WSJ opinion page is the hot spot for intellectuals who sell out to right-wing money

Michael A. Carvin, Yaakov M. Roth and Michael Saltsman have a lot in common.  All three are highly educated and learned white males who work for professional services firms as knowledge workers dedicated to both written and unwritten sets of ethics and professional conduct. All three generally serve corporate clients with right-wing interests.  All have written articles that appeared on the same opinion page on the same day in the Wall Street Journal. Both of their articles (Carvin and Roth work as a team) propose public policies that while, disastrous for the country, would help their clients.

One more thing they have in common: Their articles depend upon fallacious reasoning.

Saltsman is no newcomer to the opinion pages of right-wing media. He is rapidly becoming notorious for his specious reasoning and empty rhetoric in a slew of articles arguing against the minimum wage. He identifies himself as research director at the Employment Policies Institute, but an on-line biography lists him as an employee of Richard Berman, whose public relations agency specializes in creating pseudo think tanks to spew out white papers favorable to his clients—generally large businesses.  But Carvin and Roth, both lawyers at the mega-enormous international law firm Jones Day, are new to the game of misrepresenting facts and using fallacious reasoning in the news media to support their client’s position. They may do it in the court room and during negotiations all the time—I’m not in a position to comment.

Let’s take a look at what these intellectual sell-outs are proposing:

In “Courts Should Stay Out of Political Fact-Checking,” Carvin and Roth want to declare unconstitutional all state laws that prohibit lying in political advertising; currently there are 15 states that make it a crime. Carvin and Roth, by the way, are part of the legal team that Jones Day has put together to represent the plaintiffs in the case before the Supreme Court that is considering the matter.  The client wants to invalidate laws prohibiting lying in political ads.

Here’s the reason Carvin and Roth give for not wanting laws against lying in political ads: the voters and not judges should decide what is and is not a lie.  By letting the people decide, they of course mean by voting on Election Day.

There are three problems with this view:

  1. The voters have no standing and are incapable of deciding if a commercial has told an out-and-out lie. They aren’t experts in gathering and weighing evidence.
  2. People vote for certain candidates for a variety of reasons. A vote is not a mandate for whether an ad contained an overt lie. It is an endorsement of one candidate over another. I can imagine many scenarios in which someone might vote for someone whose campaign was caught is a lie.
  3. There is no recourse, i.e., punishment when there is no law with penalties.

To Carvin and Roth every statement made in a political campaign is both true and untrue, depending upon what candidate you are supporting. But in the real world, many statements are incontrovertibly true and false. And when a candidate delivers provable falsities in an ad, that ad should be taken off the air and the campaign penalized.

Right below the Carvin and Roth article on the printed page sits “Why Subway Doesn’t Serve a $14 Reuben Sandwich, “another hyperventilating screed from Saltsman against raising the minimum wage.  He thinks the economy will plummet if the minimum wage is raised so that it has the purchasing power that it once had. Over the past few decades, minimum wage workers have lost 40% of their purchasing power, while most goods and services had felt the effects of inflation.  The 40% rise in the minimum wage that President Obama is advocating is Saltsman’s “bête noire.”

Near the end of the article he notes that a double cheeseburger at Shake Shack, which starts employees at more than the minimum wage, costs in excess of 40% more than a McDonald’s Double Quarter Pounder. He goes on to postulate that McDonald’s would lose a ton of customers if a higher minimum wage raised its starting salaries by 40%.

There are two problems with this conflation of the Shake Shack and the McDonald’s version of the double cheese burger:

First of all, the two food products aren’t the same thing: Shake Shack uses hormone- and antibiotic-free meat which costs much more than the fatty, chemical-infused stuff McDonald’s processes. Other Shake Shack ingredients also cost more than those at McDonald’s, plus the preparation process is more staff-intensive. Finally, not only do people pay for the higher quality ingredients at Shake Shack, they also pay for the perception of quality, which is integral to the Shake Shack brand, just as the perception of cheapness is integral to the McDonald’s brand.  So you can’t compare the Shake Shack and McDonald’s products and say the only reason that one is so much more expensive than the other is because the workers make more money.

The second fallacious part of Saltsman’s reasoning is that he assumes that if the minimum wage went up 40%, MacDonald’s costs would go up 40%. Wages are only one part of cost to operate a McDonald’s franchise, which also includes rent, utilities, raw materials, payments to the corporation and marketing. Let’s not forget, too, that the price also includes profit to the franchisee. We know that labor constitutes 20% of franchisees’ cost of operation.  Even assuming that the franchisees make no profit, figuring in all these factors means that if labor costs went up 40%, the price of the double cheese burger would have to go from $3.99 to $4.31, which is 8%, not the 40% upon which Saltsman based his argument.

Seeing these two articles on the same page made me think of Julian Benda’s important 1927 essay, The Betrayal of the Intellectuals (Le Trahison des clercs in the original French) Benda argues that European intellectuals of the preceding hundred years often ceased to follow their professional dictates to reason dispassionately about political, economic and military matters, instead becoming apologists for nationalism, warmongering and racism. In going to any lengths to support the interests of their clients, Saltsman, Carvin and Roth have abandoned the principles of good reasoning, clear thought and factually based arguments that stand as the foundation stones of their professions. They are intellectuals who have betrayed the public. They have sold out to right-wing money.

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Sometimes a TV commercial is more entertaining than TV

The latest version of the monster movie, Godzilla, will hit the screens sometime next month.

As a child, I used to love the cheesy Japanese Godzilla movies, but I gave up Godzilla about the same time that I picked up Catcher in the Rye and The Red and the Black.  I never go to monster, horror or sci fi movies, never read the books and channel surf away from a TV station as soon as I realize it’s playing programs of any of these related genres. I didn’t see the 2004 opus about the fantasy giant lizard that destroys Tokyo and I have no intention of seeing the latest retelling of the myth.

But I know it’s coming, thanks to perhaps the most creative and entertaining television commercial in years.

No, the commercial is not for the movie. It’s for the candy bar, Snickers. Mars, the company that manufactures Snickers, has entered into a marketing agreement to be the official candy bar of the movie.

Who knew that Godzilla ate candy?

The commercial starts with a montage of Godzilla having fun with his friends, all active and attractive twentysomething males. Godzilla flirts with a beautiful woman on the beach, it drives an all-terrain vehicle along the sand dunes, it hits a hard smash in a game of ping pong, it dances with a few girls at a house party. Godzilla is clearly the alpha male among his posse of cool dudes.

The commercial cuts to two of Godzilla’s best buds, who hold the following conversation while gripping plastic cups of beer: First guy: “Godzilla’s actually pretty cool.”  Second guy: “Except when he’s hungry.” Suddenly, we cut to scenes of Godzilla destroying a city. Someone unwraps a Snickers and tosses it to the giant lizard, who snatches the candy bar in its enormous jaws and smiles in appreciation. The action now cuts to Godzilla on jet skis, impressing all his buds with his form. We see Godzilla balanced gracefully on the jet skis, moving towards the camera, his left hand curled into a “thumbs up.”

You’d think the sugar high from eating a candy bar on an empty stomach would send the giant lizard into a hyperactive frenzy that would level not just Tokyo, but Yokohama, Osaka, Sapporo, Kobe and Kyoto as well. But not in a TV spot for a food product that its maker is shilling as the perfect way to keep up your good mood and energy.

The final scene of jet-ski Godzilla as the hippest guy around dissolves into the sell lines:  “You’re not yourself when you’re hungry. Snickers satisfies,” followed by a reminder that the new Godzilla will be in the theaters soon.

The idea that Godzilla is a cool chick-magnet is hilarious. Also funny is the paradox of language that the commercial creates: Mars is saying that Godzilla is not himself when he’s hungry, but in fact he is himself when he’s hungry and destroying buildings with paw swipes; he transforms into a softer, nicer, different creature when fed something good and substantial, like Snickers.

The pleasure derived from this very funny TV spot comes through the reference not just to the fictional character of Godzilla, but to the series of commercials that Mars has been airing for Snickers since 2010.  The series, unified by the slogan “You’re not you when you’re hungry,” shows men turning into different, less attractive people because they’re hungry. By gnawing on a Snickers, the men return to their true selves.

So for example, a determined and focused football coach turns into Robin Williams doing one his crazy routines in which he imitates three or four characters within a few seconds, throwing off absurd statements in rapid fire succession. A Snickers turns him into a calm and focused coach again. In another spot, a guy at a party trying to connect with some girls turns into an angry, sadistic and out-of-control Joe Pesci (playing on his roles in Casino and Goodfellas).  Once he has a Snickers, he’s a charming guy, but one of the girls is now Don Rickles.  In another spot, a touch football player becomes Betty White. In England, it’s a guy in a locker room transformed into Joan Collins.

These spots have one target market: young men. All the characters are men in groups. The situations are typically play times, like sports, parties or clubs. The solution to what’s ailing the main character—whether it’s prissiness, confusion, incoherence or anger—comes from a male friend.  The point of view is male, and a little sexist, as several of the scenes objectify women into sex objects and in none are the women anything more than goals for conquest.

The message that the ads are trying to make is particularly pernicious:  that you can curb your hunger and return to normal by eating a candy bar with peanuts. The peanuts are good for you, to be sure, but all that sugar sure isn’t. Most people would be better off having a piece of fruit, a handful of nuts or raisins, some raw vegetables or a piece of bread with chickpea spread for a snack. As the commercial suggests, it’s true that Snickers is convenient. You can carry one in your pocket or buy one almost anywhere that young men congregate. But it’s not healthy, which is the inference in returning to oneself or remaining one’s self.

But the fact that the commercial is built on a lie doesn’t prevent us from enjoying it. After all, how often do we enjoy plays or novels that glorify gangsters or, worse yet, kings and queens? (who represent the principle that some people are better than others and deserve more than others by virtue of their birth.)

So by all means, chuckle or snigger when you see Godzilla munching on a chocolate bar. Just don’t believe the message.

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Obama fumbles opportunity to improve relations with Iran

The Obama Administration made a big mistake denying a visa to Iran’s new ambassador to the United Nations, Hamid Aboutalebi. The United States should be seeking to improve our relations with Iran so that they will cease development of nuclear weapons and help us seek peaceful ways to clean up the messes in Iraq, Syria and Israeli-occupied territories. Easing tensions throughout the Middle East would free U.S. military and economic resources to address the eroding situation in Ukraine.

But beyond these considerations of what Henry Kissinger would call “Realpolitik,” there’s the simple fact that the U.S. government is wrong to interfere in the affairs of another nation.

And for what? Who is Hamid Aboutalebi? Did he engage in acts of terror funded by Mafia-like shakedowns of merchants as Menachem Begin did? Did he work with Nazis during World War II as Anwar Sadat did?

What was the horrible thing that Aboutalebi did?

As a 22-year old, he served as translator for the group of students who took over the U.S. embassy in Tehran in 1979 and held 52 Americans hostage for more than a year before representatives of presidential candidate Ronald Reagan went behind the back of the duly-elected U.S. government to negotiate the illegal arms-for-hostages deal called the Iran-Contra Affair. All existing evidence points to the conclusion that Aboutalebi wasn’t even one of the core cadre of students who engineered the takeover, but was called in afterwards to provide a technical service—translation. Wikipedia reports that Ebrahim Asgharzadeh, who helped to organize and lead the embassy takeover, has said  that Aboutalebi’s involvement was peripheral. In Asghararzadeh’s words, “Calling him a hostage-taker is simply wrong.”

Now put yourself in the shoes of an idealistic and highly educated 22-year-old who has conservative religious beliefs that shape your concept of democracy and representational government. Years before, a foreign power had helped this dictator overthrow your legally elected government. The dictator then installed a decades-long violent reign of terror against all citizens, but especially religious dissidents.  For decades, the foreign power provided financial and military support to prop up this dictator. Now that your country has finally overthrown this anti-religious monster, the foreign country is harboring him and not allowing your country to extradite him. It would be as if a foreign country refused to extradite Hitler to Germany or Israel.  You did not participate in the violent takeover but you are sympathetic to the cause of the hostage-takers. And they are not asking you to carry a gun, pistol whip someone, hold a hostage’s head under water or make them crawl naked through excrement—no, none of the real torture that took place in the Bush II torture gulag. No, all you have to do is use your extensive knowledge to communicate with the other side.

Now, I’m not condoning the 1979 hostage-taking, but I do understand why a group of Iranian young people thought they were justified in storming the U.S. embassy.

The 444-day hostage ordeal embarrassed the United States and made us a bit of a laughing stock. But it did not harm the United States the way three decades of autocratic rule by Shah Mohammad Rezi Pahlavi ruined Iranian civil life.  In the vast scheme of things, it rates far below the 9/11 attacks, the illegal bombing of Cambodia,  the forced starvation of millions of Ukrainians known as the Holodomor or the dropping of the atomic bomb on civilian targets.

We are currently engaged in a process of negotiations to reduce tensions with Iran. When two enemy countries become friends, each side must in a sense, “forgive and forget” the transgressions of the other side. We of course should never forget, nor should we really “forgive” bad behavior. But what we should and often do is to put the bad stuff aside and move on. Israel and Germany are allies. We are allies with Britain, Germany and Japan, all former enemies.  Part of the process of dissolving tensions is to let “bygones be bygones.” The idea is for Iran to deal with us in a friendly manner despite the fact that we helped to suppress the country for three decades and for us to deal with Iran in a friendly manner despite the fact they embarrassed us so many years ago.

But instead of letting the sleeping dog lie, instead of moving on, the United States prefers to put additional strain on our fragile relationship with Iran by making a big deal about something non-violent that Iran’s choice for UN ambassador did more than 30 years ago when he was a young man.

It makes no sense.

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Differences between red and blue states predate the Civil War

In rereading Eric Foner’s Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution recently, I ran across an interesting description of the contrast in the society and economy between pre-Civil War North and South. Foner references the important insight of another historian, James L. Acorn, that slavery had sharply curtailed the scope of public authority in the pre-Civil War South because it produced a society of “patriarchal groupings” in which large numbers of people—all of African descent—remained under the authority of the private sector—their owners—and not subject to the government.  “With planters enjoying a disproportionate share of political power, taxes and social welfare expenditures remained low,” as did spending on public education.  Paved roads, water systems, public hospitals—all were nonexistent or much less developed than in the North before the Civil War.

Small government. Low taxes on the wealthy. Little public spending on education, infrastructure or health care. Little regulation of the economy, including none of the relationship between owners and workers. These aspects of the pre-Civil War South have come to define red state politics, which in recent years has been called Tea Party politics.  In fact, the core of red state America lies in the 11 slave-holding states that tried to secede from the United States in 1861.

Many on the left have described the Tea Party and the rest of the right wing as inherently racist, pointing to the racial code words and phrases used by Paul Ryan, Rand Paul, Rick Perry, Newt Gingrich, Michelle Bachman, Bobby Jindal, Rick Santorum and practically every other politician with Republican and Tea Party ties. Progressives also note the disparate impact on minorities of low taxes on the wealthy, privatization and the current shredding of the social net.

The right denies a racist intent or tinge to the policies it supports, but let’s take a look at history.  The ideas and words of the current right are very similar to what southerners said before and during the Civil War and the Reconstruction Era. The differences between red and blue state economic, political and social beliefs today largely mirror the differences between the South and North before the Civil War:  Small versus large government. Low versus high taxes. Lots of social services versus very few. All these differences developed primarily because the South had large slave-owning plantations and the North relied on free, wage-earning labor.

In other words, while the right can make their weak protests that their views are not racially based, history demonstrates that the primary reason why these views developed in these particular parts of the United States was that the economy was based on slavery. And slavery in the United States was always intimately tied to racism.  Slave-owners and their defenders believed those of African descent were inherently lesser beings than whites by virtue of their skin color and origin.  Slave owners justified their cruelty towards slaves—the whippings, the suppression of education, the rapes, the splitting of families—by racist arguments that Africans were an inferior breed.  Slave owners asserted that Africans liked their fate and would be lost in the real world without the guiding hand of their owners. All racist beliefs and all justifications for the southern economic and political system.

Apologists like George Will may reference Edmund Burke, Montesquieu and the so-called conservative nature of agrarian politics and rural values all they like. That won’t change the fact that the economy and society that developed today’s right-wing ideology was racist.  Racism was the rational engine that fueled the pre-Civil War South, and it still fuels the ideology associated with its reincarnation into red states.

In many ways, we still have a civil war in the United States.

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Lesson from Pennsylvania knife attack: We need more gun control

I don’t mean to trivialize the injuries suffered in the knife attack perpetrated by a high school sophomore at a high school in Murrysville, Pennsylvania.  It’s another in a long and seemingly endless line of incidents of mass violence at American schools. Of the 20 students and one teacher stabbed by teenaged loony Alex Hribal, at least four have serious wounds.

But all are expected to survive.

Imagine if instead of two large knives, Hribal had been packing a bolt-action rifle like his brother-in-arms, Adam Lanza, who killed 20 children and six adults at an elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut? Or how about if Hribal’s weapons of choice were semi-automatic handguns, like Seung-Hui Cho, who killed 32 and injured 17 in his rampage on the Virginia Tech University campus a few years back?

Just imagine if Hribal were toting a semi-automatic. The injuries would have been much worse than what he perpetrated with two knifes. There most assuredly would have been several if not many deaths. And the attack would have lasted much longer, because  the teacher who tackled Hribal would not have been able to do it—he would have been shot—maybe dead—before he got close enough to touch the maniac.

As tragic as the knife attack was, I’m fairly sure that the parents of at least some of the victims are muttering quietly to themselves how relieved they are that the nut didn’t have a gun.

Those who say “guns don’t kill people, people kill people” only have it half right:  guns don’t kill people, people with guns kill people, which is why society has a right and an obligation to keep guns out of the hands of potential killers. Nothing in the Constitution bans regulation of firearms.

And it’s easy to do: toughen gun control laws so that it’s harder for mentally ill or unstable people to get them. Make sure that all gun sales have a three-day wait for a background check on the purchaser that includes going through the national registry, including all sales at guns shows. Ban all Internet gun sales. Beef up the national and state gun registries. Absolutely forbid concealed or unconcealed guns in schools, on university campuses, at airports and in restaurants. Limit the number of guns and amount of bullets someone can buy at one time. Limit the number of guns anyone can own.

Unfortunately state legislators haven’t learned yet that their job is to serve the people, and not to line their campaign coffers with contributions from the National Rifle Association. In the first year after the Newtown shootings, states passed 70 laws loosening gun controls, compared to a mere 39 tightening restrictions on gun purchase and ownership. Nothing demonstrates the power of crony capitalism than the disgraceful way that states across the country are putting their citizens in harm’s way by making it easier to buy guns and carry them in the streets.

I figure that if we strengthened our gun control laws so that they match other westernized countries, we would end up with more knife fights and knife attacks. And that’s a good thing. We can’t totally eliminate the crazies, the angry and the haters. But we can minimize the possibility of them getting hold of weapons that can cause serious damage to multiple people in seconds.

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Head of Columbia business school wants to flood labor market to suppress wages

From the solutions he offers to the labor challenges facing the U.S. economy in his article titled “Where Have All the Workers Give,” Glenn Hubbard must think that the problem is a lack of workers, not a lack of jobs.

Hubbard, dean of Columbia Business School, economic advisor to Mitt Romney and former chair of the Council of Economic Advisors under Bush II, is merely expressing the deepest fears of the business establishment: that when the Baby Boom generation retires, a shortage of labor will drive up wages as fewer people compete for a similar number of jobs.

Now to most people, the problem with the economy is that it is not producing enough jobs. The unemployment rate is still 6.7% and even Hubbard admits that large numbers of the long-termed unemployed have stopped looking for jobs. Plus there are all those underemployed, the hordes of twenty-something baristas and call center operators with college diplomas.  Now common sense would suggest that we need more jobs, but Hubbard believes the real challenges is to get those long term unemployed back looking for jobs—and driving down wages even more than the nose dive in buying power that most people’s compensation took over the past 30 years.

The article, which leads the Wall Street Journal’s Saturday “Review” section, bemoans all government efforts to stimulate the creation of more jobs except one: lowering corporate taxes.  Studies have of course long ago disproven the idea that lowering taxes gives job creators the funds to create more jobs, and that in fact raising taxes creates more jobs. But Hubbard prefers to live in a world of false notions passing as ideas, not one of facts. Or maybe the world of sound bites he mouths on his Fox News TV appearances.

While ignoring job creation, the good professor describes a complete program for creating more job-seekers:

  • Remove the so-called disincentives to work created by the Patient Protection & Affordable Care Act.
  • Make it harder to qualify for Social Security disability benefits, since without benefits, the disabled will have more incentive to seek employment.
  • Turn much of unemployment insurance into job training—in other words, take the money that those on unemployment insurance were going to use on food and rent and give it to community colleges and for-profit vocational schools for tuition. Keep in mind that a relatively small percent of employers are having trouble finding people with the skills their businesses need—maybe 15-20% of all unfilled jobs.
  • Eliminate taxes on those receiving Social Security and still working, so that seniors who rejoin the work force will be able to keep more of what they make, supposedly an incentive for the old warriors to strap on their gear again and earn a paycheck.

Of course, those seniors won’t be making that much, and certainly much less than now if Hubbard’s proposals became law.  Hubbard wants to force feed more workers onto the job market, but he proposes nothing to create more jobs.

Like most mainstream Republicans, Hubbard’s underlying interest in advocating these positions is to suppress the cost of wages, which in effect takes money from the poor and middle class and gives it to the owners and operators of businesses AKA the wealthy.  He is trying to undermine the first decent break that Generation X and the Millennials are getting from the 21st century economy—a shrinking work force.

Hubbard’s essay boils down to a declaration of class warfare—or should I say, to a strategic plan for the next phase in the 30+-year war of the wealthy on everyone else in the United States.

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If it were up to mainstream news media, there would be no fall election & we would just hand Senate to Republicans

Each new day seems to bring another story predicting Democratic disaster in the November election. One day it’s statistician Nate Silver predicting gloom for the Democrats. The next day it’s an obscure pundit like David Wasserman or Pew Center director Andrew Kahut.

All the overarching story lines by which media outlets try to make sense of everyday news seem to have a built in bias favoring the Republicans.  One narrative is about discontent with Obama over the healthcare law, instead of discontent with the Republicans for cutting food stamps and unemployment benefits and blocking passage of a bill to increase the minimum wage.  Another narrative is about the large sums of money the Koch brothers and others are spending to elect Republican candidates, and not about the large natural advantage Democrats have if their constituencies come to the polls.

Finally there is the story of the primaries, which, as in 2010, is all about the Republican candidates for the mainstream news media and nothing about the Democratic candidates.  Stirring up interest in the Republican primaries will no doubt help bring out the party faithful in November.

These narrative spins wouldn’t disturb me if I thought the Democrats were taking the 2014 elections seriously, but so far there are few signs that they are. The President is content to sit on his treasure trove of campaign contributions. In too many states, Democrats are me-too-ing Republicans on such issues as charter schools, gun control, health care reform and taxes. For example, many of the positions taken by Governor Andrew Cuomo are embarrassingly right-wing. I can understand why many Democrats in New York might stay home rather than vote for a man who wants to lower taxes on businesses and give additional funding to charter schools, which are nothing more than vehicles for breaking unions and paying teaches less.  But Democrats staying home will make it easier for Republicans to tighten their grip on the U.S. House of Representatives and win the Senate. With candidates such as Cuomo, the Democrats seem doomed to repeat the mistake of 2010.

Republicans are not taking any chances, however, passing laws in whatever states they control to make it harder to vote.  But progressives take heart. Republicans can’t prevent eligible voters from exercising their voting franchise, all they can do is demand identification and limit voting hours.

It’s too early in the year to start to stress the importance of voting to millennial and minorities. By the time September and October rolls around, the atmospherics could be better for Democrats. Certainly as more people benefit from the Affordable Care Act, anger against the President, whose name is tied to the bill, will diminish.  Perhaps, as in 2012, voters will respond negatively to moves to suppress the vote and overwhelm the polls.

If I were the Democrats, I would create a one-page set of messages on the bad that will come out of Republican control of both houses of Congress and start repeating it in ads starting sometime in August. I would also conduct as aggressive a voter registration and turnout campaign as possible. I would treat the 2014 election as if it were more important than 2016, and for one simple reason:  it is a more important election. Emerging national demographics favor the Democrats in national elections and they will likely win in 2016, no matter what. But it will be for naught if the new Democratic President faces a hostile Congress.

Of course, if the Democrats run a Republican in all but name such as Andrew Cuomo, it won’t make any difference to the country who wins. We’ll continue down the path of economic decline and social disintegration created by policies that take money from the poor and middle class and give it to those who already are wealthy.

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Christie should fire the PR advisors who let him release his bogus Bridgegate report

New Jersey Republican Governor Chris Christie should fire the PR advisors who let him release his bogus Bridgegate report. The report may exonerate Christie from knowledge of the Bridgegate scandal, but the only ones taking it seriously are the Christie true believers.

No Republican can hope to win a national election or a statewide election in New Jersey without independent voters and the Christie appointed review of the Bridgegate incident will convince few independents that Christie didn’t have knowledge. Moreover, the very release of the document damages the Christie rehabilitation campaign.

Let’s first look at the contents. Two topics discussed in the report, prepared by Christie’s favorite law firm, concern independents and main stream media such as the editorial board of the New York Times: one is a disputation regarding the facts and the other a scurrilous interpretation of those facts.

The disputation is the he-said-she-said between Christie and former best bud David Wildstein. Wildstein said he told the governor they had closed Fort Lee lanes to the George Washington Bridge on September 11, 2013, midway through the four-day parking lot that the closure caused.  Christie denies it, so the report concludes that there is not enough evidence to point the finger. But like every he-said-she-said, most people believe that there is always a little bit of truth to both sides of the story. And even a little bit of truth on Wildstein’s part sinks the Good Ship Christie.  What were the PR people thinking? Certainly not about how people tend to react to these he said-she said accusations.

The truly amazing aspect to the Wildstein revelation and Christie denial is that if Christie had not released the report, he would have postponed or prevented the idea that Christie really knew from taking seed in voters’ minds.

The other killer for Christie in the report is the psychological analysis it does on the intentions and internal workings of Christie’s former Deputy Chief of Staff Bridgett Anne Kelly. Kelly takes the fall as the sole instigator of the lane closures, a rogue employee going against the rules. The report postulates that she was under a lot of emotional pressure because she had recently broken up with her lover and concludes that the inner turmoil made Kelly do it. I don’t think I’m the first to roll my eyes and wonder sarcastically if she was also having her period that day. What a load of absolute baloney. When what’s left of the Christie brain trust thought of the ham-handed idea of blaming it all on a scorned woman, they must have been punch drunk from a brew of political melodramas and laddie magazines.

Christie blaming it all on the broken heart of a weak women cum rogue employee leaves many wondering why the Republicans can never seem to strike the right note when it comes to women. It’s as if they have absolutely no clue about what makes women click or what they want. A clue to Chris: it’s not to be patronized by assuming that every mistake professional women make stems from their hormones or emotional lives.

This idle speculation over causation not only offends most women and many men, it calls into question the conclusions of the report.  Anything that stinks that bad must be rotten.

With the report in hand, Christie and his PR hired guns should not have released it.  While it is true that the Rush Limbaughs and Sean Hannity’s of the world will use it to prove that the issue is closed or to say that it’s the only believable report we will get, most people are sniggering that it was an inside snow job.

Christie should have tossed the report back to his people and told them that they had to take out all mention of psychological motive and just present facts. When the report was appropriately sanitized, Christie should have sat on it…and sat on it. He should have released it the very day of the report from the New Jersey legislature or the U.S. District Attorney.  By releasing the report on a separate day, Christies created another news cycle about the scandal. A similar situation recently occurred when the Paterno family released a report for which they paid good money that repudiated the previous report by a commission headed by a former Director of the FBI. The Paterno report changed no one’s mind and had the negative outcome of creating one more news cycle for the sad story of the sainted football coach who apparently turned his back on child abuse.

If, instead of creating this additional round of bad news, Christie had released his version of Bridgegate the very same day that another major report was released, the story would be about dueling reports and not a “he-said-she-said” in which one side or 50% of the witnesses is accusing the governor of early knowledge.

A complete botch by Christie’s PR machine.  It’s his report, and yet the Christie whitewash may have nuked the governor’s chances for the Republican presidential nomination in 2016. It’s kind of a Fat Boy for the frat boy. 

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We’re giving American society’s seed corn to the wealthy

The expression “eating the seed corn” is often used as a metaphor for not investing in the future. The expression means that a society or company is spending all its money instead of using some of it to make investments in the future or, in the case of a family or individual, saving some of it. For a society, those investments include public education; programs that insure that children—our citizens and workers of the future—are well-fed and healthy; new roads, bridges, sewers and mass transit systems; and research into basic and applied science.

There are many instances of companies and societies eating their seed corn. For example, the decline and fall of the Polynesian culture on the South Pacific island of Rapa Nui is now blamed on humans in this advanced civilization cutting down the forests, leaving them with no raw materials to build fishing vessels.  On the business level, anytime a company decides to stick with an old technology that puts it at a competitive disadvantage or gives a bigger payout to investors while cutting maintenance and training budgets is eating its seed corn.

In the case of the United States in the 21st century, we aren’t eating our seed corn, we’re giving it to the wealthy for their private use and storage.

We see proof that our seed corn is not being planted for future crops virtually every day in stories about food stamp cuts, collapsing roads and college students going into debt. One recent example is an article I first saw in the Pittsburgh Business Times titled “Beaker is Half Full” about the decline in government support for science research.   Between 10 years of flat federal science research budgets, the effects of inflation and the across-the board sequester cut of 5.5%, the article calculates that the purchasing power of National Institute of Health (NIH) grants has declined by about 25% over the past decade. Whereas in 2001, 32.1% of NIH grant applications received funding; the percentage is now down to less than 17%. Only a right-wing fool would claim that NIH is doing a better job at weeding out badly formulated research proposals. No, what’s happened is we’re doing less research. The numbers for the National Science Foundation (NSF) are similar.

As should be expected for a business journal, the article looks at the business aspect of the news, which in this case means the business of university research, one of the most important economic sectors in contemporary Pittsburgh.  The article cites facts showing the recruitment of graduate students is down, as is interest in careers in science research. The article quotes professors who confess that they think it’s unethical to encourage students to go into a research field. A survey by the Chronicle of Higher Education found that economic pressures have forced more than half of the 11,000 scientists surveyed to recruit fewer graduate students or abandon an important area of research.  The article focuses much more on the loss of direct and indirect jobs from the cutbacks and less on what’s going to mean to our future: fewer diseases cured or prevented; fewer advances in manufacturing efficiencies, alternative energy sources and new materials; fewer new products to enhance our quality of life; a slower response to climate change, environmental degradation and emerging diseases: in short, a static society that slowly succumbs to its own inadequacies instead of overcoming them through knowledge.

As a business publication, the Pittsburgh Business Times would never suggest what is the only way to stem the decline in American scientific research. It’s the same solution for the problems plaguing public education, our infrastructure and our commitment to growing healthy children: spend more money. But spending more money means raising taxes and no magazine for and by business would ever make that recommendation.

Our current tax structure requires the wealthy and ultra-wealthy to contribute historically low amounts to advance the public good. Right-wingers constantly make the pipe-dream claim that when we lower taxes on the wealthy, we give them more money to create jobs.  In the real world, however, the rich mostly hoard their additional income. Their wealth builds while our roads and bridges crumble, our advances in science decline and more of our children receive inadequate educations.  In a real sense, instead of planting our seed corn, we let the happy few hoard it for themselves.

Nicholas Kristoff has a wonderful article in the New York Times that lists five enormous sources of public revenues that could be used to increase the budget for science research, funding for public education and/or rebuilding our infrastructure. All five involve removing a tax break that only the wealthy enjoy:  tax breaks for private planes  and yachts; the “carried interest” loophole for hedge funds; the U.S. commitment—estimated at $84 billion—to our “too-big-to-fail” banks and the large tax abatements that cities, counties and states give the corporations, estimated at $80 billion a year.

To Kristoff’s list I would add the capital gains tax break for any investment income not produced by a direct investment into a company. A direct investment into a company would be buying stock at the initial public offering. Examples of other investments for which Americans—primarily rich folk—get a capital gains tax break include when selling stocks or bonds bought on secondary markets or artwork and real estate.  I would also raise the highest incremental tax rates to at least 50% of income over $500,000 a year; make it impossible for companies to avoid taxes by creating offshore shelters; and impose an annual wealth tax on people with more than $5 million in assets, not including their primary residence. These ideas sound radical, but in fact all of them except the tax on wealth used to be the norm in the United States.

If we don’t do something, American society will experience a rapid decline. It won’t matter to the wealthy, who will be able to transfer their residence and assets to whatever country is most stable. But the rest of the country will see living standards and the quality of life decline to the standards of undeveloped countries. And the ironic part of it is that the 99% will not even have had the chance to enjoy the short-term pleasures of eating the seed corn, as they will have let the wealthy steal it from them.

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It’s time to introduce Duke Energy Chair & CEO to “Orange is the New Black”

Duke Energy just doesn’t give a gnat’s posterior. Not for public safety, not for the law.

Duke Energy flaunts its lawlessness like ancient King David and Bathsheba flaunting their adultery by cavorting in the streets.

Duke, the largest electrical power company in the country, illegally pumped as much as 61 million gallons of coal-ash wastewater into Cape Fear. Duke did it on purpose and now it’s denying it, saying it was just routine maintenance. But the usually-moribund North Carolina Department of Environmental and Natural Resources and environmental groups have Duke caught red-handed.

This latest release of dirty water by Duke comes on the heels of its massive spill of toxic coal ash into the Dan River a few weeks back. The federal government is investigating that reportedly accidental release, which resulted from the rupture of a pipe.  So far Duke and North Carolina state regulators are sharing blame for the poor maintenance that led to the rupture.

Letting maintenance slide has become the norm in the age of low taxes on the wealthy. Lots of communities in the Unites States are used to that. Think about New Orleans levees before Katrina or the I-35W Mississippi River Bridge in Minneapolis.

But in its latest willful polluting of our water, Duke acted alone, and now even North Carolina state regulators are pissed off.

What are we to make of Duke’s flagrant violation of state and federal environmental regulations? Was Duke’s management emboldened by weak enforcement under the rabidly anti-regulation Republican Governor Pat McCrory, who previously worked for Duke? Or perhaps they thought the Republican legislature would eventually pass a law exempting Duke from following any environmental or product safety laws?  And why not? Duke contributed to the election campaigns of most of them.

Duke Energy is a corporation, but a corporation is run by people. One reason that Duke’s executives such as Chairman of the Board Ann Maynard Gray and Chief Executive Officer Lynne J. Good think they can act with impunity is that have no fear of real consequences.  Even if fired summarily by the board of directors (and fat chance of that unless the company is losing money), a C-level executive has probably already made enough money to be set for life. And these guys—and in the case of Duke Energy, these guys and gals—never go to jail.

It’s about time that changed. We should throw away centuries of jurisprudence and tear the corporate veil to shreds. The corporate veil is the legal principle that a corporation is a separate legal person from its executives, employees, board members or shareholders. It seems to me that when the fictitious person called a corporation does something illegal the real people who make the decisions—the executives—should pay the fines from their own pockets and go to jail. It is true that employees and executives who act alone and break the law sometimes go to jail, but when a corporation breaks the law or makes a bad mistake, it usually just pays a never-large-enough fine and no one ends up in prison.

I think both Ann Maynard Gray and Lynne J. Good would look as sharp in a saggy orange prison uniform as Taylor Schilling, star of Netflix’s “Orange is the New Black.”  The rest of the Duke Energy Board, by the way, consists of 13 white males, one white female and a male who used to be Obama’s U.S.  Ambassador to the European Union and looks as if he could be white or African-American.  Having an individual or two on the board with the President’s private phone number stored in his cell phone probably makes the rest of these wealthy and connected scofflaws sleep a little more easily at night.  And it probably doesn’t hurt that they live far away from the communities and natural areas damaged by their dumping.

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