Welcome To The Neighborhood?

Walmart has prevailed again in the continuing battle against its controversial proposed store in downtown LA’s Chinatown.

A Los Angeles zoning official denied an appeal of the retailer’s building permits. The appeal had been filed by the Asian Pacific American Labor Alliance and by the Los Angeles Alliance for New Economy, which have concerns about the store impacting the historic neighborhood’s identity, traffic, small businesses, and living wage.

However, Associate Zoning Administrator Maya Zaitzevsky issued a report Dec. 20 finding the Department of Building and Safety did not err or abuse its discretion when it issued the permits, the LA Weekly reports.

And despite this being the third unsuccessful attempt to stop the store, Gideon Kracov, attorney for the Asian Pacific American Labor Alliance, told the Los Angeles Times that the group would likely appeal again. It has until Jan. 4 to file an appeal to the Central Area Planning Commission, a panel whose five members are appointed by Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa.

In the meantime, the Walmart Neighborhood Mart, which is one-fifth the size of the retailer’s big-box stores, has already hired employees for the new store and is on track to open its doors in March.

“We look forward to soon opening our doors and providing the community what they have wanted all along: a new choice for their grocery shopping needs,” Steven Restivo, Walmart’s senior director of community affairs, said in a statement.

In June, thousands of Angelenos marched through Chinatown to protest the proposed Walmart. Check out photos below: (photos by Kathleen Miles)

U.S. judge approves Toyota’s $1.1 billion acceleration deal

SAN FRANCISCO (Reuters) – A U.S. judge granted preliminary approval on Friday to Toyota Motor Corp’s $1.1 billion settlement of a class-action lawsuit brought by consumers who lost value on their cars due to sudden, unintended acceleration.

Boom Turns To Bust For Wind Industry

Wind developers around the country are racing to get their wind farms tested and running before the federal wind production tax credit expires Tuesday, a shot to the industry that will leave the nation’s wind farm construction projects at a standstill.

For Eddy Huffman, who’s worked assembling wind turbine controls at a General Electrics plant in Salem, Va., for more than a decade, it’s deja vu.

“Every time the tax credit expires, some of us have layoffs,” said Huffman, 62, who lives with his wife in Roanoke County. “We don’t have layoffs here locally this time, but that’s just our plant.”

Congress has failed to extend the so-called production tax credit beyond the end of the year, and the stakes for developers are clear. Wind turbines in service before Jan. 1 are entitled to a 2.2 cent tax credit per kilowatt-hour generated in their first 10 years, a perk that saves an estimated $1 million for a big turbine. Those that connect to the grid after midnight on New Year’s Eve won’t qualify for the subsidy.

Iberdrola Renewables is up against the deadline, opening a wind farm with 126 turbines near Rosamond, Calif., last week, and hustling to make sure that two more — a 19-turbine farm straddling Monroe and Florida, Mass., and a 24-turbine farm in Groton, N.H. — are in operation in time to meet the end-of-the-year deadline, as reported by The New York Times.

But Iberdrola spokesman Paul Copleman told HuffPost there “isn’t some crazy rush,” adding that the perennial threat of the industry’s expiring tax credit hardly took the company by surprise.

“The roads have been narrowed, the construction equipment is gone,” he said. “The types of activities that we’re engaged in at this point in time are the testing of the machines themselves and testing of the interconnection and the regional connecting grid, to make sure that everything is operating the way we expect it to.”

The production tax credit, which has expired three times since it was first introduced in 1992, will put an estimated 37,000 workers out of work, according to a study commissioned by the industry.

Huffman, who’s already been laid off and rehired several times, said he’s seen it all before.

“I’ve seen layoffs, I’ve seen early buyouts, people retiring early,” he said. More often, he added, people take a month or several months of “volunteer” leave, as Huffman did when the tax credit expired in 2003.

Last renewed in 2009 as part of the fiscal stimulus package, the production tax credit would cost $12.1 billion over 10 years, a sum opponents argue is too costly for an electricity source that is intermittent and hard to integrate into the power grid.

Advocates counter it would stimulate economic activity with manufacturing and construction jobs, be taxed at the federal, state and local levels, and be advantageous environmentally.

Some legislators, including wind state Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), have proposed that the credit be renewed this year but gradually phased out over time. The proposal that passed in the Senate earlier this year called simply for a one-year extension.

Liz Salerno, chief economist for the American Wind Energy Association, said a one-year extension would be of little use. “Manufacturing is a 10- or 20-year investment,” she told HuffPost in a recent interview.

It’s difficult to attract significant investment with so much uncertainty in federal funding, she said.

“It’s very unstable,” said Huffman of the two-year tax credit. “Everybody that’s worked in the industry has been through it. It’s hard to plan. You learn to just go with it and what happens happens.”

Peter Dreier: New York Times’ Xmas Present to Corporate Lobby Group Fix-the Debt: A Puff Piece

The New York Times should be embarrassed. On December 24 it gave a Christmas present to the corporate-backed lobby group Fix the Debt with its front-page Business section puff piece about the organization, which is pushing to balance the federal budget by slashing social programs while cutting taxes for the rich.

The 1149-word piece, “One Woman’s War on Debt Gains Steam,” by reporter Annie Lowrey, is a fawning profile of the group’s public face, Maya MacGuineas. The article makes it appear that the Fix the Debt group was hatched last year at a dinner party at Senator Mark Warner’s house, when in fact it is simply the latest incarnation of Pete Peterson, the billionaire Wall Street financier who over many years has invested tens of millions of his money in his long-term crusade to reduce the federal debt on the backs of the poor and middle class, including the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, which Peterson funded and where MacGuineas once worked. Peterson is also the largest funder of Fix the Debt, but he isn’t mentioned in Lowrey’s article. The launching of Fix the Debt was announced on the Peter Peterson Foundation website. Lowrey could easily have found dozens of articles on the web about Fix the Debt that reveal Peterson’s crusade and his role in the group, including an investigative article in New York magazine. Los Angeles Times business columnist Michael Hiltzik exposed Peterson’s long-term crusade to forge an elite consensus to slash social spending in pieces last October 2 and October 9. Bob Kuttner performed a similar service in an article for American Prospect.

Indeed, Times columnist Paul Krugman mentioned Peterson’s close ties to the organization in his column “Maya and the Vigilantes” two days before Lowrey’s article appeared.

MacGuineas had already been the subject of profiles in both the Washington Post (which mentioned Peterson’s key role) and the New Republic (which, like Lowrey’s piece, made no mention of Peterson’s fingerprints) a few days before. Was Lowrey’s Christmas eve story simply the Times playing catch-up? Perhaps the Times’ business editors viewed Lowrey’s piece as a way of providing “balance” for Krugman’s criticism of Fix the Debt? Whatever the reason, it was shoddy journalism.

Fix the Debt was Peterson’s brainchild and is dominated by Wall Street and corporate CEOs. They recruited several Democratic politicians as window dressing to make it appear to be bipartisan and balanced, similar to the Simpson-Bowles task force, but the central thrust of the group reflects Peterson’s long-standing agenda of what he calls “responsible” fiscal policy, but which in reality is about reducing corporate taxes and personal income taxes, cutting government regulations on business, and reducing “entitlements.” What it really means is increased wealth and profits for corporate America and “austerity” for everyone else.

The said truth is that the mainstream media and most politicians have accepted Peterson’s view, which is reflected in the current debate over the so-called “fiscal cliff.”

The reality is that America isn’t broke. The United States is an incredibly wealthy country, as measured by GDP per person (about $49,000) and income per person (about $42,000). As a nation, we can afford to have every American have a middle class standard of living – a decent job, a decent home, health insurance, a good education, and a decent retirement. The federal deficit is primarily a result of the recession, not out-of-control entitlement spending. Before the recession, the deficit was only about 2% of GDP. “Austerity” is the wrong path and the wrong prescription. Reports from the New America Foundation and the Center for Economic and Policy Research, the Institute for Policy Studies, the Prosperity for All Campaign, and the Citizens Commission on Jobs, Deficits, and America’s Economic Future lay out the facts, figures, and recommendations. The solution is to grow the economy, not cut government entitlements.

Peterson’s Fix the Debt agenda would simply exacerbate the recent trends of widening inequality and declining living standards for most Americans, a chasm we haven’t seen since the Gilded Age of the late 1800s. This so-called “solution” is bad for the economy and bad for the country.

The public is angry over this widening disparity. Even after Wall Street’s greedy and abusive practices crashed the economy, and after taxpayers bailed out the largest banks, these banks continued to give huge bonuses and compensation increases to top executives. For most Americans, this symbolized the widening income and wealth divide and revealed a disconnect between the fate of the richest Americans and the fate of the so-called 99%. Over the past three decades, the richest 1% of Americans have gotten incredibly richer, while the vast majority of American families have seen their incomes and standard-of-living decline. Some basic facts, culled from Chuck Collins’ book 99 to 1, make this point clear:

  • The richest 1% are households with incomes over500,000 a year. The average income of the richest 1% is1.5 million.
  • Their average wealth (stocks, bonds, real estate, etc) of the richest 1% is over5 million. The richest 1% have 36% of all private wealth, more than the bottom 95% combined.
  • The 400 wealthiest Americans have more wealth than the bottom half (150 million) of all Americans.
  • In 2010, 25 of the largest 100 US corporations paid their CEOs more than they paid in U.S. taxes.
  • America’s richest 1% have gotten almost all of the benefits of economic growth in terms of income and wealth, while at the same time paying a smaller share of taxes. Since 1979, the richest 1% have taken in almost 60% of national income gains.
  • The inflation-adjusted average incomes of the 1% grew 224% during this period; the bottom 90% saw their incomes rise by just 5%.
  • In 1979 the top 1% earned 8% of national income. Now they have about 22% of national income.

Instead of addressing this central issue, the Fix the Debt agenda focuses on cutting benefits for seniors, working families, and the poor. But they are not responsible for the nation’s fiscal problems. The reality is that the rising cost of Medicare is the biggest driver of growing social spending — not food stamps, housing subsidies, welfare, unemployment insurance, or others. What is driving Medicare costs up? One major cause is the cost of drugs, which seniors rely on. But there are huge savings to be made in this area. Medicare could save at least $12 billion a year if it were allowed to negotiate drug prices with drug companies, like the Veterans Administration does. President George W. Bush’s prescription drug benefit was a boondoggle for the drug companies, who lobbied to keep Medicare from using its leverage to negotiate for lower prices.

What’s the alternative to the Fix the Debt agenda?

Stimulate the economy through public investment: The focus of federal economic policy should be on creating jobs, not cutting social programs. Invest in infrastructure, public transit, repairing school buildings, and green jobs. This will put people to work, increase consumer demand, and grow the economy. This will grow the overall economy and reduce the deficit. The federal deficit is a much smaller percentage of GDP in a growth economy. The way to grow the economy is to put money in people’s pockets so they can spend it, which results in a “ripple effect” that adds jobs. Public investment to spur job creation should focus on cities and older suburbs which have the biggest need for infrastructure repairs and public transit. Public investment in urban areas (cities and older suburbs) creates the biggest bang-for-the-buck.

Increase consumer demand: We need to increase “consumer demand” to grow the economy. Here are some ways to do so:

  • A temporary tax cut for the middle class. A tax cut for the economically-squeezed middle class (actually, the bottom 98% of taxpayers) would put money in their pockets, which they would quickly spend in the economy. (In contrast, tax cuts for the rich won’t stimulate the economy because they won’t spend it).
  • Raise the federal minimum wage. If the minimum wage were at the same level as in 1968 (the height of post-WW2 prosperity and full employment) it would be about10.50 an hour today.
  • Expand the Earned Income Tax Credit. This rewards people who work and helps lifting the “working poor” out of poverty.
  • Extend Unemployment Insurance. This provides income to people and their families who are out of work through no fault of their own (because of high unemployment). They spend it on food, rent, and other basics, which stimulates the economy.
  • Strong unions are another way to raise wages and provide the consumer demand we need to grow the economy. A few years ago the nonprofit, nonpartisan Los Angeles Economic Roundtable released a study that found that union workers in LA County (mostly private sector employees) earn 27 percent more than nonunion workers in the same jobs. These extra wages for the 800,000 union workers–17 percent of the labor force–added $7.2 billion a year in pay. As union workers spent their wages on food, clothing and other items, their additional buying power created 64,800 jobs and $11 billion in economic output.

Enact fair tax reform: Public opinion polls indicate widespread renewed support for proposals to increase taxes on millionaires, make Wall Street pay its fair share, and close corporate tax loopholes. The rich can afford to pay their fair share of federal taxes. Increasing marginal tax rates for the richest 1% will help address the debt and deficit problems. The capital gains tax rate was 39% in 1979 and 15% now. The richest 1% receive over 80% of capital gains income. The top 0.1% (one-tenth of 1%) receive over half of capital gains income. Since 1980, the top marginal tax rate has dropped from 50% to 35%. Ending the Bush tax cuts for the rich, as President Obama has proposed and as most Americans support, is the first step in restoring a fairer federal tax system.

Make Social Security more progressive: Despite the fear-mongering of the corporate Fix the Debt folks and many conservatives, Social Security does not contribute to the federal deficit. It should be off the table in any discussion of the nation’s fiscal condition. If we want to deal with Social Security, it should be a separate conversation. And the starting point should be increasing the maximum income subject to the Social Security tax, which is currently $113,700. This means that millionaires and billionaires pay the same Social Security tax as people earning $113,700. It is an incredibly regressive tax. You don’t even have to increase the Social Security tax rate; just raise the income ceiling.

Invest the Peace Dividend: Finally, as we reduce our military commitments in Iraq and Afghanistan, the country should receive a “peace dividend” to invest at home. We need to redirect some military spending to job-creating civilian sectors. The military consumes more than half of U.S. federal discretionary spending, much of it on things that do not make us safer. Some argue that military spending is a major job creator, especially for private companies that receive Pentagon contracts. This is partly true but also misleading. Economists have shown that military spending is actually a poor job creator compared to other forms of federal spending in both the private and public sectors. Whereas $1 billion devoted to military production creates approximately 11,000 jobs, the same amount invested in clean energy creates about 17,000 jobs; in health care, 19,000 jobs; and in education, 29,000 jobs. Many military experts agree that the Pentagon can eliminate wasteful and obsolete program. Redirecting this spending to the civilian economy will generate more and better jobs. Employees who currently work for private defense contractors whose contracts are cut should get job training and income support as they transition to civil jobs.

The debate we need to have is not the one that Fix the Debt is selling and the New York Times (along with much of the political and media establishment) is buying.

Peter Dreier is professor of politics and chair of the Urban & Environmental Policy Department at Occidental College. His new book, The 100 Greatest Americans of the 20th Century: A Social Justice Hall of Fame, was recently published by Nation Books.

Greek party expels ex-minister

Greece’s socialist party expels ex-Finance Minister George Papaconstantinou over allegations he tried to shield relatives from a tax probe.

Little Sign Of Progress In Latest Cliff Talks

* Time running out for deal on taxes, spending

* Obama says he’s “modestly optimistic”

* “Fiscal cliff” focus now on Senate

* U.S. stocks indexes drop 1 percent

By Roberta Rampton and Richard Cowan

WASHINGTON, Dec 28 (Reuters) – President Barack Obama and U.S. congressional leaders agreed on Friday to make a final effort to prevent the United States from going over the “fiscal cliff,” setting off intense bargaining over Americans’ tax rates as a New Year’s Eve deadline looms.

With only days left to avoid steep tax hikes and spending cuts that could cause a recession, two Senate veterans will try to forge a deal that has eluded the White House and Congress for months.

Obama said he was “modestly optimistic” an agreement could be found. But neither side appeared to give much ground at a White House meeting of congressional leaders on Friday.

What they did agree on was to task Harry Reid, the Democratic Senate majority leader, and Mitch McConnell, who heads the chamber’s Republican minority, with reaching a budget agreement by Sunday at the latest.

“The hour for immediate action is here. It is now. We’re now at the point where in just four days, every American’s tax rates are scheduled to go up by law. Every American’s paycheck will get considerably smaller. And that would be the wrong thing to do,” Obama told reporters.

A total of $600 billion in tax hikes and automatic cuts to government spending will start kicking in on Tuesday – New Year’s Day – if politicians cannot reach a deal. Economists fear the measures will push the U.S. economy into a recession.

Pessimism about the fiscal cliff helped push U.S. stocks down on Friday for a fifth straight day. The Dow Jones industrial average dropped 158.20 points, or 1.21 percent. Retailers are blaming worries about the “fiscal cliff” for lackluster Christmas season shopping.

Under the plan hashed out on Friday, any agreement between McConnell and Reid would be backed by the Senate and then approved in the Republican-controlled House of Representatives before the end of the year.

But the House could well be the graveyard of any accord.

A core of fiscal conservatives there strongly opposes Obama’s efforts to raise taxes for the wealthiest as part of a plan to close America’s budget deficit. House Republicans also want to see Obama commit to major spending cuts.

Talks between Obama and Republican House Speaker John Boehner collapsed last week when several dozen Republicans defied their leader and rejected a plan to raise rates for those earning $1 million and above.

A Democratic aide said Boehner stuck mainly to “talking points” in Friday’s White House meeting, with the message that the House had acted on the budget and it was now time for the Senate to move.


The two Senate leaders and their aides will plunge into talks on Saturday that will focus mainly on the threshold for raising income taxes on households with upper-level earnings, a Democratic aide said. Analysts say both sides could agree on raising taxes for households earning more than $400,000 or $500,000 a year.

The pair will also discuss whether the estate tax should be kept at current low levels or allowed to rise, the aide said.

Democrat Reid warned of tough talks.

“It’s not easy, we’re dealing with big numbers, and some of that stuff we do is somewhat complicated,” he said.

McConnell described Friday’s White House summit, also attended by Democratic House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, as “a good meeting.”

“So we’ll be working hard to try to see if we can get there in the next 24 hours. So I’m hopeful and optimistic,” he said.

If things cannot be worked out between the Senate leaders, Obama said he wanted both chambers in Congress to vote on a backup plan that would increase taxes only for households with more than $250,000 of annual income.

The plan would also extend unemployment insurance for about 2 million Americans and set up a framework for a larger deficit reduction deal next year.

There are signs in the options market that investor fear is taking hold. The CBOE Volatility Index, or the VIX, the market’s favored anxiety indicator, has remained at relatively low levels throughout this process, but it moved on Friday above 22, the highest level since June.

But some in the market were resigned to Washington going beyond the New Year’s Day deadline, as long as a serious agreement on deficit reduction comes out of the talks in early January.

“Regardless of whether the government resolves the issues now, any deal can easily be retroactive. We’re not as concerned with January 1 as the market seems to be,” said Richard Weiss, a senior money manager at American Century Investments.

Another component of the “fiscal cliff” – $109 billion in automatic spending cuts to military and domestic programs – is set to kick in on Wednesday.

S&P rating agency said on Friday the fiscal cliff impasse did not affect the U.S. sovereign rating.

That lifted the immediate threat of a downgrade from the agency, which cut the United States’ triple-A rating in August, 2011 in an unprecedented move after a similar partisan budget fight.

‘There Is Absolutely No Excuse For Inaction’

WASHINGTON, Dec 28 (Reuters) – An influential Democratic senator on Friday called for the Republican-controlled House of Representatives to vote on a new U.S. farm bill before the end of the year and thus avoid a potential spike in U.S milk prices and other repercussions.

“Our rural economies will take a big hit if the House fails to pass a farm bill. Make no mistake, the farm bill is a jobs bill,” Senator Max Baucus of Montana said during a Senate debate on Friday.

“There is absolutely no excuse for inaction. I call on the House to bring the Senate farm bill up for a vote immediately,” said Baucus, chairman of the Senate Finance Committee.

The Senate passed a new five-year farm bill in June, and the House Agriculture Committee followed quickly in July, with its own version.

But the House bill, with large cuts in food stamp funding for lower-income Americans, has never been brought to a vote by the full House. The previous bill expired Sept. 30.

U.S. milk prices at the grocery store could rise sharply in 2013, without a new bill or a specific patch to address dairy programs, because the government will have to revert to 1949 “permanent law” that requires USDA to buy milk at inflated prices.

It is unclear if the Senate or the House plans to act in the next few days, though.

“Our farmers and ranchers break their backs to put food on the table every day,” said Baucus. “The least they deserve is an honest fair up-or-down vote on their jobs bill.”

Are Instagram Users Fleeing?

The New York Post, knowing sensationalism like no other, wrote an article Friday about Instagram that must have sent jitters through the folks in Facebook’s offices in Palo Alto, Calif.

Citing data from App Data, a firm that tracks the popularity of Facebook, iPhone and Android apps, the Post wrote that the photo-sharing app shed 4 million active daily users during the week it announced its controversial new Terms of Service.

“The app, which Facebook acquired for $1 billion earlier this year, may have shed nearly a quarter of its daily active users in the wake of the debacle,” according to the Post.

Twenty-five percent is a steep and scary decline. But should we believe it? Observers at many prominent tech blogs, including TechCrunch, Gizmodo and The Verge, are pushing back against claim that the dip in Data App’s data is due to an exodus of users afraid that their photos will now be sold off.

Obviously, Instagram is denying the decline, too. “We continue to see strong and steady growth in both registered and active users of Instagram,” a spokesperson told The Verge.

Indeed, as nice of a tool as App Data is, its analysis is incomplete because it includes only Instagram members that have connected their accounts to Facebook. While App Data is reporting that it the number of Instagram users it observes dropped from 16.4 million to 12.4 million, these figures represent only a fraction of Instagram’s total users, which numbered over 100 million in September 2012.

Furthermore, the decline isn’t really aligned with the date Instagram’s new rules were unveiled, Dec. 17. “Though the terms of service change spurred a lot of negative media attention and complaints from users, the decline in Facebook-connected daily active users began closer to Christmas, not immediately after the proposed policy changes,” App Data itself told The Wall Street Journal.

instagram drop users

A 24.7-percent drop between Dec. 17 and Dec. 27!

Therein lies the strongest piece of evidence that the decline doesn’t have much to do with the new rules. Many other Internet services had fewer people log in during the days leading up to Christmas. App Data notes dropoffs in usership at Pandora, Pinterest and Yelp during Christmas week, as well. The same appears to have happened at Twitter, too, and The Next Web runs down similar holiday dropoffs at other companies. The celebration of the birth of Jesus (and associated end-of-year get-togethers) seems to be one of the only things capable of pulling people away from their computers and smartphones.

Here are those four other Christmastime drops in daily visitors. The percentage decrease in daily active users is from Dec. 17 to Dec. 27, the time period the Post analyzed for Instagram. Suddenly, it doesn’t look like Instagram has been left out in the cold by users on Christmas.

instagram drop users

Twitter, a 21.6-percent decrease

instagram drop users

Pandora, a 36.9-percent decrease

instagram drop users

Yelp, a 34.2-percent decrease

instagram drop users

Pinterest, a 21.6-percent decrease