To Save America’s Cities, It Is Time to Be Bold

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When it comes down to it, many of the significant problems associated with the COVID pandemic resulted from a failure of imagination. Many of the nation’s best thinkers, having been surprised by the outbreak and the extent and speed of its spread, seemed to fear certain potential outcomes so much they froze.

The proper response is not timidity or inaction. Success tends to favor the bold, which suggests that the nation’s business and political and scientific leadership should have been exploring and experimenting with ways to keep the economy open, rather than shut it down.

The lockdowns that far too many  embraced as the way to stop the disease from spreading produced adverse consequences that will be with us for some time. They did not stop COVID from spreading – indeed, it is still with us, continuing to mutate as most viruses do.

Health concerns aside, the lockdowns were economically and socially harmful. They put people out of work, enforced isolation, hampered the learning experience vital to our children’s future, and decimated many of the nation’s vital urban centers. Even though the U.S. economy is generally in recovery, our commercial centers, which had perhaps been hit harder than the rest of the nation because of their population density, do not seem to be coming back as quickly as other parts of the country.

There are ways to deal with this, both good and bad. What’s called for now are imaginative solutions to help urban areas rebuild quickly, that promote greater flexibility in the way space is used, and develop communities of which people want to be a part.

To put our cities back to work means changing the way we think about them. We cannot allow the urban rot that began in the late 1960s in so many major American cities to take root once again, displacing decades of progress that has been made in bringing our metropolises back from the brink. For that reason, rather than looking at downtowns and seeing them as they are, with 70 to 80 percent of real estate dedicated to office space, we need to be thinking of what they can become, even if the changes in the workforce and work habits become permanent.

The Revitalizing Downtowns Act, proposed by a handful of Democrats in Washington, would provide a tax credit equal to 20 percent of conversion expenses for developers seeking to repurpose vacant or obsolete office space into something new.

This is the right approach to transform declining business districts heavily devoted to office space. Repurposed urban towers renovated for mixed-use could become vibrant communities of their own, with people living and working and shopping and engaging in entertainment pursuits side by side without having to cross the sidewalk.

Conversion can be expensive and difficult. Incentivizing them in the tax code will make them more frequent. The Revitalizing Downtowns Act would provide a credit equal to the qualified expenses when converting vacant office buildings into small businesses or new apartments, including affordable housing — thus opening downtown and small businesses to more people and varying income levels.

The incentive approach works. The 2017 Tax Cuts and Jobs Act again proved it, with the reduction in corporate tax rates fueling a hiring boom that reduced unemployment — especially among women, black teens, and other minorities — to some of the lowest levels ever recorded. People who have money don’t like to hide it in their mattresses, they like to put it to work. That’s, at least in part, how economic growth happens.

America’s cities are in crisis. The lockdowns, the recent riots, and the way Americans are changing in the age of the internet have come together in a way that forces us to make a choice. Do we want them to fall? Or do we want them to rise to become greater than they already are while restoring the vitality that once made them places people wanted to be?

Copyright 2021 Peter Roff distributed by Cagle Cartoons newspaper syndicate.

Peter Roff is a former UPI and U.S. News & World Report columnist who is now affiliated with several Washington-D.C.-based public policy organizations. Contact Roff at [email protected], and follow him on Twitter @PeterRoff.

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Powering Up America by Giving Consumers Choice

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America’s high national living standards lead us to consider things like abundant access to clean water, comprehensive cellular service, and a reliable electric grid commonplace. Much of the rest of the world regards them as luxuries unavailable to many people.

Consequently, we tend to think about these things only when they don’t work. Cloudy water creates a crisis. A cell phone outage leaves us stranded. Failures in the power market leave us, literally and figuratively, in the dark about what to do.

The critics of how the market allocates the distribution of electric power allege competition would lead to more brown- and blackouts. Despite abundant evidence they are wrong, they don’t trust the competitive market system to keep the lights on. Even now they’re waging a campaign to upend the market structure in places like my home state of Virginia, where competition has overall helped maintain reliable and affordable electricity.

Electricity generators in the United States operate under different structures, dictated by state and the federal governments. Historically, utilities have been integrated vertically, creating geographic monopolies on the production and sale of electric power. Unified ownership of the different parts of the supply chain – generation, transmission, and distribution of power – by a single producer/distributor creates exclusive service territories with captive customers.

Economics teaches that monopolies are bad, even at the state level. Dependence on a single source for anything leaves customers without the freedom to decide what’s best. Competition is the consumer’s friend. Just look at the explosion in services offered by the telephone companies thanks to the competition created by the breakup of Ma Bell.

The explosion in content creation driven by the internet is analogous to what might happen to power generation if competitive pressures were introduced to the generation of electricity in states currently lacking choice. There are nuances of course but, in general, the restructuring of power markets would end the distribution monopolies. Existing utilities would maintain control on distribution networks, but in most cases will be separated from the generation of power.

Currently, there are seven Regional Transmission Organizations (or RTOs) and Independent System Operators (or ISOs) in the United States that run competitive wholesale power markets. They facilitate open access to power transmission and operate the transmission system independently of, and foster competition for, electricity generation among wholesale market participants.

In short, they replace the cost-based regulatory model with a market-based competitive model, functioning as “power pools” from which multiple independent utilities can draw and share reserves to make power cheaper for you and me. Over time, they have evolved to optimize generator output over wide geographic regions – again, generally reducing consumer costs.

According to U.S Energy Information Administration data, between 1997 and 2017, increases in retail electricity prices in states with competitive electric markets and monopoly states were about the same, while customers in monopoly states saw a slightly higher percentage increase in rates. A Retail Energy Supply Association found that customers in states that still have monopoly utilities saw their average energy prices increase nearly 19 percent from 2008 to 2017, while prices fell 7 percent in competitive markets over the same period.

In competitive markets, electricity is purchased at market-determined wholesale prices. Customers, you and me, can choose a provider rather than be required to purchase our electricity from our local utility. The monopoly system, equally or more expensive from a price perspective, is often tainted by political corruption and scandal. In the last year or so, scandals involving utilities seeking to influence legislation or secure taxpayer bailouts led to the toppling of the top lawmaker in both the Ohio and Illinois House of Representatives.

“Pick a year, and you will find some scandal among monopoly utilities. The corruption shows no sign of slowing down. Instead, the breadth, depth, and cost of such scandals only seem to multiply,” the Conservative Energy Network notes.

It’s time to pull the plug on the old system. Competition in the electricity market produces cost savings for customers, improves service and reliability, and encourages innovations leading to environmental benefits. The drive to gain new customers that comes once a restructured, competitive wholesale market for electricity is introduced – and which several states are in the process of creating – empowers customers, reduces costs, and keeps the lights on.

Copyright 2021 Peter Roff distributed by Cagle Cartoons newspaper syndicate.

Peter Roff is a former UPI and U.S. News & World Report columnist who is now affiliated with several Washington-D.C.-based public policy organizations. Contact Roff at [email protected], and follow him on Twitter @PeterRoff.

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Biden Trade Policy Should Focus on International Trade Commission

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When you break it down, Donald Trump’s trade policy was simple. “No more bad deals,” he’d say while flexing America’s economic muscle and bringing miscreant trading partners back into line.

Joe Biden, on the other hand, has yet to make his trade priorities clear.

There are a few things we do know. One, he’s eager to reunite with partners on the world stage. With the pandemic and climate change as the centerpieces of his administration’s international efforts, we can expect trade pacts to be less important. Two, the president says he wants to fix or build back America before he launches any trade initiatives. Three, he wants to be sure trade initiatives will be “worker-centered” but hasn’t explained what that would look like.

Going forward, the priorities for U.S. trade policy overall ought to be bringing U.S. jobs and manufacturing back from overseas and encourage emerging industries to develop new technologies here in the United States. Internationally, as an example, the White House must convince much of the world to eschew products made by Chinese-owned Huawei when building out 5G networks.

At home, the president and his trade team need to make sure that the innovative activities of companies creating emerging technologies on which we’re all dependent are not being crushed by government bodies like the U.S. International Trade Commission, a six-member, independent, quasi-judicial federal agency that settles certain kinds of trade disputes.

Of late, the commission is a place where non-practicing entities (they’re more commonly called “patent trolls”) are violating patent rights. Through expensive and extensive litigation, patent trolls ask the International Trade Commission to find that a company manufacturing and innovating some product is making illegitimate use of a non-practicing entity’s intellectual property – and, because of it, any device using said infringed-upon patents must be banned from the U.S. marketplace.

That is exactly what Swedish telecom giant Ericsson is asking the commission to do to Samsung and a range of other smart devices and its 5G-related infrastructure equipment. Ericsson is a telecom infrastructure equipment manufacturer, but these days close to a third of its operating profit comes from IP licensing.

Ericsson is currently negotiating with Samsung to renew a patent cross-licensing agreement. Instead of continuing to negotiate, Ericsson is using the threat of a massive U.S. import ban on Samsung products to try to get its way.

If Ericsson’s backup strategy prevails and Samsung devices including cell phones and tablets are excluded from the U.S. market, or if it gets the International Trade Commission to block one of its key competitors in the 5G infrastructure market, it would be a disaster. The digital divide would widen just as the Biden Administration is proposing trillions in new infrastructure spending including broadband.

Spending billions of taxpayer dollars on broadband while at the same time excluding Samsung infrastructure equipment and devices from the market makes no sense. The International Trade Commission will have given Ericsson dominant market power in 5G infrastructure equipment and limited device choices for U.S. consumers. It would be shockingly counterproductive to give Apple a virtual monopoly on sales of sophisticated phones while opening the door to Chinese manufacturers like Huawei, ZTE or their home-grown rivals to service the rest of the U.S. market at a time when the U.S. government is working to prevent Chinese tech attacks on U.S. information security.

There is a better way to settle what is essentially a dispute over patent royalties – the traditional court system.

Ericsson took its complaints to the International Trade Commission because it knows that an exclusion order would nearly cripple its rival. At a minimum, it would give it tremendous negotiating leverage.

It’s time for the president to propose and for Congress to reform the International Trade Commission by addressing weaknesses that enable these kinds of manipulative and illegitimate cases.

Copyright 2021 Peter Roff. Distributed exclusively by Cagle Cartoons newspaper syndicate.

Peter Roff is a senior fellow at Frontiers of Freedom and a former U.S. News and World Report contributing editor who appears regularly as a commentator on the One America News network. Email him at [email protected] Follow him on Twitter @Peter Roff

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The Pension Bailout Hidden Within the COVID Relief Bill

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The $2 trillion in new spending just enacted by congressional Democrats is a COVID relief bill in name only. It’s plenty of money all right, but so little of it goes to fighting the pandemic it brings to mind an observation attributed to Benjamin Franklin concerning an ox that had been mistaken for a bull.

“He’s thankful for the honor,” the great man supposedly said, “but he’d much rather have restored what’s rightfully his.”

The politicians and public sector employees whose campaign contributions keep them in office have seized on the COVID crisis to replenish the funds in their chronically underfunded pension plans while the voters weren’t looking. And they should be ashamed of themselves.

Before COVID, public pensions were in perpetual crisis, especially in blue states like California, Illinois, and New York, where the Democrats now reign with impunity. The politicians and public employee unions sitting across the table from one another at collective bargaining time uses pension benefits as bargaining chips, offering unsustainable promises in exchange for political support.

All the red ink forced them to create manipulative workarounds taxpayers don’t notice until it’s too late. In California, whenever someone calls 911, the fire department is most likely the first to arrive – not because it’s needed, but because it generates a bigger reimbursement from the feds.

According to Boston College’s Center for Retirement and Research, “The average normal cost for public safety pension benefits is nearly double that of all other government employees.” Significant portions of city budgets are now dedicated to employee salaries and benefits. As pension obligations rise, if new revenue sources cannot be tapped by, for example, bringing emergency services “in-house”, critical programs are reduced or eliminated.

Those days must end. These obligations are driving states toward default – or were until the so-called stimulus passed.

California’s total estimated pension liability is something like $1 trillion. To balance its books, Sacramento had to get money from taxpayers in South Dakota, Florida, Utah and, other, better-managed states (through the COVID stimulus) to close the gap. Whether it will be enough to stop city fire departments from bringing private ambulance and medical services “in-house” is yet to be seen. Hopefully, it will – which would be a good thing for taxpayers and people in need. Otherwise, the pattern of using federal reimbursements for services provided to cover the losses in underfunded public employee pension plans will continue, much to the determinant of taxpayers.

These services, essential when they’re needed, are something the private sector already provides. There’s no need for government to take them over except for politicians and professional managers who watch over the revenue stream needing more income generators. That’s never a good reason for a competently run private sector function to be turned into a public one.

Even without crunching any numbers regarding efficiency, cost, or patient outcomes, we know this is a bad idea. Government-provided services are never as efficient or well-managed as private sector businesses, even when it comes to first responders like ambulances. A government-run system would be a monopoly insulated against cost concerns because it was taxpayer-funded and would leave the citizens it was supposed to serve with no recourse if its performance declined and lives were lost as a result.

In short, the ambulance and medical services subsumed into the fire department would become more like the DMV, the IRS, and the Post Office and a lot less like what you used to see Gage and DeSoto doing on Emergency!.

There are better ways to settle the outstanding pension obligations than by expanding the range of services citizens must get from the government. Moving new hires from a defined benefit plan into a defined contribution plan like a 401K or Roth IRA they would own. This is difficult to do because it would take control of the plans from union officials who currently run them, but it is not impossible.

It’s a better deal for workers and for taxpayers who, again in California, must foot the bill for all kinds of nonsense.

The answer to these problems, to ending these revenue shortfalls is not for government to take more jobs away from the private sector. It’s to let government workers manage their own pensions. Anything else just kicks the can down the road. The time to make that change is now.

Copyright 2021 Peter Roff. Distributed exclusively by Cagle Cartoons newspaper syndicate.

Peter Roff is a senior fellow at Frontiers of Freedom and a former U.S. News and World Report contributing editor who appears regularly as a commentator on the One America News network. Email him at [email protected] Follow him on Twitter @Peter Roff

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Mortgage Market Battle Means Home Buyers Will Pay More

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The low interest rates we’ve experienced over the past few years have made it possible for millions of Americans to buy new homes, refinance properties, and pull out some equity to ease the pinch caused by the lockdowns.

Families have been able to increase their liquidity and pump billions into the economy when it was desperately needed. Consumers, real estate agents, lenders, and mortgage brokers have all benefited. So Thursday’s speech via Facebook by United Whole Mortgage CEO Mat Ishbia, in which he delivered essentially an “ultimatum” to his company’s brokers and partners, seems odd.

Ishbia told brokers they had to make a choice – either work with UWM or else. Anyone working with Quicken Loans/Rocket Mortgage and Fairway Independent Mortgage wouldn’t be getting any more business from him.

Some might call that the hard sell. Others might say it’s the kind of threat that could provoke intervention by federal regulators looking for evidence of restraint of trade. Either way, it’s a bad deal for consumers who have or who planned to capitalize on the current low rates.

Ishbia’s play didn’t go over well among industry observers. Mortgage Bankers Association President and CEO Bob Broeksmit issued a statement that said, “Consumers are best served when they have choices created by a robust, competitive market that offers a multitude of loan prices, products, and service levels. Our mortgage market is extraordinarily competitive, with thousands of lenders, multiple delivery channels, and varying business models. MBA does not condone activities designed to thwart competition in the mortgage market and limit loan options available to borrowers.”

What Ishbia wants amounts to a “publicly traded nonbank,” Inside Mortgage Finance reported, “altering its broker contract, telling third-party salespeople if they violate this ‘representation and warranty’ they must pay the wholesaler damages ranging from $5,000 to $50,000.”

Chris Whalen of Whalen Global Advisors LLC, a frequent contributor to the National Mortgage News, said Ishbia’s demands were a direct result of “mortgage lending volumes slowing” forcing firms to fight over brokers and production.

“Both firms are very dependent upon loan refinance transactions and thus buy loans from mortgage brokers. Rocket Mortgage is best in class at refinance, while UWM is an upstart and bottom feeder in terms of production,” Whalen said.

UWM is “the monkfish of mortgage lending,” Whalen said, adding it compared in some ways to Countrywide Financial, a firm that played a key role in the sub-prime lending crisis more than a decade ago “but with the added fuel of the Fed’s purchases of mortgage paper.”

The story, Whalen predicted, “will end in tears” and placed the blame squarely at the feet of Federal Reserve Chairman Jay Powell and the Federal Open Market Committee. Perhaps, but what is certain is that by trying to force third-party brokers to act as UWM employees, Ishbia is guaranteeing home buyers and mortgage brokers will suffer. The policy he is attempting to put into place will restrict competition, despite the launch in January by Quicken/Rocket of a new national mortgage broker directory backed by an investment of $100 million on its website.

Ishbia’s tactics undermine the goal of mortgage brokerages: to identify the lowest interest rates for borrowers and streamline the mortgage process. With Rocket – an industry leader in the mortgage space – now stripped out of the Rolodex of many brokers, consumers will almost surely be required to pay more.

That will cause the housing market to slow down at a most inconvenient time for buyers, sellers, and the country as a whole.

Copyright 2021 Peter Roff. Distributed exclusively by Cagle Cartoons newspaper syndicate.

Peter Roff is a senior fellow at Frontiers of Freedom and a former U.S. News and World Report contributing editor who appears regularly as a commentator on the One America News network. Email him at [email protected] Follow him on Twitter @Peter Roff

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For Big Labor, Politics Comes Before Workers’ Jobs

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President Joe Biden wants to revitalize the nation’s labor unions.

At their peak, unions represented more than a third of American workers. Now, after several decades of continuing decline, less than 10 percent of workers in the private sector are part of organized labor.

The decline is partly because American manufacturing has moved offshore to escape a less-than-friendly business climate created by politicians. But it’s also because over the years, union leadership has cozied up to progressive politicians who push policies at odds with the interests of the rank and file.

On his first day in office, Biden signed an executive order killing more than 10,000 good-paying union jobs. But that’s not the first-time middle-class jobs have been sacrificed to win favor with the vocal progressives who have come to dominate the Democratic Party.

Over the past ten months, the United Food and Commercial Workers’ Union has been pushing demands that don’t mesh with the interests of its members for what one presumes are political reasons. UFCW International President Marc Perrone has been demanding of some of the nation’s largest grocery chains the introduction of hazard pay for members working during the COVID pandemic.

Initially,the demand was for $2 an hour. Now it’s up to $4 or even $5 an hour in several cities on the West Coast, backed by city and county politicians whose campaigns the unions have funded.

Shortages caused by the lockdowns have created unprecedented challenges for grocers and their frontline employees. The union’s attacks on these companies, who have invested billions in their stores to improve safety measures, ignore the facts. Its continuing complaint that workers are still at risk overlooks how grocery chains like Kroger are now offering $100 bonuses to employees who get the coronavirus vaccine.

A letter to the editor recently in the Los Angeles Times said it well: “I fully agree that the grocery store workers are heroes. However, how does requiring them to be paid more solve the problem here? Are we saying to workers that it’s OK if you get sick, so long as you are paid more?”

No matter how much hazard pay the union can arrange, it will never be enough. The UFCW and Marc Perrone care more about headlines and proving they can flex their muscle than they do about the impact their demands have on working American families.

In Long Beach, California – the first city to mandate additional hazard pay for grocery workers – Kroger will close two underperforming stores because the order increased labor costs by more than 20 percent. Hundreds of workers, most of them UFCW members, are losing their jobs because the politicians got for the union what it demanded. If these shortsighted policies persist, this could become the new normal.

A recent study from the California Grocers Association found California’s hazard pay ordinances could raise grocery costs for the average family of four by $400 a year. At the same time, somewhat ironically, Perrone and other UFCW leaders have refused to suspend weekly dues payments during the pandemic. Being able to temporarily forgo those payments would help households stretch their budgets and be a real economic stimulus that could increase purchasing power by hundreds if not thousands.

Perrone may think the more than $350,000 he gets in compensation is more important than the $15 an hour paid to the average member of his union working 40 hours a week. He also seems to think more of non-union chains like Trader Joe’s, which he has praised for boosting so-called “hero pay” to $4 during the pandemic to pressure Kroger, Albertson’s, and other chains.

He fails to mention, of course, that Trader Joe’s CEO admitted the pay bump means midyear raises are canceled and that it might not last if cities “continue to increase the hourly rate above $4 or have the premium remain after the pandemic.”

Recently, Kroger, Albertson’s, and Ahold made multi-billion-dollar pro-worker investments to secure and stabilize the pensions of more than 50,000 unionized grocery workers. These chains put people over profits since the UFCW was significantly underfunded. Yet Perrone still spends millions in dues money for personal gain and a salary 12 times greater than what the average union member makes.

Most grocers provide employees fair wages, industry-leading benefits like pensions and healthcare, and COVID-19 vaccines. What does the union do?

Copyright 2021 Peter Roff. Distributed exclusively by Cagle Cartoons newspaper syndicate.

Peter Roff is a senior fellow at Frontiers of Freedom and a former U.S. News and World Report contributing editor who appears regularly as a commentator on the One America News network. Email him at [email protected] Follow him on Twitter @Peter Roff

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Retailers Stepping Up In More Ways Than One

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Despite the grim economic news, the V-shaped economic recovery President Donald Trump has talked about may soon be a reality.

The news that several novel coronavirus vaccines will soon be available may allow the lockdowns to end. If all goes as planned, Operation Warp Speed could lead to the nation recovering lost economic ground in months rather than years, even if the number of cases continues to rise.

Retailers across the country are contributing to Operation Warp Speed by ordering freezers, thermometers, and the additional medical gear needed to administer vaccines once they’re available. It makes sense. Since grocers and pharmacies offer flu shots, their support in delivering the vaccine is crucial given their thousands of locations in every city and county in the nation.

These public-private partnerships in Operation Warp Speed not only show we can beat this pandemic, but also highlight the benefits when America’s private sector steps up.

Over the last ten months, retailers have taken the lead, offering “hero pay,” additional bonuses, and greater safety measures to keep their employees and customers safe. Their story is just one of many waiting to be told once all of this is behind us. But that’s not the only way this one segment of American business is stepping up to address the nation’s critical problems.

Employees from Albertsons, Kroger, and Ahold recently ratified agreements with 27 local unions to withdraw from a union multi-employer pension fund circling the drain and join the newly formed UFCW and Employer’s Variable Annuity Pension Plan. This change includes investments of nearly $2 billion from these companies that will improve the security and stability of future benefits for employees and modernize retirement benefits.

The issue of pension reform has been before Congress for some time, but it’s been stuck. If the nation’s pension plans fail in any significant way, with far too many of them currently underfunded, the required bailout that would follow would imperil any recovery, as well as long-term future prosperity.

What has just been accomplished is great news for all involved. Millions of workers in other pension plans may not be so lucky. Rather than bicker over the best way back to a pre-COVID economy, policymakers ought to be focusing on the pitfalls ahead. Many of them, like the need to reform the pension system, are not hard to spot.

Pension reform has long been an issue that elected officials on both sides of the aisle have recognized and have attempted to address but that never went far enough. For example, there are about 1,400 pension funds that are, according to the federal Pension Benefits Guaranty Corporation “collectively bargained plan(s) maintained by more than one employer, usually within the same or related industries, and a labor union” that are potentially in trouble.

Policymakers must take a balanced approached to the issue of troubled multi-employer pension funds that provide participants with the retirement income they depend on while not placing undue burdens on the employers who participate in them. A solution must be found soon to protect the 10 million or so workers millions enrolled in employed by manufacturers and retailers and mining and shipping concerns to prevent them from having their benefits reduced significantly or cut entirely.

The PBGC’s safety net for pension funds that default is shrinking. Insolvency may come as soon as 2025 as more and more multi-employer plans face financial challenges and member companies fail or enter bankruptcy. Many of these companies have been hit hard by the coronavirus lockdowns and been unable to keep up their contributions.

Companies like Albertsons, Kroger, and Ahold did not wait for government incentives to make the switch. They moved ahead because it’s the right thing for workers and that’s good for the corporate bottom line. Other companies and industries will hopefully follow suit because it’s good for workers, good for taxpayers, and great for America.

If Operation Warp Speed is to be deemed a success in the months ahead, it be will be thanks not only to the pharmaceutical companies who created the vaccines but to the retailers who distributed and vaccinated Americans at record rates. Should our recovering economy continue its current trend, we will prevail because private companies invested their profits and resources to make it happen.

Copyright 2020 Peter Roff. Distributed exclusively by Cagle Cartoons newspaper syndicate.

Peter Roff is a senior fellow at Frontiers of Freedom and a former U.S. News and World Report contributing editor who appears regularly as a commentator on the One America News network. Email him at [email protected] Follow him on Twitter @Peter Roff

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Patent Trolls Are Still A Problem for Everyone

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Thanks to COVID-19, U.S.-China relations are probably at their lowest point in half a century. However, most people don’t realize the relationship between the two superpowers began to sour long before anyone got sick.

China’s unfair trade practices have driven a wedge between the two countries. They are making billions by forcing U.S. companies to turn over valuable intellectual property to the government in exchange for access to the country’s billions of potential customers.

The sad reality is most American businesses are waiting, hoping for relief – whether from our leaders of international trade organizations, which include the Chinese. When Trump and other policymakers talk about bad trade deals, they usually doesn’t mention the World Trade Organization, the U.S. International Trade Commission, and other multi-national or U.S. governmental bodies that are supposed to referee disputes. Maybe they should, so that what happens – or more importantly what doesn’t – can get the scrutiny it needs.

Changes are needed. The ITC, for example, continues to show itself to be toothless when it comes to confronting the non-practicing business entities known as “patent trolls” created to make the potentially lucrative charge that others have infringed on their intellectual property rights.

Patent trolls are a danger to economic growth and to consumers. Their existence is a hindrance to innovation, and their activities lead to higher prices on consumer technology and other goods now considered critical to life in the 21st century. Yet the ITC refuses to crack down on them, leaving China in an advantageous position.

The ITC is currently considering claims lodged by Neodron, an Irish troll claiming its patents were infringed upon by major global tech companies, including Apple, Microsoft, and Dell. The company has asked the ITC to grant an exclusion order that would bar these leading innovators from selling all their major touchscreen mobile devices in the U.S. market.

If Neodron prevails, the cost of smartphones, tablets, computers, and other devices affected would immediately skyrocket. Alternatively, these devices might no longer be sold in the U.S. According to some estimates, nearly 90 percent of smartphones and tablets currently available in the U.S. market would disappear, replaced by devices from China.

China already has a clear lead in developing and deploying 5G wireless devices and Huawei is on pace to overtake both Apple and Samsung in 5G smartphone production sometime this year. Chinese companies are expected to occupy four of the top six spots, ranked by production volume, of 5G smartphone brands. Given the critical technology race between the U.S. and China over who will dominate in 5G, how can a U.S. agency even consider a litigation outcome that forces American consumers to buy their 5G and their touchscreen devices only from China?

This troll’s actions would create great expense for U.S. companies and consumers; even worse, they would lead to the creation of a Chinese monopoly on these products in the U.S. market at serious costs to our national security and technology future.

Neodron’s effort before the ITC places a gratuitous and unwelcome thumb on the scale that benefits the Chinese. If successful, its claims would devastate the U.S. tech sector to China’s benefit. And remember these are companies who already must hand over to Beijing whatever information its security apparatus demands. Like all patent trolls, Neodron’s claim cannot justify this kind of disproportionate and devastating result.

The ITC doesn’t have to go along with this. They can institute policy revisions that will thwart the efforts of Neodron and other patent trolls like them to use the ITC for monetary gain. Those changes should be made now before any more damage is done. There are bigger fish to fry.

Copyright 2020 Peter Roff. Distributed exclusively by Cagle Cartoons newspaper syndicate.

Peter Roff is a senior fellow at Frontiers of Freedom and a former U.S. News and World Report contributing editor who appears regularly as a commentator on the One America News network. Email him at [email protected] Follow him on Twitter @Peter Roff

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Shedding Light on AARP

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“Saturday Night Live” is known for many things, especially the commercial spoofs that for decades have lampooned merchandise and marketing trends. One of the most iconic featured Chevy Chase as a pitchman hawking a product that was both “a dessert topping and a floor wax.”

That kind of absurd duality is funny. That kind of duality in a political group is dangerous and calls into question the advocacy in which they engage.

Everyone thinks AARP, the group formerly known as the American Association of Retired Persons, represents the interests of millions of seniors, making it one of the most powerful lobbying groups in Washington. People don’t realize it’s also an insurance company and rakes in hundreds of millions selling Medigap coverage to its members.

Which interest is dominant: the commercial or the political? Given the group’s influence on important issues like healthcare, it’s a fair question. A recently released Juniper Research Group report suggests commercial concerns now may override in importance the lifestyle and economic issues on which AARP made its name.

Citing several sources, the report says that although AARP members contacting the group’s headquarters opposed the Affordable Care Act by a margin of 14 to 1, it went ahead and backed the bill anyway. Could that be because its insurance company partner – UnitedHealth – was more interested in getting a law on the books requiring every American to purchase health insurance than what its members wanted?

The report, available at www.CommitmentToSeniors.org and compiled for the group American Commitment, says the money coming from the purchase of supplemental health insurance coverage is now AARP’s main revenue source. However, rather than helping seniors select a plan tailored to their needs or financial resources, the group sells UnitedHealth insurance exclusively in return for a 4.95% cut on every plan sold.

This relationship brought more than $600 million into AARP’s coffers in 2017. Some might see that as evidence the group has evolved into a marketing vehicle for the nation’s largest health insurer. Several ongoing lawsuits contest that the money flowing to the group from its deal with UnitedHealth constitutes an “illegal kickback” because the potential customers are told the policies are cheaper than what’s available in the marketplace when identical coverage can be obtained without paying AARP’s commission.

Many of the same politicians who criticized the health insurance industry and other corporate interests as being selfish during the debate over Obamacare nonetheless hang on every word issuing from AARP headquarters. Obviously, they’ve failed to ask themselves if the group is speaking for its members or its funders.

American needs healthcare reform. Obamacare distorted the system in all kinds of ways. It made it difficult to keep the doctors we like and to utilize the insurance we bought because deductibles have risen so much. If we’re going to have an honest discussion about how to get out of the mess we’re in, the key players need to show their cards – or have them shown for them.

The elite media and so-called good government groups keep a close eye out for conflicts of interest, both real and potential, in the advocacy community on the right. They argue against the influence of so-called “dark money” on all kinds of issues, not just healthcare. The watchdog groups who like to tie groups that question the existence and impact of climate change to oil companies and supporters of the Second Amendment to gun manufacturers seem to have missed the link between United Health and AARP.

Maybe they just don’t want to see it.

Copyright 2020 Peter Roff. Distributed exclusively by Cagle Cartoons newspaper syndicate.

Peter Roff is a senior fellow at Frontiers of Freedom and a former U.S. News and World Report contributing editor who appears regularly as a commentator on the One America News network. Email him at [email protected] Follow him on Twitter @Peter Roff

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Rethinking Kidney Dialysis in the Age of COVID

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In an election year, you can’t go a day without hearing some politician somewhere cry out for reform of the nation’s healthcare system. Even former Vice President Joe Biden, whom the Democrats nominated for president last week, devoted a considerable portion of his acceptance speech to the issue.

The solutions to the problems we face won’t be found by rearranging the deck chairs on the titanic system America has built to deliver healthcare and pay for it. What the policymakers should pursue are solutions arising from innovations that lower costs and improve patient care.

That sometimes involves looking backward. In 1973, 40 percent of all kidney dialysis was done at home. In 2020, that number is 10 percent, largely because of a 1972 law that made Medicare the entity responsible for dialysis payments regardless of need. Perversely, that incentivized innovations good for providers and payers and generally killed home care.

Both kinds of dialysis – hemodialysis, which involves filtering the blood outside the body and then returning it under supervision, and peritoneal dialysis, where the blood vessels in the lining of the stomach filter the blood with the help of a cleansing solution – are now typically performed at hospitals and big, expensive dialysis centers.

That’s inconvenient, and it can be expensive, time-consuming, and risky. It forces people who are already sick and vulnerable to other kinds of diseases out into the world where they must mix with other sick people. As we’ve learned while trying to combat the coronavirus, that can be a deadly combination. Instead, care should come to the patient.

The smart play is to push dialysis back into the category of a procedure generally performed at home. The big machines and all the other aspects of the hospital and dialysis center treatment setting aren’t always necessary. When they’re not, being able to be at home, taking treatment while sleeping or performing other routine tasks ought to be an easy choice.

America spends more than $110 billion a year fighting and treating kidney disease. It’s the ninth leading cause of death in the U.S. and affects more than 37 million people. That’s not sustainable. Recognizing this, the Trump administration recently issued a plan to “shake up” kidney care. By executive order, the president directed the Department of Health and Human Services to develop policies to increase the number of patients getting dialysis at home instead of in hospitals and at dialysis centers.

The industry and the bureaucracy may not like this, but the patients and doctors should love it. It frees up caregivers, allowing them to focus on those with the most critical needs while making things easier for people already fighting a tough fight. Starting in 2021 people with end-stage renal disease will be eligible to enroll in Medicare Advantage plans to cover the costs associated with their care. That’s an essential first step toward expanding home care, but only if the government and the insurance providers negotiate for fair rates and prevent costs from rising that leaves all seniors paying for it. The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services can and should be leading in this area by removing any impediments that keep everyone from to getting to “Yes.

Scholars and policymakers continue to focus on flattening the healthcare cost curve by imposing price controls and rationing. That doesn’t work. It may reduce the perceived costs of care, but it doesn’t solve the problem.

We need to be looking for what works – or once worked – best. Like house calls and home care.

Copyright 2020 Peter Roff. Distributed exclusively by Cagle Cartoons newspaper syndicate.

Peter Roff is a senior fellow at Frontiers of Freedom and a former U.S. News and World Report contributing editor who appears regularly as a commentator on the One America News network. Email him at [email protected] Follow him on Twitter @Peter Roff

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