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Trump personally pushed U.S. Postal Service head to double rates on Amazon, other firms

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WASHINGTON – U.S. President Donald Trump has personally pushed U.S. Postmaster General Megan Brennan to double the rate the Postal Service charges Amazon.com and other firms to ship packages, according to three people familiar with their conversations, a dramatic move that probably would cost these companies billions of dollars.

Brennan has so far resisted Trump’s demand, explaining in multiple conversations occurring this year and last that these arrangements are bound by contracts and must be reviewed by a regulatory commission, the three people said. She has told the president that the Amazon relationship is beneficial for the Postal Service and gave him a group of slides that showed the variety of companies, in addition to Amazon, that also partner for deliveries.

Despite these presentations, Trump has continued to level criticism at Amazon. And last month, his critiques culminated in the signing of an executive order mandating a government review of the financially strapped Postal Service that could lead to major changes in the way it charges Amazon and others for package delivery.

Few U.S. companies have drawn Trump’s ire as much as Amazon, which has rapidly grown to be the second-largest U.S. company in terms of market capitalization. For more than three years, Trump has fumed publicly and privately about the giant commerce and services company and its founder Jeff Bezos, who is also the owner of The Washington Post.

Trump alleges Amazon is being subsidized by the Postal Service, and he has also accused The Post as being Amazon’s “chief lobbyist” as well as a tax shelter — both false charges. He says Amazon uses these advantages to push bricks-and-mortar companies out of business. Some administration officials say several of Trump’s attacks aimed at Amazon have come in response to articles in The Post that he didn’t like.

The three people familiar with these exchanges spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the White House’s internal deliberations.

Brennan and Trump have met at the White House about the matter several times, beginning in 2017, and most recently four months ago, the three people said. The meetings have never appeared on Trump’s public schedule. Brennan has spent her career at the Postal Service, starting 32 years ago as a letter carrier. In 2014, the Postal Service’s Board of Governors voted to appoint her as postmaster general.

Clouding the matter even further, Trump’s aides have also disagreed internally about whether Amazon is paying enough to the Postal Service, with some believing the giant commerce company should be paying more, while others believe that if it weren’t for Amazon, the Postal Service might be out of business, according to the three people.

Trump has met with at least three groups of senior advisers to discuss Amazon’s business practices, probing issues such as whether they pay the appropriate amount of taxes or underpay the Postal Service, according to the three people.

These groups include Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, then-National Economic Council Director Gary Cohn and Domestic Policy Council Director Andrew Bremberg. Bremberg has served as a key liaison with Brennan.

One of Amazon’s biggest defenders within the White House was Cohn, who had told Trump that the Postal Service actually made money on the payments Amazon made for package delivery. Cohn announced his departure from the White House in March.

The White House, the Postal Service and Amazon — as well as Bezos, via an Amazon spokesman — declined to comment for this report.

While Trump has leveled a range of criticisms at Amazon, his efforts to increase the company’s shipping and delivery costs stand as the only known official action he’s taken to go after the company.

The company, meanwhile, has tread carefully around Trump. It has dramatically expanded its spending on lobbying in the past few years, according to data from the Center for Responsive Politics, but Amazon officials have not been directly engaged with White House officials about the review, according to the three people familiar with the White House deliberations as well as others familiar with Amazon’s approach.

The company has, however, hosted more than a dozen lawmakers and governors at numerous Amazon facilities across the country to impress upon them the company’s economic footprint and job creation potential.

On March 7, when the company announced that it would be building a new fulfillment centre in Missouri and hiring 1,500 employees, it alerted the state’s two U.S. senators on Twitter, Democrat Claire McCaskill and Republican Roy Blunt.

Trump has berated Amazon and The Post on social media, briefly driving down Amazon’s stock price. And he has said publicly that he doesn’t believe the information he has been presented by some of his advisers and Brennan herself regarding the Postal Service’s contract with Amazon.

“I am right about Amazon costing the United States Post Office massive amounts of money for being their Delivery Boy,” he wrote on April 3. “Amazon should pay these costs (plus) and not have them bourn by the American Taxpayer. Many billions of dollars. P.O. leaders don’t have a clue (or do they?)!”

Details of Amazon’s contract with the Postal Service are secret, making it difficult for financial experts to assess claims about the relationship. Amazon has said that publicly releasing the contract, which contains detailed information on the company’s delivery systems, would give competitors an unfair advantage.

Amazon primarily uses the Postal Service for the “last mile” of its deliveries. It brings the packages to the post office closest to the final destination, and then the Postal Service takes it from there. The Postal Service says other companies also have “last-mile” agreements with it but declines to say whom.

Amazon is the leading player in e-commerce but competes with other retail giants such as Walmart, Macy’s and Costco to offer fast and inexpensive delivery of products. The Postal Service competes with UPS, FedEx and others for delivery.

Amazon said it spent US$21.7 billion on shipping costs in 2017, a figure that includes sorting, delivery center and transportation costs. Roughly 40 per cent of its packages are delivered by the Postal Service, according to some analysts, a figure neither Amazon nor the Postal Service have confirmed. It is not known how much Amazon pays the Postal Service each year and what percentage of its items are shipped via the Postal Service.

The Postal Service, meanwhile, reported shipping and package income of US$19.5 billion last year, an 11.8 per cent increase from one year before. This increase wasn’t enough to stop the Postal Service from losing money for the eleventh straight year. That’s largely because of the continued decline in first-class mail, and expensive health benefit costs that the Postal Service must set aside for future retirees, according to data released by the agency.

Delivering packages has been a financial boon to the Postal Service in an otherwise tumultuous time, but experts say it is an open question whether Amazon’s arrangement fully compensates the Postal Service for its range of expenses. While the Postal Service is legally prohibited from charging a shipper less than it costs to deliver a package, the Postal Service is not required to include in its costs things such as retiree benefits.

David Vernon, an analyst at Bernstein Research, estimates that Amazon pays the Postal Service roughly US$2 per package for each delivery, about half of what Amazon would pay United Parcel Service or FedEx. He based this estimate on broader data released by the Postal Service.

The Postal Service has tried to rapidly adjust its business model to take on more package delivery, but he said it would be better suited if it delivered fewer packages at a higher rate.

“In my business judgment, there’s too much ‘package’ in the postal network,” he said in an interview. “If you doubled the price, you would have fewer of them, but you would make money off what is left.”

Still, Postal Service officials, both in meetings with Trump and publicly, have insisted that they are making money off their arrangement with Amazon.

In January, Postal Service spokesman David Partenheimer wrote an op-ed in the Hill newspaper pushing back against calls for it to raise package rates.

“Some of our competitors in the package delivery space would dearly love for the Postal Service to aggressively raise our rates higher than the marketplace can bear – so they could either charge more themselves or siphon away postal customers,” he wrote.

“The Postal Service is a self-funding public institution that generates its revenue from the sale of postal products and service, we compete for every customer across all of our product categories, and we exist for the benefit of American businesses and consumers.”

Because the Postal Service has lost money for 11 straight years, it has had to repeatedly borrow funds from the Treasury Department’s Federal Financing Bank, totalling US$15 billion. Its reliance on taxpayer funds has allowed Mnuchin — one of Trump’s closest advisers — to gain a foothold in its future.

One of Mnuchin’s counsellors, Craig Phillips, is leading Trump’s review of the Postal Service, along with Kathy Kraninger, associate director for general government at the Office of Management and Budget. It is due in July.

The review group is tasked with reviewing the package delivery market, the Postal Service’s role in that market and the decline in first-class mail volume, among other things. It is required to recommend changes to the White House and Congress.

The Postal Service is overseen by a board of nine governors, which pick the postmaster general and the deputy postmaster general. Currently, there are no governors serving on the board, though Trump has nominated three individuals who are awaiting Senate confirmation. The Postal Service, led by the postmaster, works out contracts with private companies that are approved by an independent federal agency, the Postal Regulatory Commission, which also assesses each year whether the contracts are in compliance with the law. Amazon has a multiyear contract with the Postal Service, and it is not clear how quickly it could be changed.

Trump’s attacks on Amazon date to 2015, when he accused Bezos of using The Post as a tax shelter to allow Amazon to avoid paying taxes, a false accusation. (Amazon is a publicly traded company, and The Post, wholly owned by Bezos, is private. The companies’ finances are not intermingled. The Post’s editors and Bezos also have declared that he is not involved in any journalistic decisions.)

Bezos responded to Trump’s 2015 attack with a tweet.

“Finally trashed by @realDonaldTrump. Will still reserve him a seat on the Blue Origin rocket. #sendDonaldtospace,” Bezos, who owns a space company, tweeted in December 2015.

This angered Trump, who at the time was fighting for credibility during the GOP primary.

“Trump takes everything personally,” said Steve Moore, a former economic adviser to Trump during the 2016 campaign.

Moore says he has told White House officials that Amazon is paying the Postal Service plenty for its services and in fact helping the agency survive.

But others say Trump sees one company exploiting the government for a competitive edge. Amazon’s stock price is up close to 70 percent in the past year, and a growing list of competitors have complained that they have a hard time competing with the giant company on everything from delivery to its cloud computer business.

“I think this particular issue is one that he comes at from his business background and understanding the dynamics of cost and delivery and overhead,” Rep. Mark Meadows, R-N.C., said of Trump’s approach to the postal issue with Amazon. “And so . . . when you put all those components in there, it allows him to probably have a position on this that is deeper rooted in an understanding of a business model than perhaps some other presidents.

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The language of capitalism isn’t just annoying, it’s dangerous

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When General Motors laid off more than 6,000 workers days after Thanksgiving, John Patrick Leary, the author of the new book Keywords: The New Language of Capitalism, tweeted out part of GM CEO Mary Barra’s statement. “The actions we are taking today continue our transformation to be highly agile, resilient, and profitable, while giving us the flexibility to invest in the future,” she said. Leary added a line of commentary to of Barra’s statement: “Language was pronounced dead at the scene.”

Why should we pay attention to the particular words used to describe, and justify, the regularly scheduled “disruptions” of late capitalism? Published last week by Haymarket Books, Leary’s Keywords explores the regime of late-capitalist language: a set of ubiquitous modern terms, drawn from the corporate world and the business press, that he argues promulgate values friendly to corporations (hierarchy, competitiveness, the unquestioning embrace of new technologies) over those friendly to human beings (democracy, solidarity, and scrutiny of new technologies’ impact on people and the planet).

These words narrow our conceptual horizons — they “manacle our imagination,” Leary writes — making it more difficult to conceive alternative ways of organizing our economy and society. We are encouraged by powerful “thought leaders” and corporate executives to accept it as the language of common sense or “normal reality.” When we understand and deploy such language to describe our own lives, we’re seen as good workers; when we fail to do so, we’re implicitly threatened with economic obsolescence. After all, if you’re not conversant in “innovation” or “collaboration,” how can you expect to thrive in this brave new economy?

Leary, an English professor at Wayne State University, brings academic rigor to this linguistic examination. Unlike the many people who casually employ the phrase “late capitalism” as a catch-all explanation for why our lives suck, Leary defines the term and explains why he chooses to use it. Calling our current economic system “late capitalism”suggests that, despite our gleaming buzzwords and technologies, what we’re living through is just the next iteration of an old system of global capitalism. In other words, he writes, “cheer up: things have always been terrible!” What is new, Leary says, quoting Marxist economic historian Ernest Mandel, is our “belief in the omnipotence of technology” and in experts. He also claims that capitalism is expanding at an unprecedented rate into previously uncommodified geographical, cultural, and spiritual realms.

Keywords was inspired by a previous work of a similar name: the Welsh Marxist theorist Raymond Williams’s 1976 book Keywords: A Vocabulary of Culture and Society. Williams’s goal, like Leary’s, was to encourage readers to become “conscious and critical” readers and listeners, to see the language of our everyday lives “not a tradition to be learned, nor a consensus to be accepted, [but as] . . . a vocabulary to use, to find our own ways in, to change as we find it necessary to change it, as we go on making our own language and history.” Words gain their power not only from the class position of their speakers: they depend on acquiescence by the listeners. Leary takes aim at the second half of that equation, working to break the spell of myths that ultimately serve the elites. “If we understood… [these words] better,” Leary writes, “perhaps we might rob them of their seductive power.”

To that end, Leary offers a lexicon of about 40 late capitalist “keywords,” from “accountability” to “wellness.” Some straddle the work-life divide, like “coach.” Using simple tools — the Oxford English Dictionary, Google’s ngram database, and media coverage of business and the economy— Leary argues that each keyword presents something basically indefensible about late capitalist society in a sensible, neutral, and even uplifting package.

Take “grit,” a value championed by charter school administrators, C-suite execs, and Ted Talkers. On the surface, there’s nothing objectionable about insisting that success comes from hard work sustained in spite of challenges, failure, and adversity. It can even seem like an attractive idea: who doesn’t want to believe, as author of the bestselling Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance Angela Duckworth puts it, that success rests “more on our passion and perseverance than on our innate talent” — or the race and income of our parents?

What discussions of “grit” scrupulously avoid, Leary writes, is “the obviously central fact of the economy”: poverty. Duckworth and other proponents of grit nod to the limited horizon of opportunity presented to those living in poverty, but insist that grit can help people “defy the odds.” Implicitly, they accept that most will fail to do so: they simply promise elevation to the hard-working, the deserving, the grittiest — that is, to the very few.

“Grit offers an explanation for what exists,” Leary writes, “rather than giving us tools to imagine something different.” Rather than attacking the conditions that make “grit” necessary, the word’s proponents ask women, people of color, and the poor to overcompensate for the unjust world into which they’ve been born. While the need for “grit” is most often preached to urban schoolchildren and people in poverty, its “real audience,” Leary writes, is “perched atop the upper levels of our proverbial ladder,” a position from which inequality doesn’t look so bad.

Leary divides his keywords into four broad categories: first is “late-capitalist body talk,” which imbues corporations with the attributes of human bodies, like nimbleness or flexibility, and shifts focus away from the real human bodies whose labor generates its profits. “Much of the language of late capitalism,” Leary writes, “imagines workplaces as bodies in virtually every way except as a group of overworked or underpaid ones.”

Then there’s the “moral vocabulary of late capitalism,” which often uses words with older, religious meanings; Leary cites a nineteenth-century poem that refers to Jesus as a “thought leader.” These moral values, Leary says, are generally taken to be indistinguishable from economic ones. “Passion,” for example, is prized for its value to your boss: if you love what you do, you’ll work harder and demand less compensation. Some are words, like “artisanal,” that reflect capitalism’s absorption of the countercultural critique that it failed to provide workers with a sense of purpose and autonomy. Finally, there is the category of words that reflexively celebrate the possibilities of new technologies, like “smart”: smart fridge, smart toaster, smart toilet.

As Leary shows, these keywords reflect and shore up the interests of the dominant class. For the tech overlords of Silicon Valley, an “entrepreneur” is someone innovative and savvy, who “moves fast and breaks things.” The entrepreneur alone creates his company’s exorbitant wealth — not his workers, nor any taxpayers who may fund the innovations his company sells. (Elon Musk, for example, has received nearly $5 million in government subsidies). It’s a very useful concept for billionaires: after all, why redistribute that wealth, through taxes or higher wages, to those who didn’t create it?

In these short essays, Leary undermines what Soviet linguist Valentin Voloshinov describes as the aim of the dominant class: to “impart an…eternal character to the ideological sign, to extinguish or drive inward the struggle between social value judgements which occurs in it. ” And in the case of “entrepreneur,” for example, Leary shows that quite a lot of struggle between social judgements is contained in the word.

First defined around 1800 by French economist Jean-Baptiste Say as one who “shifts economic resources . . . into an area of higher productivity and greater yield,” the word was given a dramatically different inflection by political economist Joseph Schumpeter. According to Leary, our contemporary view of entrepreneurship comes from Schumpeter, who believed that the entrepreneur was “the historical agent for capitalism’s creative, world-making turbulence.” When we talk about “entrepreneurs” with an uncritical acceptance, we implicitly accept Schumpeter’s view that wealth was created by entrepreneurs via a process of innovation and creative destruction — rather than Marx’s belief that wealth is appropriated to the bourgeois class by exploitation.

By demonstrating how dramatically these words’ meanings have transformed, Leary suggests that they might change further, that the definitions put in place by the ruling class aren’t permanent or beyond dispute. As he explores what our language has looked like, and the ugliness now embedded in it, Leary invites us to imagine what our language could emphasize, what values it might reflect. What if we fought “for free time, not ‘flexibility’; for free health care, not ‘wellness’; and for free universities, not the ‘marketplace of ideas”?

His book reminds us of the alternatives that persist behind these keywords: our managers may call us as “human capital,” but we are also workers. We are also people. “Language is not merely a passive reflection of things as they are,” Leary writes. “[It is] also a tool for imagining and making things as they could be.”

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Tucker Carlson Thinks the Problem With America Is Market Capitalism

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If there were any doubt of the direction the Trump-dominated GOP is taking, Tucker Carlson’s monologue on Fox News Wednesday should remove it. Carlson’s not a political leader, but he’s a bellwether, and his words are already being cheered by prominent conservatives. Meant as a rebuttal to Mitt Romney’s New Year’s Day op-ed, the speech wasn’t original, but it reveals the degree to which Republicans have embraced the populist authoritarianism they once condemned.

Carlson began with several swipes against “bankers” who exploit the working class to line the pockets of spooky elites. If that anti-capitalist lingo sounds familiar, so does his contemptuous shrug at the ways free markets improve lives. “Does anyone still believe that cheaper iPhones or more Amazon deliveries of plastic garbage from China are going to make us happy? They haven’t so far.” This is a time-worn rhetorical technique of freedom’s enemies, who sneer at material standards of living in order to elevate abstract social goals over the needs of actual people. In fact, cheaper consumer goods have benefited Americans immeasurably. Some 85 million now own iPhones, for instance, and use them not as trinkets, but as work tools or devices to keep in touch with loved ones. And while Amazon may deliver “plastic garbage,” it also delivers syringes to diabetics, toys for special-needs kids, and even prosthetic limbs for the disabled—all, of course, made of plastic. Freer markets and abundant, affordable imports, have made the average American wealthier than Rockefeller, and 90 times richer than the average human being.

Does that translate into happiness? It depends. More wealth means better access to innovative medical technology, cheaper and safer transportation, cultural riches of art and music. But by making possible a wider spectrum of experiences and opportunities, it also means more chances for disappointment and fear—the real source of the “alienation” capitalism’s accused of generating. Money can’t buy happiness, but material prosperity is a necessary ingredient for the good life, and the practical elimination of poverty today is giving more people than ever before the opportunity to lead lives in ways that accomplish their own goals.

Government policies that curtail their choices are, by definition, obstacles to the pursuit of happiness and impose harms that politicians literally cannot imagine. Consider “cheap iPhones”: nobody can calculate the hours saved thanks to driving-directions features, the lives saved through quick access to 911, or the millions of simple, happy conversations that screentime or text messaging makes possible for families separated by long distances. To deride this as materialism is to scoff at simple, even beautiful human joys. Imagine the consequences of eliminating smartphones (you can’t) and you get a sense of the inhumane sentiments that anti-materialistic slogans conceal.

Yet to Carlson, economic freedom is disposable—”a tool…created by human beings” “like a staple gun or a toaster,” which politicians can eliminate if they decide it’s “weaken[ing]…families.” Since “the goal for America is…happiness”—which includes things like “dignity, purpose, self-control, independence, above all, deep relationships with other people”—the failure of international bankers to make people happy and give them rewarding family lives is grounds for bureaucratic control. Although pitched as anti-government populism, Carlson’s prescription is clear: government management of the economy in order to force citizens into what politicians consider “happiness.”

But America’s “goal” isn’t “happiness”—it’s freedom to pursue happiness. That phrase was written by people who rejected the idea that government gives us liberty to serve collective ends. Their commitment to self-determination has often been attacked by strongmen who think government should manage our choices in order to stabilize society. “Man is man only by virtue of the spiritual process in which he contributes as a member of familial, social groups, the nation,” wrote Benito Mussolini. “Fascism is therefore opposed to all individualistic abstractions based on eighteenth century materialism…[and] does not believe in the possibility of ‘happiness’ on earth as conceived by the economic literature of the 18th century.”

Yet free economic exchange is inseparable from genuine dignity and valuable relationships. That should be clear at least to women, who for generations were denied independence by laws that restricted their freedom, often in the name of preserving “the family” and protecting their virtue. The first stirrings of feminism did destabilize long-standing traditions about the family, as freedom usually does—witness the controversy over the climax of Ibsen’s A Doll’s House, in which Nora is so emboldened by her experiment with economic freedom that she finds strength to leave her unhappy marriage. Few women today would choose to return to an era when their fates were shaped by government to serve what officials considered the social good. Yet for Carlson, women’s economic freedom is among the most fundamental ills in our society. Thus he condemns hard-working female executives such as Sheryl Sandberg who think it’s “more virtuous to devote your life to some soulless corporation than it is to raise your own kids.”

Obviously family is important. But like everything, it’s a blessing when freely chosen, and a burden when conscripted as a political device by which the hopes and dreams of actual people are subordinated to the demands of political authorities. Restricting freedom in order to encourage “deep relationships with other people” doesn’t promote, but obliterates, dignity, self control, and independence. It’s a recipe for squalor and resentment, not happiness. Yet it’s the go-to recipe for authoritarians who see individual pursuits as trivial compared to the perpetuation of the state.

Freedom—economic or personal—is not “created by human beings.” It’s the rightful, natural state of all persons. It can unjustly be destroyed, but never transcended. Nor were the infinitely diverse institutions we call “the market” ever “created”—they’re a spontaneous order generated by the free choices of countless individuals pursuing happiness as they decide. Some of their choices may be foolish, or seem so to outsiders who lack full information. But the freedom to make choices, for all its disruptiveness, is the only thing “independence” or “happiness” can ever truly mean.

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Capitalism and Mental Health

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David Matthews is a lecturer in sociology and social policy at Coleg Llandrillo, Wales, and the leader of its degree program in health and social care.

A mental-health crisis is sweeping the globe. Recent estimates by the World Health Organization suggest that more than three hundred million people suffer from depression worldwide. Furthermore, twenty-three million are said to experience symptoms of schizophrenia, while approximately eight hundred thousand individuals commit suicide each year.1 Within the monopoly-capitalist nations, mental-health disorders are the leading cause of life expectancy decline behind cardiovascular disease and cancer.2 In the European Union, 27.0 percent of the adult population between the ages of eighteen and sixty-five are said to have experienced mental-health complications.3 Moreover, in England alone, the predominance of poor mental health has gradually increased over the last two decades. The most recent National Health Service Adult Psychiatric Morbidity Survey illustrates that in 2014, 17.5 percent of the population over the age of sixteen suffered from varying forms of depression or anxiety, compared to 14.1 percent in 1993. Additionally, the number of individuals whose experiences were severe enough to warrant intervention rose from 6.9 percent to 9.3 percent.4

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