IRS to Sell Tax Information

The IRS is planning to share tax return information with accountants and tax preparers. Under the new proposal, once you sign an authorization form, the third party preparer is free to sell the data contained in the filings to corporate marketers. That data includes everything from income figures to bank accounts, Social Security numbers, and other private information.

Nothing good can come out of this plan. Without regulations for how the data is used, identity theft will likely skyrocket. There is also nothing that would restrict tax preparers from offering people incentives to authorize the release of their personal data. With the mountains of paperwork being filled out at tax time, it would be easy enough for tax preparers to toss another form in there and get taxpayers to sign.

Interestingly, one of the companies that has opposed this change, H&R Block, has its own legal woes, facing a lawsuit charging that the firm violated fifteen separate state and federal laws when it marketed and sold Refund Anticipation Loans. But, Murray Walton, vice president and compliance officer at H&R Block, told the officials, "we find the idea of selling tax return information repugnant." It seems H&R Block is trying to rehabilitate its image.

Barack Obama (D-IL) and Maria Cantwell (D-WA) are working to keep tax payers' information private and have introduced the Protecting Taxpayer Privacy Act which would prohibit tax preparers from disclosing taxpayer information to third parties. Republicans and Democrats alike are backing the Privacy Act. Hopefully this rare act of bipartisan support will help prevent the IRS from pushing its new policy.

California Considers Minimum Wage Hike

In the Los Angeles Times today, Tom McClintock, a Republican state Senator, says that California shouldn't raise the minimum wage. It will destroy jobs! People will be unemployed! Misery and poverty to follow! Anyone who thinks otherwise has fallen victim to the "smarmy rhetoric of leftist populism," you see:

Technology is improving faster than we can get our hands on it, and little thought is being given to the mountains of discarded electronics that are accumulating. Salon is currently tackling the question of electronic waste, and reports that the majority of old electronics are shipped off to poor countries across the globe, for cheap recycling.

Despite the fact that the recycling of highly toxic materials has been banned in China since 2000, the practice of environmentally-unsound recycling continues. And the reality of these dangerous procedures isn't pretty:

In Taizhou's [China] outdoor workshops, people bang apart the computers and toss bits of metal into brick furnaces that look like chimneys. Split open, the electronics release a stew of toxic materials -- among them beryllium, cadmium, lead, mercury and flame retardants -- that can accumulate in human blood and disrupt the body's hormonal balance. Exposed to heat or allowed to degrade, electronics' plastics can break down into organic pollutants that cause a host of health problems, including cancer. Wearing no protective clothing, workers roast circuit boards in big, uncovered wok like pans to melt plastics and collect valuable metals. Other workers sluice open basins of acid over semiconductors to remove their gold, tossing the waste into nearby streams. Typical wages for this work are about $2 to $4 a day.
According to the EPA, only about ten percent of electronics are properly recycled, accounting for approximately 2 million tons of e-waste dumped in U.S. landfills each year. And despite claims by companies that they recycle old parts, it's difficult to determine where the materials actually end up, leading to a growing U.S. problem—which isn't helped by the absence of a national system for handling the waste. However, for now, you can find a list of responsible e-cyclers here.

How to Pay Your CEO

Can we call it corruption?

In other words, the very firm that helps Verizon's directors decide what to pay its executives has a long and lucrative relationship with the company, maintained at the behest of the executives whose pay it recommends.
No, we'll call it corporate capitalism. The New York Times has a fantastic story today looking into the process by which corporations pay their CEOs. Arrangements like the above are hardly uncommon. And executive compensation often bears no relation to the actual performance of the company. Among other things, the story cites one study identifying 11 major companies "whose shareholder returns had been negative for five years, but whose chief executives' pay had exceeded $15 million during the last two years combined." Lucky them.

MORE: See this story for more. "The average pay for a chief executive increased 27 percent last year, to $11.3 million." This at a time when median wages have stagnated.

Tolerance policies on university campuses are now becoming the subject of scrutiny, as radical Christians increasingly consider them an infringement on their freedom of speech. Ruth Malhotra, a 22-year-old senior at the Georgia Institute of Technology, is demanding that her university revoke their tolerance policy because it prohibits her from condemning homosexuality, a belief she claims her Christianity compels her to share. The Christian Legal Society has already formed a national group to challenge tolerance policies in federal court. Well-funded ministries, like Focus on the Family and Campus Crusade for Christ are financing several non-profit law firms to begin taking cases such as Malhotra's for free.

According to the Los Angeles Times:

Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales expressed further support for expanding presidential power yesterday, when he claimed that President Bush may have been within his legal limits when he circumvented Congress and ordered domestic wiretaps in the name of national security. Gonzales' responses to questions by the House Judiciary Committee have been vague, frustrating Republicans and Democrats alike.

Of course, you won't catch Bush issuing an apology anytime soon. "You can come to whatever conclusion you want [about domestic surveillance]," the president said. "The conclusion is I'm not going to apologize for what I did on the terrorist surveillance program."

Rep. Adam B. Schiff (D-CA) pointed out that the extent of executive power is limitless so long as congressional oversight is no longer necessary. "No one in Congress would deny the need to tap certain calls under court order," he added. "But if the administration believes it can tap purely domestic phone calls between Americans without court approval, there is no limit to executive power. This is contrary to settled law and the most basic constitutional principles of the separation of powers."

Divesting from Sudan

Major unions are continuing to divest pensions from the Sudan in an effort to pressure the Sudanese government to halt the current campaign of slaughter, rape, starvation and displacement in Darfur.

Calpers, the nation's second-largest public pension fund, is the latest organization to begin unloading investments in the region. The board unanimously decided that none of the fund's $141 billion in assets will be distributed to stock holdings in foreign firms that profit from the oil rich Sudan. Their strategy for divestment will be modeled after that proposed by the University of California, which on March 16 unanimously approved a plan to get rid of both their direct and indirect holdings.

The Bush Administration is making it increasingly difficult for scientists to disseminate their research on global warming. According to the Washington Post:

[Over the last year,] administration officials have chastised [the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration] for speaking on policy questions; removed references to global warming from their reports, news releases and conference Web sites; investigated news leaks; and sometimes urged them to stop speaking to the media altogether. Their accounts indicate that the ideological battle over climate-change research, which first came to light at NASA, is being fought in other federal science agencies as well.
As of summer 2004, all NOAA media releases had to have prior authorization from those higher up in the administration, a caveat that intimidates some researchers to modify what they publish. According to Christopher Milly, a hydrologist at the U.S. Geological Survey, his team "purged key words from the releases, including 'global warming,' 'warming climate' and 'climate change,' " in order to get a news release issued. James Hansen, head of NASA's top institute studying the climate, said:

Banning Junk Food from Schools

The war against junk food is as quixotic as ever:

The days when children consume two orders of French fries in the school cafeteria and call it lunch may be numbered. A bipartisan group in Congress plans to introduce legislation today that would prohibit the sale in school not only of French fries but also of other fatty or sugary foods, including soft drinks.
That's from the New York Times. Anyone who believes that Congress will actually manage to ban junk food from schools—including junk food from vending machines—should save their optimism for Powerball or some other reasonable venture. Back in May of 2004, Sen. Tom Harkin (D-IA) introduced a measure that would merely develop nutritional guidelines for school vending machines. Guidelines. That's all. But no. Four Democrats sided with eight Republicans to defeat the measure.

Is the junk food lobby really that powerful? Consider the evidence: In June of 2005, Connecticut Governor Jodi Rell vetoed a bill that would've rid Connecticut schools of junk food, despite widespread parental approval. Guess who opposed the measure? Two months earlier, Kentucky had just barely managed to squeak out a bill that banned soda from elementary schools—anything more stringent would never have passed. Arizona had to make the same compromise in April. Members of Congress who oppose federal regulations on junk food always say that these issues should be matters of "local control." But local legislatures are powerless in the face of our Frito-Lay overlords, evidently.

At any rate, the Times piece helpfully swats down some arguments against nutritional standards—namely, that they'll cost schools revenue or that kids won't eat healthy food. But it's less clear that nutritional regulations in schools will get anywhere close to the root of the junk-food problem—namely, that large agribusinesses have managed to hijack the entire system of food production in the United States and secure themselves $180 billion worth of government subsidies enabling them create utter crap on the cheap. Against that sort of tide, a few dams in the cafeteria won't do very much.

Pushing Prescriptions

What can you buy for over $100 million? Quite a bit, actually. The Center for Public Integrity has a new report out revealing that pharmaceutical companies spent $18 million on political contributions between 2001 and 2004, along with $44 million lobby state governments in 2003 and 2004, in order to thwart state attempts to reduce drug prices. And that all pales beside the $83 million the industry spent to defeat a California drug discount proposition in 2005.

33 states have passed at least 66 separate laws pushing down drug prices since 2003, although the Center doesn't quite say how many further laws were scuttled because of lobbying, besides, of course, the California initiative.