Later On

A blog written for those whose interests more or less match mine.

Archive for April 22nd, 2020

As Amazon Rises, So Does the Opposition

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David Streitfeld reports in the NY Times:

A million years ago, Stacy Mitchell was in her office, talking about why Amazon is bad for America.

“If you relentlessly squeeze workers and suppliers, if you undermine every community’s local businesses, if you capture all of this surplus under the guise of efficiency and channel those gains to a small number of people, you end up with a system that is very vulnerable,” said Ms. Mitchell, an antitrust reformer and monopoly critic. “That is what we’ve been doing, systematically and as a matter of public policy.”

That was early March. Within days, much of the United States and Europe would enter lockdown. Unemployment soared, the health care system faltered and the economy collapsed. Shipping food, supplies and entertainment, Amazon became the pipeline — and sometimes the lifeline — for millions of housebound families. It was deemed essential.

The retailer immediately moved to deepen its dominance, hiring 100,000 new workers. Its stock market valuation jumped by hundreds of billions of dollars, while other retailers cratered. Wall Street analysts agreed: Amazon would own the future.

In the grim present, however, Amazon workers were suddenly visible in a way they had never been before. Warehouse employees raised urgent questions about how safe they were from the coronavirus. Wildcat strikes were staged at several warehouses. While the number of workers involved was small, it was still the largest labor revolt in Amazon’s history.

“Amazon has never been more powerful, but the consequences of its power have never been more visible,” Ms. Mitchell said on Thursday. “It’s laid bare.”

As much as anyone, she gets the credit for that.

Ms. Mitchell is 47, a historian by training, low-key by inclination. She is officially the co-director of a small nonprofit, the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, which has been working since the early 1970s to defend communities against concentrated economic power. But her real role is the strategist of the demise of Amazon as we know it.

In 2016, she published a 79-page report, written with Olivia LaVecchia, called “Amazon’s Stranglehold: How the Company’s Tightening Grip Is Stifling Competition, Eroding Jobs, and Threatening Communities.” A few months later, the law student Lina Khan published “Amazon’s Antitrust Paradox” in the Yale Law Journal. Together, the two works provided a road map for a new, more critical approach to the e-commerce colossus.

“I’m not trying to take away anyone’s diaper delivery,” Ms. Mitchell said. “But no corporation is above the law.”

Ms. Mitchell has testified before Congress, is a polite but persistent presence on Twitter, and is a frequent tutor to journalists new to the monopoly beat. She had a starring role in “Amazon Empire: The Rise and Reign of Jeff Bezos,” a documentary by PBS’s “Frontline” that is one of the most incisive examinations of the company and its founder. And last winter, Ms. Mitchell was a driving force in creating Athena, a coalition of nearly 50 labor, small business and social justice groups that aims to reform and possibly break up Amazon.

The company declined to make a senior executive available for this article, but in the past it has noted that it has only a small share of global commerce, that it faces formidable competitors, and that its “customer obsession” has lowered prices. “Amazonians are working around the clock to get necessary supplies delivered directly to the doorsteps of people who need them,” chief executive Jeff Bezos wrote in a letter to shareholders published Thursday, which also detailed steps taken to protect workers from the virus and temporarily increase pay.

Athena has kept the pressure on, publicizing Amazon employee walkouts, holding press calls on topics like “Is Amazon a Danger to Public Health?” and giving a platform to workers. Never before has Amazon faced this kind of organized, sustained and national opposition.

All of this makes Ms. Mitchell’s tiny two-room office in Portland, Maine — a desk, a few bookshelves piled high and a poster that says “Strike while it’s hot” — a headquarters of the budding Amazon resistance.

One of Athena’s larger goals is to end what it describes as a system in which Amazon competes with other companies to make and sell goods, and then dictates the terms by which those competitors find their customers on Amazon’s platform and controls how they ship their wares to market. From the Athena perspective, it’s as if Amazon has installed little tollbooths everywhere, a tax on using the internet. . .

Continue reading.

Written by Leisureguy

22 April 2020 at 9:09 pm

Do a good job and nothing happens

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It occurs to me that an effective public health intervention will appear to the untrained eye like a false alarm: the intervention is done and (as a result) nothing happens. And unfortunately — or perhaps fortunately — we can’t reset and run through it again without the public health intervention, though certainly we can see some cases from history: the Black Death, the 1918 Great Influenza epidemic, and the Broad Steet epidemic (up until the removal of the pump handle — and if the pump handle had been removed before the epidemic started, as a precautionary measure, a certain type of person would be outraged at the infringement on liberty.

Written by Leisureguy

22 April 2020 at 8:11 pm

Posted in Health, Medical, Science

Trump Organization Asks Trump Administration for Leniency on D.C. Lease

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I wonder whether the Trump organization will receive any special consideration from the Trump administration. (Just joking — of course it will.)

Matt Stieb writes in New York:

With the coronavirus shutdown devastating the hospitality industry, the Trump Organization, with its resorts and hotels closed or woefully under-occupied, turned first to its usual lender. According to the New York Times, in early April, the president’s business asked Deutsche Bank’s private banking division if they’d be willing to delay payments on the hundreds of millions in outstanding loans that Trump has borrowed. (Unfortunately for the president, lawmakers forbid elected officials and Cabinet-level heads from receiving assistance from any federal bailouts passed by Congress.)

Now, the Trump Organization is requesting that the Trump administration help out. The New York Times confirmed on Tuesday that the president’s business has asked the government to change its lease payments at the Trump International Hotel, less than a mile southeast of the White House. While the Trump Organization owns the 263-room hotel, it is located in a federally owned building leased by the government to Trump in 2013 for a 60-year deal. While co-president Eric Trump confirmed that they were up to date on the rent, the family business has asked about delaying future rent payments, which the federal government has confirmed as close to $268,000. Eric Trump said that he requested that the General Services Administration, the agency that oversees federal leases, extend any sort of deal it may be providing to other tenants. “Just treat us the same,” Eric Trump said in a statement on Tuesday. “Whatever that may be is fine.”

Like with the Trump Organization’s request to Deutsche Bank, the ask for rent forgiveness from the GSA carries ethical concerns for a president who has not divested from his business interests. If the agency denies the appeal, it may irk the president, who is responsible for appointing its director. Trump, of course, is well-known for rooting out perceived dissent within the federal government.

It’s not the first time . . .

Continue reading.

Written by Leisureguy

22 April 2020 at 8:09 pm

People talk of FOMO, but not of COMO

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The fear of missing out (FOMO) is so prevalent it has its own acronym, but I’ve become more conscious of the certainty of missing out (COMO). The world simply offers to much — places, people, ideas, knowledge, foods, music, games, sports, books, hobbies, and so on — for anyone to sample more than a small fraction in any depth at all. And anyone can recognize that what most are missing is very good indeed: opera buffs struggle with the idea that some have never become immersed in opera; go players can’t understand why more people don’t play go; Esperantists can’t see why more people are not learning Esperanto; NASCAR enthusiasts, NFL enthusiasts, Shakespeare enthusiasts, MMA enthusiasts, Latin enthusiasts, Formula One enthusiasts, and so on — all are bemused by those who “don’t bother” to learn more about these interests.

FOMO may or may not be a thing. COMO is most definitely a thing.

As an exercise, list all the things in which you know some people have an avid interest and you’ve not explored. I’ll start:

Thai cooking
Sherlock Holmes mania
Experimental music
Downhill skiing
SCUBA diving
Flying gliders
Entomology

It will be a long list.

Written by Leisureguy

22 April 2020 at 5:35 pm

Posted in Daily life

Unendurable Line: Thresholds

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I like Daniel Shibata. Here’s another:

Written by Leisureguy

22 April 2020 at 4:14 pm

Posted in Video

Payroll Protection Plan: Congress without lobbyists

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Matt Stoller has an extremely interesting column in Big. Here’s just one section:

(3) Small Banks Are Competent, Big Banks Are Not

One of the more heated debates in banking politics is the importance of size. Traditionally, reformers have attacked large financial institutions using the label Too Big to Fail, alleging big banks were dangerous because they took on too much risk and could bring down the financial system. A very powerful counter-argument is that as risky as they might be, big banks are necessary. Big banks, so goes the argument, are simply more efficient than small banks because banking is a scale business.

Bank lobbyists love to argue for the benefits of scale, as do their allies at the Federal Reserve. Cleveland Fed Chair Loretta Mester, for instance, in 2010 dismissed research showing small banks are perfectly efficient, and argued that there were “significant scale economies at even the largest banks.” I don’t mean to pick on Mester, it’s a commonly held view that defending small banks is a vestige of nostalgic populists yearning for the days of yore, versus the savvy Jamie Dimon-types who, whatever you might say about risk-taking, are capable of acting.

As it turns out, however it’s the big guys who can’t actually get things done. What we are seeing with the small business lending program is big banks are not only risky, but incompetent. Here’s the LA Times:

Small businesses that rushed in vain to tap $349 billion in emergency U.S. loans to survive the coronavirus crisis are facing a harsh reality: Some of the nation’s top banks lagged behind relatively tiny rivals in handling applications.

As banking giants tried to automate the process, hundreds of employees at Texas lender Cullen/Frost Bankers Inc. volunteered to fill out forms manually, working late into the night in homes to set up $3 billion in loans. That contrasts with Wells Fargo & Co., which arranged only about $120 million by the time the program was depleted this week, according to people briefed on its progress.

A lot of the arguments for the importance of scale in banking boiled to fake commentary about technology spending, and how fancy big banks hired fancy IT specialists to fancy fancy. (I’m paraphrasing.) Of course many of us have been told that big bank IT infrastructure is terrible, often smoke and mirrors, and that in fact big banks have few commercial banking relationships and little ability to lend to ordinary people except through highly automated programs like credit cards.

And not only were smaller banks nimbler and more effective, but it was larger banks that caused some of the corruption problems, like the wildly inappropriate loans to Ruth Chris by J.P. Morgan. I suspect this failure by big banks, and the success of small ones in lending, will have lasting political consequences.

To offer a historical analogy, in the 1933 banking crisis, many cities ran out of cash, and began issuing municipally created scrip backed by future tax collections. Locally owned stores tend to accept this scrip, while national chain stores did not. Popular anger at this anti-social behavior by chains boosted the movement against chain stores, which in the late 1930s had a series of policy victories to reign in the big guys.

I suspect we will see a repeat. It’s one thing to blow up the world economy, which big banks did in 2008. It’s another thing to not be able to actually make loans. I mean, if Wells Fargo can’t make loans when the government gives them a guaranteed return, what’s even the point of Wells Fargo except as an institution for politicians to yell at when caught yet again for opening up fake customer accounts?

(4) The Federal Reserve Is an Enemy of Small Banks and Small Business

One of the most important trends in banking over the last four decades is . . .

Read the whole thing.

Written by Leisureguy

22 April 2020 at 4:02 pm

Even Sean Hannity has blood on his hands

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Take a look.

Written by Leisureguy

22 April 2020 at 12:40 pm

Donald Trump Is Literally Doing Nothing to Fight COVID-19

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Kevin Drum points out the emperor’s total lack of clothing, but is mistaken in saying that President Trump is “doing nothing,” since Trump is actively pushing policies that will worsen the situation. Drum writes:

Let’s review our president’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic:

  • He has no plan for mass testing.
  • He has already let everyone know he’s unenthusiastic about masks.
  • He wants to “liberate” states from stay-at-home orders.
  • He wants to open up non-essential businesses as soon as possible.
  • He appears to have no particular opinion about social distancing, school closings, or large gatherings.

In other words, he literally has no concrete response to the pandemic at all, aside from closing our borders and passing along damaging fictions about vaccines and folk remedies. Meanwhile, his own director of the CDC—no liberal shill by any stretch—is warning that the second wave of COVID-19 later in the year is likely to be worse than the one we’re going through right now:

Asked about protests against stay-at-home orders and calls on states to be “liberated” from restrictions, Redfield said: “It’s not helpful.” The president himself has tweeted encouragements of such protests, urging followers to “LIBERATE MINNESOTA!” and “LIBERATE MICHIGAN!”

Forewarned is forearmed, they say. We have the next six months to build more ICU capacity; stockpile masks and protective gear for doctors and nurses; increase our testing capacity by at least 10x; and prepare a huge PR campaign based on what we learn from the first wave of COVID-19.

Is there any sign that Trump is interested in any of this? Not that I’ve seen.

Written by Leisureguy

22 April 2020 at 11:02 am

Georgia’s governor values money above human healthy and safety

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Brian Kemp, governor of Georgia, seems perfectly willing to sacrifice lives to save some money (and to avoid raising taxes). Heather Cox Richardson writes:

. . .  Overshadowing this news today, though, was a razor sharp observation made yesterday by George Chidi, a Georgia journalist and former staff writer for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Chidi examined Georgia Governor Brian Kemp’s decision to reopen gyms, fitness centers, bowling alleys, tattoo parlors, barbers, nail salons, restaurants, theaters, and massage therapists, among other businesses, next week.

Kemp said the businesses would be required to screen workers for illness, increase sanitation rules, separate workspaces by at least six feet, telework where at all possible, and have staggered shifts. He also said that more restrictive local rules could not override his order.

Kemp told reporters that his concern was to protect small businesses, hurt by the economic shutdown, but Chidi had a different interpretation. “It’s about making sure people can’t file unemployment,” he wrote.

The state’s unemployment fund has about $2.6 billion. The shutdown has made claims skyrocket—Chidi says the fund will empty in about 28 weeks. There is no easy way to replenish the account because Georgia has recently set a limit on income taxes that cannot be overridden without a constitutional amendment. It cannot borrow enough to cover the fund either, because by law Georgia can’t borrow more than 5% of its previous year’s revenue in any year, and any borrowing must be repaid in full before the state can borrow any more.

By ending the business closures, Kemp guarantees that workers can no longer claim they are involuntarily unemployed, and so cannot claim unemployment benefits. Chidi notes that the order did not include banks, software firms, factories, or schools. It covered businesses usually staffed by poorer people that Kemp wants to keep off the unemployment rolls.

Kemp threw onto businesses responsibility for reassuring customers that reopening was the right thing to do. He warned that the “The private sector is going to have to convince the public that it’s safe to come back into these businesses,” Kemp said. “That’s what a barber is going to have to do. It’s what a tattoo parlor is going to have to do.” He also acknowledged that cases of Covid-19 would rise, but noted that the state had expanded its hospital bed capacity.

Chidi’s observations are shocking, and believable. The modern Republican program calls for the end to business regulation, social welfare programs, and infrastructure development, with the idea that freedom from restraint will allow businesses to thrive and the country will prosper in turn.

To bring their ideology to life, Republicans have slashed regulation, taxation, and social programs. Under such a regime, a few individuals have done very well indeed, while the majority of Americans has fallen behind. Georgia has been aggressive in putting the Republican program into action. Now, the lack of a social safety net in Georgia has stripped the veneer off this system. Far from spreading prosperity as “makers” stimulate the economy, it appears that the determination to keep taxes low and social welfare systems small is now forcing workers to risk their lives in a deadly pandemic.

This is the logical outcome of an ideology of radical individualism: as one Tennessee protester’s sign put it “Sacrifice the weak/Reopen T[ennessee].” In 1883, during a time of similar discussions over the responsibility of government to provide a social safety net, Yale sociologist William Graham Sumner wrote a famous book: What Social Classes Owe to Each Other. Sumner’s answer was… nothing. Sumner argued that protecting the weak was actually bad for society because it wasted resources and would permit weaker people to dilute the population. Far from helping poorer Americans, the government should let them die out for the good of society.

Sumner wanted the government to stay out of social welfare programs, but thought it should continue to protect businesses, which men like Sumner believed helped everyone.

Today, corporations are asking Congress to protect them from lawsuits from employees and customers who might get infected with the novel coronavirus when they begin to reopen. According to Republican Representative Mike Johnson of Louisiana, a member of Trump’s congressional task force on the economy, “There’s been a lot of discussion among conservative Republicans…. On the Republican side, I think there would be broad support, probably near-unanimous support.” . . .

Continue reading.

Written by Leisureguy

22 April 2020 at 10:03 am

A good and quick fish-and-veggie recipe

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Eddie from Australia asked whether I strictly observe a whole-food plant-based diet or occasionally eat some animal-based food. I do from time to time include an animal-based food in a meal, though for the sake of variety — that is, I do not believe that I need such foods for health. (I do take a B12 supplement, using cyanocobalamin (for reasons given at the link).

Here’s the recipe, using my No. 10 Field Company or the 12″ Stargazer cast-iron skillet — and I think this is one of those recipes that works better in a cast-iron skillet because of the cooking by radiative heat in addition to conducted heat.

Like all my “recipes,” I am simply recording what I did. I have found that if I take foods I like and cook them together, I generally like the result. I don’t measure except by eye. You can, therefore, adjust amounts to suit your own taste.

6-10 cloves garlic, finely chopped — the number depends on how much you like garlic

Do that first so the garlic can rest before going into the hot skillet. Then chop the rest:

1-2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1 bunch of scallions — thick scallions if possible — chopped, including leaves
1/2 large or 1 medium red or yellow onion, chopped
about 8-12 domestic white mushrooms, chopped
10-14 stalks fresh asparagus, chopped
1-2 jalapeño peppers, chopped (including core and seeds)
about 1/3-1/2 cup sliced kalamata olives, drained and squeezed to minimize liquid
2-3 teaspoons freshly ground black pepper

Heat the skillet, then add oil and immediately add the scallions and onions. Cook that a few minutes, then add garlic, cook for a minute or so, then add the rest.

Continue cooking until the mushrooms release their liquid and it looks to being done. Then add:

300-400g fish cut into chunks — red snapper, Icelandic cod, Pacific swordfish, Dover sole, whatever

Continue cooking for about 8-10 minutes until fish is cooked. Turn off heat, and squeeze over it:

juice of a lemon

You could add some crumbled feta and chopped fresh tomato (or halved cherry tomatoes) at the end if you want. A bunch of shredded fresh basil would be nice, perhaps added earlier, along with some pine nuts.

When I made it after writing the above, I did add some dried thyme, Mexican oregano, and chipotle powder.

Shrimp instead of fish would be good, too.

Update: I made it again For the herbs I used Mexican organo again, plus cracked rosemary and herbes de Provence. And after I put some in a (largish) bowl, I diced half an avocado over it and then the juice of half a lemon. Very tasty.

Written by Leisureguy

22 April 2020 at 9:57 am

Posted in Food, Recipes & Cooking

Some housekeeping and link refreshing

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I’m slowly working my way through the links listed at the right, deleting link rot, ehancing descriptions, and in general sprucing it up. I am going through in alphabetic order and am just starting the H’s. I found some nifty things I had forgotten, such as FreeRice (see under “Games” or “Food”), DailyLit (under “Books”), and Earthships (under “Environment”). I changed the link for “Glorious One-Pot Meals” (under “Food”) to my own post of general guidelines and updated that post significantly.

It’s somewhat tedious, but it seems worthwhile, and I should have completed it by the end of the week.

Written by Leisureguy

22 April 2020 at 9:28 am

Posted in Daily life

Going for the supple soft smooth shave — and just missed it

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Now that my attention has been drawn to the supple soft finish of some shaves, I naturally want that to recur. It would be easy if I knew exactly the cause, but shaving involves quite a few variables.

My initial focus was on products — the shaving soap and the aftershave — so I that Phoenix Artisan’s CK-6 formula would be a good soap and their star jelly aftershave balm a good finished. I wasn’t sure about the razor, but I thought a slant would work.

So that led to this morning’s shave. It was a partial success (which sounds ever so much better than a partial failure: I’m a glass-half-full sort of guy), and so far as I can tell the supple softness is there but the smoothness is lacking a bit, despite use a slant — and the Parker Semi-Slant strikes me as an excellent razor. It may be that it needs a new blade, but in any event I’ll try this again with a different razor.

Still, the result is enormously better than I used to get with multiblade cartridge and canned foam, and the pleasure and experience are not even in the same ballpark.

Written by Leisureguy

22 April 2020 at 8:53 am

Posted in Shaving

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