1% Jokes and Plutocrats In Drag

The colorful narrative of journalist Kevin Roose, as he crashes a Wall Street Secret Society Black-Tie Event:

“Getting in was shockingly easy — a brisk walk past the sign-in desk, and I was inside cocktail hour. Immediately, I saw faces I recognized from the papers. I picked up an event program and saw that there were other boldface names on the Kappa Beta Phi membership roll — among them, then-Citigroup CEO Vikram Pandit, BlackRock CEO Larry Fink, Home Depot billionaire Ken Langone, Morgan Stanley bigwig Greg Fleming, and JPMorgan Chase vice chairman Jimmy Lee. Any way you count, this was one of the most powerful groups of business executives in the world. (Since I was a good 20 years younger than any other attendee, I suspect that anyone taking note of my presence assumed I was a waiter.)

I hadn’t counted on getting in to the Kappa Beta Phi dinner, and now that I had gotten past security, I wasn’t sure quite what to do. I wanted to avoid rousing suspicion, and I knew that talking to people would get me outed in short order. So I did the next best thing — slouched against a far wall of the room, and pretended to tap out emails on my phone.

After cocktail hour, the new inductees – all of whom were required to dress in leotards and gold-sequined skirts, with costume wigs – began their variety-show acts.

[…]

 

*Kevin’s true identity is found*

I wasn’t going to be bribed off my story, but I understood their panic.  Here, after all, was a group that included many of the executives whose firms had collectively wrecked the global economy in 2008 and 2009. And they were laughing off the entire disaster in private, as if it were a long-forgotten lark. (Or worse, sing about it — one of the last skits of the night was a self-congratulatory parody of ABBA’s “Dancing Queen,” called “Bailout King.”) These were activities that amounted to a gigantic middle finger to Main Street and that, if made public, could end careers and damage very public reputations.

[…]

 

*Kevin’s Final Conclusions*

The first and most obvious conclusion was that the upper ranks of finance are composed of people who have completely divorced themselves from reality. No self-aware and socially conscious Wall Street executive would have agreed to be part of a group whose tacit mission is to make light of the financial sector’s foibles. Not when those foibles had resulted in real harm to millions of people in the form of foreclosures, wrecked 401(k)s, and a devastating unemployment crisis.

The second thing I realized was that Kappa Beta Phi was, in large part, a fear-based organization. Here were executives who had strong ideas about politics, society, and the work of their colleagues, but who would never have the courage to voice those opinions in a public setting. Their cowardice had reduced them to sniping at their perceived enemies in the form of satirical songs and sketches, among only those people who had been handpicked to share their view of the world. And the idea of a reporter making those views public had caused them to throw a mass temper tantrum.

The last thought I had, and the saddest, was that many of these self-righteous Kappa Beta Phi members had surely been first-year bankers once. And in the 20, 30, or 40 years since, something fundamental about them had changed. Their pursuit of money and power had removed them from the larger world to the sad extent that, now, in the primes of their careers, the only people with whom they could be truly themselves were a handful of other prominent financiers.

Perhaps, I realized, this social isolation is why despite extraordinary evidence to the contrary, one-percenters like Ross keep saying how badly persecuted they are. When you’re a member of the fraternity of money, it can be hard to see past the foie gras to the real world.

 

(Read the full article at NYMag.com here)

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The Real Cost of Toxins

In environmental health circles, 2014 is being heralded as the year America’s 40-year-old chemical regulations will at long last be reformed. One typical complaint heard in the struggle to pass the Chemical Safety Improvement Act is that new regulations will cost companies too much money and the country too many lost jobs. This familiar tune ignores the other side of the economic coin. As in: What are the costs of doing nothing?

According to new study on BPA (Bisphenol A) exposures in the U.S., they’re quite high. The study, authored by Healthy Child Healthy World board member Leonardo Trasande, an associate professor of pediatrics, environmental medicine, and health policy at the New York University School of Medicine, finds that the social costs of BPA-related obesity and heart disease were nearly $3 billion in 2008. It contends that removing the chemical from the linings of food and beverage cans would yield $1.74 billion in annual economic benefits. The study’s calculations were conservative and didn’t account for the many other health issues to which BPA is suspected of contributing, like cancer, reproductive damage, and behavioral disorders, which means these figures could be many billions of dollars higher in reality.

Compare that price tag to the extra 2.2 cents per can it would cost to use a safer BPA-free substitute. This estimated $2.2 billion yearly cost is a lot less. These new BPA numbers mirror other research that calculates the significant burden of the chemical status quo in recent years. A 2011 study, for example, found that the cost of environmentally-triggered childhood disease in the U.S. was $76.6 billion in 2008. Other research has estimated North America’s annual bill for diabetes, Parkinson’s disease, neurodevelopmental problems, and lower IQ, just four conditions linked to environmental toxins, are as high as $793 billion.

By the same token, the removal of lead from gasoline in 1976, a change that was vigorously fought by the energy industry, has yielded $3 trillion in economic benefits since 1980.

The moral of the story is pretty clear: Good, strong toxics regulations work. They keep people healthier and they save more money than they cost. If you haven’t yet asked your elected officials for stronger chemical legislation in 2014, we urge you to today!
(Source: Care2.com article here)

Private Criminal “Justice” System

For those who can afford it, many misdemeanor violations and traffic violations are punished with a fine that can be paid the very same day. But for those who can’t, those same offenses may become subject to a punishment much more menacing, in a profit-driven system of private probation that imposes interest and fees with a threat of jail time on those who are often least able to pay.

In one Georgia instance documented in an extensive new Human Rights Watch report, a man who stole a $2 can of beer ended up in jail for failure to pay a $200 fine that ballooned into more than $1,000 under the supervision of a private probation firm. Thomas Barrett’s entire income — which included selling his own blood plasma — was less than the monthly fee imposed by the private probation firm.

In Mississippi, a woman who had paid off her entire $377 fine for driving without a license was being threatened with arrest for failure to pay so-called “supervision fees” being charged by a private probation firm. Court officials told Human Rights Watch the firm had no authority to threaten arrest.

In Alabama, judges have enforced the threats of probation companies to impose jail time for those who fees and fines that piled up from private probation.

More than 1,000 courts around the country are shifting the burden of monitoring payment of fines to private probation firms, sentencing hundreds of thousands of individuals each year to their supervision. In what is perhaps the most extensive documentation of the practice of privatizing another aspect of the criminal justice system, Human Rights Watch finds that these firms are subject to scant monitoring by local governments and courts, free to impose fees and fines in amounts that are not regulated by any government entity.

Among the monthly fees lobbed onto probation are monthly “supervision” fees, even where the only supervision mandated by the court is collection of a fee, rather than other probationary terms that would impose a cost on the company. Other times, it is the heavy cost of electronic monitoring or drug tests.

In the case of Barrett, the man who stole a beer, he was put on electronic monitoring at a cost of $360 per month. Barrett was living on subsidized housing and food stamps. Even using the money from sale of his blood plasma, Barrett could not keep up with the payments. But the most perverse thing about the scenario was that Barrett’s alcohol consumption was being monitored, even though his probation terms did not include a ban on alcohol. “As Augusta attorney Jack Long put it in an interview with Human Rights Watch, ‘He could have sat around and drank beer all day and it would have monitored that but it would not have been a violation of his probation.’ ”

In another instance in Augusta County, Ga., a homeless man was placed on electronic monitoring that required him to have land line, and spent 52 days in jail because he could not physically comply with the monitoring order. Companies also order weekly drug testing, sometimes at a cost of $25 per test, or $1,250 per year.

While probation is typically aimed at those who would otherwise go to jail if they were not subject to monitoring, these private firms have expanded their purview to glorified debt collection — with jail time as punishment for failure to pay. This practice of jailing those who can’t afford to pay — so-called “debtors’ prisons” was invalidated by the U.S. Supreme Court more than 30 years ago. Probation company officials and courts claim to comply with this court ruling by assessing ability to pay, but in many instance they use factors such as a defendant’s possession of a pack of cigarettes or two cell phones that they can pay, even where they are homeless, on public assistance, or otherwise make clear that they have no sufficient sources of income.

“In fact, the business of many private probation companies is built largely on the willingness of courts to discriminate against poor offenders who can only afford to pay their fines in installments over time” the report explains.

(read the full ThinkProgress.org article here)