Category Archives: Random Blogging

The Walmart Tax

I have written before about the “Walmart tax.”

Walmart generates nearly $500 billion in revenue annually; over the past five years, its yearly profits have averaged $15.5 billion dollars, and the family that owns it has a net worth of $129 billion dollars.

Despite its obvious ability to do so, the company declines to pay its employees a living wage, instead relying upon government programs–taxpayer dollars– to make up the difference between its workers’ paychecks and what they need to make ends meet. In essence, when a Walmart employee must rely on food stamps or other safety-net benefits, taxpayers are paying a portion of that employee’s wages.

Walmart (including its Sam’s Club operation) is currently the largest private employer in the country–and one of the largest recipients of corporate welfare. Walmart employees receive an estimated $6.2 billion dollars in taxpayer-funded subsidies each year. Money not paid out in salary goes directly to the shareholders’ bottom line.

Not only is this greedy and despicable, it is bad business. For one thing, as awareness of this subsidy grows, the numbers of people shopping at Walmart declines. But there are other costs incurred.

One of my graduate students wrote his research paper on corporate philanthropy, and the growth of business practices that recognize a duty to stakeholders other than shareholders: employees, vendors and the general community. As he explained,

The Triple Bottom Line (TBL) is an accounting framework that incorporates three dimensions of performance: social, environmental and financial. This differs from traditional reporting frameworks as it includes ecological (or environmental) and social measures that can be difficult to assign appropriate means of measurement. The TBL dimensions may also be referred to as the three P’s: people, planet and profits (Hall, 2011). The TBL further supports the integration of Corporate Responsibility into the fiber of companies as the bottom line is expanded, to include these additional levels of measurement, suggesting “purpose” shares importance with profit.

One company that has seen the benefits of good corporate responsibility through TBL is Costco, specifically the “people” component. Second to the multi-national titan Walmart, Costco is the largest American membership-only warehouse club. Costco’s average pay, for example, is $17 an hour, 42 percent higher than its fiercest rival, Sam’s Club (Greenhouse, 2005). Costco’s practices are clearly more expensive, but they have an offsetting cost-containment effect: Turnover is unusually low, at 17% overall and just 6% after one year’s employment. In contrast, turnover at Wal-Mart is 44% a year, close to the industry average (Cascio, 2006).

In the case of Costco, their corporate responsibility and voluntary decision to invest in their people have been a direct contributor to their profits. In return for its generous wages and benefits, Costco gets one of the most loyal and productive workforces in retail, and, not coincidentally, the lowest shrinkage (employee theft) figures in the industry. As a result, Costco generated $21,805 in U.S. operating profit per hourly employee, compared with $11,615 at Sam’s Club. Costco’s stable, productive workforce more than offsets its higher costs (Cascio, 2006).

It appears that “doing well by doing good” is more than a slogan.

I shop at Costco, and avoid Walmart. So do most of my friends. In virtually all cases, the choice is intentional: we want to demonstrate support for businesses that value and properly compensate their employees (and aren’t sucking at the public tit, if you’ll excuse the vulgarity).

Walmart may get my tax dollars, but I’m damned if they’ll get my discretionary dollars too.

 

And Now A Word From the Fantasy-Based Community

I read Dispatches from the Culture Wars regularly. Ed Brayton is a witty and perceptive commentator with an excellent grasp of America’s constitutional foundations–but his greatest appeal (for me) comes from the fact that he monitors behaviors that I wouldn’t have the stomach to follow. He keeps tabs on the kooks of the far, far right (and sometimes the far, far left)–the “celebrities” of the wacko fringes.

Most of the time, when reading about the pronouncements and delusions of these characters, I take comfort in reminding myself of the limited appeal of whatever brand of crazy a particular figure is peddling.

But this was truly appalling.

Earlier this month, the city of San Antonio (Texas) held a mayoral forum in which candidates talked about the impact of and challenges for non-profit groups in the community.

At one point, current Mayor Ivy Taylor was asked about the “deepest systemic cause of generational poverty.” There’s no simple answer to that, of course, but Taylor’s response wasn’t even close.

“Not even close” is an understatement. Here’s the Mayor’s response.

To me, it’s broken people. People not being in a relationship with their Creator, and therefore, not being in good relationship with their families and their communities, and not being productive members of society. I think that’s the ultimate answer.

As Ed points out, that not only isn’t the “ultimate answer,” it’s an answer that betrays vast ignorance of American economic realities and that displays the sort of breathtakingly smug religious arrogance that you encounter from time to time from people who give religion a very bad name. As Brayton puts it,

Poor people aren’t all poor because they’re “broken” or atheists or in need of a better relationship with their families. (While we’re at it, they’re also not poor because they’re lazy and addicted to welfare checks.)

People are poor, in many cases, because they don’t have opportunities to put their skills to work, they never had access to a quality education, and they live in areas where upward mobility is hard to come by. In some cases, they can work multiple jobs with little sleep and still have a hard time getting out of whatever debt they’re already in. Poverty is tough to overcome. Generational poverty, even tougher.

The vast majority of poor Americans work 40 or more hours a week at jobs that don’t pay a living wage. (Not that it is relevant, but a sizable majority of them identify as Christian, and profess a “relationship” with a “Creator.” Atheists in the U.S. actually tend to be well-educated and financially comfortable–when you aren’t constantly struggling to put food on the table, you have the time and resources to ponder theological questions and consider counter-majoritarian conclusions…But I digress.)

I’ve written before about the United Way of Indiana’s description of ALICE families (Asset Limited, Income Constrained, Employed) and the huge gap between what those families need simply in order to survive and the pitifully inadequate public and private resources available to them.

There are a lot of things policymakers could do to decrease poverty: raise the minimum wage, reinstitute Reagan-era tax brackets, strengthen unions, eliminate the ACA in favor of “Medicare for All”…and jettison a self-satisfied ideology that blames poverty on a lack of productivity and an inadequate “relationship with the Creator.”

The fact that Americans elect people who mouth such inanities (beginning with Donald Trump and definitely including Mayor Ivy Taylor) is evidence of a different kind of poverty.

 

 

 

What Keeps Me Up At Night…

Why have a blog if you can’t share your nightmares?

As I see it, we live in a time of paradigm shift, characterized by a rapidly morphing information environment, a reversion to tribalism, deepening economic insecurities, widespread civic illiteracy, and growing recognition of the inadequacies of current legal and political structures.

All of these elements of our contemporary reality challenge our existing worldviews.

Humanity has gone through similar “shifts” before, but with the possible exception of the nuclear arms race, we have not previously faced the very real possibility that our behavior will cause large portions of the planet to become uninhabitable, or that social order will collapse—with consequences we can only imagine.

The 2016 election exposed significant fault-lines in American society and forced us to confront the erosion of our democratic institutions. The problems have been there, and been accelerating, for some time.

A splintered and constantly morphing media has dramatically exacerbated the problems inherent in democratic decision-making. The current media environment enables/encourages confirmation bias, is rife with spin, “fake news” and propaganda, and  is widely distrusted. The widening gap between the rich and the rest feeds suspicion of government decision-making, and Citizens United and its progeny increased recognition of—and cynicism about– the power wielded by corporate America through lobbying, political contributions and influence-peddling.

In order for democracy to function, there must be widespread trust in the integrity of electoral contests. The fundamental idea is a fair fight, a contest of competing ideas, with the winner legitimized and authorized to carry out his/her agenda. Increasingly, democratic norms have been replaced by bare-knuckled power plays and widening public recognition of the ways in which partisans game the system.

As a result, citizens’ trust in government and other social institutions has dangerously eroded. Without that trust—without belief in an American “we,” an overarching polity to which all citizens belong and in which all citizens are valued—tribalism thrives. Especially in times of rapid social change, racial resentments grow. The divide between urban and rural Americans widens, as does the gap between various “elites” and others. Economic insecurity and social dysfunction are exacerbated by the absence of an adequate social safety net, adding to resentment of both government and “the Other.

Making matters worse, in the midst of these wrenching changes, Americans elected someone incapable of recognizing or dealing with them.

Citizens in21st Century America are facing a globalized, technocratic, increasingly complex world that poses previously unprecedented challenges to the goal of e pluribus unum (not to mention human understanding and survival). The existential question we face: Can we create a genuine “us” out of so many different/diverse “I’s” and “we’s”? Can we use the law and legal system to create a supportive, nourishing culture that remains true to the Enlightenment’s essential insights, while modifying those we no longer consider so essential? If so, how?

How do we overcome the multiple challenges to the rule of law and a functioning democratic system? Those challenges tend to fall into three (interrelated and sometimes overlapping) categories: Ignorance (defined as lack of essential information, not stupidity); Inequality (poverty, consumer culture, civic inequality, globalization, power and informational asymmetries among others) and Tribalism (“us versus them”—racism, sexism, religion, urban/rural divide, etc.)

As an old lawyer once told me, there’s only one question, and that’s “what do we do?”

In the wake of the election, there’s been a lot of understandable hand-wringing. Comments on this blog, on Facebook and elsewhere have emphasized the need to act. Most of us don’t need that reminder; what we need is specifics: what do we do? How do we do it? 

The most obvious answer and most immediate imperative is political: we need to change Congress in 2018. But we also need to fashion concrete answers to the questions raised by social change and  threatening political realities. If we can’t find those answers and then act on them, humanity’s prospects don’t look so good.

And I don’t sleep so well.

 

 

It’s Much More Than Just Fake News

This is the time of year when my students–graduate and undergraduate–present the results of their research projects to their classmates (and, of course, me). One of my better undergraduate students focused upon the legal implications of the increasing use of household “personal assistants”–those sort of “Siri for home use” voice-activated electronic devices like Amazon’s “Echo.”

In addition to detailing the investigative uses of such devices by law enforcement, he pointed out potentials for informational mischief, especially when those devices are asked to conduct a search; unlike a google search performed on a computer screen, which yields pages of results and thus highlights inconsistent responses and the questionable credibility of certain of those responses, a virtual assistant simply responds with whatever information has been moved up in the response list by someone good at search engine optimization.

His example: responding to question “who won the popular vote,” one personal assistant read from a single (conspiracy) site reporting that Trump had actually won the popular vote.  No list, no context, no description of the source.

If the implications of his presentation weren’t troubling enough,a report from the Medium website gave me chills.

A data scientist and others had begun digging into so-called “fake news” sites after the election.  It soon became clear to them that they were dealing with a phenomenon that encompassed much more than just a few fake news stories. It was a piece of a much bigger and darker puzzle — a Weaponized AI Propaganda Machine being used to manipulate public opinions and behaviors to advance specific political agendas.

By leveraging automated emotional manipulation alongside swarms of bots, Facebook dark posts, A/B testing, and fake news networks, a company called Cambridge Analytica has activated an invisible machine that preys on the personalities of individual voters to create large shifts in public opinion. Many of these technologies have been used individually to some effect before, but together they make up a nearly impenetrable voter manipulation machine that is quickly becoming the new deciding factor in elections around the world.

Most recently, Analytica helped elect U.S. President Donald Trump, secured a win for the Brexit Leave campaign, and led Ted Cruz’s 2016 campaign surge, shepherding him from the back of the GOP primary pack to the front.

The company is owned and controlled by conservative and alt-right interests that are also deeply entwined in the Trump administration. The Mercer family is both a major owner of Cambridge Analytica and one of Trump’s biggest donors. Steve Bannon, in addition to acting as Trump’s Chief Strategist and a member of the White House Security Council, is a Cambridge Analytica board member. Until recently, Analytica’s CTO was the acting CTO at the Republican National Convention.

Analytica has declined to work on any Democratic campaigns,  and according to the story, is negotiating to help Trump manage both public opinion around his presidency and to expand sales for the Trump Organization.

Cambridge Analytica is now expanding aggressively into U.S. commercial markets and is also meeting with right-wing parties and governments in Europe, Asia, and Latin America….

There’s been a wave of reporting on Cambridge Analytica itself and solid coverage of individual aspects of the machine — bots, fake news, microtargeting — but none so far (that we have seen) that portrays the intense collective power of these technologies or the frightening level of influence they’re likely to have on future elections.

Studies Say…

I love this quotation( attributed to one Andrew Lang, who was born in 1844): “He uses statistics as a drunken man uses lamp-posts… for support rather than illumination.”

Actually, we all do that from time to time, and political psychologists tell us it is the mark of “confirmation bias”–the very human habit of cherry-picking available information in order to select that which confirms our preferred worldviews.

Because that is such a common behavior, and because we can easily find ourselves citing to “authorities” that are less than authoritative (and sometimes totally bogus), I’m going to bore you today by sharing information from a very useful tutorial on assessing the credibility of “studies,” as in “studies confirm that..” or “recent studies tell us that…”

Academics who have conducted peer reviews of journal submissions are well aware that many studies are fatally flawed, and should not be used as evidence for an argument or as confirmation of a theory. (If I were doing research on voter attitudes, and drew my sample–the population that I surveyed–from readers of this blog, my results would be worthless. While that might be an extreme case, many efforts at research fail because the methodology is inappropriate, the sample size is too small, the questions are posed in a confusing manner, etc.)

The tutorial suggests that journalists intending to cite to a study ask several pertinent questions before making a decision whether to rely upon the research:

The first question is whether the study has been peer-reviewed; in other words, has a group of scholars familiar with the field approved the methodology? This is not foolproof–professors can be wrong–but peer review is blind (the reviewers don’t know who conducted the study, and the authors don’t know who is reviewing it), and tends to be a good measure of reliability. If the study has been published by a well-regarded academic journal, it’s safe to assume that its conclusions are well-founded.

Other important inquiries included looking to see who funded the research in question.

 It’s important to know who sponsored the research and what role, if any, a sponsor played in the design of the study and its implementation or in decisions about how findings would be presented to the public. Authors of studies published in academic journals are required to disclose funding sources. Studies funded by organizations such as the National Science Foundation tend to be trustworthy because the funding process itself is subject to an exhaustive peer-review process.

The source of funding is especially relevant to the possibility that the authors have a conflict of interest. (Remember those “studies” exonerating tobacco from causing cancer? Surprise! They were paid for by the tobacco companies.)

Other important elements in the evaluation may include the age of the study, since, as the post noted,  “In certain fields — for example, chemistry or public opinion — a study that is several years old may no longer be reliable.”

Sample size and the method used to select survey respondents are obviously important, and statistical conclusions should be presented in a way that allows readers to review their calculations. It’s also worth looking closely to see whether the study’s conclusions are actually supported by the reported data. As the post notes,

Good researchers are very cautious in describing their conclusions – because they want to convey exactly what they learned. Sometimes, however, researchers might exaggerate or minimize their findings or there will be a discrepancy between what an author claims to have found and what the data suggests.

In an information environment increasingly characterized by misleading claims, spin and outright propaganda, the ability to distinguish trustworthy research findings from those that are intellectually suspect or dishonest is fast becoming an essential skill.