Saturday, April 27, 2013

Big ag money corrupts Missouri lawmakers

From the Heartland, Margot McMillen writes: There’s some big money behind Missouri’s HJR 7 and 11, which has been dubbed the “CAFO/Monsanto Protection Bill.” That’s the bill that wants to “forever guarantee modern technology” in agriculture, without saying what exactly that means. The Senate made the bill better, taking out the language that would have destroyed local control. That wouldn’t have happened if it wasn’t for the huge number of phone calls and visits to legislators we generated. Now HJR 7 and 11 is going to a Senate/House Conference Committee where the House will try to put the bad language back in. Any day now. Our citizen lobbyists are tired and that’s exactly what the corporate expected and want. They hope we’ll give up. And, besides that, there are several agriculture omnibus bills (SB9 and SB 342) that would take away the right for county commissions and health boards to pass local health ordinances to protect the health of their citizens. This form of local control should be maintained. With only 3 weeks left in the session, you’d think they’d be bending their minds to better things, like passing a budget or working on the health care crisis that will undo our rural hospitals. But, no. Senate Bill 342 & Senate Bill 9 would mandate that any county health ordinances would have to be passed word-for-word by both the county commission and the county health board. It’s another level of unneeded government bureaucracy. Here’s the deal: Monsanto has just promised 600+ new jobs to the city of St. Louis. And St. Louis is the tail that wags the dog of our state. The newspapers are all excited about it, trying to out-gush each other with enthusiasm for the expansion. Monsanto expansion may, or may not, be real. We’ve seen these expansions fail a lot of times, and we’ve seen them succeed at government expense. Some kind of tax abatement promised, some kind of bonds issued. But, for Missouri lawmakers, the chance to say that they’re bringing new jobs to the state is enough to get them re-elected. That’s life in the heartland. So we need to call our representatives AGAIN to protect local control and the state constitution. We can’t give up. Meanwhile, the day turned dreary and all the chores took two or three times as long as usual. Tomorrow, sunshine is predicted, and a fun day with my pal Laura, travelling the countryside in search of the perfect foxtrotter horse for one of her customers.

Thursday, April 25, 2013

Consumers are in charge of their food system

From the Heartland, Margot McMillen writes: A gorgeous day today! I started it outside, when Jerry, still recuperating from heart surgery, came to trim the horses’ feet. Barb’s little white pony could hardly get out of the barn, but he trimmed her and said she’ll probably be fine. It’s really hard with an equine that’s foundered. When spring comes and the fescue gets green, they just overeat and whatever healing they did gets undone. We have several horses and ponies to go, but she was the most urgent case and Jerry left after trimming her and my big old fellow, Rocky. We made appointments for Tuesday and Thursday next week. Coming back inside, a phone call from a news reporter about my grain project, connecting consumers with local grain. Uprise Bakery, mid-Missouri’s finest, has started using local wheat for one of his bread recipes. What did I think of that? I think it’s fabulous. The reporter was very patient, trying to absorb all the details. It’s hard, when all your breads have come wrapped in plastic from who knows where, to understand how it all begins. Wheat. Farmers. Flour. Millers. Yeast. Bakers. Who knew? The main thing, as I told her, is the consumer. If consumers demand a certain kind of product, the stores will get it for them. Consumers are driving the system, but they hardly ever know it.

Let’s deep-six loophole that allows Apple & other U.S. companies to avoid U.S. taxes on foreign earnings

By Marc Jampole

For those still wondering who benefits from the government intervention into the economy, I refer you to the case of Apple.

Apple management wants to shore up its recently plunging stock by increasing the dividend and instituting a stock buy-back program.  Higher dividends tend to raise stock prices, as do stock buy-backs. Apple has plenty of cash, so why not? As of 18 months ago, the computer and gadget behemoth had some $76.2 billion cash on hand, more than the federal government had at that time.

Except that the cash-rich and debt-free Apple is borrowing money to pay investors and buy its own stock. And why would it do a thing like that? 

The federal government has forced interest rates to historic lows, so Apple can raise the money cheaply. But, you may inquire, wouldn’t it be cheaper still if Apple spent some of its golden horde?  The problem is that much of that money is overseas and before Apple can spend it to shore up its stock price, it must repatriate it, which means paying taxes.

Thus the net effect of a loophole in the tax laws for big multinational corporations and the Federal Reserve Board’s constant pressure to keep interest rates low is to give Apple a chance to have its cake and eat it, too: to pay off investors, yet to keep the money overseas and probably earning a good rate of return in a mix of high-yield bonds of foreign governments.  Keep in mind that Apple, like many multinationals, may have earned some of that money in the U.S. and through legal accounting stratagems transferred the earnings to its foreign entities, thus shielding the earnings from U.S. taxes.

The pretext for keeping interest rates low is to stimulate investment in job-creating businesses. That’s also the excuse that large corporations are giving for wanting to have a tax holiday from repatriated foreign earnings. They don’t mention that last time there was a tax holiday on foreign earnings in 2005, most of the money went to buy back stock and pay off executives.

Large companies seem to prefer to line the pockets of their owners and executives over investing in jobs, which in all likelihood reflects their collective belief that there is no additional market demand that would require expansion.

The government could create that demand by closing the loophole that allows companies to shield earnings by realizing them in foreign ventures. The additional tax revenues could be used to support the victims of our economic travails since the real estate bubble burst in 2007-2008. It could be used to invest in research to commercialize alternative energy like wind and solar. It could build mass transit systems or rebuild roads, bridges and government buildings. It could decrease the size of classes in elementary schools. Any or all of these government actions would pump money into the economy and give large corporations a reason to invest as opposed to sitting on their money. Of course with a stronger economy would come higher interest rates, and then Apple couldn’t borrow money to pump up its stock.

Let’s face it: The goal and end result of virtually all government intervention into the economy is to help a handful of large multinational corporations and investment banks. It’s called socialism for the large and wealthy and it works just fine in the United States—for about one percent of the population.

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Genetically altered salmon in the pipeline

From the Heartland, Margot McMillen writes: Tomorrow, the comment period will close on whether industry can raise their genetically altered salmon and sell it to human consumers. This campaign has been going on for years. It started with a huge increase in salmon recipes in the ladies’ magazines and the newspapers. That, to develop demand. Omega 3, you know. The genetically altered salmon grow twice as fast as normal salmon, which means they would take over the native ecosystems by out-eating and out-growing the natives if they got into the wild. If approved, this will be the first animal to be genetically altered and raised for human use. This at the time when we’re trying to figure out what to do about the superweeds that industry created by releasing genetically altered corn, soybeans, canola, cotton and sugar beets. And if the salmon genes jump to other breeds, what then? One of my students has a habit of saying, when things are messed up, “It’s all good.” I think she means that things work out in the end. But, what kind of havoc are we releasing in nature? All good? Not.

Are we going to reduce ourselves to the level of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev by executing him?

By Marc Jampole
If anyone deserves the death penalty, it’s Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, the surviving brother of the Chechen-American pair who planted the bombs at the finish line of the Boston Marathon.  Three dead. Hundreds injured, some with limbs ripped out by shrapnel.  A shoot-out which produced another death and injury. Possible plans to inflict more damage on the innocent.

This guy deserves to die.

But we don’t deserve to kill him.

We’re better than that. We’re a civilized society.  We have incarcerated and will try Mr. Tsarnaev because he acted violently and took the lives of others. But by taking his life, even after a proper trial, we are resorting to his level, playing his game, using his rules.  When we take his life, he wins. His values ascend.  If we kill the killer, we become the killer.

There are many arguments against the death penalty:
  • Juries make too many mistakes, and you can’t take back an execution.
  • No studies show that the death penalty serves as a deterrent to crime.
  • To ensure fair treatment, the cost of execution is now far higher than the cost to maintain the prisoner for life.
  • There is an inherent bias against minorities and the poor in the implementation of death penalty sentences in the United States.
  • No other industrialized nation retains the death penalty.
But as far I’m concerned, all these arguments fall to the wayside when compared to the simple fact that by not executing the killer, we assert our humanity and our belief in the sanctity of human life. 

Our need to deny the ethos of the killer becomes poignantly clear in the case of the mass murderer or terrorist. Their crimes are heinous and it’s impossible to imagine anything redeeming about their lives.  They certainly do not deserve to live.
Yes, we want to kill Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, but let’s instead lock him up until the day he dies and show that we know a better way.

Monday, April 22, 2013

Let’s level the playing field by imposing sales tax on Internet merchants

By Marc Jampole
The Wall Street Journal is always quick to ignore the wrongs to the many to protect the rights of the few—in this case the few being Internet merchants located in New Hampshire, a state without sales tax, who would have to collect sales tax on items sold to people living in other states, while those undeserving New Hampshire brick-and-mortar wholesalers would not have to collect taxes for in-store purchases by tourists just traveling through. To ensure that this unfair situation doesn’t come to pass, a Journal article wants us to urge our Senators to defeat the latest attempt to make Internet merchants collect sales tax. 

The Journal forgets that in the current situation, Internet merchants have a tremendous advantage over brick-and-mortar stores because they don’t have to collect local sales tax, either for the jurisdiction in which they have their official “office,” or in the jurisdiction of the buyer. The new bill, as so many like it that have gone down to defeat in recent years, would level the playing field between Internet and brick-and-mortar businesses when it comes to taxation. It would end a subtle regressive element of the current situation—rich folk are more likely to buy on the Internet and so less likely to pay sales tax.  And it would increase much needed state revenues in virtually every state.

The Wall Street Journal is not the only big player pushing to defeat a bill that would require Internet merchants to collect sales tax. Over the weekend, John Donohoe, the chief executive officer of eBay, sent email missives to millions of eBay users asking them to oppose the legislation.  

As usual when defending the business prerogatives of the few, both eBay and the Journal hide behind the patriotic flag of small business. Both want a bill that exempts small businesses. In Donohoe’s case, that means firms with fewer than 50 employees and less than $10 million in sales. 
  • Donohoe appeals directly to eBay sellers: “This legislation treats you and big multi-billion dollar online retailers—such as Amazon—exactly the same.  Those fighting for this change refuse to acknowledge that the burden on businesses like yours is far greater than for a big national retailer.”
  • The Journal sees a conspiracy against small business: “So big business and big government are uniting to pursue their mutual interest in sticking it to the little guy. Any Internet seller with more than $1 million in annual sales would be forced to serve all of the nation's tax collectors.”
The argument is built on the fiction that the burden of collecting and paying sales tax is greater on the small business than a large enterprise. Can’t you just visualize thousands of plucky Internet merchants in their home offices slaving away with ballpoint pen at hundreds of tax forms, then licking the stamps and envelopes to mail hundreds of different checks each month to different state and local taxing officials? 

Didn’t these people ever hear of automated software or third-party payment services such as PayPal?  Did the opponents to collecting sales tax in a consistent manner ever think that maybe the vendors who have automated Internet purchases will also quickly develop software that handles everything involved in collecting and transmitting sales tax to the various taxing bodies—that is, if the software doesn’t already exist.  The technology can’t possibly be very hard to develop, considering that industry has already developed software that helps the little Internet merchant sell thousands of items with constantly changing prices and specifications, just like small brick-and-mortar merchants do. 

I certainly believe that the little guy should be protected from the predatory practices of large corporations.  But that’s not what this proposed new law is about. It’s about raising revenues in a fair and equitable manner.

Koch brothers buying Tribune Company would be newspaper business as usual.

By Marc Jampole
Progressives, liberals and maybe even a lot of centrists are shivering at the news that Charles and David Koch may buy part of the Tribune Company, including the largest newspapers in the second and third largest cities in America.

The Kochs, of course, are the right-wing financiers of the Tea Party and of a number of “thinkless tanks” that work against environmental regulations, unions, action on global warming and fair taxation policies.  These guys are as far right as can be and seem to have an open pocketbook for promoting wacky right-wing notions and dangerous lies.

The fear shared by those left of Attila the Hun is that the Kochs will infuse politics into the reporting and editorials of The Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, Baltimore Sun, Orlando Sentinel and Hartford Courant. Additionally, throughout modern history, with right-wing politics has usually come a dumbing down and sensationalizing of the rest of a newspaper. 

We already see what right-wing politics has done to the media outlets part of the Murdoch empire.  A study by the Union of Concerned Scientists found that both the Wall Street Journal and Fox TV News distort news and opinion on global warming.

Fox TV News recently all but ignored the gun debate in Congress, knowing that 90% of all Americans, including an overwhelming majority of their viewers, were in favor of the background checks that the ultra-right Fox dislike.  Fox, of course, was among the first media outlets to practice “Matt Drudge journalism,” which consists of quoting a known liar who is lying so that the lie can be presented in the context of news.

The potential sale of the Los Angeles Times represents a particularly tragic case, since it was once a right-wing rag that under Otis Chandler in the 1960s and 1970s grew into one of the most distinguished and well-respected newspapers across the country.  But all these newspapers are centrist and under the Koch’s regime they would all take a sharp turn right.

But let’s face it. Nothing has really changed. Rich folk have always been the only ones who could afford to publish newspapers. The Chandlers, who owned the Los Angeles Times were loaded. So was Rupert Murdoch’s father. So were and are the Sulzbergers, who own the New York Times and the Pulliams, who owned the Arizona Republic and Indiana Star (and also produced that apotheosis of mediocrity, former Vice President Dan Quayle).  The Mellon scion who funded the silly investigations into President Clinton’s business dealings in the 1990s owns the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review and many other newspapers in western Pennsylvania.

While there are rich folk who look beyond their own greed, most will support the status quo that is treating them so well, even if that status quo is unfair to many or causes many to suffer. So much of the left-right divide centers around issues of economic equity—minimum wage, government support of education and health care, unionization, government pension plans and even safety regulations. It makes sense that many of those with money will not want to share it, even if they made their bucks in large part because of an extensive civil, economic and physical infrastructure.  It’s because only the people with lots of money can afford to own newspapers that since the birth of the printing press, most non-government controlled media has been centrist or listed right (in the context of each era).

One early hope of the Internet was that it would level the playing field.  While it is true that the Internet enables people of all opinions to shout out, the sheer number of voices gives added clout to the Internet screeners such as Yahoo! and Google, which favor mainstream and right-wing media in their algorithms.  Those algorithms are subject to manipulation, which takes money, which only the big media has. Thus, while the Internet theoretically levels the playing field, the net effect is to extend the dominance of big media owned by rich folk. 

The replacement of large families by large corporations as media owners does not change the situation much, since single individuals or families can so easily control a corporation with as little as five percent of the voting stick.

Let’s face it. The rich will always be able to own the news. But the rich are not one unified monolithic group, but rather comprise a mosaic of opinions. If we can’t prevent media ownership from being dominated by the wealthy, we can at least spread ownership around, so we can achieve as large a diversity of ownership as possible. If we want a free market of ideas, we have to limit the number of media properties owned by any individual or corporation. 

The trend over the past 30 years has been to loosen regulations on ownership of media properties, which leads to greater consolidation.  We should instead be moving in the opposite direction.  I would propose that no company, individual or trust be allowed to own more than one print or broadcast media property in any given state and no more than five in all, plus one website per print/broadcast property.

Today, loosening regulations is leading to a loss of freedom speech and freedom of the press. Greater regulation will stem that tide.

Sunday, April 21, 2013

Too Much Boston Marathon

From the Heartland, Margot McMillen writes: This is the first Sunday morning in a decade when I haven’t watched Meet the Press on TV. I just can’t stand to see those images again—the explosions at the Boston Marathon, people screaming, running TO the emergency rather than FROM the emergency as every TV commentator, preacher and fireman has told us. And then the “manhunt” as the headlines say. We’ve been given a lot of language, haven’t we? I’m sad that it happened, sad for the Bostonians, sad for the Chechnyans and Muslims that will be painted with the same broad brush. I’m proud of the first responders, the people who ran TO the emergency, big shout out to all of ya’all. But I don’t want to re-live it, over and over, giving it the stature that we give news events when they are relentlessly exploited. I don’t want to see it raised to the level of, as they say, “iconic.” I don’t want to see other kids take revenge, and then other kids take revenge against the other kids. You know what I mean—we’ve seen it a million times. The only winners are the media and the advertisers. Better for society to say: this was a bad thing. People were killed unexpectedly, this happens every day in other places but not here. At the bottom of it all was a fearful fellow that listened to the wrong voices. How can we prevent it from happening again? Bottom line: we can’t. Especially if we succumb to the fear that’s driving all this hype. Let it go.