Friday, April 11, 2014

“Looking for the right standard to implement wage fairness,” The Colorado Springs Business Journal, April 11 -17, 2014, 23.


WAGE FAIRNESS
As tax time comes around again, and as the president keeps bringing up minimum wage, it’s time to consider our attitudes towards income, wealth, and inequality.

One of the basic tenets of the capitalist marketplace (Adam Smith) was that a moral code binds the community within which markets operate. Our moral sentiments provide the framework for fairness and help us recognize that we are all in this together. The baker and her vendors and customers will likely trade with each other more than once, so in the long run they must maintain fairness.
Perhaps there is an obvious fairness in selling bread, but as an employee of the baker, is fairness involved in how much you are paid? The federal minimum wage provisions are contained in the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) which in 1947 enacted 40cent/hr. standard, increasing it to $7.25 in 2009.

Many states also have minimum wage laws. Some state laws provide greater employee protections and/or higher minimum hourly wage (Oregon’s is $9.10); employers must comply with both. What standard should be used to implement fairness?
One standard is annual earning. With $8/hr., 40 hrs./week, and 50 weeks annually, we are looking at $16,000 (before any deductions) which is where the poverty level is for a household of two (single mother, for example) according to the 2014 guidelines for Medicaid eligibility. For a single person the poverty line is $11,670.

On the other extreme of the income spectrum we have entertainers, like Madonna who topped the Forbes 2013 list of the “Top-Earning Celebrities,” and who made around $125 million in one year (7,812 times the minimum wage). Is “income inequality” even relevant here?
Among athletes, the golfer Tiger Woods remains a steady top-earner with estimates of $80-$100 million annually (tournaments plus endorsements). Though Alex Rodriguez’s (NY Yankees) 10-year contract of $275 million has just been surpassed by Miguel Cabrera’s (Detroit Tigers) contract of $292 million, they pale by comparison to Woods’ annual earnings. Can we compare their incomes to minimum-wage earners?

Hitting closer to home, what about the CU-Buffaloes’ Mike MacIntyre who earns $2.4 million plus additional allowances to coach a notoriously losing team (USA Today). Is he “worth” his salary? If not comparing him to a minimum wage-earner, how about comparing his compensation to that of an instructor?
At UCCS full-time instructors (with PhD) are paid annually about $32,000 to teach 8 courses with an average size of 40 students who pay about $1,000 per course. Generating $320,000 in revenue for the university, they receive about 10% of what they “produce.” Will MacIntyre ever “produce” ten times his compensation? Should instructors’ pay be related to minimum wage earners?

Perhaps those who are endowed with super-human talents deserve to be outside the orbit of the discussion over income inequality, but what about those involved in the marketplace?
So let’s move to the business world, where Henry Ford famously (voluntarily) doubled the daily wages of workers in 1914 to $5. It reduced attrition on his assembly lines and lifted most workers into the middle class. What informed this move was neither generosity nor altruism; instead, it was a simple principle that his workers should be able to afford to buy the cars they produced.

While the president is pleading for a $10/hr. minimum wage, the CEOs of the largest 500 corporations in the US got a pay raise of about 16% in 2013 for an average of $10.5 million annually. About 60% of the total came in the form of stocks or stock options. According to the AFL-CIO, the top CEOs’ income was about 354 times that of their average rank and file workers. Is the president wasting his minimal political capital?
Isn’t the marketplace a place where the “fittest” rise to the top and command their fair “share”? Why would anyone want to put the government in a position to regulate how much money one makes? Will this intervention undermine job creation?

Companies whose stock is traded on the exchanges or public universities with state constituencies deserve public scrutiny and government regulation. They embody American values. Is fairness an American value?
The debate over income inequality and minimum wage can be framed as a debate about fairness or about job creation and the growth of the economy; it can be framed in terms of unregulated capitalism or in terms of government protection of basic human dignity and wellbeing. How should we frame the debate?

Thomas Piketty historically illustrates that except for a few decades in the 20th century, capitalism tends to increase wealth inequality (2014). Would Adam Smith worry about this? Would he appeal to moral sentiments to battle inequality? Would he invite instead government intervention?

Raphael Sassower is professor of philosophy at UCCS. He can be reached at rsassower@gmail.com See previous articles at sassower.blogspot.com

Friday, February 28, 2014

“Colorado Springs—a city in search of leadership,” The Colorado Springs Business Journal, February 28 – March 6, 2014, 21.


In Search of Leadership

From the Austrian School of Economics to its Chicago School descendent, it has been an article of faith that if left to its own devices the marketplace will perform more efficiently than if the government had anything to do with it. The rule of law, of course, should be upheld and deviant behavior—cheating, stealing, and misrepresentation—would be handled by courts of law.
Businesses could rely on the government to step in when needed, not too often but forcefully enough to punish and deter potential abusers. According to this model, political (and legal) authorities play a reactive (rather than proactive) role. So who leads the marketplace? Is it Adam Smith’s “invisible hand” or “impartial spectator”? Are the likes of Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerman needed?

Leadership is defined in most cases in terms of the social influence a leader exerts over others so as to move them towards the accomplishment of a common goal, whether it be military or moral. In some cases, we have tried to transform battlefield leadership into politics, assuming that the one is a proving ground for the other (from Washington to Eisenhower). What about market leaders?
Some argue that leadership grows organically when one company increases in size and importance and eventually sets the trends of the marketplace. Others suggest that trade organizations, such as the Chamber of Commerce, provide cooperative objectives that benefit all participants as a way of leading. And yet others are appalled by any claim for market leadership because it reeks of socialist-like planning that constricts the untethered competitive and entrepreneurial spirit.

When we think about our own microcosm, General Palmer and Spencer Penrose come to mind. In their respective ways, they have demonstrated how leadership in one field could be translated into founding a city and turning it into a mecca for prospectors as well as a health retreat for tuberculosis. Who are their successors today?
We have plenty of former military leaders in our midst, some retired generals and colonels; we also have some entrepreneurs for whom the city has been a source of wealth. Are they stepping up? Have they done more than field surrogates whose own statures aren’t up to par? Perhaps the conditions of a century ago don’t fit the present.

To begin with, the city’s reliance on government largesse flies in the face of its claims for conservative ideals of small or no government. Between military bases and a growing population of retirees (with “entitlement” benefits, Social Security and Medicare), it seems that the city’s marketplace is relatively small.
Second, if the city’s political leaders are indeed representing the sentiments of their conservative constituents, why aren’t they allowing a more laissez-faire economic climate in the city? Why outlaw recreational marijuana retail shops?

Third, given a utilities monopoly and a choice to retain it as a municipal entity, there is no political oversight. Instead of the CSU serving its ratepayers and minimizing waste, it has become its own political power-house insulated from transparency and accountability. Would Palmer or Penrose tolerate this situation?
Fourth, to promote economic growth, some forward-thinking and vision are required. Who, outside the embattled Mayor and the distant State authority, is leading the local charge for the City of Champions? If our local millionaires were more vocal in support, would the dysfunctional Council or Chamber of Commerce step in line?

Are the conditions nowadays so different from a century ago that no leadership can be expected? All we need to do is look at UCCS’ Chancellor as a leader. Perhaps her academic specialty gives her an edge; perhaps it’s the mountains where the university is perched that allows her to see farther; perhaps it’s just her DNA that makes her an effective leader. Whatever the reason, she leads.
Is UCCS all alone in this visionary quest for greatness? Is the city happy to slumber in its complacent hibernation since the days of Palmer and Penrose? With a contracting federal budget, perhaps it’s time to focus on the athletic and health advantage of our altitude. And while the winter Olympics is fresh on our minds, it’s time to focus on doing more for the USOC’s headquarters here than anything else.  

Wake up Colorado Springs! Every century we get an opportunity to remake ourselves. The City of Champions and the legalization of marijuana provide such opportunities. Since the “next Penrose” seems reluctant so far to do more than buy local gems (Broadmoor) or duds (Gazette), we have two choices: either implore someone to lead us to greatness or use what is within our reach to become a vital city that attracts young professionals to invest their energy here and now.


Raphael Sassower is professor of philosophy at UCCS. He can be reached at rsassower@gmail.com See previous articles at sassower.blogspot.com

 
 

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

“What the Super Bowl tells us about our culture,” The Colorado Springs Business Journal, January 31 – February 6, 2014, 19.


THE GOLDEN BOWL

When I ask what game is played by a bunch on millionaires on lush green grass, most people respond with “polo.” They forget that in fact there are twenty-two millionaires on the field at any given time during a professional football game—America’s most popular spectator sport.

The analogy to gladiators, which was common among sports sociologists in the 1970s, has been replaced more recently with the “Forty Million Dollar Slaves” as a narrative about the “The Rise, Fall, and Redemption of the Black Athlete” (Rhoden 2007). Instead of Roman emperors orchestrating a diversion for starving masses, American billionaires are ensconced in guarded balconies as their players slug it out till concussions force them out of the arena.


No different from their predecessors, team owners buy and trade players as if slavery hasn’t been abolished yet; despite the appearance of a trade organization that is quasi non-profit, and despite a players union (currently negotiating a landmark settlement to compensate retired players for their debilitating injuries), the NFL has a salary cap (socialist marketplace?) where over-all team expenditure on those million-dollar slaves is set by the league (and enforced by a $30 million/year commissioner).


As we prepare to watch the Super Bowl on Sunday, and are entertained by million dollar (30-second) commercials (ensured to air no matter what pace the game should have), let’s check to see if billionaire owners are getting their money’s worth from their “millionaire slaves.”


Peyton Manning of the Broncos is the 4th highest-paid quarterback who earns an average of $17.5 million/year (in a multi-year contract), while Russell Wilson of the Seahawks is earning a puny $1.2 million/year 9under his rookie contract). Can we therefore expect—to use marketplace value comparison—a seventeen to one ratio between their abilities or performances?


According to SportingNews.com, the Seahawk’s 2013-1014 payroll is the highest in the league with $124.9 million, while the Broncos’ is 5th with a total of $119.2 million. Is it because Paul Allen (co-founder of Microsoft) is wealthier than Pat Bowlen (oil drilling wildcatter)? But what is an extra $5 million among billionaires?


The other two championship finalists were the 49ers (9th in the league with $116.2 million) and the Patriots (19th in the league with $106.3 million); were they a better bargain for their achievements as compared to the two finalists?


But perhaps we shouldn’t fixate on money and think more broadly about the cultural significance of football in America. Public Religion Research Institute CEO Robert Jones reports that 26 percent of those surveyed “pray for God to help their team,” while 25 percent “think their team has been cursed,” and 19 percent “believe God is involved in determining who wins on the court or in the field.” Overall, “half of Americans fall into one of these groups.”


“As Americans tune in to the Super Bowl this year, fully half of fans — as many as 70 million Americans — believe there may be a twelfth man on the field influencing the outcome,” Jones confirmed. What does this say about the intermingling of religion and sports? It’s not only that fans pray to God for intervention or players thank God when scoring (“Tebowing” has become a cultural signature behavior of players on the field), but the very terminology used in sports is reminiscent of that classically invoked in religious ceremonies and practices.

Whether the topic is belief, sacrifice, work, competition, relics, pilgrimages, or redemption, similar vocabularies are used with the assumption that one discourse is translatable to the other with the same psychological and social impact.

We “believe” in our team (Broncos) and our “hero” (Manning) using reverential words that we typically reserve for our faith in Jesus Christ as our savior. We pray for victory against the heathens of the northwest, and hope that the legalization of marijuana in both states (Colorado and Washington) will not raise the anger of God. Did smoking pot have something to do with our teams’ ability to chill and focus?

So, it’s not simply that billionaires provide expensive entertainment for the masses; they demand (with threats of moving their teams elsewhere) that the public pay for the arenas. The Roman emperors built arenas and supplied slaves (admittedly in a slave economy); our billionaires, working under capitalist pressures, ensure that fans (indirectly) pay for their own entertainment (taxes and product placements).

Since sports is considered by some to be our American religion, and since we pray for victories the way we pray for our souls, perhaps we should consider nationalizing football teams (Packers?) and turning them to religious institutions where all are welcome to seek communal comfort or salvation.

Raphael Sassower is professor of philosophy at UCCS. His latest co-authored book (with Jeff Scholes) is titled Religion and Sports in American Culture. He can be reached at rsassower@gmail.com See previous articles at sassower.blogspot.com

 

Monday, January 6, 2014

“Pope’s views against idolatry…and more,” The Colorado Springs Business Journal, January 3 – 9, 2014, 17.


Against Idolatry

 We recall the image of Jesus entering the temple in Jerusalem, driving out the merchants and overturning the tables of the money changers. This was a stern reminder to separate the holy from the mundane.

Likewise, we recall the image of a golden calf molten in the absence of Moses on Mount Sinai. Were precious metals more seductive to the impatient Israelites than an invisible power?

But we probably have forgotten the work of Liberation Theology in Latin America (1950s-1960s), where Catholic teachings were used to fight economic, political, and social inequalities. This movement wasn’t condoned by Rome, but had widespread support from local Bishops who tended to their oppressed flocks.

We also haven’t made much of the US Bishops’ Pastoral Letter(s) on the Economy (1970s and 1986) that railed against economic inequalities and the departure from Christian principles of brotherly love and helping the poor.

Economic reality, we have been led to believe, isn’t dictated from above—God or the Treasury Secretary—but moves naturally in the cycles of the “invisible hand”. So invisible, in fact, that any crisis is explicable after the fact in terms of “market forces” or the “laws of supply and demand.” Human agency is absent.

The recent “Apostolic Exhortation” by Pope Francis focuses on human agency in our economic system. Perhaps it’s because of his experiences in Argentina, perhaps it’s because his theological interpretation of a moral life here and now is intertwined with the economy.

To be sure, this is a Catholic view steeped in two-thousand years of tradition; it is also one that saw the fortunes of the Mother Church depend on wars and wealth accumulation. Being the single largest denomination of any religion on earth, the significance of the “exhortation” is global. The action, though, should be local.

Mindful that he speaks as the Vicar of Christ, Pope Francis deliberately fuses theological concerns of evangelism with economic reality: “The great danger in today’s world, pervaded as it is by consumerism, is the desolation and anguish born of a complacent yet covetous heart, the feverish pursuit of frivolous pleasures, and a blunted conscience.” This situation, for him, means that “there is no longer room for others, no place for the poor.”

The Pope describes our economy as one of “exclusion and inequality.” But his description becomes more critical when he says: “Such an economy kills.” It’s not an economy that hurts or overlooks, benefits some at the expense of others; it kills. Referring to news-media, he asks: “How can it be that it is not a news item when an elderly homeless person dies of exposure, but it is news when the stock market loses two points?”

When the stock-market index hovers around 16,000, why do commentators even bother to claim the Dow is “up” or “down” when it moves a few points in either direction? The percentage change is so negligible that the very reporting seems hubris. Do greed and fear consume our daily lives? Do these numbers help to reassure us?

Reminding us that the poor are excluded from our midst, he continues: “Today everything comes under the laws of competition and the survival of the fittest, where the powerful feed upon the powerless.” Have you heard this assessment lately at your church? Are there more important theological issues?

For the Pope, as for some critics of hyper-capitalism, the economy is part of his theological message: its principles either follow or undermine moral principles. If market exchange of goods and services is exclusively defined in monetary terms, moral hazards are bound to appear. If economic transactions are justified by their potential benefits—the end justifies the means—what happens in the meantime? Will “trickle-down economics” indeed reach the poor?

The Pope answers: "Some people continue to defend trickle-down theories which assume that economic growth, encouraged by a free market, will inevitably succeed in bringing about greater justice and inclusiveness in the world. This opinion, which has never been confirmed by the facts, expresses a crude and naive trust in the goodness of those wielding economic power." In fact, “the excluded are still waiting.”

The “tyranny” of the current system and the “culture of prosperity” are harmful, according to the Pope. We have created new idols,” he continues, and we continue to worship them. There is “idolatry of money and the dictatorship of an impersonal economy lacking a truly human purpose.” Should we continue to live like this?

Whether one is Catholic or not, as Christmas is celebrated and New Year resolutions are being made, it behooves us to think of Pope Francis’ words: “I exhort you to generous solidarity and to the return of economics and finance to an ethical approach which favors human beings.”


Raphael Sassower is professor of philosophy at UCCS. He can be reached at rsassower@gmail.com See previous articles at sassower.blogspot.com

 

 

 

 

 

 

Monday, December 2, 2013

“Altcoin mania makes it onto stage, but for how long?” The Colorado Springs Business Journal, November 29-December 5, 2013, 17.


BITCOIN MANIA

The recent Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee’s hearings on the potential of digital currencies to be used as donations for PACs may be of interest.
We have known virtual currencies that don’t involve banks: from Monopoly or poker, to more sophisticated video games where “money” is earned at various stages; likewise, they are used in closed-communities and resorts.

Detractors believe this to be a short-lived digital craze, while promoters believe this will become a game-changer. Whether called “digital currency,” “e-Money,” “electronic cash system,” or “altcoins,” these innovations push the conceptual and practical limits of what we mean by “money.”
Money has both value and function, being exchanged for actual commodities or services according to a certain cultural logic that legitimates it. Georg Simmel suggested over a century ago that it is “the most ephemeral thing in the external-practical world; yet in its content it is the most stable, since it stands as the point of indifference and balance between all other phenomena in the world.”

Are we all meeting at the public square and expect the backing of government agencies and banks or rather in virtual space that allows for anonymity and complete disregard of state institutions. How long did it take us to trust paying bills virtually?
A group of cyberpunks was intent on challenging government authority. In 1998, Wei Dai proposed “b-money” as an untraceable digital currency. Ten years later, Satoshi Nakamoto (a pseudo-name) released his version of bitcoin. In his manifesto, he says that “what is needed is an electronic payment system based on cryptographic proof instead of trust, allowing any two willing parties to transact directly with each other without the need for a trusted third party.”

A coin is defined by Nakamoto as “a chain of digital signatures” or “hash.” A cryptographic hash function is an algorithm that configures an arbitrary block of data and affixes to it a hash value. With a “timestamp” one knows the time-line of each movement from one user to another, cannot be reversed, thus avoiding double-counting. Though users remain anonymous during the exchange, the exchange itself is public. Bitcoin owners are required to “mine” them: finding a solution to a difficult problem with high-powered computers and sophisticated programs.
More recent developments include “PeerCoin,” “Litecoin,” and “anoncoin.” Unlike the recluse originators of bitcoin, Charles Lee is open about his creation of Litecoin. As a former programmer at Google, he believes in advancing the future of cyber transactions—why not have more choices?

The value of one bitcoin has ranged from as little as $2 a couple of years ago, spiked at $2,000, to over $900 now; total value in circulation is billions of dollars. Surely this cyber-“ecosystem” is comprised of earnest cryptographers showing off their expertise, but it also invites criminals who are looking for ways to hide from scrutiny.
Promoters praise “peer-to-peer electronic cash system” because it eschews “third party” reliance on governmental central banks or commercial banks and replaces “trust” with cryptography; this presumably avoids the collapse of money value because of inflation (without the gold standard since 1971), and eliminates transaction costs levied by credit card services or banks.

The issues spawning this movement can be rewritten as individual freedom, distrust of government, trust in technology as a neutral and fair method, and distaste for waste. A strong libertarian streak is evident here!
Altcoins aim to appeal to merchants who trade through the Internet. What happens once these altcoins are exchanged for dollars? Will they then become traceable and regulated?

Will altcoins undermine the authority of the federal mint to print money? With claims to safety and reliability, trustworthiness and increased use, the bitcoin experiment is limited to about $20-40 million and will never threaten the status-quo of trillions of dollars in annual transactions. Are altcoins counterfeit money? Are they new ways to launder money? What about taxes? Hence the Senate hearings.
Do you recall the so-called Swiss Dinar in Iraq? Though backed by the Iraqi government before the 1990 Gulf War, it was “disendorsed” after the war and a “Saddam Dinar” was introduced in its place. The fascinating fact is that in northern Iraq the Swiss Dinar retained its trading value while the Saddam Dinar was affected by hyperinflation after the 2003 invasion of Iraq. No gold reserves and no real value; was it the faith individuals put in the Swiss vs. Saddam) name of the currency?

Unlike Monopoly money or the coins you get at all-inclusive resorts, altcoins need to have a moral gravitas that anchors them in something other than the encryption world of programmers. They need the sanction of transparency and good faith, and more universal acceptance than by speculators alone. Till then, let me stay with dollar bills.

Raphael Sassower is professor of philosophy at UCCS. He can be reached at rsassower@gmail.com See previous articles at sassower.blogspot.com

 

Friday, September 6, 2013

“Detroit’s lessons might affect answers on retirement,” The Colorado Springs Business Journal, September 6 - 12, 2013, 21.


Labor, Anyone?

I grew up in Haifa (the Red City of Israel), a place where there were annual May Day parades--with red flags and street dancing, speeches and a day off for all. I loved this carnival, though my parents hated the unions and all they represented, especially their political power that could, at a drop of a hat, call for strikes in any sector of the economy. A mixed upbringing, to be sure.

As much as my parents despised those unions and their leaders, and as much as they strove to succeed as capitalists in a hybrid economy, they treated their company as a large dysfunctional family, with my Mom serving as the matron saint. She stood five feet tall with little formal education. She helped the pregnant unmarried secretary and scolded wayward men who cheated on their wives. Yes, these were her employees, but she felt responsible for their well-being.

As the Labor Day sales were announced across America last week, most of us think less of unions than about the picnic we attended. Perhaps we take for granted the benefits from the hard-won battles of yesteryear between labor and capital that the former was able to win—elimination of child labor, workplace safety, and paid vacations. Perhaps we simply ignore unions because of their anemic political power (less than 9% of the private workforce) or caricature them as represented by Jimmy Hoffa.

Every politician in every election, local to national, promotes job creation, though none has asked if work is a right or privilege. None has referred to microeconomics textbooks where “full employment” is defined in terms of 7% unemployment. And while we’re at it, how are we measuring unemployment? What about those who have drifted off the unemployment benefits lines? What about part-time employees?

Perhaps we are too busy to think through our views about labor: should there be unions, altogether? Our K-12 teachers are unionized, yet most don’t look at them the way we do at the Teamsters. Do police officers and fire fighters use collective bargaining, or as my dear friend calls it collective begging? What about our men and women in uniform?

Some (teachers, fire-fighters, police officers) enjoy pensions under various conditions. UCCS professors don’t have pensions, classified staff do. Why? Should they all have pensions, or should none? What about health insurance?

Recently I was in Detroit with a friend to see what a “bankrupt” municipality looks like. As Mark Twain quipped, the news of its demise has been greatly exaggerated. The downtown looks thriving, with some major corporate headquarters intact. Yes, there are some outlying neighborhoods that are boarded up or that are being razed with plans for rebuilding, no different from what is seen outside any metropolitan area where urban renewal is an ongoing process.

The city’s bankruptcy, just like that of GM and Chrysler a few years ago, is partially about underfunded pensions. Should the courts eventually allow the city to shirk its pension liabilities? Do we fundamentally deserve to have pensions, or is this idea outdated? Now that workplaces are for the most part safe (some refineries in Louisiana still emit dangerous chemicals), now that minimum wage is a federal law, is it time to revisit pensions?

If it’s time, let’s separate the practical from the theoretical. In theory we should ask ourselves if, after years of hard labor, one deserves to retire with benefits. When it comes to the military, our national answer is a resounding yes! Depending on many variables, pensions are granted to military retirees (over 100,000 are residents of our fair city). For the sake of consistency, should this answer apply to everyone?

It is argued that our men and women in uniform have risked their lives for our nation, and therefore deserve a pension. True, but since 1973 military service is voluntary, and is no different, in this sense, from those serving as teachers, police officers, fire fighters, and utilities employees. Should a pension be owed to them all?

Even when we agree to offer pensions to all employees, can we, practically, afford to do so? The answer is simpler than it sounds. All we need to do is adjust our outdated spreadsheets and the formula used to determine retirement benefits. As we live longer and are healthier later into our lives, we should work longer for our benefits; we should also contribute a greater percentage of our current wages (matched by employees) for future benefits.

Otherwise, the system isn’t sustainable, as is also the case with Social Security. Change the formula, and you can save the system. Keep it, and it’ll be in a crisis, the kind that becomes an excuse for bankruptcy. If we plan better, we can provide all working citizens an “honorable discharge” from their place of work with benefits commensurate with their contributions to them.

 

Raphael Sassower is professor of philosophy at UCCS; rsassower@gmail.com See also sassower.blogspot.com

Thursday, August 22, 2013

“Financial inequities persist under Obama”


You don’t have to be a Republican to sling some mud at our lame duck president. Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY), dared suggest that student loan rates should equal those charged to large banks, 0.75%; she’s appalled by the “business-as-usual” mindset found in Washington.

After much haggling, Congress has passed a bipartisan legislation that pegs student loan rates to the economy, hardly a comforting compromise for the largest debt in the economy (around $1trillion in 2012). Amidst the euphoria associated with a rare legislative agreement, the silly idea proposed by the junior senator has been quietly laid to rest: how dare she compare the mighty commercial banks to students?

Regardless of an estimated 8.7% drop in student enrollment in 2013 (compared to 2012), and regardless of graduates’ economic prospects in the new digital economy, let’s follow the mega commercial banks. If you recall, the Emergency Economic Stabilization Act of 2008 gave roughly $700 billion to banks to avert an impending economic catastrophe. Economic historians will debate for years the effects of this Act.
Fast forward to 2013, and these same banks have done tremendously well. Just look at their reports for the 2nd quarter of 2013: Bank of America’s revenue $22.9 billion, $4 billion net income ($97 billion bailout); Goldman Sachs’s revenue $8.6, $1.93 billion net income ($10 billion bailout); Citigroup’s revenue $20.5 billion, $4.2 billion net income ($220.4 billion bailout); JPMorgan Chase revenue $26 billion, $6.5 billion net income ($94.7 billion bailout). You see the picture—the banks are doing extremely well after a well-intentioned (but misplaced) taxpayers’ assistance. Couldn’t this money have been given directly to homeowners to avoid foreclosures? Should their “prime discount rate” be fixed at 0.75%, while ours is so much higher?

Given this collaborative relationship between banks and government agencies that regulate them—bailouts when needed—you’d hope that banks would behave like good citizens. Instead, these commercial banks have been disregarding federal laws with a level of impunity not seen since the Gilded Age.
The latest headlines are quite telling: “Lawyers Present Closing Arguments in Former Goldman Trader’s Fraud Case,” “Ex-Stock Analyst Charged With Insider Trading in Case Tied to SAC Indictment,” and “Morgan Stanley Fined for Selling Exotic Funds to Unwary Elderly.” At least these cases ended up in court. Many, though, have been settled out of court.

According to the New York Times, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission agreed to settle with JPMorgan to the tune of $410 million. The regulator accused the bank, and more specifically its senior executive, Ms. Blythe Masters, of “manipulative schemes” that resulted in charging more for energy than was warranted at the time (2010-2011). We should leave the details of the facts in this case and its eventual settlement to lawyers. But should we ignore the moral hazards associated with ongoing abuses by bank executives, the beneficiaries of low borrowing costs and a federal safety net if they fail?
The argument about a rogue trader here and there that takes unduly advantage of unsuspecting investors or the public trust is one thing; when it’s a systematic behavior that is condoned (because not stopped) by CEOs and Board members, then American capitalism isn’t living up to the promises its founders made for its integrity.

Large commercial banks, like JPMorgan Chase, are public entities at least inasmuch as they collect individual deposits that are insured by the FDIC, they are publicly traded (hence publicly owned), they enjoy the largess of taxpayers (even though never consulted) when they are about to fail, and they are regulated by the US government. They are private insofar as their profits remain under the control of the management team whose compensation packages don’t require public (or government) consent. The choice of playing the public or private card is always at the discretion of these banks.
What should we make, then, of the $410 million settlement? Defrauding customers apparently is the new normal. Getting caught rarely happens. If it happens, fines are paid, and no one goes to jail. Powerful Wall Street lawyers cut a deal that doesn’t ruffle any feathers: it’s a win-win settlement (favorite cliché in Business Schools). Neither Ms. Masters nor Jamie Dimon (the CEO) went to jail, and the fines JPMorgan paid will be forgotten in the annual financial statement (which will amount, at this rate of profitability, to 1.6% of $25 billion). Likewise, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission scored big in levying $410 million in fines in comparison to its latest settlement with a bank of $1.6 million (NYT).

Have we lost our moral outrage? Have we accepted financial scandals. We continue to deposit our paychecks in mega-banks for 0.1% interest and pay 6.99% interest for small business loans. No wonder banks’ facades are made of marble.

Raphael Sassower is professor of philosophy at UCCS; rsassower@gmail.com See also sassower.blogspot.com

 

Monday, July 15, 2013

“New concepts change face of higher ed” The Colorado Springs Business Journal, July 12 - 18, 2013, 21.


The Cost of Efficiency

Years ago the University of Phoenix spooked higher education. What does it mean to have a for-profit university (a subsidiary of Apollo Group, NASDAQ: APOL)? Despite drastic enrollment declines recently, it boasted some 600,000 students in 2010 (founded in 1976). Will this new model change the face of higher education?

The answer is a definite yes! Labor costs are low since faculty members are underpaid, and quality learning is less important than the coveted degree at the end of coursework. With many online courses offered at competitive prices, this model is thriving.

By contrast, large public universities, whose budgets have been cut because of financial constraints, saw something they liked about this model that lowered labor costs and managed to do away with tenure. Our state funds about 5% of the CU budget and about 75% of it is allocated to faculty and staff compensation.

There is only so much “green savings” out of operating budgets. Tuition increases have a tolerance threshold for students and their parents as well. So, to lower costs, why not go after faculty and staff, the largest portion of the budget? Staff members are protected by state legislation, the jobs of tenured faculty are protected by law, so the wages of non-tenured faculty remain targets.

Additionally, large campuses instituted large courses with enrollment in the hundreds. A professor gives a weekly lecture, and graduate students meet with sections and grade assignments. Graduate students are cheap labor when compared to having to hire more professors to lecture and grade.

Moreover, when a faculty retires, passes away, or resigns, replacement is always at the part-time level with huge salary savings ($80,000à$20,000). Universities’ reliance on the army of under-employed and over-educated young teachers has been so great that overall less than 30% of all courses are taught by tenure-track professors.

Should this worry us? The quality of education remains the same with good guidance, mentorship, and highly qualified faculty members who cannot find full-time employment. Are they more transient? Not necessarily, because opportunities are equally thin around the country. Are these part-time employees less committed? Not at all: their good behavior could translate into a full-time job in the future.

With the advent of technology, this business model has been perfected. What in the past were additional course materials—lectures by great experts and scholars, videos of faraway places, films of historical significance—have been recently proposed as a partial replacement of faculty. MOOCs (massive online open courses) have been developed by private companies and are offered to universities, private and public alike, at various fee structures. Once adopted, are professors needed at all?

Perhaps this is part of the ongoing trend towards greater (digital) productivity; perhaps partial replacements will become permanent. According to the Economic Policy Institute, economic productivity grew 80% from 1973 to 2011; it grew 23% between 2000 and 2011. Digital technologies have much to do with it, and therefore we are facing a jobless recovery. Are MOOCs a natural wave of the future?

CU President Benson welcomes the introduction of MOOCs but proposes hybrid courses, where some time is still spent in classrooms. This model, however implemented, misses the point of trying to increase enrollment without the need for faculty or classrooms—a virtual academy.

It’s not simply quantity vs. quality. Nor is this a self-serving rant about professors. Instead, this constitutes a rethinking of what the university is all about. When President Kerr of the California system promised industry that his campuses would prepare students for future jobs, he promised skill sets and discipline (1963/2001). But is this really what businesses want?

Paypal founder Peter Thiel offers high-school graduates $100,000 not to go to college (because the real world is where lessons are learned) as a bold retort to Kerr’s agenda: why waste money on higher education at all?

Instead of only framing the discussion of MOOCs as a debate over labor rights and assault on faculty tenure, we should also frame it in terms of what future citizens we’d like to live with. Where do we teach team-work or leadership? Where do we learn about our history and values? Where is the balance between individual rights and duties examined?

Without these fundamental lessons, we’d be lost to fear and greed; without these experiences, we’d be careless and thoughtless. Do businesses want that? Or do they want instead creative and challenging employees that one day will change the world? The jury is still out on whether MOOCs are up to the challenge. If the ire over for-profit online learning is not directed in the right place, neither the university nor the business world is served.


Raphael Sassower is professor of philosophy at UCCS who wrote A Sanctuary of Their Own: Intellectual Refugees in the Academy. Contact: rsassower@gmail.com; Other: sassower.blogspot.com

 

Thursday, July 11, 2013

A Vindication for Tim Leigh!


A Vindication for Tim Leigh!
Raphael Sassower

The allegations made the front page; the details of the accusation were the talk of the town. One can argue that Tim lost his council membership this year because of this cloud of suspicion, one that wouldn’t go away in time for the election. Oh, yes, some people made sure this cloud stayed over his head—more precisely, over his integrity—so that it would cast such an ugly shadow that to vote for him would be to vote for the wrong guy.
When the vindication came today at council’s meeting (7/8/13) no one cheered. In fact, no one even bothered to call the fellow…except for his son-in-law that saw it on Facebook—really, this is how an accused learns of his fate?—and John Hazelhurst who wanted a quote for his blog—not for a front-page piece…maybe if Tim died he would be as kind to him as he was to Judy Noyse, maybe not. She, too, was a councilmember years ago. I guess we can’t expect proper etiquette from a bunch of local politicians, but should we?

It was local politicians at various levels and positions who were glad that Tim was a loudmouth when it came to CSU; yes, they were glad he asked the hard questions, and they could hide behind him and observe from a safe distance how the mighty CEO, Jerry Forte, would retaliate (“the best defense is offense,” as the cliché goes). They were right; Tim was a target, a big one with get-the-anti-vote efforts, an ethics investigation, and even a lawsuit. Really? Just for asking questions?
I teach my UCCS students to ask questions; I implore them to question me, the texts we are reading, their colleagues, and their families. They eventually get the value of this excersize. And here is Tim, trying to ask questions as a board member, and being rebuffed. When he doesn’t relent, he’s being accused of ethical misconduct, really? So, I asked him what it (the ethics inquiry) was about. And once he told me, I laughed…it was about an expense report, and whether or not he meant to be helpful in setting someone up from North Dakota with Neumann …really? We are talking about $400 that took $17,000 of legal fees to explain away.  Now Tim is a successful businessman (meaning he’s rich enough to pay for his own travel), and would he be that foolish knowing he’s picked a fight with Forte, the most powerful man in town?

So, the question isn’t about Tim’s motives or his actual expenses—now that he is cleared of all misconduct, but about Forte and what he’s up to—what is his agenda? First, who’s he working for? Second, who supervises him? Third, what are his qualifications (I asked once for his resume and couldn’t get it)? Fourth, how is he serving our community? Obviously the so-called strong mayor and the nine councilmembers can’t reign him in, let alone get an answer from him about Neumann. Fifth, isn’t it time to have a change of leadership (even if anyone can make an argument that he’s qualified to run a $1.2 billion operation)?
As for Tim, please join me in recognizing him as someone who probably was a gadfly—an honorific label assumed by Socrates in ancient Greece—when one was needed to wake up, if not simply to get the attention of, a sleepy town too complacent to realize it needed to be needled. Was he your classical statesman? Absolutely not. But as the philosopher Gunther Andres years ago stated (about the dropping of atomic bombs on civilians in Japan) that one cannot be expected to behave normally under abnormal circumstances. Tim got it in the context of our city, and his outrage was on behalf of all of us. And for that, we should be grateful.

 

Monday, May 13, 2013

“Is the time right for tax reform, or is it already too late?” The Colorado Springs Business Journal, May 7 - 31, 2013, 21.


IS THE TIME RIGHT FOR REIT?
Now that those who are punctual have paid their taxes in an annual ritual of disbelief and disgust—I still owe money? where does it go?—perhaps it’s time to plan for next year. As Nathaniel Popper reported in The New York Times earlier this week, corporate America is not only planning, but plotting to evade federal taxes altogether.

What may seem a novel idea is actually practiced by many mom-and-pop operations that set themselves up as Limited Liability Companies and though different are treated by the IRS as S Corporation which allows such entities “with 100 shareholders or less the benefit of incorporation while being taxed as a partnership. This means that any profits earned by the corporation are not taxed at the corporate level, but rather at the level of the shareholders.”

Assume we have a company whose profits are $100,000. The company pays 35% in corporate taxes ($35,000), and after that dividends are distributed to shareholders some of whom might pay as much as 39.6% marginal rate, for potentially a total tax rate of 74.6% ($74,600). If the company is no longer a C corporation, its profits flow to individual shareholders who then pay taxes only at their own marginal rate—saving the 35% bite up front—and avoiding double taxation.

This has been known for years, and shouldn’t raise any controversy. Many small businesses set themselves up in such a way, whether or not owned by one family or few investors. What has raised some eyebrows in this season of congressional debates over taxes and budgets is whether or not what’s right for small LLCs (with as few members as one and as many as one hundred) should be right for large corporations (with thousands of shareholders, including large pension funds).

The legal and tax designation of a Real Estate Investment Trust–REIT—was set up already in President Eisenhower’s days. Its main purpose, as distinct from other businesses, was to recognize that since their holdings were exclusively real estate, these trusts represented passive investment that should be treated differently by the tax code. As Popper suggests, over one thousand companies have slowly converted their tax status, with IRS approval, to be taxed as REITs. Is it right?

On the one extreme of the spectrum are those who say, absolutely! If you are not violating the law, if you are approved by the IRS (which is vigilant about one’s status), then by all means minimize your tax burden as much as possible. As long as your actions are legal, they are ipso facto moral as well!

One may challenge this answer, and ask: but aren’t the overall taxes collected less than if the entity stayed a C corporation, and if so, wouldn’t this undermine government activities, such as national defense?  Shouldn’t overall national concerns override individual temptation to reduce one’s tax liability?

On the other extreme of the spectrum are those who claim that though legal, the REIT move is unfair. Why benefit only a select few corporations? Moreover, if REIT-designation is available, eventually no corporation would ever pay corporate taxes. Either way, this unequal treatment, though legal, is immoral.

This discussion may be academic: 83 out of the 100 largest publicly-traded companies game the tax code to the tune of $150 billion annually, according to some estimates. Forbes reported that 26 companies paid their CEOs more than they paid in federal taxes in 2012. Obviously this is legal. But isn’t it time to revisit the very notion of corporate taxes? Do corporate taxes make the US less competitive? ABC reported in 2007 that Halliburton (the one that got billions of dollars in contracts during the Iraq war) was moving its corporate headquarters from Houston to Dubai in the United Arab Emirates. Dare we ask why?

Perhaps we are asking the wrong questions, and instead of worrying about the REIT tax loophole, we should ask about overall tax reform. Oh, if only tax policy were discussed in logical and moral terms, what a wonderful world we’d have!
 

Raphael Sassower is professor of philosophy at UCCS. He can be reached at rsassower@gmail.com See previous articles at sassower.blogspot.com