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“Court Sanctioned Discrimination, Again”: Big Monopolies Are Now Free To Ruin The Internet

Countries like China or Russia, with centuries-long traditions of authoritarian rule, revert to their past practices when confronted with any kind of novelty. The United States, with its tradition of frontier free marketism, reverts to the laissez-faire when confronted with the new. But the result in both cases is the same: the radical constriction of popular democracy and freedom. A case in point is yesterday’s Appeals Court ruling on net neutrality.

The question is this: Can internet providers like Verizon and Comcast allow some web companies to provide better (that is, faster) service to their customers than their competitors by paying a higher price to the providers? Can Amazon knock an upstart by providing better service to its customers by paying off Verizon? Or can the Heritage Foundation’s web site provide better service than, say, that of the Economic Policy Institute by paying higher prices to Verizon? In 2010, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) ruled that internet providers could not discriminate among web sites in this manner. Yesterday, the Appeals Court ruled that they could. That’s an obvious blow to consumers, who will suffer the usual effects of monopoly; but it could also be a blow to free speech on the internet.

The obvious villain is the Appeals Court, but the damage was actually done earlier. In 2002, the FCC under chairman Michael Powell—the son of Colin Powell and reputedly an extremely decent person, but also a doctrinaire pro-business libertarian in the mold of the Koch brothers—issued a ruling that internet companies were “information services” and not “telecommunications companies.” That seemingly innocuous decision on wording held momentous consequences, because it meant that the internet could not be regulated like the public utility that it is. Phone companies, for instance, can’t by law provide static-free service to callers from a wealthy suburban area (at a price), but barely audible service to callers from the inner city, because they are regulated like a public utility. By the FCC’s ruling, internet providers could discriminate, and in 2005, the Supreme Court affirmed the FCC’s right to make this invidious distinction.

Obama’s first appointee as FCC chairman, Julius Genachowski, understood the damage that Powell’s ruling had done, and sought to undo it. In May 2010, Genachowski announced that he was redefining cable as a telecommunications service.  That would have opened the door to re-regulating it. The cable and wireless industry stepped in.  “He felt himself to be in a difficult position,” Susan Crawford, the author of Captive Mind and an expert on communications law, recalled.  She said Genachowski feared that it would “be World War III. And the president didn’t need World War III.”  So in December 2010, Genachowski announced that he would not attempt to counter Powell’s definition. That left any attempt to regulate broadband—including the net neutrality standards that the administration adopted—open to a court challenge. Verizon then proceeded to challenge the FCC’s right to set net neutrality standards, and yesterday it won, and the FCC and the American people lost.

Powell was happy about the ruling. He is now the President of the National Cable & Telecommunications Association in Washington, the industry’s chief lobbying arm. “It’s ironic that the big winner coming out of the court’s decision could end up being the one person who wasn’t a litigant—the consumer,” Powell declared. It’s unclear whether Genachowski’s successor as FCC chair, former industry lobbyist Tom Wheeler, will challenge the ruling. But if he doesn’t, and the ruling stands, the FCC can kiss goodbye its power to regulate the internet and the protect the rights of citizens and consumers against avaricious monopolies.

 

By: John B. Judis, The New Republic, January 15, 2014

January 16, 2014 Posted by | Monopolies, Net Neutrality | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Executive Pay: We Knew They Got Raises. But This?

It turns out that the good times are even better than we thought for American chief executives.

Among the executives who registered huge gains in the value of their company stock and options in 2010 were Warren E. Buffett, the chief executive of Berkshire Hathaway, top, Lawrence J. Ellison of Oracle, center, and Jeffrey P. Bezos of Amazon.com. Together, the three men’s holdings climbed by more than $13 billion for the year.

A preliminary examination of executive pay in 2010, based on data available as of April 1, found that the paychecks for top American executives were growing again, after shrinking during the 2008-9 recession.

But that study, conducted for The New York Times by Equilar, an executive compensation data firm based in Redwood City, Calif., was just an early snapshot, and there were even more riches to come. Some big companies had not yet disclosed their executive compensation.

So Sunday Business asked Equilar to run the numbers again.

Brace yourself.

The final figures show that the median pay for top executives at 200 big companies last year was $10.8 million. That works out to a 23 percent gain from 2009. The earlier study had put the median pay at a none-too-shabby $9.6 million, up 12 percent.

Total C.E.O. pay hasn’t quite returned to its heady, prerecession levels — but it certainly seems headed there. Despite the soft economy, weak home prices and persistently high unemployment, some top executives are already making more than they were before the economy soured.

Pay skyrocketed last year because many companies brought back cash bonuses, says Aaron Boyd, head of research at Equilar. Cash bonuses, as opposed to those awarded in stock options, jumped by an astounding 38 percent, the final numbers show.

Granted, many American corporations did well last year. Profits were up substantially. As a result, many companies are sharing the wealth, at least with their executives. “We’re seeing a lot of that reflected in the pay,” Mr. Boyd says.

And at a time of so much tumult in the media business, it might be surprising that some executives in media and communications were among the most richly rewarded last year.

The preliminary and final studies put Philippe P. Dauman, the chief executive of Viacom, at the top of the list. Mr. Dauman made $84.5 million last year, after signing a new long-term contract that included one-time stock awards.

Leslie Moonves, of the CBS Corporation, got a 32 percent raise and reaped $56.9 million. Michael White of DirecTV was paid $32.9 million, while Brian L. Roberts of the Comcast Corporation and Robert A. Iger of the Walt Disney Company each received pay packages valued at $28 million.

“Media firms seemed to be paying a lot,” said Carol Bowie, head of compensation policy development at ISS Governance, which advises large investors on corporate governance issues like proxy votes. “Media companies in general tend to be high-payers, and they tend to feed off each other.”

Other big payers included oil and commodities companies like Exxon Mobil and a few technology giants like Oracle and I.B.M.

Some of the other highly paid executives on the new list who were not in the April survey are Gregg W. Steinhafel of Target, who had a $23.5 million pay package; Michael E. Szymanczyk of Altria, $20.77 million; and Richard C. Adkerson of Freeport-McMoRan Copper & Gold, $35.3 million.

Most ordinary Americans aren’t getting raises anywhere close to those of these chief executives. Many aren’t getting raises at all — or even regular paychecks. Unemployment is still stuck at more than 9 percent.

In some ways, chief executives seem to live in a world apart when it comes to pay. As long as shareholders think that the top brass is doing a good job, executives tend to be well paid, whatever the state of the broader economy. And some corporate boards were probably particularly generous in 2010 after a few relatively lean years for their top executives. In other words, some of this was makeup pay.

“What is of more concern to shareholders is that it looks like C.E.O. pay is recovering faster than company fortunes,” says Paul Hodgson, chief communications officer for GovernanceMetrics International, a ratings and research firm.

According to a report released by GovernanceMetrics in June, the good times for chief executives just keep getting better. Many executives received stock options that were granted in 2008 and 2009, when the stock market was sinking.

Now that the market has recovered from its lows of the financial crisis, many executives are sitting on windfall profits, at least on paper. In addition, cash bonuses for the highest-paid C.E.O.’s are at three times prerecession levels, the report said.

Of course, these sorts of pay figures invariably push the buttons of many ordinary Americans. Yes, workers’ 401(k)’s are looking better than they did in some recent years, but many investors still have not recovered from the hit they took during the financial crisis. And, of course, millions are out of work or trying to hold on to their homes — or both.

And it’s not as if most workers are getting fat raises. The average American worker was taking home $752 a week in late 2010, up a mere 0.5 percent from a year earlier. After inflation, workers were actually making less.

On the flip side, some chief executives have consistently taken token salaries — sometimes, $1 — choosing instead to rely on their ownership stakes for wealth. These stock riches don’t show up on the current pay lists, but they can be huge.

Warren E. Buffett, for instance, saw his stock holdings rise last year by 16 percent, to $46 billion. Other longtime chief executives or founders who are sitting on billions of paper profits include Jeffrey P. Bezos of Amazon.com and Michael S. Dell, the founder of Dell.

Resurgent executive pay has some corporate watchdogs worried that companies have already forgotten the lessons of the bust. Boards have promised to tie executive pay to company success, but by some measures pay is rising faster than performance. The median pay raise for chief executives last year — 23 percent — was roughly in line with the increase in net corporate profits. But it far exceeded the median gain in shareholders’ total return, which was 16 percent, as well as the median gain in revenue, which was 7 percent.

FOR the moment, shareholders aren’t storming executive suites. And while they received a say on pay under new federal rules last year, their votes are nonbinding. In other words, boards can still do as they please.

Pay specialists say companies are taking a hard look at these votes. Still, only about 1.5 percent of the 200 companies in the Equilar study were rebuffed by their shareholders on pay. A vast majority of the votes passed overwhelmingly, with 80 percent or 90 percent support, according to Mr. Boyd of Equilar.

Mr. Boyd says companies are making an effort to explain their pay plans. “We saw companies take it very seriously,” he says of the new rule.

In some respects, the mere possibility that shareholders might reject a proposed pay plan is enough to make corporate executives think again. Ms. Bowie of ISS says that outrageous payouts — such as so-called tax gross-ups, in which companies cover executives’ tax bills on perks like corporate jets — are becoming rarer.

Disney for instance, eliminated tax gross-ups this year in the face of shareholder ire, she said.

Company directors have the power to rein in runaway executive pay, but it is unclear whether either they or shareholders will do so in 2012. “It can be done if there is the will,” Ms. Bowie says.

By: Pradnya Joshi, The New York Times, July 2, 2011

July 4, 2011 Posted by | Big Business, Class Warfare, Congress, Conservatives, Consumers, Corporations, Democracy, Economic Recovery, Economy, Equal Rights, GOP, Media, Middle Class, Minimum Wage, Politics, Republicans, Tax Loopholes, Taxes, Unemployed, Unemployment, Wall Street, Wealthy | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

GOP And Media Alert: Vouchercare Is Not Medicare

What’s in a name? A lot, the National Republican Congressional Committee obviously believes. Last week, the committee sent a letter demanding that a TV station stop running an ad declaring that the House Republican budget plan would “end Medicare.” This, the letter insisted, was a false claim: the plan would simply install a “new, sustainable version of Medicare.”

But Comcast, the station’s owner, rejected the demand — and rightly so. For Republicans are indeed seeking to dismantle Medicare as we know it, replacing it with a much worse program.

I’m seeing many attempts to shout down anyone making this obvious point, and not just from Republican politicians. For some reason, many commentators seem to believe that accurately describing what the G.O.P. is actually proposing amounts to demagoguery. But there’s nothing demagogic about telling the truth.

Start with the claim that the G.O.P. plan simply reforms Medicare rather than ending it. I’ll just quote the blogger Duncan Black, who summarizes this as saying that “when we replace the Marines with a pizza, we’ll call the pizza the Marines.” The point is that you can name the new program Medicare, but it’s an entirely different program — call it Vouchercare — that would offer nothing like the coverage that the elderly now receive. (Republicans get huffy when you call their plan a voucher scheme, but that’s exactly what it is.)

Medicare is a government-run insurance system that directly pays health-care providers. Vouchercare would cut checks to insurance companies instead. Specifically, the program would pay a fixed amount toward private health insurance — higher for the poor, lower for the rich, but not varying at all with the actual level of premiums. If you couldn’t afford a policy adequate for your needs, even with the voucher, that would be your problem.

And most seniors wouldn’t be able to afford adequate coverage. A Congressional Budget Office analysis found that to get coverage equivalent to what they have now, older Americans would have to pay vastly more out of pocket under the Paul Ryan plan than they would if Medicare as we know it was preserved. Based on the budget office estimates, the typical senior would end up paying around $6,000 more out of pocket in the plan’s first year of operation.

By the way, defenders of the G.O.P. plan often assert that it resembles other, less unpopular programs. For a while they claimed, falsely, that Vouchercare would be just like the coverage federal employees get. More recently, I’ve been seeing claims that Vouchercare would be just like the system created for Americans under 65 by last year’s health care reform — a fairly remarkable defense from a party that has denounced that reform as evil incarnate.

So let me make two points. First, Obamacare was very much a second-best plan, conditioned by perceived political realities. Most of the health reformers I know would have greatly preferred simply expanding Medicare to cover all Americans. Second, the Affordable Care Act is all about making health care, well, affordable, offering subsidies whose size is determined by the need to limit the share of their income that families spend on medical costs. Vouchercare, by contrast, would simply hand out vouchers of a fixed size, regardless of the actual cost of insurance. And these vouchers would be grossly inadequate.

But what about the claim that none of this matters, because Medicare as we know it is unsustainable? Nonsense.

Yes, Medicare has to get serious about cost control; it has to start saying no to expensive procedures with little or no medical benefits, it has to change the way it pays doctors and hospitals, and so on. And a number of reforms of that kind are, in fact, included in the Affordable Care Act. But with these changes it should be entirely possible to maintain a system that provides all older Americans with guaranteed essential health care.

Consider Canada, which has a national health insurance program, actually called Medicare, that is similar to the program we have for the elderly, but less open-ended and more cost-conscious. In 1970, Canada and the United States both spent about 7 percent of their G.D.P. on health care. Since then, as United States health spending has soared to 16 percent of G.D.P., Canadian spending has risen much more modestly, to only 10.5 percent of G.D.P. And while Canadian health care isn’t perfect, it’s not bad.

Canadian Medicare, then, looks sustainable; why can’t we do the same thing here? Well, you know the answer in the case of the Republicans: They don’t want to make Medicare sustainable, they want to destroy it under the guise of saving it.

So in voting for the House budget plan, Republicans voted to end Medicare. Saying that isn’t demagoguery, it’s just pointing out the truth.

By: Paul Krugman, Op-Ed Columnist, The New York Times, June 5, 2011

June 6, 2011 Posted by | Affordable Care Act, Budget, Conservatives, Consumers, Elections, GOP, Government, Health Care Costs, Health Reform, Ideologues, Ideology, Journalists, Lawmakers, Media, Medicare, Politics, Pundits, Republicans, Right Wing, Seniors, Under Insured, Uninsured, Voters | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Republican Supreme Court Sticks It To The Little Guy (Again)

Once again the United States Supreme Court under Chief Justice John Roberts has shown the nation it will always favor corporations over people even if it means conjuring new law out of thin air.  Like Citizens United, the recent 5-4 ruling in AT&T’s favor gutting the power of consumers to file class-action lawsuits against giant corporations tips the scales of justice against the people and renders the enormous power of corporations even more enormous.

When I first heard about the case, AT&T Mobility v. Concepcion there was little doubt in my mind that the Gang of Five — John Roberts, Antonin Scalia, Samuel Alito, Anthony Kennedy, and Clarence Thomas would figure out a way to ignore Supreme Court precedent and again apply their judicial activism in service to the corporations, and by extension, to the oligarchy they apparently believe the “founders” intended.

It’s kind of funny when we see Republican presidential candidates like Mitt Romeny, Tim Pawlenty, and Newt Gingrich pandering to the “little guy” denouncing “elites” who are trampling on their rights only to remain mute on the fact that their beloved Republican Supreme Court never, ever rules in favor of the “little guy.”

The Republican president Ronald Reagan gave us Scalia and Kennedy; the Republican president George Herbert Walker Bush gave us Thomas; and the Republican president George W. Bush gave us Roberts and Alito.  This cabal has shown over and over again where its true loyalties lie, not to “the law,” not to “the Constitution,” not to “calling balls and strikes,” but to a 21st century version of corporate feudalism.  This new corporate feudalism that the High Court is determined to thrust on the nation is even more exploitative than the earlier brand of Medieval feudalism because it is absent noblesse oblige.

The serfs toiling on the corporate plantation can only continue to pay Chase and Bank of America for their underwater mortgages, ExxonMobil and Chevron for their $4 a gallon gas, and AT&T, Comcast, T-Mobile and the rest for the privilege of communicating in a modern society.  And if the serfs seek redress the High Court will slap them down before they can get anything substantial off the ground.  With Citizens United placing a stranglehold of corporate power over our state, local, and federal system of elections, we cannot turn to our political “leaders” for redress, we can’t turn to the courts, and we certainly can’t turn to trying to morally persuade sociopathic non-human entities called corporations — so where does that leave us?

In the current context of unrestrained corporate dominance it’s unconscionable that the Obama administration has not done more to blunt its disastrous effects.  The Justice and Treasury Departments, the Securities and Exchange Commission, the Internal Revenue Service, etc. could be doing a hell of a lot more in bringing balance to the equation of corporations versus people.  The administration’s lagging performance in holding Wall Street accountable is well known, but it won’t even lift a finger to block grotesque mergers like the one between Comcast and NBC Universal, and AT&T and T Mobile.  In all these mergers and acquisitions it’s always the consumers and the employees who lose, while the CEOs and a select few of shareholders and financiers make out like the bandits they are.

Nothing illustrates the corruption rampant in Washington more than the recent resignation of Federal Communications Commission member, Meredith Attwell Baker, a Republican who Obama appointed to show how “bipartisan” he can be, who is now going to work as a lavishly paid shill for the very industry she was supposedly “regulating.”  Ms. Baker will now make the big bucks serving Comcast/NBC Universal after she voted for the merger of Comcast and NBC Universal.  Sweet.   And few in the Beltway see anything unsavory about it.

Our political leaders, our Supreme Court, our captains of industry and finance, are so out of touch it’s going to be a long, long time before ordinary working people see any relief.  All of our institutions, political, economic, even religious, social, and cultural, all of them, are failing the people miserably in pursuit of the Almighty Buck.  The cunning game of appointing young ideologues to the bench has paid off handsomely for the corporate power structure.  Someone should tell those people running around in tri-cornered hats and talking about the “founders” that it might be wise to save an ounce of their collective wrath for the Republicans who have appointed five Justices who are trampling on individual freedoms in service of corporations.

By: Joseph A. Palermo, The Huffington Post, May 15, 2011

May 15, 2011 Posted by | Big Business, Businesses, Congress, Consumers, Corporations, Elections, Justice Department, Lawmakers, Politics, Regulations, Supreme Court | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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