Later On

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

Archive for August 2021

The US government is badly broken

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Clay Risen has a column and interview in the NY Times that lays out one way in which the US government does not work. He writes:

Continue reading. There’s more.

Later in the interview:

One of the running criticisms of the Trump administration was how slowly it nominated and won confirmation for hundreds of high-level government officials, especially in critical agencies like the State Department and the Department of Homeland Security.

But things aren’t going much better with the Biden administration. And arguably, the situation is worse: In the middle of a pandemic, there is still no confirmed head of the Food and Drug Administration, and there is no confirmed ambassador to Afghanistan to help manage the crisis there.

To understand what’s going on, I turned to Max Stier, the head of the Partnership for Public Service, a nonpartisan organization that tracks vacancies and advises the government on how to improve the nomination and confirmation process.

He made clear that while the Biden team was woefully behind, the problem was not unique to it — or to the Trump administration. Rather, he said, it’s typical of a broken system that has led to a long string of government failures.

“You can go back in time, if it was the response to Hurricane Katrina under the Bush administration, or the botched rollout of healthcare.gov under the Obama administration, or any number of issues in the Trump administration,” he said. “There is an execution gap of consequence. And one of the big reasons for that is that the leadership system is broken.”

A transcript of our interview, edited and condensed, follows.

Where does the Biden administration stand in terms of its nominations and confirmations?

There’s a set of 800 positions that we consider the most fundamental, and of those, they only have 127 that are confirmed, and they have 206 that are waiting in the queue. That still leaves a pretty substantial number that needs to be nominated.

It’s hard to believe, but we’re past the seven-month mark in this administration. You have a Senate that operates like a two-lane country highway, and you have a big traffic jam because you’ve got legislative priorities and budget issues and judicial nominations.
And why is this a problem? Don’t they have acting officials in place?
When no one’s there, you do have someone in the acting role, but they’re the substitute teachers. They might be amazing educators, but we all know that the substitute teacher doesn’t get respect from the class, and they don’t see their job as taking on the long-term problems because they don’t know if they’ll be around tomorrow. What I’m painting for you is a broader system failure in our government. You wind up with workarounds like acting leadership, or in the last administration, an effort to simply avoid a confirmed leadership in many instances.

Speaking of the last administration, how does President Biden’s record compare with Donald Trump’s?

The Biden team is ahead in their nominations of where Trump was at this point in time, but they’re actually neck and neck in the number of confirmed people.

It’s easy to see why the Senate could be a roadblock for confirmations, but what explains the lag in nominations?

There’s an interrelationship between the two. One of the challenges any administration faces is thinking about the likelihood of getting people confirmed. A difficult confirmation process impacts the nomination process. There’s a lot of risk aversion. And, frankly, their ability to recruit is hurt. Think about all the people who would throw in their hat knowing they’ll be a part of that cool-your-jet package. Everything you do gets scrutinized enormously, and you have to be thoughtful and careful about what you should be doing that might get you in trouble.

And to add a complication, a current nominee can’t also serve as the acting leader, according to a relatively recent Supreme Court decision. For example, if the Biden administration nominated Janet Woodcock to serve as the F.D.A. commissioner, she would have to step down from her present role as acting commissioner. Congress should fix this.

Which agencies worry you the most?

I think the State Department is plainly one of the most obvious places with significant gaps. Of the positions we track, the State Department has the most gaps of any agency. But the truth is, you only have 127 confirmed positions, so there are problems pretty much everywhere. The most noticeable ones are the places where there are current, obvious needs. So, there’s the international issues, whether it’s Afghanistan or China. You think about health care, where the lack of a confirmed F.D.A. commissioner is clearly a problem.

The Office of Management and Budget director is not as obvious, but I think it is a truly fundamental role. There is very little in the federal government that is focused on the enterprise as a whole, but the Office of Management and Budget is. It’s a tiny agency when you think about the entire government, but it’s the nerve center, and to not have a confirmed director is a problem.

Let’s take Afghanistan as a case study. How does the lack of confirmed positions hurt us there?

Written by Leisureguy

31 August 2021 at 4:27 pm

Every Sport a Bowling Ball

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Written by Leisureguy

31 August 2021 at 3:16 pm

Posted in Humor, Video

Wealthy Lobbyists Have Already Slashed Biden’s Tax Reform by Three-Quarters

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In New York Jonathan Chait writes about corruption in the American government:

The Hill, a newspaper covering Congress, reports that business lobbyists are pleased that they have watered down President Biden’s proposed tax increases on corporations and wealthy individuals. One source, identified as “a lobbyist with ties to Senate Democrats,” tells The Hill, “The business community has made progress with certain Democrats on legitimate policy concerns with some of these proposals and their implications on the economy and international competitiveness.”

What are those policy concerns that have successfully swayed moderate Democrats? The article does not specify. We have the lobbyist’s assurance that they are “legitimate.” Though this may come as a shock, there is no actual requirement that lobbyists only advance legitimate policy concerns. They are perfectly free to advocate completely self-interested policy concerns as well. Indeed, this unsavory practice has been known to happen from time to time.

What’s more, if the business lobbyists did happen to be pushing bad policy arguments simply because those arguments benefited the people who pay them, they probably wouldn’t admit this to a newspaper. Instead, they would likely claim in public that their policy concerns are beneficent, even if they are, in fact, utterly venal.

I don’t mean to pick on The Hill, a paper that has supplied coverage of the Biden agenda that is in many ways superior to that found in bigger publications. Media catering to Capitol Hill insiders, like The Hill, have at least paid close attention to a significant development that has gained only fleeting notice in broader venues: Moderate Democrats have slashed President Biden’s progressive tax agenda.

Biden campaigned on a proposal to increase taxes on the wealthy by roughly $3.5 trillion over a decade. Nobody in Washington currently believes he will sign a tax hike anywhere close to that magnitude. The current predictions floating around — Politico’s tax newsletter is one publication that has used this estimate — peg the total at around a trillion, give or take.

The most striking thing about the decision by moderate Democrats to scale back Biden’s plan by some three-quarters is that we have no idea what the rationale is.

According to The Hill, the lobbyists have argued that Biden’s plan “would slow the U.S. recovery from the coronavirus recession.” It’s not clear what basis they have for this conclusion. If mainstream economists believe Biden’s tax hikes would imperil the recovery, they aren’t saying so publicly. (As economists like Larry Summers did when they loudly warned that Biden’s rescue plan would overheat the economy.)

When the conservative American Enterprise Institute ran the numbers on Biden’s full tax-increase proposal, it found a negligible effect on economic growth: reducing GDP 0.16 percent over the next decade, increasing GDP by 0.19 percent in the following decade, and reducing it by 0.18 percent over the longer run. All those numbers are so tiny they are rounding errors, tantamount to zero.

One of the most “persuasive” arguments, at least judging from its results, is the lobbying campaign to preserve a notorious loophole called “stepped-up basis,” or, more colloquially, “the angel of death loophole.” Here’s how this loophole works: Normally, if you sell an asset, like a stock, you pay tax on the profit. If you bought $1,000 worth of GM stock, and sold it for $2,000, you’d pay taxes on the $1,000 capital gain. However, if you die and pass the asset on to your heirs, then all the gains that occurred before you die are wiped from the books (hence, “angel of death”). Your heirs will only pay tax on the gain that occurred after they inherited the asset.

This exemption allows half of all capital gains to avoid any taxation, ever. The loophole is considered so ridiculous that conservatives often propose eliminating it as an alternative to increasing the estate tax. (Jeb Bush and Mitt Romney have both advocated eliminating the angel of death loophole.) Biden is proposing to eliminate the loophole, with the exception of a generous $1 million exclusion. (Most capital gains belong to staggeringly wealthy fortunes worth well over $1 million.)

Former Democratic senator Heidi Heitkamp is leading a lobbying campaign on behalf of wealthy benefactors looking to save the angel of death loophole. Heitkamp tells The Hill, with a straight face, that the loophole is vital to protect “an emerging entrepreneurial class within the Hispanic community and within the African American community, [who] won’t be able to take advantage of these tax rules” if it is eliminated.

Biden’s proposal includes protections for family-run businesses. That does not satisfy Heitkamp, who argues (in The Hill’s wording) that “many Americans may think that wealthy and well-connected people will most likely benefit from any exemptions.” And so, in the name of Americans who are cynical about well-connected people benefiting from special exemptions, Heitkamp insists we keep in place a notorious loophole that almost exclusively benefits massively wealthy heirs.

Heitkampf is also so committed to combating cynicism that she has declined to disclose the identities of her group’s donors. We can probably assume that they’re mostly the hard-scrabble Black and Latino small business owners she talks about so movingly.

In place of any well-articulated public rationale, the moderate Democrats have instead put forward a transparently disingenuous pretext that their goal is to sign the infrastructure bill as fast as possible. The ten House Democrats, led by Josh Gottheimer, have insisted their goal in opposing the House budget is to get shovels into the ground as quickly as possible. “No Labels,” the anti-partisan group funded by wealthy financiers, is running ads pretending Gottheimer’s clique is supporting Biden’s agenda, emphasizing the infrastructure bill and making absolutely no mention of the tax dispute. Many reporters have repeated Gottheimer’s account of his motives at face value.

The Hill’s less-blinkered account, on the other hand, frankly notes, “Business interests have Democratic allies in Sens. Joe Manchin (W.Va.) and Kyrsten Sinema (Ariz.) and the group of House moderates led by Rep. Josh Gottheimer (N.J.) — all have expressed concerns about the size of the spending plan and potential tax hikes.”

Since budget rules require any permanent costs be paid for, and Biden doesn’t want to increase taxes on households earning less than $400,000 a year, the size of his domestic policy legacy will be determined by how much new taxes on the rich he can get through Congress. His proposal is perfectly ample to finance a historic legacy. A handful of moderate Democrats are starving that legacy very, very quietly. If they had good reasons for their position, you would probably know what they were.

Update: Axios’ Hans Nichols reports that the Congressional Democratic bill is likely to jettison several Biden proposals. . .

Continue reading.

Written by Leisureguy

31 August 2021 at 1:06 pm

“A Vast Criminal Racket”: Sebastian Junger on How the U.S. Corrupted Afghanistan

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Sebastian Junger writes in Vanity Fair:

The Taliban delegation to Jalalabad in the summer of 1996 was a dour bunch of old men who took their meals together at a long table in the dining room of the Spinghar hotel. They were there to negotiate the surrender of Jalalabad and I was there to document the last stand of the Afghan government, such as it was, so there were some hard stares across the breakfast buffet. Then we would all go out and face the jet engine heat of the day.

A week later I was driving through Kabul when a Taliban gunner opened up on us with a machine gun. (The Taliban already harbored Osama bin Laden and other al-Qaida figures in Afghanistan, but the Islamic State was not yet in existence.) My driver cranked a U-turn and roared back up the ruined boulevard. “We hate those people,” he said, “but they promise to clean up corruption, and so we will let them into our country.” The Taliban claimed Kabul weeks after I got out, hanging President Najibullah from a streetlight for corruption and completing their three-year campaign to establish an Islamic government in Afghanistan. From there, I was told by a captured Taliban fighter, they planned to wage jihad across Southeast Asia and eventually the world.

The one part of the country that never fell to the Taliban, however, was the rugged northeastern quadrant controlled by ethnic Tajiks under the command of legendary guerilla fighter Ahmad Shah Massoud. In the fall of 2000, four years into the Taliban reign, I made my way from Tajikistan into the “free” areas of Badakhshan Province, where I spent two months alongside Massoud and his commanders. I watched Massoud play a brilliant and desperate chess game against the vastly superior Taliban forces, holding ground and even liberating new areas. Massoud warned me that Pakistan—supposedly a U.S. ally—was directly supporting the Taliban, and that al-Qaida was planning a huge attack on the West in the coming year.

Massoud repeated those warnings to the French Congress in Paris the following April, but no one took it seriously. On September 9, 2001, Massoud was assassinated by al-Qaida suicide bombers, and two days later, hijacked airplanes flew into the Pentagon and the Twin Towers. A fourth plane was supposed to take out the Capitol building in Washington and effectively decapitate the U.S. government, but passengers bravely forced it down into a field in Pennsylvania. One month later I was back in Afghanistan, and my country was at war.

After weeks of strangely lackadaisical bombing by American planes, Massoud’s Northern Alliance surged across the Shomali Plain toward Kabul. Tanks and pickup trucks and bicycles and men on foot converged on the two main roads leading into the city and streamed southwards, fighting as they went. On November 13 we walked into the city at dawn past a clutch of dead Taliban fighters who lay vacant and twisted in a pile by the side of the road, executed hours earlier. The citizens of Kabul were dancing in the streets and flying kites and carrying radios that blared Indian pop music. A young boy sailed by on a bike playing harmonica, and a man came up and hugged me when he found out I was American. I had always wanted to see a city liberated, and my wish had finally been fulfilled. Not only that, but it was my own country that had done the liberating; I felt a warm infusion of national pride.

Many Americans are now fond of saying, knowingly, that the war was unwinnable because it’s Afghanistan—graveyard of empires, a rugged land filled with proud people who are happy to fight to the death. But that kind of breezy dismissal just allows us to avoid the embarrassing conversation about what actually went wrong. America had overwhelming military superiority, the approval of over 80% of Afghans polled in 2004, and the sympathy of the entire international community after the attacks of 9/11. The scale of those attacks also gave us the kind of legal, moral, and strategic justifications that were utterly lacking in Korea and Vietnam. If there could be a sure thing in warfare, this was it—and we blew it.

To be clear, American efforts in Afghanistan can’t really be compared to the vast imperialist undertakings of the British and the Soviets; if anything, we weren’t imperialist enough. Taliban resistance collapsed almost immediately in 2001, but instead of following through with a massive infusion of troops and relief, the Bush administration moved on to a completely unnecessary war in Iraq. Afghanistan was initially allotted only about 10,000 American troops—one quarter the size of the New York City police force—and was all but abandoned by the State Department. Iraq was the place to be for ambitious young Americans in the Bush administration; Afghanistan was a backwater.

Afghans looked on in amazement: You lost almost 3,000 civilians to al-Qaida, and this is all you got? For Afghans debating whether to collaborate with American forces, this was not looking like a good bet. “We know what happened to the Kurds after the first Gulf War,” one Afghan told a friend of mine. “President Bush abandoned them after the war, and they were massacred by Saddam Hussein.” Now another member of the Bush dynasty—George W.—was offering a similar deal. Incredibly, many Afghans accepted.

Even with that small level of support, the Afghan endeavor might have worked had the Bush administration—and then the Obama administration—tackled the one thing that Afghans have always demanded, and that all people deserve: an honest and transparent government. Instead, we essentially stood up a huge criminal cartel that posed as a government. President Hamid Karzai’s brother, for example, was the recipient of $23 million in “loans” from the national bank that everyone knew he would never have to pay back. The son of the former Speaker of the Afghan parliament, Rahman Rahmani, was given millions of dollars in contracts to supply fuel and security to U.S. military bases. And a food chain of corrupt officials continued to impose a vast and humiliating extortion system that squeezed money from ordinary Afghans every time they went through a checkpoint, filed paperwork, or even applied for a job. Military commanders even dunned money from their own soldiers’ paychecks for the “privilege” of wearing the country’s uniform.

There was no reason for Afghan soldiers to fight and die for such an enterprise, and by 2005—the next time I was back in-country—the Taliban had regained control of entire districts and were largely dictating the nature of the war. Our high-tech military could win every battle but was useless against an enemy that moved with ease through a civilian population that feared and even hated them. “The U.S. is effectively trying to

Continue reading.  There’s much more.

Later in the article:

Sarah [Chayes] spent almost a decade in Kandahar, learning Pashto and embedding herself so deeply in Kandahari society that the U.S. military had the good sense to hire her as a civilian adviser. She wound up working for three top ISAF commanders and finally inside the Pentagon, reporting directly to Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. According to Sarah, some field commanders knew how important anti-corruption measures could be, because they had watched Taliban-controlled areas open up to them when corrupt local officials were deprived of unregulated development cash. Nevertheless, in 2011, the Obama administration ignored Admiral Mullen and other senior commanders and decided that U.S. policy would not challenge corrupt practices in Afghanistan.

fter that, it was game on for a cash mill that saw a total of $2 trillion spent by America in Afghanistan. Civilian officials from agencies like USAID, the State Department, and Congress continued to launch obscenely inflated development projects that could turn Afghan governors into millionaires overnight. Military contractors continued to unwittingly pay Taliban commanders to refrain from attacking supply convoys. And Afghan officials brazenly stole the paychecks, ammunition, and even food of Afghan soldiers fighting on the front line. On paper the U.S. paid for a 300,000-man Afghan army, but the actual number was much smaller—and the difference, of course, was pocketed by Afghan officials. American policies were so contradictory, in fact, that many ordinary Afghans concluded that the U.S. was secretly allied with the Taliban and just “pretending” to be at war.

Because I had spent a lot of time with U.S. troops in the infamous Korengal Valley, Senator John Kerry invited me to meet with him in late 2010. Kerry was chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and said that he wanted to hear my thoughts on how the war was going. We met in Kerry’s office after he had gotten off an overnight flight, and his eyes were heavy with sleep. “The war is not winnable unless we deal with corruption,” I recall telling him, doing my best to channel Sarah’s insights. His response was that the U.S. simply didn’t have enough leverage to press the issue. If we cut off the money, I remember him saying, the government would simply revolt.

“Then tell them we’ll leave,” I said. “If the Taliban take Kabul, every minister is dead, and they all know that.”

There is a particular look that officials get when they know you are right, but their hands are tied, and Kerry had that look now. He thanked me for my insights, and I never heard from him again.

When the Taliban finally seized . . .

It may well be that the US was so accepting of corruption in Afghanistan because the US itself has become extremely corrupt and thus sees no real objection to corruption. See the next post for an example.

Written by Leisureguy

31 August 2021 at 1:01 pm

How Much Lead Leaches Into Organic Chicken Bone Broth?

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I had always assumed bone broth was nutritious. Guess not. Read this post.

From the post:

most of the lead ends up in the birds’ skeletons, which raises the question: What happens when you try to make chicken soup?

There may be an upswing in people boiling bones, which is “encouraged by advocates of the paleolithic (or ‘paleo’) diet,” but the problem is that lead is a neurotoxin—but not just a neurotoxin. Lead also adversely affects the bone marrow, digestive tract, kidneys, circulatory system, hormones, and reproduction. Symptoms of too much lead exposure include impaired cognition, anemia, abdominal pain, kidney problems, high blood pressure, miscarriages, memory problems, constipation, impotence, depression, poor concentration, and more. What’s more, we know from human studies that lead is sequestered in bones. When there is a lot of bone turnover, for example, during menopause or pregnancy, lead levels in the blood can go up. This bump can be minimized during pregnancy by getting enough calcium and lowering sodium intake, though. When astronauts lose bone in space, the lead is released into their bloodstream. Ironically, since they’re no longer being exposed to all the lead on Earth, their overall lead levels may go down. Bones are so good at sucking up lead, they can be sprinkled on firing ranges to prevent lead from leeching further into the environment.

Researchers concerned that the boiling of farm animals’ bones might release lead into the broth made three types of organic chicken broth—one using the bones, a second using meat without the bones, and a third using the skin and cartilage without the bones. All three of the broths exceeded the maximum allowable dose level for lead—even the one made without bones. Surprisingly, the skin and cartilage broth was the worst, exceeding the safety level per one-cup serving by about 475 percent.

Read the whole thing.

Written by Leisureguy

31 August 2021 at 12:39 pm

Bigger isn’t better – the renegade ‘Buddhist economics’ of E.F. Schumacher

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Aeon magazine introduces a video about E.F. Schumacher:

‘Like all good revolutionaries, he travels light…’

A protégé of John Maynard Keynes, the German-British economist Ernst Friedrich ‘Fritz’ Schumacher (1911-77) came of age in step with his contemporaries who emphasised growth as they endeavoured to rebuild the modern world following the Second World War. Midway though his career, however, Schumacher began to believe that the increasingly complex global economy and the increasingly intricate machinery it was built on were proving ruinous for humanity. Influenced by Buddhist teachings, he developed a set of principles he called ‘Buddhist economics’, based on the beliefs that meaningful work is an essential part of being human, simple technology is valuable only to the extent that it meets needs, and the interconnected modern economy is disastrous to humankind and the environment. He trimmed his thesis to an eloquent three words for his landmark book Small Is Beautiful (1973), which brims with ideas that are today familiar to most and embraced by many, and is often cited as one of the most influential postwar works of economics. This documentary profile of Schumacher from 1977 captures him at the height of his influence and, incidentally, in the months leading up to his death, exploring his thoughtful philosophies of work, technology and human dignity.

Written by Leisureguy

31 August 2021 at 12:31 pm

Cut sugar to save lives — Researchers urge fallback approach

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MGH News and Public Affairs has an interesting article in The Harvard Gazette:

Cutting 20 percent of sugar from packaged foods and 40 percent from beverages could prevent 2.48 million cardiovascular disease events (such as strokes, heart attacks, cardiac arrests), 490,000 cardiovascular deaths, and 750,000 diabetes cases in the U.S. over the lifetime of the adult population, reports a study published in Circulation.

A team of researchers from Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH), the Friedman School of Nutrition Science & Policy at Tufts University, Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, and New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene (NYC DOH) created a model to simulate and quantify the health, economic, and equity impacts of a pragmatic sugar-reduction policy proposed by the U.S. National Salt and Sugar Reduction Initiative (NSSRI).

A partnership of more than 100 local, state and national health organizations convened by the NYC DOH, the NSSRI released draft sugar-reduction targets for packaged foods and beverages in 15 categories in 2018. This February, NSSRI finalized the policy with the goal of industry voluntarily committing to gradually reformulate their sugary products.

Implementing a national policy, however, will require government support to monitor companies as they work toward the targets and to publicly report on their progress. The researchers hope . . .

Continue reading. I will point out that “hope” is not a plan.

There’s quite a bit more, including:

“Reducing the sugar content of commercially prepared foods and beverages will have a larger impact on the health of Americans than other initiatives to cut sugar, such as imposing a sugar tax, labeling added sugar content, or banning sugary drinks in schools.”

Ten years after the NSSRI policy goes into effect, the U.S. could expect to save $4.28 billion in total net health care costs, and $118.04 billion over the lifetime of the current adult population (ages 35 to 79), according to the model. Adding the societal costs of lost productivity of Americans developing diseases from excessive sugar consumption, the total cost savings of the NSSRI policy rises to $160.88 billion over the adult population’s lifetime. These benefits are likely to be an underestimation since the calculations were conservative. The study also demonstrated that even partial industry compliance with the policy could generate significant health and economic gains.

The researchers found that the NSSRI policy became cost-effective at six years and cost-saving at nine years. The policy . ..

Stephen Covey talks about how a person can relate to the world around him or her. See this post, which includes a link to a PDF summarizing some of Covey’s approach. In that PDF, I write:

Your circle of concern consists of those situations and events over which you have no control. If you focus your attention and energy on things in the circle of concern, you gradually adopt the reactive model (because you have no control over these things).

Your circle of influence consists of those situations and events which you do control or influence. Your own choices and your responses to situations, of course, are squarely in the center of your circle of influence. By focusing your attention and energy on things in the circle of influence, you can take action and see the results.

You can solve direct control problems by working on your habits, solve indirect control problems by changing your methods of influence, and simply accept those things over which you have no control.

Regarding packaged foods and sugary drinks: whether to consume those or not is squarely in the center of one’s circle of influence. One can make a choice. My own diet includes almost no prepared foods and certainly no beverages that contain sugar. (I do buy some salad dressings (but I choose those that contain no sugar). I admit that the  prepared mustard I buy has a little sugar, but I consume that in very small amounts.)

I am not suggesting individual choice as public policy, but as something one can do now as personal decision. Getting the food industry to change their products is a massive undertaking that will take years and involve constant pressure and monitoring. Changing one’s own diet is a relatively simple and easy task and accomplishes, for the individual, the same goal. Hillel the Elder: “If not you, who? If not now, when?”

Anyone reading this has the facts and can make a choice and decide on when to act on the choice. If not now, when? And I mean that literally — pick a day and on that day stop eating packaged foods and drinking beverages that contain refined sugar. (I personally don’t even drink fruit juice, but rather eat whole fruit.)

Written by Leisureguy

31 August 2021 at 10:48 am

USPS Has Cheated Mail Carriers for Years

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This is unconscionable. Alexia Fernández Campbell reports at the Center for Public Integrity:

ancy Campos’ back ached as she loaded more than 100 Amazon packages onto her truck. The 59-year-old grandmother, a mail carrier for the U.S. Postal Service, had worked 13 days in a row without a lunch break, and now she was delivering on the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday to keep up with a never-ending flow of boxes.

At the end of her shift that January day, Campos filled out her time sheet. Then she took a picture of it — for proof.

“I knew what was going to happen,” said Campos, who delivers mail in Midland, Texas, “because it happens every pay period.”

Two weeks later, when she checked her paystub in the payroll system, she said she was missing six hours of overtime pay. That added up to about $201 in lost wages — a week’s worth of groceries.

Postal workers across the country share her frustration.

The Postal Service regularly cheats mail carriers out of their pay, according to a Center for Public Integrity investigation. Managers at hundreds of post offices around the country have illegally underpaid hourly workers for years, arbitrators and federal investigators have found.

Private arbitration records tell part of the story. From 2010 to 2019, at least 250 managers in 60 post offices were caught changing mail carriers’ time cards to show them working fewer hours, resulting in unpaid wages, according to a batch of arbitration award summaries obtained by Public Integrity for cases filed by one of the three major postal unions.

Supervisors found to be cheating were rarely disciplined — often receiving only a warning or more training. In four cities, arbitration documents show, post office managers continued to alter time cards after promising union leaders they would stop.

Since 2005, meanwhile, the Postal Service has been cited by the federal government 1,150 times for underpaying letter carriers and other employees, including one case that involved 164 violations, according to Labor Department data obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request. The agency determined that those workers lost about $659,000 in pay. But it allowed the Postal Service to pay back less than half after negotiations with the agency — a common practice at the Labor Department. About 19% of the cases did not indicate whether the Postal Service paid back employees.

These findings point to widespread wage theft at the iconic quasi-governmental institution. Yet they offer only a partial view of the problem. Not captured are any arbitration cases filed by other postal unions or wage theft grievances settled before reaching arbitration.

Cases keep cropping up as the Postal Service struggles to pay off $188 billion in debt and unfunded liabilities, accrued largely because federal law requires it to prepay retiree healthcare and pension benefits. The agency has cut nearly 142,000 jobs since 2007, and in March 2020, it needed a $10 billion emergency loan from Congress to help pay its bills.

Mail carriers say their supervisors face intense pressure to keep overtime costs down. At the same time, pandemic-fueled spikes in online ordering are overwhelming mail carriers with packages. And they can’t count on getting paid for all their work.

A spokesperson for the Postal Service, David Partenheimer, said the agency does not condone supervisors making unsupported timecard adjustments and takes such allegations seriously.

“This position is messaged to the postal workforce directly from postal leaders, including the Vice President, Delivery Operations, who periodically reissues policies regarding appropriate timecard administration for supervisors,” Partenheimer wrote in an email to Public Integrity. He declined to comment on specific cases.

Campos said the agency . . .

Continue reading. There’s much, much more — and it’s very bad. A comment in the report:

“This is a government job. Nobody should go to work and wonder if they’re going to get paid.”

Jennifer Williams, a Former Mail Carrier

Written by Leisureguy

31 August 2021 at 10:42 am

Geometric Shapes and Three-Dimensional Illusions Disrupt Existing Architecture in Peeta’s Anamorphic Murals

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Colossal has a collection of photos of stunning murals, the preface to which reads:

Italian artist Peeta (previously) uses the interplay between shadow and light to turn flat, monochromatic planes into deceptive three-dimensional murals. His large-scale works sever residences and public buildings with curved ribbons, angular shapes, and geometric blocks of color that appear to jump out from or be built directly into the existing architecture. Spanning locations across Europe, the spray-painted works shown here are some of the most recent additions to Peeta’s extensive archive of abstracted illusions, which shift in perspective depending on the viewer’s positions.

In September, the prolific artist will travel to Fidenza Village in Fidenza, Italy, for his next project, and you can follow progress on that piece on Instagram. Until then, check out his shop for prints, posters, and the sprawling fragmented sculptures that inform his murals.

Take a look at the murals in Colossal. Absolutely amazing.

Written by Leisureguy

31 August 2021 at 10:10 am

Posted in Art, Daily life

The Real Story Behind the $25,000 Trump Donation to Pam Bondi

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Jose Pagliery reports in Daily Beast:

It was the personally signed $25,000 check that landed then-presidential candidate Donald Trump in hot water—the check that sparked accusations that he had bribed Florida’s top prosecutor, Pam Bondi, with funds from his charity.

Much has been written about the suspicious timing of Trump’s 2013 gift to the Florida attorney general’s political campaign. But contrary to previous claims from Trump’s presidential campaign and company executives, new records acquired by The Daily Beast show that Trump Organization employees were explicitly told this was a donation to a political group, and emails show that Trump’s own executive assistant had met in person with Bondi’s finance director in New York City.

In its 2018 case against the Trump Foundation, the New York attorney general noted how Trump broke the law by using his charity to fund Bondi’s political group. And the charity was ultimately dissolved after a state judge found Trump had “breached his fiduciary duty” to the charity in other ways, behavior that the AG’s office called a “shocking pattern of illegality.”

The donation occurred just as Bondi was supposed to be considering joining New York’s investigation of the Trump University scam. And Trump himself got off easy. His campaign and foundation executives chalked it up to a mistake. The nonprofit didn’t realize it was a political group, the campaign told The Wall Street Journal. An ignorant company clerk hadn’t known, otherwise “we would have taken it out of [Trump’s] own personal account,” Trump Organization Chief Financial Officer Allen Weisselberg told The Washington Post.

The conversation is laid out in an email exchanged on Aug. 28, 2013 between Bondi campaign finance director Deborah Ramsey Aleksander and Trump’s long-serving executive assistant, Rhona Graff.

Aleksander provided Graff with the name and federal tax identification number for “And Justice for All,” a political action committee associated with Ms. Bondi’s re-election campaign. Aleksander described it as an “ECO,” which stands for “Electioneering Communications Organization.”

“Again, it was a pleasure meeting you today!!! Thanks again for always being so responsive and wonderful to work with.” Aleksander wrote to Graff. “Let Mr. Trump know that we are SO VERY thankful for his commitment of 25k and If he wants to make it 50k, that’s perfectly acceptable. 🙂 Seriously, thanks again for everything!!!”

In a subsequent email sent exactly two weeks later on Sept. 11, 2013, Aleksander mentioned their previous meeting in New York City and provided Graff with a copy of And Justice for All’s Internal Revenue Service W-9 form, which lists the group’s “federal tax classification” as a “political organization.”

Two days later, Trump sent Bondi the check with a signed letter that misspelled her name as “Pam Biondi” and read, “Dear Pam: You are the greatest!”

The signed check to the political group was issued from The Donald J. Trump Foundation, Inc., a tax-exempt nonprofit regulated by Section 501(c)(3) of U.S. tax code—which prohibits political donations by charities.

The Daily Beast showed these documents to Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, a government watchdog group that filed the initial complaint that exposed this entire ordeal. Jordan Libowitz, the CREW communications director who led this project, called the emails “a smoking gun.”

“It kind of blows up their whole story,” Libowitz said. “The Trump Organization staffers knew they were making this political donation. There are no questions about it. There is no ambiguity.”

The Trump Organization did not respond to questions about the matter on Wednesday. Bondi, who is now listed as a partner at the Washington offices of the lobbying firm Ballard Partners, did not respond to a request for comment, neither did Aleksander, who lists herself as an independent fundraising consultant for Sen. Rick Scott (R-FL).

The emails obtained by The Daily Beast also cast doubt on another explanation given by the Trump Organization when this matter came under public scrutiny in 2016.

At the time, . . .

Continue reading.

Written by Leisureguy

31 August 2021 at 10:04 am

Four forceful charts

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By all means look at the four charts in this post by Kevin Drum. Here’s one:

Written by Leisureguy

31 August 2021 at 9:34 am

Lighting strikes again — Impeccable shave with a great (new) slant

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Early this month, Mark asked me about the Fatip slant Lo Sorto. I had not heard of it, but hey! a slant! So I finally ordered it, and it arrived yesterday — and there it is, in the photo. Handsome devil, isn’t it?

And it shaves like a dream. I do think I get a smoother shave with a slant, on average and all things being equal, though a good conventional razor can also produce great smoothness. I explore in the Guide some reasons that might be — for example, the slant exerts less direct pressure against stubble, so fine stubble softened with lather is cut before it can be pushed over. 

In any case, this is an extremely efficient razor, and it is also extremely comfortable. Thanks, Mark. 

Prep was good with my lovely Super Smooth Spearmint Shaving Soap (aka SSSSS), and that Yaqi brush easily aroused the lather and carried an ample amount for the entire shave. 

Three very pleasant passes, and then a double-gel aftershave: Arko Aqua aftershave gel with a squirt of Grooming Dept Hydrating Gel. It’s a sunny day, and August ends well.

Written by Leisureguy

31 August 2021 at 9:16 am

Posted in Shaving

The US shows signs of breaking down

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Heather Cox Richardson, an American historian and professor of history at Boston College, where she teaches courses on the American Civil War and the Reconstruction Era, writes in her Substack column:

At 3:29 ET on August 30, 2021—early on the morning of August 31 in Afghanistan—the U.S. military mission in Afghanistan ended. It was the longest war in American history.

Among the last to come home were the 13 Americans killed in an ISIS-K attack last Thursday. They arrived at Dover Air Force Base in Delaware Sunday morning from Germany. President Joe Biden, First Lady Jill Biden, Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin, Secretary of State Antony Blinken, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mark Milley, and 8 aides attended the dignified transfer between the plane and a waiting vehicle.

In the last 17 days in Afghanistan, U.S. troops evacuated more than 120,000 people, making up the largest airlift in our history. For comparison, as Jennifer Rubin of the Washington Post pointed out, the U.S. evacuated no Americans from the civil war in Yemen in 2015, and only about 167 from Libya in 2011.

While critics have suggested that America’s withdrawal from Afghanistan will hurt American credibility abroad, President Biden and Secretary of State Antony Blinken have called for combatting terrorism through financial sanctions, bombing, and drone strikes like the one they used to retaliate against ISIS-K for the attack on the Kabul airport that killed more than 160 Afghans and 13 Americans last Friday, and by strengthening democracy at home.

There is plenty of work to do on that last front.

Last week, Peter Wehner, who served in the Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, and George W. Bush administrations, pointed out in The Atlantic that the right wing has moved to such extremism that former president Trump, whose behavior seemed so shocking in 2015 and 2016, is now being sidelined by lawmakers and pundits who are even more extreme.

Yesterday, in an event hosted by the Macon County Republican Party, Representative Madison Cawthorn (R-NC) insisted that the January 6 rioters are “political hostages” and said he wanted to “bust them out.” When someone in the audience asked “When are you going to call us to Washington again?” he said, “We are actively working on that one…. We have a few plans in motion that I can’t make public right now.” He called for removing Biden from office under the 25th Amendment and added, “when Kamala Harris inevitably screws up, we will take them down, one at a time.” He concluded by saying: “The Second Amendment was not written so that we can go hunting or we can shoot sporting clays…. The Second Amendment was written so that we can fight against tyranny.”

Increasingly, right-wing agitators are calling for violent overthrow of the government.

Today in Pennsylvania, Steve Lynch, a candidate for Northampton County executive, said: “Forget going into these school boards with freaking data. You go into these school boards to remove them. I’m going in with 20 strong men and I’m gonna give them an option—they can leave or they can be removed.”

At a protest in Santa Monica yesterday before a vote on a mask mandate, a man held a sign with the names and home addresses of each Los Angeles City Council member and said protesters would go to the homes of anyone who voted for the mandate and, if it passed, “Civil War is coming! Get your guns!”

This sort of street-level violence is known for radicalizing individuals as they get swept up in it and then later embrace the larger political arguments behind it. It also forces more reasonable individuals out of government positions as they conclude that their position on a school board, for example,  is not worth threats against their families and their lives.

Far from trying to tamp down this violence, right-wing leaders are egging it on. Tonight, on the Fox News Channel, personality Tucker Carlson told his audience that no leader had apologized for “these terrible decisions” in Afghanistan. “This can’t go on,” he said. “When leaders refuse to hold themselves accountable, over time, people revolt…. We need to change course immediately… or else the consequences will be awful.”

The images on the screen behind Carlson were of President Biden, Secretary of State Blinken, Defense Secretary Austin, and Chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Milley. Carlson often tries to undermine the current leadership of the military, suggesting that he would welcome its replacement by officers he finds less objectionable.

Republican offense may be an attempt at defense.

Today, Representative Bennie Thompson (D-MS), chair of the House Select Committee to Investigate the January 6th Attack on the United States Capitol, announced that the committee has demanded that 35 major communications companies preserve their records from April 1, 2020, to January 31, 2021, for people involved in the January 5 and January 6 rallies in Washington, D.C., or “potentially involved with discussions” about stopping the electoral vote count on January 6 or otherwise  “potentially involved with discussions” in planning the January 6 insurrection. According to CNN, the companies affected include cell phone giants Verizon Wireless, AT&T, T-Mobile, US Cellular, and Sprint. Social media companies covered under the request include Apple, Google, Facebook, Signal, Slack, YouTube, Twitch, and Twitter.

CNN reports that members of the committee have requested preservation of the records of representatives Cawthorn, Lauren Boebert (R-CO), Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-GA), Jim Jordan (R-OH), Andy Biggs (R-AZ), Paul Gosar (R-AZ), Mo Brooks (R-AL), Matt Gaetz (R-FL), Louie Gohmert (R-TX), Jody Hice (R-GA), and Scott Perry (R-PA). They have also asked the companies to preserve the records of former president Trump; those of his children Ivanka Trump, Donald Trump Jr. and Eric Trump; and those of his daughter-in-law Lara Trump and Don Jr.’s girlfriend Kimberly Guilfoyle, who worked on the campaign.

Those determined to regain control of the country from the Democrats also have to contend with continuing good news from Biden’s policies. A new . . .

Continue reading. There’s more, and it’s somewhat more comforting.

Written by Leisureguy

31 August 2021 at 1:49 am

Afghanistan: 3 Unlearned Lessons

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Robert Wright writes at Nonzero Newsletter:

. . .  Unlearned Lesson #1: The presence of a foreign army can strengthen the enemy by expanding its popular support.

In Vietnam, the United States underestimated the enemy’s grassroots support by misunderstanding the enemy’s nature. Many American officials saw the Viet Cong as fundamentally an incarnation of Communist ideology—and to some extent as a creation of outside Communist powers. They failed to see that it was in large part an incarnation of nationalism, of longstanding resistance against Western powers—first France and now the United States. So they didn’t appreciate that the presence of American troops was a kind of fuel for the enemy.

This misunderstanding was a central theme of Frances FitzGerald’s 1972 book Fire in the Lake. The book won a Pulitzer Prize and was a New York Times bestseller—which you’d think would be enough to keep FitzGerald’s point circulating for a long time.

Not long enough, apparently. In Afghanistan we again failed to see how a foreign military presence could energize nationalism and expand the enemy’s base. In a way our failure to get this picture is understandable; the Taliban seemed first and foremost a religious organization, and to the extent that it had a secular identity, that identity seemed rooted more in Pashtun ethnicity than in Afghan nationality. But such is the galvanizing power of a foreign army—especially one whose drones occasionally kill civilians—that unlikely carriers of a nationalist torch can wind up carrying it.

I didn’t totally get this until I listened to a recent edition of Aaron Mate’s Pushback podcast. Daniel Sjursen, a retired Army officer who served in both Iraq and Afghanistan and has taught at West Point, told Mate that “we kind of made the Taliban… What we ended up doing by our very presence was forming them into the national resistance organization they always wanted to be.” The Taliban became “the only game in town” for nationalists; the Taliban could say, “I’m a real Afghan. I’m a nationalist Afghan. Those people in Kabul, they’re working with the Americans.”

Sjursen added, “And we never got that. We thought that, well, more militarization will fix the problem of militarization being the problem.”

Continue reading.

Written by Leisureguy

30 August 2021 at 6:47 pm

The mind does not exist

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Joe Gough,  a PhD student in philosophy at the University of Sussex in the UK, writes in Aeon:

Someone’s probably told you before that something you thought, felt or feared was ‘all in your mind’. I’m here to tell you something else: there’s no such thing as the mind and nothing is mental. I call this the ‘no mind thesis’. The no-mind thesis is entirely compatible with the idea that people are conscious, and that they think, feel, believe, desire and so on. What it’s not compatible with is the notion that being conscious, thinking, feeling, believing, desiring and so on are mental, part of the mind, or done by the mind.

The no-mind thesis doesn’t mean that people are ‘merely bodies’. Instead, it means that, when faced with a whole person, we shouldn’t think that they can be divided into a ‘mind’ and a ‘body’, or that their properties can be neatly carved up between the ‘mental’ and the ‘non-mental’. It’s notable that Homeric Greek lacks terms that can be consistently translated as ‘mind’ and ‘body’. In Homer, we find a view of people as a coherent collection of communicating parts – ‘the spirit inside my breast drives me’; ‘my legs and arms are willing’. A similar view of human beings, as a big bundle of overlapping, intelligent systems in near-constant communication, is increasingly defended in cognitive science and biology.

The terms mind and mental are used in so many ways and have such a chequered history that they carry more baggage than meaning. Ideas of the mind and the mental are simultaneously ambiguous and misleading, especially in various important areas of science and medicine. When people talk of ‘the mind’ and ‘the mental’, the no-mind thesis doesn’t deny that they’re talking about something – on the contrary, they’re often talking about too many things at once. Sometimes, when speaking of ‘the mind’, people really mean agency; other times, cognition; still others, consciousness; some uses of ‘mental’ really mean psychiatric; others psychological; others still immaterial; and yet others, something else.

This conceptual blurriness is fatal to the usefulness of the idea of ‘the mind’. To be fair, many concepts build bridges: they exhibit a specific, generally harmless kind of ambiguity called polysemy, with slightly different meanings in different contexts. The flexibility and elasticity of polysemy binds disparate areas of research and practice together, priming people to recognise their similarities and interrelatedness. For example, if a computer scientist talks about ‘computation’, they normally mean something slightly different than an engineer, a cognitive scientist or someone chatting with a friend means. The overarching concept of computation links all these conversations together, helping us to spot the commonalities between them.

The problem is that making links like this isn’t always a good idea. Sometimes it spurs creative interactions between different areas of expertise, and offers helpful analogies that would otherwise be hard to spot. But other instances of polysemy lead to harmful conflations and damaging analogies. They make people talk past each other, or become invested in defending or attacking certain concepts rather than identifying their shared goals. This can cement misunderstandings and stigma.

You’ve got to give it to mind and mental: they’re among the most polysemous concepts going around. Lawyers talk of ‘mental’ capacity, psychiatrists talk of ‘mental illness’, cognitive scientists claim to study ‘the mind’, as do psychologists, and as do some philosophers; many people talk of a ‘mind-body problem’, and many people wonder whether it’s OK to eat animals depending on whether they ‘have a mind’. These are only a few of many more examples. In each case, mind and mental mean something different: sometimes subtly different, sometimes not-so-subtly.

In such high-stakes domains, it’s vital to be clear. Many people are all too ready to believe that the problems of the ‘mentally ill’ are ‘all in their mind’. I’ve never heard anyone doubt that a heart problem can lead to problems outside the heart, but I’ve regularly had to explain to friends and family that ‘mental’ illnesses can have physiological effects outside ‘the mind’. Why do people so often find one more mysterious and apparently surprising than the other? It’s because many of the bridges built by mind and mental are bridges that it’s time to burn, once and for all.

The psychiatrist, psychoanalyst and ‘antipsychiatrist’ Thomas Szasz argued that there was no such thing as mental illness. He believed that mental illnesses were ‘problems of living’, things that made it hard to live well because they were bound up with personal conflicts, bad habits and moral faults. Therefore, mental illness was the sufferer’s own personal responsibility. As a consequence, Szasz claimed that psychiatry should be abolished as a medical discipline, since it had nothing to treat. If a person’s symptoms had a physiological basis, then they were physical disorders of the brain rather than ‘mental’ ones. And if the symptoms had no physiological basis, Szasz claimed, then they didn’t amount to a true ‘illness’.

This argument relied heavily on the idea that mental illnesses are categorically distinct from ‘physiological’ ones. It’s an instance of how the dualistic connotations of mind, associated with certain metaphysical theories of the mental, can be imported inappropriately into psychiatry. Yet many mental illnesses have physiological causes and effects, and even those with no clear physiological cause often warrant medical intervention, because the people suffering from such conditions still deserve medical help.

In contrast with Szasz, I believe that mental illnesses are mental only in that they are psychiatric. Ordinary understandings of the mind, and what is and isn’t part of it, have nothing to do with it. Perception is generally considered to be mental, a part of the mind – yet, while medicine considers deafness and blindness to be disorders of perception, it doesn’t class them as mental illnesses. Why? The answer is obvious: because psychiatrists generally aren’t the best doctors to treat deafness and blindness (if they need treatment, which many Deaf people in particular would reject).

When people talk about ‘the mind’ and ‘the mental’ in psychiatry, my first thought is always ‘What exactly do they mean?’ – which precise meaning of mind and mental are they drawing on, which other area are they trying to appeal to, which bridge are they trying to get me to cross? A ‘mental’ illness is just an illness that psychiatry is equipped to deal with. That’s determined as much by practical considerations about the skills psychiatrists have to offer, as it is by theoretical or philosophical factors. But this pragmatic approach hides itself behind appeals to ‘mental illness’. In many contexts, the term mental tends to bring along inappropriate and stigmatising connotations – showing that the wrong bridges have been built. . .

Continue reading. There’s much more.

Later in the article:

There are also ways of mapping immunity in cognitive terms. In the 1960s and ’70s, the work of the US psychologist Robert Ader uncovered a surprising feature of the immune system. He trained rats to avoid a harmless sweetener by administering it alongside a sickness-inducing chemical called cyclophosphamide. When testing that the training had worked, by administering just the sweetener, the rats began to die. The more sweetener, the faster they died. This was a mystery. It turned out that cyclophosphamide is an ‘immunosuppressant’, a chemical that turns off the immune system. The immune system had ‘learned’ to turn off in response to the sweetener alone, and this left the rats vulnerable to normally harmless pathogens in their environment, which killed them. In other words, Ader discovered that the immune system is amenable to classic Pavlovian conditioning.

Written by Leisureguy

30 August 2021 at 6:29 pm

Biden Deserves Credit, Not Blame, for Afghanistan

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David Rothkopf writes in the Atlantic:

America’s longest war has been by any measure a costly failure, and the errors in managing the conflict deserve scrutiny in the years to come. But Joe Biden doesn’t “own” the mayhem on the ground right now. What we’re seeing is the culmination of 20 years of bad decisions by U.S. political and military leaders. If anything, Americans should feel proud of what the U.S. government and military have accomplished in these past two weeks. President Biden deserves credit, not blame.

Unlike his three immediate predecessors in the Oval Office, all of whom also came to see the futility of the Afghan operation, Biden alone had the political courage to fully end America’s involvement. Although Donald Trump made a plan to end the war, he set a departure date that fell after the end of his first term and created conditions that made the situation Biden inherited more precarious. And despite significant pressure and obstacles, Biden has overseen a military and government that have managed, since the announcement of America’s withdrawal, one of the most extraordinary logistical feats in their recent history. By the time the last American plane lifts off from Hamid Karzai International Airport on August 31, the total number of Americans and Afghan allies extricated from the country may exceed 120,000.

In the days following the fall of Kabul earlier this month—an event that triggered a period of chaos, fear, and grief—critics castigated the Biden administration for its failure to properly coordinate the departure of the last Americans and allies from the country. The White House was indeed surprised by how quickly the Taliban took control, and those early days could have been handled better. But the critics argued that more planning both would have been able to stop the Taliban victory and might have made America’s departure somehow tidier, more like a win or perhaps even a draw. The chaos, many said, was symptomatic of a bigger error. They argued that the United States should stay in Afghanistan, that the cost of remaining was worth the benefits a small force might bring.

Former military officers and intelligence operatives, as well as commentators who had long been advocates of extending America’s presence in Afghanistan, railed against Biden’s artificial deadline. Some critics were former Bush-administration officials or supporters who had gotten the U.S. into the mess in the first place, setting us on the impossible path toward nation building and, effectively, a mission without a clear exit or metric for success. Some were Obama-administration officials or supporters who had doubled down on the investment of personnel in the country and later, when the futility of the war was clear, lacked the political courage to withdraw. Some were Trump-administration officials or supporters who had negotiated with and helped strengthen the Taliban with their concessions in the peace deal and then had punted the ultimate exit from the country to the next administration.

They all conveniently forgot that they were responsible for some of America’s biggest errors in this war and instead were incandescently self-righteous in their invective against the Biden administration. Never mind the fact that the Taliban had been gaining ground since it resumed its military campaign in 2004 and, according to U.S. estimates even four years ago, controlled or contested about a third of Afghanistan. Never mind that the previous administration’s deal with the Taliban included the release of 5,000 fighters from prison and favored an even earlier departure date than the one that Biden embraced. Never mind that Trump had drawn down U.S. troop levels from about 13,000 to 2,500 during his last year in office and had failed to repatriate America’s equipment on the ground. Never mind the delay caused by Trump and his adviser Stephen Miller’s active obstruction of special visas for Afghans who helped us.

Never mind the facts. Never mind the losses. Never mind the lessons. Biden, they felt, was in the wrong.

Despite the criticism, Biden, who had argued unsuccessfully when he was Barack Obama’s vice president to seriously reduce America’s presence in Afghanistan, remained resolute. Rather than view the heartbreaking scenes in Afghanistan in a political light as his opponents did, Biden effectively said, “Politics be damned—we’re going to do what’s right” and ordered his team to stick with the deadline and find a way to make the best of the difficult situation in Kabul.

The Biden administration nimbly adapted its plans, ramping up the airlift and sending additional troops into the country to aid crisis teams and to enhance security. Around-the-clock flights came into and went out of Afghanistan. Giant cargo planes departed, a number of them packed with as many as 600 occupants. Senior administration officials convened regular meetings with U.S. allies to find destinations for those planes to land and places for the refugees to stay. The State Department tracked down Americans in the country, as well as Afghans who had worked with the U.S., to arrange their passage to the airport. The Special Immigrant Visa program that the Trump administration had slowed down was kicked into high gear. Despite years of fighting, the administration and the military spoke with the Taliban many times to coordinate passage of those seeking to depart to the airport, to mitigate risks as best as possible, to discuss their shared interest in meeting the August 31 deadline.

The process was relentless and imperfect and, as we all have seen in the most horrific way, not without huge risks for those staying behind to help. On . . .

Continue reading. There’s much more.

Written by Leisureguy

30 August 2021 at 4:54 pm

How to block Facebook from snooping on you

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Geoffrey Fowler reports in the Washington Post:

If you ever get that eerie feeling Facebook or Instagram are listening to you, you’re not entirely hallucinating.

Facebook says it’s not literally activating the microphones on our smartphones, but it is tracking what we do in other apps, websites and even real-world stores. That much data can make ads feel as on-point as if it was in the room. In a recent column, I investigated everything Facebook can passively learn about you, even when you stop using it for long stretches.

Don’t be fooled by the kinder, gentler image of Instagram, either: It’s owned by Facebook and does the same kind of tracking as Facebook.

So what can you do about it? If you’re very committed — or a bit techie — there are some steps you can take to try to hide from Facebook’s personal data vacuum.

Help Desk: Ask our tech columnist a question

I polled some of the smartest privacy experts about evasive maneuvers they recommend, including the Electronic Frontier Foundation’s Bennett Cyphers, Disconnect’s Patrick Jackson, former chief technologist for the Federal Trade Commission Ashkan Soltani and Jumbo Privacy’s Pierre Valade. Stopping the snooping entirely would be really difficult, so I focused this advice on steps that could make the biggest impact.

Just remember: These changes only impact what Facebook and Instagram can learn about you outside of their apps. Everything you and your friends do inside the apps — from tapping the “Like” button to posting status updates and profile information — will still feed the company personal information. (And anything you make public can be seen by people and companies alike.)

Here are seven steps to stop Facebook tracking, starting with the nuclear option.

1. Quit Facebook and Instagram

They’ll beg you to stay, and encourage you to just temporarily “deactivate” your account for a while. But if you do fully delete your accounts on both services, Facebook will no longer build out a profile with your activities to target ads.

To completely delete your Facebook account:

  • Click on this link in a browser where you’re logged in to Facebook.
  • Select Permanently Delete Account, then click on Continue to Account Deletion.
  • Click Delete Account, enter your password and continue and say goodbye forever.

Before you do this, you might want to download a copy of the data from your Facebook account. Use this link.

To quit Instagram, it’s a similar process:

  • Click on this link in a web browser where you’re logged in to Instagram.
  • Pick a reason, such as privacy concerns.
  • Tap Delete.

There is one privacy downside to quitting Facebook: The company still receives and collects data about people who don’t have accounts. The only way you can actually see what it knows about you is to maintain an account.

2. Change these Facebook privacy settings

Facebook has lots of bad default settings you should change. But the most important one to combat tracking is called Off-Facebook Activity. (Read a column I wrote about it here.)

Your Off-Facebook Activity settings are easiest to access on the Web by clicking this link.

  • You’ll see a page that shows you the apps, websites and other businesses where Facebook has been tracking you.
  • Tap More Options, then Manage Future Activity, then toggle Future Off-Facebook Activity to off.

While you’re at it, I also recommend changing a setting that gives Facebook permission to connect into other apps and websites. Just know that adjusting this setting would keep you from logging into apps where you used Facebook to set up your account.

  • Access your apps and websites setting page with this link.
  • Tap Turn Off next to apps, websites and games. . . .

Continue reading. (No paywall on this one, thanks to NextDraft.) There are 7 steps in all.

Written by Leisureguy

30 August 2021 at 3:47 pm

Why would anyone listen to those who know what they’re talking about when others are so fascinating?

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And click to tweet to read the thread.

Written by Leisureguy

30 August 2021 at 3:25 pm

“Whatsoever a man soweth, that shall he also reap”: Third conservative radio host who condemned vaccines dies of Covid

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David Kihara reports in Politico:

A conservative Florida radio host who spoke out against Covid-19 vaccines died after a weekslong fight with the virus, marking the third radio personality to die from coronavirus who publicly rejected vaccines.

The death of Marc Bernier, 65, who was a mainstay on talk radio in Daytona Beach, was announced Saturday night by WNDB, the radio station he was affiliated with for three decades.

“It’s with great sadness that WNDB and Southern Stone Communications announce the passing of Marc Bernier, who informed and entertained listeners on WNDB for over 30 years. We kindly ask that privacy is given to Marc’s family during this time of grief,” WNDB stated on Twitter.

Bernier was known for inviting differing viewpoints on his show, including Democrats, but had publicly railed against vaccines. The Daytona Beach News-Journal reported that Bernier had been hospitalized since Aug. 7.

When Florida’s Democratic Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried in July urged people to get vaccines on Twitter by saying the “greatest generation had to defeat the Nazis to preserve our way of life, you’re only being asked to get a shot. So be a patriot,” Bernier replied on the platform: “Should say, ‘Now the US Government is acting like Nazi’s. Get the shot!’”

Fried, who is challenging Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis in 2022, on Sunday said in a statement that “My heart goes out to his family and friends.”

On Aug. 4, another Florida conservative radio host who had criticized the coronavirus vaccine, Dick Farrel, died from Covid-19 complications. Farrel, whose given name was Farrel Austin Levitt, had worked at several radio stations in Florida, including WIOD in Miami and WPBR in Palm Beach, and had served as a fill-in anchor on Newsmax.

He had strongly condemned the coronavirus vaccine, posting on Facebook on July 3, “why take a vax promoted by people who lied 2u all along about masks, where the virus came from and the death toll?” He also criticized Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infection disease doctor, calling him a “power tripping lying freak,” according to The Washington Post, which reported on his death.

But the Post also reports that Farrel had changed his stance on vaccines after he became infected with Covid-19. He had reportedly urged a longtime friend to get the vaccine and regretted not getting it himself.

Florida has become one of the nation’s hot spots for the virus amid the Delta variant surge. Last week, the state had more than 151,000 new infections and over 170 deaths. There are more than 16,000 people hospitalized in Florida due to the virus.

DeSantis has also maintained a hands-off approach to the virus, fighting against any attempts to require students to wear masks or businesses to require proof of vaccinations, though the governor has urged people to get the vaccine.

Last week, Phil Valentine, a 62-year-old conservative radio host in Nashville, Tenn., who had questioned the necessity of vaccines, also died from the virus. Valentine, the son of former six-term Rep. Tim Valentine (D-N.C.), had a nationally syndicated show. . .

Continue reading. There’s more.

Written by Leisureguy

30 August 2021 at 3:16 pm

Why Facebook Won’t Stop Pushing Propaganda: It’s their business model.

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“I ran because our kids needed to see you don’t have to be white and you don’t have to be a man to run for office in our town.” 
Lynsey Weatherspoon

Monica Bauerlein and Clara Jeffery write in the Atlantic:

Joyce Jones’ Facebook page is almost an archetype of what the social network is supposed to look like: Pictures of her kids, her kids’ friends, her sports teams, her kids’ friends’ sports teams. Videos of her husband’s sermons at New Mount Moriah Baptist Church. Memes celebrating achievement and solidarity, holiday greetings, public health messages. It’s what Mark Zuckerberg extols when he talks about how his company is all about “bringing people together.”

So when Jones decided to run for mayor in her Alabama town last year, it seemed obvious that she’d try to bring people together on Facebook. Her bid to be Montevallo’s first Black mayor, challenging a 12-year City Council incumbent, drew an enthusiastic, diverse crew of volunteers. They put up a campaign page, One Montevallo, and started posting cheery endorsements alongside recycling updates and plugs for drive-in movies.

It was a historic moment for Montevallo, whose population (7,000) is two-thirds white and which sits in Shelby County, the infamous plaintiff in the Supreme Court case that gutted the Voting Rights Act in 2013. It was also a turning point for Jones, who grew up in the shotgun house her father had built on a dirt road far from the neighborhood where her grandmother cleaned houses. “My cousins and I would come with her,” the 45-year-old recalls. “We would do yardwork in the houses that she worked in. We never ever thought that living here was an option.”

“Now I’ve been living here for 17 years. We have a wonderful home. We have raised four wonderful children. And part of what I was being challenged with was: It’s not okay for me to make it out. I have to do something to make sure that other people have every opportunity. I ran because our kids needed to see you don’t have to be white and you don’t have to be a man to run for office in our town.”

But getting her campaign message out was tough. “We’re in a pandemic, so we couldn’t go to churches and meet people,” Jones told me. Montevallo does not have a news outlet of its own, and the Shelby County Reporter, based in nearby Columbiana, has a single staff reporter for the 14 communities it covers. “For us, the fastest way to get news is through social media,” she says.

Jones is not quite sure how the rumors started, but she remembers how fast they spread. Facebook accounts popped up and shared posts to Montevallo community groups, implying she wanted to defund police (she does not). Someone made up a report of a burglary at her home, referencing her landlord’s name—to highlight that she was renting, she believes. Another account dredged up a bounced check she’d written for groceries as her family struggled during the 2008 recession.

“The algorithm, how fast the messages were shared and how quickly people saw them, that was just eye-opening to me,” Jones says. Her campaign would put up posts debunking the rumors, but the corrections were seen far fewer times than the attack posts. “It was so much more vitriolic, and it would get so many hits. It was just lightning fast.”

Soon, Jones noticed a chill around her. “I’d be going to the grocery store and people who would normally speak to you and be nice to you would avoid you. I’d go to a football game and people would avoid me. I was baffled by all that. It’s one thing to not know me, but it’s another to know me my whole life and treat me like the plague.”

One night her then 16-year-old son, who had been hanging out at the park with a group of families he’d grown up with, called to ask her to pick him up. The adults had been talking about her, not realizing he was within earshot. When Jones came to get him, he told her, “For the first time, I felt like the Black kid.”

“What happens on Facebook doesn’t just stay on Facebook,” Jones says. “It comes off social media. You have to live with that.”

There’s a direct connection between Jones’ ordeal, last November’s election, the January 6 insurrection, and the attacks on American democracy that have played out every day since then. That connection is Facebook, specifically, it’s the toxic feedback loop by which the platform amplifies falsehoods and misinformation. That loop won’t end with the belated bans on Donald Trump and others, because the fundamental problem is not that there are people who post violentracist, antidemocratic, and conspiratorial material. It’s that Facebook and other social platforms actively push that content into the feeds of tens of millions of people, making lies viral while truth languishes.

The technical term for this is algorithmic amplification, and it means just that: What you see on Facebook has been amplified, and pushed into your feed, by the company’s proprietary algorithm. When you (or Mother Jones, or Trump) create a post, it’s visible to no one except those who deliberately seek out your page. But within instants, the algorithm analyzes your post, factoring in who you and your connections are, what you’ve looked at or shared before, and myriad other data points. Then it decides whether to show that post in someone else’s News Feed, the primary page you see when you log on. Think of it as a speed-reading robot that curates everything you see.

The way social media companies tell it, their robots are benevolent, serving only your best interests. You’ve clicked on your cousin’s recipes but not your friend’s fitness bragging? Here is more pasta and less Chloe Ting. You’ve shown an interest in Trump and also fanciful pottery? Here are some MAGA garden gnomes. The founding narrative of social media companies is that they merely provide a space for you, dear user, to do and see what you want.

In reality, as the people who work at these companies know quite well, technology reflects the biases of those who make it. And when those who make it are corporations, it reflects corporate imperatives. In Facebook’s case, those imperatives—chief among them, to grow faster than anyone else—have played out with especially high stakes, making the company one of the world’s most significant threats to democracy, human rights, and decency.

Facebook has been proved to be a vehicle for election disinformation in many countries (see: Brexit, Trump, Duterte). It has been an organizing space and megaphone for violent extremism and genocidal hate (see: KenoshaMyanmarSri Lanka, and Afghanistan). Its power is so far-reaching, it shapes elections in small-town Alabama and helps launch mobs into the Capitol. It reaches you whether or not you are on social media, because, as Jones says, what happens on Facebook doesn’t stay on Facebook.

That’s why one of the most significant battles of the coming years is over whether and how government should regulate social media. So far, . . .

Continue reading. There’s much much more.

Written by Leisureguy

30 August 2021 at 2:41 pm

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