Internet for All

Screen Shot 2016-02-02 at 10.26.18 AMNew Orleans    If we want to make a difference in income inequality, there are some easy and accessible first steps that we can take and one of them is to lower the digital divide.

ACORN Canada released a report based on a survey of 400 of our nearly 80,000 members across the country, and it was impossible to miss the point.

Looking at the facts in the report, the survey found that:

· 58 Percentage of Canadian households with annual incomes of $30,000 or less with home Internet access.
· 98 Percentage of Canadian households with annual incomes of $120,000 or more with home Internet access.
· 83.5 Percentage of ACORN survey respondents who find high-speed Internet “extremely expensive.”
· 59 Percentage of survey respondents who pay for Internet by forgoing other household necessities.
· 71 Percentage who used food money to pay for Internet services.
· 64 Percentage who used recreation money to pay for Internet services.
· 13 Percentage who used rent money to pay for Internet services.

ACORN had already prodded Rogers, one of the telecom monopolies in Canada to offer a $10 per month program but it was limited to public housing, largely in Toronto. Several other companies have come on board, but as the facts indicate, not enough has been done to reconcile the fact that access to the internet has now become a basic utility.

The ACORN report came out while the Canadian equivalent of the Federal Communications Commission, the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission or CRTC continues its review of Canada’s basic telecommunications services first begun in the spring of 2015.

The ACORN demands are straightforward:

Specifically, members are asking for:

$10/month product for high speed (15 megabits/second or equivalent to high speed in area);

Families and individuals below the Low Income Measure as eligible to qualify;

Subsidized computers for qualifying families and individuals.

The LIM or low income measure in 2013 was $20,933 for an individual and $41,866 for a family of four, after taxes. These are demands that resonant across North America.

One ACORN member told the story to the Toronto Star that might be repeated a million times,

Toronto single mother Kashima Wright had to give up her home Internet last fall when the bills began to top $100 a month. Now she and her 6-year-old daughter Nalise have to walk to the local library to go online.

“I just couldn’t afford it anymore,” said Wright, 25, a personal support worker who earns about $1,700 a month after taxes and pays more than $1,200 a month in rent.

“I don’t want my daughter to fall behind in school,” Wright said. “But it’s not always easy to get to the library to help her with her homework.”

Facebook is flying drones over Africa. Google and Alphabet are reporting record profits. Cable and telecoms are making record profits. Canada, the USA, or wherever, this is a problem that can be solved, and if the divide is not closed, then the gaps show up everywhere and inequality spreads like a disease.

Drug Makers and Drug Access are Out of Control

indexNew Orleans   In the fight against the Affordable Care Act much was made of so-called “death panels,” as many may remember. Years go by and now we have something in place a lot like that now, and there’s not much never mind. When it comes to money or life, pretty much everyone has become resigned to the realization that money will win almost every time in such a contest.

Nonetheless, recent news that there were as many as 150 different drugs in critically short supply was not sobering, but shocking. The rationales were across the board, and they included production and manufacturing problems, abandonment by companies of drugs because of puny sales, supply line problems, and probably hoarding, though I don’t remember that being on the list. Some of it also had to do with predatory pricing on some drug therapies by companies charging exorbitantly for new treatments, like Hepatitis C, where almost $90,000 per year was standard, based on the companies’ argument that the cost was cheaper than transplants. The stories of hospitals unable to get enough chemo and other cancer drugs so they were having to lower dosages, deny access, try something else, or choose between the old and young in a deadly triage based on these shortages were horrible.

Having recently interviewed James Lieber about similar issues, many of which he had researched in his book, Medical Error, I reached out for him to give me a better understanding on whether the problem was the way I was looking or what I was seeing. Lieber’s finger pointed right at the drug companies:

 

Yes, these shortages and triaging are highly conducive to medication errors. Big Pharma plays a lot of games with pricing, and shortages which are often artificial is a main one. Another, which is related, is for hospitals to get kickbacks when they order high priced drugs, especially chemo agents, which can be in short supply. The dangers are real when physicians can’t order and nurses can’t administer the right medicine. It’s unethical practice in both professions. For people to sit in hospitals compounding by hand basic medicine is a crude throwback. Modern medicine requires adequate supplies of pre-measured drugs in the correct dosages. And where is the FDA which should be guarding our safety in this space? In bed with Pharma that’s where.

Yeah, good point! Where the heck is the Federal Drug Administration, supposedly a watchdog and regulatory agency of the US Government? Shouldn’t they be watching over this and both talking and swinging a big stick? How about some executive orders on this, President Obama?

Lieber has a recommendation, though it’s in the “pay me now or pay me later” vein. He says, let’s put clinical pharmacists in the mix right at the point of care:

I’m a big fan of clinical pharmacists who should round with doctors in hospitals and long term care making sure that patients get the right meds from the start. This cuts way down on errors, but is often considered an unnecessary expense.

Lieber also pointed me in the direction of my brothers and sisters at ACORN Canada, where they don’t have this problem. As Lieber says,

Truth to tell we’ll probably always lose this battle as long as all providers have to compete for and in formularies that rarely have complete stocks, a byproduct of our dysfunctional multi-payer system.

 

Maybe that’s not much comfort to us now, but it’s worth remembering that we don’t have to live – or die – this way.

Latest Report on Union Density Finds a Finger Hold on the Cliff

16-union-difference-chart-frontNew Orleans   The top-line numbers from the latest Bureau of Labor Statistics report on union membership density in the United States for 2015 indicate little change, sort of a “no news is good news” kind of story. Private sector density continued to suck at 6.7% of all private employment, but that was a slight improvement over an even worse figure in 2014. Public sector density was over one-third of all public workers at 35.2%. Membership was slightly higher in absolute terms in the private sector with both over 7 million workers, and the total union membership was almost 15 million members, which isn’t what any of us would want, but is still something to work with. Half-empty or half-full, that’s where we stand.

A closer look at the numbers continues to be disheartening. The states beating the averages are still bi-coastal with some hunkering down in the Midwest with the south east and south central states all below the median numbers with many of them at the bottom of the barrel. Five states had total union membership rates below 5.0 percent in 2015: South Carolina (2.1 percent), North Carolina (3.0 percent), Utah (3.9 percent), Georgia (4.0 percent), and Texas (4.5 percent). Arkansas and Louisiana for example were both in the 6% range for total union membership density. Nationally the rate is over 11%. None of that is encouraging.

Union workers continue to make considerably more than non-union workers, but that does not seem to drive robust recruitment. The BLS figures have non-union workers making about 79% of union rates.

Adding to their list of challenges, part-time workers are still stepchildren in the labor movement. The union membership rate was 12.2 percent for full-time workers, more than twice the rate for part-time workers at 5.9 percent. Such workers are being gigged hard.

If you are looking for opportunity and challenges there are some sectors that are literally crying for unions. Low unionization rates occurred in agriculture and related industries (1.2 percent) of course, finance (1.3 percent) which is also hardly a surprise either, food services and drinking places (1.5 percent) despite the extensive fight for $15 effort, and professional and technical services (1.7 percent) where Silicon Valley types, doctors, lawyers, and Indian chiefs all get a free ride. Leisure and hospitality in general went down to 3.6% which really hurts since there are more than 12 million workers in that sector. Healthcare and social services, where there are 17 million employed, almost held its own at 8.3% which is close to 1 of every 12 private sector workers in are union members. Retail and wholesale trade where there are more than 18 million workers was even worse with barely over 5% in unions, so there’s a lot of opportunity there at least on paper.

Commentators pointed out the obvious on this year’s numbers, though that didn’t make it less painful to hear as they moaned that time – and money – were running out. Loss of union shop protections for public sector workers could drain the coffers of many unions and decimate organizing resources. As the Service Employees have demonstrated, campaigns like the McDonalds and Fight for $15 effort where they have spent millions for years without the realization of any membership gain, require huge capital being spent now hoping to find the interest later. Few unions are willing to do that, and the 2015 numbers indicate that even fewer every year may be able.

We still have a finger hold, but we’re hanging by a hair and dangling over a cliff. Don’t look down!

Stopping Automatic Deductions from Bleeding Your Accounts

000af39b-642New Orleans   Ok, you all know how this works. If you have a credit card or a bank account you are standing in line for this problem and under assault by all of your creditors to please, please allow them to directly access your financial accounts to pay for their services. With the advent of online commerce and banking there are many people, and yes, most of them are under 35 who don’t even have a checkbook and pay everything online. Cash is something they only find on the floor in public places. At the same time many online based services will only allow you access with your account information, and it often makes good common sense that that is the way it should be.

Me, I’m old school, and I’m a cash flow guy, not a balance the bank statement guy. Ok, there are whole years that have gone by when I haven’t opened the bank statement envelopes, and, yes, I make them keep sending them to me. My bank statement was last balanced in 1979 or so by a co-worker. Thanks, Sue! With a shoddy system like mine, I avoid ever agreeing to any automatic deductions for anything. Period. Unless, I have absolutely no choice.

But, then I started taking care of my now 92-year old mother’s finances a bit over a year ago and having to actually try to make heads and tails of her credit card and bank statements. Yikes! Nothing criminal. Nothing that would leave her on the street, but plenty of nickel and dime stuff. The old book publisher’s hustle that had to be stopped. Magazine subscriptions she never would read. Some Adobe business hit which was incredibly hard to stop and ended with me cancelling the credit card on their unhelpful hustle, but all of it predatory.

Gyms must be the about the worst. I hear my daughter’s friends talk about their gym “donations,” where they are trapped in many monthly payments even though they long since stopped going. One gym practiced what we call a “maintenance of membership” system in the labor movement. They required a 30-day notice before the end of your one-year commitment, and if you missed by a minute, bam, you were sucked in for another year. If you wanted to suspend your membership and take a leave, you had to do so “in the window” and pay them $75 to handle the transaction. Geez, no union rep ever managed to negotiate that!

Ron Lieber, the personal finance columnist for The New York Times reported what might be a money-saver for the inattentive and forgetful, meaning almost all of us! It’s a free service called Trim. Lieber says “it does not intend to sell any data. Instead, it wants to gather a customer base for a … personal finance assistant” that would specialize in nudging you in hopefully better financial directions and decisions. Trim agrees to look at your bank statement and credit card bills to find recurring charges, and you check a box if you want out, and, bam, they’re on it and get the charges stopped.

The five most frequently cancelled in Trim’s experience were: Experian, Planet Fitness, TransUnion, Gogo Air, and Audible. One gym and two credit services in that crowd. There’s some irony on the credit folks isn’t there? They tell you how your credit is doing and then join the nickel-and-dime predators in sucking up your cash. Trim also reports that Experian is playing whack-a-mole with them every couple of weeks in order to make cancelling their rip-and-run system harder on the service. Gogo Air is a wireless airplane deal and I’m clueless on Audible. The least canceled are Dropbox, Spotify, GitHub, Google, and Netflix. All of this reminds me of the AOL email service that continues to collect significant revenue from people who signed up online and still continue to have payments deducted years later for a service that has been free for many years now as well.

Me, I still recommend do-it-yourself. Allows you to get your rage on and hang up the phone feeling like you won one for the team, including perhaps your dear old mom. But that’s me in an odd moment where there’s no foul called for rudeness in righting a simple injustice. Rationally though, that’s mostly a waste of time and energy added to the money drain, so something like Trim could be a deal worth taking, especially if you don’t really read your statements as I’ve already confessed.

Come in Hot with What We’ve Got: Enforce the Laws

New Delhi. Hundreds of Indian activists protested in New Delhi on Monday against a challenge to the country's patent law by Swiss pharmaceutical giant Novartis. India produces affordable medicines that are vital to many people living in developing countries. Over half the medicines currently used for AIDS treatment in developing countries come from India and such medicines are used to treat over 80% of the 80,000 AIDS patients in MSF projects. If Novartis is successful in its challenge against the Indian government and its patent law, more medicines are likely to be patented in India, making it very difficult for generic producers to make affordable versions of them. This could affect millions of people around the world who depend on medicines produced in India.

Little Rock    Elizabeth Warren, Senator from Massachusetts, and probably the most popular candidate who did not run for president – in fact can you just imagine the even greater amount of excitement and drama we would see on the Democratic side of the ledger if it were Warren versus Clinton, given how well Sanders has done? – argued in a recent report that the President could do more than issue executive orders and new agency rules, he could step up enforcement of existing laws. She’s right!

Given the dysfunctional Congressional stalemate, we need to put aside some of our pipe dreams about new laws, and see if we can squeeze the lemons we have into lemonade. Warren’s argument is that the President has too often appointed, or left in the chair, weak administrators who have not used the full power and authority they have as regulators to police financial misdealing, environmental outrages, and general corporate arrogance by handing out cheap tickets and hand slaps for flaunting one law after another. She wants the whip cracked and heads to roll. Hear, hear!

Of course it’s not quite as easy as that, which she also undoubtedly realizes without bothering to dwell on it. In many cases the ground troops required to inspect, enforce, and administer accountability have been severely cut back given reductions in inspectors, auditors, and the boots on the ground in America that do the grinding, boring grunt work of enforcing the law. Without being able to deliver the facts on the ground lawyers and courts are invariably going to cut deals with weaker cases and, as Warren argues implicitly, chicken out when trying to impound the big dogs because of their armies of lawyers, spin masters, and unlimited resources.

Maybe some would say, Senator Warren is just singing her same old song, but when she talks about some new targets like the sanctioned healthcare drug pushers, it’s worth remembering this is not just about Wall Street a thousand miles away from most Americans, it’s personal and as near as the neighborhood clinic. She comes in hot on Novartis saying,

“When Novartis, a major drug company that was already effectively on federal probation for misconduct, paid kickbacks to pharmacies to push certain drugs, it cost taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars and undermined patient health. Under the law, the government can boot companies that defraud Medicare and Medicaid out of those programs, but when Novartis got caught, it just paid a penalty — one so laughably small that its C.E.O. said afterward that it “remains to be seen” whether his company would actually consider changing its behavior.”

A judge pulls someone back in front of the bench if they agree to plead but are still maintaining their innocence, telling the accused, you can’t have it both ways, either say you’re sorry, shut up, and carry the weight or go to trial and take your chances with the verdict one way or another. If the government is going to enforce the law, how can they pretend the job was done if they accept a fine and hear the guilty thinking about whether or not they’ll change their behavior?

Warren is right. Big corporations are out of control. We’re living in a time of impunity. Government needs to do its job. We have to work with what we’ve got and hold them accountable. We start doing that and we might end up with something better as well.

Cities Housing Workers for the Rich in Resort Zones

Worker Housing in Vail

Worker Housing in Vail

New Orleans  In the popular ski resort and playground towns of the mountain west like Vail and Breckenridge, Colorado or Jackson, Wyoming, home of former vice-president Dick Cheney and many of the mega-rich, housing prices are as steep as the mountains themselves, sometimes soaring to $5 million a pop. Average home price sales increased by almost a quarter in the last year in Jackson to $1.2 million a house.

Who cares, because that’s the problem for the rich, and they can afford it, but what about the serfs on these snow mounds where the classic contradictions of American inequality are rampant. There are more service sector jobs on offer than there are workers who can grab them and many of them are forced to pay more than the minimum wage, but workers can’t afford to live in these towns that draw immigrant and itinerant labor like magnets. The stories of workers’ commutes throughout the mountain west and their desperate living conditions are now commonplace in feature stories in High Country News, published in Colorado and even The New York Times.

Nothing new about all that, but what is it about a town with a permanent population of hardly 5000 people like Vail that has this peanut sized city becoming the owner of 3200 units of affordable worker housing with plans to spend $30 million more to add to it? Other cities have converted motels into worker dormitories, build condos, and hired city employees to make sure that affordable city rental units are not being re-purposed as vacation rentals on the scam.

Two questions come to mind?

First, why are the ski resort businesses not being forced to provide more decent and affordable housing for their workers?

Secondly, and more importantly, if these small, rich towns can saddle up and build and maintain affordable worker housing, why can’t more cities around the country accept the same responsibility?

For more than thirty years the federal government has been disinvesting in the housing markets in urban American and slimming down their public housing inventory. Other than some few exceptions, like New York City, that prove the rule, most cities do not take the initiative to support or build affordable housing for workers that would also temper some of the housing shortages that have made housing costs and rent payments equal more than half of many worker’s living costs. This is true in many of the executive cities like San Francisco, Seattle, and Boston, but it is also true in places like New Orleans as well that endure a disconnect between wages and rents.

In post-Katrina New Orleans there were numerous proposals for worker housing, but none of them got built and none of them were sponsored by the city or any level of government. There are now even private developer proposals for co-housing developments in the iconic Lower Ninth Ward.

We need cities and states to step up and shoulder a bigger share of the responsibility to provide affordable housing for lower waged workers and their families before we wake up and find all of urban America is Vail without the mountains, pricing out workers, while becoming playgrounds for the rich without a care or concern for the workers that make it all possible.