Consumer Voices Needed in US Privacy Debate

By Ralph Nader and Marc Rotenberg

Last week the Federal Trade Commission scheduled two days of hearings to explore new challenges to consumers in the digital age. The hearings were heralded by incoming chair Joe Simons as the first comprehensive review of the consumer agency’s role in almost two decades. The only problem is that the FTC forgot to invite the consumers. There were professors and former commissioners. They were industry lobbyists, described as “experts in consumer protection law,” and agency officials. But no one was invited to represent the people the Commission is expected to protect or the people who would be impacted by the Commission’s actions.

The problem of silencing consumers is not limited to the FTC. Senate Commerce Chair John Thune has scheduled a hearing this week on “Examining Safeguards for Consumer Data Privacy.” The event is timely and the Chairman should be commended for convening the hearing. But the current witness list is all industry. There is a VP from AT&T and from Amazon. The Chief Privacy officer from Google was invited, as was the Legal Director for Twitter. Vice Presidents from Apple and Charter also made the cut.

But no one asked consumer representative to describe the current challenges American consumers face in the online marketplace. Do not be surprised if we get an exchange similar to the question Senator Orin Hatch asked Mark Zuckerberg when the Facebook CEO testified in Congress back in April, “what type of legislation would you like?”

The problem is not simply that a consumer agency or a Senate committee should routinely invite consumer representatives to testify on consumer issues. That is obvious. The problem is that that the framing of the discussion, without the consumer voice, reflects the assumptions and biases of the industry.

For example, at the FTC hearing last week industry lobbyists continued to focus on outdated notions of harm. Little was said about the growing risk of data breach and identity theft in the United States or the FTC’s failure to enforce its own consent orders. The industry lobbyists expressed skepticism about new efforts to safeguard consumers, but no consumer representative was there to defend or amplify these proposals. And all the big FTC merger approvals – Google’s acquisition of Doubleclick, Facebook’s acquisition of Instagram and then WhatsApp – were ignored.

Public policy suffers when critical voices are excluded. The range of options that policy makers consider is narrowed. This has a corrosive effect on democratic institutions, making it even more difficult to solve real problems. In the privacy world, for example, we now know that foreign adversaries are targeting the personal data gathered by US companies. That was true in the Equifax data breach that compromised the authenticating details — the social security numbers and dates of birth — of over one hundred million American consumers. It is true in many other data breaches, yet current US consumer protection law nowhere acknowledges the problem. As Senator Warren has rightly said, data protection is now a matter of national security.

There is also a close tie between unbounded data collection and industry consolidation. Firms use their detailed knowledge of consumers to fortify their monopoly position and stifle innovation. Consumers in these two-sided markets have little say over who has access to their data or how it is used. And there is little evidence that “data portability,” a concept favored by the monopolists, has promoted new entrants or competition. These issues should have been at the top of the list for an FTC hearing on consumer protection and competition. But crickets.

Beyond consumer protection, national security, competition, and innovation, there is one of other issue that looms large in the debate on data protection – the future of democracy. This is partly about the manipulation of public opinion by the Internet giants, such as Facebook, and the specific case Cambridge Analytica, but there are also structural problems that have retrenched corporate statism.

Speaking at Davos in 2018, George Soros made clear the threat that the tech titans pose to democratic institutions. As Soros explained, “as Facebook and Google have grown into ever more powerful monopolies, they have become obstacles to innovation, and they have caused a variety of problems of which we are only now beginning to become aware.” Soros warned in January “there is an even more alarming prospect on the horizon,” there could be an alliance between authoritarian states and IT monopolies that would join corporate surveillance with state-sponsored surveillance.

Soros called out China and Russia and in just the last few months the Intercept reported on Dragonfly, Google’s secret project to develop a search engine for the Chinese government that would not only censor search results but would also uniquely link search queries to identifiable users. That is a risk with Google search that US privacy advocates have warned the FTC about for more than a decade, yet the consumer agency has failed to act even as that technique are is deployed to censor speech and support authoritarian governments.

Another recent story reported in the libertarian magazine Reason notes “Google complied last week with the Russian government’s demand that it remove YouTube ads featuring Alexei Navalny, a well-known critic of Russian President Vladimir Putin.” The same company that has called the Right to Be Forgotten, which protects the privacy rights of Internet users, “censorship” seems quite willing to take down core political speech. Perhaps if the FTC had blocked Google’s acquisition of YouTube, as consumer groups had urged, there would be more freedom to express controversial views in Russia today. That issue was also ignored during the FTC hearings.

There are many reasons why it is so vital that public institutions, such as the FTC and the Senate Commerce Committee, ensure the participation of consumer advocates in the debate over the future of privacy protection. Change is taking place quickly and it is those advocates who are in the best position to advise policy makers. The alternative, which we are now witnessing, is a backward-looking justification of ineffective policies or an invitation to industry to design the regulations it would favor. Neither approach will solve the problems facing consumers and the country.

In a recent letter to the Senate Commerce Committee, Jeff Chester with the Center for Digital Democracy expresses “surprise and concern” that not a single consumer representative was invited to testify. Mr. Chester asks whether any of the industry groups will put forward proposals to establish baseline privacy legislation, strengthen penalties for data breaches, or reduce the secret profiling of American consumers. “How can members of the Committee develop sensible solutions if they are not even aware of the full range of options?” he wrote. Many consumer organizations supported Mr. Chester’s efforts.

The voices of these consumer advocates should be heard. It is not too late to start a meaningful dialogue on the future of privacy in America.

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Questions, Questions Where are the Answers?

In an oft-reported exchange between Gertrude Stein, an American widely known for her wisdom and glittering 1920s Parisian literary salon, and one of her earnest admirers, the admirer asked her – “What are the answers, Madame Stein?” She replied “What are the questions?”

Within our media/political/corporate culture of self-censorship and taboo topics, we should restate Ms. Stein’s rejoinder—what are the questions of gravity and relevance that are chronically unasked?

Here are some questions that should be asked, until answered!

  1. Why are Supreme Court nominees, including Judge Brett Kavanaugh, not asked by the Senate Judiciary Committee about corporate crime, tyrannical, one-sided fine print contracts, weakened tort law and U.S. violations of constitutional and international law affecting all Americans?
  2. Why do reporters and elected and regulatory officials decline to ask questions about peer-reviewed studies concluding a minimum of 250,000 Americans are losing their lives every year due to preventable problems in hospitals? (see Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine’s May 2016 report). Five thousand fatalities a week on the average plus many more preventable injuries and illnesses should be an ongoing subject of urgent inquiry for action.
  3. Computerized billing fraud is rampant. Last year in the health care industry alone, computerized billing fraud amounted to about $350 billion dollars. The leading expert, Harvard’s Malcolm Sparrow, and a Congressional GAO report estimate at least 10% of all health expenditures are a result of fraudulent billings. Why aren’t the TV networks, PBS and NPR, and the major newspapers all over this massive ongoing heist?
  4. Sanctions imposed on foreign agencies and personnel are flying out of Washington. What are these sanctions, how are they enforced, are they legal under international law, is there any due process to protect the innocent or indirect victims, and how are they countered? There are regular stories about the U.S. government announcements of sanctions, but no follow-up questions about this burgeoning unilateral foreign policy.
  5. The Taliban is composed of no more than 30,000 to 35,000 fighters without an air force, navy or heavy ground armor. Why are they holding down for over a decade U.S. forces and their allies many times their number, with advanced weaponry, and enlarging their territorial control? Is it because expelling foreign invaders motivates their astonishing determination? And who are all those suicide bombers and what is motivating them to stand in line waiting for the call?
  6. Why has the Congressional scrutiny of the wasteful, unauditable military budget crumbled as never before with the Democrats voting for more money than even Trump initially asked for in the last funding cycle? Over 50 percent of the federal government operating expenses goes to defense? Both parties act as if adequate money for infrastructure repair in this country is nowhere to be found.
  7. Why aren’t the hundreds of full-time reporters covering Congress demanding to know why members, or their staff, routinely do not reply to substantive letters, calls, or e-mails, without constant hammering by citizens? The exception is if you are a campaign donor. Why are Congressional offices often so unavailable during working hours? If you are lucky you can leave a message on the office voicemail. Inside the heavily guarded Russell Senate Office Building, Senator Rand Paul (R-KY) even locks the door to his suite of offices.
  8. Similar non-responsiveness holds true with government agencies in the executive branches at the federal and state levels. A group of citizens, including me, has been waiting for months to get a reply from the Justice Department about their request for the Department‘s position on starting a long needed corporate crime database. One would think that newspapers, begging for readers, would do regular, random surveys of these agencies who, after all, work for the people they are shutting out. Small wonder citizens are turned off government when they can’t get through to get answers to their critical inquiries.

When I manage to get through to them, I tell newspaper, radio, or TV reporters and editors about agencies that do not respond (corporations are another dark void of obstruction) they invariably say that this would be a good service story for their readers, viewers, and listeners. Yet somehow, they never do such surveys of agencies, perhaps because as news people they have an easier time in getting through.

Have you had a serious personal or critical inquiry put to your U.S. Senator or Representative that has gone unanswered? Send us your ignored letter or email or telephone request by October 1, and we’ll try to get you an answer from your hired hands on Capitol Hill. Or shall we call the place “Wuthering Heights”?

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Stop Brett Kavanaugh— A Corporation Masquerading as a Judge

Observers say that confirmation of Judge Brett Kavanaugh to become President Trump’s second pick for a lifetime job on the Supreme Court will make the Court more conservative. It is more accurate to say Kavanaugh will make the Court more corporatist.

With Kavanaugh, it is all about siding with corporations over workers, consumers, patients, motorists, the poor, minority voters, and beleaguered communities.

Repeatedly Kavanaugh’s judicial opinions put corporate interests ahead of the common good—backing the powerful against the weak, the vulnerable, and the defenseless.

Apart from his declared views pouring power and immunity into the Presidency (which is why Trump wants him), Kavanaugh could be the most corporate judge in modern American history. Two meticulous reports on his judicial decisions, one by the Alliance for Justice (AFJ) and one by Public Citizen demonstrate that for him it’s all about corporations uber alles.

Here is AFJ’s summary:

Kavanaugh has repeatedly ruled against efforts to combat climate change and the regulation of greenhouse gases. He also repeatedly ruled against protections for clean air. He has repeatedly sided with the wealthy and the powerful over all Americans. He has fought consumer protections in the areas of automobile safety, financial services, and a free and open internet. Kavanaugh has also repeatedly ruled against workers, workplace protections and safety regulations.

Do you want him to be on the Supreme Court?

Kavanaugh is a corporate supremacist to a fanatic level of protecting corporate cruelty and greed. Giving him an unaccountable lifetime position on the Court will weaken our democracy and empower the corporate state.

What will he do when cases involve robots harming workers or consumers; corporate algorithms corkscrewing consumers; corporations turning the governments against their citizens; and corporate criminals being bailed out by taxpayers?

Fortunately, Kavanaugh gives us more than a clue from his many judicial decisions and dissents, especially with healthcare cases coming before the Court. Public Citizen’s factually-based report on Judge Kavanaugh’s opinions in split-decision cases provides insight into his judicial philosophy.

He ruled 15 times against worker rights, 2 times for worker rights. On environmental protection, he ruled 11 times for business interests and 2 times for the public’s interest. On consumer and regulatory cases, he ruled 18 times for businesses and 4 times for consumer protection interests. In the area of antitrust or anti-monopoly, he ruled 2 times for the corporations and zero times for market competition.

He seems to love government power when it is arrayed against the people, ruling 7 times for police or human rights abuses versus zero rulings for the victims. But he rules against government agencies when they are protecting the interests of the people over those of corporations.

Even more extreme, he does not like human beings to sue corporations or sue the government. But if you are a corporation, the courthouse doors are always open.

Kavanaugh rules like he is a corporation masquerading as a human. But in his introductory statement to the Senate Judiciary Committee, he wanted us to see him a regular guy, weirdly remembering the row and seat number at two professional sports games his father took him to as a child and listing all the names of his sixth grade daughter’s basketball team.

Shame on Chairman Charles Grassley (R-IA) for severely restricting the voices from civil society allowed to testify before the Judiciary Committee. No wonder Code Pink had to protest from the galleries.

Watch out for a cruel man with a folksy smile. Watch once again the Democratic Senators on the Senate Judiciary Committee minimizing Kavanaugh’s bias for corporations— except for Senator Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI).

Given the lives, injuries, and sickness at stake; given the dictatorially approved taxpayer-funded corporate welfare and bloated corporate contracts with governments draining the peoples’ necessities, given Kavanaugh’s mindless support for corporate dollars corruptly buying elections, maybe the motto against this awful nomination should be “Kavana-ugh!”

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Calling for Ten Million More Voters, a Few Billionaires, and a Just Congress

About 80 days separate the people from the November 6th Congressional elections. Judging by the past midterm turnout, at least 125 million age-eligible voters will stay home. Too many people say: “Can’t be bothered;” “politicians don’t care about me;” “all politicians lie so why should I be part of that game;” “I’m not into politics;” “Nobody I like.”

Whoever finds the way to bring ten million or so of these non-voters to the polls in swing Congressional Districts will solidly control the Congress. Control of the House of Representatives by the Democratic Party stops most of Trumpism in its tracks, assuming the Democrats use their power and uphold their sworn duties in domestic and military/foreign matters under the Constitution.

Ten million non-voters becoming voters may not seem so decisive. Remember, however, that John Kerry lost to George W. Bush in 2004 by less than 90,000 votes just in Ohio. Donald Trump swung the key Electoral College votes in Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin by a mere 107,000 votes.

Therefore, let’s ask the question: What’s it worth in costs compared to benefits? How do we achieve a progressive Congress, committed to the needs and rights of the American people and not beholden to the big corporations? A mere half a billion dollars would achieve that objective—about what the Koch brothers’ network intends to spend this year.

The benefit of increasing the turnout of informed voters is a more enlightened Congress. A new and improved Congress could produce huge savings in dollars, lives, health, safety, and improve the environment. In addition, a new Congress could end boomeranging illegal wars, enact a long-overdue increased minimum wage, corporate tax reform, facilitate faster conversion to solar-renewable energy, and restore our public facilities with good local jobs. Our public transit, national parks, schools, highways, bridges, libraries, and community health clinics all need repairs. Ending massive, taxpayer-funded corporate welfare and taming the bloated, skyrocketing military budget that is devouring our public resources are also benefits of rebuilding a responsive Congress.

The list could go on, but permit a single example. Over a decade ago, it was revealed that a single disclosure line, put back in the tax forms filed by business partnerships, would end a loophole that has cost Uncle Sam anywhere from $7 billion to $20 billion a year in tax revenue. The corporate-indentured Congress refused to approve such a line and fund its implementation.

In the massive accounts receivable for big business that is our federal budget, you can pick and choose what can be saved were a super-majority of our 535 Representatives and Senators accountable to the voters and they definitely can be.

How would a half-billion dollars for voter education and mobilization be spent effectively? Not by using the same old ways of getting out the non-voters that have failed again and again.

First, most get-out-the-vote efforts target registered voters. Non-voters are considered, for the most part, too hard to convert into voters.

The reasons are obvious. You don’t get these conversions by the usual last-minute phone banks, post cards and door knocks. You have to have adequate time and you need engaged neighborhood people-to-people resources for at least several weeks to achieve those persuasions through relationships of trust and discussion and you may need transportation facilities. Voter suppression and registration barriers also need to be overcome one voter, one family at a time.

In the late 1880s, dirt-poor Texas farmers started one of the greatest political revolts/reforms in American history. Spreading into many other states, this populist surge— against the rapacity of banks, railroads and their political toadies— elected Governors, took over state legislatures, installed members of Congress and almost won the presidency. What did the farmers have? Their land, open minds, courage, heart, passion, energy,  and the Post Office.

What did they lack? Money (other than the $1 dues from each Texas farmer), telephones, paved roads, motor vehicles, radio, television, and the Internet. Yet somehow they pulled it off and we’re benefiting this day from their electoral, economic, and pro-farmer-labor reforms.

At present, every neighborhood, housing project, and community has what political analysts call “influentials,” long known and trusted people who can be persuasive in converting non-voters to voters. Two thousand full-time organizers can spark these “influentials” into action—if the organizers have the financial resources to pay for necessary expenses, arrange pot-luck suppers, and provide transportation to the polls.

Backup support by people skilled in administration, law, accounting, recruitment, public relations, and media would accelerate the pace and minimize pitfalls. Moving people together in buses to the polls followed by celebratory dinners increases the spirit, the elan of what would likely become a widely publicized movement, extending beyond Election Day, replete with visuals, posters, special songs, and even empowering parades.

Five billionaires could provide the money with one resolute meeting! Our country has more than that number of concerned philanthropists with records of enlightenment. They are worried about the downward direction of our country and what it means to the children and grandchildren, and to our precious environment, to our need for stable peace. They want to be good ancestors. They can make a very quick decision and start making it happen.

Are any possible benefactors listening? If so, contact us at nader.org.

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Going Fundamental Eludes Congressional Progressives

I’ve recently received fundraising letters from Senator Elizabeth Warren and Senator Chuck Schumer on behalf of their Democratic Party’s campaign committees. Mostly, all they ask for is money, though Schumer’s letter includes a short tough letter to President Trump for us to sign which they promise to deliver to the White House.

Although politicians review and sign fundraising letters, rarely do they write them. That lucrative task is left to political consulting firms that also profitably consult for corporations. That’s why the letters are so formulaic.

Over the years I have urged incumbents and candidates for elected office to do more than ask people for money. Why not ask them for their time, their minds, and their dedication by having “time-raisers,” not just “fund-raisers”? Great idea they uniformly say. This never gets done. Their consultants think asking for anything other than money diminishes donations. So the dreary letters continue to arrive with grand promises and few specifics. For example, both letters mentioned the need for higher minimum wages. Wages have been stagnant for many years while corporate profits and executive bonuses have skyrocketed on the backs of millions of American workers. But there is no mention of how high a minimum wage (gutted by inflation since the 1970s) these Democrats are committed to supporting. Similarly, there are no specifics that address protecting health care, social security, reversing huge tax cuts to big business, debloating military budgets and stopping costly, reckless wars. If politicians don’t give you specifics and timetables, they’re creating their own loopholes should they be elected.

Now comes the spanking new “People’s Budget” released by the House of Representatives Progressive Caucus of the Democratic Party (see
“The People’s Budget”). It is 40 pages with charts that rebuke and reject the cruel and vicious agenda of the corporatist, war-mongering, deficit-booming Republican toadies of Wall Street, and the fossil fuel and nuclear industries. The organized lobbies against the modest necessities of workers, consumers, and defenseless communities dominate the federal budget process.

But the CPC’s “People’s Budget” has its own infirmities. It doesn’t address very weak corporate crime enforcement, to repealing specific anti-labor laws, like the Taft-Hartley Act, to being number-specific in cutting the bloated, corporate crime-ridden military budget, or even giving a number to a higher minimum wage.

Showing both large expenditures for restoring social safety net programs and large savings by reducing corporate welfare, restoring corporate taxes, and adding some new ones such as a speculation tax on Wall Street transactions, the “People’s Budget still comes off as a blizzard of funding for old programs with their welfare industries.

For example, the Progressive Caucus Budget does not recommend a universal basic income (UBI)—historically supported by liberal and conservative thinkers and politicians. UBI, in an age of rapid automation, would reduce the need for some of those welfare programs and bureaucracies.

The “People’s Budget goes into details explaining its health care policies, without even mentioning what it proposes to do about $350 billion in annual billing fraud and abuse by the health care vendors. Not a word about 5,000 or more lives lost every week in our country from preventable problems in hospitals, according to a recent Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine study. These are gigantic tragedies destroying peoples’ lives, regardless of how important it is to provide affordable and accessible healthcare.

Although the “People’s Budget covers a myriad of needs, it is strangely minimalist on strengthening democracy besides stopping voter repression. Can you have a “People’s Budget” without people power?

These Progressives should have included a section on “Shift of Power” from the few to the many, arguing for a fuller system of electoral reform, experiential civic skills training in schools, fundamental corporate reform (from corporate charters to corporate personhood), and giving people usable tools for democratic engagement.

A full-blown assault on the corporate destruction of freedom of contract (one-sided fine print) and the (tort) law of wrongful injuries should have come naturally to these Progressives. But it did not.

Timid on taking on corporate-induced deficits, quagmires of boomeranging Empire (though the “People’s Budget advocates for auditing the Pentagon) and the massive waste and loss of life from health care commercialism (that far less expensive single payer has avoided in Canada, with better outcomes), the Progressive Caucus report reads too much like a revised New Deal laundry list.

Its wonky style does not lend itself to on the ground campaigning before voters hungry for regaining control over their lives and looking for changes that restore self-reliant economies detached from the speculative risks and greed of the global corporate disorder.

People are essentially looking for fair play, empowerment, respect, voice, and reduction of the overall rat race that provokes so much anxiety, dread, and fear. They want time, yes time, for their families and other pursuits than sinking into deeper debts from distant forces way beyond their accountability. This “People’s Budget,” to gain traction, cannot be about “bread” alone. Thomas Jefferson understood the political economy, but he also knew the importance of non-material goals that connected the economy to “the pursuit of happiness.”

Let’s hope candidates for the November election remember those finer intangibles that move more people to become better informed voters.

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Apple’s CEO Tim Cook— Serf Labor, Overpriced iPhones, and Wasted Burning Profits

The New York Times screamed its Headline— “In 1997, Apple was 90 Days from Going Broke. On Thursday [Aug. 2, 2018], It Became the first publicly traded American company to be valued at…$1,000,000,000,000.” The first trillion dollar company!

The boosters and commentators cheered, adding, “How High Could it Go?” In CEO’s Tim Cook’s announcement, we learned that there were $20 billion more of the shareholders money spent on wasteful stock buybacks. Stock buybacks enable fatter compensation metrics for Apple’s bosses (see Steven Clifford’s The CEO Pay Machine). Corporate managers love stock buybacks.

Earlier this year Apple executives dictatorially announced that it was going to spend $100 billion to buying back its stock, without of course, receiving the owners-shareholders’ approval. The owners might have preferred that some of that amount be used to pay them greater cash dividends. More far-sighted shareholders consider the presumably longer-view: institutional shareholders might have recommended more productive and equitable uses for that vast sum.

Some suggestions: Two billion dollars (a mere 2 percent of that $100 billion) would double the wages of its 1.3 million serf-workers driven to the wall by Apple’s Chinese-based mega-factory contractor. Another two billion would have made major improvements in the global recycling of the present deadly (to the environment and workers) handling of toxic discarded iPhones and computers. Some of that $100 billion could have gone to productive investments, R&D, shoring up Apple’s pension plan, raising wages of Apple’s employees, paying Apple’s fair share of taxes or, consumers take note, lowering the prices of their over-priced phones and components.

Apple’s media cheerleaders can only see blizzards of dollars. They don’t see the damage that this touted “successful business model” is doing to Apple stakeholders.

Exceptionally, Mark Phillips in his page one New York Times story on Apple’s report takes note of the corporate concentration in business profits and markets. “Economists,” he writes, “are starting to look into whether the rise of so-called super-star firms is contributing to the lackluster wage growth, shrinking the middle class and raising income inequality in the United States. The vast social and political influence wielded by their mega-companies has prompted lawmakers to demand more regulation to rein them in.”

Apple’s business model rests on low wage-labor in China and gouging iPhone consumers in the U.S. The federal cops on the corporate antitrust beat have been asleep for years— a somnolence well recognized by Apple, Facebook, Amazon and Google.

Phillips reports “Apple and Google provide the software for 99% of all smartphones. Facebook and Google take 59 cents of every dollar spent on online advertising in the United States. Amazon exerts utter dominance over online shopping and is quickly getting bigger, fast, in areas liking streaming of music and videos.”

The CEOs of these companies behave like “Emperors,” a designation levelled at Exxon/Mobile’s CEO years ago by prominent shareholder advocate Robert Monks at the company’s annual meeting. These new CEOs exude arrogance (sometimes with false Zuckerberg-like public humility). Once they hook their customers, the network costs for customers switching to a competitor become higher with time and also serve to discourage any new would-be competitor. Years ago, dominant Hertz rent-a-car had Avis as a competitor. Who are the domestic non-collusive Avis equivalents to the aforementioned Big Four today?

The big institutional shareholders like Vanguard, Fidelity and giant worker pension-funds better wake up. Tim Cook can ignore small shareholder complaints with impunity. The big institutional shareholders, with their skilled staff, can get his attention. They can take a longer, responsible view and demand that he stop burning all their shareholder money with buybacks and give shareholders more in cash dividends and other important investments that produce productive and equitable outcomes.

Concentration of market power in other fields feeds the likelihood of future instability through a domino effect. The top five megabanks in the U.S. control about half of the deposits, compared to about one-fifth twenty years ago. Labor’s annual share of the nation’s wealth gains have been declining since the 1990s. Speculation on Wall Street, slowed after the great crash of 2008, is roaring ahead toward the inevitable cliffs of unbridled greed. More taxpayer bailouts?

Grave risk levels are signaling caution; yet incredibly, a Republican Congress and Trump have loosened regulation on Wall Street.

As for you the people, your next big chance to grab hold of Congress and slow down these corporate supremacists comes in November. Do a little homework and find out who is on your side. “Slogan voters” are suckers.

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Why Not Tell Us Their Names?

In elementary school they taught us the names of inventors. Eli Whitney invented the cotton gin, Robert Fulton the steamboat, Alexander Graham Bell the telephone, and Thomas Alva Edison the electric light bulb. Nowadays we rarely know the names of the inventors of modern technology—think biotechnology, nanotechnology, pharmaceutical technology, safety technology. Not every breakthrough is invented by a single person, but there are still clusters of people inventing new things each year.

Over twenty years ago, my associates searched for inventors of the air bag so we could celebrate their achievements. It’s not as if the names of such inventors are not known—their names often appear in technical publications or in the U.S. Patent Office’s archives. But inventors are not featured in the popular media or in our school courses. Corporations and their brands are credited for the work of their staff.

Some may think the era of the lone inventor is over and only collectives of inventors produce most of the significant breakthroughs. But you wouldn’t know this by examining the thousands of patents issued every month (see Patent Gazette). Lone inventors— inventors who are not attached to a company or other organization – are only represented in some of these patents. Many more, however, are employees who have to give their rights to institutions. Getting patents is extremely expensive for lone inventors.

Let’s focus on the anonymous people who invent or design things that increase our misery/anxiety/ripoff index. I’d want to know who designs those incomprehensible computerized bills that flood and so often defraud consumers from all sorts of sellers. Who creates those maddening forms that millions of Americans have to figure out and fill out?

Who drafts those demonic fine print one-sided standard form contracts that handcuff millions of American consumers—be they borrowers, home buyers, tenants, car buyers, insurance purchasers, or those Internet clickers who “agree” to “terms and conditions” they never read (see faircontracts.org).

Let’s call this situation what it is—contract servitude or contract peonage. There is, in fact, one prominent Philadelphia corporate lawyer who is the kingpin of this consumer contract abuse—Alan Kaplinsky of Ballard Spahr LLP. As Kaplinsky goes around the country, he exudes pride in fostering these “mice print” form contracts that enchain millions of people and leave them defenseless before big, bullying corporations. So voilà —we’ve located one antihero.

Then there are the wordsmiths who create those form “No” letters replying to consumers who complain about being dealt with unfairly or overcharged. Back comes these long slimy “No” letters full of smooth verbiage that evade the issues while faking a response to consumer complaints. Corporate and government bureaucrats are really experts at such “No” letters designed to wear you down so you don’t even make a second attempt to solve a problem. Who are the creators of such verbal naysaying?

A recent innovation is letters, unsigned by any human being, from corporations and big institutions demanding a person respond.  A pension plan writes its pensioners every year requiring a form to be filled out confirming monthly receipt of payments and that the correct amount was being paid. Not sending in the form on time, the pensioners were advised, could result in suspension of payments due. Signed by the impersonal Pension Plan, not by an accountable human being who can be told—check your cancelled checks for heaven’s sake. Why are you bothering us?

Who in the U.S. invents and manufactures those huge bombs or those deadly cluster bombs that are illegally sent over to Yemen to kill and injure innocent children, women, and men in that war-torn, starving country? Who designs those deceptive, sugary television ads to get the little ones to take their path to obesity and related sicknesses?

The names of those who are culpable are anonymous, except for occasional tort lawsuits or whistleblowing that outs them.

In a world full of Facebooks, Googles, Amazons, Microsofts, credit rating bureaus, and ever more, your name and just about everything these snoopers can know about you are sold to their advertisers and others.

Who are the backroom mathematicians and electrical engineers who create and implement these algorithms that are taking over people’s lives everywhere?

Who are the creators of those Wall Street multi-tiered derivatives that speculate with and often lose other peoples’ money as in the giant financial crash of 2008? These towers of bubbling derivatives are so complex fewer people understand them than understand Einstein’s theory of relativity. Who are these geniuses of such high-stake gambling?

Let’s demand the creators of injustice, mayhem, irritation, and the waves of anxiety, fear, and dread reveal their names. Huge numbers of real humans, who cannot hide behind anonymity and who end up paying their bills by name, deserve to know the names of their tormentors.

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Savers Alert: Tens of Billions of Higher Interest Dollars are Yours for the Asking

American bank customers are losing billions of dollars in higher interest payments because they’re not being “frugal shoppers” and making a telephone call or sending an email to compare interest rates. If they did, they would find out that the Federal Reserve’s three years of gradual interest rate increases have finally pushed the banks—traditional and online—to make ten times more in interest payments to savers than millions of bank customers are now receiving.

There are over ten trillion dollars in bank savings deposits and money market accounts at places like Fidelity or State Street. In the past four years, such institutions have been reluctant to pass on the benefits of higher interest rates to their trusting savers. However, about a year ago when the interest spread between what the interest banks charge borrowers and the interest banks pay savers became too glaring to ignore. Prodded by more competitive online banks, with little overhead, and by the widening spread between short-term CDs and plain savings accounts, modestly alert savers can collect up to 2.25 percent in interest on minimums of $25,000 or less, depending on the institution.

Example, one person I know was keeping about $100,000 of life savings in a local saving bank at the rate of .02 percent. This was an undisturbed nest egg for years. A conversation with a neighbor led her to call the bank and ask for a better deal. Sure enough, she didn’t know that she could get a 12 month CD paying 2.25 percent interest. (She opted for the better interest rate).

She didn’t know about the better offerings because her Bank, like most financial institutions, does not believe in affirmative action to inform their trusting customers of the better deals available to them. Consequently, inattentive Americans are literally leaving tens of billions of dollars on the table, which the banks happily scoop up into their record quarterly profit reports. The same is true for giant mutual funds like Fidelity that has historically lagged behind its more successful competitor, Vanguard.

Absent personal friendships, very few bank officials contact their savings depositors and tell them they can make thousands of dollars more a year in interest payments with similar accounts. Typical conditions associated with higher interest paying accounts include: maintaining a minimum balance, limiting savers to a few withdrawals a month, and tying up one’s money for several months or even a year. If you want to shop around online, you’ll find recent offerings by banks for a one year C.D. with no minimum deposit at a rate of 2.5 percent.  Smart savers can ask their bank to match these rates. And with the Fed saying it will raise rates two more times this year alone, these deals are only going to get better.

Savings are federally insured by the FDIC up to $250,000 per account.

The worst interest rates are often from the giant banks—deemed too big to fail—that are flush with cash and enjoying lucrative tax breaks.  They are staying put, offering ridiculous 0.01 percent to 0.02 percent interest rates. They won’t match smaller bank rates. In short, you’ve been given little more than a lock box.

One would think that national and local television and radio stations would leap to get more money so easily for their viewers and listeners. Well, banks and mutual funds advertise on these stations.

One would think that the federal and state bank regulatory agencies would inform consumers to be alert and check for the unnoticed available higher interest rate accounts. Maybe they’re too busy promoting banks, checking solvency indicators, and talking deregulation in the age of the Trumpsters (Trump likes to appoint deregulators straight from the banking industry).

We could take a lesson from video entrepreneurs like Eugene Jarecki, whose successful 2010 video “Move Your Money” urging customers to vote with their feet by leaving misbehaving banks for more reputable community banks or credit unions. (Mr. Jarecki is now busy promoting his new documentary, The King, on Elvis as a broad metaphor for Trump’s America, rampant materialism, and self-indulgence).

Large consumer organizations—such as Consumers Union (CU) with millions of subscribers and the Consumer Federation of America (CFA) with scores of institutional members, including consumer groups and unions, have a role to play. Come on CU and CFA—move some of the billions of retained bank dollars into higher interest rate payments for hard-pressed Americans. They and other middle class savers will thank you.

How about going full blast with eye catching news releases and social media? Add some dramatic news conferences and mass media interviews to make this a grand party of immediate benefits. Let’s go Marta Tellado (CU president) and Jack Gillis (CFA president)!!!! Why should the barons of finance keep laughing all the way to the bank?

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Warner Slack—Doctor for the People Forever

Warner Slack was a humble, multi-faceted great American physician at Harvard Medical School’s affiliated hospitals. Yet after he passed away last month at age 85, Dr. Slack did not receive the news coverage accorded numerous late entertainers, athletes, writers and scoundrels. In fact, his life was ignored by the New York Times and the Washington Post.

Dr. Slack, in his pioneering, brilliant humane work, always focused on the lives of the American people whom he served in the millions, directly and indirectly.

It has been said that in a celebrity culture, we honor whom we value. Along the way the most important human beings who give us the blessings of liberty, justice, health, safety, knowledge and overall well-being mostly are missed or slighted by the priorities of a commercially driven culture. These people lift up our society every day on their largely anonymous, selfless shoulders.

In his final days, struggling with pulmonary fibrosis, I called Dr. Slack to express my deepest admiration and said: “For all your adult life, Warner, you have been a physician’s physician, a patient’s physician, a student’s physician, a citizen’s physician, and a champion of peace and justice.” This gentle, many-splendored medical doctor achieved such excellence in an age of specialization and amorality.

Dr. Sidney Wolfe, the nationally known long time director of Public Citizen’s Health Research Group, called Warner “a hero of mine.”

Just what did Warner Slack do to receive such encomiums? First, he was an early vocal medical practitioner who supported universal health insurance, when few were urging such humanity. He was among the first physicians in the world to see and apply the potential of computers in healthcare delivery but declared that advances mattered only if they advanced patients’ wellbeing. He insisted on patients being informed, on being empowered, and he led the way from his clinical practice in ending the absurdity of prohibiting patients from accessing their own medical records. Over the opposition of most of his profession and hospitals, he pressed on until this basic patient right was enacted as part of the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act.

Dr. Slack founded the Division of Clinical Computing from which flowed many professional articles and studies including prescient warnings about how computers misused can invade patients’ privacy and waste a ton of taxpayer money. He also pointed out that mindless converting from paper records to digital records might ill-serve the patients.

Once in a rare while, we meet relentlessly honest and courageous people who instinctively and cognitively see through the ruses, the snares and the delusions, and the profiteering propaganda that harm innocent, trusting people in so many grave ways.

Unlike many innovators, who bask in the limelight of praise, Dr. Slack humbly kept at it pressing for how his breakthroughs could actually benefit patients and not be hijacked for the all-mighty dollar. Human beings were never to be reduced to numbers.

As his son, author Charlie Slack wrote:

[Warner Slack’s] article “The Patient’s Right to Decide,” published in the British journal The Lancet, put forth a then-radical idea of “patient power”—encouraging patients and physicians alike to overturn the traditionally paternalistic nature of healthcare. Patients, Dr. Slack believed, should play a crucial part in determining their own care. Their insight, he often said, was “the least utilized resource in healthcare.

As an original thinker, a visionary, and a rigorous conveyer of medical ethics and responsibility to the hundreds of young clinicians he mentored or trained, Dr. Slack, maintained his steadfastness with a remarkable congeniality and the human touch.

In pain and hospitalized for weeks, he never complained. His demeanor and continual regard for the orderlies, nurses, and physicians, who took loving care of him, revealed his authentic character.

An early inchoate defender of the underdog, he was among the first physicians to publically oppose the Vietnam War, to go down South to help injured civil rights marchers, even working to help ease the integration of the University of Wisconsin football team. While in his seventies, he twice went to Honduras to provide medical assistance to residents of remote, impoverished villages.

A Princeton classmate of mine, Warner and I got to know each other better in 1980 when he and our Center independently issued tough critiques of multiple-choice standardized testing (SATs, etc.). As the author or co-author of many articles, book chapters, newspaper op-eds and books, such as Cybermedicine: How Computing Empowers Doctors and Patients for Better Health Care, Warner was very aware of phony studies, deceptive statistics, and other technical ways to manipulate persons.

Together with his colleague, Douglas Porter, he authored, in the Harvard Educational Review, the myth-busting article, “The Scholastic Aptitude Test: A Critical Appraisal.” They demonstrated that, contrary to ETS’s defiant assertions, aptitude was not frozen and its test scores could be raised by study and training for the tests. They also showed that SAT scores are poor predictors of college academic performance compared with high school grades.

Our study, “Reign of ETS: The Corporation That Makes Up Minds,” added that non-quantifiable traits, such as diligence, creativity, stamina, and even motivational idealism, can be more important as predictors of college performance.

This year, Warner’s critiques were further vindicated by the news that, joining some other colleges, the University of Chicago, has dropped these standardized tests as a requirement for admission.

Warner managed his interests and professional activities and duties without sacrificing being with his wife, Carolyn, their three children, and seven grandchildren. He relished these gatherings where he expressed his limitless curiosity about the world and continued to be, in Charlie’s words, “a person defined mainly by his youthfulness.”

Someone once said that “the only true aging is the erosion of one’s ideals.” No one who knew and worked with Warner viewed him as “elderly.” He couldn’t have been more contemporary and forward-looking with his classmates whenever they gathered for meetings regarding their unique alumni class organization—Princeton Project 55, which placed Princeton undergraduates and graduates with systemic civic groups around the country.

Dr. Slack was as complete a brainy, humane, down-to-earth, big picture human being as you could ever meet.

He left this life in Carolyn’s arms on the morning of their 62nd wedding anniversary.

His legacy is strong, deeply rooted in his many students and colleagues, and is lastingly conveyed in his writings and exemplary career, under pressure and controversy.

A biography of Warner Slack and his times needs to be written.

Donations may be made to the Warner Slack Scholarship for Clinical Informatics. In order to donate, select the aforementioned scholarship under “gift designation.”

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Universal Voting Dissolves the Obstacles Facing Voters

When will the authoritarians and their political henchmen stop harassing American voters and let all citizens vote? No other Western country comes close to imposing so many obstructions for certain categories of people to keep them from the voting booth. In Canada, England, France, Germany, Norway, Sweden, Denmark, it is very easy to vote.

Voter suppression is real and getting worse. Voter fraud is virtually non-existent, but this spurious claim is used as the excuse for unnecessary restrictions. Voter turnout, not surprisingly, is lower than in any other Western country.

According to the New York Times, here are seven ways the state of Alabama is obstructing voters. This former plantation/slavery state doesn’t overtly keep people of color, especially black people, from voting. That would clearly violate the federal civil rights laws. No, instead of race, Alabama electoral tyrants use class as a proxy for  racial bias.

In 2014, the usual corporatist Supreme Court 5 to 4 majority lifted the federal oversight of the Voting Rights Act for misbehaving states like Alabama and paved the way for voter suppression and obstruction.

  1. Alabama requires photo identification to vote. Studies have found that “among registered Alabama voters, blacks and Hispanics were more likely than whites to lack photo identification.”
  2. In 2015, Alabama started the process of closing 31 driver’s license offices in the state—places where people could get photo IDs. The reason given was “budget cuts.” (This from a state that is overly reliant on corporate welfare). The impact was clearly racial when one sees where the majority of closures occurred.
  3. Alabama wanted “to require proof of citizenship to vote in state and local elections,” which is not required in federal elections. The United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit blocked that move in 2016.
  4. Alabama tried to suppress voters by closing polling places. By November 2016, Alabama closed 66 polling places, with a clear racial impact that likely also affected rural lower-income white voters.
  5. Alabama bans money transfers from one political action committee to another—ostensibly to ward off corruption. The main impact, however, was on the Alabama Democratic Conference (ADC), which is a black get-out-the-vote endeavor. Not having rich patrons, the ADC has to rely heavily on other entities for contributions.
  6. Alabama has also purged voter rolls of voters who haven’t voted for four years or more. That’s a clever disincentive. If voters show up after “verifying registration details,” some can cast “provisional ballots.”
  7. Finally in 2017, Alabama Governor Kay Ivey signed legislation “re-enfranchising thousands of people convicted of felonies…, but [fellow Republican, Secretary of State John Merrill] refused to use state resources to publicize it, or to automatically register people who were turned away before it passed.”

Citizens in Florida have a referendum on the state ballot to re-enfranchise 1.7 million ex-felons, many of them non-violent offenders, who have served their time. In 2000, Florida’s Secretary of State hired a consulting firm that somehow wrongly misidentified people as ex-felons and took thousands of voters off the rolls. That number was far greater than the vote difference between Bush and Gore (537 votes), before Justice Scalia’s Supreme Court majority conducted their treasonous judicial coup d’état and stopped the statewide recount ordered by the Florida Supreme Court.

There are still many states with antagonistic election laws and regulations that allow state officials to take away peoples’ right to or their facility in voting.

States have long obstructed ballot access for third party or independent candidates, thereby depriving voters of more choices and voices. Fortunately, in the past fifteen years many court challenges have gotten rid of many petty obstacles. But many states still require independent or third party candidates to collect more signatures than Republicans or Democrats to get on the ballot.  Texas and California by far require more signatures from independent and third party candidates than any single entire Western European country. (Ballot Access Newsletter) There is a simple solution. It’s called universal voting. In Australia and a few other nations, voting is a duty, overwhelmingly accepted by the public. That makes obstruction of voters a serious crime. Australia’s turnout in federal elections is over 95 percent. No candidates or parties there have to spend bundles of money to persuade people to vote.

Some libertarians object to universal voting.  If, however, voters can write-in their choice, vote for themselves, or vote for a binding non-of-the-above option, that ought to take care of the civil liberties issue. Jury duty is a civic responsibility and the only constitutionally mandated duty.

It is a legal duty to obey the laws enacted by our legislative bodies whose authority comes from us. Doesn’t it make sense that we should have a legal duty to vote?

At the very least isn’t universal voting worthy of a national debate in the coming election period? Get your candidates and parties to take a stand on this taboo subject one way or another.

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