Tag: Economics

Look for This: Rounding on Restaurant Checks

penny2Next time you dine out, take a close look at your check. Restaurants are starting to round the pennies on customers’ bills up or down, usually to the nearest nickel, to avoid having to deal with pennies. Chipoltle restaurants were caught doing this without notifying customers, and when customers noticed the practice and expressed irritation, the chain added a line on the bill titled “rounding” to openly account for the missing change. They also started rounding down in diners’ favor.

Apparently it’s worth it.

Restaurateurs say rounding speeds up finalizing bills and eliminates the hassle and expense of dealing with pennies, which are quickly becoming passe’. After all, pennies are now so worthless that people drop them all the time and don’t even bother to pick them up.  Some businesses cope with the penny problem with “take a penny, leave a penny” jars, but many are just throwing up their hands and declaring they are done dealing with pennies altogether.

Hostess Fleeced its Workers, Showered Execs with Extra Cash

TwinnkieDeath

The Hostess Corporation, not labor unions, killed Twinkies through corporate greed.

Hostess Brands publicly blamed its workers’ union for forcing it out of business, but now Hostess CEO Gregory Rayburn has admitted to the Wall Street Journal that the company had been quietly ripping off its own workers. Hostess took money out of workers’ paychecks that was supposed to go towards their pensions and put it towards company operations instead, Rayburn admitted. Rayburn said the company was not under his management when those diversions occurred. During its dispute with the union, Hostess pressured employees to take another pay cut ostensibly due to financial difficulties, but in November, 2012 — while the company was undergoing bankruptcy filing — Hostess  asked a judge to allow it pay out $1.8 million in bonuses to 19 of its top executives. The judge approved the bonuses, but did not, however, include any bonus pay for Rayburn, who was already being paid $125,000 a month, nor did the company seek any bonuses for its factory or other non-executive-level workers. The story that the union was responsible for tanking the Twinkie maker, then, is a myth designed to cast labor unions in a bad light.

Main source: Huffington Post, December 10, 2012

The City of Grand Junction, Colorado’s Shameful End-Run Around the Constitution

Grand Junction’s Ten Commandments tablet, donated in 1959 by the Fraternal Order of Eagles, which only admits people who believe in God.

Anyone who thinks that electing narrow-minded people to city councils in small American towns doesn’t get expensive, think again. The parochial minds of just five elected city council members in the town of Grand Junction, Colorado cost city taxpayers $64,000 and led to the creation of a big, permanent public reminder on City Hall grounds of how they spent that huge sum to evade the law and collectively thumb their nose at the U.S. Constitution.

It all started in 1959, when the City of Grand Junction accepted a gift from the Fraternal Order of Eagles (FOE), a do-good civic group that restricts its membership only to people who believe in God. The gift was a stone tablet engraved with the Ten Commandments, a religious symbol commanding people to worship God, which City officials installed on City Hall grounds. There it sat, little-noticed, for the next fifty years, its presence often obscured by mature landscaping. All that changed in 2000, when the City put the finishing touches on construction of a new City Hall building and relocated the Ten Commandments to a much more visible location on the grounds.

The tablet’s more prominent location made it more noticeable, and some local citizens also finally happened to notice the Constitutional violation it represented. As a result, in April, 2001 five local citizens and the American Civil Liberties Union sued the City over the monument, asking them to remove it because it made members of minority religious groups, nonbelievers and community political outsiders feel unwelcome. The plaintiffs also contended it represented a government establishment of religion.

Time for GOP to Dump Norquist, Handmaiden of Cigarette Companies

Grover Norquist and his group, Americans for Tax Reform, have long lobbied for tobacco industry interests — earning huge payouts from RJR and Philip Morris

Op-Ed

Grover Norquist, who for decades has been the patron saint of anti-tax sentiment for Republicans, is fast losing relevance as Republicans finally start to grasp that the only way America can get out of its fiscal mess is to raise taxes. Legislators are starting to see that their allegiance must be to the United States of America and its people, and not to Grover Norquist. But for GOP legislators,  leaving Norquist behind will be one of the best things they can do to help get some credibility back with the American public. By pledging their allegiance to Norquist for so many years, Republicans have put stock in one of the most reliable allies of one of the world’s most reviled industries: the tobacco industry. Previously-secret tobacco industry documents show Norquist and his group Americans for Tax Reform (ATR) have for decades been highly dependable allies to Big Tobacco. Norquist was always at the cigarette makers’ beck and call whenever they needed him. As ATR president, Norquist annually sought and received hundreds of thousands of dollars from Philip Morris and R.J. Reynolds to support the companies’ agenda of low cigarette and corporate taxes. In return for the big bucks, Norquist offered his organization up as a conduit for tobacco industry lobbying. Norquist figured prominently in Philip Morris’ quiet, internal 1995 “Get Government Off Our Back” project, in which the cigarette maker secretly created a phony “grassroots” group, to push to “shift government’s priorities” off regulating business. In 1999, Norquist helped cigarette makers fight President Clinton’s proposal to add a one dollar tax on cigarettes to fund health care. Norquist was cast as a “core ally” in Philip Morris’ efforts to enact “tort reform” to block people’s access to the courts.  Norquist helped defend cigarette makers against the Department of Justice’s 1999 Lawsuit in which the industry was found guilty of perpetrating five decades of fraud against the American people. Philip Morris’ law firm of Covington and Burling even secretly took the privilege of drafting letters to government agencies, like FDA, that Norquist could sign so they would appear to be from ATR and not a tobacco company.

Walmart Workers Tell the Real Stories of Working at Walmart

Walmart employees have embarked on an effort to bring more respect, better pay and improved working conditions to all Walmart workers. Their group,  Organization United for Respect at Walmart, or OURWalmart, has a website,  ForRespect.org, lists exactly what employees want from Walmart. They want every employee to get a company policy manual and assurance that the company will enforce its policies  equally without discrimination. They want full time work and wages and benefits high enough so they won’t have to depend on government assistance to survive. They seek dependable, predictable work schedules, and affordable health insurance.  Walmart workers report that Walmart has been retaliating against workers who speak out about their low wages, unsafe working conditions and other issues they have with the company, and workers want the freedom to speak their mind without retaliation. OURWalmart also started a second website, WalmartAt50.org, to get a jump on the one-sided spin they expect the company to churn out about their anniversary. The site commemorates Walmart’s 50th anniversary by allowing Walmart “associates” to share stories of how they are treated at work, the difficulties they have in trying to advance within the company and what it’s like to try to live on Walmart’s super-low wages. The site also allows community members and owners of small businesses to post stories about how Walmart has impacted their living standards. Walmart workers and customers alike can share their stories on the site, and can upload photos. The site maintains that Walmart’s business model has dragged down the middle class and been bad for America. Their slogan is “Change Walmart to Rebuild America.” The site says that the “America Walmart helped to create isn’t working for most of us.”

New Youth Front Group Agitates for Cuts to Entitlement Programs

Salon.com reports a new “youth” front group has appeared consisting of young people who have ostensibly joined together to fight the federal debt. The group, called “The Can Kicks Back,” issued a press release November 12 announcing its creation and casting itself as a “nationwide grassroots campaign.” The Can Kicks Back gives no physical address on its website, but Salon.com reports the group shares the same address as the New America Foundation, which receives funding from the Peter G. Peterson Foundation, among other foundations and big corporations. Peter Peterson is a Wall Street hedge fund billionaire who, according to Huffington Post, has “has personally contributed at least $458 million to the Peter G. Peterson Foundation to cast Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid and government spending as in a state of crisis, in desperate need of dramatic cuts.”  Other prominent funders of the New America Foundation include Google, Microsoft, Nike, Merck, and Aetna insurance. Interestingly, Kick the Can’s advisory board consists mostly of older politicians like Alan Simpson, 81, former Republican senator from Wyoming, Erskine Bowles, 67, former Clinton chief of staff, Mickey Edwards, 75, former Republican congressman from Oklahoma.  Salon.com reports that this isn’t Pete Peterson’s first attempt to form an astroturf “youth group” to agitate for cutting entitlement programs. In the 1990s Peterson funded two groups, one called “Third Millennium” and another called  “Lead…or Leave,” basically to do the same thing. In fact, Jonathan Cowan, who headed up Lead…or Leave, now is on The Can Kicks Back’s advisory board. 

This is Going to Hurt: What Your Doctor Doesn’t Say Can Cost You

Insurance companies are hot targets in the national discussion of skyrocketing medical costs and health care reform. But there is another, little-noticed factor could also be sucking untold health care dollars out of our pockets. It’s one we are also loathe to address: the part that doctors play in pushing up the costs of  medical care. This is an area that is begs for closer scrutiny, and in which patients need more help.

An Examination Day Surprise

My interest in this topic was piqued by a personal experience that brought home the problem of runaway medical costs in a truly shocking way.

Marx MasterCards Prove Highly Popular in Germany

Karl Marx MasterCard

The Sparkasse Bank in Chemnitz, in eastern Germany, asked customers to vote on images they would most like to see on their MasterCards, and by far the winner was Karl Marx, the German philosopher who predicted the end of capitalism. More than one third of people voting selected Marx’s image. The bank reports that even people in western Germany were calling and asking to open bank accounts to get a MasterCard with Marx’s image on it. Reuters reports that a survey done in 2008 revealed that 52 percent of citizens living in eastern Germany thought the free market economy was “unsuitable” and 43 percent preferred to go back to a socialist system. NPR’s Planet Money, in a report on the Karl Marx MasterCard, asked people to suggest possible slogans to advertise the card. Some of the responses?  “Che Guevara t-shirt: $15. Annotated copy of the Communist Manifesto: $10. Being able to demonstrate your ideological confusion every time you make a purchase: Priceless.,” “I don’t always seize the means of production from the bourgeoisie, but when I do, I prefer the Marx MasterCard,” “A Mastercard for the master race,” and my personal favorite: “Use it when you’re in the red.”

Main sources: National Public Radio, June 15, 2012 and Reuters, June 15, 2012

Big Tobacco’s Ties to Funding of Prop. 29 Opposition Exposed

An NBC investigative team has exposed historical and financial ties between many of the supposedly independent groups actively opposing Proposition 29, a measure to increase California’s tobacco tax by $1.00 per pack, and the tobacco industry. Collectively, groups against the measure have spent $46.7 million so far — over four times more than the amount spent by groups supporting the measure. Much of the money to oppose the measure came from cigarette makers Reynolds American and Philip Morris, laundered through groups that are seemingly independent from the industry, like Americans for Tax Reform, the Small Business Action Committee and the California Taxpayers’ Association. Tobacco industry documents now available on the Internet reveal these groups have historically received significant financial support from Philip Morris, R.J. Reynolds and the Tobacco Institute. Political analyst Larry Gerston commented, “These kinds of transfers of money increasingly take place under a very dark shadow.” The strategy of burying tobacco industry involvement in ballot measure campaigns is revealed in a 1998 proposal by a political consulting group that worked for the Tobacco Institute on another cigarette tax fight.

Cookie-Cutter News Taking Over U.S. Media Market

If your local TV news broadcasts are all starting to sound the same from channel to channel, it’s because they are. A sneaky form of media consolidation is happening all over the country called “covert consolidation” in which different local TV newscasts use the exact same stories, the same video, same scripts and the same viewpoints, but do it under different “brands.” Covert consolidation occurs when a number of TV stations in the same area are owned by a single corporate entity. Broadcasters between the multiple stations will share their news operations to save money. Covert consolidation not only circumvents Federal Communications Commission (FCC) rules regarding ownership of stations, it also eliminates independent local journalism and the competition and diversity between stations that are the basis of a healthy democracy. Covert consolidation has been documented in 83 of the nation’s 210 news communities throughout the U.S. as TV stations across the country quietly merge newsrooms to cut costs — all at a time when broadcasters are already making record profits. Covert consolidation is also a factor blocking  minorities and women from owning and operating TV stations. Big media companies are using loopholes and backroom deals to get around FCC rules prohibiting media consolidation. To draw attention to the problem of covert consolidation, FreePress.org has created an interactive map showing which stations across the U.S. are consolidated, and the severity of the consolidation. FreePress also offers a free “Change the Channels” tool kit (pdf) people can download to document and record media consolidation in their areas, and instructions for  exposing covert consolidation in your own local community.

Main source: FreePress/SaveTheNews.org, May 29, 2012

Tobacco Companies Work in Secret to Defeat California’s Proposition 29

A pitched battle is on over California’s Proposition 29, a measure on the statewide ballot to raise the cigarette tax by one dollar to fund smoking cessation and research on tobacco-related diseases. If enacted, the measure would increase California’s per-pack cigarette tax to $1.87 per pack.  According to Maplight, the biggest donors favoring the tax are the American Cancer Society ($7.42 million), the Lance Armstrong Foundation  ($1.5 million), the American Heart Association ($546,256), the American Lung Association ($412,086) and Michael R. Bloomberg ($500,000). Laurene Powell Jobs, the widow of Steve Jobs, kicked in $25,000 to support Prop. 29. But those amounts pale in comparison to the tidal wave of money tobacco companies and their allies are pouring into defeating the measure. Philip Morris (Altria) alone has given just over $24 million, Reynolds American, Inc. has put in $9.57 million, and U.S. Smokeless (also owned by Altria) has put in $1.5 million. The California Republican Party contributed $1.14 million to defeat the tax. As usual, tobacco companies are trying to hide their role in the campaign by refusing to speak to journalists, running ads without their fingerprints on them and fighting the campaign through a front group, “Californians Against Out-of-Control Taxes and Spending,” which is aligned with right wing, pro-business groups funded by millionaires and billionaires like Americans for Prosperity, FreedomWorks, the Chamber of Commerce and the Petroleum Marketers Association. Californians Against Out-of-Control Taxes and Spending doesn’t even list tobacco companies among the “No” campaign’s endorsers on the group’s website — as if tobacco companies weren’t involved.

“Robin Hood Tax” Proposal Gains Global Support

Nurses rally in Chicago to support the Robin Hood Tax

Nurses led a rally in Chicago May 18 ahead the NATO summit to boost the idea of instituting a “Robin Hood Tax,” a tiny tax on financial institutions’ transactions that would be used to offset drastic cuts in education and social services, and provide health care to Americans. Also called a Financial Speculation Tax, the tax has the support of Warren Buffett and Bill Gates, as well as President Hollande of France, Chancellor Merkel of Germany, Prime Minister Zapatero of Spain and other world leaders, as well as Nobel prize winning economists Joseph Stiglitz and Paul Krugman. The Robin Hood Tax on bankers would be less than one-half of one percent on deals over $100, and would apply to transactions like trades in derivatives, stocks, bonds and foreign currency exchanges. The charge would total less than one half on one cent on every $100 worth of transactions. Most ordinary people worldwide would never feel it, but experts estimate it would generate hundreds of billions of dollars each year to fight poverty and support public services like education and health care. National Nurses United teamed with National Peoples’ Action and local community groups to organize the rally. The were joined by veterans, members of the Occupy Movement, unions and others. The rally was part of a “global week of action” in support of the Robin Hood tax, with rallies also happening in Europe, Africa and on Mount Fuji in Japan.

Health Insurers Shake Down Subscribers for Prescriptions

Big health insurers have found yet another new way to extort customers — by buying up “pharmacy benefit managers,” (companies that supply medications to people) and then forcing subscribers to buy medications exclusively from the drug distributors they own. People are receiving letters from their health insurance companies telling them they must either buy medications from a specific company they own and get medications through the mail, or patronize a retail drug store of their choice and pay a much higher price. Prices may be lower for insurance companies under this kind of arrangement, but policyholders miss out on face-to-face interaction with pharmacists, who verbally counsel customers on drug dosing instructions and dangerous interactions with other drugs. Herding people towards a single option drug supplier is also taking a toll on neighborhood pharmacies who have been serving the same families for generations. The trend towards consolidation in the drug sales market starkly limits consumer choice. Just three major pharmacy benefit management companies dominate the drug delivery market: Express Scripts Holding, which recently bought Medco for $29 billion, CVS Caremark, and OptumRX, a subsidiary that now belongs to the big health insurance company UnitedHealthcare Group.

Source: Los Angeles Times (consumer advocate David Lazarus), May 4, 2012

How Many Millionaires Pay a Higher Tax Rate than You?

The White House Buffett Rule calculator

The White House has posted a new online tool people can use to calculate how many millionaires pay a lower effective tax rate than they do. Citizens enter their wages, salary and other income and how much income tax they have paid, click a button and see the estimated number of millionaires who paid a lower effective tax rate than they did in 2009. The calculations demonstrate how under the current U.S. tax system, many millionaires are paying a lower effective income tax rate than most middle class families. In 2009, fully 22,000 American households made over $1 million, but paid the lowest effective tax rate such top earners have paid in 50 years. Of those top-earners, 1,470 paid no federal income tax at all on their million-dollar-plus incomes, according to data supplied by the Internal Revenue Service.

The Current High Gas Price Scam

Sixty four percent of all contracts written for bulk oil purchases in the U.S. are made by companies that will never take delivery of even one drop of oil. They are made by speculators positioning themselves to make money off the scare over recent events involving Iran. Recently and American warship was targeted with gunfire in the Strait of Hormuz. Initial reports attributed the attack to Iran, but it turned out to have been made by smugglers — a correction that was buried in the media. Iran also announced it would stop selling oil to Britain and France, but those countries had already stopped buying oil from Iran anyway — a fact less reported than Iran’s announcement.  Decades ago, financial speculators made up only about 30 percent of oil trading markets and refiners and end-users made up about 70 percent. Today those numbers are reversed; now only about 36 percent of all oil contracts are made by producers and end users, while increasing demand for oil in the U.S. is a myth. Demand for oil and gas in the U.S. is down while production of American oil has increased so much that the U.S. has actually started exporting oil to Europe, Asia and Latin America. In fact, now America’s major supplier of oil is Canada, not the middle east. So high gas prices now simply cannot be explained by any shortage or increase in demand, since neither exist. But they can be explained by speculators and their effect on the market, and we are all paying a heavy price for their activity.

Source: McClatchy Newspapers, Febuary 21, 2012