Later On

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Evil Geniuses: The Unmaking of America: A Recent History

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Book description:

During the twentieth century, America managed to make its economic and social systems both more and more fair and more and more prosperous. A huge, secure, and contented middle class emerged. All boats rose together. But then the New Deal gave way to the Raw Deal. Beginning in the early 1970s, by means of a long war conceived of and executed by a confederacy of big business CEOs, the superrich, and right-wing zealots, the rules and norms that made the American middle class possible were undermined and dismantled. The clock was turned back on a century of economic progress, making greed good, workers powerless, and the market all-powerful while weaponizing nostalgia, lifting up an oligarchy that served only its own interests, and leaving the huge majority of Americans with dwindling economic prospects and hope.

Why and how did America take such a wrong turn? In this deeply researched and brilliantly woven cultural, economic, and political chronicle, Kurt Andersen offers a fresh, provocative, and eye-opening history of America’s undoing, naming names, showing receipts, and unsparingly assigning blame—to the radical right in economics and the law, the high priests of high finance, a complacent and complicit Establishment, and liberal “useful idiots,” among whom he includes himself.

Only a writer with Andersen’s crackling energy, deep insight, and ability to connect disparate dots and see complex systems with clarity could make such a book both intellectually formidable and vastly entertaining. And only a writer of Andersen’s vision could reckon with our current high-stakes inflection point, and show the way out of this man-made disaster.

Amazon, of course, has a Kindle edition.

Written by LeisureGuy

14 August 2020 at 12:19 pm

“Benevolent” sexism is still oppressive sexism

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Sexism consists of “keeping women in their place,” which means in roles that sexists have prescribed for women to avoid having to face them on a equal footing. The French artist Emma shows  in the Guardian how it works:

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

14 August 2020 at 9:35 am

Posted in Business, Daily life

During covid-19 crisis, American billionaires have increased their wealth by more than half a trillion dollars: $685 billion

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Turn the sound off for this one

That’s from a Mother Jones article by Mark Helenowski, which begins:

President Trump thinks he is delivering the average American a winning hand right now—despite a cratering economy, mass unemployment, and no clear plan to fight the cause of all this calamity, the coronavirus. At a Monday afternoon press conference at the White House, Trump went so far as to say that “carpenters and policemen and farmers”—millions of ordinary Americans—are “the ones that benefit by having a good stock market, probably more than anybody else.”

Probably more than anyone else? That’s absurd on its face (only 55 percent of Americans report owning stocks, a number that correlates with higher household income, among other things.) But it’s even more disconnected from reality when you collect the receipts: This pandemic period has been a bonanza for billionaires, for whom Trump’s brutalist coronavirus denial and inaction have reaped untold rewards, as our new video infographic above shows.

This cadre of 643 Forbes-certified billionaires grew their collective wealth by an estimated $685 billion, from mid-March through early-August of this year. That’s according to a fresh analysis of Forbes’ Real-Time Billionaires Data by Americans for Tax Fairness and the Institute for Policy Studies. To be clear, that’s just the increase in wealth. In total, the richest 0.00019 percent of the US population—which includes household names like Jeff Bezos, Mark Zuckerberg, and Bill Gates—hold $3.6 trillion in combined wealth, as of August 5, 2020.

In February, . . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

11 August 2020 at 12:18 pm

Journalist offers mea culpa, in new book, for undercovering Black working class

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James Hohmann writes in “The Daily 202” in the Washington Post:

New York Times correspondent Jim Tankersley lays out in his new book how reducing barriers for minorities and women to participate in the workforce helped fuel the boom that gave America the world’s most prosperous middle class in the decades after World War II. “The Riches of This Land,” published on Tuesday, tells the story of the stagnation that followed through the struggles of individuals he has met from Oregon and Ohio to North Carolina and California during two decades of covering economic policy. Tankersley argues that combating persistent discrimination based on race and gender could go a long way toward restoring upward mobility and creating a new golden age for the middle class.

The 320-page book offers deep introspection on mistakes that Tankersley believes he and other journalists inadvertently made when framing the hollowing out of the middle class for readers, especially during the 2016 presidential campaign. He argues that the mainstream media erred by devoting vastly more attention to the plight of non-college-educated White men in the Midwest than their Black counterparts who were also feeling left behind.

While many White people in the region were deciding whether to vote for Donald Trump and his nativist rhetoric after previously backing Barack Obama, a lot of African Americans who had turned out twice for Obama were deciding whether to vote at all. Ultimately, many of them stayed home. Trump won the battleground state of Michigan, for instance, with fewer votes than Mitt Romney lost it with as the GOP presidential nominee four years earlier.

“We missed a big and important story about Black workers and their economic struggles and how it was going to affect their decision to vote or not. But we also misled our audiences by showing them a picture of the working class that was not complete and allowed politicians to distort it,” Tankersley explained in a telephone interview. “The sad and unfortunate product of that was we perpetuated this myth that working-class White men are suffering alone in America and do not have anything in common with these other struggling workers. The idea that women, immigrants or workers of color are in competition with them for prosperity is wrong. It’s not what American history shows us.”

As Tankersley writes in a chapter of his book devoted to this theme: “We whitewashed the middle class, and in the process, we legitimized a lie.”

Tankersley covered economic policy for The Washington Post during the 2016 election cycle and has been on the same beat for the New York Times since 2017. After growing up in a working-class Oregon logging town and serving as editor in chief of the Stanford Daily, Tankersley worked at the Portland Oregonian and Toledo Blade before coming to Washington to work for the Chicago Tribune and National Journal.

“To be really clear, I think it was good that we did a lot of stories about the struggles of White workers,” he said. “I just think we needed to do even more stories about other workers who were struggling. I also don’t want to at all downplay the economic distress that the White working class in the industrial Midwest has gone through in the 21st century. It is severe, and if you are a worker without a college degree in states like Ohio or Michigan or Pennsylvania, you have a lot to be angry about. The economy has not performed for you the way that it did a generation before and the way that you were told that it was going to. Obviously, discrimination is acute against workers of color in different ways, but in terms of the economy not working for them, everybody’s feeling it.”

The novel coronavirus has underscored many of the fragilities in our economy that Tankersley addresses in the book. It has demonstrated how tens of millions of Americans were living on the edge of poverty, despite a decade of uninterrupted GDP growth. The book was mostly written before the pandemic plummeted the country into its worst economic crisis in a century, but Tankersley was able to update the conclusion with some fresh thoughts. None of the developments of the past five months, though, change any of his recommendations for restoring upward mobility.

When we chatted, Tankersley emphasized that minority groups are suffering the most both from the virus itself and its economic contagiousness. They disproportionately work in jobs that cannot be completed from home. White workers who were laid off in the spring have been hired back at higher rates than Black workers. Unemployment benefits tend to be less generous in the Southern states, where African Americans make up a higher share of the unemployed. “All of these things speak to the idea that these are the workers we need to be finding better and greater opportunities for,” he said.

Tankersley plans to watch closely during the Democratic convention next week and the Republican convention the week after that to see what Joe Biden and Trump specifically promise to do for everyone in the working class. . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

11 August 2020 at 8:57 am

Posted in Business, Daily life, Media

How Suffering Farmers May Determine Trump’s Fate

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I found the Canadian reference interesting. Dan Kaufman writes in the New Yorker:

Last October, Jerry Volenec, a dairy farmer from southwestern Wisconsin, took the morning off to go to Madison for the World Dairy Expo, an annual cattle-judging contest and trade show. Volenec wanted to hear a town-hall discussion led by Sonny Perdue, Donald Trump’s Secretary of Agriculture, to learn how the Administration planned to address the economic crisis gripping Wisconsin’s family dairy farmers.

Volenec’s farm sits atop Bohemian Ridge, a jagged plateau named for the Czech immigrants who settled there in the late nineteenth century. Among them was Joseph Volenec, Jerry’s great-great-grandfather, who established the farm, in 1897. In the nineteen-fifties and sixties, Volenec’s grandfather milked a herd of sixteen cows; he could make a living because New Deal policies used price supports and other measures to boost farmers’ earnings and limit overproduction.

Jerry Volenec always wanted to become a farmer. “You couldn’t keep me out of the barn,” he said. “I was milking cows by myself by the time I was fourteen.” By the early nineties, when Volenec began farming full time, the New Deal policies had largely been dismantled. The family increased its herd to about seventy, and Volenec’s father started paying him a salary, enough money for his education at the University of Wisconsin-Platteville, and to start an I.R.A. In 2000, Volenec installed a milking parlor, and since then he has increased the herd to three hundred and thirty cows. “We’re the biggest of the small guys,” Volenec, who is forty-five, with a sturdy build and a thin goatee, said. “But I was making more money, doing less work, when I started, twenty-five years ago. I’m basically paying myself living expenses now.”

Five years ago, the price of milk fell precipitously, accelerating the long unravelling of rural Wisconsin. Since 2010, the population in two-thirds of the state’s rural counties has decreased, leading to a shrinking workforce, fewer jobs and businesses, and slower income growth rates than in metro counties. More than seventy rural schools have closed, and for the past three years the state has led the country in family-farm bankruptcies. “The level of desperation and lack of hope in our phone calls has increased,” Angie Sullivan, who supervises caseworkers at the Wisconsin Farm Center, part of the state’s Department of Agriculture, said. “Dairy farmers are working on their fifth year of low milk prices. Many banks have stopped loaning them money.” Wisconsin has seven thousand dairy farms, roughly half the number that it had a decade ago. Yet the number of cows has remained constant, because of consolidation and the proliferation of factory dairy farms, some of which have herds of more than five thousand cows.

“It’s like a never-ending cycle, almost like a hamster on the wheel,” Travis Tranel, a Republican state representative from Cuba City, forty miles south of Volenec’s farm, told me. Tranel is an organic dairy farmer with a five-hundred-cow herd. “You just keep running and running. Your only option is to produce more.” Tranel said that consolidation has all but wiped out small dairy farms in Wisconsin and now threatens medium-sized farms such as his. “We can see the future if we stay on the path we’re on,” he said, noting that the consolidation of hog farming had already transformed Iowa. “I definitely do not want to see rural Wisconsin become as empty as rural Iowa.”

After the town hall, Perdue took questions from reporters, one of whom asked if the state’s loss of small farms was inevitable. “In America, the big get bigger, and the small will go out,” Perdue said. “I don’t think in America for any small business we have a guaranteed income or guaranteed profitability.” Volenec wasn’t surprised by Perdue’s answer. “I walked in there knowing that’s how they felt,” Volenec told me, referring to the Trump Administration. “The part that was unnerving to me was that he said it to our faces. They’re not trying to hide it anymore. They’re telling us flat out: You’re not important.”

In 2016, after voting for Barack Obama twice, Volenec voted for Trump. Volenec had grown disenchanted with Obama after his Administration banned whole milk from schools and did little to slow the loss of family farms. “I wasn’t following politics closely,” he said. “I never listened to Trump give a speech, just commentary over the radio. I had the general impression that what’s wrong with the agricultural economy was that too many politicians were involved, and that having a businessman in the White House would benefit me.”

As rural Wisconsin’s fortunes have declined, its political importance has grown. Trump won the state by less than twenty-three thousand votes. If the 2020 election is close, Trump could lose Michigan and Pennsylvania—the other Rust Belt states he flipped in 2016—and still win a second term by holding Wisconsin. Trump underperformed in the suburban counties of Milwaukee, the Republican Party’s stronghold, while overperforming in the state’s rural areas, where he won nearly two-thirds of the vote. The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel found that the largest shift in voting between Obama’s seven-point victory in Wisconsin, in 2012, and Trump’s one-point win came in communities that cast fewer than a thousand votes. (Nationally, Trump won sixty-two per cent of the rural vote.)

Four years ago, Trump promised to reverse the economic decline of family farmers. “Hillary Clinton wants to shut down family farms just like she wants to shut down the mines and the steelworkers,” he said, during a campaign stop at the Iowa State Fairgrounds. “We are going to end this war on the American farmer.” In early 2018, he launched a series of trade wars, which provoked China, Mexico, Canada, and the European Union into imposing penalties on American dairy products. Mexico, the largest importer of Wisconsin cheese, levied a twenty-five-per-cent tariff on American cheeses. Last summer, Trump allotted fifteen billion dollars in compensation to farmers, but the vast majority of it has gone to the largest farms. In a tweet, he called farmers “great patriots” and promised that they would eventually be better off.

In June, as Trump’s poll numbers dropped nationwide, the Washington Post reported that his campaign advisers were losing hope for Michigan and Pennsylvania, and would focus on holding Wisconsin. “It’s baked into the cake that Trump will lose the state’s large metro areas in a landslide, while the suburbs have been fleeing him,” Ben Wikler, the head of the Wisconsin Democratic Party, told me. “Trump can’t win a second term unless he racks up enormous margins in rural Wisconsin.”

For Volenec, Trump’s appeal vanished almost immediately. “If I had known the things I know about him now, I wouldn’t have voted for him,” he said, when I visited him at his farm in February. As Trump’s trade wars escalated, Volenec’s problems worsened. In March, 2018, Canada effectively cut off all dairy imports from the United States, and milk from Michigan that had previously been exported began flooding into Wisconsin’s processing plants. The co-op where Volenec sent his milk for processing was now competing with cheap out-of-state milk, and put a cap on the amount that it would take from him. That week, Volenec heard about a meeting of the Wisconsin Farmers Union, a family-farm advocacy group, in nearby Dodgeville, to promote a version of supply management, a system used in Canada that sets a quota on the production of dairy, eggs, and poultry. Designed, like the New Deal policies, to prevent overproduction and to guarantee farmers a stable income, the system relies on higher prices for Canadian consumers. Trump’s trade war with Canada is aimed at dismantling supply management, which has long been deplored by Republican politicians. John Boehner, the former Speaker of the House, called it “Soviet-style” agriculture. For Volenec, it was a revelation. “This was my first glimpse into a world where the dairy farmer is not subservient to The Market,” he wrote in an essay called “Groomed for Apocalypse.”

Volenec lives on the farm with his wife, Jennifer, and their four daughters. His parents still live and work there, too, and the family employs four farmhands, Mexican immigrants who milk the cows three times a day, in five-hour shifts. Volenec spends most of his time feeding cattle and doing maintenance. His workday begins at five in the morning and, in the spring and summer, ends at nine or ten at night. It was bitterly cold the day I visited, so Volenec led me into a small office adjacent to the milking parlor. On the wall was a whiteboard with numbers detailing the farm’s milk production, which averages roughly thirty thousand pounds a day. A truck picks up the milk every day and takes it to the co-op, where it is turned into cheese. (Ninety per cent of Wisconsin’s milk is used to make cheese; if the state were a country, it would be the fourth-largest cheese-producing nation in the world.)

Dairy farmers have felt the effects of the coronavirus pandemic acutely. As schools and restaurants closed, they abruptly cancelled their contracts with milk bottlers and cheese factories. The price of milk dropped by more than thirty per cent, and some processors began asking their farmers to dump milk. By late April, as hungry people lined up at food banks, one farm had already dumped more than five million pounds of milk, according to “The Mid-West Farm Report.” Mitch Breunig, a dairy farmer in Sauk City, had to dump all of his morning milking for ten days. “We took a hundred-and-fifty-foot hose and ran it from the milking parlor right into the manure-storage unit in the barn,” he told me. Breunig wound up dumping eighty thousand pounds of milk, for which he received no money. “I would just look at it and think, Wow, everything we did was for nothing.”

State agencies issued protocols for dumping milk, which can pollute groundwater and decimate fish populations. Though Volenec has not had to dump any of his milk, he’s been worrying about the environmental costs of large-scale dairy farming, from water contamination to climate change. Manure runoff from industrial dairy farming has contributed to a dramatic increase in bacteria and nitrates in the state’s groundwater, according to a study funded in part by Wisconsin’s Department of Natural Resources. (A farm with twenty-five hundred cows produces as much waste as a city of four hundred thousand people.) The E.P.A. recently sampled the groundwater in a thirty-mile area of Juneau County that’s dense with dairy cows and found that sixty-five per cent of the sites had elevated levels of nitrates, which have been linked to birth defects, colon cancer, and “blue-baby syndrome,” a condition that reduces oxygen in an infant’s blood and can be fatal.

“You’re now looking at three or four generations of depletion,” Curt Meine, an environmental historian at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, told me. “Depletion of rural communities, rural landscapes, rural soils and water, depletion of the land and local economies. And you have the brain drain that followed it. This is why we have this deep urban-rural divide. We have concentrated and exported the wealth. Everyone sees it, but neither party has wrestled with it. One party exploited it, the other party has ignored it.”

“It’s hard, because I’ve built my life around a system that I believe now is extremely problematic from an environmental, social, even a personal level,” Volenec said. “It’s not the farming that I was brought up with. It’s not really even farming anymore. It’s mining. We’re extracting resources and shipping them away, and they’re not coming back. There’s no cyclical nature to it. It’s a straight line out.”

Volenec and I walked across the road to see his great-great-grandfather’s homestead. The land begins behind . . .

Continue reading. There’s much more.

Basically, Republicans do not want the common people to do well.

Written by LeisureGuy

10 August 2020 at 7:14 pm

Pencil production: Memes in action

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I thought this brief video illustrates how memes form networks that direction human activities on a widespread network of activities: a constantly motion of adaptation and evolution.

Written by LeisureGuy

10 August 2020 at 9:57 am

Warren Buffett: America’s Folksiest Predator

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Matt Stoller writes in BIG:

One of the more important figures in American capitalism over the last forty years is Warren Buffett, the legendary investor who is now the fourth richest man in the world. Buffett is an icon, the ‘Oracle of Omaha,’ who lives a simple lifestyle based on folksy wisdom, eating Dairy Queen ice cream, and drinking Coca Cola. Or so goes the myth. In this issue, I’m going to do an interview with an author who presents a very different side of Buffett, the side that is key to his wealth and power. Specifically, the monopolist side, and how Buffett’s way of investing has been a multiplier force for dominant corporations.

Also in this issue:

  • The timing of the Google antitrust case and changing Senate politics
  • The growing business rebellion against monopoly power
  • A merger of 7-Eleven
  • The Intuit-Credit Karma merger
  • Another weird monopoly

Some housekeeping. First, I was on a lovely Irish podcast called The Stand with Eamon Dunphy. Second, a lot of readers of the last BIG issue, which was on Chinese apps, seemed interested in exactly how Facebook’s market power led to the rise of TikTok. National security expert Lucas Kunce wrote that up for the University of Chicago’s Stigler Center ProMarket magazine.

And now…

America’s Folksiest Predator

Journalists have always served an important function in addressing corporate power. The great anti-monopolists of the 1880s were journalists such as Henry Demarest Lloyd, muckrakers whose words gave voice to a movement seeking to reign in corporate power.

Journalist Dave Dayen is an heir to this tradition. He’s the executive editor of one of the most important political magazines today, the American Prospect. He did groundbreaking (and lonely) journalism on foreclosures and financial corruption throughout the Obama years, and his 2016 article on antitrust in The New Republic laid the groundwork for Elizabeth Warren’s key speeches on the issue that rocketed the importance of monopoly into the political stratosphere.

For today’s post, I’m going to do an interview with Dayen on his new book, Monopolized: Life in the Age of Corporate PowerMonopolized is a mix between a business book and a travelogue, a set of stories about people living under the control of various powerful corporate entities, from Wall Street to Amazon to prison and the military. There’s also a roadmap for how to fight back, and Dayen profiles Israeli anti-monopolists who successfully did just that. One interesting aspect of Monopolized is that Warren Buffett is a silent presence throughout, profiting quietly in the background from virtually every monopoly Dayen describes. We don’t often hear of Buffett as a great monopolist, but that’s what he actually is. So in this interview, that’s who we focused on.

If you’re interested in a sweeping but detailed take on the modern landscape of corporate power, you should buy a copy of Dayen’s Monopolized; it’s enormously well-researched, and you will know more about corporate power after you are done. I learned a lot, even though studying monopoly is what I do.


Thanks for writing this excellent book. I want to get into Warren Buffett, but first I want to ask a basic question that I hear a lot in policymaking circles, which is that the problem of monopoly is just too complex for voters to really get. You wrote this book by traveling around the country and reporting stories of people dealing with corporate power. Did you get the sense that the public at large understands the problem of monopoly and concentrated finance?

People know that something is terribly wrong. They might not be able to articulate it using technocratic antitrust jargon, like no one mentioned the Herfindahl–Hirschman Index in terms of market share, but they understand the system is rigged. When I talked to a woman who is renting a home and she got an alert for her own home being put on the market without her knowledge because the house is owned by a private equity giant, well, she knows that something is terribly wrong. She’s a big Trump supporter, but now hates the private equity firm Blackstone, which she also knows is full of Trump donors.

Another woman I interviewed, she lives in Tennessee and classifies herself as a libertarian, she knows something is wrong. Her husband has diabetes, and she’s tracking his blood sugar on this wearable device. If she gets an alert on her phone, when he has low blood sugar, she goes and gives him a little piece of chocolate. Turns out there was a gap in her wifi conductivity, because she lives out in this rural area and they are literally forbidden from getting broadband by a law that the telecom industry got passed. She tells me she saw a 15-minute gap in her tracking, and found her husband slumped over his chair because that’s the moment in which he crashed. She calls herself a libertarian, but she knows something is terribly wrong with the governing structures of the economy and the power of these corporations that have insinuated themselves to American life.

People might not be able to call it monopoly power, but they know something isn’t working.

Your book is about monopolies. One character who keeps popping up in the book, surprisingly, is Warren Buffett. He’s a genial kindly old man in the media. But who is Warren Buffett in this book?

Buffett is the avatar of monopoly. This is a guy whose investments philosophy is literally that of a monopolist. I mean, he invented this sort of term, the economic “moat,” that if you build a moat around your business, then it’s going to be successful. I mean, this is the language of building monopoly power. He not only looks for monopolies in the businesses he invests in, but he takes it to heart in the business that he’s created, Berkshire Hathaway. Berkshire Hathaway owns something like 70 or 80 or 90 companies and they have large market shares in all sorts of areas of the economy.

It’s kind of like an old school conglomerate from the sixties and seventies, but there are certain facets of it, where he’s clearly trying to corner a market. Buffett’s initial businesses that he actually outright purchased were newspapers. It started with the Buffalo News in Buffalo, New York. And he used anti-competitive practices to put the competition, his rival newspaper, out of business. That was literally his MO there.

What are some of the surprising businesses or sectors he’s involved in? We don’t typically hear Warren Buffett and opioids in the same sentence. And yet…

Teva Pharmaceuticals is one of the companies in which Buffett has had a huge investment. And Teva is one of the manufacturers of generic opioid based products. Buffett knows well that there’s no better way to put a moat around your business than to sell an addictive product.

We don’t usually typically think of Buffett as sort of a drug dealer, but he certainly sells a lot of opioids or makes money from those who do sell it by owning the stock. It just seems to me like his real job is to put a happy genial face on abusive power. You know, everybody in the investment world loves Buffett. But the Sherman Act is a criminal statute because traditionally monopolization was understood as a crime. . .

Continue reading. There’s much more.

Written by LeisureGuy

9 August 2020 at 8:17 pm

The Unraveling of America

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Wade Davis, an anthropologist who holds the Leadership Chair in Cultures and Ecosystems at Risk at the University of British Columbia and author of award-winning books including Into the Silence and The Wayfinders and his new book, Magdalena: River of Dreams, writes in Rolling Stone:

Never in our lives have we experienced such a global phenomenon. For the first time in the history of the world, all of humanity, informed by the unprecedented reach of digital technology, has come together, focused on the same existential threat, consumed by the same fears and uncertainties, eagerly anticipating the same, as yet unrealized, promises of medical science.

In a single season, civilization has been brought low by a microscopic parasite 10,000 times smaller than a grain of salt. COVID-19 attacks our physical bodies, but also the cultural foundations of our lives, the toolbox of community and connectivity that is for the human what claws and teeth represent to the tiger.

Our interventions to date have largely focused on mitigating the rate of spread, flattening the curve of morbidity. There is no treatment at hand, and no certainty of a vaccine on the near horizon. The fastest vaccine ever developed was for mumps. It took four years. COVID-19 killed 100,000 Americans in four months. There is some evidence that natural infection may not imply immunity, leaving some to question how effective a vaccine will be, even assuming one can be found. And it must be safe. If the global population is to be immunized, lethal complications in just one person in a thousand would imply the death of millions.

Pandemics and plagues have a way of shifting the course of history, and not always in a manner immediately evident to the survivors. In the 14th Century, the Black Death killed close to half of Europe’s population. A scarcity of labor led to increased wages. Rising expectations culminated in the Peasants Revolt of 1381, an inflection point that marked the beginning of the end of the feudal order that had dominated medieval Europe for a thousand years.

The COVID pandemic will be remembered as such a moment in history, a seminal event whose significance will unfold only in the wake of the crisis. It will mark this era much as the 1914 assassination of Archduke Ferdinand, the stock market crash of 1929, and the 1933 ascent of Adolf Hitler became fundamental benchmarks of the last century, all harbingers of greater and more consequential outcomes.

COVID’s historic significance lies not in what it implies for our daily lives. Change, after all, is the one constant when it comes to culture. All peoples in all places at all times are always dancing with new possibilities for life. As companies eliminate or downsize central offices, employees work from home, restaurants close, shopping malls shutter, streaming brings entertainment and sporting events into the home, and airline travel becomes ever more problematic and miserable, people will adapt, as we’ve always done. Fluidity of memory and a capacity to forget is perhaps the most haunting trait of our species. As history confirms, it allows us to come to terms with any degree of social, moral, or environmental degradation.

To be sure, financial uncertainty will cast a long shadow. Hovering over the global economy for some time will be the sober realization that all the money in the hands of all the nations on Earth will never be enough to offset the losses sustained when an entire world ceases to function, with workers and businesses everywhere facing a choice between economic and biological survival.

Unsettling as these transitions and circumstances will be, short of a complete economic collapse, none stands out as a turning point in history. But what surely does is the absolutely devastating impact that the pandemic has had on the reputation and international standing of the United States of America.

In a dark season of pestilence, COVID has reduced to tatters the illusion of American exceptionalism. At the height of the crisis, with more than 2,000 dying each day, Americans found themselves members of a failed state, ruled by a dysfunctional and incompetent government largely responsible for death rates that added a tragic coda to America’s claim to supremacy in the world.

For the first time, the international community felt compelled to send disaster relief to Washington. For more than two centuries, reported the Irish Times, “the United States has stirred a very wide range of feelings in the rest of the world: love and hatred, fear and hope, envy and contempt, awe and anger. But there is one emotion that has never been directed towards the U.S. until now: pity.” As American doctors and nurses eagerly awaited emergency airlifts of basic supplies from China, the hinge of history opened to the Asian century.

No empire long endures, even if few anticipate their demise. Every kingdom is born to die. The 15th century belonged to the Portuguese, the 16th to Spain, 17th to the Dutch. France dominated the 18th and Britain the 19th. Bled white and left bankrupt by the Great War, the British maintained a pretense of domination as late as 1935, when the empire reached its greatest geographical extent. By then, of course, the torch had long passed into the hands of America.

In 1940, with Europe already ablaze, the United States had a smaller army than either Portugal or Bulgaria. Within four years, 18 million men and women would serve in uniform, with millions more working double shifts in mines and factories that made America, as President Roosevelt promised, the arsenal of democracy.

When the Japanese within six weeks of Pearl Harbor took control of 90 percent of the world’s rubber supply, the U.S. dropped the speed limit to 35 mph to protect tires, and then, in three years, invented from scratch a synthetic-rubber industry that allowed Allied armies to roll over the Nazis. At its peak, Henry Ford’s Willow Run Plant produced a B-24 Liberator every two hours, around the clock. Shipyards in Long Beach and Sausalito spat out Liberty ships at a rate of two a day for four years; the record was a ship built in four days, 15 hours and 29 minutes. A single American factory, Chrysler’s Detroit Arsenal, built more tanks than the whole of the Third Reich.

In the wake of the war, with Europe and Japan in ashes, the United States with but 6 percent of the world’s population accounted for half of the global economy, including the production of 93 percent of all automobiles. Such economic dominance birthed a vibrant middle class, a trade union movement that allowed a single breadwinner with limited education to own a home and a car, support a family, and send his kids to good schools. It was not by any means a perfect world but affluence allowed for a truce between capital and labor, a reciprocity of opportunity in a time of rapid growth and declining income inequality, marked by high tax rates for the wealthy, who were by no means the only beneficiaries of a golden age of American capitalism.

But freedom and affluence came with a price. The United States, virtually a demilitarized nation on the eve of the Second World War, never stood down in the wake of victory. To this day, American troops are deployed in 150 countries. Since the 1970s, China has not once gone to war; the U.S. has not spent a day at peace. President Jimmy Carter recently noted that in its 242-year history, America has enjoyed only 16 years of peace, making it, as he wrote, “the most warlike nation in the history of the world.” Since 2001, the U.S. has spent over $6 trillion on military operations and war, money that might have been invested in the infrastructure of home. China, meanwhile, built its nation, pouring more cement every three years than America did in the entire 20th century.

As America policed the world, the violence came home. On D-Day, June 6th, 1944, the Allied death toll was 4,414; in 2019, domestic gun violence had killed that many American men and women by the end of April. By June of that year, guns in the hands of ordinary Americans had caused more casualties than the Allies suffered in Normandy in the first month of a campaign that consumed the military strength of five nations.

More than any other country, the United States in the post-war era lionized the individual at the expense of community and family. It was the sociological equivalent of splitting the atom. What was gained in terms of mobility and personal freedom came at the expense of common purpose. In wide swaths of America, the family as an institution lost its grounding. By the 1960s, 40 percent of marriages were ending in divorce. Only six percent of American homes had grandparents living beneath the same roof as grandchildren; elders were abandoned to retirement homes.

With slogans like “24/7” celebrating complete dedication to the workplace, men and women exhausted themselves in jobs that only reinforced their isolation from their families. The average American father spends less than 20 minutes a day in direct communication with his child. By the time a youth reaches 18, he or she will have spent fully two years watching television or staring at a laptop screen, contributing to an obesity epidemic that the Joint Chiefs have called a national security crisis.

Only half of Americans report having meaningful, face-to-face social interactions on a daily basis. The nation consumes two-thirds of the world’s production of antidepressant drugs. The collapse of the working-class family has been responsible in part for an opioid crisis that has displaced car accidents as the leading cause of death for Americans under 50.

At the root of this transformation and decline lies an ever-widening chasm between Americans who have and those who have little or nothing. Economic disparities exist in all nations, creating a tension that can be as disruptive as the inequities are unjust. In any number of settings, however, the negative forces tearing apart a society are mitigated or even muted if there are other elements that reinforce social solidarity — religious faith, the strength and comfort of family, the pride of tradition, fidelity to the land, a spirit of place.

But when all the old certainties are shown to be lies, when the promise of a good life for a working family is shattered as factories close and corporate leaders, growing wealthier by the day, ship jobs abroad, the social contract is irrevocably broken. For two generations, America has celebrated globalization with iconic intensity, when, as any working man or woman can see, it’s nothing more than capital on the prowl in search of ever cheaper sources of labor.

For many years, those on the conservative right in the United States have invoked a nostalgia for the 1950s, and an America that never was, but has to be presumed to have existed to rationalize their sense of loss and abandonment, their fear of change, their bitter resentments and lingering contempt for the social movements of the 1960s, a time of new aspirations for women, gays, and people of color. In truth, at least in economic terms, the country of the 1950s resembled Denmark as much as the America of today. Marginal tax rates for the wealthy were 90 percent. The salaries of CEOs were, on average, just 20 times that of their mid-management employees.

Today, the base pay of those at the top is commonly 400 times that of their salaried staff, with many earning orders of magnitude more in stock options and perks. The elite one percent of Americans control $30 trillion of assets, while the bottom half have more debt than assets.  . .

Continue reading. There’s much more.

Later in the article:

Finns live longer and are less likely to die in childhood or in giving birth than Americans. Danes earn roughly the same after-tax income as Americans, while working 20 percent less. They pay in taxes an extra 19 cents for every dollar earned. But in return they get free health care, free education from pre-school through university, and the opportunity to prosper in a thriving free-market economy with dramatically lower levels of poverty, homelessness, crime, and inequality. The average worker is paid better, treated more respectfully, and rewarded with life insurance, pension plans, maternity leave, and six weeks of paid vacation a year. All of these benefits only inspire Danes to work harder, with fully 80 percent of men and women aged 16 to 64 engaged in the labor force, a figure far higher than that of the United States.

Written by LeisureGuy

9 August 2020 at 11:36 am

The health care scare

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Confession relieves one of a moral burden, but this confession strikes me as rather late.

Wendell Potter @wendellpotter is a former vice president of Cigna who became a whistleblower against the health insurance industry. He serves as president of the Center for Health and Democracy.

He writes in the Washington Post:

In my prior life as an insurance executive, it was my job to deceive Americans about their health care. I misled people to protect profits. In fact, one of my major objectives, as a corporate propagandist, was to do my part to “enhance shareholder value.” That work contributed directly to a climate in which fewer people are insured, which has shaped our nation’s struggle against the coronavirus, a condition that we can fight only if everyone is willing and able to get medical treatment. Had spokesmen like me not been paid to obscure important truths about the differences between the U.S. and Canadian health-care systems, tens of thousands of Americans who have died during the pandemic might still be alive.

In 2007, I was working as vice president of corporate communications for Cigna. That summer, Michael Moore was preparing to release his latest documentary, “Sicko,” contrasting American health care with that in other rich countries. (Naturally, we looked terrible.) I spent months meeting secretly with my counterparts at other big insurers to plot our assault on the film, which contained many anecdotes about patients who had been denied coverage for important treatments. One example was 3-year-old Annette Noe. When her parents asked Cigna to pay for two cochlear implants that would allow her to hear, we agreed to cover only one.

Clearly my colleagues and I would need a robust defense. On a task force for the industry’s biggest trade association, America’s Health Insurance Plans (AHIP), we talked about how we might make health-care systems in Canada, France, Britain and even Cuba look just as bad as ours. We enlisted APCO Worldwide, a giant PR firm. Agents there worked with AHIP to put together a binder of laminated talking points for company flacks like me to use in news releases and statements to reporters.

Here’s an example from one AHIP brief in the binder: “A May 2004 poll found that 87% of Canada’s business leaders would support seeking health care outside the government system if they had a pressing medical concern.” The source was a 2004 book by Sally Pipes, president of the industry-supported Pacific Research Institute, titled “Miracle Cure: How to Solve America’s Health Care Crisis and Why Canada Isn’t the Answer.” Another bullet point, from the same book, quoted the CEO of the Canadian Association of Radiologists as saying that “the radiology equipment in Canada is so bad that ‘without immediate action radiologists will no longer be able to guarantee the reliability and quality of examinations.’ ”

Much of this runs against the experience of many Americans, especially the millions who take advantage of low pharmaceutical prices in Canada to meet their prescription needs. But there were more specific reasons to be skeptical of those claims. We didn’t know, for example, who conducted that 2004 survey or anything about the sample size or methodology — or even what criteria were used to determine who qualified as a “business leader.” We didn’t know if the assertion about imaging equipment was based on reliable data or was an opinion. You could easily turn up comparable complaints about outdated equipment at U.S. hospitals.

(Contacted by The Washington Post, an AHIP spokesman said this perspective was “from the pre-ACA past. We are future focused by building on what works and fixing what doesn’t.” He added that the organization “believes everyone deserves affordable, high-quality coverage and care — regardless of health status, income, or pre-existing conditions.” An APCO Worldwide spokesperson told The Post that the company “has been involved in supporting our clients with the evolution of the health care system. We are proud of our work.” Cigna did not respond to requests for comment.)

Nevertheless, I spent much of that year as an industry spokesman, my last after 20 years in the business, spreading AHIP’s “information” to journalists and lawmakers to create the impression that our health-care system was far superior to Canada’s, which we wanted people to believe was on the verge of collapse. The campaign worked. Stories began to appear in the press that cast the Canadian system in a negative light. And when Democrats began writing what would become the Affordable Care Act in early 2009, they gave no serious consideration to a publicly financed system like Canada’s. We succeeded so wildly at defining that idea as radical that Sen. Max Baucus (D-Mont.), then chair of the Senate Finance Committee, had single-payer supporters ejected from a hearing.

Today, the respective responses of Canada and the United States to the coronavirus pandemic prove just how false the ideas I helped spread were. There are more than three times as many coronavirus infections per capita in the United States, and the mortality rate is twice the rate in Canada. And although we now test more people per capita, our northern neighbor had much earlier successes with testing, which helped make a difference throughout the pandemic.

The most effective myth we perpetuated — the industry trots it out whenever major reform is proposed — is that Canadians and people in other single-payer countries have to endure long waits for needed care. Just last year, in a statement submitted to a congressional committee for a hearing on the Medicare for All Act of 2019, AHIP maintained that “patients would pay more to wait longer for worse care” under a single-payer system.

While it’s true that Canadians sometimes have to wait weeks or months for elective procedures (knee replacements are often cited), the truth is that they do not have to wait at all for the vast majority of medical services. And, contrary to another myth I used to peddle — that Canadian doctors are flocking to the United States — there are more doctors per 1,000 people in Canada than here. Canadians see their doctors an average of 6.8 times a year, compared with just four times a year in this country.

Most important, no one in Canada is turned away from doctors because of a lack of funds, and Canadians can get tested and treated for the coronavirus without fear of receiving a budget-busting medical bill. That undoubtedly is one of the reasons Canada’s covid-19 death rate is so much lower than ours. In America, exorbitant bills are a defining feature of our health-care system. Despite the assurances from President Trump and members of Congress that covid-19 patients will not be charged for testing or treatment, they are on the hook for big bills, according to numerous reports.

That is not the case in Canada, where there are no co-pays, deductibles or coinsurance for covered benefits. Care is free at the point of service. And those laid off in Canada don’t face the worry of losing their health insurance. In the United States, by contrast, . . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

8 August 2020 at 5:47 pm

“My Life Pouring Concrete”

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Michael Humeniuk writes in Quillette:

The ritual was to arrive at work half an hour early, so I could gradually wake up in the car listening to the radio, drinking coffee, and eating doughnuts. I’d park my Honda Fit beside the site foreman’s pick-up truck. His morning pre-shift was like mine, except that his breakfast was vodka-soda with painkillers. Another two labourers usually arrived after I did: an irritable six-foot-three indigenous guy called by everyone, including himself, the “BFI,” which stood for “Big F-cking Indian”; and a cocaine-addled Italian who split “a gram or two with the wife” nightly, pairing it with a three-litre bottle of red wine. He claimed to sleep only two hours, which I never doubted, since he had to commute an hour to get on site at 6am. Of my colleagues, only the BFI always worked sober, having survived years of alcoholism (not to mention some prison time).

At age 20, I’d started my first week in construction, excavating a commercial space for a liquor store. The dark pits of freshly-dug soil gave the air a musty sweetness that stuck in the back of the throat. We’d spend 12-hour days digging trenches in the subterranean dark, and then fill them up with concrete. The ready mix splashed onto my skin and made my eyes burn, while men yelled monosyllabic instructions over the din of engines. The air smelled of diesel, with notes of liquid metal thanks to the welders. On break, we made our way outside, the only time we saw the sun, to immediately contaminate the fresh air with a round of cigarettes. True to stereotype, not one woman escaped our gaze. They were something to look at that wasn’t steel, dirt, dust, or rock.

This is how some men spend the majority of their lives.

I say “men” because, in my chosen subspecialty of concrete (whose ranks include those formally designated in the United States under the category of “cement masons, concrete finishers, and terrazzo workers”), the work force is 98.9 percent male. According to 2018 data (collected well before the COVID-19 pandemic), the average annual salary is about $42,000, significantly less than the national average of $54,000. In this industry, 50 is considered old. And working past 60 is almost unheard of. Most of the men I worked with had little formal education. Many had a criminal record. Men working in construction and extraction have the highest suicide rate of any industry, as well as the highest rate of opioid addiction, and (predictably) overdoses. Alcoholism rates are second only to the mining industry. It’s a rough crowd doing hard work. So you can see why employers might have difficulty addressing their gender imbalance.

Men work construction jobs because they need the money. But they also take pride in their daily work product, and the more general fact that they build and fix the concrete world that we all need. There’s usually a strong work ethic on display, too, even if it doesn’t always manifest itself as what many of us would describe as professionalism per se.

To the extent construction workers are discussed at all in the media or popular culture, it’s usually by reference to stereotypically negative attributes, such as sexist leering, foul language, and substance abuse. Unless you are embedded in this world, you’ll miss the offsetting positive aspects, including the unspoken code that exists among most crews: (1) Do the best work you can, without creating more work for others; (2) don’t shirk the dirtiest or hardest task; (3) obey your direct boss, but remain suspicious of authority more generally, especially when it walks on to the site with clean hands and nice shoes. (Young engineers tend to be particular objects of scorn); (4) never rat. If someone’s alcohol or drug problem is out of hand, let the supervisor address it. If your colleague gets fired because you blew the whistle, you may lose something more precious than a job.

While doing interviews for this article, two unionized municipal construction workers told me, off the record, “There are only two rules with Percocet: One, never talk about perkies. Two, do you have any?” The high level of opioid use among construction workers arises from the need to alleviate pain. Many workers freely offer stories about past accidents and the ensuing surgeries. In other cases, it’s a case of repetitive stress and bodily wear and tear, including slipped disks and rotator-cuff issues. Opioids are especially helpful for contract labourers who don’t have union protection or job benefits. Without work, they have no money, so they rely on pills to stay on site.

Eventually, of course, avoidance of withdrawal symptoms becomes the dominant priority. And one friend of mine fell off the workforce when he could no longer find a steady supply of pills. The symptoms of sudden abstinence, which often start with vomiting and diarrhoea, can sometimes be life-threatening. To save a colleague from unemployment, and possibly from falling into a deadly spiral, a few men relinquished some of their own pills as an act of charity, knowing the roles could be reversed one day.

On the sites I worked, Percocet went for between $3 and $5 per 5mg dose. The more potent 80 mg OxyContins went for $80. (The active ingredient in both is oxycodone.) Labourers are rarely prescribed enough by their doctors to feed their addictions, and so they buy or trade amongst one another. Some spend upward of $500 per week, and have to enter into informal buy-and-sell agreements, somewhat comparable to stock options . . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

7 August 2020 at 4:42 pm

“It’s the healthcare system, stupid”

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Charles Frank writes in Le Monde Diplomatique:

The great underlying political crisis of this plague year, it is often said, is the stubborn refusal of Americans to respect expert authority. There’s an epidemic raging… and just look at those people frolicking in a swimming pool at the Lake of the Ozarks, repeating stupid conspiracy theories, spreading non-peer-reviewed medical advice on social media, running errands without a mask on, setting off roman candles in the street. And just look at their idiot of a president, dismissing the advice of his own medical experts, blaming everyone but himself for the disaster, suggesting we inject ourselves with Clorox because it’s effective on countertops and toilet bowls.

In truth, this grand conflict between the ignorant and the enlightened has been a motif of our politics for years (1). Liberals, we believe, are uniquely attuned to objective reality; they dutifully heed the words of Nobel laureates and Genius Grant winners. But Republicans are different: they live in a world of myth and fable where the truth does not apply.

Ordinarily our punditburo plays this conflict for simple partisan point-scoring. Us: smart! Them: stupid!

But the pandemic has given the conflict an urgency we have not seen before. These days, right-thinking Americans are tearfully declaring their eternal and unswerving faith in science. Democratic leaders are urging our disease-stricken country to heed the findings of medical experts as though they were the word of God.

Our ‘thought leaders’, meanwhile, have developed a theory for understanding the crazy behaviour we see around us: these misguided people are not merely stupid, they are in the grip of a full-blown philosophy of anti-expertise called ‘populism’. These populists are the unlettered who resent the educated and sneer at the learned (2). They believe in hunches instead of scholarship; they flout the advice of the medical profession; they extol the wisdom of the mob. Populism is science’s enemy; it is at war with sound thinking. It is an enabler of disease, if not a disease itself.

So sweetly flattering, so gorgeously attractive is this tidy little syllogism that members of our country’s thinking class return to it again and again. Medical science is so obviously right and populism so obviously wrong that celebrating the one and deploring the other has become for them one of the great literary set pieces of the era, the raw material for endless columns and articles.

Crushing national failure

Unfortunately, it’s all a mistake. Donald Trump’s prodigious stupidity is not the sole cause of our crushing national failure to beat the coronavirus. Plenty of blame must also go to our screwed-up healthcare system, which scorns the very idea of public health and treats access to medical care as a private luxury that is rightfully available only to some. It is the healthcare system, not Trump, that routinely denies people treatment if they lack insurance; that bankrupts people for ordinary therapies; that strips people of their coverage when they lose their jobs — and millions of people are losing their jobs in this pandemic. It is the healthcare system that, when a Covid treatment finally arrives, will almost certainly charge Americans a hefty price to receive it (3).

And that system is the way it is because organised medicine has for almost a century used the prestige of expertise to keep it that way.

Populism, meanwhile, was the reform impulse that tried (and failed) to change the system so that it served ordinary people.

Which is to say that the pundits and the scholars and the thinktankers in their grave solemnity have got it entirely backward. Bowing down before expertise is precisely what has made public health an impossible dream. And the populism that our pundits so hate and fear is, in fact, the cure for what ails us.

Who was a populist?

Begin with the word. The term ‘Populist’ was coined in Kansas in 1891 to describe members of a brand-new American farmer-labour party who demanded a modern currency, a war on monopoly, and the nationalisation of the railroads. The movement caught fire, and the people who called themselves Populists seemed poised to succeed at first. Instead, their party fizzled out by the end of that decade. Still, Populism’s influence lived on for decades; its ideas can be traced through the American Socialist Party, the New Deal of the 1930s and 40s, and the Bernie Sanders campaigns of 2016 and 2020.

The rise and fall of the American Populists — again, the people who invented the word — has long been a favourite subject of romantically inclined historians. The Populist party’s principles and its leading figures are well known to scholars and are the subject of many books.

A curious fact that is repeated often in those books: the Populists were not opponents of science or learning. On the contrary: Populists produced homages to technology and scholarship and education that were so earnest and ornate that they are embarrassing to read today. They thought their own ideas about regulation and the welfare state were in full alignment with the scientific advances of the late 19th century.

At the same time, the Pops fought endlessly with the business and academic elites of their day — experts who regarded the established order as the work of God. Populists regarded all special privilege with suspicion, including the prestige that props up the professional class. A clear illustration of this theme can be seen in the famous Garden of Eden sculpture garden in Lucas, Kansas, which was built as a primer on Populist/socialist principles. One of its focal points is a rendering of ‘Labour crucified’ and the people who can be seen torturing the working man to death are society’s honoured professionals: banker, lawyer, doctor, preacher.

The Populist way of looking at things was radically democratic: the people came first. The correct role of experts, the original Populists thought, was to serve and inform the people as they went about their lives as citizens of a democracy.

The original Populist movement didn’t have much to say about healthcare policy. In the 1890s, American medicine had not yet hardened into the supremely costly bureaucratic labyrinth we know today. But as the price of medicine grew out of reach in the decades that followed, farmers and unions and charities proposed all kinds of alternative, more democratic arrangements, and always with the same aim: to make healthcare an affordable part of life for ordinary, working-class people. . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

7 August 2020 at 4:29 pm

Exploiting GPS vulnerability

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Greg Milner has an article in the New Yorker on that describes how the GPS system is vulnerable and how that vulnerability is being exploited by Russia and China, among others. From the article:

G.P.S. is now crucially important for reasons that are unrelated to providing geolocation. Because the G.P.S. clocks are synchronized to within nanoseconds, the network’s signals are used to unify time-dependent systems spread over large areas. G.P.S. time helps bounce calls between cellular towers, regulate power flows in electrical grids, and time-stamp financial trades on the major exchanges. If a spoofer were to feed erroneous information that confused the clocks in even a few nodes of these systems, the damage could be widespread: as time errors multiply, communications systems could fail, wrongly apportioned power flows could result in blackouts, and automated trading programs could yank themselves out of the markets, causing crashes. And those are just a few scenarios. We still have not figured out exactly how to safeguard a technology that is so crucial yet so porous.

In 2001, the Department of Transportation released a report warning that G.P.S. could become a “tempting target” for enemies of the U.S. The joint study was the first official acknowledgment that spoofing was a real and significant threat. Humphreys heard about the report while at Cornell. The worst-case spoofing scenario it described seemed like something he could do himself—in fact, like something he could do better himself.

. . . Four years later, in June, 2017, a French oil tanker, the Atria, sailed across the Mediterranean, through the Bosporus strait, and into the Black Sea. As the ship approached the Russian city of Novorossiysk, the captain, Gurvan Le Meur, noticed that the ship’s navigation system appeared to have lost its G.P.S. signal. The signal soon returned, but the position it gave was way off. The Atria was apparently some forty kilometres inland, shipwrecked at the airport in Gelendzhik, a Russian resort town.

Le Meur radioed nearby vessels, whose captains reported similar malfunctions in their navigation systems: all in all, twenty other ships had been “transported” to the same inland airport. Meanwhile, something similar had been happening in Moscow—this time to Uber customers, not ship captains. Passengers taking short trips discovered that their accounts were charged for drives all the way to one of the city’s airports, or even to locales thousands of miles away.

The activity attracted the interest of the Center for Advanced Defense Studies (C4ADS), a Washington-based think tank focussed on security issues. Using data from ships, which are required by maritime treaties to continuously broadcast their location, researchers discovered that the spoofing problem was much larger than anyone had realized. According to a report released in March of 2019, there were ten thousand spoofing incidents at sea between February 2016 and November 2018, affecting about a thousand and three hundred vessels. Similar data are harder to come by for land vehicles, but C4ADS used heat maps from fitness-tracking smartphone apps to confirm that drivers near the Kremlin and in St. Petersburg encountered similar spoofing.

Once they had logged where and when the spoofing incidents occurred, researchers cross-referenced this information with the travel schedule of the Russian President, Vladimir Putin. On a fall afternoon in 2017, six minutes before Putin gave a speech in the coastal town of Bolshoy Kamen, a nearby ship’s G.P.S. coordinates showed it jumping to the airport in Vladivostok. In 2018, when Putin attended the official opening of a bridge across the Kerch Strait, at least twenty-four ships in the area reported their location as Anapa Airport, sixty-five kilometres away. What was going on? It seemed increasingly likely that the President’s security detail was travelling with a portable software-defined spoofer, in the hope of protecting Putin from drone attacks.

The strange specificity of the spoofing—the relocation of ships and vehicles to airports—has a cagey explanation. Most drones contain geofencing firmware, which prevents them from entering designated areas, including the world’s major airports. If a drone senses that it’s near an airport, either because it actually is or because spoofed G.P.S. coordinates make it believe that it is, it will either return to its starting point or simply down itself.

For one of the world’s most prominent politicians, spoofing may not seem like an unreasonable precaution. In August, 2018, a speech by the Venezuelan President, Nicolás Maduro, was interrupted when a pair of drones detonated above one of Caracas’s largest thoroughfares. A few days later, French secret-service agents destroyed a mysterious drone that flew too close to the summer home of the French President, Emmanuel Macron. But for those who’ve fallen prey to spoofing incidents—the befuddled captains at sea, the overcharged passengers in Moscow—it may be difficult to accept that they are merely collateral in attempts to shield a head of state. And the same technology that might seem like a strategic security system in some circumstances contains within it an ominous potential for subterfuge.

. . . In July of last year, the captain of a container ship registered in the U.S. noticed something strange with his navigation system as he entered the port of Shanghai. The ship’s G.P.S. placed the vessel several kilometres inland. When Humphreys and C4ADS heard of the incident, they doubted that it was an isolated event. “We looked at more data, and, by golly, we saw the same thing popping up in areas around China’s coastline,” Humphreys said. Three hundred other ships had been subject to spoofing in Shanghai on the same day, and thousands of others in the same year. What was unusual about the Shanghai spoofing was that the vessels, rather than being “transported” to the same fake location, were all reporting different coordinates. Further analysis by Bjorn Bergman, at the watchdog group SkyTruth, showed a similar pattern in twenty other locations in China.

Written by LeisureGuy

7 August 2020 at 11:31 am

Facebook fired an employee who collected evidence of right-wing pages getting preferential treatment.

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One reason journalists are so strongly attacked by corporations and corrupt politicians is that journalists make public the information and evidence those corporations and and politicians want to keep hidden. Indeed, corporations and corrupt politicians will try to destroy anyone who exposes what they’re doing (cf. President Trump’s many attacks on critics who point out (for example) his statements that he now wants to deny).

The “Daily 202” is a roundup of political new items that appears daily in the Washington Post. Among today’s items:

“Some of Facebook’s own employees gathered evidence they say shows Breitbart — along with other right-wing outlets and figures including Turning Point USA founder Charlie Kirk, Trump supporters Diamond and Silk, and conservative video production nonprofit Prager University — has received special treatment that helped it avoid running afoul of company policy. They see it as part of a pattern of preferential treatment for right-wing publishers and pages,” BuzzFeed News reports. “On July 22, a Facebook employee posted a message to the company’s internal misinformation policy group noting that some misinformation strikes against Breitbart had been cleared by someone at Facebook seemingly acting on the publication’s behalf …

“The same employee said a partly false rating applied to an Instagram post from Kirk flagged for ‘priority’ escalation by Joel Kaplan, the company’s vice president of global public policy. Kaplan once served in George W. Bush’s administration and drew criticism for publiclysupporting Brett Kavanaugh’s controversial nomination to the Supreme Court. … In one case, a senior Facebook engineer collected multiple instances of conservative figures receiving unique help from Facebook employees, including those on the policy team, to remove fact-checks on their content.”

Facebook is seriously out of control and IMO requires some strong regulation if not breaking up in some way.

Facebook’s action — firing the employee who exposed the problem rather than addressing the problem — is typical of how the powerful react (cf. Vladimir Putin’s assassination of critical journalists).

Written by LeisureGuy

7 August 2020 at 9:43 am

The NRA backstory

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Heather Cox Richardson provides a good potted history of what led to the NRA lawsuit. She writes:

Last night, the New York Attorney General’s Press Office announced that Attorney General Letitia James would make “a major national announcement” today at 11:30 AM. When she appeared, she announced she was launching a lawsuit to disband the National Rifle Association (NRA).

The NRA was chartered in New York in 1871, in part to improve the marksmanship of Americans who might be called on to fight another war, and in part to promote in America the British sport of elite shooting. By the 1920s, rifle shooting was a popular sport.

In the 1930s, amid fears of organized crime, the NRA backed federal legislation to limit concealed weapons, prevent possession by criminals, the mentally ill and children, to require all dealers to be licensed, and to require background checks before delivery. NRA officers insisted on the right of citizens to own rifles and handguns, but worked hard to distinguish between, on the one hand, law-abiding citizens who should have access to guns for hunting and target shooting and protection, and on the other hand, criminals and mentally ill people, who should not. The NRA backed the 1934 National Firearms Act, and parts of the 1968 Gun Control Act, designed to stop what seemed to be America’s hurtle toward violence in that turbulent decade.

But in the mid-1970s, a faction in the NRA forced the organization away from sports and toward opposing “gun control.” It formed a political action committee in 1975, and two years later elected a president who abandoned sporting culture and focused instead on “gun rights.”

The NRA had gone into politics. Its officials now opposed all limits on gun ownership, even though basic safety measures have always been popular, even within the NRA’s own membership. In 1980, the NRA endorsed a presidential candidate for the first time ever, standing behind Ronald Reagan. Now a player in national politics, the NRA was awash in money from gun and ammunition manufacturers. By 2000, the NRA was one of the three most powerful lobbies in Washington. It spent more than $40 million on the 2008 election.

In 2016, donations to the NRA jumped sharply. While in 2012, it spent $9 million, and in 2014 it spent $13 million, in 2016, it spent more than $50 million on Republican candidates, including more than $30 million on Trump’s effort to win the White House. This money was vital to Trump, since many other Republican super PACs refused to back him. The NRA spent more money on Trump than any other outside group, including the leading Trump super PAC, which spent $20.3 million.

In February 2018, the top Democrat on the Senate Finance Committee, Ron Wyden (D-OR), began an investigation of the NRA, its donors, and its role in the 2016 election.

On July 15, 2018, the federal government arrested Russian national Maria Butina and charged her with “conspiracy to act as an agent of the Russian Federation within the United States without prior registration.” Butina and Russian government official Alexander Torshin began coming to the U.S. for NRA events in 2014. Butina moved to the U.S. in 2016 on a student visa, intending to gain access to the American political system through the NRA and to push U.S. policy closer to Russian interests.

Butina became romantically involved with Republican political operative Paul Erickson, who had worked for Republican insurgent candidate Pat Buchanan in 1992, was friends with criminal lobbyist Jack Abramoff, and later represented John Wayne Bobbitt in media deals after Bobbitt’s wife Lorena cut off his penis with a kitchen knife. (Surgeons reattached it.)

Erickson promised to help Butina gain access to Republican lawmakers. When federal investigators began to monitor Butina, he came to their attention, and they discovered his businesses were designed to defraud investors. In November 2019, Erickson pleaded guilty to wire fraud and money laundering in an unrelated case. Last month, he was sentenced to seven years in federal prison.

But when their NRA scheme was still intact, Butina and Torshin attended NRA annual meetings and other NRA events at the invitation of its leaders, who invited the two to events like the National Prayer Breakfast, where they could meet Republican lawmakers. In turn, Butina and Torshin invited NRA leaders to Moscow, where they met with leaders who promised lucrative business opportunities with Russian oligarchs, including the opportunity to produce weapons for the Russian military. Some of the Russians they met were under sanctions from the U.S. government.

In April 2019, Butina pleaded guilty to working as a foreign agent without registering with the U.S. Department of Justice. She was sentenced to 18 months in prison, a sentence Russian President Vladimir Putin, who insisted she was being railroaded, called “arbitrary.” In September 2019, the Democrats on the U.S. Senate Committee on Finance outlined the work of Butina and Torshin in the U.S., and called the NRA “a foreign asset.”

Butina served 15 months in the Tallahassee Federal Correction Institution before being deported to Moscow. Reporters from RT, the state-sponsored Russian media outlet, traveled on the plane with her. Supporters greeted her at the Moscow airport with flowers and cheers, giving her a hero’s welcome. Once back in Moscow, she said she had been pressured to plead guilty to a crime, but all she was doing was “hosting friendship dinners.” Maria Zakharova, a spokeswoman for Russia’s Foreign Ministry, told ABC News: “the only thing she was doing was supporting bilateral relationship and friendship between peoples. … She did nothing wrong, absolutely nothing wrong.”

There is at least some reason to wonder if the sudden jump in NRA donations in 2016 had something to do with the Russian oligarchs who were talking with its leaders. When Senator Wyden requested information about their donors, NRA leaders stated categorically they did not accept money from “foreign persons or entities in connection with United States elections,” which is illegal. But then they said  . . .

Continue reading.

I think it’s clear that Russia has engaged in a broad-ranging and intense effort of aggression in the US, not on the battlefield (though Russia did pay Afghan insurgents money to kill American soldiers, something that doesn’t seem to bother the US president), but in political and economic fields of struggle. And their aggression is covert, not aboveboard.

Written by LeisureGuy

7 August 2020 at 8:27 am

New York Attorney General Sues N.R.A. and Seeks Its Closure

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Danny Hakim reports in the NY Times:

The New York attorney general, Letitia James, filed a lawsuit Thursday seeking to dissolve the National Rifle Association, alleging that years of corruption and misspending had irreparably undermined its ability to operate as a nonprofit.

The lawsuit sets up a legal confrontation that could take years to play out and will leave the 148-year-old N.R.A. — long the nation’s most influential gun-rights lobby but recently hobbled by financial woes and infighting — fighting for its survival. The attorney general’s office previously presided over the dissolution of President Trump’s scandal-marred charitable foundation, but the N.R.A., with more than five million members, is a far larger organization that is expected to put up a more prolonged fight.

Ms. James also sued four current or former top N.R.A. leaders, seeking tens of millions of dollars in restitution, including Wayne LaPierre, the longtime chief executive. The others named in the suit are John Frazer, the organization’s general counsel; Josh Powell, a former top lieutenant of Mr. LaPierre’s; and Woody Phillips, a former chief financial officer.

The suit accuses the N.R.A. and the executives of “violating numerous state and federal laws” by enriching themselves, as well as their friends, families and allies, and taking improper actions that cost the organization $64 million over three years. The attorney general has regulatory authority over the N.R.A. because it is chartered as a nonprofit in New York. She is also seeking to oust Mr. LaPierre and Mr. Frazer, and to bar all four men from ever serving on nonprofit boards in New York again.

The lawsuit, which was filed in State Supreme Court in Manhattan, is a civil action. Ms. James can also make, or seek, a criminal referral, but it was not clear whether she would do so. A summary of her lawsuit outlined, among other things, alleged federal tax violations, raising the question of whether such violations would be referred to the Internal Revenue Service.

“The N.R.A.’s influence has been so powerful that the organization went unchecked for decades while top executives funneled millions into their own pockets,” Ms. James said in a statement. “The N.R.A. is fraught with fraud and abuse, which is why, today, we seek to dissolve the N.R.A., because no organization is above the law.” . . .

Continue reading.

Later in the story:

The lawsuit alleges Mr. LaPierre spent hundreds of thousands of the organization’s dollars on private plane trips, visiting the Bahamas “by private air charter at least eight times” in three years, according to a summary of the suit. He and his family were often allegedly “gifted the use of a 107-foot yacht” by an N.R.A. vendor and he spent more than $3.6 million on travel consultants, including luxury black cars, over two years. He also is said to have secured a post-employment contract without board approval worth more than $17 million.

Among the numerous alleged violations laid out by Ms. James’s office, some related to false reporting of annual filings both to the state and the I.R.S. Her office also cited “improper expense documentation, improper wage reporting, improper income tax withholding” and failing to make required excise tax reporting and payment, among other issues.

The lawsuit also claims that testimony by the chairman of the N.R.A.’s audit committee indicated that he had little awareness of its governance role, no knowledge of state law concerned such committees and was unfamiliar with the committee’s own charter, which states that it oversees the organization’s financial integrity.

Written by LeisureGuy

6 August 2020 at 9:16 am

Posted in Business, Law

Universal unions

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Mark R Reiff, a political philosopher at the University of California, Davis, whose latest book is In the Name of Liberty: The Argument for Universal Unionization (2020), writes in Aeon:

For some time now, union membership has been steadily declining. In the United States, after reaching a peak in 1954 of 34.8 per cent for salaried workers (28.3 per cent for all employed workers), unionisation fell to 10.3 per cent for salaried workers in 2019 (and slightly less for all employed workers) – its lowest level in more than 75 years. In Australia, union membership has fallen from more than 50 per cent as recently as 1976 to just 14 per cent in 2016. And in the United Kingdom, union membership stood at more than 13 million workers at its peak in 1979; by 2014, it was down to 6.4 million, less than half the peak rate, and about where it was just before the Second World War. In many other liberal capitalist democracies, unionisation rates have been falling steadily as well.

In part, this decline comes from the success that unions have had in establishing better working conditions and wages for all. Joining a union simply seems less urgent now than it used to. In part, it’s due to changes in the relevant economies, where large numbers of unionised jobs in heavy manufacturing have been moved to less-unionised countries, and the jobs that remain are in industries that are more difficult to organise. Local outsourcing, where what used to be high-paying unionised jobs are moved to smaller, exploitative, non-unionised contractors, has also played a role. As have technological advances in automation, which have made many well-paying unionised jobs obsolete.

But this decline in union membership is also the result of decades of relentless attacks by the political Right against the very idea of unionisation – attacks that have been steadily increasing in both frequency and vigour, especially in the US. Union membership is now becoming sufficiently small that unions might soon lose their ability to adequately protect workers from economic and personal abuse, if they haven’t already. They might even lose their relevance as a political force.

Over the exact same period, we have also seen a dramatic rise in the share of income going to the top 1 per cent, and a lengthy stagnation in real wages for everybody else. Not surprisingly, studies show that the reduction in unionisation rates explains a good part of this phenomenon. These trends were then accentuated by the Great Recession of 2008. This caused a steep rise in unemployment, not only in the US but in other liberal capitalist democracies as well. And as unemployment came down over the following decade, employers replaced high-paying permanent unionised jobs providing good benefits with low-paying temporary non-unionised ones providing no benefits at all. Now that unemployment is soaring again because of the COVID-19 shutdown, the lack of unionisation also threatens public health. The overwhelming majority of essential workers are non-unionised, and they are, in many cases, being asked to work without adequate protective equipment, testing and physical distancing measures.

Joining a union has always been presented as part of the right of free association. That is, workers argue that they have a right to unionise; employers argue that they do not. But even when employers recognise the right of employees to unionise, they tirelessly place obstacles in front of those who would like to do so. Employers also try to starve unions of the funds that they need to operate.

Union supporters respond by emphasising that unionisation promotes the common good. That is, they argue that unions raise wages, improve working conditions, reduce income inequality, suppress invidious discrimination, and so on. Anti-union forces deny these claims, but these denials fall against the overwhelming weight of empirical evidence. The more successful anti-union argument is that compulsory unionisation is a violation or workers’ rights, just as a prohibition on voluntary unionisation would be. It is a violation, they claim, because the right to liberty gives workers the option to refuse to join a union if they don’t want to. Employers then lobby workers to vote against unionisation or to refuse to join even if unionisation passes.

But the claim that liberty protects workers against compulsory unionisation is perverse. . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

3 August 2020 at 10:54 am

“The Day Big Tech Stopped Being Untouchable”

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Matt Stoller writes in BIG:

Today I’m going to write about we learned on Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday of this week. In sequence, Wednesday was the day of a historic Congressional hearing on big tech monopoly power, Thursday was when these firms announced blow-out earnings even in the midst of an economic collapse, and Friday saw Donald Trump announce he might ban the social media firm TikTok. That’s democracy, monopoly, and national security in sequence. . . .

“Democracy Reasserts Itself”

On Wednesday, the Chairman of the House Antitrust Subcommittee, David Cicilline, opened a hearing capping the most significant Congressional investigation into corporate power in decades, his subcommittee’s investigation of large technology platforms. In his opening statement, Cicilline made the stakes and the historical backdrop clear.

“American democracy has always been at war against monopoly power,” he said. “Throughout our history, we have recognized that concentrated markets and concentrated political control are incompatible with democratic ideals. Their ability to dictate terms, call the shots, upend entire sectors, and inspire fear represent the powers of a private government.” And then, with a flourish, he concluded, “Our founders would not bow before a king. Nor should we bow before the emperors of the online economy.”

This framing was remarkable, and exactly what I wrote about in my book Goliath: The 100-Year War Between Monopoly Power and Democracy. One of the highlights of what I found was the critical role of Congress and investigations into corporate power, which Americans had always seen as private governments rivaling our democratic government. Until this week, I had only read these ideas in transcripts of old hearings, in archives, and in interviews with old people talking to me about their youth.

And then came Wednesday. Cicilline brought a New Deal-style sensibility to these hearings, acting as a modern Wright Patman and offering the public that magical moment when public servants confront unaccountable power, and showing the promise and possibility of rule by the people. Some of the small business witnesses who had testified before the committee earlier, like David Heinemeier Hansson of Basecamp, were “blown away” by this performance, which is not a particularly common reaction to Congress these days.

It was truly an extraordinary five and a half hours, where these powerful CEOs had to answer for their misdeeds. I wrote a summary of the hearing and its importance in The Guardian the next morning.

Almost any moment of the four-hour hearing offered a stunning illustration of the extent of the bad behavior by these corporations. Take Amazon, whose CEO, Jeff Bezos, often seemed off-balance and unaware of his corporation’s own practices. Congresswoman Lucy McBath played audio of a seller on Amazon tearfully describing how her business and livelihood was arbitrarily destroyed by Amazon restricting sales of their product, for no reason the seller could discern. Bezos acted surprised, as he often did. Representative Jamie Raskin presented an email from Bezos saying about one acquisition that: “We’re buying market position not technology.” Bezos then admitted Amazon buys companies purely because of their “market position”, demonstrating that many of hundreds of acquisitions these tech companies have made were probably illegal.

Mark Zuckerberg had to confront his own emails in which he noted that Facebook’s purchase of Instagram was done to buy out a competitor. His response was that he didn’t remember, but that he imagined he was probably joking when he wrote that. One congresswoman on Joe Biden’s vice-presidential shortlist, Val Demings, asked Zuckerberg why he restricted Facebook’s tools for competitors like Pinterest, but not for non-competitors like Netflix. He had no answer. Congressman David Cicilline asked about Facebook promoting incendiary speech and making money off advertising sold next to that speech. Zuckerberg pivoted to free speech talking points, and Cicilline cut him off, “This isn’t a speech issue, it’s about your business model.”

The performance of Cicilline, as well as that of his colleagues like Pramila Jayapal and Joe Neguse, was “democracy reasserting itself,” as former Google design ethicist Tristan Harris put it on CNBC. The hearing was the sixth in a series going back a year, and it was the culmination of an investigation in which staffers had gone through millions of documents and uncovered evidence of anti-competitive behavior by Google, Amazon, Apple, and Facebook.

It was also a massive media event. Of course the tech press was all over it, but it was front page news on every major American newspaper, which is remarkable considering this media environment involves a global pandemic and Trump’s endless controversies.

Here’s the New York Times: . . .

Continue reading. There’s more.

Written by LeisureGuy

1 August 2020 at 6:01 pm

How a $175 COVID-19 Test Led to $2,479 in Charges in The Best Healthcare System in the World™

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Marshall Allan reports in ProPublica:

As she waited for the results of her rapid COVID-19 test, Rachel de Cordova sat in her car and read through a stack of documents given to her by SignatureCare Emergency Center.

Without de Cordova leaving her car, the staff at the freestanding emergency room near her home in Houston had checked her blood pressure, pulse and temperature during the July 21 appointment. She had been suffering sinus stuffiness and a headache, so she handed them her insurance card to pay for the $175 rapid-response drive-thru test. Then they stuck a swab deep into her nasal cavity to obtain a specimen.

De Cordova is an attorney who specializes in civil litigation defense and maritime law. She cringes when she’s asked to sign away her rights and scrutinizes the fine print. The documents she had been given included disclosures required by recent laws in Texas that try to rein in the billing practices of stand-alone emergency centers like SignatureCare. One said that while the facility would submit its bill to insurance plans, it doesn’t have contractual relationships with them, meaning the care would be considered out-of-network. Patients are responsible for any charges not covered by their plan, it said, as well as any copayment, deductible or coinsurance.

The more she read, the more annoyed de Cordova became. SignatureCare charges a “facility fee” for treatment, the document said, ranging “between five hundred dollars and one hundred thousand dollars.” Another charge, the “observation fee,” could range from $1,000 to $100,000.

De Cordova didn’t think her fees for the test could rise into the six figures. But SignatureCare was giving itself leeway to charge almost any amount to her insurance plan — and she could be on the hook. She knew she couldn’t sign the document. But that created a problem: She still needed to get her test results.

Even in a public health emergency, what could be considered the first rule of American health care is still in effect: There is no set price. Medical providers often inflate their charges and then give discounts to insurance plans that sign contracts with them. Out-of-network insurers and their members are often left to pay the full tab or whatever discount they can negotiate after the fact.

The CARES Act, passed by Congress in March, includes a provision that says insurers must pay for an out-of-network COVID-19 test at the price the testing facility lists on its website. But it sets no maximum for the cost of the tests. Insurance representatives told ProPublica that the charge for a COVID-19 test in Texas can range from less than $100 to thousands of dollars. Health plans are generally waiving out-of-pocket costs for all related COVID-19 treatment, insurance representatives said. Some costs may be passed on to the patient, depending on their coverage and the circumstances.

As she waited, de Cordova realized she didn’t want to play insurance roulette. She changed her mind and decided she’d pay the $175 out-of-pocket for her test. But when the SignatureCare nurse came to collect the paperwork, de Cordova said the nurse told her, “You can’t do that. It’s insurance fraud for you to pay for our services once we know you have insurance.”

Dr. Hashibul Hannan, an emergency room physician, lab director and manager at SignatureCare, told ProPublica his facility is an emergency room that offers testing, not a typical testing site. He said de Cordova should have been allowed to pay the $175 cash price. The staff members were concerned about being accused of fraud because they had already entered her insurance information into the record, he said. So they didn’t want it to appear she was being double-billed. Hannan also said he regrets that she was upset by the disclosure forms that are now required under state law.

Unable to pay cash and unwilling to take a chance on the unknown cost, de Cordova decided to leave without getting the results of her COVID-19 test.

“I Would Have Signed Anything”

Later that day, de Cordova couldn’t get past what happened. She wondered what happened to patients who didn’t read the fine print before signing the packet.

Then she realized she and her husband, Hayan Charara, could investigate it themselves. In June, the couple’s 8-year-old son had attended a baseball tryout. They thought the kids would be socially distanced and that precautions would be taken. But then the coaches had crowded the players in a dugout, with no masks or social distancing, and a couple days later the boy said he wasn’t feeling well.

So just to be safe, on June 12, Charara took their son to the same SignatureCare, the Heights location, for a COVID-19 test. The line was so long they had to wait for hours, go home, come back and wait for hours again in their car in the 100-degree heat. Charara, a poet who teaches at the University of Houston, said he didn’t take a close look at the financial disclosure paperwork. De Cordova wasn’t with them. It had been 10 hours of waiting by the time the boy was tested, so “I would have signed anything,” he said. (The child tested negative.)

Charara, de Cordova and their children are covered by the Employees Retirement System of Texas, a taxpayer-funded benefit plan that covers about half a million people. They hadn’t received any notices about the charges for their son. So they contacted the SignatureCare billing department and asked for an itemized statement. The test charge was indeed $175. But the total balance, including the physician and facility fees associated with an emergency room visit, came to $2,479.

The facility fee was $1,784 and the physician fee $486.

The couple were dumbfounded. Their son’s vital signs had been checked but there had been no physical examination, they said. The interactions took less than five minutes total, and the child stayed in the car. “You’re getting a drive-thru test, and they’re pretending like they’re giving you emergency services,” de Cordova said. . .

Continue reading. There’s more including photos of the paperwork.

Written by LeisureGuy

1 August 2020 at 1:51 pm

Speculation that Trump wants to ban TikTok because of Sarah Cooper

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For example:

See Stuart Emmrich’s article in Vogue, which begins:

Donald Trump abruptly announced on Friday that he plans to ban TikTok from the United States, telling reporters traveling with him on Air Force One that he could issue an executive order as early as Saturday to shut down the Chinese-owned video app.

“As far as TikTok is concerned we’re banning them from the United States,” Trump told the reporters traveling back with him to the nation’s capital after a trip to Florida, according to a pool report. Trump said he could use emergency economic powers or an executive order to ban TikTok in the United States.

“Well, I have that authority. I can do it with an executive order or that,” he said referring to emergency economic powers. (Later press reports questioned whether the president actually had that power to do so, and the ACLU tweeted that banning TikTok was “a danger to free expression and technologically impractical.”)

Earlier this month, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said the U.S. was looking at banning TikTok as well as other Chinese social media apps, citing national security concerns. Pompeo added that the Trump administration was evaluating TikTok as it has with other Chinese state-backed tech companies like Huawei and ZTE, which he has previously described as “Trojan horses for Chinese intelligence.”

But are national security concerns really behind Trump’s sudden pronouncement? Or is there another reason why the president wants to ban TikTok? Social media had their own answer: It’s all about Sarah Cooper.

Cooper, of course, is the actress and comedian who has come to Internet fame by posting videos of her lip syncing Trump’s speeches and interviews to hilarious effect, whether it’s him denying he retreated to the White House bunker because of a threat posed by protestors, dodging a question about what his favorite Bible phrases are, or, most memorably, recreating his now-famous “People, woman, man, camera, TV” interview. With more than half a million followers on TikTok, Cooper has been written up by The Hollywood Reporter, The Washington Post and The New York Times and appeared as a guest on The Tonight Show With Jimmy Fallon and The Ellen Show. (“You make me so happy,” Degeneres said). A profile in the Times of London was headlined: “How Sarah Cooper’s Trump Takedowns Made Her America’s New Comedy Hero.”

And true to form, on Friday night, she posted a video lip synching to Trump’s later comments about TikTok, as he arrived back in Washington and headed to the White House. “We’re looking at TikTok. We may be banning TikTok, we may be doing some other things, there are a couple of options,” she intones, using a recording of a quick press briefing Trump gave before boarding a helicopter, which could be heard whirring in the background. “But a lot of things are happening, so we’ll see what happens. But we are looking at a lot of alternatives with respect to TikTok.” (Cooper even supplies visual effects, with her hair seemingly blowing in the wind as she mouths Trump’s words.) . . .

Continue reading.

And in addition, here’s an interview with Sarah Cooper, in which she makes some interesting points:

Written by LeisureGuy

1 August 2020 at 12:21 pm

New USPS policies seem to pave the way to privatization

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Whenever the government spends a substantial amount of money on a service, private corporations work to privatize the service and thus get the money for themselves. Of course, the government runs the service without having to show a profit, and profits are what private corporations want. So when a government service is privatized, costs go up and service quality goes down, thus securing the profit the corporation wants.

If the USPS goes private, for example, Rural Free Delivery will very likely cease to be free. Small post offices will be closed. Deliveries will become less frequent and delivery times longer. All that so that the corporation owning the service can grow its profits.

Rachel M. Cohen reports in the Intercept:

JULY HAS BEEN a flurry of confusion and stress for postal workers, as a barrage of new measures are threatening to fundamentally overhaul and undermine the culture and operations of the U.S. Postal Service.

Earlier this month, the Washington Post reported on a memo from the new USPS Postmaster General Louis DeJoy urging postal staff to leave behind mail at distribution centers if they thought it would cause a delay for letter carriers. Another memo stated that the USPS would be looking to cut transportation and overtime costs, bringing about “immediate, lasting, and impactful changes” to the federal agency.

The following week, postal workers learned of yet another new pilot program called Expedited to Street/Afternoon Sortation, or ESAS, that would be rolling out in 384 delivery units nationwide beginning on July 25. The crux of this program, as outlined in an unsigned memo dated July 16, is to send letter carriers out to deliver mail more quickly in the morning by prohibiting them from sorting any mail in their offices before they go.

These changes could delay mail from getting to its final destination by at least one day, if not longer. While the USPS memo billed ESAS as an effort to “improve consistency in delivery time” to customers, reduce overtime, and increase efficiency, postal workers were alarmed and shocked by these new dictates, which appeared to directly undermine a core value of their work.

“These are changes aimed at changing the entire culture of USPS,” said Mark Dimondstein, the national president of the American Postal Workers Union. “The culture I grew up with, and of generations before me, is that you never leave mail behind. You serve the customer, you get mail to the customer. Prompt, reliable, and efficient.”

Dimondstein said the union is putting in place an ESAS monitoring and reporting plan to evaluate the impacts of these new changes to service. “We are definitely getting our members educated and we will fight this post office by post office, community by community,” he said. The union is also coordinating with members of Congress to discuss strategies, and Dimondstein said he’s hoping for oversight hearings in early fall.

“I think the best way to put it is we’re concerned,” said Arthur Sackler, manager for the Coalition for a 21st Century Postal Service, a postal industry advocacy group. “Maybe this will just delay mail delivery once, but we’re worried if there’s no real time to sort, and no overtime, then there could be a cumulative growing impact.”

Sackler said his group has still gotten no information or clarity about these new rules and their potential consequences from the federal agency. “We haven’t been told anything, we haven’t been consulted, and over the last three decades the Postal Service has had a good track record of talking to unions and industry groups if there are going to be changes.”

In a statement, USPS spokesperson David Partenheimer told The Intercept that the Postal Service “is developing a business plan to ensure that we will be financially stable and able to continue to provide dependable, affordable, safe and secure delivery of mail and packages to all Americans as a vital part of the nation’s critical infrastructure. The plan, which will be presented to the Board of Governors when it is finalized, will include new and creative ways to help us fulfill our mission, and will focus on the Postal Service’s strengths to maximize our prospects for long-term success.” In addition to developing the broader business plan, Partenheimer said, “the Postal Service is taking immediate steps to increase operational efficiency by re-emphasizing existing plans that have been designed to provide prompt and reliable service within current service standards.”

Postal workers have been on high alert since May, when it was announced that the USPS Board of Governors had selected DeJoy to serve as the new postmaster general and CEO. DeJoy has been a top Republican Party fundraiser, including for the Republican National Convention and the president’s reelection effort, which prompted questions about how exactly he secured his new gig.

DeJoy previously worked as chair and CEO of New Breed Logistics, a massive warehousing and distribution company, and is the first postmaster general in over two decades to have never worked at USPS. He replaced outgoing postmaster general, Megan Brennan, who was appointed in 2015 and had been a career-long USPS employee, beginning as a letter carrier in Pennsylvania.

A bevy of worker violations and complaints have racked up at DeJoy’s old stomping ground. When he was CEO, the National Labor Relations Board ruled that New Breed’s hiring practices were “motivated by anti-union animus” when it avoided hiring any Longshore union members after it secured an Army contract in California. Between 2001 and 2015, New Breed and its affiliates paid more than $1.7 million for violations of labor law, wage and hour regulations, employee discrimination, and aviation regulations. In 2014, the New York Times reported on four women who worked in a Memphis warehouse for New Breed who suffered miscarriages after their supervisors refused their requests for light duties while pregnant. That same year New Breed merged with XPO Logistics, and since 2015, XPO and its affiliates have paid more than $30 million for a range of workplace violations. Last year, hundreds of drivers, warehouse workers, and intermodal drivers at XPO facilities worldwide protested against abuse and wage theft. Then when the Covid-19 pandemic hit, XPO offered to “lend” workers up to 100 hours of time off, but said they would have to repay that time.

DeJoy vowed to bring about change to USPS, criticizing the organization for having “an expensive and inflexible business model” that he said he looked forward to tackling head-on. “I did not accept this position in spite of these challenges, I accepted this position because of them,” he told USPS employees in a June 15 video address.

Postal service workers feel particularly unnerved by the new ESAS program and DeJoy’s appointment given the Trump administration’s announcement in 2018 that the president would like to restructure and privatize USPS. The White House suggested that USPS could save money by raising rates, ending door-to-door delivery, and cutting down days of mail service. This past April, Donald Trump called the Postal Service “a joke” and tried to force the agency to quadruple its package rates in exchange for Covid-19 relief.

Delaying mail delivery in the name of cutting costs and efficiency, Dimondstein argued, means that people will lose confidence in one of the most trusted federal agencies in the country, which, unlike its private competitors, delivers everywhere, including to unprofitable and rural areas. “Undermining and degrading the Postal Service helps frustrate the customer, which sets the stage to privatizing it,” he said. “The Trump administration is on record for raising prices, reducing service, and reducing workers’ rights and benefits. This [pilot] may be Trump’s first foray to try and actually accomplish some of those things.”

Rep. Bill Pascrell Jr., D-N.J., pointed to the implications denying   . . .

Continue reading. There’s more, it’s important, and it will affect you directly.

Written by LeisureGuy

1 August 2020 at 11:20 am

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