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Archive for May 9th, 2019

Five reasons Trump is a foreign policy failure

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Jennifer Rubin in the Washington Post offers a clear-eyed view of Trump’s incompetence:

The Post reports:

President Trump is questioning his administration’s aggressive strategy in Venezuela following the failure of a U.S.-backed effort to oust President Nicolás Maduro, complaining he was misled about how easy it would be to replace the socialist strongman with a young opposition figure, according to administration officials and White House advisers.

The president’s dissatisfaction has crystallized around national security adviser John Bolton and what Trump has groused is an interventionist stance at odds with his view that the United States should stay out of foreign quagmires.

It’s odd that Trump doesn’t understand why his own policy is so aggressive; he and his vice president have issued numerous blustery pronouncements and threats. Perhaps Bolton’s mistake was in taking Trump’s commitment to the opposition too seriously. Alternatively, Trump may have been duped by an overly optimistic national security adviser who had no plan B if Maduro didn’t give up.

Then there are then the trade negotiations with China. What seemed like a narrowing of differences now appears to be a potential collapse of talks, with Trump threatening that higher tariffs will be imposed Friday. The Wall Street Journal reports, “The new hard line taken by China in trade talks—surprising the White House and threatening to derail negotiations—came after Beijing interpreted recent statements and actions by President Trump as a sign the U.S. was ready to make concessions, said people familiar with the thinking of the Chinese side.” Apparently Trump’s weakness or apparent weakness — the sort of negotiating behavior he’d scorned in “The Art of the Deal,” a fictional account of his career — has brought us to the brink of an even more dangerous trade war.

As with Venezuela, Trump would like to blame others (even Democrats, somehow), but his own attempts to flatter Chinese President Xi Jinping and his attacks on the head of the Federal Reserve seem responsible for China’s about-face:

Trump’s hectoring of Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome Powell to cut interest rates was seen in Beijing as evidence that the president thought the U.S. economy was more fragile than he claimed.

Beijing was further encouraged by Trump’s frequent claim of friendship with Chinese President Xi Jinping and by Trump’s praise for Chinese Vice Premier Liu He for pledging to buy more U.S. soybeans.

That brings us to North Korea, which after two ill-advised summits has resumed missile testing and failed to demonstrate it is serious about denuclearization, no matter how many times Secretary of State Mike Pompeo tries to spin the results.

Some common themes characterize these and other foreign policy flubs.

First, Trump imagines all foreign leaders are narcissistic patsies like he is. He tries to flatter those immune to flattery. He ignores egregious human rights behavior in North Korea and China for fear of poisoning a personal relationship that exists only in his head. Strongmen, as a result, see him as gullible and weak.

That leads to Trump’s second major failing: He gives too much away for free without any demand for reciprocity, thereby emboldening opponents. He gives Kim Jong Un passive PR wins. He lets China’s ZTE off the hook and slow-walks sanctions against China. He gives Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman a free pass on the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, with no promise of any changed behavior domestically or in Yemen.

Third, Trump and his advisers set unrealistic goals, reinforce them with exaggerated rhetoric and then lack a backup plan. Whether it is Venezuela or Iran, he envisions regime change but lacks a viable road to achieving such a dramatic result. As a result, friends and foes no longer take him seriously.

Fourth, he mistakes gestures for policy. Pulling out of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, a.k.a. the Iran deal, doesn’t make us safer. Pulling out of the Paris accord doesn’t create an alternative plan for fighting climate change. Agreeing to move our embassy to Jerusalem doesn’t bring us an inch closer to a deal, even an intermediary one, between Israel and the Palestinians. The administration and Trump in particular never seem to be prepared to answer the logical question “And then what?” In fact, these are moves for domestic policy consumption and without an overarching strategy to achieve desired results. In addition, they fray relationships with allies who are essential to our long-term interests.

Finally, under two secretaries, the State Department has been hollowed out and left with absent or “acting” officials, in addition to facing massive proposed budget cuts, which Congress has fortunately rejected. A demoralized, disrespected State Department bleeding away officials with decades of experience is no way to beef up American influence and stature.

In sum, Trump has gotten by in life with lies, bluster and secrecy (e.g., keeping his tax returns under wraps). He hires flunkies, not experts in their field who might challenge his views. The results aren’t pretty. Moreover,

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Written by Leisureguy

9 May 2019 at 8:37 pm

Listen to TurboTax Lie to Get Out of Refunding Overcharged Customers

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Justin Elliott and Meg Marco report in ProPublica:

The makers of TurboTax have long been luring customers into paying for a service that they promised the government they’d give away for free. Now they’re lying to customers to avoid giving refunds.

We’ve heard from 16 people who say they were denied refunds and told that the truly free version — Free File — is a government product that’s not run by TurboTax. Ten others reported being told that ProPublica’s stories were inaccurate, or that our coverage is “fake news” or “fictitious.”

None of that is true.

TurboTax’s Free File product is created and run by the company. It is offered as part of a deal between the tax software industry and the government. The deal is specifically designed to keep the IRS from creating its own free online filing system.

Several people gave us recordings of their calls.

Here’s audio from one caller, a graduate student in Virginia whose income was around $16,000 — meaning he easily qualified for TurboTax’s Free File. He was charged $105.


The graduate student asked the agent why there were no links to the actual free version — Free File — on the TurboTax website:

TurboTax Agent: “Because it is an IRS product we built for them.”

Caller: “But you guys are the ones managing it right?”

TurboTax Agent: “No, the IRS is the one managing it.”

We gave the recording to Intuit, which makes TurboTax, but a spokesperson did not answer questions about the call. He said in a statement, “We will look into this directly with the agent.” Intuit has repeatedly declined to answer questions about its refund policy.

Other readers also reported being told that TurboTax was not responsible for Free File.

“They said their free service is actually owned by IRS, not them,” said Becky from California.

Anna from Massachusetts said that a supervisor told her that Free File is “a government product that is simply branded as TurboTax.”

Christopher from Virginia said he was told “that the IRS uses the Turbo Tax platform for Free File but that TurboTax is not responsible for it.”

Laurie from Washington said she was told by a TurboTax agent that ProPublica was going to run a retraction. (Our stories are accurate, so there’s nothing to retract.) Laurie was charged $130 by TurboTax. Her adjusted gross income was just $376.

An Intuit spokesperson previously said that no material provided to call agents included “derogatory terms about ProPublica.”

Other callers said that Intuit representatives told them the company has not given anyone a refund. That is also false.

After our recent stories, we heard from dozens of people who reported calling the company and getting their money back.

In a separate development on Monday, the Los Angeles city attorney sued Intuit and H&R Block under California’s unfair competition law.

The two suits, which cite ProPublica’s reporting, demand that the companies pay penalties and restitution for deceiving customers.

“Low-income people without someone to stand up for them have not been able to take advantage of what should be a free service,” City Attorney Mike Feuer said in an interview. “That’s wrong.”

He noted the suit was filed under the same law as his office’s high-profile case against Wells Fargo.

Asked about the lawsuit, an H&R Block spokesperson said the company “is proud to have helped millions of Americans with our four free tax filing options.” An Intuit spokesperson said in a statement: “Any suggestion that Intuit does not support the IRS Free File Program is flat wrong. We stand behind our actions as being both appropriate and consistent with our values.”

Update, May 9, 2019: Following publication of this story, Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., ranking member of the Finance Committee, said in a statement: “ProPublica’s latest reporting provides more evidence of dirty tricks from Intuit. Customers eligible to file for free were allegedly denied refunds and given false information about the Free File program.”

Wyden, co-sponsor of a bill that would make the Free File program permanent — the fate of which is now in doubt — added: . . .

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Written by Leisureguy

9 May 2019 at 3:24 pm

The Supreme Court, the Census Case, and the Truth

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The US is falling, one vital institution at a time. The Supreme Court seems next in line. Linda Greenhouse writes in the NY Times:

The smart money says the Trump administration is going to prevail at the Supreme Court in its effort to add a citizenship question to next year’s census. Having read the transcript and listened to the audio file of the recent argument, I don’t challenge that forecast.

Neither am I going to argue with the experts’ prediction that adding the citizenship question, which has been omitted since 1950 from the census form that goes to every household, will lead immigrant families to fail to return the form out of fear caused by the Trump administration’s brutal anti-immigrant policies. The resulting differential undercount will penalize immigrant-rich cities and states in political representation and federal funding.

Harmful as that impact would be on the affected areas, I want to argue here that validating the Trump administration’s cynical hijacking of the census would have a devastating effect on the integrity of the Supreme Court.

Never mind that three Federal District Courts, ruling since the first of the year in three cases, have found the addition of the citizenship question to be procedurally improper or flat-out unconstitutional. There are respectable contrary arguments that might be made, under the Administrative Procedure Act or the Constitution’s Enumeration Clause, or there would be, had the administration acted in the good faith that Judge Jesse Furman, ruling in the case now before the court, found to be conspicuously lacking.

Perhaps the justices who appear poised to overturn the lower-court decisions really believe that Congress has delegated its constitutional census obligation to the secretary of commerce to conduct the enumeration however he wishes without judicial supervision. Maybe they really think that the 18 states suing the Commerce Department lack standing because any harm that befalls them from the citizenship question is due not to the government but to the “illegal” acts of immigrants who fail to answer the census. These propositions constitute the core of the administration’s argument. If the justices are honestly persuaded by them, well, that’s litigation for you. It’s a zero-sum game in which someone wins and someone loses.

But if the plaintiff states are going to lose, it seems to me that it matters greatly how they lose. What was depressing and even scary about the April 23 argument was the disingenuous lengths to which the conservative justices were willing to go to tilt the case in the administration’s favor. They played dumb. They pretended not to know what they surely knew: that the citizenship question will depress the census count in a way that is predictably harmful and that the administration’s brief concealed the real story of how the citizenship question made its way onto the census. In other words, I have enough respect for the justices’ basic intelligence, which includes the ability to read the same briefs and opinions that I read, to conclude that they know full well what game is afoot.

Don’t take my word for it. Read the transcript. The conservative justices were at pains to challenge the very idea that the citizenship question could depress noncitizens’ response rates, despite the fact that numerous Census Bureau studies have shown that to be the case. “What jumps out,” Justice Samuel Alito said to Solicitor General Barbara D. Underwood of New York, “is the fact that citizens and noncitizens differ in a lot of respects other than citizenship. They differ in socioeconomic status. They differ in education. They differ in language ability.” And so, he went on, “I don’t think you have to be much of a statistician to wonder about the legitimacy of concluding” that the response rate would go down “because of this one factor.”

Justice Neil Gorsuch weighed in. “There could be multiple reasons why individuals don’t complete the form.” He continued: “We don’t have any evidence disaggregating the reasons why the forms are left uncompleted. What do you do with that? I mean, normally we would have a regression analysis that would disaggregate the potential cause and identify to a 95th percentile degree of certainty what the reason is that persons are not filling out this form and we could attribute it to this question. We don’t have anything like that here. So what are we supposed to do about that?”

Justice Alito then returned to his theme. There were “many factors that could explain a decline when you’re distinguishing between citizens and noncitizens,” he said.

When Ms. Underwood started to explain that the Census Bureau studies had controlled for the differences, Justice Gorsuch broke in. “It’s fair to say we don’t have this isolated, though, isn’t it?” he asked.

At this point in the transcript, Justice Stephen Breyer’s exasperation with his colleagues almost jumps off the page. “There are a million factors,” he said with evident sarcasm. “There are pet dogs, you know. I mean, there are cats.”

It fell to Justice Elena Kagan to bring the argument back to earth. “Would it be right to say, General,” she said to Ms. Underwood, “that it was the Census Bureau’s conclusion, a bureau full of statisticians, that it was the citizenship question that was driving the differential response rates?”

“That is correct,” Ms. Underwood replied.

Among the other conservative justices, Justice Clarence Thomas, as is his custom, said nothing, and Justice Brett Kavanaugh said relatively little. Chief Justice John Roberts didn’t join in the game that Justices Alito and Gorsuch were playing, but he did seem strangely obtuse when he observed to Ms. Underwood that “we’ve had demographic questions on the census, I don’t know how far back, but certainly, it’s quite common. Sex, age, things like that. ‘Do you own your house?’ ‘Do you own a radio?’ I mean, the questions go quite beyond how many people there are.”

The chief justice’s observations, while accurate, made no sense in the context of this case, as Ms. Underwood diplomatically pointed out. “We have no comparable evidence about any of those other questions that they depress the count in this substantial a way and in this disproportionate a way,” she said.

And what is there to say about Solicitor General Noel Francisco’s argument for the Trump administration? It’s part of our current national tragedy that an allergy to the truth has infected the Department of Justice from the top down. Mr. Francisco maintained in both his brief and his oral argument that it was the Justice Department that urged Wilbur Ross, the secretary of commerce, to add the citizenship question, ostensibly to provide for more precise enforcement of the Voting Rights Act. Aside from the fact that the Trump administration has shown no interest in protecting voting rights and that no administration has asked for a citizenship question in the 54 years since the Voting Rights Act of 1965 became law, there is one problem with the solicitor general’s narrative: It is demonstrably untrue.

According to the record methodically compiled in Judge Furman’s District Court courtroom, Secretary Ross was urged to add the citizenship question by Steve Bannon, a White House adviser at the time, and the anti-immigrant crusader Kris Kobach. Mr. Ross shopped the idea around the federal government for a year and was initially turned down by the Department of Homeland Security as well as the Justice Department. He finally made a direct pitch to Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who agreed to get him a letter that would request the citizenship question and provide the Voting Rights Act rationale — the rationale that Judge Furman called pretextual.

So when Mr. Francisco told the justices that there was “no evidence in this record” that Secretary Ross would have added the citizenship question “had the Department of Justice not requested it,” he was at that moment the luckiest person in the courtroom: The red light on the lectern came on, indicating the end of his argument time. No one could ask a follow-up question, including Justice Kagan, who earlier had observed to Mr. Francisco that “you can’t read this record without sensing that this need is a contrived one.”

This sordid tale might be just so much inside-the-Beltway gossip except that it goes directly to the legal matter at hand in the pending case, Department of Commerce v. New York. The administration is demanding deference to its decision on what to ask on the census. Yet experts at the Census Bureau have testified that asking the citizenship question will make the 2020 census less accurate. As Solicitor General Underwood of New York put it in her brief for the plaintiffs, addressing the Justice Department’s purported request for the question, “Settled principles of administrative law foreclose any deference when a decision maker falsely claims to rely on the expertise of another agency to defend its determination.”

The basic legal claim of New York and the other states is that adding the citizenship question is “arbitrary and capricious,” in violation of the Administrative Procedure Act. As the states’ brief explains: “A decision maker acts arbitrarily by purporting to rely on another agency’s expertise when, in fact, the decision maker instructed that agency rather than the other way around. Such illusory reliance undercuts the foundational premise for judicial deference to administrative action: that the decision resulted from an exercise of specialized expertise that courts lack. When a decision maker purports to rely on an exercise of expert judgment that never happened, there is nothing to which the courts can defer.”

In the administration’s brief, Mr. Francisco complains that . . .

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Written by Leisureguy

9 May 2019 at 10:19 am

Violet is the fragrance of the day

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Eufros is made by JabonMan in Spain (email him at to get a list of what’s available and prices), and it is an excellent shaving soap. This morning the Maggard 22mm synthetic made a superb lather fragrant with violets, and the doughty iKon Shavecraft 101 did its usual stellar job, this being another of my most favorite razors. A splash of vanilla violet fragrance finished the job, and The Eldest and I will soon repair to Jam Cafe for breakfast.

I just added a new link to the shaving links at the right, Blake’n Blade Shave Shop. The owner writes:

I have been enjoying using traditional shaving methods for some time now and about three years ago decided to open my own shop here in Estonia with the aim to provide more sustainable shaving products to local men. We have been growing steadily and every link back to the shop page will greatly help to reach more like-minded people here in Estonia and Europe as well.

The shop has a good line of products. And there’s a reason: “I try my best to find products that are excellent by doing a minimum of 3 week trial on every product before deciding to  add it to shop. This gives good insights that I can later pass on to customers.”

Written by Leisureguy

9 May 2019 at 7:19 am

Posted in Business, Shaving

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