What? You mean it isn’t a place to buy a Wall?

Over the last 20 years or so, Wal-Mart has grown from a kind of K-Mart for places too rural to have a K-Mart to the world’s largest retailer. This company, a Dow Jones Industrial Average component, is huge, with $238 Billion in stock, $246 Billion in revenues in the last year, almost $4.5 Billion in the bank, and 1.4 Million employees. And that figure doesn’t even include contractors.

If you go into a Wal-Mart, you will find yourself confronted with goods too cheap to pass up. Why, how can you afford not to shop at Wal-Mart? Where else can you find name brand products at prices this low? How on earth do they manage to make a profit?

Like all deals that sound too good to be true, this one has some ugly stuff under the surface. Stuff so ugly that some people are publicly calling for a boycott of Wal-Mart, and many others make it a practice to avoid the place whenever possible, even if that means paying a little more someplace else. Please consider some of the reasons why:

Wal-Mart reduces the number of small competitive businesses in the communities it serves over time. Smaller competitors, which means all competitors, live in fear of the juggernaut, and continually seek ways to stay afloat. It is hard to compete with a company with a wide array of products, low prices, and a seemingly limitless advertising budget. Don’t let your inner Darwin start talking about how if you can’t compete, you deserve to go out of business. Having a local economy run by one large employer is bad. Furthermore, the businesses that are closing up often can’t compete because they actually pay a living wage and charge a sum of money that allows the business to make a modest profit without pressuring suppliers for special deals. This brings us to my next two points.

Wal-Mart places pricing pressure on its suppliers in a manner that is bad for the economy as a whole. By cutting special deals, sometimes on exclusive products, they effectively undercut certain dumping regulations. These special deals slash supplier profits. Sometimes, the only way for a supplier to make the deal work is to cut costs. Either the quality goes down or the payroll goes down, whether by cutting jobs or cutting wages. Sometimes the manufacturing has to be done overseas, somewhere that wages are so low that it is cost effective to ship the finished product halfway across the world. Even this is sometimes not enough, and financial trouble ensues for the provider. Wal-Mart does not particularly care; the contract to supply them is so lucrative on the surface that companies line up and bend over backwards to get or keep the deal. By the way, this is so far the second way Wal-Mart takes jobs out of the American economy and reduces wages for those jobs that remain.

Wal-Mart pays a poverty level wage to it’s employees — oops, “associates.” And these are the legal employees. This fact is well documented. Pay so low that full-time employees qualify for government assistance — that’s right, people who want to work, people who are working but getting paid so little they get food stamps. And then there are benefits, in the case of those lucky enough to qualify for them. When the paycheck doesn’t even go far enough to buy groceries, even at the Wal-Mart Supercenter, health insurance just seems like an unnecessary luxury. As if that weren’t enough, Wal-Mart is chronically plagued by claims that they discriminate against women, and that they do everything in their power to eliminate “troublemakers,” such as those rapscallions that get injured on the job. Furthermore, Wal-Mart does everything in its power to keep unions out. Whatever you may think of unions, they began to protect workers from abusive employment situations, and by many accounts this is such a situation. We are up to two ways Wal-Mart actively eliminates American jobs, and two ways it keeps working people in poverty.

It is even worse to do contract work for Wal-Mart. By now we have all heard about Federal raids that found illegal immigrants working long hard hours cleaning Wal-Mart stores at night. And of course Wal-Mart executives are shocked — just shocked I tell you — to discover that contractors who assured them would follow all applicable laws would hire illegal immigrants. The Feds aren’t buying that either, by the way. Wal-Mart should consider themselves lucky the various state Attorney Generals haven’t decided to rally around this issue. Forbes has an excellent article on this issue, and why it is more widespread than any of us like to admit. My favorite quotes are on the second page:

Whatever happens in the Wal-Mart case, the abuse of workers will continue until immigration law recognizes that cleaners need labor from abroad and makes the hiring of them legal. “I’ve got documentation for my workers, but now [U.S. Immigration & Customs Enforcement] says their Social Security numbers don’t match, and I have to fire them,” fumes the chief of a big Southeast cleaning contractor. “There are no other workers available. The situation is ludicrous.”

Now let me get this straight, millions of jobs have been lost in the American economy in the last 3 years, and we need to hire foreign labor? “There are no other workers available”? I think he means “no other workers willing to work in the middle of the night for sub-minimum wages and no benefits.”

Emperor in the Buff

It was surely no surprise that the Gross Domestic Product would not “grow” another 7.2 % this quarter. However, picking through the data, there are three things which should give pause to everyone concerning the economy.

First, WalMart and Target both announced that things are not going as well as expected. No, they are not losing money, just not making as much as some people expected. Specifically, they expect the Christmas shopping season to be somewhat less than robust. Now think about it: things are so tight that people are watching how much they spend at WalMart. It isn’t that people are doing more upscale shopping, because Target is seeing below projected sales at Mervyns and Marshall Field. And it isn’t just a problem at Target Corporation because Kohl’s is reporting pretty much the same. Indeed, retail sales in general were down and wholesale prices were up in October.

The second bit of bad news for the economic optimists to explain is the record personal bankruptcies in the 12 months ending September 30.

Remember, the White House would still like to sign legislation making it harder to declare personal bankruptcy. It will still be just fine for corporations to stuff their executives’ pockets with money, fire the lions share of the employees, and drastically reduce their debts through bankruptcy. That’s compassionate conservatism in action.

The final bit of bad news sounds like good news at first. It seems that the Federal Reserve is not considering raising interest rates anytime in the near future, despite admitting that “they can’t remain at 45-year lows indefinitely.” That sounds great, doesn’t it? It’s a huge relief for people with variable rate loans. It’s good news for people who own bonds too, because when rates go up, bond prices go down. However, rates are not going up because, in the words of Greenspan himself, “Uncertainty is not just an important feature of the monetary policy environment, it is the defining characteristic.”

Maybe bad things aren’t happening, but good things aren’t happening either.

Yes, You Do Have to Spell It Out

Today, the Department of Education released it’s mammoth report card on the nation’s schools: the National Assessment of Educational Progress, or NEAP. From the Washington Post: “Administered to a representative sample of students nationwide, the NAEP tests are widely regarded as the most objective and independent assessment of educational progress. While the congressionally mandated test has been in existence since 1969, this is the first year it has been made compulsory for all 50 states under the Bush administration’s No Child Left Behind educational reform measures.”

Reading skills held steady. As for math, the good news is that our students have had solid improvements since 2000, particularly in basic skills. The bad news is that less than a third of the 4th and 8th grade students tested were “proficient” at math.

If you are in a position to hire people who need math skills, this should scare the socks off you.

Needless to say, some states are touting their own scores from this massive document. Some are calling attention to how poor the scores are. Critics call the test flawed inasmuch as students are meeting state criteria but not Federal criteria. And still others point to the fact that the tests were administered to a “representative sample,” not to every student.

The most sensible statement regarding these scores came from middle school teacher and standards writer Betsy Wiens: “Obviously we’re not there yet, but change is not going to be quick. When you change a system, it just takes time.” She is of course correct. It took our schools decades to get where they are today, and it will take years to meaningfully improve them. There is no magic bullet: neither zero-tolerance policies nor school uniforms nor standardized tests nor vouchers nor charter schools nor willy-nilly increases in school expenditures will make kids proficient in reading and math.

We must commit to the idea that schools could be better. We must commit to the idea that getting better means making changes that not everyone will like and that may not be convenient for everyone. We need to commit to abandoning things that do not work, things that do not educate children. We must commit to the fact that learning is more than showing up, that graduation rates have nothing to do with literacy rates. We must commit to the idea that “reform” is more than handing down a set of rules and objectives and then walking away, smug in the trust that such words on paper will magically improve our schools.

We must begin with the fundamental idea that from this day forward, the fundamental purpose of schools, from Grade School to Grad School, will be to educate our children.

Our future depends on it.

Veterans Day

Happy Veterans Day. For my foriegn readers, this is a day when we remember and show respect for the veterans of our armed forces who have served our country. Many schoolchildren, government workers, and some lucky folks in private industry get the day off.

But this year, the parades are scant. The vast majority of our servicemen are too busy defending the country’s interests to march parades in their honor.

Reservists have been called up, and more are being called up to serve full time. These troops are at higher risk of being injured on duty. They leave behind jobs that need to be done and families that need to be fed. Medical personnel are among those whose short term plans are being rewritten by the military. It has been said before but bears repeating: “So much for one weekend a month and two weeks a year.”

These reservists may not even be sufficient. There is loose talk of reinstating the draft. This should be enough to make young men aged 18-26 sit up and vote. Oh, and I did mention medical personnel in the last paragraph: Doctors can be drafted until age 35. In the 2004 elections, will Bush will be so eager to make sure all those no-postmark military absentee votes are counted?

Remember, every young man called up artificially creates a job, making it seem like the economy is in better shape than it really is.

When our troops get to Iraq, they face unknown enemies on every side, aided and abetted by a 70% unemployment rate and contracts with American companies that effectively funnel money out of the country. As I write, 398 American troops have been killed in Iraq, 37 of them in the first week of November. The sobering truth is that we are almost certain to celebrate Thanksgiving knowing over 400 of our soldiers have died in Iraq.

Back home, soldiers’ families face certain grim realities. Even soldiers who get leave might not make it home to see their loved ones. Combat pay may be reduced. Commissaries (low cost on-base stores which make it possible to raise a family on an enlisted man’s salary) are being closed in “remote areas” — places there are few stores to begin with. Schools on military bases risk closure. Apparently the Administration feels “No Child Left Behind” doesn’t apply to the children of the very men who makes their rule possible. Veterans Administration health benefits are underfunded.

Finally, dissent within the military is not tolerated. We are not talking about disobeying legal orders, we are talking about thinking on one’s own time.

Every true Patriot, if you will excuse the pun, should read what Al Gore had to say over the weekend. Agree or disagree as you like. He is not running for any office, and thus has little to gain or lose by saying what he thinks. Or, to use his words, “So, is that fine with everyone?”

Support our troops: pray for peace.

As I Was Saying Yesterday

Of course it is a coincidence that today it was announced that 43000 Reservists are being called up and there are 43000 fewer first time unemployment claims this week than last week. Please notice that this chart makes an monumental bit of statistical propaganda: the horizontal base does not start at zero, making it appear that there are almost no newly unemployed people this week. Of course there are 384000 people who know better.

The Economy Improved and All I Got was this Lousy T-Shirt

Of course, I could bore you to tears with anecdotal reports of the unemployed, the underemployed, the hard luck stories of people who really want to work if only The System would give them a chance. Go ahead, it’s okay to cry.

And remember, this is in a recovering economy.

The hard cold facts remain as follows:

Unemployment is not getting better, puzzling economists. Fair disclosure, things are worse in Europe. That doesn’t really change the fact that some economists are no longer buying the idea that employment is a lagging indicator, productivity gains are taking up the slack, and surely the “now hiring” signs will go up everywhere any minute now.

Actual employment figures are quite dismal in certain places and among certain demographics. Unemployment figures measure the percentage of people looking for work, but do not include people who have given up on finding a job, or who decide to become (semi-employed) contractors. First Time Jobless Claims represent the number of poeple who walk into the local unemployment office each week and sadly proclaim that they have just lost their job, but do not include most former part-timers and many upper income unemployeds who just don’t feel the meager payout is going to make a difference. By contrast, Employment figures represent the percentage of people actually holding down a job. Or two or three. There is little room for fluff in this number.

Charity giving is down while need of charity is increasing. Be ready to hear this drum beating throughout the holiday season. That’s only because it’s true.

Almost 3 million manufacturing jobs have vanished. Many have gone to countries with lower wages, no benefits, little regulation, and no need to consider pollution. The nicest thing that can possibly be said about this trend is that the pittance of a wage they are given is still more than they would make in most of the locally originating jobs. I do not know whether there are figures to support or dispute the idea that such job export might reduce the number of illegal aliens that come to the United States.

Almost any other job that does not require laying hands on a physical object in the United States is following. You’ve heard about outsourcing computer programming and customer support to such nations as India, haven’t you? Many high tech jobs and financial industry jobs with American companies are moving overseas to take advantage of lower cost labor.

Unemployment, particularly long term unemployment, is no longer unusual in the middle and upper classes. Long term unemployment isn’t just for drifters, losers, and people with “problems” like mental health issues or broken down cars or unreliable babysitters anymore. It can happen to degreed professionals, people with computer skills, people who thought their specialized training was job security incarnate.

Heck, even jobs that require being in the States are being done by legal and illegal aliens where posible. Remember that things are worse in Europe? That’s part of the reason Wal-Mart’s contractors were able to snap up European illegal immigrants to clean the stores after hours. Then of course there are the nice people who don’t speak English that you may have seen mowing lawns or doing other menial jobs you personally would have to be starving to take. Richard D. Lamm, former Governor of Colorado, seems to have summed it up nicely when he says “Illegal immigrants compete for the jobs our own poor need to start to move up the economic ladder.” Later he adds: “We are told that illegal immigration is ”cheap labor,” but it is not ”cheap labor,” it is subsidized labor.  The National Academy of Sciences has found that there is a significant fiscal drain on U.S. taxpayers for each adult immigrant without a high school education.  Illegal immigration is something that benefits a few employers, but the rest of us subsidize that labor through the school system, the health-care system, the courts and in other ways that this form of labor imposes.”

The only sector of the American economy that seems to be growing is the “services” sector. This sector includes architects and other service providing professionals. However, it also includes every job that involves such phrases as “Would you like fries with that?” or “Paper or Plastic?” or “Can you read me the model number and serial number please?”

Wages are not going up, and Americans in general report that “Things are tough all over.” People don’t want to complain when they are actually working, but things are getting tight. The lucky people with jobs do not have extra money lying around for anything that is not absolutely necessary. Retailers should feel this trend pinch them very soon. Read it and weep: “According to the poll of nearly 1,000 consumers nationwide, almost 58% said they would spend less than they did last year and 50% said the cutbacks are due to current economic conditions. More than 18% said they’re spending less because they’re earning less — a 4% increase over last year. Over 66% said they’re spending less because they are carrying too much debt, down from 70% last year.”

Many among our “working class” are underemployed. They are struggling to make ends meet. They are taking part time jobs that they hope will put then higher on the list for eventual full time jobs. They are taking two and three part time jobs to survive. This means, by the way, that they are doing without benifits: no health insurance, no retirement plan, no unemployment benefits when they get downsized.

The United States Military plays a perverse role in unemployment. Anybody who has ever lived in a city that had a military base close knows base closures can have an absolutely horrifying effect on the local economy. Now keep in mind that “[The] United States [is] approach[ing] 2005, when “the mother of all base closures,” is planned, said Brian N. Hamel, president and chief executive officer of the Loring Development Authority. In 2005, more closings are expected to occur at one time than in all previous rounds combined.” But wait, there’s more! Do you remember all those reservists that got called up over Iraq and the “War on Terror”? Well, those people left behind jobs too — jobs that had to be done by somebody. Those jobs are now being handled by co-workers putting in overtime, or by temporary workers. Either way, the unemployment rate is artifically lowered by every reservist who was asked to serve his country. Some of them were among the 6000 that just came home on the Nimitz. More are being called up as we speak.

In short, it is a bit premature for the Democratic contenders to stop harping on Bush’s economic policies.

No Need to Worry

The Consumer Product Safety Commission, a Federal agency charged with making sure products you buy are safe, came out with an important ruling today. They have decided not to ban the use of arsenic in the manufacture of pressure treated lumber. They claim this decision is based on the fact that few manufacturers use arsenic anymore.

Pressure treated lumber is used in many outdoor applications. That’s because it is resistant to rot and insect damage. But one of the major uses for treated lumber is children’s playground equipment: it’s softer than plastic or metal, and doesn’t get as hot or cold either. Even the CPSC admits that arsenic treated lumber poses a hazard to children when used in playground equipment, citing “an increased risk of lung or bladder cancer for people who played on such playground equipment as children.” Furthermore, the stuff has become an ongoing headache for communities both as they try to determine how much contaminated playground equipment they have, and as they attempt to dispose of arsenic tainted wood.

So lets make sure we understand the CPSC’s position: arsenic treated lumber is dangerous, but it’s okay to continue making it because almost nobody makes it anymore.

Granted, the EPA has already said it cannot be made after the end of the year, but sellers are allowed to deplete their stock, and frankly I fail to see where the EPA has outlawed importing the stuff. What possible reason could the CPSA have for not keeping in line with the EPA decision? For pity sake, the EPA decided it was bad, and this is the same EPA that decided it was alright to relax sewage treatment rules and approves thousands of untested chemicals for household use.

This isn’t the only government agency that has said we need not change the rules because nobody uses them. Attorney General John Ashcroft’s Department of Justice is playing the same semantic game with respect to Section 215 of the PATRIOT Act. Section 215 is the portion which (among other things) allows the FBI to check your library records, with reduced warrant requirements, and without anybody being allowed to tell you.

Ashcroft claims there is no need to fix this egregious breech of 4th Amendment rights because after all, Section 215 has never been used. Most of America replies “Good! Then you won’t miss it if we take it away!” Ashcroft counters “But I might need it someday.”

Right, just like those roller blades you bought 5 years ago thinking you would get in shape, but all they do is gather dust in a closet. Get rid of them now: just like Ashcroft’s pet legislation, you will only get hurt if you use them. Just ask Monica Lewinsky, Linda Tripp, and Valerie Plame about the importance of privacy.

Melting Money

Maybe you missed the latest mutual fund scandal. This one could still cost you money, even if you don’t own the funds in question.

Putnam Investments, a division of insurance company Marsh & McLennan, runs a bunch of mutual funds. At the last date of record, they had about $272 Billion in assets, spread across 12 million customers, about 700 of which were “institutional investors” — large accounts such as states and pension funds. As you will see, these figures are apt to drop rapidly. Keep in mind that the mutual fund industry as a whole is about $7 Trillion, and that 95-100 million Americans have money in mutual funds. This fund family is something like 3% of the industry.

As CNBC so politely puts it, “Putnam is facing a probe into improper mutual fund trading and losing some clients.” Two managers are accused of civil fraud, and that’s before the U.S. Attorney sent subpeonas. The SEC and Massachusetts are surely only the first to get in on this action; sabre-rattling between SEC Chairman William Donaldson and New York Attorney General Eliott Spitzer has already commenced.

The crux of the matter is something called “market timing.” By this we do not mean waiting for a stock to hit the “right price” before buying or selling — something totally legal that almost all stock owners do. Some people say the benign label of “market timing” whitewashes what it really is: fraud; stealing from the customer.

There have been a number of illegal and unethical “market timing” schemes used. One involves buying or selling after market hours, after some bit of important news has been released perhaps, at the closing price. Example: XYZ Corporation announces blowout earnings after the market is closed; Unethical Fund Manager Dewey Cheatum colludes with another fund to buy at the closing price (when nobody knew the news) so he can sell it in the morning for a few dollars profit per share. In a variation of this scheme, a manager uses international stocks — which trade at different hours than American stocks. Yet another “market timing” scheme involves detecting brief inconsistencies between where another fund is trading and its NAV (Net Asset Value, what it is worth), then exploiting this difference with rapid trades (scroll down) in and out of the fund.

Several Putnam employees are accused of illegal market timing, and more charges are likely to come down soon. This problem apparently was investigated internally as early as 1996, and little was done save to issue official policies declaring it a no-no. The trades in question are from 1998 and 2000, a period of time when the funds in question underperformed. Wouldn’t you be upset if your fund was losing money and yet the managers of the fund were pocketing $700,000 from personal trades? Wouldn’t you think they should put their money right next to yours and execute the best deals for the fund they are paid to run?

Some large investors think so. And they are speaking with their wallets. Massachusetts wants to pull $1.7 Billion. Rhode Island, $651 Million. Iowa, $594 Million. Connecticut, $277 Million. Well over a Billion from such sources as The Pennsylvania Public School Employees’ Retirement System, The New York State Teachers’ Retirement System, The Vermont State Teachers’ Retirement System and others. An even longer list of behemoth investors are “monitoring developments.” It could add up to some real money!

Frankly, the markets could get a bit bumpy. I seriously doubt Putnam has $4-5 Billion in cash sitting around to send to these big investors. That means they are going to have to sell stuff, and to sell that much is going to drive some prices down. That’s why this could cost you money if you own any stocks or stock-holding mutual funds. A savvy investor might make some quick money if he could take a billion or so worth of a top holding off Putnam’s hands.

And yet in the midst of all this, there are those who say not to drop these guys like a hot potato. When would be a better time? When all the institutions have gotten out, having forced the managers to sell absolutely everything at stupidly low prices and driving the value of all Putnam’s holdings down? When the NAV is so low that Joe Average can’t afford to sell his worthless holdings?

As if all this isn’t bad enough, remember that Putnam isn’t the only fund family whose managers stand accused of making trades that line their wallets and leave investors holding the bag.

7.2?

No, that’s not the Richter Scale rating of the latest earthquake in Farawayistan. That’s the annualized rate of growth that the United States’ economy allegedly had in the third quarter. It happens to be the biggest surge in the Gross Domestic Product since the Reagan Administration.

But if the economy is growing that fast, where are the blowout profits from Wall Street? If we really spend 15% more on computers and software last quarter than the previous quarter, why didn’t all the computer and software companies announce a spectacular quarter?

Where are the expanding small businesses? Shouldn’t they be hiring? Are we really to believe that there was so much overcapacity that they don’t need to be buying office supplies and building bigger facilities?

And what about the consumer? They are refinancing the house like crazy, but that can’t last forever; will they be buried in debt when interest rates inevitably rise again? And if we really bought almost 27% more cars than in the previous quarter, what are we doing with all the used cars? Why aren’t the car makers posting, say, 15-20% greater profits? Supposedly those $400 child tax credit checks made a big difference. Even if it did, that won’t happen again this quarter.

As I write, the Dow and NASDAQ are up half a percent, and the S&P 500 is pretty much flat. I do not believe the markets anticipated such a high GDP number. Just yesterday the FOMC said there would be no change in interest rates in the foreseeable future, and I have every reason to think Greenspan had this figure handy. Therefore, the markets are not anticipating that the higher GDP will immediately cause interest rates to rise. That leaves the possibility that Wall Street does not think this is real. Or rather, investors do not think that the fortunes of publicly traded companies will be beneficially effected. Let me get this straight, the economy is great but business is not improving?

Where is the money going? Some of it went overseas in the form of a reduced trade deficit and reduced exchange rate for the dollar. That doesn’t really help Joe Average, who will now have to pay more for everything imported. Some of the growth represents “inventory drop,” or the sale of stuff that has been sitting in the warehouse for a while. The people and suppliers who made this stockpile possible were paid some time ago.

The fact that the number of jobs out there is still declining should make us question this high GDP number. Clearly one trend or the other is not sustainable.

Fair Use?

Yesterday, the Librarian of Congress issued some rules clarifying the scope of the DMCA. For those who don’t keep track of this stuff, the Digital Millenium Copyright Act essentially reiterates that making and distributing illegal copies of copyrighted works is illegal. Furthermore, it makes devices that circumvent copy protection and Digital Rights Management (DRM) illegal. This has resulted in some amusing cases where permanent markers and computer shift keys are technically illegal. This is the law that got Dmitri Skylarov* in trouble a couple of years ago.

To be brief, there are 4 exemptions:

1) It is legal to publish a list of internet sites blacklisted by filtering software. This is considered crucially important for determining whether such filters work adequately without unduly restricting access. It is also vital for preventing ideological abuse of such filters, for example blacklisting materials on unpopular but legal political groups.

2) It is legal to circumvent a damaged, obsolete “dongle”. How annoying would it be to lose access to a possibly expensive computer program just because some little gizmo got broken and the company that made it is out of business!

3) It is legal to emulate obsolete programs that ran on obsolete hardware.
Go ahead, get out the old Apple II disks. Or, here’s something you might enjoy.

4) It is legal to circumvent copy protection of eBooks for the purpose of access by the handicapped. What Skylarov did is now unambiguously legal, so there.

One interesting aspect of these guidelines is that not one of them will cost copyright holders any money. Heck, two of the rules specifically deal with materials not for sale anywhere at any price. Indeed, the rule allowing circumvention for handicapped access may increase eBook sales.

DMCA is still an over-reaching behemoth of a law, and it still needs to be cut down to size. Nevertheless, these four guidelines are a good first step.

*If you are not familiar with this case, please feel free to read up. The way I used to explain it back in the day was that Skylarov was a Russian citizen arrested in the United States for violating a law of the United States while in Russia.