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The Wrongologist

Geopolitics, Power and Political Economy

Feelin’ Great, Because America is Just Great

The Daily Escape:

Via: Naked Capitalism

He said he would make America great again. He was elected on a messianic platform, to reform DC from the outside, to create jobs, to drain the swamp, all while saving the social safety net, and ending our foreign adventures.

He promised all of those things. He actually said he would do them − in many places and at many times, and in differing contexts.

The dissonance should be hitting his supporters very hard about now.

In the nearly six months Donald Trump has been in power, he has accomplished only the dismantling of major parts of Obama’s agenda. For example, the EPA announced that it will delay implementation of an Obama-era chemical safety rule for nearly two years while it reassesses the necessity of the regulation: (parenthesis by the Wrongologist)

(Obama administration) Officials moved to overhaul chemical safety standards after a 2013 explosion at a chemical plant in Texas killed 15 people. Their rule would require companies to better prepare for accidents and expand the EPA’s investigative and auditing powers. 

Trump and Scott Pruitt will MAGA by ensuring more workers die on the job from unsafe working conditions. Of course, like 90% of Trump’s agenda, this is just standard Republicanism.

Couldn’t the GOP just “lead by example” on the whole “getting killed at work” thing?

Just in case anyone is interested, here is a link to the White House’s list of all legislation signed since the Orange Flake took office. If it weren’t for things like approving the name change for an outpatient VA clinic in Pago Pago, his big agenda items like passing a budget, replacing Obamacare, reforming taxes, or rebuilding our infrastructure remain aspirational.

So, where is the plan to make America great? As Derek Thompson said in the Atlantic:

There is no infrastructure plan. Just like there is no White House tax plan. Just like there was no White House health care plan. More than 120 days into Trump’s term in a unified Republican government, Trump’s policy accomplishments have been more in the subtraction category (e.g., stripping away environmental regulations) than addition. The president has signed no major legislation and left significant portions of federal agencies unstaffed, as U.S. courts have blocked what would be his most significant policy achievement, the legally dubious immigration ban.

The simplest summary of White House economic policy to date is four words long: There is no policy.

Republicans are held hostage by campaign promises that they cannot fill. The White House is hostage to the president’s perpetual campaign, a cavalcade of promises divorced from any effort to detail, advocate, or enact major economic legislation.

Trump uses public policy as little more than a photo op, and that isn’t going to make anything great.

Let’s turn to poetry. Lawrence Ferlinghetti turned 98 in March. Here is “Pity the Nation”, a poem he wrote in 2007:

Pity the nation whose people are sheep,
and whose shepherds mislead them.
Pity the nation whose leaders are liars, whose sages are silenced,
and whose bigots haunt the airwaves.
Pity the nation that raises not its voice,
except to praise conquerors and acclaim the bully as hero
and aims to rule the world with force and by torture.
Pity the nation that knows no other language but its own
and no other culture but its own.
Pity the nation whose breath is money
and sleeps the sleep of the too well fed.
Pity the nation — oh, pity the people who allow their rights to erode
and their freedoms to be washed away.
My country, tears of thee, sweet land of liberty.

That was written in 2007 folks.

Here is a video of Ferlinghetti reading “Pity the Nation” in 2007:

Those who read the Wrongologist in email can view the video here.

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Buffett: Focus on Lower Health Care Costs, Not Corporate Taxes

The Daily Escape:

Ribbon Chapel, Onomichi Japan – photo by Koji Fujii

Andrew Ross Sorkin wrote about Warren Buffet and the Berkshire Hathaway annual meeting in Omaha. Thousands of people attend these meetings, which are known as “Woodstock for capitalists.” Sorkin reports that Buffet made this comment:

The tax system is not crippling our business around the world.

Sorkin said that Mr. Buffett, was blunt and pointed, implicitly rebuking his fellow chief executives, who have been lobbying the Trump administration and Washington lawmakers to lower corporate taxes. Buffett said that those who have been single-focused on seeking relief from their tax bills would be smart to shift their attention to health care costs, which are growing and swallowing evermore corporate profits. The Kaiser Family Foundation reports that 49% of Americans, about 156 million, are insured by their employer. More from Sorkin:

The need for corporate tax relief has become the lodestar of the corner office, with CEOs rhapsodizing  over President Trump’s plan to try to stimulate growth by cutting tax rates for businesses.

But as Mr. Buffett pointed out, these chief executives are missing the bigger issue: As a percentage of our GDP, the cost of maintaining our American health care system is rising at an alarming rate. And Corporate America pays a big (and growing) chunk of that bill.

Buffett wasn’t talking about the cost of health insurance, which is a fraction of the total cost of health care. He suggests that today’s corporate tax rates are a distraction, not a true impediment to growth:

If you go back to 1960 or thereabouts, corporate taxes were about 4% of GDP…And now, they’re about 2 % of GDP.

While tax rates have fallen as a share of gross domestic product, health care costs ballooned:

About 50 years ago, health care was 5% of GDP, and now it’s about 17%.

Buffett is a smart guy. He raises an argument for focusing on the underlying costs of our health care system, something that goes far beyond the debate around the Affordable Care Act, or what will replace it. Buffett says that our global competitiveness has fallen largely because our businesses were paying far more for health care — a tax by another name — than those in other countries.

As Buffett said: (brackets by the Wrongologist)

When American business talks about [corporate taxes] strangling our competitiveness, or that sort of thing, they’re talking about something that as a percentage of GDP has gone down…While medical costs, which are borne to a great extent by business, have swelled.

Here are the facts:

  • In 1960, corporate taxes in the US were about 4% of GDP. The percentage fell steadily, reaching a bottom in 1983 before rising slightly over the last few decades. Today, it is 1.9%.
  • In the meantime, health care costs as a percent of GDP have skyrocketed. Today our health care costs are 17.1% of GDP, up from 13.1% in 1995.
  • Germany’s cost is 11.3%, up from 9.4% during the same period. Japan’s is 10.2%, up from 6.6%. Britain’s health care costs are 9.1% of GDP, up from 6.7% percent in 1995.

That makes our health care cost disadvantage far greater than our tax differential. It harms American companies in particular, since they bear such a large share of those costs, which firms in our competitor countries do not. US Corporations spend $12,591 on average for coverage of a family of four, up 54% since 2005, according to a study by the Kaiser Family Foundation.

But Congress avoids the issue, and CEOs don’t talk about it. A final quote from Warren:

It’s very tough for political parties to attack it…it’s basically a political subject…

In fact, Buffett’s partner, Charlie Munger, is the rare Republican (Buffett is a Democrat) who has advocated for a single-payer health care system. Under his plan, the US would enact a sort of universal type of coverage for all citizens — perhaps along the lines of the Medicaid system.

Which brings Wrongo to his final point: Medicaid expansion is the one part of Obamacare that can be said unequivocally to work. It’s a single payer program funded by the Federal government. So it’s bitterly ironic that the Republican’s reaction to Obamacare is to assault and roll back an existing Federal program, from LBJ days.

Of course, kicking poor people who benefit from Medicaid will always be popular with Republicans. So, Republicans, by making Medicaid worse, will try to restore their natural order of things.

Lazy, uninformed voters = Lazy, uninformed legislators = Lazy, uninformed policy.

It’s that simple.

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Trump’s Tax Proposal Silences the GOP’s Deficit Hawks

The Daily Escape:

African Elephants – photo from Nature Photography

African Elephants clearly are not deficit hawks. But, neither are most Republicans in Congress, despite all their complaining about spending that adds to the deficit. Trump’s tax proposal is out. It’s interesting that the administration decided it was a good idea to put a vague blueprint laying out big tax cuts on a single sheet of paper.

It could take some time to process Trump’s “proposal”, but as the NYT says, it will bring a reckoning for Republican deficit hawks:

As President Trump’s top economic advisers faced a barrage of questions on Wednesday about the tax plan they had just unfurled, there was one that they struggled most to answer: how to keep the “massive tax cuts” they proposed from ballooning the federal deficit…Republican budget hawks will need to decide whether they want to stick to the arguments of fiscal responsibility that they used to bludgeon Democrats during the Obama era.

More from the NYT: (emphasis by the Wrongologist)

Mick Mulvaney, director of the Office of Management and Budget, who was a fierce critic of deficits when he was a member of Congress, offered a glimpse of the rationale his former colleagues might embrace. “As a conservative, that bothers me a little bit,” he said Tuesday on CNN of the possibility that Mr. Trump’s tax plan would increase the deficit. “But we also look at deficits through sort of a different lens.”

While we haven’t yet seen definitive estimates of the cost of Trump’s one-pager, it will certainly add to the deficit, and the negative numbers range up to an additional $6 Trillion over the next 10 years.

And when Treasury Secretary Mnuchin says that Trump’s tax plan “will pay for itself,” he isn’t credible. He also told ABC News that he couldn’t guarantee that middle-class families wouldn’t pay more under the proposal:

I can’t make any guarantees until this thing is done and it’s on the president’s desk. But I can tell you, that’s our number one objective in this…

Word salad. Helping the middle class is the furthest thing from their minds. Trump, Mnuchin, Ryan and the rest want to give a targeted stimulus to the rich and corporations.

They disguise tax cuts by calling them “tax reform”. Whatever they call it, they want the biggest tax cut for rich people that they can push through the House and Senate. Calling it “tax reform” is useful because “yuuge tax cuts for the rich” won’t be all that popular politically.

It’s inevitable that “middle class families” will end up paying more. Somebody’s got to pay for that massive military buildup. And the GOP cries of deficit piety are a shell game. Here is Kevin Drum:

When does this nonsense stop? Republicans aren’t deficit hawks. They haven’t been since the Reagan era. Republicans used to be deficit hawks, but the whole point of the Reagan Revolution was that tax cuts were more important than deficits. Their only concern about the deficit these days is as a handy excuse for opposing any increase to social welfare programs.

Trump’s tax plan is the same old Republican orthodoxy that has been around for decades.

Wrongo recommends this article from Fortune Magazine in 1955: “How Top Executives Live”. The GOP constantly says that if the 1% are forced to pay high taxes, they won’t work as hard to innovate and create jobs. This article, from the time when personal tax rates went from 40%-75%, shows they didn’t need low taxes back then to work hard:

The successful American executive, for example, gets up early–about 7:00 A.M.–eats a large breakfast, and rushes to his office by train or auto. It is not unusual for him, after spending from 9:00 A.M. until 6:00 P.M. in his office, to hurry home, eat dinner, and crawl into bed with a briefcase full of homework. He is constantly pressed for time…

Wrongo is cranky about the GOP’s desire to always shift the tax burden downward, and about their success in doing it. What Trump will get passed is another round of debt-financed upper-class tax cuts.

That will suit Trump and Ryan just fine.

Let’s go out with some music that references the life and times of Jonathan Demme, director of “Silence of the Lambs” and “Philadelphia”, who died on Wednesday. Demme also directed the best Rock movie ever made, “Stop Making Sense” featuring the Talking Heads. Here is “Life in Wartime” live, and that’s Parliament – Funkadelic’s Bernie Worrell on keyboards. This isn’t the first time Wrongo has posted this video:

Those who read the Wrongologist in email can view the video here.

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Trump Knows Budgeting

The Daily Escape:

(Iowa State Law Library)

Trump’s first budget proposal was released on Thursday, and it hews closely to both Trumpian and Republican orthodoxy:

Trump’s first budget…would increase defense spending by $54 billion and then offset that by stripping money from more than 18 other agencies. Some would be hit particularly hard, with reductions of more than 20% at the Agriculture, Labor and State departments and of more than 30% at the Environmental Protection Agency.

The White House blueprint does not address major safety net programs such as Social Security and Medicare, which the Overlord has promised to protect. While there are too many deep cuts to detail fully, here are a few from the WaPo:

It would also propose eliminating future federal support for the National Endowment for the Arts, the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. Within EPA alone, 50 programs and 3,200 positions would be eliminated.

Trump’s budget will eliminate thousands of government jobs, and that is a serious problem for Washington, DC. Moody’s chief economist, Mark Zandi, estimates that Trump’s proposed cuts would impact the Washington area bigly. It will reduce employment in the region by 1.8%, slash personal income by 3.5% and lower home prices by 1.9%.

Zandi reasons that cuts in non-defense spending would fall disproportionately hard on the Washington region, while the increase in military spending would be spread across the nation. Good paying defense jobs in your district, mostly non-union, and a defense contractor who kicks back to your campaign fund while building weapons that kill the baddies. What’s not to like?

The budget chops funding for the NIH by $5.8 billion, or close to 20%, and low income Americans will also lose:

And the Trump administration proposed to eliminate a number of other programs… [Including] the Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program, which disburses more than $3 billion annually to help heat homes in the winter. It also proposed abolishing the Community Development Block Grant program, which provides roughly $3 billion for targeted projects related to affordable housing, community development and homelessness programs, among other things.

Some of this represents Trump’s campaign agenda. Office of Management and Budget Director Mick Mulvaney explained on Wednesday:

In fact, we wrote it using the president’s own words. We went through his speeches. We went through articles that have been written about his policies…and we turned those policies into numbers.

You know, things like cuts to the State Department, because diplomacy is for wimps.

But most of Trump’s budget is just a Republican’s wet dream of a “drown the government in a bathtub” program. Having said that, Trump’s recent executive order to restructure the entire executive branch means the White House has broad latitude to make these huge cuts effective by simply shifting priorities of what to actually do with the money.

This budget represents fundamental change. Medicine, education and defense have received the lion’s share of government spending in the past. Any town with a hospital, a college, or a defense contractor had a stable income base upon which to grow their local economy.

Now, the Republican Party no longer believes the government has any role in the first two, so defense contractors will become the only Keynesian game in town.

This will be a terrible new baseline for Democrats to work from, assuming they ever get back into power. Trump means to end all of the New Deal era programs, and growing the tax base to support a return to higher levels of government spending will take decades.

Now, another Irish musical selection for St. Patrick’s Day. Calling modern Irish music “punk” sounds redundant, but there are quite a few punkish Irish bands. Black 47 is Wrongo’s favorite, but today we feature Thin Lizzy with “Whiskey in the Jar”, a traditional Irish song that they updated in 1972.

Phil Lynott was the front man for Thin Lizzy. He was once asked how it felt to be black and Irish, and he answered: “Like a pint of Guinness”. Lynott lived fast, and died at 36 from heart failure in 1986. Here is “Whiskey in the Jar”:

This makes Wrongo want a bottle of Bushmills 21 year old single malt. Oh wait, here’s one!

Those who read the Wrongologist in email can view the video here.

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Is Taxing Robots a Solution to Fewer Jobs?

The Daily Escape:

(Slot canyon with dust devil – photo by Angiolo Manetti)

Yesterday, the Dutch voted in an election pitting mainstream parties against Geert Wilders, a hard-right, anti-Islam nationalist whose popularity is seen as a threat to politics-as-usual across Europe, and possibly, as an existential threat to the EU.

Wilders, who wants to “de-Islamicize” the Netherlands and pull out of the EU, has little chance of governing, as all of the mainstream parties have already said they won’t work with him. Given Holland’s complicated form of proportional representation, up to 15 parties could win seats in parliament, and none are expected to win even 20% of the vote. OTOH, polls show that four in 10 of the Netherlands’ 13 million eligible voters were undecided a day before voting, and there is just 5 percentage points separating the top four parties, so Wilders could surprise everyone.

As Wrongo writes this, the Dutch election results are not known, but PBS NewsHour coverage on Tuesday surfaced a thought about taxing robots. PBS correspondent Malcolm Brabant was interviewing workers in Rotterdam:

Niek Stam claims to be the country’s most militant labor union organizer. He says the working class feel insecure about their prospects because of relentless automation and a constant drive to be competitive. The union is campaigning for robots to be taxed.

Brabant then interviewed a worker:

Robots do not buy cars. Neither do they shop for groceries, which leads to a fundamental question: Who’s going to buy all these products when up to 40% of present jobs vanish?

This isn’t an entirely new idea. Silvia Merler, blogging at Bruegel, says:

In a recent interview, Bill Gates discussed the option of a tax on robots. He argued that if today human workers’ income is taxed, and then a robot comes in to do the same thing, it seems logical to think that we would tax the robot at a similar level. While the form of such taxation is not entirely clear, Gates suggested that some of it could come from the profits that are generated by the labor-saving efficiency…and some could come directly in some type of a robot tax.

The main argument against taxing robots is made by corporations and some economists (Larry Summers), who argue that it impedes innovation. Stagnating productivity in rich countries, combined with falling business investment, suggests that adoption of new technology is currently too slow rather than too fast, and taxing new technology could exacerbate the slowdown.

It can be argued that robots are property, and property is already taxed by local governments via the property tax. It might be possible to create an additional value-added tax for robots, since an income tax wouldn’t work, as most robots are not capable of producing income by themselves.

Noah Smith at Bloomberg argues that the problem with Gates’ basic proposal is that it is very hard to tell the difference between new technology that complements human work, and new technology that replaces them. Shorter Noah Smith: Taxation is so hard!

Why are Western economies stagnant? Why has wage growth lagged GDP growth? Automation is certainly a key factor, but rather than point the finger at the corporations who continually benefit from government tax policies, let’s just assign blame to an object, a strawbot, if you will. That way, we won’t look too carefully at the real problem: The continuing concentration of economic and political power in the hands of fewer and fewer corporations.

Automation isn’t the issue, tax laws that allow economic treason by corporations in their home countries are the issue.

Why is nationalism on the march across the globe? Because fed-up workers see it as possibly the only answer to the neoliberal order that is destroying the middle class in Western democracies.

Let’s find a way to tax robots. Something has to offset Trump’s tax breaks for the rich.

Now, a musical moment. Did you know that “pre-St. Patrick’s Day” was a thing? Apparently, some dedicated celebrators prepare for the day itself by raising hell for up to a week beforehand. With that in mind, here is some pre-St. Pat’s Irish music, with Ed Sheeran singing “Nancy Mulligan” a love song about his grandparent’s marriage during WWII, against the wishes of her parents, and despite their Catholic/Protestant differences:

Those who read the Wrongologist in email can view the video here.

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Trump’s Defense Budget

(The Wrongologist is heading to Florida today. The next column will be Sunday’s Cartoons)

The Daily Escape:

(Water Buffalo at night – Zimanga Private Game Reserve, South Africa)

Wrongo did not watch Donald Trump’s latest reality show. Many are giving him some credit, saying that “it’s the most presidential he’s ever been”. What a low bar.

We should ignore the tone, and focus on the content. Today let’s discuss Trump’s aspirations regarding defense spending, cuts in non-defense discretionary spending and Trump’s tax reduction plans. In his speech, Trump repeated his commitment to increasing defense spending by $54 billion.

The Budget Control Act caps military spending at $549 billion for 2018. Trump’s proposed increase would bring military spending to $603 billion. He indicated that would mean getting rid of the Sequester spending cap agreement. But, he didn’t address how the spending caps would be overturned (it requires 60 Senate votes). And there was also nothing said about the rest of the budget, including the subject of what programs will be cut to fund the defense increase.

The problem is math. Trump’s plans require solving simultaneous equations: It may be impossible to cut discretionary spending by enough to fund the defense increase. It will be difficult to give a big personal and corporate tax cut while spending $1 Trillion on infrastructure. As Bryce Covert at Bloomberg said:

To increase defense spending, cut taxes, spend money on infrastructure and the border, protect entitlements, and balance the budget, almost everything else must go.

Neither Trump nor Congressional Republicans had a better idea about how to accomplish that after the speech than they had before it.

Trump in particular, has no idea. In a Fox interview on Tuesday, Trump argued that his increase in defense spending could be covered not by severe spending cuts elsewhere, but by an increase in economic growth. He said:

I think the money is going to come from a revved up economy…

He promised on TV to grow GDP by 3% or more each year, not something that is all that easy to do. The economic concept behind his thinking is the Laffer curve, which says that an optimal level of taxation will assure high economic growth. It’s a discredited theory.

If Trump and Congress can’t get Sequestration eliminated and they still want to spend the $54 billion, non-defense spending would be 25% below what it used to be, bringing spending on these programs to the lowest level ever recorded. The historical low point of Discretionary non-defense spending was 3.09% of GDP in 1962; Trump’s proposal could bring it below 3%.

Military spending increases are never justified to Americans by what the money will be used for. Instead, we hear vague arguments about how we need to be “stronger”, or laundry lists of the various kinds of new hardware we need to buy, without any focus on the strategic rationale for the new hardware. For example, how do new aircraft carriers help defeat ISIS?

More military spending has an opportunity cost: If we spend on defense, that’s money we can’t spend on education, healthcare, or rudimentary things, like the State Department.

It can’t be enough to say that larger numbers will make us safer.

We need a geopolitical rationale for why additional defense spending is necessary. Trump hasn’t offered that argument. He and the GOP say that President Obama “neglected” the military, but in truth, Obama left our military stronger than it was under Reagan: If we look at total military spending by China, Russia and the US in 2015, the US accounted for 68% of that total, while Russia accounted for 8% and China for 24%

Under Reagan the totals were: US, 62%, Russia, 36% and China 2%. So we are up from 62% to 68% under the Kenyan Muslim.

We should be thinking about cutting defense spending, not increasing it.

Take a break and listen to guitar hero Joe Bonamassa playing “Further on Up the Road” live in 2009 at Royal Albert Hall with his hero, Eric Clapton:

Those who read the Wrongologist in email can view the video here.

 

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February 23, 2018

The Daily Escape:

(Yukon Bear before hibernation)

From the WSJ:

The Trump administration has drafted preliminary economic growth forecasts for its federal budget planning that rely on assumptions that are far rosier than projections made by independent agencies and most private forecasters, according to several people familiar with the discussions.

Imagine. The Trump Team ordered government economists to cook up rosy economic forecasts upon which to base the latest Republican fantasy sales pitch about trickledown economics.

Trump’s “the economy will be great” promises made during the election are now turning into policy and legislation. The problem is that the future they are cooking up for us is most likely unobtainable. Consider that recent GDP growth has been around 2%, while Trump is telling us to expect growth of between 3.0% and 3.5% for the next 10 years. But the Trumpets have a plan:

Trump officials believe a regulatory rollback and a tax-code revamp will unleash growth that drives a recovery in productivity, sends business investment higher and draws idled workers back to the labor force. They also assume interest rates would remain low because the US would become a more attractive place to park money.

Most economists believe sustained growth at more than 3% will be difficult to achieve unless there is a sharp rebound in productivity growth, while the US labor force also grows. Few are projecting that both of those will happen. Worker productivity growth has slowed to 0.7% a year since 2010, a sharp slowdown from rates exceeding 3% in the late 1990s and early 2000s.

So the simultaneous equations to achieve growth include increased spending on military and infrastructure, tax reform, cuts in regulations, and not touching granny-starver Paul Ryan’s favorite target of cuts to Social Security and Medicare.

The WSJ says that the Trump team gave the Council of Economic Advisers (CEA) staff the growth targets that their budget should produce, and asked them to backfill other estimates to justify those numbers.

Business school logic says that could work if the baseline target is realistic. Matt Yglesias at Vox points out that under Trump’s budget, the deficit would be larger; but the economy would be 17% larger and therefore, the deficit as a percentage of GDP would be smaller (perhaps small enough for the GOP to again say “deficits don’t matter?”).

So, Trump has an overly optimistic budget based upon phenomenal growth which no one else believes will happen, and he will hand off this budget grenade to Congress. If Congress balks, or does not find a way to make Trump’s budget happen, accusations will be tweeted from The White House regarding how Congress can’t get anything done.

It will be everybody’s fault except the Donald’s.

This reminds Wrongo of his days in the Fortune 500. Corporate HQ orders an extremely aggressive budget number. The number is missed, and people are terminated. Things continue to slide, and a new CEO is hired, who gets another “stretch” budget that is again missed.

How many times do we need to watch this movie? Trump has declared bankruptcy six times.

Will this make seven?

Here is Alex Dezen with “A Little Less Like Hell”:

Lyric:

Tell me who I gotta talk to
Tell me who I gotta kill
Just to make this place
Feel a less like hell

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Congress Greases the Skids for Exxon

(See below for the Daily Escape)

While America’s focus has been on the Orange Overlord’s blizzard of executive orders, and his public love-making with Putin, we were distracted from some of the actions by the GOP’s Congressional worms who are intent on chewing through our regulatory protections.

Did you feel burdened by a Security and Exchange Commission (SEC) rule requiring that American corporations doing business overseas reveal how much money they’re spending in foreign countries? This is called the Resource Extraction Rule, and apparently, it has been a terrible burden for Exxon and other oil firms.

VOX reported that, on the same day the Senate confirmed Rex Tillerson as Secretary of State, the House voted to kill a transparency rule for oil companies that Tillerson once lobbied against while CEO of Exxon Mobil. Now it’s on to the Senate and the Orange Leader for action:

Using the little-known Congressional Review Act, the House GOP voted on Wednesday to kill an Obama-era regulation that would require publicly traded oil, gas, and mining companies to disclose any payments that they made to foreign governments, including taxes and royalties.

The Resource Extraction Rule is part of the 2010 Dodd-Frank Act. Back then, senators from both parties included a provision requiring greater disclosure from mining and drilling companies’ activities abroad. The hope was to cut down on corruption in resource-rich developing countries by increasing transparency.

Over the past six years, the SEC tried to craft a rule that would give the legislation teeth. But the SEC’s first attempt at regulation was struck down by the courts in 2012. The rule didn’t actually get finished until June 27, 2016. As Charlie Pierce says: (emphasis by the Wrongologist)

In other countries, resource extraction is a polite way of describing corruption and bribery on a grand scale, and it’s also a dead serious matter for local activists who are trying to take on international corporations and their native plunderers in local government.

Remember the Congressional Review Act (CRA). It is the mechanism the GOP will use to undo much of what the Obama administration did in the areas of corporate responsibility and environmental justice.

At its core, the CRA states that any “recent” regulation (the Act’s definition of recent means it only applies to those passed by the Obama administration after June, 2016) can be repealed by a majority vote of both houses of Congress. Any repeal vote taken by the Senate cannot be filibustered, and the list includes more than 50 Obama-era regulations.

So far, the Stream Protection rule that restricted coal companies from dumping debris and waste into nearby waterways has been revoked, along with the Social Security gun rule that prevented mentally impaired persons from buying guns.

Now, they’ve gutted the Resource Extraction rule.

Under the CRA, the SEC is barred from crafting a new rule that has “substantially the same form” as the repealed regulation. So, Congress has thrown a rose to the oil and gas and mining industries that will be difficult to reverse.

Despite GOP concerns, similar rules are in place in the European Union. Reporting by the United Kingdom, France, Norway and Canada shows $150 billion in payments to governments in more than 100 countries.

Sounds like something citizens should know about.

The GOP’s argument is that American oil and gas companies need to make these under-the-table payments, in order to compete in third world countries.

This is America under the GOP: We can’t afford to provide the world’s best education to our kids. We can’t afford to take care of our elderly, but we absolutely must have policies that allow Exxon and friends to bribe foreign governments.

 

The Daily Escape: The National Library of China, in Beijing’s educational district.

(Image by Tian-yu Xiong for the National Geographic)

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New FCC Chair Guts Net Neutrality

Today we premiere a new feature, the “Daily Escape”, a photo that hopefully will take you away from all that is wrong just now. Some photos will be by Wrongo, but most will be from professionals. They will not have any particular relevance to the topic of the day. They are here to help you pause for a moment, and go to a different place.

Today’s Daily Escape: George Peabody Library, Johns Hopkins University

Now, on to what’s wrong…

The principle that all Internet content should be treated equally as it flows to consumers is called “net neutrality”. Net neutrality looks all but dead under Trump’s new head of the FCC. From the NYT:

In his first days as President Trump’s pick to lead the Federal Communications Commission, Ajit Pai has aggressively moved to roll back consumer protection regulations created during the Obama presidency.

Mr. Pai took a first swipe at net neutrality rules designed to ensure equal access to content on the internet. He stopped nine companies from providing discounted high-speed internet service to low-income individuals. He withdrew an effort to keep prison phone rates down, and he scrapped a proposal to open the cable box market to competition.

Before he became FCC Chair, Pai served as an FCC commissioner, one of the Republican minority under the Obama administration. In that role, he opposed reclassifying broadband providers as common carriers, which allows the agency to regulate them like utility companies, a necessary step if the FCC was to enforce net neutrality rules. That reclassification might be next to go.

Today consumers can pay Internet service providers for a higher-speed Internet connection, but regardless of the download speed they choose, under new Chair Pai’s plan, they might get some content faster, depending on how much their content provider has paid the service provider.

Tim Wu at the New Yorker offered some insight: (emphasis by the Wrongologist)

With broadband, there is no such thing as accelerating some traffic without degrading other traffic. We take it for granted that bloggers, start-ups, or nonprofits on an open Internet reach their audiences roughly the same way as everyone else. Now they won’t. They’ll be behind in the queue, watching as companies that can pay tolls to the cable companies’ speed ahead

The new rule gives broadband providers what they’ve wanted for about a decade: the right to speed up some traffic at the expense of others. The motivation is not complicated. The broadband carriers want to make more money for doing what they already do. Never mind that American carriers already charge some of the world’s highest prices for a service that costs less than $5/month to provide.

In the large-scale server market, Internet traffic is nearly free. In that market, a terabyte of data costs about $1/month. That’s 1000 gigabytes/month, if you are not familiar with usage of that size.  The home user pays 10x to as much as 1000x more than that per month; $100 for 100 gigabytes of traffic is not uncommon. A recent offer from AT&T for 45 M/bit internet is $30/month, which includes 1TB of data/mo. So 1000 gigabytes costs $30, or $1 per 33 gigabytes, but, if you exceed ATT’s limit, the price goes up dramatically: You would have to pay $10 per each additional 50 GB.

No volume discount for you, but Netflix will get one.

Requiring access fees for faster service will be good for Netflix, since it won’t have to worry as much about competitive traffic, particularly from small companies. The ultimate result will be to lock in the current set of incumbents who control the internet, ushering in the era of big, fat, (and possibly) inefficient monopolies.

Republicans and big corporations like to say that they are against regulation because the free market should rule. That economic efficiency brings lower prices.

It is always a lie.

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Saturday Soother – February 4, 2017

“True terror is to wake up one morning and discover that your high school class is running the country.” Kurt Vonnegut

Welcome to the weekend, we should be at least concerned, if not terrified. After all, look at who is in charge. Its those jerks you knew back in the day.

We have just driven into a long, dark tunnel in the back seat of the Trump Express. Will we ever see light at the other end? When a president is out of his party’s mainstream by this much, he just provides cover for the rest of them to act out accordingly.

A few things that happened this week that you should consider, none of which will be the worst thing that Trump puts in motion over the next four years:

  • The House and Senate approved a measure that scuttles a new regulation aimed at preventing coal mining debris from being dumped into nearby streams. The Senate’s 54-45 vote on Friday sends the measure to President Trump. What’s more, the law prevents the executive branch from imposing substantially similar regulations in the future.
  • On Thursday, the House repealed a Social Security Administration regulation to keep people with severe mental illnesses from buying guns. Rep. Kevin Brady, R-Texas, and Chair of the House Ways and Means Committee said:

The agency should be focused on serving all of its beneficiaries, not picking and choosing whose Second Amendment rights to deny…

On the gun issue, the GOP is taking away Obamacare, so you won’t be able to afford treatment for your mental illness, but hey – go buy a gun!

To paraphrase Mitt Romney, coal companies are people too. They need the profits from dumping industrial waste in the water supply just as much as a human needs clean water. Why should we prioritize humans over corporate folks? Maybe you’re just prejudiced against legal persons.

Republicans seem to know intuitively that the faster and more boldly they move, the harder it will be for Democrats to change the rules later. As long as Republicans control both the House and the Senate, Trump will leave big, black heel marks all over our democracy.

So, calm down. It’s gonna get worse. Take a break with a hot cuppa DECAF coffee and settle back for half an hour to listen to music. Here is Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto E Minor OP 64 first performed in 1845. It took Mendelssohn six years to write. Today we hear it performed by three-time Grammy Award-winning violinist Hilary Hahn playing in June 2012 with the Frankfurt Radio Symphony Orchestra at the Korean Art Centre Concert Hall, Seoul Korea:

Those who read the Wrongologist in email can view the video here.

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