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Pfizer Jacks Up Drug Costs, Pays Billions to Stockholders

Prescription Prices Ver5

Photo by Chris Potter via Flickr

Ever wonder why prescription drug costs are so high? Take a few minutes and read Bill Lazonick’s piece on Pfizer.

From January 2001 through September 2015, Pfizer paid out [to stockholders] $95.5 billion in buybacks and $87.1 billion in dividends.

That’s $182.6 billion paid to stockholders… compared to $37.1 billion paid in corporate taxes over the same time frame. Do the math. That’s almost five times more money paid to stockholders than paid in taxes.

Now, stop and think about this. Why are stockholders getting all that money? When shares are bought and sold on the stock exchange, none of that money goes back to the corporation. Instead, the money goes to the previous owner of the stock – who may have owned that stock for less than a second. (Read more about “high frequency trading” here.)

And yet, most corporations pay lots of money to their stockholders. For what? Passing stock from one owner to another isn’t investing in the corporation’s future. So far in 2015, Pfizer has paid more than twice as much to stockholders as it has invested in R&D.

Why are stockholders getting all that money?

— — — —

tieby Unsplash via PixabayPaying money to stockholders benefits corporate executives who are “paid for performance.” (How this works, using Verizon as a case study, is a previous NHLN post.) In the case of Pfizer’s CEO, “75% of his long-term equity awards are earned based on relative and absolute total shareholder return.” In other words, the CEO’s compensation depends on Pfizer paying money to shareholders. If stockholders don’t get enough money, the CEO doesn’t get that compensation. And it’s not just the CEO. All of Pfizer’s top corporate executives are paid according to whether they meet “shareholder return” targets.

Back to Bill Lazonick’s piece:

In 2014, [Ian C.] Read as [Pfizer] CEO had total direct compensation of $22.6 million, of which 27 percent came from exercising stock options and 50 percent from the vesting of stock awards. The other four highest-paid executives named on Pfizer’s 2015 proxy statement averaged $8.0 million, with 24 percent from stock options and 41 percent from stock awards.

Remember, a good chunk of that compensation was based on the amount of money paid to stockholders. Which probably explains why Pfizer is paying so much more to stockholders than it’s spending on R&D.

— — — —

dollar by TBIT via PixabayWhere does all that money come from, anyway?

From Bloomberg:

Pfizer Inc., the nation’s biggest drugmaker, has raised prices on 133 of its brand-name products in the U.S. this year, according to research from UBS, more than three-quarters of which added up to hikes of 10 percent or more. … In a note Friday, analysts at Morgan Stanley said Pfizer’s net prices grew 11 percent a year on average from 2012 to 2014.

The Wall Street Journal documented Pfizer’s three-year market research campaign to decide the price of a new breast cancer drug.

“[I]ts process yielded a price that bore little relation to the drug industry’s oft-cited justification for its prices, the cost of research and development. … Staff members put together a chart estimating the revenue and prescription numbers at various prices… The chart showed a 25% drop in doctors’ willingness to prescribe the new drug if it cost more than $10,000 a month.”

Two years ago, AARP investigated the pricing strategy for another Pfizer drug, with an expiring patent:

[T]he manufacturer of the popular anti-cholesterol drug Lipitor employed an unusually aggressive strategy — including a pay-for-delay agreement, a coupon program, and a substantial price increase — to try to maintain revenue and market share after Lipitor’s patent expired. … Several major U.S. retailers have filed lawsuits against Pfizer and Ranbaxy that accuse them of violating antitrust laws by striking a deal that kept generic versions of Lipitor off the market… Pfizer’s chief executive reported that they maintained three times more market share than what is traditionally seen when blockbusters lose patent protection, “add(ing) hundreds of millions of dollars of profitability to the company.”

And a bunch of Pfizer’s profits come from government spending. There isn’t a lot of available research into government spending on pharmaceuticals, but what I’ve found is enlightening. As of 2010, Pfizer’s Lipitor – in varying strengths – represented three of the top-20 drugs prescribed under both Medicare and Department of Defense health programs. As of 2003, Medicaid was spending almost $650 million a year just on Lipitor.

That’s a lot of taxpayer money going to Pfizer.  While the corporation is paying twice as much to shareholders as it’s spending on R&D. While it’s paying five times as much to shareholders as it’s spending on corporate taxes. While Pfizer is trying to use the US corporate tax rate to justify off-shoring profits through a merger with Allergan.

While Pfizer’s CEO is receiving millions in compensation based on the amount of money the corporation pays to stockholders.

— — — —

hands by Gaertringen via PixabayAnd where else does that money come from?

If you have family or friends on Medicare, you probably know that the price of prescription drug coverage is going up significantly next year – even though there will be no Social Security COLA.

If you’re a State of New Hampshire retiree, you know that your cost of drug coverage is going up significantly next year – even though there hasn’t been a retirement COLA for the past six years.

The billions being paid to Pfizer stockholders are coming out of a lot of pockets… including the pockets of people who are spending their “golden years” choosing between medicine and food.

One more time: why are stockholders getting all that money? What have they done to deserve it?

Two Recent Court Rulings That Pit Legal Theories vs Workplace Realities

US Supreme Court BuildingCan’t help but think there’s a huge “disconnect” between recent court rulings and real-life work situations.

First Case: Yesterday, the US Supreme Court weighed in on the question of whether employees are entitled to be paid for time spent waiting for security screening as they leave the job each workday. Apparently, the Supreme Court doesn’t believe that routinely searching employees to see if they’re stealing anything is actually “integral and indispensable” to those workers’ jobs. And the law doesn’t require employers to pay wages for duties that aren’t “integral and indispensable.”

At one level, I agree with the Court wholeheartedly. Proving you’re not a thief, day after day, should not be an “integral and indispensable” part of anyone’s job.

But, in real life: what would happen if those workers refused to go through the security screening? My guess is: they’d be fired.

Which, in my mind, makes those daily screenings “integral and indispensable” – at least as long as the employer insists upon them. Myself, I would distinguish between investigating employees after a theft, and the practice of requiring workers to go through daily screenings “to prevent theft.”  And I don’t think workers should be required to donate their personal time, just because the employer mistrusts every single one if its employees.

Second Case:  This morning, the New Hampshire Supreme Court weighed in with a reverse-and-remand decision about the NH Retirement System.

The court case, Professional Fire Fighters of New Hampshire et al. v. State of New Hampshire, challenged the 2011 increase in public employees’ contributions to the NH Retirement System. That increase ranged from 2% to 2½ % of employees’ paychecks, depending on the job classification. This “pension reform” provision was included as part of the State’s biennial budget.

The plaintiffs and the NH Retirement Security Coalition are still reviewing this morning’s decision.  From their press release:

The NH Retirement Security Coalition has long contended that promises made to our member employees should be enforced because our members uphold their promises each and every day that they go to work. The Court’s decision today unfortunately allows public employers to renege on their promise of security in retirement. While this decision is disappointing, our members will continue to provide high quality service to the state and its cities, towns, and school districts.

We are deeply concerned about the long term impact of this decision on the people of NH. We are carefully reviewing this decision in detail with our attorneys and members of the Coalition and we will offer further in-depth comment as soon as we are able to do so.  

But as I read the decision, one thing jumped out at me: again, I see a disconnect between the legal reasoning and everyday workplace reality.

As I read the ruling – and I could be wrong on this, I am NOT a lawyer – it appears to me that the Court is viewing this from a purely theoretical perspective. It seems to me that the Court based its ruling on the theory that raising retirement contribution rates didn’t retroactively harm public workers because the retirement benefits they had already accrued (under the lower contribution rates) were still there – and the new contribution rates only applied to retirement benefits accrued going forward.

Or, in other words: if a public employee had retired on the day the new contribution rates went into effect, then he or she would still be entitled to all the retirement benefits accrued up to that point… and therefore (as I read the Court decision), the Justices do not see any unconstitutional retroactive impact.

Which I guess begs the question: what would have happened in 2011 if every single one of the public employees covered by the NH Retirement System had chosen retirement, rather than what was effectively an employer-imposed pay cut?

And in the real world, what does this do to NH RSA 273-A, the Public Employee Labor Relations Law, if public employers are now able to unilaterally change the terms and conditions of employment by increasing required “contributions” to the NH Retirement System?

The NH Supreme Court may be asked to reconsider today’s ruling. Stay tuned.

 

*       *       *       *

Members of the NH Retirement Security Coalition include:
Sandy Amlaw, New Hampshire Retired Educators Association
Steve Arnold, NE Police Benevolent Association
Dennis  Caza, Teamsters Union Local 633
Laura Hainey, American Federation of Teachers – New Hampshire
Mark Joyce, NH School Administrators Association
Rich Gulla, State Employees Association of New Hampshire – SEIU Local 1984
Dave Lang, Professional Fire Fighters of New Hampshire
Mark MacKenzie, New Hampshire AFL-CIO
Harriett Spencer, American Federation of State County and Municipal Employees Council 93
Keith Phelps, New Hampshire Police Association
Scott McGilvray, NEA – New Hampshire

Enough is enough!

Smashed Piggy Bank RetirementToday the Nashua Telegraph posted the article, “Pension tension: New research dispels old notion that public employees make less than private sector peers,” which highlights supposedly “new” research focused on public employee pensions.

There are many things wrong with this article and I feel obligated to correct some of these inaccuracies.

Let’s start with the fact that the “new research” they cite was written in 2012, hardly making it breaking news. It was based on surveys taken in 2004 and 2006. The report basically says that while public employees do make less per hour than their private sector counterparts, when you include their retirement benefits public employees make more.

Here are the facts.

1) Research from the National Institute on Retirement Security (NIRS) shows that public employees earn 11-12% less than their private sector counterparts. There is no denying that public workers have a better benefits package than private sector employees – however, even when you add in retirement benefits, public sector employees still fall behind private workers by 6-7% overall. Many people choose to work in the public sector for less pay because they want the better benefits and a real retirement plan.

Unfortunately the trend in the private sector is to take away defined benefit pension plans and force workers into 401(k) programs. This makes employees responsible for funding and managing their own retirement plans. Employers are able to reduce their contributions, reducing what they pay for the benefits they offer. This shifts the entire burden onto the employee. This is also why private sector worker are paid slightly better: because they are expected to save that extra pay for their retirement.

2) Public sector employees are better educated than private sector employees. NIRS found that only 23% of private sector employees have a college degree – compared to 48% of public sector employees with a college degree.

This is easy to understand when you think about some of the jobs in the public sector. You have thousands of literal rocket scientists at NASA and thousands of doctors and medical professionals at the Center for Disease Control. Every teacher is required have a college degree. The result is a highly educated public workforce.

3) It is an outright lie to blame public employees for underfunding of the NH Retirement System. The fact is that in 1999, the NHRS was 100% funded – until Wall Street shenanigans started cutting into its value.

As reported by Liz Iacobucci, “the Trust Fund lost 10% of its value in the recession of 2001.” The NHRS Trust Fund continued to decline and hit rock bottom during the 2008 economic meltdown. “It lost another 25% of its value in the 2008 recession,” said Iacobucci. In 2008, the NHRS had more than $5.9 Billion in investments – and when the stock market crashed, that created what many are calling an unfunded liability.

Think tanks often spin the numbers, calculating that if every employee retired today, the trust fund would be short by “X” amount of money. The fact is that new employees replace the retiring workers, and the new employees pay into the Trust Fund. Investment returns are hugely important to the Retirement System: about 75% of NHRS pension benefits are funded by investment returns. The employers’ contributions are – literally – just pennies of each dollar paid.

Wall Street has rebounded nicely from the 2007-08 crash. The stock market has been setting new records for almost 18 months now. The NHRS has recovered much of its lost ground – and as the market continues to grow, so will the NHRS Trust Fund.

I also can’t believe that Charles Arlinghaus, president of the Josiah Bartlett Center for Public Policy Studies, is suddenly so concerned about municipal budgets. His conversion is almost laughable. In the article, he says “Your town budget is higher than it would be because the pension system is more expensive than it should be. That’s money that’s not going to hospitals, to universities.”

But the Bartlett Center was one of the biggest proponents of “pension reform” bills during the 2011-12 legislative session – and back then, Arlinghaus didn’t talk about the impact those bills would have on municipalities. Cities and towns are paying more now for employee pensions thanks to the hard work of Arlinghaus and the JBC.

Enough is enough!

We need our elected leaders and these Koch-funded “think tanks” to stop lying to the people. The media pits worker against worker when these think tanks are given unwarranted publicity.

Blaming workers for the consequences of two stock market crashes isn’t “new research” – it’s political spin.

Calling retirement benefits unaffordable – without mentioning the fact that the Legislature underfunded the NHRS for years – isn’t honest “research,” it’s political spin.

And we as workers need to change the conversation away from “look at what he gets” – and start asking, “why am I not getting that?”   We as workers, both public and private need to stop blaming each other, and start demanding better from our employers.

Public Pensions: Still Waiting to be ‘Made Whole’

IOU in a piggy bank by Images of Money via FlikrLooks like the Justice Department is settling cases with banks responsible for the 2008 financial meltdown. Citigroup is next up: and reported to be paying $7 billion to end Justice Department investigations.

But I don’t see any of that money headed back to public pension systems.

…like, say, New Hampshire? In June 2007, the New Hampshire Retirement System Trust Fund held $29.7 million in Citigroup stock. Within two years, that stock had lost 94% of its value. (That’s a lot of retirees’ COLAs, right there.)

…like, maybe, Detroit? In June 2007, the two retirement systems covering Detroit public employees had a total of $343 million invested in mortgages. But after the crash, the systems’ “unfunded pension liability” was one of the main justifications for declaring that Detroit was “bankrupt.” (Read “Detroit’s Pension Systems: not ‘unaffordable’, just battered by Wall Street” here.)

State and local pension funds lost a total of $1 Trillion (yes, with a “T”) in value between 2007 and 2008. NOT a coincidence: those state and local pension funds are now “underfunded” by $1 Trillion.

And now the Justice Department is wrapping up its investigations, with fines to the federal government and assistance to homeowners…

… and nothing, as far as I can tell, in the way of restitution to all those public employees whose retirement dreams were destroyed.

Meanwhile, Wall Street broke more records last week…

…and Governor Chris Christie has decided not to pay New Jersey’s pension system more than $2 billion in employer contributions.

New Hampshire public sector retirees haven’t received a cost-of-living adjustment since 2010.

Detroit’s retirees are voting on whether to accept benefit cuts.

And so far, only one banker has gone to jail (compared to 839 people who were convicted for crimes during the savings-and-loan scandals of the 1980s)…

…and as far as I can tell, nothing whatsoever in the way of restitution to public pension funds.

Does that $7 billion settlement sound like a lot to you? Here’s some context:

  • That’s just slightly higher than the $6.4 billion Citigroup had originally planned to spend next year to buy back corporate stock. (Why would a company buy its own stock? “To counteract the dilution of bank shares when executives are awarded stock as incentives.”)
  • It’s roughly equal to six-months’ profit for the corporation.
  • It’s less than 2% of what Citigroup received in the federal bailout.
  • It’s less than one percent of what public pension funds lost in the meltdown.

Mad, yet?

Read the Rolling Stone’s “Looting the Pension Funds” here.

Read “The Plot Against Pensions” here.

 

Wondering Where Your Retirement Has Gone?

 

If you’re wondering what happened to your retirement security, then you really need to read the NY Times excerpt from “The Wolf Hunters of Wall Street.”

The same system that once gave us subprime-mortgage collateralized debt obligations no investor could possibly truly understand now gave us stock-market trades involving fractions of a penny that occurred at unsafe speeds using order types that no investor could possibly truly understand…

“It was so insidious because you couldn’t see it,” Katsuyama says. “It happens on such a granular level that even if you tried to line it up and figure it out, you wouldn’t be able to do it. People are getting screwed because they can’t imagine a microsecond.”

…Even giant investors simply had to take it on faith that Goldman Sachs or Merrill Lynch acted in their interests, despite the obvious financial incentives not to do so.

“Giant investors” would include – yes, that’s right – public pension trust funds.

Like the NH Retirement System Trust Fund… which was 100% funded, as recently as 1999.

Or Detroit’s public pension systems, which were fully funded as recently as 2008 – but are now being used as the “reason” that the City “has” to go through bankruptcy.

Wonder where your retirement has gone?

Read about Wall Street’s “dark pools”… then get really, really mad.

Is Detroit REALLY “broke”? Because The Math Does Not Add Up

Louis-Philippe Duc d' Orleans Saluting His Army on the BattlefieldCan’t help wondering about this scenario.

The City of Detroit owns one of the finest art museums in the world.  On Wednesday, Christie’s auction house released its appraisal of… just 5% of Detroit’s artwork.  According to Christie’s, that small fraction of the collection is worth somewhere between $452 and $866 million.  Earlier, outside experts had given a ballpark estimate of $2.5 billion – for just 38 of the museum’s 66,000 pieces.

But Detroit can’t afford to pay its retirees’ pensions?

Far more troubling is the fact that the city apparently didn’t seek federal grant money before seeking bankruptcy.

Imagine yourself in the shoes of Kevyn Orr, the “Emergency Manager” that Governor Rick Snyder appointed back in March.  If YOU were walking into a place that was in fiscal trouble, wouldn’t you look around for revenues?  (Anybody else remember “Mediscam”?)

Yeah, well, that’s apparently NOT what Kevyn Orr did.

Back in September, federal officials identified more than $300 million in grant monies that Detroit was eligible for… but somehow… hadn’t gotten.

Democratic  Sen. Carl Levin: “There are dozens and dozens of programs available – some they haven’t applied for… some have been granted and are simply sitting there waiting for the city to do what they need to be doing.”

Yep, that’s what he said: “simply sitting there, waiting for the city” (which is now headed by Emergency Manager Kevyn Orr) to do what needs to be done.

Think about all the press stories you’ve seen, about Detroit’s financial situation.  Then look at the money that was “simply sitting there” waiting for federal officials to point it out:

  • Public safety concerns? Turns out there was $28 million in federal money available to hire police and firefighters, purchase equipment and pay for programs.  Plus about another $2 million available from private foundations.
  • Public transportation issues?  There was more than $130 million in federal money to repair buses, install security cameras and expand service to areas outside the city.  Plus another $3.3 million in private foundation monies.
  • Neighborhood blight?  More than $85 million in federal money to rehab (or demolish) housing units, clean up brownfields and otherwise fight blight.  Plus another $13 million from private foundations.
  • Bleak future?  Federal officials identified another $32 million in private grant monies to help Detroit plan for its future, upgrade its technology, train its residents and bring retail and creative industries back to the city.

Now, think again about Mediscam.  In New Hampshire, public officials faced with fiscal problems got (ahem) “creative” in order to maximize federal funds.

But in Detroit, Emergency Manager Kevyn Orr left more than $300 million in grant monies… sitting there.

Now, let’s look one more level down.

All the press reports about Detroit focus on that “$18 billion” of total debt.  That includes not just pensions and retiree health care liabilities, but also all the usual long term bonds that large municipalities have (about $3.7 trillion total, nationwide).

In a bankruptcy proceeding, the question shouldn’t be “How much does Detroit owe?”  The question SHOULD be “Can Detroit afford to pay its bills?”

And – with different political leadership – the answer to that question could easily be “yes”.

At the end of each fiscal year, public entities prepare a “Combined Annual Financial Report” that provides useful information about their finances.  Detroit hasn’t released its 2013 CAFR yet (even though the fiscal year ended more than five months ago).  But here’s what Detroit’s auditors said, in their 2012 Comprehensive Annual Financial Report:  “The City has an accumulated unassigned deficit in the General Fund of $326.6 million as of June 30, 2012, which has resulted from operating deficits over the last several years.”

So… as I do the math… those operating deficits have been accumulating over several years… but just ONE year’s worth of those grants (which have been “just sitting there”)… could almost completely offset that accumulated deficit.

Whoa… without even touching that art collection?  (And without restoring state revenue-sharing that was cut under Governor Rick Snyder?)

Maybe it’s just me… but I can’t help suspecting there is something else going on here, OTHER than fixing Detroit’s finances.

 

 

Starting in Detroit… next stop: Social Security

Frederick Bancroft, prince of magicians: the wizard's enchantments, performing arts poster, ca. 1895Buried on the PBS website, there is a blog post that ought to strike fear into the heart of every working-age American.

“Detroit Today, Washington Tomorrow” takes dead aim at the Social Security system, using the same “inflate the numbers” messaging strategy that Kevyn Orr and Gov. Rick Snyder have been using lately in Detroit.

What’s the strategy?

  1. Just pick the biggest number that you can find, and use it to scare the bejeezus out of people.
  2. Once you’ve got folks focused on that huge number, it’s easy to convince them that “oh, we’re so sorry! But Detroit can’t afford to pay the retirement benefits we’ve been promising all these decades.”
  3. Nevermind that all those Detroit workers have been paying into the system, all these decades, and planning their futures based on the promises that were made.
  4. Just keep everyone’s eyes focused on that really huge number – and they won’t even think about questioning your claim that “oh, so sorry! We can’t afford it!”

It’s the rhetorical equivalent of old-fashioned magic tricks.  And just like those old-fashioned magic tricks, it will work so long as people don’t pay attention to what’s really going on.

In Detroit, they’re hiding a $326 million accumulated deficit under the rhetorical handkerchief of $18 billion in total outstanding debt.  They’re basically saying: “don’t look at that smaller deficit number (caused by cutbacks in state revenue-sharing) – look at this huge number over here!  Look at how much Detroit is supposed to pay bondholders back, over the next 30 years!  Look here, Detroit can’t afford to pay back $18 billion right now!  (Nevermind that it’s not supposed to be paid back, for decades yet.)  Look here, if we can’t afford to pay back $18 billion, then we should declare bankruptcy and get rid of the debt (that we owe to our public employees).  We just can’t afford to keep our promises!”

Can’t you just hear the calliope music?   (If not, here’s a YouTube to help get you into a properly gullible mood.)

Now, read that PBS post by Boston University professor (and presidential candidate) Larry Kotlikoff.

  1. All of a sudden, our federal debt isn’t just $12 trillion (the number that outrages Republicans, as long as nobody suggests increasing taxes to pay it back). According to Professor Kotlikoff, “the true measure of our debt – the one suggested by economic theory – is the fiscal gap, which totals $222 trillion.”
  2. Now, keep looking at this number over here – it’s really, really huge.  According to Professor Kotlikoff, “Given the $222 trillion fiscal gap … current policy is clearly not sustainable. Making it sustainable requires either an immediate and permanent 64 percent increase in all federal taxes or an immediate and permanent 38 percent cut in all spending or some combination of tax increases and spending cuts.”
  3. Nevermind all those decades that workers have been paying into the Social Security system. Again, here’s Professor Kotlikoff: “If anything, the Social Security benefits, and not the Treasury bond payments, should be recorded as official debt.”
  4. Keep folks paying attention to that really big number.  Professor Kotlikoff borrows the authoritative voice of former Secretary of State George Shultz to finish his performance: “Our country doesn’t have a lot of elder statesmen to guide us. But this tough ex-marine knows our country is broke, knows our children are threatened, and knows we’ve been hiding the truth.”

Yep, that’s where things are headed.  Detroit today, Washington tomorrow.

They’ve been trying to “reform” Social Security since Barry Goldwater ran for President.

And they’re still trying.

And they’re about to have the biggest Congress-created crisis yet.

  • Read about January’s Fiscal Cliff crisis here and here.
  • Read about the March Sequestration crisis here and here.

There is another “perfect storm” of crises coming up in the next two months: the current federal budget will expire at about the same time that the Treasury runs out of debt limit “headroom” (again, thank our federal and postal service employees, whose retirement contributions provide this reprieve!).

What sorts of magic tricks do you think they’re going to try, then?

Detroit today, Washington tomorrow.

My recommendation?  Remember Professor Kotlikoff’s patter, and keep your eyes on the magicians’ hands.

*********

Read the LTE in response to this post.

State “Shared Taxes” Cuts have been Drowning Detroit: is Grover Norquist laughing yet?

norquist_drown_governmentThe Bankruptcy Court judge overseeing Detroit’s “restructuring” is moving really, really fast.

And – at least so far – he’s following the schedule proposed by “Emergency Manager” Kevyn Orr and the law firm Jones Day.

  • Read more about Kevyn Orr here.
  • Read more about Jones Day here.

This Friday, August 2nd, the judge is expected to rule on Orr’s motion that a hand-picked “Committee of Retirees” be allowed to make decisions on behalf of the more than 20,000 retired city employees.

How’s this shaping up?  It looks a lot like what just happened in Stockton, California – where a similar committee just accepted $5.1 million as full “payment” for future medical benefits estimated to be worth hundreds of millions of dollars.

And now that steamroller is headed straight for all those people who spent their lives working for the citizens of Detroit.

One of the many, many things that are wrong with this situation is: how completely the mainstream media has swallowed the spin offered by Michigan’s Republican Governor, Rick Snyder.

First, blame the unions.  (The Wall Street Journal’s “How the Unions Killed Detroit” is here.)

Next, blame “60 years of decline” – particularly the decline of the [unionized] auto industry.  (Watch Gov. Snyder on NBC’s Meet the Press here.)

Then, inflate the numbers.  All of a sudden, they’re not talking about annual deficits – not even the total accumulated annual deficits – they’re talking about “total debt”.   That includes bonds for the Water and Sewer systems.  For renovations to the Convention Center.  For the city’s Building Authority, and its Downtown Development Authority.  Its Transportation and Parking Funds.

Yeah, when you add it all up, that looks like a lot of debt.  But municipalities traditionally borrow the costs of capital projects, usually for terms of 20 to 30 years.  Just like most middle class families don’t pay cash when they buy a house.

But that “$18 billion” total debt number sure makes it seem like Detroit can’t possibly avoid bankruptcy, and can’t afford to keep its promises to its workers.

Great spin.

But what do Detroit’s auditors say?  Quoting directly from the city’s 2012 Comprehensive Annual Financial Report:

The City has an accumulated unassigned deficit in the General Fund of $326.6 million as of June 30, 2012, which has resulted from operating deficits over the last several years.                                                                         

$326 million… $18 billion… Gotta admit: Rick Snyder sure knows how to spin things.

Let’s look at Detroit’s problem from another direction, for a minute.  Let’s consider – just for a minute – that maybe Detroit doesn’t have “a spending problem”, maybe it has a revenue problem.

The reality is, all around the country, municipalities depend on state revenue-sharing to make their budgets work.  Those of us who lived through New Hampshire’s Bill O’Brien years know this all too well.  State tax cuts and budget cuts “trickle down” and hit municipalities where it hurts.

For Detroit, state “shared taxes” used to provide 16% of city revenues.  That means one out of every six dollars that Detroit budgeted came from the State of Michigan.

Then GOP right-wingers declared war on our government.

Look at how different Detroit’s revenues would have been, if the amount of “shared taxes” had stayed the same as it was when George Bush became President:

Detroit Shared Taxes

Data from Detroit Combined Annual Financial Reports available at http://www.detroitmi.gov/Departments/Finance/tabid/86/Default.aspx

An interesting math exercise: if the state had continued to pay the same amount of “shared taxes” as it did in 2001, Detroit would have received $4.1 billion in additional revenue over the years.  (And maybe the city wouldn’t have had to borrow quite so much to finance capital projects…?)

Just in FY2012, Detroit would have received $470 million more in “shared taxes” revenue – if the State had still been sharing revenue like it did in 2001.

And that would have been more than enough to wipe out the $326 million in accumulated operating deficits that Detroit’s auditor cited in the 2012 CAFR.

So maybe Detroit’s financial problems weren’t caused by the unions – or “60 years of decline.”  Maybe it’s not a “spending problem” – maybe it’s a “revenue problem”.

Maybe the problem is that the extreme wing of the GOP declared war on government back in 2001… and they’re still planning to “drown it in the bathtub.”

 

 

Detroit: latest battleground in the war on the Middle Class

whose_rightsThere are times when I would really prefer to be wrong… and Wednesday was one of them.

Yesterday afternoon, the federal judge overseeing Detroit’s bankruptcy proceedings suspended all other legal actions by public workers who are trying to protect their constitutional rights.  And it is very unlikely that workers’ rights will be considered during the bankruptcy proceedings.

What good are constitutional rights, if workers can’t get them enforced in court?  It’s the same basic dilemma that we’ve been looking at, with all the controversy about members of the National Labor Relations Board.  If the NLRB doesn’t have enough members for a quorum – and so they can’t enforce the National Labor Relations Act – then do workers really have the rights supposedly guaranteed to them?

Read my post “Who has rights when Detroit goes to court?” here.

The next step is a procedural hearing on August 2nd, when the judge will decide whether to go ahead and appoint a mediator in the case.

—–

Ever read Sun Tzu’s The Art of War?

Back in the 1990s, the book was a must-read for MBA candidates learning a new, bloodthirsty style of management.  When Newt Gingrich was taking over as Speaker of the House in 1994, he included it on his “reading list” for incoming Republicans.  It’s also a favorite of Republican strategist and Fox News chief Roger Ailes.

One of its principal themes is: Know your opponent.  So let’s look at Detroit from that perspective.

Michigan Governor Rick Snyder:

Bankruptcy Counsel, the law firm of Jones Day:

  • Hostess Strike BCTGM Jones Day was lead bankruptcy counsel for Hostess Brands.  We all know how that turned out: the company’s assets sold off, union contracts tossed to the wind, pension monies lost, bonuses given to top executives, lots and lots of jobs lost.
  • According to press reports, Jones Day attorney Jack Newman represents Peabody Energy in a bankruptcy hearing involving health benefits for retired mine workers, which NH Labor News readers know as the “Patriot Coal” case.  Peabody Energy was the company that “spun off” Patriot Coal in 2007.  A lawsuit filed in federal court in Charleston, WV charges that Peabody violated the federal Employment Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA) by scheming to eliminate contractually-guaranteed lifetime health care benefits for retirees.  (Learn more at the Fairness at Patriot website.)
  • Chicago Teachers Strike 2Remember the Chicago teachers’ strike?  Guess who takes credit for ending it?  From the law firm’s website: “The Chicago teachers’ strike settled the day after Jones Day filed a motion for a temporary restraining order on behalf of the Chicago Board of Education against the teachers union.”
  • Verizon?  Guess who’s their lawyer.  Back in 2006, Jones Day won a federal court appeal, limiting the union’s ability to send grievances to arbitration.  Now they’re in court defending Verizon’s transfer of pension obligations (described as one of the two “largest pension de-risking transactions in US history”).
  • And, back on the subject of the National Labor Relations Board, guess who… oh, nevermind guessing.  Just read “How they Won It: Jones Day Invalidates Obama’s NLRB Picks” here.

Yeah, these are the folks that our union brothers and sisters are up against, out there in Detroit.

And it doesn’t look like they are going to be able to rely on the court system to protect their legal rights.

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Sun Tzu gets the final word, here: “There is no instance of a country having benefited from prolonged warfare.”

It’s time for the right-wing’s war on the Middle Class to stop.

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Read my Friday blog post about Detroit here.

Read Monday’s post here.

Read Tuesday’s post here.

Read yesterday’s post here.

Who has rights when Detroit goes to court today?

constitutionSo… you think you’ve got rights?  Right there, written in the Constitution?

Think again.

Today everybody heads to court for the first hearing in the Detroit bankruptcy filing.  And I’m guessing it’s about to get really scary.  I’m guessing that one of the questions that will be posed is: whether Detroit workers’ Constitutional rights actually matter during a Chapter 9 bankruptcy.

Here’s the thing: yesterday, the Michigan Court of Appeals halted all state court action on the matter – including the lawsuit challenging the bankruptcy filing on Constitutional grounds.

Here’s the second thing:  there is apparently a legal theory that

Under Chapter 9, a municipality has the clear authority to modify, assume or reject executory contracts, and these actions will not be subject to constitutional challenges outside of the bankruptcy proceeding while adjustment takes place.

Go back and read that again.  “These actions will not be subject to constitutional challenges outside of the bankruptcy proceedings.”

And that category “executory contracts” could include… oh, say… collective bargaining agreements and pension obligations.  (Yes, I’m thinking maybe it even includes those pension obligations written into the Michigan Constitution, back in 1963.)

And here’s the third thing: legal experts seem to agree that, under Chapter 9 bankruptcy proceedings, the federal court doesn’t have much say over what the state and municipality decide to do.  Here that is, in lawyer-language:

A bankruptcy court’s power is greatly limited under chapter 9 in deference to the Tenth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution and principles of federalism that reserve to the states sovereignty over their own internal affairs.  Accordingly, the state maintains its powers to control municipalities (subject to specific Bankruptcy Code provisions). The bankruptcy court cannot interfere with the political or governmental powers, property, revenues or use or enjoyment of income-producing property of the municipality.

So, here’s my huge question: what happens if neither the federal court nor the state court has jurisdiction to enforce the constitutional rights of Detroit workers?

Is it possible that the state of Michigan – through its Governor, Rick Snyder – really does have an unfettered ability to reject constitutionally-protected pension obligations?

Yep, looks to me like that would be a pretty scary legal theory, that I’m guessing they will start to test today.

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Speaking of scary…

Remember Governor Rick Snyder’s Very Busy December?  (He pushed through a replacement Emergency Manager law, and then days later he pushed through a Right to Work law?  Merry Christmas, everyone!)

Also in December… The Michigan State University Extension program issued a very interesting report:  “Chapter 9 Bankruptcy: Simulation Exercise.”  You can read it here.

It would look an awful lot like a blueprint-for-bankruptcy, to me, if not for the disclaimer: “It is not intended to provide legal or financial advice or counsel and should not be construed as such to any of its readers. If legal or financial advice is needed, the appropriate licensed professional should be contacted.”

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And here’s a disclaimer of my own: I AM NOT A LAWYER.  I could be totally misreading things.

Maybe Gov. Snyder really isn’t going to try to use a legal loophole to get around the rights of Detroit workers.

Maybe I’m just being hypersensitive, what with all the recent attacks on workers and government programs.  (Read today’s New York Times “House G.O.P. Sets New Offensive” here.)

Maybe I’m wrong about all this.

I really hope so.

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UPDATE: Breaking News from Detroit.
(Reuters) — Lawyers for the city of Detroit on Wednesday asked a U.S. bankruptcy judge to set aside all other lawsuits seeking to block the city’s petition for bankruptcy protection, arguing that federal bankruptcy court is the only venue to debate the matter.
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Read my Friday blog post about Detroit here.

Read Monday’s post here.

Read yesterday’s post here.

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