The initiative, the biggest expansion of Medicare since its creation in 1965, proved wildly popular. It now serves more than 35 million people, delivering critical medicines to patients who might otherwise be unable to afford them. Its price tag is far lower than expected.
Archive for the ‘Business’ Category
Interesting article in the Washington Post by Neil Irwin:
You can buy almost anything on the Internet: uranium ore, wolf urine, a levitating hover scooter. But you can’t buy a car straight from the factory. Go to the Web site of Ford or Honda or any other major automaker, and they will send you to your local dealer to conduct anything resembling an actual transaction.
It isn’t an accident. Rather, it is the result of hard-fought efforts by auto dealers to maintain, through state laws, their exclusive role as the place where one can buy a new automobile. Direct sale of autos by manufacturers is against the law in nearly every state, and there’s a range of related state laws governing auto dealers’ ability to enter or exit a market. In other words, the model that Dell developed for selling personal computers — enter your exact specifications online, and the computer will be built to order and delivered to your door — is illegal in most states for automobiles. (For a rundown on the structure of the auto industry, check out this paper from Justice Department antitrust economist Gerald R. Bodisch).
Enter Tesla. The maker of innovative electric cars is hoping to be equally innovative in how it sells them. It wants something that closely resembles the Dell model to apply to its popular “Model S” sedan. The company is pushing the Texas legislature to change its own law to make it legal to sell Teslas there directly.But North Carolina isn’t having it: Last week, a state Senate committee unanimously approved a bill to make the direct sale of autos in the state illegal.
What’s going on here is a battle of raw political power at the state level against the forces of markets. . .
Governments should continually focus on one question: “Does this law help improve the common welfare of the state/nation?”
Dylan Matthews: We’ve had technologies that save labor and increase productivity for years. What makes artificial intelligence different?
Kevin Drum: The difference is that, in the Industrial Revolution, we got big productivity increases from steam engines but there were still people required to run those machines. We had a huge increase in the amount of stuff you could make, but you needed people to design the machines, and make the machines, and use the machines.
With the digital revolution, the difference is that smart machines provide both power and intelligence. You don’t need human beings for anything anymore. You don’t need them for power, or for the intelligence to use the power. It puts everyone out of work eventually. Because smart machines will become as smart as human beings, there simply is not a job that a machine can’t do on its own.
This assumes that there are no human labor tasks that are simply beyond the reach of computers. There are a number of philosophers and computer scientists who might argue that there are some tasks computers just can’t do.
There’s a couple of arguments against the idea that AI is coming soon. One is, as you say, a philosophical argument, which boils down to “However smart machines seem to get, they’ll never have true human intelligence.” I just don’t think that matters. You can call it intelligence or something difference, but that’s semantic. What matters is that they can accomplish the same things humans can.
The second argument is “can we do it?” Moore’s law says computing power will double every 18 months. The question is whether that’s going to continue. There are some good arguments that we’re running up against physical boundaries that will prevent that from happening. But I think it has at least enough life left in it to produce computers that have about the power of the human brain. If you look at software development, that follows Moore’s law as well. If anything, it doubles even faster than hardware development. I think the software is going to catch up rather quickly.
That’s an interesting point, that a lot of the innovation is going to be in the algorithms and techniques used for emulating human intelligence. Are we seeing that kind of innovation?
Again, via Open Culture:
Four years ago, I experienced musical polymath, rock producer, “drifting clarifier,” and high-tech painter Brian Eno‘s generative-art installation 77 Million Paintings in Long Beach. I also saw him give an entertaining talk there on his observations of and ideas about sound, images, and culture. This year, he brought the show to New York City, giving it the largest staging yet, and then sat down for an equally entertaining 80-minute Q&Afor the Red Bull Music Academy. Perhaps it sounds a little odd that a creator who has based the past few decades of recent solo work on quietude, reflection, and mental receptiveness would appear at such length in a forum sponsored by an energy drink, but hey, we live in interesting times, and Eno has interesting thoughts, no matter where he voices them.
Sitting back on a sofa (whose side table comes stocked with cans of Red Bull), Eno discusses composing music for hospitals after meeting a great many children born to his 1975 album Discreet Music; the amateur chorus he runs and with whom he sometimes invites famous singer friends to sit in; “scenius,” or the special kind of genius that emerges when large numbers of enthusiasts cohere into a scene; the DJ as cultural “lubricant”; his love of early 20th-century Russian painting; what makes popular music, from Abba to Beyoncé, sound popular; the importance of deadlines; and his new iPad app Scape, which, to his mind, should soon displace the tiresome conventions of Hollywood film scoring entirely. While this provides a stimulating introduction to Eno the intellectual, longtime fans will want to catch up with his latest thoughts on several favorite subjects, such as the value of surrender in not just experiencing but creating art, and the counterintuitive bursts of creativity that come when working with fewer options, not more.
I just received this email:
On July 1st, the interest rate on new federal student loans is set to double from 3.4% to 6.8%. That rate is nine times higher than the rate at which the government loans money to the big banks.
That just doesn’t make sense. The federal government is profiting off loans to our young people while giving a far better deal to the same Wall Street banks that crashed our economy and destroyed millions of jobs.
That’s why I’ve introduced the Bank on Students Loan Fairness Act as my first bill in the Senate: To allow students to borrow money at the same rate as the biggest banks.
College students carry more than $1 trillion in student loan debt, more than all the credit card debt in the country.
That’s a crushing burden on our kids and a crushing burden on our economy. Today’s graduates aren’t just delaying buying a home and starting a family — they’re moving back home with mom and dad and struggling to create some economic security.
The big banks that crashed our economy receive loans from the federal government at a rate of only 0.75% — that’s right, three-quarters of ONE percent. If Congress doesn’t act by July 1, our students will pay nine times more than big banks. Our students are the engine of our economic future, and they deserve at least the same deal as Wall Street.
Students don’t get the same Too Big to Fail guarantee as the big banks. But even though some students can’t pay their loans, overall the government is making 36 cents on every dollar we put into the student loan program. Next year, student loans are expected to bring in $34 billion.
Why should the big banks get a nearly-free ride while people trying to get an education pay nine times more? It isn’t right.
Senator Elizabeth Warren
And where is the FDA in this? Laura Fraser reports at OnEarth.org:
You probably wouldn’t expect to find pesticides in your toothpaste or your gym socks, but they might be in there all the same. And the vast majority of those pesticides have made it into everyday products without adequate oversight by the Environmental Protection Agency. That’s because they’ve been approved through a bureaucratic loophole known as “conditional registration,” which means they haven’t been fully tested to ensure that they pose no threat to human health or the environment, as required by U.S. law.
Most of us think of pesticides as the chemicals that get sprayed on weeds or used to kill rodents and bugs, but they’re actually found in everything from cosmetics to food containers, as well as antimicrobial textiles (such as the exercise shirt you might have worn to the gym this morning). By killing bacteria and other microorganisms, pesticides can help clothes resist stains or help containers keep food fresh longer. But some have also proven to cause health concerns in humans, kill trees, birds, bees, and fish, or do other unintended harm to the environment.
The EPA has been responsible for registering pesticides since 1972, and during that time, 90,000 have been allowed on the market. A significant number of those — just over 25,000, according to the EPA — were initially approved through the conditional registration process. An internal report by the EPA’s Office of Pesticide Programs shows that of the more than 16,000 pesticides allowed on the market as of 2010, about 11,000 of them were conditionally registered. Because of the agency’s poor record-keeping and flawed procedures, it remains unclear how many of these conditionally registered pesticides have ever gone through the full gamut of safety testing required by law.
“The dirty little secret of the EPA is that almost every pesticide gets put on the market while the agency is looking the other way,” says Michael Hansen, a senior staff scientist at Consumers Union. “That’s not good for consumers, and it’s not the intent of the regulations.”
By law, in order to register and sell a pesticide, companies are supposed to go through a process than can last several years; it includes public comment, reviews of scientific studies, and evaluations by the agency’s in-house science experts. The fast-track conditional registration process was intended to be used only under rare circumstances — when a product is nearly identical to one already on the market, for instance, or when the EPA needs to approve a new pesticide immediately to prevent a disease outbreak or other public health emergency (a new treatment for bedbugs, for example).
No one knew the extent to which the EPA had been abusing the conditional registration rules until 2008, when the Natural Resources Defense Council (which publishes OnEarth) began asking questions about why nanosilver, an antimicrobial made of extremely tiny bits of silver and used to kill bacteria in products such as athletic gear and baby blankets, had been granted conditional registration.
That year, Swiss manufacturer HeiQ had applied to the EPA for permission to use nanosilver in textiles, including clothing and bedsheets. NRDC scientists were concerned that nanosilver might be more toxic than regular silver — which is not very harmful to humans, but toxic and persistent in aquatic environments — because its tiny size allows it to travel into cells, organs, and blood, with potentially dangerous, but poorly understood, health effects. A 2010 internal EPA report on nanosilver notes: “the same property that makes it lethal to bacteria may render it toxic to human cells.”
“Until we understand the risks of nanosilver, we really shouldn’t be wearing it in our clothing and bedding,” says NRDC senior scientist Jennifer Sass. Chemist Martin Mulvihill, the executive director of the Berkeley Center for Brain Chemistry, agrees that more studies are needed, especially because nanosilver is widely used in consumer products. The effects of nanosilver on human health are not well understood, “which is not to say there are no concerns,” says Mulvihill, who adds, “It’s very clear silver is bad for the environment.” Silver bioaccumulates and is toxic to single-celled organisms and aquatic invertebrates; a 2010 study found that runoff containing silver particles dramatically reduced the reproductive capabilities of mollusks in San Francisco Bay. Products like nanosilver washing machines, which kill bacteria with nanosilver ions embedded in the machinery, could also damage water organisms with their runoff.
“Do I really need nanosilver in my jeans or Tupperware?” Mulvihill asks. “I don’t think so. I can just wash them.”
In response to HeiQ’s 2008 request to use nanosilver, the EPA Scientific Advisory Panel recognized that the effects of nanosilver are different from regular silver. The panel said its regulations would require the company to produce numerous studies on the specific health effects of nanosilver before it could be registered for use as a pesticide.
Then the agency went ahead and allowed the company to use nanosilver in its products anyway. . . .
The subtitle to Paul Buchheit’s article points out: “In 20 Years Corporate Profits Are Up 4X and Their Taxes Have Fallen by 50% — Meanwhile the Workers’ Payroll Tax Has Doubled.” His article at AlterNet begins:
Ayn Rand’s novel “Atlas Shrugged” fantasizes a world in which anti-government citizens reject taxes and regulations, and “stop the motor” by withdrawing themselves from the system of production. In a perverse twist on the writer’s theme the prediction is coming true. But instead of productive people rejecting taxes, rejected taxes are shutting down productive people.
Perhaps Ayn Rand never anticipated the impact of unregulated greed on a productive middle class. Perhaps she never understood the fairness of tax money for public research and infrastructure and security, all of which have contributed to the success of big business. She must have known about the inequality of the pre-Depression years. But she couldn’t have foreseen the concurrent rise in technology and globalization that allowed inequality to surge again, more quickly, in a manner that threatens to put the greediest offenders out of our reach.
Ayn Rand’s philosophy suggests that average working people are ‘takers.’ In reality, those in the best position to make money take all they can get, with no scruples about their working class victims, because taking, in the minds of the rich, serves as a model for success. The strategy involves tax avoidance, in numerous forms.
Corporations Stopped Paying
In the past twenty years , corporate profits have quadrupled while the corporate tax percent has dropped by half. The payroll tax, paid by workers, has doubled.
In effect, corporations have decided to let middle-class workers pay for national investments that have largely benefited businesses over the years. The greater part of basic research, especially for technology and health care, has been conducted with government money . Even today 60% of university research  is government-supported. Corporations use  highways and shipping lanes and airports to ship their products, the FAA and TSA and Coast Guard and Department of Transportation to safeguard them, a nationwide energy grid to power their factories, and communications towers and satellites to conduct online business.
Yet as corporate profits surge and taxes plummet, our infrastructure is deteriorating. The American Society of Civil Engineers  estimates that $3.63 trillion is needed over the next seven years to make the necessary repairs.
Turning Taxes Into Thin Air
Corporations have used numerous and creative means to avoid their tax responsibilities. They have about a year’s worth of profits stashed  untaxed overseas. According to the Wall Street Journal , about 60% of their cash is offshore. Yet these corporate ‘persons’ enjoy a foreign earned income exclusion  that real U.S. persons don’t get.
Corporate tax haven ploys are legendary, with almost 19,000 companies claiming home office space in one building  in the low-tax Cayman Islands. But they don’t want to give up their U.S. benefits. Tech companies in 19 tax haven jurisdictions received $18.7 billion  in 2011 federal contracts. A lot of smaller companies are legally exempt from taxes. As of 2008, according to IRS data, fully 69% of U.S. corporations were organized as nontaxable  businesses.
There’s much more. Companies call their CEO bonuses “performance pay”  to get a lower rate. Private equity  firms call fees “capital gains” to get a lower rate. Fast food  companies call their lunch menus “intellectual property” to get a lower rate.
Prisons and casinos have stooped to the level of calling themselves “real estate investment trusts”  (REITs) to gain tax exemptions . Stooping lower yet, Disney and others have added cows and sheep to their greenspace to get a farmland exemption . . .
Did you just find out your 401(k) is leaking 8 percent in a hodgepodge of Wall Street management fees, transactions costs, sales commissions, and marketing schemes. Maybe you did the math and realized your account value, without your new additions, is still where it was in 2007. Or did you just check BrightScope and find out that your 401(k) is so abysmal that you’ll need 18 additional years of work to make up for the $215,500 in lost retirement savings.
Or maybe you tuned in to the April 23 Frontline documentary on PBS to learn that it is quite possible for Wall Street to gobble up two-thirds of your retirement savings in your 401(k) while keeping you in the dark for the next 50 years.
If so, there’s no reason to seethe in silence. The U.S. Department of Labor wants to hear from you about a potential plan to move you from the clutches of Wall Street to the warm embrace of the insurance industry where companies like AIG – that needed a $182 billion bailout from the U.S. taxpayer to avoid defaulting on its annuity payouts to widows and orphans around the world – would be able to take over the slimmed down assets in your 401(k) in exchange for the promise of a fixed income stream in retirement.
The U.S. Department of Labor is nothing if not persistent. It rolled out this same idea back in 2010 and received a flood of hate mail for its effort. On February 2, 2010, the U.S. Department of Labor and the U.S. Treasury published a notice in the Federal Register asking for public comment on a multitude of issues pertaining to 401(k) plans. Three of the requests for comment were posed as follows: . . .
An interesting article by Scott Limieux in The American Prospect:
Last week, a decision by the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals provided an excellent example of how both presidential action and inaction can matter. Because of the former, the National Labor Relations Board had issued a rule intending to alleviate the power disparities between workers and employers. But in part because of action by Republican presidents and inaction by Democratic presidents, the rule is no longer in effect. And while the outcome of the case is hardly surprising, the sheer radicalism of the court’s holding is yet another sign of how in the tank much of the powerful D.C. Circuit is for powerful business interests.
The case involved a 2011 regulation issued by the NLRB which required employers to post notices informing workers of their right to join a union and providing basic information about how to contact the NLRB. The regulation was challenged by business groups based on an assortment of legal arguments. The District Courtupheld the authority of the NLRB to issue the regulation, although it did strike down two provisions related to enforcement. “Neither the text of the statute nor any binding precedent,” found Judge Amy Berman Jackson, “supports plaintiffs’ narrow reading of a broad, express grant of rulemaking authority.”
A three-judge panel of the D.C. Circuit consisting entirely of Republican appointees (including the notorious arch-reactionary Janice Rogers Brown) reversed Jackson and found that the regulation was illegal. Moreover, as with the recent D.C. Circuit opinion all but eliminating the presidential recess appointment power, they did so with an unreasonably broad opinion creating a transparently unworkable legal doctrine.
Had the Circuit merely held (as a concurring opinion did) that the regulation exceeded the statutory authority of the NLRB, this would be an inferior but not completely unfounded interpretation of admittedly ambiguous statutory text. And a narrow argument would at least allow Congress to revise the law to allow the NLRB to reinstate the reasonable notice requirement. But the Circuit went further than that, remarkably arguing that the provision violated the free speech rights of employers. According to the Court, the regulation violated a provision of the NLRB holding that the non-coercive speech of employers cannot constitute an unfair labor practice. The decision also strongly implies that the regulation violates the First Amendment as well.
This argument is not serious. As Judge Jackson noted, “the Board’s notice posting requirement does not compel employers to say anything.” The required notice contained numerous indications—including a large NLRB logo at the top—that the speech was coming from the government, not the employer. In addition, the notice is neutral, informing workers not only of their right to join a union and engage in various labor activities, but also of their right to choose “not to do any of these activities, including joining or remaining a member of a union.
If taken seriously, the idea that requiring employers to provide information about legal privileges and requirements violated their free speech rights would lead to transparently absurd results. As AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka noted in astatement following the ruling, this logic proves too much:
In today’s workplace, employers are required to display posters explaining wage and hour rights, health and safety and discrimination laws, even emergency escape routes. The D.C. Circuit ruling suggests that courts should strike down hundreds of notice requirements, not only those that inform workers about their rights and warn them of hazards, but also those on cigarette packages, in home mortgages and many other areas.
Perhaps next the D.C. Circuit will be able to find an appropriate case to end the tyranny of restaurants being forced to notify their employees that they have to wash their hands after going to the bathroom.
There are additional reasons to believe that this argument is being advanced in bad faith. Consider, for example, . . .
Labor as a movement is vitally important: labor unions, in a word. Labor unions are the only non-governmental organization that has a hope of matching the power of the employer and of corporations in general. The government could do it, but the government is rapidly being controlled and dismantled by corporate interests through lobbyists, placing people in government agencies, hiring/suborning government regulators, and so on. A strong Labor movement can help keep the government an honest broker and back on track to promote and protect the common welfare.
Abby Rapoport has an interesting article on the new tactics Labor is using:
A week ago, labor-rights group Working America launched FixMyJob.com. The text of the site reads a bit like an infomercial: “Tough day at work? Are you feeling overworked, underpaid, unsafe or disrespected by your boss?” But instead of selling a new set of knives, the writers are hawking organizing skills. “Our tool can help you identify problems in your workplace and give you info about what others have done in similar situations.” The famous raised fist of labor is sideways, holding a wrench. The website is yet another attempt by the country’s once-powerful union movement to connect to workers in an increasingly hostile national workplace.
“We also are trying to find new ways for workers to have representation on the job,” writes Working America spokesperson Aruna Jain in an email. “We want to train and educate people on how to self-organize, and to learn collective action—the single most effective way of improving their working conditions. This is one way we can start that process.”
The site, which is being rolled out slowly and in stages, is meant to give workers the resources they need to organize themselves and demand changes—regardless of whether or not an actual union comes together. It tells visitors how to contact the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) for safety issues in the work place. It gives tips and strategies for how best to present a case to the boss or how to convince coworkers to get involved.
“We’re trying something new here—an experiment,” writes Jain. “It’s never been done before. We don’t know what will work and what won’t, but we are trying to provide information, resources to create a fertile environment where organizing can happen.” The website doesn’t charge dues and while the term “organizing” is used extensively, “collective bargaining”—a staple of the labor movement—is nowhere to be found.
Dues-paying members sustained the labor movement for decades, and in return, the unions helped negotiate better pay and better hours. But that relationship has been deteriorating rapidly. For the last several decades, unions and the tools they offered seem far removed from the vast majority of workplace experiences. Around one-fourth of American workers are “contingent workers”—freelancers, independent contractors, part-timers, and temp workers—people with more tenuous relationships to their employers. Meanwhile conservatives have found ways to exploit weaknesses in the National Labor Relations Act, meaning the main legislative defense for unions is increasingly toothless. Labor conditions have gotten dramatically worse as unions have lost power—real wages have stagnated, wealth is increasingly concentrated—but no one seems to know how to connect the old-style of collective bargaining with the new economy. Some held out hope that the Obama administration—coupled with the worst economic crisis in decades—would help resuscitate things.
So when the Employee Free Choice Act failed in 2010, it seemed like a death knell for the American labor movement. The bill, which would have made it easier for workers to collectively bargain and increased the penalties on employers that fired people for trying to organize, was the number one piece in the labor agenda. Unions had poured resources into the 2008 elections, putting in hundreds of millions of dollars and mobilizing thousands of volunteers, and their efforts helped elect a Democratic president, and Democratic majorities in the Senate and House. But despite the concerted effort from labor leaders to push through this key piece of legislation, they simply didn’t have the power. It never got through the Senate.Faced with the very real threat of extinction, unions have largely put collective bargaining on the back burner, and instead must try to remind American workers of the basic concept of worker solidarity. “We start from the point of view that, because so few people are in unions these days, very few people have personal experience with collective power,” explains Karen Nussbaum, the executive director of Working America. The group is the AFL-CIO’s answer to the “labor problem.” Rather than organizing workers into unions, Working America, an AFL-CIO affiliate, focuses on engaging non-union workers on a number of policy issues, from unemployment insurance and banking reform to education funding and campaign finance. The group uses the same door-to-door, grassroots strategies that have long been the hallmarks of labor organizers. But rather than emphasize relations between workers and their employers, the group focuses largely on policy changes. Members don’t have to pay dues, instead, at meetings and on sites like FixMyJob, they just have to sign up.
The group’s been able to create significant policy changes; with millions of members nationwide, Working America has been able to help mobilize activists for some successful local campaigns. In Portland, Oregon, workers won a battle for paid sick days. In both Albuquerque and Bernallilo County, New Mexico, the group helped organize and win a campaign for increase to the minimum wage. Those are major changes for the people living in those areas. However, emphasis is necessarily on policy changes, rather than helping employees negotiate with their employers. . .
Continue reading. For an intriguing, entertaining, and informative look at the Labor movement in recent years, I highly recommend Thomas Geoghegan’s Which Side Are You On?. (Link is to inexpensive secondhand editions, some with free shipping.)
Kevin Drum asks an interesting question at Mother Jones:
Robots! That’s the topic of my latest piece in the current issue of the magazine. I’ve blogged on this subject a fair amount, but this is the first time I’ve tried to put everything together and explain what I really think robotics is likely to mean over the next few decades. Some of you are going to nod right along, some of you are going to think I’m crazy, and any economists in the audience are going to be rolling their eyes at my rather casual use of macroeconomic trend statistics to help make my point. But I’m pretty sure none of you will be bored.
So what is my point? First off, it’s the obvious one that I think computer hardware and software are progressing fast enough that we’re not very far away from true artificial intelligence. Along the way I break exciting new ground in describing Ray Kurzweil’s “back half of the chessboard” analogy, which illustrates how continuous growth can look insignificant for a long time and then suddenly explode. After immense amounts of research, I decided on Lake Michigan as the key to my explanation of the chessboard analogy, but you’ll have to click the link to see what this means. It even comes with a nifty little graphic that our art department created to illustrate how Lake Michigan is just like a digital computer.
Why spend so much time on all of this? Because whenever the subject of AI comes up, everyone wants examples but people like me can’t come up with any. That’s because AI doesn’t exist yet. So we haul out Watson and driverless cars and so forth, and it all seems like pretty weak tea. But Lake Michigan explains why it’s not. All these examples that seem pretty lame and not really very AI-like are exactly what you’d expect as mileposts along the road to AI. They aren’t demonstrations of how far away we are, but exactly the opposite. They’re demonstrations of how close we are. When this all finally happens, it’s going to happen fast.
That’s the first half of the piece. The second half is about what all this means. If AI is coming—and coming quickly—what does it mean for the economy? In the long run, it will be great, an era of both infinite leisure and material progress. But in the medium run I think the consequences will be fairly grim: more and more people will be put out of work, and no, there won’t be new jobs that open up for them along the way. This will very decidedly not be a replay of the Industrial Revolution. What’s worse, it will all happen so slowly that we’re going to spend a long time denying what’s unfolding before our eyes, and a whole lot of people are going to suffer because of it. . .
A movie with Andy Garcia, Forest Whitaker, Eva Longoria, and others, and it’s a “written-and-directed” by. I just watched it on Netflix streaming: A Dark Truth. Highly recommended and thought-provoking.
And, speaking of Netflix, read this interesting profile of Reed Hastings and Netflix by Ashlee Vance in Bloomberg Businessweek:
On a normal weeknight, Netflix accounts for almost a third of all Internet traffic entering North American homes. That’s more than YouTube, Hulu, Amazon.com, HBO Go, iTunes, and BitTorrent combined. Traffic to Netflix usually peaks at around 10 p.m. in each time zone, at which point a chart of Internet consumption looks like a python that swallowed a cow. By midnight Pacific time, streaming volume falls off dramatically.
As prime time wound down on Jan. 31, though, there was an unusual amount of tension at Netflix. That was the night the company premièred House of Cards, its political thriller set in Washington. Before midnight about 40 engineers gathered in a conference room at Netflix’s headquarters. They sat before a collection of wall-mounted monitors that displayed the status of Netflix’s computing systems. On the conference table, a few dozen laptops, tablets, smartphones, and other devices had the Netflix app loaded and ready to stream.
When the clocks hit 12 a.m., the entire season of House of Cards started appearing on the devices, as well as in the recommendation lists of millions of customers chosen by an algorithm. The opening scene, a dog getting run over by an SUV, came and went. At 12:15 a.m., around the time Kevin Spacey’s character says “I’m livid,” everything was working fine. “That’s when the champagne comes,” says Yury Izrailevsky, the vice president in charge of cloud computing at Netflix, which has a history of self-inflicted catastrophes. Izrailevsky stayed until the wee hours of the morning—just in case—as thousands of customers binge-watched the show. The midnight ritual repeated itself on April 19, when Netflix premièred its werewolf horror series Hemlock Grove, and will again on May 26, when its revival of Arrested Development goes live.Netflix has more than 36 million subscribers. They watch about 4 billion hours of programs every quarter on more than 1,000 different devices. To meet this demand, the company uses specialized video servers scattered around the world. When a subscriber clicks on a movie to stream, Netflix determines within a split second which server containing that movie is closest to the user, then picks from dozens of versions of the video file, depending on the device the viewer is using. At company headquarters in Los Gatos, Calif., teams of mathematicians and designers study what people watch and build algorithms and interfaces to present them with the collection of videos that will keep them watching.
Netflix is one of the world’s biggest users of cloud computing, which means running a data center on someone else’s equipment. The company rents server and storage systems by the hour, and it rents all this computing power from Amazon Web Services, the cloud division of Amazon.com, which runs its own video-streaming service that competes with Netflix.
It’s a mutually beneficial frenemy relationship. Over the years, Netflix has built an array of sophisticated tools to make its software perform well on Amazon’s cloud. Amazon has mimicked the advances and offered them to other business customers. President Barack Obama’s data-fueled reelection campaign, for example, was run almost entirely on Amazon with the help of code built by Netflix engineers. . .
Neil Irwin has a cute story, aptly titled “The mystery of Ben Bernanke and the Japanese ketchup is solved!”.
An interesting article by Tracy Weber, Charles Ornstein, and Jennifer LaFleur in the Washington Post, along with a ProPublica look-up so that you can see how your own physician stands in terms of prescribing drugs.. My former doctor prescribed more drugs than the average doctor, and my current doctor prescribes fewer. I had already noticed that my doctor likes to wean me off unnecessary meds, though he doesn’t hesitate to prescribe when needed. Look up your own doc.
The article begins:
Ten years ago, a sharply divided Congress decided to pour billions of dollars into subsidizing the purchase of drugs by elderly and disabled Americans. But an investigation by ProPublica has found the program, in its drive to get drugs into patients’ hands, has failed to properly monitor safety. An analysis of four years of Medicare prescription records shows that some doctors and other health professionals across the country prescribe large quantities of drugs that are potentially harmful, disorienting or addictive for their patients. Federal officials have done little to detect or deter these hazardous prescribing patterns.
Searches through hundreds of millions of records turned up physicians such as the Miami psychiatrist who has given hundreds of elderly dementia patients the same antipsychotic, despite the government’s most serious “black box” warning that it increases the risk of death. He believes he has no other options.
Some doctors are using drugs in unapproved ways that may be unsafe or ineffective, records showed. An Oklahoma psychiatrist regularly prescribes the Alzheimer’s drug Namenda for autism patients as young as 12; he says he thinks it calms them. Autism experts said there is scant scientific support for this practice.
The data analysis showed widespread prescribing of drugs such as carisoprodol, which was pulled from the European market in 2007. In 2010 alone, health-care professionals wrote more than 500,000 prescriptions for the drug to patients 65 and older. The muscle relaxant, also known as Soma, is on the American Geriatrics Society’s list of drugs seniors should avoid.
The data, obtained under the Freedom of Information Act, makes public for the first time the prescribing practices and identities of doctors and other health-care providers. . .
Continue reading. The lookup for the database, along with a variety of interesting info, is at the link.
Even anti-union workers enjoy the benefits that unions have won for all workers, such as the 8-hour day and the 40-hour week, a part of the FDR legacy. But all of that is under attack as corporations find they can now get government help in exploiting workers. Dave Johnson writes at TruthOut:
Republicans are trying to pass an “alternative” to overtime pay. This is really about taking away the eight-hour workday and 40-hour workweek. Will weekends be next? What about an “alternative” to paying workers at all?
House Republicans are pushing a bill that takes away extra pay for overtime, substituting “comp” time instead. The Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) of 1938 is the law that brought us the eight-hour workday and the 40-hour workweek. This law does not prohibit employers from requiring workers to work over 40 hours. Instead, it gives employers an incentive to instead pay extra or hire more people, and gives employees a premium if they do have to work longer. (Note that this is also the law that brought us a minimum wage and outlawed child labor.)
There is proof that overtime pay works: workers like domestic workers and agricultural workers – jobs not covered by the FLSA – are twice as likely to have to work more than 40 hours in a week. And even with this law, Americans already work more hours than in almost any other industrialized country.
The Bill – No Guarantees
The House will be voting on H.R. 1406, The Working Families Flexibility Act, which lets employers offer “comp time” instead of overtime pay. The problem is that employers will pressure workers to take comp time instead of overtime, which reduces paychecks and gets rid of the incentive to hire more people. Later, the employees will be pressured to not take that comp time, or will have to be “on call,” etcetera.
It is important to note that the law does not guarantee workers the right to actually use the comp time they get instead of extra pay. Employers can put it off forever. You can’t use this time when you want to, only when the employer decides it is okay.
This really is a flat-out pay take-away, can’t use it another day.
Eileen Appelbaum of the Center for Economic and Policy Research drives this point home in her article “Working Families Flexibility Act: Not Good for Working Parents and Bad for the Economy,” on The Huffington Post: . . .
Who Is Profiting From Charters? The Big Bucks Behind Charter School Secrecy, Financial Scandal and Corruption
Kristin Rawls reports at AlterNet:
This article is part of a two-part series that looks at mass school closings targeting America’s inner cities and the promise of charter schools as a magic solution to alleged “failing schools.” Part I explained how the charter school movement cynically appropriates civil rights rhetoric, but often leaves the most vulnerable students worse off than before. In Part II, AlterNet looks at a more likely motivation for the “reforms”: Profit.
Studies shows that charter schools don’t typically outperform public schools and they often tend to increase racial and class segregation. So one must wonder, what exactly is motivating these school “reformers”? And why have they pushed for more and more closure — and new charter schools — at such an unprecedented rate in recent years?
Pro-charter supporters will tell you that it’s time for public institutions like our schools to start competing more like for-profit institutions. Test scores and high enrollment, then, define success. Unsuccessful schools, they say, should close just as unsuccessful businesses do. For neoliberal school reformers from today’s Arne Duncan-led Department of Education to scandal-ridden movement leader Michelle Rhee to billionaire Bill Gates, it is taken on faith that market principles are desirable in education.
But since it’s not clear that market principles are benefiting students on a large scale, it seems likely that something else is at stake. And reformers may be more than a little disingenuous in publicly ignoring that other, less high-minded thing: Profit. Critics of charter schools and school closings point out that proponents may not really be motivated by idealism, but by self-gain.
But who precisely is profiting? And how? Untangling answers to these questions is a more daunting task. Compared to public schools, charters schools are an extremely unregulated business. They contract with private companies to provide all kinds of services, from curriculum development to landscaping. Most of the regulations that bind charter schools are implemented at the state level. And unlike public institutions, the finances of charter schools are managed on a school-by-school basis. Because they are not consistently held accountable to the public for how they distribute funds, charter schools are often able to keep their business practices under wraps, and thus avoid too much scrutiny.
For an article of this scope, it’s impossible to describe the profit issue in anything approaching thorough and accurate generalization. Instead, we will look at a couple of decades-old federal incentives for charter investment that may have helped pave the way for the explosion of charter schools today, and provide some examples and snapshots of what is happening on the ground in those major cities where the charter school movement is most influential.
Hedge Fund Managers and Real Estate Developers
As AlterNet has previously reported, two little-understood policies helped pave the way for the kind of charter growth we are seeing today. One, called the New Markets Tax Credit (NMTC), began in 2000 at the end of President Bill Clinton’s administration. According to the Treasury Department, the credit combines: . . .
So far, a success story: Chicago Workers Open New Cooperatively Owned Factory Five Years After Republic Windows Occupation
Very interesting interview at DemocracyNow! — video at the link, along with transcript:
Workers at the New Era Windows Cooperative are celebrating the grand opening of their new unionized, worker-owned and -operated business. Almost a year to the day after their window factory closed, a group of former workers have launched their own window business without bosses. They successfully raised money to buy the factory collectively and run it democratically. In 2008, some of the workers were involved in a famous six-day sit-in after Republic Windows and Doors gave workers just three days’ notice before closing the factory. The sit-in drew national attention and union workers reached a settlement where they each received $6,000 each. About 65 workers occupied the factory after their jobs came under threat again in 2012. We speak to two worker-owners of the just-opened New Era Windows Cooperative and a labor organizer who helped with their fight.
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: In labor news, we go now to Chicago. Workers at the New Era Windows Cooperative are celebrating the grand opening of their unionized, 100 percent worker-owned and -operated business. Almost a year to the day after their window factory closed, a group of former workers have launched their own window business without bosses. They successfully raised money to buy the factory collectively and run it democratically.
AMY GOODMAN: In 2008, some of the workers were involved in a famous six-day sit-in after Republic Windows and Doors gave workers just three days’ notice before closing the factory. The sit-in drew national attention. Union workers reached a settlement where they each received $6,000. The Goose Island plant, run by Serious Energy, faced a second occupation in 2012. About 65 workers occupied the factory in an attempt to save their jobs again. This is an excerpt of a documentary produced by the workers’ union, United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America.
ROCIO PEREZ: [translated] They gave us like an hour, more or less. They came and said, “OK, you have your papers. Now go.” That is when we said, “No, we’re not leaving. This is where we’re staying.”
RON BENDER: So we decided—we just said, “Hey, we’re going to stay here until, you know, you all give us some better answers than this.”
FACTORY WORKERS: ¡Sí, se puede! ¡Sí, se puede!
CBS NEWS: This is a group ready for a fight.
MARK MEINSTER: We put it to a vote, and workers decided that they will be staying in the plant for the remainder of the weekend.
CBS NEWS: More than 200 of Republic Windows and Doors’ 300 union workers are staging a sit-in of sorts until they get what is legally owed to them. The union says company officials told employees they were closing shop because Bank of America would no longer extend Republic a line of credit. Bank of America wouldn’t confirm that, due to confidentiality concerns. Workers say the fact that Bank of America received $25 billion in the federal bailout makes this even more unacceptable.
ARMANDO ROBLES: I’m going to stay until the end. If they tell me I have to leave, well, they have to arrest me.
REPORTER: You’re prepared to be arrested? . . .
Interesting report by Andrea Peterson at ThinkProgress:
Rep. Hank Johnson (D-GA) is having a busy week fighting for stronger consumer protections. First he introduced legislation that would stop companies from using private arbitration to escape facing judgment in courts, and yesterday he introduced H.R. 1913, the Application Privacy, Protection and Security (Apps) Act of 2013, a bill that could fix the gap between the privacy consumers expect from apps on their mobile devices and the experience they actually receive. Rep. Johnson explained the bill during a speech to the State of the Mobile Net conference:
The APPS Act would require that app developers give effective notice about data collection and obtain consent from consumers before collecting personal data.Trust in the mobile marketplace is crucial to its continued growth. Transparency is the cornerstone of this trust.
The APPS act would also require that developers securely maintain personal data. And it would give consumers a clear way to permanently delete their personal data once they stop using an app.
Smartphones are a regular feature of modern life, with 114 million Americans using them as of July 2012, but developers for mobile apps have struggled to keep pace with consumer privacy expectations. A February Federal Trade Commission (FTC) report showed that 57 percent of all app users “have either uninstalled an app over concerns about having to share their personal information, or declined to install an app in the first place for similar reasons” and less than one in three “feel they are in control of their personal information on their mobile devices.”
And there is an awful lot of personal information on mobile devices that many apps can access — including contact lists, browsing habits, and geographic location. One 2012 study discovered 19 percent of Apple iOS 5 apps accessed address books without user knowledge or consent and 41 percent tracked location. It also found more than 40 percent of them didn’t encrypt user data once it was collected, potentially leaving it vulnerable to hackers.
A number of consumer advocates have . . .
Our government is being revised to make corporate control easier: the problem with trying to control local communities, each with their own local government and local concerns and issues is that there are too many of those. OTOH, there are only 50 states, so if local government can be undercut so that the state government controls the state, then corporations have a much smaller group to control in order to control the entire state—and you certainly see plenty of lobbyists and plenty of “donations” going on at statehouses around the country.
David Morris reports at On the Commons:
In his 1996 State of the Union Address Democratic President Bill Clinton famously declared, “the era of big government is over.” And during his tenure he did everything he could to make that true—deregulating the telecommunications and the financial industries; enacting a free trade agreement severely restricting the authority of the federal government to protect domestic jobs and businesses; and abandoning the 75-year old federal commitment to the poor.
Seventeen years later I fully expect a Republican Governor or two to declare in their state of the state address, “the era of small government is over”. Because again and again, Republican governors and legislatures are preempting and abolishing the authority of communities to protect the health and welfare of their communities.
*Earlier this year Wisconsin passed a law eliminating the authority of cities villages and counties to require public employees to live inside city limits, which also voids any existing requirements.
*A few weeks ago Kansas passed a law prohibiting cities, counties, and local government units from requiring private firms contracting with these governments to provide higher compensation than the state minimum wages or require other benefits and leave policies.
*The Florida House recently voted to preempt local governments from enacting “living wage” laws and “sick time” ordinances. If signed into law, the bill also overrules counties like Miami-Dade and Broward that have “living wage” ordinances that require companies that contract with the county to pay wages higher than the federal minimum wage, and sometimes provide certain benefits.
According to the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, 19 states severely restrict or outright abolish the right of local governments to build their telecommunications networks. Cities began building their own networks after years of begging private phone and cable companies to upgrade their inadequate infrastructure, moderate their continual price increases and improve their customer service. When cities proved to be serious and successful competitors, telecommunications firm, rather than responding to the competition, went to state legislatures to abolish it. Last year North Carolina became the latest state to join the ranks of those who refuse to allow communities to make their own decisions about their own affairs.
Freedom for Unrestricted Fracking
Several years ago the federal government abdicated responsibility for regulating fracking. The Safe Drinking Water Act mandates federal regulation of underground injection activities in order to protect groundwater sources. But in 2005 Congress amended the definition of “underground injection” to specifically exclude “the underground injection of fluids or propping agents (other than diesel fuels) pursuant to hydraulic fracturing operations related to oil, gas, or geothermal production activities.”
In November 2010 Pittsburgh became the first city in the nation to ban fracking within city limits.
In February 2012 the Pennsylvania legislature responded by passing Act 13, a law that allows fracking in all parts of the city, including residential neighborhoods, which in essence abrogates the right of cities to exercise traditional zoning powers to protect residential neighborhoods from noise and odors and industrial dangers.
In mid-2012 Longmont, a suburb of Denver strengthened its oil and gas regulations. The Colorado Attorney General filed a complaint in court. In response activists successfully got the question put on the ballot. In November 2012 Longmont voters approved the measure with almost 60 percent of the vote. The Attorney General sued. And Democratic Governor John Hickenlooper announced the state would sue any and every city or county that followed the lead of Longmont.
In each of these cases one could argue about the legislation these communities want to enact. In hundreds of communities over the past decade such arguments have taken place, vigorous debates about the appropriateness of residency requirements, or living wage ordinances or fracking restrictions. Communities have gone both ways on these issues. But I would argue that they should have the right to make the decision for themselves. For it is at the local level where those who feel the impact of the decision have the biggest opportunity to be involved with making the decision. Certainly when it is a question of how to . . .
On Thursday, Wrigley announced that it would be pulling its controversial new “Alert Energy” gum — each stick of which contains as much caffeine as half a cup of coffee — from the market out of “respect” for the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) as the agencyinvestigates the public health risks associated with pumping caffeine into everyday foods and drink. With energy products and other potentially harmful foods high in sugar, salt, and fat increasingly under public scrutiny, it’s worth asking: why can’t the FDA do more to crack down on these additives? And why does it take so long to get food makers to comply with regulations when they do?
Answering that requires a brief foray into the history of the American food safety regimen. 1958 was a seminal year for food oversight, seeing the passage of the Food Additives Amendment to the Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act, and the creation of the Generally Recognized As Safe (GRAS) List. Under the Food Additives Amendment, “any substance intentionally added to food is a food additive and is subject to pre-market approval by FDA unless the use of the substance is generally recognized as safe (GRAS).” So if a substance is on the GRAS exemption list, then food makers can use it to their heart’s content without proving its safety, unless specifically prevented from doing so by an FDA regulation.
The GRAS list contains over 700 items, many which have been there since 1958 — and taking an item off the GRAS list once it’s on is difficult. GRAS items are specifically defined as substances that are “generally recognized, among qualified experts, as having been adequately shown to be safe under the conditions of [their] intended use.” Consequently, revoking a substance’s GRAS designation requires considerable expert consensus that an item is not safe for its intended use.
One might ask how salts, sugars, trans fats, and caffeine don’t fit that bill considering widespread evidence that those substances increase the risk of heart disease, stroke, obesity, hypertension, and diabetes, thereby harming public wellness and increasing U.S. health care costs. In fact, government watchdogs and medical groups such as the Government Accountability Office (GAO) and the American Medical Association (AMA) have issued several calls for the FDA to crack down on those very ingredients.
But an outright ban on any of those substances (other than trans fats) is impossible — and undesirable — since the majority of food items require them in at least some amount. Rather, it’s excess consumption that makes the substances potentially dangerous. That’s where the FDA can step in by issuing regulatory rules that either set targets or impose reductions in harmful food content. But that’s also where they meet their greatest obstacle: the powerful food lobby.
“It’s corporate power,” said Dr. Michael Jacobson, executive director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), in an interview with ThinkProgress. “For something like salt, or partially hydrogenated oil (trans fat), or sugar, there’s huge industries behind those substances. First there’s the manufacturers themselves, and then there’s the food companies that use their products. All those companies would be discomfited by an FDA ban or regulation, so they can then go to Congress and say, ‘Look at what the FDA is trying to do! It’s killing our business.’” Congress can then put pressure on the FDA by “cutting [its] appropriations or putting a rider in an FDA bill preventing it from imposing certain regulations,” according to Dr. Jacobson.
That sort of arm-twisting tends to work — even when an FDA action is simply advisory and lacks enforcement power. For instance, Dr. Jacobson explained to ThinkProgress that in the 1990s, “[t]he government came up with draft voluntary guidelines for foods marketed to young children. And the Grocery Manufacturers Association said its highest priority was to kill the voluntary guidelines –- and this wasn’t even a regulation, just guidelines!” Congress ended up siding with the grocery manufacturers over the children. “The public health becomes a side issue,” said Dr. Jacobson.
And even when the FDA succeeds in taking regulatory action, it can get held up for years — and even decades — by lawsuits and lobbying campaigns launched by Big Food companies, as well as . . .
I found it interesting that corporations fight even voluntary guidelines: they want no restrictions whatsoever, but to do as they please. And it’s pretty clear that public health and public safety count for nothing with corporations and Congress (in general).
Of course, the FDA is ineffectual for other reasons—such as falling under control of the industries it is supposed to regulate. Aviva Shen reports at ThinkProgress:
In a fiery decision on Friday, U.S. District Judge Edward Korman denied the Obama administration’s motion to delay an order to immediately allow over-the-counter access to emergency contraception to women of all ages. After Korman initially ordered in April that the so-called “morning-after pill” be available to all women and girls without a prescription, the FDA instead decided to lower the age limit to teens 15 and up rather than 17. However, those 15- and 16-year-olds will only have over-the-counter access to one brand of emergency contraception pill, Teva Pharmaceutical’s Plan B One-Step, thanks to what Korman called a “sweetheart arrangement” between the FDA and Teva.
Blasting the Obama administration’s argument as “an insult to the intelligence of women,” Korman attacked the FDA’s decision to lower the age restriction for Plan B rather than comply with his order to allow all women access to any brand of emergency contraception. The judge accused the administration of delaying his ruling so as to give Teva Pharmaceutical sole access to the market of 15- to 17-year olds without a prescription. Generic versions of Plan B, meanwhile, will stay behind the pharmacy counter for this age group.
Korman also noted that Teva will drive up the price of the pill now that it has a monopoly on young women in need:
While this proposal was a boon to Teva, it did little to eliminate the practical obstructions in obtaining emergency contraception to women of child-bearing age whether over or under age 15. On the contrary, Teva will use its privileged marketing status and exclusivity to increase the cost of the drug. The price of Plan B One-Step under the new marketing regime is expected to be $60, significantly more than the one- or two-pill generic version, and could conceivably go higher, if only to accommodate the more expensive packing, age-verification tags, and anti-theft technology that the new marketing arrangement would require.
As Teva profits from the Obama administration’s arbitrary age restriction, the burden on women seeking emergency contraception will only grow larger. Younger teens and undocumented women unable to prove their age with government-issued ID will still not have access, and may not be able to afford the new cost. As Korman points out, the Teva-FDA deal still requires Plan B to be sold over the counter at stores with on-site pharmacies, even though many women do not live near such facilities. The decision also cites a survey of 943 pharmacies in 5 cities, which found that only 4.7 percent stayed open 24 hours. Given the time-sensitive and often urgent need for emergency contraception, limiting the hours and locations where women can buy the drug could have serious consequences.
Moreover, there is no medical reason to limit access to the morning-after pill. Despite the Obama administration’s concern that it could be “dangerous” to young teens, an enormous body of research has demonstrated emergency contraception is safer than aspirin for women of all ages.
Obama: the continuing disappointment.
Many moons ago, when I was in college, my friend Ray offered to drive a professor’s locked trunk across the country to New York.
Ray was going there anyway, so what the heck.
Somewhere in Nebraska, a Highway Patrolman stopped him for speeding.
The trooper asked Ray if he had any drugs. This was in the early 1970s.
“No, Sir,” Ray told him.
“May I search your car?” the trooper asked.
Sure, Ray said. And the cop found a big chunk of hashish rolled up in Ray’s underwear.
“You lied to me,” the trooper said. “Where’s the pipe?”
“There is no pipe,” Ray said.
The cop searched again and found the pipe.
“You lied to me again,” the cop said. “What’s in the trunk?”
Ray said he didn’t know what was in the trunk, that he was driving it to New York for a professor.
The cop said: “You’ve lied to me twice. Why should I trust you again?”
And Ray told him: “Because this time, I give you my word.”
That sums up all there is to say about the 113th Congress. And the 112th. And the 111th.
Remember how Congress was going to straighten out the banks, so they couldn’t throw the country into Reverse overnight, ever again?
An interesting piece in the latest London Review of Books is subtitled “How the Big Banks Got Away With it.” University of Edinburgh professor Donald MacKenzie deals mostly with European banks, but the diagnosis and the illness is the same as we’re suffering here.
It’s that bankers continue to reward themselves for the same behavior that crashed the world economy more than five years ago. In fact, they get incentives to repeat it.
Take “return on equity.” Suppose . . .