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Archive for July 9th, 2018

New Study Confirms That American Workers Are Getting Ripped Off

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Eric Levitz writes in New York:

America’s unemployment rate is hovering near half-century lows. There are now more job openings than unemployed workers in the United States for the first time since the government began tracking that ratio. For America’s working class, macroeconomic conditions don’t get much better than this.

And yet, most Americans’ wages aren’t getting any better, at all. Over the past 12 months, piddling wage gains — combined with modest inflation — have left the vast majority of our nation’s laborers with lower real hourly earnings than they had in May 2017. On Wall Street, the second-longest expansion in U.S. history has brought boom times — in the coming weeks, S&P 500 companies will dole out a record-high $124.1 billion in quarterly dividends. But on Main Street, returns have been slim.

Economists have put forward a variety of explanations for the aberrant absence of wage growth in the middle of a recovery: Automation is slowly (but irrevocably) reducing the market-value of most workers’ skills; a lack of innovation has slowed productivity growth to a crawl; well-paid baby-boomers are retiring, and being replaced with millennials who have enough experience to do the boomers’ jobs — but not enough to demand their salaries.

There’s likely some truth to these narratives. But a new report from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) offers a more straightforward — and political — explanation: American policymakers have chosen to design an economic system that leaves workers desperate and disempowered, for the sake of directing a higher share of economic growth to bosses and shareholders.

The OECD doesn’t make this argument explicitly. But its report lays waste to the idea that the plight of the American worker can be chalked up to impersonal economic forces, instead of concrete political decisions. If the former were the case, then American laborers wouldn’t be getting a drastically worse deal than their peers in other developed nations. But we are. Here’s a quick rundown of the various ways that American workers are getting ripped off:

American workers are more likely to be poor (by the standards of their nation). In the United States, nearly 15 percent of workers earn less than half of the median wage. That gives the U.S. a higher “low-income rate” than any other developed nation besides Greece and Spain.

We also get fired more often — and with far less notice. Roughly one in five American workers leave their jobs each year, a turnover rate higher than those in all but a handful of other developed countries. And as the Washington Post’s Andrew Van Dam notes, that churn isn’t driven by entrepreneurial Americans quitting to pursue more profitable endeavors:

[D]ecade-old OECD research found that an unusually large amount of job turnover in the United States is due to firing and layoffs, and Labor Department figures show the rate of layoffs and firings hasn’t changed significantly since the research was conducted.

Not only do Americans get fired more than other workers; we also get less warning. Every developed nation besides the U.S. and Mexico requires companies to give individual workers at least a week’s notice before laying them off; the vast majority of countries require more than a month. But if you’re reading this from an office in the U.S., your boss is free to tell you to pack your things at any moment.

Our government does less for us when we’re out of work than just about anyone else’s. Many European countries have “active labor market policies” — programs that provide laid-off workers with opportunities to train for open positions. The United States, by contrast, does almost nothing to help its unemployed residents reintegrate into the labor force; no developed nation but Slovakia devotes a lower share of its wealth to such purposes. Meanwhile, a worker in the average U.S. state will stop receiving unemployment benefit payments after they’ve been out of a job for 26 weeks — workers in all but five other developed countries receive unemployment benefits for longer than that; in a few advanced nations, such benefits last for an unlimited duration.

Labor’s share of income has been falling faster in the U.S. than almost anywhere else. Between 1995 and 2013, workers’ share of national income in the U.S. dropped by eight percentage points — a steeper decline that in any other nation except for South Korea and Poland.

And the American capitalist class has been claiming an exceptionally high share of national income for much longer than just two decades — as this stunning chart from the 2018 World Inequality Report makes clear:

 . . .

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Written by LeisureGuy

9 July 2018 at 5:01 pm

How the EPA and the Pentagon Downplayed a Growing Toxic Threat

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Abrahm Lustgarten reports in ProPublica:

A family of chemicals — known as PFAS and responsible for marvels like Teflon and critical to the safety of American military bases — has now emerged as a far greater menace than previously disclosed.

The chemicals once seemed near magical, able to repel water, oil and stains.

By the 1970s, DuPont and 3M had used them to develop Teflon and Scotchgard, and they slipped into an array of everyday products, from gum wrappers to sofas to frying pans to carpets. Known as perfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS, they were a boon to the military, too, which used them in foam that snuffed out explosive oil and fuel fires.

It’s long been known that, in certain concentrations, the compounds could be dangerous if they got into water or if people breathed dust or ate food that contained them. Tests showed they accumulated in the blood of chemical factory workers and residents living nearby, and studies linked some of the chemicals to cancers and birth defects.

Now two new analyses of drinking water data and the science used to analyze it make clear the Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Defense have downplayed the public threat posed by these chemicals. Far more people have likely been exposed to dangerous levels of them than has previously been reported because contamination from them is more widespread than has ever been officially acknowledged.

Moreover, ProPublica has found, the government’s understatement of the threat appears to be no accident.

The EPA and the Department of Defense calibrated water tests to exclude some harmful levels of contamination and only register especially high concentrations of chemicals, according to the vice president of one testing company. Several prominent scientists told ProPublica the DOD chose to use tests that would identify only a handful of chemicals rather than more advanced tests that the agencies’ own scientists had helped develop which could potentially identify the presence of hundreds of additional compounds.

The first analysis, contained in an EPA contractor’s PowerPoint presentation, shows that one chemical — the PFAS most understood to cause harm — is 24 times more prevalent in public drinking water than the EPA has reported. Based on this, the Environmental Working Group, an advocacy organization whose scientists have studied PFAS pollution, has estimated that as many as 110 million Americans are now at risk of being exposed to PFAS chemicals.

In the second analysis, ProPublica compared how the military checks for and measures PFAS-related contamination to what’s identified by more advanced tests. We found that the military relied on tests which are not capable of detecting all the PFAS chemicals it believed to be present. Even then, it underreported its results, sharing only a small part if its data. We also found that the military’s own research programs had retested several of those defense sites using more advanced testing technology and identified significantly more pollution than what the military reported to Congress.

Even before the troubling new information about PFAS chemicals emerged, the government had acknowledged problems relating to them were spreading. Past EPA water testing, however incomplete, identified drinking water contamination across 33 states that Harvard researchers estimated affected some 6 million people. The military suspected drinking water at more than 660 U.S. defense sites where firefighting foam was used could be contaminated; earlier this year, it announced it had confirmed contamination in 36 drinking water systems and in 90 groundwater sites on or near its facilities.

The new analyses suggest these findings likely represent just a fraction of the true number of people and drinking water systems affected.

In written responses to questions, the EPA did not directly address whether it had understated contamination from PFAS chemicals. The agency said it had confidence in its current testing procedures and had set detection limits at appropriate levels. It also stated that it is taking steps towards regulating some PFAS compounds and registering them as “hazardous substances,” a classification that triggers additional oversight under waste and pollution laws.

The agency will “take concrete actions to ensure PFAS is thoroughly addressed and all Americans have access to clean and safe drinking water,” then-EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt, who recently resigned, said in the written statement to ProPublica in May.

The Department of Defense also responded to questions in writing, defending its testing methods as the best available and calling it difficult to fully assess risks from PFAS because the EPA has not regulated these chemicals. A DOD spokeswoman said the Pentagon’s research group has a program underway aimed at enhancing the test methods and detecting more PFAS compounds, but suggested that no alternatives were ready for use. She did not answer questions about why the agency reported contamination levels for only two chemicals to Congress when it would have had data on many more, stating only that the Pentagon “is committed to protecting human health and the environment.”

Environmental experts aren’t convinced.

“Widespread contamination may be harming the health of millions or even tens of millions of Americans and the government is intentionally covering up some of the evidence,” said Erik Olson, a senior director for health, food and agriculture initiatives at the Natural Resources Defense Council, in an interview. The EPA and Defense Department “have done all they can to sort of drag their feet and avoid meaningful regulatory action in making significant investment in cleanups.”

In May, a Politico report revealed that . . .

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The UN Encourages Breastfeeding. Donald Trump Is Lying About It.

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Kevin Drum points out another tiresome Trump lie:

Last night I linked to a New York Times story about how the Trump administration bullied Ecuador into withdrawing its sponsorship of a UN resolution to encourage breastfeeding. Are you curious about what the resolution actually says? Sure you are! Here it is.

The 71st World Health Assembly urges member states:

(1) to increase investment in development, implementation and monitoring and evaluation of laws, policies and programmes aimed at protection, promotion, including education and support of breastfeeding, including through multisectoral approaches and awareness raising;

(2) to reinvigorate the Baby-friendly Hospital Initiative, including by promoting full integration of the revised Ten steps to successful breastfeeding, in efforts and programmes aimed at improving quality of care for maternal, newborn and child health;

(3) to implement and/or strengthen national mechanisms for effective implementation of measures aimed at giving effect to the International Code of Marketing of Breast-milk Substitutes as well as other WHO evidence based recommendations;

(4) to promote timely and adequate complementary feeding in accordance with the guiding principles for complementary feeding of the breastfed child, as well as guiding principles for the feeding of the non-breastfed child 6–24 months of age;

(5) to continue taking all necessary measures in the interest of public health to implement recommendations to end inappropriate promotion of foods for infants and young children;

(6) to take all necessary measures to ensure evidence-based and appropriate infant and young child feeding during emergencies,including through preparedness plans, capacity-building of personnel working in emergency situations, and coordination of intersectoral operations;

(7) to celebrate World Breastfeeding Week as a valuable means to promote breastfeeding;

Basically, they want countries to encourage breastfeeding; end misleading advertising of formula; and support “appropriate” measures during emergencies. Naturally, Donald Trump had this to say about it:

There is nothing in the UN resolution about denying anything to anybody. It merely encourages breastfeeding and opposes deceptive marketing of formula. As usual, Trump is lying about the whole thing.

Written by LeisureGuy

9 July 2018 at 4:14 pm

The Maps of Israeli Settlements That Shocked Barack Obama

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Adam Entous writes in the New Yorker:

One afternoon in the spring of 2015, a senior State Department official named Frank Lowenstein paged through a government briefing book and noticed a map that he had never seen before. Lowenstein was the Obama Administration’s special envoy on Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, a position that exposed him to hundreds of maps of the West Bank. (One adorned his State Department office.)

Typically, those maps made Jewish settlements and outposts look tiny compared to the areas where the Palestinians lived. The new map in the briefing book was different. It showed large swaths of territory that were off limits to Palestinian development and filled in space between the settlements and the outposts. At that moment, Lowenstein told me, he saw “the forest for the trees”—not only were Palestinian population centers cut off from one another but there was virtually no way to squeeze a viable Palestinian state into the areas that remained. Lowenstein’s team did the math. When the settlement zones, the illegal outposts, and the other areas off limits to Palestinian development were consolidated, they covered almost sixty per cent of the West Bank.

Lowenstein showed the small map to Secretary of State John Kerry and said, “Look what’s really going on here.” Kerry brought the map to his next meeting with President Obama. The map was too small for everyone in the Situation Room to see, so Lowenstein had a series of larger maps made. The information was then verified by U.S. intelligence agencies. Obama’s Presidency was winding down, but Lowenstein figured that he could use the time left to raise awareness about what the Israelis were doing. “One day, everyone’s going to wake up and go, ‘Wait a minute, we’ve got to stop this to at least have the possibility of a two-state solution,’ ” Lowenstein said.

The State Department presentation, which was prepared in 2015 and updated in 2016, showed examples of what the State Department identified as “Palestinian incitement” and maps depicting Israel’s settlement growth in the West Bank. One of the maps was titled “What a One State Reality Looks Like,” and included a bullet point that read, “In the combined areas of Israel, Jerusalem, the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, Jews no longer represent the majority.” (Israeli officials have said that the number of Jews and Arabs is at or near parity.)

Kerry met regularly with Obama in the Oval Office. During one of those meetings, Kerry placed the maps on a large coffee table, one after another, so Obama and his advisers could study them. Ben Rhodes, one of Obama’s longest-serving advisers, said the President was shocked to see how “systematic” the Israelis had been at cutting off Palestinian population centers from one another. Lowenstein didn’t show the maps to the Israelis, but he did walk them through the key findings, which were incorporated into Kerry speeches and other documents. Lowenstein said the Israelis never challenged those findings.

Later, Kerry presented some of the maps to Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian President. Kerry’s goal was to show Abbas that the Obama Administration understood the extent to which the two-state solution was threatened. Abbas was taken aback. Instead of feeling reassured, he told . . .

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There’s much more, and it’s worth reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

9 July 2018 at 1:15 pm

Will Trump Be Meeting With His Counterpart — Or His Handler?

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In New York Jonathan Chait describes a scary thought:

On June 14, 2016, the Washington Post reported that Russian hackers had broken into the Democratic National Committee’s files and gained access to its research on Donald Trump. A political world already numbed by Trump’s astonishing rise barely took notice. News reports quoted experts who suggested the Russians merely wanted more information about Trump to inform their foreign-policy dealings. By that point, Russia was already broadcasting its strong preference for Trump through the media. Yet when news of the hacking broke, nobody raised the faintest suspicions that Russia wished to alter the outcome of the election, let alone that Trump or anybody connected with him might have been in cahoots with a foreign power. It was a third-rate cyberburglary. Nothing to see here.

The unfolding of the Russia scandal has been like walking into a dark cavern. Every step reveals that the cave runs deeper than we thought, and after each one, as we wonder how far it goes, our imaginations are circumscribed by the steps we have already taken. The cavern might go just a little farther, we presume, but probably not much farther. And since trying to discern the size and shape of the scandal is an exercise in uncertainty, we focus our attention on the most likely outcome, which is that the story goes a little deeper than what we have already discovered. Say, that Donald Trump Jr., Jared Kushner, and Paul Manafort told their candidate about the meeting they held at Trump Tower with a Russian lawyer after they were promised dirt on Hillary Clinton; and that Trump and Kushner have some shady Russian investments; and that some of Trump’s advisers made some promises about lifting sanctions.

But what if that’s wrong? What if we’re still standing closer to the mouth of the cave than the end?

The media have treated the notion that Russia has personally compromised the president of the United States as something close to a kook theory. A minority of analysts, mostly but not exclusively on the right, have promoted aggressively exculpatory interpretations of the known facts, in which every suspicious piece of evidence turns out to have a surprisingly innocent explanation. And it is possible, though unlikely, that every trail between Trump Tower and the Kremlin extends no farther than its point of current visibility.

What is missing from our imagination is the unlikely but possible outcome on the other end: that this is all much worse than we suspect. After all, treating a small probability as if it were nonexistent is the very error much of the news media made in covering the presidential horse race. And while the body of publicly available information about the Russia scandal is already extensive, the way it has been delivered — scoop after scoop of discrete nuggets of information — has been disorienting and difficult to follow. What would it look like if it were reassembled into a single narrative, one that distinguished between fact and speculation but didn’t myopically focus on the most certain conclusions?

A case like this presents an easy temptation for conspiracy theorists, but we can responsibly speculate as to what lies at the end of this scandal without falling prey to their fallacies. Conspiracy theories tend to attract people far from the corridors of power, and they often hypothesize vast connections within or between governments and especially intelligence agencies. One of the oddities of the Russia scandal is that many of the most exotic and sinister theories have come from people within government and especially within the intelligence field.

The first intimations that Trump might harbor a dark secret originated among America’s European allies, which, being situated closer to Russia, have had more experience fending off its nefarious encroachments. In 2015, Western European intelligence agencies began picking up evidence of communications between the Russian government and people in Donald Trump’s orbit. In April 2016, one of the Baltic states shared with then–CIA director John Brennan an audio recording of Russians discussing funneling money to the Trump campaign. In the summer of 2016, Robert Hannigan, head of the U.K. intelligence agency GCHQ, flew to Washington to brief Brennan on intercepted communications between the Trump campaign and Russia.

The contents of these communications have not been disclosed, but what Brennan learned obviously unsettled him profoundly. In congressional testimony on Russian election interference last year, Brennan hinted that some Americans might have betrayed their country. “Individuals who go along a treasonous path,” he warned, “do not even realize they’re along that path until it gets to be a bit too late.” In an interview this year, he put it more bluntly: “I think [Trump] is afraid of the president of Russia. The Russians may have something on him personally that they could always roll out and make his life more difficult.”

While the fact that the former CIA director has espoused this theory hardly proves it, perhaps we should give more credence to the possibility that Brennan is making these extraordinary charges of treason and blackmail at the highest levels of government because he knows something we don’t.

Suppose we are currently making the same mistake we made at the outset of this drama — suppose the dark crevices of the Russia scandal run not just a little deeper but a lot deeper. If that’s true, we are in the midst of a scandal unprecedented in American history, a subversion of the integrity of the presidency. It would mean the Cold War that Americans had long considered won has dissolved into the bizarre spectacle of Reagan’s party’s abetting the hijacking of American government by a former KGB agent. It would mean that when Special Counsel Robert Mueller closes in on the president and his inner circle, possibly beginning this summer, Trump may not merely rail on Twitter but provoke a constitutional crisis.

And it would mean the Russia scandal began far earlier than conventionally understood and ended later — indeed, is still happening. As Trump arranges to meet face-to-face and privately with Vladimir Putin later this month, the collusion between the two men metastasizing from a dark accusation into an open alliance, it would be dangerous not to consider the possibility that the summit is less a negotiation between two heads of state than a meeting between a Russian-intelligence asset and his handler.

It is often said that Donald Trump has had the same nationalistic, zero-sum worldview forever. But that isn’t exactly true. Yes, his racism and mendacity have been evident since his youth, but those who have traced the evolution of his hypernationalism all settle on one year in particular: 1987. Trump “came onto the political stage in 1987 with a full-page ad in the New York Times attacking the Japanese for relying on the United States to defend it militarily,” reported Edward Alden, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. “The president has believed for 30 years that these alliance commitments are a drain on our finite national treasure,” a White House official told the Washington Post columnist Josh Rogin. Tom Wright, another scholar who has delved into Trump’s history, reached the same conclusion. “1987 is Trump’s breakout year. There are only a couple of examples of him commenting on world politics before then.”

What changed that year? One possible explanation is that Trump published The Art of the Deal, which sped up his transformation from an aggressive, publicity-seeking New York developer to a national symbol of capitalism. But the timing for this account does not line up perfectly — the book came out on November 1, and Trump had begun opining loudly on trade and international politics two months earlier. The other important event from that year is that Trump visited Moscow.

During the Soviet era, Russian intelligence cast a wide net to gain leverage over influential figures abroad. (The practice continues to this day.) The Russians would lure or entrap not only prominent politicians and cultural leaders, but also people whom they saw as having the potential for gaining prominence in the future. In 1986, Soviet ambassador Yuri Dubinin met Trump in New York, flattered him with praise for his building exploits, and invited him to discuss a building in Moscow. Trump visited Moscow in July 1987. He stayed at the National Hotel, in the Lenin Suite, which certainly would have been bugged. There is not much else in the public record to describe his visit, except Trump’s own recollection in The Art of the Deal that Soviet officials were eager for him to build a hotel there. (It never happened.)

Trump returned from Moscow fired up with political ambition. He began the first of a long series of presidential flirtations, which included a flashy trip to New Hampshire. Two months after his Moscow visit, Trump spent almost $100,000 on a series of full-page newspaper ads that published a political manifesto. “An open letter from Donald J. Trump on why America should stop paying to defend countries that can afford to defend themselves,” as Trump labeled it, launched angry populist charges against the allies that benefited from the umbrella of American military protection. “Why are these nations not paying the United States for the human lives and billions of dollars we are losing to protect their interests?”

Trump’s letter avoided the question of whom the U.S. was protecting those countries from. The primary answer, of course, was the Soviet Union. After World War II, the U.S. had created a liberal international order and underwritten its safety by maintaining the world’s strongest military. A central goal of Soviet, and later Russian, foreign policy was to split the U.S. from its allies.

The safest assumption is that it’s entirely coincidental that Trump launched a national campaign, with himself as spokesman, built around themes that dovetailed closely with Soviet foreign-policy goals shortly after his Moscow stay. Indeed, it seems slightly insane to contemplate the possibility that a secret relationship between Trump and Russia dates back this far. But it can’t be dismissed completely. How do you even think about . . .

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Take a look at all the connections. (Click image to enlarge.)

And read the rest of the article. Chilling.

Written by LeisureGuy

9 July 2018 at 10:21 am

My best boar brush, the Omega 20402, along with Dapper Dragon, the Baili 171, and Fine American Classic

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One of those shaves for which everything worked well: great lather, brush felt good and worked well, the Baili 171 was a treat to use, and Fine’s American Blend, his original fragrance, hit the spot.

On Wicked Edge I reprised what I’ve learned about boar brushes: New boar brushes will actively kill the lather, almost as if the bristles were coated with some sort of lathercidal chemical. But as you use the brush, the hypothetical chemical is gradually worn/washed away. With an Omega brush, such as my favorite shown, you can see the lather improve on each successive use, and after a week of use, or at most two, everything’s clicking and the brush will continue to soften over time.

With a Semogue boar brush, the same process happens but more slowly: what happens with an Omega boar brush happens with a Semogue, but instead of a week or two of use, it requires a month or two… or three or four.

I just don’t have the patience for a Semogue boar, but of course there is YMMV: some men—very patient men, IMO—absolutely love their Semogue boar brushes.

There are other brands of boar brushes, but Omega and Semogue are clearly the industry leaders.

Written by LeisureGuy

9 July 2018 at 9:13 am

Posted in Shaving

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