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“Calling In Their Chips”: Americans For Prosperity Announces Legislative Agenda, Mirrors Koch Industries’ Corporate Wishlist

Americans for Prosperity, the grassroots organizing group founded by billionaire industrialists Charles and David Koch, spent $125 million in the midterm elections last year. Now, they’re calling in their chips.

At the National Press Club yesterday, AFP president Tim Phillips and several officers with the group laid out their agenda. The group is calling for legalizing crude oil exports, a repeal of the estate tax, approval of the Keystone XL pipeline, blocking any hike in the gas tax, a tax holiday on corporate profits earned overseas, blocking the EPA’s new rules on carbon emissions from coal-burning power plants, and a repeal of the Affordable Care Act, along with a specific focus on the medical device tax.

The announcement was touted by NPR as a “conservative agenda for Congress.” But it’s also a near-mirror image of Koch Industries’ lobbying agenda. Koch Industries — the petrochemical, manufacturing and commodity speculating conglomerate owned by David and Charles — is not only a financier of political campaigns, but leads one of the most active lobbying teams in Washington, a big part of why the company has been such a financial success.

Koch Industries transports both crude oil and coal, making the AFP’s work to legalize crude oil exports and to block the EPA from rules that would diminish the coal market in the U.S. particularly important to Koch Industries’ bottom line. As multiple news outlets have reported, Koch also owns a substantial stake of Canadian tar sands, positioning the company to benefit from approval of the Keystone XL pipeline. Indeed, on EPA and other issues, Koch Industries’ lobbying office in D.C. has instructed its influence peddlers to work many of the same issues as AFP.

And what makes the AFP agenda almost a self-parody is its focus on the estate tax, which it called the “death tax” during the press event yesterday. In reality, this tax only affects the wealthiest 0.15 percent of Americans because only those who stand to inherit from family members with $5.43 million in wealth are impacted. Couple this with AFP’s focus on a corporate overseas tax holiday, again only an issue that impacts wealthy global companies, and AFP’s purported goal of helping regular Americans loses all credibility.

Charles Koch has made headlines in recent weeks over his claim that he will devote significant energy to criminal justice reform. But curiously, no issues relating to such reforms — even though over-prosecution of petty crimes and abuses such as asset forfeiture clearly fall under the umbrella of economic concerns AFP purports to champion — will be addressed by Charles Koch’s marquee advocacy group, AFP. The issues that are part and parcel of Koch’s bottom line, however, appear to take priority.

 

By: Lee Fang, Republic Report, January 19, 2015

January 20, 2015 Posted by | Americans for Prosperity, Congress, Koch Brothers | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“America’s Rich Hit The Jackpot”: The Year of the Great Redistribution

One of the worst epithets that can be leveled at a politician these days is to call him a “redistributionist.” Yet 2013 marked one of the biggest redistributions in recent American history. It was a redistribution upward, from average working people to the owners of America.

The stock market ended 2013 at an all-time high — giving stockholders their biggest annual gain in almost two decades. Most Americans didn’t share in those gains, however, because most people haven’t been able to save enough to invest in the stock market. More than two-thirds of Americans live from paycheck to paycheck.

Even if you include the value of IRA’s, most shares of stock are owned by the very wealthy. The richest 1 percent of Americans owns 35 percent of the value of American-owned shares. The richest 10 percent owns over 80 percent. So in the bull market of 2013, America’s rich hit the jackpot.

What does this have to do with redistribution? Some might argue the stock market is just a giant casino. Since it’s owned mostly by the wealthy, a rise in stock prices simply reflects a transfer of wealth from some of the rich (who cashed in their shares too early) to others of the rich (who bought shares early enough and held on to them long enough to reap the big gains).

But this neglects the fact that stock prices track corporate profits. The relationship isn’t exact, and price-earnings ratios move up and down in the short term. Yet over the slightly longer term, share prices do correlate with profits. And 2013 was a banner year for profits.

Where did those profits come from? Here’s where redistribution comes in. American corporations didn’t make most of their money from increased sales (although their foreign sales did increase). They made their big bucks mostly by reducing their costs — especially their biggest single cost: wages.

They push wages down because most workers no longer have any bargaining power when it comes to determining pay. The continuing high rate of unemployment — including a record number of long-term jobless, and a large number who have given up looking for work altogether — has allowed employers to set the terms.

For years, the bargaining power of American workers has also been eroding due to ever-more efficient means of outsourcing abroad, new computer software that can replace almost any routine job, and an ongoing shift of full-time to part-time and contract work. And unions have been decimated. In the 1950s, over a third of private-sector workers were members of labor unions. Now, fewer than 7 percent are unionized.

All this helps explain why corporate profits have been increasing throughout this recovery (they grew over 18 percent in 2013 alone) while wages have been dropping. Corporate earnings now represent the largest share of the gross domestic product — and wages the smallest share of GDP — than at any time since records have been kept.

Hence, the Great Redistribution.

Some might say this doesn’t really amount to a “redistribution” as we normally define that term, because government isn’t redistributing anything. By this view, the declining wages, higher profits, and the surging bull market simply reflect the workings of the free market.

But this overlooks the fact that government sets the rules of the game. Federal and state budgets have been cut, for example — thereby reducing overall demand and keeping unemployment higher than otherwise. Congress has repeatedly rejected tax incentives designed to encourage more hiring. States have adopted “right-to-work” laws that undercut unions. And so on.

If all this weren’t enough, the tax system is rigged in favor of the owners of wealth, and against people whose income comes from wages. Wealth is taxed at a lower rate than labor.

Capital gains, dividends, and debt all get favorable treatment in the tax code – which is why Mitt Romney, Warren Buffet, and other billionaires and multimillionaires continue to pay around 12 percent of their income in taxes each year, while most of the rest of us pay at least twice that rate.

Among the biggest winners are top executives and Wall Street traders whose year-end bonuses are tied to the stock market, and hedge-fund and private-equity managers whose special “carried interest” tax loophole allows their income to be treated as capital gains. The wild bull market of 2013 has given them all fabulous after-tax windfalls.

America has been redistributing upward for some time – after all, “trickle-down” economics turned out to be trickle up — but we outdid ourselves in 2013. At a time of record inequality and decreasing mobility, America conducted a Great Redistribution upward.

 

By: Robert Reich, The Robert Reich Blog, January 4, 2014

January 6, 2014 Posted by | Economic Inequality | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“A Very Cynical Strategy”: Having Never Tried, Republicans Want Jobs To Stay Anemic

Job-growth is sputtering. So why, exactly, do regressive Republicans continue to say “no” to every idea for boosting it — even last week’s almost absurdly modest proposal by President Obama to combine corporate tax cuts with increased in spending on roads and other public works?

It can’t be because Republicans don’t know what’s happening. The data are indisputable. July’s job growth of 162,000 jobs was the weakest in four months. The average workweek was the shortest in six months. The Bureau of Labor Statistics has also lowered its estimates of hiring during May and June.

It can’t be Republicans really believe further spending cuts will help. They’ve seen the effects of austerity economics on Europe. They know the study they relied on by Carmen Reinhart and Kenneth Rogoff has been debunked. They’re no longer even trying to make the case for austerity.

It could be they just want to continue opposing anything Obama proposes, but that’s beginning to seem like a stretch. Republican leaders and aspiring 2016 presidential candidates are warning against being the “party of ‘no.’” Public support for the GOP continues to plummet.

The real answer, I think, is they and their patrons want unemployment to remain high and job-growth to sputter. Why? Three reasons:

First, high unemployment keeps wages down. Workers who are worried about losing their jobs settle for whatever they can get — which is why hourly earnings keep dropping. The median wage is now 4 percent lower than it was at the start of the recovery. Low wages help boost corporate profits, thereby keeping the regressives’ corporate sponsors happy.

Second, high unemployment fuels the bull market on Wall Street. That’s because the Fed is committed to buying long-term bonds as long as unemployment remains high. This keeps bond yields low and pushes investors into equities — which helps boosts executive pay and Wall Street commissions, thereby keeping regressives’ financial sponsors happy.

Third, high unemployment keeps most Americans economically fearful and financially insecure. This sets them up to believe regressive lies — that their biggest worry should be that “big government” will tax away the little they have and give it to “undeserving” minorities; that they should support low taxes on corporations and wealthy “job creators;” and that new immigrants threaten their jobs.

It’s important for Obama and the Democrats to recognize this cynical strategy for what it is, and help the rest of America to see it.

And to counter with three basic truths:

First, the real job creators are consumers, and that if average people don’t have jobs or good wages this economy can’t have a vigorous recovery.

Second, the rich would do better with a smaller share of a rapidly-growing economy than their current big share of an economy that’s hardly moving.

Third, that therefore everyone would benefit from higher taxes on the wealthy to finance public investments in roads, bridges, public transit, better schools, affordable higher education, and healthcare — all of which will help the middle class and the poor, and generate more and better jobs.

By: Robert Reich, Robert Reich Blog, August 3, 2013

August 5, 2013 Posted by | Jobs, Republicans | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Holding Corporate Monarch’s Accountable”: Steering America Toward A More Secure Retirement

To the let’s-cut-entitlements crowd, what’s wrong with America is that seniors are living too high off the hog. With the cost of medical care still rising (though not as fast as it used to), the government is shelling out many more dollars per geezer (DPG) than it is per youngster (DPY). The solution, we’re told, is to bring down DPG so we can boost DPY.

We do indeed need to boost DPY. And we need to rein in medical costs by shifting away from the fee-for-service model of billing and paying. But as for changing the way we calculate cost-of-living adjustments for seniors to keep us from overpaying them — an idea beloved of Bowles, Simpson, Republicans and, apparently, the White House — this may not be such a hot idea, for one simple reason: An increasing number of seniors can’t afford to retire.

Nearly one in five Americans age 65 and over — 18.5 percent — were working in 2012, and that percentage has been rising steadily for nearly 30 years. In 1985, only 10.8 percent of Americans 65 and older were still on the job, and in 1995, that figure was 12.1 percent.

Both good news and bad news have contributed to this increase. The good news is that more seniors both can and want to work than in years past, as health care and medical science have extended their capabilities, and as the share of Americans in desk jobs has increased while the number on the factory floor has shrunk. A 2011 survey by the Society of Actuaries reported that 55 percent of working seniors said they had stayed employed because they wanted to stay active and involved. But the same survey showed that 51 percent were working because they needed the money.

What advocates for reducing Social Security adjustments fail to consider is that corporate America’s shift away from defined-benefit pensions to defined-contribution 401(k) plans — or to no retirement plans at all — has diminished seniors’ non-Social Security income and made the very idea of retirement a far more risky prospect. Today, more than half of U.S. workers have no workplace retirement plan. Of those who do, just 35 percent still have defined-benefit pensions. In 1975, 88 percent of workers with workplace retirement plans had defined-benefit pensions.

The shift from traditional pensions to 401(k)s is one of the main reasons most seniors aren’t able to set aside enough income to guarantee a secure retirement. A 2010 survey by the Federal Reserve found that the median amount saved through 401(k)s by households approaching retirement was $100,000 — not nearly enough to support those households through retirement years, as seniors’ life expectancy increases. And as most Americans’ wages continue to stagnate or decline, their ability to direct more of their income to 401(k)s diminishes even more.

With the eclipse of the defined-benefit pension, Social Security assumes an even greater role in the well-being of American seniors. But advocates of entitlement cuts don’t even discuss the waning of other forms of retirement security: Listening to Alan Simpson, you’d never know that America’s elderly aren’t getting the monthly pension checks their parents got.

And it’s not as if those employers are suffering. Just as U.S. businesses have been able to raise the share of corporate profits to a half-century high by reducing the share of their workers’ wages to a half-century low, so, too, their ability to reduce pension payments has contributed not just to their profits but also to the $1.7 trillion in cash on which they are currently sitting.

So here’s a modest plan to enable seniors to retire when they wish, rather than having to work into their 70s and even beyond: Require employers to put a small percentage of their revenue, and a small percentage of their workers’ wages, into a private, portable, defined-benefit pension plan. To offset the increased costs, transfer the costs of paying for workers’ health care from employers and employees to the government, and pay for the increased costs to the government with the kind of value-added tax that most European nations levy. (The tax burden is higher in Europe, but because the level of benefits is higher as well, the tax has wide public support.)

The odds of such a plan being enacted today, of course, are nil. (Then again, the odds of any bill getting through Congress these days are close to nil.) But until we compensate for, or reverse, the abdication of corporate America from any major role in providing its workers with retirement security, we should lay off monkeying with Social Security to reduce the program’s future payments. As for all those cash-drenched chief executives who proclaim that we must cut entitlements, how about they make up the difference by restoring the pensions their companies slashed?

 

By: Harold Meyerson Opinion Writer, The Washington Post, March 6, 2013

March 9, 2013 Posted by | Seniors, Social Security | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Corporate Dysmorphia: Why “Business Needs Certainty” Is Destructive

If you read the business and even the political press, you’ve doubtless encountered the claim that the economy is a mess because the threat to reregulate in the wake of a global-economy-wrecking financial crisis is creating “uncertainty.” That is touted as the reason why corporations are sitting on their hands and not doing much in the way of hiring and investing.

This is propaganda that needs to be laughed out of the room.

I approach this issue as as a business practitioner. I have spent decades advising major financial institutions, private equity and hedge funds, and very wealthy individuals (Forbes 400 level) on enterprises they own. I’ve run a profit center in a major financial firm and have have also operated a consulting business for over 20 years. So I’ve had extensive exposure to the dysfunction I am about to describe.

Commerce is all about making decisions and committing resources with the hope of earning profit when the managers cannot know the future. “Uncertainty” is used casually by the media, but when trying to confront the vagaries of what might happen, analysts distinguish risk from “uncertainty”, which for them has a very specific meaning. “Risk” is what Donald Rumsfeld characterized as a known unknown. You can still estimate the range of likely outcomes and make a good stab at estimating probabilities within that range. For instance, if you open an ice cream store in a resort area, you can make a very good estimate of what the fixed costs and the margins on sales will be. It is much harder to predict how much ice cream you will actually sell. That is turn depends largely on foot traffic which in turn is largely a function of the weather (and you can look at past weather patterns to get a rough idea) and how many people visit that town (which is likely a function of the economy and how that particular resort area does in a weak economy).

Uncertainty, by contrast, is unknown unknowns. It is the sort of risk you can’t estimate in advance. So businesses also have to be good at adapting when Shit Happens. Sometimes that Shit Happening can be favorable, but they still need to be able to exploit opportunities (like an exceptionally hot summer producing off the charts demand for ice cream) or disaster (like the Fukushima meltdown disrupting global supply chains). That implies having some slack or extra resources at your disposal, or being able to get ready access to them at not too catastrophic a cost.

So why aren’t businesses investing or hiring? “Uncertainty” as far as regulations are concerned is not a major driver. Surveys show that the “uncertainty” bandied about in the press really translates into “the economy stinks, I’m not in a business that benefits from a bad economy, and I’m not going to take a chance when I have no idea when things might turn around.”

The “certainty” they are looking for is concrete evidence that prevailing conditions have really turned. But with so many people unemployed, growth flagging in advanced economies, China and other emerging economies putting on the brake as their inflation rates become too high, and a very real risk of another financial crisis kicking off in the Eurozone, there isn’t any reason to hope for things to magically get better on their own any time soon. In fact, if you look at the discussion above, we actually have a very high degree of certainty, just of the wrong sort, namely that growth will low to negative for easily the next two years, and quite possibly for a Japan-style extended period.

So why this finger pointing at intrusive regulations, particularly since they are mysteriously absent? For instance, Dodd Frank is being water down in the process of detailed rulemaking, and the famed Obamacare actually enriches Big Pharma and the health insurers.

The problem with the “blame the government” canard is that it does not stand up to scrutiny. The pattern businesses are trying to blame on the authorities, that they aren’t hiring and investing due to intrusive interference, was in fact deeply entrenched before the crisis and was rampant during the corporate friendly Bush era. I wrote about it back in 2005 for the Conference Board’s magazine.

In simple form, this pattern resulted from the toxic combination of short-termism among investors and an irrational focus on unaudited corporate quarterly earnings announcements and stock-price-related executive pay, which became a fixture in the early 1990s. I called the pattern “corporate dysmorphia”, since like body builders preparing for contests, major corporations go to unnatural extremes to make themselves look good for their quarterly announcements.

An extract from the article:

Corporations deeply and sincerely embrace practices that, like the use of steroids, pump up their performance at the expense of their well-being…

Despite the cliché “employees are our most important asset,” many companies are doing everything in their power to live without them, and to pay the ones they have minimally. This practice may sound like prudent business, but in fact it is a reversal of the insight by Henry Ford that built the middle class and set the foundation for America’s prosperity in the twentieth century: that by paying workers well, companies created a virtuous circle, since better-paid staff would consume more goods, enabling companies to hire yet more worker/consumers.

Instead, the Wal-Mart logic increasingly prevails: Pay workers as little as they will accept, skimp on benefits, and wring as much production out of them as possible (sometimes illegally, such as having them clock out and work unpaid hours). The argument is that this pattern is good for the laboring classes, since Wal-Mart can sell goods at lower prices, providing savings to lower-income consumers like, for instance, its employees. The logic is specious: Wal-Mart’s workers spend most of their income on goods and services they can’t buy at Wal-Mart, such as housing, health care, transportation, and gas, so whatever gains they recoup from Wal-Mart’s low prices are more than offset by the rock-bottom pay.

Defenders may argue that in a global economy, Americans must accept competitive (read: lower) wages. But critics such as William Greider and Thomas Frank argue that America has become hostage to a free-trade ideology, while its trading partners have chosen to operate under systems of managed trade. There’s little question that other advanced economies do a better job of both protecting their labor markets and producing a better balance of trade—in most cases, a surplus.

The dangers of the U.S. approach are systemic. Real wages have been stagnant since the mid-1970s, but consumer spending keeps climbing. As of June, household savings were .02 percent of income (note the placement of the decimal point), and Americans are carrying historically high levels of debt. According to the Federal Reserve, consumer debt service is 13 percent of income. The Economist noted, “Household savings have dwindled to negligible levels as Americans have run down assets and taken on debt to keep the spending binge going.” As with their employers, consumers are keeping up the appearance of wealth while their personal financial health decays.

Part of the problem is that companies have not recycled the fruits of their growth back to their workers as they did in the past. In all previous postwar economic recoveries, the lion’s share of the increase in national income went to labor compensation (meaning increases in hiring, wages, and benefits) rather than corporate profits, according to the National Bureau of Economic Analysis. In the current upturn, not only is the proportion going to workers far lower than ever before—it is the first time that the share of GDP growth going to corporate coffers has exceeded the labor share.

And businesses weren’t using their high profits to invest either:

Companies typically invest in times like these, when profits are high and interest rates low. Yet a recent JP Morgan report notes that, since 2002, American companies have incurred an average net financial surplus of 1.7 percent of GDP, which contrasts with an average deficit of 1.2 percent of GDP for the preceding forty years. While firms in aggregate have occasionally run a surplus, “. . . the recent level of saving by corporates is unprecedented. . . .It is important to stress that the present situation is in some sense unnatural. A more normal situation would be for the global corporate sector—in both the G6 and emerging economies—to be borrowing, and for households in the G6 economies to be saving more, ahead of the deterioration in demographics.”

The problem is that the “certainty” language reveals what the real game is, which is certainty in top executive pay at the expense of the health of the enterprise, and ultimately, the economy as a whole. Cutting costs is as easy way to produce profits, since the certainty of a good return on your “investment” is high. By contrast, doing what capitalists of legend are supposed to do, find ways to serve customer better by producing better or novel products, is much harder and involves taking real chances and dealing with very real odds of disappointing results. Even though we like to celebrate Apple, all too many companies have shunned that path of finding other easier ways to burnish their bottom lines. and it has become even more extreme. Companies have managed to achieve record profits in a verging-on-recession setting.

Indeed, the bigger problem they face is that they have played their cost-focused business paradigm out. You can’t grow an economy on cost cutting unless you have offsetting factors in play, such as an export led growth strategy, or an ever rising fiscal deficit, or a falling household saving rate that has not yet reached zero, or some basis for an investment spending boom. But if you go down the list, and check off each item for the US, you will see they have exhausted the possibilities. The only one that could in theory operate is having consumers go back on a borrowing spree. But with unemployment as high as it is and many families desperately trying to recover from losses in the biggest item on their personal balance sheet, their home, that seems highly unlikely. Game over for the cost cutting strategy.

And contrary to their assertions, just as they’ve managed to pursue self-limiting, risk avoidant corporate strategies on a large scale, so too have they sought to use government and regulation to shield themselves from risk.

Businesses have had at least 25 to 30 years near complete certainty — certainty that they will pay lower and lower taxes, that they’ will face less and less regulation, that they can outsource to their hearts’ content (which when it does produce savings, comes at a loss of control, increased business system rigidity, and loss of critical know how). They have also been certain that unions will be weak to powerless, that states and municipalities will give them huge subsidies to relocate, that boards of directors will put top executives on the up escalator for more and more compensation because director pay benefits from this cozy collusion, that the financial markets will always look to short term earnings no matter how dodgy the accounting, that the accounting firms will provide plenty of cover, that the SEC will never investigate anything more serious than insider trading (Enron being the exception that proved the rule).

So this haranguing about certainty simply reveals how warped big commerce has become in the US. Top management of supposedly capitalist enterprises want a high degree of certainty in their own profits and pay. Rather than earn their returns the old fashioned way, by serving customers well, by innovating, by expanding into new markets, their ‘certainty’ amounts to being paid handsomely for doing things that carry no risk. But since risk and uncertainty are inherent to the human condition, what they instead have engaged in is a massive scheme of risk transfer, of increasing rewards to themselves to the long term detriment of their enterprises and ultimately society as a whole.

 

By: Yves Smith, Salon, August 14, 2011

August 15, 2011 Posted by | Big Business, Big Pharma, Businesses, Class Warfare, Congress, Conservatives, Consumers, Corporations, Economic Recovery, Economy, Financial Institutions, Financial Reform, GOP, Government, Health Reform, Ideologues, Ideology, Income Gap, Jobs, Labor, Lawmakers, Media, Middle Class, Minimum Wage, Politics, Press, Public, Pundits, Regulations, Republicans, Right Wing, Unemployed, Unemployment, Wall Street, Walmart, Wealthy | , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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