Sunday, August 28, 2016

Seventeen Solutions – local economy and science

Most years my yard and neighborhood can have mosquitoes so thick I don't want to be outside, which can mean yard work doesn't get done. Some years the pesky things were good at getting into the house. This year there have been no mosquitoes – until a couple days ago. And one just buzzed my ear as I sat in the kitchen. I'm sure the series of August storms had something to do with it.

On to continuing my overview of Ralph Nader's book, The Seventeen Solutions. Click here to get the rest of the series.

2. The Local Economy

Local businesses have been largely replaced by outposts of national corporations. But these nationals have no stake in the health of any particular community. Their only goal is to maximize what goes into shareholder pockets. America feels abandoned. Nader delves into the problem, including the disconnect between what corporations create and what we need:
For decades, our corporate economy has been shifting its focus from fulfilling basic human needs (food, shelter, warmth) to fulfilling (and creating!) more trivial wants and whims. From commercial entertainment, video games, and spectator sports, to stylized snack foods, communication gadgets, and even redundant weapons systems, corporations have invested billions of dollars into research and development (R & D) on items that rob consumers of endless amounts of their not-so-disposable income. And this continues even though large segments of the population are suffering from inadequate nutrition, employment, capital ownership, shelter, transportation, and health care coverage.

The disconnect between corporations and the rest of America is documented in many other posts. You can find them here.

What is the alternative? Nader proposes local cooperatives, business owned and controlled by the community. The coop has bargaining power to use against corporations including quality, safety, nutrition, durability and sustainability. It also can determine what products not to provide, such as foods with harmful ingredients. They can search for specialty products including what is made locally. They can branch into insurance, media, travel, and adult education. They can partner with other coops for manufacturing. The power is local and includes issues beyond profit, such as sustainability and the environment.
Are consumers willing to step away from the creeping corporatization of their lives and take the time to empower their dollars by joining economic institutions that will endure and outlast their originators? The internet offers infinite new promise … Yet it will take more than just technology to interest the American people at large in the potential of community-based cooperatives; it will take a new awakening of interest in our shared standard of living.
Lisbeth Schorr discusses successful pilot programs and wonders why they don't survive outside the pilot phase. She provides an answer:
The problems arise when the successful pilot program is to expand and thereby threatens the basic political and bureaucratic arrangements that have held sway over the decades … When effective programs aiming to reach large numbers encounter the pressures exercised by prevailing attitudes and systems, the resulting collision is almost always lethal to the effective programs.
Nader says the solution requires
a concerted effort to educate the people on the benefits of local economic self-reliance – to show how much more secure, enjoyable, safe, and happy their lives can be when they participate in and reap the benefits of decisions about their own communities – decisions that are now being made thousands of miles away by a few powerbrokers who view them as mere subentries on an income statement.
Yes, this is hard work.

3. Science for the People

Back in the mid 1980s there was lots of news (or perhaps lots of mentions in the science fiction magazines I bought) about nanotechnology. I even bought a book about it, Engines of Creation: The Coming Era of Nanotechnology by Eric Drexler. I never actually got around to reading it and I probably lost it in my move to and from Germany a few years later – or perhaps lost in the basement flood five years ago.

With something that showed so much promise and the potential for being so revolutionary and newsworthy, what happened? Where are the medical nanobots? Where is my replicator?

Nader's answer: Nanotechnology is still being developed, but it has been swallowed by the corporate black hole. We might see the results on consumer products, but otherwise no light gets out.

Over the last few decades corporations have been very aggressive in exerting power of academic science, regulatory agencies, and the tort civil justice system. In the case of academia it means offering joint ventures that tie the hands of academic scientists. The contracts state research is owned by the corporation and turned over before the results are published in scientific journals. Sometimes the corporations appoint faculty.

This is why it is a problem:

* Much university research is subsidized by the US Government. This mean taxpayer money is funding research that benefits only corporations and not the public at large.

* It skews what kind of research is being done. We get research that benefits the corporation, not the general public, such as ecological problems. We don't get enough research into antibiotics, leading to microbes that are now resistant to known ways to combat them.

* It undermines the objectivity of university science while jeopardizing academic freedom.

* Professors face a hostile climate when serving as expert witnesses in product liability cases. Fewer are willing to face down the industry's well-compensated "experts."

* Professors are less able to argue for public safety when new technologies are developed. I had mentioned nanotechnology. If it is done wrong it could cause catastrophic damage to the environment. An example is a nanocritter that "eats" pollution. What if it also "eats" necessary algae? Corporations aren't paying much attention to anything but the profits. Someone needs to be the independent voice calling for proper safeguards and controls.

If academia's independence is corroded,
society loses exactly what President Eisenhower considered the crucial rule of a free university: to be a "fountainhead of free ideas and scientific discovery,"of "intellectual curiosity, "of "the principles of our democratic system – ever aiming toward the supreme goals of our free society."
What to do?

One part is to encourage and join civic movements. Some already exists. An example is the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CPSI). They are challenging the Food Industry and informing citizens about foods that are both nutritious and delicious.

Faulty and fraudulent science must be exposed to the public, not buried in corrections and retractions in scientific journals.

Encourage citizen science. Train citizens how to do such things as measure pollution or the number of salamanders in a region as a guide to environment health. Teach science literacy – how to tell good science from bad.

Stop subsidizing fossil fuels and start subsidizing renewables, especially solar.
The sun is accessible to everyone, everywhere. No one owns it. No one can subject it to a cartel. No one can make it scarce. … And, for the energy companies, that's the problem. … Ordinary people just don't have the wherewithal to find coal, gas, oil, or uranium, or time mine them, or to refine them and transport them to market.

Solar power holds the promise of making our communities self-sufficient, reducing pollution and climate disruption, cutting our dependency on foreign resources, lowering our trade deficits, decreasing our risk of nuclear sabotage and proliferation, eliminating wars over oil, making our economy more efficient, all while demonstrating respect for both our planet and future generations.

Saturday, August 27, 2016

Seventeen Solutions – taxes

I usually have a book in my car. I take it with me when I know I'll have time to read – doctor waiting rooms, dentist chairs (while waiting for x-rays to be developed), physical therapy appointments (for the 15 minutes of ice after a workout), movie theaters, restaurants when I'm by myself, concert halls (for before the concert), Ruth Ellis Center (when taking a break), that kind of thing. I tend not to have a fiction book in the car. It needs to be something I can read in short bursts with perhaps several days before I open it again.

The book in my car I recently finished is The Seventeen Solutions, Bold Ideas for Our American Future by Ralph Nader.

Yes, that Ralph Nader. He made his name in 1965 with the book Unsafe at Any Speed about the poor safety record of American cars. He is credited with the passage of several important consumer protection laws, such as the Clean Water Act and the Whistleblower Protection Act. He ran for president six times and is accused of being a spoiler in the 2000 election, siphoning off enough votes in Florida so that George Bush and Al Gore ended up essentially tied.

And this year Nader annoyed some people (like me) with is criticism of Clinton and his (mild) praise of Trump. At 82 is his brain affected by old age?

The book, published in 2012, sat on my shelf for a couple years. My delay was because I thought proposing all these wonderful ideas isn't much good if you don't provide a way of getting the ideas past the GOP held Congress. We're in this mess because the GOP lackeys are beholden to big corporations and they're not going to give up power by nicely asking. So what is the plan in getting these ideas implemented? My skepticism continued while reading the book, especially when I saw how the corporate takeover of America has affected more and more areas of our lives. Corporations have overrun that too?

Even so, I thought the various ideas are what this country needs. Because I think the ideas are so great and explained so well, I'll review them here. I certainly won't get through all of them in one blog post. This, then, is the first in a series.

1. Tax Reform
The Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy (ITEP) has published a brief overview of five principles of sound tax policy.

* Equity evaluates whether the tax system is fair. It comes in two varieties.

Vertical Equity means the poor pay as little or as much as the rich do in relation to their income. This is the classification of taxes into progressive or regressive. Regressive taxes, such as sales taxes and flat income tax rates, take a bigger (higher percentage) chunk out of the lower incomes than the wealthy incomes.

An often cited reason for progressive taxes is poor people feel the pinch when rates are raised, rich people don't. There are two more reasons. First, the rich have economic power. They can hold down the wages of the poor – check the rising ratio between the average worker and the CEO. Second, the rich have political power and can rig the laws to favor themselves. This can be done through corporate subsidies, free tech transfers, non-compete gov't contracts, undervalued mineral and timber licenses, and other tactics.

Horizontal Equity means different forms of income are taxed at the same rate. Currently, income from labor can be taxed as high as 33% while capital gains income is at 15%.

* Adequacy means the gov't has a stable and sufficient source of revenue to fund the public services we need. Our current method meets this goal in principle (though many state legislatures intentionally underfund what their citizens need in services).

* Simplicity allows for enforcement of the tax code. The current system means corporate tax attorneys can run circles around overburdened IRS auditors. Which means the IRS finds it easier to go after the petty violations of the middle class and working poor. A "tax industry" of lawyers, accountants, and consultants thrives on the complexity of our tax system.

* Exportability means preventing people from avoiding taxes by crossing state lines. When you travel to another state, you pay that state's sales tax. Business taxes are based on the amount of business in each state.

* Efficiency means a business is making decisions based on business reasons, not on tax avoidance reasons. For example, a Reagan tax break on commercial real estate prompted an oversupply of office buildings. These unused office towers meant more productive investments didn't happen – and were paid for by taxpayers.

Our current system fails on equity, simplicity, efficiency, and likely adequacy. Nader documents this well. Though we grumble about taxes there is an amazing little serious and thoughtful public discussion of tax policy. What we get instead is outrage and platitudes from pandering politicians. The proposed budgets by Speaker Paul Ryan and Donald Trump perpetuate all these current failures.

By any other name

Kris Kobach, Secretary of State of Kansas, is promoting the Interstate Voter Registration Crosscheck Program. States can use it to verify that a voter is registered in only one state. Sounds reasonable. The Crosscheck program matches names – first, middle, last – plus birth date and last four of SSN.

Except it doesn't. Greg Palast of Rolling Stone found that the program is matching only first and last names. And 85 of the top 100 most common last names are used by minorities. Meaning minority voters are much more likely to be matched with people in other states and it is minority voters who are most likely to be purged in battleground states such as Ohio and North Carolina. And they're likely to not find out about it until election day.

When I last wrote I mentioned that Trump appears to be wooing black voters. I said he is doing this to convince white voters he isn't racist. I've now heard that reasoning mentioned by several media stories, such as at DailyKos and NPR. No, I did not originate this idea.

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Faith in the ballot box

It would be easy to endlessly talk about the latest antics of Donald Trump. A lot of progressive blogs have several articles per day and Trump manages to give them an endless supply of things to write about. But I'll only mention three today.

Last week Trump made a bid for the black vote. You live in poverty. Your schools are no good. Your youth can't get jobs. Most of your men are in jail. Vote for me. What have you got to lose?

Laura Clawson of Daily Kos has a couple observations. First, Trump said this before a white audience. He didn't go to a black audience or meet with black leaders. Second, it gave his new campaign manager a really warm feeling.

Translation. A lot of voters, especially white women won't vote for Trump because he is so nasty to minorities. He is saying to these white voters, I'm not so bad after all.

Just keep in mind the kind of justices Trump will nominate.

Trump has been notable in not releasing his income tax statements. The last prez. candidate to not release was Richard Nixon. The New York Times tried to unravel Trump's financial maze and found the companies Trump owns have at least $650 million in debt. Successful billionaire businessman? Doesn't look that way.

With all Trump's talk about rigged elections it begins to sound like on the day after the election he will refuse to concede.
“If he loses, [he’ll say] ‘It’s a rigged election.’ If he wins, he’ll say it was rigged and he beat it. And that’s where this is headed no matter what the outcome is,” said one Trump ally. “If Donald Trump loses, he is going to point the finger at the media and the GOP establishment. I can’t really picture him giving a concession speech, whatever the final margin.”
Already only 38% of Trump supporters believe their votes will be counted accurately, only 49% of all voters believe the same.

Yes, he is threatening the election process, the foundation of democracy. He is threatening the entire political system. He's threatening the peaceful transition of power, which has been uninterrupted since 1797. We've never had a candidate question the outcome of a national vote.

After Trump destroys the faith of his supporters in the ballot box, how do we restore that faith? What if Trump then issues a call-to-arms? This could take a long time.

We'll open an investigation

The GOP in Congress are opening yet another investigation of Hillary Clinton's emails, or maybe its another one about Benghazi. Because all the previous investigations didn't find anything, dagnabbit! That prompted David Akadjian of Daily Kos to take a look at the history of Congressional investigations.

The Constitution doesn't mention investigations. There is a clause that Congress can make "all laws which shall be necessary and proper for carrying into execution the foregoing powers." So, to legislate effectively Congress needs to be able to gather background information.

There are limits. Congress can't poke into the affairs of a private individual unless it has something to do with the job of Congress. In addition, Congress does not do law enforcement or put people on trial (except for impeachments).

The first investigation was into the 1891 Battle of Wabash, in which 1000 men under General Arthur St. Clair were killed by Indians. Every major military engagement, except for the Spanish-American War of 1898 has led to Congressional investigations.

From about 1870 to WWI there were lots of economic abuses. Investigations led to reforms. After WWII Congress tended to investigate government. On the good side that was of procurement and construction for national defense. On the bad side that was the McCarthy hearings. Starting with Watergate there have been a series of investigations into political actors, including the Iran-Contra Affair.

But lately investigations have been a political tool. Bill Clinton was hit hard with these. Many disappear just after election day. These days it seems political investigations are endless, and usually fruitless.

Blocking transgender fairness

The Obama Administration responded to the nasty North Carolina "Bathroom Bill" by saying Title IX of the Civil Rights Act covers gender identity, and thus transgender people. If schools want federal money they must allow transgender students use facilities and join sports teams that match their gender identity. Texas and 12 other states sued to stop that requirement. A second suit filed by Nebraska was joined by 10 more states (alas, including Michigan).

A federal district judge has ruled on the Texas case. Judge Reed O'Connor blocked Obama's directive. Obama didn't follow procedures in giving proper notice before putting new procedures into effect. Also, Obama's view is an incorrect interpretation of Title IX.

Two little problems with O'Connor's ruling. First, it contradicts what the Fourth Circuit recently said. Second, O'Connor says his injunction to stop Obama's procedures applies nationwide – again, in contradiction of the Fourth Circuit.

Even with the injunction in place schools can still implement policies to protect transgender youth. And parents can still sue school districts for discrimination.