Later On

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Archive for November 8th, 2017

New data show how the Trump administration is destroying the State Department

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Zack Beauchamp reports in Vox:

Imagine a company where, in the past year, 60 percent of its top management quit and applicants to work there dropped by half. You’d assume that corporation would be on the verge of going bankrupt or in the throes of some catastrophe — Enron after the scandal or Lehman Brothers during the financial crisis.

This is the reality of the US State Department under Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, according to new data from the American Foreign Service Association (AFSA), the professional organization for America’s diplomatic corps. The numbers reveal that American diplomacy, the backbone of US global influence, is in a state of near collapse.

And it’s basically all the Trump administration’s fault.

The new AFSA data focuses on the top-ranking career officials — meaning people who have spent their lives in the State Department. This includes minister counselors (the equivalent of two-star generals), career ministers (the three-star equivalent), and career ambassadors (the four-star equivalent).

The number of people in each of those posts has declined dramatically since President Trump took office in January. The number of minister counselors in the State Department has gone down by 15 percent, career ministers by 42 percent, and career ambassadors by a whopping 60 percent.

“Like the military, the Foreign Service recruits officers at entry level and grows them into seasoned leaders over decades,” explains Barbara Stephenson, the head of AFSA, in a letter Tuesday announcing the new findings. “The talent being shown the door now is not only our top talent, but also talent that cannot be replicated overnight.”

It’s not even clear that this can be fixed over a number of years, because the State Department isn’t hiring at the entry level either. The number of entry-level foreign service officer hires has declined from 366 in 2016 to a scant 100 in 2017, owing to a hiring freeze Tillerson imposed after his Senate confirmation. The number of people who took the Foreign Service exam, the main requirement to become a foreign service officer, dropped by more than half between 2016 and 2017.

Secretary Tillerson is kneecapping American foreign policy

To understand the consequences of this understaffing, it’s useful again to go back to the company analogy. A company that has lost much of its senior staff, isn’t promoting people to replace them, and isn’t hiring many new people wouldn’t be able to perform its basic functions — selling products, coming up with new business strategies, etc. — particularly well.

In this case, the “products” are little things like negotiating a solution to the North Korea crisis and helping manage US alliances, while the new business strategy is coming up with strategies for the world over. The US military can do many things when it comes to foreign policy, but it can’t fill in for diplomats. Without a functioning State Department, foreign diplomats have no one to talk to at the world’s most powerful address — and that scares them.

Elizabeth Saunders, a professor at George Washington University who studies US foreign policy, compares the US under Tillerson’s emaciated State Department to a person who doesn’t have health insurance. “Your life is probably fine — up until the point you get sick,” she told me. And given crises in places as diverse as Ukraine, Syria, and Venezuela, the world is at least starting to develop a cough.

Some of the blame for the dismal state of affairs at State accrues to the president’s seeming disinterest in maintaining a conventional foreign policy. But Tillerson, personally, is the bigger problem. Through hiring freezes, caps on the number of promotions, shuttering of whole sections of the State Department, and support for budget cuts, he has convinced the staff that he is basically out to destroy the department — leading many to simply quit. . .

Continue reading.

See also Kevin Drum’s post “Why Is Donald Trump Destroying the State Department?

Written by LeisureGuy

8 November 2017 at 9:35 pm

Alabama task force performs drug raid, man dies. Officials take his home, split the proceeds.

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Radley Balko reports in the Washington Post:

From the Southern Poverty Law Center:

Wayne Bonam jumped up, blinded by a flash-bang grenade, as police swarmed through the door and pointed guns at his head. His girlfriend, next to him, shouted at the cops: “Hey, wait – he has a bad heart!”

Wayne, 41, was indeed ill. More than a decade of heart problems left him with a fragile cardiovascular system, and the smoke from the grenade thrown into his home by police did not help. He would never recover after the September 2015 raid, which was carried out by 22nd Judicial Circuit Drug Task Force agents in the small South Alabama town of Andalusia. Coughing up blood, Wayne Bonam was hospitalized weeks later. He died the following November.

Wayne’s death was already a tragedy. But, for his family, it was only compounded by what police and prosecutors did next.

Yes, they took the family home. The police did apparently fine some cocaine and about $18,000 in cash in the house. But they never proved the family had anything to do with the drugs, or that the home was bought with drugs. They didn’t need to. They needed only to allege the most spurious of connections, and finding the drugs and the house was more than enough. The family hired an attorney with their life insurance money to try to keep the house. They lost. Then this happened:

This past August, the house fetched $76,000 at auction. Together with Wayne’s cash, the seized property was worth $94,282. On Oct. 12, everyone who had a hand in the forfeiture got a cut. The cash-strapped drug task force received $74,612. The prosecutor’s office walked away with $18,653. Even the court overseeing the proceedings collected $1,017.

That’s right. The court that was supposed to be neutral and fair in all of this got a cut of the proceeds. Had the family won, the court would have received nothing. Does that sound rigged? It ought to.

Then there’s the matter of that anti-drug task force. These task forces exist all over the country, and most were started with federal funds. But then the federal government started cutting funding. Like most government entities, the task forces weren’t just going to go away. Instead, they funded their continued existence with, you guessed it, civil asset forfeiture. That means taking houses from families.

By 2013, though, the county commission’s Byrne funding was already falling from year to year. The drug task force, in turn, saw less and less financial support. ADECA’s grants to the county, which at their highest totaled $273,366 in fiscal year 2008, dropped to $56,601 in fiscal year 2015 and have continued to decline since then. Regardless, county officials were reluctant to shutter the task force or fold it into the drug agency in the nearby city of Dothan.

Asset forfeitures helped to plug the funding holes.

In 2011, when the county commission received $132,172 in DOJ grant money through ADECA, prosecutors filed zero asset forfeiture cases, according to court records. In 2013, after the size of the grant from ADECA fell to $81,710 – from $115,949 the previous year – prosecutors brought 13 forfeiture cases based on task force operations. A judge awarded most of the proceeds to prosecutors and the task force itself. The drug agents cracked down on people buying and selling marijuana, seizing more than $19,000 in cash, three vehicles and five guns. In a prelude to Wayne Bonam’s case, they also took one parcel of land.

By 2015, the result in Covington County was a Frankenstein’s monster of a task force, cobbled together with resources from different agencies, addicted to drug money and in need of more.

Attorney General Jeff Sessions is from Alabama. If you’re wondering why he’s fighting like hell to preserve civil asset forfeiture, even as his own allies come out against it, this is probably a good clue. . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

8 November 2017 at 11:47 am

Brave Enough to Be Angry

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Lindy West has a strong op-ed in the NY Times:

Last month, an Access Hollywood correspondent asked the actress Uma Thurman to comment on abuse of power in Hollywood, presumably in light of the sexual assault allegations against the producer Harvey Weinstein. Speaking slowly and deliberately, through gritted teeth, Thurman responded, “I don’t have a tidy soundbite for you, because I’ve learned — I am not a child — and I have learned that when I’ve spoken in anger I usually regret the way I express myself. So I’ve been waiting to feel less angry. And when I’m ready, I’ll say what I have to say.”

Thurman is seething, like we have all been seething, in our various states of breaking open or, as Thurman chooses, waiting. We are seething at how long we have been ignored, seething for the ones who were long ago punished for telling the truth, seething for being told all of our lives that we have no right to seethe. Thurman’s rage is palpable yet contained, conveying not just the tempestuous depths of #MeToo but a profound understanding of the ways that female anger is received and weaponized against women.

In the past few months alone we’ve seen Carmen Yulín Cruz, mayor of San Juan, Puerto Rico, pilloried by the far right for criticizing Donald Trump’s anemic response to Hurricane Maria (“We are dying here,” Cruz told the news media, “I am mad as hell.”) and the Florida congresswoman Frederica Wilson deluged with abuse after she characterized Trump’s call to the military widow Myeshia Johnson as “insensitive” and “an insult.” Both Cruz and Wilson were directly targeted by the president on Twitter, then incessantly memed and regurgitated and redigested and rememed by his obedient online horde.

Just this week, Juli Briskman, a government contractor, lost her jobafter a photo of her flipping off the presidential motorcade went viral. Solange, Britney Spears, Sinead O’Connor, the Dixie Chicks, Rosie O’Donnell — I struggle to think of women who lost their tempers in public and didn’t face ridicule, temporary ruin, or both. And we don’t even have to be angry to be called angry. Accusations of being an “angry black woman” chased Michelle Obama throughout her tenure at the White House, despite eight years of unflappable poise (black women suffer disproportionately under this paradigm). The decades-long smearing of Hillary Clinton as an unhinged shrew culminated one year ago today when, despite maintaining a preternatural calm throughout the most brutal campaign in living memory, she lost the election to masculinity’s apoplectic id.

Like every other feminist with a public platform, I am perpetually cast as a disapproving scold. But what’s the alternative? To approve? I do not approve.

Not only are women expected to weather sexual violence, intimate partner violence, workplace discrimination, institutional subordination, the expectation of free domestic labor, the blame for our own victimization, and all the subtler, invisible cuts that undermine us daily, we are not even allowed to be angry about it. Close your eyes and think of America.

We are expected to keep quiet about the men who prey upon us, as though their predation was our choice, not theirs. We are expected to sit quietly as men debate whether or not the state should be allowed to forcibly use our bodies as incubators. We are expected to not complain as we are diminished, degraded and discredited.

We are expected to agree (and we comply!) with the paternal admonition that it is irresponsible and hyperemotional to request one female president after 241 years of male ones — because that would be tokenism, anti-democratic and dangerous — as though generations of white male politicians haven’t proven themselves utterly disinterested in caring for the needs of communities to which they do not belong. As though white men’s monopolistic death-grip on power in America doesn’t belie precisely the kind of “identity politics” they claim to abhor. As though competent, qualified women are so thin on the ground that even a concerted, sincere, large-scale search for one would be a long shot, and any resulting candidate a compromise.

Meanwhile, as a reminder of the bar for male competence, Donald Trump is the president.

Tuesday, voters — some angry, some hopeful despite themselves — went to the polls and told a different story: the first openly trans woman elected to the Virginia legislature, a surge of female Democratic candidates across the nation, many of them victorious.

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

8 November 2017 at 11:41 am

Endowments Boom as Colleges Bury Earnings Overseas

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The blurb:

American universities are using offshore strategies to swell their coffers, skirt taxes and obscure investments that could spark campus protests.

Stephanie Saul describes the corruption of academe:

n 2006, the endowments of Indiana University and Texas Christian University invested millions of dollars in a partnership, hoping to mint riches from oil, gas and coal.

The partnership was formed by the Houston-based Quintana Capital Group, whose principals include Donald L. Evans, an influential Texan and longtime supporter of former President George W. Bush. Little more than a year earlier, Mr. Evans had left his cabinet position as commerce secretary.

Though the group had an impressive Texas pedigree, presidential cachet and ambitions for operations in the United States, the new partnership was established in the Cayman Islands. The founders promised their university and nonprofit investors that the partnership would try to avoid federal taxes by exploiting a loophole called “blocker corporations,” which are typically established in tax havens around the world.

A trove of millions of leaked documents from a Bermuda-based law firm, Appleby, reflects some of the tax wizardry used by American colleges and universities. Schools have increasingly turned to secretive offshore investments, the files show, which let them swell their endowments with blocker corporations, and avoid scrutiny of ventures involving fossil fuels or other issues that could set off campus controversy.

Buoyed by lucrative tax breaks, college endowments have amassed more than $500 billion nationwide. The wealth is concentrated in a small group of schools, tilting toward private institutions like those in the Ivy League and other highly selective colleges. About 11 percent of higher-education institutions in the United States hold 74 percent of the money, according to an analysis in 2015 by the Congressional Research Service.

“It’s overwhelmingly weighted towards the 1 percent,” said Dean Zerbe, former tax counsel to the Senate Finance Committee. “Most of the schools are the most elites in the country.”

The House Republican tax plan includes a 1.4 percent tax on the investment income of private colleges and universities with endowment assets of $250,000 or more per student. It would not apply to public schools. If passed, the new tax would affect about 70 elite private colleges, though it would not touch the type of offshore benefits the Texan partnership pursued.

On Monday, 45 education groups declared their opposition to the bill in a letter to Kevin Brady, the Texas Republican who chairs the House Ways and Means Committee.

Tax ‘Blockers’

College and university endowment earnings are usually tax-exempt. But as endowments have sought greater investment returns in recent years, they have shifted more of their money out of traditional holdings like United States equities to alternative, potentially more lucrative investments. These include private equity and hedge funds that frequently borrow money, opening them up to tax consequences.

When schools earn income from enterprises unrelated to their core educational missions, they can be required to pay a tax that was intended to prevent nonprofits from competing unfairly with for-profit businesses.

Establishing another corporate layer between private equity funds and endowments effectively blocks any taxable income from flowing to the endowments, the reason they are called blocker corporations. The tax is instead owed by the corporations, which are established in no-tax or low-tax jurisdictions like the Cayman Islands or the British Virgin Islands.

“Congress is essentially subsidizing nonprofits by allowing them to engage in these transactions,” said Norman I. Silber, a law professor at Hofstra University who co-authored a paper on blocker corporations in 2015. “They’re allowing them to borrow so that they can build up their endowments.”

The use of blocker corporations has raised concerns among policymakers in recent years. That’s partly because . . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

8 November 2017 at 10:34 am

Unlocking the Secrets of the Microbiome

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Jane Brody reports in the NY Times:

Modern technology is making it possible for medical scientists to analyze inhabitants of our innards that most people probably would rather not know about. But the resulting information could one day save your health or even your life.

I’m referring to the trillions of bacteria, viruses and fungi that inhabit virtually every body part, including those tissues once thought to be sterile. Together, they make up the human microbiome and represent what is perhaps the most promising yet challenging task of modern medicine: Determining the normal microscopic inhabitants of every organ and knowing how to restore the proper balance of organisms when it is disrupted.

Proof of principle, as scientists call it, has already been established for a sometimes devastating intestinal infection by the bacterium Clostridium difficile. This infection, popularly called C. diff, often occurs when potent antibiotics wipe out the normal bacterial inhabitants of the gut that otherwise keep it in check.

When all else fails to clear up a recurrent C. diff infection, the Food and Drug Administration has approved treatment with a fecal transplantfrom a healthy gut presumed to contain bacteria that can suppress C. diff activity. The treatment is highly effective, with a cure rate in excess of 90 percent.

Under the auspices of the National Institutes of Health, a large team of scientists is now engaged in creating a “normal” microbiological road map for the following tissues: gastrointestinal tract, oral cavity, skin, airways, urogenital tract, blood and eye. The effort, called the Human Microbiome Project, takes advantage of new technology that can rapidly analyze large samples of genetic material, making it possible to identify the organisms present in these tissues.

Depending on the body site, anywhere from 20 percent to 60 percent of the organisms that make up the microbiota cannot be cultured and identified with the older, traditional techniques used by microbiologists.

If the institutes’ five-year project succeeds in defining changes in the microbiome that are associated with disease, it has the potential to transform medicine, assuming ways can be found to correct microbial distortions in the affected tissues.

Here are some of the demonstration projects already underway:

Skin: Dr. Martin J. Blaser, microbiologist and director of the human microbiome program at New York University School of Medicine, is directing examination of the organisms on the skin of 75 people with and without psoriasis, checking whether agents used to treat the condition adversely alter the microbiome.

Vagina: Jacques Ravel at the University of Maryland School of Medicine and Larry J. Forney at the University of Idaho are studying 200 women to determine the microbial changes that may result in a common and difficult-to-control infection called bacterial vaginosis, which afflicts more than 20 million American women of childbearing age.

Blood: At Washington University in St. Louis, Dr. Gregory A. Storch, a specialist in pediatric infectious disease, and colleagues are examining the role of viruses and the immune system in the blood and respiratory and gastrointestinal tracts of children who develop serious fevers that result in some 20 million visits a year to hospital emergency rooms.

Gastrointestinal tract: Claire M. Fraser-Liggett, a microbiologist, and Dr. Alan R. Shuldiner, a geneticist, both at the University of Maryland School of Medicine, are exploring how the microbiome affects the body’s use of energy and the development of obesity.

Previous studies have already found differences in the gut microbiota of lean and obese adults. There is also evidence that the typical high-calorie American diet rich in sugar, meats and processed foods may adversely affect the balance of microbes in the gut and foster the extraction and absorption of excess calories from food.

A diet more heavily based on plants — that is, fruits and vegetables — may result in a microbiome containing a wider range of healthful organisms. In studies, mice that had a microbiota preconditioned by the typical American diet did not respond as healthfully to a plant-based diet.

Compared to lean mice, obese mice have a 50 percent reduction in organisms called Bacteroidetes and a proportional increase in Firmicutes, and lean mice get fat when given fecal transplants from obese mice. A similar shift has been observed in people, and the distorted ratio of organisms was shown to reverse in people who lose weight following bariatric surgery.

There is also evidence that microbes residing in the gut can affect distant sites through their influence on a person’s immune responses. This indirect action has been suggested as a possible mechanism behind rheumatoid arthritis. In mice, certain bacteria in the gut have been shown to foster production of antibodies that attack the joints, resulting in the joint destruction typical of rheumatoid arthritis.

Similarly, studies have suggested a role of the gut microbiota in the risk of developing neuropsychiatric illnesses like schizophrenia, obsessive-compulsive disorder, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, autism and even chronic fatigue syndrome. Researchers have suggested that in genetically susceptible people, altered microbes in the gut may disrupt the blood-brain barrier, leading to the production of antibodies that adversely affect normal brain development.

Among the challenges in elucidating the microbiome’s role in health and disease is determining whether changes found in the microorganisms inhabiting various organs are a cause or an effect. . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

8 November 2017 at 10:06 am

Some interesting reversals in yesterday’s vote: Republican official who mocked the Women’s March defeated by woman he inspired to run

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Anton Woronczuk reports in Revere Press:

A New Jersey Republican official known for posting a misogynist meme and sporting Confederate flag memorabilia lost a local election on Tuesday — to a woman.

Ashley Bennett, a 32-year-old Democrat, defeated incumbent John Carman for the Atlantic County freeholder seat.

Carman had posted a detestable meme on the day of the Women’s March — perhaps the largest demonstration in world history — asking, “will the woman’s protest be over in time for them to cook dinner?”

Bennett told the Associated Press that she ran partly in response to Carman’s meme. “I was angry about (the Facebook meme), because elected officials shouldn’t be on social media mocking and belittling people who are expressing their concerns about their community and the nation,” she said.

Carman’s loss came on the same day as Danica Roem defeated anti-LGBTQ Republican Bob Marshall, becoming the first openly transgender person elected to the Virginia state legislature.

The defeats of Carman and Marshall suggest  . . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

8 November 2017 at 8:50 am

Posted in Election

Barrister & Mann’s Cologne Russe, Simpson Emperor 3, and the Rockwell R3

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I needed to add one small driblet of water as I loaded the brush, given the size of the Emperor 3 knot, and the lather turned out every nice, with an evocative fragrance.

Once again I learned how sharp razor blades are: I set the razor against my face just north of one side of my mouth and got an instant nick: bad angle. (After the shave, My Nik Is Sealed once again proved its value.) Except for that operator error, the shave was a pleasure. The Rockwell 6S really is a great razor, for those who want stainless steel.

A splash of Cologne Russe aftershave finished the job.

Written by LeisureGuy

8 November 2017 at 8:18 am

Posted in Shaving

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