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Sprawling Roads to Nowhere

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LONG GONE: Ninth Street in its heyday.

Little Rock    These days planners and speculators would be hard pressed to imagine that they could figure out a way to easily intersect cities with ribbons of concrete dividing rich, poor, black and white, which is not to say there aren’t some still trying, but the public purposes are so obscure and the self-interest so palpable, that it’s simply a degree of difficulty that would stagger even the superrich.  Their imaginations have to build castles in other skies, though the dominance of money as the political currency will predictably lead to other white elephants roaming on their fields of dreams that the rest of us will also inevitably end up having to clean up later.

All of this came to mind recently as I read a fascinating master’s thesis prepared at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock that focused on the history of ACORN and our allies efforts to prevent the final construction of the Wilbur Mills expressway in Little Rock over 30 years ago.  The paper focused on the extensive delays in constructing these few miles that would run from downtown to the western suburbs leading to final completion not occurring until 1985.  Originally promoted by business and so-called civic leaders more than 50 years ago, the road was to be the East/West Expressway.  Needing more money, the local Congressman Wilbur Mills, who was also the powerful chair of the House Ways and Means Committee, was able to pork chop the expressway that became his namesake into the interstate system as a short leg connection between a city bypass I-430 and I-30 running on to Dallas. 

The “what” rather than the “why” was the subject of the paper.  Driving the Wilbur Mills the other day, from front to back, it took me 8 minutes in the early afternoon with a steady traffic flow.  At rush hour in the rain, driving at the posted speed of 60 mph (though few others were of course), the same trip took me 9 minutes.  One of the studies that ACORN won established that the time savings on this expressway would only be 3 or 4 minutes, so frankly, we are talking about a highway dividing the city of Little Rock in half over the fact that a commuter might drive 8 or 9 minutes rather than 11 or 12 minutes. 

A rare story in 2011 in the weekly, Arkansas Times, noted after almost 30 years that, damn, ACORN was right:  the expressway would cause inestimable damage and divide the city permanently on racial and income lines.   The curtain call and the ability to say, “we told you so,” was hardly worth it.  So, why this Wilbur Mills folly?

Civic nothing, this was all about the financial and political dominance of the real estate industry in Little Rock and the way to create huge paydays for speculators and developers buying land 20 miles form the city’s downtown core.  Thirty years ago, the radio station we built, KABF, began broadcasting from the first tower built on Chenal Mountain in rural Pulaski County, more than 20 miles away from our studios near downtown.   Now if you stand in front of our transmitter and look down the valley at the bottom of the mountain there is a community of McMansions and they are strung like diamond baubles on a necklace all the way back to I-430 and the Mills, miles away. 

Some got rich, while the rest of the city is still in rehab on the other side of a moving, high speed, wall of concrete apartheid that is a monument to sprawl and depopulation.  Let’s hope someone somewhere is still working on the part of the paper that covers, “lessons learned.”

The Inequality Dividend: The Rich Against the World

budget-2013-fm-announces-extra-tax-for-super-richLittle Rock   Among the unforeseen consequences of the perversion of tax rates and the massive shifting of wealth to the one-tenth of one percent, is that now rather than the superrich just building hospitals, buying sports teams, getting university lecture halls named after them, and supporting the local symphony and arts museum, which most of us might have easily ignored or at least adopted a form of causal, “live and let live” indifference, their new newfound passions and playthings are too often in the area of public policy and politics.  Too many of them have twisted the old sayings into a new perversion.  It’s no longer a case that, “hey, if you’re so smart, why aren’t you rich?”  Now, tragically, too many of them think that because they are rich, that also means they are smart.   I find this worrisome whether I agree with their new concerns are not, simply because they have created a cynical marketplace based on their ability to disrupt public life and attempt to define the agenda of citizen concern, simply because they are able to buy the time.

            Take Michael Bloomberg, the multi-billionaire, recent Mayor of New York, who is both the best and worst example of the breed.  Unlike so many, he was at least committed enough in the political process to stand for election, win, lose or draw, rather than being the puppet master, Koch Brothers style.  But reading how flippantly he throws around a commitment of $50 million to mobilize voters around gun control issues is scary even if I agree that guns are out of control.  His notion that he’s buying his way into heaven “without an interview,” as he argued, I also found every bit as creepy as the way the Koch Brothers manipulate religion to polarize opposition to the Affordable Care Act. 

            Applauding Tom Steyer, the Bay Area hedge fund billionaire, and his willingness to leverage his fortune to try and raise $100 million to force climate change front and center, would logically also force me to say that John and Laura Anderson are dandy folks for trying to dilute public employee pensions and push workers into 401k’s or look the other way at David Welch’s big bucks financing of unlimited lawsuits trying to end teacher tenure around the country, supposedly in the name of lower income and minority children in public schools.  I can’t do it.

            All of this just seems like elite attempts to purchase personal billboards in the public space, and none of that advances democracy, no matter whether the cause is worthy or warped.  Equally disturbing is the way that these mega-million money drops might also further monetize social change, and tilt the work towards the paymasters and away from the people.

            Not that this problem is new or that the Rockefellers were somehow better than the Facebook and Googlers.  Elite efforts to divert and coopt social change or to create client constituencies fill up whole book shelves in the libraries of political scientists and social movement theorists. 

            Old or new, the sheer enormity of the sums involved now, $50 million here, $100 there, and money is no object, are quickly creating a climate though where everything has a price and all issues are on offer and listed for sale with people just pawns to be manipulated every election day.

Games Allstate is Playing on National Flood Insurance

allstateNew Orleans   If you live in the mid-section of the United States, on top of a mountain, somewhere in Canada, or elsewhere in the frozen north, then you probably yawn a bit while reading about climate change, but if you live anywhere within 100 miles of a coastline, you have been following the efforts to boost the price of flood insurance after the twin disasters of Katrina in the Gulf and Sandy in the Atlantic hammered the funds.  The Biggert-Waters Flood Insurance Reform Act of 2012 was supposed to fix the problem, but the hikes were so huge and sudden that politicians from both parties were tripping over themselves trying to postpone or lessen the rate hikes, including Congresswoman Maxine Waters, one of the act’s namesakes.

            None of that says that companies have to play fair though or that any of them were happy about the partial rollback of the rates.  Getting a letter from the giant Allstate insurance company which handles my coverage was an excellent example of how a big insurance outfit can manipulate the “choice architecture,” as experts call it now, in order to trick and scam their customers into paying 25% more per year on their premiums for second homes – or what the company calls “non-primary residences,” until they are paying the full package, regardless of the Congressional compromise.

            None of this is illegal.  It’s just unethical, because every bit of what Allstate is doing is designed to fool their customers.  Let me make it clear how Allstate is doing this, because they sure don’t want you to know how they are doing it.

      ·      First, they say the “default option” is that if they do NOT hear from the policy owner, Allstate takes silence as affirmation that the      policy is not covering your primary residence, so bam, up go your rates.

·      They demand to hear from you within 30 days of the date of their letter, or May 6, but the letter is several pages long, sent by regular mail, and never actually says specifically that May 6th is the deadline, and of course includes no return envelope, which usual correspondence from them would include.

·      Interestingly, they say your response can be sent by mail, fax, or special delivery service, but not by e-mail, which is way more common in homes than is a fax machine for goodness sakes. 

·      Your response has to include one of six different types of proof from your driver’s license to where your children go to school, but they say, “submit one of the following” without ever saying that they want a copy and not the original.

All of this is supposedly designed to find out whether or not the policy holder or their spouse, not defined, lives in the home 50% or more of the time, which FEMA has decided establishes a primary residence for buildings constructed before FEMA flood insurance rate maps (FIRM) were determined.  I’ll spare you the fact that despite Allstate probably having literally scores of crack wordsmiths in its communications department that this language was deliberately crafted by an intern likely in its legal department and then rewritten specifically to obfuscate by the communications folks, so that without reading several times the policy holder might think that if the policy is covering their primary home, then they don’t need to respond, which would trick them into a stair-step rate increase of 25% per year.   Ok, you’re right.  I didn’t spare you that fact at all, so I guess I’m learning to write double-speak, just like our friends at Allstate.

What’s the real message from Allstate?  Simple.  By hook or crook, all within the narrow requirements of the letter of the law, and none within the spirit of the law, they want to get as many homeowners as possible, even in their primary residence, to NOT benefit from the exemptions in the legislation, and instead to pay increases of 25% per year until they are at the full level of the new Bigger-Waters rate requirements. 

My message to homeowners trying to keep your coverage at reasonable rates:  immediately copy your driver’s license or homestead exemption and mail it off to Allstate today and definitely before May 6th or the company will absolutely trick you into paying more from now on. 

Caveat emptor!

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As station manager for Kabf I get to preview new releases, please enjoy Natalie Merchant’s Ladybird.

Protecting Consumers from Conflicts between Taxes and Healthcare

02262013_Deficit_Taxes_slideshowNew Orleans Income tax filing time is when the old expression comes to mind that the only things we can’t escape are death and taxes.  True that, but, frankly, I’m a little uncomfortable when those things get put too close together and in the hands of big private, profit maximizing companies, specifically the H&R Blocks, Jackson-Hewitt’s, and Liberty tax preparation giants, and I bet money that’s what they are thinking as they look at how to squeeze themselves into the seams of the Affordable Care Act.

We’ve always understood that there was going to need to be a bright, flashing warning light around the enforcement and penalties that come with the mandatory enrollment requirements of Obamacare and the role of the Internal Revenue Service in balancing the books at the end of the day.  No insurance means that the IRS has to collect the penalty, rising in each successive year, from everyone when they settle up every April.  The penalty is only a part of the play, since the other calculations required of the Service will be figuring out whether or not your estimated income, when you enrolled and qualified for potential subsidies and cost sharing benefits, is accurate or not.  Guessing wrong means that you will need to settle that problem with the taxman.  Good economic fortunes like a big raise at work or a new job or whatever, might mean that you could owe big time paybacks on your subsidy even after your refund check is drawn and quartered.

Not infrequently, it will be a tax preparer that is sitting next to you working out the problem before it sails with your filing to the nearest IRS office, and it should be no surprise that that could mean big money for H&R Block and its wannabes.  They seem to get it. Even in stories about healthcare advocates and assisters, many of them are quoted practicing a public service announcement of sorts by reminding people that health insurance is a mandate and they need to get with the program.

Won’t the next step be for them to also start giving – and charging – their customers for advice on what insurance policy to select?  Why not?  And, what prevents them from having interests and agreements with various insurers?  There are no requirements in any law or regulation that would prevent conflicts of interest other than their good intentions, which are often pretty suspect, given some of their past and present temptations around predatory practices.  The big boys might stutter step in this direction rather than leaping into it, because they have so many fish to fry, but the mom-and-pop tax preparers with less training and support will be sorely tempted not to partner with healthcare insurance providers, and what’s to stop them.

I read recently a prominent Obamacare enrollment advocacy group, likely in some spirit of desperation, suggesting that maybe the whole enrollment process should be pushed to align with tax filing time to make it easier to get the help of tax preparers.   Yikes!  That’s a terrible idea!!!

There’s a high, sharp curve in the road coming and we’re barreling down on it without any guardrail or warning signs along the way, but for god sakes we need to look out, because this will be nothing but mess and mischief, unless some protections are put in place, and right now, there are none.

The Double Edge of Variable Worker Exclusions under Obamacare

20100415featureCUS-pittNew Orleans      Part of the problem in understanding the real, core issues with the Affordable Care Act and the way in which employers, especially those specializing in lower waged workforces, are jacking with the system is separating the ideological polemics from the facts in order to see whose ox is really being gored.  For example, take a story in the Wall Street Journal about some Sodexo workers losing their company insurance because the company has classified them as “variable” workers.

You might wonder what a “variable” worker is.  Good question!  Essentially, these workers are “tweeners,” not regular full-time, though sometimes they are working 40 hours or more a week, and not regular part-time, where they are working 20 or more, but folks whose schedules are, yes, you have it, variable.  Seasonal workers at race tracks, amusement parks, and college campuses are all good examples, as are many hotel workers.  Why is this important?  Because remember the bright line test for mandatory coverage under the Affordable Care Act is a worker averaging 30 hours per week, and that’s where we find the rub.  Under the Act the IRS allows a “look back” period of up to a previous year in determining whether or not a worker made the 30 hour average by January 1, 2015 to determine whether the company has to cover the worker.  With me now?

Without a doubt Sodexo is a sucky company, and that’s nothing new.  With 125000 workers in the US, the French-based global services company specializes in food service, janitorial, and similar contracts by cutting wages and displacing fulltime workers.  They warrant no sympathy from anyone and have been targets over the years of extensive union organizing campaigns launched by UNITE HERE and SEIU.  ACORN International partnered with these unions in researching worker conditions in Peru and India with our members there and found deplorable living and working conditions and numerous cases of wage theft so, let’s be clear, there’s no love lost.

Nonetheless Sodexo defends its reclassification of variable workers, who will now lose access to its company policy by saying they will now “be able to get access to benefits on the public exchanges in ways they couldn’t have before,” which is actually true.  The worker whose story drives the Journal handwringing says she was paying $69 per week for her and her husband on the company plan or $296.70 per month.  On the exchange she is now paying $231 per month.  That’s actually $65.70 less per month.  The article doesn’t say anything about her husband, but we are led to assume the comparison is apples to apples, because the criticism included by the reporter is that she now has a high deductible plan.  The Journal is silent on what kind of plan Sodexo was offering, but trust me, it would be a miracle if Sodexo was not also offering a low premium – high deductible plan, since that’s the way the vast majority of large, lower wage employers have  moved en masse in the wake  of Obamacare.  Furthermore, most of them were already there, so they didn’t have to move far, they just had to get their usually crappy plans that very few chose under 9.5% of gross income for the workers, which pushed premiums down and deductibles up.

Sodexo is claiming all of their shenanigans “on a net basis, are costing the company material amounts of money,” which in English means they are still whining.  Who knows?  And, who knows as well whether these workers might actually be better off with Obamacare in terms of cost and coverage than staying on the Sodexo.  Certainly this story provides the politics without the proofs.

The only things we know for sure is that these workers need more hours and higher wages from Sodexo, because that’s the way the Sodexo business model works and the way these contracting outfits roll.  The rest of the story on “variable” workers is a head scratcher with “”Eeny, meeny, miny, moe” being about as good as any way to tell if the workers’ health coverage is better with Sodexo or Obamacare, although I’d guess the better bet is actually Obamacare, rather than Sodexo.

Poor, Minority Schools Get the Worst Teachers

capNew Orleans    The Center for American Progress in Washington issued a report recently on the distribution of teachers within public schools which was deeply disturbing, even if not surprising.   At the bottom line they found that public schools in high poverty areas were three times as likely to have teachers ranked as ineffective, and in public schools where there were greater percentages of minorities, teachers were two times as likely to be ineffective.   Essentially, that says that public school administrators are allowing the gaps between rich and poor, white and non-white to create great systematic, permanent gaps in our populations, particularly in our cities.

Most of CAP’s research data comes from a close examination of teacher distribution data from those states that collect such data as a requirement of the No Child Left Behind legislation dating from the Bush Administration.   All districts were required to reach a goal of having high quality teachers, or HQTs as they are called, by this point.  Sadly, the distribution of teachers still seems solidly skewed away from poor and minority schools that arguably most need the best teachers available in public schools, since the one thing that virtually all educational experts agree on is that good teachers are the single most important factor in creating the best educational outcomes.   Twenty-eight states submitted data requested, which is a poor showing, and, worse, only seven states submitted plans that were rated “acceptable” by the Department of Education.   Furthermore most of the states would be graded as “incompletes.”  The ones that fessed up did so for the most part in 2006 and though some reported modified plans in some in subsequent years, for the most part, most states just stopped coming to school on these standards.

In a poorer and more minority district, you are more likely still to have unlicensed teachers and teachers who are teaching outside their areas of expertise.  Not surprisingly teacher turnover is closer to 20% in such schools compared to single digit numbers in whiter, richer schools, all of which sentences students to poorer performance and reduced opportunity.  In this regard the CAP study builds on years of similar studies, like those that ACORN produced on educational “apartheid” in New York City and other districts, and documents the depressing lack of fundamental progress in creating educational equity in public schools.  The CAP report puts a game face on the numbers and correctly argues that there has been progress in teacher distribution, just not enough.

Part of the problem is that the federal government is essentially a lobbyist in the public school debate trying to leverage its 10% federal contribution to the great share of resources produced by local and state taxpayers.  Importantly, the report does argue that specialized programs at the federal level, like Title I, which only targets lower income students, needs to have its comparability provisions strengthened to ensure that “schools that serve low-income students receive the same share of local and state dollars, before federal funds are added, as schools that serve higher income students.”

For my money, it’s a scandal to think that lower income and minority schools continue to fall behind and that higher income schools are picking their pockets at the state and local level, by perverting the formulas for distribution of Title 1 monies from their intended sources, while saddling them with the worst teachers to boot.

How about a break?