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Archive for April 16th, 2015

The New York Times “basically rewrites whatever the Kiev authorities say”: Stephen F. Cohen

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Patrick L. Smith has an interesting interview in Salon:

It is one thing to comment in a column as the Ukrainian crisis grinds on and Washington—senselessly, with no idea of what will come next—destroys relations with Moscow. It is quite another, as a long exchange with Stephen F. Cohen makes clear, to watch as an honorable career’s worth of scholarly truths are set aside in favor of unlawful subterfuge, a war fever not much short of Hearst’s and what Cohen ranks among the most extravagant expansion of a sphere of influence—NATO’s—in history.

Cohen is a distinguished Russianist by any measure. While professing at Princeton and New York University, he has written of the revolutionary years (“Bukharin and the Bolshevik Revolution,” 1973), the Soviet era (“Rethinking the Soviet Experience,” 1985) and, contentiously but movingly and always with a steady eye, the post-Soviet decades (“Failed Crusade: America and the Tragedy of Post-Communist Russia, 2000; “Soviet Fates and Lost Alternatives,” 2009). “The Victims Return: Survivors of the Gulag After Stalin” (2010) is a singularly humane work, using scholarly method to relate the stories of the former prisoners who walk as ghosts in post-Soviet Russia. “I never actually lost the uneasy feeling of having left work unfinished and obligations unfulfilled,” Cohen explains in the opening chapter, “even though fewer and fewer of the victims I knew were still alive.”

If I had to describe the force and value of Cohen’s work in a single sentence, it would be this: It is a relentless insistence that we must bring history to bear upon what we see. One would think this an admirable project, but it has landed Cohen in the mother of all intellectual disputes since the U.S.-supported coup in Kiev last year. To say he is now “blackballed” or “blacklisted”—terms Cohen does not like—is too much. Let us leave it that a place may await him among America’s many prophets without honor among their own.

It is hardly surprising that the Ministry of Forgetting, otherwise known as the State Department, would eschew Cohen’s perspective on Ukraine and the relationship with Russia: He brings far too much by way of causality and responsibility to the case. But when scholarly colleagues attack him as “Putin’s apologist” one grows queasy at the prospect of a return to the McCarthyist period. By now, obedient ideologues in the academy have turned debate into freak show.

Cohen, who is 76, altogether game and remembers it all, does not think we are back in the 1950s just yet. But he is now enmeshed in a fight with the Association for Slavic, East European and Eurasian Studies, which last autumn rejected a $400,000 grant Cohen proposed with his wife, Katrina vanden Heuvel, because the fellowships to be funded would bear Cohen’s name. Believe it, readers, this is us in the early 21st century.

The interview that follows took place in Cohen’s Manhattan apartment some weeks after the cease-fire agreement known as Minsk II was signed in mid-February. It sprawled over several absorbing hours. As I worked with the transcript it became clear that Cohen had given me a valuable document, one making available to readers a concise, accessible, historically informed accounting of “where we are today,” as Cohen put it, in Ukraine and in the U.S.-Russia relationship.

Salon will run it in two parts. This is an edited transcript of the first. Part two follows next week.

What is your judgment of Russia’s involvement in Ukraine? In the current situation, the need is for good history and clear language. In a historical perspective, do you consider Russia justified?

Well, I can’t think otherwise. I began warning of such a crisis more than 20 years ago, back in the ’90s. I’ve been saying since February of last year [when Viktor Yanukovich was ousted in Kiev] that the 1990s is when everything went wrong between Russia and the United States and Europe. So you need at least that much history, 25 years. But, of course, it begins even earlier.

As I’ve said for more than a year, we’re in a new Cold War. We’ve been in one, indeed, for more than a decade. My view [for some time] was that the United States either had not ended the previous Cold War, though Moscow had, or had renewed it in Washington. The Russians simply hadn’t engaged it until recently because it wasn’t affecting them so directly.

What’s happened in Ukraine clearly has plunged us not only into a new or renewed—let historians decide that—Cold War, but one that is probably going to be more dangerous than the preceding one for two or three reasons. The epicenter is not in Berlin this time but in Ukraine, on Russia’s borders, within its own civilization: That’s dangerous. Over the 40-year history of the old Cold War, rules of behavior and recognition of red lines, in addition to the red hotline, were worked out. Now there are no rules. We see this every day—no rules on either side.

What galls me the most, there’s no significant opposition in the United States to this new Cold War, whereas in the past there was always an opposition. Even in the White House you could find a presidential aide who had a different opinion, certainly in the State Department, certainly in the Congress. The media were open—the New York Times, the Washington Post—to debate. They no longer are. It’s one hand clapping in our major newspapers and in our broadcast networks. So that’s where we are.

The Ukraine crisis in historical perspective. Very dangerous ground. You know this better than anyone, I’d’ve thought. 

This is where I get attacked and assailed. It’s an historical judgment. The [crisis now] grew out of Clinton’s policies, what I call a “winner take all” American policy toward what was thought to be—but this isn’t true—a defeated post-Cold War Russia, leading people in the ’90s to think of Russia as in some ways analogous to Germany and Japan after World War II: Russia would decide its internal policies to some extent, and it would be allowed to resume its role as a state in international affairs—but as a junior partner pursuing new American national interests.

That was the pursuit that Clinton and Strobe Talbott, who’s now very upset about the failure of his policy, in the Yeltsin era. That’s what they wanted, and thought they were getting, from Boris Yeltsin. You can read Talbott’s memoir, “The Russia Hand,” and know that all the official talk about eternal friendship and partnership was malarkey. Now it’s all gone sour, predictably and for various reasons, and has led us to this situation.

The problem is that by taking the view, as the American media and political establishment do, that this crisis is entirely the fault of “Putin’s aggression,” there’s no rethinking of American policy over the last 20 years. I have yet to see a single influential person say, “Hey, maybe we did something wrong, maybe we ought to rethink something.” That’s a recipe for more of the same, of course, and more of the same could mean war with Russia….

Let me give you one example. It’s the hardest thing for the American foreign policy elite and the media elite to cope with.

Our position is that nobody is entitled to a sphere of influence in the 21st century. Russia wants a sphere of influence in the sense that it doesn’t want American military bases in Ukraine or in the Baltics or in Georgia. But what is the expansion of NATO other than the expansion of the American zone or sphere of influence? It’s not just military. It’s financial, it’s economic, it’s cultural, it’s intermarriage—soldiers, infrastructure. It’s probably the most dramatic expansion of a great sphere of influence in such a short time and in peacetime in the history of the world.

So you have Vice President Biden constantly saying, “Russia wants a sphere of influence and we won’t allow it.” Well, we are shoving our sphere of influence down Russia’s throat, on the assumption that it won’t push back. Obviously, the discussion might well begin: “Is Russia entitled to a zone or sphere in its neighborhood free of foreign military bases?” Just that, nothing more. If the answer is yes, NATO expansion should’ve ended in Eastern Germany, as the Russians were promised. But we’ve crept closer and closer. Ukraine is about NATO-expansion-no-matter-what. Washington can go on about democracy and sovereignty and all the rest, but it’s about that. And we can’t re-open this question…. The hypocrisy, or the inability to connect the dots in America, is astonishing.

The nature of the Kiev regime. Again, there’s a lot of fog. So there’re two parts to this question. The coup matter and the relationship of the Yatsenyuk government to the State Department—we now have a finance minister in Kiev who’s an American citizen, addressing the Council on Foreign Relations here as we speak—and then the relationship of the Kiev regime with the ultra-right.

It’s a central question. I addressed it in a Nation piece last year called “Distorting Russia.” One point was that the apologists in the media for the Kiev government as it came to power after Feb. 21, and for the Maidan demonstrations as they turned violent, ignored the role of a small but significant contingent of ultra-nationalists who looked, smelled and sounded like neo-fascists. And for this I was seriously attacked, including by Timothy Snyder at Yale, who is a great fan of Kiev, in the New Republic. I have no idea where he is coming from, or how any professor could make the allegations he did. But the argument was that this neo-fascist theme was Putin’s, that what I was saying was an apology for Putin and that the real fascists were in Russia, not in Ukraine.

Maybe there are fascists in Russia, but we’re not backing the Russian government or Russian fascists. The question is, and it’s extremely important, “Is there a neo-fascist movement in Ukraine that, regardless of its electoral success, which has not been great, is influencing affairs politically or militarily, and is this something we should be worried about?”

The answer is 100 percent yes. But admitting this in the United States has gotten a 100 percent no until recently, when, finally, a few newspapers began to cite Kiev’s battalions with swastikas on their helmets and tanks. So you’ve gotten a little more coverage. Foreign journalists, leaving aside Russians, have covered this neo-fascist phenomenon, which is not surprising. It grows out of Ukraine’s history. It should be a really important political question for Western policy makers, and I think it is now for the Germans. German intelligence is probably better than American intelligence when it comes to Ukraine—more candid in what it tells the top leadership. Merkel’s clearly worried about this.

It’s another example of something you can’t discuss in the mainstream media or elsewhere in the American establishment. When you read the testimony of [Assistant Secretary of State] Nuland, this is never mentioned. But what could be more important than the resurgence of a fascist movement on the European continent? I’m not talking about these sappy fascists who run around the streets in Western Europe. I’m talking about guys with a lot of weapons, guys who have done dastardly things and who have killed people. Does that warrant discussion? Well, people said, if they exist they’re a tiny minority. My clichéd answer is, “Of course, so was Hitler and so was Lenin at one time.” You pay attention and you think about it if you learn anything from history….

We say we’re doing everything we’re doing in Ukraine and against Russia, including running the risk of war, for a democratic Ukraine, by which we mean Ukraine under the rule of Kiev. Reasonably, we would ask to what extent Kiev is actually democratic. But correspondents of the Times and the Washington Post regularly file from Kiev and basically re-write whatever the Kiev authorities say while rarely, if ever, asking about democracy in Kiev-governed Ukraine.

Rewriting handouts. Is that actually so? . . .

Continue reading.

Written by Leisureguy

16 April 2015 at 6:38 pm

Posted in Government

The invention of cheese as a solution to a problem

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Cynthia Graber and Nicola Twilley write at Gastropod:

Cheese is the chameleon of the food world, as well as one of its greatest delights. Fresh and light or funky and earthy, creamy and melty or crystalline and crumbly—no other food offers such a variety of flavors and textures.

But cheese is not just a treat for the palate: its discovery changed the course of Western civilization, and, today, cheese rinds are helping scientists conduct cutting-edge research into microbial ecology. In this episode of Gastropod, we investigate cheese in all stinking glory, from ancient Mesopotamia to medieval France, from the origins of cheese factories and Velveeta to the growing artisanal cheese movement in the U.S. Along the way, we search for the answer to a surprisingly complex question: what is cheese? Join us as we bust cheese myths, solve cheese mysteries, and put together the ultimate cheese plate.

The Secret History Of Cheese, Or, Why The Cheese Origin Story Is A Myth

This is the story you’ll often hear about how humans discovered cheese: one hot day nine thousand years ago, a nomad was on his travels, and brought along some milk in an animal stomach—a sort of proto-thermos—to have something to drink at the end of the day. But when he arrived, he discovered that the rennet in the stomach lining had curdled the milk, creating the first cheese. But there’s a major problem with that story, as University of Vermont cheese scientist and historian Paul Kindstedt told Gastropod: the nomads living in the Fertile Crescent of the Middle East in 7000 B.C. would have been lactose-intolerant. A nomad on the road wouldn’t have wanted to drink milk; it would have left him in severe gastro-intestinal distress.

Kindstedt, author of the book Cheese and Culture, explained that about a thousand years before traces of cheese-making show up in the archaeological record, humans began growing crops. Those early fields of wheat and other grains attracted local wild sheep and goats, which provide milk for their young. Human babies are also perfectly adapted for milk. Early humans quickly made the connection and began dairying—but for the first thousand years, toddlers and babies were the only ones consuming the milk. Human adults were uniformly lactose-intolerant, says Kindstedt. What’s more, he told us that “we know from some exciting archaeo-genetic and genomic modeling that the capacity to tolerate lactose into adulthood didn’t develop until about 5500 BC”—which is at least a thousand years after the development of cheese.

The real dawn of cheese came about 8,500 years ago, with two simultaneous developments in human history. First, by then, over-intensive agricultural practices had depleted the soil, leading to the first human-created environmental disaster. As a result, Neolithic humans began herding goats and sheep more intensely, as those animals could survive on marginal lands unfit for crops. And secondly, humans invented pottery: the original practical milk-collection containers.

In the warm environment of the Fertile Crescent region, Kinstedt explained, any milk not used immediately and instead left to stand in those newly invented containers “would have very quickly, in a matter of hours, coagulated [due to the heat and the natural lactic acid bacteria in the milk]. And at some point, probably some adventurous adult tried some of the solid material and found that they could tolerate it a lot more of it than they could milk.” That’s because about 80 percent of the lactose drains off with the whey, leaving a digestible and, likely, rather delicious fresh cheese.

Cheese Changed The Course Of Western Civilization

With the discovery of cheese, suddenly those early humans could add dairy to their diets. Cheese made an entirely new source of nutrients and calories available for adults, and, as a result, dairying took off in a major way. What this meant, says Kindstedt, is that “children and newborns would be exposed to milk frequently, which ultimately through random mutations selected for children who could tolerate lactose later into adulthood.”

In a very short time, at least in terms of human evolution—perhaps only a few thousand years—that mutation spread throughout the population of the Fertile Crescent. As those herders migrated to Europe and beyond, they carried this genetic mutation with them. According to Kindstedt, “It’s an absolutely stunning example of a genetic selection occurring in an unbelievably short period of time in human development. It’s really a wonder of the world, and it changed Western civilization forever.”

Tasting The First Cheeses Today

In lieu of an actual time machine, Gastropod has another trick for listeners who want to know what cheese tasted like 9,000 years ago: head to the local grocery store and pick up some . . .

Continue reading. At the link is a podcast as well.

Written by Leisureguy

16 April 2015 at 2:15 pm

Posted in Food, Science

Some employers (Uber, for example) try to screw employees by calling them “independent contractors”

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But they should not get away with it—it’s a particularly pernicious example of businesses externalizing costs (i.e., letting someone else, usually the taxpayer, pay for services the business uses). Kashmir Hill reports at Fusion.net:

Several years ago, Boston lawyer Shannon Liss-Riordan was visiting family and friends in San Francisco. While she was out at a restaurant in the West Portal, one of her friends pulled out his smartphone. “You have to see this, Shannon. It’s a new thing and it’s changed my life,” she recalls him saying. The friend fired up Uber, the car-hailing app. “You push a button and a car comes to pick you up.”

Then, Liss-Riordan says, her friend looked at her. “He saw what was going through my mind. Then he said, ‘Don’t you dare. You’re going to put them out of business.’”

Liss-Riordan, 45, has spent her entire legal career going after employers for allegedly short-changing their employees. She specializes in worker misclassification lawsuits—the illegal practice of companies who classify their workers as independent contractors, rather than normal employees, in order to avoid paying them benefits they’re owed under federal law. She’s filed class-action lawsuits on behalf of truck drivers, waiters, delivery men, cable installers, call center workers, and exotic dancers.FedEx and Starbucks are among companies that have paid out millions of dollars for misclassifying workers and misallocating workers’ tips, respectively, as a result of suits she’s filed.

Now, her sights are set on the so-called “on-demand economy”—the constellation of tech start-ups that provide transportation and delivery services at the tap of an app.

In recent months, Liss-Riordan has filed lawsuits against Uber, Lyft, Homejoy, Postmates, and Try Caviar—five of the largest on-demand start-ups in the world. These suits all boil down to a rather simple allegation: these companies pay the people who supply the equipment and manpower that power their businesses like independent contractors, while burdening them with the work expectations of employees. Representatives of Uber, Lyft, Homejoy and Caviar declined to comment on pending litigation, and Postmates did not respond to request for comment.

Harold Lichten, Liss-Riordan’s law firm partner, describes her as “a pit bull with a chihuahua in her mouth” when it comes to suing on-demand start-ups. “She will make life as difficult as possible for these companies,” he said. “Here’s Uber — this business model with $40 billion behind it, that is seen as the future — but if she’s correct about their needing to classify all of these drivers as employees, it destroys that model. And it means all these venture capital investors who have poured millions of dollars into the company have bought a pig in a poke.”

Liss-Riordan’s foray into the on-demand economy started in 2013, when Boston taxi drivers working for Uber came to her firm complaining that Uber was keeping half of the tips that passengers were paying them. That case struck her as a legal lay-up: Massachusetts state law prohibits managers taking a cut of workers’ tips. The case is ongoing.

But as Liss-Riordan looked more closely at Uber’s business model, she realized there was a much larger legal problem looming: namely, the company was built on the backs of so-called “1099 employees”—drivers who formed the base of Uber’s operations, but whose income was counted as 1099 freelancer income for tax purposes. Uber claimed these drivers were fully independent and had control over their own work schedules — even making a point of calling them “driver-partners” instead of simply “drivers” — but the company also gave them strict guidelines for participation which made them look like employees according to the IRS’s 20-prong test. Uber screened and trained its drivers, and drivers could get deactivated by Uber for having their rating dip below what local managers set as a cut-off, for not accepting a certain percentage of trip requests, or for customer complaints. In one case, says Liss-Riordan, a driver was fired for “not showing respect” to Uber staff.

Liss-Riordan smelled blood. She realized that if Uber’s drivers were reclassified as normal W-2 employees, rather than 1099 independent contractors, Uber would be required to pay payroll taxes for them, and provide them with benefits like workers’ compensation insurance and unemployment. In some states, such as California, Uber would also be required to reimburse drivers for the costs of the job, including gas, wear-and-tear on their cars, and car insurance. If Uber had indeed misclassified its drivers, the company’s entire business model was built on a legal mistake. . .

Continue reading.

Uber has never paid much attention to the law, and that is about to bite them badly. The entire article is worth reading. Later in the article:

In March, judges in San Francisco ruled that the lawsuits Liss-Riordan had filed against Uber and Lyft could go to trial. U.S. District Judge Edward Chen noted that Uber sets drivers’ rates, screens them, can fire them, and needs them in order to make money. “The idea that Uber is simply a software platform, I don’t find that a very persuasive argument,” he said.

Written by Leisureguy

16 April 2015 at 1:52 pm

Posted in Business, Law

How Structure Arose in the Primordial Soup

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It is becoming increasingly clear that life is an inevitable outcome given the right conditions. Emily Singer in Quanta recounts some of what we know about the first steps:

About 4 billion years ago, molecules began to make copies of themselves, an event that marked the beginning of life on Earth. A few hundred million years later, primitive organisms began to split into the different branches that make up the tree of life. In between those two seminal events, some of the greatest innovations in existence emerged: the cell, the genetic code and an energy system to fuel it all. All three of these are essential to life as we know it, yet scientists know disappointingly little about how any of these remarkable biological innovations came about.

“It’s very hard to infer even the relative ordering of evolutionary events before the last common ancestor,” said Greg Fournier, a geobiologist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Cells may have appeared before energy metabolism, or perhaps it was the other way around. Without fossils or DNA preserved from organisms living during this period, scientists have had little data to work from.

Fournier is leading an attempt to reconstruct the history of life in those evolutionary dark ages — the hundreds of millions of years between the time when life first emerged and when it split into what would become the endless tangle of existence.

He is using genomic data from living organisms to infer the DNA sequence of ancient genes as part of a growing field known as paleogenomics. In research published online in March in the Journal of Molecular Evolution, Fournier showed that the last chemical letter added to the code was a molecule called tryptophan — an amino acid most famous for its presence in turkey dinners. The work supports the idea that the genetic code evolved gradually.

Using similar methods, he hopes to decipher the temporal order of more of the code — determining when each letter was added to the genetic alphabet — and to date key events in the origins of life, such as the emergence of cells.

Dark Origins

Life emerged so long ago that even the rock formations covering the planet at that time have been destroyed — and with them, most chemical and geological clues to early evolution. “There’s a huge chasm between the origins of life and the last common ancestor,” said Eric Gaucher, a biologist at the Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta.

Scientists do know that at some point in that time span, living creatures began using a genetic code, a blueprint for making complex proteins. It is those proteins that carry out the vital functions of the cell. (The structure of DNA and RNA also enables genetic information to be replicated and passed on from generation to generation, but that’s a separate process from the creation of proteins.) The components of the code and the molecular machinery that assembles them “are some of the oldest and most universal aspects of cells, and biologists are very interested in understanding the mechanisms by which they evolved,” said Paul Higgs, a biophysicist at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario.

How the code came into being presents a chicken-and-egg problem. The key players in the code — DNA, RNA, amino acids, and proteins — are chemically complicated structures that work together to make proteins. But in modern cells, proteins are used to make the components of the code. So how did a highly structured code emerge?

Most researchers believe that the code began simply with basic proteins made from a limited alphabet of amino acids. It then grew in complexity over time, as these proteins learned to make more sophisticated molecules. Eventually, it developed into a code capable of creating all the diversity we see today. “It’s long been hypothesized that life’s ‘standard alphabet’ of 20 amino acids evolved from a simpler, earlier alphabet, much as the English alphabet has accumulated extra letters over its history,” said Stephen Freeland, a biologist at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County.

The earliest amino acid letters in the code were likely the simplest in structure, those that can be made from purely chemical means, without the assistance of a protein helper. (For example, the amino acids glycine, alanine and glutamic acid have been found on meteorites, suggesting they can form spontaneously in a variety of environments.) These are like the letters A, E and S — primordial units that served as the foundation for what came later.

Tryptophan, in comparison, has a complex structure and is comparatively rare in the protein code, like a Y or Z, leading scientists to theorize that it was one of the latest additions to the code.

That chemical evidence is compelling, but circumstantial. Enter Fournier. He suspected that by extending his work on paleogenomics, he would be able to prove tryptophan’s status as the last letter added to the code.

The Last Letter

Scientists have been reconstructing ancient proteins for more than a decade, primarily to figure out how ancient proteins differed from modern ones — what they looked like and how they functioned. But these efforts have focused on the period of evolution after the last universal common ancestor (or LUCA, as researchers call it). Fournier’s work delves further back than any other previous efforts. To do so, he had to move beyond the standard application of comparative genomics, which analyzes the differences between branches on the tree of life. “By definition, anything pre-LUCA lies beyond the deepest split in the tree,” he said.

Fournier started with two related proteins, TrpRS (tryptophanyl tRNA synthetase) and TyrRS (tyrosyl tRNA synthetase), which help decode RNA letters into the amino acids tryptophan and tyrosine. TrpRS and TyrRS are more closely related to each other than to any other protein, indicating that they evolved from the same ancestor protein. Sometime before LUCA, that parent protein mutated slightly to produce these two new proteins with distinct functions. Fournier used computational techniques to decipher what that ancestral protein must look like.

He found that the ancestral protein has all the amino acids but tryptophan, suggesting that its addition was the finishing touch to the genetic code. “It shows convincingly that tryptophan was the last amino acid added, as has been speculated before but not really nailed as has been done here,” said Nigel Goldenfeld, a physicist at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, who was not involved in the study.

Fournier now plans to use tryptophan as a marker to date other major pre-LUCA events such as the evolution of metabolism, cells and cell division, and the mechanisms of inheritance. These three processes form a sort of biological triumvirate that laid the foundation for life as we know it today. But we know little about how they came into existence. “If we understand the order of those basic steps, it creates an arrow pointing to possible scenarios for the origins of life,” Fournier said.

For example, . .

Continue reading.

Written by Leisureguy

16 April 2015 at 12:48 pm

Posted in Evolution, Science

Why corporations have taken over the government

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Because corporations spend $34 on lobbying for every $1 spent by any other entity (unions, public interest groups, etc.). Lee Drutman reports in the Washington Post:

To judge from polls, Americans are deeply concerned about political corruption. They share a widespread belief that members of Congress are unethical, with lobbyists as the only group seen as more unethical. The implicit understanding of politics is that the “special interests” and their lobbyists “buy” politicians, sort of like you’d buy a candy bar or a bag of chips out of a (very high-dollar) vending machine.

The problem with this view is not only that is it wrong, but also that it misdirects us. In short, it asks us to analyze politics without the actual politics –without the competition between competing interests, without the shifting alliances and coalitions, without parties and ideology, without any sense of there being a policy process, and without the many unpredictabilities and uncertainties that make politics actually interesting. It asks us to analyze transactions between individual politicians and individual special interests, as if they were separate and independent events (they are neither) that can be described as either “corrupt” or “not corrupt” (a useless dichotomy).

In so doing, we miss the bigger and more important story. The real story is not that lobbying or special interests are inherently bad. We have had them as long as we’ve had politics.

The problem is that one set of interests routinely overpowers the rest. In particular, corporate lobbying has metastasized over the last four decades, and this increasingly over-crowded and hyper-contested lobbying environment benefits the large corporations who have the most resources to participate in the day-to-day workings of Congress. This problem is compounded because Congress increasingly lacks its own capacity to keep up.

Organized interests collectively report $3.2 billion a year in lobbying expenditures, and probably equally or greater amounts on non-reported lobbying-related activities. The most active organizations are now hiring upwards of 100 lobbyists to represent them. These statistics alone should tell us that special interests don’t “buy” politicians with campaign contributions. If they did, there’d be no point in spending all that money to hire lobbyists.

The reason to hire so many lobbyists is that genuine political influence is actually hard work. It requires building a compelling case and then making that case over and over and over again. It means being in multiple places at once. Most of the time in Washington, not much is happening at the measurable surface.

But in the slow churn of the “war of position,” relationships are being maintained. Coalitions are being built. Worldviews are being reiterated. Legislation is being drafted and vetted. Carefully selected constituents are being brought in to tell carefully rehearsed stories. People are talking to other people, trying to figure out who will do what, what ideas are “serious” and “not serious,” what has a chance of moving, what isn’t going anywhere, what the press will cover, what voters might care about, and countless other attempts to shape the “common knowledge” of Washington.

The most active participants have many different goals they’d like to achieve: some long-term, some short-term. Scrutinize the lobbying reports of any major lobbying entity, and you will see an impressive range of issues and bills. Like a good venture capitalist, these major lobbying entities are investing in many possibilities, engaging in “spread betting” with the knowledge that one big tax break or patent extension or stalled regulation can more than justify a decade of government relations for a large corporation. Often, the main goal is keeping an issue off the agenda.

To focus only on the campaign contributions as transactional “buying” activity misses all this rich detail. Certainly, campaign contributions help, and all else equal, members of Congress are more likely to listen to those who contribute to their campaigns than those who don’t. But congressional offices get contributions from more people than they can effectively respond to. Often, they get contributions from interests on both sides of an issue.

Lobbyists also gain access because they have personal relationships with members or staff. Or because they have useful policy information or analysis – an especially valuable resource for young staffers who are stretched far too thin and happy for any help. Or because they just keep showing up. For the last 15 years, companies have consistently spent 13 times more on lobbying than they have on PAC contributions.

While considerable empirical work finds that there is no consistent correlation between money spent on outcomes in any given case, it would be a tremendous mistake to then conclude that resources are irrelevant. The key is to understand resources in the aggregate. More resources allow you to hire more lobbyists, to work on more issues – to do more of everything.

Looking at lobbying in the aggregate, what jumps out is the stark imbalance in resources. Corporations blow everyone else out of the water. Business accounts for roughly 80 percent of all reported lobbying expenditures, about $2.6 billion dollars a year now.

Certainly, there has always been “bias in the pressure system” (political science shorthand for the fact that not all interests are equally represented). But what’s new is just how much the steady and continued expansion of business lobbying over the last several decades has outpaced the traditional forces that once kept it in check.

The amount of political activity on behalf of large corporations today is truly unprecedented. The $2.6 billion in reported corporate lobbying spending is now more than the combined under $2 billion budget for the entire Senate ($820 million) and the entire House ($1.16 billion).

Meanwhile, the types of organized interests who we might expect to provide a countervailing force to business — labor unions, groups representing diffuse public like consumers or taxpayers — spend $1 for every $34 businesses spend on lobbying, by my count. Of the 100 organizations that spend the most on lobbying annually, consistently 95 represent business. In interviewing 60 corporate lobbyists for my book The Business of America is Lobbying, I asked them to identify the leading opposition on an issue on which they were currently working. Not a single lobbyist volunteered a union or a “public interest” group.

Even if we take the most benign view of lobbying as merely providing information and legislative support, these data suggest that, on many issues, policymakers hear significantly more often from one side than another. . .

Continue reading.

Written by Leisureguy

16 April 2015 at 12:18 pm

Posted in Business, Congress

BBS with #102 and Mystic Water

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SOTD 16 Apr 2015

Very nice shave indeed. I really like Mystic Water’s Sensitive Skin shaving soap, though my own skin is not especially sensitive. But the soap lathers well, has excellent ingredients, and performs well in the shave.

I used my Rooney Style 2 Finest, which did its usual excellent job. The iKon Shavecraft #102 is for me a wonderful slant. I do see on Wicked Edge a few who do not like it much at all, but they also turn out not to have actually used it—their conclusions are based totally on their expectations, and expectations turn out in practice to be an unreliable guide, particularly as compared to actual experience. For me, it’s a comfortable razor that easily delivers a BBS result, as it did today.

Three passes, a rinse, dry, and splash of Creed Aventus, and we begin to draw the week to a close.

Written by Leisureguy

16 April 2015 at 8:49 am

Posted in Shaving

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