Monday, August 25, 2008

How taxpayers subsidize CEO greed

8/26 UPDATE on income and poverty: next page

Why should the nation’s top CEOs worry about the American economy? After all, they’re doing fine – fabulously so. Last year their pay packages – at $10,500,000 each -- averaged 344 times the pay of typical American workers.

The top 50 hedge and private equity fund managers did better by far. Last year their compensation averaged 19,000 times that of typical workers.

What’s more, thanks to tax and accounting loopholes, average American taxpayers subsidize excessive CEO compensation to the tune of $20,000,000,000 a year.

Those are among the revelations in “Executive Excess: How Average Taxpayers Subsidize Runaway Pay,” a report released (August 25) by two think tanks, the Institute for Policy Studies and United for a Fair Economy. The report documents the five most direct tax subsidies that benefit executives at Wal-Mart, Target, the Citadel Investment Group, and other large corporations.

Another think tank, the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, on August 21 issued a helpful report on “What to watch for in the new Census income and poverty numbers.” It was timed for the August 26 Census Bureau release of findings on household income and poverty for 2007.

Those 2007 figures may well mark “the most disappointing economic recovery on record from the standpoint of low- and middle-income households,” the Center warns. “For income or poverty levels to show long-term progress, rather than merely recover from the damage caused by the last recession,…the median income for working-age households would need to rise above $58,721, and the poverty rate would have to fall below 11.3 percent.”

Stay tuned.


The 2007 figures, as released in the new Census report, were:
-- Poverty rate: 12.5%, above, not below, 11.3 percent
-- Medium income for working age households: $56,545, below, not above $58,721

“This is unprecedented,” Robert Greenstein of CBPP, said in a statement. “Never before on record has poverty been higher, and median income for working age households lower, at the end of a multi-year economic expansion than at the beginning. The new data add to the mounting evidence that the gains from the 2001-2007 expansion were concentrated among high income Americans.”

What’s the outlook, since the economy is still in a slowdown? Greenstein’s answer:

“The 2007 levels – already disappointing because they are worse then for the 2001 recession – are likely to constitute a high-water mark for the next few years. This suggests that significant pain may lie ahead for many Americans.”

For a podcast on these developments, click

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Saturday, August 09, 2008

Race matters in the race for the White House

Whenever the TV flashes the very first news about mass shootings in a school or a mall, I say a silent prayer that the shooter is not black. It is an instinctive reaction, because I’m a worrier. I know how wildly prejudice can assert itself.

The 1995 Oklahoma City bombing, which killed 168 people and injured more than 500 others, kept me worrying until the killer turned out to be Timothy McVeigh, a young white U.S. Army veteran. I didn’t hear anyone say, “Oh those white people. And they want us to trust them.”

What if the Unabomber, the mad genius Ted Kaczysnki, or Jerry Dahmer, who dismembered and ate his victims, had turned out to be black? Fortunately, we weren’t tested.

This November the racial attitudes of Americans will face a massive public test in the Presidential race. The New York Times ran a pre-test with CBS News a few weeks ago, and the result is not inspiring. On August 9, a Times article analyzed key answers to the poll:

“When whites were asked whether they would be willing to vote for a black candidate, 5 percent confessed that they would not. That’s not so bad, right? But wait.

“The pollsters then rephrased the question to get a more accurate picture of the sentiment. They asked the same whites if most of the people they knew would vote for a black candidate. Nineteen percent said that those they knew would not…This universe could be substantial. That’s bad.”

In his article’s final paragraph, Columnist Charles M. Blow writes: “Think racism isn’t a major factor in this election? Think again.”

And he reaches that conclusion without knowing the answer to a question that the poll didn’t pose: Would most people you know vote to put a black woman in the White House? Pollsters skip that question because it is considered too sensitive to ask whether whites prefer a white First Lady to one who is black. The race of the First Lady shouldn’t matter, even though Cindy McCain is constantly there at her husband’s side as a not-so-subtle reminder of the choice.

It shouldn’t matter, and yet I think is does. Remember, I’m a worrier.

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Thursday, August 07, 2008

Business and Human Rights To the Fore

An International Seminar on Business and Human Rights will be held in Paris December 4 and 5 to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Mary Robinson, former UN High Commissioner for Human Rights and chair of the Ethical Globalization Initiative, will chair the two-day seminar. Speakers will include Irene Khan, secretary general of Amnesty International, and John Ruggie, the UN General Secretary’s Special Representative on Human Rights and Business.

The purpose of the seminar, according to its announcement, is to review progress made on business and human rights and to “chart developments ahead.” Participants are expected to include “business, political, civil society, and trade union leaders as well as diverse learning from around the world.”

The December seminar is different from a “multi-stakeholder” consultation to be sponsored by the Human Rights Council at a date not yet determined. Its purpose, under the mandate for Ruggie that the Council adopted in June, is “to discuss ways and means to operationalize” the conceptual and action plan that the Council also adopted in June.

In the words of that mandate, the consultation will bring together Ruggie, “States, and business representatives and all relevant stakeholders, including non-governmental organizations and representatives of victims of corporate abuse.”

The agendas of the two meetings overlap, without duplicating each other. Many leaders will participate in both events.

As described in its newly released paper, Amnesty International, whose French branch belongs to the steering committee organizing the December seminar, endorses the work of Special Representative Ruggie and also offers him a full agenda of work that still needs to be done.

One important area is that of “extraterritorial dimensions of the state duty to protect,” which Ruggie has already studied at length. Amnesty urges him to plunge in further, and explains why:

“The protection of human rights is undermined, because both company structure and globalized company operations facilitate corporate evasion of state jurisdiction…The legal framework regulating TNCs has not kept pace with the realities of globalization. This is in contrast to economic law, which is increasingly protecting economic interests beyond individual states’ jurisdictions.”

“Amnesty International,” it says in its paper, “is skeptical of the arguments of group that oppose extra-territorial regulation on the one hand, while fully supporting the development of international law and enforcement mechanisms in the areas of trade and investment on the other.”

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Monday, August 04, 2008

Solzhenitsyn: We beg you to interfere

I heard him speak 33 years ago, but I still remember his riveting voice and presence. My memory of the great Alexandr Solzhenitsyn, who died Sunday in Moscow, is aided by something I wrote about the powerful address I heard him deliver.

The article in which I quote him appeared in the December 1993 issue of Blueprint for Social Justice published by Loyola University-New Orleans under the title Human Rights: Ten Objections Answered. The first of those ten objections was this one: “To raise human rights issues internationally is to meddle in the internal affairs of other sovereign countries.”

I began my answer with Solzhenitsyn and his answer:

I have never heard a more devastating rebuttal to this objection than the one given before 2,000 guests in the Washington-Hilton ballroom in Washington, D.C., the evening of June 30, 1975. The speaker was Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, author of The Gulag Archipelago and himself a former stonecutter in the Soviet Union’s Gulag.

The AFL-CIO sponsored Solzhenitsyn’s address at a time when the Carter Administration deemed it highly impolitic for the nation’s capitol to host a large public forum for such a vigorous critic of the Soviet Union. Senior government officials were conspicuously absent, but a few lesser lights from the State Department like myself, in response to a printed invitation from the AFL-CIO, attended without asking for permission.

Although Solzhenitsyn spoke in Russian, he did so with such feeling that his charisma carried over into the English translation. No part of his message evoked warmer applause than this one: “On our crowded planet there are no longer any internal affairs. The Communist leaders say, ‘Don’t interfere in our internal affairs. Let us strangle our citizens in peace and quiet.” But I tell you: Interfere as much as you can. We beg you to come and interfere.”

I went on to develop my own answer, applying it to similar objections then made by the People’s Republic of China. Among other things, I wrote: “China is sovereign, but so is the United States. There is nothing in divine or human law saying that the United States must permit the products of forced labor – which can range from socks to Diesel engines – to enter the U.S. from China. The United States can exercise its sovereign right to prevent such imports.”

To this day, the U.S. government has not been effective in preventing such imports from Communist China.

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