Life at the Top

As seen in the pages of the Wall Street Journal

Gustav_Klimt_046 (6)

Priceline Ex-CEO Darren Huston, Takes a 32% Cut in Pay

BN-NU173_0429hu_J_20160429115747

By DREW FITZGERALD and JOANN S. LUBLIN
Updated April 28, 2016 6:42 p.m. ET

Priceline Group Inc.’s ousted chief executive took a 32% cut to his annual compensation after fellow directors decided in February not to pay him a cash bonus as they investigated a relationship they later deemed inappropriate.

Darren Huston, who had been the online travel agent’s CEO since 2014, resigned this week after the company found he violated Priceline’s code of conduct.

The Priceline board opened an investigation earlier this year after a tip from a whistleblower about Mr. Huston’s relationship with a woman at the company, according to a person familiar with the matter.

Mr. Huston received $15 million in total compensation for 2015, including a $865,000 salary and stock awards worth $14 million. The previous year he received compensation of $22 million, including a $7 million cash bonus and $14 million stock award.

“The sole factor in determining not to award Mr. Huston a 2015 bonus was his conduct involving the employee,” according to Priceline’s proxy statement filed late Thursday. Other top executives at the company received 2015 cash bonuses in February that were equal to the previous year’s payments, according to the proxy.

Under the terms of his separation agreement, Mr. Huston won’t receive any severance payments and agreed to forfeit more than $13 million in equity awards. Priceline did hasten the vesting of other equity awards worth about $33.8 million on Thursday, according to an analysis by executive-pay specialist Mark Reilly.

Credit Suisse’s Gäel de Boissard’s Gone  Skiing

MI-CP419_CSUISS_P_20160428193646-1

By JOHN LETZING
April 29, 2016 10:13 a.m. ET

Current and former executives at Credit Suisse Group AG, stretching from New York to the Swiss lender’s top ranks in Zurich, are sparring over who was responsible for the bulk of almost $1 billion in losses in recent months, according to people familiar with the matter.

As part of the overhaul, New York-based Timothy O’Hara was promoted to oversee Credit Suisse’s entire global markets unit, which trades stocks and bonds and sells research to hedge funds, pension funds and other clients. Gaël de Boissard, until then the bank’s London-based global head of fixed income, stepped down from that role and from the bank’s executive board.

But Mr. de Boissard told The Wall Street Journal through his lawyer that he “ceased to perform global head of fixed income duties of any kind with effect from the restructuring announcement” Oct. 21 and “ceased to have any reporting line to or from him.” Mr. de Boissard said he no longer received relevant risk reports after that date.

Through his lawyer, Mr. de Boissard said his “only role in the intervening period” through the week of Dec. 7 was completing the handoff of U.K. entities to other managers, “as per the request of Credit Suisse.” He attended a going-away party in his honor with colleagues Dec. 15 in Manhattan and left two days later on a five-month skiing trip.

Mr. O’Hara has been busy overseeing the revamped, smaller markets business. Mr. de Boissard was in Greenland this week, skiing. Rifts over the losses, and how they were described in public, remain at multiple levels inside Credit Suisse. Swiss and U.S. regulators have asked for details about the trading issues, risk reporting and related communications, according to people familiar with the matter.

H-P Chief Quits in Scandal

resizetofit

By BEN WORTHEN And PUI-WING TAM
Updated Aug. 7, 2010 12:01 a.m. ET

Mark Hurd, the man credited with reinvigorating Hewlett-Packard Co., resigned as chief executive of the technology giant after an investigation of his relationship with a female contractor found he violated the company’s business standards.

Hewlett-Packard Chairman and CEO Mark Hurd unexpectedly resigned this afternoon following a sexual-harassment investigation. MarketWatch’s Dave Callaway & Dow Jones Newswires’ Neal Lipschutz discuss the implications for the tech giant.
H-P said Friday that Mr. Hurd, 53 years old, didn’t violate the company’s policy regarding sexual-harassment but submitted inaccurate expense reports that were intended to conceal what the company said was a “close personal relationship” with the woman.

The amount of money in question wasn’t disclosed. The woman wasn’t identified but was described as an outside marketing contractor for H-P between the fall of 2007 and the fall of 2009.

The news, released after stock markets closed Friday, shocked investors and caused H-P shares to plunge 8.3% to $42.48 in after hours trading.

Michael Holston, H-P’s general counsel, said Mr. Hurd demonstrated a “profound lack of judgment that seriously undermined his credibility and damaged his effectiveness.”

The resignation is “all about Mark’s behavior and judgment” said Cathie Lesjak, H-P’s chief financial officer, who will assume the CEO role until a permanent replacement for Mr. Hurd is found.

Mr. Hurd, H-P’s CEO since 2005, had been in discussions with the board to extend his tenure as CEO before the woman’s letter surfaced, according to a person familiar with the discussions. Mr. Hurd was in talks for a three-year contract that could have been valued at $100 million, a person familiar with the matter says.

An Owner Shares His Company with His Employees — At Chobani, Now It’s Not Just the Yogurt That’s Rich

27Chobani3-1461701319693-master768

Hamdi Ulukaya, founder of Chobani, handed over to his employees stock worth around 10 percent of the company when it is sold or goes public. (Credit Alexandra Hootnick for The New York Times)

NEW BERLIN, N.Y. — The 2,000 full-time employees of the yogurt company Chobani were handed quite the surprise on Tuesday: an ownership stake that could make some of them millionaires.

Hamdi Ulukaya, the Turkish immigrant who founded Chobani in 2005, told workers at the company’s plant here in upstate New York that he would be giving them shares worth up to 10 percent of the company when it goes public or is sold.

The goal, he said, is to pass along the wealth they have helped build in the decade since the company started. Chobani is now widely considered to be worth several billion dollars.

“I’ve built something I never thought would be such a success, but I cannot think of Chobani being built without all these people,” Mr. Ulukaya said in an interview in his Manhattan office that was granted on the condition that no details of the program would be disclosed before the announcement.

“Now they’ll be working to build the company even more and building their future at the same time,” he said.

Chobani employees received the news on Tuesday morning. Each worker received a white packet; inside was information about how many Chobani shares they were given. The number of shares given to each person is based on tenure, so the longer an employee has been at the company, the bigger the stake.

Two years ago, when Chobani received a loan from TPG Capital, a private equity firm, the company’s value was estimated at $3 billion to $5 billion. At the $3 billion valuation, the average employee payout would be $150,000. The earliest employees, though, will most likely be given many more shares, possibly worth over $1 million.

Rich Lake, lead project manager, was one of the original group of five employees Mr. Ulukaya hired for the plant in New Berlin. Mr. Lake said on Tuesday that he did not expect Chobani shares to change his life much. “I’m not one for living outside my means,” he said.

Rather, he said, the shares are an acknowledgment of what he and the other employees have put into Chobani.

“It’s better than a bonus or a raise,” Mr. Lake said. “It’s the best thing because you’re getting a piece of this thing you helped build.”

“It’s better than a bonus or a raise,” said Rich Lake, an employee at Chobani. “It’s the best thing because you’re getting a piece of this thing you helped build.” Credit Alexandra Hootnick for The New York Times

The transfer of money by Mr. Ulukaya touches on a hot-button economic issue: the rapidly expanding gap in pay between executives and average workers. The United States has one of the widest pay gaps, and the topic has played a prominent role in this year’s presidential race, particularly among the Democrats.

Some other executives have also taken this issue on themselves. A founder of Gravity Payments, a Seattle-based credit-card payment processing firm, last year promised to pay a minimum wage of $70,000 to his 120-person staff within three years.

The shares given to Chobani employees are coming directly from Mr. Ulukaya. The shares can be sold if the company goes public or is bought by another business, neither of which seems imminent. Employees can hang onto the shares if they leave or retire, or the company will buy them back.

The unusual announcement comes before TPG Capital, whose $750 million loan helped bail out Chobani, can buy a stake in the company. Tension between Mr. Ulukaya and TPG about the direction of the company emerged shortly after the loan deal.

TPG has warrants to buy 20 percent or more of Chobani’s shares, depending on targets set in the original deal it struck. But that percentage would now be calculated from the 90 percent of the remaining shares, after the 10 percent given to the employees, essentially diluting TPG’s potential stake.

TPG declined to comment on Tuesday.

In addition, a year ago Mr. Ulukaya settled a lawsuit with his ex-wife, who had sought a stake in the company. The terms of the settlement were not released.

This sort of transfer of shares to employees is rare in the food industry. In one of the few notable examples, Bob Moore, the founder of Bob’s Red Mill, a grains and cereals company, handed control of the company to its employees in 2010 with the creation of an employee stock ownership program.

Technology start-ups often pay employees partly in shares to help recruit them or to compete in a company’s early days for in-demand workers. Early employees of Google and Facebook became overnight multimillionaires thanks to such compensation.

But unlike many of those tech companies, Mr. Ulukaya is giving his employees a piece of the company after its value is firmly established.

“It’s very uncommon and rare, especially in this industry, for these kinds of programs to be rolled out,” said Jessica Kennedy, a principal at Mercer, the large human resources consulting firm that worked with Chobani on the new program.

Employees at Chobani’s plant in New Berlin in upstate New York. The company was valued at $3 billion two years ago, which would make the average payout $150,000 in the event of a sale. Credit Alexandra Hootnick for The New York Times

Mr. Ulukaya has played a hands-on role in the company since 2005, when he bought a defunct Kraft yogurt plant here with an $800,000 loan from the Small Business Administration. Two years later, he began selling Greek yogurt, setting off a heated competition in what had been one of the sleepier refrigerated cases in grocery stores.

Chobani pays employees above the minimum wage and offers full-time employees health benefits and other benefits. Early on, Mr. Ulukaya established a 401(k) plan for employees and pushed them to participate.

“I preached and nagged and tried to force them to do it,” he said. “Unfortunately, not all did, and I’ve continued to worry about them in retirement.”

A few years ago, though, the company ran into financial problems after spending almost half a billion dollars to build the largest yogurt processing plant in the world, a one-million-square-foot facility in Idaho. The new plant allowed the company to expand into new products, like a children’s yogurt packed in a tube and tiny cups of dessert-like yogurts.

But the company struggled to get lines up and running smoothly, and public health officials identified mold contamination in some products.

“It was a wake-up call for us,” Mr. Ulukaya said soberly. “It made me realize that I needed to get this right, and so I’m glad it happened.”

The company had to close lines and invest in improving its food safety regimens. It also took the loan from TPG Capital to help build operations better suited to the billion-dollar business Chobani had become.

In a presentation to investors, though, TPG boasted about how it had waited until the last minute to come to Chobani’s rescue with the loan, thus allowing it to negotiate better terms in a deal that it estimated could increase the company’s value to as much as $7 billion. In addition, rumors circulated that TPG wanted to replace Mr. Ulukaya with a new chief executive, which rankled him.

But in the last year or so, business has rebounded, thanks in large part to new products made at the Idaho plant.

Mr. Ulukaya will still own the vast majority of the company, though his portion will be diluted as well. He said that giving his employees a stake in the company’s success was among the terms he demanded when the deal with TPG was struck.

“To me, there are two kinds of people in this world,” he said on Tuesday. “The people who work at Chobani and the people who don’t.”

Stephanie Strom for the NYTimes,April 26, 2016                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                           

27chobani4-master315

Employees at Chobani’s plant in New Berlin in upstate New York. The company was valued at $3 billion two years ago, which would make the average payout $150,000 in the event of a sale.

 

Quaker Equality Week — Again British Quakers Lead in Their Concern over Inequality

474c29817403da1419ce7d8af4c2b5e1

Quakers across the country united in publicly challenging economic inequality. Maya Williams, Economics, Sustainability & Peace Network Coordinator, shares how.

This March more than 80 Quaker meetings across Britain took part in Quaker Equality Week, powerfully bearing witness to our testimony to equality in the face of huge and increasing differences in levels of income and wealth in the UK.

The high level of economic inequality in Britain goes against Quaker testimonies in a number of ways – destroying people’s hopes, isolating communities from each other and making it extremely difficult to tackle climate change.

The week was coordinated by Manchester & Warrington Area Meeting. They invited meetings across the country to join them in a nine-day ‘week’ of activity responding to their faith-based commitment to equality and in recognition of widening inequality in the world.

Posters and leaflets were designed and printed to form a support pack for meetings getting involved; these were sent out alongside ideas for action, advice on publicity and social media, Britain Yearly Meeting statements on economic inequality and Quaker Peace & Social Witness (QPSW) briefings. All of these resources helped meetings across the country to plan an array of different activities throughout Quaker Equality Week.

At least 35 silent vigils were held during the week. Lancaster was the first meeting to do so, holding a 12-hour vigil two weeks before Quaker Equality Week officially started. They were joined by a number of others, including members of other church groups who wanted to uphold and recognise people who are being disproportionately affected by economic inequality in the local area.

Many Quaker meetings also held vigils, often being joined and supported by other faith groups, social justice groups, trade unions and local politicians. Some vigils were held within or outside meeting houses. Others were held in busy public places, drawing attention to particular aspects of economic inequality, including benefit sanctions, the living wage and vacant retail units.

Several meetings organised talks or events during the week. South Belfast Meeting joined with the local Methodist church to hold a structured conversation on Equality, inequality and the basic income which was well attended.

Wanstead Meeting invited a member of the Economics Sustainability & Peace sub-committee to speak at their lively discussion on ‘Quakers and Economic Equality’, at which other local faith and church groups joined them, as well as others who live in their local community.

Disley Meeting used the resources to frame their ‘give or take day’, where the local community could bring along crockery, household linen, electrical goods, books, toys, or kitchenware to give away or take away. The day was organised in a way that promoted equality, respect and care for people and the earth. The Quaker Equality Week resources were also used by Stoke Meeting as the theme for their participation in a local International Women’s Day event.

Sidmouth and Bury St Edmunds meetings were amongst those which organised displays in local community spaces. Others, such as Central Manchester Meeting had a display within their meeting house, so that others who used the building during the week could see it.

There were also a number of letter write-ins where Friends and others wrote to their MPs and parliamentary candidates to raise particular issues of economic equality, ranging from tax and the living wage to pay ratios. Ealing Quakers also held a pre-election panel discussion evening on inequality issues with representatives from the main political parties.

Other activities included film nights, large flowers with messages of equality decorating gardens and a banner making evening.

After Quaker Equality Week, meetings are following up their initial activity by asking questions at hustings on the issue and engaging with their parliamentary candidates.

Quaker Equality Week showed how committed Friends across the yearly meeting are to take action on economic justice issues. As we move forward the Economic, Sustainability & Peace team will be able to support the development of more local and area initiatives, taking action around economic justice and sustainability.

If you would like to find out more about taking action, or if your meeting has an initiative or a project that you would like other meetings to find out about and join in with, please get in touch with Maya at Mayaw@quaker.org.uk or call 020 7663 1056.

The Quiet War on Corporate Accountability

Quoted from the opinion section of the April 26 NYTimes by Karthick Ramanna and Alan Dreschel

EVEN as the nation is gripped by the populist politics of the presidential primaries, special interests continue to shape the rules of the economy in the shadows. Last year, a market regulator called the Financial Accounting Standards Board released a proposal that could make it easier for corporations to withhold important financial information from shareholders. This could put the economy at greater risk of another huge accounting fraud, like Enron or Lehman Brothers. But the board’s proposal, which could become a final rule any day now, has gotten nowhere near the strong dose of sunlight it deserves.

Let’s back up. Current accounting standards require corporations to make financial disclosures of information that “could” influence investors. If this sounds wishy-washy, it is. The accounting board’s proposal would rewrite this already subjective standard to require corporate disclosure only when there is a “substantial likelihood” that information “would” significantly alter investor decisions.

The language change is troublesome because it lowers the bar for excluding important or “material” information. Even just changing “could” to “would” is a big deal. “Could” connotes possibility and invites broader disclosure; “would” connotes more certainty and can be used by firms to exclude disclosure.

Imagine a pharmaceutical company that discovers that a promising new drug in the pipeline is performing poorly in patient trials. Such information “could” sway investing decisions, and, under current rules, there’s a strong case for disclosure. But it’s much harder to establish that there is “substantial likelihood” that disclosing this information “would” significantly alter investor choices. If the new proposal is enacted, the drug company gets a free pass to avoid disclosure.

The accounting board justifies its proposal by arguing that investors and businesses alike are suffering from disclosure overload — a point echoed by several special interests pushing for the changes, including the United States Chamber of Commerce and several powerful Fortune 500 companies. There is some merit to this concern: Corporate financial disclosures are often foggy and impenetrable. But this calls for improved quality of disclosure — more plain English, less legalese — not weakening disclosure standards. This is particularly true with the advent of technology that enables rapid text searches.

26ramannaWeb-master675

Lehman Brothers reported a $3.9 billion quarterly loss in September 2008. Mario Tama/Getty Images

Given the technological advances, we support re-examining the current rules that govern “material” corporate disclosure. After all, these rules haven’t exactly served investors well. Consider the examples of Enron and Lehman Brothers.

When Enron collapsed at the turn of this century, the fallout was devastating: thousands of jobless and countless investors left with worthless shares. As the company unraveled, we learned that years of financial statements were little more than an illusion sustained by misleading and inadequate disclosures. Enron’s conduct was fraudulent, of course; but the deceit was partly enabled by rules allowing the company to overstate assets by over $1.5 billion because offsetting adjustments were “determined to be immaterial.” With a still-lower threshold for disclosure, as the accounting board is now proposing, Enron could have cooked the books even further, and the resulting devastation could have been greater.

Many remember Lehman as the firm whose crash ignited a global financial crisis; few recall how it exemplified the poor disclosure practices that were common in the years leading up to it. Not only did this fuzzy disclosure mislead markets on the health of the housing market, in Lehman’s case it helped mask the firm’s manipulation of financial statements. In one email from early 2008, Lehman’s president called its accounting gimmicks “another drug we r on.” Amazingly, in the aftermath of Lehman’s failure, the Securities and Exchange Commission concluded that the company’s non-disclosures did not violate current materiality standards.

There is reason to believe that such shoddy, deceptive practices remain common. A 2015 survey by researchers from Columbia, Duke, Emory and the National Bureau of Economic Research reveals that the nearly 400 financial executives surveyed believe 20 percent of firms intentionally distort their earnings figures by an average of 10 percent.

Disclosure is the cornerstone of fair and efficient markets. Investors can make educated decisions only if they have access to relevant information about public companies. Weakening disclosure standards imperils the integrity of markets.

In principle, the S.E.C. has final authority to set disclosure rules for public companies. But the S.E.C. decades ago turned over much of this work to the private-sector accounting standards board. This body draws its members largely from the accounting and finance professions, citing the need for expertise from industry. It’s this state of affairs that has partly gotten us to where we are today.

The board’s changes contradict the S.E.C.’s own strategic plan, which notes that “an educated and informed investor ultimately provides the best defense against fraud and costly mistakes.” The accounting board should abandon its efforts to undermine disclosure rules. Even better, the S.E.C. should use this opportunity to step in and strengthen them.

51A1tr2ypmL._SX450_

 

 

Soon To Be Homeless in Los Angeles

The Pulitzer Board named columnist Steve Lopez as a finalist in the commentary category for a series of columns grappling with wealth inequality in Southern California, which Lopez described as “the stratified kingdom of hillside castles and cardboard cities.”

Lopez’s work explored the lives of a 71-year-old South Los Angeles woman who survived without running water, a laid-off aerospace worker, an Air Force veteran seeking work, casualties of forced gentrification in Echo Park, and the work of a real estate agent in Beverly Hills.

Here are two of these stories:

la-2431315-me-adv-lopez-economy-7-brv-jpg-20150619-1

I drove high into the hills of Tujunga, stood at a locked gate on a country road and called out to Agneta Dobos. She didn’t answer.

I heard the trickle of water, peered through the vegetation, and saw a woman in a bathtub under a peach tree.

Long ago I stopped being surprised by the way people live in Los Angeles.

Some make do in cars for years on end.

Some live in converted garages.

Some wedge themselves under freeway overpasses.

And I have just gotten to know a woman who went nine months without running water in her home.

Still, an outdoor bathtub was new to me.

“I bought it for $40,” Dobos told me, opening the gate with a towel on her head when she realized I was not there to evict her.

Dobos has been at this property for 27 years, and the 1994 Northridge quake damaged her house. Years later, she signed a deal with the city to have the house demolished and rebuilt with a HUD loan, but that plan fell apart in disputes between Dobos, the contractor and the city.

So she moved into a backyard shed eight years ago to await a resolution that never came, and now the city is evicting her because the shed doesn’t meet safety standards.

“They’re going to put me in the street and I’m going to die,” said Dobos, 67, a former registered nurse who said she has heart trouble and multiple other health problems.

The shed she lives in is about 8 feet by 10 feet, with a portable grill and toaster oven powered by a line that runs from the street. There is no toilet; she goes to the nearby YWCA. The only place for a small table is on the bed, and she slides her feet under it when she sleeps.

To heat the water for her daily bath, Dobos fills about two dozen plastic jugs from a garden hose and sets the jugs on the foundation of the house that was never built. About 2 p.m., she dumps the sun-heated water into the tub and climbs in.

It’s a hard life, but she loves the home she shares with her cats and three chickens, who lay green eggs. During those spells when she can’t afford to shop, she eats her own tomatoes, walnuts, apricots, grapes and oranges. When her blood pressure rises or her diabetes flares up, she brews teas from her loquats, celery leaves and nopales.

Dobos seems to have a history of disagreement with neighbors, employers and inspectors.

I can’t believe, though, that the best solution is to force her onto the street, adding her to the 44,000 homeless people countywide who have set up tents and built “cardboard condos” almost everywhere, including within blocks of City Hall.

Maybe, rather than evict her, the city could arrange for a social worker to help resolve her problems and upgrade the shed to make it safe for her to live in — and then restart the rebuilding of her house.

la-me-0315-lopez-echo-20150313-001

 Jose and Ana Sanchez ran for their lives during El Salvador’s civil war, resettled in Los Angeles and joined the working class.

They landed minimum-wage jobs in the garment district, then started Ana’s Ice Cream, motoring through the city to peddle frozen treats. Together, they brought in just enough money to pay the rent and raise two kids.

But now, after 31 years in the same modest house in the hills of Echo Park, they and their daughter are being forced out by gentrification.

“My parents are here stressing every day, not knowing where they’re going to go or how they’re going to do it,” the Sanchezes’ 29-year-old daughter, Rocio, said when I met with the family.

The Sanchezes say they have benefited from a rent stabilization ordinance that limits increases to 3% a year, and they currently pay $942 a month for a modest three-bedroom, one-bath house. They can handle that with income from three jobs — Rocio makes $11.50 an hour as a home health aide, Ana works about 30 hours a week for minimum wage at two Domino’s Pizza franchises, and Jose gets a disability check while undergoing dialysis treatment.

But last year their landlord sold the property, and the new owners — 4SITE, Responsible Real Estate and Development, as the website has it — notified the Sanchezes of plans to demolish the house. 4SITE will build a cluster of five homes on the lot, and a 4SITE employee told me each unit could go for $800,000 or more.

It’s not just their home that they’re losing, Rocio Sanchez said. Like a lot of other longtime residents, many of them Latino, they’re effectively being squeezed out of Echo Park, where apartments smaller than the home they live in are going for twice what they pay, and corner bodegas give way to $5 coffee shops.

But last year their landlord sold the property, and the new owners — 4SITE, Responsible Real Estate and Development, as the website has it — notified the Sanchezes of plans to demolish the house. 4SITE will build a cluster of five homes on the lot, and a 4SITE employee told me each unit could go for $800,000 or more.

It’s not just their home that they’re losing, Rocio Sanchez said. Like a lot of other longtime residents, many of them Latino, they’re effectively being squeezed out of Echo Park, where apartments smaller than the home they live in are going for twice what they pay, and corner bodegas give way to $5 coffee shops.

“In the ’90s, people wouldn’t even walk their dogs down the street” because of concerns about crime, said Rocio. But now Echo Park is a destination community with $1-million homes, and they can’t afford to stay.

I’m not one who believes gentrification is necessarily evil, and high-density housing — five homes where one now stands — can sometimes make sense in Los Angeles as an alternative to continued sprawl. 4SITE and other investors who are buying up Echo Park, Highland Park, Boyle Heights and other gentrification hotbeds have every right to do so.

But having said that, gentrification has winners and losers, and so does this resurgent economy. In fact, the improving economy is crushing people like the Sanchezes, because while real estate goes up, their incomes don’t, and they sink deeper into the ranks of the working poor.

Can the revolution be very far off when Oscar nominees are handed $160,000 swag bags and there’s a $195-million manse on the market in Beverly Hills (you can lease it for a mere $475,000 a month), but we’re the homeless capital of the United States and have a catastrophic shortage of affordable housing?

Rocio Sanchez said she and her parents recently looked at a $1,500-a-month house in Boyle Heights, the cheapest acceptable home they could find. But before they move, they’re contesting the terms of their departure.

4SITE offered them $12,000 in relocation costs. The family didn’t respond initially because Mr. Sanchez was hospitalized, Rocio said. She later did some research and concluded that as residents of a multi-family dwelling, they were entitled to $19,000 in relocation costs under city guidelines.

For many years, Sanchez said, a second family lived in a separate downstairs portion of the house, and I confirmed that with the family. The other family had a separate address, and property records listed the house as a two-unit dwelling. Sanchez always figured that was why her family was eligible for rent stabilization.

But 4SITE disputes that. Todd Wexman, chief principal, emailed me to say the city told his company the home is a single-family dwelling with no record of permits for a second unit. “As such,” he wrote, “if there was ever another unit, it was illegal.”

Wexman contends he therefore is not obligated to pay any relocation fees to the Sanchezes.

The offer of $12,000 was a take-it-or-leave-it proposition with a one-week deadline, he said. “Nonetheless, we have now offered $4,650 and two weeks of free rent,” he added.

The Sanchez family has retained the nonprofit Eviction Defense Network, where three attorneys — Elena Popp, Magda Madrigal and Jennifer Ganata — told me they think the Sanchezes have a good chance of prevailing if the case goes to court.

When I visited their office, by the way, it was swamped with tenants fighting eviction, and the attorneys said some of their booming business is due to displacement caused by gentrification.

“All I want is what is right for my family,” a weeping Rocio Sanchez said as her father listened and her mother wiped away tears. “My parents know where we stand. We’re lower-class and we accept that. What we don’t accept is anyone coming here and thinking that we’re insignificant.”

Whatever happens to them, the intensifying squeeze on affordable housing in Los Angeles and beyond is proof positive that something is seriously out of whack in this so-called rebounding economy. Multiple families are forced to share apartments, college grads have to move back home, people are moving farther from job centers and then schlepping long distances to work, and let’s not forget those living in cars and tents.

For the most part, thanks largely to the powerful real estate lobby, policymakers have been useless in crafting remedies for what California Assembly Speaker Toni Atkins (D-San Diego) has called “one of the biggest crises” in the state.

Atkins has pitched a plan of real estate fees and tax credits to produce $500 million worth of housing assistance for low-income Californians, but the Republicans are taking shots at the plan and Atkins is getting hammered by those who say her spouse’s affordable housing consulting business would benefit.

Occidental College professor Peter Dreier told me there are three ways to address the affordable housing shortage, aside from raising the minimum wage and developing a living-wage economy:

Local lawmakers could create inclusionary zoning, in which developers are obligated to set aside a portion of any apartment or condo development for moderate and low-income earners (developers would fight this to their death).

The state could take action to allow cities to impose rent control mandates, to keep landlords from forcing out tenants so that they can then raise rents.

And the government could support nonprofit ownership of buildings, making more affordable units available.

We need to do something, Dreier said, because even people who make decent money can barely afford a place to live.

“There’s prosperity for a few and stagnation and declining income for the majority,” he said, “and that’s true across the country, but it’s particularly true in Los Angeles.”

The Sanchez family knows this all too well.

They have until April 15 to vacate their home of 31 years.

ojhLmMd

Last week, the California Supreme Court cited an affordable housing shortage of “epic proportions” and issued a ruling that makes it easier for municipalities to require developers to sell some housing at below-market rates.

Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti applauded the ruling, but he needs to do more than clap. He needs to lead the way on a plan to make it happen.

Raising the bottom on minimum-wage jobs is a nice boost, but that’s the easy part. The bigger challenge is the creation of middle-wage jobs.

The striking thing about the stories I have told today is that they are not exceptional.

Thousands of people in our city live in circumstances that are equally challenging.

What’s depressing is that we, as a city and county, are so inept at helping them.

What’s inspiring is witnessing how the Malloys, and Agneta Doboses, and Reina Rosaleses adapt, endure and survive, their dignity intact.

All of the above was reported by Steven Lopez, reporter for the LATimes, who recently received a Pulitzer award for his coverage of the LA homeless.

 

The Homeless in Los Angeles

Los Angeles has the highest rate of homelessness in the U.S. according to the Department of Housing and Development. Yesterday (April 20) the Mayor unveiled his plan for confronting this issue as reported in this article by Alejandro Lazo in the LATimes:

BN-NQ677_LAHOME_P_20160420163654

 Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti on Wednesday proposed spending $138 million to address the burgeoning homeless population in a region that has seen a bigger increase in people without a place to live than any major urban center.

Mr. Garcetti’s planned spending on services and housing for the homeless in the fiscal year beginning July 1—four times what was allocated for the current fiscal year—comes after city officials faced criticism for a slow response to the problem.

The new budget proposal is only partly funded from current tax revenue; some of the money would come from a real-estate development fee that doesn’t yet exist.

Nationally, the homeless population fell 2% in 2015 from a year earlier. But in Los Angeles County, which includes the city and communities such as Long Beach, Burbank and Pasadena, the number of homeless leapt to 41,000 in 2015, a 20% increase over the previous year, according to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. California accounts for more than a quarter of the nation’s homeless population.

Los Angeles leaders have struggled to address the problem as people were driven from their homes during the last recession and housing costs have climbed.

The city has fought in court with homeless advocates over its treatment of the homeless. Earlier this month, the mayor signed an ordinance limiting the amount of property people can store on the streets to 60 gallons. Last week, a federal judge said the city cannot remove and destroy all the belongings of homeless people, such as medications.

“It is promising that the mayor has decided to invest substantially into addressing homelessness in Los Angeles. However, I do, as always, think the devil is in the details,” said Eric Ares, a community organizer for Community Action Network, which advocates for affordable housing. The city “has been using law enforcement and criminalization to address the failure of a real housing plan.”

With large encampments appearing in new parts of the city, Mr. Garcetti and other politicians publicly proclaimed a homeless emergency last year, but stopped short of declaring an official state of emergency, similar to ones invoked during natural disasters. City officials had pledged $100 million for the effort, but for months struggled to identify where that money would come from.

Separately, Los Angeles County officials last week proposed spending $99 million on homeless programs for the next fiscal year.

“People want this problem solved,” Mr. Garcetti said in an interview. “I am optimistic that we are on the right road.”

He said he was “close to 100%” sure his proposal would be approved by the City Council, which is charged with passing a budget by June 1.

A spokeswoman for Los Angeles City Council President Herb Wesson said the mayor’s approach was “welcomed.”

Mr. Garcetti’s plan relies on $67 million not derived from current tax revenue. That includes 12 city properties worth $47 million that can be sold or developed into housing. Another $20 million would come from a program that hasn’t yet been enacted: a fee on developers the city would use to provide affordable housing.

FSA/8b28000/8b287008b28726a.tif

Look Both Ways

50a582b09c6e8ae21bf5da0b69c0ac5b

“Look both ways when you cross the street,” is an admonishment often heard. So today we shall look to the right in case any of our readers feel we have focused too much on the left. In today’s (April 21) Wall Street Journal I have extracted from an article by Jon A. Shields and Joshua M. Dunn Sr.  the following quote which seems highly apropos. Mr Shields is an associate professor of government at Claremont McKenna College. Mr. Dunn is an associate professor of political science at the University of Colorado-Colorado Springs. They are authors of “Passing on the Right: Conservative Professors in the Progressive University” (Oxford University Press, 2016).

Some professors suggested that there are compensating benefits to being out of place. For one, it’s easier to make innovative contributions. “I really do feel sorry for your absolutely conventional liberal scholar,” a political scientist told us. He imagined that it must be difficult to discover something new from “within the framework of their thinking.” Another made the point by posing a rhetorical question: “I mean, how many ways can you talk about inequality?” Other conservatives appreciated being held to a higher standard. “You can’t be lazy. You can’t—you’re not going to be cut any slack,” a philosopher said. “I think that’s a real advantage insofar as it makes the work better.”

Well spoken, professors. We shall take this to heart as we continue our investigation of wealth distribution in America today.

In the same issue of the Wall Street Journal columnist Daniel Henninger asks “why are young liberals asking for ‘change’?”

What, exactly, is Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton or even Bernie Sanders supposed to deliver that an infinity of politicians and public officials before them haven’t already delivered?

If change has any concrete meaning for Sen. Sanders’s supporters, it must have something to do with what the government or public sector does.

However imperfect, the federal budget embodies what the U.S. government is.

First the numbers. The 2015 federal budget spent about $3.8 trillion, or 21% of the U.S. economy. Year in and year out, that $3 trillion to $4 trillion underwrites programs.

As listed at federalsafetynet.com, the programs delivering welfare include: the negative income tax, SNAP (supplemental nutrition), housing assistance, SSI, Pell Grants, TANF (temporary assistance for needy families), child nutrition, Head Start, job training programs, WIC (food for women and children), child care and Liheap (energy subsidies).

Entitlement programs include Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, unemployment insurance and the Affordable Care Act.

Education: A website called CollegeScholarships.org lists “Grants from the U.S. Government: Free Money from Uncle Sam.”

Why are 25-year-old liberals crying out for “change,” if you are spending $4 trillion every year on all this stuff? There’s hardly anything significant left to deliver, other than results, so maybe something is wrong with the delivery system.

474c29817403da1419ce7d8af4c2b5e1

Enough said. Our adopted task grows harder. What will it take to effect the needed change? Perhaps  a partial answer can be found in the essay “Why Giving Back Isn’t Enough” by Derek Walker, President of the Ford Foundation (posted February 1).

 

 

 

 

Robber Baron Recessions

“There are . . . good reasons to believe that reduced competition and increased monopoly power are very bad for the economy,” writes Paul Krugman in this opinion piece in today’s NYTimes: 

When Verizon workers went on strike last week, they were mainly protesting efforts to outsource work to low-wage, non-union contractors. But they were also angry about the company’s unwillingness to invest in its own business. In particular, Verizon has shown a remarkable lack of interest in expanding its Fios high-speed Internet network, despite strong demand.

But why doesn’t Verizon want to invest? Probably because it doesn’t have to: many customers have no place else to go, so the company can treat its broadband business as a cash cow, with no need to spend money on providing better service (or, speaking from personal experience, on maintaining existing service).

51A1tr2ypmL._SX450_

And Verizon’s case isn’t unique. In recent years many economists, including people like Larry Summers and yours truly, have come to the conclusion that growing monopoly power is a big problem for the U.S. economy — and not just because it raises profits at the expense of wages. Verizon-type stories, in which lack of competition reduces the incentive to invest, may contribute to persistent economic weakness.

The argument begins with a seeming paradox about overall corporate behavior. You see, profits are at near-record highs, thanks to a substantial decline in the percentage of G.D.P. going to workers. You might think that these high profits imply high rates of return to investment. But corporations themselves clearly don’t see it that way: their investment in plant, equipment, and technology (as opposed to mergers and acquisitions) hasn’t taken off, even though they can raise money, whether by issuing bonds or by selling stocks, more cheaply than ever before.

How can this paradox be resolved? Well, suppose that those high corporate profits don’t represent returns on investment, but instead mainly reflect growing monopoly power. In that case many corporations would be in the position I just described: able to milk their businesses for cash, but with little reason to spend money on expanding capacity or improving service. The result would be what we see: an economy with high profits but low investment, even in the face of very low interest rates and high stock prices.

And such an economy wouldn’t just be one in which workers don’t share the benefits of rising productivity; it would also tend to have trouble achieving or sustaining full employment. Why? Because when investment is weak despite low interest rates, the Federal Reserve will too often find its efforts to fight recessions coming up short. So lack of competition can contribute to “secular stagnation” — that awkwardly-named but serious condition in which an economy tends to be depressed much or even most of the time, feeling prosperous only when spending is boosted by unsustainable asset or credit bubbles. If that sounds to you like the story of the U.S. economy since the 1990s, join the club.

There are, then, good reasons to believe that reduced competition and increased monopoly power are very bad for the economy. But do we have direct evidence that such a decline in competition has actually happened? Yes, say a number of recent studies, including one just released by the White House. For example, in many industries the combined market share of the top four firms, a traditional measure used in many antitrust studies, has gone up over time.

The obvious next question is why competition has declined. The answer can be summed up in two words: Ronald Reagan.

For Reagan didn’t just cut taxes and deregulate banks; his administration also turned sharply away from the longstanding U.S. tradition of reining in companies that become too dominant in their industries. A new doctrine, emphasizing the supposed efficiency gains from corporate consolidation, led to what those who have studied the issue often describe as the virtual end of antitrust enforcement.

True, there was a limited revival of anti-monopoly efforts during the Clinton years, but these went away again under George W. Bush. The result was an economy with far too much concentration of economic power. And the Obama administration — preoccupied with the aftermath of financial crisis and the struggle with bitterly hostile Republicans — has only recently been in a position to grapple with competition policy.

A Billionaire With a Davos Of His Own

We think you will enjoy this article from the April 17 Sunday NYTimes by Alessandra Stanley. We’ve promised to show you the good side of the very rich, so here goes. For every Caspersen (see our April 10 blog) there is a Berggruen (see below).

Gustav_Klimt_046 (6)

In a wood-paneled conference room in Stanford, Calif., a score of scholars, many of them eminent and some from as far away as Johannesburg and Beijing, gathered last month to compare philosophical notions of hierarchy and equality.

The gathering itself had no overt hierarchy, though one participant seemed a little more equal than the others. When Nicolas Berggruen spoke, no one interrupted. Only he occasionally checked his phone. And at dinner, the guests received fruit tarts for dessert — except for Mr. Berggruen, who was served chocolate mousse.

Mr. Berggruen, 54, is an investor and art collector who was once known as the “homeless billionaire” because he lived in itinerant luxury in five-star hotels. Now he is grounded in Los Angeles where he presides over a bespoke think tank, the Berggruen Institute.

17THINKTANK-master1050

“I am a person who likes to engage in learning.” Nicholas Berggruen at home in Los Angeles.

The institute is a striking example of how wealthy philanthropists are reshaping the landscape with smaller versions of the foundations established by Bill Gates and George Soros. Sean Parker, one of the entrepreneurs behind Napster and Facebook, has a research institute, The Parker Foundation, which this month pledged $250 million for cancer immunotherapy. He is also a co-founder of the Economic Innovation Group, which labels itself an “ideas laboratory.” Tom Steyer, who made his fortune as a hedge fund manager in California, has several environmental nonprofit groups, and last year created the Fair Shake Commission to redress economic inequality.

“There is a generation of new donors who have huge assets, and their own ideas, and think traditional think tanks are old-fashioned,” said James G. McGann, the director of the Think Tanks and Civil Societies Program at the University of Pennsylvania — a think tank that thinks about think tanks. In a money-fueled culture where tweets, not position papers, shape the national conversation, these kinds of philosopher-kingpins “are likely to be more influential than we are,” Mr. McGann said.
Mr. Berggruen stands out because he is a little-known but well-connected player at the nexus of wealth and rumination who is also a bit mysterious — a Gatsby who shows up at his own parties.

“I am a person who likes to engage in learning,” Mr. Berggruen said, in an accent reflecting his Parisian upbringing and dual German and American citizenship. The next step was “to see if I can produce some ideas,” he said.

Mr. Berggruen’s investment company, Berggruen Holdings, is registered in the British Virgin Islands and his charitable trust is based in Bermuda. The institute bankrolls several conferences a year, and Mr. Berggruen attends almost every session, takes careful notes and sometimes even appears to dress the part. At a dinner for philosophy scholars at the Stanford Park Hotel in March, he wore a dark blazer and a crisp white shirt unbuttoned to his sternum, the signature look of the French celebrity philosopher Bernard-Henri Lévy.

There are conflicting views about this kind of endeavor.
“One of the delights of philanthropy is that it isn’t programmed, it is scattershot, with so much room for idiosyncratic choices,” said Karl Zinsmeister, author of “The Almanac of American Philanthropy.” He cited the example of Daniel Guggenheim, who championed the rocketry pioneer Robert Goddard in the 1930s when he was widely dismissed as a crackpot.

“Of course there is a high percentage of waste,” Mr. Zinsmeister said, “but that’s how discovery works.”

Others worry, though, that at least some of these initiatives are vanity projects. Mr. Berggruen’s institute “seems like a mini-Davos of his creation,” McGann said, referring to the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland — the Ascot of conferences for the global elite.

Mr. McGann publishes an annual report on the world’s top think tanks, ranking them in more than 50 categories. The Berggruen Institute is not included in any of them.
Mr. Berggruen happens to be a Davos habitué, but his institute has a more eclectic mandate. Besides philosophy, he has spent time and money on efforts to reform the California budget. He has established councils to study European integration and China.

 

getimage-1.aspx

Nicolas Berggruen, working with Nathalia Ramos, an aide, center, and Marissa Fraering, an assistant, at his home in Los Angeles.

The Berggruen Institute will award an annual $1 million prize in philosophy beginning this year. It is presently funding five Berggruen graduate scholarships to China and other places, and it has selected 16 others for the 2016-17 academic year.
Mr. Berggruen says he bought more than 400 acres in Brentwood, Calif., and has commissioned the renowned Swiss architecture firm Herzog & de Meuron to design his institute’s headquarters. Craig Calhoun, who is leaving the directorship of the London School of Economics this summer, was appointed president. Mr. Calhoun said his mandate was to “deepen the conversation.”

Mr. Berggruen has a gift for networking. “He knows everyone,” said his friend Stefan Simchowitz, an art dealer. At the philosophy conference in Stanford, he hosted a conversation about artificial intelligence with Antonio Damasio, a neuroscientist who heads the Brain and Creativity Institute at the University of Southern California, and Reid Hoffman, a co-founder of LinkedIn.

Mr. Hoffman met Mr. Berggruen through a mutual friend who mentioned Mr. Berggruen’s interests in California governance and Chinese philosophy. “I said, ‘Yeah, that’s interesting. Let me meet him,’” Mr. Hoffman recalled.

The luminaries listed on the institute’s advisory boards are the kind who pop up at White House state dinners or on Barry Diller’s yacht: Arianna Huffington, cofounder of The Huffington Post; the SpaceX founder Elon Musk; Tony Blair, the former British prime minister; Francis Fukuyama, the Stanford professor; and former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.

“I’m not really involved anymore, but I like Nicolas,” Ms. Rice said in a phone interview. She served on the Think Long Committee for California, a brain trust Mr. Berggruen assembled in 2010 to address the state’s budget crisis.

Mr. Berggruen makes it easy for even very busy people to lend their prestige. He foots the bills, booking guests in luxury hotels and sometimes ferrying them on his private jet. In workshops, he asks the kind of big-picture questions that politicians, intellectuals and billionaires like to answer.

Last November, Mr. Berggruen convened former prime ministers and other eminences in Beijing to discuss the future of China. Upon the group’s arrival in Beijing, the roads were cleared for their motorcade to the Great Hall of the People for a meeting with President Xi Jinping.

Orville Schell, a China scholar at the Asia Society in New York and an adviser to the Berggruen Institute, said that Mr. Berggruen gained access to Chinese leaders because he focused on philosophy and culture, not politics and human rights, and noted that his approach was “astute.”

It also helped that Mr. Berggruen did not appear to have a business agenda. “In some ways he is a thinking man’s Donald Trump,” Mr. Schell said. “He doesn’t want anything from anybody, except to be of consequence.”

While Mr. Berggruen has arrived, even in his early days he wasn’t exactly an arriviste. His father, Heinz Berggruen, was an art dealer who fled the Nazis in 1936, romanced Frida Kahlo in New York and befriended Picasso in Paris.

The younger Mr. Berggruen attended Le Rosey, an exclusive Swiss boarding school, and studied finance at New York University, but he says he began investing as a teenager, borrowing a few thousand pounds from a friend to buy stocks. Forbes estimates his fortune to be about $1.5 billion. Last year, Town & Country magazine named him one of the world’s 50 most eligible bachelors.

And last month, he became a bachelor father. Or, as he put it when asked who the mother is: “Me. I am the mother and the father.” Mr. Berggruen has two newborns, a boy and a girl, born three weeks apart to different surrogates and conceived using eggs from two donors.

Single fatherhood has now tethered him to Los Angeles, he said, but not too tightly: He bought the apartment one floor down for the children and their nannies.

Since 2015, his institute has been funded by his Bermuda-registered charitable trust. He says it has a $1 billion endowment. Foreign status means that Mr. Berggruen forfeits United States tax breaks but can give away money as he chooses. Bermuda has almost none of the restrictions or disclosure rules that bind American nonprofits.

In the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis, Mr. Berggruen said, he began to question his life’s purpose. That led him, in 2010, to hire professors from the University of California, Los Angeles, to tutor him in philosophy.

Brian Walker, a political science professor and expert in Chinese philosophy, was one of those. Professor Walker would discuss Plato and Confucius with Mr. Berggruen over lunch in his suite at the Peninsula Hotel. “It was sort of a surreal setting, but he always did the reading and asked good questions,” Mr. Walker said. “I found him a little mysterious. He didn’t invite personal confidences.”

Mr. Berggruen is courteous and even courtly: In restaurants, he stands when his date leaves the table. But he isn’t a schmoozer. His Stanford conference ran from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. with little time for small talk.

At the philosophy dinner, he asked that his guests discuss harmony and freedom in the East and West. He was playful, but only on topic. “I am going to say something that will make all of you want to kill me,” he said, bringing conversation and forks to a halt. “The West is absolutist, India is pluralist, and China is — and I don’t mean this in a negative way — conformist.”

Mr. Berggruen spoke proudly of the work his Think Long Committee did to address California’s deficit, including supporting Proposition 31, which among other things would have barred lawmakers from creating expenditures over $25 million without finding the money for them. Mr. Berggruen spent more than $1 million to get the proposition on the ballot. The initiative was voted down in 2012.

Think Long was on the winning side, though, of a 2014 measure to make ballot initiatives more transparent. Kathay Feng, executive director of California Common Cause, which supported the measure, said that she didn’t recall the Berggruen Institute’s adding much to policy ideas, but that it did help finance legal advisers and recruit experts. “I wouldn’t say it was deep thinking,” Ms. Feng said, “but he did bring in some very high-profile individuals.”

In 2010, Mr. Berggruen took the Giving Pledge — which has become a kind of social register for big-time philanthropists — joining billionaires who have promised to give away more than half of their fortunes. But he is not a spendthrift. He is a trustee of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, and tax records show that in 2014 he gave the museum $100,000, the minimum annual gift required; many give double that amount, or more, according to two trustees. That year, Mr. Berggruen gave U.C.L.A. $4,750.
Mr. Berggruen says he wants to nurture innovative thinking, not just donate to causes. His institute, he said, is “not just a money-giving operation; it’s an ideas and energy-producing operation.”

Several scholars say that Mr. Berggruen’s interdisciplinary approach to philosophy is refreshing in an academic world that can be siloed. Kwame Anthony Appiah, a philosopher at New York University, said he attended a Berggruen event because it gave him a chance to talk to experts about Confucianism, which is not his primary field of study.

“I can’t say whether it’s the best use of his money,” Professor Appiah said. “I can only consider whether he is making the world better or worse, and in this case I would have to say, better.”

Democracy Spring — Money Out of Politics

America will never be the same after this election, no matter who wins. It is clear that the American public has lost all patience with politicians, who sit and do nothing, and have decided to take things into their own hands. Good evidence of this is what has been occurring in Washington DC this week — Democracy Spring. And does this event provide a model for how our politics will be conducted in the future, now that Congress is dysfunctional?

13001321_498512723682068_2429341078403450009_n

They started in Philadelphia at the Liberty Bell. They walked 140 miles through Wilmington and Baltimore to Washington DC. Arrived in Washington, they began civil disobedience training in preparation for their next big task. Each day for the last five days several hundred of them, self-selected, have blocked the steps to the Capitol, refusing to disperse and have been arrested. So far 800 protestors have been arrested; the plan is to make it 1000 in the next few days.

12977184_498875686979105_4748152855141019770_o

All the below has been extracted from several articles in the Huffington Post. It is interesting to note that only this publication has had the courage to report Democracy Spring. We have tried unsuccessfully to find coverage in the NYTimes, theLATimes and the Wall Street Journal. All the more reason for the existence of this blog because of the silence of the mainstream press. 

WASHINGTON — After a 140-mile march from Philadelphia to Washington, D.C., police arrested more than 400 protesters on the steps of the Capitol building. Monday’s demonstration was part of a civil disobedience action in support of reducing the influence of money in politics and strengthening the right to vote.

The protest and march, billed as Democracy Spring, brought together a wide coalition of groups from various political perspectives in support of campaign finance reform and voting rights. It marked an important moment for the growing movement to reform the way campaigns are financed. Those inside the beltway have long seen the matter as a process issue of limited interest to citizens, but interest has skyrocketed during the 2016 race. Monday’s protest brought that dissatisfaction out of the conversation about presidential personalities.

The event’s diversity was underscored by the appearances of both Code Pink, an anti-war social justice group, and Take Back Our Republic’s John Pudner, a conservative tea party activist who joined the march in Maryland.

“What I’ve never seen before is right wingers and Code Pink at a protest making common cause,” said poverty activist and reporter Linda Tirado, “Eighty-five percent of us want fundamental reform of how campaigns are financed because we know our system is broken.”

Protest campaign director Kai Newkirk, head of the activist group 99 Rise, was among those arrested. Others included the online news personality Cenk Uygur, criminal justice reform advocate Michael A. Wood Jr., Progressive Change Campaign Committee co-founder Adam Green and former California Secretary of State candidate Derek Cressman.

Protest organizers hoped to highlight mass dissatisfaction with the way political campaigns are funded and recent efforts to limit voting rights including the failure of Congress to reauthorize the Voting Rights Act.

“What you’re seeing right now is a massive change in the conversation around money in politics and I think that we are at the Capitol making it so visible that so many people are willing to risk arrest,” said Alex Lawson, executive director of Social Security Works, a participating organization. “This is something that elected officials cannot be on the wrong side of.”

570d092c2e00002d009510d7

UNITED STATES – APRIL 11: Democracy Spring protesters calling for the end of big money in politics stage a sit-in on the Capitol steps and on the East Plaza of the Capitol on Monday April 11, 2016. (Photo By Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

Most Americans are increasingly opposed to the current state of campaign funding, where lawmakers can spend up to four hours per day raising money and the super-wealthy increasingly dominate the most competitive races through super PACs and nonprofit groups.

Author Francis Moore Lappé, an anti-hunger activist who took part in much of the march and was arrested at the Capitol, noted this wide support. “It is a moment where I know that the majority of the American people are with me,” she said. “Eighty-five percent of us want fundamental reform of how campaigns are financed because we know our system is broken.”

For many at the event, the issue of money in politics was seen as a roadblock to legislative change that they would like to see enacted.

“Any issue that people care about you can trace it back to how money has corrupted our system,” Code Pink founder Medea Benjamin said. “So, I think anyone who really cares about democracy should be involved in this issue.”

“It’s really really hard to fight for immigrant rights, it’s really hard to fight for people who have been incarcerated when there’s a lot of money in politics,” added Alejandra Pablos, an organizer for Democracy Spring. “When there’s so much corruption that we can’t have a democracy that works for us.”

The coalition of groups said that they are organizing in support of key legislation that they want Congress to enact. These bills include the Government By The People Act, the Fair Elections Now Act — both of which would create a system of publicly financed elections for congressional races — and the Democracy For All Amendment, a constitutional amendment to overturn both the 2010 Citizens United decision and the 1976 Supreme Court ruling that established that the spending of money on political campaigns is a form of protected free speech. They also support the Voting Rights Advancement Act and the Voter Empowerment Act.

Organizers hope the protest will be a catalyst for increasing participation in their growing movement to reform campaign finance laws. More civil disobedience actions are planned for this week and other participating groups will stage mass citizen lobbying days as part of a “Democracy Awakening.”

After the march from Union Station, it took more than six hours for police to arrest the protesters who chose to sit in on the Capitol  steps. They were taken in zip-tie handcuffs into large buses to be taken away and processed. The 1,000-plus protesters who chose not to get arrested stood behind the police barricade cheering on those risking arrest.
Screen_Shot_2016-04-15_at_3.11.10_PM

[The next day] thirteen activists zip-tied themselves to the scaffolding in the Capitol rotunda Friday as part of a weeklong civil disobedience action protesting the corrupting role of money in politics and attacks on the right to vote.

The 13 activists who protested inside the Capitol came into the building as part of a tour group. In footage of their protest, their guide politely asks for their tour headsets back before the group zip-ties themselves to the scaffolding. The activists then begin chanting and singing, before a police officer informs them that if they stay, they are subject to arrest.

“It’s fitting that on the weekend anniversary of the day that slaves were freed in the District, we are assembling to right another wrong in our democracy, the enslavement of politicians to big money that holds all Americans captive to a corrupt system and demeans our country,” said Democracy Spring Field Organizer Elise Whittaker, who was arrested as part of the group inside the Capitol dome. “Americans from across the political spectrum will continue to rally around these issues until Congress takes action. What we’re seeing here is truly a historic moment as the American people no matter what their politics are coming together to demand that Congress do its job.”