Friday, March 28, 2014

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

By Marc Jampole

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. 

Thursday, March 27, 2014

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

By Marc Jampole

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. 

Monday, March 24, 2014

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

By Marc Jampole

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 thecountry, illegally pumped as much as 61 million gallons of coal-ash wastewaterinto 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.