Saturday, January 13, 2018

Editorial: GOP Smash and Grab

It grates on us every time Donnie Trump is described as a populist. He talked a populist line during the presidential campaign, with promises such as “Under a Trump presidency, the American worker will finally have a president who will protect them and fight for them.” But his campaign promises were entirely unbelievable, and his first year in office have proven the skepticism was warranted.

He had a long record as a New York real estate developer and entrepreneur who had his clothing line made in China; imported Chinese steel to build his hotels; stiffed his subcontractors, making them sue him to get paid; and resisted unions at his properties. He had a reputation as a liar, demonstrated by PolitiFact’s running tally since 2011 that showed him telling the whole truth only about 4% of the time through November 2016. But Trump apparently attracted just enough suckers, possibly influenced by Russian hackers spreading fake news on the Internet, combined with voter suppression in states such as Michigan and Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, to surprise some of his closest aides, as well as his wife and possibly even himself with his upset victory over Hillary Clinton.

Lying Donnie conned his way into the White House by promising to fight for working people and protect Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security, but after his inauguration he installed administrators whose job has been to dismantle every worker- or consumer-friendly regulation that President Barack Obama implemented.

Trump also installed a half-dozen current and former executives of Goldman Sachs to deliver the goods to the plutocrats, as usual, while he spends short days in the Oval Office, then retires to his bedroom at 6:30 p.m. for Big Macs, Filet-O-Fish and a chocolate milkshake.
We didn’t really need Michael Wolff’s explosive tell-all, Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House, to let us know Trump was in over his head and alarming even his closest advisers with his apparent descent into madness. But it confirmed rumors that have been leaking out of the White House for months.

Then, as the year was coming to a close, with the Great Misleader’s unpopularity stuck in the 30s and dragging down congressional Republicans, the window of opportunity to pass major legislation was closing. Wealthy donors threatened to withhold money from their dependent Republicans if the GOP didn’t furnish a massive tax break as a return on their investment. Republicans in Congress drafted a bill that would raise taxes on working families to pay for huge tax giveaways to billionaires and corporations, in the legislative equivalent of a smash-and-grab robbery.

The AFL-CIO labor federation noted the tax bill would rig tax rules in favor of big banks, hedge funds and Wall Street financial firms. The richest 1% of households would receive 83% of tax cuts, and the richest 0.1% would get an average tax cut of more than $148,000. The tax bill is full of complex tax gimmicks that would encourage tax dodging while enriching lawyers and accountants, and the Senate finally passed it on a 51-48 vote Dec. 19. The House then finally passed the bill 224-201 Dec. 20

The GOP scam offers job-killing tax breaks for outsourcing, as it lowers the US tax rate on offshore profits to zero, giving corporations an incentive to move American jobs offshore. Republicans also put a tariff on goods manufactured in storm-damaged Puerto Rico, which will harm efforts to rebuild industry in that forlorn American territory.

Republicans also signaled that once they’re done increasing the deficit with their wasteful tax boondoggle, they plan to use the deficit as an excuse to cut Medicaid, Medicare and Social Security, giving another lie to Trump’s assurances that he would protect the safety net. The Republican budget, already signed by Trump, would cut Medicaid and Medicare by $1.5 trillion — the same price tag as the tax bill — and Republicans are proposing a $492 million cut in the Social Security Administration, reducing the agency’s staff so seniors will have a harder time getting access to benefits.

Republicans promised their plan would help the middle class with tax relief that will stimulate economic growth and higher wages — classic supply-side economic hogwash, which failed under Ronald Reagan in the 1980s, George W. Bush in the early 2000s and in Kansas under Gov. Sam Brownback from 2012 until mid-2017, when Republican legislators finally joined Democrats to restore the taxes, over Brownback’s veto. (The entire Kansas congressional delegation still voted for the new tax scam, however.)

Although Republicans claim the tax scam would cut taxes for working families, at least in the first few years of the implementation, the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office sees tax increases for millions of working people, as the average household making less than $75,000 would pay more in taxes by the year 2027. In all, 70 million households earning less than $100,000 eventually would pay more under the new law.

And any increase in take-home pay from the tax cuts likely will be offset with increases in health care costs, as the law also repealed parts of the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare), which means health care premiums in the individual market will rise by 10% or more. The CBO estimated 13 million people would lose health insurance, and health experts say thousands of Americans could die every year from loss of coverage.

The reduced tax revenues will spur automatic cuts to Medicare and other programs to offset the reduction in revenue caused by the tax breaks under the 2010 Pay-As-You-Go law, unless Congress votes to waive the PAYGO rules — which would require Democratic support in the Senate, since 60 senators are needed for the waiver.

Republicans also encouraged state and local governments to cut spending on public education, infrastructure and public services working families depend upon, by limiting the state and local tax (SALT) deduction. However, a new backdoor school voucher program would give tax breaks for tuition at private schools. Republican leaders in Congress also plan to use the deficit they created as an excuse to cut federal funding for education and other essential services.

The American public has caught on to this scam. A CNN poll released Dec. 19 found only 33% of Americans favor the GOP tax bill, while 55% oppose it, making this the most unpopular bill in 30 years. A Gallup Poll released Jan. 8 showed Trump’s job approval stuck at 37%, while 58% disapproved and on generic congressional races Democrats were leading. 42.1% to 34.7% in an average of polls reported by HuffPost’s Pollster Jan. 2.

The corporate press — whose owners will rake in big bucks from the tax cuts — has rated this a great victory at last for Trump and his Republican Congress, and that might improve GOP popularity in months to come. But this plutocratic tax bill puts a target on the back of every Republican member of the House and the Senate who have enabled Lying Donnie as well as Speaker Paul Ryan and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. It makes it imperative that Democrats regain control of Congress in 2018 so they can block any more bad things from happening — including confirmation of the teabagger lawyers Trump is putting forward for lifetime appointments to judgeships. GOP committee heads also are helping Trump obstruct justice in the Russia probe.

It probably will take until 2021, after Dems regain control of the White House as well as, we hope, the House and Senate, that Democrats can repeal this dreadful tax bill — if necessary, by the same reconciliation process by which it was enacted. And Dems may profit from the lesson on how to pass bills without a 60-vote supermajority. Among other things, expansion of Medicare to cover everybody now appears to be within reach with a simple majority. — JMC

From The Progressive Populist, Febuary 2, 2018

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Selections from the February 1, 2018 issue

COVER/Medea Benjamin 
10 Good things about a TERRIBLE year

GOP smash and grab


Virginia town models First Amendment

RURAL ROUTES/Margot McMillen
Women lead the way in 2018

Feds prepare crackdown on cannabis industry;
Trump wants to waste money on Border Patrol agents, too;
Trump administration plan to bail out coal and nuclear plants rejected by fed agency;
Expansion of offshore drilling faces big obstacles;
Trump promised to ‘protect and fight for’ American workers. How that went;
Washington Dems’ ambitious vote agenda;
Cliven Bundy set free due to prosecutorial misconduct ...

Lack of bird flu research should make you queasy

A new year’s resolution: Time to speak up 

2018: a year the GOP would just as soon skip

Trump vows to kill 50 years of federal health and safety protections

Missouri voters look for another try at living wage

Country of origin labeling works

Make America weak again

HEALTH CARE/Joan Retsinas 
Death by a thousand cuts

Trump undermines AIDS programs

BOOK REVIEW/Heather Seggel 
Mother knows best

The Franken travesty

My 2017 favorites

BOOK REVIEW/Seth Sandronsky
Trump this

Put sexual predators on the run

SATIRE/Rosie Sorenson 
Who put the woe in Lake Wobegone?

MOVIES/Ed Rampell
Lone wolf Antifa in new anti-neo-Nazi German film

and more ...

Health Expenses Around the World

Graphic by Kevin Kreneck / Click on art to magnify

Friday, January 12, 2018

Surprise, surprise, surprise! Another attempt at privatization of a government function fails. This time it’s collection of back taxes

By Marc Jampole

Once again, privatization of a basic government function has failed. As the New York Times reports, the Internal Revenue Service paid $20 million last year to private collection companies to collect unpaid back taxes. The companies were able to dun people for a mere $6.7 million in back taxes. Sometimes they were paid a 25% commission on back taxes collected solely through the efforts of the IRS. But there’s much worse, 45% of the take was from taxpayers they weren’t supposed to go after: hardship cases for whom paying back taxes would prevent paying basic living expenses.
As Gomer Pyle, the rube played by Jim Nabors for years on two situation comedies, would put it, “Surprise, surprise, surprise!”
If Congress had studied history, it would have known that privatization of tax collecting—which used to be called tax farming—doesn’t work as efficiently as the government doing its own collection. (To be accurate, private companies are trying to collect back taxes for the IRS; historical tax farming collected all taxes.) Ancient Egypt, Rome and Greece all had third-party for-profit enterprises collecting taxes, as did the early kings of Europe. Historians now consider having the government bureaucracy collect its own taxes as one of the earliest signs of a modern government. The advantage of the government doing its own collections is twofold: It gets more of the revenues and the taxpayers are happier, since tax farming generally led to abusive practices by the tax farmers, who sought to maximize profits by squeezing taxpayers. Of course, even if Congress had known what a failure privatized tax collection is, it might have still passed the 2015 bill requiring the IRS to use private contractors.
When will politicians, both Republican and Democratic, learn that the private sector doesn’t always work as well as government does in providing services, especially when those services involve most if not all of the population?
Let’s tally the performance of the private sector when it takes over functions previously performed successfully by government.
We’ll start with private schools. Advanced research now demonstrates without a doubt that when you correct for poverty and disabilities public school students do better on standardized tests and improve their performance more over time than do private schools. And no wonder. Compared to private schools, public schools are more innovative, have more experienced teachers and provide those teachers with more continuing education.
Private prisons have proven to be a complete disaster virtually everywhere they have been tried in the United States. A few years back, the Wall Street Journal detailed the woes that the state of Idaho had after it privatized its state prisons in 2000; its private prison contractor walked away from a new contract, leaving Idaho with several lawsuits alleging that understaffing led to gangs rampaging violently through Idaho’s private prisons. The Journalreported that Michigan recently dropped plans to house 968 cons in a privately run prison after the bids by private companies exceeded by millions how much it would cost the state to do it. A few years back, a study showed that private prisons cost the state of Arizona more than a public system would have. When the State of Ohio gave its first inspection to one prison, it found that since a private company had taken over the facility compliance with regulations fell from 97.3% to 66.7%, a stunning decline in quality. As long ago as 2010, The Lexington Herald-Ledger called the privatized prison system in Kentucky a failure and cited the many abuses at one notorious private-run correctional facility.
How about private armies? People seem to forget that since Bush II, we have farmed out a large part of our military functions to private companies like Blackwater (formerly run by the brother of our current pro-privatization Secretary of Education) and Haliburton (the former company of Bush II’s VP, Dick Cheney). At a certain point, we had well over 100,000 military contractors in Iraq and Afghanistan, hired mercenaries loyal to their company not to the United States and not indoctrinated with the values and ethics of the American military. Using contractors drove up the cost of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars and led to a number of scandals of abuse of local civilians. And perhaps most significantly, we have failed to win either of these wars. And why would anyone think we’d have a better chance to win with hired guns, not well-trained U.S. soldiers? The United States has recognized the inferiority of privatized armies since we beat one in the Revolutionary War.
Then there’s our privatized health insurance system, which costs much more than other nations and yet delivers inferior health care, if judged by outcomes. In 2015, the United States spent almost three times on healthcare as the average of other countries with comparable incomes. Despite these outsized U.S. expenditures, people live longer in 29 of the 34 other countries surveyed. When compared to nationalized health insurance systems, we have fewer hospital beds per capita, higher rates of infant mortality and fewer people covered by health insurance. If you don’t think government does a better job of providing healthcare, ask anyone who has just switched from a commercial plan to Medicare what they think. I immediately noticed the improvement in benefits and access to care that Medicare provides.
For one more example, let’s go back in time to the early days of data processing. Many states and the federal government would outsource data processing to private companies such as Ross Perot’s Electronic Data Systems (EDS). Back in the 1980’s, it would cost Perot’s company about 6-8 cents a transaction, including labor costs. EDS charged governments 72 cents a transaction, a pretty fat profit margin. It doesn’t take much of a business head to figure out that the governments would have saved their constituents a lot of money if they had bought the computers and done the work themselves.
Of course, evidence means nothing to Trumpty-Dumpty and Republicans. Just this week, we learned that the Trump administration has abruptly halted work on the National Registry of Evidence-Based Programs and Practices, which analyzes substance abuse and behavioral health problems and recommends which work and which don’t, based on actual evidence. The program has been around about 20 years and features a website listing 453 programs in behavioral health that have been shown, by rigorous outcomes measures, to be effective. Like all Republicans, Trump and his advisors would prefer that the public be free to select from any number of treatments, even those that evidence has shown are little better than quackery. The freedom to select something that doesn’t work because you don’t have enough information and/or have been fooled by an unethical charlatan is more important than cutting the cost of health care and getting people the best treatment.
The contemporary Republican Party seems to run from science, which disproves virtually all of its fundamental ideas regarding the economy, free markets, the environment and public health. Their religious faith in the power of privatization is greater than the evidence that shows it doesn’t work.

Thursday, January 11, 2018

The danger of an Oprah presidency: Instead of being chief of state, POTUS becomes a celebrity figurehead

By Marc Jampole

No one can really answer the question, “Would you vote for Oprah for president?” out of the context of who the other choices are. In a primary against almost any other Democrat, I would vote for the opponent—maybe I’d vote for Oprah over Corey Booker or Heidi Heitkamp, because they’re so conservative. Maybe. But I would certainly vote for Oprah over just about any Republican Maybe I’d vote for John Kasich, Jon Huntsman or Nikki Haley instead of Oprah. Maybe.
Do I think Oprah is qualified to serve as Commander in Chief?
Hell, no.
Sure, she’s a personable entertainer and a shrewd businesswoman, truly a self-made billionaire. Her politics seem to fit in with Hillary Clinton’s and Barack Obama’s: a centrist looking left who will repair the damage of almost 35 years of Reaganism and move us along towards a socialist democracy, but at a snail’s pace and while ignoring the needs of labor unions. She seems to believe in science and respect expertise. She is as sincerely compassionate as the current generation of Republicans are mean-spirited. I am certain that if elected Oprah would surround herself with left-leaning centrists distinguished in their respective fields or bright political minds. She would be a feel-good president, much like all our presidents were between Carter and the current occupant of the Oval Office. With a solid Democratic majority in both houses she could have a historic presidency, on par with the accomplishments of Roosevelt and Johnson. But that’s what I predicted about the impending Hillary Clinton presidency, back before anyone knew that the Russians were attempting to fix the results.
But that doesn’t mean that Oprah should run. She’s just not qualified. She’s never run a government bureaucracy. She’s never shepherded legislation to passage. She’s never juggled electoral concerns with governmental realities. She’s never voted for or against something that affects the lives—and sometimes deaths—of thousands, or millions.
Moreover, what the United States doesn’t need right now is to solidify the idea that a celebrity is qualified to be president, or that to be president of the United States, you must be a celebrity. The mainstream news media would like nothing better than to continue a reality TV approach to covering politics. It’s much easier than getting knowledgeable and asking intelligent questions about real issues. But if we keep electing people with no government experience who have primarily been entertainers or athletes, we’ll end up with a titular presidency, a front person who spouts off the words of others, with the real power up for grabs in the back rooms of the White House. Okay, we’ve sometimes had that situation before, but a celebrity presidency institutionalizes the ceremonial approach to the office, with the real power lying elsewhere, hidden away from public scrutiny.
I’m not saying Oprah will act like a reality show participant as president. She’ll certainly know how to comport herself with dignitaries, foreign leaders, the news media, Congress and the public. There will be no displays of ignorant rudeness, like riding in a golf cart while everyone else walks or pushing past the head of another country to get into the center of a photo. I’m quite certain that while she will tweet and give Facebook updates with great frequency, a President Oprah would not resort to feuding, insulting, exaggerating, bullying, bragging and the other reality TV techniques that Trumpty-Dumpty employs.
But hers would still be another celebrity presidency. And that has to be bad for the country, no matter what her administration might accomplish.
At various times, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama were labeled rock stars, a derogatory phrase meant to imply that they were no better than celebrities. Opponents denigrated Ronald Reagan as an actor. But all these individuals had been involved in government before running for president. All had won elections before. That’s what Oprah needs to do, maybe even serve in a cabinet post. At the age of 63, it’s a little late to get started, but even if she served one term as a senator or governor, it would transform her from celebrity to elected official. It worked for Nelson Rockefeller and Jack Kennedy. It worked for George Murphy, Al Franken and Ronald Reagan. It worked for Sonny Bono. Okay, maybe not for Sonny.
Now that we’ve had our fantasy about possibly electing one of the most likeable people in American to follow one of the most despised, the Democratic Party has to get back to sifting through likely candidates who have electoral and governmental experience. There are any number of qualified Democrats out there: Kamala Harris, Elizabeth Warren, Kirsten Gillibrand, Bill DeBlasio, Sherrod Brown, Chris Murphy, Amy Klobuchar, Gavin Newsom, Tammy Baldwin, Chuck Schumer, even (holding my nose and frowning) Andrew Cuomo. But not Oprah, please. (also not Bernie, Joe Biden or Hillary.)

Tuesday, January 9, 2018

What connects deporting dreamers and refugees & the new war on pot? The need to fill the private prisons owned & operated by Trump/Session supporters

By Marc Jampole

The body count is getting higher: Add 200,000 Salvadorans to 780,000 dreamers and 45,000 Haitians. That’s well over a million people now, mostly productive and hard-working, ripped out of our economy and communities. These are many of the people who make our hotel beds, fix our pipes, take care of our elderly, slaughter our chickens, pick our crops, deliver our groceries and build our roads and housing. We can expect labor shortages in all these and other industries.
Don’t expect people postponing retirement to fill the gap—the ones who work past 62 are mostly professionals in desk jobs. You might see a senior staffing a cash register at Walmart or flipping burgers at MacDonald’s, but Baby Boomers’ expansive waists, bad knees, sore rotator cuffs, aching hips and general arthritis will rule out plucking oranges from trees, walking patients around hospital wards, making deliveries or operating a jack hammer. As with most of their policies, the Trump GOP’s deportation of more than a million productive Americans goes counter to the best interest of the country. We need to address global warming; he walks away from the Paris Accord. We need to raise taxes on the wealthy; they lower them. We need more workers or face a labor shortage; he kicks out millions.
Add to the more than a million refugees and other immigrants Trump intends to kick out of the country by 2020 a yet unknown number—the additional number of people who will be thrown in jail as a result of the Justice Department’s new crackdown on marijuana. Will it be 10,000? 20,000? 50,000? However many, they won’t be leading productive lives contributing to the economy.
On the surface, what unites deporting dreamers and refugees with ratcheting up arrests for something that should be legal—and is in many states—are the sheer stupidity of the actions, the mean-spirited cruelty underlying both policies and the deleterious effect each will likely have on the American economy and on many individuals.
A follow-the-money analysis uncovers another connection between these two deplorable stupidities: Both will line the pockets of the operators of for-profit prisons. The way back to wherever someone or their parents started usually runs through a detention center, so virtually every dreamer or refugee kicked out of the country will spend some time under lock and key for long periods of time. And every stoner or pot entrepreneur busted will end up detained, sometimes for years.
What a boon to for-profit prisons, which the Obama Administration had begun to phase out. The incarceration industry and its investors have been riding high since Trump announced that he was rescinding the Obama decision and relying even more heavily on private prisons. Now instead of facing a contraction of business, private prisons are looking at boom times.
As usual, Trump gets it wrong. By almost every measure private prisons have been a disaster: prisoners are more likely to be mistreated and often don’t get enough to eat or adequate medical care; drug use and violence are greater in private prisons. Often the private solution ends up being more expensive. It has never produced a greater rate of rehabilitation.
Besides being a disaster, private prisons also have a distorting effect on our politics and criminal justice system. Private prisons make money only if they are filled with prisoners, and so their operators have long lobbied for three-strikes-you’re-out and other harsh sentencing laws. They have contributed to the campaigns of many law-and-order candidates, primarily Republicans and including Jeff Sessions and now Trumpty-Dumpty.
“Crony capitalism” means giving large government contracts to your friends and financial supporters. It’s been around since the Revolutionary War and served as one of the primary sources of ultra-wealth during the Civil War and the Gilded Age. Private prisons are the quintessential “crony capitalists,” an industry that emerged only from a desire to privatize and thereby create more opportunity to use government revenues to create profit for private individuals at the expense of taxpayers. Government is the sole market for their services. It is in their best interest to increase their market by increasing the number of people detained and incarcerated. In an era of rapidly falling crime, that means increasing what is considered a crime and expanding the jail time demanded of the perpetrators. Criminalizing both immigrants and pot smokers fill the bill quite nicely.
The Trump Administration operates primarily on hate, fear and crony capitalism. We can see all three motives coming together in granting the wishes of another large industry dependent on government largess.