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Friday, October 17, 2014

Ron Paul Believes the Free Market Will Save Us from Ebola

Posted by on Fri, Oct 17, 2014 at 10:29 AM

Ron Paul, who resembles an elf, thinks the free market will save his elven people from oppression at the hands of the governments dark sorcery.
  • Rich Koele / Shutterstock
  • Ron Paul, who resembles an elf, thinks the free market will save his [elven] people from oppression at the hands of the government['s dark sorcery].

Grist's Ben Adler linked to an astonishing essay written by Ron Paul about Ebola. What do you think Paul believes the government should do to stop this disease? That's right: Nothing. Paul believes that the free market can stop Ebola. In fact, he says it outright: "individuals acting in the free market can do a better job of containing Ebola than can governments. "

"The people of Liberia and other countries would be better off if the US government left them alone," Paul writes. "Leave it to private citizens to invest in African business and trade with the African people." He has many examples of what the government should do to help business help itself. Here's one: "Legitimate concerns about protecting airline passengers from those with Ebola or other infectious diseases can best be addressed by returning responsibility for passenger safety to the airlines." Paul also rails against the "the FDA’s cumbersome approval process," even though, by his own admission, "Ebola patients in the US have received permission from the Food and Drug Administration to use 'unapproved' drugs." Paul's problem, you see, is that anyone has to ask "special permission" of the government when it comes to using untested medicine.

Paul cites as an example a Firestone plant in Liberia that oversaw its own quarantine procedures when the Ebola outbreak began. "Firestone has successfully kept the Ebola virus from spreading among its employees," Paul says. In fact, "As of this writing, there are only three Ebola patients at Firestone's treatment facility." Of course, the market was much freer in 1918 when the flu pandemic killed somewhere between 50 and 100 million people, but Ron Paul has never given a shit about history. Ron Paul only gives a shit about one thing: The free market. Of course he looks at Ebola as an opportunity to cheerlead for his life's one cause.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Mark Zuckerberg Just Gave $25 Million to Fight Ebola, but He Owes Us a Whole Lot More Than That

Posted by on Tue, Oct 14, 2014 at 10:26 AM

Mark Zuckerberg wants to give you some of your money back, America. Isnt he a great guy?
  • Frederic Legrand / Shutterstock
  • Mark Zuckerberg wants to give you some of your money back, America. Isn't he a great guy?

This morning, Mark Zuckerberg posted on his Facebook wall* that he and his wife are "donating $25 million to the Centers for Disease Control Foundation to help fight Ebola."** The post has been liked well over a hundred thousand times as I write this. Zuckerberg's announcement was mostly met with the kind of brain-dead positivity you find on Facebook—lots of comments like "God bless you" and "what a great thing you're doing" that make you wonder why the person even bothered to comment in the first place.

One commenter had a slightly less positive question for Zuckerberg: "The U.S. has a GDP of $17 trillion. Why should YOU have to put in $25MM???" Zuckerberg responded first with a platitude: "I think we have a responsibility to help out wherever we see a need." And then he expanded his answer in the next paragraph, saying that "most people — including government leaders — don't realize we're at such a critical turning point" with Ebola. Zuckerberg continued, "if we don't get this under control soon, then it will spread and become an epidemic we have to deal with for decades to come."

This is obviously a major gift, and it comes at a very important time in the fight against Ebola. But the problem is that Zuckerberg, who is worth 33.3 billion dollars, should already have given money to the fight against Ebola, in the form of taxes. He and all the other major players in Silicon Valley have dodged taxes for years. Facebook reportedly didn't have to pay taxes for 2013, and it "flipped" over 700 million dollars to the Cayman Islands in a dodgy corporate tax scam known as the "Double Irish." That particular corporate tax loophole just closed, but there are many others out there, and Facebook will undoubtedly use those loopholes to avoid paying its fair share. It's a real shame that Zuckerberg is a lousy American—a tax dodger, an irresponsible citizen—and yet he still gets to swan in and soak up the glory by "donating" this money. That money—and a whole lot more besides—should already be paying to fix the real problem: the irreparable damage to our public health infrastructure caused by Republican tax cuts and the corporations that cheer Republicans on. You know, corporations like Facebook.

* Do you really think Mark Zuckerberg actually uses his Facebook page for anything besides corporate upkeep anymore? Like, that he uses Facebook to keep in touch with his friends? Doesn't the idea of Zuckerberg actually using Facebook strike you as kind of hilarious?

** Just after I published this post, I read that Zuckerberg also just bought 700 acres of a Hawaiian island for $100 million. Kind of puts that Ebola donation into perspective, doesn't it?

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Friday, October 10, 2014

Meinert, LaJeunesse Acquire Ferrari Dealership

Posted by on Fri, Oct 10, 2014 at 12:56 PM

The vehicle showroom will be converted into a lounge/fashion boutique that will serve locally sourced sparkling wine and fruit.
  • Photo by Jonathan Swift
  • The vehicle showroom will be converted into a lounge/fashion boutique that will sell lifestyle accessories like clothing, local wine and fruit, and $200,000 Ferraris.

The entrepreneurial team responsible for revitalizing the Pike/Pine corridor has announced their latest project will be a reboot of one of Capitol Hill’s most neglected landmarks: the Ferrari dealership. Together and separately, Dave Meinert and Jason LaJeunesse have presided over many of the neighborhood’s most successful business ventures, including Lost Lake Diner, Neumos, Big Mario’s Pizza, the Capitol Hill Block Party, and, most recently, the refurbished Comet Tavern. In a relatively brief period of time, these two graying impresarios have transformed a shabby bohemian district into an upscale nightlife destination zone where people from all walks of life and all economic strata can raise a glass as equals with the neighborhood’s indigenous population in the dim light of repurposed signage.

Having given Seattle a host of places to eat, drink, and be merry, Meinert and LaJeunesse are now offering the ultimate lifestyle accessory, with their own retro-modernist twist. The former Ferrari dealership will be made over to resemble what Meinert calls "a combination hunting lodge and '80s video arcade" envisioned by renowned designer George Esquivel. The cars themselves will be moved to an underground vault for private viewing, while what is now the vehicle showroom will be converted into the Front Seat, a lounge/fashion boutique that will serve locally sourced sparkling wine and fruit, sell clothing designs inspired by the films of Visconti, Fellini, and Antonioni, and feature a revolving lineup of the Northwest's premier DJ/turntablists. But Meinert and LaJeunesse have been around long enough to know that all this innovation would be for naught without the right name. With that in mind, they've christened their latest brainchild 4RE.

Sleek, simple, elegant, just like the cars they hope to sell.

“To me, [the business] seemed like a no-brainer,” says Meinert. “Everybody says the economy is suffering, but personally, I’ve never had more money than I do right now. I bought my first Ferrari right after 9/11, and I’ve gotten a new one every odd-numbered year since. I'll admit I was a little self-conscious at first, but everybody thinks my cars look cool as hell. That’s significant to me. Anyone who follows me on social media knows my politics are closely aligned with my business ambitions. I figure, if the city isn't prepared to get serious about transit, they better get ready to see a lot more Ferraris on the street.”

Nursing an Oly and a shot of Jameson in a booth at his crowded Lost Lake Diner, Meinert grows pensive. “Seattle,” he muses, “and Capitol Hill in particular, used to be all about dressing down, finding the glamour in poverty, the whole loser aesthetic. And that was great, but that was then. Look around: Our clientele is aspirational. If they weren’t, would they really be paying $17 for a hamburger?”

As a timid server hovers near our table, careful not to interrupt Meinert or LaJeunesse but eager for her bosses to witness her giving me a check for my now-lukewarm coffee, I ask if they have any concerns about their latest foray. Meinert chuckles. “Mark my words: People are going to get right behind 4RE. What's more punk rock than a Ferrari? I can't think of anything. The only challenge will be for people to remember where they parked their sweet new ride. All I know is that it better not be in my spot.”

The wolves of Pike/Pine share a hearty laugh as the server hands me my check.

Forbes Says Piketty Is Wrong: American Billionaires Are Self-Made

Posted by on Fri, Oct 10, 2014 at 8:05 AM

Forbes Hates Thomas Piketty
  • Forbes hates that Thomas Piketty has ruined its popular billionaires party.

After Forbes listed the wealthiest 400 humans in the United States last week, it turned its guns on the French economist/pest Thomas Piketty, who in the book Capital in the 21st Century claims that advanced capitalist societies are returning to levels of inequality and social/economic conditions that prevailed in Europe and the United States before World War I. At that time, the top 10 percent of society commanded almost 50 percent of its income, and inheritance was the dominant/surest source of wealth. There is a lot of evidence for Piketty's theory, and in the face of this growing evidence and the success of his book, Forbes' celebration of the richest of the rich looked downright obscene and untimely. Indeed, in one year, the wealthiest Americans collectively increased their wealth by an ugly $270 billion.

How to justify this madness? Claim that most of the billionaires on the list are self-made and not born with a "silver spoon."

More than two-thirds of the listed billionaires, Forbes declared, made their money the hard and honest way. But how did it determine if a billionaire is self-made or not? Well, if you did not inherit a ridiculously big chunk of money, you qualified as self-made. This means, Bill Gates and Oprah Winfrey are the same: self-made. Bill Gates came from a place that is just like rural Mississippi. He went to schools that are similar in every way to the ones Winfrey attended. No kidding, this is how Forbes makes its measurements. But in reality, Bill Gates began in the 10 percent, as did Rupert Murdoch (self-made), and Mark Zuckerberg (self-made). Forbes has no idea of the difference between being at the bottom of the 10 percent and being even at the top of the bottom 25 percent.

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Robert Reich Celebrates Seattle's $15 Minimum Wage

Posted by on Tue, Sep 30, 2014 at 11:15 AM

Robert Reich onstage at Town Hall on Saturday.
  • pbc
  • Robert Reich onstage at Town Hall on Saturday.

Former Secretary of Labor Robert Reich spoke at Town Hall over the weekend as part of Working Washington's ongoing Reclaiming Prosperity lecture series. At the lecture, Reich said he wanted to personally celebrate Seattle's recent adoption of the $15-an-hour minimum wage as a huge step forward in the fight for income equality. Before the lecture, Reich sat down with The Stranger to discuss the politics of economics and why cities should be at the forefront of the battle over income inequality.

The city’s focus really landed on the minimum wage when a socialist running for city council, Kshama Sawant, made the movement the centerpiece of her campaign. Her campaign signs promised a $15 minimum wage, the issue took center stage at her events, and the mayoral candidates at the time both pledged support to the minimum wage campaign after Sawant made it an issue. Between Sawant’s endorsement of the issue and the way Occupy Wall Street made economic injustice a hot topic, do you think matters of economics are best served by starting outside the two-party system and working their way inward?

Generally speaking, yes. Because the two-party system, as it's evolved, is not a system whose leaders are necessarily thought leaders or progressive leaders. They are political leaders. The paradox is that a political leader follows politics. A political leader wants to do what most people want that political leader to do at any given time. So true leadership normally has to come from outside. Talk about the civil rights movement, talk about the gay rights movement, talk about the labor movement—these movements did not start with politicians.

One thing that concerns me about the $15 minimum wage in terms of income inequality is the fact that Washington state already has the most regressive tax structure in the country, and as I understand from your work, a huge problem with the economy is that so much money is frozen up in the assets of the one percent. Simply raising the wages of the poorest workers in the city doesn’t seem like it will help the problem of income disparity, because the money to pay low-wage workers is going to come primarily from the lower and middle classes, isn’t it? It doesn't touch the money that the one percent is sitting on, does it?

The money to pay low-wage workers is coming from, generally speaking, wherever the money is. There is no particular retail, restaurant, hotel, hospital, surface transportation, child care, or elder care occupation that caters more to low wage workers than to middle-class workers. I mean, these are occuaptions in which services are bought across the board. You are right, though, that it is not the whole answer to income inequality. It is a piece of an answer. It's a step in the right direction, but many other things need to be done and regressive tax systems need to be reversed.

Do you have any ideas for what Seattle and Washington should do next to address income inequality?

Continue reading »

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Friday, September 19, 2014

Alibaba Is the Internet's Dystopian Future and Americans Can't Get Enough of It

Posted by on Fri, Sep 19, 2014 at 12:31 PM

Is this the face of the future of the internet?
  • 360b / Shutterstock
  • Is this the face of the future of the internet?

Now that Scotland voted itself back to the kid's table and Apple's sold approximately two billion acres' worth of smartphones, the news is obsessed with the Alibaba IPO. In shorthand, Alibaba is the Chinese Amazon, but it's really much more than that. As this Quartz explainer article puts it, Alibaba is the Amazon, Uber, Twitter, eBay, and Google of China, plus a lot more—even including physical retail outlets. (Related: You must go to that Quartz article just to get a look at the gigantic nude statue on the Alibaba campus. It's so ostentatious and literal; I would love it if Amazon built one of those things in South Lake Union.) This is the kind of monopolized information-media conglomerate that internet alarmists have been warning us about for almost two decades.

And so naturally, the IPO was almost unimaginably successful. Shares were priced at $68 at the beginning of trading, but they skirted the edge of $100 a share before settling back to the low nineties. That's an increase of 34 percent, far surpassing Facebook's IPO and dramatically introducing Alibaba to the United States. It's now the largest online retailer in the world, surpassing even Amazon. Should Amazon be worried? Responses vary wildly. Some say Alibaba and Amazon aren't even really competitors. Others say Amazon shouldn't start worrying just yet, but that the two companies could become fierce rivals in the near future. Some people say that Alibaba's low corporate tax rate as a Chinese corporation is its secret weapon. Others say Amazon should start panicking now.

Alibaba already owns a chunk of Lyft, but it's presumably getting ready to start making some higher-profile purchases in the United States. I'm curious to see how the American public responds to a Chinese online retailer becoming a big deal on this side of the Pacific; this strikes me as a major test of how accepting of globalization Americans have become. We're looking at plenty of ethical dilemmas, too, as the company expands into other markets. For example, Alibaba's Twitter clone, Weibo, is happy to comply with Chinese censors. (If you'd like to learn more about this, there's an excellent book called Blocked on Weibo: What Gets Surpressed on China's Version of Twitter (and Why) by Jason Q. Ng that illustrates the broad range of words and phrases that are censored on a regular basis by the social network.) On the one hand, America has always been addicted to xenophobia but on the other hand Americans tend to unashamedly shop wherever the prices are lowest, regardless of any moral quandaries, so it's hard to say which base desire wins out. But there's something a little broader that concerns me about Alibaba.

The internet has always sold itself to us as a destination of boundless possibility, but the reality behind that sales pitch is very different. Back in the early 2000s, as the internet coalesced around certain sites, it occurred to me that American internet users only wanted one of each kind of site: Amazon for books over Barnes & Noble's site, for instance, or Google over Ask.com, or the vapid churn of Huffington Post (or Drudge, depending on how you feel about poor people) over the natterings of a thousand smaller blogs. Sure, there's always a contrarian Pepsi—someone's gotta keep Bing in business—but the internet has settled into a very un-competitive place, an environment that is friendly to the largest monopolies possible. As the years passed, the smaller online monopolies kept getting bigger and buying other smaller monopolies. We seem to have stalled out at a handful of giants—Facebook, Amazon, Google, Netflix—but we'll probably see some of those names consolidate even further as the economy binges and purges in decades to come. Meanwhile in China, where the government has pumped certain sectors full of the kind of pure, unfettered capitalism that Republican presidential candidates claim to love, all those specialized monopolies have merged under one giant monopoly of monopolies named Alibaba. China has beat us to Peak Internet Consolidation, and now that giant, shambling Frankenstein is knocking on our door. I'm afraid that Silicon Valley is going to decide that the only appropriate thing to do is to get even bigger in response.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

A Hedge Fund Wants to Cut Jobs at Olive Garden, but Everyone Is More Worried About Losing Breadsticks

Posted by on Tue, Sep 16, 2014 at 1:46 PM

Why would you need actual human servers when you can just order and pay for your food on an iPad instead?
  • ljh images/Shutterstock
  • Why would you need actual human servers when you can just order and pay for your food on an iPad instead?

Once, I dated a woman who loved Olive Garden. (She was from Florida; the relationship didn't end well.) Even though she lived on Capitol Hill, within walking distance of literally dozens of better restaurants, whenever it was her turn to choose where to eat we'd get into her car and go to the Olive Garden at the Northgate Mall. (The Northgate Olive Garden closed a little while after things exploded between us. It became a Chinese buffet, which itself recently closed.) As anyone who follows my work knows, I'm not generally a fan of corporate chain restaurants, so you can imagine what my Olive Garden experience was like. The pasta was slimy and pale, the sauce was a glorified ketchup. Everyone sitting around us always seemed to be in the middle of a fight over some stupid comment someone made in the car on the way there. The salad tasted like a toxic stew of oil and cellulose, the breadsticks were pillowy and flavorless, except for the butter-like grease slobbered over the top of them just before they arrived at the tables. I felt sorry for the servers and would frequently overtip, but I never complained to my girlfriend about any of it; I kept a lot to myself back then. I haven't been in an Olive Garden since. To be honest, I haven't wasted a lot of thought on Olive Garden since then, either.

But lately, Olive Garden has been on my mind. By now, you've probably read about Starboard Value, the aggressive hedge fund that blamed Olive Garden's recent financial decline in part on the restaurant chain's tendency to hand out too many breadsticks to customers. (Darden Restaurants Inc, the company responsible for Olive Garden, has refuted the charges, saying that the breadsticks are a symbol of "Italian generosity.") It's a stupid little story seemingly made for flabby late-summer news cycles, the kind of thing that makes you wonder if perhaps the Starboard breadsticks complaint wasn't whipped together in some PR firm's boardroom as a way to get people talking about Olive Garden again. But then a PDF of Starboard's 300-page presentation about the future of Olive Garden went online. I read it. It's not a PR stunt. It's a sincere document that exemplifies the worst of corporate communications: Stultifying language, vapid repetition, pointless visual gimmicks, and an all-consuming blandness that threatens to descend on your brain in a feathery cloud and nibble your prefrontal cortex to pieces. Allow me to give you a summary.

Continue reading »

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Steve Ballmer Quits Microsoft Board

Posted by on Tue, Aug 19, 2014 at 11:46 AM

Except for a disgusting amount of stock, Microsoft is now officially Ballmer-free.

In a public exchange of letters, the former Microsoft CEO announced that he is stepping down from the software company’s board, effective immediately. Current Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella thanked Ballmer for his service to the firm, and for his “support” during his early days as CEO.

The Ballmer era is over.

The shambling bellow-beast™ seems to be saving all his enthusiasm for the Clippers these days:

Ballmer says he's going to devote his time to "the Clippers, civic contribution, teaching and study." Let's hope that his contributions to the Clippers are less weird than his contributions to Lakeside School, as reported in this jaw-dropping story in the Seattle Times.

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Monday, August 11, 2014

Postal Service Loses Two Billion Dollars This Spring

Posted by on Mon, Aug 11, 2014 at 1:57 PM

That's a bad quarterly loss:

The loss for the spring quarter, which ended June 30, was significantly higher than the $740 million loss for the same three-month period last year. The agency blamed increases in compensation and benefit costs for the red ink and said it would be unable to make a congressionally mandated payment of $5.7 billion this September for health benefits for future retirees. The loss came despite a 2 percent increase in operating revenue compared to last spring.

A lot of conservatives are going to point to this as a sign of government waste. They need to know two things: First, the USPS doesn't receive tax dollars. Second, the USPS is surviving under a congressionally mandated crisis: They're forced to set aside money for health benefits for future employees, and they're not allowed to pursue other revenue streams. This is a case of conservative legislators artificially inflating government and then using the monster they created to whine about big government.

Thursday, July 31, 2014

Podcasting and Patent Trolls

Posted by on Thu, Jul 31, 2014 at 10:10 AM

By virtue of Marc Maron's podcast, I was made aware of the recently dropped lawsuit against Adam Carolla and other podcasters filed by Personal Audio LLC, which by most accounts is an East Texas shell company whose only product is litigation. If you're unfamiliar with the term "patent troll," an unnamed interviewee from this fantastic 2011 This American Life episode sums it up rather nicely: "It's basically a flimflam game that anybody who knows how to take advantage of it is doing."

In short, so-called patent trolls buy or file patents that are broad and ill-defined, and then sue companies or individuals who may or may not be perceived to be infringing on those patents. Of course, anyone being labeled a patent troll will likely argue that they're fighting for innovation, for the inventor, but in the end, critics contend, their effect on both is stifling. Patents are bought, then backed by venture capital and litigated upon, then sold to a shell company, then backed by venture capital and litigated upon again, ad nauseam.

In this case, Personal Audio was acting on a patent on "'episodic content,' which it said included anyone doing a podcast, as well as many types of online video." PA purportedly dropped the lawsuit against Carolla and other podcasters because there wasn't enough money at stake. From their statement:

When Personal Audio first began its litigation, it was under the impression that Carolla, the self-proclaimed largest podcaster in the world, as well as certain other podcasters, were making significant money from infringing Personal Audio’s patents. After the parties completed discovery, however, it became clear this was not the case. As a result, Personal Audio began to offer dismissals from the case to the podcasting companies involved, rather than to litigate over the smaller amounts of money at issue.

In turn, they've painted Carolla's refusal to accept the dismissal as frivolous and a waste of the $450,000 defense fund he's raised through crowdsourcing:

We are quite surprised that Carolla has turned down the offer that was accepted by his peers. Perhaps this is because he feels he can simply get his fans to fund his future, and now unnecessary, legal expenses. Or perhaps it relates to how he uses the case as material for his show,” said Brad Liddle, CEO of Personal Audio, LLC. “The fact of the matter is that Adam Carolla is asking people to donate money to him for a lawsuit that he no longer needs to defend. We would like his listeners to understand this situation when deciding whether or not to donate additional money to his cause.

Continue reading »

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Amazon Reports Bigger-Than-Expected Loss

Posted by on Thu, Jul 24, 2014 at 2:00 PM

More bad news for Amazon in their second-quarter report:

The company, which launched the Amazon Fire phone, its first smartphone a few weeks ago, posted a loss of 27 cents per share on revenue of $19.34 billion in the second quarter. Analysts had been expecting on average a loss of 15 cents per share on $19.34 billion in revenue.

At the time of this writing, the online retailer's stock is down about 7 percent in after-hours trading. But Jeff Bezos boasts an eerie power to soothe Wall Street's indigestion. We'll see how he reacts to this news, and I bet the stock market will follow Bezos's lead.

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Paul Ryan Has a New Plan to Fine Poor People for Being Poor

Posted by on Thu, Jul 24, 2014 at 11:31 AM

Every so often I'll see someone write about Paul Ryan's presidential prospects in 2016. I like to pretend those pieces are satire. Ryan was a lackluster vice-presidential choice in 2012. He wasn't especially interesting, people seemed to dislike him—he even lost his own hometown to President Obama—and his proposals are so far to the right that he turns off independent voters.

Take, for instance, Ryan's newest plan, which would combine multiple federal anti-poverty programs into one massive anti-poverty program that would disseminate money to states. The states could use that money however they want, so long as they follow a series of strict guidelines:

In the envisioned scenario providers would work with families to design a customized life plan to provide a structured roadmap out of poverty. When crafting a life plan, they would include, at a minimum:

• A contract outlining specific and measurable benchmarks for success
• A timeline for meeting these benchmarks
Sanctions for breaking the terms of the contract
• Incentives for exceeding the terms of the contract
• Time limits for remaining on cash assistance

So the party of small government wants to explicitly tell poor people how to live their lives, force the poor people to sign a contract promising they will do what the government tells them to do, and then penalize them if they do not follow that plan to the letter? Uh-huh.

I don't think even Ryan expects this plan to pass. I think he's doing his job as a Republican Party lackey, which is to keep pushing the idea of normal behavior further and further to the right until eventually, a few years down the line, someone else can re-present the Ryan plan as a completely sensible Republican solution. (I wrote about this tactic last year during the government shutdown.) This kind of monstrous bullshit would have been laughed out of the room even ten years ago; now it's the sort of thing Republicans get all horny over. We can't allow him to normalize horrible shit like this.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Microsoft Layoffs Happening Soon?

Posted by on Tue, Jul 15, 2014 at 2:58 PM

Dina Bass at Bloomberg writes:

Microsoft Corp. (MSFT) is planning its biggest round of job cuts in five years, as the software maker looks to slim down and integrate Nokia Oyj’s handset unit, people with knowledge of the company’s plans said.

Bass says these layoffs could be "the biggest in Microsoft history, topping the 5,800 jobs cut in 2009." I'm sure things are pretty tense on the Microsoft campus right now; if you're reading this, I wish you the best of luck over the next few days.

Monday, June 30, 2014

What Do We Call Politicians Who Value the Rights of Corporations Over the Rights of Individuals?

Posted by on Mon, Jun 30, 2014 at 11:18 AM

The Hobby Lobby news was a hell of a thing to wake up to. Christian Nightmares posted this victory-lap video from the owners of Hobby Lobby crowing about how their "family business" will get to enjoy its "religious freedom."

I'm also interested by Senator Rand Paul's response to this ruling:


Rand Paul is not splitting with his dad on this issue—the Paul family seems dead-set against contraception. Not just government funding of contraception, but contraception in general. Ron Paul says birth control doesn't create immorality, rather that "immorality creates the problem of wanting to use the pills. So you don’t blame the pills." In other words, he's not for banning contraception, but he is calling contraception "immoral." And he also believes that government shouldn't pay for it.

It's interesting to me, because Rand Paul is essentially taking the stance that a corporation's liberty is worth more than an individual's liberty. (You can argue that if someone doesn't like Hobby Lobby's policies, they're welcome to go find another job elsewhere, or to start their own hobby store, but the truth is that's a disingenuous argument—the market can't sustain an infinite number of hobby stores, and any given area only provides so many jobs. There are only so many options, and people don't need birth control at some random point in the future. They need birth control when they need it.) He's not so much a libertarian as he is a corporatist, which is an inelegant word to describe someone who argues on behalf of corporations. It's unfortunate that corporatist is a word that has basically opposite meanings, depending on who uses it. I would love to see someone come up with a new word to define political interests—like Mitt Romney, like the majority of the Supreme Court—who advocate for corporations as basically super-humans, with amplified powers of free speech and religious freedom that impinge on the rights and freedom of average Americans. At this point, it is most definitely a real political movement, and political movements need names.

Friday, June 27, 2014

It's Business Time: Supreme Court Union Ruling Coming on Monday, Massachusetts Votes for $11 Now, and Anti-Amazon Law Passes

Posted by on Fri, Jun 27, 2014 at 1:04 PM

There's a whole bunch of business news today that Slog readers should know about:

11 Dollahs an Houah!: Massachusetts raised their minimum wage from $8 to $11 an hour yesterday. The minimum wage, which will go into effect by 2017, is the highest statewide minimum wage in the nation.

Doomsday for Unions? Andy Kroll at Mother Jones warns us that a Supreme Court verdict on Monday could forever change the face of labor in America:

It's official: The Supreme Court will wait until Monday, the final day of the current term, to issue its decision in Harris v. Quinn. As I explained in May, Harris is a blockbuster case that could, in a worst-case scenario, wipe public-employee unions such as SEIU and AFSCME off the map. And the chances of a damaging decision in Harris just increased—here's why.

The New Boss Sucks: The Seattle Times's Ángel González reports that Seattle's own Russell Investments has been bought by The London Stock Exchange Group, and layoffs are possible.

French Anti-Amazon Law Moves Forward: Indispensable book news e-mail Shelf Awareness says:

The French Senate has ratified a bill previously passed by the National Assembly nicknamed the "anti-Amazon law," which prohibits online retailers from offering free delivery of discounted books

France is at the forefront of anti-Amazon sentiment in Europe, with Germany and the UK following closely behind.

(Thanks to Slog tipper Greg for sending two of these stories along to us.)

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Our Crazy World of Business: GDP Nosedives, Aereo Crashes, and Google Is Occupied

Posted by on Wed, Jun 25, 2014 at 11:53 AM

Here's the business news that people who make money are talking about today:

1. The US GDP was way down in the first quarter. How far down is it? It's the worst dip the GDP has taken since the Great Recession five years ago. And it's all Obamacare's fault? Kinda?

2. Everyone is thrilled—and rightfully so—about the Supreme Court's ruling this morning that police need a warrant to search our cell phones. Tech people are less thrilled about the Supreme Court's other ruling, about a company called Aereo:

A company that grabs over-the-air broadcast TV signals and lets consumers pay to store them online and watch on their computers is violating copyright law, the Supreme Court ruled Wednesday.

This is an important win for broadcasters and traditional media, as it helps them hold the disruptors at bay for a while longer.

3. We've told you that Amazon is trying to gain new grounds in contract discussions with UK publishers. Amazon wants to publish out-of-stock books on their own when customers order them, effectively removing the publishers from the equation. The Guardian found some people who thought this was a bad idea:

The Bookseller's editor Philip Jones said the ongoing negotiations "indicate a direction of travel that would see [Amazon] take a sizeable control over both a publisher's inventory and its marketing", and that "publishers spoken to – and obviously they will only speak on condition of complete anonymity – have every right to be concerned. This is a form of assisted suicide for the book business, driven by the idea that publishers are a sickly lot unable to run even the most basic operations efficiently."

4. Today saw the opening of Google's I/O developer conference. The conference, which is supposed to be a smiley-happy showcase for Google's next year of products, has been riddled with protesters. They're protesting everything from Google's legal team to Google's lax stance on net neutrality to labor issues to Google's ties to the military industrial complex.

Monday, June 23, 2014

Obama Politely Points Out That the US Keeps Embarrassing Itself When It Comes to Family-Friendly Workplace Policies

Posted by on Mon, Jun 23, 2014 at 1:27 PM

Dear America,

It is ridiculous that the president has to go in front of a camera and say things like "Only three countries in the world report that they don't offer paid maternity leave. Three! And the United States is one of them." And: "Family leave, child care, flexibility. These aren't frills, these are basic needs." And: "All Americans should be able to care for a family member in need." YEAH, UM, MOTHER OF NO DUH, Y'ALL. But he still needs to get up there and say it, because we still need to hear it:


This shit is not revolutionary, it's the most basic of common sense. Here's the dumbed-down version of all this talk about family-friendly workplace policies: "Hey, you know how you're alive? And you have families and loved ones who are also living humans? And sometimes you make humans with your bodies, and then care for them for multiple decades in a row? And then decades later, they care for you? Right, biology! This whole being-inderdependent-mammals thing. Oh, and you know how our work culture is so deliriously out of whack with that? And how when you try to make the argument that you're human, capitalism just says 'Fuck you, get back to work?' THAT'S SO DUMB! JESUS, LET'S PULL IT TOGETHER."

Whew! Had to get that out of my system. The actual un-ranty news here: President Obama is hosting a Working Families Summit today, where he can keep saying the most ridiculously normal things about how human beings deserve to care for their families and still keep their jobs and make enough money to live, and it's a big deal because we're still fucking that up. Follow along on Twitter with the hashtag #FamiliesSucceed.

Friday, June 20, 2014

Happy Friday, It's Time to Laugh at the Week's News!

Posted by on Fri, Jun 20, 2014 at 1:46 PM

Hoo boy, have you guys heard about them dirty socialists* who voted against a giant raise for the City of Seattle's highest-paid employee? Don't worry! local comedian Brett Hamill is ON THE CASE:

*Nick Licata counts as a socialist now, right? I can't keep track. He did quote Saul Alinsky once.

Thursday, June 19, 2014

City Council Member Nick Licata Calls City Light CEO's Big Raise "Ostentatious," Says It "Sends the Wrong Message"

Posted by on Thu, Jun 19, 2014 at 2:19 PM

On Monday, the Seattle City Council voted to authorize a dramatic pay raise for the city's highest-paid employee, City Light CEO Jorge Carrasco. The mayor's office and much of the city council agreed that Carrasco's pay was too low to be commensurate with similar public-utility CEOs, and it should be raised to retain him and to attract a good candidate should he ever leave.

But he already made around $250,000 a year, and the raise bumps him up to a pay band that goes as high as $364,000. In the face of what seemed an excessive raise in pay for a city official, two council members voted against the raise, Kshama Sawant and Nick Licata. Late yesterday, Licata explained his no vote even further on his council blog.

He says he and Sawant had two main objections:

First, and most obvious, is that in comparison to other City Light employees’ salaries, the General Manager and CEO’s new salary is out of line and sends the wrong message to our employees and the public.

But even more important:

Our city government has kept a tight lid on wages for average city employees. How can we fairly bargain with our employees after giving such an ostentatious salary increase to one individual? The Council and Mayor’s pay hike for the City Light General Manager and CEO justifiably creates hard feelings among our employees and sets up a very poor example for evaluating and rewarding performance.

And what about Carrasco's performance, which the mayoral and council staffers assured everyone was stellar and deserving of the huge raise? Licata has something important to offer there, too:

Carraso was confirmed in February 2004, and, that spring, a survey was conducted of City Light employees. It had been scheduled before Carrasco became the head of City Light. A report was issued on the findings, and four significant problems were identified:

• A troubling lack of confidence in the executive management
• Poor communication among the various levels within the utility
• Lack of adequate staffing to provide high-quality service
• A sense that quality and process improvements were not a priority

Another survey was taken in 2007 to see if these problems had been addressed during the first three years of Carrasco’s leadership.

Continue reading »

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

You Won't Believe This List of Insanely Overvalued Media Companies (Number One Will Blow Your Mind)

Posted by on Tue, Jun 17, 2014 at 2:05 PM

Cute little kitten crowned with a chaplet of dandelion in female hands /Shutterstock
  • Cute little kitten crowned with a chaplet of dandelion in female hands /Shutterstock

1. Is BuzzFeed really worth a billion dollars? Mark DeCambre reports for Quartz:

VentureBeat reports the seven-year-old viral media startup is raising some $200 million in its latest funding round, which puts the company on track to be one of the most highly valued new media properties in the industry.

If you can think of a story that better symbolizes America in 2014 than BuzzFeed becoming a billion-dollar startup, I'd like to see it.

YouTube to Block Videos By Musicians Who Don't Want to Be a Part of Its Streaming Service

Posted by on Tue, Jun 17, 2014 at 12:07 PM

Robert Cookson at the Financial Times writes that YouTube is about to delete music videos "by artists including Adele and the Arctic Monkeys, after a number of independent record labels refused to sign up to the licensing terms for its new subscription service" Ben Popper at The Verge confirms:

A source familiar with the situation has confirmed to The Verge that most of the details in the FT story were accurate. YouTube does not want to launch a paid service and then be forced to show some videos in ad-supported mode, or offer users the ability to take videos offline, but not be able to offer that for big names like Adele or Jack White. It is going to begin blocking artists whose labels have not signed on to its new licensing terms in the countries where those deals apply starting within just a few days, although the paid service is not expected to roll out that soon.

YouTube is a popular site for two reasons. First, it's fairly easy to use. And second, it's got everything. If YouTube is going to start deleting videos because the owners of the videos don't want to do business with YouTube, that changes the deal.

And it's entirely possible that I'm going to eat these words, but who the hell wants a music video streaming service? I can understand the appeal of a music streaming service because it provides a much larger library than the one you own. But who watches videos over and over again? Who wants to waste their phone's data plans on videos when they could stream the songs instead? Who spends a lot of time sitting in front of the computer watching music videos? We mock MTV for not running music videos, but the truth is that an unending stream of music videos is a boring thing. I can't imagine that many people who'd be willing to pay for that privilege.

Monday, June 16, 2014

City Light CEO Gets His Massive Pay Raise, But It Won't Be Retroactive

Posted by on Mon, Jun 16, 2014 at 4:27 PM

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Today, the Seattle City Council passed a measure upgrading the pay for the city's single highest-paid employee, City Light CEO Jorge Carrasco. Till now, he's been making the top of his position's payscale, about $250,000 a year. In order to make his pay more comparable with other public utility CEOs, the council just bumped him up to a payscale that goes all the way to $364,000 a year, though his exact pay is still up to Mayor Ed Murray.

I reported on this back when it was debated in committee a couple weeks ago. While it's great for public sector employees to be well taken care of, a couple things about Carrasco's pay raise seemed excessive. For one, it's a hell of a raise all at once—more than $100,000 extra dollars a year. For another, the committee discussion of the raise came just days after the council approved compromise $15 minimum wage legislation, in which wage raises for the city's lowest paid workers will phase in over the course of three to seven years. The city council had even delayed that slow phase-in, pushing back the start date of the minimum wage hike to April of 2015. But then when it came to rewarding the city's top exec? Carrasco's raise, as the committee passed it, would be retroactive from January 1 of this year. Not only that, his salary is paid by the utility's ratepayers, something Council Member Kshama Sawant was quick to point out.

While the council ultimately approved this raise, they clearly heard some of the frustration that this move has caused among city ratepayers and lower-paid workers, some of whom came to testify today. Council Member Sally Bagshaw put forward an amendment to delay the effective date of this pay hike until July 1 of this year, eliminating the six months' retroactive pay initially proposed. That amendment passed unanimously, with Sawant calling it "a little bit less of a slap in the face" to low-wage workers whose raises were delayed by council.

In the end, the vote was 6 to 2, with Council Members Sawant and Nick Licata voting no (Bruce Harrell was absent). While Council President Tim Burgess stressed the routine nature of these salary adjustments, it just didn't sit well after such a careful, labored compromise for so many people on the low end of the pay scale. Frankly, they should've seen that coming.

And it's also renewed media attention on City Light—the Seattle Times just publicized the fact that the public utility recently spent $17,500 of a potential $47,500 contract with an online reputation-management firm to polish City Light and Carrasco's image online, so that Google search results for the utility and its CEO would be more positive. Wonder what this pay debacle will do to his online image?

Thursday, June 12, 2014

Seattle Human Rights Commission Urges Jeff Bezos to Investigate Anti-Union Charges

Posted by on Thu, Jun 12, 2014 at 2:22 PM

This morning, I linked to a story about charges that Amazon's security team, Security Industry Specialists, used intimidation tactics against union operatives. In a letter obtained by The Stranger today, the Seattle Human Rights Commission urges Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos to take action on the issue.

This is the very definition of a strongly worded letter, suggesting that SIS "is operating in a manner that likely violates the human rights of security officers employed to protect [Amazon's] employees and headquarters." The Human Rights Commission, which "calls attention to human rights concerns that affect the residents and workers of the city," is an organization that furthers Seattle's commitment to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The fact that they're calling Amazon out is a big deal.

The letter closes with a plea that Bezos ensures SIS is treating workers with "respect and dignity," that the workers are not suffering from "discrimination," and that they have the "right to associate freely." Read the whole letter after the jump.

Continue reading »

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Kickstarter Allows Projects to Bypass the Approval Process. Next Stop, Scamville?

Posted by on Wed, Jun 4, 2014 at 12:35 PM

Adrianne Jeffries at The Verge wrote about some changes to Kickstarter's rules of service. You know how a project needed approval from the Kickstarter staff before it went live? That's no longer the case:

That’s partly why the company is announcing two major changes today aimed at presenting a "simpler, friendlier Kickstarter," in the words of co-founder and CEO Yancey Strickler. First, the rules for creators have been simplified from about 1,000 words to less than 300, and previously banned products are allowed back on the platform. Second, projects can now opt to "Launch Now" and bypass Kickstarter’s approval process.

I can't see how this makes Kickstarter more appealing. I've talked with people who are shocked to discover that their pledges don't guarantee that they'll ever receive a project in return. Now, without even Kickstarter staff vouching for the projects, I can't help but imagine the site being overrun with scammers and false promises. Maybe I'm wrong—feel free to bookmark this page to call me on it in a couple years—but to me this looks like Kickstarter is forsaking trustworthiness for profitability.

How Amazon Buys Seattle's Silence

Posted by on Wed, Jun 4, 2014 at 10:19 AM

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Would you shut up about the harm Amazon is doing to the business of books if the company offered to buy you a $3.7 million streetcar? How about if it also paid to operate that streetcar for you for the next 10 years? No? Okay, well what if Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos also threw in $10 million for a sparkling new Museum of History & Industry that does honor to your city's heritage? Plus your very own urban cycle track, high-paying jobs for about 15,000 people, and plans for three new high-rises in a redeveloping urban neighborhood? What then?

And what if Amazon was responsible for 100,000 hotel stays every year in your city? What if it occupied 3.2 million square feet of local office space (with 4.7 million more square feet on its wish list)? What if the company was projected to more than double its highly paid local workforce of engineers and executives in the coming years? And what if, as Seattle's Office of Economic Development put it in a recent report, Bezos and Amazon were spending all of this cash, and making all of these plans, and ordering up all of these new buildings "during times of economic hardship, when the employment and taxes generated through construction helped soften the blow of two recessions"?

Well?

Continue Reading >>

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

The Man Who Helped the Rolling Stones Avoid Paying Millions in Taxes Is Dead

Posted by on Tue, Jun 3, 2014 at 1:38 PM

His name is Prince Rupert zu Loewenstein. He died two weeks ago. From his obituary in The Economist:

He was there, on every tour for 39 years, because his financial nous had turned the Stones into the most lucrative rock band in the world. Mick had his hip-swivelling energy, and Keith his wild guitar; Prince Rupert, behind the scenes, contributed wisdom and suavity to the cafetière, along with high-class fun. Before he arrived, in 1969, they were stuck in a recording contract with Decca and tied to a financial adviser, Allen Klein, who creamed off half of what they earned. Over years of litigation Prince Rupert liberated them, restoring their rights to regular revenue from their songs. He also built up a global touring machine that pulled in millions from merchandising and corporate sponsors: Budweiser, Volkswagen, Chase Manhattan. Thanks to him, the Stones in 2006 paid tax at 1.6% on 20-year earnings of £242m.
He will certainly be missed by the old rockers.

Stop Demonizing "Burger-Flippers" and Start Thinking About Solutions

Posted by on Tue, Jun 3, 2014 at 12:21 PM

I've said this before, and I'm sure I'll say it again, but the issue is on the forefront of the internet today, and so it needs repeating: People have to let go of this belief that the market leans toward fair wages. The market wants to pay workers as little as it possibly can. Is any person "worth" only poverty wages? Is anyone "worth" hundreds of millions a year? Stop pretending that business is a magnanimous God. Government steps in to make business behave in our best interests. That's one of government's primary roles in the modern world.

Just because you started a small business does not mean you have any more of a right to life than anyone else. And this is coming down to a matter of survival. The minimum wage hasn't increased as quickly as it should, and American workers are making less money than they used to. The $15 minimum wage won't mean that fast food workers will be living like royalty. It just means they'll have a little more money, and so maybe a little more opportunity to improve their situations.

When anonymous assholes on the internet comment derisively about how "burger-flippers" don't deserve the dignity of a living wage, their statements are so dismissive and hateful that you can almost feel the bigotry oozing off the computer screen. You're going to tell me that you get to decide who lives and who dies? That makes you a monster, as far as I'm concerned. I realize that the reality of the new minimum wage isn't going to be easy for everyone. People are afraid of new things. Business owners already spend long hours awake late at night, worried about how they're going to make ends meet. So let's start having that conversation. Let's stop blaming these imaginary "burger-flippers" for manipulating the system like criminal masterminds, and let's start talking about how to help your business survive. We're all human beings. We can make this work.

Thomas Piketty on The Colbert Report

Posted by on Tue, Jun 3, 2014 at 11:10 AM

Now I know that the milquetoast French economist du jour Thomas Piketty is usually Charles Mudede's beat, but—having known him for some time now—I also know that Charles is far too intellectual for television. Thusly, I've taken it upon myself to share last night's appearance on The Colbert Report. Watch it for a brief explanation of Piketty's theory that capitalism tends toward gross inequality in the long run, and for the reason the internet, aka The Outrage Machine™, has found Piketty's ideas to be controversial. Hint: It's in his proposed solutions.

Friday, May 30, 2014

Is Donald Sterling Planning to Sue the NBA for One Billion Dollars?

Posted by on Fri, May 30, 2014 at 2:31 PM

That's what NBC's Tim Stelloh says:

Embattled Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling is planning to sue the league after he was forced to relinquish control of the team, NBC News has learned.

A source close to Sterling says that he will file a lawsuit this afternoon seeking damages in excess of $1 billion.

People sure are tossing the billions around this week, aren't they?

Thursday, May 29, 2014

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