Who’s a Moocher, Really?

Mitt Romney, former governor of Massachusetts,...

Mooch much?

Romney’s revealing slip at a private fundraiser has already occasioned a lot of commentary, including a piece by David Brooks bemoaning his campaign’s “incompetence.”

Brooks straightforwardly addresses some of Romney’s errant notions. First, the idea that those who get government money mainly vote for Democrats is false of course, as progressives often bemoan: instead, many are veterans and working class whites who tend to vote Republican. And he points out that these alleged “moochers” also includes millions of retirees. Gosh, vets, old people and poor people – why are you guys always on the take?

Brooks generously says that this is not the real Romney, but a gussied-up campaign version of a Romney-bot. But it seems to me that Romney’s comments instead reveal how uncritically he’s consumed the GOP’s “job creator” Kool-Aid.

One undercurrent of his comments is that unlike the “moocher” class, he and any other people rich enough to attend a big-money Republican fundraiser earned their extraordinary wealth, with bootstraps or otherwise. Of course, Romney perpetually appears not to notice that he was born on third base, which is one of the reasons he keeps committing the same gaffe over and over and over again, like hari kari inflicted with a sharpened silver spoon.

But even beyond his lamentable personal arrogance, the suggestion that he deserves what he has is worth examining. As a governor’s son, handed any opportunity in the world, Romney chose the easiest and most lucrative, but heartless, way to make lots of moola: private equity. This says something at least about his character, in a way that makes Brooks’ assessment look overly generous.

What is private equity, anyway, and is it something of real value, such that someone like Romney is morally better than a moocher? The basic model for private equity firms is to buy a company, in order to “fix” and sell it. The catch? “Fixing” it generally means you have to do one or both of two things: increase revenues or cut costs. To increase revenues is hard, requiring great management and long-term investment. So private equity firms cut costs – providing a short-term answer for investors wanting high, fast returns.

The upshot is that most private equity deals take advantage of tax writeoffs for corporate debt, leveraging a company and risking its health to improve profits for the equity firm. The focus on quick returns almost guarantees this approach. Does this add value? Perhaps sometimes, but more times than not it mainly pads the pockets of investors.

Does it generate “efficiencies”? Who can say, really? Efficiencies for whom and for what purpose? The received wisdom is that anything that makes someone a dollar expresses value, but in societal or moral terms that’s often far from the truth.

As Mother Jones has since revealed, the video in question was filmed at a $50,000-per-plate fundraiser at private equity manager Rick Leder’s house. Here’s what the New York Times had to say about Leder and his financial value-added:

Mr. Leder personifies the debates now swirling around this lucrative corner of finance. To his critics, he represents everything that’s wrong with this setup. In recent years, a large number of the companies that Sun Capital has acquired have run into serious trouble, eliminated jobs or both. Since 2008, some 25 of its companies—roughly one of every five it owns—have filed for bankruptcy. Among the losers was Friendly’s, the restaurant chain known for its Jim Dandy sundaes and Fribble shakes. (Sun Capital was accused by a federal agency of pushing Friendly’s into bankruptcy last year to avoid paying pensions to the chain’s employees; Sun disputes that contention.) Another company that sank into bankruptcy was Real Mex, owner of the Chevy’s restaurant chain. In that case, Mr. Leder lost money for his investors not once, but twice.

And Leder evidently also throws racy parties that require a lot of chlorine for the pool (yawn). So there’s that.

But even setting aside for a moment, if we can, this seedy world of hilariously cliched corporate raiders, why should we treat Republican’s moral assumption that corporate earnings are real, earned, and genuine as sacrosanct?

Obama got in some hot water a little earlier in the summer and was much-derided at the Republican convention for an honest and unremarkable statement about how the money earned by businesses depends on social investments by the government — i.e., all of us — for success. Really, this is fact, and not particularly controversial.

As Obama would know, it’s black letter law that companies may be sued wherever they do business because they “avail” themselves of roads, bridges, and the mail. In addition to the obvious examples Obama was describing, every time an uninsured low-income worker gets sick, and goes to a hospital for charity care, we all subsidize their care (an issue that “Obamacare” will help address by giving that person real insurance at last).

Every time the federal government makes college more affordable for students, or helps low-income families through Healthy Start, the workers of tomorrow become better equipped for a challenging future. Every family that gets a (ridiculously paltry) childcare tax credit is a family that can better afford to work. And every time a government safety or health rule saves a worker from being injured, that person can go to work tomorrow.

But it’s deeper than that as well. Guess who uses our court system, mostly? Businesses, suing other businesses. Without the power to enforce contracts, these arrangements would be enforced at the end of a gun, as in many less tenable economies around the world. A transparent, accountable marketplace is the sine qua non for a productive and stable economy.

And on the other side of the equation, it’s clear that corporations are good at producing stuff, and that a vibrant business economy is good for workers and companies. But there’s also a lot that’s wrong with the way corporate incentives are currently structured. This should be a much bigger part of the debate about the contributions of the so-called “job creators.”

Due to our shareholder incentive structure and a lack of meaningful rules for corporate charters, a corporation’s current job is to squeeze a dollar until it hurts (somebody else). This drive towards the bottom line often produces great suffering for workers, especially low-income workers in punishing, poorly regulated jobs like those in slaughterhouses or on farms.

There’s widespread financial predation as well – the Department of Justice and Attorneys’ General landmark settlement against the banks earlier this summer, though enormous, was the tip of the iceberg compared to the devastation in the housing market from no-document loans, robo-signing and other schemes, and from a derivatives economy that was – and is still – structured to produce careless profit-taking by Wall Street.

And of course there’s environmental harm – the “externalities” that businesses wish we would just clean up instead of them. And sometimes they dirty it up on purpose. In the case of chemical flame retardants, for example, the industry basically invented a need and poisoned every living room and public space in America with cancer-causing toxins, just to sell more pounds of their stuff.

Then there’s the corporate capture of lawmakers through campaign contributions, which puts decisions by government in hoc to the wealthy. The big dollars flow to the committee chairs who preside over issues of interest to companies: most of the same Republicans who mouth off against big government apparently see no problem when these companies attempt to purchase that government for a price.

My point isn’t that corporations are evil. They are structured to be profit-maximizing. But the equation of that with the high moral ground is puzzling, given the dubious mix of activities in which companies often engage. And what often gets lost in the debate about government funding versus corporate freedom is the hypocrisy: corporations readily exploit government money, lands and resources whenever they can, while criticizing any attempt to balance their often-rapacious activities with the common good.

Yet corporations, more than almost anything actually, are mere creatures of the state and governing law. The tax incentives that reward debt and leverage, and the policies that are keeping borrowed money cheap basically forever? Those are government policies, of course. The outrageous, anti-American and anti-middle class policy that capital gains are taxed lower than income? Government again. A system of tax loopholes so porous that the top 10 most profitable U.S. companies paid an average federal tax rate of just 9 percent last year? We built that too.

I don’t really expect that most businesses will have much of a social conscience, because we (unfortunately) haven’t asked them to, by and large. And most people are just doing what it takes to get by, within the rules they were handed. But if you want to claim a kind of moral superiority, well, then forgive me for asking a few questions about how you came by that dollar. If you did it on the backs of workers, through fraud and predation, or by poisoning people or the planet, um, not so much.

And if you chose the private equity route – leveraging companies, gutting assets like workers’ pension funds, and often driving them out of business and pocketing the barely taxed proceeds, then I’m sorry, smug and superior are off the table for you. In fact, you have some explaining to do.

The posturing about the specialness of corporate-earned wealth comes from politicians’ clubby intimacy with the uber-class of the one-percenters – political donors, Wall Street barons, and ultra-rich. And Romney’s comments make clear not just his “incompetence,” but the narrowness of his version of who is righteous in America, and who is not.

In contrast, old-timey conservatives used to routinely acknowledge a role for even strong government in creating the rules and social conditions for businesses to thrive. But this new-fangled GOP doesn’t want to talk about grounding a strong economy in transparency and accountability — they seem only to know a particularly mean-spirited version of us versus them. As Clinton pointed out, this inability to compromise or see the whole picture makes for broken politics and political decision-making.

So we have to fix it. We should use this moment to call into question the thoughtless sanctimony of the discourse around the value of the corporation. We created these things, and if they really are “people,” then the least we can do is require them to act like decent citizens.

Show me a business that cleans up after itself, treats its workers fairly, gives back to the community, is transparent and accountable in its dealings, and creates a well-made, environmentally sound product, and I’ll happily nominate its owners for the moral high ground. Or for political office, because we need more folks with backbone in those jobs.

If that’s not you, though, please step down off that soapbox — …slowly…slowly... — and do try to keep a lid on it about how much mooching the rest of us really do.

Our Summer in Photos and a Remembrance

Nothing says summer like rhubarb.

Maya’s been in school a week now, so I figure, time for the photo-essay version of “What We Did Last Summer.” To re-cap:

Way back in May, I dumped my carcinogenic couch and got mad with the other protesters at a rally for the Safe Chemicals Act.

There were real jelly-fish, and fake ones.

There was food — lots of good food.

We enjoyed nearby Brookside Gardens.

And the Kingston Peninsula, in New Brunswick.

We made it to the beach, and met up with the wild horses on Assateague Island.

And, most poignant of all for me, we remembered and celebrated the long, fascinating life of my great-uncle, Russell MacCleery. Here’s what I read aloud about him at our service for family and friends up in Canada:

About Russell

He was a man who knew his way around a story.  He also knew his way around Washington, around a farm, around the state capitol in New Hampshire and other states, the backroads of New Brunswick.  He could shake the hand of a Senator, and then put on overalls and shingle a roof.

He was larger than life. He was born before women could vote, just five years after the first Model T car rolled off the line. In his life, he saw suffrage for women, two World Wars, the sprawling of highways all over the country, civil rights, a car in every garage, and so many transformations over a century of accelerating change.

He worked permanent things into the landscape. Some of the things he created in Washington, I have tried to undo. I couldn’t. They became, by his intention, part of the political structure, embedded.

He loved beautiful places. He fell in love with New Brunswick as a boy and it always got the better part of him, in a way. He was most himself here. He had lifelong friends, and family sitting all around, to hear his stories. And paint cans in the living room, and a box of frosting I once found in his kitchen from the 1950s.

I have sat for hours, listening to him. He could speak for hours! It was exhausting sometimes, actually. And now, I think back on those hours, and don’t regret a minute.

I miss his voice, that sudden guffaw, his good humor, even the anger he still carried towards my grandmother for making him do chores when he wanted to go out to a dance with Sanford instead, more than seventy years ago.

He had a way with a story, even one that told us more than he intended.

He was a natural historian, and capable of so many things, versatile, someone equally at home with cows and politicians.

There are few people with that capacity. I admired him, loved him like the grandfather I never knew, and miss him terribly, both the stories he told us, often more than once, and all those stories we will never hear again.

Beef Tagine with Oil-Cured Olives, Almonds and Quince

I love my tagine. Why such gooey affection for crockery cookery, you ask, in a calm and reasonable tone?

Tagines, the Moroccan style of steam-boiling sauces and meats using a hat-shaped piece of pottery, allow me to have a really delicious and hearty dinner on the table in just over an hour, with minimal fuss and feathers. And mine has proven remarkably tolerant to my whatevs-in-the-fridge-and/or-cupboard approach to recipes, as the title for this post attests.

I already presented you with this delicious chicken dish with lemon. In fact, I probably use our stove-top tagine at least once a week, which is way more than I anticipated when I first boldly acquired yet another large new piece of specialized cookware.

One trick has been a side-investment in the most wonderful spice mix I’ve found — Ras el Hanout. It includes more than 20 spices: turmeric, ginger, cinnamon, fennel seed, anise seed, cardamom, star anise, cayenne pepper, garlic, nigella, paprika, ajwan seeds (marjoram), kalajeera (black cumin), ginger, lavender, galangal (a close relative of ginger), oris root, rose buds, monk’s pepper, Grain of Paradise, and mace.

The blend is mild enough to be acceptable to Maya and me, while also interesting enough to add enough depth to foods so that my husband, who prefers it very spicy, doesn’t drown the result of my modest efforts in sriracha. It’s a magical middle that had eluded me for years, and, as a bonus, it smells heavenly.

And, although the flavor variations are endless, the method for this style of cooking is fairly simple: heat the tagine over low heat, add oil, aromatics and spices, then the meat until it browns, then water or stock to about half an inch below the edge. Bubble until falling apart and delicious.

Lacking a tagine, you could try this combination in a large, heavy-bottomed pot, like my (almost) equally beloved enamel ones. If you do this, please let us know how your venture into uncharted territory turned out…

Ingredients:

(Grass-fed, organic) Beef, cut into bite-sized pieces (I tried to use a full roast at first, as you’ll see, which, er, didn’t work at all)

2 Tbl ras el hanout or as many of those spices as you can muster

2/3 cups oil-cured black olives (I know, these use intense chemical processing. But I can’t help it! If you know things I should know about these, please share.)

1/2 cup slivered almonds

Generous Tbl or 2 of quince paste (also called membrillo)

1 cup (organic) peas, fresh or frozen

1 good-sized (organic) chopped tomato

1 C-shaped piece of ginger, chopped (JK, yours could also be L-shaped)

1 (organic) onion, chopped finely

3 TBL butter, grapeseed or coconut oil

Sufficient water or (organic) stock

Salt and pepper to taste

Brown rice or cous-cous for serving

Directions:

Heat oil, ginger, onions and eventually, the spices, including salt and pepper, on low until the onions are translucent. (If you don’t have ras el hanout, use your best approximation from what’s on hand. And then order some… it’s truly worth a try!)

Add the olives, almonds and peas, and stir.

Next, add the meat and brown on all sides. Do not make my mistake and foolishly think the tagine can conquer a roast, unaided by humans. Duh. Tagines are great. They’re not that great.

This…

…eventually became the more sensible stew format that the universe intended.

When the meat is well browned, add water or stock to about 1/2 inch below the edge and put the hat on.

Keep it at a high simmer for an hour or so, depending on the texture desired. Serve the stew over rice or cous-cous and enjoy for several days, until you feel compelled to tango with your tagine again.

Must Read: Today’s Great New York Times Story on Toxic Sofas

Red sofa

Red sofa (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I’ve been under the weather with viral bronchitis all week, but was cheered to see this long and wonderful article today in the New York Times featuring a personal heroine of mine, Arlene Blum.

Most shocking from the piece? This information from a new study on flame retardants in the blood of toddlers (the emphasis is mine):

Most disturbingly, a recent study of toddlers in the United States conducted by researchers at Duke University found flame retardants in the blood of every child they tested. The chemicals are associated with an assortment of health concerns, including antisocial behavior, impaired fertility, decreased birth weight, diabetes, memory loss, undescended testicles, lowered levels of male hormones and hyperthyroidism.

The article talks about the California rule on flame retardants, now under reconsideration in that state. It also notes the need for a federal bill that would better regulate chemical safety, like the Safe Chemicals Act that just got a hearing in the Senate. And it makes clear the problem that new chemicals remain under a shroud of secrecy, under rules that allow the chemical industry to deem them “proprietary” despite being in all of our living rooms:

Logic would suggest that any new chemical used in consumer products be demonstrably safer than a compound it replaces, particularly one taken off the market for reasons related to human health. But of the 84,000 industrial chemicals registered for use in the United States, only about 200 have been evaluated for human safety by the Environmental Protection Agency. That’s because industrial chemicals are presumed safe unless proved otherwise, under the 1976 federal Toxic Substances Control Act.

When evidence begins to mount that a chemical endangers human health, manufacturers tend to withdraw it from the market and replace it with something whose effects — and often its ingredients — are unknown. The makeup of the flame retardant Firemaster 550, for instance, is considered a proprietary trade secret. At a recent conference, Stapleton discussed a small, unpublished study in which she fed female rats low doses of Firemaster 550. The exposed mothers’ offspring gained more weight, demonstrated more anxiety, hit puberty earlier and had abnormal reproductive cycles when compared with unexposed offspring — all signs that the chemical disrupts the endocrine system.

The article also notes how difficult it is to find furniture without chemicals in it, which is certainly the case. In addition to the options I’ve laid out in prior posts, linked to below, I’ve recently found a few new cheaper possibilities:

  • First, I found a wonderful mid-century modern chair on Craigslist for a little more than $100 with the original mid-60s upholstery. Since these flame retardant chemicals generally entered furniture after 1975, it’s likely fine, though I didn’t have any testing done. Other wood-framed mid-century pieces, including sofas, could be fitted with custom-made cushions, which I’ve ordered from Etsy for some of our current furniture, or, if you’re crafty, even made by hand.
  • Futons are an option– according to a wonderful reader of this blog, SallyS, there are evidently a range of cushion options, including organic. Again, Craigslist may be an option for cheap solid wood frames.
  • Also on Craigslist, I scored a 20-year-old Italian-made leather chair for a very reasonable sum. Given its foreign make and age, I’m guessing, again, that this is likely ok. While I realize that very-old-and-foreign-made-and-still-desirable-for-my-sitting-room is likely a small category, I figured it was worth a mention…

If you’re hunting for more options, please check out the posts below as well as the incredibly helpful comments from resourceful readers for some greener manufacturers and other DIY ideas.

More resources on flame retardants and furniture:

Flipping a Dollhouse: Upcycling Project from a Thrift Store Find

We had a lovely vacation at the beach, thank you for asking. I’ll post my summer in photos soon, and I’m a bit sniffy about our last day at the pool today.

For tonight, though, I want to look forward. And forward looks pretty durn good, if my latest craft project is any indication.

Very, very loyal readers of this wee blog (all 2 of you) may recall an early post in which I extolled the fun to be had at thrift stores, and laid out some aspirationally helpful guidelines to ensure your thrift experience is as enviro as it can be.

Why do I care about thrifting? All this organic, sustainably raised, solid wood nonsense I love comes with a hefty pricetag, and you have to save money somewhere. So Maya rarely has new clothes on her small body, unless a Grandma gave them to her. Instead, she ruins a buck-fitty jumper most days of the week, which is A-ok with me. (And there are good environmental sustainability reasons not to buy new clothes, as a great piece by Tom Philpott, Are Your Skinny Jeans Starving the World?, made clear last week.) I love the idea of re-use, and children’s clothing, toys and books, with its expiration date of tomorrow, are perfect places to recycle.

And I’ll confess here and now to being a competitive yard saler. There’s many a Saturday morn I’m dashing about my suburban hood to beat other competi-moms to the few wooden toys out there, somewhere. There’s not much I like better these days than a really gorgeous toy for a dollar. Which is pretty sad, I know. I’m sorry to saddle you with that information, really. (You can forget it now, and enjoy your Saturdays over coffee and the paper while I’m out chasing the dream.)

I also love it when I come across a small, do-able craft project at a thrift store or yard sale — an item that begs me to take it home and craft it up a bit. Such was the moment when I first laid eyes on this plain, kinda’ fugly wooden house at my local Value Village for a cool ten dollars. 

I just knew that its destiny was to be a much nicer establishment, in the marginally better neighborhood of my house. I had some old paint (Mythic, zero-VOC) hanging around from the samples I used for Maya’s room, and figured that a little sandpaper, a judicious amount of love and a generous helping of brown paint to cover the scarred rooftops would be enough to make it spring to life as a flipped home.

In addition to the $10 on the house itself, I spent likely $15 on paint and supplies.

The brushes and sandpaper, as well as most of the paint, can also be used on future projects. For painting the brown roof, I also used Mythic paint, which I recommend and like, though it only comes in a matte finish.

Since the wood had nice markings on the sides and vertical surfaces, but was lousy on the roof and floors, that was my guide.

The first step was to use the rough sandpaper to even out the rooftop and smooth the edges on the roof to a more pleasing shape. This actually didn’t take long at all.

Next, I mopped it down to get the dust and dirt off with an old cloth diaper (because it was lint-free-ish). And taped up the windows, because I envisioned them in the light blue we had left over from when we decided to use a different blue in Maya’s bedroom.

Maya did her own watercolor painting while all this was ongoing.

After gingerly dabbing on blue on the window panes with the smallest brush, inside and out, I hit the two floors of the house with an off-white, also left-over from a project. They needed two coats to be convincing, but it eventually worked.
Last, I painted the roof brown, which also benefited from a second coat the next day.
When all the paint had dried, I used the fine sandpaper to clean up the painted areas, then rubbed organic flaxseed oil with a cloth into the remaining unpainted wood. The oil created a nice color that showed off the variations in the wood.
Finally, I took a small scrap of gorgeous organic fabric left over from Maya’s absurdly nice quilt that I had made on Etsy (from this wonderful company, no commission), and made a curtain for the doggy door by nailing it into the house. For organic doggies only (LOL).

I let the oil and paint dry for the week we were at the beach, and there was little odor from either, really, even from the start.

Basically, Martha Stewart has nothin’ on me. Seriously, I recommend this kind of tinkering. It was a terrific, small and fun project. Maya points to the brown roof and says, “painting,” so its clear that she knows it was hand-finished for her. And now she has a cheap new dollhouse, finished with a little care, that even matches the tones in her bedroom.

These days, her bunnies mostly live in it, with their faces squished awkwardly out through the upstairs windows, but I have high hopes that others might move in someday.