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The Wrongologist

Geopolitics, Power and Political Economy

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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How Do You Solve a Problem Like Ohio?

Our industrial heartland has withered away, in that there are fewer manufacturing jobs than ever, while manufacturing revenues have never been higher. Forty years of promises by politicians have come to nothing: These people are victims of a world order in which corporations have either exported or automated those jobs, with no responsibility to workers. It is left to the towns of Middle America and the federal government to clean up their mess.

This world order we live in today was born in 1980, with Thatcher and Reagan. According to Ian Welsh, the world order made a few core promises:

If the rich have more money, they will create more jobs.

Lower taxes will lead to more prosperity.

Increases in housing and stock market prices will increase prosperity for everyone.

Trade deals and globalization will make everyone better off.

Those promises were not kept, and in America’s Midwest, economic stress is now the order of the day. That stress has contributed to rising rates of drug addiction and falling life expectancy.

Understandably frustrated, Ohioans and other Midwesterners gave Donald Trump a victory in November. His win has refocused attention by pundits and pols on the plight of our failing de-industrialized areas. While we have economic growth, we also have growing inequality. Here is a graphic illustration of the problem, comparing the US with the EU:

The Economist reports that from 1880 to 1980, the incomes of poorer and richer American states tended to converge, at a rate of nearly 2% per year. The chart above shows that the pattern no longer exists. This causes us to ask if the shift of resources and people from places in decline to places that are growing is simply taking longer to adjust, or has the current world order failed our people? In econo-speak, the gains in some regions should compensate those regions and towns harmed by the shift, leaving everyone better off.

But that is a political and financial lie promulgated by the very corporations that benefited, and by their political and economist cheerleaders.

With economic decline, some towns and cities became poverty traps. A shrinking tax base means deterioration in local services (think Detroit). Public education that might provide the young with new skills and thus opportunities, fails. Those that remain are on government subsidies or hold low-wage service jobs, or both. It is impossible to tell these citizens that the decay of their home town is an acceptable cost of the rough-and-tumble of the global economy.

Politicians are short on solutions. Since housing costs have risen sharply in towns and cities that are growing, underemployed Americans are less likely to move, and those who do, are less likely to head for richer places. Enrico Moretti of the University of California, Berkeley and Chang-tai Hsieh of the University of Chicago argue that our GDP could be 13.5% higher if this wasn’t the situation in America.

But if moving isn’t an option, what can be done to improve the outlook for those who are left behind?

Would more government subsidies help? Prosperous tax payers already support poorer ones. Subsidies for health insurance costs with Obamacare, as well as industrial tax incentives provide some cushion, but they are not likely to deliver long-run economic recovery, and they have not stemmed the growth of populist political sentiment.

To be fair, many people in Ohio and elsewhere want good jobs, but without having to move too far to get them. That may be impossible.

In the 19th century, the federal government gave land to states, which they could sell to raise proceeds for “land-grant universities”. Those universities, including some that are among our finest, were given a practical task: to develop and disseminate new techniques in agriculture and engineering. They went on to become centers of advanced research and, in some cases, hubs of local innovation and economic growth.

Politicians and academic economists might disdain a modern-day version of the program, one that would train workers, foster new ideas, and strengthen weakened regional economies.

But if our politicians do not provide answers, our populist insurgents will.

Time for a Christmas song. Here is Elvis with “Santa Claus Is Back in Town & Blue Christmas”, from his comeback special on NBC. This was recorded over six days in June, 1968 and aired on December 1, 1968. Elvis flubs “Santa Claus is Back in Town”:

Despite his flub, he does get this line right:

You don’t see me comin in no big black Cadillac

Kind of like out-of-work Ohioans.

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Pant Suit vs. Pant Load, Part III

(Note: this week there will be no Sunday Cartoon Blogging, since Wrongo will be visiting MA and PA through Sunday, returning on Monday.)

Wrongo and long-time blog reader Terry engaged in a short email dialog on how to “fix” the US political system. We were concerned that there is no individual Congressperson accountability. A backbencher can follow an agenda that can imperil our nation (and a few have done just that) without consequence.

But in America, accountability is managed by election district. Your only alternative is to round up enough votes to replace poor representation. So, if you wanted to reform the impact that money has in our politics, or the way the filibuster works in the Senate, you have to reform Congress.

Yet, under our Constitution, only Congress can reform Congress. And today, there are three parties vying for control of it, and since they rarely are willing to work with each other, not much gets done. So you can completely forget about Reform.

And the parties have not been willing to deal with the not-so hidden desperation in America that shows up in statistics like increasing opioid addiction and suicide rates. The political class ignores how lethal the US economy is for the less fortunate: The New York Times reported this week that US death rates have risen for the first time in a decade.

The increase in death rates among less educated whites since 2001 is roughly the size of the AIDS epidemic. One reason is the use of opioids. And, despite Mr. Obama’s speech in Elkhart, IN where he said our economy is doing well, there has been a spike in suicides to levels higher than during the 2008 financial crisis.

The little people know that the economic policies followed by both parties have brought income inequality to Gilded Age levels. They know that all of the post-crisis income gains have accrued to the top 1%. Unlike in China which continues to grow, our economic expansion has brought with it high unemployment and underemployment, particularly among the young.

As a result, people feel powerless. In fact, a RAND survey in January found that 86.5% of GOP voters who strongly identified with the statement “people like me don’t have any say about what the government does” were Trump supporters.

And, since so much of politics is about corralling money into the bank accounts of our politicians, your Congresspersons have no intention of listening to you unless you have given at least $10,000 to their campaign fund, or are the CEO of a major employer in their district or state. In US politics, money=speech. But, there is little meaning to free speech without free access to influence the political process.

Many of us feel nihilistic about our politics and our government. So the Pant Load’s support seems a lot like a form of public political vandalism where The Donald is the can of spray paint.

Most people can see that a large portion of Americans are poorer with each new election cycle. After all, the reason Trump (and Sanders) are doing well is because many, many workers are seeing their job security, income security, and retirement security all go up in smoke. That’s no mystery, just the natural outcome when the government fails to represent the people in favor of the rich who fund their campaigns. It’s no wonder the Pant Load is easily corralling the frustrated.

But can the Pant Suit reverse the Democratic Party’s abandonment of the working class in America?

We know that she needs to focus on drawing more potential working class and young supporters, but so far, Democrats are content to run only in their municipal strongholds, following a strategy of stitching together interest groups, largely in states with big urban populations.

Energizing people around the fact of our corrupt political system is both a way to get higher turnout, and a way to elect members of Congress and state legislatures to fix the corrupt system. That is Bernie’s message, what he calls a “political revolution.” But Sanders is not the person to bring this about. Consider Sanders just the messenger.

Strategically, the Pant Suit needs to figure out how to get folks energized enough to vote for her and against Trump for reasons that don’t so paralyze them with fear that they stay home. If she is successful, it could be the start of re-establishing the New Deal coalition, and a re-installation of the principles of the civil rights movement.

That’s a huge job that will not be completed in one election cycle.

This threat is the GOP’s worst nightmare. They have worked for 40 years to eliminate these ideas, so expect the GOP to unanimously support the Pant Load:

COW Never Hillary

The Bernie Dems will rally behind Hillary for similar reasons.

Trump/Arpaio 2016: Because immigrants are the greatest threat to the nation.

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Will Take-Home Pay Grow?

One of the big questions that we must force Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump to address is: Where will growth in take-home income come from?

If we look at pay, despite recent improvements, real average hourly earnings have declined since the 1970s:

Real Hourly Earnings 2016

Source: Advisorperspectives.com

At the same time, the average hours per week have trended down from around 39 hours per week in the mid-1960s to a low of 33 hours at the end of the last recession. It is 33.7 hours today. After eight years of economic recovery, it is only up by 42 minutes.

So, take-home pay has stagnated (or worse) for the average American since the Nixon administration. People have coped by having both spouses work, by borrowing under their home equity lines of credit, and by refinancing mortgages when interest rates declined.

But, by 1995, spousal participation in the job market had peaked, at about 60%. Borrowing under home equity lines of credit peaked in 2005 at $364 billion. These loans that were used to pay for remodeling, education costs, or new Ford F-150s were less than half of that amount in 2015, at $150 billion.

After the Great Recession, The only remaining way to boost household cash was mortgage refinance. There were windows to refinance a mortgage in 2009, and again in 2013. The reason was that mortgage interest rates stayed very low. In fact, US 10 year treasuries were at a 60 year low in 2013 at 1.50%, and mortgage rates are tied to the treasury rate.

As an example, a 1.5% decline in a mortgage payment on a $250,000 house would save $3750 a year, or a little over $300 a month added to the pockets of the average hourly worker. Taking income tax into consideration, it would take an additional 17.5 hours of work at the $21.45 rate to equal that amount. But that’s not practical. It would require a 52% increase in hours, if you are working the national average number of hours, which isn’t going to happen.

So, if the Federal Reserve raises interest rates, as they seem set to do this month or next, mortgage refinance will no longer be helpful to the vast number of working people. CoreLogic tracks the interest rates on outstanding mortgages, collecting data from mortgage servicers. Their data track the volume of outstanding mortgages by interest rate level for both the number of mortgages, and the unpaid principal balance on those mortgages (UPB).

Their analysis says that few mortgages will be refinanced if rates go up: Most borrowers have mortgages with rates below 4.50%, with 62% of mortgages and 72% of UPB in this range. There are an additional 14% of borrowers and 13% of UPB with mortgage rates between 4.5 and 5.0%.

Since refinancing has costs (legal, title search and insurance, and points), a simple rule of thumb is to add 1% to the current mortgage rate to get a rate at which borrowers would have a financial incentive to refinance. The current Freddie Mac mortgage rate is 3.57%, so the point of indifference for a borrower would be ~4.5%. CoreLogic estimates that only about 28% of the UPB of America’s outstanding mortgage loans are worth refinancing today. And should the Fed live up to their plan, and increase rates by ½% in 2016, an additional 5.5 million borrowers will lose their incentive to refinance.

So, if mortgage rates rise in 2016 as predicted, refinancing won’t improve the financial situation for very many of us.

New Deal Democrat sees all of this and says:

So the bottom line is, we are already in a period…where real gains by average Americans won’t be available from financing gimmicks, but must come from real, actual wage growth. At the moment I see little economic or political impetus to make that happen, even though average Americans understand via their wallets the issue all too well.

We’ve killed our economy.

You’d think after 8 years where most US job growth was in part-time jobs, where hourly income is at the same level as in the Ford administration, where we have the most people ever in poverty, where student debt exceeds credit card debt and automobile debt, people would catch on.

Maybe, but not unless we demand real answers of Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, and not let the candidates say the plan is to rearrange the deck chairs on the Titanic.

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We’ve Had Threats To Our Constitutional Rights Before

The Past Is Never Dead, It Is Not Even Past” – Faulkner

Does this sound familiar?

They called for imprisonment of Americans who came from a foreign country. They called for shutting down immigration from certain countries and deporting the immigrants already here. They were for stifling dissent against a looming foreign war by calling the anti-war protestors traitors. They passed laws that curtailed several rights granted in the Bill of Rights.

An administration worked hard to “sell” a war to the American people.

This is not America in the post-9/11 period, it was during World War I, not during Iraq, or our current battle against ISIS.

And it occurred while a progressive Democrat was in the White House.

On April 6, 1917, Woodrow Wilson delivered his war message to Congress. The US, Wilson said, was to embark upon a crusade to “make the world safe for democracy“. Unfortunately, Wilson’s administration gave rise to the greatest attack upon civil liberties (up to that time) since the passage of the Sedition Act in 1798.

Wilson had two problems. First, the citizenry had to be mobilized behind a war effort that did not involve a direct attack on the US. Second, he felt a need to guarantee our internal security against both real and imagined enemies. To solve the first problem, in April, 1917, Wilson established the Committee on Public Information (CPI), under the leadership of George Creel, a respected progressive. The Committee’s job was to convince citizens that the war was righteous, and to educate all Americans about American war goals.

Writers turned out “true” stories concerning what the Germans planned to do to America; speakers toured the nation delivering anti-German talks. Movie audiences thrilled to “Pershing’s Crusaders” and came by the thousands to hate the enemy by watching dramas such as “The Kaiser, the Beast of Berlin.”

Congress also enacted laws that curtailed our constitutionally guaranteed freedoms of speech and press. Shortly after Wilson’s war message, in June, 1917, the Espionage Act was passed. This made it a crime to make false reports which would aid the enemy, incite rebellion among the armed forces, or obstruct recruiting or the draft. In practice, it was used to stifle dissent and radical criticism.

In October, 1917, another law required foreign language newspapers to submit translations of all war-related stories or editorials before distribution to local readers.

In May, 1918, the Sedition Act bolstered the Espionage Act. It provided penalties of up to 20 years imprisonment for the willful writing, uttering, or publication of material abusing the government, showing contempt for the Constitution, or inciting others to resist the government. Under this Act, it was unnecessary to prove that the language in question had affected anyone or had produced injurious consequences. In addition, the Postmaster General was empowered to deny use of the mails to anyone who, in his opinion, used them to violate the Act.

In October 1918, Congress passed the Alien Act, by which any alien who, at any time after entering the US was found to have been a member of any anarchist organization, could be deported.

Volunteer organizations sprung up, dedicated to discovering alleged traitors, saboteurs, and slackers. The volunteer groups were hyper-patriotic, and were often responsible for violations of civil liberties, although the government made no real attempt to discourage or limit their activities.

With the quiet consent of the Department of Justice, the American Protective League’s 250,000 civilian members—many of whom wore official-looking badges reading “Secret Service”—undertook vigilante actions against supposedly disloyal socialists, pacifists, and immigrants; they engaged in domestic surveillance operations; and raided businesses, meeting halls, and private homes in an effort to uncover pro-German sympathizers. As a result, force became the order of the day.

Somewhere during the fight to make the world safe for democracy, Americans lost their tolerance, compassion and mercy, and much of their democratic ideals.

Does this sound familiar?

The various Acts of 1917 and 1918 helped destroy what remained of the left wing in America. Victor Berger, the first socialist elected to Congress, was sentenced to 20 years in prison for hindering the war effort. Eugene V. Debs was sentenced to 10 years in prison for making an anti-war speech.

On November 11, 1918, the Allies and Germany signed an armistice: the war was over.

The American public had shown a willingness to tolerate and even to participate in censorship, mugging, imprisoning, harassment, and forced deportation of Americans who didn’t agree with them.

Given where we are today, it could easily happen again.

Don’t bet against it.

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Free Trade’s Double-Edged Sword

The Bernie Sanders win in Michigan is chalked up to his attacks on trade agreements, in particular, the Trans Pacific Partnership that resonated with a broader audience than his attacks on Wall Street. Along the way, Donald Trump has been plowing the same ground, talking about how America is losing jobs to Mexico and Asia.

So the question is, are we seeing a political backlash against trade? Can Sanders or Trump gain sufficient political traction to win with this issue? And can we blame trade for losing jobs to China and elsewhere?

Jared Bernstein in Monday’s New York Times made an excellent point: (emphasis by the Wrongologist)

The economic populism of the presidential campaign has forced the recognition that expanded trade is a double-edged sword. The defense of globalization rests on viewing Americans primarily as consumers, not workers, based on the assumption that we care more about low prices than about low wages.

When you hear politicians speak about free trade, they talk about cheaper products. They sidestep the terrible impact on American jobs, they sidestep the concern that many, many jobs have been lost through free trade agreements. The free trade deals have also exacerbated the loss of union power, which means fewer (and lower paying) jobs, fewer hours, and poorer benefits, including pensions.

The trade topic is obviously a huge driver of Trump’s and Sanders’s appeal. It is a problem for Hillary, since she was for the Trans-Pacific Partnership before she was against it.

Despite being on opposite ends of the political spectrum, the two populists are using the same message: The government, both political parties, and business are working at cross-purposes with the needs of the American people. In a democracy, populism is a warning sign that government has been disconnected from its citizens. Consider that while Americans lost at least 4 million jobs, corporate profits are up, and the 1% has gotten much wealthier.

It’s true that off-shoring is good for the global economy. Chinese people working to make iPads are richer than they were, but it’s not a win-win situation. It’s more of a win-lose, where Chinese workers win relatively big, while American workers lose medium.

Another problem is that workers directly impacted by trade have little power or influence in their firms or the country as a whole. In the US, exports only make up about 13.5% of GDP. But in Sweden, Denmark or Germany, exports are north of 40% percent of GDP. And these countries, with far fewer natural resources, have robust social safety nets in addition to high wages. And as Bernstein says:

The real wage for blue-collar manufacturing workers in the United States is essentially unchanged over the past 35 years, while productivity in the sector is up more than 200%.

Why? Because governments in these other countries stress building high-skill industries that compete based on producing high value-added products, while low-skill industries that compete based on exploiting their employees are discouraged. This is called having an industrial policy, which encourages business to meet government priorities. In America, we are against having industrial policies, because it sounds like socialism.

Bernstein points out that the free trade negotiation process has been captured by investors and corporate interests:

According to the Washington Post, 85% of the members of the outside committees advising the administration on the proposed Trans-Pacific Partnership were from private businesses and trade associations (the rest were from labor unions, NGOs, academics and other levels of government).

And that’s the world we live in. Business is driving most of the decisions that our politicians make, ensuring that whatever is enacted is primarily good for business, and secondarily, if at all, for We, the People.

And in the world we live in, free trade has significantly boosted wages and quality of life for overseas workers and has helped lift millions of Chinese and other Asian citizens out of poverty, while our middle class, a prerequisite for our stable society, has been hollowed out.

Yet, America’s plutocrats and politicians push for even MORE free trade.

The current election cycle may horrify the “political establishment,” of both parties, but it was preordained by their bought-and-paid-for politics.

Americans have a real gripe. They don’t see, or care about the benefits to Chinese and other third world workers that lower or stagnant wages at home help to provide. The Bernie win in Michigan and Trump’s success in the GOP primaries show people are super pissed off.

Our political parties better start coming up with ways to mitigate the trade and wage problem before someone like DonDon actually succeeds in becoming president.

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Workin’ in a Coal Mine

American Experience ran a documentary called “The Mine Wars” on January 26th. It told the story of West Virginia coal miners’ battle against mine owners at the start of the 20th century.

Few know that the WV mine workers struggle against the mine owners led to the largest armed insurrection after the Civil War and turned parts of West Virginia into a war zone that required federal troops to pacify.

The battle started in 1920 with a shootout in Matewan, WV. It was triggered by a plan by the United Mine Workers (UMW) to organize Mingo County, where Matewan is located, and the thuggish reaction by mine owners. There is a fine movie that documents this, “Matewan”, by John Sayles.

The town’s union-sympathizing Police Chief Sid Hatfield confronted a group of private detectives from the Baldwin-Felts company who were hired by the coal mine owners. The detectives had come to Matewan to evict the families of unionized miners. The “Battle” of Matewan left seven Baldwin-Felts men dead, along with the mayor and two townspeople.

Some background: Workers were paid based on the weight of the coal they mined. Each car brought from the mines theoretically held a specific amount of coal (2,000 pounds). However, cars were altered by owners to hold more coal than the specified amount, so miners would be paid for 2,000 pounds when they actually had brought in 2,500. In addition, workers were docked pay if rock was mixed in with the coal. Miners mostly lived in company-owned homes, and were forced to shop at company-owned stores.

The UMW started organizing and striking in WV in 1912. When the strikes began, the mine owners used hired guns to inflict plenty of violence on miners and their families.

There is a sordid history of similar efforts throughout the US. Check out the Ludlow Massacre in 1914.

But before WWI, the UMW was unsuccessful in changing working conditions or wages for miners. The US entry into WWI in 1917 sparked a boom in demand for coal, also bringing increasing wages. After the War, demand for coal fell, and so did miners’ wages.

At that time, the largest non-unionized coal region in the eastern US were WV’s Logan and Mingo counties, and the UMW made them a top priority. Mine owners in Logan bought off the Logan County Sheriff Don Chafin to keep the union out of the county. In 1921, after increasingly violent confrontations with the owners and their hired guns, miners moved to fight back.

In August, approximately 5,000 armed union men entered Logan County. Logan city was protected by a natural barrier, Blair Mountain. Chafin’s forces took positions at the top of Blair Mountain, while the miners assembled near the bottom of the mountain. There were skirmishes and deaths. On September 1, President Harding sent in federal troops to break up the battle, and the miners soon surrendered to the feds.

By 1924, UMW membership in the state had dropped by about 50% of its total in 1921.

Mine owners also engaged in a PR campaign that portrayed the UMW as “Bolsheviks”. The Red Scare in 1919-1920 was based on fears that the labor movement would lead to radical political agitation, or would spread communism and anarchism within the country. This sense of paranoia was driven in part by the mining companies.

Does any of this sound familiar? How many red scare equivalents have we had in the last 100 years?

Corporations have always been at war with workers. Here’s the real question: Is it possible for capitalism, by its very nature, NOT to incite a constant battle between the .01% and everyone else?

Probably not. Class is a feature of capitalism, so it follows that class conflict will always be part of capitalist economies. We may find ways to mitigate the effects of that conflict, but it will always be a struggle to do so.

At the same time, we see every day that the interests of private capital are not aligned with the needs of society as a whole. We re-learn these lessons because our public institutions periodically get co-opted by capital. Until private capital’s stranglehold over our political process is ended, it will always try to rig the system.

The miners’ struggle in West Virginia was not just a backwoods conflict. The WV experience has direct relevance to today’s American economy, to today’s capitalists, and to the state of labor in America today.

What happened in West Virginia is an object lesson for what all of America might look like with unfettered corporatism.

Take a look and listen to Lee Dorsey’s 1966 hit “Workin in Coal Mine” written by the late, great Alan Toussaint:

For those who read the Wrongologist in email, you can view the video here.

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Monday Wake Up Call – November 30, 2015

Today’s wake up is for the American worker. While you were sleeping, corporate executives were piecing together an economy and associated tax regulations that allowed them to become America’s oligarchs.

The Center for Effective Government just came out with a study of CEO retirement funds. You already know the conclusion, but you didn’t know the facts:

• The 100 largest CEO retirement funds are worth a combined $4.9 billion. That’s equal to the entire retirement account savings of 47 million American families
• Nearly half of all working age Americans have no access to a retirement plan. The median balance in a 401(k) plan at the end of 2013 was $18,433, enough to generate a monthly retirement check of $104.

In addition, 73% of Fortune 500 firms have also set up special tax-deferred compensation accounts for their executives. These are similar to the 401(k) plans that some Americans have through their employers. But average workers face limits on how much pre-tax income they can invest each year in similar plans, while the plans the F500 provides to their top executives do not. They are free to shelter unlimited amounts of compensation in their retirement funds where their money can grow tax-free, until retirement.

But for the average employee? The GAO says that 29% of workers approaching retirement (aged 50-65) do not have pension or retirement savings in a 401(k) or IRA. While according to a study by the Schwartz Center at the New School, 55% of those aged 50-64 will be forced to rely solely on Social Security (which averages $1,233 a month).

The current rules mean that if CEO’s slash worker retirement benefits, they can boost corporate profits and thereby, stock prices. And since much of executive compensation is tied to the company’s stock price, these rules (and company practice) create a powerful incentive for CEO’s to choose their pocketbooks over those of their employees.

We are talking about market power. The CEO’s and their firms have little to fear from Mr. Market. In turn the rising wealth at the top buys growing political influence, through campaign contributions, lobbying, and the rewards of the revolving door between government jobs and those in the private sector. Political influence in turn is used to write the rules of the game—the tax laws we are speaking of here, antitrust laws, deregulation, union-busting—all in a way that reinforces income concentration.

The result is a feedback loop between political power and market power that created, and now maintains, a vicious circle of oligarchy.

Well, time to wake up from a snooze that allowed our politicians and the largest corporations and their CEOs to turn our country and economy into their private sandbox.

To help with today’s wake-up, here is Rage Against the Machine, the gone but not forgotten band, with Zach de la Rocha on vocals and the superb Tom Morello on guitar. They are performing “No Shelter”, written in 1998:

Sample Lyrics:
Empty ya pockets son, they got you thinkin’ that
What ya need is what they selling
Make you think that buying is rebelling
From the theaters to malls on every shore
Tha thin line between entertainment and war

Chained to the dream they got ya searchin’ for
Tha thin line between entertainment and war

There be no shelter here
Tha front line is everywhere
There be no shelter here
Tha front line is everywhere

American eyes, American eyes
View the world from American eyes
Bury the past, rob us blind
And leave nothing behind

Just stare
Just stare
Relive the nightmare

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

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Union-Busting at Pantex

Never heard of Pantex? It is the nation’s only nuclear weapons plant. The full name of the company is Consolidated Nuclear Security (CNS) Pantex. CNS is a combination of a who’s who of major defense contractors, including Lockheed Martin, Bechtel, and Booz Allen Hamilton. CNS took over Pantex in March, 2014.

The company assembles, disassembles, and tests nuclear weapon components for the US military. They also manage the storage and surveillance of plutonium pits. (Plutonium Pits? In Texas?)

Pantex is a union shop, and on August 29, more than 1,100 workers went on strike over CNS Pantex’ demand for health care concessions. CNS is also seeking the elimination of defined benefit pensions for new union members. In a statement, Council President Clarence Rashada said:

Wages are not the issue. Benefits, sick leave, medical coverage, prescription drugs, those are the issues.

Since work at Pantex involves exposure to dangerous chemicals and substances, the union is pushing back hard against CNS who is also seeking to shift greater health care costs onto its retirees.

The strike is the first in 45 years at Pantex, and it comes 18 months after CNS took over.

Let’s remember that Texas is a right-to-work state, so the union left one entry gate to Pantex free of picketers to allow managers and other employees to enter the plant without any commotion.

This is right up Scott Walker’s alley. The union-busting Republican governor of Wisconsin is on the campaign trail talking about preventing federal workers from collectively bargaining, creating a national right-to-work law and eliminating the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB).

And the Pantex union-busting is abetted by the Department of Energy (DOE). The union blames the DOE, arguing that a DOE rule capping worker benefits has put CNS and Pantex employees in untenable positions. By rule, CNS can’t offer employee benefits that would exceed the industry average by 5%. However, the industry baseline also includes manufacturers of cell phones and car parts, so the DOE is comparing labor costs on consumer goods and nuclear weapons, probably an Apple™ to warheads comparison.

Effectively shutting down Pantex over a labor rule that only affects 10% of DOE contractors also speaks volumes about leadership and priorities at the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA), which supervises Pantex and CNS.

The Project on Government Oversight (POGO) reports that in the run-up to the government’s award of the Pantex contract to CNS, CNS claimed it could save taxpayers over $3 billion by cutting redundancies and consolidating management, but NNSA never validated the claim. POGO quotes from a GAO report about the NNSA’s evaluation of the CNS bid:

Did not clearly or completely describe expected benefits and costs…lacked key analyses and assumptions for cost savings estimates…[and] was also missing a description of the unquantified benefits CNS management might or might not offer.

So, maybe it’s a matter of “screw the government” by contractors big and experienced enough to know better. POGO says a series of recent reports have found that NNSA is skimping on upkeep for old buildings, using obsolete fire safety equipment at weapons sites, and relying on broken security sensors to protect uranium stockpiles.

CNS also runs the Y-12 facility at Oak Ridge TN, former home of the Manhattan Project. Y-12’s primary mission today is providing secure storage of nuclear material for both the US and other governments. The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists calls Y-12 a “Poster child for a dysfunctional nuclear weapons complex”, noting that although Y-12 has not produced weapons for 25 years, its annual budgets have increased by nearly 50% since 1997, to more than $1 billion a year.

POGO reported that the NNSA spent $50 million on new security systems at Y-12 but couldn’t find a way to get security guards and security sensors working in sync. The overhaul was a result of a July 2012 incident in which a then-82-year-old nun and two others broke into Y-12 to protest the production of nuclear weapons. They made it into the building where most of the US stockpile of highly enriched uranium is stored. The DOE Inspector General found:

Troubling displays of ineptitude in responding to alarms, failures to maintain critical security equipment, over reliance on compensatory measures, misunderstanding of security protocols, poor communications, and weaknesses in contract and resource management.

Follow-on security tests found that the guard force at Y-12 was cheating on evaluations.

You would think that if there’s one place where this cutting corners on safety and security would not be tolerated, it’s with nuclear weapons. CNS has demonstrated in its Y-12 and Pantex situations that competent nuclear weapons handling and security at nuclear weapons facilities should be governmental functions.

They are far too important to be left to a private contractor’s business decision.

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