Archive for March 4th, 2017
The idea that Obama somehow extorted some person to set up an illegal wiretap on trump is absurd. But I can guess who was bugging him–the Russians of course. Especially given that trump tower is well populated by obscenely wealthy, I.e., Putin friendly Russians with physical access to the building’s infrastructure.
A comment from another reader: “Trump has jumped the shark.”
Another comment from AndyBrown:
Once again, Trump craziness peaks when Ivanka and Jared are observing the Sabbath.
George Packer is a conservative commentator, IMO. For one thing, he strongly supported George W. Bush’s invastion of Iraq. He writes here in the New Yorker:
Section 4 of the Twenty-fifth Amendment to the Constitution allows for the removal of a President who can no longer discharge his duties but is unable or unwilling to say so. It empowers the Vice-President, along with “a majority of either the principal officers of the executive departments or of such other body as Congress may by law provide,” to declare the President unfit and to install the Vice-President as Acting President. Section 4 has never been invoked. In 1987, when Ronald Reagan appointed Howard Baker to be his new chief of staff, the members of the outgoing chief’s team warned their replacements that Reagan’s mental ineptitude might require them to attempt the removal of the President under Section 4. Baker and his staff, at their first official meeting with Reagan, watched him carefully for signs of incapacity—but the President, apparently cheered by the arrival of newcomers, was alert and lively, and he served out the rest of his second term.
After a month in office, Donald Trump has already proved himself unable to discharge his duties. The disability isn’t laziness or inattention. It expresses itself in paranoid rants, non-stop feuds carried out in public, and impulsive acts that can only damage his government and himself. Last week, at a White House press conference, the President behaved like the unhinged leader of an unstable and barely democratic republic. He rambled for nearly an hour and a half, on script and off; he flung insults at reporters; he announced that he was having fun; and he congratulated himself so many times and in such preposterous terms (“this Administration is running like a fine-tuned machine”) that the White House press corps could only stare in amazement. The gaudy gold drapery of the East Room contributed to the impression that at any moment Trump might declare himself President for Life, and a flunky would appear from behind the curtain to pin the Medal of National Greatness on his suit jacket, while, backstage, officials and generals discussed his overthrow. Trump experienced such a deep need to get back on top by lashing out that he apparently overrode the objections of his advisers, felt much better afterward, then prepared to go to Florida to sustain his high at the first rally of his reëlection campaign.
While the White House isolates itself in power struggles, the Administration is in nearly open revolt. Career diplomats are signing statements of dissent or leaving the State Department, while key posts remain unfilled. Officials at the Environmental Protection Agency fought to stop Scott Pruitt, Trump’s pro-industry nominee, from taking over as their new boss. And other government officials, after weeks of hearing Trump belittle their agencies, are feeding the press information about Russian involvement with his campaign.
Foreign leaders, depending on their orientation, are watching this spectacle with disbelieving alarm or with calculating interest. Allies such as Prime Ministers Justin Trudeau, of Canada, and Shinzo Abe, of Japan, flatter the President in order to avoid the fate of Australia’s Malcolm Turnbull, whom Trump first berated and then hung up on during their get-to-know-you phone call. Vladimir Putin is already testing Trump, by sending Russian fighter jets to buzz a U.S. Navy ship. Xi Jinping is positioning China to fill the void in the Pacific Rim which will be left by Trump’s policy of America First. Pragmatists in Iran are trying to judge whether the new American government can be counted on to act rationally—exactly what U.S. officials always wondered about the fractured leadership of the Islamic Republic.
It won’t get better. The notion that, at some point, Trump would start behaving “Presidential” was always a fantasy that has the truth backward: the pressure of the Presidency is making him worse. He’s insulated by sycophants and by family members, and he can still ride a long way on his popular following. Though the surge of civic opposition, the independence of the courts, and the reinvigoration of the press are heartening, the only real leverage over Trump lies in the hands of Republicans. But Section 4 won’t be invoked. Vice-President Mike Pence is not going to face the truth in the private back room of a Washington restaurant with Secretaries Betsy DeVos, Ben Carson, and Wilbur Ross, or in the offices of Speaker of the House Paul Ryan and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. Republican leaders have opted instead for unconstrained power.
They need Trump to pass their agenda of rewriting the tax code in favor of the rich and of gutting regulations that protect the public and the planet—an agenda that a majority of Americans never supported—so they are looking the other way. Even the prospect of Russian influence over our elections and our government leaves these American patriots unmoved. Senator John Cornyn, of Texas, the Republican whip, made it plain: Trump can go on being Trump “as long as we’re able to get things done.” Senator Rand Paul, of Kentucky, explained, “We’ll never even get started with doing the things we need to do, like repealing Obamacare, if we’re spending our whole time having Republicans investigate Republicans.” . . .
Dana Milbank summarizes it nicely in the Washington Post:
Having trouble following the fast-moving developments about the Trump team’s ties to Russia? Here’s a primer to get you up to speed:
President Trump got to know Russian President Vladimir Putin “very well,” but he doesn’t “know Putin.”
Putin sent Trump “a present” and they spoke, but Trump has “no relationship with him.”
Trump has “nothing to do with Russia,” but his son has said “Russians make up a pretty disproportionate cross-section of a lot of our assets” and “we see a lot of money pouring in from Russia.”
U.S. intelligence agencies allege that Putin meddled in the election to try to get Trump elected, but this was all a “ruse” and a “fake news fabricated deal to try and make up for the loss of the Democrats.”
There was “no communication” between Trump’s team and Russia during the campaign and transition, except for communication with Russia by Trump’s future national security adviser, his future attorney general and his son-in-law and two others.
Attorney General Jeff Sessions “did not have communications with the Russians,” except for the two meetings with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak he neglected to mention under oath.
Sessions then said he never discussed the campaign with Russians, which is not what was alleged.
Sessions had “no idea what this allegation is about” regarding his Russian contacts but had enough of an idea what it was about to declare “it is false.”
Sessions recused himself from the Russia investigation, but this decision is unrelated to the discovery that he spoke twice with the Russian ambassador despite his claims that he had no such meetings.
Sessions cannot confirm the investigation he recused himself from exists or will exist in the future.
Sessions believes that perjury is one of the constitutional “high crimes and misdemeanors” and “goes to the heart of the judicial system,” except his false testimony under oath to Congress was not a false statement but a case of speaking too quickly.
Sessions met with the Russian ambassador during the time Sessions was serving as a surrogate for the Trump campaign, but not in his capacity as a surrogate for the Trump campaign.
Sessions remembers nothing of his meetings with the Russian ambassador, except that he remembers clearly talking about terrorism and religion and Ukraine and he’s sure they didn’t talk about the campaign.
It was a total coincidence that . . .
Bejamin Wittes writes at Lawfare:
This morning, the country awoke to a bizarre tweetstorm from the President of the United States, about which I have ten questions.
First off, here’s what Trump tweeted.
Here are my questions, about all of which I am, I want to stress, entirely serious:
- Are you making the allegation that President Obama conducted electronic surveillance of Trump Tower in your capacity as President of the United States based on intelligence or law enforcement information available to you in that capacity?
- If so—that is, if you have executive branch information validating that either a FISA wiretap or a Title III wiretap took place—have you reviewed the applications for the surveillance and have you or your lawyers concluded that they lack merit?
- If you know that a FISA wiretap took place, are you or were you at the time of the application, an agent of a foreign power within the meaning of FISA?
- Was anyone else working in Trump Tower an agent of a foreign power within the meaning of FISA?
- If you know that a Title III wiretap took place, are you or were you at the time of the application engaged in criminal activity that would support a Title III wiretap or might you have previously engaged in criminal activity that might legitimately be the subject of a Title III wiretap?
- Was anyone else working in Trump Tower engaged in criminal activity that would support a Title III wiretap or might another person have previously engaged in criminal activity that might legitimately be the subject of a Title III wiretap?
- If you were tweeting not based on knowledge received as chief executive of the United States, were you tweeting in your capacity as a reader of Breitbart or a listener of Mark Levin’s radio show?
- If so, on what basis are you confident the stories and allegations in these august outlets are true and accurate vis a vis the activity of the government you, in fact, now head?
- If you l
That was the question asked on Quora, and this answer is excellent and told me quite a bit I didn’t know.
Elizabeth Kolbert has an intriguing article in the New Yorker:
In 1975, researchers at Stanford invited a group of undergraduates to take part in a study about suicide. They were presented with pairs of suicide notes. In each pair, one note had been composed by a random individual, the other by a person who had subsequently taken his own life. The students were then asked to distinguish between the genuine notes and the fake ones.
Some students discovered that they had a genius for the task. Out of twenty-five pairs of notes, they correctly identified the real one twenty-four times. Others discovered that they were hopeless. They identified the real note in only ten instances.
As is often the case with psychological studies, the whole setup was a put-on. Though half the notes were indeed genuine—they’d been obtained from the Los Angeles County coroner’s office—the scores were fictitious. The students who’d been told they were almost always right were, on average, no more discerning than those who had been told they were mostly wrong.
In the second phase of the study, the deception was revealed. The students were told that the real point of the experiment was to gauge their responses to thinking they were right or wrong. (This, it turned out, was also a deception.) Finally, the students were asked to estimate how many suicide notes they had actually categorized correctly, and how many they thought an average student would get right. At this point, something curious happened. The students in the high-score group said that they thought they had, in fact, done quite well—significantly better than the average student—even though, as they’d just been told, they had zero grounds for believing this. Conversely, those who’d been assigned to the low-score group said that they thought they had done significantly worse than the average student—a conclusion that was equally unfounded.
“Once formed,” the researchers observed dryly, “impressions are remarkably perseverant.”
A few years later, a new set of Stanford students was recruited for a related study. The students were handed packets of information about a pair of firefighters, Frank K. and George H. Frank’s bio noted that, among other things, he had a baby daughter and he liked to scuba dive. George had a small son and played golf. The packets also included the men’s responses on what the researchers called the Risky-Conservative Choice Test. According to one version of the packet, Frank was a successful firefighter who, on the test, almost always went with the safest option. In the other version, Frank also chose the safest option, but he was a lousy firefighter who’d been put “on report” by his supervisors several times. Once again, midway through the study, the students were informed that they’d been misled, and that the information they’d received was entirely fictitious. The students were then asked to describe their own beliefs. What sort of attitude toward risk did they think a successful firefighter would have? The students who’d received the first packet thought that he would avoid it. The students in the second group thought he’d embrace it.
Even after the evidence “for their beliefs has been totally refuted, people fail to make appropriate revisions in those beliefs,” the researchers noted. In this case, the failure was “particularly impressive,” since two data points would never have been enough information to generalize from.
The Stanford studies became famous. Coming from a group of academics in the nineteen-seventies, the contention that people can’t think straight was shocking. It isn’t any longer. Thousands of subsequent experiments have confirmed (and elaborated on) this finding. As everyone who’s followed the research—or even occasionally picked up a copy of Psychology Today—knows, any graduate student with a clipboard can demonstrate that reasonable-seeming people are often totally irrational. Rarely has this insight seemed more relevant than it does right now. Still, an essential puzzle remains: How did we come to be this way?
In a new book, “The Enigma of Reason” (Harvard), the cognitive scientists Hugo Mercier and Dan Sperber take a stab at answering this question. Mercier, who works at a French research institute in Lyon, and Sperber, now based at the Central European University, in Budapest, point out that reason is an evolved trait, like bipedalism or three-color vision. It emerged on the savannas of Africa, and has to be understood in that context.
Stripped of a lot of what might be called cognitive-science-ese, Mercier and Sperber’s argument runs, more or less, as follows: Humans’ biggest advantage over other species is our ability to coöperate. Coöperation is difficult to establish and almost as difficult to sustain. For any individual, freeloading is always the best course of action. Reason developed not to enable us to solve abstract, logical problems or even to help us draw conclusions from unfamiliar data; rather, it developed to resolve the problems posed by living in collaborative groups.
“Reason is an adaptation to the hypersocial niche humans have evolved for themselves,” Mercier and Sperber write. Habits of mind that seem weird or goofy or just plain dumb from an “intellectualist” point of view prove shrewd when seen from a social “interactionist” perspective.
Consider what’s become known as “confirmation bias,” the tendency people have to embrace information that supports their beliefs and reject information that contradicts them. Of the many forms of faulty thinking that have been identified, confirmation bias is among the best catalogued; it’s the subject of entire textbooks’ worth of experiments. One of the most famous of these was conducted, again, at Stanford. For this experiment, researchers rounded up a group of students who had opposing opinions about capital punishment. Half the students were in favor of it and thought that it deterred crime; the other half were against it and thought that it had no effect on crime.
The students were asked to respond to two studies. One provided data in support of the deterrence argument, and the other provided data that called it into question. Both studies—you guessed it—were made up, and had been designed to present what were, objectively speaking, equally compelling statistics. The students who had originally supported capital punishment rated the pro-deterrence data highly credible and the anti-deterrence data unconvincing; the students who’d originally opposed capital punishment did the reverse. At the end of the experiment, the students were asked once again about their views. Those who’d started out pro-capital punishment were now even more in favor of it; those who’d opposed it were even more hostile.
If reason is designed to generate sound judgments, then it’s hard to conceive of a more serious design flaw than confirmation bias. Imagine, Mercier and Sperber suggest, a mouse that thinks the way we do. Such a mouse, “bent on confirming its belief that there are no cats around,” would soon be dinner. To the extent that confirmation bias leads people to dismiss evidence of new or underappreciated threats—the human equivalent of the cat around the corner—it’s a trait that should have been selected against. The fact that both we and it survive, Mercier and Sperber argue, proves that it must have some adaptive function, and that function, they maintain, is related to our “hypersociability.”
Mercier and Sperber prefer the term “myside bias.” Humans, they point out, aren’t randomly credulous. . .
Do keep reading. Lots more. Later in the article:
In a study conducted in 2012, they asked people for their stance on questions like: Should there be a single-payer health-care system? Or merit-based pay for teachers? Participants were asked to rate their positions depending on how strongly they agreed or disagreed with the proposals. Next, they were instructed to explain, in as much detail as they could, the impacts of implementing each one. Most people at this point ran into trouble. Asked once again to rate their views, they ratcheted down the intensity, so that they either agreed or disagreed less vehemently.
Sloman and Fernbach see in this result a little candle for a dark world. If we—or our friends or the pundits on CNN—spent less time pontificating and more trying to work through the implications of policy proposals, we’d realize how clueless we are and moderate our views. This, they write, “may be the only form of thinking that will shatter the illusion of explanatory depth and change people’s attitudes.”
Prostitutes, False Billing, a $3 Billion Lawsuit: Oscar Mixup is the Least of Pricewaterhouse Cooper’s Problems
Pam Martens and Russ Martens report in Wall Street on Parade:
PwC, formerly known as PricewaterhouseCoopers, is one of the Big Four accounting firms created in 1998 from the merger of Price Waterhouse and Coopers & Lybrand. Its namesakes are more than a century old. Unfortunately, PwC will henceforth be known as the accounting firm that provided presenters Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway with the wrong red envelope at Sunday night’s Oscars. That mistake created a chaotic scene where two producers of the film “La La Land” were initially allowed to give speeches on stage for Best Film, then stunned with the news that “Moonlight” had actually won the award. At one point, producers and casts of both films stood in dazed confusion on the stage.
According to the official report thus far, a PwC partner, Brian Cullinan, mistakenly handed the Best Actress award envelope (Emma Stone for “La La Land”) to Beatty, instead of the envelope for Best Film, leading to Dunaway announcing it as Best Film.
In a YouTube video (see below) made by PwC to celebrate its long history of tabulating votes for the Oscars, the words “Integrity” and “Accuracy” flash upon the screen. But in multiple current court actions, PwC’s integrity and accuracy are being challenged in very serious ways.
One court action is close to the home of the Oscars. The Los Angeles City Attorney, Michael N. Feuer, brought an action against PwC in 2015 on behalf of the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power (LADWP). It initially alleged that when PwC submitted a bid proposal to update the forty year old billing and customer care system for the LADWP it “marked the beginning of a pattern of intentional deception, breach of commitments, and an almost endless litany of attempts to deny or cover up those acts or omissions by PwC that is virtually breathtaking in both its scope and its audacity.”
Because of PwC’s intentional misrepresentations and breaches of contract, according to the lawsuit, a chaotic disaster fell upon the public utility: “…the Department was not able to bill some of its customers for more than 17 months, including more than 40,000 of its 400,000 commercial customers, resulting in an $11 million loss in revenue for each month during this period. Moreover, for weeks, LADWP couldn’t bill any of its 1.2 million residential customers at all.” In addition, the complaint goes on, countless LADWP customers were overbilled while others were underbilled, “resulting in an exponential surge in ratepayer complaints, non-payment of bills, and an enormous spike in the aging of accounts receivable.”
And, that wasn’t the worst part of this lawsuit. In June of last year, the Los Angeles City Attorney filed a motion to amend the complaint to include charges that “several senior-ranking PwC Managers” had engaged “in a three-year long conspiracy to defraud the City of Los Angeles and the LADWP by repeatedly submitting intentionally falsified PwC time records in a manner not able to be detected by LADWP to obtain payments for work that PwC never performed from 2011 through at least 2013.” Payments for the overbilling were then used, according to the City Attorney, “to reimburse their subcontractor for payments made for the services of escorts and prostitutes, lavish hotel stays, two bachelor parties and thousands of dollars for ‘bottle service’ liquor at Las Vegas hotels and clubs in July 2011 and May 2013.”
This is not the first time that PwC has been charged with overbilling. In 2005, PwC paid $41.9 million to settle charges by the U.S. government that it had overbilled it for its travel expenses.
Then there is the titillating, multi-billion-dollar accounting malpractice case against PwC set to go to trial next Monday. . .