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She Needed Lifesaving Medication, but the Only Hospital in Town Did Not Have It

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Another report from The Best Healthcare System in the World™ (which the GOP is determined to make worse), this one by Brianna Bailey, The Frontier, and Maya Miller, ProPublica:

Mabel Garcia had just said good morning to her grandson, who slept overnight in a chair near her hospital bed. Then suddenly, she stopped talking.

The right side of her face sank and her eyes fluttered as nurses at Memorial Hospital of Texas County in Guymon, Oklahoma, surrounded her bed. Her mouth gaped open.

“Mabel. Mabel. Can you look at me?” a nurse asked.

Her grandson, Fabian Daniels, used his cellphone to record while hospital employees attempted to get the 67-year-old to respond. He quickly texted his mom, who was at work waiting to hear how Garcia was feeling a day after she checked in with dizziness and chest pains.

“Mima is not talking to them right now,” the 17-year-old wrote early that Thursday morning in April 2019.

“Why?” asked his mother, Jennifer Daniels.

“They don’t know. She was talking a little bit ago,” he replied.

Health care professionals at the hospital, which sits in a remote part of Oklahoma known as No Man’s Land, determined that they couldn’t provide the “higher level of care” Garcia required, according to medical records reviewed by The Frontier and ProPublica. They called an ambulance to drive her to an airstrip where a medical helicopter took her about 130 miles south to a hospital in Amarillo, Texas.

More than 3½ hours after her initial symptoms, doctors at BSA Hospital in Amarillo found that Garcia had a stroke. They gave her Activase, a time-sensitive medication that helps break down clots, but told her daughter that too much time had elapsed since her initial symptoms.

Garcia had suffered brain damage.

“They said the result would not have been as bad if she had been treated sooner,” Jennifer Daniels said, recalling her conversation with doctors. (BSA hospital did not return requests for comment.)

Surrounded by 2,000 square miles of prairie and dotted with small farming communities, Memorial Hospital is among at least 13 facilities in the state that hired private management companies based on promises of financial turnarounds but were instead left scrambling after sinking deeper into debt, an investigation by The Frontier and ProPublica found.

The hospital cycled through four management companies in five years, including Synergic Resource Partners, which managed the facility until days after Garcia arrived. Memorial Hospital laid off about half of its staff, shuttered its obstetrics department and stopped stocking lifesaving drugs to treat strokes, heart attacks and rattlesnake bites in the 1½ years Synergic Resource Partners was in charge, according to interviews and records.

Records do not show whether hospital staff members diagnosed Garcia with a stroke or if they determined that she needed Activase. But even if they had, the hospital didn’t have the medication, according to Maria Puebla, the drug supply room manager, and Dr. Emmanuel Barias, who served as the hospital’s interim CEO from late April 2019 to March 2020. They said the hospital ran out of its supply in March 2019.

The hospital’s board has since cut ties with the company and taken control itself. Even with new leadership, efforts to repair years of financial strain under multiple management companies have grown increasingly difficult as the hospital faces a new challenge: The county has the highest rate of COVID-19 cases in Oklahoma. Patients have been sent to other hospitals because the facility in Guymon does not have the staff to handle the increased numbers.

Rochelle Leyva, chairwoman of the hospital board, blames a parade of management companies for the facility’s financial troubles. “I don’t think they’ve been here for the right reasons,” Leyva said.

Doug Swim, the owner of Synergic Resource Partners, declined interview requests.

Barias said he approached the supplier to try to purchase more Activase after taking the helm of the hospital but was told he would first have to pay off outstanding debts. The hospital could not afford to purchase the medication until July, Barias said.

Months earlier, in January 2019, state health inspectors released the findings of an investigation that revealed the hospital failed to provide basic emergency care, turning away one stroke patient because it did not have Activase. In response to the investigation, hospital officials said the facility kept Activase in stock but only used it for heart attack patients.

Officials pointed out that as a low-level stroke center, the hospital is only required to assess, resuscitate and provide emergency intervention for stroke patients before transferring them to hospitals with more resources. But Memorial Hospital used Activase for stroke patients before falling behind on payments and is again using the medication now that the facility is controlled by the county government.

Hospital officials declined to talk specifically about Garcia’s case, but Dr. Martin Bautista, a physician and the current chief of staff, said keeping the medication on hand to treat stroke patients is vital to achieving the hospital’s mission, which is providing access to critical care. Transferring patients to a larger facility can take more than an hour. The wait, he said, could cause permanent damage to the brain.

“That’s the difference between a for-profit and a not-for-profit community hospital,” Bautista said. “If we can’t serve our elderly people who’ve paid taxes all their lives, then we shouldn’t be open.”

Mounting Bills and Cuts to Services

Synergic Resource Partners was hired to run Memorial Hospital in October 2017 after Swim, an attorney from Oklahoma City, promised leaders in the meatpacking town of nearly 11,000 people that he could inject up to $2 million into the hospital’s coffers, according to former board members and Mike Boring, Texas County’s district attorney.

The offer from Swim, who had never run a hospital, arrived just as county officials were considering closing the facility. Across the country, rural hospitals face dwindling numbers of patients, shortages of doctors and nurses and low reimbursement rates from the federal government that place them at high risk of closure. Nearly 130 rural hospitals, including nine in Oklahoma, have closed in the past decade. . .

Continue reading.

Wealthiest nation in the world, but that’s for the wealthy.

Related:  Deep-Red Oklahoma Narrowly Passes Medicaid Expansion

Written by LeisureGuy

1 July 2020 at 1:47 pm

Heather Cox Richardson on June 30, 2020

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Richardson writes:

Today’s big story was the increasing spread of the coronavirus across America. Yesterday, Anne Schuchat, director of the Centers for Disease Control (the CDC) said in an interview that the virus is spreading too fast and too far for the United States to bring it under control.

Today, when Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, testified to a Senate committee on the coronavirus and the reopening of schools, he said he was “very concerned.” “We’re going in the wrong direction if you look at the curves of the new cases,” he said, “so we really have got to do something about that and we need to do it quickly.”

The country is now seeing more than 40,000 new infections a day while the European Union, which has more people, is seeing fewer than 6,000. About half the new cases are coming from California, Texas, Florida, and Arizona. Florida’s cases increased by 277 percent in the past two weeks; Texas’s by 184 percent, and Arizona’s by 145 percent. As our national confirmed deaths are approaching 130,000 people, Arizona recently released a new triage scoring system to help healthcare providers decide how to allocate resources if they must make choices about which patients to treat.

Nonetheless, Senator Rand Paul (R-KY) did not want to hear Fauci’s evaluation of the crisis. “It’s important to realize that if society meekly submits to an expert and that expert is wrong, a great deal of harm may occur,” he lectured Fauci, who turned away Paul’s jabs with good humor. Paul told Dr. Fauci, “We need more optimism.”

I expected serious pushback today from the White House about the Russia bounty scandal, but their reaction was weirdly subdued. White House Press Secretary Kayleigh McEnany first suggested that the president hadn’t been “briefed” on the story, apparently using the word “briefed” to suggest it only means an oral report, rather than a written one. Multiple sources have confirmed that the information was indeed, in the President’s Daily Brief– the PDB– the written document of security issues he receives every morning.

Sources today also confirmed that it was a large money transfer from a bank controlled by Russia’s military intelligence agency to an account associated with the Taliban that alerted intelligence agencies that something was up, and that Trump was briefed on the information. This afternoon, in a press briefing, McEnany changed course, saying that “The president does read and he also consumes intelligence verbally. This president, I’ll tell you, is the most informed person on Planet Earth when it comes to the threats that we face.”

The White House tonight assured us that Trump has now been briefed on the bounty scandal, but while this story has consumed headlines since Friday—four full days ago—he has done and said nothing to condemn Russia’s actions. In a New York Times op-ed today, President Barack Obama’s National Security Adviser Susan Rice points out that instead, Trump has dismissed the evidence as “possibly another fabricated Russia hoax, maybe by the Fake News” that is “wanting to make Republicans look bad!!!” Rice notes that if, indeed, Trump’s senior advisors thought there was no reason to inform Trump of the Russia bounty story, they “are not worthy of service.”

As a former National Security Adviser, she outlined what she would have done in their place after immediately giving the president the information. “If later the president decided, as Mr. Trump did, that he wanted to talk with President Vladimir Putin of Russia at least six times over the next several weeks and invite him to join the Group of 7 summit over the objections of our allies, I would have thrown a red flag: ‘Mr. President, I want to remind you that we believe the Russians are killing American soldiers. This is not the time to hand Putin an olive branch. It’s the time to punish him.’”

Rice called out the elephant in the room: Trump’s “perilous pattern” of deference to Russia.

He urged Russia to hack Hillary Clinton’s emails in 2016, then praised Wikileaks for publishing them. He denied Russian interference in the 2016 election, undercut Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation of that interference, and accepted Russian President Vladimir Putin’s word over that of our intelligence community when Putin denied Russian interference at a conference in Helsinki.

Trump “recklessly” pulled U.S. troops out of northeastern Syria, allowing Russian forces to take over our bases in the region. He has recently invited Putin to rejoin the international organization called the G7—from which Russia was excluded after it invaded Ukraine in 2014—and has suddenly announced that the U.S. will withdraw nearly a third of its troops from Germany, harming NATO and benefitting Russia. And now we know that Trump looked the other way as Russia paid for the slaughter of U.S. troops.

What does all this mean?

Rice doesn’t pull any punches: “At best, our commander in chief is utterly derelict in his duties, presiding over a dangerously dysfunctional national security process that is putting our country and those who wear its uniform at great risk. At worst, the White House is being run by liars and wimps catering to a tyrannical president who is actively advancing our arch adversary’s nefarious interests.”

The president’s weakness toward Russia was on the table today in another way, too, as Republicans stripped from a forthcoming defense bill a requirement that campaigns must notify federal authorities if they receive any offer of help from foreign countries. Accepting foreign money or help in any way is already illegal, as Federal Elections Commissioner Ellen Weintraub continually points out. The provision in this bill was a rebuke to the president, who told ABC News anchor George Stephanopoulos a year ago he would be willing to take such help, and then set out to get it from Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky. It also put on notice Attorney General William Barr, who in his confirmation hearing hedged his answer to whether he believes a campaign should alert authorities to foreign interference, finally saying he only considers help from foreign governments to be problematic.

For his part, the president continued to . . .

Continue reading. She includes all relevant links following her column.

Written by LeisureGuy

1 July 2020 at 9:44 am

Has the IRS Hit Bottom?

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Paul Kiel reports in ProPublica:

It’s been almost 10 years since Republicans, riding the Tea Party wave, took control of the House of Representatives and started hacking at the IRS’ enforcement budget. Down it went, some years the cuts were steep, some not, as Republican lawmakers laughed off dire warnings about the consequences of letting tax cheats run free.

For the past couple years, ProPublica has been cataloging the descent of the IRS. We’ve watched as audits of the rich and the largest corporations have plummeted and become less aggressive, while audits of poor taxpayers have remained comparatively high.

This week, the IRS released its annual disclosure of enforcement statistics. Every year, it’s an opportunity to measure how effectively the U.S. government has sabotaged its own ability to enforce its tax laws. This year’s report, along with other data ProPublica has collected on the state of the IRS, is full of evidence that the IRS has hit a passel of historic lows.

Overall, 2019 brought the lowest audit rate in generations. ProPublica searched back to the 1950s and could not find a lower audit rate of individual returns. The story is similar for corporate audits. The largest corporations, those with assets over $20 billion, used to be audited every year. Last year, only about half were audited.

Fewer audits has meant less revenue, particularly from big businesses that pay the biggest tax bills. In 2010, the IRS collected around $28 billion from audits (adjusting for inflation). In 2019, it collected $11 billion. That’s a drop of 61%.

And then there are collections — in which the issue isn’t auditing taxpayers, but collecting what they’ve agreed to pay. One clear measure is how often the IRS simply lets tax debts evaporate because it doesn’t have the personnel to pursue them before the 10-year statute of limitations runs out. This used to happen only rarely, according to internal agency reports. But in 2019, the IRS let $6.7 billion in tax debt expire, an increase of over 1,000% from 2010. (This was actually an improvement from the peak of 2017.)

In this year’s release, the IRS has decided to muck up one measure of its performance that has drawn the most heat from lawmakers. In past years, members of Congress have pointed to our coverage and pressured IRS Commissioner Charles Rettig to increase audits of the rich. One of Rettig’s responses (other than that auditing the poor was simply much easier) has been to argue that the traditional way of measuring audit rates didn’t adequately capture all the IRS’ activities.

This week, the IRS announced that it had reformed the way it reports audit rates. The reason, it explained in a note online, is that the metrics the IRS traditionally used don’t apply anymore. In the past, the IRS was able to audit tax returns the year after they’re filed. But now, with an enforcement staff that has been slashed by 36% since 2010, it’s no longer able to do so. Things have, to say the least, slowed down.

So, while last year we were able to tell you just how far the audit rate for taxpayers with incomes above $10 million had fallen, this year, we can’t. The IRS no longer reports how many audits closed each year for that income bracket and several others. The IRS now says it takes at least three years to render any sort of verdict on just how few among the ultrarich were audited. . .

Continue reading. There’s much more, including some clear charts that show how the US is failing.

Obviously, if the government is inadequately funded, it will do an inadequate job, and that’s the GOP goal: poor government, which results in more power to corporations and the wealthy.

Written by LeisureGuy

30 June 2020 at 3:59 pm

The Slow Road to Sudden Change

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Ernest Hemingway famously wrote (in The Sun Also Rises):

“How did you go bankrupt?”

“Two ways. Gradually, then suddenly.”

The same phenomenon can be observed in many spheres. Sometimes it’s simply because the incremental change is not noticed until it is glaringly obvious, and the suddenness of the tipping point is an artifact of inattention, but often there truly is an abrupt phase shift, as when the ice breaks up on a lake or river, or when a key log is removed from a log jam.

Rebecca Solnit writes at Literary Hub:

I. The Bonfire

The death of George Floyd was a match that lit a bonfire, and how the fuel for the bonfire piled up is worth studying. That is, for a national and international uprising against anti-Black racism and police violence to achieve such scale and power, many must have been ready for it, whether they knew it or not. Not in the sense of planning it or expecting these events, but by having changed their minds and committed their hearts beforehand. For those who were not directly impacted by decades and centuries of racist police violence this great uprising underway is about a long-overdue critical mass of solidarity with the fury and frustration of those directly impacted.  And finally there is something mysterious about why something happens at this moment and not that—in this case why the response to the police killing of George Floyd is so much larger than previous reactions, and why it is having such a widespread impact on Americans understanding of racism.

A great public change is the ratification of innumerable small private changes; the bonfire is a pile of these small changes lit by some unforeseen event. Looking back on the American Revolution, this country’s second president,  John Adams reflected, “The revolution was in the minds of the people, and in the union of the colonies, both of which were accomplished before hostilities commenced.” Adams was a waffler on slavery, both opposed to it and opposed to strong measures to abolish it, but he offers a useful description of how change works: the revolution was in consciousness; the war with Britain was just an outcome of it. Chateaubriand said something similar of the French Revolution, that it “was accomplished before it occurred.”

CNN reported on June 9, “that 67% of Americans believe the criminal justice system favors white people over black people in this country. And the same percent say that racism is a big problem today, compared to just 49% in 2015, a year after [Michael] Brown’s death in Ferguson… Those findings were echoed in a recent Monmouth University poll that found 57% of Americans believe police are more likely to use excessive force against black people—up from 34% in 2016.” And then the report cited a Republican pollster who exclaimed, “In my 35 years of polling, I’ve never seen opinion shift this fast or deeply. We are a different country today than just 30 days ago.” But the change in consciousness didn’t happen overnight, or over 30 days; it happened over years, and the organizers—most especially Black Lives Matter, founded in 2013—deserve credit for building this.

You can point to specifics about this moment—the horrific brutality of Floyd’s public death by lynching at the hands of the police. To the frustration and desperation of people who had been locked up and financially crushed by the pandemic and had seen Covid-19, thanks to structural racism, become increasingly a disease of black and brown people. To the years of simmering disgust and rage against the white supremacist destructiveness of Donald J. Trump. But none of these would have signified if the smallest thing hadn’t happened millions of times over: people changed their minds. Or in the case of the young, grew up with minds shaped by something better than the obliviousness and indifference that passed as not being racist in my own youth.

There is a danger of believing, as the Republican pollster seemed to, that this happened all at once, rather than that something slowly growing and changing suddenly became visible. The same misperceptions happened with what got called #MeToo in 2017: several years into a remarkable era of feminist activism, organizing, education, and transformation things suddenly escalated when the Harvey Weinstein stories broke in the New York Times and New Yorker and a number of other stories came tumbling out.

And at last there were consequences where there had been none. Too many pundits and amnesiacs framed that as something that began then and there. It wasn’t a beginning, but a culmination, of decades of work by feminists that resulted in people who believed women deserved equal rights, power, and valuation began to be in charge—to some extent—of what stories got told, who got believed. Gradually, more people who regarded women as people whose rights mattered and voices should be heard had come to play a role the news, the courts, the universities, and it mattered. And so it is with this moment.

One more group deserves credit for the present moment: the police. They themselves have made a fantastic case for defunding or abolition—at least as they currently exist. Nationwide, with the whole world watching, these civil servants showed they use public funds to brutalize, murder, and deny the constitutional rights of members of that public. One might imagine they’d have wanted to be careful in the wake of the Floyd murder, but they went on a spectacular display of their own sense of immunity by—well, shooting out the eyes of eight people with “sublethal” weapons, managing to blind a photojournalist in one eye; attacking and arresting dozens of members of the media at work, especially nonwhite ones; San Jose police shooting their own anti-bias trainer in the testicles; knocking over an old man who’s still in critical condition as a result (yeah the one Trump theorized must be Antifa); teargassing children; pointing weapons at other small children; and generally showing us that the only people the police protect are the police. They struck the match that lit the bonfire. Because they thought they could not themselves burn, and that they were indispensable. They’re wrong on both counts.


II. The Waterfall

You can think of it as a bonfire. Or a waterfall. The metaphor of the river of time is often used to suggest that history flows at a steady pace, but real rivers have rapids and shallows, eddies and droughts. They freeze over and get dammed and their water gets diverted. And sometimes the river comes to the precipice and we’re all in the waterfall. Time accelerates, things change faster than anyone expected, water clear as glass becomes churning whitewater, what was thought to be impossible or the work of years is accomplished in a flash.

This had already happened in a way with the pandemic. Suddenly life changed; institutions from schools to air travel largely shut down; the federal government pulled three trillion dollars out of thin air and threw it around; nearly everyone changed their daily life. The status quo’s old excuses that change is impossible got smashed up in the torrent of change. And this too prepared the way for what is happening now. The civil unrest has shifted and grown and had extraordinary effect. Early on people who preferred order to justice carped that riots never change anything, and then out of this uprising monumental change came.

Cities all over the USA are rethinking the funding and parameters of policing and what the alternatives are. Minneapolis, where all this started, actually voted to abolish the police department, and dozens of cities, from Los Angeles to New York, voted to cut funding to the police and in many cases narrow their mission. While all this actual living out of the mandates to #abolishthepolice and #defundthepolice was happening way too many mostly white people around me fussed that #defundthepolice was scary and incoherent and proposed exactly the kind of polite language for reform that has accomplished little in recent years.

It was both a kind of tone policing and a tone deafness about the fact that the people who feared being killed by the police—or mourning those who were—were impatient, six years after the shooting of Michael Brown Jr. and seven after the birth of Black Lives Matter. Impatient and not looking for messaging lessons from white people. The willful incomprehension and disapproval brought back the early days of Occupy Wall Street, when pundits and purse-lipped onlookers were calling the insurrectionary gatherings incoherent and incomprehensible and demanding to know what the demands were, imagining the occupiers as supplicants, not people in earnest conversation with each other about what the alternative to economic injustice might look like. Occupy was immensely effective as it spread across the world, and in the US it reshaped the conversation about the economy in ways that still matter.

Continue reading. There’s much more.

One interesting point, later in the essay:

It is an ongoing mistake to refer to politicians as leaders. Almost all are followers, and they should be if they are to be representatives.

Written by LeisureGuy

18 June 2020 at 2:36 pm

Federal judge who thinks it “madness” to rename bases honoring Confederate officers who took up arms against the US gets schooled by a clerk

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Ryan Grim reports in The Intercept:

THE BATTLE OVER renaming U.S. bases that currently honor Confederate officers broke out in the U.S. Court of Appeals in Washington, D.C., on Monday. But the argument was not in the courtroom; rather, it was launched, and settled, over email.

In an email sent Circuit-wide on Sunday, Judge Laurence Silberman, a Reagan appointee, lambasted Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., for her amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act requiring the military to strip the names of rebel officers from any military assets.

“Since I am about to be interviewed I thought it would be appropriate to unburden myself in opposition to the madness proposed by Senator Warren: the desecration of Confederate graves,” Silberman wrote.

The interview Silberman referenced was part of a series of chats judges do, open only to court staff. Silberman went on to explain that his great-grandfather had fought for the Union as part of Ulysses S. Grant’s army and was badly wounded at Shiloh, Tennessee. His great-grandfather’s brother, meanwhile, joined the Confederate States Army and was captured at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. “It’s important to remember that Lincoln did not fight the war to free the Slaves Indeed he was willing to put up with slavery if the Confederate States Returned,” he wrote (lack of punctuation and errant capitalization in the original, and throughout). “My great great grandfather Never owned slaves as best I can tell.”

Silberman’s post, which went out widely to scores of Court staff and judges, sat unanswered over the next day, until the first volley was sent back not by a fellow judge but by a clerk: courtroom employees who work directly with judges to research and write their opinions.

“Hi Judge Silberman,” began the career-risking reply-all email, “I am one of only five black law clerks in this entire circuit. However, the views I express below are solely my own,” they went on. “Since no one in the court’s leadership has responded to your message, I thought I would give it a try.”

[M]y maternal ancestors were enslaved in Mississippi. While the laws of this nation viewed my ancestors as property, I view them as hostages. In a hostage situation, when someone does something that leads to the freeing of the hostages, I am not sure if the hostages would be concerned as to whether the person that saved them, actually intended to save them. In this instance, as people considered to be property, my ancestors would not have been involved in the philosophical and political debates about Lincoln’s true intentions, or his view on racial equality. For them, and myself, race is not an abstract topic to be debated, so in my view anything that was built to represent white racial superiority, or named after someone who fought to maintain white supremacy (or the Southern economy of slavery), see Photo of Liberty Monument attached, should be removed from high trafficked areas of prominence and placed in museums where they can be part of lessons that put them in context.

In your message, you talked about your ancestors, one that fought for the confederacy and one that fought for the Union. This seems to be a true example of a house divided. However, it is very clear what the Confederacy stood for. In 1861, at the Virginia secession convention, Henry L. Benning (for whom Fort Benning is named) in explaining the reasoning for Georgia’s decision to secede from the United States stated, “[it] was a conviction … that a separation from the North was the only thing that could prevent the abolition of her slavery…[I]t is probable that the white race, being superior in every respect, may push the other back.” Unfortunately, in this scenario, no matter how bravely your uncle fought for the Confederacy, the foundation of his fight was a decision that he agreed more with the ideals of the Confederacy, than he did with those of the Union. And in the end, he chose the losing side of history.

Finally, I will note that the current movement to rename Government owned facilities is in line with your previous opinions on the importance of names and what they represent. In 2005, you publicly advocated for the removal of J. Edgar Hoover’s name from the FBI Building due to the problematic material you came across in your review of his FBI files after his death. You equated it to the Defense Department being named for Aaron Burr. In view of your opinion of J. Edgar Hoover’s history and your advocacy for renaming the FBI building because of the prominence it provides Hoover’s legacy, it is very strange that you would be against renaming our military facilities, since the legacy of the Confederacy represents the same thing. This moment of confronting our nation’s racial history is too big to be disregarded based on familial ties.

The correspondence was provided to The Intercept by a member of the Court staff on the condition the identity of the clerk (who was not the source) and judges who replied be kept confidential.

The ice broken, others weighed in, with two federal district judges, both of them black as well, replying all to thank the clerk for their thoughtful note. A third worked to do clean up for Silberman, noting that, while he couldn’t speak for Silberman, perhaps he only meant to refer to the possibility that the legislation may have applied not just to base names, but also to gravesites.

Indeed, during the debate over the amendment, which took place behind closed doors, Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., offered an amendment that would . . .

Continue reading. There’s more.

Written by LeisureGuy

18 June 2020 at 10:54 am

Border officials spent emergency humanitarian funds on dirt bikes, dogs and enforcement programs

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Customs and Border Protection is a despicable agency — the Minneapolis Police Department of Federal agencies. Nick Miroff reports in the Washington Post:

U.S. Customs and Border Protection used emergency funding meant for migrant families and children to pay for dirt bikes, canine supplies, computer equipment and other enforcement related-expenditures, according to a report published Thursday by the U.S. Government Accountability Office.

Congress last June approved a $4.6 billion emergency funding bill to cope with an unprecedented inflŭ of Central American families and children at the U.S.-Mexico border that left U.S. agents overwhelmed and detention cells dangerously crowded.

The supplemental bill included a line item for about $112 million in “consumables and medical care,” but CBP used some of the money to pay for enforcement-related hardware and expenses that were not authorized, according to the GAO, the federal government’s leading oversight agency.

CBP spent some of the funds on motorcycles, all-terrain vehicles, boats and other transportation equipment, as well as supplies and services for CBP’s canine program, vaccines for CBP personnel, computer upgrades, printers and security camera systems and other expenses, the report found.

The GAO report did not indicate how much money was misused, but it said the expenditures were a violation of the law.

“CBP did not provide any explanation as to how these items relate to the consumables and medical care line item appropriation,” the report states. “Therefore, we conclude that CBP violated the purpose statute when it obligated the consumables and medical care line item appropriation for these purposes and should adjust its accounts.”

The crisis at the southern border reached a peak in the weeks before the supplemental was passed, when CBP detained and processed more than 144,000 unauthorized migrants in May 2019. The majority were family groups from Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador, and in most cases they were issued an appointment to appear in immigration court and released into the interior of the United States.

Overcrowding and unsanitary conditions in CBP border stations grew dire, and the deaths of seven children in less than one year put additional pressure on lawmakers to provide the border agency with the emergency funds it was seeking. Once the bill was passed, conditions at the border rapidly improved, as border officials set up spacious temporary facilities with air conditioning, toys and games for children and ample food and medical supplies.

Some lawmakers who voted against the emergency funding, including Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N. Y), argued at the time that the Trump administration would redirect the money to enforcement. Democrats were divided, but the bill passed both the Senate and House by a wide margin.

“Congress provided this additional funding for the primary purpose of improving conditions for migrants at the border and ensuring migrants were receiving adequate health care after the deaths of multiple children in custody,” Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.), the chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, said in a statement Thursday. “This callous disregard for the law is yet another example of this administration’s continuing failure to carry out its duty to provide humane conditions and medical care for migrants in its care.

CBP said in a statement Thursday that the report is . . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

11 June 2020 at 6:19 pm

What Amazon Isn’t Telling Investors, or Congress

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Matt Stoller writes in BIG:

Today I’m writing about:

  • How Amazon’s lack of disclosures to Congress and to investors masks monopoly power.
  • Potential political corruption around the Charles Schwab/TD Ameritrade merger.
  • A Congresswoman striking at internet monopolies through trade agreements.
  • Banking analyst Karen Petrou’s analysis of inequality as a major systemic risk.
  • How private equity firms are juggling insolvencies.
  • A shift in disclosure requirements for mergers.

First, some house-keeping. One, my write-up two weeks ago on cheerleading was featured in the New York Times Dealbook. I’ll have more on Varsity soon. Two, I’ll be speaking at an event on Section 230 of the Telecommunications Act tomorrow at 11am with Congresswoman Jan Schakowsky, put on by my organization the American Economic Liberties Project, as well as the American Prospect. You can RSVP here.

And now…

Amazon’s Disruptive Accounting

The most coveted real estate in online retail is the top left slot on Amazon’s search result page. If you can get your product onto that slot when a customer searches your product category, you are far more likely to be the product that sells. Last week, ProPublica’s Renee Dudley reported on a new tactic Amazon is using to fortify its market power. The corporation preferences its own private label products in that most plum position on its site.

There are an endless set of tactics Amazon uses to undermine small competitors, and this tactic is just one more. These kinds of activities present an interesting question for a corporation like Amazon, as well as its investors. Amazon is a public company, and it has to tell investors about how it operates, including disclosing material information. It’s not just investors, Congressional investigators has also asked Amazon how it makes money. How does Amazon answers these questions about its business? The answer is that Amazon structures its accounting and investor disclosures so as to ensure that investors and enforcers can’t tell how it generates revenue from its activities. And I’m going to show how.

First, let’s talk about this specific tactic. According to Dudley, when some customers do a search through Amazon, Amazon will simply place its own product in the top left slot. According to this story, a search for “ground coffee” tends to return AmazonFresh Colombia and a search for “melatonin” returns the Amazon brand Solimo. A consultant who helps brands navigate the site, Jason Boyce, noted that Amazon used to allow brands to bid for that slot, and his client who sold natural supplements paid up to $6 to Amazon’s advertising business line for a click on its product. But recently, Amazon just gives its own product top billing, no matter what.

“The domino effect of Amazon’s new strategy has demoted competitors’ listings for products including diapers, copy paper, kids’ pajamas, mattresses, trail mix and lightbulbs,” wrote Dudley. “By putting its own private brands in some of the most valuable slots, Amazon is sacrificing short-term ad revenue to build up sales of its private brands over time, consultants said.” Hal Singer, a well-known industrial organizational economist, tweeted these actions are a red flag for antitrust enforcers. Foregoing revenue to capture market share, or “profit sacrifice,” is not necessary to prove a monopolization case, but it certainly helps. Singer also notes that brands have to pay a 15% commission, plus third party merchants often use Amazon’s expensive fulfillment and logistics service, Fulfillment by Amazon, on the hopes they get better placement. Competing with Amazon on these terms is impossible.

To understand what is going on, we have to unwrap different layers of anti-competitive conduct. First there’s the actual manipulation of search results to capture ad revenue. Most customers actually don’t know that many of the results they are seeing are ‘sponsored’ because the font size isn’t big enough, they mostly believe they are getting an organic result from Amazon offering them the best product and the best price. The Federal Trade Commission issued agency guidance in 2013 barring these kinds of deceptive search engine practices, but it’s obvious the FTC doesn’t enforce. And second, there’s the foregoing of this ad revenue to self-preference its own private label products. Third, there’s a tying aspect, of what looks like coercing merchants to use a logistics service to get better marketplace service (though Amazon denies tying these products). That tying has to do with which products are Prime Eligible, which is to say, able to be shipped quickly and for free to Amazon’ Prime customers.

Now, with all that said, let’s go to the questions that the House Judiciary Antitrust Committee asked Amazon last July about Amazon’s accounting, and how Amazon responded. The committee asked the corporation to break out its revenues, costs, and profit markets for several lines of business . For four lines of business, Amazon simply refused to answer (see questions 14, 41, 59, and 75). It refused to give information on its private label, Advertising, Fulfillment by Amazon, and Prime. These lines of business are precisely what are at issue in the ProPublica article. Chairman David Cicilline asked for revenues, costs, and profit margins, and for all four cases, Amazon said it would not separately break out information about those business lines.

For its private label products, the company said investors should look at its overall retail sales to get a sense of what’s happening there. Similarly, for advertising, the company points to its “other” revenue category. For fulfillment, Amazon gives its entire third party seller category, and for Prime, the company says just look at the overall ‘subscription” category. In other words, Amazon is constantly burying its meaningful lines of business in larger categories, so that no one except insiders can tell what is going on. For instance, in its first quarter investor call, analyst John Blackledge from Cowan asked Amazon’s chief financial officer Brian Olsavsky about the corporation’s advertising business, since the ‘other’ category seemed to be doing well despite a pandemic-related slowdown. Olavsky responded by largely avoiding the question, saying that the ‘other’ category also includes non-advertising revenue.

Now, keep in mind that Amazon is refusing to divulge this information to a subcommittee of Congress. I hope that Congress issues a subpoena, because that’s the only tactic Amazon *might* respond to with disclosure.

But refusing to give basic information to Congressional investigators is not the first run-in the corporation has had with the U.S. government over its accounting for these business segments. In 2018, the Securities and Exchange Commission asked Amazon to provide more information about . . .

Continue reading. There’s much more.

What’s odd is that President Trump, who clearly hates Amazon and Jeff Bezos, has not picked up on this to batter Amazon (preferring instead to tweet fringe-right conspiracy theories that elderly men injured by police did it on purpose). I imagine the reason is that this sort of offense is beyond his limited comprehension: it requires more knowledge and reading ability than he has.

Written by LeisureGuy

9 June 2020 at 1:20 pm

Exclusive investigation on the coronavirus pandemic: Where was Congress?

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Years ago Joseph Clark wrote one of the periodic condemnations of Congress in a book titled Congress, the Sapless Branch. Congress is only rarely able to function, and this is not one of those rare times. Bob Cusack and Rachel Bucchino write in The Hill:

During President Trump‘s impeachment trial, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) asked Chief Justice John Roberts if he could make a brief announcement.

“In the morning, there will be a coronavirus briefing for all members at 10:30,” McConnell stated on Jan. 23, noting the Senate Health panel was taking the lead on it.

McConnell’s remarks represented the first time that the novel coronavirus was mentioned in the Congressional Record this year. At the time, there was one confirmed case in the United States.

In the next four-and-half months, more than 110,000 people in the United States would lose their lives to the virus, and the economy would be closed down — shutting businesses and forcing millions into unemployment. The pandemic, not impeachment, is certain to be the fundamental issue to voters as they go to the polls this fall.

This historic crisis has led to intense scrutiny of the Trump administration’s response to the pandemic focused on the executive branch’s sluggish realization of how severely the global pandemic would hit the country.

The response of Congress, in contrast, has received much less attention or criticism.

The GOP-controlled Senate and Democratic-led House had less power and resources to respond to the crisis than the executive branch. Yet Congress does have tremendous influence to oversee the response, and to push the president and his Cabinet to do more to protect American lives and the economy.

Legislators also are elected to solve problems and identify dark clouds on the horizon before the storm hits — a deep failure when it comes to the novel coronavirus.

The Hill has examined hundreds of statements and hours of congressional testimony to highlight which legislators were the first to raise red flags that the coronavirus presented an imminent danger to the United States.

The results show a number of lawmakers were asking the right questions early on in the crisis, and that members called attention to shortages of masks and other protective gear that would become a national outrage. The public record also shows that even when lawmakers were asking the right questions, they did not always get the right answers as the federal government, the media and the larger health community struggled to understand COVID-19.

Congress was ill-prepared to handle the pandemic, despite international and domestic scares with Ebola and SARS, and passage of pandemic legislation less than a year before the coronavirus hit the country. Turbocharged partisanship in the Trump era that has made it difficult for Congress to operate also contributed to a tardy response to the coronavirus, even as lawmakers in both parties underestimated the crisis.

First House hearings preview debates to come

The House Foreign Affairs subcommittee on Asia, the Pacific, and Nonproliferation announced in late January it would hold a Feb. 5 hearing on “The Wuhan Coronavirus: Assessing the Outbreak, the Response, and Regional Implications.”

The title of the hearing was an early sign of the division over what to call the mysterious virus that most experts believe originated in China.

The name of the virus became a political football. Trump frequently labeled it the “China virus” in an attempt to point to its origins and blame Beijing for not doing more to stop it.

Democrats and other critics argued it was racist to label it the China virus, and Trump cut back on using the term after warnings that Asian Americans were coming under attack.

But it was a Democratic-controlled panel that labeled it the “Wuhan virus” at the initial hearing, held as the disease had already spread to 24 countries.

Rep. Ami Bera (D-Calif.), a physician who chairs the subcommittee on Asia, the Pacific, and Nonproliferation, expressed regret later.

“In retrospect, we should have called it the novel coronavirus,” he told The Hill.

The first House hearing more importantly foreshadowed the partisan finger-pointing that would break out as the coronavirus news got worse and the initial lack of attention given to a crisis that would dramatically change American life just weeks later.

Bera invited the Trump administration to testify, but no one showed up. The panel instead heard testimony from three nongovernmental health experts.

The sparsely attended hearing included pleas for . . .

Continue reading. It’s an interesting account of a feckless body and its inability to respond constructively to a national emergency.

Written by LeisureGuy

8 June 2020 at 8:34 am

Posted in Congress, Medical

Corporate Power, Protests and the Breakdown of a Social Contract

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Matt Stoller writes in BIG:

In 2012, I published a law review article titled “The Housing Crash and the End of American Citizenship” predicting the rise of protests and social disorder on the one hand and authoritarian politics on the other. I wrote it after several years as a Congressional staffer working on the bailouts, Federal Reserve transparency, and the foreclosure crisis. The trends playing out now were evident back then.

With that in mind, today I’m going to make a few observations about the relationship of corporate power to protest. It’s hard not to have sympathy for the aims of the protesters, considering the murder of George Floyd is just the latest in a long line of obvious and flagrant violent acts. I do suspect that the outpouring of anger reflects something deeper than frustration with police brutality. There’s a broad sense of impotence, and not just among protesters, a feeling that our social contract has broken down, that we no longer have the means to come together and address social problems via politics.

This is something of a long essay, because these are delicate topics, but if you want the short version, here you go: Protestors Criticized For Looting Businesses Without Forming Private Equity Firm First, an article in The Onion.

And now…

Wall Street, the New Deal and Jim Crow

William Levitt was the creator of the modern post-WWII suburb, and in many ways, his thinking illustrated how we chose to structure a key part of the long New Deal era, in the form of the American home. Two quotes illustrate his views. First, he argued for homeownership as an important instrument in social order. “No man who owns his own house and lot can be a communist,” he said. “He has too much to do.” In other words, a working person with a stake in society takes seriously their obligation to society, whereas someone with no stake has nothing to lose and turns radical.

The 1940s through the 1970s was a time when Wall Street had lost its power and relevance, and the American economic order was a diversified mix of manufacturing, agriculture, services, social welfare, military equipment, research, and high-technology. The collapse of financiers and monopolists was epitomized by the public financing of housing stock that enabled Levitt to build what he did. America had an increasingly empowered middle and working class.

And yet, this era co-existed with a fascist Jim Crow regime in the South enforced by vigilante terrorism against the black population, especially black leaders who were economically empowered. There was wide and broad cultural support for segregation, though not the specific violent tactics used to uphold such an order. As an example, just 4% of Americans in 1958 approved of black-white interracial marriage.

Segregation in the North was almost as bad as it was in the south, but was organized through economic arrangements, not public Jim Crow statutes but private contract law. Levitt, whose first suburbs were in the North, believed that racial segregation was a necessary mechanism to address the serious housing shortage Americans confronted. “We can solve a housing problem, or we can try to solve a racial problem,” Levitt argued. “But we can’t combine the two.”

There was a massive housing shortage immediately after World War II, because America essentially hadn’t built any housing stock since 1933. Levitt was a businessman, but he refused to integrate his housing developments racially, and had white-only covenants which made it impossible for black people to buy into his suburbs. Broadly speaking, Levitt was reflecting the social consensus of the era.

While bigotry was a widely held cultural attitude, racism as an institutional phenomenon was buried in every nook and cranny of the American order. It was not just police violence, Jim Crow laws, or the subtext of vigilante racial terrorism, though those were the most obvious signposts. There were serious disparities in health care treatment, access to capital, auto insurance, business insurance, patent law, hiring decisions, housing, media ownership, transportation, education and nutrition options, not to mention the endless number of opportunities closed off because of segregated social networks. Most of these disparities still exist. Even today, with an increasingly wealthy number of black businesspeople, monopolists like Comcast undermine the ability of black business leaders to operate as independent sellers of content.

Throughout American history, racism and corporate power have intersected in a variety of important ways. Sometimes our market structures have aided the struggle for racial liberation, sometimes they’ve impeded it, and oftentimes racial backlash has been used as a pretext to implement autocratic economic policies. There are moments when economic inequality comes wrapped in the language of justice, and moments when those who seek broad economic equality diminish the importance of racial discrimination. The relationship between corporate power and racism is not simple.

So to look at the post-war suburban creation as purely a moment of monstrous and publicly sanctioned racism is to miss that the Jim Crow order was weakening because of some of the same trends propelling Levitt’s success. Jim Crow, as I’ve written, was a *deal* between Northern monopolists and Southern whites, and it was both social and economic in orientation.

Attacks in the 1930s on financiers undermined racial segregation by replacing monopolists with public institutions responsive to a broad middle class. FDR in the 1930s made fun of Virginia Senator Harry Byrd, a segregationist Democrat who had grown wealthy growing apples. In one instance where Byrd opposed a program to put Americans to work, FDR told a subordinate Rex Tugwell, “I know what’s the matter with Byrd, he’s afraid you’ll force him to pay more than ten cents for his apple pickers.” Roosevelt did not attack segregation directly, but he did attack its economic roots. The Civil Rights movement then built on top of the political structure Roosevelt created. Political leaders, and black and white activists, sought the same economic and political empowerment for blacks that the New Deal had offered to whites.

The narrative of Jim Crow as an economic deal was first characterized in rigorous scholarly detail by W.E.B. Dubois in the 1930s in Black Reconstruction, and then reiterated by C. Vann Woodward in the The Strange Career of Jim Crow. There’s been a lot of critical and important scholarship advancing and critiquing these ideas, but Martin Luther King Jr. called Woodward’s book the “the historical Bible of the civil rights movement.” At Selma in 1965, MLK said the following.

If it may be said of the slavery era that the white man took the world and gave the Negro Jesus, then it may be said of the Reconstruction era that the southern aristocracy took the world and gave the poor white man Jim Crow. He gave him Jim Crow. And when his wrinkled stomach cried out for the food that his empty pockets could not provide, he ate Jim Crow, a psychological bird that told him that no matter how bad off he was, at least he was a white man, better than the black man. And he ate Jim Crow. And when his undernourished children cried out for the necessities that his low wages could not provide, he showed them the Jim Crow signs on the buses and in the stores, on the streets and in the public buildings. And his children, too, learned to feed upon Jim Crow, their last outpost of psychological oblivion.
By the time MLK spoke these words, the collapse of Jim Crow was evident. Woodward dubbed the post-war era a “Second Reconstruction,” analogizing it to the hopeful period after the Civil War when America had a brief chance to forge a racially egalitarian nation.

In the 1950s and 1960s, racial terrorism existed, lynchings were common, and racism was open and brutal, but gone were the days of the 1920s, when the Democratic Party feuded over whether to openly align with the Ku Klux Klan, which was then so powerful it could elect Governors and Senators all over the country. From the 1940s onward, blacks were moving out of the South due to a low unemployment rate organized by New Deal economists, and income among blacks rose at roughly twice the rate as whites for decades, albeit from a much lower base. Lifespans too closed a yawing gap.

America did chip away at these immoral racial disparities, slowly and incompletely, until the late 1960s. We used politics in the 1930s to restore economic liberties to citizens, and then we gradually broadened the scope of who could be a citizen. It is easy to sound callous in making this observation; someone killed by racial violence in the 1960s never got to experience the improved circumstances. Broadly, though, circumstances for lot of people began getting better, though not quickly enough.

And then came the 1970s, and the attack on racial egalitarianism. This was framed not as attacking the idea of racial equality, but on its economic underpinning, the New Deal. As Judith Stein observed in Pivotal Decade: How the United States Traded Factories for Finance in the Seventies as well as Running Steel, Running America, policymakers like Paul Volcker, Jimmy Carter, and William Simon chose to trade away increasing chunks of the middle class through offshoring jobs for geopolitical purposes. There were legitimate problems with the New Deal order, such as bad regulations, a loosening financial order, and gruesome errors like the Vietnam War, so change was coming regardless. But the change we sought was to elevate the political power of financial middlemen, and downgrade the political power of workers, farmers, engineers, and businesspeople.

As Stein chronicled, this was most evident in the deindustrialization of unionized heavy industry. Offshoring steel and automobile production had a special role in fueling racial tensions. White workers usually had a longer tenure of work, and according to union rules would be the last laid off because of this tenure. So offshoring would cause black layoffs first, and then white layoffs. Civil rights groups rightfully understood that as racist, but few recognized the largest context that racial tension was a result of white and black workers feuding over a smaller and smaller pie.

In my research, what I found is that an increasingly upscale neoliberal Republican and Democratic Party elite were oblivious to the underlying dynamics at play. The New Right, led by Ronald Reagan, was animated by racial backlash politics and social conservatives, as well as a goal of rolling back the New Deal order of constraining corporate power. Still, Robert Bork, an intellectual leader of the Reagan revolution, never achieved the conservative popular culture he wanted, but he did end antitrust law and public constraints on financiers.

The left, meanwhile, did not understand that the Civil Rights movement was built on top of the New Deal, and many were obsessed with New Age rhetoric, elite technocracy, and consumer and environmental politics. Futurist Alvin Toffler talked of getting rid of that “old New Deal clap-trap” and was a constant presence at Democratic party convenings in the mid-1970s, as well as an advisor to Al Gore. Michael Milken, the godfather of private equity, used countercultural rhetoric in his justification for financial power, saying in the 1970s, “Unlike other crusaders from Berkeley, I have chosen Wall Street as my battleground for improving society.” (He’s still at it today, pretending he was inspired to work in junk bonds after talking to a young black man following the Watts riots in 1965. “I was 19,” Milken recalled in 2016. “Everything I knew, I had to rethink. I changed my major from physics and math to business.”)

Culturally speaking, America is far less bigoted than it used to be. In the 1950s, virtually no one approved of intermarriage between blacks and whites, and even into the 1990s, a majority of Americans still did not approve of it. Today intermarriage rates are higher than they ever have been, and 87% of Americans favor interracial marriage. . . .

Continue reading. There’s much more.

And note his conclusion:

. . .  What I found in researching housing is that Levitt was a small part of a specific social contract, one in which a house would be the focal point for a white community, a school, a neighborhood, as well as a forced savings vehicle. Income growth, aka raises, would structure the middle class, which was rooted in producing things. The Federal Reserve, though the banking system’s connection to housing, could control swings in the economy, connecting the financial elite to the middle class directly. This contract existed because working class people had power, and were willing to seek other social organizational forms if they did not have their needs met.

Ronald Reagan shifted this social contract, by making the home a financial asset more than a bulwark of community. People no longer really got raises, but they were able to continue consumption by drawing down on savings and borrowing, a substitute of credit for income. The 1980s saw mass offshoring, as America turned increasingly into a rentier economy. The connection from the Fed to the real economy was weaker, but it still held. It was in this era that black people were finally able to buy homes, and so they never were able to build wealth as white people had. And most people were falling behind.

The housing crisis of 2007-2012 snapped the spine of the Reagan-era weaker social contract. Bankers and politician not only didn’t stop the foreclosure crisis, but began asserting that homeownership wasn’t an important social goal. The Federal Reserve’s strategy turned entirely towards buying or selling the financial assets of the wealthy as a means of engaging in macro-economic stabilizing. And so, leaving aside the moral validity of any particular movement, popular radicalism returned, on the right and the left. in the the form of the Tea Party, Occupy Wall Street, Black Lives Matter, Trump, right-wing anger at lockdowns, and now protests over police brutality, as well as riots.

To take just one issue, and not the only one at issue, reducing police brutality is a question of leadership, of bureaucratic management, and it requires the ability to come together as citizens and do politics. But since the 1980s, predatory financial elites have worked aggressively to break our public institutions so that we can’t collectively do politics. In some cases, they adopted the rhetorical form of racial tolerance while fighting its economic underpinning, in other cases they adopted the rhetoric of racial backlash. Either way, they have destroyed the ability of citizens to come together and do politics to foster needed social change.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, for instance, has dedicated his whole career to blocking democratic institutions from functioning, with the goal of putting conservative judges on the bench so they can write the law, immune from popular social pressure. That’s a brilliant strategy for maintaining rigid social hierarchies, but it doesn’t allow for any release of social pressure except despair and popular explosions.

We now have two paths. Restoring a stable social contract broadly will mean restoring the ability to do politics, to rearrange our productive capacity in ways that are safer, more efficient, and more fair, which will necessarily mean a reorganization of power. Or it will require a far more authoritarian society, one in which we accept a much higher level of security spending to protect a narrow elite from a disempowered and angry populace.

Either way we go, William Levitt understood that people without a stake in society tend to rebel. And that is what we are seeing play out.

Written by LeisureGuy

5 June 2020 at 3:12 pm

Contaminants Found in 90% of Herbal Supplements Tested

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The FDA does not jurisdiction over herbal supplements as it does over drugs, so it cannot act to ensure purity or validity of claims of efficacy. Thus the decision by Congress is to use the honor system, with corporations on their honor to ensure that their products are pure, safe, and efficacious. That works pretty much as one would expect. Dr. Michael Greger blogs:

The majority of dietary supplement facilities tested were found noncompliant with good manufacturing practices guidelines.

“The U.S. public is not well protected” by current dietary supplement recommendations, an issue I explore in my video Dangers of Dietary Supplement Deregulation. Sometimes, there is too little of whatever’s supposed to be in the bottle, and other times, there’s too much, as I discussed in my video Black Raspberry Supplements Put to the Test. In one case, as you can see at 0:20 in my video, hundreds of people suffered from acute selenium toxicity, thanks to an “employee error at one of the ingredient suppliers.” Months later, many continued to suffer. Had the company been following good manufacturing practices, such as testing their ingredients, this may not have happened. In 2007, the FDA urged companies to adhere to such guidelines, but seven years later, the majority of dietary supplement facilities remained noncompliant with current good manufacturing practices guidelines.

What are the consequences of this ineffective regulation of dietary supplements? Fifty-thousand Americans are harmed every year. Of course, prescription drugs don’t just harm; they actually kill 100,000 Americans every year—and that’s just in hospitals. Drugs prescribed by doctors outside of hospital settings may kill another 200,000 people every year, but that doesn’t make it any less tragic for the thousands sickened by supplements.

Sometimes the supplements may contain drugs. Not only does a substantial proportion of dietary supplements have quality problems, the “FDA has identified hundreds of dietary supplements…that have been adulterated with prescription medications” or, even worse, designer drugs that haven’t been tested—like tweaked Viagra compounds. About half of the most serious drug recalls in the U.S. aren’t for drugs but for supplements, yet two-thirds or recalled supplements were still found on store shelves six months later.

There is also inadvertent contamination with potentially hazardous contaminants, such as heavy metals and pesticides in 90 percent of herbal supplements tested, as you can see at 2:09 in my video. Mycotoxins, potentially carcinogenic fungal toxins like aflatoxin, were found in 96 percent of herbal supplements. Milk thistle supplements were the worst, with most having more than a dozen different mycotoxins. It’s thought that since the plant is harvested specifically when it’s wet, it can get moldy easily. Many people take milk thistle to support their livers yet may end up getting exposed to immunotoxic, genotoxic, and hepatotoxic—meaning liver toxic—contaminants. How is this even legal? In fact, it wasn’t legal until 1994 with the passage of the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act. Prior to that, supplements were regulated like food additives so you had to show they were safe before they were brought to market—but not anymore. Most people are unaware that supplements no longer have to be approved by the government or that supplement ads don’t have to be vetted. “This misunderstanding may provide some patients with a false sense of security regarding the safety and efficacy of these products.”

This deregulation led to an explosion in dietary supplements from around 4,000 when the law went into effect to more than 90,000 different supplements now on the market, each of which is all presumed innocent until proven guilty, presumed safe until a supplement hurts enough people. “In other words, consumers must suffer harm…before the FDA begins the slow process toward restricting [a] product from the market.” Take ephedra, for example. Hundreds of poison control center complaints started back in 1999, increasing to thousands and including reports of strokes, seizures, and deaths. Yet the FDA didn’t pull it off store shelves for seven years, thanks to millions of dollars from the industry spent on lobbying.

What did the companies have to say for themselves?  . . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

4 June 2020 at 1:20 pm

Grim times

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James Fallows has one of his time-capsule columns worth reading in its entirety. One passage:

On May 14, The Financial Times published a long, reported piece by its correspondent Edward Luce, about the character of the man leading the federal effort. Its closing words, quoting the lawyer (and Trump critic) George Conway, were:

Without exception, everyone I interviewed, including the most ardent Trump loyalists, made a similar point to Conway. Trump is deaf to advice, said one. He is his own worst enemy, said another. He only listens to family, said a third. He is mentally imbalanced, said a fourth. America, in other words, should brace itself for a turbulent six months ahead—with no assurance of a safe landing.

On May 17, Lachlan Cartwright, Asawin Suebaeng, and Lachlan Markay of the Daily Beast published another long, reported piece saying that Peter Thiel—Facebook board member, and co-founder of PayPal, who had given a nominating speech for Trump at the 2016 Republican convention in Cleveland—was souring on Trump. It included this quote, parallel to what Luce had reporterd:

“Everybody goes into the Trump relationship woodchipper,” said Trump’s former White House communications director Anthony Scaramucci, who worked on the Trump presidential transition team with Thiel and who had his own falling-out with the president. “You either come out on the other side with your dignity and your personal story intact or you’re reformed as Trump compost and you’re fertilizer under his shoe. You have to make a decision and it happens to everyone.”

These were the realities of two weeks in May, five-and-a-half months before the election.

And for the future of the republic, the most important reality may be the continued silence of the congressional Republicans. A few of them spoke up after the Friday-night firing of the State Department inspector general. Mitt Romney, notably, wrote that it was “ a threat to accountable democracy.” Susan Collins, as if immune to self-parody, tweeted out her concern. But as a group, they are silent. They know, and they choose not to speak.

Written by LeisureGuy

2 June 2020 at 9:13 pm

Another insightful person: Heather Cox Richardson

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Heather Cox Richardson has a daily post that is well worth reading — and you can subscribe to it. Here’s her background, as listed on Wikipedia:

Heather Cox Richardson is an American historian and Professor of History at Boston College, where she teaches courses on the American Civil War, the Reconstruction Era, the American West, and the Plains Indians.[1] She previously taught at MIT and the University of Massachusetts.[2]

Richardson has authored six books. Her sixth, entitled How the South Won the Civil War: Oligarchy, Democracy, and the Continuing Fight for America, was published in March 2020 with Oxford University Press.[3]

She is also a founder and editor at, which presents professional history to a public audience through short articles. Between 2017 and 2018, she co-hosted the NPR podcast Freak Out and Carry On.[4] Most recently, Richardson started publishing “Letters from an American,” a nightly newsletter that chronicles the 2019 Trump–Ukraine scandal in the larger context of American history.[5][6]

. . . In late 2019, Richardson began writing a daily synopsis of political events surrounding the impeachment inquiry of President Donald Trump. Originally posted late every evening or in the early hours of the next day on her Facebook page, Richardson later moved to add a newsletter format, titled “Letters from an American”, published via Substack.[13]

The “About” for Letters from an American explains:

About Letters from an American

Historians are fond of saying that the past doesn’t repeat itself; it rhymes.

To understand the present, we have to understand how we got here.

That’s where this newsletter comes in.

I’m a professor of American history. This is a chronicle of today’s political landscape, but because you can’t get a grip on today’s politics without an outline of America’s Constitution, and laws, and the economy, and social customs, this newsletter explores what it means, and what it has meant, to be an American.

These were the same questions a famous observer asked in a book of letters he published in 1782, the year before the Treaty of Paris ended the Revolutionary War.

Hector St. John de Crevecoeur called his book “Letters from an American Farmer.”

Like I say, history doesn’t repeat itself, but it sure rhymes.

This page lists recent letters, and last night’s newsletter (which I receive via free email subscription, but is also posted on the Web) is a good example of why I find her insights invaluable. It begins:

The coronavirus pandemic has ripped the remaining tatters of cover off this country’s racial inequality as black Americans are dying in much higher numbers than white Americans. Racial inequality is not new, but racial brutality has become more and more obvious in the past several years as cell phones have recorded the deaths of black Americans at the hands of authorities or white Americans who took it upon themselves to police their black neighbors.

On Monday night, a Minneapolis police officer killed a handcuffed man, George Floyd, by kneeling on his neck for ten minutes as other officers either held him down or looked away. It took only five minutes for Floyd, who had initially begged “Please, please. I can’t breathe,” to stop moving. A passerby captured the murder on video, and it has been widely shared on social media.

Last night, in Minneapolis, and then Los Angeles, Denver, Chicago, and Manhattan, protesters took to the streets. In Minnesota, the protests turned into riots and looting after police greeted the protesters with tear gas and rubber bullets. This morning, after two nights of violent protests, the U.S. Department of Justice said it would make a federal investigation into the killing a “top priority.” Tonight, Minnesota Governor Tim Walz (D) called in the state’s National Guard to keep the peace.

It didn’t work: as I write, it appears the Minneapolis precinct police department whose officers were involved in the murder is on fire. Police are reporting that 170 businesses in St. Paul have been damaged and dozens of fires have been set. Protests have spread to Phoenix, Arizona, and to Louisville, Kentucky, too, where 26-year-old Breonna Taylor was killed in her home on March 13 by plainclothes police executing a warrant for a man who lived in a different part of Louisville and had already been arrested.

Historically, political rioting in America is an attempt to call attention to a perceived injustice. In its aftermath, ordinary citizens decide whether or not the rioting was justified. Usually, they support social justice movements and shut down reactionary mobs.

When associated with a political riot, looting takes on a political meaning as well. If a population feels that the law is oppressing them—as it did for African Americans during slavery times, for example—they often break the law deliberately to illustrate their opposition to it (as African American abolitionists did in the years before the Civil War). There are always bad eggs in any mob scene, but in this case the larger story of the looting, after an event where an officer of the law murdered an unresisting man in full view of an audience, demonstrating his sense of untouchability, falls into a pretty well established historical pattern.

Crucially, white Americans are finally paying attention to the violence against the black community. I suspect the reason for this attention is that the current leadership of the Republican Party has gone so far toward consolidating power in favor of an oligarchy that ordinary white Americans are identifying with marginalized people. This is precisely what happened in the 1850s, when even desperately racist white Americans pushed back against the elite slave owners taking control of the American government because they recognized that they, too, could be sacrificed if leaders thought they stood in the way of the economic system that enriched a few.

Another story from last night illustrates exactly this point, showing the lengths to which Republican leaders are willing to go to achieve their legislative goals. In Pennsylvania, a member of the state legislature tested positive for Covid-19. He told his Republican colleagues, who engaged in appropriate quarantining and distancing, but neither they nor the Republican House Speaker, Mike Turzai, told the Democrats, who learned much later that one of their colleagues had tested positive for coronavirus from a reporter.

People outside the legislature learned of the situation last night, when Democratic Representative Brian Sims posted a passionate video on Twitter, angrily calling out his Republican colleagues for putting lives at risk. Sims revealed that he had recently donated a kidney to a patient dying of kidney failure, putting him at particularly high risk of contracting the coronavirus. His outrage that his Republican colleagues would keep such vital information from him and his Democratic colleagues, in order to make sure their goal of reopening the state did not falter, resonated. The idea that Republicans who, theoretically, were supposed to be working with Democrats for the good of Pennsylvanians, would deliberately endanger the life of a man who had secretly donated a kidney seemed the epitome of partisanship gone toxic.

More stories today illustrated that the Republicans are determined to cement their ideology into law no matter what voters want. Senate Judiciary Committee Chair Lindsey Graham (R-SC) told judges over 65 that they should consider retiring to make sure Trump could fill their seats. “This is an historic opportunity. We’ve put over 200 federal judges on the bench. I think 1 in 5 federal judges are Trump appointees. … So if you’re a circuit judge in your mid-60s, late 60s, you can take senior status; now would be a good time to do that if you want to make sure the judiciary is right of center. This is a good time to do it,” Graham added.

Yesterday, Senate Democrats released a report examining how Republican leaders, led by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) have packed the courts. Funded by millions of dollars of “dark money” contributions, they are “rolling back the clock on civil rights, consumer protections, and the rights of ordinary Americans, reliably putting a thumb on the scale in favor of corporate and Republican political interests.” The report notes that the House has passed more than 350 bills this session, nearly 90% of which are bi-partisan and popular, but that McConnell has refused to take them up, focusing instead on judicial confirmations. This “judicial capture” is designed to rewrite federal law “to favor the rich and powerful.”

Their point had another illustration today, when we learned that . . .

Continue reading.

She is of a scholarly mindset, so her columns end with links of sources. The column quoted above has these Notes at the end:



Marc Short:



GOP fears:


Breonna Taylor:

Looting and fires:

Economic projection halted:

Social media e.o.

Written by LeisureGuy

29 May 2020 at 9:27 am

EPA staff warned that mileage rollbacks had flaws. Trump officials ignored them.

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Wilful ignorance is impenetrable. Juliet Eilperin and Brady Dennis report in the Washington Post:

In its rush to roll back the most significant climate policy enacted by Barack Obama — mileage standards designed to reduce pollution from cars — the Trump administration ignored warnings that its new rule has serious flaws, according to documents shared with The Washington Post.

The behind-the-scenes-skirmish in late March between career employees and Trump appointees at the Environmental Protection Agency highlights the extent to which Trump officials are racing to reverse environmental policies by the end of the president’s first term.

Even as the coronavirus outbreak has hampered many government operations, the administration is pressing ahead with the rollback of a bedrock environmental law governing federal permits and working to open more public lands to oil and gas drilling. In recent weeks, the EPA has relaxed emissions reporting requirements for industrial polluters, and it is poised to defy a court order requiring that it limit a chemical found in drinking water that has been linked to neurological damage in babies. The agency soon plans to finalize a change to the Clean Water Act that would restrict the ability of states, tribes and the public to block federal approval for pipelines and some other energy-related projects.

The documents — obtained by Sen. Thomas R. Carper (Del.), the top Democrat on the Environment and Public Works Committee — include an exchange between two agencies that has not been entered into the public record as required under the Clean Air Act.

Details about objections from EPA staff could create legal problems for the administration’s Safer Affordable Fuel-Efficient (SAFE) Vehicles rule, which requires U.S. cars, pickup trucks and SUVs to improve average fuel efficiency by 1.5 percent each year between model years 2021 and 2026. It replaces Obama-era standards that would have improved the auto fleet’s average mileage by 5 percent a year over the same period.

“In the rush to finalize this rule — and in the middle of a pandemic, no less — they broke just about every rule in the book,” said Carper, who on Monday asked the EPA inspector general to investigate. “The result is a policy that fails to protect public health, fails to save money, fails to result in safer vehicles and will, ultimately and undoubtedly, fail in court.”

In his letter, Carper argued that EPA violated federal rules by failing to enter all relevant documents into the public record, changing the rule after it was signed and not meeting its obligation to write its part of the mileage rule.

Jeff Lagda, a spokesman for the EPA inspector general, said in an email that he and his staff are reviewing Carper’s letter.

Officials from EPA and the Transportation Department did not immediately offer a comment.

For months, Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao and EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler have insisted that their staffs collaborated closely to weaken national greenhouse gas standards for cars and light trucks that were finalized just days before Obama left office.

Speaking at a joint appearance at EPA headquarters in September, Chao declared, “Our team of experts have been jointly working together, conducting a long, thoughtful and detailed review of these rules.” . . .

Continue reading.

Republican dishonesty and bad faith are obvious and appalling.

Written by LeisureGuy

19 May 2020 at 3:04 pm

The reason Trump fired the State Department Inspector General

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Because the Inspector General was starting to uncover things Trump wanted to hide. This may also be the reason behind “Obamagate” (a president (Trump) who says that a president cannot break the law accuses a president (Obama) of breaking some law or another, though never stating what law) and Trump’s claim (probably false) to be taking a medication he for some reason wants to promote: distractions, and the media fall for it and ignore the story of substance.

Heather Cox Richardson writes:

So I was right to be suspicious. The story broke today that Steven Linick, the State Department Inspector General Trump has announced he is removing, was not simply looking into whether Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and his wife Susan had used staff members for personal errands.

Linick was finishing up an investigation of Pompeo’s decision last year to approve billions of dollars in arms sales to Saudi Arabia against the wishes of a bipartisan majority in Congress. State Department officials were recently briefed on the inspector general’s conclusions.

The 2018 Saudi arms deal was important at the time, but has been so eclipsed by other events we could likely all use a refresher. Here’s my best shot at pulling the story together. A warning: I expect that I don’t have all the pieces perfectly in place (I can’t tell yet how many authorizations for sharing nuclear technology were secretly permitted, for example) because there are so many moving pieces. I apologize in advance for errors, and promise I’ll get this material more fine tuned as the story warrants.

It starts with the fact that in 2018, Congress took a stand against the Trump administration’s willingness to look the other way after the murder and dismemberment of Jamal Khashoggi, a U.S. resident and writer for the Washington Post. On October 2, 2018, Khashoggi disappeared in the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul where he was going to retrieve documents so he could remarry. Evidence gradually leaked out that Khashoggi had been murdered, and our intelligence agencies concluded that the crown prince of Saudi Arabia, Mohammed bin Salman (often called MBS), had authorized the killing.

But Trump refused to acknowledge that connection, and sidestepped the law requiring him to report to Congress about the murder. This raised questions about the administration’s relationship to the Saudis, especially in two areas: first, the apparent friendship between Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner and MBS; and second, the efforts of administration officials, originally led by General Michael Flynn during the transition, to work around established channels to export nuclear technology to Saudi Arabia. This deal would be worth a lot of money if they could pull it off.

(Multiple whistleblowers warned the House about this, and the House Committee on Oversight and Reform published a report on it in February 2019. The administration granted authorizations to two U.S. companies to share the technology for nuclear power plants shortly after Khashoggi’s murder. Members of the administration continued to meet with nuclear power developers for the Middle East, a plan that appears to have been part of Kushner’s Middle East peace plan, prompting bipartisan groups of lawmakers to try to block the deals out of concern that Saudi Arabia would develop a nuclear weapon. Energy Secretary Rick Perry secretly approved six authorizations by March 2019, but as near as I can tell, Pompeo refused to release the names of the companies who got those authorizations.)

Meanwhile, the Saudis were embroiled in a war in Yemen, which was causing a humanitarian crisis. Congress opposed supporting the Saudis in that war. In April 2019, it passed a resolution to withdraw support for the Saudis in that conflict, but Trump vetoed it and Republicans in the Senate refused to override his veto.

There is a law, the Arms Export Control Act, which requires that the president give Congress 30 days notice before selling arms over a certain value to another country, so lawmakers can weigh in on the sales. But the law also permits the president to bypass Congress if he declares that “an emergency exists that requires the proposed sale in the national security interest of the United States.”

In May 2019, Trump abruptly extended a longstanding emergency declaration with regard to Iran, which enabled Pompeo to approve the sales of 8.1 billion dollars worth of arms to three Arab nations, but primarily Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, despite congressional disapproval. Congress members and career Foreign Service officers opposed the sales, which included sensitive national security technology. But Pompeo pushed hard for them. “These sales will support our allies, enhance Middle East stability and help these nations to deter and defend themselves from the Islamic Republic of Iran,” Pompeo said.

Lawmakers of both parties were furious, and both houses voted to block the sales, but Trump vetoed their measures. At this point, In June 2019, the House Foreign Affairs Committee asked Linick to launch an investigation into the way that State Department officials, including Pompeo, had handled the arms sales. They saw no credible justification for an emergency that required sidestepping congressional approval, and noted that many of the weapons would not be ready for shipping for a year or more, negating the idea they were for an emergency. Their letter strongly hinted that the decision threw work to defense industries with inappropriate ties to the administration.

Pompeo refused to be interviewed by the inspector general’s office, and asked Trump to fire Linick. Trump claimed he had “never even heard of” Linick, but “many of these people were Obama appointments. So I just got rid of him.”

This story strikes me as big. The arms sales themselves are a big deal, but I wonder if there is a connection between the sales and the attempt to share nuclear technology with the Saudis. Lots and lots of money at stake there. And Flynn– who is also in the news these days as the Justice Department seeks to drop his case– was deep into the project, too.

Too many moving pieces to have at all a clear view yet. We’ll see.

Or not. This afternoon, Trump announced he is currently taking the malaria drug hydroxychloroquine. The White House physician released a letter that did not confirm the president’s statement. Indeed, it . . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

19 May 2020 at 9:17 am

Heather Cox Richardson’s take on Trump’s war on independent oversigh

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Heather Cox Richardson writes:

I’ve grown to hate Friday nights. Fridays themselves have been quiet lately, and then along about 10:00 pm… wham. The Friday night news dump.

Tonight’s news dump was Trump giving notice that he intends to fire yet another inspector general, this one from the State Department. Trump wants to replace Steve Linick, a career official from the Justice Department appointed to his position by President Barack Obama in 2013, with an ally of Vice President Mike Pence. Trump says he no longer has the “fullest confidence” in Linick. Trump plans to replace Linick with Stephen Akard, who was chief of staff for the Indiana Economic Development Corporation when Pence was Indiana governor.

Linick had issued a number of reports lately about Trump appointees retaliating against career employees. Even more important to Trump, perhaps, is that at the State Department, Linick oversaw Trump’s loyal Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo. Tonight, after news broke of Linick’s firing, Representative Eliot Engel (D-NY), who chairs the House Foreign Affairs Committee, tweeted on an official account that Linick had just opened an investigation into Pompeo. MSNBC reporter Chris Hayes noted that “Engel is an extremely cautious politician. For him to put this out is mind-blowing.”

Connecticut Senator Chris Murphy tweeted: “Using foreign aid to destroy rivals. Weaponizing the judiciary. Firing all the inspectors general. Democracies begin to die when a leader starts to destroy the limits on his power, and his faction decides that he is more important than the republic. Welcome to that moment.”

But Walter Schaub, who used to direct the U.S. Office of Government Ethics, points out that the law requires the president to give 30 days notice of such a removal because Congress intended for its members to be able to prevent exactly the sort of purge in which Trump is engaging. Republican Senators are required by law to stop this behavior… but they refuse. It is a mistake, Schaub points out, to consider this firing a done deal. Trump has to give notice so that Congress can weigh in. He has done so, and now it is in the hands of Congress, just as the previous notice that Trump was removing other inspector generals has been.

In other news, there is mounting pressure on the Justice Department to release the transcripts of the phone calls between Michael Flynn and Russian officials, both from people who believe the transcripts will exonerate him and from those who believe they will confirm his guilt. The Justice Department has released a trove of information about Flynn’s contacts with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak, including confidential memos and internal deliberations. But it steadfastly refuses to release the transcripts, despite an order from Judge Emmet Sullivan to do so. Sullivan has recently named retired federal Judge John Gleeson to review Flynn’s case.

A follow up to yesterday’s news about Senator Richard Burr (R-NC) stepping down from his position as chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee during his investigation for insider trading: Before he stepped down, Burr submitted the final report of the committee on Russian interference in the 2016 election to the intelligence community for review so it can be declassified. That process could take many months, as it did for previous reports. In those cases, though, the committee did release a set of general findings before the final volume was available. Here… we’ll see.

The other big piece of news is that . . .

Continue reading.

Later in the column: business as usual for the GOP:

Meanwhile, White House National Economic Council Director Larry Kudlow has suggested reviving the economy not by putting money in the hands of ordinary Americans, but by slashing the 21% corporate tax rate, cutting it in half for companies willing to bring their operations back to the United States. The White House also wants liability protection for businesses that reopen, and a payroll tax cut. Such a cut would inject money into the economy immediately, but only by taking money that would otherwise fund social Security and Medicare.

Written by LeisureGuy

16 May 2020 at 6:49 pm

BC Firm Lobbying Washington On Proposed Efforts to Suck Carbon Directly From The Atmosphere

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If the technology passes muster, then I think one sensible option would be for the government to take on a few cents per gallon to build a great many of these CO2 scrubbers and run them. I would think that one big plant could account for many cars, and taxing fossil fuels to pay for the removal of the CO2 they produce makes sense to me.

From the article by Sean Craig at the link:

A B.C. carbon capture firm has tapped a U.S. lobbying firm to build congressional support for fighting climate change by pulling CO2 emissions right out of the air.

Squamish-based Carbon Engineering (CE) paid about $30,000 in the first three months of 2020 to AJW, Inc., a firm that specializes in energy and environmental government relations, to meet with U.S officials in order to push carbon capture legislation, according to congressional records.

U.S. lawmakers are currently considering a handful of bills that could bolster investor appetite for the technology. They are at the centre of an emerging bipartisan approach to climate change legislation that relies on market incentives rather than spending, meaning the bills have a better chance of passing both houses of congress. (For example, the big spending, Democrat-backed Green New Deal was last year rejected by the Republican-led Senate).

One bill which is the focus of AJW’s lobbying, the Carbon Capture Improvement Act of 2019, would allow local or state governments to issue tax-exempt bonds in order to build carbon capture projects.

It was introduced in the U.S. Senate by Colorado Democrat Michael Bennet and cosponsored by his Republican colleague, Rob Portman of Ohio. House Republican Tim Burchett of Tennessee introduced the bill in the lower chamber, arguing it “allows the free market, rather than the government, to determine innovative ways to go green.” . . .

Written by LeisureGuy

13 May 2020 at 7:48 pm

Will the US survive? Maybe.

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Heather Cox Richardson writes in her blog:

Yesterday’s attempt by the Department of Justice to withdraw the case against Trump’s former National Security Advisor Michael Flynn after he had already pled guilty has roiled the country with its assault on the rule of law. Flynn pled guilty to lying to the FBI about five phone calls between himself and the Russian ambassador, Sergey Kislyak, on December 29, the same day the Obama administration announced retaliatory measures for Russian interference in the 2016 election. Flynn told the officials that he and Kislyak did not talk about lifting Russian sanctions after Trump was inaugurated, but news quickly broke that they had. He resigned, pled guilty, and cooperated with the investigation of Special Counsel Robert Mueller into Russian interference in the 2016 election.

Flynn resigned on February 13, 2017, and the next day Trump summoned FBI Director James Comey to the Oval Office and asked him to drop the case against Flynn. Comey continued to investigate Russian connections to the Trump campaign, and Trump fired him on May 9, 2017. The next day he met in the Oval Office with Russia’s foreign minister, Sergey V. Lavrov, and with Kislyak. He told the men that “I just fired the head of the FBI. He was crazy, a real nut job…. I faced great pressure because of Russia. That’s taken off.” He added: “I’m not under investigation.” American journalists were barred from the event, but Russian journalists took photos. Comey’s firing led to the appointment of Special Counsel Robert Mueller to investigate Russian interference in the 2016 election, with Mueller essentially taking over where Comey left off.

Today we learned that the DOJ move to dismiss the case against Flynn came after a phone call yesterday between Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin in which they discussed the US investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election. While the White House simply said that the two leaders had discussed the pandemic, arms control, and the 75th anniversary of Victory in Europe day, Trump told reporters: “I said, ‘You know, it’s a very appropriate time, because things are falling out now and coming in line showing what a hoax this whole investigation was, it was a total disgrace, and I wouldn’t be surprised if you see a lot of things happen over the next number of weeks…. This is just one piece of a very dishonest puzzle.”

First off, let’s be clear that the US intelligence community, Special Counsel Robert Mueller, and the bipartisan Senate Intelligence Committee, all have concluded that Russia interfered in the 2016 election to help Trump’s campaign. In January 2017, shortly before Trump took office, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper released a report that aggregated the findings of the FBI the CIA, and the NSA (National Security Agency, which operates under the authority of the Director of National Intelligence).

It said: “Russian efforts to influence the 2016 US presidential election represent the most recent expression of Moscow’s longstanding desire to undermine the US-led liberal democratic order, but these activities demonstrated a significant escalation in directness, level of activity, and scope of effort compared to previous operations. We assess Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered an influence campaign in 2016 aimed at the US presidential election. Russia’s goals were to undermine public faith in the US democratic process, denigrate Secretary Clinton, and harm her electability and potential presidency. We further assess Putin and the Russian Government developed a clear preference for President-elect Trump. We have high confidence in these judgments.”

Since this assessment, Trump has attacked FBI agents for launching an illegal investigation and setting out to destroy him for political reasons. But the bipartisan Senate Intelligence Committee, chaired by Republican Senator Richard Burr of North Carolina, has consistently supported the work of the intelligence community. On April 21, 2020, it released the fourth of five volumes about Russian interference in 2016. This volume examined the “sources, tradecraft, and analytic work behind the 2017 Intelligence Community Assessment (ICA) that determined Russia conducted an unprecedented, multi-faceted campaign to interfere with the 2016 U.S. presidential election.” In other words, was the FBI out to get Trump, or was it doing its business the way it should?

Like the previous ones, this volume agreed with . . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

9 May 2020 at 7:17 pm

On the Same Day Sen. Richard Burr Dumped Stock, So Did His Brother-in-Law. Then the Market Crashed.

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Robert Faturechi and Derek Willis report in ProPublica of more corruption in Congress:

Sen. Richard Burr was not the only member of his family to sell off a significant portion of his stock holdings in February, ahead of the market crash spurred by coronavirus fears. On the same day Burr sold, his brother-in-law also dumped tens of thousands of dollars worth of shares. The market fell by more than 30% in the subsequent month.

Burr’s brother-in-law, Gerald Fauth, who has a post on the National Mediation Board, sold between $97,000 and $280,000 worth of shares in six companies — including several that have been hit particularly hard in the market swoon and economic downturn.

A person who picked up Fauth’s phone on Wednesday hung up when asked if Fauth and Burr had discussed the sales in advance.

In 2017, President Donald Trump appointed Fauth to the three-person board of the National Mediation Board, a federal agency that facilitates labor-management relations within the nation’s railroad and airline industries. He was previously a lobbyist and president of his own transportation economic consulting firm, G.W. Fauth & Associates.

Burr came under scrutiny after ProPublica reported that he sold off a significant percentage of his stocks shortly before the market tanked, unloading between $628,000 and $1.72 million of his holdings on Feb. 13 in 33 separate transactions. As chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee and a member of the health committee, Burr had access to the government’s most highly classified information about threats to America’s security and public health concerns.

Before his sell-off, Burr had assured the public that the federal government was well-prepared to handle the virus. In a Feb. 7 op-ed that he co-authored with another senator, he said “the United States today is better prepared than ever before to face emerging public health threats, like the coronavirus.”

That month however, according to a recording obtained by NPR, Burr had given a VIP group at an exclusive social club a much more dire preview of the economic impact of the the coronavirus, warning it could curtail business travel, cause schools to be closed and result in the military mobilizing to compensate for overwhelmed hospitals.

The timing of Burr’s stock sales drew widespread outrage, allegations of insider trading, calls for his resignation and an FBI investigation.

Burr defended his actions, saying he relied solely on public information, including CNBC reports, to inform his trades and did not rely on information he obtained as a senator.

Fauth avoided between $37,000 and $118,000 in losses by selling off when he did, considering how steeply the companies’ shares fell in recent weeks, according to an analysis by Luke Brindle-Khym, a partner and general counsel of Manhattan-based investigative firm QRI. Brindle-Khym obtained Fauth’s financial disclosure from the Office of Government Ethics and shared it with ProPublica. Government forms only require that the value of stock trades be disclosed in ranges. After the February sales, the total value of Fauth’s individual stock holdings appears to be between $680,000 and $2 million.

Burr’s spokespeople did not immediately respond to requests for comment about whether the North Carolina Republican discussed the stock sales with his brother-in-law, or whether he shared any information he learned as a senator with Fauth or any other relatives. . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

6 May 2020 at 4:35 pm

The Cassandra of coronavirus

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Frank Bruni has an interesting column in the NY Times:

I told Laurie Garrett that she might as well change her name to Cassandra. Everyone is calling her that anyway.

She and I were Zooming — that’s a verb now, right? — and she pulled out a 2017 book, “Warnings: Finding Cassandras to Stop Catastrophes.” It notes that Garrett, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, was prescient not only about the impact of H.I.V. but also about the emergence and global spread of more contagious pathogens.

“I’m a double Cassandra,” Garrett said.

She’s also prominently mentioned in a recent Vanity Fair article by David Ewing Duncan about “the Coronavirus Cassandras.”

Cassandra, of course, was the Greek prophetess doomed to issue unheeded warnings. What Garrett has been warning most direly about — in her 1994 best seller, “The Coming Plague,” and in subsequent books and speeches, including TED Talks — is a pandemic like the current one.

She saw it coming. So a big part of what I wanted to ask her about was what she sees coming next. Steady yourself. Her crystal ball is dark.

Despite the stock market’s swoon for it, remdesivir probably isn’t our ticket out, she told me. “It’s not curative,” she said, pointing out that the strongest claims so far are that it merely shortens the recovery of Covid-19 patients. “We need either a cure or a vaccine.”

But she can’t envision that vaccine anytime in the next year, while Covid-19 will remain a crisis much longer than that.

“I’ve been telling everybody that my event horizon is about 36 months, and that’s my best-case scenario,” she said.

“I’m quite certain that this is going to go in waves,” she added. “It won’t be a tsunami that comes across America all at once and then retreats all at once. It will be micro-waves that shoot up in Des Moines and then in New Orleans and then in Houston and so on, and it’s going to affect how people think about all kinds of things.”

They’ll re-evaluate the importance of travel. They’ll reassess their use of mass transit. They’ll revisit the need for face-to-face business meetings. They’ll reappraise having their kids go to college out of state.

So, I asked, is “back to normal,” a phrase that so many people cling to, a fantasy?

“This is history right in front of us,” Garrett said. “Did we go ‘back to normal’ after 9/11? No. We created a whole new normal. We securitized the United States. We turned into an antiterror state. And it affected everything. We couldn’t go into a building without showing ID and walking through a metal detector, and couldn’t get on airplanes the same way ever again. That’s what’s going to happen with this.”

Not the metal detectors, but a seismic shift in what we expect, in what we endure, in how we adapt.

Maybe in political engagement, too, Garrett said.

If America enters the next wave of coronavirus infections “with the wealthy having gotten somehow wealthier off this pandemic by hedging, by shorting, by doing all the nasty things that they do, and we come out of our rabbit holes and realize, ‘Oh, my God, it’s not just that everyone I love is unemployed or underemployed and can’t make their maintenance or their mortgage payments or their rent payments, but now all of a sudden those jerks that were flying around in private helicopters are now flying on private personal jets and they own an island that they go to and they don’t care whether or not our streets are safe,’ then I think we could have massive political disruption.”

“Just as we come out of our holes and see what 25 percent unemployment looks like,” she said, “we may also see what collective rage looks like.”

Garrett has been on my radar since the early 1990s, when she worked for Newsday and did some of the best reporting anywhere on AIDS. Her Pulitzer, in 1996, was for coverage of Ebola in Zaire. She has been a fellow at Harvard’s School of Public Health, was a member of the Council on Foreign Relations and consulted on the 2011 movie “Contagion.”

Her expertise, in other words, has long been in demand. But not like now.

Each morning when she opens her email, “there’s the Argentina request, Hong Kong request, Taiwan request, South Africa request, Morocco, Turkey,” she told me. “Not to mention all of the American requests.” It made me feel bad about taking more than an hour of her time on Monday. But not so bad that I didn’t cadge another 30 minutes on Thursday.

She said she wasn’t surprised that a coronavirus wrought this devastation, that China minimized what was going on or that the response in many places was sloppy and sluggish. She’s Cassandra, after all.

But there is one part of the story she couldn’t have predicted: that the paragon of sloppiness and sluggishness would be the United States.

“I never imagined that,” she said. “Ever.”

The highlights — or, rather, lowlights — include President Trump’s initial acceptance of the assurances by President Xi Jinping of China that all would be well, his scandalous complacency from late January through early March, his cheerleading for unproven treatments, his musings about cockamamie ones, his abdication of muscular federal guidance for the states and his failure, even now, to sketch out a detailed long-range strategy for containing the coronavirus.

Having long followed Garrett’s work, I can attest that it’s not driven by partisanship. She praised George W. Bush for fighting H.I.V. in Africa.

But she called Trump “the most incompetent, foolhardy buffoon imaginable.”

And she’s shocked that America isn’t in a position to lead the global response to this crisis, in part because science and scientists have been so degraded under Trump.

Referring to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta and its analogues abroad, she told me: “I’ve heard from every C.D.C. in the world — the European C.D.C., the African C.D.C., China C.D.C. — and they say, ‘Normally our first call is to Atlanta, but we ain’t hearing back.’ There’s nothing going on down there. They’ve gutted that place. They’ve gagged that place. I can’t get calls returned anymore. Nobody down there is feeling like it’s safe to talk. Have you even seen anything important and vital coming out of the C.D.C.?”

The problem, Garrett added, is bigger than Trump and older than his presidency. America has never been sufficiently invested in public health. The riches and renown go mostly to physicians who find new and better ways to treat heart disease, cancer and the like. The big political conversation is about individuals’ access to health care.

But what about the work to keep our air and water safe for everyone, to design policies and systems for quickly detecting outbreaks, containing them and protecting entire populations? Where are the rewards for the architects of that?

Garrett recounted her time at Harvard. “The medical school is all marble, with these grand columns,” she said. “The school of public health is this funky building, the ugliest possible architecture, with the ceilings falling in.”

“That’s America?” I asked.

“That’s America,” she said.

And what America needs most right now, she said, isn’t this drumbeat of testing, testing, testing, because there will never be enough superfast, super-reliable tests to determine on the spot who can safely enter a crowded workplace or venue, which is the scenario that some people seem to have in mind. America needs good information, from many rigorously designed studies, about the prevalence and deadliness of coronavirus infections in given subsets of people, so that governors and mayors can develop rules for social distancing and reopening that are sensible, sustainable and tailored to the situation at hand.

America needs a federal government that assertively promotes and helps to coordinate that, not one in which experts like Tony Fauci and Deborah Birx tiptoe around a president’s tender ego.

“I can sit here with you for three hours listing — boom, boom, boom — what good leadership would look like and how many more lives would be saved if we followed that path, and it’s just incredibly upsetting.” Garrett said. “I feel like I’m just coming out of maybe three weeks of being in a funk because of the profound disappointment that there’s not a whisper of it.” . . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

3 May 2020 at 6:16 am

The Federal Reserve Bails Out Boeing, Gives a $3 Billion Subsidy to Carnival Cruise Lines

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Matt Stoller writes at BIG:

Today I’m going to discuss the why the small business lending program is undergoing intense scrutiny, and why the much larger Federal Reserve programs are not. To be put it differently, Boeing just got a $25 billion bailout from the Federal Reserve, but politicians are mad at Shake Shack.

First some housekeeping. I was on The Realignment podcast with Saagar Enjeti & Marshall Kosloff. I also joined Francesca Rheannon for her podcast titled a Writer’s Voice.

And now…

Complexity as Cover

There’s been a feeding frenzy among reporters about the small business lending program. Money is going to recognized brand names like Shake Shack and Ruth Chris who don’t seem to need it, with a fair amount of self-congratulatory rhetoric when these corporations return their loans. But I think this anger, while not exactly wrong, is misplaced. People know *something* is wrong with the Coronavirus rescue, and the Small Business Administration’s Paycheck Protection Program gives them an easy set of targets they can relate to. So that’s what gets criticized.

But the right place to focus is not on the SBA, but on the Federal Reserve, which is where the action is. That’s where lending programs are in the trillions, not billions or millions. Yesterday, for instance, the Fed decided to bail out highly indebted drilling companies and their lenders at the behest of Texas politicians, without much notice. Boeing also announced with a splash that it will be turning down an official government bailout, while borrowing a whopping $25 billion from the Federal Reserve-supported corporate bond market.

One reason for the comparatively limited criticism of the central bank’s actions is that the Federal Reserve programs are weird and complicated, involving strange words like liquidity and high yield debt ETFs.

But I don’t think the asymmetry in criticism is purely a result of difficult-to-parse jargon or capital markets complexity. It’s just easier to see what the small business lending program is doing. There’s a legal process that connects the borrower to a bank and to the government. The Fed bailouts by contrast are indirect; technically the Fed hasn’t started allocating much, if any, money yet. It’s hard to point fingers at the Fed for doing something wrong when its programs haven’t even gotten off the ground.

And yet that’s a problematic way of seeing the Fed. Unlike with the small business lending program, the Fed announcement, not the initial program implementation, is what matters; just the prospect of the Fed intervening has huge impacts on borrowing costs for corporations, as well as on the prices of stocks and bonds. I’ve spoken to several people in the credit markets who tell me there is no real credit analysis anymore, traders buy what they think the Fed will backstop, meaning the Fed is giving massive implicit subsidies anywhere Jay Powell even day-dreams about intervening. In other words, many large financial actors – like Boeing – are getting billions of dollars from the Fed without any direct line to the Fed at all.

To cut through the noise, I want to try and quantify the subsidy the Fed is offering with a single case study. The ultimate numbers I’ll arrive at are a guess, but going through the exercise will help people understand that the Fed is just giving money to preserve the value of bonds and stocks. The best example is not Boeing, because there’s no easy way to calculate the implicit subsidy, even though we can assume it is very large. Carnival Cruise Lines serves the purpose better, because they were about to borrow on excruciatingly painful terms, but were saved in the nick of time by a Fed announcement. This situation gives us a nice natural experiment through we can see the implicit subsidy at work.

Carnival’s Subsidy

Four days ago, Matt Wirz at the Wall Street Journal reported a story on how the Federal Reserve saved Carnival Cruise lines. It’s told with drama, but essentially is about how Carnival was desperate to get any loan on any terms, until the Fed stepped in.

With financial markets frozen, executives were forced to consider a high-interest loan from a band of hedge funds who called themselves “the consortium.” The group included Apollo Management Group, Elliott Management Corp. and other distressed-debt investors that sometimes take over the companies they lend to, people familiar with the matter said.

Apollo Management Group and Elliott Management are cut-throat lenders. Here’s what happened next.

That all changed on March 23 when the Federal Reserve defibrillated bond markets with an unprecedented lending program. Within days, Carnival’s investment bankers at JPMorgan Chase & Co. were talking to conventional investors such as AllianceBernstein Holding and Vanguard Group about a deal. By April 1, the company had raised almost $6 billion in bond markets, paying rates far below those executives had discussed just days earlier.

There are a couple of other reporters who covered what happened, including Lawrence Strauss at Barron’s and Robert Smith at the Financial Times, and while the amounts are unknowable, it’s evident the Federal Reserve gave a large implicit subsidy to the corporation.

I’ll walk you through how we can tell. The original loan offer from . . .

Read the whole thing.

Written by LeisureGuy

1 May 2020 at 8:10 pm

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