Relevant and even prescient commentary on news, politics and the economy.

The Post Office in a Decent Society

Mark Jamison’s commentary on USPO matters have been featured at Angry Bear Blog a number of times. A retired postmaster, Mark Jamison serves as an advisor, resident guru, and a regular contributor to Save the Post Office. Mark’s previous posts concerning the USPO can be found here at “Save The Post Office” or by doing the search function at Angry Bear. Mark can also be contacted on USPO matters markijamison01@gmail.com

In looking at the results of the recent lawsuits against the Postal Service — eight of which have led to rulings banning changes in postal operations until after the election — it is tempting to make a bad sports analogy.  After all, going 0 for 8 in the courts lends itself to comparisons with the futility we often associate with the worst teams and players. But to do so trivializes matters of the gravest civic importance.

The lawsuits have been initiated to preserve our right to vote and do so in a way that preserves our health and safety during a pandemic. They have also served to highlight the politicization of a national asset and institution, one whose mission embodies the concept of one nation through the provision of universal service.

The Postal Service has repeatedly lost in court because there is no argument that can defend the clownish tenure of Louis DeJoy and the overt politicization of an infrastructure that should be totally nonpolitical by Robert Duncan and the other members of the Postal Board of Governors.

Duncan continues to serve as a director of a super PAC dedicated to electing Republican candidates to the Senate. Whatever insights or advantages Duncan’s experience might bring to the operations of the Postal Service, they are more than offset by his utter lack of respect for the institution. His continued partisan position during a contentious election in which the Postal Service is playing an essential role is inexcusable. A person with any sense of civic duty or public propriety would have stepped aside long ago.

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Testimony of Mark Jamison; Jones v. United States Postal Service Part II

Testimony of Retired Postmaster Mark Jamison in law suit against the USPS and DeJoy filed Wednesday, September 2, 2020, Save The Post Office

Jones vs Louis DeJoy, Postmaster General of the United States Postal Service and Donald J. Trump, as President of the United States, US District Court, Southern District, New York

Plaintiffs’ Memorandum of Law in Support of Their Motion for Preliminary Injunction, US District Court, Southern District, New York

Declaration of Mark Jamison, US District Court, Southern District, New York

Election Mail

Angry Bear added this chart to depict how people are voting by mail. There are 44 million voters in nine (4 just added) states + D.C. voting by mail only, 118 million voters in 34 states where absentee voting is allowed for all, and 46 million voters in seven states where an excuse is required for absentee voting. The chart above reflects this pattern although some states changed how they vote by mail with some going to all mail, etc.  The purpose was to depict how big the mail-in voting is.

Mark: In the 2018 election there was an audit of election mail that showed that only 96-98% of ballots were delivered on time; in some areas these percentages were worse. The current on-time percentage for the USPS is somewhere closer to 95% right now (again, much worse in some areas). If we applied that number to election mail, that would be like throwing out 5% of the ballots. I do not think that you can deliver 100% of 1st class mail to all of the various addresses that they go to nationwide; there will always be a few problems with deliveries. However, 100% on time delivery of BALLOTS should be the goal for the USPS. There are many articles related to election mail concerns and suggestions that are being published in the leadup to the 2020 election and in response to nationwide concerns about holding free and fair elections, including one that I wrote.

A simple lack of institutional attention could noticeably slow down mail. For the most part ballots originate and are processed within a local area serviced by one or possibly two plants. This takes some transportation issues out of the equation. There are some areas, e.g. Florida where a significant portion of residents have second homes and may be mailing ballots from a distant location. Otherwise the concern is processing and on-time performance within a local area.

Not all first-class mail receives a postmark since some of it does not run through the machines that the USPS uses to cancel mail. Marketing mail would not normally receive a postmark. As recently as the 2018 election, the USPS typically treated ballots and other election mail as 1st class mail, even if it was sent at marketing mail rates.23 The letter sent by Thomas Marshall to 46 states’ secretaries of state and that is referenced above indicated that the USPS would not be able to guarantee on-time delivery of ballots (at least eight days out in the case of Washington state). Marshall’s letter suggests that election mail (ballots or requests for ballots) that is entered at marketing mail rates will be handled as marketing mail, which receives the least preferential handling.

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Testimony of Mark Jamison; Jones v. United States Postal Service Part I

Testimony of Retired Postmaster Mark Jamison in law suit against the USPS and DeJoy filed Wednesday, September 2, 2020, Save The Post Office

Jones vs Louis DeJoy, Postmaster General of the United States Postal Service and Donald J. Trump, as President of the United States, US District Court, Southern District, New York

Plaintiffs’ Memorandum of Law in Support of Their Motion for Preliminary Injunction, US District Court, Southern District, New York

Declaration of Mark Jamison, US District Court, Southern District, New York

“Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battle-field, and patriot grave, to every living heart and hearthstone, all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.”

Introduction

Those were the stirring words of President Lincoln during his first inaugural address. The nation had come to a crossroads or perhaps it was a dead end, we could no longer go on without facing our original sin, what some euphemistically called “that peculiar institution.”  After four years of the bloodletting, we finally put aside the evils of slavery, but rather than finish the job we stopped half way.

It took a century to bring the hope of healing to the next step with the Civil Rights laws of the 1960’s. And still we hid from our responsibilities and the hopeful destiny that could have been our course. Some clung to hate and privilege, resisting and rejecting the idea that all of us were created equal and had a role to play as citizens in this experiment of self-government.

Today we have the opportunity to starkly face and solidly put to rest the sins of our past. Even now when the chance to make amends is within our grasp there are those who choose anger and dissension, hate and separation, obfuscation and obstruction over opportunity.

There is no right more sacred than the right to vote, to exercise one’s choice in free and fair elections. Through the Civil War, World Wars, the 1919 flu pandemic and all matter of natural disasters, we have made it a point to hold elections. In these troubled times, faced with another pandemic, there are those who would obstruct our ability to vote for purely partisan reasons. There are those who are too cowardly to stand before the electorate and seek an honest count.

We can and must do better. Every citizen who wants to vote should be able to vote and there should be no question or impediment that prevents that or the counting of their ballot. Every voice must be heard.

The U.S. Postal Service is a treasured institution. It has been around in one form or another since before our country was founded. The mandate of Title 39 gives the Postal Service a mission — binding the nation together. Those words are reminiscent of Mr. Lincoln’s mystic chords. The idea of binding the nation together also implies a healing and a connection. For our entire history the Postal Service has bound this nation together.

Today there are at least ten lawsuits seeking to ensure that the Postal Service does not become another casualty in our age where our most cherished norms and even basic truth itself are rejected for fear mongering, conspiracy theories, financial  advantage, and the exposition of ugly hate that tarnishes any notion of our better angels.

I had the privilege of testifying in one of those suits.

The following testimony was submitted to the U. S. District Court for the Southern District of New York in the case of Mondaire Jones, et al., v. United States Postal Service, et al, on Sept. 2, 2020. The testimony in its original legal format is here.

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DeJoy’s Fix for the Post Office: The Wrong Time, the Wrong Plan, the Wrong Man

PMG Louis DeJoy’s Fix for the Post Office, Mark Jamison, Save The Post Office, Aug. 29, 2020

After years of being a journalistic backwater the Postal Service is all over the news. From the usual contextually vacant reports about financial losses, we shifted to meaty and sometimes sensational coverage about the removal of Blue collections boxes and mail processing equipment at plants. There’s also the entrance of a new villain on the scene, Louis DeJoy, a wealthy Trump and Republican contributor with business interests and investments that coincide with the Postal Service.
Mr. DeJoy began his tenure as Postmaster General in June of this year after being named to the post by the Postal Board of Governors, which oversees postal operations. The Board is populated by a former RNC chair, a couple of investment bankers, the CEO of a public affairs and corporate advocacy consultancy, and a former CEO of various logistics and transportation companies that also specialized in mail consolidation, a form of outsourcing of mail processing.

Mr. DeJoy’s first couple of months have been eventful to say the least. His comments to the BOG at his first open session of the board on August 7th make clear that his intentions are to transform the Postal Service. Early in his remarks he says, “We are at the beginning of a transformative process. Our goal is to change and improve the Postal Service to better serve the American public, and I am excited about the opportunities ahead.” He proceeds to offer the usual professions of fealty to the ethic of service to the American, followed by the even more usual assertions about the dire straits the institution finds itself in.

Whatever he may say, it’s clear that Mr. DeJoy has entered the scene like a bull in a china shop. Within weeks of his taking office, there have been widespread reports of delays and service failures (which are backed up by internal USPS documents), news stories about Blue box removals, reports of mail processing equipment being removed, employee reports of mail left on docks or at carrier cases, and actions that seem to violate basic contractual provisions with the unions, causing the initiation of grievances as well as the breakdown of normal lines of communication between the APWU and L’Enfant Plaza. Mr. DeJoy seems to be moving full steam ahead at executing the expressed desires of the president for dismantling the USPS.

It’s fair to say that under DeJoy the Postal Service has lost any sense of urgency with respect to delivery of the mails. DeJoy seems to be taking his cue from the Wall Street manipulators who populate the BOG and hired DeJoy. He is in paring mode, sacrificing service and performance for operational reductions with questionable or at least unproven financial payoffs. This is especially damning during a pandemic and economic slowdown and certainly before an election, times when the postal network is more necessary and important than ever.

An article earlier this week in the Wall Street Journal suggests that DeJoy is actually doing the right things “to make the U.S. Postal Service’s operations more efficient,” but he may have picked the wrong time to get started on them.

But the problem is bigger than the timing. It’s always the wrong time for any plan that sacrifices service for “efficiency.” DeJoy’s plan is the wrong plan for saving the post office, and DeJoy is simply the wrong man for the job.

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Preserve the People’s Post Office: Let Us Do Meaningful Postal Reform

It is said the Postal Service is mired in debt, that it is unsustainable, a burden to the American people. This is the position of the current postmaster general, supported by the board of governors who hired him and by a treasury secretary who seems to be the chief architect of the current assault on a cherished national institution, goaded by a president who cares little for governing or the public welfare.

These claims are a lie, one that has been pushed repeatedly for at least fifty years by those who would steal an American asset and convert its public benefits into private profits.

If the Postal Service has large unfunded liabilities, it is as much because they have been defined as such by those who seek to look at this most American of institutions in a way that lays the most burdens upon its shoulders. The truth is that the Postal Service has incurred its liabilities in the service of a greater and necessary good. Far from being onerous and intractable, they are evidence of a skewed perspective, a perspective bent on being intentionally blind in furtherance of an ideology that denigrates and denies the validity and necessity of government.

If one begins with the premise that government is only a creator of debt, then the normative assumptions underlying the accounting systems designed to measure government will be weighted towards finding liability, not value.

The Postal Service has employed as many as 800,000 Americans gainfully in jobs that paid living wage and provided life-sustaining healthcare and secure retirements. These benefits rebound and reverberate through local economies, spreading both wealth and security. They have lifted many whose options were otherwise limited into productive middle-class lives while bringing communities together. And this has been done in the service of a noble and useful purpose, creating an essential infrastructure whose uses are limited only by a failure of imagination and political will.

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An Idea Whose Time Has Come: Make Election Mail Free

Mark Jamison’s commentary on USPO matters have been featured at Angry Bear Blog a number of times over the years. A retired postmaster, Mark Jamison serves as an advisor, resident guru, and a regular contributor to Save the Post Office. Mark’s previous posts concerning the USPO can be found here at “Save The Post Office” or by doing the search function at Angry Bear.  Mark can also be contacted on USPO matters markijamison01@gmail.com

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A common thread that runs throughout the history of the United States is the expansion of the franchise.

Early in our history the right to vote was limited to white males, often with strict property qualifications. By the time of Andrew Jackson, the franchise had extended to white males generally. While the primary reason for the Civil War was the elimination of slavery, the logical conclusion of that conflict was the Fifteenth Amendment, which prohibited denial of the franchise based on “race, color, or previous condition of servitude.” The Nineteenth Amendment extended the franchise to women, and the Snyder Act of 1924 extended the vote to Native Americans by granting them full citizenship rights. The Twenty-sixth Amendment extended the voting age to eighteen-year-olds, acknowledging that if one was old enough to fight and die for their country they were old enough to exercise the franchise.

The fundamental premise of our Constitution is that sovereignty lies within the entity known as We the People. Voting, the exercise of our basic right to choose our leaders, should be our most cherished right because it enshrines voice and participation granting the dignity of self-government.

And yet for all its acknowledged value and importance there have still been reactionary and revanchist powers that sought to limit and confine the franchise. The powerful and elite rarely willingly share their wealth and power.  Each step in extending the franchise was met with resistance.

Ninety-five years after passage of the Fifteenth Amendment, the 1965 Voting Rights Act finally enshrined mechanisms to fulfill the vision of participation that is the cornerstone of American Democracy. The VRA was renewed by Congress several times, most recently in 2006 when it passed in the House by a vote of 390 – 33 and in the Senate unanimously. And yet elements, small recalcitrant elements of our society, still begrudge this most fundamental and basic of rights. In an infamous decision that stands with Dred Scott as among the most unjust acts of the Supreme Court the 2013 Shelby County v. Holder decision eviscerated key parts of the VRA. Predictably the same bad actors who have fought voting rights took the opportunity to find new and effective ways to suppress voting, especially among minority communities.

Now we have a president who, fearing he will lose an honest and fair election, takes every opportunity to call into question the integrity of our elections and voting practices. While we struggle as a nation with a deadly pandemic, this president has done everything in his power to call into question an obvious solution that will make voting safer, easier, and more accessible. That solution is voting by mail.

Several states already vote exclusively by mail and every state has some provision for mail voting even if limited to excuse-required absentee ballots. In this time of pandemic, voting by mail makes sense and we should make every effort to assist states in providing vote by mail.

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Asking the Wrong Questions: Reflections on Amazon, the Post Office, and the Greater Good

The author of this post which was published in April 2018 on Save The Post Office is Mark Jamison, a retired North Carolina Post Master. From time to time, I have featured both Marks and Steve’s post office advocacy on Angry Bear. Steve is a literature professor who teaches “place studies” at the Gallatin School of New York University. One of these days I will visit Mark in the mountains of North Carolina.

“If they can get you asking the wrong questions, they don’t have to worry about answers.” — Thomas Pynchon, Gravity’s Rainbow

I have not written or said much about postal issues for the last couple of years. After seven years of writing articles for Save the Post Office and other websites, as well as contributing numerous comments to the Postal Regulatory Commission, what more was there to say?

I spent thirty years of my working life at the Postal Service. I’ve put in countless hours reading USPS reports, OIG reports, GAO reports, and who knows how many pleadings before the PRC. I have written numerous articles about the general idea of the postal network as an essential public infrastructure, the arcane minutiae of postal costing and the actions of the PRC, and the machinations of a Congress that seemed more inclined to bloviate and posture than attempt to solve a serious problem affecting millions of Americans and thousands of communities, large and small, rural and urban.

I never stopped thinking about these issues, but what more was there to say? And why bother, really, when the politicians and managers that could actually make changes seemed inclined to let inertia and the status quo slowly erode the capabilities of the postal network while degrading hundreds of thousands of good middle-class jobs?

And then President Trump had one of those brain farts he periodically shovels out over Twitter.

Motivated by his dislike for Jeff Bezos — who has far more money than Mr. Trump will ever have or imagine having and who also owns the Washington Post, which tends to say things that are not particularly complimentary of Mr. Trump and his Alphonse-and-Gaston act as president — the president let forth a blast about how Amazon was ripping off the Postal Service.

It was obvious from his Tweets and subsequent comments Mr. Trump did not have a clue about postal policy, let alone any sort of command of the details. Then again, when the president speaks, people tend to listen. And, as the English poet William Cowper once observed, “A fool must now and then be right, by chance.” (Here in the mountains of North Carolina we might say that even a blind hog finds an acorn once in a while).

But was Mr. Trump right about Amazon? A good many folks in the media wanted to know, since if the president says it, it may not be true but it is certainly news.

As it happens, I had written a number of pieces here on STPO specifically about Amazon’s Negotiated Service Agreement with the Postal Service and about package costing and pricing methods in general. In 2013, I also filed a motion with the Postal Regulatory Commission seeking access to the non-public materials in the PRC docket approving Amazon’s NSA. Both the Postal Service and Amazon immediately filed comments opposing my request.

Not content with making an argument for why the NSA should remain secret, Amazon went on to disparage me personally by quoting my articles on Save the Post Office. Amazon observed that I had written that the “postal rate system has become a morass of embedded privilege,” business mailers “are doing fine,” and the Postal Service is a “wholly owned subsidiary of Mailers Inc.” I had also opined, noted Amazon, that PMG Donahoe lied in recent testimony to the Senate, and “Donahoe and the [Board of Governors] have demonstrated an unrestrained contempt for Congress, the rule of law, and most importantly, the American people.”

For what it’s worth, the PMG did give “misleading testimony, and later said he “misspoke.” Everything else I wrote about the rate system, the mailers, and the BOG was true, too. Not that this should have had anything to do with the PRC’s decision not to allow me to see the Amazon NSA it had approved

Anyway, Google being what it is, my pieces about Amazon and the post office showed up in searches, and a few intrepid or at least curious reporters contacted me with questions.

I should give those reporters credit for caring enough about their work to attempt a thorough job. While some of them just wanted a simple answer to, “Is Trump right or wrong?” a couple of these reporters really did want to understand the issues that were involved. Rather than go with a Citibank report that was seriously flawed both methodologically and factually (which just goes to show that highly paid financial analysts writing for elite firms are just as prone to self-delusion and tipping the scales towards their preferred narrative as the rest of us), there were at least a couple of outlets that made the effort to dig beyond the headlines.

The problem is that even the more thorough journalists were asking the wrong questions. Their questions were based on an ingrained narrative about the post office. And, as has become the case in much of our political dialogue, the narratives that prevail and the agendas that drive them originate not from a broad civic space balancing the interests of the American people but from relatively narrow interests. As discussed in a recent post here on STPO about postal retirement and benefit liabilities, it is these agendas that tend to drive the policy prescriptions.

In 2015 I wrote a piece titled “When Titans Collide: UPS petitions the PRC to change USPS costing methodologies.” The piece examined a year long attempt to gerrymander postal costing and pricing systems in ways that best served those in the mailing and package delivery industries. Some of the players have changed over the years as the mail mix has changed, but the goal remains the same – find a way to defenestrate the Postal Service.

The piece looked at the issues that were at the crux of Mr. Trump’s complaint – the Postal Service wasn’t charging enough and it was making “bad deals.” I looked in detail at some of the costing and pricing methods and tried to engage those specific arguments. But the heart of the matter was that the Postal Accountability and Enhancement Act, the 2006 law that in many ways governs the operation of the Postal Service, had set up an impossible and counterproductive environment that failed to recognize the value of the postal network as an essential national infrastructure.

PAEA had many aims but good policy wasn’t really the focus. After decades of trying to fit the Postal Service into a box it was ill-suited to occupy — that of simply another mailing business rather than an infrastructure — PAEA took a big step in the direction of privatization. By separating postal products into market-dominant and competitive categories and by creating a rate mechanism designed more to satisfy mailing interests than create and sustain a reliable and ongoing postal network, PAEA set up a system that would engage a lobbyist’s feeding frenzy. Other provisions of PAEA were designed to lead to the elimination of postal jobs by saddling the Postal Service with unwarranted and punitive liabilities for its retirees. Though the legislation was filled with all manner of technical provisions, it was largely ideological.

After examining all the arguments in the PRC docket on costs and prices, all the briefs and studies presented by the Postal Service, UPS, the PRC’s Public Representative, and various stakeholders, I came to the conclusion that we had lost the forest for the trees. We had lost sight of the big picture in the sense that the ideas of universal service and access became wholly secondary considerations. We were no longer discussing the broadly-based concerns of national infrastructure. Instead, we had waded into a swamp of special interests where every group of mailers sought the best and highest advantage.

I sent a link of the Titans piece to the journalists who called wanting to understand the current kerfuffle created by Mr. Trump’s comments. I suppose it’s immodest of me to include the response I got from one of the journalists, but I will because it makes a greater point. After reading the piece he e-mailed: “I think this is probably the most insightful and brilliant blog post that synthesizes a generation of (misguided) political thinking and explains how that altered the trajectory of the USPS.”

He said some other nice things, went on to thank me for spending an hour and a half on the phone with him, and then continued to call and email with more questions. But despite my efforts to get him to look at the big picture, he kept coming back to the issue of whether or not the Postal Service could and should be charging more for Amazon packages and if other mailers were also getting sweetheart deals.

So there we were, back to talking about the wrong questions.

What we should have been talking about is how to preserve an essential national infrastructure that connects every American while providing good solid middle-class jobs with salaries and benefits that sustain families and get spent in local communities, an infrastructure that provides affordable rates that benefit American consumers and businesses.

Instead we were arguing about whether charging more for packages would make the Postal Service more profitable and whether big companies like Amazon ought to be paying more, while neglecting to factor in that most increases in package prices would simply be passed on to consumers while allowing UPS and FedEx more freedom to raise prices.

At this point I thought that maybe I was missing something, so I went back and looked at a couple of PRC dockets and recent Annual Compliance Determinations, which review how well the Postal Service is fulfilling its general legal obligations. I also looked at a recent docket on costing methodologies, a subject UPS has repeatedly sought to litigate even though they have never made a credible case the methodologies currently in use aren’t reasonable. Most particularly I looked at RM2017-1, the PRC docket that reviewed the level of institutional contribution that competitive products had to make. This was the one area where I thought UPS had at least a reasonable point in its 2015 filings.

After reading a few hundred pages of legalese and lobbyist pleadings and maneuverings, I came to the conclusion maybe Macbeth had a point, this was all sound and fury signifying nothing. (Macbeth’s greater point is that it still ends in death.)

But Mr. Trump Tweeted.

Recalling Mr. Cowper’s admonishment that a fool could be right and still be a fool, I thought maybe we should look for some validity in his Tweet. Mr. Trump seemed to be making two points. First, the Postal Service was making bad deals, and second that Amazon was destroying retail across America. Let’s take the second one first: Is Amazon destroying local retail?

Maybe, perhaps probably, but that’s not a new phenomenon. Before there was Amazon there was Wal-Mart. In 2006 Tom Slee wrote a wonderful little book titled “No One Makes You Shop at Wal-Mart: The Surprising Deception of Individual Choice.” Slee uses game theory to demonstrate that the cumulative total of what appears to be a series of rational choices by individuals turns out to have a vastly negative aspect for local communities.

Actually, it’s not a new idea. Back in the 1930’s, Keynes made the same observation in describing what he called “The Paradox of Thrift.” Keynes noticed that in an economic downturn, individuals make the rational choice of spending less and saving more. If the economy is sour, it’s better to be conservative than a spendthrift. That makes a lot of sense for the individual, but when lots of individuals make that same perfectly rational decision, the end result is that consumer spending dries up, which makes the downturn even worse.

Slee’s updated version of Keynes’s insight is that people rationally value low prices. They also have preferences for nice communities, for vibrant downtowns, and a healthy local business sector. But in most cases those other preferences are somewhat indistinct or at least not entirely obvious.

What is obvious is that saving a few cents on a loaf of bread is a good thing. And while many of us valued wandering around the local grocery market and hardware store, talking to the local owner who probably knew a little bit about a lot of things, we also value the convenience of one-stop shopping. It’s just convenient to be able to look at that new drill in the same store where I’m doing my grocery shopping, and the fact the new drill costs a few dollars less doesn’t hurt.

So lots of folks make the perfectly rational decision to shop at the big box everything store because it’s convenient and cheaper. Oh maybe a few diehards make a conscious effort to give at least some business to local retailers, but margins are slim for local businesses, so the loss of a few customers makes a big difference. So one day we wake up and that vibrant local downtown suddenly has several vacant stores. And because Wal-Mart is big, it can exercise economies of scale like squeezing suppliers for lower prices. And as local retail businesses die so do jobs, which gives Wal-Mart more power in dictating wages.

One day we wake up and those cheap prices we rationally valued have cost us a lot of elements that we valued in our community. Things seem to tilt towards the lowest common denominator. The end result filters through all parts of the community. There’s been no end of reporting on how Wal-Mart instructed employees how to apply for food stamps or Medicaid or other benefits since they didn’t make enough to afford the basics. On balance local tax revenues may suffer. Perhaps the hardest things to measure are the damages to the quality of life and community cohesion.

Amazon is Wal-Mart writ large for the internet age. Amazon started out selling books, but now it calls itself “The Everything Store.” More importantly Amazon is much more than a retailer. It’s a logistics company. Jeff Bezos has simply used retail to generate the revenues to build a vast network of warehouses and backroom data support services. Amazon has a presence in nearly every sector of the economy.

It appears that we love it too, or at least the stock market which, unfortunately, seems to be the gauge by which we measure the success not only of the economy but of our communities and lives. The last I looked Amazon’s P/E ratio was nearly ten times higher than that of the average of the market generally. That means that investors value the company so much that the price of its stock is at historically high multiples of earnings.

Is Amazon killing American retail? Probably, but as Tom Slee might point out, no one makes you shop there.

That brings us to Mr. Trump’s other complaint, that the Postal Service is making terrible deals. Maybe but maybe not. If he’s basing that argument on the fact that the Postal Service is losing money, it’s important to remember that the Postal Service was designed to lose money. It is intentionally built to shovel funds back into the Federal budget, not through profits but from accounting trickery that saddles it with excess liabilities.

By all measures the package business that Mr. Trump focused on is adding to the bottom line with regularity. It’s also important to remember that the Postal Service has only about a 16% share of the package delivery market. It really isn’t in a position to dictate prices.

Much of the noise that followed Mr. Trump’s Tweets seemed to ignore the fact that forcing the Postal Service to charge more for packages would give its competitors, UPS and FedEx, an excuse to raise their prices. In the end, consumers would end up paying higher prices. Plus, forcing the Postal Service to charge more for packages would not only violate the basic market principles it has supposedly been designed to serve but also the structure of the free market itself.

We’re asking the wrong questions and it’s not because we’re stupid. We’re asking the wrong questions because those are the questions a large part of corporate America and the financial elites want us to ask. Mr. Trump got elected by sleight of hand – promising this and doing that – and that’s exactly what is happening with respect to the Postal Service.

So what are the right questions?

First of all, if competition is so important, why is 85% of the package delivery market controlled by two companies? Why aren’t the FTC and the Anti-Trust division of the Justice Department paying attention to this?

Do we value good jobs, local communities, and quality of life? Or do we value low prices more than anything else? If Amazon is too big and powerful, if it’s doing the same thing to local retail that Wal-Mart did a generation ago, then perhaps we should be asking ourselves what it is we really value.

Are we being given an honest accounting of the consequences of government policies? Why, given that 94% of the American public favored some form of protections for Net neutrality, did the FCC ruled in favor of monopoly providers? After a tax cut that was supposed to encourage more investment in the economy and higher wages for workers, why are we just seeing more stock buybacks? And are we going to have to pay for those tax cuts and avoid crippling deficits by cutting the wages and benefits of workers and further eviscerating the safety net?

Do we value the institutions that leveled the playing field and brought to millions of people the benefits of an economy that worked for the many and not merely the few? Do we value essential infrastructures like the postal network?

And finally, this. Are we content to play the duped mark in an oligarch’s confidence game? Are we going to watch valuable public assets and healthy public spaces and public participation in the economy get shuffled around in a game of three-card monte when the winner can only be the entitled elite?

(Mark Jamison is a retired postmaster. His articles on Save the Post Office can be found here, and the comments he’s filed with the Postal Regulatory Commission are listed here.)

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7 Million at Risk from Man-made Quakes

Interesting Vox article on natural and manmade earthquakes my fellow Vet and cohort in writing Mark Jamison sent me. This year for the first time ever the USGS is including a map of areas in the US which may be prone to human-induced earthquakes” in addition to areas which are prone to natural earthquakes.

“By including human-induced events, our assessment of earthquake hazards has significantly increased in parts of the U.S.,” said Mark Petersen, Chief of the USGS National Seismic Hazard Mapping Project. “This research also shows that much more of the nation faces a significant chance of having damaging earthquakes over the next year, whether natural or human-induced.”

Natural and Induced Earthquates

From the highest to the lowest potential hazard the USGS has ranked these states: Oklahoma, Kansas, Texas, Colorado, New Mexico and Arkansas. Oklahoma and Texas have the largest populations exposed to induced earthquakes. Small areas of Ohio and Alabama have experienced induced earthquakes; but, this has dropped off with lesser activity. “Wastewater disposal is thought to be the primary reason for the recent increase in earthquakes in the CEUS. While most injection wells are not associated with earthquakes, some other wells have been implicated in published scientific studies, and many states are now regulating wastewater injection in order to limit earthquake hazards.”

Earthquates since 1980 and Recent Areas

Central US has experienced the greatest change in earthquake frequency going from 24 earthquakes per year (1973 to 2008) with an average magnitude of 3.0 to increased frequency year over year 318 per year with a high of 1010 in 2015. From 2009 to 2015, the rate steadily increased, averaging 318 per year and peaking in 2015 with 1,010 earthquakes. The latest data through mid-March shows 226 earthquakes. As fracking and the resulting waste water injection activities picks up in a region, the frequency of earthquakes increases. It is not believed Hydraulic fracking is to be the cause of the increased earthquakes. Testing the maps after one year will verify predictability of location and frequency of earthquakes.

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A Slippery Slope Indeed

Mark Jamison has been a guest columnist of the Smoky Mountain News on several occasions now arguing against the addition of the Koch sponsored Center for Free Enterprise. This is another well written expose of why this addition should not be allowed at Western Carolina University. I would point out the flip-flopping going on as Chancellor Belcher glosses over in his explanation of mistakes being made. In earlier statements by Dr. Robert Lopez, the Provost, and the Trustees, the procedure was followed.

To give this the coverage needed both Yves Smith at Naked Capitalism and Angry Bear have been covering this issue. “UnKoch My Campus” has also picked up on Western Carolina University.

invisible hand In “Sons of Wichita”, his detailed and heavily sourced biography of the Koch family, Daniel Schulman relates a story about Charles Koch’s attempt to apply his libertarian management theory known as Market-Based Management to Wichita Collegiate, the private school located across the street from the Koch compound. The school originally cofounded by Bob Love an associate of Charles’s father Fred Koch from the John Birch Society became embroiled in an “acrimonious uprising” after Charles Koch in his role as chairman of the school’s executive council applied techniques from his Market-Based Management system, a system designed to force everyone in an institution or business into an entrepreneurial role.

Schulman relates how Koch and other trustees meddled in hiring decisions and caused the abrupt resignation of a well-liked headmaster. “Incensed parents threatened to pull their children from the school; faculty members quit; students wore black in protest. Charles stepped down from the board of trustees citing, among other reasons, the school’s refusal to integrate his management style. But in a sign of just how much influence he exerted over the school; Richard Fink, one of Charles’s key advisors and an architect of Market-Based Management was installed as Collegiate’s interim head. The outrage ran so deep that, as Fink tried to tamp down the uproar, he was hung in effigy around campus.”

Fink, who received his PHD in economics from Rutgers later moved to George Mason, a public university in Virginia, to start the Koch sponsored Mercatus Institute. Fink figures prominently in Koch efforts to control and dictate to charities and educational facilities receiving Koch support. Another Koch sponsored enterprise, the Institute for Humane Studies, caused similar disruptions when it was relocated to George Mason. Schulman reports,

“The mission of IHS is to groom libertarian intellectuals by doling out scholarships, sponsoring seminars, and placing students in like-minded organizations.”

Simply providing funding for the promotion of his libertarian ideology was not enough for Charles Koch though. Roderick Long, a philosophy professor from Auburn and an affiliate of IHS is quoted as saying, “Massive micromanagement ensued.” Long went on to say, “the management began to do things like increasing the size of student seminars, packing them in, and then giving the students a political questionnaire at the beginning of the week and another one at the end, to measure how much their political beliefs shifted over the course of the week. (Woe betide any student who needs more than a week to mull new ideas prior to conversion.) They also started running scholarship application essays through a computer to measure how many times the ‘right names’ (Mises, Hayek, Friedman, Rand, Bastiat, etc.) were mentioned – regardless of what was said about them!” (The preceding quotes come from pages 250-251 Sons of Wichita: How the Koch Brothers Became America’s Most Powerful and Private Dynasty).

It should be noted that Professor Long is no liberal. He edits “The Journal of Ayn Rand Studies” and is a member of the Ludwig von Mises Institute, an organization that promotes the theories of the dean of Austrian economics.

Both Professor Lopez and Professor Gochenour are products of the George Mason program and Mercatus. In his memo to Andrew Gillen of the Charles Koch Foundation Professor Lopez characterizes the other members of the WCU economics department indicating Professor Gochenour was a student of “Boettke and Caplan”. In a YouTube video seminar, Professor Boettke characterizes himself as “a doctrinaire free-marketer.” In the same memo, Professor Lopez lists his association with IHS. Presumably then both professors are familiar with the sort of metrics and deliverables that are integral to Koch’s Market-Based Management system.

Both Schulman’s book and Jane Mayer’s new book “Dark Money: The Hidden History of the Billionaires Behind the Rise of the Radical Right” go into great detail about the various organizations sponsored and funded by Charles and David Koch. From Americans for Prosperity to academic institutions similar to Mercatus, the Kochs have been active in funding organizations that promote specific ideologies. For better or worse that is something endemic in both our politics and apparently our public universities. Lately Charles Koch has been quite vocal in bemoaning the fact that his political contributions have not yielded an appropriate return on investment as demonstrated in a recent interview in the Financial Times where he said,

“You’d think we could have more influence.”

What is perhaps more troubling is in academic settings the Kochs have sought to exercise an extraordinary degree of control. Between 2007 and 2011 Charles Koch has pumped $31 million into universities for scholarships and programs (within that number the $2 million to WCU seems significant). At Florida State the contract with the university provide $1.5 million to hire two professors included a clause giving the Koch Foundation over the candidates.

The plan Charles Koch with the aid of Richard Fink has enacted is called a “Structure of Social Change” – a sort of business plan for the marketing of ideas. Fink has said about the plan:

“When we apply this model to the realm of ideas and social change, at the higher stages we have the investment in the intellectual raw materials, that is, the exploration and production of abstract concepts and theories. In the public policy arena, these still come primarily (though not exclusively) from the research done by scholars at our universities.” (my emphasis)

As Schulman reports,

“ . . . Cato Institute, Mercatus, and the dozens of other free-market, antiregulatory policy shops that Charles, David, and their foundations have supported over the years . . . churned out reports position papers, and op-eds arguing for the privatization of Social Security; fingering public employee unions for causing state budget crises; attempting to debunk climate science; and making the case for slashing the welfare system and Medicaid.”

The book that Professor Lopez published for the broad market, “Madmen, Intellectuals and Academic Scribblers: The Economic Engine of Political Change” follows closely to the program Fink articulates.

Over the years the gifts from the Koch Foundation to various universities have faced increased scrutiny. The contract with Florida State clearly went against basic academic ethics. There is nothing however to indicate that Charles Koch has retreated in his desire to instill his radical brand of libertarianism into the institutions that create public policy and the universities that provide the research that helps support policy decisions. What has perhaps changed is that Mr. Koch, his foundation, and those he supports have become ever more sophisticated in capturing an outsized amount of influence.

Chancellor Belcher assures us there were mistakes made in the presentation of the current proposal but that the proposal itself meets all the basic criteria for acceptance. The fact that Professor Lopez advertised positions before official acceptance and outside normal channels raises significant questions. The contract may not allow veto power but if the structure of the program and the hiring are filtered through products of Koch programs, we may have a distinction without a difference. Charles Koch and his assistants like Richard Fink have been very clear about their intent and goals. It does not take a great deal of research to uncover statements that clearly speak to intent to indoctrinate. Ad hoc denials aside there is no reason not to take Mr. Koch’s word.

Chancellor Belcher suggests the bringing of a stronger level of scrutiny to the Koch proposal pushes us down a slippery slope. The chancellor is no naïf and surely he knows that in a complicated world we are often presented with slippery slopes – that is why judgment, ethics, and scrutiny exist. Dogmatic and doctrinaire disciplines give a skewed and distorted picture of the world as an either or, or black or white scenario. Hayek, Mises, and other doctrinaire believers in the creed of the free-market tell us the choice is either markets or Stalinism, an inexorable “Road to Serfdom.” Tennyson tells us,

“There lives more faith in honest doubt, believe me, than in half the creeds.”

There is a certain irony bordering on outright cognitive dissonance when the economics department of a publicly funded university embraces a set of theories that denies the need for public education and treats such public funding as an affront to the market. If scrutinizing this proposal puts us onto a slippery slope then accepting it simply sends us to the bottom of the slope.

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Why the “Proposed Koch gift to WCU is a Bad Idea”

invisible hand About a week ago , I wrote about the events leading up to the dilemma faced by Western Carolina University faculty and administration with being offered a $2 million grant from a Koch Brothers foundation. What I did not mention is the recent domination of the North Carolina university system by Republican minded-administrators such as Margaret Spellings former President Bush Secretary of Education adding to the complexity.

Mark Jamison continues with the depiction of the dilemma Western Carolina University faces and provides the argument as to why the faculty and administration should reject this Koch Brothers donation. This article can also be found in the“Smoky Mountain News” as a guest column by Mark.

Mark Jamison

The proposed $2 million gift from the Charles Koch Foundation to WCU for the establishment of a Center of Free Enterprise raises several questions.

• Are gifts like these from private donors appropriate at public institutions? Do they entail a certain quid pro quo regardless of protocols to ensure transparency?

• Are certain types of gifts within certain academic disciplines different in their impact on the mission and perception of the university?

• In an era when we have seen the highest concentrations of wealth in more than a hundred years and when there exists a growing concern about the impact of money on the accountability and accessibility of political institutions do these sorts of gifts further a trend away from democratic institutions and public goods? Is this trend health? Unhealthy?

In 1971 Lewis Powell, a corporate lawyer and member of eleven corporate boards, wrote a memo to the Director of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. Two months after he submitted the memo, Powell was nominated to the Supreme Court. The memo was essentially a diatribe against American Liberalism and a call for action from American corporate and business interests. It recommended a concerted effort to develop an intellectual infrastructure that would support the interests of American corporatism.

The Powell memo has often been credited as the birthing document of the web of think tanks, associations, and groups that advance conservative thought in this country. Another consequence of the memo was a renewed focus on capturing government and making it work directly for the interests of corporate elites.

Over the last generation we have increasingly seen the effects of Powell’s advice in action; especially as economic gains have concentrated in the upper .01% creating a class of billionaires able to buy an outsized voice and presence in politics and policy making.

Not content to simply fund think tanks that use non-profits to promote, advocate, and espouse particular points of view, the billionaire class has moved into other areas. A recent piece in the New Yorker on the Ford Foundation noted that the Gates Foundation, with an endowment of forty billion dollars, has done notable work in the fight to eliminate malaria. But Gates also “spent two billion dollars over eight years in an effort to break up big public high schools and form smaller ones.” Resulting analysis showed the effort had little impact on educational quality but it did spend millions on creating charter schools. Gates has been called “the nation’s unelected school superintendent”.

Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook fame spent over one hundred million dollars in a similar effort in the Newark schools that ended in dysfunction and controversy.

The owners of Hobby Lobby, famous for their suit against the ACA, have set up a multimillion-dollar foundation to create a Bible museum. The Atlantic has reported that as part of that effort the Green family has been acquiring ancient texts and antiquities, some in transactions that ignore international conventions in the trade of historical items. Scholars are concerned that access to these essential texts may be controlled in ways that limit research and scholarship.

The Walton family has placed a significant amount of its inherited fortune in nonprofit trusts, primarily as a way of avoiding taxes. One purpose of these trusts has been to create one of the largest private art museums in the world, Crystal Bridges. It seems we may be returning to a time before the Enlightment when the wealthy controlled arts and literature and the artist created at the whim of a patron.

In many ways these foundations act as a way of molding society in the image of a particular plutocrat. In some ways these foundations act as Super PACs, especially those that exist to advocate on behalf of political causes. There is one big distinction though, these foundations are created under nonprofit statutes so they are effectively subsidized by taxpayers to the tune of forty percent. The New Yorker piece quotes Judge Richard Posner on treating foundation assets as tax exempt,

”A perpetual charitable foundation . . . is a completely irresponsible institution, answerable to nobody. Unlike a hereditary monarch whom such a foundation otherwise resembles, it is subject to no political controls either. The puzzle for economics is why these foundations are not total scandals.”

The ubiquity of private think tanks and foundations assures that there is more than sufficient opportunity for the dissemination of political and ideological opinion. Here in North Carolina we suffer no lack of presence with Art Pope’s John Locke Society and Civitas.

Why then is it necessary to extend the reach of these essentially political organizations into the publicly funded university system? Even if one concedes that accepting donations from wealthy benefactors can be beneficial to a publicly funded university, does a difference arise with respect to what the benefactor chooses to fund?. Leaving the question of agenda setting aside it would seem that there is a fundamental distinction between funding a Center for Bioresearch and funding a Center for Free Enterprise. The one is largely a pursuit of empirically constrained hard science while the other, as indicated by its name, is a study of ideology. This becomes particularly evident when one looks at the specialty of the proposed director of the CFE, Professor Edward J. Lopez. Dr. Lopez focuses on a branch of economics that comes under the rubric of “Public Choice Theory.”

In his book, “Madman, Intellectuals, and Academic Scribblers” Lopez states,

“The basic idea of public choice theory is that economists shouldn’t have one set of theories for a person making a commercial decision and a separate set of theories for that same person making a political decision. Economists working in the public choice tradition argue that if we are going to look at market failure, then it makes sense to see if there is government failure, too. With this perspective in mind, it becomes clear why democracies so often generate inefficient policies and why they allow them to persist.”

The implication is that all the world, every facet of the human experience, is not a stage as Shakespeare wrote; but a market, a market where rational beings make rational choices based solely on profit and loss – maximization of utility.

This is more than merely economics, it encompasses the whole of social sciences as evidenced by a quote Dr. Lopez uses in a book of essays he edited. In “The Pursuit of Justice” (which oddly enough focuses not on theories of justice but on the idea that our legal systems and institutions are fundamentally corrupt because they are victims of pervasive and perverse incentives) Dr. Lopez quotes James Buchanan, one of the founders of the PCT school as saying;

“Public choice should be understood as a research program rather than a discipline or subdiscipline of economics.”

And in fact Dr. Lopez makes it clear throughout his writings Public Choice Theory (PCT) is “intertwined with philosophy, history, finance, psychology, development, linguistics, and other fields;” an all encompassing theory of everything – a dogma.

Matt Yglesias has suggested that PCT fits a syllogism (a logical argument that offers two or more propositions and a conclusion):

P1) Spread skepticism about government officials and their motives

P2) ?

C) Libertarianism

Indeed, this may be a good description of much of Dr. Lopez’s work. The question mark does a great deal of heavy lifting in his arguments but the first proposition is meant to gloss over everything else.

Consider the three questions Dr. Lopez poses in his book, “Madmen, Intellectuals, and Academic Scribblers:”

1. Why do democracies generate policies that are wasteful and unjust?

2. Why do failed policies persist over long periods, even when they are known to be socially wasteful and even when better alternatives exist?

3. Why do some wasteful policies get repealed (for example, airline rate and route regulation) while others endure (such as sugar subsidies and tariffs)?

The first question does not ask “Do democracies generate policies that are wasteful and unjust?”. It assumes that they do which certainly is true in some instances but the framing isn’t about discovering under what circumstances wasteful policies occur, there are no definitions of wasteful, and despite constant references to just or unjust actions Dr. Lopez never gives much of a definition beyond a nebulous reference to “rules” and “property rights”.

As an example Dr. Lopez writes approvingly in a couple of different papers of President Grover Cleveland’s 1887 veto of a disaster relief bill for Texas farmers wiped out by drought. Such aid was not, in Cleveland’s and apparently Lopez’s view, constitutional. Presumably, the implication still holds true.

There is not a great deal of intellectual inquiry here. There is an assumption that we are all homo econimicus, that institutions are subject to the same incentives and rent seeking behavior that individuals always exhibit, and that the answer must therefore be a laissez faire version of society as encompassed entirely by the market.

Throughout his writings Dr. Lopez is adept at telling just- so stories leading us in the direction of his conclusions. For example, in his recent letter to SMN that began with a rebuttal to a previous writer’s assertions about BB&T’s actions during the financial collapse Dr. Lopez references BB&T’s repeated claims that they were forced to take TARP money, a claim that may have some truth but which also ignores the fact that BB&T was also found to be significantly undercapitalized and overleveraged.

Lopez is also much taken with Adam Smith’s metaphor of the invisible hand, perhaps one of the most overused, abused, and misunderstood phrases in the annals of economics. Lopez uses the phrase 11 times in his book while Smith used it three times in his entire body of work; once in a treatise on astronomy; once in “A Theory of Moral Sentiments” in the context of similar needs of both rich and poor for basic necessities ; and once in “The Wealth of Nations” in the context of comparing domestic and foreign manufactures. From those three examples and particularly in the last, a mythology of a self-generating and correcting marketplace has developed to the level of religious or iconic status.

Oddly enough, Lopez never seems to quote Smith during his many discussions of the problems of working folks and the disadvantages and inequalities that labor faces. For example, it is unlikely that Lopez would cite Smith’s take on progressive taxation:

“The rich should contribute to the public expense,” he wrote, “not only in proportion to their revenue, but something more in proportion.” Adam Smith

Dr. Lopez is also adept at portraying his intellectual heroes in the most positive light while subtlety poking figures he is in disagreement with. In one passage, he says about John Maynard Keynes, “He even took both sides in love, not terribly unusual among intellectuals of his circles in that day. As a young scholar, Keynes had male lovers, including the writer and critic Lytton Strachey. But, like Pareto, he later married a Russian woman, the ballerina Lydia Lopokova.”

This puts one in mind of the controversy that arose after the Harvard historian Niall Ferguson took a Keynes quote about how in the long run we are all dead badly out of context and then proceeded to point out that because Keynes was gay and had no children, he had no sensitivity to future generations. I’m not sure what Dr. Lopez hoped to accomplish with this observation but for the life of me I can’t understand how Keynes’s sexual preferences, Russian wife’ or reference to Pareto tell us anything about his economic thinking.

Perhaps Dr. Lopez was trying to make a point that Keynes often changed and adapted his positions, a point that would have been served by offering up this well known quote from Keynes;

“When the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do sir?”

Dr. Lopez has been quoted saying that academic inquiry should not be censored even if unpopular. I heartily agree with him and I would never suggest that his teaching be censored or limited. I would suggest that each instructor, particularly in a public institution, has an obligation to present material in the spirit of intellectual honesty and inquiry and that would include presenting a fair assessment of ideologies or systems that conflict with an instructor’s preferred ideologies or systems. In his book, “Madmen, Intellectuals, and Academic Scribblers” Lopez’s main theme is that ideas should win out in the marketplace. While the marketplace is only a small part of the world and human experience, a point on which Lopez and I would disagree, his basic construction is correct – good ideas; ideas subjected to empirical, logical, and philosophical testing; ideas that advance, expand, or illuminate our concepts of justice; and ideas that have been broadly and fairly debated and contested ought to win our respect.

But the question here is more than what Dr. Lopez teaches or even how he teaches it. At issue is not the legitimacy of one professor’s views. The issue is whether a publicly funded institution ought to take a gift to establish a program with the clear mission to teach a particular ideology, an ideology that is, in fact – broadly contested. This is especially true in a discipline like economics and especially when the proposed center and its proposed leader mix economics, political philosophy, and political science. Maybe the discussion ends up being framed differently if we were talking about a hard science, or medical research, or a purely technical discipline. Even then, there might still be questions about billionaires dictating an agenda but in a discipline that is entirely empirical there are fewer and different problems. The search for facts and the search for truth are two different endeavors; that distinction is both critical and germane to this specific proposal.

Transparency is not the issue, no matter how unstructured the grant the undeniable fact is that $2 million buys influence, it gets phone calls answered, and it gets preferences on the agenda. The simple fact is that one of the basic tenets of the ideology Dr. Lopez preaches is that money talks, it is the measure of the market. More to the point, the ideology that Dr. Lopez espouses argues that institutions, particularly public institutions, are subject to manipulation and perverse incentives. The proposed grant is a demonstration of whatever truth lies in public choice theory.

The land grant colleges and public university systems were built to serve as great equalizers. These public institutions were built to give average folks the opportunity to acquire knowledge and pursue intellectual inquiry. Sadly as our world has graduated from a market economy to a market society, much of the mission of our public institutions has been lost. In a world where billionaires and corporate sponsors face few constraints in their ability to dictate public policy and control public discourse we ought not blithely encourage yet another venue for indoctrination, no matter how much the enticement. I would make this argument regardless of the source of the money whether it comes from the Kochs or some liberal bogeyman like George Soros.

Let Dr. Lopez teach what he wants but let WCU retain its integrity as a public institution, something it cannot do under any conditions if it accepts this gift.

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