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Archive for April 2019

Rod Rosenstein Embodies the Republican Surrender to Trump

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Jonathan Chait writes in New York:

The most bizarre passage in Rod Rosenstein’s letter to President Trump resigning his post as deputy attorney general is praise for “the courtesy and humor you often display in our personal conversations.” It is not standard practice for the president to have personal conversations with the deputy attorney general at all, certainly not when that person is supervising an investigation into the president himself. And while we cannot know the substance of those personal conversations, we do know that Rosenstein was once so alarmed by Trump’s behavior that he discussed invoking the 25th Amendment to have him removed on account of mental unfitness.

Maybe Trump’s private conversations somehow contain the humor that is completely lacking in his public persona, which consist of boasts, lies, and belittling attacks. Trump’s public treatment of Rosenstein included tweetingan image of him behind bars along with other alleged traitors. That Trump, what a jokester.

Rosenstein’s status as a target of Trump’s rage, and his background as a career official, raised broad hopes that he would check the president’s authoritarian impulses. By all indications, he failed to live up to this heroic destiny. Rosenstein ended his career as a dutiful functionary, allowing Trump to trash the rule of law while claiming he had upheld it.

Rosenstein deserves to be judged by the forgiving standards of a man placed in an untenable situation and having no good options. Trump’s worldview is inimical to the concept of the rule of law. The president believes the Department of Justice can and must be placed at his personal disposal, and used to harass his enemies while giving himself and his friends impunity. Trump can no more grasp a Department of Justice that holds his views at arm length than he could abide the doorman at his hotels subjecting him to strip searches.

Rosenstein’s answer to this dilemma was to bend, and bend, and bend. When Trump demanded personal loyalty from the FBI director and fired him for failing to quash a probe into Trump’s campaign, Rosenstein dutifully wrote a letter supplying Trump with a phony pretext. When Trump fired Attorney General Jeff Sessions for the offense of following Department rules and recusing himself from an investigation into which he was massively conflicted, he remained loyal. When Trump installed a transparent hack in Matthew Whitaker, prompting more than 400 former DOJ officials to sign a public letter of protest, Rosenstein called the choice “superb.”

And then of course Rosenstein joined with Attorney General William Barr to impose their judgment that Robert Mueller’s investigation would not accuse the president of obstructing justice. One of Trump’s many acts of obstruction included instructing Corey Lewandowski, a private citizen, to order Sessions to violate Department procedure and take control of the investigation. As Ben Wittes notes, “If true and provable beyond a reasonable doubt, it is unlawful obstruction of justice.”

Barr, with Rosenstein’s imprimatur, deemed these and all of Trump’s other efforts to harm the investigation to be non-crimes. He did this despite the fact that Trump’s obstruction of justice successfully obstructed the probe – by dangling pardons to key witnesses, Roger Stone and Paul Manafort, thereby preventing Mueller from getting to the bottom of the campaign’s collusion with Russia. Barr and Rosenstein made the comically backward argument that because Trump prevented Mueller from proving criminal collusion, there was no underlying crime, therefore his efforts to halt the probe must go unpunished.

Before his firing, Comey confided his misgivings about Rosenstein. “Rod is a survivor,” he said. And you don’t get to survive that long across administrations without making compromises. “So I have concerns.” This turned out to be a perfect epitaph for Rosenstein’s tenure.

When Trump was poised to fire Rosenstein last fall, Rosenstein pleaded for his job. “I give the investigation credibility,” he said, according to the Washington Post, “I can land the plane.” Trump has a gift for homing in on this kind of weakness, and surrounding himself with morally compromised individuals who will do his bidding. Rosenstein’s desperation to avoid the ignominy of a firing and the torrent of abuse that always followed it – “I don’t want to go out with a tweet,” he said, according to the Post – made him suitably pathetic for Trump’s purposes.

In a farewell speech several days ago, Rosenstein sycophantically quoted his boss: “As President Trump pointed out, ‘we govern ourselves in accordance with the rule of law rather [than] … the whims of an elite few.’” It was perhaps his most overt gesture of submission. Here Rosenstein credited a man he knows perfectly well has contempt for the rule of law with cherishing the principle he has relentlessly undermined, a task at which Rosenstein ultimately aided him. He might as well have quoted Trump proclaiming the importance of truth, chastity and frugality.

We can extend Rosenstein enough credit to assume things did not follow his fondest hopes. He surely did not want the FBI Director and Attorney general to be fired for doing their jobs properly, nor to be publicly belittled by the president. Instead he seems to have convinced himself that the need for normalcy, or the appearance of it, transcended everything else. After principled resignation seemed unthinkable, every new compromise simply kept the plane on track for its landing.

It turns out most of the Republicans in the bureaucracy operate along the same principles as the ones running for office. Trump’s manifest unfitness for office and disdain for democratic norms begin as a shock. Gradually, though, . . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

30 April 2019 at 6:54 pm

Brave New World includes automated firing: Amazon’s software generates firing papers for workers who fail to meet production goals

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From a newsletter sent by Institute for the Future:

Amazon has a system that tracks and categorizes the activities of its warehouse employees. If a worker spends too much “time off task” (such as pausing or taking breaks) the software system will generate paperwork to fire the employee. An Amazon spokesperson said a human supervisor makes the ultimate decision to fire a worker, and fired workers can appeal ”with a group of their associate peers or the general manager of the site.”

I imagine that software tracks the decisions of the human supervisor and a supervisor who fails to fire too many workers tagged for firing will also be fired.

Companies now treat employees as serfs.

Written by LeisureGuy

30 April 2019 at 6:49 pm

Trump Claims He Can Ignore Subpoenas Because Congress Is Mean

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Jonathan Chait writes in New York:

Last night Donald Trump and his family filed a lawsuit to prohibit Deutsche Bank and Capital One from turning over his financial information to congressional investigators. The legal basis for the lawsuit, in layman’s terms, is as follows: Congress is mean and only wants the information because it hates Trump. Or, to quote the only-slightly-more-sophisticated language of the lawsuit, “The subpoenas were issued to harass President Donald J. Trump, to rummage through every aspect of his personal finances, his businesses and the private information of the president and his family, and to ferret about for any material that might be used to cause him political damage. No grounds exist to establish any purpose other than a political one.”

This same argument runs nearly all of Trump’s refusals to abide congressional subpoenas. “These aren’t, like, impartial people,” the president declared of Congress. “The Democrats are trying to win 2020.”

The first thing to understand about this legal theory is that it is not a legal theory. Congress is a coequal branch of government which has a legal right to conduct investigations, including of the Executive branch and its officials. There is a legal gray zone around “executive privilege,” which describes the right of officials in the Executive branch to have some confidentiality around their internal discussions.

But Trump is not articulating a theory of executive privilege here. Nor would such a privilege cover a president’s right to maintain a business empire that accepts payments that may or may not be bribes disguised as legitimate reimbursements in complete secrecy from Congress and the public.

Essentially Trump’s argument is that congressional oversight is simply “politics” and, therefore, somehow null and void. Trump’s Deutsche Bank lawsuit has a passage that could have been lifted from an op-ed written by a sophomore member of the College Republicans. It quotes Nancy Pelosi promising “checks and balances to the Trump administration,” then asserts she was “not referring to legislation.” It proceeds to quote a series of journalists describing Congress’s investigations as being unpleasant for Trump:

The fact that journalists are describing congressional oversight as being difficult for Trump does not mean this was Congress’s sole intent. In any case, Congress’s dislike for Trump does not nullify its legal rights.

The American system of government of course is not predicated on different branches of government wanting to help each other out. Checks and balances assumes political competition. The system is designed to channel political rivalry into a productive synthesis. Of course Democrats are “trying to win.” So is Trump!

Trump’s notion that he can ignore legal obligations from anybody who isn’t “like, impartial” is especially comic. Trump has spent his presidency trampling on the the entire concept of neutral authority. His wild attacks on political norms have polarized every figure, requiring them either to submit to his demands or be identified as an enemy. Overtly fair-minded figures like Robert Mueller, or even friendly ones like Jeff Sessions, have been the target of Trump’s wrath simply for having the temerity to operate outside his personal control. The premise that he would accept “impartial” congressional oversight is a joke.

His refusal to abide oversight on the grounds that Congress is biased is so amateurish, legal experts are struggling to come up with ways to describe it. “This isn’t a close legal question,” Stanford law professor David Alan Sklansky tells the Washington Post, calling it “frivolous argument, even if it’s true.”

Trump’s opposition to congressional oversight appears to be an extension of his business strategy of threatening counterparties with expensive, time-consuming lawsuits in order to shirk his obligations. It worked in business, because he could bully smaller contractors who couldn’t afford the legal bills of a protracted fight to obtain their promised payments. Congress doesn’t have that problem, but the courts might take long enough processing the “arguments” that Trump can keep his scandals bottled up until after the election.

Trump’s extreme litigiousness is a natural extension of his general lack of shame. . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

30 April 2019 at 5:52 pm

“Dear Republicans: Stop using my father, Ronald Reagan, to justify your silence on Trump”

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Patti Davis, the author, most recently, of the novel “The Wrong Side of Night” and the daughter of Ronald and Nancy Reagan, writes in the Washington Post:

Dear Republican Party,

I have never been part of you, but you have been part of my family for decades. I was 10 years old when my father decided to stop being a Democrat and instead become a Republican. From that point on, you were a frequent guest at our dinner table — and an unwelcome one to me. I wanted to talk about my science project on the human heart, or the mean girls at school who teased me for being too tall and for wearing glasses. Instead, much of the conversation was about how the government was taking too much out of people’s paychecks for taxes and how it was up to the Republicans to keep government from getting too big.

You went from an annoying presence at the dinner table to a powerful tornado, lifting up my family and depositing us in the world of politics, which no one ever escapes. I know it’s not completely your fault. My father’s passion for America, his commitment to try to make a difference in the country and the world, and his gentle yet powerful command over crowds that gathered to hear him speak made his ascent to the presidency all but inevitable. He would have gotten there one way or another; it just happened to be as a Republican.

You have claimed his legacy, exalted him as an icon of conservatism and used the quotes of his that serve your purpose at any given moment. Yet at this moment in America’s history when the democracy to which my father pledged himself and the Constitution that he swore to uphold, and did faithfully uphold, are being degraded and chipped away at by a sneering, irreverent man who traffics in bullying and dishonesty, you stay silent.

You stay silent when President Trump speaks of immigrants as if they are trash, rips children from the arms of their parents and puts them in cages. Perhaps you’ve forgotten that my father said America was home “for all the pilgrims from all the lost places who are hurtling through the darkness.”

You stayed silent when this president fawned over Kim Jong Un and took Vladimir Putin’s word over America’s security experts. You stood mutely by when one of his spokesmen, Rudolph W. Giuliani, said there is nothing wrong with getting information from Russians. And now you do not act when Trump openly defies legitimate requests from Congress, showing his utter contempt for one of the branches of our government.

Most egregiously, you remained silent when Trump said there were “very fine people” among the neo-Nazis who marched through an American city with tiki torches, chanting, “Jews will not replace us.”

Those of us who are not Republicans still have a right to expect you to act in a principled, moral and, yes, even noble way. Our democracy is in trouble, and everyone who has been elected to office has an obligation to save it. Maybe you’re frightened of Trump — that idea has been floated. I don’t quite understand what’s frightening about an overgrown child who resorts to name-calling, but if that is the case, then my response is: You are grown men and women. Get over it.

My father called America “the shining city on a hill.” Trump sees America as another of his possessions that he can slap his name on. A president is not supposed to own America. He or she is supposed to serve the American people.

In their book “How Democracies Die,” Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt warned: “How do elected authoritarians shatter the democratic institutions that are supposed to constrain them? Some do it in one fell swoop. But more often the assault on democracy begins slowly.”

Trump has been wounding our democracy for the past two years. If he is reelected for another term, it’s almost a given that America will not survive — at least not as the country the Founding Fathers envisioned, and not as the idealistic experiment they built using a Constitution designed to protect democracy and withstand tyranny.

My father knew we were fragile. He said: “Freedom is never more than one generation away from extinction. We didn’t pass it to our children in the bloodstream. It must be fought for, protected and handed on for them to do the same.”

So, to the Republican Party that holds tightly to my father’s legacy — if . . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

30 April 2019 at 1:14 pm

Meißner Tremonia Pink Grapefruit shaving paste with the iKon Short Comb

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A badly framed photo this morning. So it goes. The RazoRock 400 brush is very nice and the lather was truly excellent in fragrance and consistency. I like MT’s shaving pastes a lot: a very nice approach to a shaving cream, with firmness that allows easy loading.

The iKon Short Comb, here mounted on a handle from Wolfman Razors, is not an especially comfortable head for me, and I did get a couple of tiny nicks—nothing that My Nik Is Sealed couldn’t easily handle, but still. There’s a reason this razor did not make my list of very comfortable, very efficient razors, though it indeed very efficient: a perfectly smooth result without effort.

A splash Geo. F. Trumper West Indian Extract of Limes aftershave, and the month draws to a close.

From Finnerty Gardens, an exuberance of yellow:

Written by LeisureGuy

30 April 2019 at 7:18 am

Posted in Daily life, Shaving

Rage against the machine

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Judd at Popular Information writes:

The last three years have not been good for Facebook. Things started going off the rails after the 2016 election when people discovered that Facebook let its platform be used to disseminate pro-Trump misinformation.

Some of the misinformation was spread by third-party bad actors, like Russia. But some of the shadiest stuff was done by the Trump campaign itself. In an interview with Bloomberg days before the election, the campaign bragged that it was using Facebook to suppress African- American votes in crucial states.

In the aftermath, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg pledged to fix the problem. Usually, he sets an ambitious personal development goal each year, like learning Mandarin. In 2018, Zuckerberg resolved to fix the company.

So you’d think, as we barrel toward 2020, that Facebook would have its act together this time. You would be wrong. Facebook has launched an ad library where you can view political ads being run on Facebook by Trump and other campaigns. More transparency is a good thing.

But this newsletter, with a staff of one, identified hundreds of ads from the Trump campaign that violated Facebook’s ad policies. Facebook removed the ads only after I brought them to its attention.

The company also said that it is not using humans to review political ads. Instead, Facebook relies on a computer algorithm to enforce the rules. The algorithm is not working.

Facebook is a company valued at over $500 billion. It has over 35,000 employees and brought in $15 billion in revenue for the first quarter of 2019. But somehow, this newsletter has more resources available to review political ads manually.

An informed public is the cornerstone of a functioning Democracy. Facebook’s neglect is putting us at risk of a 2016 repeat. . .

Melania Trump’s birthday was April 26. For weeks, the Trump campaign has used the First Lady’s big day — she turned 49 — to build its email list. It has run thousands of ads urging Facebook users to sign a “card to wish Melania a Happy Birthday!”

But on Thursday, the Trump campaign did something different. It has produced hundreds of ads targeting women in practically every city in Texas.

These ads, accessible through the Facebook political ad library, go on and on and on. The campaign appears to be leaning on Melania to bolster Trump’s low support with women. Focusing on Texas, which some Democrats believe is the next swing state, is also a notable choice.

Where we’re going, there are no rules

But the Trump campaign’s birthday ads for Melania also explicitly violate Facebook’s ad guidelines because they include “prohibited content.” Facebook’s rules prohibit ads that reference the “personal attributes” of the people being targeted.

“Ads must not contain content that asserts or implies personal attributes” Facebook’s rules state, including “direct or indirect assertions or implications about a person’s… gender identity.” The phrase “Attention Ladies” at the beginning of each of these ads violates the guidelines.

Here’s an example Facebook provides about prohibited phrases identifying a user’s age. . .

Although targeting women in these kinds of ads seems relatively innocuous, recall that the Trump campaign previously used Facebook to target African-Americans and depress turnout.

About 12 hours after Popular Information contacted Facebook, a Facebook spokesperson confirmed hundreds of ads from the Trump campaign violated Facebook policies. Facebook said it had taken the ads offline.

We don’t allow ads that imply or call out certain characteristics, like someone’s gender. We have notified the campaign to fix these ads in order for them to run.

The ads in question said: “Melania’s birthday is in 1 day, and I want you to do something fantastic for her.” In other words, these were designed to run on April 25 in Texas. By the time Facebook responded to the issue, the ads only had a few hours of their useful life remaining.

Zero incentive for fair play

Asked what Facebook is doing to prevent political ads that violate its policies from running in the first place, a spokesperson said, “we’re always looking to improve our enforcement, which is never perfect.” The company acknowledges that the ads were “subject to Facebook’s ad review system, which relies primarily on automated tools to check ads against these policies.”

The Trump campaign did remove the explicit gender targeting of its Texas ads sometime on Thursday evening, allowing the ads to resume. . .

But what is the point of the Facebook policies if they are not enforced in advance of publication? As it stands, in the unlikely circumstance that you are caught, the only consequence of breaking the rules is being told to fix the issue. There is no incentive to follow the rules in the first place.

Howard broke the rules, but nothing happened

One set of recent Facebook ads by the Trump campaign features testimonials from several Trump supporters. One ad features “Howard from New Mexico.” As soft music plays, Howard says, “Sir, you have really inspired me and brought back my faith in this great nation. From the bottom of my heart, thank you for all the work you are doing.” A video depicts an older African-American man smiling broadly. . .

Continue reading. There’s much more. Read the whole thing.

Written by LeisureGuy

29 April 2019 at 11:30 am

Reuters Drops a Bombshell: The Big-Short Doomsday Machine Is Back

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The Big Short: Inside the Doomsday Machine, by Michael Lewis, is a fascinating book and it’s also a damn good movie that you can rent to watch on YouTube (at the link). And it may be time to study up a bit: Pam Martens writes in Wall Street on Parade:

In what can only be described as a new low in defining deviancy down on Wall Street, Thomson Reuters’ International Financing Review (IFR) reported this past weekend that some of the biggest names on Wall Street have returned to creating and/or trading synthetic collateralized debt obligations (Synthetic CDOs).

The products were a major factor in bringing the U.S. financial system to the brink of failure in 2008. Synthetic CDOs also resulted in hundreds of millions of dollars in fines and reputational damage to these same Wall Street behemoths as investigators found that the firms were allowing hedge funds to pick “crap” subprime mortgage bonds to stuff in the CDOs in order to make windfall profits for the hedge fund, which shorted (bet against) the CDOs. The Wall Street firms had full knowledge of what the hedge funds were doing but, nonetheless, peddled the investments as sound to unsuspecting investors. In some instances, the same Wall Street firm that was selling the product as a good investment to public pension funds, school districts, churches and insurance companies, was also making short bets itself against the CDO. In at least one case involving Goldman Sachs, it placed a 10 to 1 short bet on failure of its own product.

Writing for IFR, Christopher Whittall reports that “Trading volumes in synthetic collateralised debt obligations linked to credit indexes are up 40% this year, according to JP Morgan, after topping US$200bn in 2018 on the back of three years of double-digit growth. Meanwhile, analysts predict more than US$100bn in sales of bespoke synthetic CDOs in 2019 following an estimated US$80bn of issuance last year.”

Who are the major players in this market? According to Whittall, Citigroup is a major player while Deutsche Bank has “an eye on expanding in this market.” Our own sources tell us that Morgan Stanley has also structured deals in the past two years.

The bombshell here is not about the trading of synthetic CDOs. Firms can do that all day long without exposing their balance sheets and the U.S. economy to collapse. The bombshell is that the bespoke (custom-made) synthetic CDO market has returned to Wall Street and if analysts are predicting $100 billion this year after an estimated $80 billion last year, that means the real secret number is dramatically higher. Those figures also reveal nothing about how much shorting is going on. That could be 10 to 1 or even 20 to 1.

Instead of subprime mortgages being targeted this time around, what’s being stuffed into these bespoke products is corporate debt – which has exploded over the past decade, in no small part because publicly-traded corporations and Wall Street banks are being allowed to prop up their share prices through stock buybacks financed with debt.

The second bombshell in Whittall’s article is that . . .

Continue reading. There’s much more and it’s extremely ominous. I wish Sen. Elizabeth Warren were president: she would get this under control because she understands it and has no patience for lying, venal, dishonest banks.

Written by LeisureGuy

29 April 2019 at 11:12 am

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