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“Blocked By The GOP”: One Way To Help Close The Gender Wage Gap Is To Raise The Minimum Wage

This week, ThinkProgress’s excellent Bryce Covert wrote about a new report by the National Women’s Law Project about the relationship between the minimum wage and the gender pay gap. As the NWLP demonstrates, raising the minimum wage would help close the gender pay gap, because women are disproportionately concentrated in low-wage sectors such as food service, retail, housekeeping, and home health aides,

Raising the minimum wage is an important step in bringing economic justice to women workers. Consider the following:

— Contrary to what you might assume based on the recent mass freak-out by male Fox News anchors, we ladies are hardly the dominant sex in the workplace. In fact, we’re losing ground economically, and the gender wage gap is getting worse rather than better. Increasing the minimum wage would significantly remedy the situation.

— The NWLP points out that women of color, who suffer from racial discrimination as well as gender discrimination, make up a disproportionate number of minimum wage workers. So they, too, stand to strongly benefit from a minimum wage increase, in ways that would partially offset the effects of discrimination.

— Earlier research has shown that the declining real value of the minimum wage has substantially accelerated the trend in growing wage inequality in the U.S. generally, particularly among women. Increasing the minimum wage would help slow this trend.

— Finally, one of the chief benefits of the the minimum wage is as economic stimulus. In fact, it was originally instituted during the Great Depression not so much as a worker protection policy but as macroeconomic policy, to encourage economic growth. Low-wage workers tend to spend close to every penny they make, rather than save. The money they inject back into the economy then has a multiplier effect which revives the economy as a whole — meaning that the minimum wage benefits not just minimum wage workers, but everyone else.

So far, President Obama’s proposal to raise the minimum wage, which he made in the State of the Union address earlier this year, doesn’t seem to have gotten out of committee. It’s one of the endless list of things in this country that is excellent policy and excellent politics, but is being blocked by the G.O.P. Lather, rinse, repeat. Will this story ever end?


By: Kathleen Geier, Washington Monthly Political Animal, June 8, 2013

June 9, 2013 Posted by | Economic Inequality, Economy | , , , , , , | 1 Comment

“Who Watches The Watchers?”: The Government Wouldn’t Be Able To Accumulate Data On Citizens If Companies Weren’t Collecting It

Yesterday, President Obama for the first time publicly addressed the controversies surrounding the National Security Agency’s Internet snooping, noting that there’s an important discussion to be had about the balance between security and liberty in a free country. “I welcome this debate,” he said.

I wonder, though, whether this debate is too narrowly drawn: Is the nub of the problem too much government surveillance or too much surveillance, period? After all, the government wouldn’t be able to so easily accumulate all this data on private citizens if private companies weren’t collecting it first.

In case you live under a rock, the kerfuffle involves a pair of National Security Agency programs. In one the agency spent years collecting the nation’s phone records – who called whom when and from where. In the other, codenamed PRISM, it has reportedly mined data – emails, chats and photographs, for example – of ostensibly foreign targets from prominent Internet providers like Microsoft, Yahoo, Google, Facebook, AOL and Apple, to name a few. (For their part, these companies have issued various types of denials regarding their cooperation in the program.)

But as I said, the government surveillance, which is deeply unsettling, raises a larger question about corporate surveillance. Amie Stepanovich of the Electronic Privacy Information Center points out that none of the information in question would be sharable if Internet and telecommunications companies encrypted it to protect privacy. In other words, it’s not a given that corporations must collect vast amounts of information from and about us. But failing to do so wouldn’t be good for business.

Somebody’s watching you. As security technologist Bruce Schneier has written, “The Internet is a surveillance state.” The mere act of visiting websites means you’re being tracked whether you’re aware of it or not. “Click tracking is a huge source of personal data that most people aren’t aware is being collected,” says Stephen Wicker, a Cornell University professor and author of the forthcoming “Cellular Convergence and the Death of Privacy.” He adds that “sites that you would think are relatively benign are actually hosting third party click trackers that take this data and then resell it.”

Indeed, earlier this year The Atlantic’s Alexis Madrigal dug into the world of Internet tracking and discovered 105 companies that had tracked him in a 36-hour period of normal Web surfing. “Every move you make on the Internet is worth some tiny amount to someone, and a panoply of companies want to make sure that no step along your Internet journey goes unmonetized,” he wrote. (Full – or at least partial – disclosure: I do not know whether and to what extent employs click trackers.)

Or consider the big data kid on the block: Google. Many people probably view the company as a search engine, or a map provider, or a mobile phone company or a cloud repository for documents. What Google is, in fact, is a data collection company: It collects data on you 15 ways to Sunday, sorts it, chops it up and sells it. And as Robert Epstein pointed out on this site in May, it’s not just when you’re using the Google search engine or Gmail (though it is assuredly the case then).

The Internet behemoth is collecting information on you whether you know it or not and whether you’re using its products or not. Using Safari or Firefox? Both web browsers, Epstein wrote, use Google’s blacklist, “an ever-changing list of about 600,000 websites that Google’s bots have identified – sometimes mistakenly – as dangerous. No government agency or industry association ever gave Google the authority to maintain such a list, but it exists, and Firefox uses it.” So does Safari. If you’re visiting a website that uses Google analytics (and most major sites do) or is serviced by Google ads or has Google maps embedded in it then Google, as Epstein writes, has gotcha.

But Google’s the “Don’t be evil” company, right? (After all, they’ve just gotten Vince Vaughn and Owen Wilson to star in a two-hour movie-cum-commercial.) And don’t all major social media platforms have privacy policies to protect consumers? Maybe. But in the last few years Google, Facebook and MySpace (remember that site?) have reached settlements with the Federal Trade Commission for charges related to how they handled users’ personal and private data.

The spy in your pocket. And that doesn’t even get into the personal, portable surveillance tools practically everyone in the country voluntarily carries around with them: mobile phones and other wireless devices. Pew Research reported this week that for the first time a majority of Americans own a smart phone of some kind, while fully 91 percent of the adult population now owns some flavor of cell phone. (The wireless industry lobbying group CTIA reports that wireless devices have now reached 102 percent penetration in the U.S. and its territories, which means that the machines now outnumber the people.)

And if you’re using your mobile phone, you’re being tracked. “I don’t think people realize they’re revealing their location to their carrier just by using their device,” says Ashkan Soltani, an independent privacy researcher and consultant. A 2011 investigation by the Wall Street Journal (on which Soltani consulted) found that Apple and Android smart phones routinely send location information, including information about local Wi-Fi networks, back to Apple and Google. Separately, the Journal reported in 2011, Apple’s iPhone collected and stored location data even when users had turned off “location services” – which is to say when they thought they had opted out of being tracked.

Why? This information is a potential treasure trove for these companies. From the Journal:

Google and Apple are gathering location information as part of their race to build massive databases capable of pinpointing people’s locations via their cellphones. These databases could help them tap the $2.9 billion market for location-based services – expected to rise to $8.3 billion in 2014, according to research firm Gartner, Inc.

Google uses this information to help show on its maps where automobile traffic is especially heavy or light. Verizon sells aggregate location data to advertisers, according to Soltani, so they can know where to place billboards. The wireless companies’ viewpoint, according to Soltani, is “we got this information for free, let’s use it for this other use-case, which is the marketing data.”

And there are a lot of companies trying to get a piece of this financial pie. In another story, the Journal surveyed 101 popular iPhone and Android apps and found that “56 transmitted the phone’s unique device ID to other companies without users’ awareness or consent. Forty-seven apps transmitted the phone’s location in some way. Five sent age, gender and other personal details to outsiders.” As Soltani told a Senate subcommittee in 2011, “applications can access and transmit data which includes text messages, emails, phone numbers, contacts stored and even browser history stored on the device.”

So if you woke yourself up this morning with an alarm clock app on your phone, the instant it went off, says Soltani, not only did it transmit noise to your ears but location data back to people you don’t know. “There are times where there are 50 or 100 third parties – companies that you’ve never had a relationship with – who are able to monitor your … activities,” he says.

Not big on apps? Consider your next visit to the local mall. Carriers and other companies are installing sensors around shopping malls, Soltani says, allowing them to track where people are lingering, what’s popular and what’s not, analytics that then go to the mall.

Perverse incentive. All of this creates what Soltani calls a “perverse incentive that creates this worst case scenario for consumers.” Companies have an incentive to collect and keep user data; and that trove proves an irresistible target for the government in its ongoing war on terrorists.

Which brings us back to the current uproar over the NSA’s data collection and data mining. The outrage is justified, as is the broader concern about how the cult of secrecy has infected and distorted the government. But there is something somewhat comforting to the notion that government agencies are ultimately responsible to the voters, even if that process has become calcified and overly complex.

But the surveillance state is built upon its corporate counterpart. And who watches those watchers?


By: Robert Schlesinger, U. S. News and World Report, June 8, 2013

June 9, 2013 Posted by | Corporations, National Security | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“The Sequester Will Help The Economy”: Another Right-Wing Fairy Tale Debunks Itself

Remember all those fearless predictions by the usual grinning idiots on the right about how the sequester was going to work miracles for the economy? Well guess what? That never happened.

I know, I know. I’m trying to recover from the shock.

The sequester took effect on March 1, so we now have three months’ worth of jobs data that have been released in its aftermath. The results have been underwhelming, to say the least. As Brad DeLong observed this week, we are still in a depressed economy. And as Ed noted yesterday, the latest monthly jobs report was thoroughly mediocre.

I particularly wanted to highlight the point the New York Times’ Annie Lowrey made: that the report shows that the sequester is already, specifically beginning to have a negative impact on employment. Yesterday’s report shows that the federal workforce, which has suffered cutbacks due to the sequester, is shrinking at a dramatically accelerated rate:

Federal employment had been on a downward trend since the start of 2011, with the government shedding about 3,000 or 4,000 positions a month through February. Then sequestration hit on March 1. And in the last three months, the federal work force has shrunk by about 45,000 positions, including 14,000 in May alone.

Those newly unemployed federal workers, of course, now have less money to spend, which will also slow down the economy. In addition, the sequester is also causing cuts in programs like unemployment benefits and benefits to low-income people such as aid for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) and the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP). Benefits to the unemployed and low-income folks act not only as a social safety net, but also as stimulus, since poor people and the jobless are likely to spend every penny they’ve got. Now, less of that money will be going into the pockets of those people and thus into the economy at large. That will also hurt the economic recovery, such as it is.

So, for those of you keeping score at home? The right wing/free market fundamentalists/austerity caucus? They are wrong. Again. And once again, they are continuing to drive the economy, and the country, into the ground.


By: Kathleen Geier, Washington Monthly Political Animal, June 8, 2013

June 9, 2013 Posted by | Economy, Sequester | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“This Isn’t Complicated”: Congress Must Fix The Bankrupt Student Loan Proposals

Interest rates on student loans will double on July 1 unless Congress acts. Since the phrase “congressional action” has become an oxymoron, this will quickly degenerate into an unnecessary crisis, requiring parents and students to threaten their legislators to get any relief.

Why is action even a question? There is a universal consensus — left, right and center — that it is vital to our nation to educate the next generation. If we want to compete as a high-wage, high-skill country, our children will need the best in college or advanced technical training. And all agree that gaining that higher education is a necessary, if not sufficient, requirement for entering the middle class.

So just as we pay for public education for kindergarten through 12th grade, we should ensure that advanced training or a public college education is available for all who earn it. None of this is even vaguely controversial.

Yet, despite this consensus, we are pricing college out of the reach of more and more families. State support for public universities has lagged. Increasingly, the costs have been privatized, with the bill sent to students and families.

With incomes stagnant for all but the wealthy few, the result, not surprisingly, has been an explosion of student debt. U.S. students and parents now owe an estimated $1.1 trillion in student loan debt, a sum greater than credit card or automobile debt. In 2005, average student loan debt was just over $17,000. By 2012, it was above $27,250, increasing more than 50 percent in just seven years.

With the debt burden rising and good jobs scarce, the result is calamity. Thirty-five percent of millennials — debtors under 30 — are seriously delinquent on their payments. In total, delinquent student debtors on the verge of default owe $113 billion, more than the total sums state governments spent on higher education in 2012.

The young people who do everything we ask of them — study, graduate, go on to higher education — end up deep in a hole. Burdened by debt, they have a hard time affording cars or apartments. Starting a family becomes difficult, a down payment on a home an impossible dream. This not only crushes the dreams of our best young people; it puts a real damper on the economy.

This isn’t complicated. Washington should be moving boldly to make advanced education affordable for all. The federal government should be increasing grants to states for public colleges, on the condition that the states increase their own contributions and act to curb college costs. The government should crack down on private colleges that ripoff students. And of course, college expenses should be subsidized so that successful young people don’t graduate into debtor’s prison.

But common sense is an endangered species inside Washington’s beltway. Interest rates on federally subsidized Stafford loans are about to double to 6.8 percent. Republicans have passed a “solution” that pegs loan rates to the rate of a 10-year Treasury note plus an arbitrary 2.5 percent. (Or plus 4.5 percent for parental PLUS loans). Loans fluctuate each year with interest rates, with a cap of 8.5 percent for student loans and a stunning 10.5 percent for parental loans. Kids will end up paying more, while the government will make billions on the deal for deficit reduction. But we should be subsidizing the next generation to get the education they need, not making money off of them.

President Obama’s plan isn’t much better. He sets the rate at the 10-year Treasury note rate plus .93 percent for subsidized Stafford loans (3.93 percent for parental loans) with no cap. He does call for limiting what students have to pay to 10 percent of their income, insuring that students aren’t condemned to bankruptcy. His plan is “budget neutral.”

Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) has offered a plan that makes a lot of sense. She suggests we offer students the same rate that the Federal Reserve charges to big banks (about .75 percent) for the next year, while Congress gets serious about a permanent fix. Senators Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) and Jack Reed (D-R.I.) suggest that the Congress do the easy thing, simply extend the current rates for two years, paying for it with the closing of various loopholes.

Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), like Warren, also makes sense. She would allow students and graduates to refinance into fixed 4 percent loans.

Is it any wonder that Americans grow cynical? Multinational corporations and wealthy investors stash literally trillions abroad to avoid taxes. The big banks rake in trillions in subsidies and discounted loan rates to rescue them from their own excesses. But Congress finds it impossible to make it affordable for the next generation to get advanced education and training.

As always, common sense won’t come to Washington unless citizens mobilize to force it on Congress. With graduations marked by student demonstrations across the country and pickets outside of Sallie Mae, the giant student loan bank, that movement may have begun. Student loans may be to this generation what the draft was to the boomers – the government folly that afflicts them personally and rouses them to act.


By: Katrina vanden Heuvel, Opinion Writer, The Washington Post, June 5, 2013

June 9, 2013 Posted by | Congress, Education | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Non-Factual Facts”: Washington Post Hedges Claim That Google, Facebook, Gave The Government Direct Access To Their Servers

Yesterday, the Washington Post reported a shocking story about how the FBI and National Security Agency had partnered with Google, Facebook, and many other tech companies to spy on the tech companies’ hundreds of millions of users.

The government agencies, the Post said, were “tapping directly into the central servers of nine leading U.S. Internet companies, extracting audio, video, photographs, e-mails, documents and connection logs that enable analysts to track a person’s movements and contacts over time.”

This surveillance program, the Post reported, had been “knowingly” facilitated by the tech companies, which had allowed the government to tap directly into their central servers.

The Post story described a “career intelligence officer” as being so horrified by the power and privacy intrusion of this surveillance system that the officer was helping to leak the news to expose it.

“They quite literally can watch your ideas form as you type,” the officer reportedly told the Post.

Not surprisingly, the Post’s story created an instant explosion of outrage. The ire was directed at both the government and the technology companies.

The story also led to immediate, explicit denials from the technology companies. Google, Facebook, and Yahoo all said that the government did not have “direct access” to any servers. Apple said it had never even heard of the program it was supposedly partnering with.

So The Post’s claim that the companies had voluntarily given the government direct, open, un-monitored access to their servers quickly seemed suspect.

And now, 24 hours later, after more denials and questions, the Post has made at least two important changes to its spying story.

First, the Post has eliminated the assertion that the technology companies “knowingly” participated in the government spying program.

Second, and more importantly, the Post has hedged its assertion that the companies have granted the government direct access to their servers.

The latter change is subtle, but important. In the first version of its story, the Post stated as a fact that the government had been given direct access to the companies’ servers.

Now, the Post attributes the claim to a government presentation–a document that has been subjected to significant scrutiny and skepticism over the past day and that, in this respect, at least, seems inaccurate.

In other words, the Post appears to have essentially retracted the most startling and important part of its story: That the country’s largest technology companies have voluntarily given the government direct access to their central servers so the government can spy on the tech companies’ users in real time.

Specifically, here’s how the Washington Post story has changed…

Here’s the original first paragraph:

The National Security Agency and the FBI are tapping directly into the central servers of nine leading U.S. Internet companies, extracting audio, video, photographs, e-mails, documents and connection logs that enable analysts to track a person’s movements and contacts over time.

Here’s the updated paragraph (our emphasis):

The National Security Agency and the FBI are tapping directly into the central servers of nine leading U.S. Internet companies, extracting audio and video chats, photographs, e-mails, documents, and connection logs that enable analysts to track foreign targets, according to a top-secret document obtained by The Washington Post.

That change is important. The direct-access claim changes from a fact asserted by the Washington Post to a claim made in a document the Washington Post has seen–a document that might be wrong.

The idea that Google, Facebook, Apple, et al, had voluntarily given the government direct unfettered access to their servers always seemed far-fetched.

This behavior would justifiably trigger the wrath of the companies’ hundreds of millions of users worldwide and exacerbate already existing concerns that these companies routinely trample all over their users’ privacy.

Furthermore, the government’s assertions that its spying programs are directed primarily at foreigners, not US citizens, would not be viewed as comforting to Google, Facebook, et al.

Why not?

Because the vast majority of the users of these companies’ services are foreigners.

If the international users of Facebook, Google, et al, were to feel that the companies were opening their data centers in this way, the international users might revolt. So it’s hard to imagine that these companies would just voluntarily open their servers to the U.S. government (or, for that matter, any other government).

The Washington Post also broke the news about the existence of the vast government program Internet spying called PRISM, which other outlets have since confirmed. And the story illustrated how extensively the government uses Internet communications in its intelligence efforts and how important these communications are to national security.

But, a day after the Post story appeared, it seems likely that the following claims are wrong or at least need major qualification:

  • that the NSA and FBI are “tapping directly into the central servers” of Facebook, Google, et al, and,
  • that the government can “quite literally watch your ideas form as you type.”


By: Henry Blodget, Business Insider, June 7, 2013

June 9, 2013 Posted by | National Security | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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