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Rich white men rule America. How much longer will we tolerate that?

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Nathan J. Robinson, a PhD student in sociology and social policy at Harvard University and founder (in 2015) and editor-in-chief of the magazine Current Affairs, writes in the Guardian:

The core democratic principle is that people should have a meaningful say in political decisions that affect their lives. In Alabama, we’ve just seen what the opposite of democracy looks like: 25 white male Republicans in the state senate were able to ban almost all abortion in the state. The consequences of that decision fall exclusively on women, who will be forced to carry all pregnancies to term if the law comes into effect. And, as has happened in other countries with abortion bans, poor women will be hit hardest of all – the rich can usually afford to go elsewhere.

There is no reason to respect the legitimacy of this kind of political decision, in which those in power show no sign of having listened to the people they’re deciding on behalf of. Though plenty in the pro-life movement are female, the people who will be most affected are nowhere in the debate. Unfortunately, structural problems with the US government mean that we’re heading for an even more undemocratic future.

White men have never made up the majority of the US population, and yet from the country’s beginnings they have made up most of its political decision-makers. The constitution itself is an outrageously undemocratic document. People today are bound by a set of procedural rules that were made without the input of women, African Americans or native people. The framers quite deliberately constructed a system that would prevent what they called “tyranny of the majority” but what is more accurately called “popular democracy”.

That set of rules has been very effective at keeping the American populace from exercising power. James Madison was explicit about the function of the United States Senate – it was “to protect the minority of the opulent against the majority”. Indeed, that’s precisely what it does. As Jamelle Bouie points out, the Senate has “an affluent membership composed mostly of white men, who are about 30% of the population but hold 71 of the seats” out of 100. Though popular opinion may overwhelmingly favor universal healthcare and more progressive taxation, these policies are said to be “politically impossible” because the millionaires who populate Congress do not favor them.

We hear a lot about how the electoral college, the US supreme court and gerrymandered districts are undermining democratic rule. But it’s worth reflecting on just how deep the disenfranchisement really is. The supreme court is the highest branch of government, in that it can overturn the decisions of the other two branches. It consists of just nine people, all of whom went to Harvard or Yale and two-thirds of whom are men. Ian Samuel has pointed out the remarkable fact that, thanks to the way the Senate is structured, the senators who voted to confirm Brett Kavanaugh to the court received represent 38 million fewer people than the senators who voted against him.

The implications here are extreme. It simply doesn’t matter where the people of the US stand on union dues, campaign finance reform, or abortion. What matters is the opinion of nine elites, in many cases appointed by presidents who did not win the popular vote. A constitution written by slaveholders is being interpreted by a tiny room full of elites who have been given no meaningful popular approval. When you step back and look at the situation objectively, it’s utterly farcical to call the US government democratic.

The electoral college is, of course, its own problem. It’s difficult to know how elections would have gone in its absence – after all, people would campaign differently if success were measured differently. But there is something perverse and troubling about a system in which the person who gets the most votes loses the election.

Things are only going to get worse. The good news is that America is becoming an ever-more-diverse and in many ways more progressive country. By 2045 the US will lose its white majority, and despite Trump’s efforts to whip the country into a xenophobic frenzy, the American people are becoming steadily more sympathetic to immigrants. Most young people identify as socialists instead of capitalists, and on the whole people want a far more progressive set of national policies on economics, foreign policy and immigration than are currently being practiced.

But demographic changes do not automatically change the power structure, and it’s likely that we’ll see a conservative white minority taking extreme steps to cling to power in the coming decades. That’s why you see new voter ID laws and resistance to restoring voting rights to felons who have served their sentence. That’s why state legislatures draw districts in a way that ensures the party that gets the most votes doesn’t necessarily get the most seats.

The undemocratic nature of our institutions means that conservatives might well succeed in overriding popular sentiment for many years to come. If, God forbid, Ruth Bader Ginsburg or Stephen Breyer left the supreme court during Trump’s term in office, the radical right would be all but assured to have complete veto power over US policy for the next several decades. It’s very hard to undo gerrymandered districts or loosen campaign finance laws if the whole point of these measures is to keep the left out of power.

It’s hard to say where all of this will lead. If the court pushes too far in overturning democratic measures it will lose legitimacy and schemes like “court-packing” will come to seem more like necessary correctives than revolutionary disruptions. In a country whose electoral system still somewhat functions, there is only so much a government can do to keep people from exercising their right to rule, without resorting to totalitarian measures.

But that’s precisely why we may see increasingly totalitarian measures, as the gap between the will of the people and the interests of the small minority in charge continues to widen. History’s bloody revolutions show  . . .

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Written by LeisureGuy

20 May 2019 at 10:15 am

Inside Facebook, the second-class workers who do the hardest job are waging a quiet battle

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Facebook is really wearing out its welcome by showing a very ugly side. Elizabeth Dwoskin reports in the Washington Post:

The thousands of people who do the bulk of Facebook’s work keeping the site free of suicides, massacres and other graphic posts are not Facebook employees. As contractors employed by outsourcing firms, these content moderators don’t get Facebook’s cushy six-month maternity leave, aren’t allowed to invite friends or family to the company cafeteria, and earn a starting wage that is 14 percent of the median Facebook salary.

But for the past seven months, roughly a dozen moderators in the United States have been spearheading a quiet campaign inside the social media giant to air their grievances about unsatisfactory working conditions and their status as second-class citizens. The contractors, who have not previously spoken publicly about their efforts, are using their access to Facebook Workplace, the social network’s internal communication system, to wage their battle. The moderators, who work for Facebook through their employer, Accenture, have also been having heated conversations with Accenture management over working conditions.

In the posts and conversations, the contractors have protested micromanagement, pay cuts and inadequate counseling support while doing some of Facebook’s most psychologically taxing jobs. Thousands of employees have seen or commented on the Workplace messages, according to a Washington Post review of them.

A counselor in Austin, who is one of five on staff for roughly 450 moderators spread across several offices in the Texas capital, said the job could cause a form of post-traumatic stress disorder known as vicarious trauma.

“I mean this non-facetiously: why do we contract out work that’s obviously vital to the health of the company and the products we build?” a full-time Facebook product manager who read one of the letters on Workplace asked his colleagues in a chat thread.

In becoming more vocal, moderators are starting to recognize their centrality to the reputations of some of the world’s wealthiest companies — and expanding a conversation about labor rights to a workforce that has historically operated in the shadows. Facebook, Google-owned YouTube, and Twitter uphold content moderation as a key component in the fight against abuse of their services by actors such as Russian operatives and violent extremists. In the past couple years, the companies have hired through outsourcing firms thousands of moderators, who watch or read traumatic posts about suicides, mass murders and child pornography, and must quickly make a decision about whether to leave them up or take them down based on whether they violate the companies’ policies.

“[Facebook CEO Mark] Zuckerberg talks about us all the time, but then we’re not even on his payroll,” one moderator involved in posting the letters said in an interview.

Tech giants don’t include moderators or other contractors such as bus drivers and cafeteria workers in their official headcounts, though all contractors make up at least 40 percent of the workforce at companies such as Google and Facebook. And until recently, operations involving moderation were so secretive that none of the companies that use these workers disclosed site locations and names of outsourcing firms. That secrecy, also enforced through strict confidentiality agreements that prevent workers from talking about the job, posting about work locations or inviting visitors to the office, increases the sense of isolation among moderators — though companies say it is for their own safety because the decisions they make are controversial.

Among Silicon Valley firms, Facebook in particular has recently made efforts to improve conditions for moderators, including guaranteeing access to counseling services for workers worldwide, allowing unlimited “wellness time” during which workers can receive counseling, and instructing outsourcing firms not to pressure moderators to meet quotas. (The moderators interviewed by The Post say that in practice, their wellness time is far more restricted and that constant measurement for accuracy is as pressurizing as a quota.) The company employs four psychologists globally who design “resilience” programs for moderator mental health.

“Finding the right balance between content reviewer well-being and resiliency, quality, and productivity to ensure that we are getting to reports as quickly as possible for our community that is reporting content or might need help is very challenging at the scale we operate in,” Facebook spokeswoman Carolyn Glanville said. “We are continually working to get this balance right and improving our operations.”

Accenture said in a statement that it regularly offers content moderators opportunities to advance and wage increases. “We proactively take input from our people and use that input to help shape their experience — and we work closely with Facebook to address,” Accenture said. “As a talent and innovation-led organization, helping our people achieve their aspirations is a priority.”

Facebook is under pressure to

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Written by LeisureGuy

10 May 2019 at 9:10 am

Listen to TurboTax Lie to Get Out of Refunding Overcharged Customers

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Justin Elliott and Meg Marco report in ProPublica:

The makers of TurboTax have long been luring customers into paying for a service that they promised the government they’d give away for free. Now they’re lying to customers to avoid giving refunds.

We’ve heard from 16 people who say they were denied refunds and told that the truly free version — Free File — is a government product that’s not run by TurboTax. Ten others reported being told that ProPublica’s stories were inaccurate, or that our coverage is “fake news” or “fictitious.”

None of that is true.

TurboTax’s Free File product is created and run by the company. It is offered as part of a deal between the tax software industry and the government. The deal is specifically designed to keep the IRS from creating its own free online filing system.

Several people gave us recordings of their calls.

Here’s audio from one caller, a graduate student in Virginia whose income was around $16,000 — meaning he easily qualified for TurboTax’s Free File. He was charged $105.

 

The graduate student asked the agent why there were no links to the actual free version — Free File — on the TurboTax website:

TurboTax Agent: “Because it is an IRS product we built for them.”

Caller: “But you guys are the ones managing it right?”

TurboTax Agent: “No, the IRS is the one managing it.”

We gave the recording to Intuit, which makes TurboTax, but a spokesperson did not answer questions about the call. He said in a statement, “We will look into this directly with the agent.” Intuit has repeatedly declined to answer questions about its refund policy.

Other readers also reported being told that TurboTax was not responsible for Free File.

“They said their free service is actually owned by IRS, not them,” said Becky from California.

Anna from Massachusetts said that a supervisor told her that Free File is “a government product that is simply branded as TurboTax.”

Christopher from Virginia said he was told “that the IRS uses the Turbo Tax platform for Free File but that TurboTax is not responsible for it.”

Laurie from Washington said she was told by a TurboTax agent that ProPublica was going to run a retraction. (Our stories are accurate, so there’s nothing to retract.) Laurie was charged $130 by TurboTax. Her adjusted gross income was just $376.

An Intuit spokesperson previously said that no material provided to call agents included “derogatory terms about ProPublica.”

Other callers said that Intuit representatives told them the company has not given anyone a refund. That is also false.

After our recent stories, we heard from dozens of people who reported calling the company and getting their money back.

In a separate development on Monday, the Los Angeles city attorney sued Intuit and H&R Block under California’s unfair competition law.

The two suits, which cite ProPublica’s reporting, demand that the companies pay penalties and restitution for deceiving customers.

“Low-income people without someone to stand up for them have not been able to take advantage of what should be a free service,” City Attorney Mike Feuer said in an interview. “That’s wrong.”

He noted the suit was filed under the same law as his office’s high-profile case against Wells Fargo.

Asked about the lawsuit, an H&R Block spokesperson said the company “is proud to have helped millions of Americans with our four free tax filing options.” An Intuit spokesperson said in a statement: “Any suggestion that Intuit does not support the IRS Free File Program is flat wrong. We stand behind our actions as being both appropriate and consistent with our values.”

Update, May 9, 2019: Following publication of this story, Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., ranking member of the Finance Committee, said in a statement: “ProPublica’s latest reporting provides more evidence of dirty tricks from Intuit. Customers eligible to file for free were allegedly denied refunds and given false information about the Free File program.”

Wyden, co-sponsor of a bill that would make the Free File program permanent — the fate of which is now in doubt — added: . . .

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Written by LeisureGuy

9 May 2019 at 3:24 pm

Trump Is Governing by Grievance

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Peter Nicholas writes in the Atlantic:

It was a meeting about maritime shipping, but President Donald Trump had other things on his mind. As he spoke privately with Republican lawmakers in the White House’s Roosevelt Room, Attorney General William Barr was all over TV testifying to a Senate committee about the Russia investigation. Trump had been watching the live coverage, he’d been briefed on Barr’s testimony—and sitting with his guests on Wednesday, he unburdened himself about the unfairness of it all, said a person familiar with the matter.

“He is worked up about it,” said this person, who spoke on the condition of anonymity in order to discuss the private meeting. “He’s not going to let it go. He’s not going to accept the advice to let it go. He’s not going to stop tweeting. He’s not going to change his approach.”

If Trump is to notch any meaningful legislative victories before the 2020 election—and he’s now promising a gargantuan infrastructure package—he’ll need to compartmentalize: to summon the mental discipline essential to passing history-making legislation. The chances of that happening look dim, however, because Trump can’t compartmentalize. Since his swearing-in, he’s proved unable to wall off the irritants and frustrations that cloud any president’s day and focus on a governing agenda. Indeed, the distractions seem to captivate him most; they’ve become his governing agenda.

Last month, former Vice President Joe Biden entered the presidential race. Normally, it would be up to 20-some Democratic rivals to beat him back and deprive him of the nomination. But Trump has leapt into the scrum. Before dawn on May 1, he delivered the first of 60 morning retweets of messages aimed at undercutting Biden’s support among union workers. He has also been insulting Biden’s energy level and appearance.

Now the president’s Biden fixation seems to be filtering down to the staff: Kellyanne Conway, the president’s counselor, spoke with reporters in the White House driveway last week and, unbidden, mocked Biden for not doing more to boost the economy in his eight years as vice president. Trump gets distracted. He tweets. His staff reacts. That’s how whims harden into White House messaging. “The strategy in the White House, on all things, is to wait for the president to tweet and then try to deliver on the tweet,” says Joe Lockhart, a former press secretary for President Bill Clinton.

In recent days, Trump has been preoccupied by random ephemera even as he’s embarked on a new infrastructure deal, announced last week after a meeting with Democratic lawmakers. He has been complaining about how his supporters are being treated by social-media companies. He’s called attention to the disputed result of this year’s Kentucky Derby, CNN ratings, his own poll numbers, and Nick Bosa, an NFL first-round draft pick who turns out to be a MAGA fan. What any of that has to do with bridges, airports, and highways isn’t immediately apparent.

But what most stands to derail a potential legislative breakthrough is his dyspepsia over Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s report and Democratic inquiries into his private business dealings and conduct in office. Trump won’t leave the Russia business alone. Nearly three weeks after the full 448-page report was released, and more than six weeks after Mueller finished it, Trump still talks about how he was wrongly targeted. On Sunday, he tweeted that two years of his presidency were “stollen” due to the inquiry into whether his campaign colluded with Russia in the 2016 election. “He honestly believes that he did nothing wrong and he honestly believes that it was a witch hunt,” the person familiar with the Roosevelt Room meeting said. “You can debate whether it was or it wasn’t; I’m just telling you what he believes.”

At least in the near term, Trump’s Russia obsession poses the greatest risk to his potential infrastructure deal with Democrats. The two sides agreed to spend $2 trillion rebuilding the nation’s infrastructure, a sum that’s equal to the nation’s needs, according to the American Society of Civil Engineers. It would amount to the sort of landmark achievement that eluded Trump’s predecessors. “I would like to do something. It may not be typically Republican,” Trump said at the meeting, according to a Democratic source who was in the room. “I’ll lead on this.”

Both sides have incentive to deal. Trump would like to roll into the 2020 election with a legislative accomplishment apart from the 2017 tax-cut law, which few Americans believe gave them any financial help. Democrats, meanwhile, would relish a chance to bring home to their districts needed jobs and investment. Yet Trump almost immediately dampened hope that the tentative deal would hold. By the weekend, he was walking back the commitment: $2 trillion had slipped to $1 trillion to $2 trillion. And it doesn’t appear that Trump has laid any groundwork for an infrastructure package on an immense scale.

The numbers have left White House aides and GOP allies with sticker shock. Representative Mark Meadows, a North Carolina Republican who is the chairman of the conservative House Freedom Caucus, told me: “I see no way to fund $2 trillion in infrastructure without raising taxes, and for most prudent political calculations, raising taxes is only a winner in progressive circles.”

“To me, that would be a ceiling that is unattainable,” said a White House official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, when asked about the $2 trillion figure.

Nor is it clear that Trump can set aside his differences with Democrats and work toward goals that are in their mutual interest. He is furious with Democratic lawmakers for digging into his record, targeting his tax returns, threatening him with impeachment, and summoning his top aides to testify. On Sunday, Trump upbraided Democrats for trying to get Mueller to appear before Congress, saying the special counsel should boycott the proceedings. “Are [Democrats] looking for a redo because they hated seeing the strong NO COLLUSION conclusion?” Trump tweeted. And he has ordered administration officials to resist Democratic subpoenas, feeding a toxic, partisan atmosphere that precludes consensus-building.

Trump has long been captive to his ever-shifting moods. Top aides fall in and out of favor. Policy positions are embraced and quickly discarded when no longer expedient. What’s different now is the moment. Trump is running for reelection on a strong economy and sizzling financial markets. But economies sour and markets cool. An infrastructure deal, by contrast, would be a durable achievement. Unlike his travel ban, it couldn’t be overturned by executive order.

Yet it requires focus. One figure from history who faced similar circumstances was . . .

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Written by LeisureGuy

7 May 2019 at 4:04 pm

Putin Accomplice Mitch McConnell Says Case Closed

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Jonathan Chait writes in New York:

During the 2016 election, CIA director John Brennan informed congressional leaders that Russian intelligence was interfering in the election in an effort to help Donald Trump win. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell dismissed the conclusion, and depicted it as a frame-up. “You’re trying to screw the Republican candidate,” he charged, warning that he would refuse to sign a bipartisan statement warning Russia to back off. If blocking Russia meant hindering the Trump campaign, McConnell wasn’t interested.

This morning, McConnell took to the Senate floor to deliver a coda to this historic act. In a speech that was notably smarmy even by his standards, the Senate Majority Leader declared the Mueller report to be “case closed,” accused Democrats of refusing to accept the legitimacy of Trump’s election, and called for an end to all investigation or inquiries of Mueller’s findings.

“They told everyone there’d been a conspiracy between Russia and the Trump campaign,” he announced. “Yet on this central question the special counsel’s finding is clear: case closed. Case closed.”

First of all, Mueller’s report did say it was unable to establish a criminal conspiracy between Trump and Russia. But that is not the same thing as saying “case closed.” Indeed, on some of the most important avenues of potential conspiracy, Mueller was simply not able to establish conclusive answers. Paul Manafort, Trump’s campaign manager, gave 75 pages of detailed polling to Konstantin Kilimnik, a Russian agent, but Mueller concedes he “could not assess what Kilimnik (or others he may have given it to) did with it.” Nor could Mueller fully nail down all of Roger Stone’s communications with WikiLeaks.

Second, one of the reasons Mueller could not establish a criminal conspiracy is that Trump signaled his willingness to pardon aides who stayed loyal, thus encouraging them to withhold cooperation. Attorney General William Barr has argued that the failure to prove an underlying crime means Trump should not be charged with obstructing justice, but of course, this means obstructing justice is okay as long as the obstruction works.
Third, McConnell’s speech danced around the massive evidence of obstruction of justice committed by Trump in the Mueller report. His speech, incredibly, didn’t even mention this topic, which occupies half of the Mueller report.

Instead, he addressed it in a backhanded way by defending Barr. The attorney general is a “distinguished public servant whose career stretches back almost 50 years,” he insisted. “He’s widely respected. Nobody claims he has any prior personal allegiance to this president.” That’s true, nobody does say Barr has any personal allegiance to Trump. Nor for that matter does McConnell, who has let his personal irritation with Trump’s lack of discipline slip into the media on occasion. What both men have instead is a partisan allegiance to Trump, which drives them to protect a figure they understand to be erratic and unfit for office, because doing so advances their interests.

McConnell framed his speech as a call for unity, insisting Russia’s goal was to divide the public. “Russia set out to sow discord. To create chaos in American politics and undermine confidence in our democracy,” he said. To continue pursuing the massive evidence of corruption and misconduct in the Mueller report would somehow help Putin. If Americans “remain consumed by unhinged partisanship,” McConnell said, “and keep dividing ourselves … Putin and his agents need only stand on the sidelines and watch as their job is done for them.”

Note here that McConnell is again denying the same thing he denied in 2016: that Russia intervened not just to “divide” Americans but specifically in order to help Trump win. If American political leaders in both parties had closed ranks and rejected Russia’s intervention, it might have backfired. Instead, McConnell assisted their effort.

He continues to assist by using all his powers to prevent Trump from being held accountable for his misconduct. . .

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Written by LeisureGuy

7 May 2019 at 3:25 pm

Prologue to “Winners Take All: The Elite Charade of Changing the World”

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Anand Giridharadas has written an important book for the present moment, Winners Take All: The Elite Charade of Changing the World. To get a better understanding of why I write that, here is the prologue to the book. Read and see what you think.

PROLOGUE

All around us in America is the clank-clank-clank of the new—in our companies and economy, our neighborhoods and schools, our technologies and social fabric. But these novelties have failed to translate into broadly shared progress and the betterment of our overall civilization. American scientists make the most important discoveries in medicine and genetics and publish more biomedical research than those of any other country—but the average American’s health remains worse and slower-improving than that of peers in other rich countries, and in certain years life expectancy actually declines. American inventors create astonishing new ways to learn thanks to the power of video and the Internet, many of them free of charge—but the average twelfth grader tests more poorly in reading today than in 1992. The country has had a “culinary renaissance,” as one publication puts it, one farmers’ market and Whole Foods at a time—but it has failed to improve the nutrition of most people, with the incidence of obesity and related conditions rising over time. The tools for becoming an entrepreneur appear to be more accessible than ever, for the student who learns coding online or the Uber driver—but the share of young people who own a business has fallen by two-thirds since the 1980s. America has birthed a wildly successful online book superstore called Amazon, and another company, Google, has scanned more than twenty-five million books for public use—but illiteracy has remained stubbornly in place and the fraction of Americans who read at least one work of literature a year has dropped by almost a quarter in recent decades. The government has more data at its disposal and more ways of talking and listening to citizens—but only one-quarter as many people find it trustworthy as did in the tempestuous 1960s.

A successful society is a progress machine. It takes in the raw material of innovations and produces broad human advancement. America’s machine is broken. When the fruits of change have fallen on the United States in recent decades, the very fortunate have basketed almost all of them. For instance, the average pretax income of the top tenth of Americans has doubled since 1980, that of the top 1 percent has more than tripled, and that of the top 0.001 percent has risen more than sevenfold—even as the average pretax income of the bottom half of Americans has stayed almost precisely the same. These familiar figures amount to three and a half decades’ worth of wondrous, head-spinning change with zero impact on the average pay of 117 million Americans. Meanwhile, the opportunity to get ahead has been transformed from a shared reality to a perquisite of already being ahead. Among Americans born in 1940, those raised at the top of the upper middle class and the bottom of the lower middle class shared a roughly 90 percent chance of realizing the so-called American dream of ending up better off than their parents. Among Americans born in 1984 and maturing into adulthood today, the new reality is split-screen. Those raised near the top of the income ladder now have a 70 percent chance of realizing the dream. Meanwhile, those close to the bottom, more in need of elevation, have a 35 percent chance of climbing above their parents’ station. And it is not only progress and money that the fortunate monopolize: Rich American men, who tend to live longer than the average citizens of any other country, now live fifteen years longer than poor American men, who endure only as long as men in Sudan and Pakistan.

Thus many millions of Americans, on the left and right, feel one thing in common: that the game is rigged against people like them. Perhaps this is why we hear constant condemnation of “the system,” for it is the system that people expect to turn fortuitous developments into societal progress. Instead, the system—in America and around the world—has been organized to siphon the gains from innovation upward, such that the fortunes of the world’s billionaires now grow at more than double the pace of everyone else’s, and the top 10 percent of humanity have come to hold 90 percent of the planet’s wealth. It is no wonder that the American voting public—like other publics around the world—has turned more resentful and suspicious in recent years, embracing populist movements on the left and right, bringing socialism and nationalism into the center of political life in a way that once seemed unthinkable, and succumbing to all manner of conspiracy theory and fake news. There is a spreading recognition, on both sides of the ideological divide, that the system is broken and has to change.

Some elites faced with this kind of gathering anger have hidden behind walls and gates and on landed estates, emerging only to try to seize even greater political power to protect themselves against the mob. But in recent years a great many fortunate people have also tried something else, something both laudable and self-serving: They have tried to help by taking ownership of the problem.

All around us, the winners in our highly inequitable status quo declare themselves partisans of change. They know the problem, and they want to be part of the solution. Actually, they want to lead the search for solutions. They believe that their solutions deserve to be at the forefront of social change. They may join or support movements initiated by ordinary people looking to fix aspects of their society. More often, though, these elites start initiatives of their own, taking on social change as though it were just another stock in their portfolio or corporation to restructure. Because they are in charge of these attempts at social change, the attempts naturally reflect their biases.

The initiatives mostly aren’t democratic, nor do they reflect collective problem-solving or universal solutions. Rather, they favor the use of the private sector and its charitable spoils, the market way of looking at things, and the bypassing of government. They reflect a highly influential view that the winners of an unjust status quo—and the tools and mentalities and values that helped them win—are the secret to redressing the injustices. Those at greatest risk of being resented in an age of inequality are thereby recast as our saviors from an age of inequality. Socially minded financiers at Goldman Sachs seek to change the world through “win-win” initiatives like “green bonds” and “impact investing.” Tech companies like Uber and Airbnb cast themselves as empowering the poor by allowing them to chauffeur people around or rent out spare rooms. Management consultants and Wall Street brains seek to convince the social sector that they should guide its pursuit of greater equality by assuming board seats and leadership positions. Conferences and idea festivals sponsored by plutocrats and big business host panels on injustice and promote “thought leaders” who are willing to confine their thinking to improving lives within the faulty system rather than tackling the faults. Profitable companies built in questionable ways and employing reckless means engage in corporate social responsibility, and some rich people make a splash by “giving back”—regardless of the fact that they may have caused serious societal problems as they built their fortunes. Elite networking forums like the Aspen Institute and the Clinton Global Initiative groom the rich to be self-appointed leaders of social change, taking on the problems people like them have been instrumental in creating or sustaining. A new breed of community-minded so-called B Corporations has been born, reflecting a faith that more enlightened corporate self-interest—rather than, say, public regulation—is the surest guarantor of the public welfare. A pair of Silicon Valley billionaires fund an initiative to rethink the Democratic Party, and one of them can claim, without a hint of irony, that their goals are to amplify the voices of the powerless and reduce the political influence of rich people like them.

The elites behind efforts like these often speak in a language of “changing the world” and “making the world a better place” more typically associated with barricades than ski resorts. Yet we are left with the inescapable fact that in the very era in which these elites have done so much to help, they have continued to hoard the overwhelming share of progress, the average American’s life has scarcely improved, and virtually all of the nation’s institutions, with the exception of the military, have lost the public’s trust.

Are we ready to hand over our future to the elite, one supposedly world-changing initiative at a time? Are we ready to call participatory democracy a failure, and to declare these other, private forms of change-making the new way forward? Is the decrepit state of American self-government an excuse to work around it and let it further atrophy? Or is meaningful democracy, in which we all potentially have a voice, worth fighting for?

There is no denying that today’s elite may be among the more socially concerned elites in history. But it is also, by the cold logic of numbers, among the more predatory in history. By refusing to risk its way of life, by rejecting the idea that the powerful might have to sacrifice for the common good, it clings to a set of social arrangements that allow it to monopolize progress and then give symbolic scraps to the forsaken—many of whom wouldn’t need the scraps if the society were working right. This book is an attempt to understand the connection between these elites’ social concern and predation, between the extraordinary helping and the extraordinary hoarding, between the milking—and perhaps abetting—of an unjust status quo and the attempts by the milkers to repair a small part of it. It is also an attempt to offer a view of how the elite see the world, so that we might better assess the merits and limitations of their world-changing campaigns.

There are many ways to make sense of all this elite concern and predation. One is that the elites are doing the best they can. The world is what it is; the system is what it is; the forces of the age are bigger than anyone can resist; the most fortunate are helping. This view may allow that this helpfulness is just a drop in the bucket, but it is something. The slightly more critical view is that this elite-led change is well-meaning but inadequate. It treats symptoms, not root causes; it does not change the fundamentals of what ails us. According to this view, elites are shirking the duty of more meaningful reform.

But there is still another, darker way of judging what goes on when elites put themselves in the vanguard of social change: that it not only fails to make things better, but also serves to keep things as they are. After all, it takes the edge off of some of the public’s anger at being excluded from progress. It improves the image of the winners. With its private and voluntary half-measures, it crowds out public solutions that would solve problems for everyone, and do so with or without the elite’s blessing. There is no question that the outpouring of elite-led social change in our era does great good and soothes pain and saves lives. But we should also recall Oscar Wilde’s words about such elite helpfulness being “not a solution” but “an aggravation of the difficulty.” More than a century ago, in an age of churn like our own, he wrote, “Just as the worst slave-owners were those who were kind to their slaves, and so prevented the horror of the system being realised by those who suffered from it, and understood by those who contemplated it, so, in the present state of things in England, the people who do most harm are the people who try to do most good.”

Wilde’s formulation may sound extreme to modern ears. How can there be anything wrong with trying to do good? The answer may be: when the good is an accomplice to even greater, if more invisible, harm. In our era that harm is the concentration of money and power among a small few, who reap from that concentration a near monopoly on the benefits of change. And do-gooding pursued by elites tends not only to leave this concentration untouched, but actually to shore it up. For when elites assume leadership of social change, they are able to reshape what social change is—above all, to present it as something that should never threaten winners. In an age defined by a chasm between those who have power and those who don’t, elites have spread the idea that people must be helped, but only in market-friendly ways that do not upset fundamental power equations. The society should be changed in ways that do not change the underlying economic system that has allowed the winners to win and fostered many of the problems they seek to solve. The broad fidelity to this law helps make sense of what we observe all around: the powerful fighting to “change the world” in ways that essentially keep it the same, and “giving back” in ways that sustain an indefensible distribution of influence, resources, and tools. Is there a better way?

The secretary-general of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), a research and policy organization that works on behalf of the world’s richest countries, recently compared the prevailing elite posture to that of the fictional Italian aristocrat Tancredi Falconeri, who declared, “If we want things to stay as they are, things will have to change.” If this view is correct, then much of the charity and social innovation and give-one-get-one marketing around us may not be reform measures so much as forms of conservative self-defense—measures that protect elites from more menacing change. Among the kinds of issues being sidelined, the OECD leader, Ángel Gurría, wrote, are “rising inequalities of income, wealth and opportunities; the growing disconnect between finance and the real economy; mounting divergence in productivity levels between workers, firms and regions; winner-take-most dynamics in many markets; limited progressivity of our tax systems; corruption and capture of politics and institutions by vested interests; lack of transparency and participation by ordinary citizens in decision-making; the soundness of the education and of the values we transmit to future generations.” Elites, Gurría writes, have found myriad ways to “change things on the surface so that in practice nothing changes at all.” The people with the most to lose from genuine social change have placed themselves in charge of social change, often with the passive assent of those most in need of it.

It is fitting that an era marked by these tendencies should culminate in the election of Donald Trump. Trump is at once an exposer, an exploiter, and an embodiment of the cult of elite-led social change. He tapped, as few before him successfully had, into a widespread intuition that elites were phonily claiming to be doing what was best for most Americans. He exploited that intuition by whipping it into frenzied anger and then directing most of that anger not at elites but at the most marginalized and vulnerable Americans. And he came to incarnate the very fraud that had fueled his rise and that he had exploited. He became, like the elites he assailed, the establishment figure who falsely casts himself as a renegade. He became the rich, educated man who styles himself as the ablest protector of the poor and uneducated—and who insists, against all evidence, that his interests have nothing to do with the change he seeks. He became the chief salesman for the theory, rife among plutocratic change agents, that what is best for powerful him is best for the powerless, too. Trump is the reductio ad absurdum of a culture that tasks elites with reforming the very systems that have made them and left others in the dust.

One thing that unites those who voted for Trump and those who despaired at his being elected is a sense that the country requires transformational reform. The question we confront is whether moneyed elites, who already rule the roost in the economy and exert enormous influence in the corridors of political power, should be allowed to continue their conquest of social change and of the pursuit of greater equality. The only thing better than controlling money and power is to control the efforts to question the distribution of money and power. The only thing better than being a fox is being a fox asked to watch over hens.

What is at stake is whether the reform of our common life is led by governments elected by and accountable to the people, or rather by wealthy elites claiming to know our best interests. We must decide whether, in the name of ascendant values such as efficiency and scale, we are willing to allow democratic purpose to be usurped by private actors who often genuinely aspire to improve things but, first things first, seek to protect themselves. Yes, government is dysfunctional at present. But that is all the more reason to treat its repair as our foremost national priority. Pursuing workarounds of our troubled democracy makes democracy even more troubled. We must ask ourselves why we have so easily lost faith in the engines of progress that got us where we are today—in the democratic efforts to outlaw slavery, end child labor, limit the workday, keep drugs safe, protect collective bargaining, create public schools, battle the Great Depression, electrify rural America, weave a nation together by road, pursue a Great Society free of poverty, extend civil and political rights to women and African Americans and other minorities, and give our fellow citizens health, security, and dignity in old age.

This book offers a series of portraits of this elite-led, market-friendly, winner-safe social change. In these pages, you will meet people who ardently believe in this form of change and people who are beginning to question it. You will meet a start-up employee who believes her for-profit company has the solution to the woes of the working poor, and a billionaire investor in her company who believes that only vigorous public action can stem the rising tide of public rage. You will meet a thinker who grapples with how much she can challenge the rich and powerful if she wants to keep getting their invitations and patronage. You will meet a campaigner for economic equality whose previous employers include Goldman Sachs and McKinsey, and who wonders about his complicity in what he calls “the Trying-to-Solve-the-Problem-with-the-Tools-That-Caused-It issue.” You will meet one of the most powerful figures in the philanthropy world, who stuns his rich admirers by refusing to honor the taboo against speaking of how they make their money. You will meet a former American president who launched his career with a belief in changing the world through political action, and then, as he began to spend time with plutocrats in his post-presidential life, gravitated toward private methods of change that benefit rather than scare them. You will meet a widely lionized “social innovator” who quietly nurses doubts about whether his commercial approach to world-changing is what it is cracked up to be. You will meet an Italian philosopher who reminds us what gets sidelined when the moneyed take over change.

What these various figures have in common is that they are grappling with certain powerful myths—the myths that have fostered an age of extraordinary power concentration; that have allowed the elite’s private, partial, and self-preservational deeds to pass for real change; that have let many decent winners convince themselves, and much of the world, that their plan to “do well by doing good” is an adequate answer to an age of exclusion; that put a gloss of selflessness on the protection of one’s privileges; and that cast more meaningful change as wide-eyed, radical, and vague.

It is my hope in writing what follows to reveal these myths to be exactly that. Much of what appears to be reform in our time is in fact the defense of stasis. When we see through the myths that foster this misperception, the path to genuine change will come into view. It will once again be possible to improve the world without permission slips from the powerful.

 

Written by LeisureGuy

7 May 2019 at 11:18 am

Obstruction of Justice in the Mueller Report: A Heat Map

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Quinta Jurecic writes at Lawfare:

The Mueller report describes numerous instances in which President Trump may have obstructed justice. A few days ago, I threw together a quick spreadsheet on Twitter to assess how Special Counsel Robert Mueller seemed to assess the evidence. Unexpectedly, that spreadsheet got a fair amount of attention—so I thought I would delve back into the evidence to provide a revised visualization with a little more nuance, which will hopefully be helpful to people attempting to parse a legally and factually dense document.

The key question is how Robert Mueller and his team assessed the three elements “common to most of the relevant statutes” relating to obstruction of justice: an obstructive act, a nexus between the act and an official proceeding, and corrupt intent. As Mueller describes, the special counsel’s office “gathered evidence … relevant to the elements of those crimes and analyzed them within an elements framework—while refraining from reaching ultimate conclusions about whether crimes were committed,” because of the Office of Legal Counsel (OLC)’s guidelines against the indictment of a sitting president.

The below heat map is an effort to simplify Mueller’s analysis of the evidence in relation to the three common elements of the obstruction statutes. Instances of possibly obstructive conduct are identified by their section marking in Volume II of the report. (Section A is a general overview of the Trump campaign’s response to public reporting on Russian support for Trump and does not contain an analysis.) Some sections contained varying analysis of multiple possibly obstructive acts, which are identified separately. More information about how the special counsel assessed each possible instance of obstruction is available below the chart itself, with page numbers corresponding to Volume II.

I should emphasize that the below is my interpretation of the evidence as Mueller seems to provide it—others may have different readings. (Richard Hoeg has provided a slightly different take, also available on Twitter.) My assessment rests on an assumption that Mueller is correct in his legal analysis that a president may still obstruct justice even if the act in question is taken entirely under his Article II authority. Under Attorney General William Barr’s reading of Article II, this heat map would look very different. I’ve also accepted at face value Mueller’s statutory argument that 18 U.S.C. § 1512(c)(2) “states a broad, independent, and unqualified prohibition on obstruction of justice,” rather than, as Trump’s personal counsel apparently argued to Mueller, covering only “acts that would impair the integrity and availability of evidence.”

B. Conduct regarding the Flynn investigation

Obstructive act (p. 43): Trump asked for Comey’s loyalty and pressured Comey to “let this go” regarding the FBI investigation into former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn. “In analyzing whether these statements constitute an obstructive act, a threshold question is whether Comey’s account of the interaction is accurate, and, if so, whether the President’s statements had the tendency to impede the administration of justice by shutting down an inquiry that could result in a grand jury investigation and criminal charge.” “[S]ubstantial evidence corroborates Comey’s account.”

Nexus (p. 46): By the time Trump spoke to Comey, Trump had been informed that Flynn had been interviewed by the FBI and that his statements could violate 18 U.S.C. § 1001, the prohibition on lying to federal investigators. “[T]he President’s instruction to the FBI Director to ‘let[] Flynn go’ suggests his awareness that Flynn could face criminal exposure for his conduct and was at risk of prosecution.”

Intent: “[E]vidence is inconclusive” as to whether Trump was aware of Flynn’s calls with Kislyak when they occurred. But “[e]vidence does establish that the President connected the Flynn investigation to the FBI’s broader Russia investigation.”

Trump attempted to have Deputy National Security Adviser K.T. McFarland “draft an internal email” stating that Trump did not ask Flynn to discuss sanctions with Russian Ambassador Sergei Kislyak, which McFarland did not do because she was not sure if the statement would be accurate. Though “evidence does not establish” that Trump was trying to make McFarland lie, the incident “highlights the President’s concern about being associated with Flynn’s conduct,” and McFarland was disturbed by the request and felt it was “irregular.”

C. Conduct regarding public confirmation of the Russia investigation

Obstructive act (p. 60): Though “evidence shows” that Trump reached out to intelligence community leadership, that outreach was “not interpreted … as directives to improperly interfere with the investigation.” Mueller notes that Trump’s outreach to NSA Director Mike Rogers was “significant enough that Rogers thought it important to document the encounter in a written memorandum.”

Nexus (p. 60): The outreach took place following FBI Director James Comey’s announcement of the FBI’s counterintelligence and criminal investigation of Russian election interference.

Intent (p. 60): “The evidence does not establish that the President asked or directed intelligence agency leaders to stop or interfere with the FBI’s Russia investigation[.]” However, “the President’s intent in trying to prevent Sessions’s recusal, and in reaching out the Coats, Pompeo, Rogers, and Comey following Comey’s public announcement of the FBI’s Russia investigation, is nevertheless relevant to understanding what motivated the President’s other actions towards the investigation.” In other words, while Trump’s actions here do not indicate intent as to the specific potentially obstructive conduct at issue in this section, they are relevant to understanding his intent as to his broader pattern of conduct toward the investigation.

D. Firing of James Comey

Obstructive act (p. 74): “Firing Comey would qualify as an obstructive act if it had the natural and probable effect of interfering with or impeding the investigation.” Trump’s handling of the Comey firing and his actions in the subsequent days “had the potential to affect a successor director’s conduct of the investigation,” though removing Comey “would not necessarily … prevent or impede the FBI from continuing its investigation.”

Nexus (p. 75): By the time of the Comey firing, Trump was aware of both the FBI investigation into Russian election interference and the investigation into Flynn.

Intent (p. 75): “Substantial evidence” indicates that Trump fired Comey because of “Comey’s unwillingness to publicly state that the President was not personally under investigation.” Mueller notes that “[s]ome evidence indicates that the President believed that the erroneous perception he was under investigation harmed his ability to manage domestic and foreign affairs”—but “[o]ther evidence … indicates that the President wanted to protect himself from an investigation into his campaign.” “The initial reliance on a pretextual justification [for Comey’s firing] could support an inferencethat the President had concerns about providing the real reason for the firing, although the evidence does not resolve whether those concerns were personal, personal, or both.”

E. Efforts to fire Mueller

Obstructive act (p. 87):  . . .

Continue reading. There’s much more. The US is not doing well. The Republican party has turned against the Constitution.

Written by LeisureGuy

7 May 2019 at 9:34 am

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