Tag Archives: economics

Fed Chair Yellen cites income gap among long-term risks

The U.S. economy is on solid ground now but it faces long-term risks posed by slow productivity growth and the widening income gap, Federal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen says.

Speaking recently to a gathering of teachers, Yellen said that she sees no major short-term risks facing the economy.

However, sputtering productivity growth and growing income inequality are serious long-term concerns.

The Fed chair said both challenges are outside the scope of the Federal Reserve to handle with its interest-rate tools, so it is important for other policymakers to address them.

She cited a recent study that included a “very shocking finding” — death rates in the 45-to-54 age group are actually rising.

Yellen said there appeared to be a link between this increase and higher rates of suicide and health issues related to substance abuse.

“The thought is that this is a reflection of greater economic insecurity,” Yellen said. “Obviously these are very disturbing trends.”

To promote the study of economics, Yellen held a national town hall meeting with teachers gathered at the Fed’s headquarters in Washington and in groups listening in at Fed regional banks around the country.

In prepared remarks, she said the study of economics can help students manage their personal finances and also provide them with the skills for analytical and critical thinking needed for success later in life.

“Economics provides knowledge and skills of practical use in college and in the workplace and it also provides skills to plan and make wise financial decisions,” Yellen said.

Asked in the question period how an introductory course on money and finance should be designed, she said she would make a number of changes to how she taught such a course many years ago, incorporating the lessons learned in dealing with the 2008 financial crisis, the worst since the 1930s.

She defended the bolstering of the safety and soundness of the financial system brought on by the Dodd-Frank Act that Congress passed in 2010 to prevent a future crisis. Republicans in Congress and President-elect Donald Trump have said they want to roll back some of the changes to make regulation less burdensome.

In her remarks, Yellen said that economics training can play an important role in improving the capabilities and creativity of the workforce.

“Everyone is engaged in and depends on the economy and nothing is more critical to a healthy and growing economy than the capability, creativity and productiveness of its workforce,” Yellen told the teachers. “Whenever I am asked what policies and initiatives could do the most to spur economic growth and raise living standards, improving education is at the top of my list.”

Yellen said that consumers, whose individual spending decisions account for two-thirds of economic activity, can better weather hard times if they have the proper training.

“Stronger household finances overall can help sustain growth, stabilize the economy and mitigate an economic downturn,” she said.

Yellen also put in a plug for what she called the most important teaching aid the Fed produces, a 182-page book called “The Federal Reserve System: Purposes and Functions.” She urged the teachers to check out the new 10th edition of this book on the Fed’s website.

Costs of widely prescribed drugs jumped up to 5,241 percent in recent years

Jess Franz-Christensen did not realize the seriousness of her son’s Type 1 diabetes diagnosis until staff in the doctor’s office offered to call an ambulance to take him to the hospital.

Her next shock: The cost of Jack’s medicines.

The drugs, administered through an insulin pump, cost $1,200 a month.

“We’re really fortunate. We’re able to pay for stuff,” said Franz-Christensen, whose husband, Scott, is a physicist, while she stays home to care for Jack, 8, and their daughter, Kendall, 11.

“But there are people who are making decisions whether to feed their kid or get test strips — whether to pay rent or get a vial of insulin. It’s heart-breaking.”

Prices for insulin products have nearly doubled in recent years, including Lantus SoloSTAR — one of the drugs that Medicaid and Medicare spent the most on in 2015. Its price increased by 81.5 percent between 2011 and 2014, according to data analyzed by the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism. The data were provided by California-based First Databank, a supplier of U.S. commercial drug pricing information.

The costs of seven widely prescribed antibiotics, cancer drugs, arthritis medications and other prescriptions have escalated between 29 percent and 5,241 percent in recent years, according to a joint investigation by the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism, Wisconsin Health News and Wisconsin Public Radio.

The investigation examined the impacts of and reasons behind the overall rise in prescription costs, including drug price increases since 2011, using proprietary First Databank data.

Overall, the price of insulin nearly tripled between 2002 and 2013, prompting calls this month for a federal investigation by former Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders from Vermont.

“They (drug companies) are making billions and billions of dollars on people who literally can’t afford it,” said Franz-Christensen, who has joined #MyLifeIsNotForProfit, a national grassroots parent movement.

Recent nationwide news coverage has focused on the rising cost of EpiPens, which counteract potentially fatal allergic reactions to peanuts, bee stings and other triggers. But the $600 cost for a two-pack of that medicine is just one example of lifesaving drugs with skyrocketing prices.

Synthroid, which is used to treat hypothyroidism, is the most commonly prescribed medication in the United States and has been on the market for more than 60 years. In just the past six years, it has nearly doubled in price, according to the Center’s analysis. The generic version of Synthroid, levothyroxine, has gone from 14 cents to 46 cents per pill, an increase of 231 percent between 2011 and 2016, the analysis shows.

A single two-week dose for Humira, a medication that treats conditions including rheumatoid arthritis, has increased 129 percent since 2011, to $2,000, according to First Databank data analyzed by the Center.

The price increases, which continue to mount, place economic and emotional pressure on patients and their families, squeeze the budgets of health care providers and raise costs for taxpayers in Wisconsin and nationwide, the joint investigation found.

Lack of competition raises costs

Spending on medications is rising for a variety of reasons:

  • Some pharmaceutical companies have taken action to extend the patent protections on their products, blocking cheaper generic versions from being developed.
  • As some companies stop making certain low-cost drugs, other companies gain monopolies over the market.
  • Companies are introducing more high-cost “speciality” drugs that treat lifelong conditions.
  • As the nation’s population ages, the demand for prescription drugs increases; more than half of Americans now use them.

In one practice known as “product hopping,” a company makes changes to a drug to extend its patent protections, keeping others from entering the market with cheaper alternatives.

Wisconsin Attorney General Brad Schimel filed an antitrust lawsuit in September alleging that the makers of Suboxone, a drug used to treat opiate addiction, changed the product from a tablet to a film that dissolves in the mouth to block alternatives and “maintain monopoly profits.”

Drug maker Indivior said it takes “these allegations seriously” and “intends to defend this and other related actions.”

“As long as drugs are on patent protection, manufacturers at that point have monopoly pricing ability and they can price their products at levels that the market will bear,” said Chuck Shih, who leads Pew Charitable Trusts’ specialty drugs research initiative.

In addition, as competitors drop out of the market, the remaining companies are “raising prices significantly and earning substantial profits,” said Larry Levitt, senior vice president for special initiatives at the California-based Kaiser Family Foundation.

The price jumps have caught the attention of Congress, which held hearings after Turing Pharmaceuticals increased the price of a drug that treats toxoplasmosis — an illness that can cause brain damage, blindness, miscarriage or birth defects — by 5,000 percent shortly after acquiring it.

The increase in the price of EpiPens has also drawn congressional scrutiny. Between 2010 and 2016, the price has more than quadrupled, according to data from First Databank.

Seventeen senators, including Democratic Wisconsin Sen. Tammy Baldwin, sent a letter to EpiPen maker Mylan in early November asking for more pricing information. The senators said the skyrocketing prices were raising costs for taxpayers and jacking up insurance premiums.

Lawmakers on the state and federal level are calling for new regulations to rein in drug prices. A dozen states have enacted laws requiring greater transparency in drug pricing and other measures, but no state has enacted price controls.

California voters rejected a proposal earlier this month to implement their own price control system, which would require state agencies to pay the same rates negotiated by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. The two sides poured more than $100 million into the effort, most of it from pharmaceutical companies opposed to the measure.

Holly Campbell, spokeswoman for the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America, attributed the increase in EpiPen prices to a U.S. Food and Drug Administration backlog in approving new generics and a “lack of competition” in the market.

Working poor hit hard

For those without insurance or who cannot afford their share, the rising cost of medications has left them facing hard choices.

Kathryn Drexler, a registered nurse and certified diabetic educator at the free Living Healthy Community Clinic in Oshkosh, said some of her patients ration their insulin. So many are asking the clinic for medication help “that it’s draining our budget,” she said.

“I think it’s hitting the working poor the hardest,” Drexler said. “They can’t afford their co-pays, and they can’t afford insulin out of pocket.”

Free clinics provide care and drugs to the roughly 323,000 people, or 5.7 percent of state residents who lack insurance, as well as some people who are underinsured. And while drug companies offer free prescriptions to certain low-income people with no insurance, generic medications — which comprise eight out of every 10 prescriptions — do not qualify.

University of Wisconsin pediatric endocrinologist Dr. Ellen Connor said the price increases have thrown some of her patients into despair.

“Families — this is what they agonize over,” Connor said. “They lose sleep over it. I have parents sobbing in the office over this. They feel like failures because they had lost jobs and couldn’t afford $500 of medications a month. It breaks your heart.”

For the insured, drug price hikes have contributed to higher deductibles and co-pays, said Dr. Tim Bartholow, chief medical officer for the not-for-profit insurer WEA Trust in Madison.

The price increases are hitting hospitals too, costing University of Wisconsin Hospitals and Clinics an additional $14 million in the past year, according to Steve Rough, pharmacy director.

Rough noted large increases among generic drugs with no competitors.

“I call it generic price-jacking, where companies purchase the rights to a low-cost generic drug that is routinely used in the care of many patients, just for the sole purpose of raising the price to make money, because they can,” he said.

Taxpayers left with hefty tab

Prescription drugs are a growing portion of health care spending nationwide, accounting for 16.7 percent or $457 billion of total U.S. health care spending in 2015 — about double the percentage from the 1990s, according to a report released in March.

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services report found the number of prescriptions is rising, but most of the spending growth is due to rising prices and a shift toward more expensive medications.

The state’s Medicaid program — which receives both federal and state funding — spent $329.4 million in the fiscal year between July 2011 and June 2012 on prescription drugs, according to the Legislative Fiscal Bureau. By July 1 of this year, annual spending had grown to $427.7 million — a 30 percent increase. The amount can vary year to year because of rebates the program receives from drug manufacturers.

Elizabeth Goodsitt, Wisconsin Department of Health Services spokeswoman, said the program has taken numerous steps to address growing costs, such as requiring patients to get prior approval before receiving more expensive medications.

Meanwhile, a September poll from the Kaiser Family Foundation found that 55 percent of Americans nationwide reported taking prescription drugs. About 26 percent of them — or 14 percent of the U.S. population — found it somewhat or very difficult to pay the cost of their prescription medication.

Even generics now too expensive

Paul Hoffmann, manager of the Bread of Healing Clinic in Milwaukee, said his free clinic can no longer afford to provide some generic medications.

“I’ve been a pharmacist for 35 years, and this is a phenomenon that we never saw,” Hoffmann said. “All these long-standing generics that have been generic for some 20, 30 years are going up in astronomical prices.”

He cited doxycycline, used to treat infections. First Databank figures show the price skyrocketed by 12,024 percent from 2011 to early 2013 because of drug shortages. The price has dropped, but the antibiotic is still 5,240 percent higher than in 2011 — or more than 50 times more expensive.

Lawmakers eye transparency initiatives

Some state lawmakers are looking for ways to curb drug prices. Rep. Debra Kolste, D-Janesville, plans to introduce legislation next year requiring the Office of the Commissioner of Insurance to collect information about the cost of drugs to public health care programs and develop a strategy to reduce prices.

Meanwhile, Baldwin has co-authored a bill at the federal level requiring pharmaceutical companies to submit a report to the federal government a month before increasing a product’s price by 10 percent or more.

PhRMA spokeswoman Campbell called the proposal “a thinly veiled attempt to build a case for government price setting.”

But observers say the conversation around drug pricing has changed.

“You have these very high profile seemingly outrageous price hikes that have focused the attention of policymakers in a way that I haven’t seen before,” said Levitt, of the Kaiser Family Foundation. “There’s a window where we could see some policy changes.”

Franz-Christensen hopes Congress will fix the problem.

“The people that can’t afford it, they’re so overwhelmed,” she said. “They can’t fight. … If it’s hard for us, people who have everything, imagine the people who don’t.”

Cara Lombardo and Andrew Hahn of the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism contributed to this report.

Sean Kirkby reports for Wisconsin Health News, an independent, nonpartisan, online news organization serving Wisconsin health care professionals and decision makers. Dee J. Hall is managing editor of the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism. Bridgit Bowden is a reporter for Wisconsin Public Radio. The nonprofit Center (www.WisconsinWatch.org) collaborates with WPR, Wisconsin Public Television, other news media and the University of Wisconsin-Madison journalism school. All works created, published, posted or disseminated by the Center do not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of UW-Madison or any of its affiliates.

Economists unite: Tax havens serve no useful economic purpose

We urge you to use this month’s anti-corruption summit in London to make significant moves towards ending the era of tax havens.

The existence of tax havens does not add to overall global wealth or well-being; they serve no useful economic purpose. Whilst these jurisdictions undoubtedly benefit some rich individuals and multinational corporations, this benefit is at the expense of others, and they therefore serve to increase inequality.

As the Panama Papers and other recent exposés have revealed, the secrecy provided by tax havens fuels corruption and undermines countries’ ability to collect their fair share of taxes. While all countries are hit by tax dodging, poor countries are proportionately the biggest losers, missing out on at least $170 billion of taxes annually as a result.

As economists, we have very different views on the desirable levels of taxation, be they direct or indirect, personal or corporate. But we are agreed that territories allowing assets to be hidden in shell companies or which encourage profits to be booked by companies that do no business there, are distorting the working of the global economy. By hiding illicit activities and allowing rich individuals and multinational corporations to operate by different rules, they also threaten the rule of law that is a vital ingredient for economic success.

To lift the veil of secrecy surrounding tax havens we need new global agreements on issues such as public country by country reporting, including for tax havens. Governments must also put their own houses in order by ensuring that all the territories, for which they are responsible, make publicly available information about the real “beneficial” owners of company and trusts. The UK, as host for this summit and as a country that has sovereignty over around a third of the world’s tax havens, is uniquely placed to take a lead.

Taking on the tax havens will not be easy; there are powerful vested interests that benefit from the status quo. But it was Adam Smith who said that the rich “should contribute to the public expense, not only in proportion to their revenue, but something more than in that proportion.” There is no economic justification for allowing the continuation of tax havens which turn that statement on its head.

CASE STUDY: MALAWI

Tax revenue that should be helping to fund public services like healthcare and education in Malawi and other poor countries is disappearing at an alarming rate. It’s estimated that Africa loses around $14 billion in tax revenues annually – enough money to pay for healthcare for mothers and children that could save four million children’s lives a year and employ enough teachers to get every African child into school.
In Malawi, it’s impossible to get a full picture of the scale of tax dodging. However, Oxfam calculated that the lost tax revenue from the money revealed to be held by Malawians in HSBC accounts in Geneva in last year’s Swissleaks scandal could pay the salaries of 800 nurses for one year.

Half of Malawi’s 16 million people live in poverty. The health system is seriously under-resourced with shortages of staff and vital medicines. On average there are just three nurses for every 10,000 people. Public spending per primary-school child is among the world’s lowest. Recent cuts to government budgets are making the situation even worse for the poorest who have no way to pay for private clinics and schools.

A link to the signatories …

In speech in Cuba, Obama urges change

President Barack Obama challenged Cuba’s Communist government with an impassioned call for democratic and economic change on March 22, addressing the Cuban people directly in a historic speech broadcast throughout the island.

Taking the stage at Havana’s Grand Theater with Cuban President Raul Castro in attendance, Obama used the crowning moment of his visit to extend a “hand of friendship.” He came, he said, to “bury the last remnant” of the Cold War in the Americas.

But Obama also pressed hard for economic and political reforms and greater openness, speaking in a one-party state where little dissent is tolerated.

People take pictures of President Barack Obama as he attends a meeting with entrepreneurs as part of his three-day visit to Cuba, in Havana March 21. — PHOTO: REUTERS/Ivan Alvarado
People take pictures of President Barack Obama as he attends a meeting with entrepreneurs as part of his three-day visit to Cuba, in Havana March 21. — PHOTO: REUTERS/Ivan Alvarado

His speech was the high point of a trip made possible by his agreement with Castro in December 2014 to cast aside decades of hostility that began soon after Cuba’s 1959 revolution, and work to normalize relations. Nonetheless, Obama minced no words in his calls for change.

“I believe citizens should be free to speak their minds without fear,” Obama told the audience. “Voters should be able to choose their governments in free and democratic elections.”

“Not everybody agrees with me on this, not everybody agrees with the American people on this but I believe those human rights are universal. I believe they’re the rights of the American people, the Cuban people and people around the world,” Obama said.

While he urged an end to the longstanding U.S. economic embargo on the island, Obama added that “even if we lifted the embargo tomorrow, Cubans would not realize their potential without continued change here in Cuba.”

The scene of the leader of the United States, the superpower to the north once routinely reviled by the Cuban government, standing on Cuban soil urging such changes would have been unthinkable before the two countries began their rapprochement.

For years, Cuban leaders told American presidents to mind their own business. Indeed, Castro has been careful to state since the detente that it does not mean Cuba plans to change its political system, and that while his government is open to discuss any issue, it has to be with mutual respect.

Tuesday’s audience of more than a 1,000 people was made up of invited guests of the U.S. and Cuban governments. They included officials and business people of both countries, visiting U.S. lawmakers and members of Cuba’s cultural elite.

Obama drew sustained applause when he reiterated his call for the U.S. Congress to lift the embargo, which he called “an outdated burden on the Cuban people.”

But the response was more muted to his appeal for greater political liberties, including freedom of expression and religion. Obama followed up those comments afterwards with a private meeting with dissidents.

Obama received a smattering of applause, however, when he called for economic reform to help attract more investment from U.S. companies, many of which have remained wary.

At the same time, Obama sought to balance his critique with recognition of America’s flaws and of Cuba’s achievements in areas such as healthcare and education.

Obama, who abandoned a longtime U.S. policy of trying to isolate Cuba, wants to make his shift irreversible by the time he leaves office in January and secure it as a piece of his foreign policy legacy.

But major obstacles remain to full normalization of ties, most notably the continuing U.S. embargo and differences over human rights. The Republican-controlled Congress has so far rejected the Democratic president’s call for a lifting of the embargo, although Obama has used his executive powers to ease some trade and travel restrictions on the island.

The president’s critics at home have called his visit a premature reward to the Castro government. U.S. House of Representatives Speaker Paul Ryan, a Republican, said on Tuesday the trip legitimizes what he called Castro’s “tyrannical dictatorship.”

Speech carried live in Cuba

With his words carried live by Cuba’s state-run media, Obama sought to persuade ordinary Cubans that his new policy, including easing of trade and travel restrictions, was focused primarily on helping them to improve their lives.

Standing at a lectern flanked by U.S. and Cuban flags, Obama laid out a hopeful vision of future U.S.-Cuban relations and told Cubans “it’s up to you” to take steps to change the country.

Some Cubans who listened to Obama’s speech broadcast to their homes and cafes took Obama’s criticism of the Cuban system in stride and were also impressed by his frank admission of America’s own failings.

“He has been very honest in his statements,” said Santiago Rodriguez, 78, in his home in central Havana. “It is not only the blockade (embargo) that has overwhelmed (us) for years. This was a message full of suggestions and positive criticism for the future of Cuba.”

Castro, an army general who took over as president from his ailing brother, Fidel Castro, in 2008, was at the theater to greet Obama on arrival and sat in the audience for the speech. At the end, the Cuban leader lightly applauded from the balcony, then waved to the crowd.

At a news conference on Monday after they met for talks, Obama and Castro aired some of the old grievances between their countries, even as they sought to advance the diplomatic thaw.

Obama’s administration is seeking to bridge the ideological divide by galvanizing the support of the Cuban public to help him pressure their government for reforms to the one-party system and state-run economy that so far have been slow to come. But it runs the risk of being accused of meddling by Havana.

After the speech, Obama met privately with about a dozen Cuban dissidents at the U.S. Embassy. He noted that some of them had been detained and commended them for their courage. Among the participants was Berta Soler, leader of Ladies in White, a protest group.

Obama’s much-anticipated address marked the first time a sitting U.S. president’s speech was broadcast to the Cuban people while on Cuban soil – though speeches by visiting popes have been carried live by state media.

Jimmy Carter, traveling to Cuba in 2002 as the first former U.S. president to visit since the revolution, called for political freedoms in a speech broadcast on live television.

Milwaukee Rep’s ‘Invisible Hand’ questions the morality of capitalism

Last year, the Milwaukee Rep announced a singular partnership with playwright Ayad Akhtar, a Milwaukee native who’d since made it big both on stage and in other written media. The four-year collaboration will see the Rep producing three of Akhtar’s plays, including his Pulitzer Prize-winner Disgraced, followed by a world premiere commission in the final year.

If the first of these plays, The Invisible Hand, is any indication, it’s going to be a great four years for Rep patrons. Akhtar’s thriller about an American banker kidnapped by militants in Pakistan is a gripping work in and of itself, but its true success comes from the way it challenges the assumed benevolence of capitalism using the language of the marketplace itself.

Technically, no economics primer is necessary before walking into this production — Akhtar places just the right amount of exposition in the mouth of captured American Nick Bright (Tom Coiner) to get even the most financially illiterate viewer through the show.

But it certainly can’t hurt to know in advance that the play’s title references the core belief that guides Nick and every mainstream Western economist and financier. The “invisible hand,” a term coined by 18th-century Scottish philosopher Adam Smith, is the moral justification for having a free market, capitalist system, like that of the United States and other Western nations. It argues that a free market tends toward benevolence because individuals will act in their own self-interest and counter others’ attempts to unfairly profit.

The problem, as the play quickly makes apparent, is that those who know how to play the game have an advantage over those who don’t. The militants who have captured Nick — Imam Saleem (Tony Mirrcandani), his lieutenant Bashir (Shalin Agarwai) and grunt Dar (Owais Ahmed) — are all dedicated to fighting the corrupt Western imperialists, but they’re outgunned on both a military and financial level.

Nick changes that. When the U.S. government formally declares Imam Saleem a terrorist — making it impossible for them or Nick’s family to negotiate a ransom for his release — the only option remaining is for Saleem to trade Nick to the fundamentalist group responsible for the death of Americans including Daniel Pearl, who will kill him as propaganda. Nick offers an alternative: With his knowledge of the global and local markets, Nick will teach Bashir how to make millions buying and selling financial securities.

Nick (Tom Coiner, left) and Bashir (Shalin Agarwal) share a complicated prisoner-captor/teacher-mentor relationship in "The Invisible Hand." Photo by Michael Brosilow.
Nick (Tom Coiner, left) and Bashir (Shalin Agarwal) share a complicated prisoner-captor/teacher-student relationship in “The Invisible Hand.” Photo by Michael Brosilow.

This sounds dry, but never becomes so on stage — largely due to the high-speed, high-stakes nature of the game Nick and Bashir are playing. At one point, the teacher describes the method to his trainee as gambling on the marketplace, betting that a company’s fortunes will rise, or fall, and buying and selling accordingly. As we watch the two of them place their bets, the tension does begin to resemble a Vegas casino as much as a claustrophobic Pakistani prison cell — albeit one where failure will result in the loss of millions of dollars and Nick’s life.

Coiner and Agarwai carry the bulk of the production, their characters a curious and volatile mix of friends, rivals and mortal enemies. At first, this is a sustainable equilibrium — Nick has all the knowledge and Bashir all the power. But the more Bashir learns, the more dangerous and unstable he becomes, with his religious beliefs warring with his new capitalist understandings. It’s a dissonance Agarwai wears well. Every moment he’s on stage, he commands attention, and it’s never clear what he’s going to do next.

Interestingly, The Invisible Hand doesn’t show Nick adopting a similar uncertainty. True to form, from the moment the play starts, every action he takes is in his own self-interest: he agrees to play the markets to save his life, chips away at the bricks and mortar of his cell to try and make his own escape, remains silent and focused on self-preservation when his captors begin to grow suspicious of each other. But this time, Nick doesn’t have the Western luxury of being removed by class and distance from the consequences of those actions — ones that will eventually be countered, as his theory of the invisible hand promises, but lead to violent instability in the interim.

The Invisible Hand is almost a parable in this way, explaining the moral ambiguity of capitalism and the free market through the use of a vivid, captivating narrative. But it’s a parable that haunts long after you leave the theater — because if the only way to defeat a morally bankrupt society is to use its own weapons against it, that may not be a victory at all.

The Milwaukee Rep’s production of The Invisible Hand runs through April 3 in the Stiemke Studio, 108 E. Wells St. Tickets start at $20 and can be ordered at 414-224-9490 or milwaukeerep.com.

Pope Francis’ audience to include some GOP candidates, but not Walker

To some Republican presidential candidates, it’s better to be with the popular pope than against him.

Marco Rubio, Rand Paul and Ted Cruz have deep policy differences with Pope Francis, but the senators will break off campaign travel to attend his address to Congress later this month, a centerpiece of his eagerly anticipated visit to the United States.

Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, a devout Catholic, will attend Mass with Francis in Washington. New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, another Catholic candidate, plans to attend one of the pope’s East Coast events.

“Regardless of what the pope says or emphasizes, the simple fact of being associated with his visit is still significant for a candidate,” said David Campbell, a professor at the University of Notre Dame who studies religion and politics. “The images are very powerful.”

Francis has become one of the world’s most popular figures since his 2013 election to the papacy, drawing praise for his humility and efforts to refocus the church on the poor and needy. He also has become involved in numerous political issues, often staking out positions that put him at odds with Republicans.

The pope supports the Iran nuclear deal, which many GOP candidates pledge to tear up if they are elected president. As Republicans debate the place of immigrants in the U.S., the pope has urged countries to welcome those seeking refuge and has decried the “inhuman” conditions facing people crossing the U.S.-Mexico border.

Francis was also instrumental in secret talks to restore diplomatic relations between the U.S. and Cuba, a rapprochement the GOP views as a premature reward for the island’s repressive government.

In a heated primary where any break from party orthodoxy is a political risk, Republican candidates have stepped gingerly around their differences with Francis.

When Francis issued an encyclical this year calling for aggressive international action to combat climate change, most Republicans made clear they had no problem with pope taking a position on the matter. But they suggested his stance would have little influence on their own views.

“He is a moral authority and as a moral authority is reminding us of our obligation to be good caretakers of the planet,” Rubio, a practicing Catholic, said at the time. “I’m a political leader and my job as a policymaker is to act in the common good.”

Bush, who was raised Episcopalian and converted to Catholicism as an adult, said it was best to leave climate change in the realm of politics, not religion.

During a campaign stop in New Hampshire, Bush called the pope an “amazing man” and welcomed his emphasis on mercy and compassion.

“I think he’s going to lift people’s spirits up,” Bush said about the pope’s visit to the U.S. “We’re in a time where there’s a lot of vulgarity and a lot of insults and a lot of just coarseness in our discourse. I’m not talking about politics, either. I’m talking about everyday life. 

“And here’s a man who comes with a gentle soul and I think it might be really healthy for our country to hear someone speak the way he does.”

Not all GOP candidates plan to attend events with the pope. Among them are Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, whose spokeswoman said he didn’t expect to be in Washington during Francis’ visit, and Rick Santorum, the former Pennsylvania senator and devout Catholic, who was scheduled to be on a campaign trip to Iowa. 

American politicians have long struggled with how to balance their policy positions with the views of the Vatican.

For Democrats, the focus has often been on the gulf between the party’s support for abortion rights and the church’s stern and contrary view. After John Kerry, a Catholic who backs abortion rights, captured the Democratic nomination in 2004, a top Vatican official issued a statement saying priests must deny Communion to politicians who hold that position.

Francis has taken a more conciliatory tone on abortion, as well as homosexuality, but hasn’t changed church doctrine.

President George W. Bush found himself at odds with the Vatican over the Iraq war. Both Pope John Paul II and his successor Benedict XVI vehemently opposed the war, yet each met Bush during their tenure.

Charles Camosy, a theology professor at Fordham University, said that in interactions between politicians and popes, “politics is put aside and there’s respect shown.”

Still, the timing of the pope’s visit — in the heart of fall primary campaigning — and his own schedule will make politics difficult to avoid.

Francis will hold an Oval Office meeting Sept. 23 with President Barack Obama, who has highlighted areas where his agenda overlaps with the pope’s priorities, including income inequality. The pope will speak the following day on Capitol Hill, where at least some of the focus will be on the reaction to his remarks from the presidential candidates sitting in the audience.

The pope’s message in Washington is expected to touch on some of the issues that are sources of disagreement with Republicans, though it’s unlikely he will insert himself directly into presidential politics.

Still, as Campbell, the Notre Dame professor, noted, “One thing we’ve learned about Pope Francis is that he’s very unpredictable.”

1,000 rally against ‘Fast Track’ and Trans-Pacific Partnership proposals

More than 1,000 protesters assembled in Washington, D.C., over the weekend to demonstrate against the Trans-Pacific Partnership and so-called “Fast Track” Trade Promotion Authority.

Protesters carried a banner reading “Don’t Trade Our Future” and a 15-foot Trojan Horse from Lafayette Square in front of the White House to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the U.S. Trade Representative’s office.

U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, an independent from Vermont who has indicated an interest in running for president, addressed the crowd. He said, “The TPP is another corporate-backed agreement that is the latest in a series of failed trade policies which have cost us millions of decent-paying jobs, pushed down wages for American workers and led to the decline of our middle class. The TPP must be defeated.”

Before the rally, activists from National People’s Action, Campaign for America’s Future, Alliance for a Just Society and USAction occupied the lobby of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. The group included workers, students, immigrants, family farmers and small business owners. They demanded to meet with President Thomas J. Donohue and called on the U.S. Chamber to join a multi-national coalition of workers, environmentalists, and human rights advocates in opposing Fast Track Authority and the Trans Pacific Partnership.

“Working people are rising up against backroom deals that destroy our democracy and threaten our communities and the environment,” said George Goehl, executive director of National People’s Action, which organized the action along with Campaign for America’s Future, Alliance for a Just Society, and USAction.

Goehl said, “We won’t stand idly by while our government trades worker protections for corporate profits and democracy for secret agreements. We’ve seen this movie before and we know it does not end well.”

The TPP would expand the NAFTA agreement to 11 Pacific Rim Nations and, if approved, would become binding U.S. law. Protesters say this would limit the ability of Congress and state and local governments to regulate food safety, set financial rules, protect workers and labor bargaining rights and limit how governments regulate public services.

The negotiations have included more than 600 corporate lobbyists but have excluded human rights and labor groups, according to NPA.

“The TPP isn’t a trade deal. It is a corporate coup d’etat that is about to be rammed down the American people’s throats.  It would make us poorer and less free and we the people aren’t going to stand by and let it happen,” said political commentator Jim Hightower, who addressed the rally.

Larry Cohen, president of Communications Workers of America, also spoke against the trade agreement.

He said, “Fast Track is not what democracy looks like. We are shut out of the debate and the consequences are horrible for the environment, workers here and abroad, for our cities devastated by abandoned factories, and for public services underfunded with trade deficits leading to greater public deficits.”

The event drew activists more than 30 states.

The rally was part of the AFL-CIO’s nationwide week of action against fast- tracking trade deals.

On the Web …

For background on the Trans Pacific Partnership, see: http://action.npa-us.org/page/-/TPP%20CWA%20fact%20sheet.pdf

Walker signs ‘right-to-work’ bill, unions sue

So-called “right-to-work” legislation sped through the Wisconsin Senate and raced through the Assembly on a fast track to Republican Gov. Scott Walker.

Just four years ago, Walker said he had no plans to attack private sector unions as he gutted public employee unions. But the governor signed the bill on March 9. 

In video shot in 2011, during the debate over Act 10, Walker said, “The bill I put forward isn’t aimed at state workers and it certainly isn’t a battle with unions. If it was, we would have eliminated collective bargaining entirely or we would have gone after the private-sector unions. But we did not because they are our partners in economic development. We need them to help us put 250,000 people to work in the private sector over the next four years.”

Now Walker, who is courting the conservatives who are influential in GOP presidential primaries, is an advocate of the legislation, which makes it a crime — punishable with a jail sentence of nine months — to require private-sector workers who aren’t in a union to pay dues.

“The governor is not just a flip-flopper, he is a master manipulator,” said state Rep. Katrina Shankland, D-Stevens Point. “There is little doubt that Gov. Walker is using this issue to curry favor with right-wing funding sources and distract from his $2.2 billion budget deficit and a state economy that lags behind most of the nation.”

GOP legislative leaders began preparing to introduce right-to-work legislation after sweeping the November 2014 midterm elections.

For months, Walker claimed to be cool to the concept. But, as he opened campaign offices in Iowa and New Hampshire, he came out in support of an extraordinary session to take up the legislation.

The Senate took up the measure first, holding a hearing at which opposition to “right-to-work” legislation was about 70–1 but shutting down public comment despite hundreds of people who were still waiting to speak.

The Senate passed SB 44 by a vote of 17–15 in late February, drawing congratulations from Americans for Prosperity Wisconsin director David Fladeboe, who called the legislation “long overdue” and claimed the vote was in the best interest of working-class families. Proponents say the legislation is about worker freedom and improves Wisconsin’s standing with business interests.

Opponents say the legislation creates dangerous workplaces, damages unions and depresses wages.

“Right to work will lower wages, increase workplace deaths and erode the base of the middle class by crippling the ability of workers to team up and join together through their unions for a strong voice in the workplace,” said Stephanie Bloomingdale, secretary-treasurer of the Wisconsin AFL-CIO.

The Assembly Labor Committee on March 2 heard hours of testimony, mostly from opponents of the measure.

Three days later, at about 2 p.m. on March 5, the full Assembly opened debate. Democrats drove the debate, delivering speeches through the night and into the morning, with the deadline for a vote looming at 9 a.m. on March 6.

Rep. Chris Taylor, a Democrat from Madison, was among the final speakers during the debate, and she focused on “freedom” and “heroics” and called “right-to-work” an “out-of-state idea” promoted by billionaires.

Democratic Minority Leader Peter Barca called the legislation “right-wing extremism on steroids.”

But when the roll was called, the vote was 62-35 for the bill. No Democrats voted with the GOP majority.

Outside the Capitol, opponents of the bill staged a demonstration on March 5, one of many held in Madison over a two-week period. Wisconsin State AFL-CIO representatives addressed the ralliers, along with AFSCME member Shannon Maier, Young Black and Gifted member Eric Upchurch, Beloit ironworker Anthony Anastasi and Burger King employee Corneil White.

“Our fight is for the state and soul of our country,” said Bloomingdale.

Opponents also crowded into the Capitol, shouting, “Wrong for Wisconsin.” They delivered petitions signed by thousands and circulated a report from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and University of Wisconsin Extension showing lower household incomes in right-to-work states.

“The evidence clearly demonstrates that so-called ‘right-to-work’ laws intensify the race to the bottom and further erode the middle class,” said Dane County Executive Joe Parisi.

Right-to-work laws exist in 24 other states, including Michigan and Indiana and have been upheld by several courts of appeal.

With Walker’s signature, Wisconsin’s measure took effect immediately.

The next day, the Wisconsin state AFL-CIO and two local labor unions filed a lawsuit, seeking to block the law. Their argument is that it is unconstitutional because it requires unions to act on behalf of workers who are no longer required to pay union dues and therefore receive an unfair benefit. A hearing is set for March 19 in Dane County Circuit Court.

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Ganja-preneurship: College starts class on the business of marijuana

Start stoner-friendly munchies stands in Colorado. Or open a lounge near a marijuana dispensary in Oregon.

Or try selling fertilizer to weed growers, dude.

“Opportunities are endless, whatever we can create in our heads,” said Dean Warner, an Anne Arundel Community College student in Arnold, Maryland.

Earlier this month, the college launched a class exploring business opportunities around the country’s expanding marijuana market.

“The people that made the money in the Gold Rush were not the guys with the nuggets,” said professor Shad Ewart. “It was the people who sold them the picks, the shovels, made the blue jeans, opened the banks.”

Last year, Maryland became the 18th state to decriminalize small amounts of marijuana. Someone caught with less than 10 grams, however, still faces a fine up to $100 for a first offense.

Four states — Washington, Oregon, Alaska and Colorado — went further to make pot legal for recreational use. When combined with medical marijuana taxes and fees, Colorado earned $3.5 million from pot sales in January of last year.

“I’m just trying to open their eyes to the opportunities,” Ewart said. “Be the guy that supplies the lighting, the nutrients, the dirt.”

He’s taught business and marketing classes at the college for more than 15 years.

His latest class was almost called “Ganja-preneurship” (too provocative, he said) and is instead called — Entrepreneurial Opportunities in Emerging Markets: Marijuana Legalization.

It began Feb. 2 when he wrote the course number on the board.

“You see the green pen?”

Laughs.

“The green that I’m talking about in this class is money.”

Understand, this class is not Cheech & Chong.

“That’s a part I want to de-emphasize,” Ewart said.

A similar course is offered at the University of Denver, though Ewart said area colleges offer no such courses.

His class _ also almost called “Canna-business” — comes as advocates want to see last year’s decriminalization law extended to cover rolling papers and other paraphernalia.

The first proposal to decriminalize pot in Maryland was introduced in 2011. Similarly, Ewart said he’s spent two years lobbying administrators to allow his course.

Four times, he appeared before the committee that approves new courses, he said. Typically, a new course is approved in one semester, he said.

“Other (professors) have been a little bit nervous,” he said.

Last year’s General Assembly session also saw the expansion of medical marijuana laws in Maryland to allow patients access to pot if approved by doctors. That expansion allowed up to 15 growers.

County Executive Steve Schuh, who served last session in the House of Delegates, voted against both decriminalization and medical-marijuana expansion. Schuh’s position hasn’t changed, said Owen McEvoy, his spokesman.

“That being said, we have to respect the position of the community college to dictate their curriculum,” McEvoy said.

Seventeen students enrolled in the class to learn everything from the history of marijuana in Ancient Egypt to its economic impact today. There will be readings, but no textbooks.

“There’s nothing out there _ I looked,” Ewart said.

Alexander Rossi, a 2014 graduate of South River High School, enrolled after betting on penny stocks of startup marijuana growers. He earned more investing, he said, than working his job at Jerry’s Seafood in Bowie.

The class attracted older students, too, like Michael Malone. He owns Cancun Cantina West in Hagerstown.

“Businesses are changing,” he said. “This is the future.”

Information from: The Capital, http://www.capitalgazette.com/

An AP member exchange.

Over the barrel: Activists champion 
efforts to divest from fossil-fuel industry

Meet Planet Enemy No. 1: The fossil-fuel industry.

And meet the new sheriff in town: The growing movement to divest ownership of fossil-fuel stock.

The divestment concept is not without precedent. In the 1980s, people around the world withdrew support from companies — and more than a few artists — who did business with South Africa. The campaign spread from college campuses and eventually 155 campuses, 80 municipalities, 25 states and 19 nations took economic action against the apartheid regime. Archbishop Desmond Tutu has said the end of apartheid would not have come without international pressure, specifically “the divestment movement of the 1980s.”

Today, the Nobel Peace-Prize winner has called for an “anti-apartheid style boycott of the fossil fuel industry.” 

Christiana Figueres, executive secretary of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, also endorsed the movement in a speech in May at St. Paul’s Cathedral in London.

“The scientific data on climate change is overwhelming, the experience of the affected overpowering. The few who still deny the science and argue for inaction of course have the right to hide their face in the sand, but the sand is warming rapidly, and they will soon have to face their children,” Figueres said.

She had praise for others: the institutional investors moving capital away from fossil fuels, the parties involved in the development of a “fossil free” investment index, the creation of a global finance lab in London and the activists in the campus and church campaigns driving divestment from fossil fuel assets. 

Commitments to change

That movement, according to GoFossilFree.org, has resulted in commitments to the going fossil-free campaign from 11 colleges and universities, 37 faith-based groups, 26 foundations, two counties and 28 cities. Included on the commitment list are the First Unitarian Society of Milwaukee; Dane County, believed to be the first county in the United States to support the fossil-fuel movement; and Bayfield and Madison, among the first cities in the U.S. to adopt divestment resolutions.

Monona could join the league. The city sustainability committee unanimously approved a proposed resolution earlier this month that the city council is expected to take up this summer. The resolution, which doesn’t go as far as activists had hoped, would set as priorities the reduction of fossil-fuel consumption in municipal operations and the education of residents and business owners about “the importance of reducing carbon emissions from fossil fuels.” The resolution also suggests a variety of ways to work toward that goal,” including shareholder advocacy, fossil fuels divestment and reinvestment in renewable energy.

“I’m very proud of Monona for taking this step to not only acknowledge the reality of climate change but to take action on reducing its own fossil fuel use,” stated Monona resident Beth Esser. She’s co-coordinator of 350 Madison, an environmental action group at the forefront of the movement in the state. 

Esser added, “This resolution solidifies the city’s commitment to addressing the harsh realities of our need to quit using fossil fuels if we want to preserve a livable future for our children and our grandchildren.”

Fossil-free advocates also are campaigning throughout the University of Wisconsin system, on the campuses of private schools such as Carthage College and Lawrence University, and for changes in the state retirement fund.

Campaigners in some cases want a pledge that institutions or foundations will freeze any new investment in fossil-fuel assets and divest within five years. Others are promoting resolutions to support the cause, which received a nod from President Barack Obama in mid-June, when he told graduates at the University of California-Irvine, “You need to invest in what helps, and divest from what harms.”

Do the math

Divestment advocates maintain that math is crucial to the argument for going fossil free. The fossil fuel industry has enough coal, oil and gas reserves to produce, if burned, 2,795 gigatons of CO2, according to the Carbon Tracker Initiative, a team of London financial analysts. That’s five times more CO2 than can be released to maintain 2 degrees of warming. And most governments agree that any warming above 2 degrees Celsius would be unsafe.

“The fossil-fuel industry’s business model is built on using up reserves that should not be used. We cannot invest in this recklessness,” said Gregory Ercherd, who is involved in the fossil-free movement in Portland, Oregon. “We have moral, ethical obligations to divest from fossil fuels.”

“And we have a spiritual obligation,” added Ercherd, observing the surge in support for the movement this summer among religious institutions. The Unitarian Universalist General Assembly voted to divest. The University of Dayton in Ohio became the first Catholic institution to join the movement. Quaker, Lutheran, Presbyterian and Episcopal denominations have voted to divest. And, in early July, the Central Committee of the World Council of Churches, a fellowship of more than 300 churches in 150 countries, endorsed divestment.

“This is a remarkable moment for the 590 million Christians in its member denominations: a huge percentage of humanity says today ‘this far and no further,’” McKibben said after the vote.

Serene Jones is president of the Union Theological Seminary in New York City, which is committed to divesting its $108.4 endowment of fossil fuel funds. She said earlier this month, “Scripture tells us that all of the world is God’s precious creation, and our place within it is to care for and respect the health of the whole. As a seminary dedicated to social justice, we have a critical call to live out our values in the world. Climate change poses a catastrophic threat, and as stewards of God’s creation we simply must act.”

Portfolio for the planet

“There’s no threat greater than the unchecked burning of fossil fuels,” according to Bill McKibben, leader of the environmental grassroots movement known as 350.org.

 “The (fossil-fuel) industry alone, holds the power to change the physics and chemistry of our planet, and they’re planning to use it,” he wrote.

Earlier this year, 350.org and two asset management firms — Green Century Capital Management and Trillium Asset Management — released a guide people through divesting.

“Since fossil fuel corporations are determined to burn their carbon reserves, which are five times the amount that scientists say our planet can safely absorb, there is a growing concern that investors may face a ‘carbon-bubble’ if carbon restrictions are put into place,” said Leslie Samuelrich, president of Green Century Capital. “With so many unknowns in the future, why not avoid the widely reported possible risk of stranded assets?”

“Actions taken by individuals and municipalities to transition away from fossil fuels send an important message to industry and political leaders and encourage further efforts regionally nationally,” said Adam Gundlach, a Monona resident and fossil-free advocate. “The transition becomes a reality with each decision we make and each step we take toward a sustainable existence.”

On the Web…

350.org: http://350.org

GoFossilFree: http://gofossilfree.org

350 Madison: http://350madison.wordpress.com

Green Century: http://greencentury.com 

Fossil-free faq

WHAT IS DIVESTMENT? It is the opposite of an investment. It is getting rids of stocks, bonds, investment funds.

WHAT DOES THE DIVESTMENT MOVEMENT WANT? For institutional leaders to freeze any new investment in fossil fuel companies and to divest from direct ownership and any commingled funds that include fossil fuel public equities.

HOW CAN DIVESTING IMPACT MULTI-BILLION DOLLAR COMPANIES? The top 500 university endowments hold nearly $400 billion. Plus, there are state pension funds, as well as investments from churches, synagogues and mosques.

INVESTING IS ABOUT MAKING MONEY. IS DIVESTING RISKY? Fossil fuel companies, presently, are extremely profitable. But they also can be risky investments — energy markets are volatile and their business models rest on emitting more carbon into the atmosphere than civilization can handle.

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