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The Wrongologist

Geopolitics, Power and Political Economy

Sunday Cartoon Blogging – November 19, 2017

The week was dominated by two stories, the Republican tax cut efforts; and the variations on the sexual harassment theme by men in positions of power.

Let’s talk about sexual predation by men. We shouldn’t be pushing all predators to the front of the same firing squad. Without diminishing or excusing what any of these scumbag politicians have done (Al Franken, Bill Clinton) pedophiles are in a detestable class all by themselves. We are now in the middle of a teachable moment, where publicizing how badly men have treated women in our society might bring about real behavioral change. This is solely due to those many, if not most, women who are saying that they aren’t going to take it anymore. This tsunami of accusations and personal testimony will bring down some of the worst of the predators. In this case, sunlight is the best disinfectant.

The GOP wrote the bill. Now, we’ll see who votes for it:

The elephant will always protect his best constituents:

Using the Pot/Kettle meme brings risk:

Mitch has selective beliefs when women tell their truth:

The sexual predator issue focuses the thinking of Republicans:

Trump chose Jeff Sessions for Attorney General in part because Alabama would be a lock to elect another Republican. We’ll see in 3 weeks if that works out as planned.

Bonus Republican hypocrisy: Do these people ever hear themselves?

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Monday Wake Up Call – October 30, 2017

The Daily Escape:

Fall at the Statehouse in Augusta, Maine – photo by Robert F. Bukaty

Welcome to what we may start to call Robert Mueller Monday. Ray Dalio, the founder of the Bridgewater Associates, the world’s largest hedge fund has serious concerns about the uneven recovery of the US economy.

In a LinkedIn post, Dalio said that if politicians and business people look only at the economy’s average statistics about how Americans are doing, they could easily make “dangerous miscalculations” because the averages mask deep differences in how people in various income segments are doing.

Dalio divides the economy into two sections: the top 40%, and the bottom 60%. He then shows how the economy for the bottom 60% of the population, (that’s three in five Americans for you English majors), has been much less successful than for those in the top bracket.

For example, Dalio notes that since 1980, real incomes have been flat or down for the average household in the bottom 60%. Those in the top 40% now have 10 times as much wealth as households in the bottom 60%, up from six times as much in 1980.

Dalio says that only about one-third of people in the bottom 60% (20% overall) save any of their income. Only a similar number have any retirement savings. These three in five Americans are experiencing increasing rates of premature death. They spend about four times less on education than those in the top 40%. Those in the 60% without a college education have lower income levels, and higher divorce rates.

Dalio believes these problems will intensify in the next five to ten years. The inequality problem is caused by our politics and our fiscal policies, not by the Fed’s monetary policies.

OTOH, Dalio’s concerns aren’t a surprise to anyone who follows the political economy. In fact, it isn’t a surprise to anyone who has walked through any mid-sized American city, or driven through any small town in the heartland.

The problem is not low wage growth.

The problem is not long-term unemployment, as degrading and humiliating as that is.

The problem is that the US economy has been restructured over the past 30 years as an underemployment, low-wage economy in which most new jobs created are temporary jobs (whether you are a laborer, a technician, a service worker or a professional) with no job security, low wages and few benefits.

The real question is can we solve the problem? Many old lefties argue for a Universal Basic Income, (UBI), but Wrongo thinks that’s, er, wrong. If the UBI were high enough to provide even a subsistence living for every American, it would be massively inflationary. And it would merely allow businesses to pay lower wages, which is why some wealthy business people, like Peter Thiel, support a UBI.

Wrongo thinks we should support guaranteed work, not guaranteed income. Most people need and want to work in order to keep their place in our society. Getting a check just isn’t sufficient. If people matter at all, and if 95% of them lack the means to live without working, society must strive to employ all of those who have been deemed redundant by the private sector.

And there is plenty to do around America. Start with the 5,000+ bridges and dams that need replacing, or the 104 nuclear power plants that are falling apart.

We need real tax reform that can’t be loopholed. Corporations must pay more, not less. Stop the move to give corporations incentives to repatriate offshore earnings by lowering their effective tax rates. That only compromises our future tax stream. Corporations have to pay more in taxes, and agree to increase the wages of average workers.

Economically, we are in a pretty scary place. People across party lines and socio-economic levels are frightened for their financial security. We need a jobs guarantee, not a UBI.

So, wake up America! Letting corporations and the rich dictate our investment in human capital or infrastructure has us on the road to eclipse as a country. To help you wake up, here is Todd Snider performing “Conservative Christian, Right Wing, Republican, Straight, White American Male“, live at Farm Aid 2014 in Raleigh, North Carolina in September, 2014:

Why aren’t the Dixie Chicks singing harmony on this?

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

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Sunday Cartoon Blogging – October 1, 2017

(There will not be a Monday Wake Up Call column tomorrow, you are on your own! There will be a Tuesday Wake Up, however.)

A few last thoughts on the controversy about kneeling during the National Anthem. This is by David French at the National Review, not some liberal snowflake:

If we lose respect for the First Amendment, then politics becomes purely about power. If we no longer fight to secure the same rights for others that we demand for ourselves, we become more tribal, and America becomes less exceptional.

A comparison for your consideration: A year ago, Colin Kaepernick knelt for the Anthem, and then pledged to donate $1 million to American citizens in oppressed communities. He has donated $800k so far. In the past eight months, now deposed HHS Secretary Tom Price has sat on chartered jets, stealing $1 million from American citizens.

And who do most Americans think is a real patriot?

On to cartoons. Trump’s helping hand for Puerto Rico is insufficient:

Trump’s tax plan looks like it will cost $2.4 TRILLION, but he alone can fix it:

Trump moves on in his quest to make America great:

With so many pre-existing conditions, the GOP should insist they are included in Trumpcare:

Wrongo doesn’t understand the Hefner mania:

 

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Tax Cuts Won’t Pay for Irma and Harvey

The Daily Escape:

Talking Heads Decision Wheel

It’s time to question how we pay for disasters. The estimated costs of Harvey and Irma are $290 billion. That might turn out to be high or low, it is still early days in assessing total costs. The insurance industry says that they expect to take a $70 billion combined hit for Irma and Harvey.

That leaves $220 billion to be funded by individuals, or taxpayers. Where will that money come from?

The president and his GOP buddies want to cut taxes on corporations and the wealthy, but they call it tax reform. They’ll throw some chump change at the middle class, so that their base feels they got something for their vote last November, but at best, their tax plan will be revenue-neutral. That will provide nothing new for the rebuild of Texas and Florida.

We shouldn’t accept the usual “revenues can’t be increased” mantra when we know cities and people will not be able to afford rebuilding on their own. We have to raise revenues. It’s time for a specific and time-limited National Recovery Tax. And everybody has to chip in. This can be a unifying moment. Nobody wants to pay more, but the job must be done.

Think for a second about the Hand In Hand benefit. The idea was that celebrities would induce the average person to donate to disaster relief. The minimum donation that Hand In Hand asked for on their web site is $25. The average US Net worth for 45-54 year olds is around 84k. $25 is .0003% of the average US family’s net worth.

Celebrities should ask us to open our wallets, but that can’t be the way we raise the billions necessary to fund this recovery. And we can’t count on the corporations. Apple gave $5 million, that’s nice. Apple is worth about $850 billion; $5 million is .0000058% of Apple’s net worth. They gave less proportionately than the average American. Apple pays very little tax relative to their profits, most of which are kept overseas. Here is a link to how Apple’s income is sheltered.

Think about where Apple’s money comes from. You bought the iPhone, iPad and maybe a MAC computer. You were the source of their money. The same is true for Michael Dell’s $36 million donation to Harvey relief. He gave a heroic amount, but it’s a pittance when we need $220 billion.

Disasters happen. We need a fund to make people whole, and it has to come from increased revenues. Some could be from state-level taxation in the states impacted, but other states won’t do that voluntarily. That assessment has to come from a new federal tax assessment. Congress should work out the details.

We need to wave off any discussion of additional tax breaks for corporations or for the wealthy, until we rebuild Texas and Florida.

We are all beneficiaries of living in America, including those companies that keep their money offshore. We all should be in this together. If we don’t look out for each other, we’re screwed.

There are other questions, such as, should we be rebuilding in the “bathtub” parts of Houston or Florida? Should we continue allowing coastal homeowners access to federal flood insurance when they tap into it every few years? Maybe we shouldn’t build on waterfront. The NYT had a piece about St. Augustine, FL. They routinely have sunny day flooding caused by rising sea water. What do we need to do to protect historic sites like St. Augustine? Should we protect them?

Can we even ask these questions? Can we agree to do a study? Views differ. But the truth doesn’t travel far in America, because the truth hurts. So, we never ask the big questions, or seek answers to them. We just occasionally donate a little to the disaster of the moment in order to feel a little better.

How can we keep America great if we fail to fund the recovery from disasters? A temporary tax on everyone is the best answer to what just happened in the South.

Here are the Talking Heads with “Once in a Lifetime” from their 1980 album, “Remain In Light”:

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

Takeaway lyric:

Letting the days go by, let the water hold me down
Letting the days go by, water flowing underground
Into the blue again after the money’s gone
Once in a lifetime, water flowing underground

And you may ask yourself
What is that beautiful house?
And you may ask yourself
Where does that highway go to?
And you may ask yourself
Am I right? Am I wrong?
And you may say to yourself, “My God! What have I done?”

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How Trump Exploited NYC’s Financial Crisis

The Daily Escape:

Iceberg floating near Ferryland Newfoundland, April 2017 – photo by Greg Locke

The Intercept has an interview of Kim Phillips-Fein by Naomi Klein about how Donald Trump made his first big deal during the New York City financial crisis of the mid-1970s. Phillips-Fein’s book is “Fear City”, which describes the NYC fiscal crisis of the 1970s that brought it to the verge of bankruptcy. The WSJ reports:

By June 1975, New York faced default on $4.5 billion in outstanding short-term debt owed to a few big banks and to thousands of unidentifiable small investors. Not only did the city have no way to repay $4.5 billion, it could not meet its routine, daily operating expenses, including payroll.

The WSJ says that between 1970 and 1980, more than 823,000 city dwellers left for (literally) greener pastures.

Ultimately the city did not go bankrupt. The banks and the city’s unions were willing to buy enough of the city’s (otherwise unsalable) debt to avoid bankruptcy. Important to the mix was the creation of the Municipal Assistance Corporation (MAC) run by Felix Rohatyn, who became chief negotiator between the city, its labor unions and its creditors. A new type of agency, The New York State Financial Control Board, that controlled the city’s budget, became the model for the type of emergency city managers that we saw last year in Flint and Detroit Michigan.

The NYC financial crisis helped Donald Trump emerge as a New York deal-maker. Trump convinced New York to let him take over the Commodore Hotel, which we now call the Grand Hyatt, just east of Grand Central station. Trump modernized and renovated it, it was his first construction project in Manhattan. Phillips-Fein picks up the story:

…the Commodore Hotel was a previously very fancy hotel from the early 20th century. I think it opens in 1919 at 42nd Street and Lexington Avenue. And it’s owned by the Penn Central Railroad. And the hotel kind of falls into disrepair and near collapse after Penn Central itself goes bankrupt in 1970.

The Commodore had stopped paying city property taxes and was for sale. The city was terrified that if the Commodore Hotel closed, the blight in Times Square would spread east, into the area around Grand Central Terminal. Trump saw an opportunity, while the city government saw a potential disaster. Together they hatched a plan for Trump to purchase the Commodore Hotel: (parenthesis by the Wrongologist)

What he actually wants to do is buy it and sell it to a state agency, the Urban Development Corporation (UDC)…And then the UDC will lease it back to Trump, [who was] working with the Hyatt organization.

The UDC leased it back to Trump and Hyatt. And this arrangement enabled them to pay substantially lower property taxes than usual. Phillips-Fein:

The New York Times reported that as of 2016, this tax arrangement with the Hyatt had cost New York City about $360 million in uncollected taxes in the years since the development.

Naomi Klein:

So I just want to pause there, because what you’re saying is…Trump and the Hyatt put down $9.5 million…They come up with this…sweetheart deal, a tax dodge. And that $9.5 million outlay translates back into roughly $360 million in tax savings…

The Trump/Hyatt tax deal set the stage for a wholesale change in the city. The fear of bankruptcy was central to understanding NYC politics at that moment: They feared an apocalyptic future. That fear created a need for a savior, and it found two in Donald Trump and Felix Rohatyn.

The NYC government decided that working with the business community was the bail-out it needed. It set the stage for the city’s luxury developments, for using different kinds of tax breaks that stimulated the development of properties primarily dedicated to the needs of corporations and the rich. It set the stage for a wholesale change in city politics from New Dealism to Neoliberalism. And it set the stage for Trump’s political career. Phillips-Fein: (brackets by the Wrongologist)

…you can see the straight line, really, from the Commodore to this skating rink [Wollman Rink in Central Park] to the presidential bid…”I’m not a politician. Washington is corrupt. I know how to do this better…”

Fear makes things that should be impossible suddenly feel as though they’re the only answer. Klein concludes by saying we should be very wary of the political exploitation of our fears, of political exploitation of an atmosphere of crisis.

It is clear that Donald Trump’s career and his fortune were really forged by doing just that.

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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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Capitalism, It’s Not You, It’s Me

There is a meme that has gone global since the early days of the Occupy movement. Here it is as a wall graffiti from Greece that uses the same meme we first saw in NYC in 2011:

Capitalism Lotek

Just kidding capitalism, it really is you.

The artist is a Greek who styles himself as Lotek. The name Lotek is derived from the short story (and later, a film) by William Gibson called Johnny Mnemonic. The story is set in 2021, in a world ruled by corporations. An anti-authoritarian gang that are called Lo-Teks, fight the power. They are in fact not low tech at all, but are high tech hackers. Sound familiar?

Greece is surely a place at war with neoliberalism and free market capitalism. So is it also time for us to reconsider capitalism?

Consider this from Mark Blyth in Foreign Affairs:

An inherent tension exists between capitalism and democratic politics since capitalism allocates resources through markets, whereas democracy allocates power through voting.

The compromises both systems have struck with each other over recent history shapes our contemporary political and economic world. Blyth observes:

  • In the three decades that followed World War II, democracy set the rules, taming markets with the establishment of protective labor laws, restrictive financial regulations, and expanded welfare systems.
  • Starting in the 1970s, a globalized, deregulated capitalism, unconstrained by national borders, began to push back.

And today, capital markets and capitalists are setting the rules, and democratic governments follow them.

Some background: Cutting taxes in the 1980s caused government revenues to fall. Deficits widened, and interest rates rose as those deficits became harder to finance. At the same time, conservative govern­ments, especially in the UK and the US, dismantled the regulations that had reined in the excesses of the financial service industry since the 1940s.

The financial industry began to grow unchecked, and as it expanded, investors sought safe assets that were highly liquid and provided good returns: the debt of developed countries.

This allowed governments to plug their deficits and spend more, all without raising taxes.

But the shift to financing the state through debt came at a cost. Since WW II, taxes on labor and capital had provided the foundation of postwar state spending. But, as govern­ments began to rely more on debt, the tax-based states of the postwar era became the debt-based states of today.

This transformation had pro­found political consequences. The increase in government debt has allowed capitalists to override the preferences of citizens:

  • Bond-market investors can now exercise an effective veto on policies they don’t like by demanding higher interest rates when they replace old debt with new debt.
  • Investors can use courts to override the ability of states to default on their debts, as happened recently in Argentina
  • They can shut down an entire country’s payment system if that country votes against the interests of creditors, as happened in Greece in 2015.
  • Citizens United dictates who runs for office in the US, and in many cases, who wins.

Now that the financial industry has become more powerful than the people, should we blindly follow capitalism’s meme as the only way forward?

Free-market rhetoric hides the dependence of corporate profits on conditions provided for, and guaranteed by, governments. For example:

  • Our financial institutions insist that they should be free of meddlesome regulations while they depend on continuing access to cheap credit from the Federal Reserve.
  • Our pharmaceutical firms have resisted any government limits on their price-setting ability at the same time that they rely on government grants of monopolies through our patent system.

To use a sporting metaphor, it’s as if the best football team purchased not only the best coaches and facilities, but also bought the referees and the journalists as well. Those responsible for judging economic competition have lost all authority, which leaves the dream of ‘meritocracy’ or a ‘level playing field’ in tatters.

In our country, the divide between the business oligarchs, the political class and “the people” increasingly appears unbridgeable, marked by hostility and deep distrust. When people are told for a generation that government mustn’t make decisions that interfere with free markets, it is inevitable that people will lose faith in democratic governance, and in government’s capacity to help them solve their problems.

Capitalism in its current form no longer works for the people. We have seen a reaction in the start of movements by Occupy, by Bernie, and by others in Europe.

Remember that the greatest prosperity in living memory in the US came during the brief social democratic moment, in the 1950s and 1960s, when the constraints on business were the greatest.

More democracy and more economic justice are the necessary foundations for the path to a more prosperous, and sustainable economy.

A reformed capitalism must be a part of what emerges from that fight.

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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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