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How Russian Antitrust Enforcers Defeated Google’s Monopoly

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Matt Stoller publishing some interesting stuff these days. Take a look:

Today I’m going to write about what I think is a fascinating example of how antitrust enforcers can win in the most unlikely places. To set up the story, I’ll start with some conventional wisdom about enforcement. Most people in the antitrust world think that European antitrust agencies are strong and aggressive, in particular against big tech giants like Google, and that American enforcers are far more feeble.

I’m going try and turn this story on its head, not by showing whether Americans or Europeans are exerting more power, but by showing who is getting results. And by that metric, if you want a competitive search market where Google faces competition, there’s only one place in the world to find it, and it’s not in Western Europe or America. It’s in Russia.

But first some news.

News Update

Netflix’s content strategy isn’t working, so expect even more drops in the stock(Marketwatch) Netflix’s stock dropped 11% as its subscriber base in the U.S. shrank for the first time. The key content suppliers – Disney, AT&T, CBS – have learned from Netflix’s monopoly play, and are going to crush the company and then replicate its model, only with must-have content. The slow death of Hollywood continues.

Boeing’s 737 MAX Grounding Spills Over Into Economy, Weighs on GDP (WSJ) The problem with having one aerospace maker is when that company has serious trouble, so does your entire industry. And when that industry is an important part of your economy and your export mix, well… it hits the nation at large. It also undermines the value of the Pentagon’s $100B+ shadow bailout of Boeing via an unnecessary upgraded nuclear arsenal. We get nuclear missiles we don’t need, in return for having no more competent civilian aircraft makers.

Republican and Democratic reps slam Facebook’s Libra (Video on Mashable) Everyone in Congress hated Facebook’s Libra. It was a dumb idea, executed poorly. Why? Well read on.

Meet Morgan Beller, the 26-year-old woman behind Facebook’s plan to make its own currency (CNBC) One of the co-creators of Libra is a 26 year old with zero experience in finance. I wonder what happens next oh wait here we go:

So, let me offer my thoughts, HAHAHAAHAHAHAHA, sorry, I’ll try to, HAHAHAHAHA. Never mind.

DOJ: Antitrust ruling against Qualcomm could ‘put our nation’s security at risk’ (CNET) I wrote about Trump DOJ chief Makan Delrahim in the first issue of Big. He’s a lot like Trump, he hands out favors and has no coherent view on the law. Qualcomm is a former client of his.

And now.

How Russia Defeated Google’s Monopoly

This is a chart of the Russian search market. Notice anything?

Yes, that’s right. In this search market, there’s competition. In fact, outside of China, there is only one search engine market with any rivals to Google, and that is in Russia.

We hear a lot these days about antitrust, and particularly big tech. But why do we not hear about the only success story in the entire world? I don’t know, but my guess is that it’s a social phenomenon. The agency that did the enforcement was the Federal Antimonopoly Service of Russia, and the story causes a great deal of embarrassment for the enforcers in Europe and America. Reporters, enforcers, and fancy prize givers don’t tend to trust the Russian government.

In this case, however, there’s a lot to learn from what the Russians did. The history of the competitive Russian search market isn’t just about aggressive and intelligent antitrust enforcement. It also involves innovation outside of California. So that’s where I’ll start.

The Rise of Yandex

For much of the Cold War period, Silicon Valley in the United States was a key center of innovation around computers. It wasn’t the only center, but it mattered a great deal, both in hardware and software. The Soviet Union also trained a large community of engineers and scientists to wage their Cold War, many of whom were amazing software creators. Tetris, for instance, was invented in Russia. After the Soviet Union fell apart, some of these engineers started tech companies.

In 1990, two Russians launched the company that would become the Russian search giant Yandex, which is now the fifth largest search company in the world and which has – like Google – become a tech conglomerate. By the mid-1990s these engineers were experts in Russian language search. In 1997 they launched a Russian-language search engine, and by 1998 Yandex (named for “Yet Another Index”) was in the contextual advertising business. Yandex chose a business model similar to what Google, founded that year, would also eventually select a few years later.

In the U.S., Google was a better search engine than its competitors (like Infoseek and Altavista), and beat them to dominate the market with a better experience and more relevant results. Google used a more efficient algorithm for indexing the web, had faster servers, and began plowing user data back into its search results to make the results more accurate. I remember the first time I used Google search, it was like magic. With the rest of the search engines you had to go through lots of results, whereas Google just helped me find what I wanted.

In 2000, Google took its search product global to beat out potential foreign competition, launching in ten languages. By 2001, it had an office in Tokyo. The company was quickly conquering the world faster than local search players could get up and running. In Russia, however, Google was never able to dominate. Instead, Yandex offered a competitive search product; it was as good as Google, but in Russian.

Google nonetheless came into Russia, and did fairly well. The two search engines had different strengths; Yandex was very good at indexing Russian, appealed to users in all regions of Russia, and had a smaller index. Google had superior results on technical topics in Russia, had appeal among IT professionals and young people, and was more popular in big cities. Up until 2012, Yandex held roughly 60% of the search market in Russia.

Google Makes Its Move on Yandex

Google had conquered the market for desktop search throughout most of the world, but Yandex had a majority (though not overwhelming) share in Russia. But as is often the case, the most vulnerable time for a monopoly, as well as its moment of greatest opportunity, at a technological inflection point when a new market structure is emerging. From 2007-2014, the computing world shifted to mobile, and this shift was such an inflection point. For example, in 2011, Facebook was a profitable social network without a mobile ad business, today the company gets roughly 90% of its revenue from mobile advertising and is far larger and more powerful. For search, the shift was similarly critical, people would search on their phones as much or more than they did on desktop computers, and would include geolocation data and maps in those searches.

Desktop and mobile search are deeply related products, but they operate in slightly different contexts. In the early 2010s, mobile search was growing rapidly, but nearly all monetization took place on desktop. Google’s strategy to conquer mobile search took shape in 2012, and played out all over the world. It had to do with the company’s control of a mobile phone operating system, Android, which it bought in 2005.

In 2008, Google experimented by building its first Android phone. The company eventually settled on a strategy of having original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) like Samsung use Android as the brains of their phones. The price was irresistible: zero. Google gave away Android, and starting in 2012, gave away their app store known as Google Play.  . . .

Continue reading. There’s much more.

Written by LeisureGuy

23 July 2019 at 12:40 pm

The Four Ordinary People Who Took On Big Pharma

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Beth Macy writes in the NY Times:

In the beginning, there were just four: the Godfather from Philly, the Army sergeant from Georgia, the professor from California and the feisty mom from Florida.

It was the early 2000s, and they usually talked over old-school computer message boards. Occasionally they gathered in person, carrying posters of their children and middle-aged spouses — all dead from OxyContin overdoses.

Today we know just how dangerous this drug is. Purdue Pharma, the company that made OxyContin, the first extended-release opioid to be widely prescribed, may finally be held to account. Some 200,000 people have died from overdosing on prescription opioids, and around 2,000 lawsuits attempting to make opioid makers and distributors pay for the damage unleashed by careless overprescribing are wending their way through the courts. But experts predict it will take more than $100 billion to turn the crisis around, and it’s hard to feel optimistic when you know the story of how long and hard these four labored in obscurity before anyone listened to them.

The four called themselves RAPP, short for Relatives Against Purdue Pharma, and they testified at hearings, lent support at whistle-blower trials and marched outside pharmaceutical-funded physician meetings at fancy resorts. They were outgunned at every pass — by a pharma-funded phalanx of lawyers and by doctors who had become paid spokesmen for the company. One resort even turned a sprinkler on them. But they picked up new members by the week.

Their leader was Ed Bisch, an I.T. worker from Philadelphia who’d lost his 18-year-old son, Eddie, in 2001. They called him the Godfather because he’d brought them together in the first place, via his website, OxyKills, shortly after Eddie’s death.

Mr. Bisch had wanted to believe Purdue’s excuses at first. He was persuaded, even, to change the name of his message board to OxyAbuseKills, after the company approached him about softening his tone, then gave him a $10,000 grant to put toward his education efforts. “They kept blaming it on the ‘abusers,’ but finally I said, ‘Look, at least 50 percent of my emails are from relatives of peoplewho are patients who are either dead or addicted,’” Mr. Bisch recalled. “It took me a while to realize how evil this company was.”

Barbara Van Rooyan, a professor of counseling at Folsom Lake College in California until she retired in 2012, told Mr. Bisch recently that finding his website “saved my life and gave me hope that the grief could be used for some good.” Her 24-year-old son, Patrick, died after taking OxyContin at a Fourth of July party in 2004. “It’s kind of like a muscle relaxant, and it’s F.D.A.-approved, so it’s safe,” the friend told Patrick.

The following year, with support from RAPP, Ms. Van Rooyan petitioned the Food and Drug Administration to recall OxyContin until it could be reformulated to make it harder for abusers to crush or dissolve the pills for a more intense high; she also wanted the drug restricted to end-of-life care and to treatment of cancer and other severe pain. It took eight years before the F.D.A. responded by noting that Purdue had voluntarily reformulated the drug in 2010 (so that point was moot), and her restriction petition was denied.

By 2007, RAPP numbered in the hundreds. That August scores of them converged in the rain outside a tiny federal courthouse in Abingdon, Va., because they wanted “to look evil in the face,” as the Florida mother, Lee Nuss, put it. Three of Purdue’s top executives had flown in to be sentenced on misdemeanor misbranding charges. Purdue’s parent company pleaded guilty to a felony misbranding charge, admitting that for six years it had fraudulently marketed OxyContin as being less prone to abuse and having fewer narcotic side effects than competing drugs.

All four of the original members of RAPP spoke at the hearing. They knew one another so well by then that they car-pooled to Abingdon and doubled up in hotel rooms to save money. One of them, Ed Vanicky, had fed evidence to the Virginia prosecutors — including a now-infamous cassette tape of a public-relations conference in which a Purdue spokesman brushed off the problems of OxyContin in Appalachia by saying, “The fact is, these rural areas have had problems with prescription drug abuse since the Civil War.” (In other words, the hillbillies, not Purdue’s drug, were defective.)

Mr. Vanicky was an Army sergeant in 2000 when he found his 44-year-old wife, Mary Jo, in bed dead after taking OxyContin for a herniated disc. He had just returned home from a yearlong posting in Korea and had never even heard the word OxyContin until the coroner who performed his wife’s autopsy inquired about it.

As she stepped down from the Abingdon witness stand, the Florida mother, Ms. Nuss, brandished a small brass urn containing some of the ashes of her son, Randall, who was 18 when he overdosed on OxyContin. There was a metal detector in the courthouse, and her friends still can’t figure out how she managed to sneak in that urn.

In the end, the company was forced to pay some $634 million in fines. A pittance, compared to the billions it had earned on the drug.

That fine is still the largest paid by Purdue to date, and it would do nothing to slow the epidemic. Not a single executive went to jail, and none of the settlement money went to treatment. OxyContin sales surged in its aftermath, topping $2 billion in 2008.

When Purdue finally reformulated OxyContin to make it abuse-resistant, the pill-addicted switched to heroin and, later, fentanyl to keep their dopesickness at bay. Within another decade, nearly 400,000 people would be deadMore than 2.6 million Americans are now addicted.

Today, the group’s prescience is clear. But they are sad, and they are tired. They still believe the company’s owners, the Sackler family, and executives should go to jail. But more than anything, they want the judges overseeing the lawsuits to make sure Purdue and the family use their riches to guarantee Americans access to treatment.

Recent news of the company’s misdeeds — like the allegation from New York’s attorney general, Letitia James, that Sackler family members moved hundreds of millions of dollars into private or offshore accounts, paying themselves when they knew the company was already insolvent or close to it — only confirms what the four have long believed.

In March, Oklahoma settled its case against Purdue and the Sacklers for $270 million — in part because the company was contemplating filing bankruptcy, and the state feared bankruptcy claims would insulate it from paying restitution. That meant all the documents in the case would remain sealed — a fate RAPP laments because it allows the company to hide its tactics from public scrutiny, occluding the dangers of the drug. “I have been saying for years that sealing the lawsuits let them get away with murder,” Mr. Bisch said.

This summer Vanity Fair published a rare interview with David Sackler, grandson of one of the three brothers who founded Purdue Pharma, who said his family had suffered “endless castigation,” including the taunting of his 4-year-old at nursery school. With a tone-deafness reserved for people who can afford to surround themselves with sycophants, he told the writer Bethany McLean, “Look at all the good Purdue has done.”

Mr. Vanicky read the article and told me, “I bet it sucks to be a Sackler these days.” He has personally called the offices of many attorneys general to thank them for filing suit against the Sacklers and Purdue.

Now 72,  . . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

21 July 2019 at 3:27 pm

The Economist Who Would Fix the American Dream

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Gareth Cook writes in the Atlantic:

Raj Chetty got his biggest break before his life began. His mother, Anbu, grew up in Tamil Nadu, a tropical state at the southern tip of the Indian subcontinent. Anbu showed the greatest academic potential of her five siblings, but her future was constrained by custom. Although Anbu’s father encouraged her scholarly inclinations, there were no colleges in the area, and sending his daughter away for an education would have been unseemly.

But as Anbu approached the end of high school, a minor miracle redirected her life. A local tycoon, himself the father of a bright daughter, decided to open a women’s college, housed in his elegant residence. Anbu was admitted to the inaugural class of 30 young women, learning English in the spacious courtyard under a thatched roof and traveling in the early mornings by bus to a nearby college to run chemistry experiments or dissect frogs’ hearts before the men arrived. Anbu excelled, and so began a rapid upward trajectory. She enrolled in medical school. “Why,” her father was asked, “do you send her there?” Among their Chettiar caste, husbands commonly worked abroad for years at a time, sending back money, while wives were left to raise the children. What use would a medical degree be to a stay-at-home mother?

In 1962, Anbu married Veerappa Chetty, a brilliant man from Tamil Nadu whose mother and grandmother had sometimes eaten less food so there would be more for him. Anbu became a doctor and supported her husband while he earned a doctorate in economics. By 1979, when Raj was born in New Delhi, his mother was a pediatrics professor and his father was an economics professor who had served as an adviser to Prime Minister Indira Gandhi.

When Chetty was 9, his family moved to the United States, and he began a climb nearly as dramatic as that of his parents. He was the valedictorian of his high-school class, then graduated in just three years from Harvard University, where he went on to earn a doctorate in economics and, at age 28, was among the youngest faculty members in the university’s history to be offered tenure. In 2012, he was awarded the MacArthur genius grant. The following year, he was given the John Bates Clark Medal, awarded to the most promising economist under 40. (He was 33 at the time.) In 2015, Stanford University hired him away. Last summer, Harvard lured him back to launch his own research and policy institute, with funding from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative.

Chetty turns 40 this month, and is widely considered to be one of the most influential social scientists of his generation. “The question with Raj,” says Harvard’s Edward Glaeser, one of the country’s leading urban economists, “is notif he will win a Nobel Prize, but when.”

The work that has brought Chetty such fame is an echo of his family’s history. He has pioneered an approach that uses newly available sources of government data to show how American families fare across generations, revealing striking patterns of upward mobility and stagnation. In one early study, he showed that children born in 1940 had a 90 percent chance of earning more than their parents, but for children born four decades later, that chance had fallen to 50 percent, a toss of a coin.

In 2013, Chetty released a colorful map of the United States, showing the surprising degree to which people’s financial prospects depend on where they happen to grow up. In Salt Lake City, a person born to a family in the bottom fifth of household income had a 10.8 percent chance of reaching the top fifth. In Milwaukee, the odds were less than half that.

Since then, each of his studies has become a front-page media event (“Chetty bombs,” one collaborator calls them) that combines awe—millions of data points, vivid infographics, a countrywide lens—with shock. This may not be the America you’d like to imagine, the statistics testify, but it’s what we’ve allowed America to become. Dozens of the nation’s elite colleges have more children of the 1 percent than from families in the bottom 60 percent of family income. A black boy born to a wealthy family is more than twice as likely to end up poor as a white boy from a wealthy family. Chetty has established Big Data as a moral force in the American debate.Now he wants to do more than change our understanding of America—he wants to change America itself. His new Harvard-based institute, called Opportunity Insights, is explicitly aimed at applying his findings in cities around the country and demonstrating that social scientists, despite a discouraging track record, are able to fix the problems they articulate in journals. His staff includes an eight-person policy team, which is building partnerships with Charlotte, Seattle, Detroit, Minneapolis, and other cities.

For a man who has done so much to document the country’s failings, Chetty is curiously optimistic. He has the confidence of a scientist: If a phenomenon like upward mobility can be measured with enough precision, then it can be understood; if it can be understood, then it can be manipulated. “The big-picture goal,” Chetty told me, “is to revive the American dream.”

Last summer, I visited Opportunity Insights on its opening day. The offices are housed on the second floor of a brick building, above a café and across Massachusetts Avenue from Harvard’s columned Widener Library. Chetty arrived in econ-casual: a lilac dress shirt, no jacket, black slacks. He is tall and trim, with an untroubled air; he smiled as he greeted two of his longtime collaborators—the Brown University economist John Friedman and Harvard’s Nathaniel Hendren. They walked him around, showing off the finished space, done in a modern palette of white, wood, and aluminum with accent walls of yellow and sage.

Later, after Chetty and his colleagues had finished giving a day of seminars to their new staff, I caught up with him in his office, which was outfitted with a pristine whiteboard, an adjustable-height desk, and a Herman Miller chair that still had the tags attached. The first time I’d met him, at an economics conference, he had told me he was one of several cousins on his mother’s side who go by Raj, all named after their grandfather, Nadarajan, all with sharp minds and the same long legs and easy gait. Yet of Nadarajan’s children, only Chetty’s mother graduated from college, and he’s certain that this fact shaped his generation’s possibilities. He was able to come to the United States as a child and attend an elite private school, the University School of Milwaukee. New York Raj—the family appends a location to keep them straight—came to the U.S. later in life, at age 28, worked in drugstores, and then took a series of jobs with the City of New York. Singapore Raj found a job in a temple there that allows him to support his family back in India, but means they must live apart. Karaikudi Raj, named for the town where his mother grew up, committed suicide as a teenager.

I asked Boston Raj to consider what might have become of him if that wealthy Indian businessman had not decided, in the precise year his mother was finishing high school, to create a college for the talented women of southeastern Tamil Nadu. “I would likely not be here,” he said, thinking for a moment. “To put it another way: Who are all the people who are not here, who would have been here if they’d had the opportunities? That is a really good question.”

Charlotte is one of America’s great urban success stories. In the 1970s, it was a modest-size city left behind as the textile industry that had defined North Carolina moved overseas. But in the 1980s, the “Queen City” began to lift itself up. US Airways established a hub at the Charlotte Douglas International Airport, and the region became a major transportation and distribution center. Bank of America built its headquarters there, and today Charlotte is in a dead heat with San Francisco to be the nation’s second-largest banking center, after New York. New skyscrapers have sprouted downtown, and the city boundary has been expanding, replacing farmland with spacious homes and Whole Foods stores. In the past four decades, Charlotte’s population has nearly tripled.

Charlotte has also stood out in Chetty’s research, though not in a good way. In a 2014 analysis of the country’s 50 largest metropolitan areas, Charlotte ranked last in ability to lift up poor children. Only 4.4 percent of Charlotte’s kids moved from the bottom quintile of household income to the top. Kids born into low-income families earned just $26,000 a year, on average, as adults—perched on the poverty line. “It was shocking,” says Brian Collier, an executive vice president of the Foundation for the Carolinas, which is working with Opportunity Insights. “The Charlotte story is that we are a meritocracy, that if you come here and are smart and motivated, you will have every opportunity to achieve greatness.” The city’s true story, Chetty’s data showed, is of selective opportunity: All the data-scientist and business-development-analyst jobs in the thriving banking sector are a boon for out-of-towners and the progeny of the well-to-do, but to grow up poor in Charlotte is largely to remain poor.

To help cities like Charlotte, Chetty takes inspiration from medicine. For thousands of years, he explained, little progress was made in understanding disease, until technologies like the microscope gave scientists novel ways to understand biology, and thus the pathologies that make people ill. In October, Chetty’s institute released an interactive map of the United States called the Opportunity Atlas, revealing the terrain of opportunity down to the level of individual neighborhoods. This, he says, will be his microscope.

Drawing on anonymized government data over a three-decade span, the researchers linked children to the parents who claimed them as dependents. The atlas then followed poor kids from every census tract in the country, showing how much they went on to earn as adults. The colors on the atlas reveal a generation’s prospects: red for areas where kids fared the worst; shades of orange, yellow, and green for middling locales; and blue for spots like Salt Lake City’s Foothill neighborhood, where upward mobility is strongest. It can also track children born into higher income brackets, compare results by race and gender, and zoom out to show states, regions, or the country as a whole.

The Opportunity Atlas has a fractal quality. Some regions of the United States  . . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

21 July 2019 at 11:47 am

How America Got to ‘Zero Tolerance’ on Immigration: The Inside Story

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Jason Zengerie reports in the NY Times:

On the last day of March, Kirstjen Nielsen set off for what was supposed to be a weeklong trip to Europe with a packed itinerary. In London, she would meet with British officials on counterterrorism matters, then travel on to Stockholm to discuss election security with her Swedish counterparts and finally head to Paris, where she would represent the United States at a meeting of Group of 7 interior ministers. These are some of the far-flung obligations of the secretary of homeland security, who bears responsibility for not only thwarting terrorist attacks and preventing foreign interference in American elections but also cleaning up after hurricanes and ensuring that the United States doesn’t cede control of the Arctic to Russia and China.

But the Department of Homeland Security’s mission had increasingly been telescoped into a single, all-encompassing concern. “Under Trump,” says Juliette Kayyem, a professor at Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government who served as an assistant secretary at the department under President Barack Obama, “it’s a department that looks at homeland security only through a lens of border enforcement.” A few days before Nielsen left for London, she learned that, in March, the number of undocumented immigrants Customs and Border Protection stopped as they were crossing the country’s Southwest border would top 100,000 — the first time the monthly statistic had hit six figures in 12 years. In response, President Trump threatened to halt all cross-border traffic, people and goods between the United States and Mexico — a move that would wreak havoc not only on the Mexican economy but on the American one as well.

Nielsen went ahead with the trip to Europe and spent her flight to London ordering “emergency surge operations” on the border. At least 750 Customs and Border Protection officers assigned to process cars and trucks at ports of entry were redeployed to the border to hunt for people who crossed the border illegally. But after 24 hours in Britain, following a series of calls with Trump, Vice President Mike Pence and the acting White House chief of staff, Mick Mulvaney, Nielsen cut her European trip short. She rushed back to the United States to conduct a series of emergency border visits, if only to demonstrate to the president — her “audience of one,” as a Nielsen adviser described him — that she was working to fix the problem. Stockholm and Paris were scrapped in favor of El Paso; Yuma, Ariz.; and Calexico, Calif., where, on the first Friday in April, she met Trump at the Calexico Border Patrol Station.

In the squat, sand-colored building in the Sonoran Desert, Nielsen looked on as Trump held a press event with C.B.P. officers. He praised their work capturing migrants trying to cross the border and praised Mexico for its recent efforts to prevent migrants from reaching it. “I’m totally willing to close the border, but Mexico, over the last four days, has done more than they’ve ever done,” Trump said. “They’re apprehending people now by the thousands and bringing them back to their countries, bringing them back to where they came from.” During those four days, Nielsen had been in regular contact with Mexican officials, assuring them that Trump “was as serious as a heart attack about sealing the border,” a former administration official told me. When Mexico responded, the official says, “it felt like the president had been walked back from the brink.”

Then Trump charged toward a different precipice. Still speaking to the C.B.P. officers but now directing his comments to potential immigrants, he made a proclamation. “This is our new statement,” Trump said. “The system is full. Can’t take you anymore. Whether it’s asylum, whether it’s anything you want, it’s illegal immigration. We can’t take you anymore. We can’t take you. Our country is full.” Trump went on: “So turn around. That’s the way it is.”

This position had long been a bone of contention between Trump and Nielsen. A year earlier, during a cabinet meeting at the White House, Jeff Sessions, the attorney general at the time, told Trump that to solve the immigration crisis, his homeland security secretary, Nielsen, simply needed to stop letting people into the country, according to two former administration officials. (Sessions could not be reached for comment.) Nielsen tried to explain that this wasn’t something she believed that she — or the United States, for that matter — could do. Under federal law and international treaties, people fleeing persecution in their home country may seek to live in safety in the United States. If someone arriving at the border requested asylum, she said, the United States could not legally turn that person away without processing the claim, and there was no legal mechanism by which the United States could hang a “no vacancy” sign at its borders.

But Trump brushed her argument aside, dressing her down for several minutes, in front of her cabinet colleagues, for being weak and naïve. The tongue-lashing was so intense that after the meeting, Nielsen discussed with Pence whether she should resign. (Pence told her she shouldn’t.)

After the C.B.P. press event, Nielsen, sporting aviator sunglasses and a navy blue quilted vest, escorted Trump across a dusty field to inspect a new section of border wall. Briefly pulling him aside from the Kevlar-clad C.B.P. officers and gun-toting local law-enforcement officials who were accompanying them, Nielsen, according to two people familiar with the conversation, reviewed with the president the options available to him short of refusing to let people in. Trump wasn’t pleased. Kevin McAleenan, then the commissioner of C.B.P., one of the agencies under the D.H.S. umbrella, was also on the wall-inspecting trip. According to two people familiar with the encounter, Trump urged him to block asylum seekers from entering the United States. If McAleenan went to prison for doing so, Trump said, he would pardon him. (The White House has denied that Trump said this.)

Flying back to Washington that evening, Nielsen arranged for a meeting with the president in the White House residence on Sunday afternoon. According to the former administration official, she intended to ask the president to create a “border czar” position, headquartered in the White House, to oversee the administration’s border and immigration policy in her place. It was an extraordinary request — a cabinet member voluntarily proposing to cede a share of her power. Before she could fully discuss it, though, Trump told her that he thought it was time for a change. Nielsen offered to step down, left the White House and wrote her resignation letter.

On Sunday night, she was preparing to leave her post, when, according to two former senior administration officials, she and her advisers received urgent calls from White House officials, asking her to stay in the job a few extra days. Trump intended to name McAleenan as acting secretary, but in order for him to do so, the White House would need to fire Nielsen’s acting deputy secretary, Claire Grady — who by law would become acting secretary once Nielsen stepped down. Nielsen would also need to rewrite the department’s orders of succession so that in the absence of a secretary and a deputy secretary, the head of C.B.P. became acting secretary.

In a subsequent conversation, Nielsen told Mulvaney, according to a person familiar with the exchange, that she thought it was a bad idea and that Trump should just nominate McAleenan to be secretary. But Mulvaney explained that Trump preferred the “flexibility” of having his homeland security secretary be an acting one. (Mulvaney currently serves as Trump’s acting chief of staff.) Nielsen acceded to Trump’s wishes. “I share the president’s goal of securing the border,” Nielsen told a gaggle of reporters outside her rowhouse in Alexandria, Va., the next morning as she headed to D.H.S. headquarters. “I will continue to support all efforts to address the humanitarian and security crisis on the border. And other than that, I’m on my way to keep doing what I can for the next few days.”

From the first day of his 2016 presidential campaign, when he used his kickoff speech in Trump Tower to rail against Mexican immigrants who were “rapists” and who were “bringing drugs” and “bringing crime” to the United States, immigration has been Trump’s lodestar. In his first week in the White House, Trump issued his “travel ban” executive order blocking citizens of seven majority-Muslim countries from entering the United States. Last December, he shut down the federal government for five weeks — the longest government shutdown in American history — over congressional Democrats’ refusal to allocate $5 billion for the construction of a border wall. Today, Trump’s extreme focus on combating illegal immigration is manifested in the overcrowded detention facilities packed with sick, unwashed and hungry adults and children along the Southwest border.

Supporting Trump in all this are a group of immigration restrictionists — officials and advisers who have single-mindedly pursued a policy of not just cracking down on illegal border-crossing, in the manner of conventional immigration hawks, but also limiting all immigration to the best of their ability. Chief among them is Trump’s senior policy adviser, Stephen Miller. Since arriving in Washington a decade ago, Miller, who is 33, has been even more focused than Trump on reducing both illegal and legal immigration to the United States. In 2014, as an aide to Sessions — who was an Alabama senator at the time and who holds similar views — Miller worked with media allies at Breitbart and The Daily Caller to gin up conservative outrage that was instrumental in scuttling bipartisan immigration-reform legislation. In 2016, as a staff member on Trump’s presidential campaign, he not only wrote the candidate’s hard-line anti-immigration speeches but also often served as the warm-up act at his rallies. “They say, ‘Oh, well, we’re going to secure the border,’ ” Miller told a crowd in Las Vegas in June 2016. “Do they ever get it secure, folks?” The crowd roared: “Nooooooo!”

Miller is the architect of the Trump administration’s immigration policy — but staffing an entire federal government with Stephen Millers is an unrealistic proposition. Expertise and experience must be drawn on, however reluctantly; career agency employees can’t just be fired and replaced en masse. A defining conflict of the Trump administration, accordingly, has been the one between the small group of ideologues like Miller and the much bigger cadres of conventional Republican appointees who have gone to work for Trump.

For that group, Trump’s presidency has offered a Faustian bargain. Because many of the senior, thoroughly qualified Republicans who would have filled out, say, a Jeb Bush administration refused — or were refused — jobs under Trump, his presidency has provided a remarkable opportunity for more junior, or less distinguished, bureaucracy climbers to ascend to heights of government that they might not otherwise have reached anytime soon, if ever. But doing so has required them to acquiesce to, and often execute, policies that both Democratic and Republican administrations previously considered beyond the pale — all while reassuring themselves that if they were not there, the administration’s policies would be even more extreme.

Perhaps nowhere has the bargain been rendered in starker terms than in the Department of Homeland Security, which oversees most of the country’s immigration system. This article is based on interviews with more than 20 current and former department and government officials. Most of them requested anonymity so that they could speak candidly and because they feared retribution. The Department of Homeland Security did not respond to a list of detailed queries regarding this article. In response to an inquiry, Hogan Gidley, the principal deputy White House press secretary, said in a statement: “These are just more baseless, phony fabrications from angry Beltway bureaucrats who oppose the president’s strong determination to create a lawful, sane immigration system that serves the American people.”

The story the current and former officials tell is one of a cabinet department buffeted by “irrational” demands and “silly ideas,” as it has struggled with its role as the tip of the spear of the president’s top policy priority. Indeed, for the past two and a half years — whether it was the travel ban or family separation or now the humanitarian crisis at the border — D.H.S. has found itself at the center of some of the Trump administration’s greatest political controversies and moral dilemmas. . .

Continue reading. There’s a lot more. It’s comprehensive report.

Written by LeisureGuy

18 July 2019 at 5:52 pm

Home elevators have killed and injured kids for decades. Safety regulators won’t order a simple fix.

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The government is not doing its job. Todd Frankel reports in the Washington Post:

It was lunchtime when 2 1 /2-year-old Fletcher Hartz opened the door to the elevator at his grandparents’ home in Little Rock.

His mother, Nicole Hartz, stood a few feet away in the kitchen making peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. She didn’t see him walk into the hallway and pull open the elevator door, which looked like an ordinary closet door. But she heard him cry.

She thought Fletcher, a curious little boy with thick brown hair, was upset because he couldn’t reach a light switch. She went to check on him and found Fletcher trapped behind the door to the elevator, which her in-laws had installed a few years earlier to accommodate their own elderly parents at the two-story home.

Nicole yanked on the door. It was locked, automatically secured by a safety device after being closed. But she could pull it open a crack. She could see Fletcher was caught in the narrow gap behind the outer door and just in front of an accordion door that closed off the elevator car, a no-man’s land where the floor ended and the edge of the elevator car began. The space was only a few inches wide, just enough for his tiny body.

She didn’t panic. He wasn’t hurt. It’s going to be okay, she recalled telling him that day in February 2017.

But she didn’t know what many in the elevator industry had known for more than 70 years: that children caught between the doors had been killed and injured before, crushed by moving elevators when their tiny bodies collided with the door frame above or fell into the elevator shaft below — a danger allowed to exist all these years by companies and regulators despite a simple solution, according to interviews with 28 officials, parents and regulators, plus a review of hundreds of documents from courts, companies and government agencies.

Corporate memos going back to at least 1943 highlighted the hazard. Lawsuits filed on behalf of dead and injured children since 2001 further spelled out the risk. In 2005, several elevator experts tried to change the nation’s elevator safety code to shrink the door gap — and were rejected. After more accidents, the elevator code finally changed in 2017, but it applied only to new installations. Nothing was done to fix hundreds of thousands of existing residential elevators, despite a problem that could be solved with a $100 space guard, according to elevator experts.

“It’s a hazard with an urgency that’s second to none,” said Bob Shepherd, executive director of the National Association of Elevator Safety Authorities, which certifies elevator safety inspectors.

But the Consumer Product Safety Commission — the federal agency responsible for regulating safety in 15,000 consumer products, including residential elevators — has done little to address the problem, despite knowing about child fatalities since 1981 and having studied the issue closely since 2013. The agency’s inaction highlights how a lack of urgency by regulators and resistance from companies can combine to stop the CPSC from warning the public or demanding a recall, even when a hazard poses a particular threat to children.

“What is the safety agency there for if not this?” said a frustrated senior agency official who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations.

CPSC spokesman Joe Martyak said the agency is working “to come up with a solution to the complex issues involved.”

Industry officials have argued to the CPSC that the problem is complicated and, in some cases, overblown in scale and not their responsibility, according to interviews. It was an argument they made during two recent private meetings with the CPSC as the agency faces renewed pressure from victims’ families to take action.

The elevator industry’s plan for dealing with regulators was laid out in an email accidentally sent to The Washington Post. Alesa McArthur, executive director of the National Association of Elevator Contractors, wrote that industry representatives had agreed that during a meeting with the CPSC last month they would argue “they did not think a recall would be a good idea or even all that useful” because of the “difficulty in reaching” elevator owners and because the industry believes the size of the door gap was “appropriate.” McArthur did not respond to additional requests for comment.

Another industry official who attended the private talks with the CPSC cautioned that the agency needed to appropriately evaluate the risks.

“There are many risks in the home,” Mark Townsend, a director of the residential-elevator trade group Accessibility Equipment Manufacturers, said in an interview. “You don’t stick your knife into your toaster to get the toast out, and you don’t play around with an elevator as a little kid.”

So far, the industry’s arguments against a recall have prevailed, over the objections of some in the agency’s leadership.

“No parent should have to experience this,” said Elliot Kaye, a CPSC commissioner who wants the agency to require the elevator industry to fix the problem. “There are just some things we should be beyond as a society.”

In Little Rock, as Nicole struggled to free Fletcher, she phoned her mother-in-law for help unlocking the door, according to police reports and interviews. A friend of hers . . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

18 July 2019 at 4:46 pm

We like Honeycrisp, so we’re probably going to love Cosmic Crisp™

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Brooke Jarvis reports in California Sunday:

On a hot morning in Bloom, a time period that those who don’t work with tree fruit might call early May, the subject of this profile was in the midst of a busy couple of weeks, bursting into fuzzy green being somewhere on the order of tens of millions of times over.

The leap from flower to fruit is a subtle one: By the time the bees have stopped by and the corolla of petals and pollen has dropped away, the ovary beneath the flower begins to swell into appledom. Bloom wore on, and the long rows of trees that march endlessly across the hillsides and river valleys of central Washington slowly lost their blanket of blossoms. The great hope of the state’s apple industry was born, and born, and born.

In this particular orchard, high above a bend in the Columbia River, the baby apples owed their place in the sun to Scott McDougall, the fourth generation of his family to grow the fruit for market near Wenatchee, a town built right where the buck and roll of the Cascade Range give way to the arid central Washington steppe that, thanks to heavy irrigation, has become the nation’s most productive apple-growing region. When he started his own company in 1976, Scott was the Son part of McDougall & Sons; nowadays, he is the McDougall, and the company is a large, vertically integrated grower-packer-shipper. In those early days, the company, just like almost everybody else in Washington, primarily produced Red Delicious apples, plus a few Goldens and Grannies — familiar workhorse varieties that anybody was allowed to grow. Back then, the state apple commission advertised its wares with a poster of a stoplight: one apple each in red, green, and yellow. Today, across more than 4,000 acres of McDougall apple trees, you won’t find a single Red; every year, you’ll also find fewer acres of the apples that McDougall calls “core varieties,” the more modern open-access standards such as Gala and Fuji. Instead, McDougall is betting on what he calls “value-added apples”: Ambrosias, whose rights he licensed from a Canadian company; Envy, Jazz, and Pacific Rose, whose intellectual properties are owned by the New Zealand giant Enzafruit; and a brand-new variety, commercially available for the first time this year and available only to Washington-state growers: the Cosmic Crisp.

Like Clark Kent or the Scarlet Pimpernel, the apple has two identities. One is its biological self, which currently exists in the form of a mother tree on the edge of a weedy orchard by the Columbia River — you wouldn’t give it a second glance as an ornamental in front of a newish McMansion — and millions and millions of that tree’s perfect clones, lined up acre after acre like spindly little factories. These trees are protected under a patent as WA 38, and that is what people on the breeding and growing side of things tend to call both them and their fruit. But the rest of us will know the apple by its other, more public identity, a name that I am supposed to write with a ™ after it. You might, like I did, think this distinction to be basically academic, but you would begin to learn otherwise when the first person told you that she is able to answer only WA 38 questions, and not Cosmic Crisp ones.

The Cosmic Crisp is debuting on grocery stores after this fall’s harvest, and in the nervous lead-up to the launch, everyone from nursery operators to marketers wanted me to understand the crazy scope of the thing: the scale of the plantings, the speed with which mountains of commercially untested fruit would be arriving on the market, the size of the capital risk. People kept saying things like “unprecedented,” “on steroids,” “off the friggin’ charts,” and “the largest launch of a single produce item in American history.”

McDougall took me to the highest part of his orchard, where we could look down at all its hundreds of very expensively trellised and irrigated acres (he estimated the costs to plant each individual acre at $60,000 to $65,000, plus another $12,000 in operating costs each year), their neat, thin lines of trees like the stitching over so many quilt squares. “If you’re a farmer, you’re a riverboat gambler anyway,” McDougall said. “But Cosmic Crisp — woo!” I thought of the warning of one former fruit-industry journalist that, with so much on the line, the enormous launch would have to go flawlessly: “It’s gotta be like the new iPhone.”

BRUCE BARRITT, the human father of the Cosmic Crisp, doesn’t remember the moment he first tried one. The apple came from one of perhaps a hundred trees that he had selected for further study from an annual cohort of some 10,000 crossbreeds, each and every one of them genetically unique. The lucky hundred distinguished themselves by their appearance and taste, and then were winnowed down based on how well their apples survived storage, how prone they were to bitter pit or browning, how well they produced when planted in a range of Washington microclimates. Picking a winning apple, Barritt told me, is less about inspiration and more about the slow accumulation of data. “It’s from all that variability that we look for the needle in the haystack,” he said. “There’s no eureka moment.”

Barritt, then the head of the apple-breeding program at Washington State University, made the cross that led to Cosmic Crisp in 1997. (Because of how long it takes test trees to mature and produce fruit, 22 years from cross to launch is fairly quick when it comes to bringing a new product to market. “Biology is just a real problem here,” said Barritt.) Its parents were Enterprise, a robust, late-ripening, long-storing apple, and a relatively new player called Honeycrisp — much despised by growers, who found it finicky and frustrating, with at least a quarter of its fruit never making it into grocery stores. Still, the latter’s large cells gave it a texture, juicy and explosive, unlike any other apple on the market; before long, consumers’ demand, and the prices they were willing to pay, was so high that growers were planting the damn thing all over the place in spite of themselves — and also starting to think differently about apples in general. (McDougall called Honeycrisp “the 8-billion-pound gorilla in our industry.”) The experience of an apple is really five things, Barritt explained. Only two of them, sugar and acidity, are actually about flavor, and there’s a natural divide between people who like sweet and those who prefer tang. It’s the three measures of texture that unite us all: “Everyone likes crisp, everyone likes juicy, and nobody likes soft.”

Over years of testing, the new cross reliably produced round fruit with dark red skin, the color of wine. The Cosmic Crisp has flesh that’s creamy white, is so dense that the apple feels heavy in your hand, and has a flavor that is pleasant, a bit more sweet than zing. Most important, it cleaves cleanly in your mouth — a crunch that lasts a long time in controlled-atmosphere storage, all the way around the calendar and into the next harvest season. From people in the industry, I heard the phrase “excellent eating experience” so often I began to imagine it in capital letters, with its own ™. When I enlisted some regular-world people to taste the apple, one crunched into an approximately seven-month-old specimen and said, with appreciation, “I can feel the structure of its insides.”

Like all apples, this one breathes oxygen through what the consumer might think of as spots or freckles, but which are really tiny pores in its skin, called lenticels. A similarly porous membrane exists between the natural and the branded product: WA 38’s lenticels look exceptionally bright against its inky skin, and this reminded someone in a focus group of the stars in the night sky, an observation that became trademarked as Cosmic Crisp. “It’s the first apple that’s ever been named by consumers,” said Kathryn Grandy, the marketing director for Proprietary Variety Management, the company overseeing the national launch of the Cosmic Crisp. The apple’s taglines, to be paired with images of starry skies, are Imagine the Possibilities and The Apple of Big Dreams. Launch activities include branding partnerships with a nationally touring children’s theater production of Johnny Appleseed and with a group of what Grandy assured me were important social media influencers, including someone called “The Produce Mom.” Actually shooting an apple into space has already been done as a marketing stunt for an apple called Autumn Glory, which is marketed, accurately, as tasting like cinnamon and caramel.

Though Washington State University owns the WA 38 patent, the breeding program has received funding from the apple industry, so it was agreed, over some objections by people who worried that quality would be diluted, that the variety should be universally and exclusively available to Washington growers. (Growers of Cosmic Crisp pay royalties both on every tree they buy and on every box they sell, money that will fund future breeding projects as well as the shared marketing campaign.) The apple tested so well that WSU, in collaboration with commercial nurseries, began producing apple saplings as fast as possible; the plan was to start with 300,000 trees, but growers requested 4 million, leading to a lottery for divvying up the first available trees. Within three years, the industry had sunk 13 million of them, plus more than half a billion dollars, into the ground. Proprietary Variety Management expects that the number of Cosmic Crisp apples on the market will grow by millions of boxes every year, outpacing Pink Lady and Honeycrisp within about five years of its launch.

Not long ago, that would have been unthinkable. Barritt described . . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

18 July 2019 at 2:56 pm

E.P.A. Won’t Ban Chlorpyrifos, Pesticide Tied to Children’s Health Problems

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The attitude seems to be “Who cares about kids? They don’t vote and they don’t have much money.” Lisa Friedman reports in the NY Times:

The Environmental Protection Agency on Thursday announced it would not ban a widely used pesticide associated with developmental disabilities and other health problems in children.

The decision not to prohibit the use of the pesticide, chlorpyrifos, comes after years of legal wrangling. It represents a victory for the chemical industry and farmers who have lobbied to continue using the substance, arguing it is necessary to protect crops.

In making its ruling, the E.P.A. rejected claims that the amount of pesticide residue allowed to remain in or on treated foods was unsafe, and said that the science was unsettled.

“E.P.A. has determined that their objections must be denied because the data available are not sufficiently valid, complete or reliable to meet petitioners’ burden to present evidence demonstrating that the tolerances are not safe,” the agency said in a statement.

The agency added that it would continue to review the safety of chlorpyrifos through 2022.

The product, sold under the commercial name Lorsban, has already been banned for household use but remains in widespread use by farmers for more than 50 fruit, nut, cereal and vegetable crops.

The Obama administration decided to ban chlorpyrifos in 2015 after scientific studies produced by the E.P.A. showed the pesticide had the potential to damage brain development in children. But in 2017 Scott Pruitt, then the administrator of the E.P.A., reversed that prohibition, setting off a new round of legal challenges.

Patti Goldman, an attorney for Earthjustice, an environmental group that brought a legal challenge against the E.P.A.’s 2017 decision on behalf of farmworker organizations and others, criticized the decision.

“By allowing chlorpyrifos to stay in our fruits and vegetables, Trump’s E.P.A. is breaking the law and neglecting the overwhelming scientific evidence that this pesticide harms children’s brains,” Ms. Goldman said in a statement. . .

Continue reading.

The Trump administration is an on-going disaster.

Written by LeisureGuy

18 July 2019 at 2:19 pm

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