51,000 or more in today’s dollars. And they had generous benefits in addition.

By 1965, I was an ensign in the U.S. Navy, married and making about $5,800 a year with quarters and subsistence allowances on top of basic pay. We lived in a rented one bedroom apartment in Chula Vista, California, and had one car. We didn’t go into debt, but we certainly didn’t save anything, nor did we splurge on luxuries, and we certainly didn’t eat out much. Now… today, to get the purchasing power of that $5,800, you’d have to make $46,000, and a great many costs of living have gone up more than the inflation rate. We paid $110 a month in rent, equivalent to $900 now, but the cost of renting a one bedroom apartment in the San Diego area now averages just under $2,000 a month.

The reason why I’m “reminiscing” isn’t because the good old days were good or bad. As is the case now, times were good for some people and not so good for an even larger number. But I also wanted to point out to those who haven’t really thought about it that a dollar doesn’t go near as far as it used to, and my calculations understate that inflation, because the CPI has been tweaked so that it doesn’t reflect the full costs of inflation, particularly in the costs of housing, medicine, and higher education… and too many older people who point out how little they made tend to forget just how much more one of those old-time dollars bought.

Here We Go Again

Trump has now called the ongoing impeachment process “a lynching.” Despite his self-pity and rhetorical protests, the impeachment process that the House of Representatives has begun is about as far from a lynching as possible.

A lynching takes place when a mob, almost always of white males, decides to hang someone, seldom ever anyone except an African-American male, without any process of law whatsoever.

Impeachment is a process set forth in the Constitution, requiring that the House develop articles of impeachment, which the House presents to the Senate. The Senate must hear that presentation and then vote by a two-thirds majority to vote to convict and remove the president from office. Given that the majority of the Senate is Republican, President Trump is in no danger of being removed from office unless a significant number of senators of his own party agree with the findings of the articles of impeachment. Even if they do, it’s certainly not a lynch mob, but a Constitutional process. Also, if convicted, Trump wouldn’t end up dead, unlike the more than four thousand minority victims lynched in the United States in the U.S. between 1882 and 1968. At worst, he might end up out of office and subject to criminal prosecution.

At the same time, I don’t notice anyone calling the impeachment process Republicans used on President Clinton a lynch mob, and the charges against him were essentially those of private moral turpitude, while the charges against Trump appear to be much more in the category of “Treason, Bribery, or other high Crimes and Misdemeanors” that affect the entire nation, something that Clinton’s supposed crimes had absolutely no impact upon, except to excite moral outrage. And interesting enough, Trump has done far more in the way of moral turpitude than Clinton ever even thought of. But the Republicans don’t want to consider that, either.

But maybe the American people should, and not fall for Trump’s “poor victim” act, especially since Trump seems to think it’s fine for him to be able to attack others, usually with great vituperation, but not for anyone to judge him. “L’ete, c’est Trump!”?

The Tie That Binds

The United States has an election in little more than a year, a long, drawn-out process that’s already been in progress for months and months. There are still more than a dozen Democratic candidates seeking their party’s nomination. Based on what’s happened so far, it’s likely that that that nominee will not be finally determined until the convention, which is in mid-July in Milwaukee next year. At that point, the Democratic nominee will have just a little more than three months to mount a challenge to Donald Trump, and to unite the various interests that comprise a not-exactly-united party.

That’s a significant problem, and then add to that the Trump re-election effort, which is already pumping up his voting base with internet and media-based presentations, along with rallies presided over by the God Trump.

I use that term advisedly, because the Trump re-election campaign is based on the staples of old-time religion – a gospel (in this case, the gospel of Trump) with very little relation to the facts; fear of change (mixed with hatred of anyone who doesn’t share their views); ignorance (willful or conditioned) about who their god is and what his preachers will do in his name; and blind allegiance.

In the last election, even without the effect of Russian internet trolls, the Trump campaign mounted a technically and practically far more effective social media campaign than did the Democrats…and unless matters change dramatically in the next few months, the same will be true in the year ahead.

The key to the success of the Trump campaign is the special tie or glue that binds his followers and supporters together, and that tie is hatred expressed in exaggerated untruths that those followers want to be true and in the demonization of anyone who questions the Great God Trump. Anyone who opposes or questions is evil… and the Trump machine is already pouring out this message, and interestingly enough, Facebook is allowing verifiable lies and blatant untruths to be aired in those ads. In addition, any fact that does not agree with the Gospel of Trump is fake news.

The actual facts are totally ignored. The amount of financial damage that Trump’s trade wars have caused to farmers cannot be undone in less than decades, if ever. The fact that Trump has done nothing for the coal industry [and never could have] is ignored, as two of the nation’s largest coal producers have shut down, and done so without giving miners their last paychecks, while one of their owners was shifting funds into a personally-owned multimillion dollar resort, complete with a replica of the Roman Coliseum (rather ironically applicable for Trump and his supporters). That doesn’t include the betrayal of the Kurds, or the caging of immigrant children, either. Or trying to make deals with foreign leaders to attack Trump’s political rivals, or trying to direct foreign government leaders to his resorts.

None of that matters. All that matters is the Gospel of hate, particularly of the “liberal elites,” personified by distorted and exaggerated statements about “lying Hillary,” by claiming that Democrats are climate extremists who want to take your guns and tax you more, by labelling all immigrants as rapists and thieves who take American jobs (even when Americans won’t do the jobs that immigrants will), and by claiming that the poor are effectively worthless welfare rats who don’t deserve food, education, or healthcare, all of whom Trump blames erroneously for destroying your lives, while asserting that only he, the Great God Trump, can make America great again.

And, all the time that the Democratic candidates are squabbling over details about health plans, about immigration, about education (details that are largely meaningless because no proposed plan gets through Congress, if it even gets that far, without major changes), the Trump hate and fear machine is welding together his constituency while the Democrats are fragmenting theirs, because they’ve forgotten a basic lesson of politics that the Republicans and Trump haven’t.

You can’t do anything unless you first get elected.

Just Who’s Attempting a Coup?

Trump called the Mueller investigation a coup. The Trump campaign keeps talking about the Congressional impeachment investigation as a “coup” intended to put liberal Democrats in power.

Those claims are totally false. In the first place, a coup is an attempt to replace a lawful head of government illegally and by force. The impeachment process is an integral part of the U.S. Constitution, and therefore by law and definition cannot be illegal. It’s also a process carried out by law, and not by force. Second, even if Trump were to be impeached and convicted, the Democrats still wouldn’t be in control of the Executive Branch, because the extremely conservative Republican Mike Pence, as Vice President, would succeed Trump, and he could name another conservative as the new Vice President.

So why all the Trump ads and comments about a coup?

Clearly, it’s not about law. It’s not even about Conservatism. It’s about playing on the fears and ignorance of Americans who don’t understand the Constitution and don’t want to. Those who endorse Trump’s slogan of Make America Great Again aren’t interested in the law or the Constitution. What they want is the America of the 1950s, where white men controlled almost everything, where women were clearly secondary, where semi-skilled factory workers made as much as skilled professionals, and sometimes more, and where minorities “knew their place.’

Trump and his appointees are doing their best to tear down the rule of law, to circumvent and ignore legal requirements they don’t like, to use threats and force on foreign governments to get them to attack Trump’s opponents.

So… if anyone is staging a coup, it’s Trump, because he and his crowd are the ones using illegal means to stay in power. And charging the Democrats with trying to stage a “coup” is a brilliant diversion of attention from what Trump and his confederates are actually doing.

Trump… and the Corporate Flaw

Donald Trump has made it more than clear that he believes he’s above the law and accountable to no one.

A ninety year old law says that Congress can look at anyone’s tax returns, but not the Donald’s. All the rest of us have to obey subpoenas to appear or produce documents, but not Donald, or anyone who works for him. The Constitution clearly states that Congress appropriates funds and determines where those funds are spent, but Donald is special, and he can move around funds as he wishes. If someone disagrees with the Donald, even if they’re citing the law, they’re history. If he wants to stiff contractors who worked for him, he gets away with it. He has held rallies in cities across the country, but he still owes them money and hasn’t repaid the cities for the costs his campaign agreed to pay.

If he wants to bribe women to keep them silent about his depravity, he does, and, outside of a bit of adverse publicity, he gets away with it. Despite swearing an oath to support and defend the Constitution, he clearly believes that its limitations don’t apply to him.

So where did all these behaviors come from? From corporate business, of course, because that’s where he’s spent his entire adult life before becoming president. He may be one of the worst examples of a business leader, but all the despicable traits he’s demonstrated are far from unheard in the corporate world. Just how many rich and powerful businessmen have abused women and used money and power to escape justice? How many others are there besides Jeffrey Epstein, Harvey Weinstein, or Roger Ailes? How many others have pulled stunts like Martin Shkreli of Turing Pharmaceuticals, who not only raised the price of the lifesaving drug Daraprim from $13.50 a pill to $750 a pill, but also was convicted of securities fraud and conspiracy in 2017 and sentenced to a seven-year sentence in federal prison. In typical arrogance, Shkreli also claimed that his excessive price fixing will result in the company, of which he owns 40%, being worth $3.7 billion by the time he gets out of prison.

Then there are the Golden Parachute scandals, excessive compensation packages for departing CEOs, payments despite underperformance leading up to CEO departures and certainly not justified given already high levels of executive pay and retirement benefits. As I noted earlier, one of the companies where this occurred was PG&E, whose incompetence and failure to properly install and maintain power lines required massive power shutdowns in California because the equipment and lines were judged not to safe in high winds. Funny thing is, we get winds like that all the time here in Utah, and our power company doesn’t have to create outages.

Maybe, just maybe, it’s time to rein in not only Trump, but the whole CEO culture of privilege and exceptionalism.

The Corporate Flaw

Corporations have a few advantages, and one of those advantages – limited liability – has slowly but inexorably also become the greatest flaw of the corporate culture. This means that shareholders may take part in the profits through dividends and stock appreciation but are not personally liable for the company’s debts… or for any crime or action taken in the interest of the shareholders. Generally, the law has also held that a corporate official cannot be held personally liable for an action taken in the best interests of the corporation.

In practice, that means that if a corporate official decides that a cheaper part is in the corporate interest because it will reduce costs and increase profits, so long as the part is not known to be defective, that official cannot be held personally liable if the part fails and causes multiple deaths. This is what happened in the Ford Pinto gas tank scandal or more recently in the 2009-11 Toyota “sticky” accelerator problems.

Over the years, as I noted in an earlier blog, California’s electric utility, PG&E, engaged in numerous unsafe and unethical practices which led to massive environmental problems and practices as a result of groundwater contamination with chromium six, and affected at least 2,000 residents with carcinogenic effects, effectively resulting in the almost total depopulation of Hinkley California, and costing PG&E over a billion dollars. In 2018, shoddy PG&E practices led to the Camp Fire, which destroyed 18,000 structures and killed 85 people, and required an $11 billion settlement with insurers. Yet in more than 20 years of environmental and technical problems, not a single official or executive has been held personally responsible, and now PG&E has filed for bankruptcy because it fears it cannot pay what it owes in damages. Even if it can, none of those executives will be held responsible, and the shareholders, not the executives, will pay.

Drug companies can raise prices to astronomical levels in the name of profits, effectively depriving uninsured or underinsured or poor patients of live-saving medications, and not even the corporation can be held responsible for the resulting deaths.

Financial firms can take incredible risks and nearly destroy the financial structure of the U.S., if not the world, cost tens of thousands of people their homes, and tens of thousands their jobs, and the government bails them out – and not a single executive was personally held responsible.

Talk about risk free! A poor man shoots someone over a few dollars and spends years, if not his life, in prison, while executives make decisions that kill scores of people, and they get rewarded.

Or am I the only one who thinks this is a bit unbalanced?

Of, By, For… Whom?

In his Gettysburg address, President Lincoln promised that “the government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.” It’s certainly a great promise about government, but exactly how true is it today?

Well… there’s certainly one aspect of government that tends to get overlooked, and that’s how much government does for corporations and wealthy individuals,from the Department of Agriculture (USDA) to HEW, the Department of Defense, and the U.S. Postal Service.

The USDA offers more than $20 billion annually in farm subsidies of various sorts. Three quarters of the richest farms receive federal farm subsidies, and one quarter of the 400 richest Americans [as defined by the Forbes 400 List] received federal farm subsidies, including at least four billionaires. Under Federal Crop Insurance programs, the top ten percent of farms receive payments 141% higher per acre than the national average for all farmers, and those in the top ten percent receive 70% of crop insurance payouts. Not only that, the Crop Insurance is issued by 16 insurance companies who also receive as a group on average an annual subsidy of $1.5 billion. And 99.5% of the $12 billion in payments from Trump’s program to cushion the impact of Chinese tariffs on U.S. farm goods went to rich white farmers.

Then there are agricultural import quotas and tariffs. Sugar import quotas and subsidies cost Americans over $4 billion annually, and that money goes largely to three companies through inflated U.S. sugar prices. The same problem exists with rice, which increases U.S. consumer rice prices by roughly 40%.

And while there’s been talk about the high cost of pharmaceuticals, until recently hard numbers have been hard to come by, but the House Ways and Means Committee released a new analysis of drug prices in the U.S. compared to 11 other developed nations, showing that the U.S. could save $49 billion annually on Medicare Part D alone by using average drug prices charged in those countries. That doesn’t even include comparable cost savings for Medicaid.

As I’ve noted elsewhere, the U.S. Postal Service continues to subsidize bulk commercial and advertising mail, as well as undercharge Amazon for package delivery. Several news sources claim that it isn’t so about Amazon, but they don’t understand the fine print. Fixed costs are allocated on a model, and under that model roughly 5% of USPS fixed costs are allocated to package delivery when almost 25% of USPS volume is now in package delivery, and the USPS is running annual deficits of several billion annually, which have to be made up by the federal government.

Then, there’s what government does for the fossil fuel industry. According to a new report from the International Monetary Fund, the U.S. has spent more subsidizing fossil fuels in recent years than it has on defense spending, The IMF found that direct and indirect subsidies for coal, oil and gas in the U.S. reached $649 billion in 2015. Pentagon spending that same year was $599 billion.

And how did that happen? The fossil fuel industry spends some $40 million dollars on campaign contributions to members of Congress every election and another $300 million in lobbying Congress.

And, of course, despite the new tax law, which was supposed to result in a better tax system, an in-depth analysis of Fortune 500 companies’ financial filings finds that at least 60 of the nation’s biggest corporations didn’t pay a dime in federal income taxes in 2018 on a collective $79 billion in profits, according to the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy.

Now…what was that about government of the people, by the people, and for the people?

Slippery Slopes?

The other day, I had a discussion, if one could call it that, with a friend who loves his guns, and who, while not a member of the NRA, worries about gun control just like the NRA does. His basic point was that responsible gun owners aren’t the problem. He’d be perfectly happy with background checks, and requiring a gun operating permit/license and an exam requirement, but he thinks that prohibiting “assault rifles” wouldn’t do that much because there are other “sporting rifles” that can do the same thing. They just don’t look as ominous and don’t carry the name of “assault rifle.” He feels the same way about limits on clip or magazine capacity. And that means, in his view, that one limitation or restriction on weapons and/or ammunition will lead to another and another, because those restrictions won’t be all that effective.

Leaving aside the obvious point that it would be difficult enough politically to enact more than one assault rifle or magazine/clip size restriction, let alone a series of such measures, this line of argument leads back to the NRA claim that guns don’t kill people, but people kill people. In a way, proponents of background checks are agreeing with that NRA claim, because they’re saying that a restriction on who can carry firearms will reduce deaths from guns. So… if that’s true, why don’t we just avoid the issue of which guns are more lethal and should be prohibited and go the other direction – require a state or federal gun operating permit, which includes gun instruction requirements and passing a federal use/safety exam, as well as firearms insurance? Perhaps it also, like a driver’s license, should have licensure levels.

After all, right now, one of the largest problems with guns is that people who shouldn’t have such weapons do in fact have and use them. There really are only two effective solutions – either remove all the guns or regulate the people using them.

In peacetime, at least, cars kill more people than guns do, and we haven’t banned cars… but we have put restrictions on drivers, and required automobile registration, insurance, and safety features. So why not do the same for guns? As my friend, the gun-lover, pointed out, a truly responsible firearms user shouldn’t have a problem with such an approach.