Monday, November 16, 2015

Ideological Constipation

Saw the below picture on my Facebook feed.  Where to begin? Start with the observation that those who are impressed with this nonsense are conflating socialism with authoritarianism. It is a basic truism of our civic culture that a large majority of Americans have a painfully inchoate, almost infantile, understanding of socialism.

It should not be necessary to remind people that poverty and suffering can be found throughout the world. The difference is that the reactionary personality never attributes any of it to capitalism, not in, say, India, El Salvador, or Mexico, or for that matter, America's Deep South, which has characteristics much like less-developed countries, but invariably leaps to that conclusion when the country is identified, perhaps inaccurately, as socialist.  

The muddled thinking is most apparent when you realize the most advanced, healthiest, cleanest, safest, best-educated, and most-contented countries in the world are disproportionately socialist. It might help those in the shit-for-brains crowd to stop, read the previous sentence, and then actually try to get their head around it. No doubt they are ignorant of how effective America's socialist mayors and other municipal leaders were in their heyday; it is part of our history that is well-documented, but largely ignored today. It helped create the American middle class after WWII that was the envy of the world and one that I grew up in only to see greatly eroded with the rise of neoliberalism and the corporate welfare state. Try reading The "S" word: A Short History of an American Tradition...Socialism, by John Nichols. 
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At least one lawyer says Marc Rubio's campaign is one huge violation. According to Miles Mogulescu:
All of the money for Rubio's campaign ads to date has been illegally laundered through a non-profit organization that doesn't have to disclose its donors and is legally required to spend its funds for social welfare, not for the exclusive benefit of an individual such as a presidential candidate like Rubio.
Having helped establish and run non-profits, I think I understand Mogulescu's point. And Trump is the kind of guy who would have have called Rubio out on that, such as in the most recent debate. Not sure he did that, but none of these clowns actually wants undue scrutiny. We shall see.
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Mitt Romney recently went on record praising the Affordable Care Act, the same one he felt compelled to denounce when he ran for President in 2012. Romney wants to take credit for Obamacare, because it is modeled on Romneycare. He has a point, but he is pretty feckless on the issue; he could have run on his relatively moderate record as Massachusetts Governor, shown some leadership, and explain to that snarling and ill-informed Republican base why Mittbamacare was a big improvement and should be supported. Instead he ran from his own ideas only to re-embrace them later when there was no political fallout. That's what happens when you are no longer running for office and you don't give a shit what teabaggers think.
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It can be difficult deciding who merits the most laughably inane comment on any given day. So much competition, you know. But a few days ago, Bristol Palin made a strong case for herself when she said that Richard Dawkins, of all people, supports the 9/11 bombers. Professor Dawkins had said that he believed the hijackers had been sincere in their convictions, and that this demonstrated the power of religion to motivate good people to do evil things. Palin interpreted this as support for jihadists.

What a miserably ignorant woman. It seems to run in the family.

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Bush the Lighter

If you can't tell already, I find Jeb Bush to be an intellectually contemptible person. I am not the only one to realize the "smart one" label was laughably misplaced. It's as if he doesn't bother to keep up and assumes his conservative instincts will see him through. Recently he went on record saying the Voting Rights Act of 1965 is no longer needed; specifically stating that a federal role was not needed to ensure voting access in certain states with a history of voting rights denial, e.g., Jim Crow. He said this with what should have the benefit of hindsight. It should have been as obvious to him as the rest of us that, because of the Court ruling, the states no longer bound by the VRA, primarily in the South, immediately began re-implementing voting restrictions, measures that would not have passed muster with the VRA- and all done by Republican-controlled states and municipalities because there was no longer VRA-mandated federal oversight.

This is precisely what what liberals warned would happen and precisely what the Supreme Court majority assured us would not happen.
Speaking of pompous presidential candidates, those of a certain age remember how George Bush the Elder played the racial fear card with that infamous Willie Horton political attack ad, the one that attacked Democratic candidate Michael Dukakis because he, as Massachusetts governor, had allowed Mr. Horton, a felon, to have a weekend pass. You know the story; Willie stabbed and raped at the first opportunity. Bad call, Gov. You know why you remember it? Because Republicans played that Horton attack ad incessantly and made sure everyone had their primal fears rubbed raw. Republicans know fear helps them win elections; they stoke it every chance they get.

So it is interesting how Huckabee has largely avoided a similar fate. You do remember the incident, don't you? OK, most of us don't, nor did we hear much about it at the time, which is really my point. Fortunately, some have seen fit to remind us.  And yes, if Huckabee starts to climb in the polls, one or more of his Republican opponents may bring up his Willie Horton moment.
Business Insider reports that economists are surprised that consumers are saving more than expected. This can be a problem in an economy where consumer spending plays such a dominant role. "Secular stagnation," they say. They shouldn't be surprised. As I have said more than once about job security; it has been stripped away for millions of us, and when people know they don't have job security, along with low wages and benefits, they do the rational thing and cut back on spending, especially when credit card debt is already high. It really should be obvious why households feel the need to save and pare down debt.

All that cheap plastic crap from China will sit on Walmart's shelves for a little longer, so there is a good side, I suppose.

Friday, October 2, 2015

Crappy Carly

I hope everyone has heard just how crappy Carly Fiorina was when she ransacked HP back in the day. Her plunder was part of the Homeland Investment Act of 2004, a gift given by a Republican congress to corporate America, which promised jobs but enriched itself instead.  Along the way, Carly damaged HP's standing, laid off thousands, and did so poorly her board fired her, but not before giving her an amazingly undeserved golden parachute. And that, folks, is how the overclass takes care of itself. More on Trainwreck-Carly here.
"If you can’t afford to take care of Veterans, then don’t go to war." A little something to remember for those who assume, against the evidence, that it is patriotic Republican politicians who take care of those who serve and protect.
More evidence that the ACA does not hurt job growth. But you'd never know if you get your news from Fox.
I've said it before: Republicans have got nothing on Hillary Clinton regarding the Benghazi pseudo-scandal. They have even admitted it. Now bigmouth Republican Congressman Kevin McCarthy, who thinks he is smooth enough to be the next Speaker, has gone further and, inadvertently perhaps, admitted not only that there is no evidence of misconduct--which is not news-- but that the intent from the beginning was to damage her politically. Fellow Republicans are not pleased.

Don't tell me you are surprised.
Just so you will know.  It is not the act per se, it is the hypocrisy of those who use their office, pulpit, or position to denounce others, invoke the name of one god or another, and pass laws that incriminate and imprison others for the same behavior.

Thursday, September 17, 2015

Labor Day

Labor Day has come and gone, so I thought this would be a good time to remind readers of how this country treats unions and the working class. Given the disingenuous way unions are usually portrayed it the media, along with the incessant harangue from Republicans, many Americans have been convinced that unions are an unmitigated horror. The message has been so relentless for so long, millions of Americans have grown up hearing no other narrative except that unions are a blight. In turn, they have accepted the corporatist argument that slashing the pay, benefits, and job security of the working class is the way for America to move forward. That and another round of tax cuts for the wealthy.

Right-wing analysts, who have an agenda, talk endlessly of costs, corrupt union bosses, and how corporations' profits are hurt. Mainstream journalists, many of whom are feckless if not especially conservative, will parrot right-wing talking points uncritically. What they often leave out is what it means to families and neighborhood where workers have somewhat higher paychecks than they would otherwise. Small businesses, which Republicans claim to support, are happy for the extra business their neighbors' larger paychecks allow. Local and state tax revenues rise as well because workers have more disposable income, and thus put more back into the local economy. In other words, employees with cash to spend make good customers; those with minimal discretionary income make poor customers. And every employee is someone else's customer.

Closely related is the greater job security that unions have historically provided. Many Americans have been told inability to shed workers has been a costly burden, ignoring the fact that the American economy has consistently been among the most competitive and productive; our corporations are among the most profitable. We are now learning what citizens in less developed countries have always known: When you are underpaid and don't have job security, you hunker down. You focus on the most elemental needs and try to save money. There is, of course, little to save, whether it be for emergencies or retirement--and millions no longer have a pension like their fathers did. If you are scared of losing your job because your boss is a prick, and is constantly threatening you, just remember that non-unionized Americans, and that is most of us, now have little legal protection. Americans have some of the lowest job security in the OECD, a development that was entirely intended.

As for those retirement plans, especially the public sector ones that turn Republicans apoplectic, one should ask, even if few in the media do, why there is so much willingness to scaremonger the costs and so little effort to account for the ways people benefit because someone in the household has a retirement check; a check that contributes to the family and the neighborhood.

I recall some sneering comments made on Face Book a while back by a man who supported Tea Party policies. I recall that he was incensed over California's state employee retirement obligations. The figure he threw out I no longer recall. He may have been correct; it certainly seemed like a lot of money. But what I do recall is there was no context; it was just assumed to be an outrageous amount. All cost and no benefit.

It should be obvious, but apparently isn't, that the dollar amount means little if the number of retirees, and their dependents, are not accounted for. Or the number of years the total obligation is spread over. Or how many other family members benefit from the relatively large retirement checks. Or how many are able to stay off welfare as a result. Multiplier effect, anyone? Dollars spent by unionized civil servants, active or retired, go back into local economies where they act as a far better economic stimulus than austerity or tax cuts, both conservative favorites.

California state retirees, who are mostly middle-class, also pay taxes on that income, which the state and the feds are very good at collecting, unlike that of the very wealthiest, who are very good at avoiding taxes, even if it means putting their extra billions, or even trillions, in offshore tax havens. When is the last time you read, not some polemic from the Left, but a fair analysis in your favorite news source, of how the very wealthiest duck taxes and what it means for the rest of us?

These are simple economic principles; low wages are a drag on any economy, but especially one dependent on consumer spending. What do you honestly think will happen if, for decades on end, wages are suppressed for most of the working and middle classes, pensions are eliminated, job security and benefits are reduced, and millions have become compliant, overworked, and scared because they cannot risk losing their shitty jobs?

Silly me, you blame the victims, of course.

Monday, July 13, 2015

Jeb Says to Work Harder

It should come as no surprise that Jeb Bush, after saying he would not run, and was not interested in being President, has decided that he is going to run, because he is interested after all. Sure Jeb, you really had me fooled.

This post is only about his most recent foot-in-mouth moment, though he has had a number of missteps from the very beginning: Not good for the brother who was supposed to be the smart one. You can get the gist of it from the picture below.

Here is the interview with New Hampshire's The Union Leader, complete with a video, in which he said the following:
“My aspiration for the country and I believe we can achieve it, is 4 percent growth as far as the eye can see. Which means we have to be a lot more productive, workforce participation has to rise from its all-time modern lows. It means that people need to work longer hours” and, through their productivity, gain more income for their families. That's the only way we're going to get out of this rut that we're in.”
Most critics jumped on the "need to work longer hours" aspect, and with good reason. We, Americans, already work the longest hours in the industrialized world.

Bush claimed what he meant was that too many workers juggle part-time jobs, when they would prefer a single full-time job. That much is true; part-time work takes an even greater toll because of the additional logistic challenges, a point I have touched on before.

Jeb did not clarify how he would rectify that, nor, for that matter, was there a hint of recognition as to why Americans are forced to work such long hours at so many jobs just to get by. Republicans won't mention that the US has among the lowest minimum wage, the fewest paid vacations, relatively few national holidays, inadequate pensions, low job protection, and no paid maternity leave. But Jeb Bush thinks we just need to work harder.
But note also that Jeb said we need to raise productivity, and then maybe people will earn more. It is this observation that reveals how misinformed he is. Does he not realize the US is already among the most productive countries in the world, if not the most? A search taking all of 20 seconds showed the US as the most productive G7 member (2013 data). By all means, see the charts. The productivity has been there for decades, but the gains have been entirely garnered by those at the top. This is a fundamental reality of modern America.

JB just cannot bring himself to accept that growing inequality and rising hardships in this country are the result of policies and legislation promoted by his Party. They are the ones that have wanted cheap labor, the ability to outsource jobs, low minimum wages, weak unions, low employee benefits, low marginal tax rates, numerous tax advantages for the wealthy, massive defense spending, and generous subsidies to profitable companies.

America's overclass has created a blatantly rigged system, but Jeb thinks the solution is for the rest of us to work harder. And he is the smart one?

Sunday, May 17, 2015

Selective Rage

I saw this on my FaceBook feed a few days ago. I saw it as ill-informed, but not particularly aggressive. But I got to thinking about it and realize how it exemplifies the selectiveness of right-wing contempt and where it is directed. I think what did it for me was a comment from someone who declared: "This is one of those issues that puts a burr under my saddle." A common expression, but in this case quite revealing.

In the first place, it is curious that the poster's creator says Social Security is running out of money, as if that is a factual observation. It isn't, it is a Republican conceit, but I suppose the joke doesn't work unless you have been conditioned to ignore evidence.

I wonder if he, Mr. bur-in-my-saddle, is equally bothered by unending corporate subsidies? Or the bank bailouts, where there was clear evidence of criminality. Or the phenomenal waste at the Defense Department which, wouldn't you know it, gets little press.

Sadly, there are quite a few who get worked up if a single mother on food stamps buys anything other than gruel. but excuse or even cheer on the likes of Cliven Bundy, who is both a thief and a scofflaw. Actually, it is not sad; it is disgusting. That law and order stuff is for the poor and vulnerable. As Scythian philosopher Anacharsis famously observed: "Laws are like cobwebs; strong enough to ensnare the weak, but not the strong."

When pressed, some on the Right will admit Bundy is wrong, or they will insist they don't like to see waste anywhere. But that is usually not their visceral, instinctive reaction. And they usually have to be called out on their inconsistency. It is not something that comes to mind easily. If you don't think your rage is selective, name one US Army General you demanded to be held accountable for the $8.5 trillion dollars the Defense Department cannot account for.

When we do look at welfare so many fail to see the broader picture; welfare payments go disproportionately to working class neighborhoods. The money helps to buy essentials --and little else-- for children and the elderly. It is almost never a matter of cash out of your pocket and into the pocket of a some deadbeat, though you have been encouraged to believe this. The Republican Party has, in recent decades, made an art form out of putting carefully selected burrs under your saddle. Much involves stoking white working class resentment. This has both divided voters that once were Democratic constituencies, and has deflected criticism away from the overclass.

And that, of course, was always the intent. Republican politicians and operatives know their voter base. They realize those on the Right are tribal, fearful, and insular. They also know conservatives are bothered by someone else getting benefits, not just anyone, but those perceived as undeserving, as they define it. Those who express anger, irritation, or contempt for welfare recipients and for the poor in general are revealing their own authoritarian personality.

It is that authoritarian personality, coupled with an often breath-taking level of misinformation, that compels so many on the right, tea baggers and plutocrats alike (I'm looking at you, Donald Trump), to so frequently mischaracterize that which they despise, but refuse to understand. The result is an intellectual whipsaw of contempt for food stamp recipients but not massive Pentagon waste; for social security, but not Wall Street's pension plunder. They rally behind Wisconsin governor Scott Walker's effort to undermine teachers, but shrug when defense contractors routinely gouge the government and then pay themselves obscene salaries.

That's a lot of burrs that somehow go unnoticed.

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Where the Money Goes

As some readers know, I have lamented the dominance of Wall before. I and certainly many others, have expressed disgust over the way Wall Street sucks money out of the economy. This is not mere rhetoric spewed from that swirling cacophony called the Internet. Let me provide a very specific example of what I mean when the Wall Street feeding frenzy is damaging America: the current practice of stock buybacks. It is a simple enough to understand, and why corporations might want to do it when warranted. What is not as obvious is the broader ramifications.

As you should know, publicly-traded companies become public by issuing stock, shares of which are available to anyone who cares to buy them. Said companies often issue additional shares from time to time as a way to raise capital, which is not debt, and in lieu of borrowing, which is. Over time, a company, call it Acme Widget, may have raised a great deal of capital by issuing a flood of stock. Companies like Acme may or may not have grown as a result.

However, Wall Street doesn't just want to see Acme make profits; what it really wants is for the stock price to rise and it cares little about how it is done. Rising stock prices are harder to come by if Acme has gazillions of shares floating around. On a per-share basis, earnings look better if Acme has, say, 300 million shares instead of three billion. Obviously they are not better, they only look better.

What to do? Acme could use its profits on R&D, or on new equipment, two mainstays of stable growth. Or Acme could buy back shares of its stock. This has some ramifications. Apologists will tell you Acme is investing in its future, and buybacks should be seen as a mark of confidence. That is risible nonsense. What does Acme get by blowing its earnings on its own stock? Companies like Acme are now spending big money, billions of dollars in some cases, buying (back) something that is not a productive asset. Cash spent on buybacks is cash not spent on increased wages, new technologies, or something corporate America could really use; higher quality products and processes. But buybacks enrich the investor class, which insists that maximizing shareholder value should be a corporation's overriding objective. If they get rich, then, well, that's it.

There is, finally, a growing recognition that American capitalism, with its obsession of stock buybacks, is toxic to this country's long-term health. At MarketWatch, not exactly the New Left Review, Rex Nutting writes:
Many factors have been blamed for the plummeting fortunes of the American middle class: globalization, technology, deregulation, easy credit, the winner-take-all economy, and even the inevitable tide of history. 
But one under-appreciated factor is a pervasive business model that encourages top managers of American corporations to loot their company for short-term gains, depriving those companies of the funds they need to build and enlarge, and invest in their workers for the long haul. 
How do they loot their company? By using large stock buybacks to manage the short-term objectives that trigger higher compensation for themselves. By using those stock buybacks to manipulate the share price, which allows them to use inside information to time their own stock sales. By using buybacks to funnel most of the company’s profits back to shareholders (including themselves).
Upper management at publicly traded companies is highly incentivized to enrich the already rich, most of whom are passive investors and have nothing to do with those companies except that they own shares. CEOs have garnered enormous wealth in recent decades because they also own many shares. Their role helps explain the corporate America's felt need to aggressively engage in stock buybacks. CEOs generally don't get multi-million dollar paychecks; that's for professional athletes. They get big paychecks, to be sure, but the really big money comes from stock options, though with a catch. Generally the stock has to appreciate in value up to a pre-determined amount, and within a certain time frame. Therein lies the short-term thinking in so many American companies that focus on their stock instead of on their products, customers, and employees.

This unproductive but highly addictive practice plays out as such: CEOs know that if they can get or keep the stock price at a certain level, their previously awarded stock options can be exercised. He, or occasionally she, sell those shares on the open market. The result is a windfall of cash, sometimes many millions of dollars. And this is an ongoing process: stock options awarded, work the stock, cash in, fresh stock options, repeat and enrich yourself.

Most shares the CEOs care to sell end up in the open market, where they tend to weigh down the price of the stock. That won't make investors happy, nor the CEO, who hopes for more stock options in the future. That's where the stock buybacks come in. CEOs and compliant corporate boards are only too happy to accommodate them, for they, CEOs, others in upper management, boards and investors alike stand to benefit.

The situation is complicated only somewhat by dividends. CEOs and investors alike are more inclined to keep their shares if the company pays a dividend. Fine, you say, except that dividends can get very expensive. Again, this is cash that could have been plowed into productive assets. But once dividends are paid, they are gone forever and they go mostly to the hedge funds, investment banks, and the rest of Wall Street, as well as the CEOs.

It is essential that voters understand the damage being done. Corporate America extracts profits from the working- and middle-class. That is as it always has been. And that is not the problem since customers, that's us, get something in return. The difference now is that those profits are not finding their way back, in the form of increased wages, to middle America. To reiterate, corporate America is on a buyback frenzy to please investors, and it is using money that in the past went to increased wages and capital improvements.  Instead, the use of stock options and buybacks ensures that an ever-increasing portion of capital sifts upward to the very top, where it remains in control of the .01%. Even the rich are beginning to recognize the recklessness.

It is the antithesis of the intellectual asininity called "trickle-down." Indeed, it is an ongoing debate whether neoliberalism's warriors were ever ideologically naive enough to buy into the trickle-down argument, or they simply figured we were.


Sunday, February 15, 2015

Insecure By Design

Question: What has been a defining feature of American socio-economic life for nearly all of its history, faded substantially for roughly two generations, and now has come back with a vengeance in the last two or three decades?

An insecure and vulnerable workforce. One that is compliant, scared, and with few workplace rights.

It is no accident that employee insecurity, those subject to dismissal without cause, has coincided with flat wage growth, a decline in union membership, the gradual disappearance of pensions, and the rise of the cynically-named "right-to-work" legislation.

Some will tell you that it is the inevitable result of globalization; it's a tough, competitive world out there, and hey, China. OECD data on worker protections in member countries belies this assertion. According to recent OECD publications, the United States has become unusually hostile to workers. As Les Leopold reports:
The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) ranks 43 nations by the degree of employee protection provided by government. The 21 indicators used include such items as laws and regulations governing unfair dismissals, notifications and protections during mass layoffs, the use and abuse of temporary workers, and the provision of severance based on seniority. Countries are ranked on a scale of 0 to 6 with 6 going to those who provide the most legal protections for employees and 0 for those with the least. We're ranked #42 out of 43, meaning that we have among the fewest regulations to protect employees -- union, non-union, management, full-time and temporary workers alike.
The low level of worker security has always been the objective of most of those on the Right, whether they espouse neo-liberalism, laissez faire policies, or free trade. Enthusiastic support from the corporate world for cheap, compliant labor has varied over the generations, but has been especially strong in recent decades.

Through it all are those who may not be rich themselves, or may not run a corporation, or have well-developed views on economic doctrine, but still show a remarkable hostility to the "other": those not in the same tribe, religion, or race; those who are unacceptably different in thought, world view, and sexuality. A hostility that is directed against those who do not know their place and thus threaten the hierarchy.

This has been with us since colonial days. Both David Hackett Fischer, in Albion's Seed, and Colin Woodard, in American Nations, vividly reveal the brutal treatment that for centuries was meted out to the powerless; slaves, immigrants, indigenous Americans, indentured servants, sharecroppers, women, political subversives, the lower class in general.

The nature of employment, and of insecurity, have changed over the generations, though the working class remains the object of contempt. Workers are increasingly compelled to pursue jobs that not only offer low pay and no benefits, but are further away from home, are at odd hours, or, and this is the big one, are seasonal, temporary, or part-time. The result is a dystopian nightmare for millions of workers, some of them highly educated, who spend an inordinate amount of time, money and gas, to get to one part-time job, then must hustle off to another one. And you better not complain, because the boss does not need a good reason to fire you.

For a modern analysis of how the wealthy are currently reshaping the lives of the working poor and, increasingly, the middle class, read Jeff Faux's The Servant Economy, or Robert Reich's analysis of "the sharing economy," Faux focuses on how so many of the jobs now appearing are designed to serve the wealthy; day care--for the very young and the very old--dog walking, auto detailing, pool and lawn care, and many more. The pay is low, the benefits mostly non-existent.  No unions, no protection; you serve at the pleasure of the rich. Reich describes an economy where "human beings do the work that’s unpredictable – odd jobs, on-call projects, fetching and fixing, driving and delivering, tiny tasks needed at any and all hours – and patch together barely enough to live on."

No slavery, not technically, but highly constrained conditions, along with wages that are no longer coupled with productivity, mean that America, a country that once had high social mobility compared to other industrialized economies, now has among the worst. We are returning to the rigid, stultifying hierarchy of class, low wages, and pervasive, and often aggressive, religiosity that has long characterized the American South.

We are becoming Dixie.