Category Archives: Economics

The Presidentials

I try to ignore politics now that it’s so controlled by rich people that we no longer operate under a representative form of government here in the United States. However, citizens lucky enough to qualify for voting licenses still are allowed to cast token ballots for the opportunity to choose between two people that the very rich have decreed acceptable as President.

Therefore I have found myself peeking at the debates, political reporting and other associated fol-de-rol, in order to better acquaint myself with those the super rich apparently believe could provide the kind of dynamic, brilliant leadership this country they so desperately needs.

This is what I discovered:

presidentials.jpg

As you may know, in addition to presiding over a myriad of national problems ranging from immigration to the economy to gun and police violence, the President of the United States must confront some of the most fearsome and difficult global situations you can imagine, and many that you cannot. This includes fingers hovering over buttons that, if pushed, would unleash nuclear fury upon the planet, or missile-armed predator drones upon whomever he or she deems sufficiently worthy of extinction on a given day. This is serious stuff of the highest order, requiring among many other attributes steady nerves, a keen mind and great insight into the workings of domestic and international cultures, laws, customs and histories.

Given the above, I initially found it amazing (with one or two exceptions) that any among the billionaire class would give their blessings (and seven-figure “contributions”) to any among this load of Presidentials.

Among the Republican candidates, there isn’t one who can win both the GOP primary and the general election. With the possible exception of Ohio Gov. John Kasich, the rest all either are or are pretending to be far right Taliban Tea Party apostles in order to appeal to the old, white, Hispanic-hating, gay-bashing evangelical bullies that make up the most reliable voting bloc in the early primaries. But that bloc only makes up at most a 20% slice of the general election vote.

Among the Democratic candidates, the chair of the national party has hijacked the rules and set up the Democratic debate schedule so that candidates less well-known than Hillary Clinton will not have enough face time to become acquainted with prospective voters. In other words, the rules have been rigged to assure that Clinton is the party nominee.

What this all means is that, like it or not, Hillary Clinton is extremely likely to become the next president.

The Republicans already have done almost everything they can to sink her – for instance, Benghazi “investigations” that have dragged on interminably without producing even the hint of anything that could be called a smoking gun. The private email server Clinton used shows she instinctively rejects public transparency. Unfortunately for the Republicans, Jeb Bush has done the same thing, as have, no doubt, others in both parties.

To me, Hillary Clinton’s biggest sin by far is the Clinton Foundation, and it’s potential as a series of pay-for-play schemes. Why the Republicans aren’t hammering on this I cannot fathom – unless they’re holding back to use it as a weapon in the general election.

But I seriously doubt that will be enough to derail Clinton. Because the GOP Presidentials are all loaded down with worse baggage:

The Donald1. Donald Trump – Here’s a guy who brags that he is so rich he doesn’t want or need contributions from anyone else, and thus won’t be beholden to anyone else. Sure.

In reality, he has a billionaire sugar daddy, the same one Trump says would become his treasury secretary – Carl Icahn. Icahn is starting a so-called Super-PAC with $150 million of his own money. Watch as he raises many millions more from his billionaire buddies and then uses the Free Speech Dollars to try to ram Donald Trump through the front White House door.

Often referred to in the press these days as an “activist shareholder” instead of his past label of “corporate raider,” Icahn has probably destroyed more American jobs over the past 20 years than any single phenomenon short of the 2008 Great Recession. If Trump/Icahn gain the executive office, watch them grab the U.S. by its figurative ankles and shake the gold out of the Treasury. Once this scheme becomes apparent, I think the Trump will be Dumped, if not before.

Trump Presidential Quotes:

→ “I think that I would be a great uniter. I think that I would have great diplomatic skills. I think that I would be able to get along with people very well. I’ve had a great success in my life. I think the world would unite if I were the leader of the United States.”

→ “When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best. They’re not sending you. They’re not sending you. They’re sending people that have lots of problems, and they’re bringing those problems with them. They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists. And some, I assume, are good people. But I speak to border guards and they tell us what we’re getting. And it only makes common sense. It only makes common sense. They’re sending us not the right people.”

→ “You can be politically correct if you want, but are you trying to say we don’t have a problem? Most Muslims, like most everything, I mean, these are fabulous people, but we certainly do have a problem. I mean, you have a problem throughout the world. It wasn’t people from Sweden that blew up the World Trade Center.”

→ “The line of ‘Make America great again,’ the phrase, that was mine, I came up with it about a year ago, and I kept using it, and everybody’s now using it, they are all loving it. I don’t know, I guess I should copyright it. Maybe I have copyrighted it.”

Other Trump Presidential Qualifications:

→ Trump casino-owning corporations filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy four times between 1991 and 2009, costing vendors and contractors and employees and investors and bankers millions of dollars that Trump and his corporate officers promised they would pay.

Dr. Ben2. Dr. Ben Carson is a retired and renowned brain surgeon and 7th Day Adventist religious zealot who became a political commentator for Fox News and the Washington Times and later came to the conclution that God intends that he run for president, although it’s not clear if He intends for Carson to win.

“It certainly was not my intention to go into the political field. But after the prayer breakfast in 2013, there were so many people clamoring for me to do it,” he told Time Magazine. “I said, Lord you know I don’t want to do this, but if you open the doors I’ll do it…I certainly wouldn’t want to do something like this if I didn’t feel that the Lord was behind it.”

So far, the Lord has helped Ben Carson to an almost neck-and-neck spot in the GOP polls with Donald Trump. Yet when Carson chooses to open his mouth in public, you are left wondering how a human can gain so much knowledge in a specialized area such as brain surgery and yet exhibit such a dearth of same almost everywhere else.

Carson’s latest pronouncement, which has gotten very little media play and thus not entered the consciousness of many of his senior citizen followers, is that he wants to completely do away with Medicare and Medicaid, and replace them with health care savings accounts funded with $2,000 per person per year government contributions. I can attest that $2,000 doesn’t buy you a whole lot of health care, and I can also attest that there are almost 50 million elderly Americans on Medicare. This policy position alone will sink the doctor like a very big stone.

Carson Presidential Quotes:

→ “If there had been no gun control laws in Europe at that time, would 6 million Jews have been slaughtered? I think the likelihood of Hitler being able to accomplish his goals would have been greatly diminished if the people had been armed. I’m telling you that there is a reason that these dictatorial people take the guns first.”

→ “A lot of people who go into prison go into prison straight – and when they come out, they’re gay. So, did something happen while they were in there? Ask yourself that question.”

→ “You know, Obamacare is really, I think, the worst thing that has happened in this nation since slavery. And it is in a way, it is slavery in a way, because it is making all of us subservient to the government, and it was never about health care. It was about control.”

→ “I have had a gun held on me when I was in a Popeye’s organization. Guy comes in, put the gun in my ribs. And I just said, ‘I believe that you want the guy behind the counter.’”

Carson Presidential Qualifications:

→ Here’s an excerpt from an interview demonstrating Ben Carson’s knowledge of the federal budget and the federal debt ceiling:

Ryssdal: All right, so let’s talk about debt then and the budget. As you know, Treasury Secretary Lew has come out in the last couple of days and said, “We’re gonna run out of money, we’re gonna run out of borrowing authority, on the fifth of November.” Should the Congress then and the president not raise the debt limit? Should we default on our debt?

Carson: Let me put it this way: if I were the president, I would not sign an increased budget. Absolutely would not do it. They would have to find a place to cut.

Ryssdal: To be clear, it’s increasing the debt limit, not the budget, but I want to make sure I understand you. You’d let the United States default rather than raise the debt limit.

Carson: No, I would provide the kind of leadership that says, “Get on the stick guys, and stop messing around, and cut where you need to cut, because we’re not raising any spending limits, period.”

Ryssdal: I’m gonna try one more time, sir. This is debt that’s already obligated. Would you not favor increasing the debt limit to pay the debts already incurred?

Carson: What I’m saying is what we have to do is restructure the way that we create debt. I mean if we continue along this, where does it stop? It never stops. You’re always gonna ask the same question every year. And we’re just gonna keep going down that pathway. That’s one of the things I think that the people are tired of.

Ryssdal: I’m really trying not to be circular here, Dr. Carson, but if you’re not gonna raise the debt limit and you’re not gonna give specifics on what you’re gonna cut, then how are we going to know what you are going to do as president of the United States?

Carson: OK, let me try to explain it in a different way. If, in fact, we have a number of different areas that are contributing to the increasing expenditures and the continued expenditures that are putting us further and further into the hole. You’re familiar I’m sure with the concept of the fiscal gap.

→ Ben Carson’s interesting relationship with nutritional supplement maker Mannatech Inc., which paid several million dollars to settle a lawsuit by the state of Texas over marketing claims that its products could cure cancer, among other things.

Jeb!3. Jeb Bush: It was almost a foregone conclusion among many of the GOP big-money guys that Jeb! was the strong man among the plethora of wanna-be Republican candidates, given the Bush political dynasty and its many business and money connections (which Jeb! never has been shy about using in the past).

But then Jeb! started talking in public. To reporters on TV. Asked on Fox News in May whether he would’ve invaded Iraq like his brother George W. did, given what we now know, Jeb! said this: “I would have, and so would have Hillary Clinton, just to remind everybody. And so would almost everybody that was confronted with the intelligence they got.”

Two days and a lot of media attention later, on the Sean Hannity show, Jeb! was asked again about the Iraq war. “Yeah, I don’t know what that decision would have been,” he said. “That’s a hypothetical. The simple fact is that mistakes were made. As they always are in life and foreign policy.”

Two more days and a lot of press later, Jeb! fielded the Iraq question a third time, at an Arizona town-hall meeting, at which point he said this: “I would not have gone into Iraq.”

Between Jeb!’s verbal gaffes and the summer of Donald Trump, the former sure-thing Dynasty Man has taken a beating in the polls and made his backers nervous. A couple of days ago, he announced to his campaign staff that their pay was being cut by 40%.

Jeb! Presidential Quotes:

→ The peasants need to work harder: “My aspiration for the country, and I believe we can achieve it, is 4 percent growth as far as the eye can see. Which means we have to be a lot more productive, workforce participation has to rise from its all-time modern lows. It means that people need to work longer hours and, through their productivity, gain more income for their families.”

→ What’s so special about females? “I’m not sure we need a half a billion dollars for women’s health issues.”

→ How can you defend using the term ‘anchor babies’? “What I was talking about was the specific case of fraud being committed, where there’s organized efforts — and frankly it’s more related to Asian people coming into our country — having children in that organized effort, taking advantage of a noble concept, which is birthright citizenship.”

→ No more welfare, peasants: “Our message is one of hope and aspiration, it isn’t one of division, and get in line and we’ll take care of you with free stuff.”

Jeb! Presidential Qualifications:

Jeb!’s dad was president. His brother George W. was president. Now it’s his turn.

Jeb! Presidential Sugar Daddy: New York Jets owner Woody Johnson, Cuban refugee turned private equity exec Miguel Fernandez, former Iranian ambassador to the U.S. Hushang Ansary, T. Boone Pickens and Ray Hunt.

Marco4. Marco Rubio: If you knew nothing about Rubio before he got into presidential politics, you’re not alone. At first blush, he stands out among typical ultraconservative Republicans because, hey, he isn’t old and he isn’t white.

How has this nationally unknown Florida statehouse politician risen so quickly to the U.S. Senate and now to the ranks of Republican Presidentials? He seems to have an uncanny ability to make friends among those who can advance his career, which is to say, ultra-rich white men. Billionaire car dealer and former Philadelphia Eagles owner Norman Braman has been propping Rubio up financially for years, but now it appears that moneybags Oracle founder Larry Ellison and, with a little luck, casino magnate Sheldon Adelson and New York hedge fund manager Paul Singer will be kicking in some big bucks, too.

Here’s how he does it: Rubio promises free stuff to the 1% – he’s come up with a tax plan, should he be elected, that would eliminate all taxes on investment income. Sweet.

Marco Rubio has had this serial problem, though, involving his personal finances. Elected to the Florida Legislature in 2000, he reported $150,000 owed on student loans and another $30,000 in retail and credit card debt, and a net worth of zero. A year later, he was making $90,000 a year was being overcome by expenses and had to move his family in with his mother-in-law. Two years later his fortunes changed enough that he bought his mom-in-law’s house for $175,000 in cash.

Rubio’s fortunes changed largely thanks to Norman Braman, who gave Rubio a $300,000 job at his law firm and hired Rubio’s wife for another $54,000 to help Braman run a charity that gave away a whopping $250 the year she was hired. With his new money source, Marco Rubio went in on an investment house with another state legislator, then bought himself a half-million-dollar-plus home in West Miami. Then he took out a home equity loan of $135,000 to make improvements. His debt on the three houses was a million a year. Long story short, guy made about $2.4 million between 1998 and 2008, but at the end of that decade his net worth was just $53,000.

Then he formed some political action committees, was able to get a credit card from the Florida Republican Party, and the rest is history. News reports claim he used the state party card on liquor runs, for $135 haircuts, for stone pavers at his house, and for travel expenses to a family reunion in Georgia. One PAC was run by his wife. Three of his relatives were employed by the other one.

Rubio Presidential Quotes:

→ “Yesterday is over, and we are never going back.”

→ “George W. Bush, in my opinion, did a fantastic job over eight years.”

→ “I just think you’ve created an industry now — a situation where very much, you’ve created an incentive for people not just to look forward to having more abortions, but being able to sell that fetal tissue — these centers — for purposes of making a profit off it.”

→ “A politician is very good at navigating the process of politics. It involves getting a few things done for the people who sent you there, but mostly perpetuating your time in office. A leader may end up being able to accomplish that, but is more motivated by the desire to accomplish something, and usually when you try to accomplish something you’re almost never judged kindly by your contemporaries.”

Carly5. Carly Fiorina: Can a CEO who laid off tens of thousands of employees, botched a merger, and left with $21 million become President? Mother Jones magazine wants to know, and so do I.

Fiorina was named chief executive of Hewlett-Packard from 1999 to 2005, during which the company’s share price dropped more than 50% and she presided over the layoff of 30,000 people. Then she herself was fired by the company board, but happy landing, she got a $21 million severance as part of a total compensation package worth more than $100 million. She told the folks at Good Morning America that she is running for president “because I understand how the economy actually works.” No shit.

Fiorina also has defended her actions as Hewlett-Packard CEO, claiming the whole tech sector lost stock value during that period. Well, yes it did, but her company’s main competitors, IBM and Dell, lost about 27% and 3%, compared to H-P’s 52% plunge. Was Fiorina really that bad? Yes, yes she was. For what it’s worth, her corporate reign one her the No. 19 spot on its list of 20 Worst CEOs of All Time.

Then there was the second GOP debate where Fiorina got great applause for her heartfelt speech about how morally sickened she was at seeing that video showing the still-quivering little aborted body on a table while a pair of abortion clinic staffers quibbled about body-part sales. Except it turned out she didn’t see any such video, because no such video existed. So then, and you’ll love this, a Carly F. Super-PAC decided to create its own fake video trying to show the world that she really did see something and it was not a lie. Except they got caught.

Ted6. Ted Cruz is like a junior high kid who pulls the fire alarm when no one is looking, and then laughs when the principal stops classes and makes everyone march outside, even though there was no fire.

Cruz has proven to be a master at fooling the 20% lunatic fringe that he would do anything – even shut down the government – to make sure that so-called Obamacare is repealed, or funding for Planned Parenthood is rescinded, or whatever other cause fringies can be whipped up into a frenzy to oppose. To the rest of us, including Senate Republicans, Cruz’s anticsare simply transparent and annoying. But if it wins Cruz political points, that’s all he cares about.

Unless it’s sucking up to rich people and their organizations for money. Ted Cruz cares about that, too. A lot.

His best super-rich buddy thus far in the seemingly endless campaign cycle has been hedge fund manager Robert L. Mercer, who’s dropped at least $11 million into a Cruz-supporting Super-PAC. Quid pro quo much? Federal Election Commission records show Cruz’s presidential campaign later paid more than $750,000 to something called Cambridge Analytics for “web service/donor modeling.” The Washington Post ties Cambridge Analytics to Mercer. Coincidence?

His best super-rich buddies used to be the Koch Brothers, who reportedly funneled $15 million into Cruz’s Super-PAC. But recently Cruz apparently “disappointed” the K Bros. by not totally lock-stepping to their piper tune, which is not really like Cruz at all.

Rand7. Rand Paul: I’m trying to write this post very quickly because I am afraid if I do not finish soon, Rand Paul will have shut down his campaign. He is fading fast, while still bobbing along above B-Teamers such as Lindsay Graham and Bobby Jindal.

Rand Paul is discovering, as his father, Ron Paul, discovered a time or two before him, that while you may be able to raise tens of millions of dollars from the Libertarians, they don’t make up a demographic slice big enough to win hardly anything, let alone the presidential nomination of another political party.

Rand Paul also has failed to learn the trick of sounding like a blithering member of the gay Mexican he-man woman-haters lunatic fringe club, which pretty much assures his imminent political demise.

Bernie8. Bernie Sanders: OK, that leaves us with the Democrats. Or, in Bernie Sanders’ case, with a socialist running as a Democrat because “socialist” has such a horrible connotation in ‘Merica that it is amazing the guy goes around proudly proclaiming himself as a socialist in the first place.

That said, Sanders is the only candidate on either party not taking contributions from super-rich 1-Percenters. His entire campaign is one big rant on how very rich people have screwed the rest of us for so long that now they own everything, including all the money and all the monopolistic businesses and the whole national and state political system. So Bernie’s platform consists of promises to take back a fair share of the money, by instituting a higher tax rate on the rich, and how we’ll tax the rich at such a high rate that college will be free for everyone, just like they do in the socialist enclaves of Germany and Denmark.

Only problem is that, ha-ha, the super rich really do control the national and state political system, and so there’s no damn way in hell they’re going to allow a guy like Sanders anywhere near the White House, which is why Democratic National Committee Chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz bucked the rest of her party leadership and limited national presidential debates to something like two and a half, with one falling on Christmas Eve or something. Which insures Bernie won’t have many chances to make Hillary Clinton look bad in front of a national audience. Which is exactly how Debbie W-S likes it, because she once upon a time was a bigwig in a past Hillary campaign.

But back to Bernie. One problem the guy faces, which isn’t talked about much, is that, if elected, he would be 75. He already turns red and sweaty when he gets pissed off at the debates, so you have to ask, can his ticker take it if, say, Putin decides to invade Puerto Rico? So the big question would be, who is Bernie’s running mate?

Honestly, Bernie is so far to the left that he might be the only Democratic candidate who could win a presidency for the Republicans. And that’s saying a lot.

Sadder than this is the absolute fact that Bernie Sanders towers head and shoulders over the other three two person running against him and Hillary Clinton, old what’s-his-name.

Hillary9. Hillary Clinton: More and more it appears as if Hillary Clinton is inevitable. As briefly summarized above, each of her would-be rivals carries too much baggage (and possesses too little experience) to stand much of a chance against her for the presidency. It’s not like they can out-spend her, either, as she can tap the super-rich as well as anyone.

The problem with Hillary is that, she’s already been president. Twice. OK, Bill held the actual title, but both members of this power couple are and long have been politically astute. I argue that essentially, she really has been president before. And since Americans eschewed royalty right from our beginnings, we ought to continue to reject political royalty now – whether it’s the Clinton family or the Bush family. The country needs new leadership.

Unfortunately, for the reasons mentioned above, the county isn’t going to get new leadership anytime soon. Probably, the country is going to get Hillary Clinton, like it or not. And hard as it is for me to acknowledge this, compared to the leading Republican Party candidates, the country probably will not be as badly off with a Clinton in the White House again.

Also posted in Be Afraid, Government, Media, Nobody Gets It Like They Want It To Be, Politics

Ignoring Diseases, Curing Symptoms

In 2001, the first time I walked out of the Guatemala City airport terminal into the sunshine, I was unprepared for the swarm of beggars crushing in on my wife and me. As I looked around nervously for the cab that would take us away to our hotel, I felt a tug on my jeans, down at the ankle.

I looked down and saw a withered, dirty woman with no legs whatever, just a torso, arms and a head, somehow fused onto a wooden platform with skateboard wheels. I can still see her hopeless face sometimes.

We were there to visit the infant who would become our adopted son, whose mother had traveled from Guatemala’s Pacific coast to deliver her baby and give him up for adoption in hopes he could avoid the fate of her two other young sons. Their father had left her without knowing she was pregnant for a third time. She made less than $30 a month as a household servant, and she was afraid that if she kept her third child, he wouldn’t survive her poverty.

Guatemalans Visiting The City ZooWe met the baby’s foster mother, who gave him to us for the few days of our visit, until we could complete the mountainous stack of adoption paperwork that would make him our son four months later. We walked around Zona 10 – the safest of the city’s zones – visiting restaurants and buying food. We had been advised not to bring our gold wedding rings, not to wear any jewellery at all, nor expensive-looking clothing. As Anglos, we already would be potential targets for robbers or kidnappers. So we did our best to blend in.

The Chinese restaurant (and all the others catering to turistas) employed two young teenage boys to stand guard, with machine guns, at either side of the front entrance. The biggest grocery store in the neighborhood was the size of a gas-station convenience store in Texas. Mothers sent their youngest children inside to beg from shoppers in the aisles. Teenage employees also brandished machine guns outside this place.

Even in Zona 10, the crushing poverty was evident in the constant presence of beggars, street vendors selling single cigarettes because no one could afford a whole pack, youths with automatic weapons patrolling any cash business. And this was the “wealthy” part of town. Tin and cardboard shacks were the norm elsewhere; we’d seen hillsides covered with them on the flight in. And it was worse outside the city – more crime, no jobs, only the food one could grow or hunt, or steal.

Thirteen years later, Guatemala is an even poorer and more dangerous country than when I last visited. Government corruption is rampant and the country has become a major staging area for drug cartels moving cocaine through Mexico into the United States.

According to the CIA World Factbook, “…concerns over security, the lack of skilled workers and poor infrastructure continue to hamper foreign direct investment. The distribution of income remains highly unequal with the richest 20% of the population accounting for more than 51% of Guatemala’s overall consumption. More than half of the population is below the national poverty line and 13% of the population lives in extreme poverty. Poverty among indigenous groups, which make up about 40% of the population, averages 73% and extreme poverty rises to 28%. Nearly one-half of Guatemala’s children under age five are chronically malnourished, one of the highest malnutrition rates in the world.”

The U.S. State Department rates the threat level of violent crime in Guatemala as “critical,” and warns travelers that high murder rates “mark Guatemala as one of the most dangerous countries in the Western Hemisphere. While the vast majority of murders do not involve foreigners, the sheer volume of activity means that local officials find it difficult to cope with the caseload and many homicides never result in a persecution or conviction.”

Meanwhile, in Honduras, “The Department of State continues to warn U.S. citizens that the level of crime and violence in Honduras remains critically high…crime and violence are serious problems throughout the country, and the Government of Honduras lacks the resources to address these issues. Since 2010, Honduras has had the highest murder rate in the world. The Honduran Ministry of Security recorded a homicide rate of 75.6 per 100,000 people in 2013…

“Members of the Honduran National Police have been known to engage in criminal activity, including murder and car theft. The government of Honduras lacks sufficient resources to properly investigate and prosecute cases, and police often lack vehicles or fuel to respond to calls for assistance. In practice, this means police may take hours to arrive at the scene of a violent crime, or may not respond at all. As a result, criminals operate with a high degree of impunity throughout Honduras.”

In Guatemala, kids are dying because they have no food. In Honduras, kids as young as 9 or 10 are being murdered for refusing to join a gang. These kids and their parents or other family members are representative of the “illegal immigrants” desperately hoping to find a hiding place north of the U.S.-Mexico border where, maybe, they can remain alive for a little while longer.

Just as the English, the Czechs, the Germans, the Italians, the Irish and the rest of white America did before them, the Central Americans and Mexicans who risk it all to get into the United States are fleeing crushing poverty, crime and persecution. The mostly white people (poultry plant and home-building company owners notably excepted) who work so hard to block their entry hide behind their mantra that these are “illegal” immigrants.

Yet the numbers are skewed so that only a tiny handful of the best-connected Latinos can “legally” gain entry to the U.S. each year, while the fact is largely ignored that a high percentage of the men, women and children coming across our southern border deserve to be granted asylum, because they literally face death upon return to their failed-state nations.

And we have room for them, just as, despite protests to the contrary, we had plenty of room for the Germans, Italians and the Irish.

When my wife and I traveled to Guatemala City a second time, we brought our completed paperwork to a local lawyer and stood at the end of a line at the U.S. embassy to obtain our new son’s American passport. We felt lucky to be the last couple to be served at the embassy that day, and we packed up for the return trip home the next morning.

Those plans went awry.

It was Sept. 11, 2001. Crazed terrorists from the Mideast commandeered commercial airliners and flew them into the World Trade Center in New York as we watched the aftermath from our Guatemalan hotel TV. All U.S. international airports shut down, and we remained in Central America far longer than we’d planned.

This last wouldn’t be of much consequence to my story, unless one considers: In the years since 9/11, U.S. military forces have crippled the terrorist group responsible for that mayhem, and have vastly improved security procedures for entrance to this country.

At the same time, relatively nothing has been done to address the fact that powerful crime organizations have embedded themselves within Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras and a chain of countries down to Columbia and Peru. In my opinion Honduras has become a failed state, Guatemala isn’t far behind, and Mexico teeters on the brink.

And instead of dealing with the disease – powerful criminal narco-terrorists acting to essentially take over entire countries just south of our doorstep – our political leaders spend their energy focused on the symptoms of that disease: the people fleeing from the death and destruction fomented in large part by the cartels.

Granted, by all accounts ISIS is a horrible terrorist group, and al Qaeda remain dangerous. But neither of them are causing the harm to our country that’s being directly and indirectly foisted on the U.S. by the terrorists in Mexico and farther south.

The only way we’re ever going to achieve a meaningful immigration policy in the U.S. is to first address what needs to be done to restore democratic governments on our immediate borders. Of course, I have almost no hope that such a thing could be accomplished, looking at the government’s record for (ahem) “fostering democracy” in places such as Iraq and Afghanistan.

But I can still dream.

Also posted in Government, Politics, Poverty

The New Fruit Currency

My foray into bartering came by accident.

I’d noticed a gentle and unmistakable clucking sound coming from one of my Richmond neighbor’s yards and, via a certain amount of observant nosiness, I learned that he’d converted one of his outbuildings into a chicken coop. I don’t see him home often, but the other day he was out checking his mailbox, so I asked about the poultry.

“If you ever find that you have more eggs than you can use,” I said, “I’d be happy to buy some from you.” Neighbor informed me that he fed his flock only organic feed, and was able to sell the eggs for $4 a dozen. Well, that’s at least twice what I pay for “yard eggs” sold at various places out west at the Polka Farm. I paused, not wanting to hurt his feelings at suggesting $4 was a pretty high price.

Hachiya Persimmon Fruit Bucks But he didn’t lose a beat. “You have fruit, right?” He was indeed correct. We worked out a deal whereby three of my big satsuma oranges equal a dozen of his eggs. Each of us has a vast surplus of our own product, but none of the other guy’s. My neighbor can’t even obtain satsumas (like giant, sweet, nearly seedless tangerines) in the grocery stores. And while I can get good eggs for $1.75-$2 a dozen out at the farm, it’s not convenient to be out at the farm every time we run out of eggs, which is pretty often considering my 13-year-old eating machine.

So the neighbor-barter profits each of us more than cash transactions would.

Coincidentally, agricultural barter No. 2 may be on the horizon, as an acquaintance of my wife’s learned that we have an over-abundance of Hachiya persimmons, of which she apparently is quite fond. For her part, she is an almost too-successful hunter, with a freezer full of venison and the prospects of more on the way. Again, each of us has a surplus of a product nearly unattainable by the other.

With luck, this could become habit forming.

Also posted in Country Life, Farm, Food

Happy Irony Day

Thirty-five years ago I was a newspaper reporter covering events surrounding the United Steelworkers Union and the American steel industry in Wheeling, W.Va. and Pittsburgh. Steelworkers had physically demanding, dangerous jobs, but their union was powerful and extracted (especially in today’s terms) very attractive wages and benefits for its member-employees.

But, in my opinion, looking back at what happened in the early 1980s, the membership became too powerful and too greedy, and demanded ever more money each time an employment contract ran out. This culminated in, among other things, the bankruptcy of Wheeling-Pittsburgh Steel in 1985 and the subsequent loss of probably about 8,500 high-paying union jobs in the Wheeling area alone.

This was an era that marked the high point in union membership nationally, which rose over the decades in large part because of excesses elsewhere in the Ohio River Valley, carried out near the beginning of the 20th Century by Consolidated and other giant coal-mining companies against their own employees. Workers were forced to live in bare-bones houses in “company towns,” and were paid in “company script” instead of dollars, which could only be spent in company stores that charged inflated prices for basic goods.

It’s no wonder that humans rebelled and eventually formed unions for protection against such corporate excess, just as it’s no wonder that major heavy industries fell apart in the face of such inflexible union demands in the 1980s.

The pendulum of excess swings only so far one way, then eventually swings back. And apparently, now, we’re back at the other end of the spectrum again, only corporate excess has taken on a different form.

Union membership has declined by millions since the ’80s, mostly concentrated now among public government employees and teachers, whose right to organize is even now being whittled away in states such as Wisconsin. American corporations long ago moved most of their heavy manufacturing operations off-shore to escape the unions and drastically lower their cost of employment. As a result, today’s American workforce is concentrated much more in service industries and secretarial and lower-management-level white-collar corporate occupations.

On the corporate finance side, here’s a condensed look at the last 30 years of history, according to economist William Lazonick, writing in the Harvard Business Review:

In the early 1980s permanent plant closings were triggered by the inroads superior Japanese manufacturers had made in consumer-durable and capital-goods industries. In the early 1990s one-company careers fell by the wayside in the IT sector because the open-systems architecture of the microelectronics revolution devalued the skills of older employees versed in proprietary technologies. And in the early 2000s the offshoring of more-routine tasks, such as writing unsophisticated software and manning customer call centers, sped up as a capable labor force emerged in low-wage developing economies and communications costs plunged, allowing U.S. companies to focus their domestic employees on higher-value-added work.

These practices chipped away at the loyalty and dampened the spending power of American workers, and often gave away key competitive capabilities of U.S. companies. Attracted by the quick financial gains they produced, many executives ignored the long-term effects and kept pursuing them well past the time they could be justified.

A turning point was the wave of hostile takeovers that swept the country in the 1980s. Corporate raiders often claimed that the complacent leaders of the targeted companies were failing to maximize returns to shareholders. That criticism prompted boards of directors to try to align the interests of management and shareholders by making stock-based pay a much bigger component of executive compensation.

Given incentives to maximize shareholder value and meet Wall Street’s expectations for ever higher quarterly EPS, top executives turned to massive stock repurchases, which helped them “manage” stock prices. The result: Trillions of dollars that could have been spent on innovation and job creation in the U.S. economy over the past three decades have instead been used to buy back shares for what is effectively stock-price manipulation.

Here’s what Lazonick’s rearch has revealed: Of those companies making up the S&P 500, 449 have been listed on public stock exchanges from 2003 through 2012. During those years the board members of those 449 companies voted to use 54% of corporate earnings to buy back their own stock, almost always on the open market. Those same companies spent another 37% of their earnings paying dividends on stock shares.

So you have America’s major corporations spending more than 90% of their profits on their own stock, leaving less than 10% of their profits for minor things such as research and development, technology investment, facility expansion or employee pay increases.

Why would these board directors take such action? “In 2012 the 500 highest-paid executives named in proxy statements of U.S. public companies received, on average, $30.3 million each; 42% of their compensation came from stock options and 41% from stock awards. By increasing the demand for a company’s shares, open-market buybacks automatically lift its stock price, even if only temporarily, and can enable the company to hit quarterly earnings per share (EPS) targets,” Lazonick states. And let us not forget that many board directors receive stock awards for their service to the corporations.

Among the 10 corporations devoting the most resources to stock buy-backs, most (Microsoft, IBM, Cisco, Proctor & Gamble, Hewlett-Packard, Intel and Pfizer) actually spent more than 100% of their respective profits on the repurchases. How? They went into debt to do so. Because what price is too high when you essentially are rewarding yourself?

So bottom line, as of Sept. 1, 2014, the chief executives and board members of most of America’s biggest public companies are not busy trying to create wealth through innovation or service or technological or manufacturing know-how. Instead, they are busy trying to extract wealth as quickly as possible from some of the greatest business innovators of America’s past.

If you’re still puzzled as to why your family income seems to be stuck in place while the price of everything continues floating upwards, perhaps the above may provide a moment of clarity.

Happy Irony Day, peasants. Have a beer on me.

Also posted in Be Afraid, Business, Corporate