Saturday, August 27, 2016

More Cat Videos

Because you can never get too many cat videos, can you?

Connecticut Open - More Photos

 Louisa Chirico - forehand, backhand, and serve

Caroline Wozniacki serves with partner Klaudia Jans-Ignacik at net

One of the top rated doubles teams, Timea Babos (serving) and Yaroslava Shvedova

Natural Weekends - Female Cardinal And An Egret

Friday, August 26, 2016

Yellen Signals Rate Hike But Gives No Indication On Timing

Janet Yellen spoke today at the annual Jackson Hole symposium and once again indicated the Fed would be looking to raise rates, perhaps before the end of the year. Citing the improved labor market and the outlook for inflation and economic activity, she said, "I believe the case for an increase in the federal funds rate has strengthened in recent months".  That rather optimistic view was offset at almost the same time by the latest release of revised first and second quarter GDP from the BLS. The numbers hardly show an economy that is overheating. Second quarter GDP was revised down to just 1.1% and the first quarter GDP came in at an anemic 0.8%. Yes, the latest inflation numbers are getting close to the Fed's 2% target although even that is not a sure thing. But that 2% number is a target, not a cap, and there are many good arguments that higher inflation would actually be a good thing, as one Fed bank president has proposed. But maybe more importantly, wages have actually started to rise, putting more money in the hands of workers. And apparently the Fed just can't allow that to happen.

EpiPen Maker Price Gouges Before Monopoly Ends

Another quick follow up to the outrageous price hikes for EpiPens. It appears that Mylan, the company that makes EpiPens, settled a lawsuit in 2012 that would end its patent protection and allow a generic competitor in 2015. Mylan had already started to raise the price of the product before 2012, probably in anticipation of this settlement. And after the settlement, the price hikes increased in frequency. The company received even more good news when the generic was rejected by the FDA and its only other competitor had to be pulled from the market due to dosing problems, leaving Mylan with an absolute monopoly.

This has become pretty standard procedure with pharmaceutical companies whose products' patent protection is ending - massive price hikes in the last few years of monopoly power before a generic competitor arrives. I think everyone agrees that these firms should be give an opportunity to recoup the expenses of drug development. But having that monopoly power does not entitle a company to price-gouge. That is why regulating these monopolies is so important. Too bad our government can't be bothered to do it.

Uber Spends A Fortune To Build A Monopoly

I've certainly made my antipathy toward the gig economy and Uber in particular well known. Uber's basic business plan is to go into an area, violate the local rules and regulations, and hope that the service becomes so popular that local officials are afraid to shut it down. And, based on the most recent shareholders' conference call, it appears that the other part of their business plan is to expand into as many areas as possible as quickly as possible in the hopes of creating an impregnable monopoly. To that end, Uber has apparently lost $1.2 billion dollars in just the first two quarters of this year. The company pointed to heavy losses in their now-abandoned attempt to expand into China as well as a price war with its only real competitor, Lyft. Uber has now lost around $4 billion in its short seven year history. But don't worry about Uber too much - they have raised $16 billion so they have a few more years before they run through all that. But by far the most disturbing number in this latest report is that Uber believes that it controls somewhere around 85% of the market here in the United States. Does anyone believe that having one company in control of such a significant share of the market is going to work to the benefit of American consumers or workers? Me neither. It is really high time that antitrust laws in this country are actually enforced.

Jorge Ramos Reminds Us That We Will Be Judged

I have been giving a lot of what I think is deserved flak to the media for not aggressively pursuing Trump's refusal to release his taxes. Yes, I know that Trump gives us all something new and astounding to write about virtually every day. But like the refusal of Republicans to give Merrick Garland a hearing, Trump's refusal release his taxes is an attack on transparency and democracy. It sets a precedent that can only be detrimental going forward. I have also been critical of Republican leaders who still refuse to repudiate Trump even as his outrages continue and that history will judge them harshly for their cowardice.

Jorge Ramos is considered the Walter Cronkite of Spanish-language TV in America today. And Ramos sees Trump's actions and positions, not only on his taxes but also his racist and sexist remarks, as antithetical to American democracy. Ramos went on Fox News the other night and, in words far more eloquent than mine, laid down the gauntlet to the media, to the politicians, and to the American people regarding Trump. Here are his powerful words:

"It doesn’t matter who you are—a journalist, a politician or a voter—we’ll all be judged by how we responded to Donald Trump. Like it or not, this election is a plebiscite on the most divisive, polarizing and disrupting figure in American politics in decades. And neutrality is not an option. [...]
Regardless of whether Donald Trump wins or loses, we will be asked on November 9th: What did you do? Did you support him? Were you brave enough, ethical enough, to challenge him when he insulted immigrants, Muslims, women, war heroes and people with disabilities? Are you on the record correcting his lies? Did you discuss with your friends and family that in a democracy like ours there is no room for racism and discrimination? Or did you just seat idly, silently, allowing others to decide the future of the United States?
Because you will be asked.
Trump has forced journalists to revisit rules of objectivity and fairness. Just providing both points of view is not enough in the current presidential campaign. If a candidate is making racist and sexist remarks, we cannot hide in the principle of neutrality."

Thursday, August 25, 2016

Connecticut Open - Kvitova And Wozniacki

 A few pictures of Petra Kvitova and Caroline Wozniacki from Monday at the Connecticut Open.

Does Mayor Ganim Actually Live In Bridgeport

Inquiring minds want to know if Mayor Joe Ganim actually lives in Bridgeport. Apparently Joe was recently caught renting his newly owned property in Black Rock, the area of Bridgeport hit hardest by Ganim's huge increase in the mil rate. The bylaws of the residential complex do not allow a business to be run out of the condos or short-term rentals. Unfortunately for Ganim, his sidelight was revealed when an out-of-town reporter who was writing an article about Connecticut politics actually rented the condo from Ganim through Airbnb. In addition, Ganim had claimed another condominium on Cartright Street as his primary address when he began his successful comeback into Bridgeport politics. But that condo is available as a rental on another website, That leads to a disturbing question of where Joe actually lives considering both his properties are available for rent. Say it ain't so, Joe.

The Importance Of Trump's Taxes

Eric Trump says it would be foolish for his father to release his tax returns while he is supposedly under audit by the IRS. "There is no tax attorney in the world who will tell you to release your tax returns while you’re under a standard routine audit", says Eric. Eric goes on to further insult Americans by claiming, "You would have a bunch of people who know nothing about taxes trying to look through and trying to come up with assumptions on something they know nothing about." Apparently, Eric does not believe there are any Americans competent enough to analyze a tax return. Instead he suggests that the most important factor is not Trump's tax returns but at his assets. "You learn a lot more when you look at a person’s assets. You know how many hotels we have around the world? You know how many golf courses we have around the world?", says Eric. Actually we don't. We really have no idea whether Trump is merely a front man or whether he really has ownership interests in these worldwide properties. And that is why it would be nice to see Trump's taxes. Of course another good reason is that he is running for President of the United States and, as citizens, we should have a right to know what his financial profile actually looks like. Even though I doubt that this is the case, I think Americans have a right to know if Donald owes millions of dollars to Russian oligarchs, don't you? I would expect the same of every candidate running for President. There is no rule or regulation stopping Trump from releasing his taxes. And there are plenty of years of trump's taxes that even he admits are not under audit, but he still refuses to release those too.

The fact that Trump refuses to release his taxes should really automatically disqualify him from being President. And the media should pound away on this every single day. Because if Trump is allowed to get away with it this years, we may never see another candidate's taxes again. And that would be just one more blow to American democracy. 

Cost Of Insulin Reflects Runaway Capitalism

On Monday, we had the story of the skyrocketing price of EpiPen. Today's news is that even the cost of insulin has tripled between 2002 and 2012. Insulin has been around since the 1920s and is required for diabetics to properly maintain their blood sugar levels. Unlike the EpiPen, however, there are three large producers of insulin - Sanofi, Novo Nordisk, and Eli Lilly. Remarkably, all three of them manage to raise their prices in tandem in a move that is euphemistically known as "shadow pricing". In the past, this was known as price fixing and was, and probably still is, illegal. The rise in insulin prices highlight all that is wrong with the way drugs are priced in this country. All three companies manage to tweak their insulin products just enough to extend the lives of their patents, essentially blocking the creation of a "generic" insulin. But excessive patent protections aren't the only problem. There is a middleman between you and the drug producers and they are known as pharmacy benefit managers (PBMs). The PBMs are another oligopoly as three companies, ExpressScripts, CVS Health, and OptumRx, control over 80% of the market and service around 180 million insured people. They are supposed to use their market power to bargain for lower drug prices but, on the other hand, they are also for-profit companies, bringing in more than $200 million combined. The drug companies pay these PBMs "rebates" to encourage them to use their products. In the past, this was knows as either bribery or a kickback and was, and still is, illegal. So, rather than choosing the product with the lowest price, the PBMs actually have an incentive to choose the product that offers the largest rebate. In fact, although the amount of rebates is not, for some reason, publicly disclosed, it is estimated that over 50% of the cost of insulin is driven by the rebates the drug companies are offering. Of course, the benefits of those rebates do not get passed along to the consumer but are pocketed by the PBMs. So rather than lowering drug costs, PBMs are actually driving costs higher and lining their own pockets. The real answer is for the government to cap the costs of drugs like they do in every other developed country in this world. In Europe, for instance, the cost of insulin is about one-fifth of what it does here in the US.

To recap, we have two oligopolies that are driving the rising cost of insulin. The drug companies use their excessive patent protections to keep competitors off the market and PBMs dominate the insurance market, pocketing the cost savings that should be passed along to consumers. The drug companies are effectively price fixing and paying bribes or kickbacks to the PBMs who are happy to pocket these "savings". It really begs the question - are there any regulations to restrain these firms? Aggressive antitrust enforcement, restoring sensible patent protections, and prosecuting price fixing and bribery/kickbacks are clearly the answer if we really are interested in making sure consumers are not overpaying for the drugs they need to use. The tools are there if we choose to use them. Somehow I doubt our legislators are interested in that.

Court Rules Many Missouri Felonies Be Reduced To Misdemeanors Due To Error

Missouri has a real mess on its hands. On Tuesday, the Missouri Supreme Court ruled that, because of poor wording, the state's criminal code that designated certain types of crime associated with stealing as felonies was written in such a way that they did not apply to the original statue on stealing. Apparently, way back in 2002, the state amended the criminal code and added the designation of Class B and Class C felonies to "any offense in which the value of property or services is an element". Unfortunately, the statute that covers stealing makes no mention of the value of property or services, only "appropriate[ing] property or services of another." This means that anyone who was convicted of one of these felonies since 2002 will have the opportunity to have that sentence reduced to a misdemeanor. As the Missouri State Public Defenders Office noted in a memo, "This has implications for the statute of limitations (one year on a misdemeanor).  This has implications for convictions used to enhance. This has implications for inmates serving sentences for felonies." Unraveling all this for convictions under these felony statutes since 2002 is going to be a real chore. In addition, as the Defenders Office noted, there may also be repercussions for defendants who had their sentences for a subsequent crime upgraded because of the prior felony conviction, not to mention those who served jail time for a felony conviction under one of these statutes. How the state is going to compensate them is beyond me. But it won't be pretty. Thankfully for the state, a new criminal code goes into effect in 2017 and these items have been fixed, although that also seems to have happened by accident as no legislator seems to have been aware of the problem in the first place.

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Today's Trump Lie

Yesterday on the O'Reilly Factor, Donald Trump claimed he had spoken to a top guy in the Chicago police and was told that he could stop the violence that has been plaguing Chicago in a week, if given the authority. Trump said, "I went to a top police officer in Chicago who is not the police chief, and he — I could see by the way he was dealing with his people, he was a rough, tough guy, they respected him greatly. I said, how do you think you do it? He said Mr. Trump, within one week we could stop much of this horror show that’s going on." Unfortunately, today the Chicago police responded by saying, "We've discredited this claim months ago. No one in the senior command at CPD has ever met with Donald Trump or a member of his campaign." So who did Trump talk to? Or is Trump having delusions? Maybe he's not mentally stable. Does he have a problem with the truth? Questions, questions. Of course, this is par for the course with the Trump campaign. And Republicans are still rallying behind this disaster. History is watching.

California Court Affirms Teacher Tenure Rules

In more good news for workers, the California Supreme Court refused to hear a suit that challenged the tenure rules for state teachers. The suit was brought by wealthy backers on the supposed behalf of poor and underserved students who they claim were being harmed by "bad" teachers who had received tenure. The suit was kind of a mess as the supposed plaintiffs were not taught by the ineffective teachers named, several of the plaintiffs attended schools that do not have teacher tenure, and one of the teachers named also happened to be teacher of the year in Pasadena. More likely, this suit was just another attempt to break the teachers' union and probably help the proponents of charter schools. In fact, a recent study showed that unionized school districts actually have higher teacher quality that non-unionized districts and are more likely to dismiss poor quality teachers. But that won't stop the proponents of this suit - they vow to take their case to the legislature next year. If they were really concerned about the poor and minority students as they claim, they would focus on the huge disparity in education resources that exist between districts, primarily due to inequality in wealth. Erasing this inequality, perhaps by even, God forbid, taking money from wealthier districts in order to provide more resources for poorer ones, would do far more for the students they claim to care about than getting rid of a few bad teachers.

White Collar Workers Push To Unionize

Workers got a couple of pieces of good news today, courtesy of the Obama administration and the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB). I've been a fan of Tom Perez over at the Labor Department, even pushing him for Hillary's VP choice. And he has come through for workers once again with a new regulation that prohibits firms who have had recent violations of labor law from receiving federal contracts. Specifically, the rule states that a company would be forced to disclose if it had violated workplace safety, workplace discrimination, labor organizing rights, or minimum wage and overtime laws in the prior three years. The disclosure would be required if there was official finding by a federal agency, a judgment from a court or an arbitration award and only the most egregious violations would result in a firm being ineligible for the contract.

And on Tuesday, the NLRB ruled that grad students who work as research and teaching assistants at private universities have the right to unionize. This ruling overturned a 2004 ruling by the NLRB that deemed the grad students as primarily having an educational as opposed to an economic relationship with their universities and therefore had no federal right to unionize. For years, teaching and research assistants have felt that these private universities were never properly compensating them for the increasing time and responsibilities.

In a strange twist, white collar workers are showing more and more interest in unionizing to combat the abusive corporate environments they work in even as blue collar union jobs continue to decline. Just today, the staff at Law360 voted to unionize, joining digital media workers at Salon, Vice, ThinkProgress, The Guardian, Huffington Post, and the now-defunct Gawker and Al Jazeera America. For many of these workers including the grad students, the issue is not necessarily about money but rather a recognition that, without a union, all the power resides with the company. Hopefully, this trend will continue and expand into other white collar industries as a response to corporate abuse and the outrageous compensation differences between top executives and the people who actually do all the work.

Tantaros' Suit Expands Problems For Fox And Murdochs

I have been skeptical that Fox News could endure the Roger Ailes' scandal without a thorough house-cleaning as is it was pretty clear that the culture at the company reflected the man at the top. And now a new lawsuit filed by former host Andrea Tantaros has specifically implicated not only Ailes but other senior top executives at Fox. In addition to Ailes, Tantaros also lists Fox News, newly appointed leader of Fox, Bill Shine, general counsel Dianne Brandi, and two other Fox executives as defendants. The suit not only makes claims of sexual harassment against Ailes as well as accusing Fox employees such as Scott Brown and Bill O'Reilly of inappropriate behavior but also claims that the company retaliated against her when she turned down Ailes' advances by moving her to a less prestigious time slot, leaking unflattering information about her, and undermining her career in other ways. Tantaros described the environment at Fox "like a sex-fueled, Playboy Mansion-like cult, steeped in intimidation, indecency and misogyny." The accusations against Shine and Brandi are hardly surprising. As general counsel, Brandi had to have been involved with the settlements that Fox paid out to silence some of Ailes' victims. And Shine was also tangentially implicated in the tragic abuse of Laurie Luhn which is why it was so surprising that the Murdochs made Shine part of the new leadership team. They may regret that decision now, especially if Shine is subsequently forced to step down as result of this suit or any new revelations the suit brings. If, in fact, that does happen, maybe the Murdochs will finally get the message and clean house at Fox.

Follow Up On EpiPen Price Hikes

A quick follow-up to yesterday's post about the rising cost of EpiPens. It turns out that the CEO of Mylan, the company that currently makes the EpiPen and has raised the price of the item by over 600% since 2009, is Heather Brescher. Brescher is the daughter of Democratic Senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia. And as the price of the EpiPen has risen, so has Brescher's compensation. In 2007, she was paid nearly $2.5 million in 2009 and today she makes nearly $19 million. Brescher was also involved in another seeming unethical ploy back in 2008. Mrs. Brescher was awarded an MBA from West Virginia University (WVU) even though she did not have enough academic credits to earn that degree. As it turned out, Mr. Brescher was a long time friend of the president of WVU who was subsequently force to resign when the scandal came out. It should also be noted that the former CEO of Mylan was not only a major contributor to Senator Joe Manchin but also the largest donor to WVU, which also may have influenced the decision to award Mrs. Brescher her degree.

This is another classic example of price-gouging that has become commonplace in the health care and pharmaceutical industries. When companies have a monopoly on a certain product or drug, there is nothing to stop them from these outrageous price increases. And restrictive patent laws just add to these companies' monopoly power. Yes, I know the pharmaceutical companies say that the research for new drugs is outrageously expensive and they need "protection" in order to recoup their expenses. But EpiPens have been around a long time and they are essentially a delivery device. And other drugs that have seen tremendous price increases are basically drugs that are very specialized and do not have a wide market, allowing one make to dominate the market. The costs for these drugs' development have been recouped long ago. But people like Heather Brescher come in, buy these products, and then jack up the prices. If there isn't some kind of regulation to rein in these health-profiteers, then there should be.

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

EpiPen Prices Result Of Near Monopoly Power

While I'm going on about the corruption in the US economy, I guess I should also mention the patent and copyright protections that many companies enjoy long after those protections should have run out. Nowhere is the problem more sever than in the prescription drug sector. Today, we find that the cost of an EpiPen, a lifesaving device for people with severe allergies, has risen dramatically in the last seven years. In 2009, a two-pen set (the recommended number for an individual at risk to carry) cost a little over $100 and the pens expire after one year requiring users to refill annually. By this May, that price had spiked to over $600. The EpiPen is a product that has been around for decades and in 2009 Mylan acquired the product. Since then, the price of the product has risen 600%. The company blames high deductible insurance policies and point out that they offer a $100 coupon for the product. But that still does not cover the entire cost of the drug for the people who need it. A competing product Auvi-Q was recently pulled from the market due to dosing concerns and leaving the Mylan product as the only one available. But prices hikes began long before their competition withdrew - the rise in prices is a clear result of only having one or two businesses in a particular market and a company that is bent on exploiting that position.

Conservative Dream In Kansas Is Reality Nightmare

The conservative dream world that Sam Brownback has built in Kansas has turned out to be a nightmare for the people who actually have to live there. Brownback, with input from that infamous economist Arthur Laffer, slashed taxes and promised that this would unleash a torrent of new jobs and increase revenues for the state. Unfortunately, the only torrent that has been unleashed is a tsunami of debt and the increase in jobs has been virtually non-existent. In July, Kansas' unemployment rate actually increased by 0.3% as the state lost over 5,500 jobs. This has come on top of 4% cuts in services across the state that merely mitigated the deficits the state was running up. And a slowing economy probably means even less revenue for the state and increasing deficits.

Arthur Laffer has been spouting his theory that reducing tax rates can somehow generate more revenue for nearly 3 decades now. But there is virtually no real world evidence of this ever taking place. Studies have shown that it might possibly occur when tax rates are at 70% or 80% and they are cut somewhat below that. But the majority of citizens in the US have never faced tax rate that high and the absolute top earners in the US haven't seen tax rates like that in half a century. There is no evidence that cutting rates when they are already below 50% or 60% have ever increased revenue. In fact, the evidence has shown that it merely reduces government income and feeds an increasing debt. Most economists agree with George H. W. Bush that it is simply "voodoo economics". It is time to put this myth to an end once and for all and call the curve by its more appropriate name - the Laugher Curve. And anyone who dares invoke it again should be laughed right out of the room.

GOP Is Responsible For White House Reality Show

Since I seem to be on a rant today, I might as well just keep on going. Donald Trump is not an aberration who somehow managed to come in and take over the Republican party. He is a creation of that party and they alone are responsible for him. From Nixon's Southern strategy and "silent majority", to the Willie Horton ad for G.H.W. Bush, to the Gingrich revolution, to Fox New,. Trump is the eventual result of that path that the party chose to take. And ever since the Gingrich revolution, the Republican party has been breaking the bonds of democracy in this country in astounding ways - impeaching a President for a personal affair, shutting down the government multiple times, organizing a "riot" to keep votes in Miami-Dade county from being re-counted in the 2000 election, using the Justice Department to impede investigations of Republicans and target Democrats, not giving a hearing to a Supreme Court nominee, and now, apparently, the Republican nominee is refusing to release his tax returns. The press, especially the corporate media, has been entirely complicit in allowing the Republicans to get away with these breaches without paying a significant price. In fact, their usual approach is that "both sides do it". Well Democrats have not impeached a President, they have not shut down government, they have given fair hearings and a vote to every Supreme Court nominee, and they do release their tax returns. But let's be clear, the real issue lies within the Republican party and its continual willingness to break the unwritten rules of democratic behavior. And it has led us to this - apparently Donald Trump has been in contact with NBC about continuing to run the Apprentice from the Oval Office if Trump is elected. That is right - Trump had to withdraw from the show during the campaign due to election law; but if he is elected, there is apparently nothing stopping him from continuing to host the show from the Oval Office. And he has actually discussed this with NBC. This is where the Grand Old Party has taken us - to a reality show run out of the White House. And they constantly talk about the integrity of the office, while denigrating any Democratic man or woman who would dare to hold it. For those Republicans who continue to support Donald Trump - yes, I mean you Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell - history is watching and it will not be a kind judge.

The Corruption Of The US Economy - A Rant

Last Wednesday, I had four posts that illustrated various problems with our economy. The first post was about Aetna withdrawing from Obamacare exchanges apparently as payback for their merger with Humana being blocked on antitrust grounds. Aetna is one of the five health care companies that control over 80% of the health care insurance market in the US. Just like the Wall Street banks, these oligopolies have become so powerful that they can virtually do whatever they want and basically dare the government to rein them in.  Aetna's astounding letter to the DOJ essentially amounted to an extortion attempt in order to allow their merger to go through. The oligopolies largely collude with each other legally, and sometimes illegally, and make sure that no new competitors can be significant players in their industry. This reduces competition and actually makes the price of their products higher than they should be.

The second involved the CFTC essentially giving Steve Cohen, the head of the disgraced insider trading firm of SAC Capital, a slap on the wrist. This case perfectly illustrates that due to the wording and interpretation of the law, most white-collar criminals essentially get off without paying any significant price at all. When you compare the draconian sentences given for what are essentially minor drug crimes, the contrast is astounding. Time and again, executives are caught making millions of dollars illegally and suffer no serious punishment. Occasionally, firms will be fined but compared to their bottom lines, those fines amount to nothing. The lack of any significant prosecutions of Wall Street executives after the financial crisis is as good an indication as any of the futility of our current laws in properly regulating business. And in those industries controlled by oligopolies, the abuses continue with impunity. They will not change their behavior until they can be shown that there will be a real price to pay.

The third post was about a proposal in Arlington, Virginia to replace some bus service with Uber and Lyft ride-sharing services. This has become increasingly common since the Carter and Reagan years when the privatization of the commons began.  The privatization of government activities has rarely been a success for citizens and taxpayers, but it has been a bonanza for the companies that took over those functions. Privatization failures abound, from private prisons which are less safe and less healthy for inmates, to private contractors in the military who stole millions in Iraq and Afghanistan and managed to commit war crimes at the same time, to the privatization of parking meters and toll roads that have raised costs for citizens, lowered the pay of workers, and lined the pockets of those companies managing those services.

And the last post was how Donald Trump managed to pay pennies on the dollar for nearly $30 million in back taxes and interest owed to the state of New Jersey. This is crony capitalism at its worst. In many ways, it is linked to the ineffective laws that allow Steve Cohen to get away with a slap on the wrist. There is a reason those laws are ineffective. Similarly, wealthy individuals, large firms, especially those in oligopolies like Aetna, and politically connected companies like Uber are able to bend government to their will.  Groups like ALEC represent business and essentially write legislation that gets adopted word for word, sometimes without even being read.

All these examples expose the problems with the US economy these days. Conservatives always like to say that government should stay out of business. But the real problem is that business should stay out of government. Oligopolies like Aetna wield way to much economic and political power that abets criminal activity and a warping of the system to their advantage. That power also allows them to limit the legal price they pay for their illegal behavior. Either through regulatory capture or political connections, they get government to help them line their own pockets or avoid paying what they owe. And all this will be done under the banner of the free market. It is exactly the opposite - all these actions are meant to ensure that there is no challenge to their market dominance. All this means higher costs, lower wages, and worse service for American citizens. And it is doubtful that anything will change until we break up the oligopolies and restore some real punishment for businesses that are serial offenders.

Monday, August 22, 2016

Elite Universities Allowed Employees To Be Ripped Off In Retirement Plans

For educational institutions of higher learning, some of our elite colleges seem to have a pretty difficult time making sure their employees are not getting ripped off in their retirement plans. MIT, Yale, and NYU have all been sued in a class action case that claims that the universities allowed their employees to be charged excessive management fees for their retirement plans. The suit involves 403(b) plans which are similar to 401(k) plans but for nonprofit institutions. The allegations claim that the universities, as the retirement plan sponsors, failed to make sure the employees were not being charged excessive fees. The universities also failed to remove clearly non-performing funds with higher fees for equivalent or higher performing funds with lower fees. In addition, the schools sometimes had multiple record-keepers that resulted in higher administrative fees for employees. The suit claims that the universities cost employees tens of millions of dollars if they had used their bargaining power to reduce fees and pared their investment options.

MIT, in particular, was singled out for its use of Fidelity for its retirement plan. The university did not conduct a search for a provider that could have provided the best services for less but simply just chose to use Fidelity. Fidelity had donated hundreds of thousands of dollars to MIT and Fidelity's chief executive also sat on the MIT Board of Trustees, allowing her to influence the university's decision. The Fidelity plan offered an incredible 340 investment options of which over half were Fidelity funds. Had the university offered a pared down list of investment options, participants would have saved more than $8 million in 2014 alone. Yale and NYU had a similar problem with large investment options but also had the additional issue of multiple record keepers. The suit makes no allegation about why that may have occurred, but I don't think anyone would be shocked to find out that some of those record keepers had principals who were alumnae and/or donors to the universities.

Even at these bastions of supposed liberalism, the treatment of employees seems to be no better than in the private sector. If anything, employee retirement plans should be an area that should be closely monitored for performance and fees. It is, after all, your employees' future at stake. But, even at these prestigious universities, it is just another opportunity for Wall Street to rip off the little guy with the schools as apparently willing enablers. Hopefully, this suit will be a wake-up call for not only non-profits but also the private sector to make sure their retirement plans are fair and efficient.

GOP House Lays Groundwork For Clinton Impeachment

If you are willing to concede that Hillary Clinton will probably win the Presidency and you are interested in having a government that will actually try to address the problems confronting our country these days, you had better hope that Republicans lose control of the House of Representatives. In addition to their efforts to bring perjury charges against Hillary over her testimony about Benghazi, they are also preparing a similar charge with her testimony about her emails. GOP Representatives Bob Goodlatte and Jason Chaffetz, two perennial bomb throwers, have sent a letter to the Department of Justice asking to pursue perjury charges related to four statements that Clinton made during her Congressional testimony that contradicted the subsequent FBI report. Although Clinton denied that anything was marked classified at the time she sent or received it, the FBI found three emails that did have classified markings. The FBI noted that those markings were incomplete, possibly in error, and way down in a chain of emails that Clinton received. CLinton also claimed that her attorneys "went through" every email before deciding whether it was personal and eligible for deletion or needing to be archived as government business. In fact, her attorneys did not read every one of the 30,000 emails and their attached chains but used search terms and header information to make their determination. Unfortunately for Goodlatte and Chaffetz, perjury requires an actual intent to deceive which neither of these instances shows. As Democrat Elijah Cummings succinctly put it, "[T]his Republican perjury referral is making a mockery out of congressional authority and trivializing our procedures for political purposes". Of course, right now this is just a way for Republicans to keep the email issue in play until the election. But, as we have seen time and time again, this will not end if Hillary Clinton is elected President. Just as with the multiple votes to repeal Obamacare, the GOP will hold endless hearing about both of these "faux scandals" and the pressure from the tea-party and the Hillary-haters within the Republican party will make it very difficult to avoid impeachment hearings. It will be business as usual for the GOP as it has for the last eight years with Obama. They refuse to engage in governing and actually dealing with the problems confronting the country. Instead, they will spend endless hours and countless dollars on futile investigations of their political opponents in vain attempts to score political points. The country cannot afford four more years of that kind of governance.

Alarming Rise In Maternal Deaths In Texas Highlights Failure In US

Republicans unwillingness to allocate any money to fight the spread of the Zika virus shows a complete lack of interest in the pre-natal health of babies. And their attitude towards mothers is almost about the same. A new study has shown that pregnancy-related deaths spiked dramatically in Texas in 2011 and 2012, more than doubling from the prior two year period. This just so happened to correspond to Texas' decision to cut family planning funds by two-thirds, resulting in the closure of 82 family planning clinics across the state and serving less than half the number of people than previously. The increase in pregnancy-related deaths is greater than can be explained by just the cutback in services alone, indicating some other factors may also be at work. But there is no doubt that the reduction in services has increased mortality during pregnancy in the state.

Of course, the study in Texas merely highlights a problem that exists across the country. According to the World Health Organization, the United States is the only developed country in the world where maternal deaths actually increased in the 20 years up to 2013. That represented the sixth largest increase among all countries throughout the world. The six other countries that actually had a larger increase in maternal deaths in that 20 year period were Zimbabwe, Lesotho, Botswana, Afghanistan, Belize, and Thailand. When it comes to health outcomes, those are not countries you want to have as peers. The culprit is, of course, the inability of this country to provide affordable and accessible quality health care to all our citizens along with the factors of race and poverty. In addition, restrictive abortion laws also contribute to higher maternal deaths. Worldwide, unsafe abortions are one of the three leading causes of maternal deaths.

For those of you living in Texas, I'd like to offer a shameless plug for a health clinic in South Texas that does incredible work for men's and women's health and family planning. The Women's and Men's Health Services of the Coastal Bend does fantastic work in providing preventive and primary care for over 11,000 women and men each year. You can read about the organization here and make a donation to keep this great facility going here. In addition, they put on one of the most unique fashion shows every year in Corpus Christie - all the outfits are made of condoms. You would not believe the creativity of some of the designers. So please try to give them a few bucks if you can.  Here are a few photos from last year's fashion show:

Zika Spreads And GOP Congress Does Nothing

The number of Zika cases continues to grow in South Florida and has now spread to the popular tourist destination of Miami Beach. And now the renowned Dr. Anthony Fauci of the CDC is warning about the spread of the disease into other Gulf States such as Texas and the flood-stricken Louisiana. "It would not be surprising we would see additional cases perhaps in other Gulf Coast states", said Fauci.  Zika has already infected more than 10,000 people in the United States and is known to cause microcephaly, a birth defect that is indicated by small head size and creates significant developmental problems. More worrying, however, is new research that indicates Zika may attack brain stem cells in adults, potentially reducing brain size and brain functioning.

Meanwhile, the Republican-led Congress insists on doing nothing. Republicans were not able to agree among themselves as to how much many to spend on Zika prevention and, when they finally did, they also loaded up the bill with poison-pill amendments that kept it from passing. They then adjourned for the summer recess, having done nothing to confront Zika. Scientists had been warning of the threat of Zika to the continental US since late last year, but Republicans could not get their act together to do anything about it. Rather than perhaps bringing Congress back from their extended summer vacation and actually allocating some resources to fight the virus, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell suggested that HHS could divert some money that is being used to help boost Obamacare enrollments in order to fight Zika. That really takes some nerve, considering Congress' lack of action on the issue. And, as HHS points out, transferring that money would be technically illegal as the Obamacare money is in an entirely separate budget. HHS has already had to move money earmarked for a vaccine for the virus into prevention programs.

This is yet another indication of a party totally adrift. It now seems as though Republicans only care that fetuses do not get aborted. When it comes to serious birth defects and other pre-natal care, Republicans couldn't care less. They won't even spend a dime on doing anything to prevent a serious virus from sweeping across the Gulf and infecting thousands of Americans. They would rather try to score a political point than actually take on the responsibility of governing. In addition, despite their continual lip-service to fiscal responsibility, the babies born with microcephaly and its resulting developmental problems will probably require many millions of government dollars of support throughout their lives, probably much more that the money spent on prevention today. Finally, Florida and even, incredibly, Texas are both swing states this year. Democrats should pound away on their GOP opponents every time Zika expands in another district and state. Sure, Republicans will probably pass a bill in time for the election, but that money will not reach the states until then end of the year at the earliest. For all those who are unfortunately infected until then, they should know that Republicans don't really care.

Sunday, August 21, 2016

Natural Weekends - Parakeets And Starlings

Today's photos highlight two invasive, highly intelligent, very social, and extremely talkative birds. Monk parakeets have been living wild up and down the Connecticut shore ever since the late 1960s or early 1970s. There are a number of unconfirmed theories about how these invasive birds got here ranging from a pet store that was closing releasing the birds, to a truck that was carrying the birds overturning on I-95 and the birds got free, to a crate of them being opened at Kennedy Airport allowing them to escape. In any case, they are here and live here all year round in the massive nests that they build in trees and, more dangerously, on power poles. Apparently, their extra body fat allows them to endure the Connecticut winters. Here are a couple of them with a morning dove looking on.

How many can you find in this picture?

Finally, starlings are also very social birds that usually gather by the dozens in certain trees and talk, talk, talk. They are also an invasive species who were introduced in North America in 1890 by the eccentric Eugene Schieffelin whose goal was to introduce every bird species mentioned by William Shakespeare into North America. Their range now extends from southern Canada to northern Mexico. Here's one who is remarkably on his or her own.  It didn't last long as at least four others joined shortly after.