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If Trump Were an Airline Pilot

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James Fallows writes in the Atlantic:

Through the 2016 campaign, I posted a series called “Trump Time Capsule” in this space. The idea was to record, in real time, what was known about Donald Trump’s fitness for office—and to do so not when people were looking back on our era but while the Republican Party was deciding whether to line up behind him and voters were preparing to make their choice.

The series reached 152 installments by election day. I argued that even then there was no doubt of Trump’s mental, emotional, civic, and ethical unfitness for national leadership. If you’re hazy on the details, the series is (once again) here.

That background has equipped me to view Trump’s performance in office as consistently shocking but rarely surprising. He lied on the campaign trail, and he lies in office. He insulted women, minorities, “the other” as a candidate, and he does it as a president. He led “lock her up!” cheers at the Republican National Convention and he smiles at “send them back!” cheers now. He did not know how the “nuclear triad” worked then, and he does not know how tariffs work now. He flared at perceived personal slights when they came from Senator John McCain, and he does so when they come from the Prime Minister of Denmark. He is who he was.

The Atlantic editorial staff, in a project I played no part in, reached a similar conclusion. Its editorial urging a vote against Trump was obviously written before the election but stands up well three years later:

He is a demagogue, a xenophobe, a sexist, a know-nothing, and a liar. He is spectacularly unfit for office, and voters—the statesmen and thinkers of the ballot box—should act in defense of American democracy and elect his opponent


The one thing I avoided in that Time Capsule series was “medicalizing” Trump’s personality and behavior. That is, moving from description of his behavior to speculation about its cause. Was Trump’s abysmal ignorance—“Most people don’t know President Lincoln was a Republican!”—a sign of dementia, or of some other cognitive decline? Or was it just more evidence that he had never read a book? Was his braggadocio and self-centeredness a textbook case of narcissistic personality disorder? (Whose symptoms include “an exaggerated sense of self-importance” and “a sense of entitlement and require[s] constant, excessive admiration.”) Or just that he is an entitled jerk? On these and other points I didn’t, and don’t, know.

Like many people in the journalistic world, I received a steady stream of mail from mental-health professionals arguing for the “medicalized” approach. Several times I mentioned the parallel between Trump’s behavior and the check-list symptoms of narcissism. But I steered away from “this man is sick”—naming the cause rather than listing the signs—for two reasons.

The minor reason was the medical-world taboo against public speculation about people a doctor had not examined personally. There is a Catch-22 circularity to this stricture (which dates to the Goldwater-LBJ race in 1964). Doctors who have not treated a patient can’t say anything about the patient’s condition, because that would be “irresponsible”—but neither can doctors who have, because they’d be violating confidences.

Also, a flat ban on at-a-distance diagnosis doesn’t really meet the common-sense test. Medical professionals have spent decades observing symptoms, syndromes, and more-or-less probable explanations for behavior. We take it for granted that an ex-quarterback like Tony Romo can look at an offensive lineup just before the snap and say, “This is going to be a screen pass.” But it’s considered a wild overstep for a doctor or therapist to reach conclusions based on hundreds of hours of exposure to Trump on TV.

My dad was a small-town internist and diagnostician. Back in the 1990s he saw someone I knew, on a TV interview show, and he called me to say: “I think your friend has [a neurological disease]. He should have it checked out, if he hasn’t already.” It was because my dad had seen a certain pattern—of expression, and movement, and facial detail—so many times in the past, that he saw familiar signs, and knew from experience what the cause usually was. (He was right in this case.) Similarly, he could walk down the street, or through an airline terminal, and tell by people’s gait or breathing patterns who needed to have knee or hip surgery, who had just had that surgery, who was starting to have heart problems, et cetera. (I avoided asking him what he was observing about me.)

Recognizing patterns is the heart of most professional skills, and mental health professionals usually know less about an individual patient than all of us now know about Donald Trump. And on that basis, Dr. Bandy Lee of Yale and others associated with the World Mental Health Coalition have been sounding the alarm about Trump’s mental state (including with a special analysis of the Mueller report). Another organization of mental health professionals is the “Duty to Warn” movement.

But the diagnosis-at-a-distance issue wasn’t the real reason I avoided “medicalization.” The main reason I didn’t go down this road was my assessment that it wouldn’t make a difference. People who opposed Donald Trump already opposed him, and didn’t need some medical hypothesis to dislike his behavior. And people who supported him had already shown that they would continue to swallow anything, from “Grab ‘em by … ”  to “I like people who weren’t captured.” The Vichy Republicans of the campaign dutifully lined up behind the man they had denounced during the primaries, and the Republicans of the Senate have followed in that tradition.


But now we’ve had something we didn’t see so clearly during the campaign. These are episodes of what would be called outright lunacy, if they occurred in any other setting: An actually consequential rift with a small but important NATO ally, arising from the idea that the U.S. would “buy Greenland.” Trump’s self-description as “the Chosen One,” and his embrace of a supporter’s description of him as the “second coming of God” and the “King of Israel.” His logorrhea, drift, and fantastical claims in public rallies, and his flashes of belligerence at the slightest challenge in question sessions on the White House lawn. His utter lack of affect or empathy when personally meeting the most recent shooting victims, in Dayton and El Paso. His reduction of any event, whatsoever, into what people are saying about him.

Obviously I have no standing to say what medical pattern we are seeing, and where exactly it might lead. But just from life I know this:

  • If an airline learned that a pilot was talking publicly about being “the Chosen One” or “the King of Israel” (or Scotland or whatever), the airline would be looking carefully into whether this person should be in the cockpit.
  • If a hospital had a senior surgeon behaving as Trump now does, other doctors and nurses would be talking with administrators and lawyers before giving that surgeon the scalpel again.
  • If a public company knew that a CEO was making costly strategic decisions on personal impulse or from personal vanity or slight, and was doing so more and more frequently, the board would be starting to act. (See: Uber, management history of.)
  • If a university, museum, or other public institution had a leader who routinely insulted large parts of its constituency—racial or religious minorities, immigrants or international allies, women—the board would be starting to act.
  • If the U.S. Navy knew that one of its commanders was routinely lying about important operational details, plus lashing out under criticism, plus talking in “Chosen One” terms, the Navy would not want that person in charge of, say, a nuclear-missile submarine. (See: The Queeg saga in The Caine Mutiny, which would make ideal late-summer reading or viewing for members of the White House staff.)

Yet now such a  person is in charge not of one nuclear-missile submarine but all of them—and the bombers and ICBMs, and diplomatic military agreements, and the countless other ramifications of executive power.

If Donald Trump were in virtually any other position of responsibility, action would already be under way to remove him from that role. The board at . . .

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Written by LeisureGuy

24 August 2019 at 7:32 pm

Which countries dominate the world’s dinner tables?

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The article in the Economist states:

“THE DESTINY of nations,” wrote Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin, an 18th-century French gastronome, “depends on how they nourish themselves.” Today a nation’s stature depends on how well it nourishes the rest of the world, too. For proof of this, consider the rise of culinary diplomacy. In 2012 America’s State Department launched a “chef corps” tasked with promoting American cuisine abroad. Thailand’s government sends chefs overseas to peddle pad Thai and massaman curry through its Global Thai programme. South Korea pursues its own brand of “kimchi diplomacy”.

But which country’s cuisine is at the top of the global food chain? A new paper by Joel Waldfogel of the University of Minnesota provides an answer. Using restaurant listings from TripAdvisor, a travel-review website, and sales figures from Euromonitor, a market-research firm, Mr Waldfogel estimates world “trade” in cuisines for 52 countries. Whereas traditional trade is measured based on the value of goods and services that flow across a country’s borders, the author’s estimates of culinary exchange is based on the value of food found on restaurant tables. Domestic consumption of foreign cuisine is treated as an “import”, whereas foreign consumption of domestic cuisine is treated as an “export”. The balance determines which countries have the greatest influence on the world’s palate. . .

Continue reading. (Though the rest is behind a paywall if you’re not a subscriber.)

Written by LeisureGuy

24 August 2019 at 3:04 pm

Posted in Daily life, Food, Politics

What the Free College Movement Can Learn from Kalamazoo

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It’s not all bad news these days. Michelle Miller-Adams has a good report in the Washington Monthly:

The 700 students who graduated from Kalamazoo Public Schools in 2019 are unique. They are the first graduating class in this high-poverty city, located halfway between Chicago and Detroit, to have spent their entire K through 12 years knowing that their college tuition and fees will be largely or entirely free.

For this, they can thank the Kalamazoo Promise, the first of the current wave of place-based scholarship, or “promise,” programs. Launched in November 2005 by a group of anonymous philanthropists, the Kalamazoo Promise has provided scholarships to almost all of the city’s public school graduates since 2006. For students who attend Kalamazoo Public Schools starting in kindergarten, any in-state public college or university, along with a select group of private colleges, is tuition-free. For those who attend for just high school, 65 percent of tuition is covered.

In the fourteen years since it was announced, the Kalamazoo Promise has reached more than 6,000 students. The Kalamazoo school district has grown by 25 percent, academic achievement is up, and the high-school graduation rate is rising. Almost 90 percent of the district’s graduates head to college or another form of post-secondary training—an exceptionally high rate for a low-income urban school district. Of the district’s graduates, 50 percent complete a post-secondary degree or credential within ten years of graduating, up from 40 percent before the program.

Most high school graduates are not so lucky. After marching across commencement stages, many end their education. Those who go on must pay for increasingly expensive college degrees. College costs have been rising for decades, and the growing burden on students and families has moved center stage as student loan debt has reached crisis-level proportions. As a result, “free college” has become an increasingly popular idea, making an appearance in the platform of almost every Democratic presidential candidate, including Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren.

Free college is a powerful concept, and it can boost college enrollment and completion. But the experiences of Kalamazoo and other cities with promise programs offer valuable lessons on how free college should work. Few promise programs are as simple and generous as the Kalamazoo Promise. Many provide students with less money and fewer choices, and make what they do offer contingent on student performance. As a result, they do not reach as many students and families.

Policymakers should instead make promise scholarships generous. They should make them available to all students, not just those with the highest grades. And as scholarship programs in places as diverse as Kalamazoo, El Dorado, Arkansas, and the state of Tennessee show, promise programs are especially effective when they provide recipients with community support, not just money.

Since Kalamazoo set course, nearly 150 local communities and almost two-dozen states have created their own free-college programs. But the impact in many places has been less dramatic than in Kalamazoo. That’s because of design decisions made by program stakeholders.

Consider program generosity. In Kalamazoo and a few other communities, scholarships are awarded on a “first-dollar” basis, where promise money is used first and low-income students can add their Pell grants on top of it, allowing them to cover some living expenses. In most places, stakeholders have opted for “last-dollar” structures, where low-income students must use Pell grants first and the promise scholarship closes any remaining gap. This decision may save money, but it has the largely unintended outcome of channeling more promise dollars to non-poor than to poor students. More importantly, it means that low-income students receive little “new” money, making it harder for them to afford all the other costs of college—from books to meals.

Another key question is who receives the scholarship. Many communities have sought to target their promise scholarships on “deserving” students, measured by high-school GPA and attendance rates. On the surface, this may seem like a sensible way to conserve resources. But such targeting tends to disadvantage low-income students who generally have lower academic achievement levels. In a promise experiment in Milwaukee, for example, the average GPA of ninth graders at the time the program was announced was 1.8 on a 4.0 scale, and the average attendance rate was 81 percent. Yet the program required a GPA of 2.5, and 90 percent attendance. These cutoffs mean Milwaukee’s Promise was uniquely ill-suited to help the students it pledged to serve. Ultimately, only 21 percent of students ended up eligible for the scholarship.

Proponents argue that performance cutoffs inspire students to work harder. But researchers have found no evidence that that’s the case. Instead, all they do is direct resources to high-performing students, a group that is typically wealthier, and that needs the scholarship least. In one Michigan community, for instance, students must have a 3.5 high-school GPA to receive a promise scholarship, yet they are only allowed to use it at one of two local, non-selective two-year institutions. This high GPA requirement means that the program benefits white, non-poor students and school districts far more than the area’s low-income students of color. And it does this by channeling them into institutions that are, academically speaking, generally a poor fit. It’s kids with GPAs below 3.5—not A-level students—who would benefit most from free community college. But they are the ones left out.

In Kalamazoo, by contrast, rules are minimal. Academic success has no bearing on scholarship eligibility (although it will naturally determine where students will be admitted). The scholarship is awarded irrespective of financial need. Students have 10 years after high-school graduation in which to access their promise funding. The application form is a single page.

As a result, the Kalamazoo Promise (and programs like it) reach a critical mass of students attending the same school district and living in the same community. It is therefore perceived as being for the community rather than for a specific group of students, resulting in broad buy-in. “It changed the debate about . . .

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Written by LeisureGuy

24 August 2019 at 9:02 am

Jeffrey Epstein’s Intellectual Enabler

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Evgeny Morozov writes in the New Republic:

If you are an accomplished science or technology writer, your books are probably handled by the most powerful literary agency in the field: the famous Brockman Inc., started by John Brockman and now run by Max Brockman, his son. As it happens, Max is also my agent—and has been since my first book was sold in 2009. As agencies go, I only have positive things to report: The Brockmans fight for their authors and get us very handsome advances. That’s what agents are for.

But that’s not the whole story. John is also the president, founder, and chief impresario of the Edge Foundation, which has earned a stellar reputation as an eclectic platform for conversations that involve scientists, artists, and technologists. There is more than one Edge Foundation, though: There is the one meant for public consumption, with its “annual question”—e.g. “What are you optimistic about?”—answered by famous intellectuals and thinkers; and one meant for private consumption by members of Brockman’s elite network. The former exists primarily online. The latter has a vibrant real-life component, with sumptuous dinners, exclusive conferences, and quite a bit of travel on private jets—it functions as an elaborate massage of the ego (and, apparently, much else) for the rich, the smart, and the powerful.

Over the course of my research into the history of digital culture, I’ve got to know quite a lot about John’s role in shaping the digital—and especially the intellectual—world that we live in. I’ve examined and scanned many of his letters in the archives of famous men (and they are mostly men), such as Marshall McLuhan, Stewart Brand, and Gregory Bateson. He is no mere literary agent; he is a true “organic intellectual” of the digital revolution, shaping trends rather than responding to them. Would the MIT Media Lab, TED Conferences, and Wired have the clout and the intellectual orientation that they have now without the extensive network cultivated by Brockman over decades? I, for one, very much doubt it.

Lately, John has been in the news for other reasons, namely because of his troubling connections to Jeffrey Epstein, the so-called financier who reportedly hanged himself earlier this month while facing federal charges of sex-trafficking. Epstein participated in the Edge Foundation’s annual questions, and attended its “billionaires’ dinners.” Brockman may also be the reason why so many prominent academics—from Steven Pinker to Daniel Dennett—have found themselves answering awkward questions about their associations with Epstein; they are clients of Brockman’s. Marvin Minsky, the prominent MIT scientist who surfaced as one of Epstein’s island buddies? A client of Brockman’s. Joi Ito, the director of the elite research facility MIT Media Lab, who has recently acknowledged extensive ties to Epstein? Also, a client of Brockman’s.

Should we just write it off as natural collateral damage for someone with a network as extensive as Brockman’s? He is, after all, a networker’s networker. Based on my observations over the last decade, his whole operation runs on two simple but powerful principles. First, the total value of the network (and thus his own value) goes up if the nodes start connecting to each other independently of him. Second, the more diverse the network, the more attractive it is to newcomers as well as to all the existing members. Billionaires are rich, but they might harbor an insecurity complex related to not being very well-read (looking at you, Bill Gates!). Scientists, in contrast, are usually well-read but might aspire to fancier cars and luxuries and funding for their pet projects. And so on: There’s something for everyone—and, in the case of Epstein, someone seems to have done the matchmaking.

In Brockman’s world, billionaires, scientists, artists, novelists, journalists, and musicians all blend together to produce enormous value—for each other and, of course, for Brockman. This mingling of clients doesn’t happen in other literary agencies, at least not to this extent. Nor does this happen at Brockman Inc., as all such interactions that we know of took place under the umbrella of the Edge Foundation, a sibling organization, with Brockman as its president. Would Brockman Inc. exist without the Edge Foundation? Possibly—and it did, at the outset. Would it be as powerful, trading on Brockman’s ability to rub shoulders with academics and billionaires alike? Probably not. Still, I can attest that Brockman’s authors face no pressure to get involved with Edge: I, for example, diligently responded to their annual questions between 2010 and 2013—and then stopped, as I was put off by Brockman’s insistence that people responding to the annual question should keep away from politics.

When the Epstein-Brockman connection first surfaced in the news, I wanted to give Brockman the benefit of the doubt. It’s possible, I thought, that Epstein was just one of the many rich people in Brockman’s orbit. Or maybe the two had been close only before Epstein’s first criminal case in the mid-2000s. Or maybe Brockman was in the dark about Epstein’s tendencies and they only talked about quantum physics and artificial intelligence.

In the last few weeks, such a charitable interpretation has become very hard to sustain, especially as other details—implicating Marvin Minsky and Joi Ito, who has apologized for taking money from Epstein—became public. John Brockman has not said a word publicly about his connection to Epstein since the latest scandal broke, preferring to maintain silence on the matter. That I have found quite infuriating.


Knowing that Brockman likes to brag about all the famous people he has met and befriended—you can easily count the seconds until he name-checks “Marshall” (McLuhan) or “Andy” (Warhol) or “Gregory“ (Bateson) in a casual conversation—I decided to look over our correspondence over the past decade and see if he might have name-dropped Epstein somewhere. And, of course, he did. Browsing through our email correspondence, I stumbled upon a most peculiar email from September 12, 2013.

It was very laconic: “JE, FYI, JB”—followed by my short bio and some media clippings. (You can check the entire PDF of the correspondence here.) Strangely, it was sent to me and had no other contacts in cc. Perhaps he wanted to send it to “JE” but put my email there by mistake. When I commented on the meaning of this cryptic message, he responded with the following message, reproduced here in full:

I missed that one.

Jeffrey Epstein, the billionaire science philanthropist showed up at this weekend’s event by helicopter (with his beautiful young assistant from Belarus). He’ll be in Cambridge in a couple of weeks asked me who he should meet. You are one of the people I suggested and I told him I would send some links.

He’s the guy who gave Harvard #30m to set up Martin Nowak. He’s been extremely generous in funding projects of many of our friends and clients. He also got into trouble and spent a year in jail in Florida.

If he contacts you it’s probably worth your time to meet him as he’s extremely bright and interesting.

Last time I visited his house (the largest private residence in NYC), I walked in to find him in a sweatsuit and a British guy in a suit with suspenders, getting foot massages from two young well-dressed Russian women. After grilling me for a while about cyber-security, the Brit, named Andy, was commenting on the Swedish authorities and the charges against Julian Assange.

“We think they’re liberal in Sweden, but its more like Northern England as opposed to Southern Europe,” he said. “In Monaco, Albert works 12 hours a day but at 9pm, when he goes out, he does whatever he wants, and nobody cares. But, if I do it, I’m in big trouble.” At that point I realized that the recipient of Irina’s foot massage was his Royal Highness, Prince Andrew, the Duke of York.

Indeed, a week later, on a slow news day, the cover of the NYpost had a full-page photo of Jeffrey and Andrew walking in Central Park under the headline: “The Prince and the Perv.” (That was the end of Andrew’s role at the UK trade ambassador.)

To which I responded:

thanks for clarifying this. I’m sure he’s an all-around sweet guy but I’ll have to think about it. It could be that I spent far too much time in the Soros bubble but I have zero interest in meeting billionaires – if I did, I’d be going to Davos every year. but I appreciate you taking the time.

Here is Brockman again:

A billionaire who owns Victoria’s Secret plus a modelling agency is a different kind of animal. But I hear you and basically agree. Gregory Bateson once advised me that ‘Of all our human inventions, economic man is by far the dullest.’

JB

And here is my final answer:

“A billionaire who owns Victoria’s Secret plus a modelling agency” –> one more reason to stay away actually.

I didn’t know who Epstein was at the time. Since I’ve never been very keen to hang out with billionaires, mine was a natural response (I similarly declined Brockman’s invitations to hang out on his farm or attend his famous billionaire dinners). So I didn’t think much of that invitation and eventually forgot about it. Needless to say, I never heard from Epstein—or from Brockman about Epstein.

In that old email, it seems clear that Brockman was acting as Epstein’s PR man—his liaison with the world of scientists and intellectuals that Brockman had cultivated. That Brockman has said nothing over this affair is rather bewildering. (He did not return requests for comment left on his email and voicemail.) . . .

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Written by LeisureGuy

24 August 2019 at 8:51 am

How Amazon and Silicon Valley Seduced the Pentagon

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James Bandler, Anjali Tsui, and Doris Burke report in ProPublica:

On Aug. 8, 2017, Roma Laster, a Pentagon employee responsible for policing conflicts of interest, emailed an urgent warning to the chief of staff of then-Secretary of Defense James Mattis. Several department employees had arranged for Jeff Bezos, the CEO of Amazon, to be sworn into an influential Pentagon advisory board despite the fact that, in the year since he’d been nominated, Bezos had never completed a required background check to obtain a security clearance.

Mattis was about to fly to the West Coast, where he would personally swear Bezos in at Amazon’s headquarters before moving on to meetings with executives from Google and Apple. Soon phone calls and emails began bouncing around the Pentagon. Security clearances are no trivial matter to defense officials; they exist to ensure that people with access to sensitive information aren’t, say, vulnerable to blackmail and don’t have conflicts of interest. Laster also contended that it was a “noteworthy exception” for Mattis to perform the ceremony. Secretaries of defense, she wrote, don’t hold swearing-in events.

Laster’s alarms triggered fear among Pentagon brass that Mattis would be seen as doing a special favor for Bezos, which could put him in hot water with President Donald Trump, who has repeatedly proclaimed his antipathy to Bezos, mainly because of his ownership of The Washington Post. The swearing-in was canceled only hours before it was scheduled to occur. (This episode, never previously reported, is based on interviews with six people familiar with the matter. An Amazon spokesperson said the company was told that Bezos did not need a security clearance and that the company provided all requested information.)

Despite the cancellation, Bezos met with Mattis that day. They talked about leadership and military history, then moved on to Amazon’s sales pitch on why the Defense Department should make a radical shift in its computing. Amazon wanted the department to abandon its hodgepodge of 2,215 data centers, located in various Pentagon facilities and run using different systems by an array of different companies, and let Amazon replace that with cloud service: computing power provided over the internet, all of it running on Amazon’s servers.

That vision is now well on its way to becoming a reality. The Pentagon is preparing to award a $10 billion, 10-year contract to move its information technology systems to the cloud. Amazon’s cloud unit, Amazon Web Services, or AWS, is the biggest provider of cloud services in the country and also the company’s profit engine: It accounted for 58.7% of Amazon’s operating income last year. AWS has been the favorite to emerge with the Pentagon contract.

Known as JEDI, for Joint Enterprise Defense Infrastructure, the project has been the subject of accusations of favoritism. Two spurned bidders have launched unsuccessful bid protests and one of them, Oracle, filed and lost a lawsuit. Meanwhile, there’s an ongoing investigation by the Pentagon’s inspector general.

The DOD defends JEDI. The agency’s decision-makers have “always placed the interests of the warfighter first and have acted without bias, prejudice, or self-interest,” DOD spokesperson Elissa Smith said in a statement. “The same cannot be said of all parties to the debate over JEDI.”

What’s happened at the Pentagon extends past the JEDI contract. It’s a story of how some of America’s biggest tech companies used a little-known advisory board, some aggressive advocacy by a few billionaires and some unofficial lobbying to open a backdoor into the Pentagon. And so, no matter who wins the JEDI contract, one winner is already clear: Silicon Valley. The question is no longer whether a technology giant will emerge with the $10 billion prize, but rather which technology giant (or giants) will.

There are certainly benefits. The Pentagon’s technological infrastructure does indeed need to be modernized. But there may also be costs. Silicon Valley has pushed for the Pentagon to adopt its technology and its move-fast-and-break-things ethos. The result, according to interviews with more than three dozen current and former DOD officials and tech executives, has been internal clashes and a tortured process that has combined the hype of tech with the ethical morass of the Washington industry-government revolving door.

Laster did her best to enforce the rules. She would challenge the Pentagon’s cozy relationship not only with Bezos, but with Google’s Eric Schmidt, the chairman of the defense board that Bezos sought to join. The ultimate resolution? Laster was shunted aside. She was removed from the innovation board in November 2017 (but remains at the Defense Department). “Roma was removed because she insisted on them following the rules,” said a former DOD official knowledgeable about her situation.

Laster filed a grievance, which was denied. “I’ve been betrayed by an organization I joined when I was 17 years old,” said Laster, who is 54. “This is an organization built on loyalty, dedication and patriotism. Unfortunately, it is kind of one-way.”

Other criticism, from Amazon’s rivals and the press, has centered on the actions of several DOD workers who had previously worked directly or indirectly for Amazon and have since returned to the private sector. The most important of those employees, Sally Donnelly — a former outside strategist for Amazon who had become one of Mattis’ top aides — helped give Amazon officials access to Mattis in intimate settings, an opportunity that most defense contractors don’t enjoy. Donnelly organized a private dinner, never reported before, for Mattis, Bezos, herself and Amazon’s top government-sales executive at a Washington restaurant, DBGB, on Jan. 17, 2018. The dinner occurred just as the DOD was finalizing draft bid specifications for JEDI. (Asked about the dinner and several others like it, the DOD’s Smith said: “One of the department’s priorities is to reform the way DOD does business. As part of this reform, leaders are expected to engage with industry — in a full and open manner within legal boundaries — to find ways to reform our business practices and build a more lethal force.” A spokesperson for AWS said the dinner “had nothing to do with the JEDI procurement, and those implying otherwise either are misinformed or disappointed competitors trying to distract with innuendo vs competing fairly with their technical capabilities.”)

Such meetings aren’t illegal, but they undermine public trust in defense contracting, said Charles Tiefer, a professor at the University of Baltimore School of Law and one of the nation’s leading experts on government-contracting law. “This is a particularly serious example of the revolving door among Pentagon officials and defense contractors, which has been problematic in recent years and is getting worse under the Trump administration,” he said.

In July, Trump expressed concerns about the process and whether it was skewed in Amazon’s favor. Early this month, his new defense secretary, Mark Esper, announced a fresh review, which will delay the selection of a winner. The judge in the JEDI-related case ruled in favor of the government but nonetheless summed up the process as containing conflict-of-interest allegations that were “certainly sufficient to raise eyebrows” and a “constant gravitational pull on agency employees by technology behemoths.”


The board that Bezos almost joined — called the Defense Innovation Board — was launched in 2016 by Ashton Carter, the last defense secretary in the Obama administration. Carter worried that the Pentagon’s information technology was falling behind. . .

Continue reading. There’s much more.

Written by LeisureGuy

22 August 2019 at 3:50 pm

Why New York City Is On the Verge of Disaster

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Matt Stoller has a good albeit alarming column in Big:

Three Swords Over New York

Electrical blackouts are scary things. On July 13th of this year, New York City had a blackout that lasted for five hours. The subway stopped along several lines, people were trapped in elevators, Carnegie Hall and Broadway theaters shut down, and Jennifer Lopez was cut off in at her concert at Madison Square Garden.

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo and New York City Mayor Bill De Blasio blamed Con Edison, the New York utility that manages most electric power in the city. And why shouldn’t they? Just before the blackout, Con Ed president Tim Cawley embarrassingly said, “By any measure, we are the most reliable electric delivery system in the United States.”

The next weekend, it happened again, this time in Brooklyn.

Blackouts in New York City reflect the politics of the time. In 1965, and then again in 1969, Con Edison had massive outages that inspired frustration with what Americans perceived as an overall breakdown of the New Deal order. In 1977, it got worse, and there was widespread looting during a city-wide blackout during the rolling New York City financial crisis. The Carter and then Reagan eras of deregulation and concentrated capital were in many ways framed against the old, over-regulated, and antiquated systems represented by Con Edison, and in a bigger sense, New York City of the 1970s. In New York, partial deregulation of utilities finally came in 1997, and with this deregulation came a reduction in the amount of auditing by New York regulators.

We are beyond the Reagan era, of course, because that system is breaking down. Every age gets the metaphorical crises it deserves, and New York’s came in 2012, when Hurricane Sandy hit the city and caused power outages across half the city. I was there, and at first everyone was really nice to each other. Within a few days, a Mad Max vibe began to creep into daily interactions. The lights came back on in time to get the city more or less back to normal, though not everywhere.

The storm was the immediate cause of the blackout, of course, but the storm took advantage of an electrical infrastructure weakened by years of poor investment choices. We know this because a few months after the storm, the Utility Workers of America, the union negotiating with Con Edison, released a report on the company’s operational practices, alleging that “Con Edison appears to operate its electric distribution system based on a policy of“run it until it fails.’”

The details of Con Ed’s operations are ugly. The union noted a lack of redundancy in voltage equipment, smart meters paid for by the stimulus that were never turned on, and a lack of basic supplies. “Our members have worked on cable so old,” said the report, “that it has paper insulation, and on utility poles that were installed in the 1930s and remain in service today.”

The company used to have a policy of keeping a “safety stockpile” of basic supplies on hand in the event of an emergency. No longer. So when Sandy hit, Con Ed ran out of utility ladders and utility cable. It had to rush order parts that did not work on Con Ed systems, including “entire truckloads of utility transformers” which the utility could not return “because of their specialized nature.”

Imagine that. Before Hurricane Sandy hit the city, Con Ed didn’t bother stocking up on ladders. Ouch.

Obviously the union wants to show how its workers are valuable and deserve higher compensation, but the report is consistent with what we’re seeing in corporate America more generally. The union’s motivations are also consistent with what the engineers at Boeing wanted, which was to do their job with integrity.

More broadly, what these new blackouts reflect is two things. First, they show the stresses that climate change are putting on our society. Sandy in 2012 and the heat waves in July pressured the electric grid. Second, they reflect how the short-term financialized mentality that is now pervasive among American policymakers and corporate leaders weakened the grid. It’s similar to what’s happening in Puerto Rico, where an electric grid ruined by years of corruption and financial pressure from bondholders was destroyed by a storm.

The blackouts in July show that the problems revealed during Sandy have not been fixed. I spent time this weekend going through some of Con Edison’s investor documents. And what I found is similar to what I found with Boeing. That is, this is a company focused on financial returns more than engineering integrity. Mainly what I noticed, and this is a fairly trivial observation, is that while Con Ed promised to radically improve its operations after the disaster, what it actually did is increase its dividend every single year and pay its CEO $10 million. I suspect the blackouts last month are one of the results.

But a dysfunctional Con Edison is just the first problem with New York City’s infrastructure.

The second big problem is the Hudson tunnel, the nation’s busiest railroad route, connecting New York City to New Jersey. The tunnel was built in 1910 and is on the verge of collapse. In 2009, as part of the stimulus, there was the money to rebuild what everyone knows is the most important piece of crumbling infrastructure in America. But then- New Jersey Governor Chris Christie killed it to attack Obama and promote himself as a Presidential candidate, Obama didn’t do anything about it, and Trump has refused to move forward on a new attempt. Concrete is falling apart in the remaining tube.

In other words, a good chunk of New York’s transportation infrastructure could collapse, at any point.

But beyond the political choice, contracting in America is insanely expensive and difficult. The high speed rail in California promised in the stimulus is basically dead, even though that did get approval, because costs ballooned. So even if we wanted to fix the Hudson tunnel, it would cost far too much to do so.

I don’t have a good analysis of why construction is so expensive in America, but this is my thesis in a picture.


To put it into words, the problem we have is corruption in the government contracting world, aided by immense amounts of useless overpaid make work. In 2011, an antitrust attorney did a report on how we overpay for government contracting. In service of ‘shrinking government,’ policymakers chose to set up a system where instead of hiring an engineer as a government employee for, say, $120,000 a year, they paid a consulting firm like Booz Allen $500,000 a year for a similar engineer. The resulting system is both more expensive and more bureaucratic.

Here’s one example I grabbed from a public government contracting schedule. The rate negotiated by the government’s General Services Administration for Boston Consulting Group is $33,063.75/week to get a single relatively junior contractor.

Most top tier management consulting is useless. It boils down to telling executives they should raise prices or avoid taxes in a fancy way, helping one faction in a corporation win an internal battle against another, or aiding a cowardly leader do something he or she knows she should do but is afraid of doing without outside validation. It’s highly overpaid make-work, which is why the movie Office Space resonated.

This corruption wasn’t that bad until the 1990s, when Bill Clinton and Al Gore introduced their ‘reinventing government initiative,’ which transferred large amounts of government work to overpaid private contractors. They bragged the size of government didn’t grow, even as they were building a slothful, incompetent, and highly corrupt shadow government in place of the relatively functional public system they took over. This trend of offshoring wasn’t just Federal, but state-level as well. Twenty five years later we’re dealing with a government that can’t govern.

Aside from Con Ed, and the Hudson tunnel, there’s a third problem facing New York City. Food. New York’s food supply nearly turned into a crisis during Sandy, largely because of corporation consolidation. Here’s Siddhartha Mahanta in 2013:

Until relatively recently, most of the food that wound up in New Yorkers’ stomachs came from the farms of upstate New York, Connecticut, and New Jersey. Even Brooklyn and Queens helped out, for a long while registering as the nation’s two biggest vegetable-producing counties.

When that locally grown food got to New York, it tended to stay around longer, sitting in warehouses for perhaps weeks at a time.

Now, New Yorkers rely chiefly on food from across the country, or the other side of the world. And to complicate matters, in recent decades the big companies that run these systems have radically altered how they manage the flow of this food through their supply chains. Most of the private companies that now dominate the distribution of food in America, like Walmart and Sysco, keep much smaller inventories than in years past, sized to meet immediate demand under stable conditions—a strategy known as “just-in-time.” Analysts, in fact, expect Sysco—a major presence in the New York region—to continue cutting down an already super-lean supply chain operation.

In other words, the food on New York’s shelves flows through supply lines that stretch much further than ever before. And there’s a lot less of it along the way.

In other words, we have pooled risk in hidden ways and masked that with the appearance of financial profits. At Boeing it means the company was generating gobs of cash, but planes started crashing. In New York City, that means residents are vulnerable to losing electricity and food, and to transit collapses. Pretty important stuff, no?

Andrew Cuomo, the current Governor of New York, is part of the problem. His defining experience, in my view, was . . .

Continue reading.

We are going to see some extremely ugly happenings in NYC in the near future. It is being set up to fail. The people of NYC are assuming that things that are certain to happen cannot happen. It’s a sword-of-Damocles situation with the single hair holding the sword stretching to the breaking point, which is nigh.

Written by LeisureGuy

20 August 2019 at 2:26 pm

Some of the Country’s Worst Prisons Have Escaped Justice Department Action

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Another example of how the American government has abandoned the American public. Jerry Mitchell reports in ProPublica:

Mississippi has saved a lot of money on its prisons over the past several years. But as the experiences of next-door neighbor Alabama show, rampant violence and understaffing can eventually draw scrutiny from the U.S. Justice Department, with potentially costly consequences.

In April, the Justice Department concluded that “there is reasonable cause to believe that the men’s prisons [in Alabama] fail to protect prisoners from prisoner-on-prisoner violence and prisoner-on-prisoner sexual abuse, and fail to provide prisoners with safe conditions.” It demanded that the state fix the problems or face possible litigation.

Alabama’s prisons are so bad, they violate the U.S. Constitution’s guarantees against cruel and unusual punishment, the Justice Department has said.

Mississippi’s prisons may be as bad, or even worse, the Mississippi Center for Investigative Reporting and ProPublica reported. The ratio of prisoners to guards at South Mississippi Correctional Institution is 23 to 1, several times higher than Alabama’s, which stands at 9.9 to 1.

FAMM, a national nonprofit group advocating criminal justice reform, has called on the Justice Department to investigate Mississippi’s prisons.

Kevin Ring, president of the Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit, said the conditions remind him of prisons found in third-world nations. “They’re uninhabitable,” he said. “This is why we need the government to step in.

“When there is no oversight and accountability, this is what you get.”

The Department of Justice did not return an email requesting comment.

Rivers Ormon, press secretary for Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant, a Republican, said public safety remains a prime concern for the governor. She noted that the inmate population in state prisons fell by 11% in the year after the state passed prison reform in 2014.

“Certain challenges have made managing the system more difficult,” Ormon said in a statement, adding that Bryant has confidence in his team at the Department of Corrections.

(Ormon’s statement failed to note that the prison population is increasing again and is poised to top the 2014 figure in 2020.)

Prison guards in Mississippi are the lowest paid in the nation. Corrections Commissioner Pelicia Hall asked state lawmakers to give guards a significant pay raise, but that was rejected in favor of a more modest increase. The starting pay for guards is so low, those with families are eligible for food stamps.

Hall said she’s doing the best she can with the resources she has.

Alabama’s recent history offers lessons in what may happen if conditions in Mississippi don’t improve.

The Justice Department’s investigation of Alabama was triggered by allegations that officers were having sex with inmates. Investigators visited four Alabama prisons and talked to 55 employees and 270 prisoners.

“Alabama is deliberately indifferent to that harm or serious risk of harm and it has failed to correct known systemic deficiencies that contribute to the violence,” Justice Department investigators said in their report. “The deplorable conditions within Alabama’s prisons lead to heightened tensions among prisoners. And, as a result, the violence is spilling over so that it is affecting not only prisoners, but [Alabama Department of Corrections] staff as well.”

Separately, Alabama is being sued over its treatment of mentally ill inmates. A federal judge has ordered the state to add as many as 2,000 new officers in the next several years.

Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey, a Republican, has called for Alabama to build new facilities to replace its “deplorable,” “horrendous” and “inadequate” prisons. The latest cost for replacing three men’s prisons? $900 million. . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

20 August 2019 at 1:40 pm

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