Archive for October, 2016

Resisting Insurance Industry Blackmail

Thursday, October 27th, 2016

healthcare-profitsOther than the Wikileaks email offensive against the Clintons, the closest thing Republicans have had to an October surprise in their favor has been the news about rising premiums for those getting health coverage through the Obamacare exchanges.

The media treatment of these increases has displayed a bias that Trump is not likely to throw a tantrum about: the coverage is all too often skewed in a way that boosts the arguments of the repeal and (maybe) replace crowd. Too many reporters and pundits seem to take it for granted that the insurance companies have good reasons for boosting rates and that their decision to do so is a reflection of flaws in the system.

As a supporter of the single payer model, I do not hesitate to admit that the Rube Goldberg mechanism created by the Affordable Care Act to deal with the uninsured is far from ideal. In fact, one of its main flaws — the central role given to private insurance — is what’s behind the current problem.

Let’s not forget that the ACA was in a sense an attempt to rehabilitate insurance companies such as Aetna and Humana that were among the worst corporate villains of the 1990s and early 2000s, given their ruthless efforts to deny coverage.

The Obama Administration has gone too far in treating the companies as partners rather than adversaries in the implementation of the ACA. Although the insurers ultimately went along with restrictions on their practices — in exchange for being given a captive customer base — they have not changed their stripes entirely.

They are clearly impatient with the ACA’s growing pains and have lost none of their yearning for profit maximization. Whereas in the past the insurers would refuse to pay for specific treatments and would decline to renew the policies of certain subscribers, now they drop out of certain exchanges or they jack up their premiums.

At the same time, the biggest insurers are seeking to exercise greater dominance over the entire system by acquiring their competitors. Those commenting on the rate increases usually fail to mention that Aetna announced plans to acquire Humana, and Anthem proposed to buy Cigna. The two proposed deals, worth a total of about $85 billion, would reduce the number of major for-profit health insurance companies to just three.

Fortunately, the Justice Department announced its opposition to the mergers back in July. Yet there is no reason to believe that the companies have given up. In fact, both the retrenchment in their exchange activity and the premium hikes should be seen as bargaining chips in the battle over the mergers. Anthem, for example, made this pretty clear during an investor call July when it linked an expansion in its involvement in the exchange market to approval of the Cigna deal.

Faced with a choice between giving three companies (UnitedHealthcare being the third) tremendous market power and seeing the big insurers leave the Obamacare exchanges entirely, the company would be better off with the latter — especially if the foolhardy decision to eliminate a public option is finally rectified.

Criminal Enterprises

Thursday, October 20th, 2016

Most cases of corporate misconduct are forgotten soon after a fine or settlement is announced, but the Wells Fargo phony account scandal seems to have real staying power. The company had to pay $185 million in penalties. CEO John Stumpf was forced to resign and pay back $41 million in compensation after being lacerated in two Congressional hearings. The city of Chicago and the California Treasurer cut some business ties with the bank.

Now Wells is facing a more serious legal challenge. It’s been reported that California Attorney General Kamala Harris is considering criminal identity theft charges against the bank over the millions of bogus accounts and the related fees that were improperly charged to customers. The AG’s office has demanded that Wells turn over a mountain of documents about accounts created not only in California but also in other states when California employees were involved.

It’s too soon to say for sure, but this case and other potential criminal actions could have a catastrophic effort on Wells. Criminal cases against major banks are rare, and most of those are resolved through deferred prosecution or non-prosecution agreements that allow the corporation to avoid a conviction. An exception came last year when Citicorp, JPMorgan Chase and two foreign banks pleaded guilty to charges of manipulating the foreign exchange market. They had to get special waivers to continue operating in certain areas that normally exclude felons.

The Wells case may do more damage, given the scope of the misconduct and the fact that it involves the bank’s core business. In this way it is comparable to the scandal surrounding Volkswagen and its systematic fraud concerning emissions testing.

These two situations pose a challenging question: What should be done about a large corporation engaged in flagrant misconduct? Another monetary penalty is not going to make much difference. As Violation Tracker shows, even before the recent case Wells had paid out more than $10 billion in fines and settlements in some two dozen cases involving a variety of abuses.

Stumpf’s ouster was an important step, but is there any reason to think that the executives who remain are all that different? A boycott of the company’s services is merited, but it would have to be much bigger in scope to have a real impact.

The usual way that regulators and prosecutors handle criminal enterprises is to force them out of business, but these are usually relatively small operations. What should be done with an institution such as Wells, which has more than 260,000 employees, some 8,600 branches and offices, and 70 million (presumably real) customers?

The answer for dealing with Wells Fargo might be to break it up into a number of smaller companies that are kept under close supervision and barred from operating in riskier areas. In other words: use a variation of Glass-Steagall as a way of discouraging fraudulent behavior. Even better would be if these smaller institutions operated under employee ownership.

My point is that we need to get more creative in dealing with systemic corporate crime so we’re not forced to endure an endless series of scandals.

Tech vs. Jobs

Thursday, October 13th, 2016

On those rare occasions when the current presidential race deals with policy rather than personalities, the focus tends to be on trade and immigration. Yet there is a potentially much greater threat to the well-being of U.S. workers that is receiving little attention: the technology revolution.

Corporations such as Apple and Facebook promote the idea that digital technology is enriching our lives. In some ways it has: it is easier than ever to keep in touch with far-flung friends and acquaintances, to purchase a vast array of products, to access an endless variety of music and video, and much more.

Yet one thing the tech industry has failed at miserably is giving people opportunities to make a decent living. A front-page article in the Wall Street Journal presents the dismal facts: The tech industry has enriched its investors but does little for the U.S. workforce. In fact, the Journal points out, domestic employment in the computer and electronics hardware industry has fallen nearly 50 percent since the beginning of the century, while the much smaller software workforce has seen only modest increases.

More evidence can be found in a report on data centers just published by my Good Jobs First colleague Kasia Tarczynska. It shows that these facilities, which make up what is known as the cloud, each create only a few dozen jobs. Yet state and local officials, desperate to show they are doing something to encourage employment growth, shower tech giants with subsidies that average nearly $2 million per job.

One tech company that has been hiring a lot is Amazon, which has doubled its workforce (to more than 200,000) over the past couple of years while creating the distribution network necessary for rapid delivery. There are two problems, however. The first is that most of these new positions are lousy warehouse jobs. Amazon has developed a reputation for brutal working conditions — and is aggressively fighting unionization. The second is that many of these jobs will not last for long. Amazon is investing heavily in automation, including the purchase of Kiva Systems, a firm specializing in warehouse robotics. And it continues to experiment with drones designed to replace UPS drivers.

Not only is the tech industry failing to create many jobs in its own operations, but it also is on the verge of destroying large numbers of positions in other sectors. The prime example is the rush toward self-driving vehicles. While there has been some (probably not enough) debate on safety, little has been said about the employment impacts. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, some 9.5 million people work in occupations relating to transportation and material moving. A substantial portion of these — especially truck, bus and taxi drivers — are threatened by the rush to autonomous vehicles.

After being decimated by offshoring, the U.S. manufacturing sector has been recovering, but as a consequence of digital technology and robotics today’s plants require far fewer warm bodies.

Advances in artificial intelligence mean that automation-induced job loss will not be limited to blue collar occupations. Even the professions are not immune.

The tension between technological progress and the needs of workers is, of course, an old story. Yet one lesson never seems to sink in: society needs to prepare for the upheaval and make sure that there is a just transition for the workers who are displaced.

Trump’s Accountant, Bogus Tax Shelters and My Lost Inheritance

Tuesday, October 4th, 2016

Jack Mitnick

Jack Mitnick may end up denying the presidency to Donald Trump. He also helped deprive me of my inheritance.

As the world now knows, the accountant confirmed to the New York Times the authenticity of leaked Trump tax return documents prepared by him that reported an annual loss of some $916 million in 1995 that may have allowed the mogul to avoid federal taxes for nearly two decades.

Trump was not Mitnick’s only client in the 1990s. He and his firm Spahr Lacher & Sperber also did work for my maternal grandfather Julius Nasso, who owned a concrete construction company in New York City. That firm did quite well for its work on projects such as Madison Square Garden and the Javits Convention Center.

My grandfather, who died in 1999, prospered from the business, but his wealth, I regret to say, was also enhanced through the use of dubious tax shelters involving coal leases. That’s where Mitnick comes in. From what I know, Mitnick’s firm either set up my grandfather in the shelters or at least prepared tax returns in which they were used to greatly reduce his tax liabilities.

The Internal Revenue Service eventually challenged the shelters, but my grandfather, apparently with Mitnick’s help, refused to settle. It was only after his death that the dispute was resolved by my family with a substantial payment to the IRS. One consequence of this was that the bequests in his will to me and the other grandchildren could not be fulfilled.

I long treated this as a private family matter, but after Mitnick’s name appeared in the Times story I did some research on him. I found that in 1981 Mitnick and other parties were sued by William Freschi Jr. in his role as trustee of the estate of his father, who like my grandfather had invested in coal lease tax shelters. The suit accused Mitnick, who was described as the administrator of Grand Coal Venture, and others of defrauding his father.

The case had a long and complicated legal history, including a racketeering charge and an action by the U.S. Supreme Court. In 1985 Mitnick and the other defendants were found guilty of securities fraud and ordered to pay Freschi $266,500 in damages, plus $126,681.75 in pre-judgment interest. The Court of Appeals, however, later overturned the award against Mitnick but did not completely exonerate him.

Given Mitnick’s close working relationship with Trump — the accountant is mentioned in The Art of the Deal — one cannot help wonder whether he also arranged for Trump to participate in the phony coal tax shelters. Given the other tax dodging tricks available in connection with his real estate holdings, Trump may not have needed them, but this is another question that will be answered only when Trump releases his full tax returns.

In the interest of full disclosure, I should mention that my grandfather’s company operated at times in a joint venture with S&A Concrete, a firm with alleged mob connections that separately did substantial business on Trump projects.