Saturday, December 1, 2012

The Decline of the American Workplace

This time of year, there is the annual controversy over Black Friday.  Do we need an event where shopping is taken to such a ludicrous extreme with people standing in line sometimes for days and battling over the limited number of doorbuster bargains?  A previous posting some time ago, Tragedy on Black Friday was about how people have actually been killed by stampedes through the front door.

But more recently, the controversy has been over the one-upmanship of stores opening earlier and earlier on Black Friday until inevitably, the sales have now started on Thanksgiving evening, ruining another holiday for people now forced to work that evening.  To make things worse, my nearby McDonald’s announced on their sign “OPEN THANKSGIVING & CHRISTMAS”. And more restaurant chains are following suit.

While it is good that restaurants and stores are catering to consumers, does anybody care about those who are now forced to give up their holidays?  To be sure, there are a number of places that simply cannot close for the holidays such as hospitals and police departments.  But anybody who works in such a place clearly knows ahead of time that holiday work is part of the deal.  And here, we are talking about professionals like nurses, doctors, and policemen who likely make a decent wage.  But is it fair to make those at the bottom rung at or near minimum wage also have to work holidays – especially at no additional holiday pay?  For these workers, this is the latest adding of insult to injury.

Of course, not everybody cares about working on Christmas or any other holiday.  If someone wants the extra cash from working holidays, there is nothing wrong with that.  And indeed, many places open on holidays say that they ask for volunteers before making their work schedules.  For example, when my younger son worked as a food server in a nursing home, he was offered double time to work holidays – an offer he gladly accepted!  But especially where there isn’t any extra pay for working holidays, it’s hard to believe that there are enough volunteers to run the business that day.

The disappearance of holiday days off is just part of a disturbing trend faced by many American workers.  Indeed, the US is the only advanced country without a national vacation or holiday policy.  So while most of those in say, professional and manufacturing jobs get some paid vacation and holidays, those in retailing, restaurant, and hospitality for example, are at the mercy of their employers.  At one time, this wasn’t such a big deal since many of those who worked in the latter categories did so as temporary or second income jobs.  But with the elimination of many professional and manufacturing jobs in favor of retailing and restaurant jobs, more and more Americans are forced to try and make do with these jobs to earn a basic living.

In addition:

- Those companies that do offer health insurance, usually only offer it to full-time employees.  Employees not offered full-time hours must pay for or go without health coverage unless they have a spouse who is covered.  Others who do have health benefits are sometimes forced to stay in jobs they may find to be miserable to make sure they keep that coverage.

- Some people working part-time jobs want or need a second part-time job to try and make ends meet.  But all too often, employers force their part-time employees to accept work schedules that are constantly changing which makes accommodating a second job either impractical or impossible.

But while the white-collar workers have it better than those at the bottom of the economic ladder, they are not without their woes.  Companies seeking to maximize profits are constantly downsizing and those who are left working often have to do the work that was previously done by two or more workers.  This often leads to workers forgoing part of their vacation time since they know that without someone to back them up while gone, the backlog of work they left will be there to greet them upon their return. And more workers are now being given laptop computers and/or smart phones to be able to respond to E-mails or other work requirements during their time away from the office.

But what is most disheartening is that this is just the tip of the iceberg if one is to believe the accounts in The Big Squeeze: Tough Times for the American Worker by Steven Greenhouse, the labor and workplace reporter for the New York Times.  The Amazon link here includes an online preview of the book that is interesting, if not disturbing reading about the hell that a number of workers have gone through.  And check out this link for an interesting list of Greenhouse’s most recent articles which include coverage of recent labor protests against (believe it or not!) Walmart and the fast food industry.

It is obvious that the recent financial collapse and its resultant high unemployment has made things much worse for the American workforce.  In a normal thriving economy, if a worker was mistreated or underpaid, he or she could look for and find a better opportunity elsewhere.  But with jobs so scarce, employers know they have most if not all of the leverage over their employees – and they are not shy about taking advantage of it!

But even before this recent financial collapse, wages and working conditions in America have been stagnating or even declining in the last several decades even with greatly increasing productivity and corporate profits.  Many who support unions feel that this trend started with The Strike That Busted Unions when President Reagan fired nearly 13,000 air traffic controllers and continues to this day with Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker stripping public sector unions of their collective bargaining rights.

The article concludes with this interesting observation: 
With Mr. Walker’s militant anti-union views now ascendant within the party of a onetime union leader [Reagan], with workers less able to defend their interests in the workplace than at any time since the Depression, the long-term consequences continue to unfold in ways Reagan himself could not have predicted — producing outcomes for which he never advocated.
It doesn't have to be this way.  Companies like Costco have bucked the trend in spite of investor complaints that the company could make more profits by paying its employees less. 
Good wages and benefits are why Costco has extremely low rates of turnover and theft by employees, [CEO Jim Sinegal] said. And Costco's customers, who are more affluent than other warehouse store shoppers, stay loyal because they like that low prices do not come at the workers' expense. "This is not altruistic," he said. "This is good business."
It would be nice if more companies would adopt this attitude.  But there is no sign of this happening, especially in a depressed job market.  It is nice to think that employer-employee relations can work perfectly fine in a totally unregulated environment without any governmental intervention.  But the fact is that every other industrialized country has felt the need to adopt basic labor standards for their workers while America lags far behind to the detriment of many of its workers.

Our government has done many things in the past to help the American worker from the 40 hour work week to the minimum wage and yes, the right to collectively bargain.  But in the pro-corporate, anti-worker political environment we have in many parts of the US, these gains have been severely weakened over the years and need to be addressed.  It’s nice to have low prices and robust corporate profits.  But we also need to think of the welfare of our workers to make sure our economy works for everybody and not just those at the top!

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

For Romney It Was All About Character

For those who watched Mitt Romney's concession speech, it is easy to understand how even one of his biggest detractors like MSNBC’s Chris Matthews on Morning Joe said in the most positive way that his speech was “a piece of wonder.”  His words were magnanimous and kind to the president without the smallest trace of partisan rancor we have so often seen in his campaign.  In short, Romney came across as a man of character. It’s just too bad that none of this character was on display during the campaign!

In my view, Romney could (and should) have been disqualified from ever being president based on character issues alone!  Where to begin?

Back in February of this year, I posted Is Mitt Romney a Vulture Capitalist? seeking to answer questions about how much harm Romney and Bain Capital may have inflicted on companies and their workers while lining their pockets through their leveraged buyouts.  Yes, there were the videos on display during the Republican primaries where workers told their stories on how they lost their jobs when Bain took over their companies.  But I couldn’t find any writings that really did a good job to explain the workings of these leveraged buyouts and how they hollowed out these companies.

But then a friend sent me a link to Matt Taibbi’s 8/29 Rolling Stone feature article Greed and Debt: The True Story of Mitt Romney and Bain Capital.  And after taking the time to read this rather lengthy article, I was (and still am) mad as hell!

I am convinced that Taibbi has done the best job of all the articles I have read in explaining the workings of the leveraged buyouts (as opposed to startups like Staples) that Romney along with Bain specialized in.  If you haven’t already, I hope you will take the time to read it.

If Taibbi is right, Romney and Bain come across as little more than merciless predators to the companies they took over.  The usual M.O. cited by Taibbi was that Bain first bribed the upper management of a company with lucrative bonuses to step aside and cooperate with the “friendly” takeover. Then Bain would saddle the company with massive debt and management fees which forced the companies to do massive layoffs to try and survive. The sole purpose of all of this was to make money (which Bain seemed to do whether the company survived or not) with the welfare of the workers not even the least of their concernsSo much for being a job creator! But the icing on the cake is the assertion that without the preferential tax treatment these transactions received, Romney and Bain would have had a much harder time making a profit from all of this.  Of course, it was more difficult to see what happened in detail along with how Romney profited from all of this since he refused to release his tax returns from those years.

If the Bain experiences aren’t enough all in themselves to prove a lack of character, then there are the many and legendary flip-flops in his positions through the years.  While running for senator and later governor in a liberal state like Massachusetts, he had to persuade the electorate that he was a moderate (if not liberal) Republican to have any chance of being elected.

And while Romney clearly had strong ambitions for the presidency, he was faced with a dilemma.  He was a moderate but the litmus test for securing the Republican nomination in 2012 was to be as hard-right of a conservative as possible.  So the only choices were either to do the honorable thing and bow out like Chris Christie, Jeb Bush and others who were literally begged to run but didn’t because they knew they were not hard-right enough.  Or make wholesale changes in his political positions to try and fit in with the hard-right.

So this begs the question of whether Mitt Romney’s true core beliefs (assuming he has any) are more like the moderate Mitt from Massachusetts or the severely conservative Mitt he claimed to be during this presidential campaign.  Perhaps the best clue to an answer comes from Mitt’s father, George W. Romney a moderate (and sometimes liberal) Republican governor and presidential candidate who by all accounts served as a role model for Mitt.

If this is so, then the only conclusion is that Mitt Romney essentially won the Republican presidential nomination by pretending he was someone he was not no points for character here!

Perhaps the clincher on the character issue is the amount of deception Romney used in his campaign.  While deception and political campaigns are hardly mutually exclusive, many long time political observers feel that Romney was in a class by himself when it came to deception.  When numerous fact checking organizations pointed out the outright deception in some of the ads, the Romney campaign not only refused to pull the ads but often doubled down on what they said.  While the avid political junkies may follow the fact-checking columns, the Romney campaign likely figured that the person without the time or inclination to study the issues wouldn’t know – or care.

But late in the election and losing in the polls of the all-important swing state of Ohio, a desperate Romney campaign resorted to intentionally misleading ads on the Obama auto bailout and whether Jeep was preparing to relocate jobs from Ohio to China as reported by The Christian Science Monitor article, Is Mitt Romney ad on Jeep jobs misleading?  
[Reaching] the crux of the matter. “Obama took GM and Chrysler into bankruptcy and sold Chrysler to Italians who are going to build Jeeps in China. Mitt Romney will fight for every American job.”

Here’s the clever aspect of this: Taken apart, each clause in those two sentences is true, or at least defensible. But put together, they’re implying that Mr. Obama’s actions have led to Jeep jobs jumping to Beijing. That’s not true. It’s an assertion that the fact-checking website Politifact says “throws reality into reverse.”
This was so outrageous that even the Chrysler/Jeep CEO took the rare step of entering the fray by personally refuting the Romney campaign ad.  But the ad was never retracted.  At that point, it didn't really matter. It was the straw that broke the camel’s back.  Perhaps the electorate of Ohio could be misled on a number of issues but on the vital issue of automotive industry jobs, nobody was fooled and Romney was toast in Ohio which sealed his fate in the overall election.

So even though I disagreed with Mitt Romney on most policy issues, I still based on character issues alone feel that he had no business even getting close to being in the White House – unless he has a ticket to take the tour!

So the reader may ask why we should made a big deal of all of this.  After all, Romney did lose and this can be seen as just piling on.  But campaign managers tend to be copycats.  Whatever worked before will surely be worth trying again.  If Romney’s campaign of lies and constant position changes had succeeded, it may well have served as the blueprint for future campaigns on both sides of the aisle. Now that is a scary and depressing thought! 

Post Script - November 15, 2012

So now it looks like that gracious concession speech Romney made wasn't for real either when in a conference call to some of his donors, he essentially accused Obama of bribing voters to secure his victory.

Check out this NYT op-ed by Andrew Rosenthal Romney Blames Loss on Obama 'Gifts' which I think sums things up pretty well.

Now we know that Mitt Romney did not “misspeak” when he whined to a big-money crowd that 47 percent of Americans mooch off government and “believe they are victims.” He meant precisely what he said.
In a post-mortem call with his biggest donors on Wednesday, Mr. Romney said his team ran a “superb” campaign...and that he lost because President Obama showered voters with “gifts.” By voters he meant black, Hispanic, female and young voters. And by “gifts,” he meant government money that is not spent on tax breaks and other incentives for big companies and rich people.

Monday, October 15, 2012

What Would Overturning Roe v. Wade Accomplish?

[Note: I previously posted this during the 2008 presidential campaign.  With some minor editing, the message is just as valid today.]

Of all the reasons for US citizens to go out and vote for a presidential candidate this November, the one at or near the very top concerns the nominations our next president will make for the likely future Supreme Court openings during his term. While the people we vote for in Congress make the laws, the Supreme Court which consists of lifetime appointees, may have a more profound influence on the lives of more people as the result of their decisions.

One of the most well known and controversial Supreme Court decisions was 
Roe v. Wade which back in 1973 declared that restricting abortion rights at least in the first two trimesters of pregnancy was an invasion of privacy and thus unconstitutional. The result of the decision of course applies to not only the federal lawmakers, but also the state and local ones too. Those who are ‘pro-choice’ opposing laws restricting abortion, hailed this decision. But those who are ‘pro-life’ believing in restricting abortion for moral purposes, condemned it and vowed that they would do all they could to eventually get Roe reversed by supporting the appointment of conservative Supreme Court justices. With the conservative appointees of President Bush, the Supreme Court is in a precarious liberal-conservative balance that has caused some bitterly divided 5-4 decisions. The next president will almost certainly tip the balance decisively one way or the other with his appointees which will then likely determine the outcome of a number of important Supreme Court decisions, not the least of which would be the fate of Roe v. Wade.

Of all the social issues facing this country, abortion is the most hotly contested because no other issue so often blurs the distinction between personal morality (behavior somebody believes is right or wrong for oneself) and political morality (behavior somebody believes should be enacted into law).

Social conservatives especially have a habit of combining these two concepts into one. But there IS a difference between the two! Let me provide an example:

Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney for religious and presumably personal morality reasons does not drink alcohol. But he has never advocated the return of Prohibition to restrict others from drinking. The reasoning is simple; although he may strongly feel that drinking alcohol is wrong, I’m sure he accepts that reasonable people can disagree on this so trying to pass a law to restrict others from drinking would be unwise.

Fair enough? How about one more example:

Many of the most visible ‘pro-choice’ political figures such as 
John Kerry among others are not only personally opposed to abortion but are also practicing Roman Catholics — a religion that condemns abortion in no uncertain terms. Why can’t we use the same logic about reasonable people disagreeing in the Romney example to laws on the restriction of abortion? When life actually begins along with whether abortion is truly murder are most passionately held views of many. But nonetheless, reasonable people do disagree on these points! In fact, those who don’t accept these disagreements may themselves be unreasonable!But a primary focus of a Mitt Romney presidency would be the overturning of Roe v. Wade. Morality issues aside, a pragmatic question needs to be asked — what would overturning Roe v. Wade accomplish?

Many believe that this would automatically make abortion illegal. But this is not true. Reversing Roe only means that individual states would then have the right to pass laws restricting abortion as they see fit.

End abortion? Really?? It’s nice to think that we can “end” things we don’t approve of by simply making them illegal. But how realistic is this especially on an issue like abortion where there are passionately held views on both sides?
According to Wikipedia an estimated 44 million abortions are performed globally each year, with slightly under half of those performed unsafely. However, unsafe abortions result in approximately 70 thousand maternal deaths and 5 million disabilities per year globally.[2] 
One has to wonder how many of the people who are advocating making abortion illegal in the US and around the world are aware of such staggering numbers. Aside from the horrible safety issues, do they advocate arresting and jailing all of these women — along with presumably those performing the abortions? We are already building prisons as fast as we can to try and house the drug offenders as part of our War on Drugs. Do we build even more prisons for the upcoming War on Abortion?

And how do we go about enforcing these laws? Do we have law enforcement officers posted outside of doctors’ offices checking out women suspected of having an abortion? Now that would really be opening Pandora’s box!

There are some pragmatists among the ‘pro-lifers’ who will agree that although we can’t stop abortion everywhere, we can at least stop or maybe discourage it in the states where it is illegal. But who does that really affect, if anyone? For those with the means, it would just be an overnight stay in a neighboring state where abortion is legal. And for those who are thinking about the unlikely possibility of a constitutional amendment banning abortion in the US, there is always Mexico or Canada. As for the poor who want an abortion, they will either have to find a way to scrape up the money to travel elsewhere — or stay home to have an illegal abortion with the risks that entails.

Although there are many things that can be done to try and reduce the number of abortions, by far the most effective ones are those used before pregnancy happens. But unfortunately, the people who are the most in favor of anti-abortion laws are the same ones who are most likely to be against the most effective preventative measures like sex education and contraceptives. But despite their moral dislike for these options, wouldn't it be a worthwhile compromise for them to give in to those ‘lesser evils’ to avoid the far greater evil of having an abortion that quite possibly could have been prevented in the first place?

Monday, October 1, 2012

Romney's Dangerous Truth Telling

Here are a couple of telemarketing calls we will surely never get!

Hello, I’m representing the Charity for Rich People.  I know…everybody else does charity giving for poor people and sick people but we wanted to do something different.  Maybe they don’t really need the money but rich people need a little love too!  After all, they got rich all on their own because they are both smarter and harder working than any of us.  Can I count on your donation?


Hmmm…that didn’t work very well.  How about this?

Hello, my candidate for president believes in giving more tax breaks to our richest citizens even if it may result in you paying a little more in taxes.  It would be nice to give a tax break to everybody but the rich people are the only ones my candidate really cares about since that is where he gets most of his campaign donations.  Can I count on your donation?


Although both examples get high marks for being truthful, they would get extremely low marks for effectiveness to say the least!  After all, what person in their right mind would donate some of their hard earned money to somebody who doesn’t even need it?

But as absurd as these examples are, with a few changes, we may still get some to agree to part with some of their money for those who are better off, even if it is indirectly through tax policy.  First of all, instead of referring to ‘rich people’ we should call them ‘job creators’.  Certainly giving more tax breaks and subsidies to ‘job creators’ sounds much more appealing than just giving money to rich people. Right? And instead of talking about rich people being the most generous campaign donors, we can let the donations come in through Super PACs so the huge amount of money being raised for campaign ads (along with the identity of the contributors) isn’t quite so visible to the casual observer.

The result of these ‘changes’ now dovetails with much of the Republican/conservative narrative on what they want for our country.  And as long as there are enough of those changes to make their positions palatable to the electorate, they can hope that enough voters will buy into what they have to offer.

But then comes Mitt Romney to blow the cover on what he was really thinking when he gave his now infamous secretly recorded "47 Percent" Comments given at a fundraising dinner.
There are 47 percent of the people who will vote for the president no matter what. All right, there are 47 percent who are with him, who are dependent upon government, who believe that they are victims, who believe the government has a responsibility to care for them, who believe that they are entitled to health care, to food, to housing, to you-name-it -- that that's an entitlement. And the government should give it to them. And they will vote for this president no matter what. ... These are people who pay no income tax. ... [M]y job is not to worry about those people. I'll never convince them they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives.
Of course when this video was made public, it was embarrassing to Romney and many of his Republican supporters.  Indeed, many conservative politicians and commentators have tried to distance themselves from these comments.  But the important question is whether these were just some misspoken words that needed a correction or an apology.

When running mate Paul Ryan was interviewed about this, he didn’t disagree with the substance of Romney’s remarks but said that his words were "Obviously Inarticulate" and suggested that a job is what these people need, ignoring the fact that many of these people are retired or are the working poor who don’t earn enough to have to pay income tax.  And ironically, some of these people who Romney says he is not worried about are part of his Republican base!

So there is no other conclusion than these remarks were simply an expression of Romney’s true feelings and that his only real mistake was being careless enough to be too truthful in front of an audience of like-minded, wealthy supporters who parted with $50,000 a plate to be there.  Being too truthful in our imaginary telemarketing examples caused people to hang up on us.  But the damage to Romney’s presidential chances by his 47 percent comments are real as more and more voters abandon him for what they see as a lack of empathy for those who are not rich like him.

In fact, this perceived lack of empathy is only now causing the Romney campaign to switch gears and mention his accomplishment of bringing universal health insurance coverage to Massachusetts while governor as evidence of his empathy.
"I got everybody in my state insured," Romney said, adding that nothing "shows more empathy and care." 
True enough, but then he is gambling that he will then be able to explain why his health insurance plan was so good for Massachusetts while the almost identical Obamacare must be repealed at all costs.  Here is another bit of unfortunate truth telling that was derided by the conservative publication The Weekly Standard.
And I have experience in health care reform.  Now and then, the president says I’m the grandfather of Obamacare. I don’t think he meant that as a compliment, but I’ll take it. This was during my primary. We thought it might not be helpful.
Again, true enough.  But the article then concludes not by questioning the truth of what Romney said, but simply by saying that, “This is a line that Romney needs to ditch in a hurry.”

So this all really begs the question. If being too truthful about what he really believes in can get Romney into so much trouble, what does it say about the man — and what he stands for? 

Saturday, September 1, 2012

The Folly of False Equivalency

So what is false equivalency which is so prevalent today?

Let’s start with a pretend example.  You wish to produce a program commemorating the life of the late Neil Armstrong and his career which included being the first man to walk on the moon.  We can have a number of guests; perhaps an astronomer, some NASA workers from that mission, and maybe even fellow moonwalker Buzz Aldrin.  Seems like it would be a great show, wouldn’t it?

Ah, but someone who passionately believes that the moon landing was a hoax hears about your program and then demands to have equal time on your show to give his side of the story.  So what do you do?  Do you say yes because after all, fair is fair?  Or instead, do you suggest that he checks into a nearby mental hospital?

At first blush, it seems only fair that we always give both sides equal time to give their opinions on any topic.  But then there is this famous and wise quote from the late Senator Daniel P. Moynihan (D-NY).
"Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not to his own facts."
Indeed it is this blurring between opinion and facts where we go off the rails.  For example, giving equal coverage to whether President Obama should or shouldn't be reelected is a matter of differing opinions and a worthwhile discussion.  But unfortunately, the so-called birther movement which has its own facts on where the president was born has gotten an incredible amount of media coverage from Donald Trump’s rants on the subject (which temporarily raised him to the top of the Republican poll numbers) to Mitt Romney’s recent birther cheap shot that received a large ovation from the crowd in attendance.  Although Romney later said in interviews that it was a joke, he made no attempt to tell that to his cheering audience.

Of course this whole line of factual emptiness can be turned against Trump himself if we wanted to by questioning whether he was really born in this country.  After he produces his birth certificate and perhaps his hospital records, we can always pronounce them to be forgeries and then again question whether he was really born in this country.  While this is all idiotic, it’s no different than the tactics Trump and his fellow birthers have been using against the president.

In another example, despite the overwhelming consensus of climate scientists that the earth is warming and is almost certainly caused by man, there are still many climate change deniers, mainly conservative commentators and politicians (many financially supported by the fossil fuel industry) who are given free reign by the media to give their own versions of the facts.  And it’s working.  Doubts about global warming/climate change among Americans have been increasing over recent years.  But interestingly, a recent poll showed that only 2% of Canadians do not believe that climate change is real which is likely a reflection that Canadians are not subjected to the same amount of anti-scientific propaganda in the media as Americans.

A similar argument can be made about the false equivalency in the minds of some over a creation-evolution"controversy" despite there being just about no dispute whatsoever within the scientific and academic community about the validity of evolution over creationism.  Again, while differing opinions are OK, this false equivalency by the zealous supporters of creationism has led to numerous efforts by them to try and give creationism equal billing with evolution in science classes and textbooks – not a good thing when the US is trying to catch up to the rest of the world in science education.

But there is one false equivalency that really drives me up the wall. And that is the assertion that MSNBC is the same as Fox News except that one is liberal and the other is conservative.  Two things need to be mentioned here.  One is that as a liberal, I am an avid MSNBC viewer. The other is that admittedly, the above assertion does have some truth to it.  Fox has conservative opinion, and MSNBC has mostly liberal opinion except perhaps on their early morning flagship show, Morning Joe hosted by former Republican congressman Joe Scarborough.  Although Scarborough generally portrays himself as a moderate Republican, he does seem to have a serious man crush on not at all moderate Republican Paul Ryan.

Where the two are radically different are in their presentations of facts – or more accurately what it is they present to be facts.  The MSNBC example here is pretty typical.  Evening host Ed Schultz does a piece on how Rush Limbaugh made some racist remarks earlier that day.  Then he immediately supports that as shown in this video so the viewer can make up his or her mind whether Schultz is engaging in fact or just opinion.

In contrast, there is Glenn Beck who while at Fox, famously declared President Obama to be a racist who hates white people as can be seen in this video.  While again he is entitled to his opinion, the problem is that he presents this to his viewers as fact, not by any examples of racist behavior like Schultz did, but by reciting a list of people he was said to associate with.  So while both MSNBC and Fox both engage in opinion,  Fox more often and more blatantly serves up opinion (along with lies) disguised as facts.  This leads to the false equivalency by many of their viewers between Fox’s opinions and somebody else’s facts.

And while cable networks like MSNBC and Fox are not particularly worried about being seen as partisan in their views, the broadcast networks watched by many more people go out of their way to appear impartial and politically down the middle. Again, this is OK when presenting different opinions.  But for example, when presenting two people, each with their own incompatible set of “facts”, doesn’t journalistic integrity demand enough follow up questions to try and see who is really presenting the facts and not just opinion? Unfortunately, since doing so may make them look too partisan to some, they all too often just wimp out and present both views as equally valid opinions which does a great disservice to their viewers specifically and the democratic process in general.

To conclude, here are liberal commentator Stephanie Miller’s brilliant reflections on the false equivalency so prevalent on the Sunday morning political talk shows like Meet the Press.
…as soon as the “Meet the Press” theme music comes on…and no matter what I hit him with — Sunday paper, remote control, last night’s turkey meatballs — [David] Gregory just keeps right on babbling about the harsh partisan rhetoric on both sides of every political debate. With his trademark “I’m inside-the-Beltway-and-you’re-not” approach, he never asks the follow-up question that would separate a talking point from a fact. He thinks he’s just treating both sides the same way. 

What Karl Rove’s dancing partner doesn’t get (or won’t admit) is that both sides don’t treat him the same way. His Republican guests play him like a rube at a carny. They lie, they mislead and they scapegoat — and Gregory lets them get away with all of it in the name of “journalistic fairness.” Just once it would be nice to have a Democrat look him in the eye and say, “Name one instance where we do what Michele Bachmann does. Or Sarah Palin. Or Rush Limbaugh. Name one. 
Cue the crickets.
And in the words of another great journalist, Wolf Blitzer, “We’ll have to leave it there.” Before the liberal gets a chance to accidentally slip in a fact …

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

A Primer on Greed

OK, boys and girls.  The word for today is:

greed [greed] n

strong desire for more: an overwhelming desire to have more of something such as money than is actually needed

Let us illustrate this word with an admittedly absurd example.

- I need enough food to keep from starving to death.

- I need enough food to satisfy my hunger.

- I need extra food to store away in my home to keep me from running out someday.

- Just in case the food runs out in my home, I need a warehouse (or maybe 2 or more) to be able to fill up with more food.  After all, one can never have enough!

- Whew!  All this food doesn’t seem like it’s quite enough.  I may well have to steal some. Maybe others won’t have enough – but that’s their problem!  I may land up going to jail, but it’s a chance I have to take because…repeat after me…one can never have enough!

So this is indeed an absurd example.  Or is it?

If we substitute ‘money’ for food and ‘banks’ for warehouses, we can come up with plenty of real life examples of greed.

For example, there is today’s favorite example of someone who is filthy rich, Mitt Romney who is reputedly worth about a quarter billion dollars.  Romney and his company, Bain Capital had an unlimited appetite for making millions upon millions of dollars even though many people lost their jobs in the process.  And then there are all of those overseas investments in places like the Cayman Islands (presumably to avoid taxes).  But is the relatively small amount of money he saved by doing this worth all of the grief he is taking from the need to hide all of this by not releasing tax returns that people from both parties are demanding?

Then there is the flap over Ralph Lauren outfitting the 2012 US Olympic team with clothing made in China.  Look, I get it.  Chinese labor is much cheaper than ours.  So when selling goods in a very price sensitive marketplace, manufacturers may well have to cut costs in every way possible to stay competitive.  But a look at the Ralph Lauren website shows for example, men’s polo shirts for $145 up to the double breasted blazer for a cool $795.  It is obvious that these upscale items are hardly price sensitive and are likely to be hugely profitable for the company.  How much of that huge profit would they lose out on if this clothing was made by American workers? 

A similar argument can be made about Apple and its very profitable iPhone and iPad which are also manufactured in China.  To add insult to injury, Apple has received a great deal of criticism over the horrid labor conditions in Chinese factories making these devices.

In 2010, workers in China planned to sue iPhone contractors over poisoning by a cleaner used to clean LCD screens. One worker claimed that he and his coworkers had not been informed of possible occupational illnesses.  After a spate of suicides in a Foxconn facility in China making iPads and iPhones, albeit at a lower rate than in China as a whole, workers were forced to sign a legally binding document guaranteeing that they would not kill themselves.  In 2011 Apple admitted that its suppliers' child labor practices in China had worsened.
Workers in factories producing Apple products have also been exposed to n-hexane, a neurotoxin that is a cheaper alternative than alcohol for cleaning the products.

See the above link for footnotes to support these assertions.  Suicides and child labor issues aside, it’s beyond belief that Apple was willing to see their factory workers exposed to a toxic chemical for the sake of preserving every penny of profits. But when you are a corporation, you can never have too much profit!

And check out this list of notable accounting scandals which include Enron and Bernie Madoff.  These are examples of CEOs and other executives who were already fabulously wealthy resorting to crime to further pad their wealth with many of them now deservedly serving jail time.

So what do these super wealthy individuals do with all of this money?  Bill and Melinda Gates along with Warren Buffett set up a philanthropic foundation aimed towards helping people in poverty.  And there are many others who share their wealth in similar ways who are not as well known.

But what is most disturbing are the increasing efforts of some of the super rich to buy politicians and elections.  Yes, money has always been a significant part of politics, but the infamous Citizens United Supreme Court decision opened the money floodgates wide open by allowing unlimited political contributions to persuade the electorate to see things their way.  It has already had an effect on the 2010 elections and will undoubtedly figure prominently in the upcoming 2012 elections.

One of the efforts by the super rich centers on the estate tax lobby.

2006 report by Public Citizen and United for a Fair Economy -- both nonprofits opposed to concentrated wealth -- identified 18 families financing a coordinated campaign to repeal the estate tax altogether. Among the leading names behind that push: the Gallos (E&J Gallo Winery), the Kochs (Koch Industries), the Mars' (Mars Inc.), the Waltons (Wal-Mart), and the Wegmans (Wegmans Food Markets). At the time, the report estimated the families' collected net worth to be at least $185 billion, roughly equal to the market cap of Google today.   

A couple of the above families are worth a special mention.

Here is a list of the Walton family fortune as of 2012 published by Forbes:

- Christy Walton and family US$25.3 billion
- Jim Walton US$23.7 billion
- Alice Walton US$23.3 billion
- S. Robson Walton US$23.1 billion
- Ann Walton Kroenke US$3.9 billion
- Nancy Walton Laurie US$3.4 billion

Total: US$102.7 billion

To put the above number into some perspective, this one family has a net worth equal to the combined wealth of the bottom 30 percent of all Americans.  Remember “filthy rich” Mitt Romney?  This is equal to about 400 times Romney’s estimated wealth.

While all of this incredible wealth has been accumulated, Wal-Mart has been notorious for low pay and benefits for its employees over the years and has dealt with unions as mortal enemies to be destroyed.  But just think about how a tiny fraction of this fortune directed towards providing a living wage and good health benefits for their workers would help the lives of so many families who are struggling to stay above water.  Obviously, they haven’t thought about it.

And then there are the Koch Brothers who at one time were unknown to most but have since been profiled in the media (but probably not on Fox News or others on the right) for their political activity that consists of buying politicians to promote their agenda of among other things, environmental deregulation (to save money instead of preventing and cleaning up pollution), climate change denial (so we will continue to use the fossil fuels they produce), and union busting (to share the least possible amount of money with workers).   

To get a better sense of what this is all about, please check out this video link from the excellent Robert Greenwald documentary, Koch Brothers Exposed    For those who are interested, here is one of my previous postings, The Koch Brothers - The Most Powerful People You've Never Heard Of.  They have especially benefited from the aforementioned Citizens United Supreme Court decision allowing unlimited political contributions. 

So this ends our little primer on the subject of greed.  What can we learn from all of this?  It’s that greed is all around us and will be as long as people walk the face of the earth. While some will get the lion’s share and others get the crumbs, there will still be some who will come back to go after the crumbs they missed the first time around. And while we can’t get rid of greed in this world, we can do a better job of recognizing it and calling it out for what it is. 

For example, when we see politicians who advocate more tax giveaways for the wealthiest among us while asking for sacrifice from others of their safety net, that is greed!  And when fabulously rich CEOs and their bought politicians are out to crush the efforts of workers to collectively bargain over living wages and working conditions, that is greed! 

While the greedy can do their best to buy the government they want, when we go to vote, we can send a message to all of them.  That unlike what the fictional Gordon Gekko from the movie, Wall Street had to say on the subject, greed is NOT good!  

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Still Worries over the Affordable Care Act

Those who supported the Affordable Care Act, often referred to derisively by its opponents as “Obamacare”, are rejoicing over the recent Supreme Court decision to keep it largely intact.  But there are some who are worried about whether the future Medicaid expansion that is an important part of this law was fatally weakened by a part of this decision.

One of the fundamental purposes of the ACA is to expand health insurance coverage to as many of the estimated 50 million uninsured Americans as possible. Many of the uninsured earn not much more than what the government has established as the poverty line.

In 2010, in the United States, the poverty threshold for one person under 65 was US$11,344 (annual income); the threshold for a family group of four, including two children, was US$22,133.  According to the U.S. Census Bureau data released on September 13, 2011, the nation's poverty rate rose to 15.1 percent in 2010.

Since Medicaid covers people at or below the poverty line, those who are even slightly above the poverty line are now ineligible for coverage. But at the same time, they still do not make enough to afford health insurance – especially those with preexisting conditions. So one of the important provisions of the ACA was to expand Medicaid to those making up to 133% of the poverty line.

Although this is a federal program, it is up to the individual states to decide whether to accept the money from the Feds and implement this expansion.  Part of the ACA included some ‘gentle persuasion’ saying that if an individual state refused the expanded Medicare, it would lose all of its existing Medicare funding.

But this part of the law was struck down by the Court.

In a 7-to-2 decision, with Justices Elena Kagan and Stephen G. Breyer joining the five conservatives, the court ruled that the new provisions of the act giving coverage to all Americans under 133 percent of the poverty level constituted not an expansion of the program but actually a new Medicaid program. Threatening states that did not adopt this provision with termination of all their matching federal Medicaid money, the court said, constituted “a shift in kind, not merely degree.” The court viewed this Medicaid provision as coercion — “withholding of ‘existing Medicaid funds’ is ‘a gun to the head’ ” — that would force states to acquiesce.

I think most fair-minded people would agree that this was overly coercive.  But in striking it down, the result went to the other extreme which gives the federal government almost no leverage over the individual states to comply.

This has given Republican governors in several states the opportunity to publicly renounce the law by saying that they will not accept the money for this expansion.

Republican officials in more than a half-dozen states said they opposed expanding Medicaid or had serious doubts about it, even though the federal government would pick up all the costs in the first few years and at least 90 percent of the expenses after that. 
In writing the law, Congress assumed that the poorest uninsured people would gain coverage through Medicaid, while many people with higher incomes would receive federal subsidies to buy private insurance. Now, poor people who live in a state that refuses to expand its Medicaid program will find themselves in a predicament, unable to obtain either Medicaid or subsidies.

That really sucks!

It’s one thing for ideologues to spout off their views on conservatism and limited government for others in their party to admire.  But is this worth putting human lives in peril for the sake of little more than political posturing?

This appears to be a game of chicken being waged by these governors.  If they can convince their citizens that sticking to conservative principles is more important than insuring as many people as possible, the governors win and those who must go needlessly without health insurance lose.  On the other hand, if enough people catch on to what’s being done to them by their leaders, they will have to back down from their position while risking the wrath of their electorate when they go to the ballot box.

The best guess is that the governors will eventually have to back down.  After all, the deal from the Feds is simply too good for them to turn down.  But the question remains, what kind of person would inflict all of this on others in the first place? 

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Home Alone

I had a mishap last month.

I don’t remember passing out, but when I came to, I had a real close-up view of my floor.  I didn’t even know where I was for a few seconds before I recognized the carpet and then realized that I had fallen.

It was an ugly affair.  My glasses were smashed in half.  My nose was broken and bleeding with blood all over the carpeting. Two of my front teeth were loose.  Soon my face was a number of shades of black and blue.

Then I remembered I had to get to the nursing home to be with my mom to help feed her dinner.  My uncle (her brother) told me that he couldn’t make it that day so I had to be there.  So I wiped as much blood as possible off my face and got into the car. 

Shortly after arriving at the nursing home, it occurred to me that walking through the halls with blood streaming down my face just like for the Etrade baby was frowned upon in this establishment!  Three nurses surrounded and pinned me in a hallway against the wall and told me I wasn’t going anywhere.  I told them I had to see my mother.  They told me I wasn’t going anywhere.  An EMT who happened to be nearby told me I was crazy for getting into a car and driving after I had passed out.  I saw it differently.  I was just fulfilling an obligation.

I was sequestered behind the nurses’ station while they made arrangements to get me to the Emergency Room.  I am happy that my face has healed and that my teeth were fixed so I could eat solid foods..

But it was the time between the accident and the healing that was so painful from living alone.

I have taken an informal survey of many of the people in my singles social club (almost all divorced) on how they were doing living alone.  The very solid consensus was that they were extremely happy living alone and wouldn’t have it any other way.  It was all about freedom.  Freedom to do what they wanted at any time they wanted without having to answer to anybody.  But maybe they had controlling spouses which contributed to their divorces in the first place.  Having a partner who allows you enough space provides for companionship when you want it without being stifled which as I see it is the best of both worlds.

But there is a big downside to being alone and that is when we get sick or injured.  Of course we would never leave young children alone to fend for themselves.  And with the elderly, there are all of the devices advertised on TV to alert personnel to call an ambulance when somebody says "I've fallen and I can't get up!" which by the way is now trademarked.

But what about the group of people between childhood and old age who live alone, especially those in middle age like I am.  Yes we get sick or hurt but there doesn’t seem to be the same concern.  We may well have neighbors and friends but often they are so busy with their lives that we rarely see them so it may be awkward to ask them for help.  Having relatives nearby can help but that isn’t always so.

Being alone while hurt or sick for any period of time makes it very difficult to take care of oneself.  This may include eating properly, bathing and grooming, keeping the house or apartment clean, and taking care of the daily mail including the bills that have to be paid on time.  And then there is the issue of loneliness which I haven’t mentioned yet.  When we are feeling well, we can get out and socialize which can fight loneliness.  But when sick or injured and confined to the house, loneliness can be crushing as I can attest.

So what’s the solution to all of this?  Unlike the elderly who can have caregivers and children who have parents, babysitters, or teachers to watch over them, there is no equivalent for other adults.  This is where we need our friends to help.

But simple friendship isn’t enough.  It takes going the extra mile.  If you have a friend or relative or neighbor who lives alone, stay in touch with that person especially if you haven’t seen him or her for awhile.

Most importantly, reach out and convince that person that if they ever need anything that you are there for him or her.  It’s not trademarked and it may be sappy.  But for those in their hour of need, they will be so grateful and in extreme cases, you may even save a life!  

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

The Common Touch

Back on April 17th, Cookie Gate was born as described in this Washington Post blog.

It seemed like a good idea at the time. Go to a Pittsburgh suburb. Hang out with a few “regular Americans” and sit and chat about taxes over chips, lemonade and cookies.

And so it was that Mitt Romney, dressed in brown loafers, grey slacks and blue tie with shirt sleeves rolled up, found himself strolling toward a picnic table in Bethel Park on Tax Day for a simple, utterly staged, roundtable with four couples handpicked to have an audience with a man who could be president.

But for Romney, who is not known for his gift of the regular-guy gab, a table, eight regular people, microphones, cameras, cookies, lemonade, reporters, chips, and dead air that needs to be filled with things that people say, can often be a recipe for awkwardness.

“I’m not sure about these cookies,” Romney said, looking at the women and around the table. “They don’t look like you made them. Did you make those cookies? You didn’t, did you? No. No. They came from the local 7-Eleven bakery or wherever.”

Democrats and marketers pounced and “Cookie Gate” was born.

The video of the exchange is in this link.

So what do we make of all of this?  There have been a number of examples where Romney has not exhibited the common touch when speaking to ordinary people.  By the way, the common touch is defined by the free dictionary as the ability of a rich or important person to communicate well with and understand ordinary people.

But the example with the cookies was in a class by itself.  How many of us would ever complain about food we were served by other people (other than in a restaurant)?  What made it more silly is that Romney didn’t even taste the cookies before criticizing them.  Tasting them first, would have avoided the unkind words. And as far as I can determine, Romney never tried any of the cookies so he was unable (or unwilling) to offer an apology to the bakery that made the cookies.

It’s easy to say that some faux pas over some cookies is not going have any effect on the election.  But not so fast!  Politicians on the campaign circuit are regularly expected to interact with the electorate whether it is kissing babies or eating all of the local specialties.  Yes, delivering a speech on foreign policy is OK.  But it’s also about sharing a human side that voters also think is important.  

Sunday, April 1, 2012

Will the Supreme Court Kill Obamacare?

This week, the Supreme Court heard 3 days of arguments mostly about whether the Individual Mandate that is part of the Affordable Care Act a.k.a. Obamacare is constitutional.   This challenge was originally started by a group of 26 Republican state attorneys general with the Supreme Court eventually agreeing to hear the arguments this week.

Until the hearings, many believed that the Individual Mandate would be safe because it was protected by the commerce clause of the Constitution.  But with the tone of the questions pursued by the conservative judges, many now believe this is going to be another one of those 5-4 decisions favoring the right.

Here are some of Paul Krugman’s thoughts from his recent op-ed Broccoli and Bad Faith.

Given the stakes, one might have expected all the court’s members to be very careful in speaking about both health care realities and legal precedents. In reality, however, the second day of hearings suggested that the justices most hostile to the law don’t understand, or choose not to understand, how insurance works. And the third day was, in a way, even worse, as antireform justices appeared to embrace any argument, no matter how flimsy, that they could use to kill reform.

Let’s start with the already famous exchange in which Justice Antonin Scalia compared the purchase of health insurance to the purchase of broccoli, with the implication that if the government can compel you to do the former, it can also compel you to do the latter. That comparison horrified health care experts all across America because health insurance is nothing like broccoli.

So how does the individual mandate figure into all of this?  It is part of a 3-legged stool.  Take one of the legs away and the stool collapses.

The first leg:

Insurers cannot deny anybody health insurance based on a pre-existing condition.

Of course this is the point of Obamacare, to provide insurance to those millions of people who have been going without insurance.

The second leg:

All people, including those who are healthy must purchase health insurance.

This is the controversial Individual Mandate.  It is here because if we force insurers to take in all of the sick people, we need to add healthy people to the risk pool or else the premiums will skyrocket.

In addition there is the issue of so-called free riders.  If someone who didn’t sign up for insurance needs hospital treatment because of either illness or an accident, we can’t just deny him treatment so essentially the cost is borne by the other policyholders.

The third leg:

Since we are requiring everybody to buy health insurance, the government will subsidize the cost for those least able to afford the premiums.

So the important question is whether Obamacare would survive if the Individual Mandate is struck down.  And the answer to that is no.  While its opponents may argue about being forced to buy insurance or even broccoli, in reality they have seized upon what they feel is an Achilles’ heel.  And with a very partisan Supreme Court agreeing to hear this case, they may well kill Obamacare when they announce their decision in June.

And if that happens, the question will be what now?  There has been a lot of talk by Republicans about repealing Obamacare but no plans on what they will do to replace it.  Paradoxically, this may indeed mobilize the Democrats this fall!