Category: Economics

Lowest-wage Aetna employees minimum wage now $16/hour + increased benefits

Bertolini, Keene, minimum wage

One CEO has taken a step that could help fend off Thomas Piketty’s nightmare vision of rising wealth inequality: He’s giving thousands of his workers a raise.

Aetna Chairman and CEO Mark Bertolini announced…that the health-insurance company will be raising wages for its lowest-paid employees. Starting in April, the minimum hourly base pay for Aetna’s American workers will be $16 an hour, according to a company press release.

The 5,700 workers affected by the change will see an average pay raise of about 11 percent. The lowest-paid workers, who currently make $12 an hour, will get a 33-percent raise.

The Wall Street Journal reported that Bertolini recently requested that Aetna executives read Capital In The Twenty-First Century, by the French economist Piketty. The book, which has been hailed as the “most important book of the twenty-first century,” warns that the gap between the haves and the have-nots is heading toward Gilded Age levels of inequality and calls on the world’s largest economies to fix the problem.

The U.S. government, which last raised the federal minimum wage to $7.25 an hour in 2009, has not exactly scrambled to respond. Aetna’s move is one way companies could help close the gap

Other factors may have influenced Aetna’s decision to boost pay. The Affordable Care Act is helping millions of Americans get insured, which means insurance companies have to beef up their consumer services to stay competitive.

“Health care decisions are increasingly consumer driven,” Bertolini said in a statement emailed to The Huffington Post. “We are making an investment in the future of health-care service.”

The job market is healing, as well, which should eventually push wages higher. Last month capped the best year for hiring since 1999, as the unemployment rate fell to 5.6 percent. That said, even though the job market has improved, wages have been slow to grow.

Still, some large employers, including Aetna, Starbucks and the Gap, have raised wages in the past year.

In the interview, Tom Keene makes the point that wages have been stagnant for years. Bertolini describes the segment that most influenced his decision were single moms who needed food stamps to get by in Connecticut’s capitol. Their kids often were on Medicaid because they couldn’t even afford the company’s healthcare plan.

60% of the increase dedicated to benefits. 40% of the budget increase went to the wages – raised to $16/hour minimum. Doing it this way produced the best possible increase in personal disposable income. Not that any of this means crap to Republicans and other tightwads pretending to be conservatives.

Bertolini’s cogent point is that healthcare is a growing segment in our service economy. Workers who are well-paid always perform better than folks treated like serfs. As much as today’s conservatives prefer the latter. Something not noted in this article are the changes in workplace life, as well. More advanced sectors in the American economy – like the tech sector – long ago proved that a small portion of time away from necessary work reduces tedium, makes for increased acuity in all tasks. That should include physical changes, exercise – as well a bit of time to rest your brain.

Aetna now brings in a bit of yoga, a little meditation time to their workplace. Something else, fundamentalist curmudgeons will also hate.

The largest vessel the world has ever seen – is a factory

The Prelude
Click to enlarge

Climbing onto the largest vessel the world has ever seen brings you into a realm where everything is on a bewilderingly vast scale and ambition knows no bounds.

Prelude is a staggering 488 meters long and the best way to grasp what this means is by comparison with something more familiar.

Four football pitches placed end-to-end would not quite match this vessel’s length – and if you could lay the 301 meters of the Eiffel Tower alongside it, or the 443 meters of the Empire State Building, they wouldn’t do so either.

In terms of sheer volume, Prelude is mind-boggling too: if you took six of the world’s largest aircraft carriers, and measured the total amount of water they displaced, that would just about be the same as with this one gigantic vessel.

Under construction for the energy giant Shell, the dimensions of the platform are striking in their own right – but also as evidence of the sheer determination of the oil and gas industry to open up new sources of fuel…

Prelude…pioneers a new way of getting gas from beneath the ocean floor to the consumers willing to pay for it.

Until now, gas collected from offshore wells has had to be piped to land to be processed and then liquefied ready for export…Usually, this means building a huge facility onshore which can purify the gas and then chill it so that it becomes a liquid – what’s known as liquefied natural gas or LNG – making it 600 times smaller in volume and therefore far easier to transport by ship.

And LNG is in hot demand – especially in Asia, with China and Japan among the energy-hungry markets.

To exploit the Prelude gas field more than 100 miles off the northwest coast of Australia, Shell has opted to bypass the step of bringing the gas ashore, instead developing a system which will do the job of liquefaction at sea.

Hence Prelude will become the world’s first floating LNG plant – or FLNG in the terminology of the industry.

RTFA for the economics behind the decision – because, push comes to shove, there is no other primary reason for the construction of this behemoth. Optimizing profit is the name of the only game Shell plays.

Surprising complexity, insights into global effects of wood fuel burning

The harvesting of wood to meet the heating and cooking demands for billions of people worldwide has less of an impact on global forest loss and carbon dioxide emissions than previously believed, according to a new Yale-led study.

Writing in the journal Nature Climate Change, a team of researchers, including Prof. Robert Bailis of the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies, concludes that only about 27 to 34 percent of wood fuel harvested worldwide would be considered “unsustainable.” According to the assessment, “sustainability” is based on whether or not annual harvesting exceeds incremental re-growth…

According to the authors, the findings point to the need for more nuanced, local-specific policies that address forest loss, climate change, and public health. They also suggest that existing carbon offset methodologies used to reduce carbon emissions likely overstate the CO2 emission reductions that can be achieved through the promotion of more efficient cookstove technologies.

The study identifies a set of “hotspots” where the majority of wood extraction exceeds sustainable yields. These hotspot regions — located mainly in South Asia and East Africa — support about 275 million people who are reliant on wood fuel.

However, in other regions, the authors say, much of the wood used for this traditional heating and cooking is actually the byproduct of deforestation driven by other factors, such as demand for agricultural land, which would have occurred anyway…

The results stand in contrast to a long-held assumption that the harvesting of wood fuels — which accounts for more than half of the wood harvested worldwide — is a major driver of deforestation and climate change…

Emissions from wood fuels account for about 1.9 to 2.3 percent of global emissions, the study says. The deployment of 100 million improved cookstoves could reduce this by 11 to 17 percent, said Bailis, who also studies the factors that influence the adoption of cleaner cookstoves in developing nations…

“We need to be able to understand where these different components of non-renewability are coming from in order to get a better sense of the positive impacts of putting stoves into peoples’ homes or promoting transitions to cooking with gas or electricity,” he said.

Economics rules. IMHO The first reason to choose wood-burning for fuel is cost. There is none. Yes, there is the cost of labor-time; but, the discussion covers a majority of rural families who are self-sustaining farmers…with little or no cash income.

Cost factors of electricity, natural gas, butagaz, etc. aren’t part of the equation. These folks generally can’t budget to buy fuel. Income-generation from local/regional small-scale manufacturing or more efficient, more productive methods of agriculture offering surplus to sell can remedy that core problem.

Robert Shiller asks — What good are economists?

robert-shiller

Since the global financial crisis and recession of 2007-2009, criticism of the economics profession has intensified. The failure of all but a few professional economists to forecast the episode – the aftereffects of which still linger – has led many to question whether the economics profession contributes anything significant to society. If they were unable to foresee something so important to people’s wellbeing, what good are they?

Indeed, economists failed to forecast most of the major crises in the last century, including the severe 1920-21 slump, the 1980-82 back-to-back recessions, and the worst of them all, the Great Depression after the 1929 stock-market crash. In searching news archives for the year before the start of these recessions, I found virtually no warning from economists of a severe crisis ahead. Instead, newspapers emphasized the views of business executives or politicians, who tended to be very optimistic.

The closest thing to a real warning came before the 1980-82 downturn. In 1979, Federal Reserve Chair Paul A. Volcker told the Joint Economic Committee of the US Congress that the United States faced “unpleasant economic circumstances,” and had a “need for hard decisions, for restraint, and even for sacrifice.” The likelihood that the Fed would have to take drastic steps to curb galloping inflation, together with the effects of the 1979 oil crisis, made a serious recession quite likely.

Nonetheless, whenever a crisis loomed in the last century, the broad consensus among economists was that it did not. As far as I can find, almost no one in the profession – not even luminaries like John Maynard Keynes, Friedrich Hayek, or Irving Fisher – made public statements anticipating the Great Depression…

We do not blame physicians for failing to predict all of our illnesses. Our maladies are largely random, and even if our doctors cannot tell us which ones we will have in the next year, or eliminate all of our suffering when we have them, we are happy for the help that they can provide. Likewise, most economists devote their efforts to issues far removed from establishing a consensus outlook for the stock market or the unemployment rate. And we should be grateful that they do…

…The economics profession has produced an enormous amount of extremely valuable work, characterized by a serious effort to provide genuine evidence. Yes, most economists fail to predict financial crises – just as doctors fail to predict disease. But, like doctors, they have made life manifestly better for everyone.

I wonder if Robert Shiller will turn this wee essay into a work of research and exposition. He is damned good at both. But, then, that’s part of the how and why he was awarded the Nobel Prize. The whole article is available if you click the link up above.

Poisonally, I agree with him. He is, after all, a fine modern economist. He’s not supposed to be a civil engineer.

One reason more people aren’t working is that the pay sucks

Earlier this week, the Bureau of Labor Statistics showed that one of the odder trends in American business is continuing — job openings are growing much faster than hires.

Here’s a chart showing the rapid rise in job openings and the much more modest rise in hires:

image

People sometimes see this as a sign of “structural problems” in the economy. But pair it with the continued weakness in wage growth and it looks to me more like stinginess. Business would like to add staff to their teams, but don’t want to offer the higher pay that would be needed to attract candidates they want to hire.

In crystal ball mode, I’d say this is a sign that wages are likely to rise soon. But to be honest, that’s what I thought a few months ago. So instead I’ll say this is a sign that wages should rise soon. If you want to fill those vacancies, offer better pay. It’s not brain surgery.

Nice little piece by Matty Iglesias.

You already know the Republican response to this state of affairs – cut unemployment insurance compensation, duration and any other kind of welfare benefits. Force folks to take whatever job is available no matter crappy pay or working conditions.

Welcome to 21st Century conservatism. Yup. Same as the 19 Century. The enlightenment characteristic of folks like Teddy Roosevelt or even Everett Dirksen has evaporated in the heat of greed and privilege.

Health care is getting more affordable — see that on the local news, yet?

Every two years, the Commonwealth Fund surveys Americans on how difficult it is to afford medical care. The 2014 survey showed something new: for the first time in a decade, the number of Americans who say they can afford the health care they need went up.

The Commonwealth Fund fielded the survey during the second half of 2014, meaning they captured the people who signed up for Obamacare during the open enrollment period earlier in the year. And it showed, for the first time in the survey’s 10-year history, a decline in the number of Americans who reported having difficulty paying medical bills or who carried medical debt.

The Commonwealth Fund also looked at Americans who said they put off care because it was too expensive. And there, too, they saw a decline: 36 percent of Americans reported delaying care because of the price, an all-time low in the survey’s history.

This also coincided with an increase in the number of Americans who reported having health insurance, a finding that lines up with other national surveys on coverage.

In a way, it seems obvious that more people with health insurance would mean more Americans able to afford care. But that notion hasn’t always been taken for granted with Obamacare. Some of the plans sold on the new marketplaces have had especially narrow networks that limit coverage to a smaller set of doctors. These plans have also had particularly high deductibles, often over $2,000.

So it hasn’t been totally clear whether these plans would make it easier for Americans to afford coverage: would enrollees with a $2,000 deductible, for example, still find it too expensive to go to the doctor?

The Commonwealth Fund survey suggests that the answer is no: that the plans sold on the marketplace are making it easier for the people who buy them to see the doctor — which is one of the main points of having health insurance to begin with.

Makes sense to me. My Medicare Advantage has gone up a very small percentage; but, I’m entering the second year with a new provider – and all the insurance companies seem to play the same game of lowballing the first year.

The few other folks and family members I chatted with on the topic – admittedly a short sample – all agree with the article.

Obama offers plan for free community colleges


“Show us the Republican plan!”

President Obama will call on Congress to pass legislation making the first two years of community college free for students.

The federal government would cover three-quarters of the cost, with states kicking in the final 25 percent…

The program is likely to be dead on arrival in Congress, but it’s the administration’s first major college affordability proposal in some time.

As much as Republicans like Governor Susana here in New Mexico like to blather about their support for education, their concern for better education – they don’t offer a single positive and programmatic step forward. Their agitprop is meaningless when it comes to actually doing something that helps workingclass folks.

Obama is proposing two years of free community college for students who attend at least half-time and maintain a grade point average of at least 2.5. That wouldn’t cover the entire cost for most students — students who finish community college in two years are rare — but the White House estimates it would save 9 million students around $3,800 per year in tuition if every state chose to participate.

The White House said details will be in the president’s 2016 budget request but declined to offer specifics on how much the program would cost. It’s not clear how the program would work, how the grants to states would be structured, or how the federal money would interact with the Pell Grant, federal aid for low-income students that about 38 percent of all community college students receive.

Other states and cities, including Tennessee and Chicago, have proposed programs that cover any remaining tuition and fees after other grants and scholarships are applied…

Obama has praised Tennessee’s program, the Tennessee Promise, which begins with this year’s high school class and offers two years of free community college tuition. About 50,000 high school seniors completed the initial sign-up — more than three-quarters of all high school seniors in the state.

That’s one effect free college programs can have: they can make college seem possible for everybody, even students who didn’t think they could afford to go…

The total amount of student debt in the US has more than tripled in the past 10 years, from $363 billion in 2005 to more than $1.2 trillion today. It’s increasing for a few reasons: More students are going to college than they used to, a higher proportion are taking out loans, and they’re borrowing more than students did in the past…

Republicans love that part. Anything that offers profits for money-lenders is OK with conservatives.

RTFA. It wastes the required amount of space on beancounter arguments, offers up some of the pet sophistry from pretend-liberals who think such programs favor middle-class students over poor. Mail me a penny postcard when patent leather populists actually show up to work in a chile patch in Hatch, NM or sign on as a laborer building the newest Walmart for some cheap-ass contruction company.

It does dot most i’s, cross the t’s. The article is clear about Republican lies. You might be able to find one or two conservative politicians in the GOUSA who actually deliver on promises to aid education for workingclass kids. That’s like the proverbial stopped clock that has the time right for 2 seconds a day.

Republicans walked away from any progressive agenda a couple of days past the end of the Civil War..

The end of the Kulluk — It sure ain’t the Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald


Click to enlargeKulluk on the way to Alaska

In 2005, Royal Dutch Shell, then the fourth-largest company on Earth, bought a drill rig that was both tall, rising almost 250 feet above the waterline, and unusually round. The hull of the Kulluk, as the rig was called, was made of 1.5-inch-thick steel and rounded to better prevent its being crushed. A 12-point anchor system could keep it locked in place above an oil well for a full day in 18-foot seas or in moving sea ice that was four feet thick. Its drill bit, dropped from a 160-foot derrick, could plunge 600 feet into the sea, then bore another 20,000 feet into the seabed, where it could verify the existence of oil deposits that were otherwise a geologist’s best guess. It had a sauna. It could go (in theory) where few other rigs could go, helping Shell find oil that (in theory) few other oil companies could find…

In Inuvialuktun, the language spoken in the settlement of Inuvik in the Northwest Territories in Canada, the name Kulluk means “thunder.” (A local schoolgirl won a naming contest in 1982.) The rig had been purpose-built for exploring what was now recognized as the last great energy opportunity. The United States Geological Survey said in a series of reports that the Arctic held nearly a quarter of the world’s undiscovered petroleum. Beneath just the American portion of the Arctic Ocean, in the Beaufort and Chukchi Seas, were an estimated 27 billion barrels of recoverable oil and 130 trillion cubic feet of natural gas — more than 30 times America’s annual imports from OPEC. The break-even point was substantial, but so was the prize. One federal estimate declared that at $80 a barrel, 12 billion barrels would be pulled out of the Chukchi Sea alone…

By 2012, Shell had become the largest company in the world. It had $467.2 billion in revenue and 87,000 employees in more than 70 countries. It was on track to spend $6 billion preparing for Arctic Alaska, and that March the Obama administration approved exploratory drilling. The task that remained was not to tame the frontier so much as to bring it within reach, to bind Arctic Alaska to the rest of the world. Shell imagined a future of new ports, new airports and permanent rigs. Squint your eyes and you could see all the lines being drawn. Shell’s Arctic program looked much like the Kulluk itself: something massive at the end of a long thin line.

The plan was simple: The Kulluk would anchor to the Arctic Ocean seabed above a suspected oil deposit and sink a bit deep enough to take core samples — the same operation carried out by hundreds of offshore rigs in warmer waters all over the world. If it found significant oil, its test wells would be replaced by a production well, the Kulluk by a permanent platform that would sit in place for decades…

On a sunny Wednesday in June 2012, Shell’s fleet set out for the Arctic. Behind the Kulluk and the Aiviq, in a blue-and-white convoy steaming through Puget Sound, was a third vessel, owned by Noble Drilling, the same subcontractor that Shell hired to operate the Kulluk. This was the 512-foot Noble Discoverer. Unlike the Kulluk, the Discoverer was self-propelled. Like the Kulluk, it was old, one of the oldest drill ships still operating anywhere in the world, having been built as a log carrier in 1966 and converted to a mobile exploration rig a decade later…

And, now, you should read the whole story. Well-written, the sort of piece the TIMES used to be known for on a regular basis.

The story, the plot is interesting. The adventure sometimes appears to be succeeding. Certainly the efforts of humans against nature are as commanding as ever.

If you keep in touch with the news, especially as an individual with concerns for the global environment ranking higher among your standards than the profits of fossil fuel corporate giants — the photo below of the end of the Kullak’s voyage ain’t a spoiler.

But, the tale is really worth reading.


Click to enlargeKullak aground at Sitkalidak, a barrier island off Kodiak Island

Report Card for 10 top world leaders

In a rare poll, citizens on five continents and in 30 countries, including China, were asked to identify and evaluate the job performance of 10 of the most widely recognized global leaders, including Chinese President Xi Jinping, Russian President Vladimir Putin, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, and U.S. President Barack Obama…

Respondents in India (87.8 percent), Russia (79.6 percent), and China (78.6 percent) overwhelmingly said that their home country was moving in the right direction, while only a minority in the United States (44.8 percent), Japan (30.4 percent), and South Africa (29.3 percent) felt their nation was making progress.

WL2
Click to enlarge — click twice for largest size

The results also offer a glimpse into what kinds of information about other nations filter down to the average citizen, Anthony Saich said, “so you can begin to ask questions about how both geopolitics and about how national presses begin to report activities and behavior of other countries and how that reflects onto particular leaders.”

“Two things did surprise me — how well Modi came out. I just put that down to the fact that he’d only just been elected and so I suspect that a lot of people didn’t really know very much about him, and his own nationals were probably still in the phase of him having won the election,” said Saich. “I thought what was interesting, though, was how well Merkel came out across the board. From the surveys, she really emerges as a leader of international respect.”

Saich, who serves as faculty chair of HKS’s China program, said granular data about how Chinese citizens viewed other world leaders was groundbreaking and supports what was generally known already. Their positive assessment of Xi’s performance both at home and abroad is explained by a multitude of factors…

“For a large number of people, life has generally gotten better year by year — more freedom of choice, probably more income, better living conditions, better material conditions, a lot more to watch on the television,” Saich added. “I think that also plays into it.”

Saich doesn’t try to draw too much from the results of this initial survey. It can and will serve as a baseline for returning efforts in the future.

That doesn’t mean that TV talking heads and directly-employed government PR-types won’t try for a special spin. Not that I expect much of that in a nation as parochial as the United States.