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Archive for May 7th, 2019

So THAT’s why Trump doesn’t want to release his tax returns! Decade in the Red: Trump Tax Figures Show Over $1 Billion in Business Losses

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Update: It occurs to me that Trump’s 1985-1994 losses may have pushed him into darker deals: see “Keeping Trump’s Tax Returns Secret Is an Insanely Huge Security Risk” by Jonathan Chait in New York. That begins:

Last year, the New York Times found that Trump inherited more than $400 million from his father, largely through a series of illegal schemes. Now in a new report, the Times discovered that, from 1985 through 1994, Trump businesses suffered losses of more than $1 billion.

It’s hardly a mystery why Trump is desperate to keep his tax returns secret. The most innocent possible narrative they might reveal is that he’s a horrible businessman who relied on handouts from his father. The question is why anybody else would support his claim.

Perhaps the most explosive finding in Robert Mueller’s investigation is that Trump was secretly negotiating a building deal in Moscow that promised profits of several hundred million dollars, with no risk. Russia habitually gives out sweetheart deals to its overseas political partners, structured in the form of putatively legitimate investments that disguise simple bribes. George Sorial, he current vice-president of Trump’s business, dismisses that deal in a Wall Street Journal op-ed as “a fantasy that no one in the office took seriously.” (Sorial does not explain why, or even mention that, Trump signed a letter of intent for this project if nobody took it seriously.)

What the Times reporting underscores is how utterly vulnerable Trump must have been to an offer like this. The Times information only covers one (very bad) period in Trump’s life, and he did recover by learning how to profit off his image as a successful businessman by renting out his name. Still, there’s little reason to think he stopped being a horrible capitalist. “Year after year,” the Times finds, “Mr. Trump appears to have lost more money than nearly any other individual American taxpayer.”

Keeping Trump’s tax returns private is not like keeping Mitt Romney’s tax returns private. This is a man who was handed hundreds of millions of dollars, flushed it down the toilet, and was desperate to maintain his image of wealth and success. You couldn’t invent a more inviting target for a foreign intelligence service to manipulate.

Republicans have, incredibly, treated the question of obtaining Trump’s tax returns as a pure political vendetta. Democrats “dislike him with a passion, and they want his tax returns to destroy him,” said Senate Finance Committee Chairman Charles Grassley. “That’s all that this whole process is about, and it’s Nixonian to the core.” . . .

Read the whole thing. /update

Russ Buettner and Susan Craig report in the NY Times:

By the time his master-of-the-universe memoir “Trump: The Art of the Deal” hit bookstores in 1987, Donald J. Trump was already in deep financial distress, losing tens of millions of dollars on troubled business deals, according to previously unrevealed figures from his federal income tax returns.

Mr. Trump was propelled to the presidency, in part, by a self-spun narrative of business success and of setbacks triumphantly overcome. He has attributed his first run of reversals and bankruptcies to the recession that took hold in 1990. But 10 years of tax information obtained by The New York Times paints a different, and far bleaker, picture of his deal-making abilities and financial condition.

The data — printouts from Mr. Trump’s official Internal Revenue Service tax transcripts, with the figures from his federal tax form, the 1040, for the years 1985 to 1994 — represents the fullest and most detailed look to date at the president’s taxes, information he has kept from public view. Though the information does not cover the tax years at the center of an escalating battle between the Trump administration and Congress, it traces the most tumultuous chapter in a long business career — an era of fevered acquisition and spectacular collapse.

The numbers show that in 1985, Mr. Trump reported losses of $46.1 million from his core businesses — largely casinos, hotels and retail space in apartment buildings. They continued to lose money every year, totaling $1.17 billion in losses for the decade.

In fact, year after year, Mr. Trump appears to have lost more money than nearly any other individual American taxpayer, The Times found when it compared his results with detailed information the I.R.S. compiles on an annual sampling of high-income earners. His core business losses in 1990 and 1991 — more than $250 million each year — were more than double those of the nearest taxpayers in the I.R.S. information for those years.

Over all, Mr. Trump lost so much money that he was able to avoid paying income taxes for eight of the 10 years. It is not known whether the I.R.S. later required changes after audits.

Since the 2016 presidential campaign, journalists at The Times and elsewhere have been trying to piece together Mr. Trump’s complex and concealed finances. While The Times did not obtain the president’s actual tax returns, it received the information contained in the returns from someone who had legal access to it. The Times was then able to find matching results in the I.R.S. information on top earners — a publicly available database that each year comprises a one-third sampling of those taxpayers, with identifying details removed. It also confirmed significant findings using other public documents, along with confidential Trump family tax and financial records from the newspaper’s 2018 investigation into the origin of the president’s wealth.

The White House’s response to the new findings has shifted over time.

Several weeks ago, a senior official issued a statement saying: “The president got massive depreciation and tax shelter because of large-scale construction and subsidized developments. That is why the president has always scoffed at the tax system and said you need to change the tax laws. You can make a large income and not have to pay large amount of taxes.”

On Saturday, after further inquiries from The Times, a lawyer for the president, Charles J. Harder, wrote that the tax information was “demonstrably false,” and that the paper’s statements “about the president’s tax returns and business from 30 years ago are highly inaccurate.” He cited no specific errors, but on Tuesday added that “I.R.S. transcripts, particularly before the days of electronic filing, are notoriously inaccurate” and “would not be able to provide a reasonable picture of any taxpayer’s return.”

Mark J. Mazur, a former director of research, analysis and statistics at the I.R.S., said that, far from being considered unreliable, data used to create such transcripts had undergone quality control for decades and had been used to analyze economic trends and set national policy. In addition, I.R.S. auditors often refer to the transcripts as “handy” summaries of tax returns, said Mr. Mazur, now director of the nonpartisan Urban-Brookings Tax Policy Center in Washington.

In fact, the source of The Times’s newly obtained information was able to provide several years of unpublished tax figures from the president’s father, the builder Fred C. Trump. They matched up precisely with Fred Trump’s actual returns, which had been obtained by The Times in the earlier investigation.

Mr. Trump built a business licensing his name, became a television celebrity and ran for the White House by branding himself a self-made billionaire. “There is no one my age who has accomplished more,” he told Newsweek in 1987, adding that the ultimate scoreboard was “the unfortunate, obvious one: money.” Yet over the years, the actual extent of his wealth has been the subject of much doubt and debate. He broke with four decades of precedent in refusing to release any of his tax returns as a presidential candidate, and until now only a few pages of his returns have become public. Last year’s Times investigation found that he had received at least $413 million in 2018 dollars from his father.

The new tax information does not answer questions raised by House Democrats in their pursuit of the last six years of Mr. Trump’s tax returns — about his recent business dealings and possible foreign sources of financing and influence. Nor does it offer a fundamentally new narrative of his picaresque career.

But in the granular detail of tax results, it gives a precise accounting of the president’s financial failures and of the constantly shifting focus that would characterize his decades in business. In contrast to his father’s stable and profitable empire of rental apartments in Brooklyn and Queens, Mr. Trump’s primary sources of income changed year after year, from big stock earnings, to a single year of more than $67.1 million in salary, to a mysterious $52.9 million windfall in interest income. But always, those gains were overwhelmed by losses on his casinos and other projects.

The new information also suggests that  . . .

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Written by Leisureguy

7 May 2019 at 4:11 pm

Trump Is Governing by Grievance

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Peter Nicholas writes in the Atlantic:

It was a meeting about maritime shipping, but President Donald Trump had other things on his mind. As he spoke privately with Republican lawmakers in the White House’s Roosevelt Room, Attorney General William Barr was all over TV testifying to a Senate committee about the Russia investigation. Trump had been watching the live coverage, he’d been briefed on Barr’s testimony—and sitting with his guests on Wednesday, he unburdened himself about the unfairness of it all, said a person familiar with the matter.

“He is worked up about it,” said this person, who spoke on the condition of anonymity in order to discuss the private meeting. “He’s not going to let it go. He’s not going to accept the advice to let it go. He’s not going to stop tweeting. He’s not going to change his approach.”

If Trump is to notch any meaningful legislative victories before the 2020 election—and he’s now promising a gargantuan infrastructure package—he’ll need to compartmentalize: to summon the mental discipline essential to passing history-making legislation. The chances of that happening look dim, however, because Trump can’t compartmentalize. Since his swearing-in, he’s proved unable to wall off the irritants and frustrations that cloud any president’s day and focus on a governing agenda. Indeed, the distractions seem to captivate him most; they’ve become his governing agenda.

Last month, former Vice President Joe Biden entered the presidential race. Normally, it would be up to 20-some Democratic rivals to beat him back and deprive him of the nomination. But Trump has leapt into the scrum. Before dawn on May 1, he delivered the first of 60 morning retweets of messages aimed at undercutting Biden’s support among union workers. He has also been insulting Biden’s energy level and appearance.

Now the president’s Biden fixation seems to be filtering down to the staff: Kellyanne Conway, the president’s counselor, spoke with reporters in the White House driveway last week and, unbidden, mocked Biden for not doing more to boost the economy in his eight years as vice president. Trump gets distracted. He tweets. His staff reacts. That’s how whims harden into White House messaging. “The strategy in the White House, on all things, is to wait for the president to tweet and then try to deliver on the tweet,” says Joe Lockhart, a former press secretary for President Bill Clinton.

In recent days, Trump has been preoccupied by random ephemera even as he’s embarked on a new infrastructure deal, announced last week after a meeting with Democratic lawmakers. He has been complaining about how his supporters are being treated by social-media companies. He’s called attention to the disputed result of this year’s Kentucky Derby, CNN ratings, his own poll numbers, and Nick Bosa, an NFL first-round draft pick who turns out to be a MAGA fan. What any of that has to do with bridges, airports, and highways isn’t immediately apparent.

But what most stands to derail a potential legislative breakthrough is his dyspepsia over Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s report and Democratic inquiries into his private business dealings and conduct in office. Trump won’t leave the Russia business alone. Nearly three weeks after the full 448-page report was released, and more than six weeks after Mueller finished it, Trump still talks about how he was wrongly targeted. On Sunday, he tweeted that two years of his presidency were “stollen” due to the inquiry into whether his campaign colluded with Russia in the 2016 election. “He honestly believes that he did nothing wrong and he honestly believes that it was a witch hunt,” the person familiar with the Roosevelt Room meeting said. “You can debate whether it was or it wasn’t; I’m just telling you what he believes.”

At least in the near term, Trump’s Russia obsession poses the greatest risk to his potential infrastructure deal with Democrats. The two sides agreed to spend $2 trillion rebuilding the nation’s infrastructure, a sum that’s equal to the nation’s needs, according to the American Society of Civil Engineers. It would amount to the sort of landmark achievement that eluded Trump’s predecessors. “I would like to do something. It may not be typically Republican,” Trump said at the meeting, according to a Democratic source who was in the room. “I’ll lead on this.”

Both sides have incentive to deal. Trump would like to roll into the 2020 election with a legislative accomplishment apart from the 2017 tax-cut law, which few Americans believe gave them any financial help. Democrats, meanwhile, would relish a chance to bring home to their districts needed jobs and investment. Yet Trump almost immediately dampened hope that the tentative deal would hold. By the weekend, he was walking back the commitment: $2 trillion had slipped to $1 trillion to $2 trillion. And it doesn’t appear that Trump has laid any groundwork for an infrastructure package on an immense scale.

The numbers have left White House aides and GOP allies with sticker shock. Representative Mark Meadows, a North Carolina Republican who is the chairman of the conservative House Freedom Caucus, told me: “I see no way to fund $2 trillion in infrastructure without raising taxes, and for most prudent political calculations, raising taxes is only a winner in progressive circles.”

“To me, that would be a ceiling that is unattainable,” said a White House official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, when asked about the $2 trillion figure.

Nor is it clear that Trump can set aside his differences with Democrats and work toward goals that are in their mutual interest. He is furious with Democratic lawmakers for digging into his record, targeting his tax returns, threatening him with impeachment, and summoning his top aides to testify. On Sunday, Trump upbraided Democrats for trying to get Mueller to appear before Congress, saying the special counsel should boycott the proceedings. “Are [Democrats] looking for a redo because they hated seeing the strong NO COLLUSION conclusion?” Trump tweeted. And he has ordered administration officials to resist Democratic subpoenas, feeding a toxic, partisan atmosphere that precludes consensus-building.

Trump has long been captive to his ever-shifting moods. Top aides fall in and out of favor. Policy positions are embraced and quickly discarded when no longer expedient. What’s different now is the moment. Trump is running for reelection on a strong economy and sizzling financial markets. But economies sour and markets cool. An infrastructure deal, by contrast, would be a durable achievement. Unlike his travel ban, it couldn’t be overturned by executive order.

Yet it requires focus. One figure from history who faced similar circumstances was . . .

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Written by Leisureguy

7 May 2019 at 4:04 pm

Putin Accomplice Mitch McConnell Says Case Closed

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Jonathan Chait writes in New York:

During the 2016 election, CIA director John Brennan informed congressional leaders that Russian intelligence was interfering in the election in an effort to help Donald Trump win. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell dismissed the conclusion, and depicted it as a frame-up. “You’re trying to screw the Republican candidate,” he charged, warning that he would refuse to sign a bipartisan statement warning Russia to back off. If blocking Russia meant hindering the Trump campaign, McConnell wasn’t interested.

This morning, McConnell took to the Senate floor to deliver a coda to this historic act. In a speech that was notably smarmy even by his standards, the Senate Majority Leader declared the Mueller report to be “case closed,” accused Democrats of refusing to accept the legitimacy of Trump’s election, and called for an end to all investigation or inquiries of Mueller’s findings.

“They told everyone there’d been a conspiracy between Russia and the Trump campaign,” he announced. “Yet on this central question the special counsel’s finding is clear: case closed. Case closed.”

First of all, Mueller’s report did say it was unable to establish a criminal conspiracy between Trump and Russia. But that is not the same thing as saying “case closed.” Indeed, on some of the most important avenues of potential conspiracy, Mueller was simply not able to establish conclusive answers. Paul Manafort, Trump’s campaign manager, gave 75 pages of detailed polling to Konstantin Kilimnik, a Russian agent, but Mueller concedes he “could not assess what Kilimnik (or others he may have given it to) did with it.” Nor could Mueller fully nail down all of Roger Stone’s communications with WikiLeaks.

Second, one of the reasons Mueller could not establish a criminal conspiracy is that Trump signaled his willingness to pardon aides who stayed loyal, thus encouraging them to withhold cooperation. Attorney General William Barr has argued that the failure to prove an underlying crime means Trump should not be charged with obstructing justice, but of course, this means obstructing justice is okay as long as the obstruction works.
Third, McConnell’s speech danced around the massive evidence of obstruction of justice committed by Trump in the Mueller report. His speech, incredibly, didn’t even mention this topic, which occupies half of the Mueller report.

Instead, he addressed it in a backhanded way by defending Barr. The attorney general is a “distinguished public servant whose career stretches back almost 50 years,” he insisted. “He’s widely respected. Nobody claims he has any prior personal allegiance to this president.” That’s true, nobody does say Barr has any personal allegiance to Trump. Nor for that matter does McConnell, who has let his personal irritation with Trump’s lack of discipline slip into the media on occasion. What both men have instead is a partisan allegiance to Trump, which drives them to protect a figure they understand to be erratic and unfit for office, because doing so advances their interests.

McConnell framed his speech as a call for unity, insisting Russia’s goal was to divide the public. “Russia set out to sow discord. To create chaos in American politics and undermine confidence in our democracy,” he said. To continue pursuing the massive evidence of corruption and misconduct in the Mueller report would somehow help Putin. If Americans “remain consumed by unhinged partisanship,” McConnell said, “and keep dividing ourselves … Putin and his agents need only stand on the sidelines and watch as their job is done for them.”

Note here that McConnell is again denying the same thing he denied in 2016: that Russia intervened not just to “divide” Americans but specifically in order to help Trump win. If American political leaders in both parties had closed ranks and rejected Russia’s intervention, it might have backfired. Instead, McConnell assisted their effort.

He continues to assist by using all his powers to prevent Trump from being held accountable for his misconduct. . .

Continue reading.

Written by Leisureguy

7 May 2019 at 3:25 pm

The USA today: Trump Pardons Former Soldier Who Murdered Naked Iraqi Prisoner

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Eric Levitz writes in New York:

Eleven years ago, U.S. forces arrested an Iraqi man named Ali Mansur, on the suspicion that he was a member of al-Qaeda who had knowledge of a recent roadside bombing that had killed two American soldiers. Intelligence professionals interrogated Mansur. Then, officials ordered Army First Lieutenant Michael Behenna to drive Mansur home.

Instead, Behenna drove the detainee into the desert, stripped him naked, interrogated him at gunpoint, and then shot him in the head and chest. Behenna insists that he shot the naked man he illegally abducted in self-defense. He was convicted of unpremeditated murder.

This week, President Trump awarded Behenna a full pardon. The former soldier had already secured some leniency from the Justice Department; Army Clemency and Parole reduced his sentence from 25 years to 15, and paroled him as soon as he was eligible in 2014. Nevertheless, securing a full pardon for Behenna became a popular cause in his home state of Oklahoma, one embraced by its military community and elected officials. Two of Behenna’s friends died in the roadside bombing that preceded Mansur’s arrest. In his sympathizers’ view, Behenna had only wanted to secure information from Mansur to save other American lives. His actions were rash and insubordinate. But they were the well-intentioned products of trauma — and Mansur would still be alive if he hadn’t attempted to steal the lieutenant’s firearm.

The White House cited this community support along with Behenna’s model behavior as prisoner in a statement justifying his pardon.

Critics argue that the act of clemency could actually endanger American soldiers overseas, by weakening norms against the inhumane treatment of prisoners of war.

During his presidential campaign, Donald Trump defended war crimes in general — and the mass murder of Muslim prisoners of war, in particular — as highly effective and legitimate tools for advancing U.S. national security.

“The other thing with the terrorists is you have to take out their families, when you get these terrorists, you have to take out their families,” Trump informed Fox & Friends in December 2015. “They care about their lives, don’t kid yourself. When they say they don’t care about their lives, you have to take out their families.”

Two months later at a rally in South Carolina, he told a false story about how General John Pershing put down an insurgency by the Muslim Moro people in the Philippines (after America’s invasion and occupation of those islands) in the early 20th century.

“And there’s a whole thing with swine, and animals, and pigs, and you know the story, okay? They don’t like that. And they were having a tremendous problem with terrorism,” Trump explained. “He took 50 terrorists, and he took 50 men, and he dipped 50 bullets in pig’s blood. You heard that right? He took 50 bullets and he dipped them in pig’s blood, and he had his men load up his rifles, and he lined up the 50 people, and they shot 49 of those people and the 50th person, he said, ‘You go back to your people and you tell them what happened’.”

Eight months into his first term as president, Trump reiterated his admiration for this approach to fighting “terrorism.”

Trump’s other pardons include former Maricopa County sheriff Joe Arpaio, who refused to respect the civil rights of Arizona’s Latino residents despite a court order to cease his unconstitutional racial-profiling practices. . .

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Written by Leisureguy

7 May 2019 at 3:21 pm

Prologue to “Winners Take All: The Elite Charade of Changing the World”

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Anand Giridharadas has written an important book for the present moment, Winners Take All: The Elite Charade of Changing the World. To get a better understanding of why I write that, here is the prologue to the book. Read and see what you think.


All around us in America is the clank-clank-clank of the new—in our companies and economy, our neighborhoods and schools, our technologies and social fabric. But these novelties have failed to translate into broadly shared progress and the betterment of our overall civilization. American scientists make the most important discoveries in medicine and genetics and publish more biomedical research than those of any other country—but the average American’s health remains worse and slower-improving than that of peers in other rich countries, and in certain years life expectancy actually declines. American inventors create astonishing new ways to learn thanks to the power of video and the Internet, many of them free of charge—but the average twelfth grader tests more poorly in reading today than in 1992. The country has had a “culinary renaissance,” as one publication puts it, one farmers’ market and Whole Foods at a time—but it has failed to improve the nutrition of most people, with the incidence of obesity and related conditions rising over time. The tools for becoming an entrepreneur appear to be more accessible than ever, for the student who learns coding online or the Uber driver—but the share of young people who own a business has fallen by two-thirds since the 1980s. America has birthed a wildly successful online book superstore called Amazon, and another company, Google, has scanned more than twenty-five million books for public use—but illiteracy has remained stubbornly in place and the fraction of Americans who read at least one work of literature a year has dropped by almost a quarter in recent decades. The government has more data at its disposal and more ways of talking and listening to citizens—but only one-quarter as many people find it trustworthy as did in the tempestuous 1960s.

A successful society is a progress machine. It takes in the raw material of innovations and produces broad human advancement. America’s machine is broken. When the fruits of change have fallen on the United States in recent decades, the very fortunate have basketed almost all of them. For instance, the average pretax income of the top tenth of Americans has doubled since 1980, that of the top 1 percent has more than tripled, and that of the top 0.001 percent has risen more than sevenfold—even as the average pretax income of the bottom half of Americans has stayed almost precisely the same. These familiar figures amount to three and a half decades’ worth of wondrous, head-spinning change with zero impact on the average pay of 117 million Americans. Meanwhile, the opportunity to get ahead has been transformed from a shared reality to a perquisite of already being ahead. Among Americans born in 1940, those raised at the top of the upper middle class and the bottom of the lower middle class shared a roughly 90 percent chance of realizing the so-called American dream of ending up better off than their parents. Among Americans born in 1984 and maturing into adulthood today, the new reality is split-screen. Those raised near the top of the income ladder now have a 70 percent chance of realizing the dream. Meanwhile, those close to the bottom, more in need of elevation, have a 35 percent chance of climbing above their parents’ station. And it is not only progress and money that the fortunate monopolize: Rich American men, who tend to live longer than the average citizens of any other country, now live fifteen years longer than poor American men, who endure only as long as men in Sudan and Pakistan.

Thus many millions of Americans, on the left and right, feel one thing in common: that the game is rigged against people like them. Perhaps this is why we hear constant condemnation of “the system,” for it is the system that people expect to turn fortuitous developments into societal progress. Instead, the system—in America and around the world—has been organized to siphon the gains from innovation upward, such that the fortunes of the world’s billionaires now grow at more than double the pace of everyone else’s, and the top 10 percent of humanity have come to hold 90 percent of the planet’s wealth. It is no wonder that the American voting public—like other publics around the world—has turned more resentful and suspicious in recent years, embracing populist movements on the left and right, bringing socialism and nationalism into the center of political life in a way that once seemed unthinkable, and succumbing to all manner of conspiracy theory and fake news. There is a spreading recognition, on both sides of the ideological divide, that the system is broken and has to change.

Some elites faced with this kind of gathering anger have hidden behind walls and gates and on landed estates, emerging only to try to seize even greater political power to protect themselves against the mob. But in recent years a great many fortunate people have also tried something else, something both laudable and self-serving: They have tried to help by taking ownership of the problem.

All around us, the winners in our highly inequitable status quo declare themselves partisans of change. They know the problem, and they want to be part of the solution. Actually, they want to lead the search for solutions. They believe that their solutions deserve to be at the forefront of social change. They may join or support movements initiated by ordinary people looking to fix aspects of their society. More often, though, these elites start initiatives of their own, taking on social change as though it were just another stock in their portfolio or corporation to restructure. Because they are in charge of these attempts at social change, the attempts naturally reflect their biases.

The initiatives mostly aren’t democratic, nor do they reflect collective problem-solving or universal solutions. Rather, they favor the use of the private sector and its charitable spoils, the market way of looking at things, and the bypassing of government. They reflect a highly influential view that the winners of an unjust status quo—and the tools and mentalities and values that helped them win—are the secret to redressing the injustices. Those at greatest risk of being resented in an age of inequality are thereby recast as our saviors from an age of inequality. Socially minded financiers at Goldman Sachs seek to change the world through “win-win” initiatives like “green bonds” and “impact investing.” Tech companies like Uber and Airbnb cast themselves as empowering the poor by allowing them to chauffeur people around or rent out spare rooms. Management consultants and Wall Street brains seek to convince the social sector that they should guide its pursuit of greater equality by assuming board seats and leadership positions. Conferences and idea festivals sponsored by plutocrats and big business host panels on injustice and promote “thought leaders” who are willing to confine their thinking to improving lives within the faulty system rather than tackling the faults. Profitable companies built in questionable ways and employing reckless means engage in corporate social responsibility, and some rich people make a splash by “giving back”—regardless of the fact that they may have caused serious societal problems as they built their fortunes. Elite networking forums like the Aspen Institute and the Clinton Global Initiative groom the rich to be self-appointed leaders of social change, taking on the problems people like them have been instrumental in creating or sustaining. A new breed of community-minded so-called B Corporations has been born, reflecting a faith that more enlightened corporate self-interest—rather than, say, public regulation—is the surest guarantor of the public welfare. A pair of Silicon Valley billionaires fund an initiative to rethink the Democratic Party, and one of them can claim, without a hint of irony, that their goals are to amplify the voices of the powerless and reduce the political influence of rich people like them.

The elites behind efforts like these often speak in a language of “changing the world” and “making the world a better place” more typically associated with barricades than ski resorts. Yet we are left with the inescapable fact that in the very era in which these elites have done so much to help, they have continued to hoard the overwhelming share of progress, the average American’s life has scarcely improved, and virtually all of the nation’s institutions, with the exception of the military, have lost the public’s trust.

Are we ready to hand over our future to the elite, one supposedly world-changing initiative at a time? Are we ready to call participatory democracy a failure, and to declare these other, private forms of change-making the new way forward? Is the decrepit state of American self-government an excuse to work around it and let it further atrophy? Or is meaningful democracy, in which we all potentially have a voice, worth fighting for?

There is no denying that today’s elite may be among the more socially concerned elites in history. But it is also, by the cold logic of numbers, among the more predatory in history. By refusing to risk its way of life, by rejecting the idea that the powerful might have to sacrifice for the common good, it clings to a set of social arrangements that allow it to monopolize progress and then give symbolic scraps to the forsaken—many of whom wouldn’t need the scraps if the society were working right. This book is an attempt to understand the connection between these elites’ social concern and predation, between the extraordinary helping and the extraordinary hoarding, between the milking—and perhaps abetting—of an unjust status quo and the attempts by the milkers to repair a small part of it. It is also an attempt to offer a view of how the elite see the world, so that we might better assess the merits and limitations of their world-changing campaigns.

There are many ways to make sense of all this elite concern and predation. One is that the elites are doing the best they can. The world is what it is; the system is what it is; the forces of the age are bigger than anyone can resist; the most fortunate are helping. This view may allow that this helpfulness is just a drop in the bucket, but it is something. The slightly more critical view is that this elite-led change is well-meaning but inadequate. It treats symptoms, not root causes; it does not change the fundamentals of what ails us. According to this view, elites are shirking the duty of more meaningful reform.

But there is still another, darker way of judging what goes on when elites put themselves in the vanguard of social change: that it not only fails to make things better, but also serves to keep things as they are. After all, it takes the edge off of some of the public’s anger at being excluded from progress. It improves the image of the winners. With its private and voluntary half-measures, it crowds out public solutions that would solve problems for everyone, and do so with or without the elite’s blessing. There is no question that the outpouring of elite-led social change in our era does great good and soothes pain and saves lives. But we should also recall Oscar Wilde’s words about such elite helpfulness being “not a solution” but “an aggravation of the difficulty.” More than a century ago, in an age of churn like our own, he wrote, “Just as the worst slave-owners were those who were kind to their slaves, and so prevented the horror of the system being realised by those who suffered from it, and understood by those who contemplated it, so, in the present state of things in England, the people who do most harm are the people who try to do most good.”

Wilde’s formulation may sound extreme to modern ears. How can there be anything wrong with trying to do good? The answer may be: when the good is an accomplice to even greater, if more invisible, harm. In our era that harm is the concentration of money and power among a small few, who reap from that concentration a near monopoly on the benefits of change. And do-gooding pursued by elites tends not only to leave this concentration untouched, but actually to shore it up. For when elites assume leadership of social change, they are able to reshape what social change is—above all, to present it as something that should never threaten winners. In an age defined by a chasm between those who have power and those who don’t, elites have spread the idea that people must be helped, but only in market-friendly ways that do not upset fundamental power equations. The society should be changed in ways that do not change the underlying economic system that has allowed the winners to win and fostered many of the problems they seek to solve. The broad fidelity to this law helps make sense of what we observe all around: the powerful fighting to “change the world” in ways that essentially keep it the same, and “giving back” in ways that sustain an indefensible distribution of influence, resources, and tools. Is there a better way?

The secretary-general of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), a research and policy organization that works on behalf of the world’s richest countries, recently compared the prevailing elite posture to that of the fictional Italian aristocrat Tancredi Falconeri, who declared, “If we want things to stay as they are, things will have to change.” If this view is correct, then much of the charity and social innovation and give-one-get-one marketing around us may not be reform measures so much as forms of conservative self-defense—measures that protect elites from more menacing change. Among the kinds of issues being sidelined, the OECD leader, Ángel Gurría, wrote, are “rising inequalities of income, wealth and opportunities; the growing disconnect between finance and the real economy; mounting divergence in productivity levels between workers, firms and regions; winner-take-most dynamics in many markets; limited progressivity of our tax systems; corruption and capture of politics and institutions by vested interests; lack of transparency and participation by ordinary citizens in decision-making; the soundness of the education and of the values we transmit to future generations.” Elites, Gurría writes, have found myriad ways to “change things on the surface so that in practice nothing changes at all.” The people with the most to lose from genuine social change have placed themselves in charge of social change, often with the passive assent of those most in need of it.

It is fitting that an era marked by these tendencies should culminate in the election of Donald Trump. Trump is at once an exposer, an exploiter, and an embodiment of the cult of elite-led social change. He tapped, as few before him successfully had, into a widespread intuition that elites were phonily claiming to be doing what was best for most Americans. He exploited that intuition by whipping it into frenzied anger and then directing most of that anger not at elites but at the most marginalized and vulnerable Americans. And he came to incarnate the very fraud that had fueled his rise and that he had exploited. He became, like the elites he assailed, the establishment figure who falsely casts himself as a renegade. He became the rich, educated man who styles himself as the ablest protector of the poor and uneducated—and who insists, against all evidence, that his interests have nothing to do with the change he seeks. He became the chief salesman for the theory, rife among plutocratic change agents, that what is best for powerful him is best for the powerless, too. Trump is the reductio ad absurdum of a culture that tasks elites with reforming the very systems that have made them and left others in the dust.

One thing that unites those who voted for Trump and those who despaired at his being elected is a sense that the country requires transformational reform. The question we confront is whether moneyed elites, who already rule the roost in the economy and exert enormous influence in the corridors of political power, should be allowed to continue their conquest of social change and of the pursuit of greater equality. The only thing better than controlling money and power is to control the efforts to question the distribution of money and power. The only thing better than being a fox is being a fox asked to watch over hens.

What is at stake is whether the reform of our common life is led by governments elected by and accountable to the people, or rather by wealthy elites claiming to know our best interests. We must decide whether, in the name of ascendant values such as efficiency and scale, we are willing to allow democratic purpose to be usurped by private actors who often genuinely aspire to improve things but, first things first, seek to protect themselves. Yes, government is dysfunctional at present. But that is all the more reason to treat its repair as our foremost national priority. Pursuing workarounds of our troubled democracy makes democracy even more troubled. We must ask ourselves why we have so easily lost faith in the engines of progress that got us where we are today—in the democratic efforts to outlaw slavery, end child labor, limit the workday, keep drugs safe, protect collective bargaining, create public schools, battle the Great Depression, electrify rural America, weave a nation together by road, pursue a Great Society free of poverty, extend civil and political rights to women and African Americans and other minorities, and give our fellow citizens health, security, and dignity in old age.

This book offers a series of portraits of this elite-led, market-friendly, winner-safe social change. In these pages, you will meet people who ardently believe in this form of change and people who are beginning to question it. You will meet a start-up employee who believes her for-profit company has the solution to the woes of the working poor, and a billionaire investor in her company who believes that only vigorous public action can stem the rising tide of public rage. You will meet a thinker who grapples with how much she can challenge the rich and powerful if she wants to keep getting their invitations and patronage. You will meet a campaigner for economic equality whose previous employers include Goldman Sachs and McKinsey, and who wonders about his complicity in what he calls “the Trying-to-Solve-the-Problem-with-the-Tools-That-Caused-It issue.” You will meet one of the most powerful figures in the philanthropy world, who stuns his rich admirers by refusing to honor the taboo against speaking of how they make their money. You will meet a former American president who launched his career with a belief in changing the world through political action, and then, as he began to spend time with plutocrats in his post-presidential life, gravitated toward private methods of change that benefit rather than scare them. You will meet a widely lionized “social innovator” who quietly nurses doubts about whether his commercial approach to world-changing is what it is cracked up to be. You will meet an Italian philosopher who reminds us what gets sidelined when the moneyed take over change.

What these various figures have in common is that they are grappling with certain powerful myths—the myths that have fostered an age of extraordinary power concentration; that have allowed the elite’s private, partial, and self-preservational deeds to pass for real change; that have let many decent winners convince themselves, and much of the world, that their plan to “do well by doing good” is an adequate answer to an age of exclusion; that put a gloss of selflessness on the protection of one’s privileges; and that cast more meaningful change as wide-eyed, radical, and vague.

It is my hope in writing what follows to reveal these myths to be exactly that. Much of what appears to be reform in our time is in fact the defense of stasis. When we see through the myths that foster this misperception, the path to genuine change will come into view. It will once again be possible to improve the world without permission slips from the powerful.


Written by Leisureguy

7 May 2019 at 11:18 am

To What Degree Did Physicians Drive the Opioid Crisis?

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Alex Tabarrok writes at Marginal Revolution:

It’s well known that the opioid crisis started with prescription abuse but how much abuse was driven by patients who fooled their physicians and how much was driven by physicians who responded to monetary incentives with a nod and a wink? Molly Schnell provides some evidence which even a hard headed rationalist like myself found startling.

In August of 2010, Purdue Pharma started selling a new, anti-abuse version of OxyContin. The new version was just as good at reducing pain as the old but it was more difficult to turn it into an injectable to produce a high. If physicians are altruists who balance treating their patient’s pain against their fear of patient addiction and downstream abuse then they should increasetheir prescriptions of new Oxy. From the point of view of health, the new Oxy is simply a better drug and with less abuse to worry about altruistic physicians should be more willing on the margin to prescribe Oxy to reduce pain. So what happened? Prescriptions for Oxy fell immediately and dramatically when the better version was released.

Now, to be fair to the physicians, patients who wanted to abuse Oxy stopped demanding it after the new version was released and physicians might not have realized how many of their prescriptions were being abused or sold on the secondary market. The aggregate data, which is a combination of supply and demand shifts, can mask individual physician behavior. Schnell, however, has data on the prescribing behavior of about 100,000 individual physicians who prescribed opioids.

Schnell finds that nearly a third of physicians behaved exactly as the altruism theory predicts. Namely, when new Oxy was released these altruistic physicians increased their prescriptions of Oxy and they maintained or reduced their prescriptions of other opioids. In fact, the median altruistic physician doubled their prescriptions of the new and improved Oxy. But almost 40% of physicians in Schnell’s sample behaved in a decidedly non-altruistic manner. Beginning in August of 2010, these non-altruistic physicians halved their prescriptions of new and improved Oxy and increased their prescriptions of other opioids. It’s difficult to see how attentive and altruistic physicians could decrease their demand for a better drug.

Schnell also finds that some parts of the country had fewer altruistic physicians and the consequences are evident in mortality statistics:

…. these differences in physician altruism across commuting zones translate into significant differences in mortality across locations…a one standard deviation increase in low-altruism physicians is associated with a 0.33 standard deviation increase in deaths involving drugs per capita. While this association is reduced conditional on observable commuting zone characteristics (including race, age, education, and income profiles), a significant and large association between the share of low-altruism physicians and drug-related mortality remains. Furthermore…this relationship persists even conditional on the number of opioid prescriptions, suggesting that the association is driven by the allocation of prescriptions introduced by low-altruism physicians rather than simply the quantity.

The less-altruistic physicians increased prescriptions for other opioids after new Oxy was introduced but perhaps even this was better than the non-prescription alternatives like heroin and street fentanyl. Indeed, Alpert, Powell and Pacula show that the introduction of improved Oxy led to more deaths because people switched to more dangerous, illegal alternatives. So was it a bad idea to introduce a better drug? . . .

Continue reading.

Emphasis added.

Written by Leisureguy

7 May 2019 at 10:25 am

Obstruction of Justice in the Mueller Report: A Heat Map

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Quinta Jurecic writes at Lawfare:

The Mueller report describes numerous instances in which President Trump may have obstructed justice. A few days ago, I threw together a quick spreadsheet on Twitter to assess how Special Counsel Robert Mueller seemed to assess the evidence. Unexpectedly, that spreadsheet got a fair amount of attention—so I thought I would delve back into the evidence to provide a revised visualization with a little more nuance, which will hopefully be helpful to people attempting to parse a legally and factually dense document.

The key question is how Robert Mueller and his team assessed the three elements “common to most of the relevant statutes” relating to obstruction of justice: an obstructive act, a nexus between the act and an official proceeding, and corrupt intent. As Mueller describes, the special counsel’s office “gathered evidence … relevant to the elements of those crimes and analyzed them within an elements framework—while refraining from reaching ultimate conclusions about whether crimes were committed,” because of the Office of Legal Counsel (OLC)’s guidelines against the indictment of a sitting president.

The below heat map is an effort to simplify Mueller’s analysis of the evidence in relation to the three common elements of the obstruction statutes. Instances of possibly obstructive conduct are identified by their section marking in Volume II of the report. (Section A is a general overview of the Trump campaign’s response to public reporting on Russian support for Trump and does not contain an analysis.) Some sections contained varying analysis of multiple possibly obstructive acts, which are identified separately. More information about how the special counsel assessed each possible instance of obstruction is available below the chart itself, with page numbers corresponding to Volume II.

I should emphasize that the below is my interpretation of the evidence as Mueller seems to provide it—others may have different readings. (Richard Hoeg has provided a slightly different take, also available on Twitter.) My assessment rests on an assumption that Mueller is correct in his legal analysis that a president may still obstruct justice even if the act in question is taken entirely under his Article II authority. Under Attorney General William Barr’s reading of Article II, this heat map would look very different. I’ve also accepted at face value Mueller’s statutory argument that 18 U.S.C. § 1512(c)(2) “states a broad, independent, and unqualified prohibition on obstruction of justice,” rather than, as Trump’s personal counsel apparently argued to Mueller, covering only “acts that would impair the integrity and availability of evidence.”

B. Conduct regarding the Flynn investigation

Obstructive act (p. 43): Trump asked for Comey’s loyalty and pressured Comey to “let this go” regarding the FBI investigation into former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn. “In analyzing whether these statements constitute an obstructive act, a threshold question is whether Comey’s account of the interaction is accurate, and, if so, whether the President’s statements had the tendency to impede the administration of justice by shutting down an inquiry that could result in a grand jury investigation and criminal charge.” “[S]ubstantial evidence corroborates Comey’s account.”

Nexus (p. 46): By the time Trump spoke to Comey, Trump had been informed that Flynn had been interviewed by the FBI and that his statements could violate 18 U.S.C. § 1001, the prohibition on lying to federal investigators. “[T]he President’s instruction to the FBI Director to ‘let[] Flynn go’ suggests his awareness that Flynn could face criminal exposure for his conduct and was at risk of prosecution.”

Intent: “[E]vidence is inconclusive” as to whether Trump was aware of Flynn’s calls with Kislyak when they occurred. But “[e]vidence does establish that the President connected the Flynn investigation to the FBI’s broader Russia investigation.”

Trump attempted to have Deputy National Security Adviser K.T. McFarland “draft an internal email” stating that Trump did not ask Flynn to discuss sanctions with Russian Ambassador Sergei Kislyak, which McFarland did not do because she was not sure if the statement would be accurate. Though “evidence does not establish” that Trump was trying to make McFarland lie, the incident “highlights the President’s concern about being associated with Flynn’s conduct,” and McFarland was disturbed by the request and felt it was “irregular.”

C. Conduct regarding public confirmation of the Russia investigation

Obstructive act (p. 60): Though “evidence shows” that Trump reached out to intelligence community leadership, that outreach was “not interpreted … as directives to improperly interfere with the investigation.” Mueller notes that Trump’s outreach to NSA Director Mike Rogers was “significant enough that Rogers thought it important to document the encounter in a written memorandum.”

Nexus (p. 60): The outreach took place following FBI Director James Comey’s announcement of the FBI’s counterintelligence and criminal investigation of Russian election interference.

Intent (p. 60): “The evidence does not establish that the President asked or directed intelligence agency leaders to stop or interfere with the FBI’s Russia investigation[.]” However, “the President’s intent in trying to prevent Sessions’s recusal, and in reaching out the Coats, Pompeo, Rogers, and Comey following Comey’s public announcement of the FBI’s Russia investigation, is nevertheless relevant to understanding what motivated the President’s other actions towards the investigation.” In other words, while Trump’s actions here do not indicate intent as to the specific potentially obstructive conduct at issue in this section, they are relevant to understanding his intent as to his broader pattern of conduct toward the investigation.

D. Firing of James Comey

Obstructive act (p. 74): “Firing Comey would qualify as an obstructive act if it had the natural and probable effect of interfering with or impeding the investigation.” Trump’s handling of the Comey firing and his actions in the subsequent days “had the potential to affect a successor director’s conduct of the investigation,” though removing Comey “would not necessarily … prevent or impede the FBI from continuing its investigation.”

Nexus (p. 75): By the time of the Comey firing, Trump was aware of both the FBI investigation into Russian election interference and the investigation into Flynn.

Intent (p. 75): “Substantial evidence” indicates that Trump fired Comey because of “Comey’s unwillingness to publicly state that the President was not personally under investigation.” Mueller notes that “[s]ome evidence indicates that the President believed that the erroneous perception he was under investigation harmed his ability to manage domestic and foreign affairs”—but “[o]ther evidence … indicates that the President wanted to protect himself from an investigation into his campaign.” “The initial reliance on a pretextual justification [for Comey’s firing] could support an inferencethat the President had concerns about providing the real reason for the firing, although the evidence does not resolve whether those concerns were personal, personal, or both.”

E. Efforts to fire Mueller

Obstructive act (p. 87):  . . .

Continue reading. There’s much more. The US is not doing well. The Republican party has turned against the Constitution.

Written by Leisureguy

7 May 2019 at 9:34 am

Lenthéric and the Baby Smooth

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This Lenthéric shaving soap is from decades ago, but it has a great and very present lavender fragrance, and it makes a terrific lather, worked up this morning with Phoenix Artisan’s Starcraft shaving brush. The soap was an eBay find, but even that was more than a decade ago: I got it in June 2008. This is a soap I’d buy again in a heartbeat.

Three passes with the RazoRock Baby Smooth, one of my favorite razors, followed by a splash of Lenthéric Tweed, and the day begins on a good note.

The Eldest will arrive tomorrow for a visit. I’m looking forward to that. Today is cleaning the kitchen—no cooking, since I did make a pork shoulder roast and a batch of Harvy Scarvy, so I have leftovers.

Written by Leisureguy

7 May 2019 at 9:14 am

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