Archive for April, 2017

A Windfall for the Forbes 400 and the Fortune 500

Thursday, April 27th, 2017

We now know who it was Donald Trump was really addressing in his convention speech last summer when he declared “I am your voice”: the Forbes 400 and others in the upper reaches of the 1 Percent.

The one-page tax outline just released by the Trump Administration — with its pass-through scheme, its radical reduction in statutory corporate tax rates, and its elimination of the alternative minimum tax, the estate tax and taxation of overseas business profits — provides an unrestrained windfall for Trump’s own billionaire class.

In defiance of all evidence, Treasury Secretary Mnuchin is insisting that this is not a giveaway to the rich but instead is “all about jobs, jobs, jobs.” This is the same official who, harking back to the snake oil of the Reagan Administration, insists that the tax cuts will “pay for themselves.”

The claim that the corporate tax cuts will boost the economy and job creation is based on the widely promoted but largely baseless claim that U.S. business is burdened with excessively high rates. As groups such as the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy have repeatedly shown over the years and which ITEP documents once again in a recent report, many large corporations pay effective tax rates far below the 35 percent statutory rate. And through the aggressive use of tax avoidance techniques, quite a few of those manage to bring their effective rate down to zero or less.

Even if one accepts the questionable connection between taxes and job creation, Trump’s proposal would have no effect on employment in sectors such as utilities, industrial machinery, telecommunications and oil & gas, which ITEP shows are already paying effective rates below 15 percent.

There are sectors currently paying rates well above 15 percent, but it is not clear that lower taxes would do much to create jobs — and even less so, good jobs. One of the highest effective rates can be found in the retail sector, which despite this supposed burden, has over the year added millions of jobs. Unfortunately, most of those positions are substandard. The typical retail wage is about a third lower than the average for the private sector as a whole.

Recently, retail employment has been falling, but this has nothing to do with taxes; it’s the result of the increasing number of people buying stuff online rather than from brick-and-mortar stores. Giving big tax cuts to Wal-Mart and Dollar General will not reverse the job loss nor will it improve the wages of their remaining workers.

It’s also unclear what benefits will come from reducing taxes on health care companies, which also pay effective rates close to the statutory level. Taxes have not stood in the way of massive employment growth in this sector, which on the whole pays better than retail but has a substantial number of low-wage jobs. The future of this sector depends not on taxes but instead on whether Trump and Congressional Republicans succeed in dismantling the Affordable Care Act.

Another part of the Trump outline that will do little to create good jobs is the call for the repatriation and light taxation of foreign profits that corporations have been parking overseas. Business apologists have long made extravagant claims for this policy, but previous experiments with repatriation holidays did not boost jobs or even investment and instead simply fattened profits and dividends.

Those who put together the Trump tax outline are either oblivious to the discussion in recent years about growing income and wealth inequality or they deliberately set out to make the problem much worse. In either event, the plutocrats are rejoicing.

Grand Theft Wage

Tuesday, April 18th, 2017

Several weeks ago, in one of his few legislative successes, President Trump signed a bill rescinding the Obama Administration’s executive order on Fair Pay and Safe Workplaces. The order, designed to promote better employment practices by companies doing business with the federal government, instructed procurement officials to consider the labor track record of contractors, which were required to disclose their recent violations.

Business groups, which had attacked the order as a form of blacklisting, have gotten their way, but it is still possible for a federal procurement officer to determine whether a bidder is a rogue employer. It’s simply a matter of plugging the company’s name into Violation Tracker, the free database on corporate crime and misconduct I have assembled with my colleagues at the Corporate Research Project of Good Jobs First.

We’ve just announced the latest expansion of the database: 34,000 Fair Labor Standards Act cases brought since the beginning of 2010 by the Wage and Hour Division of the U.S. Labor Department. The dataset, covering cases with back pay and penalties of $5,000 or more, represents the recovery of more than $1.2 billion by WHD investigators.

Many of the offending employers are smaller businesses, but wage theft is far from unknown among large corporations. The biggest cumulative amounts collected by the WHD since 2010 came from oilfield services company Halliburton, which in 2015 agreed to an $18 million settlement of alleged overtime violations, and CoreCivic (the new name of private prison operator Corrections Corporation of America), which in 2014 agreed to an $8 million settlement. Also among the top ten are Walt Disney ($4.2 million) and Royal Dutch Shell ($2.6 million).

The wage and hour cases supplement existing Violation Tracker data in two other key areas that had been included in the executive order: workplace safety (OSHA cases) and employment discrimination (cases brought by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and the Office of Federal Contract Compliance Programs). We are now in the process of obtaining data on the remaining category — unfair labor practice cases — from the National Labor Relations Board.

DOL administrative actions are not the only game in town when it comes to challenging wage theft, which a 2014 Economic Policy Institute report estimated could be costing U.S. workers as much as $50 billion a year. Some of the biggest recoveries come in lawsuits known as collective actions that are brought in federal court on behalf of groups of workers and often result in multi-million-dollar settlements. Unfortunately, there is no central information source on these settlements. The Corporate Research Project is in the process of piecing together the data from multiple sources and will add it to Violation Tracker later this year.

The issues covered by the Obama executive order are just a portion of what can be found in Violation Tracker. We now have 158,000 cases brought by 42 federal regulatory agencies and all divisions of the Justice Department. The fines and settlement amounts in these cases total more than $320 billion.

Violation Tracker data is now current through late March of this year, but for some agencies there was not a lot of case information to collect for the first two months of the Trump Administration. For example, the Wage and Hour Division, which in recent years usually announced numerous case resolutions each month via press releases, has posted only a handful of such releases since Inauguration Day. There’s no indication that the work of the division has stopped, but it appears that the Trump appointees now running the Labor Department are not eager to publicize enforcement activities.

The Tainted Reverse Revolving Door

Thursday, April 13th, 2017

Given his own string of business controversies, it perhaps should come as no surprise that Donald Trump does not seem to worry much about the accountability track record of the companies from which he has recruited key members of his administration.

It’s well known that he chose as his Secretary of State the chief executive of environmental culprit Exxon Mobil, that he brought in a slew of people from controversial investment house Goldman Sachs, that his Treasury Secretary had operated a bank notorious for foreclosures, and that his first pick for Labor Secretary had run a fast-food company with numerous wage and hour violations.

It’s becoming increasingly clear that those were not anomalies. Research being carried out in collaboration with independent investigator Don Wiener shows that the administration also has a tendency in its second-tier White House and subcabinet appointees to select people associated with companies that have a checkered reputation.

When we initially embarked on this effort we expected to have to look into hundreds of names, primarily by checking their affiliated companies in our Violation Tracker. So far, whether by design or disorganization, the Trump Administration has announced nominees for only a few dozen of the hundreds of positions in the various departments and agencies, though things have been moving somewhat faster for White House staffers who do not require Senate confirmation. Within both of these groups there have been some questionable choices. Here are some initial examples; more will come in later posts.

Kenneth Juster and Bridgepoint Education. In February Trump chose Kenneth Juster, a partner at the private equity firm Warburg Pincus, to be Deputy Assistant to the President for International Economic Policy. ┬áPrior to his appointment Juster was a member of the board of directors of Bridgepoint Education, an operator of for-profit colleges. He was a board representative for Warburg, which was an early backer of the company and which controls one-third of the firm’s shares.

As shown in Violation Tracker, in 2016 the Consumer Financial Protection Board alleged that Bridgepoint deceived students into taking out private loans that cost more than advertised. The agency fined the company $8 million and ordered it to provide $23.5 million in relief and refunds to clients.

Michael Brown and Chesapeake Energy. Brown, an executive assistant to Energy Secretary Rick Perry, previously worked for Chesapeake Energy, the controversial fracking company based in Oklahoma. In 2013 the Environmental Protection Agency announced that a subsidiary of the company was being fined $3.2 million and would spend $6.5 million on site restoration to settle allegations that it violated the Clean Water Act through improper discharges into streams and wetlands.

Drew Maloney and Hess Corporation. Maloney, chosen to be the Assistant Secretary for Legislative Affairs at the Treasury Department, previously worked at the oil company Hess. In 2012 the EPA announced that Hess would pay a penalty of $850,000 and spend more than $45 million on pollution control equipment to settle Clean Air Act allegations at its refinery in New Jersey.

These are but a few examples of the what might be called the tainted reverse revolving door. The term “revolving door” is used to refer to the movement of government officials into lobbying and other private sector jobs where they exploit connections made in their public positions. The reverse revolving door is the process by which private sector people take government posts in which they are likely to promote the priorities of their previous (and likely future) employers.

Not only is Trump filling his administration with people with a business background, but he’s selecting people from some of the worst companies the private sector has to offer.

The Junk Insurance Lobby

Thursday, April 6th, 2017

The ACA repeal-and-replace effort, given up for dead two weeks ago, may or may not be getting resurrected. Whether that happens seems to depend on satisfying the desire of Tea Party Republicans to grant Americans the right to purchase the crappiest health coverage possible.

Whereas Paul Ryan and President Trump initially wanted to retain the ACA’s popular provisions on essential benefits and pre-existing conditions, they now seem open to trading them away to win over the Freedom Caucus.

The position of the hardliners is often dismissed as some kind of bizarre misanthropy, but it is actually the logical conclusion of the mainstream Republican notion that deregulation is the solution to all problems. That notion has been embraced by Trump, who repeatedly bashes agencies such as the EPA and claims that weakening business oversight is the key to job growth.

The members of the Freedom Caucus seem to believe that removing all restrictions on insurance companies will result in lower premium costs. That may be true but only because the insurance that people would be purchasing would cover as little as possible.

While the Freedom Caucus presents this as a bold new approach, it is really nothing more than a return to the situation before the enactment of the ACA. Republicans of all stripes would have us forget how awful and oppressive health insurance used to be.

Thirty years ago, the House Select Committee on Aging was warning that, in addition to the millions of Americans who were uninsured, millions more were underinsured. As traditional insurance was increasingly replaced by health maintenance organizations — whose business model was to deny as much coverage as possible — subscribers had to fight constantly to get prior approval for many procedures and to get reimbursed for medical fees already paid.

Even worse than the HMOs were the individual plans labeled as “limited benefit” or “mini-medical.” Targeted to lower-income people who were self-employed or had jobs that provided no coverage, these policies could cost as little as $40 a month but they had strict limits on both routine expenses and hospitalization costs. These plans existed for a long time on the fringes of the health insurance world, but eventually large companies such as Aetna, Cigna and UnitedHealth Group entered the market with their own bare-bones offerings.

Those subscribing to such plans were gambling they would remain healthy. If instead someone had a serious accident or illness, the plans were useless and often pushed people into personal bankruptcy.

Junk policies are the healthcare analogue to payday loans and other forms of predatory lending. They appear to serve a need and initially appear to be inexpensive, but they can have disastrous consequences.

The ACA was designed to protect people from those consequences, but the Obama Administration did not do enough to explain the change. In a climate of rightwing demagoguery, many people who had to give up their low-cost junk insurance were led to think they were losing something valuable. Moreover, Medicaid expansion, which provided free, decent coverage for low-wage workers who might otherwise have had to depend on junk policies, was blocked in many states for ideological reasons.

Now the Freedom Caucus would have us believe that bare-bones coverage is the way forward for the individual marketplace. That might be the case if we want a society in which those few people with no significant health needs get a bargain while everyone else has to risk financial ruin.