Monday, April 30, 2012

France’s Far Right Radical Party, National Front and Leader Marine Le Pen to Sit Out Second Round of the Election

Possibly Dooming President Nicolas Sarkozy’s Re-Election

Whatever else on things about the French, it seems their system for electing a President is eminently sensible.  First of all the elections are held on a Sunday, maximizing the turnout.  This year in the first round of the Presidential election the turnout was a disappointing 80+%.  Disappointing in France of course, amazing if it were the U. S.

Also, the French have a two round election.  The first round let’s just about any party into the race, so minor parties do have a chance to participate and make their case.  The second round is a run-off between the two top vote getters in the first round.  This insures that the President is elected by an absolute majority instead of plurality, and provides credibility and legitimacy to the winner.

France has just completed its first round, with incumbent Nicolas Sarkozy finishing just behind Socialist Francois Hollande.  The two will meet in the second round, and key to Mr. Sarkozy’s chance is support from the far right National Front party.  That party is lead by Marine Le Pen, who in a way no one understands inherited the party leadership from her father Jean Marie Le Pen.  (When did party leadership become something one inherited?). 

LEPENUnfortunately for Mr. Sarkozy, Ms. Le Pen is indicating she wants her supporters to abstain the second round showing a ‘pox on both your houses’ attitude

“I think that Marine will probably advise voters to cast blank ballots,” Gilbert Collard, chairman of Ms. Le Pen’s support committee said Tuesday on local French radio station France Bleu Gard.

Here’s Ms. Le Pen own take: “I don’t want the victory or the defeat of anyone. I no longer have any confidence in the true enemy represented by Hollande and the false friend that Sarkozy represents,” she said in an interview with daily paper Nice Matin.

Ms. Le Pen may well be wanting to toss the election to the center/left candidate Mr. Hollande.  Her thinking, like some Republicans in this country may be that one can be far more successful running against the incumbent than having to support the incumbent.  If Mr. Hollande wins then Ms. Le Pen can campaign against him and his Socialist party in the June legislative elections.  If Mr. Sarkozy wins, she can do the same thing.  It is a very smart political strategy; it is very dangerous politics for a divided nation that needs a coherent policy to combat major economic problems.

The growth of far right parties in Europe should sound alarms in everyone.  While calling them Neo-Nazi is going too far, they are much closer to that designation than they are to main stream Conservative parties.  These anti-government, pro nationalist parties gain strength when economic conditions deteriorate, as history has taught everyone far too well.  And that is what is happening in Europe.

In several euro-zone countries, such as Austria, Finland and the Netherlands, far-right parties have been capturing popular discontent by promoting nationalist and sometimes xenophobic platforms.

The rise of far-right parties across Europe could disrupt efforts to resolve the debt crisis through greater economic and fiscal integration, not only because extreme movements are gaining momentum but also because mainstream parties may be forced to radicalize their platforms.

Ms. Le Pen is a particular problem, because she has taken steps to hide the more odious positions of her party and in doing so has become a more appealing leader.

She kept true to the party's nationalist theme, but, in an attempt to widen her electoral base, vowed to tone down the xenophobic legacy of her father.

"Our adversaries stamp us as extremists to try and discredit us," Ms. Le Pen said in an interview last year. "We have nothing of the extreme right, nothing: We are in favor of democracy, of a multiparty system, and we support the rule of law."

But no one should be fooled again by a vicious far right European political organization that tries to make itself legitimate by appearing rational and reasonable.  If they take control, or even develop substantial influence these parties will awaken the ugly nationalism that has made Europe a war zone since, well since humans entered the continent and settled there eons ago.

Been there, done that, and it was horrific.

Peggy Noonan of the Wall Street Journal Kicks Off the Anti-Obama Campaign with an Ugly Personal Attack – Claims He Has No Agenda and is Boring

Has She Never Even Seen Mitt Romney?

A credible and rational voice of Conservatism is Peggy Noonan whose Saturday column in the Wall Street Journal is usually a well written piece coherently arguing her position.  She is the kind of writer where even if one disagrees with her analysis one can appreciate the thought and logic she uses to support it. 

But now the general election has kicked off, Mitt Romney vs. Barack Obama and while Mr. Romney is not highly liked by the WSJ, he is the nominee and they will do everything they can to support him defeat Mr. Obama.  So the word must have gone out to those who write regular opinion columns that for the next six months it is non-stop attack on Mr. Obama.  Ms. Noonan kicks things off with a really nasty personal attack on the President, one that reflects more badly on Ms. Noonan than on Mr. Obama.  Here is the gist of her complaint with the President.

But—and forgive me, because what I'm about to say is rude—has anyone noticed how boring he is? Plonking platitude after plonking platitude. To see Mr. Obama on the stump is to see a man at the podium who's constantly dribbling away the punch line. He looks pleasant but lacks joy; he's cool but lacks vigor. A lot of what he says could have been said by a president 12 or 20 years ago, little is anchored to the moment. As he makes his points he often seems distracted, as if he's holding a private conversation in his head, noticing crowd size, for instance, and wishing the front row would start fainting again, like they used to.

There are two things to note here.  First of all for all his faults as President, and he has many, no one would say that Mr. Obama is boring on the stump.  In fact, one legitimate criticism of the President is that his actions do not live up to his rhetoric, in part because it is just so good.  And that leads us to the second point.

A solid campaign strategy is to deflect attention from one’s defects by claiming those defects actually exist in the opposing candidate.  So when Ms. Noonan attacks Mr. Obama for being boring, and for not have any core philosophy, like this

But it still matters that the president doesn't have a coherent agenda, or a political philosophy that is really clear to people. To the extent he has a philosophy, it tends to pop up furtively in stray comments and then go away. This is to a unique degree a presidency of inference, its overall meaning never vividly declared. In some eras, that may be a plus. In this one?

It is pretty obvious that what she is trying to do is to take the Romney persona, which is boring and lacks a coherent agenda and paste it onto Mr. Obama.  She also tries to play the scandal and incompetence card, like this

There is a growing air of incompetence around Mr. Obama's White House. It was seen again this week in Supreme Court arguments over the administration's challenge to Arizona's attempted crackdown on illegal immigration. As Greg Stohr of Bloomberg News wrote, the court seemed to be disagreeing with the administration's understanding of federal power: "Solicitor General Donald Verrilli . . . met resistance across ideological lines. . . . Even Justice Sonia Sotomayor, the court's only Hispanic and an Obama appointee, told Verrilli his argument is 'not selling very well.'" This follows last month's embarrassing showing over the constitutionality of parts of ObamaCare.

All of this looks so bush league, so scattered. Add it to the General Services Administration, to Solyndra, to the other scandals, and you get a growing sense that no one's in charge, that the administration is paying attention to politics but not day-to-day governance.

While what she cites is true, think how it pales in comparison to, oh say, George W. Bush and even Ronald Reagan.  There has been no flouting of the rule of law under Mr. Obama, no torture cases, no massive fraud, no Iran Contra scandal and no Watergate.  Historians, the ones who can write objectively will write that Mr. Obama performed well in the sense that he hired qualified people and let them do their jobs.  Yes, with a Federal government that employees millions and spends trillions, there will be problems but think about the Bush Attorney Generals and what they did and you will welcome the professionalism of Eirc Holder.

So hopefully now that she has completed the required assignment of baseless character assassination of Mr. Obama Ms. Noonan will return to writing her intelligent and thoughtful commentary.  She really needs to, she is about the only one at the WSJ who can.  Ms. Noonan titles her piece, the 'Bush League President' but she knows we already had a bush league President, Mr. Bush.

Paul Krugman is Right On (as usual) About the Cause of the Weakness of the Recovery

Republicans Implement Anti-Growth Policies and Blame Democrats for Lack of Growth

The main theme of the upcoming Presidential election will be the economy, the level of the recovery and whether or not policies to expand the economy should take place in the future.  Mr. Romney will argue that Mr. Obama made the recession worse, wait a minute, Mr. Romney will say he didn’t say that, wait again, Mr. Romney will repeat it and then deny saying it.  Mr. Obama and rational economists will debate the composition and size of the Stimulus, while recognizing that the Stimulus  was a major factor in reversing the trend towards greater job losses and ultimately producing increases in employment.

The question as to why the economy has not recovered faster is pretty obvious.  Government, which is a major engine of economic growth sharply reduced its spending on goods and service.  Paul Krugman the eminent economist and columnist for the New York Times has the picture right here.

And here is his succinct commentary which neatly sums it up.

Obama, far from presiding over a huge expansion of government the way the right claims, has in fact presided over unprecedented austerity, largely driven by cuts at the state and local level. And it’s therefore an amazing triumph of misinformation the way that lackluster economic performance has been interpreted as a failure of government spending.

This is news that Mr. Romney must hide if he is going to win the election, because Conservatives win out only when ignorance triumphs over facts and information.

Sunday, April 29, 2012

Archie Comics To Continue the Shift from Comic Book to Graphic Short Story - Not Sure if This is a Good Thing or a Bad Thing

Conservative Million Moms in Opposition – So It is Probably a Good Thing

For many people who grew up decades ago the comic books with Archie, Jughead, Reggie, Veronica and Betty along with the other members of the cast were a source of amusement and escape. Life for these eternal teenagers was pretty much non-stop fun and whenever there was an issue or conflict it was usually along the lines of “who shall I go to the Prom with?” type of question.

The current publisher, descended from the originator of the comics views the publication as much more than a “funny”. 

Archie Comics recently debuted its first main gay character, Kevin Keller — and not only gave him a series but also a husband, Clay Walker— and has an upcoming "Occupy Riverdale" story line, addressing the concerns of the current Occupy movement.

Things will get real emotional in Life With Archie issue 22, out Aug. 15. In one story, Cheryl Blossom breaks the news of her breast cancer to her friends, while in another, something sudden and quite violent occurs for a fan-favorite character.

Well that doesn’t sound like a lot of laughs.  To a great extent this evolution of Archie comics reflects an evolution of American society.  Teenagers are much more “adult” these days and much more likely to be exposed to adult themes, adult problems and adult issues.  This is not necessarily good, but it is reality. 

So it looks like Archie comics is evolving from a pure comic into an illustrated or graphic short story, not that much different from Japanese anime type books and other illustrated literature.  But at least there is some joyful news from the fallout of the introduction of a gay character who, of all things, got married in the Archie comic book series.

Goldwater wants to ensure fans that this new situation is part of a longer detailed narrative involving Archie, Kevin and their friends, as are all the different issues that have been discussed in the comic pages as of late.

It has garnered them new fans, who are showing support with their dollars and voices. When the conservative organization One Million Moms decried the sale of the gay-wedding issue of Life With Archie at Toys R' Us, the comic sold out — a clear message of support, Goldwater says.

And no the Goldwater here is not of the Barry Goldwater fame, but he is a Goldwater that one thinks that Barry Goldwater the late Senator would approve of.  That Goldwater came late in life to favor equal rights for gays and lesbians, and famously said of gays in the military, “It’s not whether you act straight but whether your shoot strait”.  Just one reason why no one in the Republican party or the Conservative establishment todayrefers to Mr. Goldwater, a founder of the modern Conservative movement.

Forget Warm and Fuzzy When It Comes to Apple, Inc. – It is Just Another Corporation Using Loopholes and High Powered Advice to Avoid U. S. Taxes

What Exactly Did You Expect?

The leading cause of Apple’s amazing level of profitability is its technology.  That technology is truly astounding, and the money Apple earns from it is certainly reasonable given their investment in technology and the fact that they make products people want, but do not need to buy. 

But another part of Apple’s success is its image.  All of us still think of it as a friendly little company that grew out of a couple of guys tinkering with electronics in a family garage.  But the truth is that Apple is now a global conglomerate.  It pursues its businesses and seeks profits as aggressively as any company in the world.  It defends its intellectual property rights with massive legal action in world wide jurisdictions.  And it pursue a policy of absolutely minimizing its tax liabilities by taking advantage of world wide tax provisions which can be manipulated into turning a high tax bill into a low tax bill.

Apple, for instance, was among the first tech companies to designate overseas salespeople in high-tax countries in a manner that allowed them to sell on behalf of low-tax subsidiaries on other continents, sidestepping income taxes, according to former executives. Apple was a pioneer of an accounting technique known as the “Double Irish With a Dutch Sandwich,” which reduces taxes by routing profits through Irish subsidiaries and the Netherlands and then to the Caribbean. Today, that tactic is used by hundreds of other corporations — some of which directly imitated Apple’s methods, say accountants at those companies.

Without such tactics, Apple’s federal tax bill in the United States most likely would have been $2.4 billion higher last year, according to a recent study by a former Treasury Department economist, Martin A. Sullivan. As it stands, the company paid cash taxes of $3.3 billion around the world on its reported profits of $34.2 billion last year, a tax rate of 9.8 percent. (Apple does not disclose what portion of those payments was in the United States, or what portion is assigned to previous or future years.)

While Apple’s tax strategies are very sophisticated and complicated, the reason they are able to employ such strategies is very easy to understand.  Because Apple operates world wide, and because their major assets are intangible intellectual property, Apple (like Google and others) is able to use accounting to generate its income away from high tax countries and place the earnings in low tax countries.  Really, conceptually it is that simple.

For instance, one of Apple’s subsidiaries in Luxembourg, named iTunes S.à r.l., has just a few dozen employees, according to corporate documents filed in that nation and a current executive. The only indication of the subsidiary’s presence outside is a letterbox with a lopsided slip of paper reading “ITUNES SARL.”

Luxembourg has just half a million residents. But when customers across Europe, Africa or the Middle East — and potentially elsewhere — download a song, television show or app, the sale is recorded in this small country, according to current and former executives. In 2011, iTunes S.à r.l.’s revenue exceeded $1 billion, according to an Apple executive, representing roughly 20 percent of iTunes’s worldwide sales.

The advantages of Luxembourg are simple, say Apple executives. The country has promised to tax the payments collected by Apple and numerous other tech corporations at low rates if they route transactions through Luxembourg. Taxes that would have otherwise gone to the governments of Britain, France, the United States and dozens of other nations go to Luxembourg instead, at discounted rates.

Inside the United States the same concept works to move income away from high tax states and into low tax states.

When someone in the United States buys an iPhoneiPad or other Apple product, a portion of the profits from that sale is often deposited into accounts controlled by Braeburn, and then invested in stocks, bonds or other financial instruments, say company executives. Then, when those investments turn a profit, some of it is shielded from tax authorities in California by virtue of Braeburn’s Nevada address.

Since founding Braeburn, Apple has earned more than $2.5 billion in interest and dividend income on its cash reserves and investments around the globe. If Braeburn were located in Cupertino, where Apple’s top executives work, a portion of the domestic income would be taxed at California’s 8.84 percent corporate income tax rate.

But in Nevada there is no state corporate income tax and no capital gains tax.

Now this is not to single out Apple, what they are doing appears to be legal and is no different than what other companies are doing.  Like everything else Apple does, though, they just seem to do it better than other companies. 

The solution to tax avoidance and having companies like Apple pay a fair tax rate is to have a world wide tax regime so companies cannot ‘tax shop’ to nations with the lowest rates.  But that is not going to happen, so yes, the tax world will be unfair, like this.

Without such tactics, Apple’s federal tax bill in the United States most likely would have been $2.4 billion higher last year, according to a recent study by a former Treasury Department economist, Martin A. Sullivan. As it stands, the company paid cash taxes of $3.3 billion around the world on its reported profits of $34.2 billion last year, a tax rate of 9.8 percent. (Apple does not disclose what portion of those payments was in the United States, or what portion is assigned to previous or future years.)

By comparison, Wal-Mart last year paid worldwide cash taxes of $5.9 billion on its booked profits of $24.4 billion, a tax rate of 24 percent, which is about average for non-tech companies.

And notice that Wal-Mart’s tax bill of 24% is not all that high, but that doesn’t mean that Mitt Romney and the gang at Republican headquarters don'y want to cut it.  Why?  No real or justifiable economic or policy reason, it's because they want to, that’s why.

David Brooks of the New York Times – How Can One Man be So Ignorant?

Is Gross Stupidity Now a Requirement for a Conservative Columnist in the Times?

The New York Times has tried for decades to get a thoughtful and intelligent Conservative commentator for its opinion pages.  The closest it ever came was the late William Safire, who tried to mix humor with opinion and who served as a conduit for Conservative Israeli politicians to get their views into the Times.  Currently theTimes has David Brooks and Ross Douthat as their latest attempts, and one can only render judgment that both are colossal failures.

Here is Mr. Brooks discussing economics and past policy like the most recent Stimulus package and the New Deal, apparently something he knows nothing about.

We went ahead and spent the roughly $800 billion. What have we learned?
For certain, nothing. The economists who supported the stimulus now argue the economy would have been worse off without it. Those who opposed it argue that the results have been meager. It’s hard to think of anybody whose mind has been changed by what happened.

This is not entirely surprising. Nearly 80 years later, it’s hard to know if the New Deal did much to end the Great Depression.

Really!! the CBO has long ago passed judgment on the Stimulus and it like every other sane and rational economist has documented how successful the policy was in stopping the downward trend in growth and job losses.  As for the New Deal, does anybody other than rock-ribbed Conservatives who refuse to recognize any history and economics that does not fit their pre-conceived ideas really think that the New Deal was not instrumental in helping to end the Depression?  What is wrong with this man?

Mr. Brooks laments the fact that government doesn’t conduct controlled tests, like pharmaceutical companies do with drugs. 

Pharmaceutical companies conduct thousands more. But government? Hardly any. Government agencies conduct only a smattering of controlled experiments to test policies in the justice system, education, welfare and so on.

And his conclusion is that government does not do so because

the general lesson of randomized experiments is that the vast majority of new proposals do not work, and those that do work only do so to a limited extent and only under certain circumstances. This is true in business and government. Politicians are not inclined to set up rigorous testing methods showing that their favorite ideas don’t work.

Apparently Mr. Brooks has never heard to the thousands of pilot programs and projects that have taken place at all levels of government, many funded by the Federal government that have occurred just over the past several years.  In fact even a person who is not smart enough and lucky enough to write in the New York Times knows that substantial testing of social programs takes place before they are implemented on a large scale.  Medicare and Medicaid alone are replete with pilot studies.

But such knowledge would interfere with Mr. Brooks position, and he goes on to say this.

The first step to wisdom is admitting how little we know and constructing a trial-and-error process on the basis of our own ignorance. Inject controlled experiments throughout government. Feel your way forward. Fail less badly every day.

To which we would all reply that he is correct in the sense about that first step of wisdom, but that it is a step that Mr. Brooks himself not only has not taken, does not only seems capable of taking but a step that Mr. Brooks doesn’t even know he needs to take. 

So in order to be helpful we encourage Mr. Brooks to step up to the plate and admit how little he knows.  Yes for him that journey to wisdom is a very long road, but at least he could say he has taken the first step.

Saturday, April 28, 2012

West Virginian Diana Mey Takes the Good Fight to a Collection Agency Using Deplorable Tactics

Which Collection Agency Uses Deplorable Tactics? – Well All of Them

[Editor's note:  This being the weekend here is another story about an admirable American to offset the Donald Trump story - see below. Tomorrow this Forum will be back to its usual rant against those who practices idiotic economics and produce and implement destructive public policy]

Anyone who has been in financial difficulty and fallen behind on their payments knows the unrelenting pressure, harassment and threats that come from debt collection agencies.  Despite the regulations that tightly guard what agencies can and cannot do, these agencies generally do whatever they want.  No practice is off limits, the only thing their colleagues and management are concerned with is getting money and not getting caught.

So it is with almost unlimited delight to read about a person who was viciously attacked by a debt collection agency, and fought back.  Diana Mey was incorrectly targeted by a debt collection agency, and she did nothing more than inform them that they were in error and ask them to desist.  This is what happened next.

PHOTO: Diana Mey, of Wheeling, W. Va., won the largest judgment ever against an abusive debt collection company
Ms. Mey - An American Hero
Mey wrote RFA a cease and desist letter, telling the company not to contact her anymore, and sent it certified mail. Postal records show exactly when RFA signed for it. 

Precisely 23 minutes later, Mey started getting mysterious hang-up calls that showed up on her caller ID as coming from her local county government.

"So I called the number back and it was the sheriff's department. And I asked if someone there was trying to reach me. And they said, no - nobody there was trying to reach me," Mey said.

After two days of hang-up calls from that sheriff's department number, Mey picked up another one with that same caller ID. The man on the line repeatedly called her a vulgar name for the female anatomy. He described violent sexual acts he would like to subject her to and asked if she liked to be "gang banged."

"I was so frightened. I felt violated, but then I realized, you know, I'm taping this call,." Mey said. "I pulled myself together and I thought, I can get through this. Just keep on talking buddy because we're gonna get plenty of your voice on tape."

So what did those threatening calls have to do with debt collection?  Well it turns out they were from the debt collection company.

At the time, Mey said she didn't make a connection between that call and the collectors. But then she learned the call hadn't come from the local sheriff's office after all. The caller ID had been manipulated to look like it did, a practice called spoofing. That's when she went online and discovered complaints about RFA debt collectors pretending to call from sheriff's offices, including a male collector who called women vulgar names.

Ms. Mey ultimately found an attorney to go after the company, an attorney who admits he probably won’t get paid but wanted to do the right thing (wow!) and won a nice judgment against the company.

Last May, Mey sued RFA for harassment and illegal collection practices. In August, RFA's lawyer failed to show up in court, so Mey testified unopposed. The judge called RFA's actions "malicious" and ruled that all of the allegations were true. And then he awarded that record judgment of $10,860,000.

And no, the story does not have a happy ending with Ms. Mey getting a bundle of money.  The company is just another cowardly debt collection  agency that hides behind dummy corporations, false addresses and a company that runs from place to place just ahead of the regulators. 

But Ms. Mey has enjoyed a little national attention, the thrill of a David or Goliath victory and the thanks from all of us for a nice story.  

Golfers Bubba Watson and Phil Michelson and Other Are the Anti-Tiger Woods, and That’s a Good Thing

People that Mr. Woods Could Take a Lesson From – If  Only His Ego Was Not in the Way

[Editor's note:  After writing about an ugly American - see next story - it seems only right to write about a a person who exemplifies what it means to be a good, decent American.]

This Forum does not usually comment on sports news, there being plenty of people far more erudite and qualified to do so.  But some stories are just too good to pass up, and the story of Bubba Watson, who recently won the most prestigious sports event in the world, the Master’s Golf Tournament, is one of them.

It is impossible to mention golf and not mention Tiger Woods.  Mr. Woods is a superb athlete, a great player and probably one of the most dislikable sports figures in the world today.  Mr. Woods turned out to be a rather reprehensible person in his personal life, but the commentary here is on his professional life.  As a professional golfer Mr. Woods seems to believe that everyone is privileged to see him play, and that the public owes him, not the other way round.  For Mr. Woods golf is a chore, a job, something he does to earn a living.  He plays as little as he can, restricting his efforts to major tournaments that he feels are deserving of his presence.

All of that has made Mr. Woods a not very successful golfer recently.  He needs to study and learn from Mr. Watson.  First of all, Mr. Watson is playing this weekend in a tournament he did not want to play in, because he wanted to spend time with his family, particularly his new son.

“We’ve had him for a month, and I’ve only got to see him eight or nine days, so it’s not enough, not a lot,” Watson said. He sounded rueful. He said he cried when it was time to leave his son and wife in Orlando, Fla., to fly to New Orleans.

If he did not have a title to defend, Watson said he would have been inclined to take another week off to catch his breath. “I have not had enough time with my family, by myself or anything,” he said, “but I felt obligated to my fans, to New Orleans, the city, that I should be here.”

He added: “I felt like being defending champ, it was an obligation that I should be here. I think I should be honored that I won here before, and I should be here. But yeah, I would love to be at home right now watching my little boy and spending time with my wife.”

And Mr. Watson is not alone in this belief that family comes first.  Another great golfer, Phil Michelson was more than ready to quit a major tournament if his wife went into labor.  Mr. Michelson has shown that he has the character to be a winner on and off the course.

Another important thing is that Mr. Watson is playing professional golf in part because he likes to play golf.

“I’m just Bubba from Bagdad, Florida,” Watson said. “Small town. Play golf because I love the game of golf. I play golf because it’s fun. Every day is different.”

And as a result Mr. Watson has a following not only from the public, but from his fellow professional golfers as well.

As Watson was wrapping up his news conference, Ben Crane stood patiently in the back of the room waiting for his turn at the podium. Crane counts Watson among his closest friends on the tour, which is why he did not think twice about returning to the course after finishing his final round at the Masters to cheer Watson along in the playoff.

Joining Crane in the crowd were Rickie Fowler and Aaron Baddeley, with whom Watson has grown close during their weekly Bible study sessions. “We knew that Angie was at home,” Crane said, “she wasn’t able to come out because of the situation with their baby, and so we just wanted to go out and support our friend who we love.”

A couple of points to note here.  One, can anyone imagine any golfer on the tour doing what these people did if it were Tiger Woods.  No, almost certainly not a single other tour pro would have joined the gallery to support Mr. Woods had he been in the playoff.

The second point, can anyone imagine Tiger Woods joining the gallery to support another player?  Not in a million years.  And by the time Mr. Watson was playing the round of his life Mr. Woods was certainly long gone, and thinking only about Mr. Woods. 

Tiger Woods will  win more tournaments, he is just that good.  But unless he changes he will never be what Mr. Watson, Mr. Michelson and the others like them will be, decent and admirable human beings.

The Ugliest of Americans, Donald Trump Demands Scotland Abandon Renewable Energy Project – Spoils the View of His Golf Course

Another Sign of the Decline and Fall of  . . .

It turns out that Liberals and Progressives are not then only people who pursue a NIMBY (Not in My Back Yard) philosophy when it comes to public policy and projects for the common good.  For several years New England progressives have been aghast that wind turbines off the New England shore would disrupt their view of bays and oceans from their luxurious beach front properties.  So while they favor reducing reliance on burning carbon forms for energy, they surely don’t want a wind turbine program to disrupt their aesthetics.

But while those folks have protested in a  somewhat restrained manner, leave it to that crass American, Donald Trump to lead the way in obnoxious behavior.  Mr. Trump is developing a golf resort in Scotland and is upset that Scotland is considering a wind turbine farm near his sacred (for him) lands.

By Jeff J Mitchell, Getty Images
A demonstrator holds a Donald Trump puppet outside the Scottish Parliament on Wednesday.

Donald Trump on Wednesday swept into Scotland's parliament to demand the country end plans for an offshore wind farm he fears will spoil the view at his exclusive new $750-million-pound ($1.2-billion) golf resort.

In a typically blunt display, the New York property tycoon told an inquiry into renewable energy to stop wind power efforts in the country's north.

"Scotland, if you pursue this policy of these monstrous turbines, Scotland will go broke," he said. "They are ugly, they are noisy and they are dangerous. If Scotland does this, Scotland will be in serious trouble and will lose tourism to places like Ireland, and they are laughing at us."

Now the last we checked The Donald was a citizen of the United States (he did run for President you know) and not a citizen of Scotland so exactly what right he has to demand anything of the Scottish Parliament is not clear.  As for the laughing, well it turned out there was laughter but not the way Mr. Trump expected.

When challenged to produce hard evidence about his claims on the negative impact of turbines, Trump said: "I am the evidence, I am a world class expert in tourism."

The public gallery burst into laughter.

Funny, that’s the way those of us in American reacted to Mr. Trump’s candidacy.

Friday, April 27, 2012

Senate Vote To Support Reauthorization of Violence Against Women Bill Puts Conservatives Front and Center

Conservatives Just Don’t Understand Why a Law Protecting Women From Violence is Appropriate Government Policy

The role of government in many situations is clear.  A fundamental role of government indeed the most fundamental role is that it represents collective actions by the citizens of a political entity to protect those citizens against violence.  Given that women are highly vulnerable to violence compared to men, it would seem no one could argue with legislation that affords special protection to women from violent acts.

Of course those expecting such a law to pass are not familiar with Conservatives, who seem to believe that any and all actions of government are wrong.  So while the Senate has just passed a new version of the Violence Against Women law, it did so with some Republican support but against the wishes of Conservatives in the Senate.

The final vote, 68 to 31, including 15 Republicans who voted for reauthorization, belied the partisan maneuvering that preceded Senate action on the bill, which extended landmark legislation first passed in 1994 to give courts and law enforcement new tools to combat domestic violence. The latest version – the third reauthorization since 2000 – followed tradition and was drafted by a Democrat, Senator Patrick J. Leahy of Vermont, and a Republican, Senator Mike Crapo of Idaho.

But it ran into a wall of Republican opposition in the Senate Judiciary Committee, and cleared the committee in February without a Republican vote. Amid partisan clashes over abortion and contraception, some Democrats saw the Violence Against Women Act as the next battle in what they framed as a Republican “war on women.”

Here is what Conservatives object to in the legislation.

House Republican women this week announced they would introduce a version of the violence act when they return from next week’s recess, with a final House vote expected by mid-May.

The House bill is likely to be stripped of three provisions that have incensed some conservatives. One would subject non-American Indian suspects of domestic violence to prosecution before American Indian tribal courts for crimes allegedly committed on reservations. Another would expand the number of temporary visas for victims of domestic violence who are illegal immigrants. The last would expand Violence Against Women Act protections to gay, bisexual or transgender victims of domestic abuse.

The issue with respect to trying defendants in American Indian tribal courts does seem like a reasonable objection, and it does not weaken prosecution or change the nature of the crime.  But notice the other two provisions that Conservatives object to and what they would do.  On the illegal immigration aspect Conservatives would refuse to allow alleged victims the protection of the United States, and sending them back to where they were possibly abused seems like just a cruel action.  As for denying protection to gay, bisexual or transgender victims, obviously the domestic violence those individuals may suffer is for Conservatives punishment for them leading their lives in ways that Conservatives object to.

So at the end of the day Conservatives may allow a version of the bill to become law, the political pressure being too great not to.  But based on their positions on this issue of domestic violence against the most vulnerable of people, no one need ever question their priorities, which is ideology and partisan politics over public safety.

In Minnesota Hospital Debt Collection Firm Accretive Demands Payments from Patients Before They Get Treatment – Yes You Are in the Emergency Room But . . .

A Practice That Ought to Embarrass Even Conservatives – But Probably Won’t

[Update April 27:  Fairview Hospital in Minnesota now says they were 'shocked', shocked to learn there was gambling going on at Rick's unsavory and possibly illegal practices in their hospital by Accretive and that they are taking steps to terminate the relationship.]

To understand the sheer folly of the American health care system is difficult.  Such a task requires hours of devotion to technical minutia and understanding of medical procedures, processes and hospital administration.  But here’s a concept everyone can understand.  You are in the emergency room for, well for an emergency, and a hospital employee who is not really a hospital employee starts pressuring you for payments either on your coming bill or past bills.  The form of that pressure, maybe you won’t get treatment.

In Minnesota legal action by the state Attorney General  has resulted in the release of information that details policies and procedures by a company called Accretive.  This is a company that specializes in collecting past due medical bills.  Here is how they do it.

Craig Lassig for The New York Times
In November, Marcia Newton was 
shocked when she was forced to
 pay for her son Maxx’s ear tube 
surgery at Fairview Hospital even
 before he went into the hospital room.
Accretive debt-collection employees, calling themselves “financial counselors,” are instructed by the upper management ranks to stall patients entering the emergency room until they have agreed to pay a prior balance, according to the documents.

Wow, how can debt collection employees be roaming the hospitals and interacting with patients?  Well Accretive and the hospitals have figured out a way to do this.

To win promised savings, all hospitals have to do is turn over the management of their front-line staffing — ranging from patient registration to scheduling and billing — and their back-office collection activities. Accretive says it has such arrangements with some of the country’s largest hospital systems to help reduce their costs.

Indistinguishable from medical staff members, Accretive employees register patients, take down sensitive health information and champion aggressive bill collection goals with incentives like gift cards for staff members, the company records show.

And what is the result in terms of what a hospital is supposed to be doing, like providing medical care?

As part of its collection strategy, Accretive fostered a boiler-room environment at the hospitals it works with, according to hospital employees and the newly released documents.

While hospital collections increased, patient care plummeted, the employees said. “Patients are harassed mercilessly,” a hospital employee told Ms. Swanson. Another hospital employee complained, “We were told if we don’t get money from patients, in the emergency room, we will be fired.” . . . In March 2011, doctors at Fairview complained that such strong-arm tactics were discouraging patients from seeking life-saving treatments, but Accretive officials dismissed the complaints as “country club talk,” the documents show.

One can only partly blame the company.  Much of the blame must go to hospitals that engage Accretive and allow this to go on.  It is highly likely they are breaking Federal law.

By giving its collectors access to health records, Accretive violates the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, colloquially known as HIPAA, Ms. Swanson said.

For example, an Accretive collection employee had access to records that showed a patient had bipolar disorderParkinson’s disease and a host of other conditions.

Collection employees also discussed a patient’s cancer, speculating about whether the condition was “terminal or disabling,” company e-mails show.

And some of the blame must be go to the U. S. health care system that allows people to go without health insurance and when they are unable to pay, foists their costs onto those who do have insurance or upon the medical care system in the form of bad debts and/or charity.

Maybe something ought to be done about that.  Oh wait, something was done about that, Obamacare, which is now headed for extinction in a Congress and Supreme Court near you.

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Another Nail in the Proverbial Coffin in Britain’s Economic Policy is Another Nail in the Coffin of the British Economy

Conservative Policy Causes Britain’s Economy to Officially Fall Into Recession

The objective, professional world of real economists, unlike those who are dominated by ideological forces has long recognized that economic policy to contract the economy would, in all likelihood contract the economy.  In Britain the Conservative party took over in a coalition government and immediately said that their policy goal was to reduce the deficit, never mind growth and employment.

To meet that goal they embarked upon a policy of massive government spending cuts, massive layoffs of government employees and a small tax increase, a tax increase made even smaller by rescinding a tax increase on very high incomes.  They left in place an increase in the VAT, which acts much like a sales tax in its impact and effect, particularly on low and middle income groups.  The Conservative position was that this policy would produce a “confidence” boost and that boost would influence consumers to spend more and business to invest more.

The latest results published on Britain’s economy show things did not work out as Conservatives felt they would, but they did work out as economists thought they would.

Britain slipped back into recession at the start of this year, with economists concluding that even the most generous interpretation of official data released on Wednesday suggested the economy had flatlined for over a year.

The Office for National Statistics said that output for the first three months of the year contracted by 0.2 per cent, following a 0.3 per cent decline at the end of 2011.

Okay, the negative numbers are small, so maybe it is fair to say that the economy is just dead in the water instead of sinking to the bottom.  But even with a generous interpretation there is this.

Michael Saunders, economist at Citi, said Britain was experiencing “the deepest recession and weakest recovery for 100 years.”

“It is now four years since real GDP peaked in the first quarter of 2008,” he said, noting that the level of GDP at the end of the first quarter of 2012 stood 4.3 per cent below its pre-recession peak.

And yes, some are in denial

While a spokesman for the British Retail Consortium said the data was an accurate reflection of what businesses were seeing, the EEF, a group of manufacturers, disagreed.

“The anecdotal evidence is much more positive than the numbers today,” an EEF spokesman said.

But to take that position one has to believe ‘anecdotal evidence’ rather than hard numbers, which is some ideologues do but professional policy makers and advisers and commentators do not.

George Osborne
Why is this man smiling?
Because he has a job as Chancellor of the
Exchequer and you don't

But mostly in denial was the Conservative government, where Chancellor George Osborne is in charge of fiscal policy.

George Osborne said he had no intention of easing the government’s deficit reduction plan on Wednesday after the economy plunged into a double-dip recession and the longest downturn for more than a century.

With economic woes adding to the long list of troubles for the coalition, the chancellor blamed the eurozone for Britain’s economic plight, which has left output 4.3 per cent below the 2008 peak and rejected Labour’s claim that the new recession was “made in Downing Street”.

“The one thing that would make the situation even worse would be to abandon our credible plan and deliberately add more borrowing and even more debt,” Mr Osborne said.

Yes, everyone would be laughing at this stupidity were the consequences no so devastating for so many people.

It will be interesting to see how all of this plays politically in Britain.  Major local elections will be held soon, the grim economic news along with news about how the Conservative government held secret talks with Rupert Murdoch (controlling owner of Fox News) to facilitate his takeover of a satellite TV system while denying that such talks ever took place will test just how much patience the British voting public has with Conservatives and their policies.

Of course, it would be wrong to mention that much of Britain’s policies with respect to government spending that have led to the economic train wreck are also the policies of Mitt Romney and the Republicans, so we won’t do so.

Austin Frakt of The Incidental Economist Sends Everyone to some Great Health Care Charts

Great in the Sense of Great Costs

One of the more relevant observations is that “if something cannot continue, it will not continue”.  Yes that does not sound like very insightful wisdom but it is something to remember when looking at health care costs.  Thanks to Austin Frakt of  the great health care economics blog The Incidental Economist we have a link to a set of serious charts that show the trends in health care costs. 

One really only has to look at one chart on health care costs. 


All the other charts say the same thing in a different way.  Health care costs as a percent of income are rising.  They have been rising for decades.  The are expected to rise in the near future.  But they cannot continue to keep rising; Americans simply do not have the financial resources to pay higher and higher medical costs. 

So unless a way is found to increase rather than decrease the share of medical costs covered by government or more importantly a health care system is devised which will substantially improve the productivity of health care and lower and even reverse its growth trend in per capita cost increase then the prescription for the future of medicine is take two aspirin and call the doctor in the morning.  Because that’s all you will be able to afford to do.

University of California Trying to Recruit Minority Students – And Not Violate Affirmative Action Rules

One Possible Solution to a Difficult Area

No one is comfortable with Affirmative Action programs.  First of all the fact that there is a need for Affirmative Action reflects badly on our society.  It reminds us that the racism that was once present for example in admissions to college was so prevalent that it takes providing minorities with preferences in order to correct this past injustice.  And no one is comfortable with providing a less qualified applicant with admission to a college over a more qualified applicant regardless of how well meaning and how well justified the policy is. 

As early as this summer the Supreme Court will likely put an end to any and all Affirmative Action programs with respect to college admissions.  Affirmative Action is already just about illegal everywhere anyway.  Yet the problem that has given rise to Affirmative Action, mainly the lack of substantial representation of minorities in major colleges not only continues but has gotten worse.

After California barred affirmative action in 1996, freshman enrollment of blacks across the UC system fell, from 4.2 percent in the 1995-96 school year to 2.8 percent in 2004-05, UC says. By last fall, that figure had edged back up to 3.7 percent

So UC has embarked on programs to try to indirectly increase the number of minorities in its programs.

the system’s 10 campuses have pursued strategies such as wooing lower-income students and those who are the first in their family to go to college, factors that tend to correlate with race. UC has joined with urban high schools to attract undergrads in much the same way it’s now looking for potential graduate students at black colleges. And UCLA and other schools have started working with groups such as the Urban League and the First African Methodist Episcopal Church to find prospective students. “To their credit, they are being creative in trying to promote racial diversity without resorting to racial preferences,” says Richard Kahlenberg, a senior fellow at the Century Foundation, a nonpartisan think tank in New York.

And UC is recruiting students for its graduate program from predominately black colleges,

Students from any of the 105 schools considered to be historically black colleges were invited to apply, and Berkeley received nearly 200 applications from 37 schools. “This would give me a feel for the California system,” says Dorian Kandi, a Morehouse accounting major who was among the applicants. If the concept works for business schools, UC may expand it to law and other graduate programs, school officials say.

This activity would seem to be a reasonable compromise between racial preferences and totally disregarding a history in which minorities were told they were largely unwelcome at top schools.  And not to worry, the “Let’s Make Sure White People Get Ahead” police are on the case.

Efforts such as UC’s can raise the same questions as affirmative action, says Roger Clegg, president of the Center for Equal Opportunity, a Falls Church (Va.) nonprofit opposed to racial preferences. “It depends on what your motive is,” Clegg says. “Are you targeting historically black colleges because you want to achieve a particular ethnic or racial background? Or do you feel they shouldn’t be overlooked because they are a good source of well-qualified students?”

And no, don’t be fooled, the Center for Equal Opportunity is looking out for equal opportunity for, well for you know who. (those people whose equality does not need looking out for if you know what we mean.)

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

The Economist Magazine Looks at Mitt Romney

And Does not Like What it Sees (But then, who does?)

The Economist weekly is one of the great periodicals that documents business and politics and economics.  It’s outlook is not neutral, it has a center/right philosophy that trumpets free enterprise democracy.  But it is not ideologically driven, it recognizes that a system such as capitalism must adapt and be controlled to meet society’s goals and objectives.  It does not embrace Conservatism for the sake of Conservatism.

So now that Mitt Romney has secured the Republican nomination for President in the 2012, it was appropriate for The Economist to take an in-depth look at Mr. Romney’s economics positions, philosophies and policy ideas.  It didn’t like very much what it saw.

The key ingredient here is the Paul Ryan (R, Wi.) budget and spending plan that all Republicans have adopted.  It would drastically cut tax rates for the wealthy, eviscerate social programs, replace Medicare with a private insurance system with higher costs and lower benefits and cut Medicaid by limiting funding and just sending limiting funds to the states.  Of course, on both the spending cuts and the tax provisions no specifics have been identified. 

As the Republican battle for the nomination wore on Mr. Romney moved from disinterest in the Ryan Plan to full endorsement.

Over the next few months, though, Mr Romney steadily warmed to Mr Ryan’s plan as he faced a series of rivals from his political right. By December he was attacking Mr Gingrich for criticising it, and this past February he released a new tax plan of his own that slashed all personal tax rates by 20%. And when Mr Ryan produced a new, very similar, version of his budget on March 20th for next fiscal year, Mr Romney was effusive. “It`s a bold and exciting effort,” the front-runner for the Republican presidential nomination declared. It would be “marvellous”, he said, if the Senate passed it.

Note that Mr. Romney’s flip flopping has now become so common and pervasive that no one comments much on it anymore.  It is now taken for granted that Mr. Romney will adopt whatever position he sees as politically advantageous.  For example here is where Mr. Romney used to be.

The rightward drift of Mr Romney has taken him a long way from where he started. His 2010 book, “No Apology”, reads more like a McKinsey report than a memoir (in fact, it regularly quotes McKinsey, a consultancy). It ranges from the business practices of Japanese doctors to how much profit Comcast, a cable company, invests. Leaf through it and last September’s policy platform with its 59 specific proposals, and you will encounter sober discussion of ways to deal with greenhouse gases, international trade and retraining.

which the right leaning Economist found acceptable.  But now they are concerned about where he is today.

Mr Romney claims that this plan would be neutral in terms of both revenue and distribution, meaning it would not change the level of tax take or the relative position of rich and poor. That is hard to believe. The Tax Policy Centre, a research group, reckons Mr Romney’s original plan would have added $180 billion to the deficit in 2015, while the new one adds a whopping $500 billion. 

The Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, giving Mr Romney some credit for his promised spending cuts, says his plan would send the national debt up to 96% of GDP by 2021 from 73% this year; it would reach only 76% under Mr Obama’s latest budget. Neither group gives Mr Romney credit for his promise to pay for the cuts by closing loopholes, because he has specified none, though he has reportedly told donors he might eliminate deductions for rich people’s second mortgages and for state and local taxes.

Yes, this is deep in the heart of Fantasy Land.

The magazine gently suggests that Mr. Romney may want to change positions yet again,

Mr Romney may want to tack away from these proposals over the course of the campaign in an effort to woo centrist voters. But having so prominently embraced Mr Ryan, it will be difficult for him to let go; and in any case, it may not matter. On fiscal policy, it is Mr Ryan, not Mr Romney, who guides the party’s agenda, in a way no legislator has since Jack Kemp, a backbench congressman, came up with supply-side economics in the 1970s as the party’s route back to the White House.

But the real news here is what many of us know but which the main stream press has refused to report.  If Mr. Romney is elected it will be the radical conservatives in the Congress who will be driving policy.  Mr. Romney’s positions, whatever they are, can be ignored because they will not matter a great deal.  Here is prominent and influential Republican tax guru Grover Norquist spilling the beans about the role of the next Republican President.

As Grover Norquist, an anti-tax campaigner, puts it, “We don’t need a president to tell us in what direction to go. We know what direction to go. We want the Ryan budget. We…just need a president to sign this stuff.”

If Mr. Romney is elected he will have two choices, go along with the radical Congressional agenda or face a primary challenge in 2016 and be the first sitting President in modern times to be denied re-nomination.  

The Fourth Industrial Revolution Means Training and Education Are Key To Economic Success

Are You Listening America?  -   No, Didn’t Think So

In its lead cover story The Economist talks about what they call the third industrial revolution.  What they identify is really the fourth industrial revolution.  The first was conversion of the textile and clothing industry to factory sourcing, the second was the development of large capital goods industries like steel and rail and oil, and the third was the change in manufacturing from capital goods to consumer durable goods like auto’s, home appliances and homes themselves.

The fourth stage (or third, whatever) is the emergence of digital manufacturing processes.  The heart of the digital manufacturing revolution is 3-D printing.  It can be described this way.

The old way of making things involved taking lots of parts and screwing or welding them together. Now a product can be designed on a computer and “printed” on a 3D printer, which creates a solid object by building up successive layers of material. The digital design can be tweaked with a few mouseclicks. The 3D printer can run unattended, and can make many things which are too complex for a traditional factory to handle. In time, these amazing machines may be able to make almost anything, anywhere—from your garage to an African village.

What this means is that mass production of standardized items is giving way to production of very small quantities of customized items.  Want a refrigerator that is builtg to your specifications, just get the specs to the manufacturer, and  the digital manufacturer will make a one of a kind refrigerator for you at the same or lower cost than a mass produced model.

An engineer working in the middle of a desert who finds he lacks a certain tool no longer has to have it delivered from the nearest city. He can simply download the design and print it. The days when projects ground to a halt for want of a piece of kit, or when customers complained that they could no longer find spare parts for things they had bought, will one day seem quaint.

The key to utilizing this technology will be highly trained technically skilled labor.

Most jobs will not be on the factory floor but in the offices nearby, which will be full of designers, engineers, IT specialists, logistics experts, marketing staff and other professionals. The manufacturing jobs of the future will require more skills. Many dull, repetitive tasks will become obsolete: you no longer need riveters when a product has no rivets.

and there’s the problem.  In the United States this training and education can only come from government support of public education.  The idea that private, and in some cases for-profit schools, or church sponsored schools whose mission is religious indoctrination rather than science and engineering can meet the challenges of providing a population with the needed skills and training is pure fantasy.  But the United States, under the spell of greed for lower taxes and under the influence of ignorance that places religious myths over scientific facts will not have the education system to produce a world class work force for the future.

In 2050 if the current political mood becomes dominant in government, the U. S. will look back with a “what might have been” outlook, and wonder why the people who severely weakened the strongest economy the world has ever seen were ever elected.