Monthly Archives: September 2013

Former Intern Charged With Browsing State Tax Records

by Categorized: law, Public finance Date:

You might think people who work in the state tax department have free access to ogle your returns anytime they want, but that’s a crime — and on Monday, the Department of Revenue Services arrested a former intern and charged him with unauthorized inspection of tax return information.

Brian Frascarelli of Torrington, who worked at the department this summer, was charged with a computer crime in the third degree, the department said in a written release. Other information about Frascarelli was not available.

The department found no evidence that any data was stolen but said all affected taxpayers will be offered free data security protections. The department, which monitors access to information on its systems, didn’t say how many accounts might have been viewed improperly.

“As a criminal matter and a state personnel matter, I have been clear from day one that there is zero tolerance for browsing or other unauthorized accessing of taxpayer record information,” Revenue Services Commissioner Kevin B. Sullivan said in the release. “We constantly remind our employees of the consequences.  I am always shocked and disappointed when it happens to any taxpayer.”

Top Global Brands From Connecticut: Three Winners, Several Snubbed

by Categorized: Consumer, marketing Date:

Three Connecticut names, led by General Electric, are among the world’s 100 most valuable brands in an annual listing by Interbrand that came out Monday.

Apple passed Coca-Cola as the most valuable consumer name, charging ahead by 28 percent from 2012 to $98 billion. Google also passed Coke for the No. 2 spot.

GE holds its spot as No. 6, valued at $47 billion, up 7 percent.

Smirnoff, the vodka developed in Hartford by the old Heublein Co., slipped to No. 95 from No. 90, even though its value increased by 5 percent to $4.3 billion. It’s now owned by London-based Diageo, which has its North American headquarters in Fairfield County.

And the third Connecticut brand: Otis elevator, perhaps, or Carrier air conditioners? Both of those United Technologies Corp. brands have about $12 billion in sales.  Nope, they’re not direct-to-consumer enough for Interbrand, apparently.

How about Travelers, Aetna or Stanley? No, no and no.

Yale University would easily crack the list but only for-profit brands were considered.

It’s Duracell, the battery company based in Bethel, which has a long Connecticut history and is now owned by Procter & Gamble. Duracell joins the list for the first time since 2009, at No. 85, ahead of Chevrolet, Heineken, Starbucks and MasterCard, among other household names.  Duracell comes in at $4.6 billion.

The values assigned by Interbrand are for the brands, not the companies behind the brands.

Here’s the Top 10, with values in billions:

1. Apple, $98

2. Google, $93

3. Coca-Cola, $79

4. IBM, $79

5. Microsoft, $60

6. GE, $47

7. McDonald’s, $42

8. Samsung, $40

9. Intel, $37

10. Toyota, $35

A New AFL-CIO Chief: Big Promotion, Big Pay Cut

by Categorized: Labor Date:

It was a crowning achievement for Lori Pelletier as she stood before the AFL-CIO state delegates, about to be elected to head the state’s largest labor federation without an opponent after 14 years in the no. 2 spot.

“I’m honored and humbled and it really is the best job I’ve ever had,” Pelletier declared, at the MGM Grand/Foxwoods conference center.

It may be her best job ever but it isn’t her highest paying. Pelletier, 50, won a huge promotion by acclaim and on Friday, became executive secretary-treasurer of the Connecticut AFL-CIO.

And she was rewarded with a pay cut of $37,000 — from $177,00 to $140,000.

How can that be?  It doesn’t seem fair, especially since Pelletier, a woman, succeeds a male president, John W. Olsen, whose salary was $186,000.  Would this have happened if it were the other way around?

No one can say, but like many other organizations, AFL-CIO is not as financially strong as it would like to be. The number of dues-paying members is shrank in the last fiscal year, but only slowly, by about 2,000 people to 135,000. And persistent unemployment has cut back on the amounts they pay.

The pay cut was part of a planned restructuring of the AFL-CIO state office in Rocky Hill, which is small — just five people full-time. Pelletier is the top official at AFL-CIO and will coordinate statewide operations. But she does not take the title of president. That position goes to Sal Luciano as an unpaid stint. He keeps his day job as executive director of AFSCME Council 4.

If you think the old salaries were too high, consider that Olsen and Pelletier had to pay all mileage and car costs themselves, among other expenses, and Pelletier still will.  And believe me, both of these labor leaders crisscross the state; Olsen was almost as ubiquitous as Sen. Richard Blumenthal was when he was attorney general.

People who know Pelletier will tell you she won’t put in fewer hours, she’ll put in more, and you won’t hear her complain about the pay cut — especially since the staff is in a pay freeze.

“I’ve been at far too many rallies where our people were getting laid off and we see CEOs making huge money,” Pelletier said Friday.  We were not going to do that at AFL-CIO.

So AFL-CIO saves a cool $223,000, which will restore some of its dwindling cash-on-hand. But the idea is to spend some of that money on more organizers, the foot soldiers needed to bring more Connecticut workers into collective bargaining.

It makes sense logically but it doesn’t seem right.  On Friday, the plaudits for Pelletier — from Gov. Dannel P. Malloy, among others — included a statement from the Connecticut chapter of the National Organization for Women.

“As the first openly gay woman to lead a state labor federation, Lori provides a new, refreshing face to Connecticut’s public policy leadership and the labor movement,” Jacqueline Kozin, Co-President of CT-NOW, said in a written release. “Connecticut women have another strong voice advocating for their needs and rights.”

Forget the woman and gay stuff, reaching the pinnacle of a state labor federation is a huge personal achievement for anyone of any gender or sexual orientation. Women have a strong voice advocating for them and so do men, in Pelletier, who rose through the ranks at the Machinists at Pratt & Whitney in the ’90s.

It’s just too bad at a time when AFL-CIO itself is working toward better pay for women, that economic reality had to get in the way.

A Union War Horse Steps Down With Fire And Gratitude

by Categorized: Labor, Politics Date:

It doesn’t take much prodding for John W. Olsen to launch into a diatribe when the subject of worker pay and Connecticut’s labor movement comes up, and Wednesday was no exception.

John Olsen at the AFL-CIO convention Wednesday. Rich Messina/The Hartford Courant

John Olsen at the AFL-CIO convention Wednesday.
Rich Messina/The Hartford Courant

Olsen delivered his final speech after 25 years as president of the state AFL-CIO, and he went out as he came in: Glorifying the fight for justice. But while he’s well known for attacking corporate interests and political opponents, most of the battles he recounted Wednesday were with brothers and sisters of the union movement.

More than one chair was thrown over the years, and Olsen makes no apology for infighting.

“If we don’t change direction, if we don’t change what we’re doing, we will die,” Olsen said at the federation’s convention at MGM Grand/Foxwoods, waving a finger and shaking a fist. “The day that there isn’t a debate and discussion going on in this hall, there’s something wrong — because we’re alive.”

Typically, Olsen, 63, could remember the characters — he named at least three dozen fellow labor leaders, many now deceased — but not the issue of the moment that led to the row. What matters now, what mattered then, was the big picture, the real fight on behalf of workers in the factories, hospitals, casinos and schools.

There’s no false modesty here, nor arrogance. Olsen is part of a vast team of organizers that he thanked profusely. But he’s been the fireplug, the largest public voice of labor in Connecticut for a quarter century — and at the same time, a leading partisan Democrat, former state party chairman and 17-year member of the Democratic National Committee.

“Everyone who’s ever been associated with me had to sacrifice for me to be able to do what I’ve done,” Olsen said after the speech. “This is a political arena here, okay?”

The organized labor movement, 225,000 strong in Connecticut and shrinking but not as fast as many people believe, will by most accounts continue with equal zeal under Lori Pelletier, who will win election Thursday as executive secretary-treasurer of the state AFL-CIO. The job of president, reorganized as a non-executive role, will go to Sal Luciano, executive director of AFSCME Council 4.

But with Olsen’s exit as state president, the way that zeal unfolds, the style of constant needling, will change as he takes his place in history as one of the all-time colorful figures of organized labor.

Pelletier, 50, the No. 2 official and chief lobbyist at the federation since 1999, is a former Pratt & Whitney testing inspector who brings a respected, lower-key style marked more by negotiation than ranting.  Her ascension parallels the direction of organized labor — as leadership through vocal aggression, often by white, male tradesmen, gives way to a smoother approach.

Pelletier, the nation’s first openly gay leader of an AFL-CIO state federation, said Olsen is a cool negotiator behind closed doors. She and Luciano both downplayed Olsen’s firebrand style as unique.

“I think Lori is every bit as passionate, and it’s in her blood,” Luciano said, adding, “I’ve been known to blow up.”

And how about those chairs? Olsen recalled a tiff in 1991 with Merrillee Milstein, a leader of SEIU District 1199 who passed away in 2008.

“It was a Bobby Knight moment,” he said, referring to the college basketball coach who heaved a chair onto a court and drew scorn. He added, smirking, “It was one of those lighter chairs.”

“I’ve seen him throw a chair,” Luciano said.

And yet, Olsen is not only forgiven his tirades, but praised as, of all things, a peacemaker.  After winning a close re-election in 1991, he embraced the Machinists union that had not backed him, Pelletier recalled.

In recent years, Olsen was a key player in a pact that kept unions working together rather than against one another after SEIU and the Teamsters broke away from AFL-CIO in 2005.  Some say the state AFL-CIO under Olsen has been too complacent about organizing, and that a deeper rift with SEIU might have been a good thing, but Olsen argues that resources are too limited.

Always, he’s been a fighter — “We’re too plastic…too scripted” — and a peacemaker in one package.

After ousting an old party hand, Ed Marcus, in a voteless coup for the state Democratic chairmanship in 2000, Olsen reached out to the pro-business wing of the Democratic party.  He naturally downplayed the rift, and defending against charges that his two roles would lead to conflicts by saying, “You could probably find a conflict with anyone. … John Olsen would never be someone who would cause problems with either state central or AFL-CIO.”

Luciano freely admits that he’s among those who raised the issue of a conflict between Olsen’s roles. “My disagreement with John has always been that his loyalty has been divided.”

But like Ronald Reagan, Olsen has the magic of Teflon, winning over opponents through sheer hard work and an understanding that the fight is not personal. A former plumber-pipefitter from Greenwich — the tough side of town, he always points out – he always gets back to the struggle of the working man and woman, including at MGM/Foxwoods, where four AFL-CIO unions represent 3,000 employees.

“I was a construction worker. You get on your knees in a trench and it’s hot. It’s cold.”

He leaves office scandal-free, proud of everything from keeping his wife, Janeen, on the payroll as his assistant to poking and prodding his fellow Democrat, Gov. Dannel P. Malloy.  Olsen urged gunmakers this spring to modify their military-style rifles to avert Malloy’s ban. He slammed the administration last year for failing to support biomass as a source of renewable energy – and as always, later played down the dispute.

Malloy, understanding the big picture as well as anyone, paid homage Wednesday to Olsen, and to the AFL-CIO, which he’ll need next year in his likely re-election bid. The governor offered his pro-union bona-fides – organizing rights for home health care and child care workers, an earned income tax credit, paid sick leave, a higher minimum wage – and shared Olsen’s expansive view of the rights of working people.

“We are a better state for his having been with us,” Malloy said, joking that the plaudits might sound like a eulogy.  “John is a patriot and a labor leader beyond compare. “Hard work…must be rewarded, otherwise our democracy can be in danger.”

Democracy is indeed threatened in Olsen’s world view.  “We’re working more hours for less pay and there’s a lot of insecurity out there,” Olsen said. “For workers, they see that they are an expendable commodity in this country.”

He said those words back in 1996 and they are much truer today as median household income falls and unemployment is much higher.  But Olsen’s sardonic and heartfelt attacks are so Old Faithful-regular that some of us journalists tune them out at times, or take them for granted.

On Wednesday, he took the language of the struggle to the ultimate heights.

“For those who are Christian, you know the apostles hid, they were crucified…and then what happened was the Holy Ghost came.”

His voice rose. “And then they went out and preached the gospel, and today you look at what Christianity became because they had the Holy Ghost that gave them the courage to go out and preach.”

He roared, “This is a movement that needs to embrace a gospel.”

Call it over-the-top, but the Christian comparison was a perfect symbol of his style of fighting. He says he’s not retiring and will work for elderly housing, among other causes. Public life needs people of his ilk. Beneath all the caustic quip-making, Olsen is a true gentleman in the battle.

A Federal Grant With Distasteful Logic

by Categorized: Education, Energy, Health Care, Public finance, Trade Date:

Press releases about federal grants are routine news, but here’s a head-scratcher that came in last week.

Two community colleges in Connecticut — Capital (in Hartford) and Housatonic (in Bridgeport) — will receive a total of $4.5 million to train people in health care, information technology and environmental technologies, according to the U.S. Department of Labor. The grants are part of a $475 million set of national payments, which itself is part of a $2 billion, multi-year program to funnel money for “innovative training programs” at community colleges.

The $2 billion is through the Trade Adjustment Assistance program, which helps workers whose jobs are lost through increased imports or work moving overseas.

Nothing odd in any of that, until we look at the explanation behind the local grants, which my colleague Mara Lee noticed.

Capital and Housatonic are part of a “Northern Resiliency Consortium” of seven community colleges “in four Northeastern states (New Jersey, New York, Connecticut and Massachusetts) that have been devastated by crises and natural catastrophes, including: Hurricane Sandy, the Sandy Hook Elementary School shootings and the Boston Marathon bombings.”

The explanation goes on to say that the community colleges will prepare trade-impacted workers, veterans and others in the three named sectors, which “play a critical role in times of crisis.”
A separate press release said the training could be used for skills in manufacturing, transportation and any science-technology fields.

Huh? Let’s get this straight: Two mass crimes and a weather event created the need for training in a vast range of job sectors?

All told, the seven colleges will receive $23.5 million. This could end up being money well spent, and in fact, U.S. Sens. Chris Murphy and Richard Blumenthal participated in an announcement about the grants in Hartford on Monday. The value of the training is not the issue here.

The point is, the hurricane and the two tragedies are utterly unrelated to one another, utterly unrelated to the need to train workers in those fields and utterly unrelated to foreign trade. This is “innovation” gone amok, creative wordplay designed to look nifty as an excuse to spread taxpayer money around.

Invoking Hurricane Sandy is fine.  But invoking Newtown and the Boston Marathon as a reason to train workers in a vast range of unrelated job skills crosses the lines of bad taste.

Egan Reich, a spokesman at the U.S. Department of Labor, was not familiar with the programs because he was filling in for colleagues out on furloughs forced by the sequester when I called Friday. Irony noted. Reich thought about it and said using the crises might have just been a “flourish of language” in the effort to advance needed training.

“Those sectors aren’t being targeted because they play a critical role in times of crisis; they are because they’re growing,” Reich said.

At Capital Community College, John McNamara, director of institutional advancement, said the training will not be so broad, but will focus largely on emergency medical response, cyber-security and other areas whose need was highlighted in the tragedies.

“There’s no intent to exploit the God-awful stuff that has happened, particularly in our state,” he said. “It’s a legitimate effort to use these monies to enhance and upgrade what we do in terms of training for responses to these disasters.”

Good plan, poorly expressed in the consortium’s 256-page grant application. If we need more training, it isn’t because of Newtown. That tragedy should not become a catch-all reason for spending money.

Here’s a better idea: Let’s just hand out $2 billion to community colleges if that’s what we want to do, and stop forcing these resource-strapped institutions to stretch the bounds of logic in distasteful ways.

Retailers Ready For Apple iPhone5s Release Mania

by Categorized: Retail, Technology Date:

An update from the department of Manic Early Adopters: Apple and the telecom firms that sell the iPhone are gearing up for big crowds Friday morning for the 5S and 5C as the national ritual over a new release unfolds again.

Apple stores at Westfarms mall and on Broadway in New Haven are opening two hours early, at 8 a.m., and all AT&T company-owned stores are also opening at 8 a.m., two hours earlier than usual.  Verizon Wireless stores, likewise, are starting sales at 8 a.m., an hour before doors normally open.

But wherever you go, don’t expect to waltz in, get the goods and make it to work on time.

By late Thursday afternoon, the New Haven Apple store reported no lines, though the scene on New York’s 5th Avenue was more colorful, with Apple customers holding forth in tents.

Westfarms is keeping its common areas open all night, all the easier for customers to line up at any of the five mall stores will carry the new device: Apple, AT&T Experience, Verizon Wireless, Sprint and T-Mobile.

“We’re going to have extra security tonight,” Westfarms spokeswoman Amanda Sirica said Thursday afternoon. “We are ready.”

Westfarms has had its common areas open before for Apple launches, but this time could be different: Unlike the iPhone 4S, for example, the 5S did not have advance ordering. Pre-orders were taken for the less expensive, brightly colored 5C, however.

And don’t call any of the stores to find out how many phones they have — Apple isn’t telling even its own retail outlets. “We’re kept out of the loop,” a New Haven associate said. “We’ll find out tomorrow.”

At AT&T, spokeswoman Meaghan Wims couldn’t speculate on likely crowds, but she said, “We’re real excited. All of our teams are ready to go…Any Apple launch day is an exciting day.”

If you really can’t wait, the 5S could be worth the hassle depending on how you use the device — especially if you’re hot for the more advanced camera. Click here for a Bloomberg News review.

Apple news sites, like AppleInsider and 9to5mac, reported lines outside the Apple Store on 5th Avenue in New York City as early as September 6 — before the phone was even officially announced.

Reporting by Sandy Csizmar included.

 

Health Spending Hikes To Increase Next Year, Reach One-Fifth Of US Economy By 2022

by Categorized: Economy, Health Care, Public finance Date:

Here’s more bad news for Obamacare defenders: Health care spending increases, relatively flat for the last four years, are set to rise for the next nine years, averaging 6.2 percent a year from 4 percent a year since the recession.

Even the 4 percent figure outpaces inflation.  Health care’s share of the total U.S. economy, already a global embarrassment at 18 percent, will rise to 19.9 percent by 2022, according to the report by actuaries at the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services.

Watch this video!!!

The report, detailed in Health Affairs, shows total national health spending rising from $2.9 trillion, or $9,216 for every man, woman and child in the nation, to $3.25 trillion, or $10,172 per person, in just the next two years. By 2022 the figure is, gulp, $5 trillion, 49 percent of it from taxpayers.

The good news is that the 6.2 percent annual increases are less than the historical average, including nearly 7 percent through the 2000-09 decade.

Click here for a chart from HealthAffairs showing the cost breakdowns through 2015.

Click here for a chart from HealthAffairs showing the breakdown of percent increases through 2015.

How can this be, at a time when everyone agrees the rate of spending is a national crisis, when insurers are joining with hospitals to keep costs down and the federal government is finally offering incentives for cost reductions?

It’s the economy, stupid. In part.

“Improving economic conditions, combined with the coverage expansions in the Affordable Care Act and the aging of the population, drive faster projected growth in health spending in 2014 and beyond,” Health Affairs said in its report.

Critics of the Affordable Care Act say Obamacare doesn’t do enough to flatten spending increases, and they’re right. That’s still not a reason for the Neanderthal move by House Republicans to hold Obamacare hostage in the national debt ceiling standoff, since, in the long run, Obamacare is good, if not perfect.

Defenders of the reform say Obamacare will control costs by making sure more people get preventive care, averting the need for some costly treatment later. We can only hope they’re right and that the independent Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services actuaries are playing it safe with the new report.

The total cost of care doesn’t necessarily mean the prices of specific services and drugs are going up; it could mean there are more costly services and that more people are using them. For example, in a separate release, CMS said the average increase for Medicare Advantage plans would be 5 percent in 2014, and that enrollment and services are both up. Premiums are down nearly 10 percent in the last four years for that product.

“These developments are further proof that the Affordable Care Act is a boon for Medicare and its current and future beneficiaries,” U.s. Rep. Joe Courtney said in a written statement.

Overall insurance costs are trending back upward according to the CMS forecast, though, again, that might not fully account for efforts the industry is making. And of course, it doesn’t account for two huge wild cards: Increases in plan coverage and a tightening of the reins on services that customers and doctors demand.

Yearly insurance cost changes, historic and projected, in percent:

2000-09 (average) 8.8
2010      9.8
2011      4.0
2012      6.4
2013      8.2
2014    10.8
2015      8.0

Harvard Pilgrim Opens In Hartford’s CityPlace With High Ambitions

by Categorized: Health Care, Insurance Date:

UPDATE: At 6 p.m. Thursday, Harvard Pilgrim was named the nation’s No. 1 health plan by National Committee on Quality Assurance, for the 10th straight year.

ORIGINAL POST:

Harvard Pilgrim won’t appear as an option when Connecticut residents start to sign up for health plans on Oct. 1. But the highly regarded Massachusetts company has moved into offices in Hartford with the hope of selling plans in 2014, and joining the exchange in time for the 2015 season.

Harvard Pilgrim Health Care took the space on the second floor of CityPlace II previously occupied by Wells Fargo’s investment advisory business. The insurer, based in Wellesley, Mass., expects to have about 35 people in its Connecticut office in a year or so — among them, one of the heavy hitters of the industry.

Harvard Pilgrim office at CityPlace II in downtown Hartford Kenneth R. Gosselin photo/The Hartford Courant

Harvard Pilgrim office at CityPlace II in downtown Hartford
Kenneth R. Gosselin photo/The Hartford Courant

Mickey Herbert, former CEO of ConnectiCare and founder and CEO of Physicians Health Services, is heading the local Harvard Pilgrim office as a consultant.

“We’ll be hiring sales people later this fall and we’ll be increasing the provider relations people we have,” Herbert said from the offices, which cover about 8,300 square feet. “We’re expecting a fairly quick turnaround on actually getting licensed.”

Harvard Pilgrim will bring the number of health insurers to seven in Connecticut, helping the state Department of Insurance  with its goal of increasing the number of carriers.  The insurer will target small business customers as its “sweet spot,” Herbert said, and does not expect to file for approval to sell individual plans initially.

Top Workplace Awards Reception

Mickey Herbert

 

The market for medical plans is expanding because of the health exchange, but if Harvard Pilgrim takes market share from a competitor it could be ConnectiCare.  Both firms are smaller, regional with customer service that has won acclaim.

Harvard Pilgrim, in fact, has been rated as the nation’s No. 1 health plan for nine straight years by the National Committee on Quality Assurance. ConnectiCare is also highly rated, once cracking the top 5 under Herbert.

“Harvard Pilgrim will probably one-up ConnectiCare and be the No. 1 health plan in Connecticut,” Herbert said.

If he sounds competitive, he is. The 68-year-old, formerly a member of the Connecticut Health Exchange board, was founder and owner of the Bridgeport Bluefish minor league baseball team in Bridgeport, and was a championship level softball player decades ago. Harvard Pilgrim brought him onboard at the start of this year to set up the Connecticut office.

Locating in the Hartford area was a given, but before signing a lease downtown, Herbert said, “We looked at spots in Bloomfield, West Hartford, Farmington and Rocky Hill.

The office will have a clinical staff including a medical director for Connecticut. There are no plans to open other Connecticut offices, as many support operations such as a customer call center will remain in Massachusetts.

Harvard Pilgrim has originally intended to gain a Connecticut license this summer and join the health exchange this year, but those plans were put off.

“The intent is to be part of the exchange,” Herbert said, “with the caveat that nobody really knows how this thing is going to go down.”

The company is a nonprofit with an active charitable foundation. It originally formed when Harvard Community Health Care merged with Pilgrim Health Care, and now has 1.2 million insured customers, mostly in Massachusetts but with some in Maine and New Hampshire.

Harvard Pilgrim has programs in place to support childhood obesity prevention, among other community works, spokeswoman Mary Wallan said. She and Herbert declined to say how many insured members Harvard Pilgrim hopes to enroll in its first year.

Herbert was clear that he didn’t intend to retire when he stepped down as the ConnectiCare CEO.  He resigned from the board of the state’s exchange when he joined Harvard Pilgrim but he remains as interim executive director of the Connecticut Health Council, a networking and educational group formed by the MetroHartford Alliance that brings together organizations in several health-related industries.

He’s also chairman of Patient Care, a private firm that advocates for health consumers, based in Milwaukee. Herbert, not a regular employee of Harvard Pilgrim, said he’s enjoying the job and not committing to a lengthy tenure.

But as for the company in Connecticut, he said, “We’re in it for the long-haul…We’re going to be a significant player in this marketplace.”

Connecticut requires licensed insurers to have an actual footprint in the state, and officials intend to actually pay a visit to check on that, a Department of Insurance spokeswoman told my colleague Ken Gosselin. I’d suggest they show up on Oct. 29, when Harvard Pilgrim has its open house.

Report Card For The Nation’s Middle Class: A Big, Fat D

by Categorized: Economy, Jobs, Poverty, Wealth Date:

How do you feel about your buying power over these past few years since the recession supposedly ended? Barely treading water?

You’re not alone. Median household income for the nation was flat when adjusted for inflation, at $51,017 last year compared with $51,100 in 2011, the U.S. Census Bureau said Tuesday.

That’s the fifth straight year of flat or falling incomes, with declines totaling 8 percent. If you think the stagnant median — the point where half the nation’s 122 million households make more, half less — is a result of economic malaise, think again. Just since the end of the recession, buying power for the household in the middle is down by more than 4 percent, while total inflation-adjusted income in the United States is up by more than 5 percent and the major stock market indexes have doubled.

HC-Census-incomes-091813

This is the national report card on the prosperity of the middle class. The grade: a big, fat D. And it’s not just a few lousy years: Median household income has fallen or stayed the same in 11 of the past 14 years since the last great run-up of the Clinton era, as income has jumped ahead by more than a quarter.

On Thursday we’ll see the state’s median, and we have no reason to believe it will be any better — especially since Connecticut’s four metro areas were all near the bottom of the pack in overall economic growth in 2012, reported separately Tuesday.

Poverty was also unchanged in the nation in 2012, at 15 percent, the Census report showed. The number of Americans with health coverage edged up, reflecting more people eligible for Medicare and slightly more young adults covered under their parents’ plans. But the tally of uninsured Americans, 48 million, was statistically unchanged from 2011.

Connecticut can expect to fare better in reducing the ranks of the uninsured when the numbers come out Thursday, as preliminary figures show. Poverty may also show a decrease in the state, which added an earned income tax credit in 2011. And there are straightforward ways to improve both of those measures.

But when it comes to the median household income figure, the Census report is a deep disappointment with no hope of an easy solution. Forecasters had predicted a small increase, but even that — which didn’t happen — would not have masked the struggle of typical families.

“For well over a decade households that would have, in prior periods, gotten ahead have failed to do so,” said economist Jared Bernstein, senior fellow at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities and a former ranking adviser to Vice President Joe Biden. “The extent of this disconnect is so profound that if it doesn’t wake policymakers up … I can’t imagine what would.”

To put it in perspective, the median climbed by 15 percent during the Clinton years, from $48,884 to $56,080 (in 2012 dollars), before the long declines. And even that Clinton-era run-up wasn’t as strong as in the glory years of 1947 to 1973, when the nation’s median multiplied, unfettered by global competition, with union membership near or above 25 percent.

Connecticut, usually in the top three states for median income, is following a similar pattern, except with more ups and downs as key industries rise and fall.

So how should we think about what’s happening?

Clearly, based on the fact that overall income is rising and income at the bottom is falling, the rich are seeing more gains. But it’s not just the plain vanilla rich, according to a recently released study based on IRS data — it’s the super-rich, the 1 percent, that has sucked in a disproportionate share of recent gains in income.

This isn’t class warfare. The problem isn’t that the rich are getting richer; power to them, at their best they create jobs. The problem, as Bernstein says, is the disconnect between economic growth and typical pay.

I tend to think the situation is hopeless at a time when Democrats and Republicans can’t even agree to pay the nation’s previously promised debts, when China is launching its own aerospace industry, when armies of insurance workers are losing their jobs to cheaper workers on visas from India, when large numbers of U.S. high school graduates basically can’t read.

In that view, we’re in a sort of permacession for vast tracts of working families, a downturn beyond the boom-and-bust cycles, in which the American empire declines in a more or less orderly way. A stagnating median household income number is not a sign of the empire’s decline, it is the decline itself. The median is to the economy what stock prices are to a publicly traded company.

Bernstein and others, without sugarcoating the lousy numbers, are more optimistic. After all, the U.S. economy is growing decently and, most important, it’s creating income at a nice clip. What we have is a failure of policy, they argue. It’s just a matter of finding a way to get that income back into the hands of the mass population — preferably right in the paycheck rather than at the back end with government supports.

“What we should focus on … is how we as a state and a community make sure that people are equipped to deal with the changes in the economy,” said Matt Santacroce, a policy analyst at Connecticut Voices for Children, a New Haven-based advocacy and research group.

Santacroce mentioned the unemployment trust fund, the minimum wage, the earned-income tax credit, programs for child health and job training. “On a broader level, what we can do is make sure that the state is producing workers that come out of our K-12 school system and out of our public university system who are equipped to handle the 21st century economy … really ready to go to work.”

All good stuff, all of it worthy, but it costs taxpayer dollars. Conservatives tend to think the middle class would do well if the government would get out of the way and stop spending money, and that disagreement is why it’s hard to gain much traction either way.

Bernstein sees a higher path than arguing about government income supports. The key is workers’ bargaining power, which only happens in times of full employment, when the jobless rate is low — such as the 1960s and the ’90s.

“If you conclude that the only thing we can do to help middle- and lower-income households is provide benefits once they’ve been smacked around by market outcomes, you’re really giving up the game,” he said. Instead: “Worry less about tweaking the tax code and the budget deficit and worry about what would it take to get the unemployment rate down.”

One of his possible solutions is to view the government as an “employer of last resort,” just as the Federal Reserve is a de facto lender of last resort.

That gets us right back to the partisan debate, but is also reminds us — on the fifth anniversary of the Lehman Brothers collapse and the government’s dramatic rescue — that if bailing out workers is socialism, then so is bailing out banks and automakers, and so is offering a tax-free ride to pharmaceutical firms and other companies that employ people and conduct research, and so is handing $115 million in state taxpayer dollars to the world’s biggest hedge fund to make sure it stays in town.

Top Wooden Roller Coaster? Boulder Dash!

by Categorized: Consumer, Media Date:

We usually don’t report on industry awards since they’re too numerous, but here’s a fun exception: Boulder Dash at Lake Compounce Theme Park in Bristol has taken the prize as “Best Wooden Roller Coaster in the World” for 2013, from Amusement Today.

Boulder Dash Lake Compounce handout photo.

Boulder Dash
Lake Compounce handout photo.

Boulder Dash, built in 2000, also won the top prize in 2004, in the “Golden Ticket” awards, which are judged by a worldwide panel of park enthusiasts.

“The park is dedicated to maintaining it well and the coaster’s unique one-of-a-kind setting constantly brings in new fans,” said Gary Slade, editor and publisher of Arlington, Tex.-based Amusement Today. “A night ride on this amazing coaster is particularly fantastic. It’s my favorite time to ride Boulder Dash!”

Lake Compounce, the nation’s oldest continuously operating amusement park, has closed for the season and will reopen Oct. 4 for its Haunted Graveyard, and Nov. 29 for Holiday Lights.