Later On

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Here’s How Corporate America Took Over America

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Kevin Drump posts at Mother Jones:

Have American businesses become more concentrated over the past 30 years? Anecdotally, it seems like the answer is yes. The Big 8 accounting firms are now the Big 4. There are only four cell phone companies, soon to be three. Four airlines control 80 percent of the American market. The car industry consolidated into the Big Three decades ago. Four companies control two-thirds of the cloud computing market.

But in spite of this anecdotal feeling, it’s an undecided question among economists about whether American businesses are really a lot more concentrated than they used to be. Anyone can pick a few examples of industries that have consolidated, but what happens when you look rigorously at the business community overall?

We’re not going to solve this question today, though in general I’ve been more persuaded by the researchers who say that consolidation has, in fact, happened, and the result has been increasingly monopolistic behavior among US corporations.

One of those researchers is French transplant Thomas Philippon, who is introduced to us today in the New York Times by David Leonhardt. Philippon’s research has convinced him that we have indeed gone through an era of considerable consolidation, and it’s mainly due to weak enforcement of antitrust laws. In Europe, which has much stronger antitrust enforcement than we do, Philippon reports that the top firms have increased their market share far less than American firms. As a result, prices charged to consumers have also increased far less than in America. Here is Philippon’s conclusion about how this has affected American workers:

The consolidation of corporate America has become severe enough to have macroeconomic effects. Profits have surged, and wages have stagnated. Investment in new factories and products has also stagnated, because many companies don’t need to innovate to keep profits high. Philippon estimates that the new era of oligopoly costs the typical American household more than $5,000 a year.

I find that $5,000 number quite easy to believe. In fact, it seems a little low to me. But how did it happen? Even with weak antitrust enforcement (thanks Robert Bork!), how do companies get away with raising prices and cutting pay? They still have some competition, after all. The answer to that, I think, is the long Republican war against unions:

The destruction of the American working class is a two-part story. First, it was necessary to get rid of unions. As long as they were around, they’d demand a fair share of profits for workers no matter what the competition landscape looked like. That war lasted from about 1947 to 1981. When Ronald Reagan broke the air-traffic controllers union it was the final straw. Unions had already been decimated both by Republican laws and by Republican-led-efforts to train companies in how to resist unionization. Democrats never had the will to fight back hard enough, and after Reagan they never had the power. Republicans won their war against unions decisively.

It was only then, with unions effectively out of the way, that corporations could start consolidating and taking an ever bigger share of profits for top executives and shareholders, leaving workers with stagnating wages and grinding working conditions. No union, for example, would accept the practice of “clopening,” where an employee is required to close up a store at night and then turn right around and open in the morning. Nor would they accept the ever-more-common practice of expecting workers to be on call at all times, never knowing for sure what their work schedule will be. As much as low pay, these are the kinds of things that make work such a burden for the working class these days.

So this is the story. Spend three or four decades wiping out the power of labor unions, and then you can spend the next three or four decades turning the United States into a plutocracy with no one to effectively fight you about it.

And you have to give Republicans credit: Not only did they cobble together this plan and execute it brilliantly, they’ve managed even . . .

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Written by LeisureGuy

12 November 2019 at 11:06 am

“I Will Never Let Boeing Forget Her”

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Alec MacGillis reports in ProPublica:

Samya Stumo liked to ride pigs. This was on her family’s farm, in Sheffield, Massachusetts. Caring for the pigs was one of her chores, so she would hop on an old, dilapidated Army jeep and drive a water tank to the sty, where she would fill the troughs and take a ride. She was 9 years old.

Samya had always been precocious. She started playing cello when she was 3, the year before her younger brother, Nels, became ill with cancer. When her mother, Nadia Milleron, returned from the hospital one day, Samya told her that she had learned to read.

Nels died, at the age of 2, shortly after Nadia had another son. The loss played a role in Samya’s eventual choice of studies: public health. So did the strain of activism in her family. Her mother’s uncle is Ralph Nader, the transportation-safety crusader turned progressive advocate and third-party presidential candidate. Her father, Michael Stumo, who grew up on a farm in Iowa, made frequent trips to Washington to lobby for small manufacturers and family farmers.

For Samya and her two surviving brothers, the family ethic was clear: seek justice for the disadvantaged, even if it means challenging authority. Samya could carry this to comic extremes. On a camping trip, she mounted a tree stump and inveighed against the family’s patriarchal dynamics, while everyone else, suppressing laughter, hurried to set up before dark.

In 2015, Samya graduated from the University of Massachusetts and won a scholarship to pursue a master’s degree in global public health at the University of Copenhagen. Afterward, when she was 24, she got a job with ThinkWell, a nonprofit based in Washington, D.C., which works to expand health coverage in developing nations. ThinkWell sent her to East Africa to open offices there. The night before she left, earlier this year, she had dinner with Ralph Nader and his sister Claire.

During a stopover in Addis Ababa, the capital of Ethiopia, Samya texted her family to say that she would arrive in Nairobi in a few hours. Then she boarded Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302. She sat in Row 16, beside a Somali-American trucker from Minnesota. There were 149 passengers, from 35 countries, and eight crew members.

The plane, a Boeing 737 MAX 8, took off at 8:38 a.m. on March 10. A minute and a half later, it began to pitch downward. A sensor on the nose had malfunctioned, triggering an automated control system. The cockpit filled with a confusing array of audio and visual warnings. The pilots tried to counter the downward movement, but the automated system overrode them. Six minutes after takeoff, the plane dived into the earth at 575 miles per hour, carving out a crater 32 feet deep and 131 feet long, and killing everyone on board.

That day, Stumo, Milleron and their younger son, Torleif, flew to Addis Ababa. The crater had been cordoned off, but Milleron and Tor rushed past the barrier. “It was mostly dirt,” Stumo said later. “Where’s the plane? Where’s the pieces? This plane had just buried itself right straight into the ground vertically and just disintegrated.”

This was the second crash of a 737 MAX in five months, after a Lion Air jet plunged into the Java Sea in late October 2018. Investigators quickly focused on the automated system that had pushed down both jets, a feature new to this model of the 737. But a counternarrative gained force, too: that the crashes were, above all, the fault of insufficiently trained foreign pilots. “Procedures were not completely followed,” Boeing’s CEO, Dennis Mui­lenburg, said at a contentious news conference in April.

It has been more than a decade since a commercial airline crash in the United States resulted in fatalities, but airplane disasters are an unwelcome reminder of the inherent risk of flying. Some 2.7 million people fly on U.S. airlines every day; we’d rather not think about the brazenness of launching ourselves thousands of miles in a fragile tube, 30,000 feet above the earth. The appeal of blaming foreign pilots is easy to see. For the past eight months, however, the Stumo family has dedicated itself to demonstrating a scarier reality: that Boeing, the pride of American manufacturing, prioritized financial gain over safety, with the federal government as a collaborator.

Since the crash, the family members have made more than a dozen trips to Washington — a routine they expect to continue: They recently found an apartment in town. They have met separately with two dozen members of Congress, and with the heads of the Federal Aviation Administration and the National Transportation Safety Board, and testified before a House committee. They were the first American family to sue Boeing, accusing the company of gross negligence and recklessness. They have sought out whistle-blowers and filed Freedom of Information requests. They got a meeting for themselves and 11 other victims’ families with Elaine Chao, the secretary of transportation. Afterward, they held a large vigil outside the department’s headquarters. When the vigil broke up, I talked with Gregory Travis, a software engineer and pilot who has written extensively about the crashes. “Every past crash that I can think of was an accident, in that there was something that wasn’t really reasonably foreseeable,” Travis told me. “This was entirely different, and I don’t think anyone understands that. This was a collision of deregulation and Wall Street, and the tragic thing is that it was tragic. It was inevitable.”


I met the Stumos in 1996, in Winsted, a former mill town of 8,000 people in northwest Connecticut. After emigrating from Lebanon in the 1920s, Milleron’s grandfather opened a restaurant there. Her grandmother, Ralph Nader’s mother, lived in the town until her death, in 2006, at 99. Nader still visits from Washington, and his family funds two activists to monitor local affairs and bend them in a progressive direction.

Milleron and Stumo met in law school, at the University of Iowa, and afterward settled in Winsted, moving into a house on Hillside Avenue and starting a family. First Adnaan, then Samya, then Nels. They began attending an Orthodox Christian church in a nearby town. Nadia worked part time, as a court-appointed lawyer. Michael commuted 25 miles to a Hartford law firm, and joined the Winsted school board.

I came to Winsted for my first job, at the Winsted Journal, a weekly paper. At the first school board meeting I covered, Michael arrived late from Hartford. He was wearing a suit that hung loosely on his lanky 6-foot-1-inch frame. He carried a briefcase. He was only 29, but he looked every bit the engaged citizen and responsible father.

Michael and I met a few times at a gloomy bar on Main Street, where he offered a wry perspective on Winsted politics and the plight of small-town America. He invited me over for breakfast. I remember warm sunlight, pancakes, small kids and being impressed by Nadia, a tall woman with long, dark hair and an intently appraising gaze.

I was soon gone from Winsted, to a daily paper near Hartford. In 1999, after the birth of Tor and the death of Nels, the Stumo family bought a ramshackle 18th-century house on a farm, over the Massachusetts line. It had been owned by sheep farmers who published a magazine called The Shepherd; old issues were strewn about the house, and manure was piled 4 feet high in the barn. Michael worked for months cleaning the house and clearing out the barn with a tractor.

A year later, . . .

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Written by LeisureGuy

11 November 2019 at 10:40 am

What John Rawls Missed

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Jedediah Briton-Purdy, who teaches at Columbia Law School, writes in the New Republic:

John Rawls, who died in 2002, was the most influential American philosopher of the twentieth century. His great work, A Theory of Justice, appeared in 1971 and defined the field of political philosophy for generations. It set out standards for a just society in the form of two principles. First, a just society would protect the strongest set of civil liberties and personal rights compatible with everyone else having the same rights. Second, it would tolerate economic inequalities only if they improved the situation of the poorest and most marginalized (for example, by paying doctors well to encourage people to enter a socially necessary profession).

Taken seriously, Rawls’s principles would require a radical transformation: no hedge funds unless allowing them to operate will benefit the homeless? No Silicon Valley IPOs unless they make life better for farmworkers in the Central Valley? A just society would be very different from anything the United States has ever been. Rawls argued that justice would be compatible with either democratic socialism or a “property-owning democracy” of roughly equal smallholders. One thing was clear: America could not remain as it was, on pain of injustice.

It did not remain as it was, but Rawls’s vision did not triumph either. A Theory of Justice was published in 1971, just before economic inequality began its long ascent from its lowest level in history to today’s Second Gilded Age. Richard Nixon’s “Southern strategy” was reorganizing American politics around resistance to equal rights. Within a decade, Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher would lead the English-speaking world sharply away from anything resembling Rawls’s egalitarianism. Yet his philosophical stature only increased. Even his critics—the libertarian Robert Nozick, the feminist Susan Moller Okin, the communitarian Michael Sandel—ended up confirming the central and inescapable place of his thought. By the end of his life, philosophical thinking about equality, war, political authority, dissent and obedience, and global order took place on a terrain that Rawls towered over—in the shadow of justice.

That shadow provides the title of Katrina Forrester’s extraordinary study of Rawls’s thought and its legacy. Over the last 50 years, she argues, Rawls’s centrality has shaped the very idea of what philosophy is. Working in his aftermath, political philosophers have tended to emphasize ideals of consensus-seeking deliberation, legalistic formulations of political problems, and the dilemmas of individual choice in terrible situations such as war. Certain other questions have been quietly kept out: notably, the central place of conflict and collective action in politics, the tendency of capitalist democracy to fall into plutocracy, and the deep role of racism and colonialism in shaping American society and world order.

Yet as Forrester’s book demonstrates, Rawls’s approach to philosophizing about politics was never the only one, however much his influence has made it seem so. Instead, his theory of justice emerged from his distinctive experience of the exceptional decades after World War II. By tracing those historical circumstances—the political and economic assumptions of the postwar years, as well as the ways philosophy was done then—Forrester shows how Rawls’s thinking, with its strengths and blind spots, came to seem natural. Her aim is to open space for problems that Rawls neglected. What would it mean to pursue a just society while grappling with how deeply unjust and divided ours is, with how it got and stays that way?


Although Rawls’s principles of justice were in many ways radical, they were not novel. He is often thought of as the philosopher of 1960s Great Society reformism, because his principles seemed to elaborate on the goals of the civil rights movement and the war on poverty. What was new was Rawls’s mode of argument. He asked a question fundamental in political philosophy: Can any society be justified to all its members, in light of the inequalities it contains, the burdens it imposes (who empties the bedpans and gets up at midnight to make sure the subways keep running?), and the violence it deals out through police, prisons, and wars? If it cannot be just, then some of us are living in a kind of prison, and others are the wardens. If, however, justification is possible, then we might be able to create a world in which we actually approach one another as free and equal persons.

To imagine such a world, we have to shake off the habits of this one and picture ourselves as able to reset all our institutions and social relations, keeping only those that are just—that is, are justifiable to everyone who has to live within them. Rawls proposed a technique for doing this, a thought experiment that he called the “original position.” It invites us to imagine a situation in which people are to choose the world in which they will live. The key is that they choose behind a “veil of ignorance,” that is, they do not know where they would fall in the distribution of privilege and vulnerability in the societies they imagine. Would you choose to live in the United States today if you didn’t know whether you would be Elon Musk or an undocumented immigrant?

Rawls argued that, faced with this uncertainty, people would choose the world that provided the best position for the least advantaged, worst-off class of people. If you don’t know where you will fall, you will want the worst possibility to be as acceptable as possible. Economics-minded critics argued that this was too risk-averse, that one might gamble for the Silicon Valley jackpot at the risk of picking lettuce instead. But this criticism misconstrued the project: Rawls’s argument was a way of setting out exactly what it meant to justify a social world even to the people picking lettuce. If the question is, “Can this world be justified to me as a free and equal person?” Rawls was not prepared to accept, “Yes, because you might have been Elon Musk!” as an answer.

Conservative critics such as the Straussian Allan Bloom (later famous for his polemic The Closing of the American Mind) accused Rawls of cherry-picking principles to suit the liberal prejudices of the moment. In Rawls’s hands, the original position gave philosophy’s imprimatur to the democratic welfare state as well as to the civil disobedience of the civil rights movement and resistance to the Vietnam War. Friendlier readers interpreted Rawls in light of the conflicts of the early 1970s too. Philosopher Marshall Cohen’s New York Times review of A Theory of Justice welcomed a defense of American liberalism “at a time when these principles are persistently being obscured and betrayed”—presumably in Vietnam and at home by the Nixon administration.


Both of these responses, Forrester argues, miss key features of Rawls’s project. Her story begins in the decade after World War II, when Rawls undertook the work that became A Theory of Justice. A watershed event for Rawls was the 1953 publication of Ludwig Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations, which along with Wittgenstein’s other late work helped to inspire a broader philosophical turn to “ordinary language.” When Rawls visited Oxford in the academic year of 1952 to ’53, this approach was richly elaborated there. It was the new philosophical frontier of the age, full of untried possibility.

Ordinary-language philosophers turned away from highly technical questions about the fundamental nature of language (What makes a sentence true? Does every word in a true statement refer to some definite object in the world?). Instead they asked how language works from the point of view of a clear-minded speaker and listener. Everyone lives inside a language, they reasoned, knows how to use its grammar, and recognizes misuse and confusion. We have to get over the philosophical impulse to seize sentences and sweat them, inquisition-style, until they confirm their truth or confess their falsehood. Philosophy is less about achieving a new kind of knowledge, more about making clear what we already know. Philosophers began to think about language and social practices such as law the way we think about games. There is no such thing as hitting a triple outside of baseball: Try as you might, you cannot do it alone, or in a group of people who have never heard of baseball and want you, please, to take your stick off the soccer pitch. But once you are playing baseball, it is clear whether or not a triple has been hit. Even close cases, such as a photo-finish race to beat a throw from an outfielder, just confirm that we know what a triple is.

The legal philosopher H.L.A. Hart argued that law, too, is a game in this way. There is no “natural law” that tells you whether you “really” must obey a law you dislike, as both dissenters and defenders of existing law had long hoped to show. But once you are involved in legal argument, you tacitly accept that certain things count as law. If you start to insist that Leviticus trumps the San Francisco municipal code, then you have become the person waving a baseball bat on the soccer pitch, hoping to get to third base in a game where third base does not exist. Forrester argues that Rawls wanted to elucidate society itself as a “game” of this sort. Social morality, which is the topic of justice, had its own tacit rules, and drawing those out could help to make clear what people already knew when not distracted by self-interest or prejudice. Like the rule book for a well-established sport, the original position and the principles that Rawls drew from it did not dictate some new morality. They helped to spell out the terms of a social practice.

If Rawls’s approach to justice emerged from the philosophical currents of the 1950s, it also formed in response to political concerns. Born in Baltimore in 1921, Rawls saw the rise of the administrative state through the 1930s and ’40s, as New Deal programs led to the establishment of an alphabet soup of government agencies to implement them: the SEC, the FHA, the PWA, the NLRB, and many more. Although Rawls was not an anti-New Deal reactionary, he shared the worries of some liberals and centrists that the expanded American state would end up interfering with personal autonomy through perennial supervision of the economy. He preferred to think that if the state established the right set of operating principles and guardrails, people would be able to get along on their own, with no more than modest political intrusion or contest.

It was bold, if not implausible, to posit a neutral and abiding set of principles in American society, which was torn by bloody labor conflict in the ’30s and ’40s, and sent its pacifists and revolutionaries to prison or worse. But Rawls wasn’t alone in doing so: The decades in which he developed his theory formed the high-water mark of the “consensus” schools of American political science and history. It became conventional to say that Americans had mostly agreed on the essential principles of liberty, equality, and democracy—and, less abstractly, private property, regulated markets, and courts of law. Conflict was the exception. Radical dissenters were outliers. The idea of consensus was essential to Rawls’s project: If Americans deeply agreed on justice, then the hidden logic of that agreement, drawn out through the original position, could both guide and limit the state.

A Theory of Justice was both radical and conservative. Yes, it proposed a sweeping reconstruction of “the basic structure” of American life—Rawls’s term for the key institutions of public life, such as government and the economy. At the same time, it described the principles of reconstruction as ones that Americans already held. This strategy of squaring the circle might seem odd: How can a country be committed to principles it routinely and pervasively defies and ignores? Yet it’s also peculiarly American. The American political myth (meaning not a simple fiction but a kind of shared master-story) is “constitutional redemption,” the idea that moral truths are woven deep into the country’s character, imperfectly expressed in the Constitution and existing institutions, but awaiting realization in “a more perfect union.” This was how Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln talked about freedom and equality in the 1860s, and how Martin Luther King and Lyndon Baines Johnson talked about the same values in the mid-1960s. Constitutional redemption was the defining ideal of Cold War liberal patriotism. Its strategies became, by subtle philosophical transformation, the strategy of A Theory of Justice: to say that Americans already are what they have never yet been—and that this ideal is also incipiently universal, if other peoples can make their way to it.


Forrester is a subtle intellectual historian as well as a political theorist, and she does not imply that one book, even a work as field-defining as A Theory of Justice, can in fact define a field. In the Shadow of Justice also tells the story of a network of Rawls’s contemporaries and the generation-plus that followed him. These thinkers continued a search for the impersonal perspective on politics that Rawls had put at the heart of the field. Ironically, however, the consensus Rawls had counted on was already gone by the polarized late 1960s, which saw violent backlash against the civil rights movement, vicious clashes over the Vietnam War, and acts of domestic terrorism from both the militant left and the racist right. There was little more reason in 1971 to think that Americans shared an abiding consensus than there is in 2019. In the face of polarization, the thinkers in political philosophy’s mainstream persisted in presenting themselves as above mere political conflict, claiming a neutral ground that no longer existed.

In Forrester’s telling, the philosophers in Rawls’s milieu aimed to engage with the radical challenges of the 1960s and 1970s, but tended to formulations that blunted the sharpest criticisms of American life. Confronted with civil disobedience against the Vietnam War and racial subordination, Rawls and his cohort developed the canonical modern image of civil disobedience: as an appeal to the country’s higher principles, a fragment of lawbreaking in support of a larger fidelity to law. Those dissenters who disobeyed because they considered the U.S. government illegitimate, at least in some respects, were written out of the story.

When black activists and scholars proposed reparations for slavery and Jim Crow, the philosophers responded that justice asks whether people are being treated as equals today, not the “historical” question of how inequalities arose. Rawls similarly hurried past segregation in his work; he reasoned that it was so manifestly unjust that there was nothing a philosopher should say about it except that it should be abolished completely. But maybe a philosopher who was trying to distill the country’s most basic values should have lingered over just how deeply the legacies of Jim Crow and slavery shaped that country. What did the vicious and often successful resistance to the civil rights movement reveal about the American grammar of justice?

A similar ahistorical impulse governed when Rawls and others turned to the problem of international justice. Colonialism and empire largely receded from sight, as did postcolonial political efforts to develop redistributive regimes such as the short-lived New International Economic Order. In The Law of Peoples, Rawls imagined an original position for representatives of nation-states, interested in fair rules of international order. But he didn’t propose redress for newly independent countries, which would be starting out poorer than the colonial powers that had dominated them for years. There is a fine line between distilling problems to issues of principle and losing track of the settings altogether.

A part of what happened in these decades was that the technique of Rawls’s arguments came loose from the setting in which it had originally made sense. The discipline became increasingly remote from moral and political experience. What, asked some next-generation Rawlsians, would be the result of an original position for the whole world? The question moves far away from Rawls’s own effort to draw out the principles to which his audience was already committed. Where was the consensus, what were the institutions, for a philosophy of global justice? . . .

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Written by LeisureGuy

10 November 2019 at 7:24 am

Scientist Who Discredited Meat Guidelines Didn’t Report Past Food Industry Ties

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Tara Parker-Pope and 

surprising new study challenged decades of nutrition advice and gave consumers the green light to eat more red and processed meat. But what the study didn’t say is that its lead author has past research ties to the meat and food industry.

The new report, published this week in the Annals of Internal Medicine, stunned scientists and public health officials because it contradicted longstanding nutrition guidelines about limiting consumption of red and processed meats. The analysis, led by Bradley C. Johnston, an epidemiologist at Dalhousie University in Canada, and more than a dozen researchers concluded that warnings linking meat consumption to heart disease and cancer are not backed by strong scientific evidence.

Several prominent nutrition scientists and health organizations criticized the study’s methods and findings. But Dr. Johnston and his colleagues defended the work, saying it relied on the highest standards of scientific evidence, and noted that the large team of investigators reported no conflicts of interest and conducted the review without outside funding.

Dr. Johnston also indicated on a disclosure form that he did not have any conflicts of interest to report during the past three years. But as recently as December 2016 he was the senior author on a similar study that tried to discredit international health guidelines advising people to eat less sugar. That study, which also appeared in the Annals of Internal Medicine, was paid for by the International Life Sciences Institute, or ILSI, an industry trade group largely supported by agribusiness, food and pharmaceutical companies and whose members have included McDonald’s, Coca-Cola, PepsiCo and Cargill, one of the largest beef processors in North America. The industry group, founded by a top Coca-Cola executive four decades ago, has long been accused by the World Health Organization and others of trying to undermine public health recommendations to advance the interests of its corporate members.

In an interview, Dr. Johnston said his past relationship with ILSI had no influence on the current research on meat recommendations. He said he did not report his past relationship with ILSI because the disclosure form asked only about potential conflicts within the past three years. Although the ILSI-funded study publication falls within the three-year window, he said the money from ILSI arrived in 2015, and he was not required to report it for the meat study disclosure.

“That money was from 2015 so it was outside of the three year period for disclosing competing interests,” said Dr. Johnston. “I have no relationship with them whatsoever.”

Critics of the meat study say that while Dr. Johnston may have technically complied with the letter of the disclosure rules, he did not comply with the spirit of financial disclosure.

“Journals require disclosure, and it is always better to disclose fully, if for no other reason than to stay out of trouble when the undisclosed conflicts are exposed,” said Marion Nestle, a professor of nutrition, food studies and public health at New York University who studies conflicts of interest in nutrition research. “Behind the scenes, ILSI works diligently on behalf of the food industry; it is a classic front group. Even if ILSI had nothing to do with the meat papers — and there is no evidence of which I am aware that it did — the previous paper suggests that Johnston is making a career of tearing down conventional nutrition wisdom.”

Notably, Dr. Johnston and colleagues thought it was important to fully disclose their personal eating habits. The meat paper includes an appendix titled “Summary of Panelists’ Potential Conflicts of Interest,” that discloses whether each author eats red or processed meat and how often. Johnston reported no financial conflicts of interest but disclosed that he eats one to two servings of red or processed meat per week.

“We think that’s a potential bias that is worth disclosing,” said Dr. Johnston about the researchers’ personal eating habits.

Dr. Johnston’s ties to the 2016 ILSI-funded sugar study show how ILSI has methodically cultivated allies in academia around the world, and how it recruits influential scientists to help shape global nutrition advice and counter what it perceives to be anti-food industry guidelines by health organizations.

When Dr. Johnston and his colleagues first published the sugar study, they said that ILSI had no direct role in conducting the research other than providing funding, but later amended their disclosure statement in the Annals after The Associated Press obtained emails showing that ILSI had “reviewed” and “approved” the study’s protocol.

Dr. Johnston said that when he published the sugar study in 2016, he put his connection with the food industry group “front and center.” He said in hindsight he was “naïve” when he agreed to work on the ILSI-funded study about sugar guidelines. It was during a conference call on the sugar study that he realized the extent that industry figures were involved with that organization. He declined to say who was on the conference call. . . .

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Written by LeisureGuy

9 November 2019 at 2:03 pm

Former Twitter employees charged with spying for Saudi Arabia by digging into the accounts of kingdom critics

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Our technology puts too much of our personal information up for grabs, and those grabbing it often do not have our best interests in mind but rather the opposite. Ellen Nakashima and
Greg Bensinger report in the Washington Post

The Justice Department has charged two former Twitter employees with spying for Saudi Arabia in a case that raises concerns about the ability of Silicon Valley to protect the private information of dissidents and other users from repressive governments.

The charges, unveiled Wednesday in San Francisco, came a day after the arrest of one of the former Twitter employees, Ahmad Abouammo, a U.S. citizen who is alleged to have spied on the accounts of three users — including one whose posts discussed the inner workings of the Saudi leadership — on behalf of the government in Riyadh.

Abouammo is also charged with falsifying an invoice to obstruct an FBI investigation.

[Secret recordings give insight into Saudi attempt to silence critics]

The second former Twitter employee — Ali Alzabarah, a Saudi citizen — was accused of accessing the personal information of more than 6,000 Twitter accounts in 2015 on behalf of Saudi Arabia. One of those accounts belonged to a prominent dissident, Omar Abdulaziz, who later became close to Jamal Khashoggi, a Washington Post columnist who was killed by Saudi government agents last year.

Prosecutors said a third individual, Saudi citizen Ahmed Almutairi, acted as an intermediary between Saudi officials and the Twitter employees. He is also charged with spying. Alzabarah and Almutairi are believed to be in Saudi Arabia. Analysts said it is the first time federal prosecutors have publicly accused Saudis of spying in the United States.

The case is noteworthy in that it targets a strategic Middle East ally, whose de facto leader, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, has been linked by the CIA to Khashoggi’s killing in the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul in October 2018.

[CIA concludes Saudi crown prince ordered Jamal Khashoggi’s assassination]

“The criminal complaint unsealed today alleges that Saudi agents mined Twitter’s internal systems for personal information about known Saudi critics and thousands of other Twitter users,” said U.S. Attorney David L. Anderson. “We will not allow U.S. companies or U.S. technology to become tools of foreign repression in violation of U.S. law.”

Twitter restricts access to sensitive account information “to a limited group of trained and vetted employees,” said a spokesman, who spoke on the condition of anonymity “to protect the safety” of Twitter personnel. “We understand the incredible risks faced by many who use Twitter to share their perspectives with the world and to hold those in power accountable. We have tools in place to protect their privacy and their ability to do their vital work.”

The three men are accused of working with a Saudi official who leads a charitable organization belonging to Mohammed. Based on a description of the charity, the official is Bader Al Asaker, which was confirmed by a person familiar with the case, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss an ongoing case. Asaker’s charity, MiSK, belongs to Mohammed bin Salman, who is referred to in the complaint as Royal Family Member 1.

According to the complaint, Asaker was  . . .

Continue reading. There’s much more.

It’s too bad that Saudi Arabia so totally pwned Donald Trump and Jared Kushner (with Kushner apparently passing along classified information).

Written by LeisureGuy

6 November 2019 at 2:12 pm

The Ethical Algorithm

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Jenna Marshall of the Santa Fe Institute points out a new book published by Oxford University Press:

Algorithms have come to dominate today’s modern life. From advertisements and consumer lending to college admissions and hiring, our day to day is increasingly moderated by technology. At the same time, complex algorithms are also routinely violating the basic rights of individual citizens. How we choose to address the issue of misbehaving algorithms will have widespread implications, not just for the business and technology fields, but for society as a whole.

In The Ethical Algorithm: The Science of Socially Aware Algorithm Design, leading experts Michael Kearns, an SFI External Professor based at the University of Pennsylvania, and his Penn colleague Aaron Roth offer a set of principled solutions based on the emerging science of socially aware algorithm design. While most of the discussion to date has focused on traditional fixes like laws, regulations, and watchdog groups, these approaches have proven woefully inadequate on their own. Kearns and Roth instead propose fixing the technology from the inside, by building better algorithms that have precise definitions of fairness, accuracy, transparency, and ethics embedded within their design.

As theoretical computer scientists, Kearns and Roth argue “it’s essential that the scientific and research communities who work on machine learning be engaged and centrally involved in the ethical debates around algorithmic decision-making.”

Addressing critics who might call out computer scientists as the source of our algorithmic problems, the authors recall an example from Kearns’ 2017 SFI Community Lecture. After World War II, many Manhattan Project scientists worked tirelessly to curb the use of the atomic weapons they had invented. In the case of algorithms, “the harms are more diffuse and harder to detect” than in the case of the nuclear bombs, but both are examples of irreversible technologies that can be controlled, but not undone. Those who design machine learning algorithms can play a critical role in identifying the inherent limits of algorithms and designing them to balance predictive power with social values like fairness and privacy.

Kearns and Roth present technological solutions to real-life issues like leaked sensitive personal information; algorithmic models that reflect racial and gender bias; or users that “game” search engines, spam filters, and navigation apps — and show how we can better protect humans from the unintended consequences of technology. Weaving in fascinating real-life examples from the business, legal, and medical fields, Kearns and Roth demonstrate how we can instill human principles into machine code, without halting the advance of data-driven scientific exploration.

[Source: Oxford University Press]

Written by LeisureGuy

6 November 2019 at 1:00 pm

Why Hasn’t Bisphenol A (BPA) Been Banned Completely?

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Good question, eh? I think the answer is obvious: strong corporate influence over government regulatory agencies and legislators. Michael Greger MD blogs:

“The number of new chemicals is increasing exponentially, with approximately 12,000 new substances added daily…”—yet data aren’t available on the hazards of even some of the high-volume chemicals. Bisphenol A (BPA) is one of the highest volume chemicals, with billions of pounds produced each year. Studies have raised concerns about its possible implication in the cause of certain chronic diseases, such as diabetes, obesity, reproductive disorders, cardiovascular diseases, birth defects, chronic respiratory diseases, kidney diseases, and breast cancer. Given this, BPA is the topic of my video Why BPA Hasn’t Been Banned.

A new study on the health implications of BPA comes out nearly every week. BPA was first developed over a hundred years ago as a synthetic estrogen, but it wasn’t until the 1950s that industry realized it could be used to make polycarbonate plastic, and “BPA rapidly became one of the most produced and used chemicals worldwide, even though it was a recognized synthetic estrogen” with hormonal effects. About a billion pounds are also used to line food and beverage cans, especially for tuna and condensed soups.

Today, nearly all of us, including our children, have BPA in our bodies, but not to worry: The government says up to 50 µg/kg per day is safe. Even those working in Chinese BPA factories don’t get exposed to more than 70 times lower than that so-called safety limit. Why then did exposure seem to affect male workers’ sperm counts? In the United States, the general population gets less than a thousand times lower than the safety limit, yet, even at those incredibly low doses, we still seem to be seeing adverse effects on thyroid function, weight control, blood sugar control, cardiovascular disease, liver function, and immune function. Indeed, “[t]he fact that there are significant adverse effects in populations exposed to BPA at concentrations [thousands of] times lower than the TDI [tolerable daily limit]…indicates that the safe exposure to BPA may be much lower than previously thought in humans.” Despite this, the limit hasn’t been changed. BPA has been banned from “baby bottles and sippy cups,” but nearly unlimited doses are still apparently okay for everyone else. What’s the disconnect?

It has to do with the fascinating world of low-dose effects of hormone-disrupting chemicals. “For decades, studies of endocrine-disrupting chemicals (EDCs) have challenged traditional concepts in toxicology, in particular the dogma of ‘the dose makes the poison’”—that is, the concept “that lower exposures to a hazardous compound will therefore always generate lower risks.” Indeed, that is the core assumption underlying our system of chemical safety testing. Researchers start giving animals in laboratories a super-high dose and then keep lowering the dosage until whatever adverse effects that had occurred disappear. Then, they add a safety buffer and assume everything below that dose should be okay, assuming a straight line showing the higher the dose, the higher the effect. However, hormone-disrupting chemicals can have all sorts of curious curves. How is it possible that something could have more of an effect at a lower dose?

A study was done to see whether BPA suppressed an obesity-protective hormone in fat samples taken from breast reduction and tummy tuck patients. At 100 nanomoles of BPA, hormone levels were no lower than they were at 0nM of BPA. And, since most people have levels between 1 and 20, BPA was considered to be safe. But, although there was no suppression at 0 and no suppression at 100, at the levels actually found in people’s bodies, BPA appeared to cut hormone release nearly in half.

As the world’s oldest, largest, and most active organization devoted to research on hormones concluded, “even infinitesimally low levels of exposure—indeed, any level of exposure at all—may cause [problems].” In fact, it may come to nearly $3 billion in problems every year, counting the estimated effects of BPA on childhood obesity and heart disease alone. There are alternatives the industry can use. The problem, though, is that they may cost companies two cents more.


Related videos about BPA include BPA on Receipts: Getting Under Our Skin and Are the BPA-Free Alternatives Safe?

BPA isn’t the only problem with canned tuna. Check out:

What can we do to avoid endocrine-disrupting chemicals? See, for example, Avoiding Adult Exposure to Phthalates and How to Avoid the Obesity-Related Plastic Chemical BPA.

Alkylphenols are another group of endocrine-disrupting chemicals. To learn more . . .

Continue reading. There’s more.

Notice that this is an example of why government regulation is necessary. If using BPA means products can cost less, then any manufacturer who stops using it is at a competitive disadvantage. But if BPA is banned so that no manufacturer can use it, then none will be given any unfair advantage (or disadvantage).

Written by LeisureGuy

5 November 2019 at 8:21 am

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