Hey Dems, focus on these four issues

One of this Independent voter’s frustrations with politics, which is exacerbated by this President, is pressing issues are not getting discussed. And, some are made worse or are sabotaged by the current White House incumbent as we are told to focus our attention on issues he has overstated in importance or sold on fear.

While there are many issues, it is hard to boil the ocean. So, my advice to all politicians, but especially the Democrats who are pushing these ideas, is to narrow the focus to the following four issues.

– Stabilize the healthcare system and have a good debate on Medicare for All, which is a hard sell. The GOP has failed to realize that a reason they lost the House is not listening to most Americans, instead sabotaging the ACA reneging on commitments to insurers and trying to repeal it. As a retired benefits actuary, consultant and manager. I would suggest an idea to stabilize the ACA is to expand Medicare to retirees at age 60 or 62 and measure the impact for its veracity. But, we need to start by paying insurers what we committed to them.

– Climate change is real, is happening and is man-influenced. AOC is dramatizing a little about the end of the world, but the data point she is citing is if we do not make huge strides by 2030 (12 years), our ability to stop the warming trend impact is minimal. She has been ridiculed for he Green New Deal by the GOP, but I would rather discuss her plan than Senator Marco Rubio ignoring the fact the largest city in Florida is the most at risk city on the planet and is seeing a larger number of sunny days flooding from the rising tides. Who is the crazier person, the one speaking to a problem or the one ignoring it altogether?

– Job retraining is key, but we need to understand the major reasons the jobs are going away are technology/ robotics and CEOs chasing cheap labor. It is not immigration or trade, which are down the list. This especially true in those impoverished areas where industry has left them behind moving or closing a plant.

– Finally, the debt and deficit are critical to discuss. The debt just passed $22 trillion and is headed to $34 trillion by the end of 2027. The annual deficit will pass $1 trillion this year, which is nearly 1/3 of our annual revenue. My former party and, in particular, the Freedom Caucus, are as hypocritical as they come. When the Dems had the White House, the Freedom Caucus screamed bloody murder when the debt was $8 trillion, then $13 trillion. But, I give the same caution to Dems I give to the GOP, we must reduce spending and increase revenue. The math will not work otherwise, so says the CBO, Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, The Concord Coalition and Simpson-Bowles Deficit Reduction Committee.

Of course, there are other critical issues. But, if you focus on the important few, it will resonate. This is especially true for younger folks – climate change, debt, future jobs and healthcare are important. In my view, the GOP has lost its way on issues of import. When I left the party twelve years ago, a key reason was its global warming denying stance. My thesis is if you are denying the greatest threat facing our planet, how can I trust you on resolving other issues?

We are behind the eight ball on too many issues. We are leaving our problems to our children and grandchildren. They will ask us, why did you do that? Why, indeed?

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Corporate shareholders are acting on climate change

While fossil-fuel funded politicians avoid addressing climate change and strip away governance enabling industry polluters, shareholders have been picking up the baton. Last week, Reuters published an article called “Chevron ties executive pay to methane and flaring reduction,” which defines specific gas emissions targets.

The article penned by Jennifer Hiller notes that it is not just executives with incentive plan targets to reduce emissions. 45,000 employees also have incentive plan emission targets. In other words, their pay is tied to combatting climate change. The intermediate goal is to reduce gas emissions by 25% by 2023.

While Chevron is the first to tie incentives to reducing gas emissions, in the month before the current US President announced our pullout of the Paris Climate Change Accord, three energy companies -ExxonMobil, PP&L and Occidental Petroleum – announced shareholder votes requiring management to report on efforts to address climate change. The Exxon-Mobil vote is telling in that they face a shareholder lawsuit and one by the New York Attorney General, Barbara Underwood, for misrepresenting the impact of climate change on their business to investors.

Per The Guardian, the NYAG lawsuit notes Exxon’s “longstanding fraudulent scheme” to downplay the impact of climate change including under-representing the “proxy costs” of fossil-fuel extraction. This lawsuit follows a three-year investigation and uses Exxon’s own research and scientists’ speeches against them. Before they took a “global warming is a hoax” public relations stance around the turn of the century. Exxon was active in climate change research. Even Shell produced a video in the 1990s that was made for educational purposes about the dangers of climate change.

But, it does not stop there. Well before fossil-fuel company shareholders made these impositions on management, more forward thinking companies like Amazon, Facebook, Google, IKEA and Walmart have invested in renewable energy like wind and solar energy. IKEA and Walmart are using their expansive store rooftops to place solar panels, while the three technology companies have used all of the above renewable energy strategies to power their  data centers. In my state of NC, these companies have helped propel the state forward as a top four solar energy state.

Let me close with my favorite Super Bowl commercial of last week, Budweiser produced a commercial that noted their beer is now being produced by wind energy. Seeing the Clydesdales meander down a road surrounded by windmills was a beautiful sight. It showed this is not a future goal – it is here. And, just to show it is making a difference, over 1/3 of Iowa’s electricity is produced by wind energy and Germany just announced renewable energy now exceeds coal energy as the biggest electricity source and they plan to be 100% renewable energy powered by 2038, twenty years from now.

This, that and another thing

Now that the state of the union and Democrat rebuttal are behind us, it would be nice if an independent voter had a turn. On the talk (and some shouting) shows, the independent views do not get heard enough and that is disappointing. For once, it would be illuminating for a member of neither party to share their thoughts.

For example, we might learn:

  • Global warming really is a concern and we should be doing something about it. On Bill Maher’s Friday show,  he noted that Senator Marco Rubio used the argument against the President for declaring a national emergency to build the wall, as what would stop President Kamala Harris from doing so to address climate change? Maher correctly pointed out the latter is becoming a national emergency, while the wall is not even a top ten issue and is overblown as a solution. He also noted, with the very real concerns over Miami, Rubio may become the Senator of Atlantis.
  •  A growing debt which is around $22 trillion with an annual deficit about to hit $1 trillion is a problem, especially with the deficit in a good economy. The Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget models the debt to be around $34 trillion at the end of the 2027 fiscal year. We must have spending cuts and revenue increases both. The math will not otherwise work. If a politician tells you differently, he or she is lying to you. Don’t let them.
  • The Affordable Care Act and Obamacare are the same thing. So is KyNect in Kentucky. Too many people still don’t realize this in the GOP. But, don’t look to politicians to solve this, as they really do not understand how our complex healthcare system works. We need to stabilize the ACA and stop sabotaging it, as the GOP has done.  My recommendation as a retired benefits consultant, actuary and manager is to fund money promised to insurance companies to pay for adverse selection and committed to deductibles, copays for people beneath 2 1/2 times the poverty limit. I would also expand Medicare as a pilot, measured effort to retirees below age 65, such as 60 or 62. This will reduce the cost rate in the exchanges and Medicare. The remaining states need to get off the dime and expand Medicaid – it is a no brainer per GOP Governor John Kasich.
  •  Addressing America’s crumbling infrastructure would help rebuild assets and provide good jobs. We also need to build on the community college system with some added funding to retrain people to do the jobs of the future, as technology claims even more (this is the major threat, not immigration or trade). Also, building on the bipartisan idea pitched to the President last year by Senators Sherrod Brown and Rob Portman from Ohio, we should co-invest with car manufacturers to retool plants to make the cars in demand and keep the factories open. This idea was ignored and the President was offended when GM announced some plant closings.
  •  There are so many more ideas around rethinking ill-conceived tariffs and trade fights, poverty issues, and gun governance, but let me make a general statement that is important. Start treating our allies and citizens with fairness and dignity. Stop the adversarial BS. A country and business makes more money long term by having a productive long term relationship. We need to stop measuring success on short-term transactions. Listen to your advisors as they actually study our problems. And, stop beating up on a free press. From where I sit, they are not perfect, but the true journalists try to get it right. The main source of fake news in the country sits in the oval office and he only cares about looking good.

Well, that is enough for now. I would love to hear your thoughts.

Real problems are not getting addressed

In lieu of focusing on problems that have been overstated by fear and misinformation, several real problems remain. Just to name a few – $22 trillion in debt with an expected $1 trillion annual deficit; ill-crafted tariffs which are slowing the global economy; increasing poverty and hunger; climate change interventions; infrastructure needs that are ticking time bombs; retraining workers impacted by technology; domestic terrorism and gun deaths; and stabilizing the ACA. These are the concerns of this independent voter, who has belonged to both parties.

Note: I wish to applaud Germany for announcing last Friday they plan to phase out coal energy by 2038. It should be noted that in 2018, renewable energy surpassed coal energy in Germany. This is what can be done when real problems are addressed with planning. The US is doing many good things with renewable energy, but it could do so much more with supportive federal leadership.

US DOD is worried about climate change

Per a Politico article yesterday, the US Department of Defense is concerned about climate change, even if the President denies the risk. It should be noted this concern is not new. Per Politico:

“Flooding, drought and wildfires driven by climate change pose threats to two-thirds of the U.S. military’s installations, the Defense Department said in a new report required by Congress.

The authors of the report, which the Pentagon delivered to Congress on Thursday, note that it probably underestimates the full extent of risk to military facilities because it only looks at likely impacts over the next two decades. The UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has said the world needs to become carbon neutral by 2050 to prevent global temperatures from rising 1.5 degrees Celsius, which would lock in many of the most catastrophic effects of climate change.”

This DOD report is following previous cautions that climate change is a risk to national security. This echoes the recent US government report and that of the UN. Yet, the US has a President who denies the human influence on climate change, has called it a hoax, announced the US pullout of the Paris Climate Change Accord and has eased regulations to enable the fossil fuel industry.

The larger irony is this President is inventing a crisis at the border and may declare a national emergency, while fiddling away about climate change. I think I will listen to the DOD than this man.

An unlikely transformative genius

If you watched “60 Minutes” on CBS last night, you may have seen the interview with Lesley Stahl and a game changing self-made scientist named Marshall Medoff. This 81 year-old, eccentric inventor has researched and created a breakthrough idea that will help move the dial on biomass energy, plastics and even sugar. What you might ask?

Medoff has succeeded in the release of cellulose that is ingrained in all plant products in an elegant fashion. Where MIT and others have failed to cost effectively do so, he has developed the concept of using an electron beam accelerator to blast the cellulose out of the plant materials. This is fascinating enough, but this man is a self-taught scientist. And, to add to the story even more, he came to the idea at Walden Pond in Massachusetts, where he lives nearby. What a great place to think of how to unleash the power of plants.

Yet, Medoff’s invention is beyond the idea stage. Investors are so enthralled, they have invested in his company called Xyleco and there is a facility in Moss Lake, WA in production. This place employs trained and educated chemical scientists and engineers. He also has a testing facility in Massachusetts near where he lives, employing many scientists from MIT and elsewhere.

On his Board of Directors are Bob Armstrong, the former head of MIT’s chemistry department and Steven Chu, the former Director of Energy under President Obama, and several other known advisors, including John Jennings, the former CEO of Shell. They all claim this man is an Edison-like genius, who is a tad eccentric. And, as Armstrong pointed out MIT and others have failed to do what he has done.

These Board members echo his enthusiasm to make a 30% or so dent in the energy business with a 77% more efficient biomass fuel than ethanol. Also, with petroleum-based plastic a huge issue on the environment, one of his scientists demonstrated a plant-based plastic that can have a planned disintegration at the end of its usefulness.  And, if that were not enough, a sugar byproduct called xylose, or wood sugar, is less in calories and has a smaller impact on teeth.

If it were April Fool’s Day, this would seem like a great story to fool people with. The exciting part is Medoff is legitimate. A key side bar is fifteen years ago, he decided to work on this problem to fight climate change. So, he read everything on the subject. And, then started putting together ideas and patents. One of his Board members said this eccentric old man had the confidence that he could do this. That can-do attitude is part of a genius’ make-up.

https://www.localbuzzot.com/2019/01/07/marshall-medoff-the-unlikely-eccentric-inventor-turning-inedible-plant-life-into-fuel-60-minutes/

A new word for an old problem

Wages in the US for the common worker have been stagnant for going on forty years. This disenfranchisement did not happen over just the last ten years. It is the culmination of various events and actions and not due solely to one or two causes or solvable by bumper sticker solutions. Yet, we have a new word for a major cause courtesy of the Economic Policy Institute – monopsony.

In essence, monopsony is the sister of monopoly. It is an employer who has so much clout in a region or area, it can suppress wages to its workforce. It can also move jobs away more readily be it through off-shoring, outsourcing, downsizing or relocation. This movement of jobs adds to an employer’s ability to manage wage increases. In essence, the word monopsony highlights the goal and ability of employers to chase cheap labor.

Per the EPI, much of the wage stagnation after 1970 has occurred at the low-end of the wage spectrum. An economist noted on a talk show to get an idea of what has happened, stand up and put both arms out in front of you parallel to the ground. The left one represents the bottom 90% and the right one the top 10%. Move the left one up at an angle by one inch, then move the right one up by twenty inches. That disparity illustrates what has transpired over these forty years in wage differential.

I have written before the efforts by the current President to create fear of immigration and trade deficits as the reasons for disenfranchisement in various areas over look the main two drivers – chasing cheap labor and technology improvements. Immigration is actually accretive to the economy, even illegal immigration as there are many jobs that Americans have said they don’t want.

But, if the President wants to solve an illegal immigration problem, he should begin with punishing employers who hire these workers. I have noted before about a textile company who went bankrupt and closed its doors. When career counseling people said in an auditorium full of workers that you had to have a Social Security Number to get access to benefits, 1/3 of the audience got up and left. The construction, agricultural and restaurant industries would have severe issues if these immigration wells dried up.

Yet, the two main drivers of wage stagnation and good paying jobs do not get talked about – chasing cheap labor and technology gains. An unnamed CFO said in the book “The Rich and the Rest of Us,” an employer would get by with no employees if it could. So, robotic machinery has been displacing workers for many years. And, now it is becoming even more efficient and affordable. We do much more manufacturing in the US today than in 1980, but with much fewer workers.

Yet, with these tools and possible actions available to an employer who has a monopsony in an area, good paying jobs are fewer in number. Mind you, high-tech manufacturing and similar jobs exist, but they are not in the same number with so much competition for wages. I make this last point as the disenfranchisement is real and not made up. To his credit, Trump went out and visited these areas. But, what they did not realize, he was selling on fear, over-simplifying the causes and highlighting the wrong major ones.

The disenfranchisement in the western world has a visual called the “elephant curve,” with a side view of an elephant with his trunk raised. The body of elephant is wage growth for the emerging and burgeoning international markets. The raised trunk reveals the rapid wage growth for the top 10% in the western world. The trough between the raised trunk and body, reveals the stagnation in wages in the western world.

So, immigration and global trade have an impact, but the key drivers are chasing cheap labor and technology. And, the last one will grow even faster than before. Yet, chasing cheap labor will continue to be a driver as well. It is the culmination of pounding on unions to weaken their voice. It is the active fight to keep minimum wages down over time. It is making tax changes dating back to the 1980s (and last December) that are more advantageous to the top 10%, giving them a chance to invest in technology and places to house cheaper labor. It is threatening to move jobs to gain wage limits.

Since the housing recession in 2008 and early 2009, we have seen unemployment decline and stay down. Wages have gone up some, but not near enough to track other increases in costs. We need to be discussing retraining impacted workers building off some success stories around the country. We need to renovate and repurpose deteriorated assets to create new jobs. We need to invest more in our infrastructure and jobs of the future. We need to stabilize the ability for employees, whose hours are limited, to get affordable healthcare, since employers hire more part-time and contractual employees to restrict them from joining their healthcare plans.

The disenfranchised employees and areas need a real voice who will speak to real causes, not over-stated ones. Monopsony is a hard word to say and is a hard word on these people. They deserve better than what they have been hearing.