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Jun. 1 2010 — 7:19 am | 470 views | 0 recommendations | 2 comments

Propositions 16 and 17: Welcome to the corpocracy

On June 8, Californians will vote on a couple of exceptional propositions that are the first attempts in decades by corporations to use the ballot initiative process to change the law in their favor.

California’s ballot initiative system was implemented during the Progressive era to enable citizens to amend the state constitution without going through the legislature (though the legislature can also put initiatives on the ballot). The idea was to provide citizens with a method of protecting themselves from well-funded special interests lobbying the legislature by giving them their own direct avenue to lawmaking.

It’s ironic, therefore, that the system should become a means by which well-funded special interests circumvent the legislature—because they know that a well-informed professional lawmaker would never buy what’s now being propagated in an ad campaign paid for by the state’s largest private utility, PG&E.

Prop 16, the “Taxpayers’ Right to Vote Act,” would require a 2/3 majority in a voter referendum to create or expand any municipally-owned utility, which in most of the state would mean competing with Pacific Gas & Electric or shutting it out of a potential market. PG&E is the measure’s sole sponsor, and has spent $44 million pressing for passage. (The company told shareholders to expect a short-term decline in share price as a result of the expenditure, originally budgeted at $35 million.)

Nearly every city, town, county, consumer group, environmental group, and newspaper in the state opposes the measure, along with AARP, the League of Women Voters and even another large private utility, San Diego’s Metropolitan Water District.

“This is a for-profit corporation trying to kill off its not-for-profit rivals,” said San Francisco Supervisor Ross Mirkarimi told the SF Chronicle. “Prop. 16 is a colossal fraud perpetrated on the people of California.”

PG&E wants to hike rates because it spent a lot of money on dirty-energy infrastructure just before California passed its Renewable Portfolio Standard, requiring the state to get 20% of its energy from fossil-fuel-free sources by the end of this year. Success of Prop 17 would put the kibbosh on efforts to quash the rate hike.

The company’s ad dollars have shouted down proposals to create public utilities in the past—and those only needed a bare majority to pass. Experts say the 2/3 requirement, which is a major factor in the annual disaster in California known as the state budget, would effectively doom any future proposal—and with it efforts to accelerate the transition to green energy.

Prop. 17 got on the June 8 ballot through a $3.5 million signature-gathering campaign by Mercury Insurance Co. The company has been accused of illegally discriminating against some applicants, but Prop. 17 would make such behavior OK, and roll back other consumer protections. California’s Insurance Commissioner (yes, since 1991 California has had a statewide elected official with this title), a Republican, has written of Mercury’s “lengthy history of serious misconduct [and] contempt toward and/or abuse of its customers.”

Nothing like these initiatives has been tried since 1988, when the law which Prop 17 is attempting to overturn was enacted. That November, there were four competing insurance-related initiatives on the ballot, one of which was backed by an insurance company that spent over 90% of the money in support of it. Until then, insurers could deny coverage on the basis of race, religion, sexual preference, choice of boxers over briefs—literally anything. Because there were competing initiatives, and it was a November Congressional election with relatively high turnout, the propositions got a ton of press coverage and a consumer-friendly one that Ralph Nader supported won the day. It limits the factors that an insurer can take into account when deciding whether to offer coverage, and at what price, to factors that actually have a statistical bearing on one’s likelihood of getting into an accident.

Ever since ‘88, I was told by Eric McGhee, an expert on voter initiatives at the Public Policy Institute of California, companies have been discouraged by the experience from pursuing their agendas through the ballot-intitiative process and have instead mainly spent their political-influence money on lobbying. McGhee says they largely prefer lobbying to campaign contributions because it’s more likely to get them the specific break in the law that they’re seeking.

This isn’t to say corporations have stayed out of initiative campaigns, but it’s usually been on the No side, to stop a proposition placed on the ballot by citizens or the legislature that goes against their interests. With 16 and 17, the companies are pro-actively seeking to change the law in their favor in a way that’s exceptional.

One longtime academic observer of California politics told me the measures will fail if voters pay close enough attention and the “No”’s can raise enough money.

But that’s a big if. PG&E is outspending the No’s by more than 1000:1 (yes, one thousand to one.) As for the former question, we’ll just have to wait and see on June 8. The companies have been hitting the airwaves to pump the notion that they’re looking out for Californians’ best interest, but if that were so it could put PG&E afoul of the law: SEC regulations require the publicly-traded company to place shareholder value above other concerns, so either its $44 million investment is in its own best interest, not Californians’, or it risks legal action. PG&E’s lawyers and executives may be greedy, craven and cynical, but I doubt they’re stupid.

The failure in ‘88 discouraged companies from using ballot initiatives to push their agendas for a generation. But someone at one of the groups opposing the measures told me that the PG&E attempt is “the most brazen attempt” he’s ever seen.

If PG&E &/or Mercury are successful, it could have as strong an influence as ‘88 did, but in the opposite direction, unleashing corporate money into the initiative arena like never before—and showing the rest of the country what life post-Citizens United might look like.

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May. 12 2010 — 8:19 pm | 664 views | 0 recommendations | 7 comments

No free lunch: Why Republican policies always end up biting you in the ass

The Wall Street Journal today editorializes that the Cape Wind clean energy project that recently won the approval of the Interior Dept. is a “lousy deal” because it may, if the pricing scheme proposed by the company operating the wind farm is approved by regulators, produce energy at double the price consumers in the area now pay.

Here’s what’s also going to be expensive, if we don’t move aggressively toward a clean energy future:
•Rebuilding after hurricanes, which will be stronger and more frequent with a warmer Atlantic Ocean. Hurricane Andrew, in 1992, cost $41.5b in 2010 dollars.
•Cleaning up after oil spills, such as is now being played out along the Gulf Coast. Current costs are estimated at $350m and rising.
•The price of food, as fertile soil is lost to heat and drought.

I could go on, but you get the point: Conservatives don’t want to pay now, but we’ll all end up paying later. The difference is that the costs now are knowable, and so easier to plan for.

The Journal says that Cape Wind will result in “$443 million in new energy costs.” It doesn’t say among how many people these costs will be spread out, or over how long a period of time; if it’s 5 million people who might get power from Cape Wind, over 40 years (which seems like a reasonable amount of time for it to function), then we’re talking about a whopping $2.21 per person per year.

Disinvestment—the inevitable result of their tax-cuts-to-solve-everything approach to governing (if you can call it that)—also ends up costing more in the long term. Case in point: In 1978 Californians voted to cap their property taxes. This was hailed as a great moment, the people taking power away from big scary mean government, and launched an anti-tax movement that can be said to be the roots of the “Tea Party” (which boasts among its membership people who are on Medicaid yet rail against “people looking for handouts” and “the whole welfare mentality”). But since public schools get the bulk of their funding from this pool, the state’s schools went from tops in the nation to down around Mississippi’s somewhere. Obviously this would not have been the sole factor (conservatives will probably blame unions and immigrants), but it cannot be said that the way to improve outcomes in education is to reduce its funding.

Now you’ve got companies saying the students we’re graduating are too dumb for them to hire (I can point you to the surveys if you’re interested). So we get a lot of unemployed people. But Republicans don’t want to pay unemployment benefits. Some of these people turn to crime—and Republicans are always happy to lock people away. Here’s the problem: It costs about $25000 a year to incarcerate someone.

California spends about 1/3 that figure per pupil on public education. So would you rather educate people now, or get car-jacked by them later?

This would be funny except the pattern gets played out again and again. Look at the news today: It’s conventional wisdom on the conservative blogs (and leaking into the mainstream press) that the reason Greece and Spain are so screwed (if they are indeed screwed; the $18b per year bailout compares favorably with the $144b a year we’re spending in Iraq) is because of their overly generous welfare states. The implication is that there but for the grace of God go I, i.e., the US will be headed down this road if we don’t cut back on entitlements (somehow the Pentagon’s budget, which has nearly tripled in the last 20 years, is always left out of these discussions).

Now consider Republican policies: They want every company to be free to move their operations to wherever labor is cheapest. They don’t want to pay to retrain the workers left behind for the service jobs that are all our economy creates anymore. They don’t want to give them unemployment insurance over the long term. They don’t want to pay to educate their kids, so that the kids don’t grow up into the same predicament as their unemployed parents.

So what are they supposed to do? Live off the fat of the land? Become bond traders? Whoops, that won’t work—their education is shit. Work retail? Great—but who’s going to buy the stuff they’re selling?

Is there something I’m missing here?

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May. 10 2010 — 8:03 am | 47 views | 0 recommendations | 2 comments

Gates’ speech puts Pentagon where Rumsfeld had it in 2000

Credit Defense Secretary Robert Gates for having the cajones to stand up to the military brass and the pork barons in the Congress, cajoling each to cut wasteful spending; stop fighting the Cold War; and eliminate projects from the budget that do nothing for national security, but help members of Congress get re-elected.

The irony here is that this is exactly the work Donald Rumsfeld was brought in to do a decade ago. (It’s a job that’s needed doing for 20 years; in the meantime we’ve spent about $7,300,000,000 on defense—not including appropriations to pay for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.)

Rumsfeld was known, from his experience in private industry, as an aggressive cost-cutter. (Disclosure: Rumsfeld’s son and I were buddies in college; Rumsfeld’s best friend’s wife and my mother are close friends.) Perhaps more importantly, as head of the pharmaceutical giant G.D. Searle & Co., he earned the reputation as being someone who could change minds and push agendas in government: he shepherded Searle’s artificial sweetener, aspartame, through FDA approval.

Of course, 9/11 significantly re-arranged Rumsfeld’s to-do list. Bush might have thought to replace him with a wartime SecDef; Rumsfeld’s do-it-on-the-cheap M.O.A. proved terribly ill-suited to preparing for the fall of Iraq, and its occupation. (Condoleeza Rice, a Soviet scholar, didn’t exactly have the background to deal with the new threat, either.)

Anyway, here’s hoping Gates is successful. With the Pentagon accounting for almost half of all discretionary spending, we clearly can’t continue along this path much longer.

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May. 8 2010 — 3:45 pm | 236 views | 0 recommendations | 10 comments

Greece’s debt = 1/2 Google’s revenue

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Image via CrunchBase

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Stock markets reeled last week—even leaving aside the mysterious 13-minute swing on Thursday which investigators are still trying to figure out—partly on the chance that Greece will be unable to meet its loan payments. Germany came to the rescue yesterday, but we’re not entirely out of the woods.

For all the stress and fear of contagion and plunging markets and blah blah blah, I think it’s worth putting this “crisis” into perspective:

On May 19, Greece will need about $12 billion.

Google’s profit—its PROFIT—in 2009 was $6.5 billion, on revenue of $23.6 billion.

I don’t point this out to say that Google is too big or too profitable. But for heaven’s sake: For half of what Google pulls in in a year, Greece can meet its first big debt payment?

Correct me if I’m wrong, but when two guys in their 30’s can solve a problem by whipping out their checkbooks, it doesn’t strike me as a situation that’s going to cause a global financial meltdown.

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May. 6 2010 — 4:53 pm | 424 views | 1 recommendations | 19 comments

Big Drop Thursday: Market plunge shows why we need a transaction tax

Today’s stunning market plunge and rebound, in which the Dow Jones Industrial Average swung 874 points in 13 minutes, is Exhibit A in why a transaction tax on stock trades is a good idea.

I’ve been a buy-and-hold investor since the late 1980’s, so while I don’t look at the daily fluctuations I think I would have noticed a day with such a dramatic swing, and I sure don’t remember one. (If I’m wrong, please correct me in the comments; I’d look through the charts myself but it would cause me to miss a deadline.)

The remarkable turn of events appears to be the result of computer-driven trading, in which trading firms employ software algorithms that automatically generate transactions. (For one thing, humans can’t trade at the speed required to move the market so far, so quickly.) These programs were blamed for much of the markets’ losses in late 2008 and early 2009, which saw a lot of days on which indices would plunge around 3pm after falling slightly, or even trying to rally, earlier on; the programs see a certain set of factors in place at a certain time of day and it sets off alarm bells, generating frenzied automatic selling no matter the stock and no matter the news.

There’s nothing wrong with these programs per se—in fact I’m sure they’ve helped market efficiency in some ways—but when a perfect storm happens they can wipe out trillions in shareholder value overnight, with no basis in fundamentals like EPS or EBITDA. When that happens, they’re acting on trends, not on the inherent value of companies which we’re supposed to be investing in. These algorithms are both a function and a cause of the transition of stock trading in recent decades from an emotion-driven casino where people and computers are betting on share price, instead of a rational market in which investors are buying a share of a company’s future earnings.

When I started watching the markets, a day in which a billion shares were traded was considered heavy volume. Today that’s typical for a Friday before a long weekend. A transaction tax would keep things from boiling over so frequently by putting a lid on much of the meaningless but stress-inducing volatility that gives traders and investors heart attacks.

A transaction tax—there are various proposals, but the one proposed in Congress would place a 0.25% levy on trades of $100,000 or more, and 2% on derivatives—would cause these algorithms to be recalculated on the side of caution. This wouldn’t affect Main Street investors, who generally don’t fool around with 100 grand at a pop and to whom the derivative markets aren’t open, but it’s estimated this plan would raise $150bn a year. It’s true that big institutional investors are trading with pension funds that affect regular folks’ pocketbooks and retirements, but the costs would be so spread out as to be barely noticeable, and in exchange we’d get a lot of market stability and send a lot of foolhardy players messing around with other people’s money to the sidelines.

Ask anyone who planned to tap their 401(k) or whose pension vested in late ‘08 or ‘09 if they’d give up a few dollars for every $100k of their nest egg in exchange for that.

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    I've been writing and editing for national magazines for 11 years, the last few specializing in environmental journalism, with additional experience producing daily news for, and appearing as a commentator on, public radio, and editing and managing a website.

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