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Pay Off a Union or Celebrate the Arts -- Your Call

So a bunch of people got together to try to squeeze some more money out of Shreveport's Strand Theater and instead others got hired at a lower rate. Then some of the gang complain that they were unjustly denied the work. Can you say chutzpah?

Some members of Local 298 of the Stagehands' Union picketed performances this week bleating that the Strand unfairly was trying to "rid itself of its lawful obligations" by replacing Shreveport-based employees with the Athalon Group, a private, New Orleans-based company which was charging 35 to 40 percent less to do the job than the union. This, of course, after the union had demanded a 3 percent increase in wages over the next 3 years which the Strand rejected six months ago at the end of their contract.

What part of the law do these guys not understand? They have no contract with the Strand, and they priced themselves out of the market when the Strand recently was running an annual $150,000 deficit. The Strand isn’t obligated to force itself into bankruptcy just to sate the arrogance of some who think they should have a job for life just because they can gang up on employers.

One reason why this switch by the Strand makes sense is that unionized stagehands and allied workers make a pretty penny, extracting much more from an employer than similarly-skilled workers outside of their clubs. And it highlights the shift in how unions have gone from tolerable organizations that served some useful purposes in a free-market economy to groups driven by greed acting as a drag on the economy.

In a different era, where the economy was based upon investments, capital, and labor pools that were relatively fixed and inelastic, unions proved marginally beneficial to society. But in today’s time where all aspects of the economy are so fluid and competition so fierce, with minimal entry and exit costs to professions and production, there is no case for artificial combines like unions to serve as counterbalances to producers – the markets will take care of that naturally, particularly in this era of economic globalization.

This is why unionization of the American public has fallen to its lowest level in decades, and the majority of it is found now in government. Unlike the private sector, there’s no competition in government, and it can raise money to buy off union demands by raising taxes – a wealth redistribution scheme if there ever was one. A good move made by Shreveport Mayor Keith Hightower was to stop this disease from spreading to Shreveport city government.

No doubt the Local 298 individuals can find something else useful and productive to do, and their leaders can stop whining because they can’t have it their way at the expense of the arts and their patrons in Shreveport.


Bossier Governments Deservedly Get Tough on Cox

Finally, if belatedly, Bossier City and Bossier Parish are trying to enforce their franchise agreements with Cox Communications. KTAL, owned by Nexstar Broadcasting Group, ordered Cox to withdraw transmission of the station, because it refused to pay 30 cents per subscriber per month for the right to rebroadcast KTAL’s signal.

Note that for many of the channels it transmits, Cox does pay, often at several times the rate Nexstar is demanding. In large part these costs get passed on to consumers. Also worth noting is that, at the current 33,000 subscribers in the KTAL viewing area, Cox would have to fork out $118,000 a year to keep KTAL on the air.

Even if this amount would only comprise 0.00205 percent of Cox Communication’s revenues for 2003, the fact is it has been hemorrhaging money lately (details and more recent figures are hard to come by because this is a privately-owned company by Cox Enterprises). The communications unit lost $137.8 million in 2003, which was almost half of the 2002 loss. (It’s harder to judge the overall impact on the parent since they publicly report only revenues, which have increased 40 percent in the past four years.) Even if it knuckled under and then attempted to pass on the charges, it would lose subscribers because of the higher costs, increasing losses.

Worse, its real fear is that this fever will spread to other over-the-air broadcast station owners, creating a monumental competitive problem. This is why it is resisting so strenuously carrying the station for anything but free, trying to conduct a public relations campaign to make it seem like it’s not the villain, and as well to prevent defection of subscribers to satellite transmitters.

Cox asserts that it cannot be forced to carry KTAL despite federal law, even though the applicable U.S. statutes seem pretty unambiguous. United States Code 47 Section 534 makes it clear that local stations must be carried by a cable operator under franchise agreement, unless the originator refuses to allow the operator to have access to the signal under 47USC Sec. 325b. In effect, Nexstar is invoking this right.

Cox has every right to refuse under law – except it signed an agreement with the city and parish that it would have to broadcast the three local original network stations. A Cox spokesman said in The Times “a 1992 FCC ruling prohibits cable operators from retransmitting the signal of a commercial broadcast station without permission from the station's owner,” implying it can break the agreement. But I can find no record of this rule from the Federal Communications Commission – it sounds like he’s quoting the law.

However, Nexstar is not denying any signal at all to Cox, it’s just attaching conditions to its rebroadcast. That is, it is not a legal impossibility for Cox to transmit the signal – it becomes legally possible if Cox pays the fee (although the FCC does have the right to regulate such a fee to insure that it is not “excessive” and it’s hard to argue, relative to other fees by broadcasters, that 30 cents per subscriber per month is “excessive”).

And it’s another fact that Cox legally bound itself to transmit KTAL. Simply put, it has the means to fulfill its contract but is refusing to do so. So the city and parish (also backed by what they say is a federal court ruling affirming their position) not only are doing the correct legal thing, they are morally correct in preventing Cox, in essence, from cheating their citizens who wish to have cable from getting the complete package that Cox promised.

In fact, the city and parish should go further, by whatever means available in the contract, to institute proceedings to remove Cox as the franchisee and replace it with somebody else. In this competitive environment, no doubt an operator gladly would step forward and follow all parts of a franchise agreement like the present version. (This also would solve a headache for Bossier City concerning the relocation of the Cox building to make way for the Benton Road overpass – force Cox to sell it after selling its equipment to the new operator, the new operator removes the equipment, and then bulldoze the building.)

Don’t let the Cox campaign fool you – they are in the wrong here and the city and parish need to press this matter as forcefully as possible


There's Landrieu's View -- and then There's Reality

Sen. Mary Landrieu has taken the offensive regarding her budget priorities relative to Pres. Bush’s. In her “The President’s Budget: Path to a Debt Society,” she tries to lay out the case that the president’s budget will lead to continued deficits and harms vital policies, and that the main culprit for this is tax cuts. But for observers who really understand this issue, the part of the report which deals with the overall budget situation is nonsense.

In the first page alone, the report makes a pair of breathtakingly inaccurate and/or misleading assertions. First, it argues that “[i]n each of the last four decades, the average size of the federal budget deficit relative to Gross National Product (GNP) has doubled.” Surely the Landrieu staffers had access to the same data that the Heritage Foundation had which is summed up in this chart. Either these people are stupid or they are deliberately trying to mislead the public. The data show that the total deficit to GNP ratio has hardly changed in the last 20 years and, in fact, at 38 percent is below the historic 43 percent level post-War World II.

While this is an error of fact, following closely is an error in logic. The report asserts that “[d]espite what has been said, deficits are not a function of government spending gone amok,” and then lamely tries to support this point by noting that “that government spending today is lower than under previous presidents. From 1980 to 2003, federal spending averaged 21.3 percent. Under Presidents Reagan and George Bush, Sr., it averaged 22 percent and under President Clinton it was 20 percent. President Bush’s budget calls for federal spending of 20 percent of Gross Domestic Product (GDP).”

Note the bait-and-switch tactic here. The report tries to equate a relative level of spending with the absolute criterion of whether government spends too much. Let’s use an individual-level example: suppose a family were running up credit card debt because they insist upon eating out all the time, and a lot, rather than preparing more moderate portions at home. A debt counselor might tell them to do the latter and they would save enough not to run a deficit every month. That’s what known as trying to spend efficiently and to set priorities based upon available resources.

(Then, of course, they’ll have health problems because of obesity – but, if they’re poor enough, Medicaid will pay for almost everything. One of the greatest myths in American politics is that there is not universal health care provided. There is, and for those defined as the “poor” it costs next to nothing through Medicaid. Meanwhile, middle-class and above Americans have to pay more for their health care and the taxes to support poorer Americans’ use of Medicaid. Take it from someone who’s had to deal with complex health issues and Medicaid for years. But this is a subject for another column.)

But, in Landrieu’s world, it’s not the inefficiency and poor choices of what to fund that define whether government spends too much or too little, it’s some mythical level relative to a GNP figure (21.3 percent?). With this logic, what would she do if we fell below the magic level? Increase government spending on programs with no proven public policy benefits or need just to say we were spending at the “appropriate” level? Her ideology apparently is just to spend (and that’s your money, not hers, that she wants to spend).

The same flawed logic is in effect with the statement, “[f]rom 1980 to 2003, revenue averaged 18.5 percent of GDP [Gross Domestic Product]. In 2004, it will be 15.8 percent of GDP” – again asserting that we have too few revenues coming into government, rather than focusing on the kinds of programs run by the government, the prioritization of these programs, the costs and benefits of these programs, and genuine need, if any, of them. That’s what revenue levels should be based on.

(Immediately after that phrase comes this patently false statement: “the lowest level since 1950, before Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid were ever enacted.” Two out of three on a player’s field goal percentage will make the NBA All-Star Game but we need 100 percent accuracy in public policy – Social Security was signed into law in 1935, and the first benefits were paid out in 1940.)

It is also through the revenue-GDP comparison that the report attempts to blame tax cuts for the lower revenue levels. But the reason why revenue as a percentage of GDP is lower temporarily is because this reflects a short-term phenomenon resulting from the recent Clinton recession and the temporary stock market-driven collapse of tax revenues from capital gains. The very same Congressional Budget Office data, used selectively and out of context in the report to try to make this point, estimates that tax revenues will soon be back at historical norms, averaging 18.1 percent of GDP over the 2007-2009 period. And anybody knowledgeable about the historical effects of tax cuts on economies and government revenues know that in the long run their benefits far outweigh their costs.

The remainder of the report goes into presumed effects that the president’s budget will cause that ignore the relative merits and demerits of the programs involved. When understood in the context of Landrieu’s policy preferences – decidedly out of step with Louisianans’ – it’s all the same recitation that the budget is bad because it decreases the power of the special interests and failed liberal philosophy of governance that Landrieu supports. Again, it’s hard to take any of this seriously when knowing the misleading way in which the criticisms of the budget are presented in the first place.

We must recognize this document for what it is, an attempt by Landrieu to deflect criticism that she, like most Democrats, are sticking their heads in the sand about the looming financial crisis of Social Security, Medicaid, and Medicare. Their approach of ignoring these problems until they are massive in dollar size and then to demand tax increases, or to have the tax increases now, are designed so that they can hold and collect more of the people's money. Democrats propose to cause a genuine deficit problem, not the president's budget.

While she may try to pass this off as valid, meaningful analysis, Landrieu needs to understand that there are thinking people out there that are not going to swallow this pap. And judging by recent election results, there’s a few too many out there for her liking.


Choose Your Symbols Carefully

It always fascinates me to see how the defenders of the Confederate battle flag fall all over themselves, performing incredible contortions of logic and history to convince the world they have really have a silk purse instead of a sow’s ear. Such gymnastics has been on display recently on The Times’ editorial pages, as a result of a column by its managing editor Alan English on Jan. 16 condemning the display of the flag.

Let’s investigate the common arguments made by the flag’s apologists:

The flag doesn’t stand for racism, it stands for honorable intentions against tyranny.

It’s true that a common canard about the Civil War was it primarily concerned slavery. No, the primary locus of conflict came over the question of whether the Southern states had a right to withdraw from the Union. Defenders of this move have argued that federal government tyranny left the Southern states in a position akin to those of the thirteen colonies with Britain, where they had to rebel.

But such an interpretation flies in the face of history and logic. First, in the pre-Revolutionary war era, the American colonists politically were treated very differently than their English counterparts (not that the typical Englishman enjoyed a great deal of rights in those days). Second, the English government, while the least authoritarian in the world at that time, still was an authoritarian government.

By contrast, Southerners were treated no differently than anybody else in the run-up to the Civil War. They exercised equal political rights, and considerably more of them than their colonial ancestors. And it cannot be stressed too much that this revolution occurred against not a tyrannical government, but a representative democracy where they enjoyed many rights, including that to enslave other human beings.

Note that the reason for rebellion was mostly because of a fear of the federal government ridding the land of slavery after Abraham Lincoln’s election, not from any identifiable act prejudicial against the South. The best argument one can come up with justifying the rebellion was the federal government could have interfered with a state’s rights to enslave others. In short, there was no massive disenfranchising of liberty of Southerners by the federal government, which could have justified a revolution to restore lost rights. There was no tyranny, and the only things backing secessionist sympathy were the powerful classes of the region wishing to hold onto their power and privilege, and their needing to incite the vast majority who did not own slaves that their sovereignty was being impugned to follow them.

Most who fought under the flag were not slaveholders, some were even black, and they did not care about perpetuating slavery.

All true, but not exculpating the meaning behind the flag. Since most Germans in the 1930s and 1940s did not persecute Jews personally, does that rehabilitate the Nazi flag as supporters of the laudatory view of the Confederate flag argue for their strip of cloth? After all, the Nazi government in Germany brought about law and order, prosperity, and pride back to a Germany defeated by war and battered by the Depression. Ultimately, when picking a symbol to represent something, you do not have the luxury of choosing which meaning you want to convey; if society has assigned accurately a certain meaning to it and expresses displeasure when you seem to champion that undesirable meaning to it, do not pout about its discomfort.

But that’s the problem, the flag has been “hijacked” away from its “real” meaning, and backers of the flag are just trying to remind everybody of this “true” meaning.

First, the myth of tyranny against the South has been dispensed with. Second, recall that the “freedom” being fought for by the South was the freedom to enslave those who looked different from the dominant group. It is not virtuous to fight for one good thing if it is used as a means to support an immoral act. You simply cannot wish away that part of what the rebellion was all about and read it out of the symbol (with that logic, why is the swastika seen as an offensive symbol considering its benign origins were “hijacked” by the Nazis?). You have to accept things as they are, and a love of slavery of black people was what part of the Confederacy was all about.

Slavery meant little to the South and/or it was as bad as others states in this regard so their flags ought to be held in contempt, too – look at the Emancipation Proclamation, which allowed slavery to continue in the Union even as it outlawed it in the rebelling states!

Obviously, slavery was everything to the South. Can anybody seriously argue (other than crackpots who spin a conspiracy theory, with little historical support, that Northern industry was trying to choke the agrarian South, inviting the uprising) that there would have been a Civil War had the South not had slavery?

While no country is perfect, it mystifies me why battle flag supporters feel they have to tear down their own country to when they make the argument that “there were warts with the Confederacy, but there were/are also with the U.S.” This isn’t a comparison game between countries, this is the evaluation of a people against an ideal – perhaps an unattainable one but one to which we should make maximal efforts to reach. I would argue that, to demonstrate fealty to the ideas of liberty, equality, individualism, duty to country, and others, why not fly Old Glory instead of its shady cousin the Stars and Bars? Why purposely promote a symbol that you know is divisive when, if you claim you support a certain set of outstanding values, you can display this support through another symbol relevant to you that has none of the undesirable baggage of the other?

That’s my advice to the supporters of flying the Confederate battle flag: if you want to promote something standing for freedom, hope, goodness, and other such salutary values, the Stars and Stripes is your ticket (as many do). The Confederacy is long dead, its meritorious values subsumed back into America, its tawdry ones ground into dust at great cost. But if you do choose to continue to display it, know that you choose an inferior symbol to convey your beliefs, one which, like it or not, has acquired meaning that offends, with good reason, a nontrivial portion of the population. Fly it as much as you like (and with me resist those who would call for its outright banning because we cannot afford to erase our history, good or bad) but then do not act surprised or even offended that you have offended others.


Gloves are off now in relation to Hightower

As if Shreveport Mayor Keith Hightower didn’t have enough problems with a lawsuit given a good chance of stopping the convention center hotel project and state Sen. Max Malone putting pressure on the state Bond Commission to reverse their approval of the sale of bonds to finance the project, now he’s got Caddo Parish Sheriff Steve Prator and The Times after him.

Sheriffs typically are a powerful political force in a parish, the most except where the job is divided (Orleans) or consolidated or other local government arrangements creates other parish-wide executives with significant powers (Jefferson, East Baton Rouge, Lafayette, and Terrebone). While I’m sure the fact that Prator is a Republican has nothing to do with the faithful discharge of duties, that Hightower is a Democrat seeking to expand his political influence probably didn’t discourage Prator from investigating the complaints concerning city agencies and individuals who are rather enthusiastic Hightower supporters.

Somewhat more surprising is The Times’ increasing enthusiasm in criticizing Hightower. It has turned negative on the hotel and now there’s this. In the past, The Times was rather reluctant to delve deeply or even at all into some controversial issues concerning the Hightower administration that outlets such as Fax-Net Update and The Inquisitor did report upon.

No specific allegations are made in this story. However, there is a lot of association going on. For example, it seems that Hightower political allies are the recipients of favorable treatment, and that loans of a certain amount of money on one day later that day in an identical dollar amount suddenly buy property. Association doesn’t connote causation; that’s for the appropriate investigatory authorities to discover.

Still, the knock that many have against Hightower is that he prefers to use his power in government to reward his supporters and punish his enemies rather than in a way to benefit the commonweal, when there is conflict between the two. This is why part of the criticism against the convention center and hotel is not only is it a misguided approach to economic development and bespeaks a vanity rather than pursuit of a common good, but that the contracts that go out to build them, the positions of power to build and oversee them, etc., will, subject to the law, be thrown toward his loyalists. In short, the main reason the things are getting built is to help line some pockets, and only secondarily to achieve purposes that truly will bring the greatest benefits to the community as a whole.

None of this is new in the world of politics, especially in this state and around these parts, but new is the number of media outlets that can get access to government and disseminate more widely to the public (this blog included). It makes it harder than ever for the behind-closed-doors, limited-access-to-government-information environment in which a politician like Hightower has to operate. In particular, the newer media forces the older media to become more investigatory.

It’s a healthy trend to bring more accountability into government, along with invigorated two-party competition that would put a guy like Prator in a position of not sweeping the whole thing under the rug. Which is, from the perspective of those who now have sunshine on their previously-darkened activities, to their mode of power-wielding, unhealthy.