Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Hillary Clinton and the Tangled Web That is Washington

If people think that a Hillary Clinton Washington is going to be anything different than the "business as usual" style of governance, some recent developments suggest otherwise.

The Democratic National Convention recently announced the membership for its 15-person Platform Drafting Committee which is responsible for "developing and managing the process through .  Under its new rules and, in an "...effort to make this the most representative and inclusive process in history...", the DNC Chairperson, Debbie Wasserman-Schultz, elected to allocate three-quarters of the committee's seats to the presidential campaigns of Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders with each campaign being allowed to pick committee members based on its proportion of the current vote tally.  As such, the Clinton campaign was allowed to pick six members, the Sanders campaign was allowed to pick five members and the DNC Chairperson was allowed to pick four members.

Here is the final list of members:

Rep. Elijah Cummings (Chair), Hon. Howard Berman, Paul Booth, Hon. Carol Browner, Rep. Keith Ellison, Rep. Luis Gutiérrez, Rep. Barbara Lee, Bill McKibben, Deborah Parker, State Rep. Alicia Reece, Bonnie Schaefer, Ambassador Wendy Sherman, Neera Tanden, Dr. Cornel West, and James Zogby.  

Here's what Ms. Wasserman-Schultz had to say about the final membership:

"We are delighted to bring together this talented group of Democrats. These individuals represent some of the best progressive thinking from across the nation. I am confident that the members of this committee will engage Americans in a substantive dialogue of ideas and solutions that will inform our Party Platform." (my bold)

Let's look in detail at two of the members selected by Hillary Clinton, names that you are most likely are not terribly familiar with, Wendy Sherman and Carol Browner.  Wendy Sherman served as Assistant Secretary for Legislative Affairs under Secretary of State Warren Christopher between 1993 and 1996 during the Clinton Administration.  She also served as the Counsellor for the State Department, again during the Clinton Administration, between 1997 and 2001 and was the Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs at the U.S. State Department.  She was also a leader of the U.S. negotiating team that recently successfully reached an agreement with Iran over its nuclear program for which she was awarded the National Security Medal by President Obama.  Here is a screen capture of her bio page at her current employer, Albright Stonebridge Group that you will learn more about later:

Carol Browner was appointed by President Bill Clinton in 1993 as the Administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, a position that she held until 2001.  She was most recently serving as Assistant to Barack Obama and Director of the White House Office of Energy and Climate Change.  In the distant past, she also served as Legislative Director for Senator Al Gore and was also the Secretary of Florida's Department of Environmental Regulation between 1991 and 1993.  Here is a screen capture of her bio page at Albright Stonebridge Group:

As we can see, both of these women have close ties to the Clinton I Administration.  Now, let's look at what these two women have in common today.  As you may have noticed in the two previous paragraphs, both women are on the staff of the Albright Stonebridge Group, a "government affairs" firm that was created through the 2009 merger of the Albright Group, a  consulting company that was headed by Madeleine Albright, former Secretary of State under Bill Clinton and the first female Secretary of State, and Stonebridge International, a defense contracting industry lobbying firm.  Albright Stonebridge now touts itself as having, among others, the following abilities:

"We go beyond offering advice in government and regulatory affairs, to provide on-the-ground insights and nuanced understanding of each country’s unique political context and the underlying factors that drive policy.  We equip clients with the knowledge to make the best informed judgments, and work in close collaboration to develop and implement effective strategies and tactics.

Because ASG speaks the language of government, and understands the underlying factors that can shape the decision making process, we can help craft the approach and messages most likely to achieve success.

In cases of unfair or improper government proceedings we can help determine the best course of action, pursue the most effective means of redress, and when appropriate create greater public transparency..."

Going back to Ms. Wasserman-Schultz's comment that "the members of this committee will engage Americans in a substantive dialogue of ideas and solutions" I think that we have a very good idea of which Americans will be engaged in the process of forming the Democratic Party platform; a select few that are the Democrat Party insiders will do most of the thinking for American voters and the remainder of voters and the general public (i.e. the unwashed masses) will be pretty much ignored.

...and, just in case you've forgotten Madeleine Albright's rather desperate attempt to get votes for Hillary Clinton, here's what she had to say during a February 2016 Clinton campaign stop in new Hampshire about the need for all American women to support Hillary Clinton's run for president:

Hillary will always be there for women, indeed.

Monday, May 30, 2016

The American Anti-Islamic Movement in the 2016 Election Cycle

A report by the Georgetown University Research Project looks at the trends and patterns of anti-Islamism that have become apparent during the 2016 presidential election cycle.  The authors of the study looked at two time periods; January through December 2015 (i.e. calendar 2015) and March 2015 (the month that Ted Cruz formally announced his candidacy for president which started the 2016 election cycle) through March 2016, the core of the current election cycle thus far.  They looked at the following types of Islamophobia as reported by both local and national news media, keeping in mind that many incidents are obviously not reported to law enforcement:

1.) murders and physical attacks against Muslims or those who were perceived to be Muslims.

2.) verbal or written assaults, harassment or threats either in-person, in writing, by telephone or through social media.

3.) vandalism or destruction of property that has a perceived affiliation with Islam.

4.) arson against property that has a perceived affiliation with Islam.

5.) shootings and bombings targeting Muslims or their homes and institutions that do not result in death.

6.) demonstrations that took place outside of mosques where there was a threat of violence.

7.) verbal and written incitement to violence against Islam in general.

The study also looked at Islamophobic political rhetoric including the following types of statements:

1.) generalizations that make a simplified statement about Muslims or Islam based on the actions of a few.

2.) misattributions that suggest that actions carried out by Muslims are due to a link to their faith.

3.) reductionism where Muslim diversity is reduced to a single issue like Sharia or jihad.

4.) blatant prejudice.

Here is a summary of their findings starting with calendar 2015, followed by the period between March 2015 and March 2016.

1.) Calendar 2015: Over the course of calendar 2015, there were approximately 174 incidents of anti-Muslim violence and vandalism, up from 154 in 2014.  These incidents included 12 murders, 29 physical assaults, 50 threats against Islamic persons or institutions, 54 acts of vandalism or destruction of property, 8 arsons and 9 shooting or bombings.  In 2015, American Muslims were 6 to 9 times more likely to suffer these types of attacks than they were before 9/11.  Muslim men were twice as likely to be victims of physical assaults and 5 to 6 times more likely to be victims of murder than American Muslim women.

2.) March 2015 to March 2016: Over this 12 month period since the first candidate formally announced his bid for presidency there have been approximately 180 incidents of anti-Muslim violence.  These incidents included 12 murders, 34 physical assaults, 49 verbal assaults or threats against Islamic persons or institutions, 56 acts or vandalism or destruction of property, 9 arsons and 9 shootings and bombings.  Muslim men were twice as likely to be victims of physical assaults and 11 times more likely to be victims of murder than American Muslim women.

In both time periods, Muslim murder victims were most likely between the ages of 18 and 24.

During the period from March 2015 to March 2016, the first surge of anti-Muslim political rhetoric began in September 2015, coincident with the deepening of the Syrian refugee crisis.  During September 2015 alone, there were 10 incidents or threats of violence which included 3 murders.  Following the San Bernardino attacks in December 2015, there was another surge of anti-Islamic violence with 53 total attacks during that month or nearly one-third of the total for the entire 12 month period including 17 which targeted mosques and Islamic schools compared to only 2 such attacks during February 2015, prior to the official start of the presidential election cycle.    

Let's wrap up this posting with a look at a few key comments made by various presidential candidates during the period from March 2015 to March 2016:

1.) Ted Cruz:

On December 10, 2015 while speaking at the Heritage Foundation, Ted Cruz criticized U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch’s remarks about the need to crack down on anti-Muslim discrimination. Despite the fact that anti-Muslim attacks jumped in November and December 2015, Cruz dismissed Lynch’s assessment and implied that acknowledging the reality of Islamophobia is dangerous.

Again, on December 10, 2015 during an interview with the Daily Signal, Republican presidential hopeful Ted Cruz states, “I don't think we should be indiscriminately closing mosques, but I also don't think we should be blind to the fact that there have been mosques that have been a nexus for promoting jihad, and we need to use all of the tools of national security and law enforcement to stop any jihadist from murdering Americans.” 

2.) Marco Rubio:

On October 5, 2015 during a campaign event in Kalamazoo, Michigan, Republican Presidential hopeful Marco Rubio stated, “What President Obama is proposing to do, bring tens of thousands of Syrian Muslims to America, is nothing short of crazy... It would be the height of foolishness to bring in tens of thousands of people, including jihadists who are coming here to murder innocent Americans ...With respect to the refugees, it is a humanitarian crisis, but they ought to be settled in the Middle East, in majority Muslim countries.

On February 3, 2016 during a campaign event in New Hampshire, Republican presidential candidate Marco Rubio criticized President Obama’s mosque visit stating, “... he gave a speech at a mosque. Oh, you know, basically implying that America is discriminating against Muslims. Of course there’s discrimination in America, of every kind. But the bigger issue is: radical Islam. And by the way, radical Islam poses a threat to Muslims themselves.” 

Oddly enough, Americans were not all that happy with Communism and Communists in the 1950s and 1960s, the timeframe when Marco Rubio's maternal grandfather was ordered deported as an undocumented Cuban migrant. 

3.) Ben Carson:

On October 9, 2015 in Washington, D.C., Republican Presidential Candidate Ben Carson questions loyalties of American Muslims during a discussion on constitutional liberties at the National Press Club. 

On December 13, 2015 during an appearance on ABC’s This Week, Republican Presidential Candidate Ben Carson called for scrutiny of all Muslims entering and living in the U.S. He cited an alleged Muslim strategy to destroy Western civilization from within. 

4.) Donald Trump:

On October 22, 2015 during an appearance on Fox Business Network, Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump responded to a question about whether he would close mosques as part of his counter-terrorism strategy by stating, “I would do that, absolutely.” 

On November 16, 2015 in an MSNBC interview, Republican Presidential candidate Donald Trump stated that he would “strongly consider” closing mosques as part of his counter- terrorism strategy. He stated, “Well, I would hate to do it but it's something you're going to have to strongly consider. Some of the absolute hatred is coming from these areas ...The hatred is incredible. It's embedded. The hatred is beyond belief. The hatred is greater than anybody understands.

5.) Mike Huckabee:

On November 17, 2015 in an interview with MSNBC, former Governor and Republican Presidential candidate Mike Huckabee stated that he could not think of any group other than Muslims who harm innocent civilians. He explained, therefore, that discriminatory anti-Muslim policies were justified. 

6.) Jeb Bush:

On January 28, 2016 during the GOP debate, Republican presidential candidate Jeb Bush responds to a question from Muslim fashion vlogger, Nabeela Noor, about the rising climate of hatred and violence confronting American Muslims. Bush responded, “Nabela’s a rising entrepreneur. She wants to pursue the American dream. She’s an American citizen. She should not feel uncomfortable about her citizenship. She’s not the threat. The threat is Islamic terrorism. We need to focus our energies there, not these broad-blanket kind of statements that will make it harder for us to deal with it.”

While the report from Georgetown University has obviously not captured the myriad of unreported cases of anti-Islamic behaviour, it is interesting to see how the political leadership of the United States is playing right into the hands of the anti-Muslim movement.  It is also interesting to note that the current Islamophobia in America it is playing right into the hands of those who are attempting to form an Islamic Caliphate as shown in this excerpt from ISIS' online magazine, Dabiq:

""The Muslims in the West will quickly find themselves between one of two choices, they either apostasize and adopt the kufrī religion (i.e. non-Islamic religions including Christianity and Judaism) propagated by Bush, Obama, Blair, Cameron, Sarkozy, and Hollande in the name of Islam so as to live amongst the kuffār (a derogatory term referring to non-Muslims i.e kafir) without hardship, or they perform hijrah to the Islamic State and thereby escape persecution from the crusader governments and citizens....Muslims in the crusader countries will find themselves driven to abandon their homes for a place to live in the Khilāfah, as the crusaders increase persecution against Muslims living in Western lands so as to force them into a tolerable sect of apostasy in the name of “Islam” before forcing them into blatant Christianity and democracy.    (my explanation in non-italics and my bold)

By listening to those who lead us who are lumping all Muslims into the terrorist mold, we may well be forcing millions of American Muslims to choose between their faith and their nation.  That is the Islamic State's dream come true.

Friday, May 27, 2016

Retirement Insecurity in America - The Defined Contribution Debacle

Updated April 2017

A report by the Government Accountability Office looks at the challenges facing both present and future retirees in the U.S., particularly the state of retirement savings in the form of defined contribution pension plans.

As we know, there are two main types of pension plans:

1.) defined contribution (DC) plans: a pension plan where an employer, employee or both make contributions on a regular basis.  These plans are designed to help individual employees accumulate a sufficient level of retirement savings during their careers, often through deductions from an employees salary and contributions by an employer; these funds are deposited into an account in the individual's name.  DC participants shoulder the responsibility for any gains or losses in plan values since they decide how the accumulated funds are invested.  Under DC plans, taxes on both contributions and investment earnings are deferred until the benefits are received during retirement.  At retirement, the employee may take the assets of the plan as an annuity or as a lump sum.  

2.) defined benefit (DB) plans: a pension plan where an employer and employee contribute a percentage of an employees salary.  Rather than depositing the funds into an individual account, the funds are pooled and deposited into a pension fund that is used to pay its members a lifetime pension.  DB participants shoulder no responsibility for any gains or losses in plan values since the funds are managed by professionals.  Ultimately, it is the company that is responsible for any shortfall in pension funding.

In the United States, there are now five times more active participants in DC plans than there are in DB plans.  In 2013, DC plans comprised 94 percent of all employer-sponsored plans and active DC participants outnumbered those in DB plans 76.7 million to 15.2 million.  This means that there is no guaranteed post-retirement income for a very significant number of future American retirees and, given the low savings rate in many of those that actually do have investments in DB plans, it's looking like a very sad future for millions of older Americans.

The GAO report focusses on defined contribution plans and looks at how the participation in these plans varies by ethnicity and income group and the challenges that are posed by low participation rates.  Here is a summary of their findings.

The GAO estimates that, in 2013, 40 percent of all American households had some form of defined contribution (DC) pension plan leaving 60 percent with no savings in a DC plan from either a current or former job.  Since 2007, the number of Americans with no DC plan has increased by 3 percentage points since 2007.  Interestingly, an estimated 34 percent of working households (households with at least one person working but not self-employed whose head is between 25 and 64 years of age) have neither a DC or DB plan from a current or former job and, of households aged 55 and older, 29 percent had neither type of pension plan which means that Social Security along with any potential savings outside of a pension plan are their most significant source of retirement income.

Household income levels have a significant impact on DC participation and savings.  Among working prime-age (25 to 64 years of age) households, only 22 percent of low-income households (income less than $39,200) have any DC savings compared to 76 percent of high-income households (income greater than $109,200) as shown on this graphic:

The authors also note that the participation in DC plans changed markedly from 2010 to 2013 (the post-Great Recession period) for low income working households, dropping from 31 percent in 2010 to 25 percent in 2013 while the participation rate for all other household income levels remained constant as shown on this graphic:

Household income levels also have a significant impact on the percentage of households that participate in DC plans when those plans are available to them as shown on this graphic:

Again, notice that the participation rate for the lowest income households dropped by 13 percentage points between 2010 and 2013 while the participation rate for all other income groups remained more-or-less constant.  In part, the GAO notes that this is due to the fact that low income households do not have the disposable income that would allow them to participate in DC plans.  As well, some studies suggest that low income households have lower levels of financial literacy and that they aren't as aware of the tax benefits of such plans.  Additionally, the progressive structure of the U.S. tax code means that it is more advantageous for high-income earners to contribute to DC plans that their lower-income peers.

There is also a significant racial and ethnic component to both participation in and access to DC plans as shown on these graphics:

You will also notice that over the period between 2007 and 2013, the participation rate and accessibility to DC plans for White households actually grew slightly whereas both the participation rate and accessibility fell for both Black and Hispanic households.  In the case of Hispanic households, the access to DC plans fell by a very substantial 12 percentage points between 2007 and 2013.

Now, let's look at the impact of household earnings on the size of retirement income that participants receive from their DC plans.  The GAO baseline projections show that an average household would save enough in their DC plan over their careers to generate monthly lifetime income of $2970 (2015 dollars).  This table shows how that monthly income varies with household income level:

Households in the low-earnings quartile would only accumulate DC plan savings that would generate $560 per month in retirement income compared to $6380 for those in the high-earnings quartile.  In addition, 35 percent of households in the lowest-earning quartile would have no DC savings whatsoever compared to only 8 percent of those in the high-earnings quartile.

While the GAO report doesn't address this issue, there is one thing that has had a substantial potential impact on the future value of DC plans for all participants of all ethnic and income groups as shown on this graphic:

Thanks to the Federal Reserve's massive and lengthy monetary experiment, any American who wishes to save for their retirement and invest in low-risk fixed income investments has seen the return on those investments plunge to nearly zero.

The GAO's report clearly shows that a significant proportion of American households will experience a very insecure retirement.  This means that millions of Americans will have no choice but to supplement their meagre retirement savings and Social Security payments with part-time employment.  The change from a defined benefit to a defined contribution pension world has benefitted one group - Corporate America.  With so many American households lacking any form of retirement security, as I've said before, it's increasingly looking like a cat food future.