Category Archives: US Congress

Thanksgiving 2021

Thanksgiving 2021 has come and gone.  But let’s reflect on it for a moment.

As we celebrated the holiday this year, our country was facing a number of serious problems:  climate change, political divisions, the continuing coronavirus pandemic.  But we’ve had reason to be thankful for some positive changes as well.

Among the positive changes we can point to is the long-overdue recognition of the rights of indigenous peoples, like those who were at the “first Thanksgiving.”  Unlike the traditional and untrue telling of the story of that event—a story that’s still perpetuated in at least some of the schools our children attend—the people who were already here (commonly called American Indians or Native Americans) did not view the Pilgrims’ celebratory feast as a happy one.

Even then, at the very beginning of our country’s history, the Indian people who were confronted with Europeans arriving on their shores viewed them not as welcome guests but as a threat. 

If that was indeed the judgment of their leaders, they were right.  The new settlers were oppressors who drove the native peoples off their land—in the words of U.S. Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland, these “ancestors…who stewarded our lands since time immemorial.”

Secretary Haaland, the first Native American appointed to a major cabinet post by a U.S. President and a former member of the U.S. Congress, spoke at a ceremony on November 19th, marking the 52nd anniversary of the occupation of Alcatraz Island by indigenous people in 1969.  During her remarks, she announced that she had established a process to review and replace derogatory names currently attached to our nation’s geography.

Specifically, Secretary Haaland ordered the federal board tasked with naming geographic places, the Board on Geographic Names, to remove the term “squaw” from federal usage.  The Board, established in 1890, has in the past identified derogatory terms on a case-by-case basis, but more extensive replacements have also occurred.  In 1962, Secretary Steward Udall identified the N-word as derogatory and directed the Board to eliminate its use.  In 1974, the Board similarly identified a pejorative term for “Japanese” as derogatory and eliminated its use.

Most Americans may be unaware that the term “squaw” is a derogatory term used for many years to demean women, especially Native women.  But Haaland was outspoken in condemning it.  She said, “Racist terms have no place in our vernacular or on our federal lands.  Our nation’s lands and waters should be places to celebrate the outdoors and our shared cultural heritage—not to perpetuate the legacies of oppression.”

Several states have already passed legislation prohibiting the use of this term in place names, including Montana, Oregon, Maine, Oklahoma, South Dakota, and Minnesota.  Legislation is currently pending in both chambers of Congress to address derogatory names on public land.

The new order to eliminate this woman-demeaning term presents a significant problem in California.  The San Francisco Chronicle reported on November 24th that an estimated 100-plus places in California carry the derogatory name.  These include peaks, streams, trails, and other geographic features.  According to the ACLU, there may be as many as 113 sites in California using this term.  Looming large are two small towns in Northern California called Squaw Valley, one in North Lake Tahoe, the other in Fresno County.

The Chronicle reported a statement by Roman Rain Tree, a member of a band of Native tribes indigenous to the Fresno County area, who has been organizing a grassroots effort to rename the rural town of Squaw Valley.  Secretary Haaland, he said, has made “a giant leap forward.  It restores my belief that the government has elected officials who will look after our community.”

The Chronicle also reported that the California State Parks have identified a number of geographic features carrying the name and intend to rename them, moving us “closer to the goal of reckoning with our past, making space for healing and promoting equity.”  Removing the term is seen as a priority.

More troublesome is renaming the towns called Squaw Valley.  According to the Chronicle, thousands of people have already signed an online petition to change the name of the town in Fresno County.  But some residents of the community have “balked at the idea, contending that ‘squaw’ isn’t universally offensive.”  A county supervisor said that “Squaw Valley is offensive to some, but not all.  … [T]he local community needs to be involved in that conversation.”

Meanwhile, the Tahoe ski resort, long named Squaw Valley, has already changed its name to Palisades Tahoe.  Now it apparently needs to do a better job of publicizing its new name.  A short time ago, I heard an ABC weather reporter still refer to it on national television as “Squaw Valley.”

The San Francisco Examiner also reviewed some of these issues on November 25th, writing about a ceremony to be held at Alcatraz Island on what most of us viewed as Thanksgiving Day but others viewed as “a day of mourning for Indigenous people, also known as “Unthanksgiving Day.’” This ceremony first took place in 1975, six years after indigenous activists occupied the island to claim it as a place promised to them in a treaty that was later broken by the federal government.  April McGill, executive director of the American Indian Cultural Center, told the Examiner that she hoped “people think about what the holiday really means and rethink it…[not] to do away with the holiday altogether but to remove the celebration of Thanksgiving, instead [to think of it as showing] gratitude for the fall harvest.”

At the same time, California is just beginning to reckon with its long and ugly history regarding the treatment of American Indians.  An essay by John Briscoe, published in the Chronicle on November 28th, outlines this history, noting that while California was admitted to the union in 1850 as a “free state,” it was, in truth, “conceived in genocide” of its Native Americans.  A long-established principle of law required the U.S. to honor the private property rights of indigenous peoples.  Instead, the state of California openly sponsored the “theft” of land belonging to the local tribes that lived here.  Indians were also subject to the state’s Indian Slavery Act (enacted despite being in violation of the state’s constitution) until it was repealed in 1937.

Serranus Hastings, California’s first chief justice, profited off the enslavement of Indians, and the law school in San Francisco that bears his name is now in the process of renaming itself.   Briscoe writes that Hastings, Leland Stanford, and many others acquired vast tracts of land through violence against Indians and made fortunes in real estate as a result.  “California Indians had rights guaranteed by law—American domestic law and international law—[including] the right not to be murdered, not to be enslaved, not to be stripped at gun and knife point of their ancestral lands.”  But, he says, each of these rights “was systematically and repeated violated by the state of California.” 

In 2019, there was belated acknowledgment of these wrongs.  Governor Gavin Newsom officially apologized “on behalf of the citizens of the state of California to all California Native Americans for the many instances of violence, maltreatment and neglect California inflicted on tribes.”  Newsom also created a Truth and Healings Council to clarify the historical record.

Although we should never forget past inequities, which have occurred throughout our country and its long history, we should also acknowledge the positive changes that have taken place in recent years.  With Native American Deb Haaland as our new Secretary of the Interior, the U.S. may finally be moving towards equity for our indigenous peoples.

I, for one, am happy to know that some of these changes have happened in time for Thanksgiving 2021.

How Big Is Your Signature?

I’ll bet you never thought that the size of your signature meant a darned thing.  But guess what.  It does.

A recent study by a business school professor at Washington University in St. Louis found that an oversized signature is correlated with an oversized ego, and a great big ego can have practical business consequences.

In my view, the research findings apply to people running enterprises in a whole lot of areas other than corporations, including the White House.

The research by Professor Chad Ham, a professor at Wash U’s Olin Business School, concluded that a CFO (chief financial officer) with an oversized signature is more likely to make questionable choices because of his/her oversized ego.

Professor Ham’s research, described in a paper published in the December issue of the Journal of Accounting Research, showed that “narcissistic CFOs are less likely to recognize losses” promptly, and that this behavior is “consistent with a willingness to cover up past mistakes.”

Ham’s research team, which included academics from the University of North Carolina, the University of Maryland, and Rice University, looked at the size of a CFO’s signature and how it related to his/her level of narcissism. They then connected those findings to the financial reporting by each CFO’s corporation.

The research team compared the performance of the companies before and after the CFO was appointed.  The result was telling.  The firms became “more aggressive” when narcissistic CFOs were appointed.

Ham’s research went beyond that of CFOs.  It also looked at CEOs and linked management results with their level of narcissism.  Narcissistic CEOs—those with larger signatures—tended to over-invest in riskier projects and received higher compensation despite poor financial performance.

Why did the researchers focus so much on signature size?  According to Ham, it was one way to “capture narcissism.”  They couldn’t simply ask top corporate executives to submit to a personality test.  So they used signature size as a proxy for the level of narcissism.

In other research, the team paired student volunteers, and asked them to allocate $5 between themselves and their anonymous partners.   After that assignment, the students had to fill out a personality test and sign their names.  The result?  Students with larger signatures tended to be more narcissistic, and the more narcissistic participants were more likely to keep a larger share of the $5 for themselves and to misreport how they allocated the other half of that amount.

Ham doesn’t advocate that corporate boards avoid hiring as CEOs and CFOs everyone with a large signature.  It’s not that simple.  A single narcissistic CFO might benefit the company in ways not measured in this study.  But Ham concluded that corporate leaders should be aware of their colleagues’ narcissistic tendencies in order to keep “appropriate checks and balances in place.”

Wow.  I think this research can be extrapolated to the heads of entities other than corporations.  For example, the current occupant of the White House likes to show off his oversized signature on whatever documents he signs.  His large signature is just one indication of his level of narcissism, which is related to his eagerness to embark in risky projects, to misreport how he allocates funds, and to cover up his past mistakes.

As for keeping appropriate “checks and balances in place,” we might as well forget it.  Where are the other leaders of our government—in particular, those currently belonging to the majority party in Congress–who could exhibit some strength of character and insist that “checks and balances,” a long-held principle of our democracy, are observed?

They’re nowhere to be found.

I’m wondering just how big their signatures are.

A Day Without a Drug Commercial

Last night I dreamed there was a day without a drug commercial….

When I woke up, reality stared me in the face.  It couldn’t be true.  Not right now.  Not without revolutionary changes in the drug industry.

Here are some numbers that may surprise you.  Or maybe not.

Six out of ten adults in the U.S. take a prescription medication.  That’s up from five out of ten a decade ago.  (These numbers appeared in a recent study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association.)

Further, nine out of ten people over 65 take at least one drug, and four out of ten take five or more—nearly twice as many as a decade ago.

One more statistic:  insured adults under 65 are twice as likely to take medication as the uninsured.

Are you surprised by any of these numbers?  I’m not.

Until the 1990s, drug companies largely relied on physicians to promote their prescription drugs. But in 1997, the Food and Drug Administration revised its earlier rules on direct-to-consumer (DTC) advertising, putting fewer restrictions on the advertising of pharmaceuticals on TV and radio, as well as in print and other media.  We’re one of only two countries–New Zealand is the other one–that permit this kind of advertising.

The Food and Drug Administration is responsible for regulating it and is supposed to take into account ethical and other concerns to prevent the undue influence of DTC advertising on consumer demand.  The fear was that advertising would lead to a demand for medically unnecessary prescription meds.

It’s pretty clear to me that it has.  Do you agree?

Just look at the statistics.  The number of people taking prescription drugs increases every year.  In my view, advertising has encouraged them to seek drugs that may be medically unnecessary.

Of course, many meds are essential to preserve a patient’s life and health.  But have you heard the TV commercials?  Some of them highlight obscure illnesses that affect a small number of TV viewers.  But whether we suffer from these ailments or not, we’re all constantly assaulted by these ads.  And think about it:  If you feel a little under the weather one day, or a bit down in the dumps because of something that happened at work, or just feeling stressed because the neighbor’s dog keeps barking every night, might those ads induce you to call your doc and demand a new drug to deal with it?

The drug commercials appear to target those who watch daytime TV—mostly older folks and the unemployed.  Because I work at home, I sometimes watch TV news while I munch on my peanut butter sandwich.  But if I don’t hit the mute button fast enough, I’m bombarded by annoying ads describing all sorts of horrible diseases.  And the side effects of the drugs?  Hearing them recited (as rapidly as possible) is enough to make me lose my appetite.  One commercial stated some possible side effects:  suicidal thoughts or actions; new or worsening depression; blurry vision; swelling of face, mouth, hands or feet; and trouble breathing.  Good grief!  The side effects sounded worse than the disease.

I’m not the only one annoyed by drug commercials.  In November 2015, the American Medical Association called for a ban on DTC ads of prescription drugs. Physicians cited genuine concerns that a growing proliferation of ads was driving the demand for expensive treatments despite the effectiveness of less costly alternatives.  They also cited concerns that marketing costs were fueling escalating drug prices, noting that advertising dollars spent by drug makers had increased by 30 percent in the previous two years, totaling $4.5 billion.

The World Health Organization has also concluded that DTC ads promote expensive brand-name drugs.  WHO has recommended against allowing DTC ads, noting surveys in the US and New Zealand showing that when patients ask for a specific drug by name, they receive it more often than not.

Senator Bernie Sanders has repeatedly stated that Americans pay the highest prices in the world for prescription drugs.  He and other Senators introduced a bill in 2015 aimed at skyrocketing drug prices, and Sanders went on to rail against them during his 2016 presidential campaign.

Another member of Congress, Representative Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.), has introduced a bill specifically focused on DTC ads.  Calling for a three-year moratorium on advertising new prescription drugs directly to consumers, the bill would freeze these ads, with the aim of holding down health-care costs.

DeLauro has argued, much like the AMA, that DTC ads can inflate health-care costs if they prompt consumers to seek newer, higher-priced meds.  The Responsibility in Drug Advertising Act would amend the current Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act and is the latest effort to squelch DTC advertising of prescription meds.

The fact that insured adults under 65 are twice as likely to take prescription meds as those who are not insured highlights a couple of things:  That these ads are pretty much about making more and more money for the drug manufacturers.  And that most of the people who can afford them are either insured or in an over-65 program covering many of their medical expenses.  So it’s easy to see that manufacturers can charge inflated prices because these consumers are reimbursed by their insurance companies.  No wonder health insurance costs so much!  And those who are uninsured must struggle to pay the escalating prices or go without the drugs they genuinely need.

Not surprisingly, the drug industry trade group, the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America, has disputed the argument that DTC ads play “a direct role in the cost of new medicines.”  It claims that most people find these ads useful because they “tell people about new treatments.”  It’s probably true that a few ads may have a public-health benefit.  But I doubt that very many fall into that category.

Hey, Big Pharma:  If I need to learn about a new treatment for a health problem, I’ll consult my physician.  I certainly don’t plan to rely on your irritating TV ads.

But…I fear that less skeptical TV viewers may do just that.

So please, take those ads off the air.  Now.

If you do, you know what?  There just might be a day without a drug commercial….

 

[The Wellness Letter published by the University of California, Berkeley, provided the statistics noted at the beginning of this post.]

 

Link

Looking Back…The Election of 1984 (Part II)

I wrote Part I of this blog post in late 1984.  In Part I, I commented on the campaign for president and vice president that had occurred that fall.

Part II, also written in 1984, offered my thoughts at the time about what might take place post-1984.

During the past 32 years, we’ve seen another major political party nominate a woman to be vice president.  In my view, the selection of Sarah Palin as that candidate in 2008 was John McCain’s replication of Walter Mondale’s unhappy selection of Geraldine Ferraro.  It was perhaps even more detrimental to McCain because he probably had a better chance of being elected president than Mondale had in 1984. Palin was even more untested as a political figure than Ferraro, having served only as a suburban mayor and a recently elected governor of a small state.  She soon demonstrated her lack of experience and knowledge of national issues, making her a genuine liability for McCain, who lost the support of many voters who might have otherwise been inclined to vote for him.

In 2016, American voters finally have the opportunity to select a woman as their president.  This time she’s a woman with a great deal of experience in public life and vast knowledge of the issues confronting our nation.  Although, as a candidate, Hillary Clinton hasn’t inspired unbridled enthusiasm, she’s as close to a “woman candidate of national stature” (to use my own words) as we’ve ever had.  In 1984, I predicted that a “woman candidate of national stature” whose position “represents the majority thinking in this country” would be “a realistic candidate,…and she will win.”

Was I right?

Here’s exactly what I wrote in 1984:

 

PART II

How does this leave things for the future?  Putting aside the personal future of Geraldine Ferraro, which is probably bright, what about other women candidates?  And what about the possibility of any woman being nominated and elected to the presidency or vice presidency of this country?  The Mondale-Ferraro defeat should not and must not be read as a defeat for women candidates in general.  Ferraro’s assets, both as a candidate and as a human being, are considerable, but, to be honest, she joined the campaign largely unknown and untested.
Another woman candidate might well fare otherwise.

Twenty-five years ago [i.e., in 1959], Margaret Chase Smith, a well-known and respected Republican U.S. Senator from Maine, announced her candidacy for the presidency.  She never had a realistic shot at it in that benighted era, but she might have had one in the 1980s.  She had established herself through a number of terms in the House of Representatives and the Senate, had climbed up the ladder in the Senate to committee chairmanships, and had become a recognized and admired figure on the national political scene.  A woman presenting similar credentials in the 1980s would bring a credibility to a national ticket that Ferraro, as a relative newcomer to the political arena, could not.  For this reason it’s important that women continue to run for political office on the state and local level, building political careers that will lead to the White House after they have achieved national stature—not before.

In all of the fuss made over Ferraro’s candidacy, something important was forgotten.  It’s not desirable for any political party to nominate a candidate solely or even primarily because that candidate is a woman or a black or a Hispanic—or a white Anglo male, for that matter.  The selection process must be based on the totality of what any given candidate will bring to the office.  The Democrats were wrong to select a woman candidate largely because she was a woman (those who said that a man with Ferraro’s credentials would never have been considered were—however painful it is to admit—correct).  They were wrong because Americans do not, and should not, vote for “symbols.”  When it became clear that Jesse Jackson wasn’t a candidate with a broad-based constituency but had become a “black” candidate and nothing more, that was the death knell for any realistic chance he had of winning the nomination.  But saying that is not saying that no black candidate can ever win.

Women candidates and candidates who are members of minority groups have run for office and won broad-based electoral support where they have been viewed as representing the best interests of a majority of the electorate.  But women and others who are viewed as “symbols,” representing only that segment of the electorate from which they came, will never win that sort of broad-based support.  On the contrary, their candidacies may serve only to polarize voters, leading to strife and bitterness among the electorate, and probable if not certain defeat at the ballot box.

When Mondale chose Ferraro, he already had the votes of the politically aware women for whom Ferraro became a symbol by virtue of his position on such issues as the ERA [the Equal Rights Amendment] and [the issue of] comparable worth.  He would not have lost the votes of those women no matter what else he did.  Likewise, Reagan didn’t have the votes of those women and wouldn’t have had them no matter what he did.  Even in the unimaginable event that Reagan had selected a woman running-mate, she would have had to be a woman whose thinking was compatible with his, and if she had endorsed Reagan’s views on the ERA (á la Phyllis Schlafly), feminists wouldn’t have been any more likely to vote for Reagan-Schlafly than Reagan-Bush.  It shouldn’t therefore be terribly difficult to understand why women who were otherwise happy with Reagan weren’t inclined to switch to Mondale simply because of Ferraro.

In sum, women voters are really not very different from men voters, and Democratic strategists who thought otherwise were proved wrong in 1984.  Women vote their interests, and these do not necessarily coincide with what is popularly perceived as “women’s” interests.  Women, like men, are concerned about the economy, our country’s status in the world, and a host of other matters along with the particular concerns they may have as women.

When a woman candidate of national stature emerges whose position on these interests represents the majority thinking in the country, she will be a realistic candidate for the vice presidency or the presidency, and she will win.

Let’s Lobby Congress to Pass the Paycheck Fairness Act

When U.S. Senator Barbara Mikulski recently announced her decision not to run for a sixth term, she noted that one of the issues she cares about “most deeply” is the issue of fair pay.

Mikulski, who was elected to the U.S. Senate in 1986 as the only Democratic woman and one of only two women in the Senate (the other was Kansas’s Nancy Kassebaum), has a long record of promoting issues that loom large in the lives of American women and families.

Mikulski noted that every year, on average, women who work full-time lose more than $10,800 in income because of the wage gap between what women and men earn. She plans to spend every day of the two years remaining in her term fighting for critical legislation like the Paycheck Fairness Act.

I’m joining Senator Mikulski in her campaign to enact the Paycheck Fairness Act (the PFA). I first wrote about this issue in an op-ed in the San Francisco Chronicle on April 23, 2010, “Unequal pay harms U.S. women.” (It appeared on this blog in October 2012.)

In the five years since my SF Chronicle op-ed appeared, nothing has happened. When the House of Representatives still had a Democratic majority, the House passed the PFA. But because it never passed in the Senate, it never became law.

Now, post-2014, when the Republicans hold a majority in both the Senate and the House, passage of the PFA seems impossible. But let’s not throw in the towel just yet. Because it’s such a vital issue, affecting millions of American workers and their families, I, like Senator Mikulski, am once again climbing on my soapbox and doing what I can to promote its passage.

I’ll begin by asking this question: How many working women think they’re paid fairly for the work they do? Right now, with the economy improving but still struggling to provide good-paying jobs for all of those who want them, some women may be happy just to be employed.

But women are still paid only 78 cents for every dollar men receive, making unequal pay a continuing problem for American women and the families who depend on their wages.

Did you know that women are now the primary breadwinners in 40 percent of American households? This fact makes closing the wage gap a crucial issue for all of these families, not merely for working women alone.

Why is the PFA so important? Because it would level the playing field for working women.

It would amend the Equal Pay Act (the EPA), which was enacted over 50 years ago in 1963 but hasn’t gone far enough to do what it was supposed to.

The EPA made it illegal for employers to pay unequal wages to those who perform substantially equal work. That sounds great, doesn’t it? So why hasn’t it made a real difference? Because of a startling failure in enforcement.

Enforcement by the EEOC during the past five decades has narrowed the wage gap to some degree. But the gap still exists because the EPA’s enforcement tools are outdated, making the gender-disparity in pay almost impossible to eradicate.

While other federal civil rights statutes have been amended numerous times, the EPA has never been amended. That’s why passing the PFA can make a real difference.

Let’s understand something right off the bat: The PFA doesn’t give employers a lot to complain about. It wouldn’t create an onerous burden because it wouldn’t give their employees any new rights. Employers are already required to comply with the EPA. The only difference is that under the PFA, women would be better able to ENFORCE those rights.

Many of the bill’s provisions make no demands on employers whatsoever. One provision would merely create a grant program that would help women and girls develop better skills at salary negotiation. Another would improve the way the government collects information from federal contractors.

Other provisions focus on the role of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. For example, it would give EEOC staff additional training to do a better job identifying and handling wage disputes.

Of course, some provisions do directly affect employers. Most significantly, the PFA would give women the same remedies as those available to employees discriminated against on the basis of race or national origin. Currently women can get only limited awards like back pay. The PFA would allow women to get compensatory and punitive damages for pay discrimination. These are the kinds of damages those suffering from racial and national-origin bias already get.

The PFA would also prohibit employers from retaliating against women who share salary information with their coworkers. This kind of information-sharing helps employees get vital information about wage disparities and discrimination at their workplace. But right now employers can retaliate against women who share such information. Women can be fired or suffer other repercussions for sharing the kind of salary info they need if they’re going to discover how much less they’re earning. This has to change.

Under the PFA, an EPA lawsuit could also proceed as a class action under the rules that apply to other federal lawsuits, instead of the restrictive 1963 rules that have never been amended.

Finally, a significant loophole now keeps women from winning cases brought under the EPA. Employers who are paying women less than men for equal work can claim that the difference in pay is based on a “factor other than sex.” This language is far too broad. It allows employers to make claims that have little or no merit. For example, this language has been used to argue that male workers have stronger negotiation skills and for that reason can negotiate higher salaries. Does that sound right to you? Should arguments like that allow men to earn more than a woman doing the same work? I don’t think so.

That result is NOT what Congress intended when it passed the EPA. The PFA would alter this language and allow different pay for men and women only when an employer can show that the difference relates to job performance and business necessity.

It’s time to shake things up and put women on a level playing field with their male co-workers. Women and men need to speak out and demand passage of the PFA. If we don’t speak out, we have to ask ourselves: When will Congress make pay equity a reality for America’s working women? And what did I do to try to make it happen?