Tag Archives: politics

And It Begins …

Fox News is reporting that McDonald’s is preparing to drop health insurance coverage for most workers.  Fox says that McDonald’s is telling Federal regulators that the cost of complying with the recent health care reform legislation are too burdensome.

Fox Story About McDonald's
Fox Story About McDonald's

Are we surprised by this?  Not in the least.  As the nation debated the health care reform, we predicted that large corporations would decide that paying fines to shift the burden of health care for non-executive employees to the U.S. government and state governments would be less costly than actually including health care as part of the average employee’s compensation package.

Way to go, America!

Stimulating the Economy and Fixing Healthcare at the Same Time

There’s no question that the economy is broken and healthcare is deteriorating quickly in the US.  The situation isn’t going to improve any time soon.  The title to this article promises quite a lot, so let’s get to it.

The system I’m going to propose involves a series of tax credits to US businesses.  I can hear you groan as you read that sentence; I’m generally no fan of tax credits for businesses because in most cases our nation as a whole pays dearly for private profits.  But in this case I think that it is the only way to truly stimulate our economy and fix healthcare at the same time.  We’ve already seen how well the various economic stimulus packages aren’t working.  We will shortly see that the healthcare reform being marched through Congress right now is only going to create incentive for businesses to pawn the healthcare of their workers off to the taxpayer.

Eligibility for tax credits:  Only US corporations incorporated and headquartered within the United States of America by January 1 of the tax year are eligible to participate.  The corporation must remain incorporated and headquartered in the US for the entire tax year to remain eligible.  This means that any company that has moved its legal location to a tax haven like the Cayman Islands or Monaco will not be eligible.  The corporation must actually report income for tax purposes to US taxing authorities.  US corporations that would be eligible under this program that are sold to, merge with, or are a subsidiary of any foreign corporation are not eligible to participate in the program.

Credits:  The credit system is built around the concept of “points.”  Eligible corporations earn points for each goal they meet for each covered employee.  Points are then multiplied by a dollar amount to determine the total tax credit.  In no case will the credit result in a payment to the corporation by the US government; the tax credit can never be greater than the corporation’s normal federal tax assessment (state and local taxes are not considered as part of this program).

Employee types:  Points are issued for each permanent full-time employee.  Part-time employees, contractors, temporary / seasonal workers, members of the board of directors (unless otherwise considered an employee), foreign employees, and employees of any subsidiary are not counted.  Foreign employees recruited under special visa programs like H1B are also not counted.  Full-time equivalencies (FTE) cannot be used; the employee must be regularly scheduled to work 40 or more hours per week.  Corporations cannot add part-time employees together to create one full-time employee.

Points:  The items listed below constitute the points that corporations can earn.  The program always earns points; no penalty is ever applied for missing a goal (other than the point isn’t earned).

  • 1 point for each each employee for each full multiple of hourly wage above the current federal minimum wage. For example, the current federal minimum wage is $7.25 per hour.  An hourly wage of $14.50 would earn 1 point, $21.75 would earn 2 points.  Employees paid a fixed salary rather than hourly should have their salary divided by 40 hours per week to determine their hourly wage.
  • 1 point for each employee (including family) with full employer paid healthcare.  Healthcare must also include mental health and family planning at parity with general health (i.e. mental health and family planning cannot be covered at a lower level).  (Note: family members do not add additional points; there is only one point for healthcare.)
  • 1 point for each employee where the employer contributes at least 10% of annual wages/salary to the employee’s retirement fund where the employee is fully vested.  (Note:  retirement contributions do not count toward the hourly ware points.)
  • 1 point for each employee with at least one week of paid sick time and two weeks of paid vacation per year.  (Note:  corporations that use the concept of “personal time off”, PTO, earn the point for at least three weeks of PTO.)
  • 1 point for each employee paid at least time and a half for all hours worked in excess of 40 hours each week.
  • 1 point for each employee fully reimbursed for college tuition in a year.
  • 1 point for each employee fully reimbursed for childcare expenses in a year.
  • 1 point for each employee granted fully paid family leave for situations covered by the Family and Medical Leave Act (as amended or succeeded).
  • 1 point for each employee covered by group term life insurance of at least twice annual wages / salary.
  • 1 point for each employee covered by both short-term and long-term disability insurance.

Example:  Let’s say that the employee’s salary is $75,000 per year.  That is an hourly rate of $36.06.

  • Wage points = 3 ($36.06 is only 3 full multiples above the current minimum wage of $7.25)
  • Healthcare = 1
  • Retirement = 1
  • Time off = 1
  • Overtime = 0 (salaried employee)
  • Tuition = 0 (did not take college courses)
  • Childcare = 1
  • Family leave = 0
  • Life insurance = 1
  • Disability = 1

Total points = 9

This is a typical full-time employee working for the ACME Widget Foundry.  The ACME Widget Foundry has 40 employees.  The ACME Widget Foundry earns 360 points (40 x 9 = 360).  The US government sets the tax credit for each point at $100.00.  Given this scenario, the ACME Widget Foundry tax credit would be $36,000.00 (360 x $100.00 = $36,000.00).

If we were to change the tax credit to $1,000.00 per point then the ACME Widget Foundry tax credit becomes $360,000.00 – a substantial amount of money for a company with just 40 employees.

Conclusion:  Certainly a tax credit program like this is expensive for the employer.  Implementing it shouldn’t be seen as an overwhelming expense by employers.  Rather, it should be seen as contributing to their profitability.  How would that happen?  Employees that are in good health, that are well-educated, and that are not worried about about their family or their retirement are more innovative and more productive.  Employees that are paid well will contribute to economic activity that will stimulate others to buy goods and services from the company.  Corporate taxes will also be lowered because government will not be required to provide as many “public” healthcare programs (Medicare, Medicaid, and the as yet un-named program working its way through Congress) and the Social Security program can be scaled back for those citizens who have private retirement options (in other words: return Social Security to the safety-net role for which it was originally intended).

This program wouldn’t change how healthcare is delivered in the US.  What it would change, however, is how healthcare is paid for.  It would encourage corporations who benefit from healthy employees to pay for that rather than shifting the burden to taxpayer funded programs (like Medicare and Medicaid) or various charity systems.

You can quibble over the details (i.e. what goals earn points and how many points each goal earns) as well as the dollar amount of the tax credit for each point.  You should resist the temptation to add too many goals or make the goals too complex to determine if compliance has been met.  The whole program should be clear and simple to understand with no ambiguous areas to enable corporations to take advantage of the program without actually providing the benefits to employees.  The idea is to provide a positive incentive for US corporations to “do the right thing.”

PS – As I thought about offering this proposal I debated whether or not “C-Level” employees and executives should be included.  Their salaries will often skew the points.  In the end I concluded that they are just as much of an employee of the corporation as any other and that they should be included in the calculations.

Fox News Excited About Porn

Fox News is concerned that some of the economic stimulous money is going to “porn.”  See article here.  Some months ago GOP senators published a list of what they considered “wasteful.”  See CNN listing here.  Nowhere on the list was mention of any activities from the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA).  The NEA was the source of the funding that Fox and others are unhappy with.

Fox News helpfully provides a link to the official NEA list of stimulus grant recipients.  See full list here.  I’ve selected some grants from the list:

Alvin Ailey Dance Foundation, Inc. ($50,000)

American Boychoir School ($50,000)

California Lawyers for the Arts, Inc. ($50,000)

Cathedral Arts Projects Inc ($25,000)

Lawyers?  Why do lawyers need stimulus funding from the NEA?  What, exactly, do they have to do with producing art?  Why isn’t Fox News indignant about lawyers?  Do we really need to fund more parasites under the guise of “art?”  I would think that Fox News would be all over left-leaning lawyers receiving taxpayer money.

Cathedral Arts Project appears to have a religious focus in their “art” activities.  According to their web site they were by St. John’s Episcopal Cathedral.  Why isn’t Fox News upset by this clear support of religious activity by the NEA?  I’m probably exageratting the influence of religion in the activities of the Cathedral Arts Project; I don’t actually know anything about them other than the snippets gleaned from a quick review of their website.

While I’m not a porn consumer or afficianado of various forms of “adult entertainment,” as a taxpayer I’m not particularly concerned about something that Fox sees as “perverted.”  Why?  It really comes down to the First Ammendment guarantee of free speech and to the separation of church and state.  While we might find the particular art form to be in poor taste, we must support the rights of the artists to create it and the rights of adults to consume it.

The NEA to be fair and respect the First Ammendment to the Constitution has to issue grants to all comers equally without regard to the perceived merits of the “art.”  Of course, whether or not there should even be a National Endowment for the Arts is an entirely different debate.

Persistence of Myth

A few days back I wrote about the persistence of the belief that the United States of America is a “Christian Nation.”  The Fox News web site is running a story today about a group that is trying to block the inclusion of the phrase “In God We Trust” on  the Capital Visitor Center in Washington, DC.  The Freedom From Religion Foundation is suing on the basis that engraving these words on a publicly owned facilitate would “discriminate against those who do not practice religion and unfairly promote a Judeo-Christian perspective.”

The story then quotes two Republican members of Congress:

“This lawsuit is another attempt by liberal activists to rewrite history and deny that America’s Judeo-Christian heritage is an essential foundation stone of our great nation,” said Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa.

Rep. Daniel Lungren, R-Calif., said he was expecting a lawsuit but called the claims “patently absurd.”

Christianity has certainly played an important role in the history of our nation.  Many of our citizens claim to be Christian.  While both of those observations are true it does not follow that government must promote such beliefs on public facilities.  In fact, the Constitution specifically prohibits such promotion precisely because it would discriminate against those who do not share the same spiritual belief system or those who do not have a spiritual belief system.

I consider myself to be politically liberal and I don’t find that I’m the one trying to re-write history.  Quite the contrary.  I’m trying to show that people such as Rep. King and Rep. Lungren are actually the ones working to obscure the principles that actually established the system of law in the United States of America.

General Motors – SOS (Same Old Stuff)

General Motors (GM) has, officially, emerged from bankruptcy protection (various articles announcing the “success” are here and here).  The truth is that no matter how much you cheerlead for GM or how many large government bailouts they receive, nothing has truly changed.  They’re still the same broken company with the same broken business model.  The only thing that has really changed is that the hard-working folks who build the cars that management thinks the average American consumer wants have had to make major concessions in terms of their union contracts.

Fox News says that the “new GM is now leaner, cleansed of massive debt and burdensome contracts that would have sunk it without federal loans.”  What they didn’t say is that the same management is still around.  They do not appear to be “cleansing” management levels or forcing contract concessions amongst executives.  Layoffs and concessions seem to be the domain of the hourly or salaried non-management employees.

The real problem with GM is that they haven’t made a product that I’m interested in purchasing.  I’d much rather purchase a well-made, reliable, fuel-efficient car from a company like Toyota that is willing to take risks and deliver the innovative vehicles that consumers really want.  I love the fact that I can get 500 miles on a tank of gas in my Prius and do it with mileage in the 45+ range.  If Toyota brought out a hydrogen or all-electric version of the Prius that could get the same range as my existing gasoline/electric hybrid, I would be at the dealership talking to sales about how I could purchase such a vehicle.  If they could do it in a truck, so much the better.

Come on GM, I just said what I’m interested in buying.  Are you up to the task of bringing such vehicles to the market in the US?

Sadly, I don’t think any one at GM has the imagination and willingness to risk necessary to build the vehicles that would persuade me to become a GM customer, to keep my vehicle-purchasing dollars in the US.

Myth of the “Christian Nation”

Many letter writers in the local newspaper, The Daily News, argue that the United States of America was founded as a “Christian Nation,” that is now a “Christian Nation,” and that it must remain a “Christian Nation.” The local writers aren’t the only ones making the argument; it appears in many newspapers, on television shows with Christian themes, and on numerous web sites. The topic of the “Christian Nation” of the USA is increasingly relevant in the modern world as many people in predominately Muslim countries see the policies and rhetoric of the USA towards them as the resurgence of the Crusades.

The argument that the United States of America is a “Christian Nation” generally proceeds from the claim that the Founding Fathers were Christians. Following from that is the observation that the Declaration of Independence contains the phrases “to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them” and “they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights” and that these, necessarily, establish that the United States of America was founded as a Christian nation [emphasis added in both quotations].

Neither the phrase “Nature’s God” nor the phrase “their Creator” specify the Christian god. “God,” in the western tradition, is often synonymous with the Christian god, though not exclusively. It can easily be used by adherents of any faith such as Christians, Jews, Muslims, Baha’is, and many others to refer to their deity. “Creator” is still more ambiguous and could be interpreted by some as the Universe itself as “their Creator.”

The Constitution, the founding and basic law of the United States of America, says only that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof” and then only in the First Amendment to the Constitution. This basic law prohibits Congress, and, by extension, state and local governments, from establishing a state religion. Government is also prohibited by the First Amendment from interfering with the religious faiths established by the citizens and the practice of those faiths. Government is to remain neutral on the subject of religion; it is to neither promote nor restrict the exercise of any particular faith nor is it to promote or restrict faiths in general.

The two documents that establish the legal basis for and the basic law of the United States of America say little about religion in the abstract and nothing whatsoever about the United States of America being founded as a “Christian Nation.”

The founders were wise to record nothing in these basic documents with respect to religion. They knew that just they had to compromise on many issues founding a new nation such as the structure of the government, the keeping of slaves, taxes, the rights of the states vs. the federal government, the role of the military, and the rights of the individual vs. the government that compromise and respect for people of all faiths, including those who did not express a faith, would be key to holding the nation of diverse beliefs together.

A quarter millennia ago the Founders were not far removed from the great religious wars of Europe. In fact, many of the Founders owed their presence in North America to to their parents and grandparents having fled religious persecution in Europe. We easily remember the Puritans, but there were many other Christian sects that felt that the freedom that North American offered was better than Europe.

Certainly, most Americans throughout history and today have self-identified as “Christian” whether they truly practice their version of the faith or not. America, perhaps more so than any other nation, has large minority populations practicing other faiths. This is a good thing; it brings strength through diversity of thought guided by varying religious principles. This is particularly true when members of different faiths are willing to compromise due to the sound ideas of others.

A major point of debate is whether or not some people who claim to be members of the Body of Christ actually are. Catholics are commonly accused of “not being Christians.” The reasoning for this accusation is beyond the scope of this discussion. If Catholics were eliminated from the numbers of self-identified Christians, it would bring the percentage of Christians in the USA down to a bare majority. According to the American Religious Identification Survey (ARIS) 2008, 76.7% of Americans are Christian (the survey is summarized here). If Catholics are removed from this number then the percentage of Americans self-identified as Christian falls to 50.9%. Other denominations are also often accused of “not being Christian.”

Unlike some nations, Americans are not required to state a religious faith to the government and be bound by that statement of faith. (Egypt is an example where religious registration is mandatory.) Consider too that because no official registration of faith is required that Americans are free to change religion at will as their own spiritual journey dictates. In some locations, particularly in Muslim areas that implement Sharia Law, it is impossible to openly change one’s faith; to do so is to invite a formal death sentence from the government or from the religious authority or to be tried and executed by local vigilantes.

The Founders did not establish a state religion or laws that allowed the state intervene in religious affairs because they feared the tyranny, repression, and violence it could propagate. Their bequest of religious freedom enables us to undertake a national spiritual journey in much the same way as individuals. We may some day become a nation of Muslims, Buddhists, Baha’is, atheists, or, even, agnostics. And that is what we truly are: a Nation of Freedom.

Big Brother Is Watching

A recent news story about the installation of a pervasive video security system installed in Lancaster, PA caught my attention.  The massive camera installation makes this town, quite possibly, the most massively surveilled per capita town in the US.  To be sure, there is a place for video surveillance such as banks, businesses, and government building.  But not generally on public streets and in residential neighborhoods.  One county commissioner argues this:

“No one talks about it,” agreed Scott Martin, a Lancaster County commissioner who wants to expand the program. “Because people feel safer. Those who are law-abiding citizens, they don’t have anything to worry about.”  [emphasis added]

The exact reverse is true.  Law-abiding citizens should worry about this intrusion into privacy.  Even a well-intentioned government that claims the system is being installed for public safety should be called to task.  Just a couple of examples show how such a system erodes the liberties guaranteed Americans under the Constitution and the its amendments.

Consider the risk that teenagers seeking private access to birth control may be subject to should their parents, friends of their parents, or, indeed, someone holding a grudge against the teens have access to the video obtained by such camera systems.  The response of the parents is easy to infer.  Other parties simply need notify the parents that the teenagers entered a family planning clinic.  If the home situation is less than ideal, the teens may be subjected to verbal, emotional, or physical abuse as a result of trying to do the smart thing.  Certainly, it can be argued that the teens should be practicing abstinence rather than safe sex.  It is well-documented that teens, as a group, don’t practice abstinence and, worse, dispense with safe sex practices of fear (even just fear of embarrassment) and ignorance.  Setting up a system that gives “watchers” the ability, if not the lawful authority, to inform on them.

The Constitution guarantees the freedom associate and assemble.  That includes choosing whom we invite into our homes.  There are many scenarios where government video surveillance outside of a private home, or businesses, could be a problem.  For example:

  • A private political meeting involving someone who has not yet committed to public candidacy for public office or becoming involved in issue advocacy
  • An adulterous affair
  • Contact with a lawyer in preparation for a divorce
  • Religious gatherings
  • Religious proselytization
  • “Fringe” sexual behaviors such as the “swinger” lifestyle
  • A surprise birthday party or similar activity

Certainly, some of the activities cited above aren’t exactly moral behaviors.  It isn’t the place of government to make that judgement.  Some, such as the discovery of an adulterous affair, could lead to violence.  At the very least it would result in additional stress in an already stressful relationship.

Most organizations have policies in place to prevent the disclosure of information to unauthorized persons.  The news, however, routinely carries stories of “authorized” persons who abuse their authority and use the information that they have privileged access to for their own purposes or pass it to others.  This particular community may be successful with their internal controls and may use the system for the public safety purposes expressed; others may not be so lucky.

RIAA Wins Outrageous Award

I’ve been following with interest the story of Jammie Thomas-Rasset as she battled the behemouth of the Recording Industry of Association America (RIAA) over illegal music sharing.  The re-trial of her case wrapped up today with the jury awarding the outrageous sum of $1.9 million to the RIAA.  I’m not going to recite the details of the case; any simple Google search, Cuil search, or Bing search will bring up mountains of articles.

I don’t condone the kinds of activities Thomas-Rasset is accused of in this case.  Far from it.  If she did what the RIAA has accused her of then she certainly should be held liable.  But $1.9 million?  That seems extreme at a minimum.  I fail to see how that relates in any way to the actual harm suffered by the artists whose music was alleged to be pirated.

I’m sure the RIAA lawyers are rejoicing in their victory.  Congratulations; I hope you guys (and gals) are proud of yourselves.

Bailouts for Large Corporations

While there is no doubt that the USA is in serious economic trouble and that action from the federal government is required, the wisdom of the government handing the country’s largest corporations staggering sums of money is debatable.

Corporations like General Motors, Ford, and Chrysler arguably employ many of the best business minds that this country, and the world, has to offer.  Yet their business strategies and product development have been short-sighted.  They have paid little more than lip service to a sustainable long-term plan while focusing on short-term profits.  There have been systematic efforts to undermine fuel efficiency and alternative fuels because “consumers don’t want these things.”

This writer isn’t sure who the American automobile manufacturers have been talking to develop their product plans, but it isn’t me.  I purchased a Toyota Prius two years ago and haven’t looked back.  I won’t purchase another car that isn’t at least a gas/electric hybrid.  I’d prefer an all electric like the Tesla, but they aren’t widely available enough to warrant purchasing one.

Toyota, Honda, and others seem to have done a better job of listening to the American consumer than the “Big Three.”  They seem to be taking market share by producing cars that Americans want.  Consumer perception is that the vehicles are better built, cost less to purchase, and cost less to operate.  I’m not certain about the “costs less to purchase” as the Prius cost as much as my Dodge Dakota Quad Cab.  But the Prius is definitely well-built and costs substantially less to operate than any American vehicle I have.

The American car manufacturers have to demonstrate some real understanding of the situation and some real leadership in changing the industry.  It isn’t enough to come to the American taxpayer by way of Congress and say, “Gee, the economy is real bad and if we have to declare bankruptcy it’s going to be much, much worse.”  I have no doubt that the economy would be worse if one or more of the American major car manufacturers were to declare bankruptcy.  A pile of taxpayer money isn’t going to miraculously solve their problems.

How can these American corporations demonstrate leadership?  The first is to curtail their excessive executive compensation and perk programs.  Most Americans find that paying top executives millions of dollars a year while asking the taxpayer to hand their corporations enormous amounts of money outrageous.  Private planes to travel to Washington, DC, as reported in numerous news stories today, to beg for taxpayer money is … well, it leaves one without words to adequately describe the audacity of that act.

The second way that the American car manufacturers can demonstrate leadership is to begin delivering cars that the American public wants to own and drive.  What makes the Prius so successful?  Find out, duplicate it, and improve upon it.  Why does the Tesla capture the imagination?  Find out, duplicate it, bring the mass production techniques that Detroit is so famous for to bear to lower costs, and improve upon it.  The folks that run these companies can surely figure out how to build more fuel efficient, more environmentally friendly, less oil-dependent vehicles and regain the confidence of the American public to purchase their products.  (There’s a side-benefit in that the dependence Middle Eastern oil producers can be reduced or eliminated; but that’s a different essay.)

A third way would be to offer substantial incentives for Americans to trade in their giant gas guzzlers when purchasing a new fuel-efficient or alternative fuel vehicle.  Instead of putting the vehicle back on the market it should be completely recycled (i.e. complete decontamination and reclamation of all materials).  Not only would this be good for the environment, it would create an entire new industry and employ many thousands of Americans … assuming, of course, that the automotive recycling process isn’t sent overseas where it could be done more inexpensively and with less environmental regulation.

It really isn’t fair to the American taxpayer that these giant corporations retain profits for themselves when times are good and shift losses to the taxpayer when times are bad.  But, if Congress is going to decide that it is in the best interests of the American taxpayer to issue a bailout to the American car companies then it should come with some major strings attached that guarantee that the companies will change their business practices.  Holding these corporations to the leadership goals identified earlier is certainly a start.

History Will Now Be Made

The 2008 US Presidential Election is now finally over.  Senator Barack Obama has made history by being the first man of African origin to be elected to the US presidency.  History will continue to be made as President-Elect Obama chooses a transition team to prepare him for the task ahead and to help select and prepare the advisors that will serve in the Obama administration.  The real history making will begin January 20, 2009 when President-Elect Obama takes the Oath of Office.

There is no question that the achievement is stunning and historical.  Congratulations are definitely in order.