All posts by Tom Aquinas

Finding trust and understanding in autonomous technologies

In 2016, self-driving cars went mainstream. Uber’s autonomous vehicles became ubiquitous in neighborhoods where I live in Pittsburgh, and briefly in San Francisco. The U.S. Department of Transportation issued new regulatory guidance for them. Countless papers and columns discussed how self-driving cars should solve ethical quandaries when things go wrong. And, unfortunately, 2016 also saw the first fatality involving an autonomous vehicle.

Autonomous technologies are rapidly spreading beyond the transportation sector, into health care, advanced cyberdefense and even autonomous weapons. In 2017, we’ll have to decide whether we can trust these technologies. That’s going to be much harder than we might expect.

Trust is complex and varied, but also a key part of our lives. We often trust technology based on predictability: I trust something if I know what it will do in a particular situation, even if I don’t know why. For example, I trust my computer because I know how it will function, including when it will break down. I stop trusting if it starts to behave differently or surprisingly.

In contrast, my trust in my wife is based on understanding her beliefs, values and personality. More generally, interpersonal trust does not involve knowing exactly what the other person will do – my wife certainly surprises me sometimes! – but rather why they act as they do. And of course, we can trust someone (or something) in both ways, if we know both what they will do and why.

I have been exploring possible bases for our trust in self-driving cars and other autonomous technology from both ethical and psychological perspectives. These are devices, so predictability might seem like the key. Because of their autonomy, however, we need to consider the importance and value – and the challenge – of learning to trust them in the way we trust other human beings.

Autonomy and predictability

We want our technologies, including self-driving cars, to behave in ways we can predict and expect. Of course, these systems can be quite sensitive to the context, including other vehicles, pedestrians, weather conditions and so forth. In general, though, we might expect that a self-driving car that is repeatedly placed in the same environment should presumably behave similarly each time. But in what sense would these highly predictable cars be autonomous, rather than merely automatic?

There have been many different attempts to define autonomy, but they all have this in common: Autonomous systems can make their own (substantive) decisions and plans, and thereby can act differently than expected.

In fact, one reason to employ autonomy (as distinct from automation) is precisely that those systems can pursue unexpected and surprising, though justifiable, courses of action. For example, DeepMind’s AlphaGo won the second game of its recent Go series against Lee Sedol in part because of a move that no human player would ever make, but was nonetheless the right move. But those same surprises make it difficult to establish predictability-based trust. Strong trust based solely on predictability is arguably possible only for automated or automatic systems, precisely because they are predictable (assuming the system functions normally).

Embracing surprises

Of course, other people frequently surprise us, and yet we can trust them to a remarkable degree, even giving them life-and-death power over ourselves. Soldiers trust their comrades in complex, hostile environments; a patient trusts her surgeon to excise a tumor; and in a more mundane vein, my wife trusts me to drive safely. This interpersonal trust enables us to embrace the surprises, so perhaps we could develop something like interpersonal trust in self-driving cars?

In general, interpersonal trust requires an understanding of why someone acted in a particular way, even if you can’t predict the exact decision. My wife might not know exactly how I will drive, but she knows the kinds of reasoning I use when I’m driving. And it is actually relatively easy to understand why someone else does something, precisely because we all think and reason roughly similarly, though with different “raw ingredients” – our beliefs, desires and experiences.

In fact, we continually and unconsciously make inferences about other people’s beliefs and desires based on their actions, in large part by assuming that they think, reason and decide roughly as we do. All of these inferences and reasoning based on our shared (human) cognition enable us to understand someone else’s reasons, and thereby build interpersonal trust over time.

Thinking like people?

Autonomous technologies – self-driving cars, in particular – do not think and decide like people. There have been efforts, both past and recent, to develop computer systems that think and reason like humans. However, one consistent theme of machine learning over the past two decades has been the enormous gains made precisely by not requiring our artificial intelligence systems to operate in human-like ways. Instead, machine learning algorithms and systems such as AlphaGo have often been able to outperform human experts by focusing on specific, localized problems, and then solving them quite differently than humans do.

As a result, attempts to interpret an autonomous technology in terms of human-like beliefs and desires can go spectacularly awry. When a human driver sees a ball in the road, most of us automatically slow down significantly, to avoid hitting a child who might be chasing after it. If we are riding in an autonomous car and see a ball roll into the street, we expect the car to recognize it, and to be prepared to stop for running children. The car might, however, see only an obstacle to be avoided. If it swerves without slowing, the humans on board might be alarmed – and a kid might be in danger.

Our inferences about the “beliefs” and “desires” of a self-driving car will almost surely be erroneous in important ways, precisely because the car doesn’t have any human-like beliefs or desires. We cannot develop interpersonal trust in a self-driving car simply by watching it drive, as we will not correctly infer the whys behind its actions.

Of course, society or marketplace customers could insist en masse that self-driving cars have human-like (psychological) features, precisely so we could understand and develop interpersonal trust in them. This strategy would give a whole new meaning to “human-centered design,” since the systems would be designed specifically so their actions are interpretable by humans. But it would also require including novel algorithms and techniques in the self-driving car, all of which would represent a massive change from current research and development strategies for self-driving cars and other autonomous technologies.

Self-driving cars have the potential to radically reshape our transportation infrastructure in many beneficial ways, but only if we can trust them enough to actually use them. And ironically, the very feature that makes self-driving cars valuable – their flexible, autonomous decision-making across diverse situations – is exactly what makes it hard to trust them.

The Conversation

David Danks does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond the academic appointment above.

Source: The Conversation

Trump Is Desperately Seeking A Latino For His Cabinet

Donald Trump triumphed in politics after a long stint as a reality TV star. And now, as he scrambles to fill his final cabinet slots, the pesident-elect is taking a close look at a Republican who tried his best to move in the opposite direction.

Meet Abel Maldonado, who runs a large farm and a small vineyard on California’s Central Coast and is suddenly in the running for agriculture secretary. Maldonado, the son of Mexican immigrants, has seen his star rise amid speculation that Trump (who constantly lashed out at Mexican and other immigrants during his campaign) “is scrambling to appoint a Hispanic official to serve in his Cabinet,” Politico reports. If Trump fails to include a Latino in his cabinet, he’ll be the first president since Jimmy Carter to do so. There are only four slots left, and Politico adds that “Trump has narrowed his focus to agriculture secretary as the best possibility” for choosing a Latino. 

Maldonado is is the latest in a parade of names Team Trump has floated for USDA, a chaotic process that I last updated here. In California politics, Maldonado is seen as a fallen prodigy. His political career peaked in 2009, when then-Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger appointed the then-state senator as lieutenant governor. Less then a year later, Maldonado’s campaign to retain that office failed miserably. Since then, he has made unsuccessful bids for a seat in the US House and governor.

In 2016, Maldonado reportedly pitched himself as a potential reality TV star. Here’s The Sacramento Bee:

A video compilation that has rocketed around the Internet recently opens with an apparent working title: Meet the Maldonados. In it, the former state legislator and unsuccessful Republican gubernatorial candidate can be seen drinking wine with his daughter, asking his son about having a condom and laughing after his wife informs their daughter that “we watched porn when you were conceived.

At one point, a horse starts relieving itself in Maldonado’s house. “Yeah, Sacramento’s better than this,” a flustered Maldonado mutters as he cleans up.

The Bee reports that the show wasn’t picked up, and I failed to find the video compilation that “rocketed around the Internet,” despite an exhaustive search.

Maldonado met with the president-elect on Wednesday at Trump’s Mar-a-Lago estate. On the surface, Abel would bring a compelling back story. The son of immigrant farm workers from Mexico, he built his family’s plot from “a half acre of strawberries into a farm that now works over 6,000 acres and employs over 250 people and ships produce all over the world,” according to one bio. With his daughter, he runs a winery called Runway Vineyards.

But his ag businesses have had their own troubles. Agro-Jal, Maldanado’s produce farm, “has accumulated dozens of violations from Cal/OSHA since 1990, hundreds of thousands of dollars in tax liens, and multiple citations for exposing workers to toxic pesticides and skirting clean water regulations, government records show,” The Los Angeles Times reported in 2010. Maldonado he was a victim of overzealous regulators, the Times added.

In 2015, the operation was hit with a class-action suit from former workers alleging unpaid minimum and overtime wages, as well as denial of sufficient breaks and meal periods. The suit is ongoing and now in the discovery phase, Allen Hutkin, the San Luis Obispo lawyer who filed the suit on behalf of the workers, told me.

And as Ed Kilgore notes at New York Magazine, Maldonado is generally seen as a moderate Republican—which would put him out of step with the Senate Republicans who will vet the USDA pick.

Meanwhile, Elsa Murano, a former high USDA official and now director of the Norman Borlaug Institute for International Agriculture at Texas A&M, also is under consideration for USDA. Born in Cuba to parents who soon migrated to the United States, she too would qualify as Trump’s only cabinet pick with Hispanic heritage.

As I reported last week, Murano is also a classic example of the revolving door between industry and regulatory agencies. In 2004, Murano stepped down from her post as chief of the USDA division that oversees food safety at the nation’s slaughterhouses. Two years later, she joined the board of directors of pork giant Hormel, a company that runs some of the nation’s largest slaughterhouses. She has held that post ever since, with annual compensation of $237,980 and stock holdings worth $2,484,262 as of 2015.
 

Source: Mother Jones Politics

As Republicans ready to dismantle ACA, insurers likely to bolt

The Capitol Building as seen in Washington, D.C., Thursday, Dec. 8, 2016. AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais

There’s a joke among insurers that there are two things that health insurance companies hate to do – take risks and pay claims. But, of course, these are the essence of their business!

Yet, if they do too much of either, they will go broke, and if they do too little, their customers will find a better policy. This balancing act isn’t too hard if they have a pool sufficient to average out the highs and lows. I speak with some experience as the former CEO of one of these firms.

Employee-sponsored insurance has fit this model fairly well, providing good stability and reasonable predictability. Unfortunately, the market for individuals has never worked well.

Generally, this model forces insurers to take fewer risks so that they can still make money. They do this by excluding preexisting conditions and paying fewer claims. In such a market, fewer people are helped, and when they are able to get insurance, they pay a lot more for it than if they were part of an employee-sponsored plan.

The Affordable Care Act changed all of this. Companies were required to stop doing these bad things. In exchange for taking on substantially more risk of less healthy patients, they were promised more business by getting access to more potential customers.

The federal government offers subsidies to help pay the premiums for consumers whose income falls below a certain level. The law also stipulates that all people must be covered, or they face a penalty. This so-called individual mandate also guaranteed business for the insurance companies, because it led healthy people into the risk pool.

To entice insurers into the market, the ACA also offered well-established methods to reduce risk. For example, it built in protections for insurers who enrolled especially sick people. It also provided back-up payments for very high-cost cases and protected against big losses and limited big gains in the first three years.

These steps worked well in establishing a stable market for Medicare drug plans when this program started under President Bush in 2006. Competition there is vigorous, rates are lower than estimated and enrollees are satisfied. In other words, the market works well.

President Bush speaks on his Medicare Prescription Drug Benefit plan at the Asociacion Borinquena de Florida Central, Wednesday, May 10, 2006, in Orlando, Florida.
AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais

Congress did not honor the deal

But when the time came to pay up for risk reduction in the Obamacare exchanges, Congress reneged and paid only 12 percent of what was owed to the insurers. So, on top of the fact that the companies had to bear the risk of unknown costs and utilization in the start-up years, which turned out to be higher than they expected, insurers had to absorb legislative uncertainty of whether the rules would be rewritten.

It is no wonder that this year they have dramatically increased premiums, averaging 20 percent, to compensate for the extra risk they didn’t factor into the original lower rates. In contrast, underlying health costs are rising at about 5 percent.

Is the ACA here to stay? In this June 25, 2015 file photo, demonstrators cheers after the Supreme Court decided that the Affordable Care Act (ACA) may provide nationwide tax subsidies.
AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin, File

Repeal and replace?

And now comes the reality of the “repeal and replace” initiatives from the Republicans. If the uncertainty of this market was large before with the ACA, it is almost unknowable under whatever comes next. Thus the initial exit of some latecomers, including United Healthcare, and undercapitalized minor entrants, such as nonprofit co-ops, is almost certain to become a flood of firms leaving the exchanges. They have little choice since the risks are too large and the actuarially appropriate rates are still not obvious given the political turmoil and changing rules.

Some in Congress seem to think that passing the “repeal” part immediately but delaying its implementation for two or three years will somehow leave everything as it is now. But this naïve notion misses the fact that the riskiness of the Obamacare individual insurance exchange markets will have been ramped up to such a level that continuing makes no sense.

Even if a company reaches break-even in the “delay” years, it will lose when the repeal is effective. If the premium subsidies now available to lower-income enrollees go away immediately and the mandate to sign up for an insurance plan disappears, then the number of people purchasing individual policies on the exchanges will drop like a rock. In fact, it is clear that even debating this scenario is likely to be self-fulfilling, since insurers must decide on their participation for 2018 by the late spring of 2017. Look for many to leave then.

But what will happen in 2018? The homepage for healthcare.gov as seen in October 2016.
AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais, File

When risks are too high, just exit

It is easy to leave a market when things look bad. The health plan I oversaw, although top-rated by JD Powers, was losing huge amounts when I took over. Part of the turnaround we put into place was to withdraw from a number of counties where most of the losses were occurring. The same will be the case in the ACA exchanges.

It is easy to predict that this induced uncertainty from Congress will effectively kill the exchanges even if it delays the implementation of repeal. As a result, all of the individuals who have benefited from coverage and subsidies will lose out. They will either not be able to gain insurance because of a preexisting condition, or they will not be able to afford the higher premiums.

When they leave the market, it is also easy to guess that the political and economic price will be substantial in terms of patient access, provider uncompensated care costs and employment in the health sector – a major job creator. It is hard to predict these costs, but they could be into the billions of dollars. And, the health of millions could be jeopardized.

Is there any way out of this dilemma for those who don’t like Obamacare? Clearly the first principle, since all of the solutions suggested rely on private insurers, is to reduce the level of risk for them – the opposite of what we are doing now! Even House Speaker Paul Ryan’s proposals rely on private firms which will be loath to trust the game they are asked to play because of the dramatic changes to the rules.

If we want them to continue to do the good things required by the ACA, we can’t make it so uncertain. What this means is that the mechanisms designed to reduce risk and a stable set of operating arrangements must be reaffirmed as core principles of all reform and replace efforts. This shouldn’t be hard for market-oriented Republicans, if they can leave behind their political baggage. Blind talk of repeal with no clear way to build confidence among the private insurers, which will be needed in the replace phase, leads to market failure.

Like the dog that finally caught the car it had been chasing and doesn’t know what to do, what comes next for the administration and Congress is not clear. But we shouldn’t fool ourselves to think it will be easy or painless. Otherwise, it may be that the great experiment trying to establish a viable market for individual insurance – ironically long a conservative objective – will end in the chaos of what came before.

The Conversation

J.B. Silvers does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond the academic appointment above.

Source: The Conversation

Obama Administration Expels Russian Officials, Sends Warning to Trump

President Barack Obama issued an executive order Thursday sanctioning Russia for its malicious cyber activity, ejecting 35 Russian intelligence officials from the United States, and barring Russian officials from entering two Russian-owned compounds in New York and Maryland.

The Obama administration’s actions come after revelations that Russia interfered in the November presidential election, although senior administration officials cautioned on a call with reporters Thursday that there is no evidence suggesting Russia was able to interfere with the actual vote. Once it became evident that Russia had hacked into the Democratic National Committee’s email server, senior administration officials said they worked to make sure voting would not be compromised, and they said were successful in those efforts.

The executive order is also a response to an increase in harassment toward US diplomats in Russia. Senior administration officials cited the assault of a US diplomat by a Russian police officer that was broadcast on Russian television in July. Officials also said the safety of US diplomats was compromised when some diplomats’ personal information was broadcast on Russian television. Russia has accused Washington of similar harassment toward its diplomats.

“We see this as: There are facts, and then there are the things Russia says,” an official said when asked about Russia’s denial of its involvement in the cyberattacks.

Another official said that the “pattern of Russian harassment is unprecedented for the post-Cold War era” and that it’s been steadily increasing for about two years now.

Officials acknowledged that not all the actions being taken are made public, and their efforts will continue in the coming months. They also acknowledged that when the Trump administration takes over in January, the new president could walk back this effort, but that such an action would be ill-advised. “It wouldn’t make much sense to invite back in Russian intelligence agents,” one senior administration official said.

Read the report issued Thursday by the intelligence community on Russian cyber activity:

 

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Source: Mother Jones Politics

The Crazy Story of the Professor Who Came to Stay—and Wouldn't Leave

Elizabeth Abel walked up to the front door of her house for the first time in four months and rang the bell. She’d just flown halfway around the world to drop in, unannounced, on the man who’d taken over her home.

When he came to the door, Abel says, the man didn’t seem surprised to see her—or the police officer standing beside her. “Oh, hi,” he said.

Abel peered behind him into her living room, which was practically empty. Most of her furniture was gone: a dining table and four chairs, two easy chairs, an antique piece. Her books and rugs were nowhere to be seen. Even the artwork had been taken off the walls.

As Abel walked around the place she’d called home for three decades, she had the distinct feeling that her life had been erased. In the family room, a small sofa, a table, and a television had been removed. Out on the back deck, the wooden table and benches were missing. The bedrooms were emptied out, her mattresses crammed into the office. Closets were sealed with blue painter’s tape. She turned to the man, who had been renting her place for the past several months—without paying. “What is going on here?” she demanded. “What are you doing?”

 

In October 2015, as she was planning a semester-long research trip to Paris, Abel logged on to SabbaticalHomes.com to find someone to rent her house. The site bills itself as a sort of Airbnb for academics; its motto is “A place for minds on the move.” Abel, an English professor at the University of California-Berkeley, quickly received a bunch of responses, the first of which came from a political scientist at Sarah Lawrence College named David Peritz.

Peritz visited Abel’s cozy two-bedroom Spanish Revival in Kensington, a pocket of suburban affluence just north of Berkeley. He’d grown up in nearby Sonoma County, and he said he and his wife and their teenage son were spending some time on the West Coast to be close to family and friends. Peritz liked what he saw—the view of the Golden Gate, the office in the detached garage. There was one small thing, however: His wife had severe allergies, Peritz told Abel; could he store the small rug in the bedroom elsewhere for the duration of the rental? She was hesitant at first but agreed when he later suggested a storage facility.  

Abel, now 71, didn’t feel much of a connection with Peritz, two decades her junior. Still, she thought to herself, “Oh, come on. He’s a professor.” She found him polite and gracious, and she didn’t bother asking for references, let alone do a background check. She didn’t notice until much later that his personal checks lacked a home address. Why would she? That was precisely the point of Sabbatical Homes; unlike Craigslist or Airbnb, it was opening your home not to random people, but to colleagues. (As the site’s founder put it in a press release, “There is an implicit degree of trust amongst academics.”) When Abel discussed her would-be renter with her husband, a professor of molecular genetics and microbiology who spends most of the year at the University of Texas-Austin, she didn’t mention any misgivings.

So in January 2016, Abel headed to the Latin Quarter to work on a new book on Virginia Woolf, and Peritz moved into her home.

In early February, Abel noticed that Peritz hadn’t paid the rent by the first of the month, as they’d agreed upon. After a week’s delay and several apologies, the money appeared in Abel’s account. “Okay,” she thought, “he’s a little disorganized.”

In March, Peritz again failed to pay on time. He said his wife had an emergency dental procedure that they’d had to pay for out of pocket, and he once again profusely apologized for the inconvenience. Getting worried, Abel gave him a chance to break the lease, but he declined, promising to catch up on his payments.

By the time April 1 came and went without a rent check, Abel had had enough. She wrote Peritz to tell him she was taking him to small-claims court. Around the same time, Abel’s neighbors began writing her increasingly concerned emails. One of them had even seen Peritz taking her furniture down the driveway to the office in the garage late at night. They rarely, if ever, saw his wife or son.

Abel got in touch with the Kensington Police Department, which sent an officer by the house to talk with Peritz. The officer emailed Abel to tell her that he thought Peritz was “trying to establish squatters rights or lock you out,” and that she should have a cop accompany her when she eventually came back home. Someone from the police department would tell her she should start the eviction process as soon as possible. It might take weeks, even months, to get Peritz out of her house.

 

It’s not easy to evict someone in California. Generally that’s a good thing—especially in the Bay Area, one of the nation’s most expensive places to live. In a region where it’s not uncommon for one-bedroom apartments to rent for more than $3,000 a month, there’s an obvious incentive for landlords to find excuses to force out tenants and jack up the rent.

When a tenant stops paying rent, the eviction process goes like this: First, he or she must be served a three-day notice of what he owes. Once that notice has expired without payment, the landlord has to file what’s known as an unlawful detainer complaint, which must then be served to the renter along with a court summons. The renter has five days to respond, and either party can request a court date within the next 20 days. Along the way, the case can get delayed for any number of reasons, stretching out the process to a couple of months. In the meantime, the tenant stays put, rent-free.

This process was set up in part to protect tenants from predatory landlords. But in some instances it has provided cover for people looking to score a few months of free housing. In 2008, SF Weekly reported that there were between 20 and 100 serial evictees operating in San Francisco—bouncing from home to home without ever paying a dime.

The sharing economy has provided new opportunities for grifters to game the system. So-called Airbnb squatters—like the pair of brothers who refused to leave a Palm Springs condo in the summer of 2014 after paying one month’s rent—have become more common. It’s enough of an issue that Airbnb has a page devoted to the topic; it warns that local laws may allow long-term guests to establish tenants’ rights.

“I’m always amazed at how many risks people take with their home,” says Leah Simon-Weisberg, the legal director at a Bay Area tenants’ rights organization and a commissioner on Berkeley’s rent board. “You let these total strangers in, you know nothing about their credit, you’ve never met them before, and you let them into your home with your stuff. I mean, it kind of blows my mind.”

 

A day after Abel cut her sabbatical short and flew home to confront Peritz in person, she sent him an email to confirm that she wanted him out so she could move back in on May 1.

Peritz responded several days later. He wrote that he wasn’t “presently in a position to vacate the premises.” He also told her he’d been in touch with an attorney, and said if Abel tried to evict him, they’d end up in court, which “could be expensive, time consuming and draining for both of us.”

Peritz also blamed Abel for his inability to find a new place to stay, claiming that she had “submitted a false feedback report” on SabbaticalHomes.com. The lawyer, he said, had called it a “textbook case of libel.” “I realize that your intentions in making that report were good,” Peritz wrote, “but it remains the case that what you reported was false and that we have been damaged by it.” He said if she was willing to negotiate or arbitrate a settlement, he was “amenable to releasing you from all potential liability that could result from your false report.”

Abel was stunned. Not only had a tenured professor who lists “social contract theory” among his research interests exploited her trust, but now he was digging in and dragging things out. How much time, effort, and money would it take to get back into the home where she’d raised her son, written a couple of books, and lived for the better part of her adult life?

 

In early May, Abel moved into a neighbor’s house right across the street from her home. There, in an upstairs bedroom, she set up what she semi-jokingly refers to as “command central.” “I became,” she says, “relatively obsessed with all this.”

The room had two windows, one facing Abel’s home. She would often sit in the comfortable chair she’d placed next to the front window—alongside a stack of folders full of correspondence with her lawyer and various state and local agencies. Every day, she looked out and saw Peritz’s red pickup truck parked on the street.

With the help of a private investigator, Abel began to learn about Peritz’s erratic rental history. For starters, she discovered that when he first reached out to her—assuring her in an email, “We have sublet and house-sat several times before, and have references to say that we are responsible, considerate, quiet, clean and reasonably easy going”—he was in the middle of being evicted from another rental home in Berkeley. (The case was eventually settled out of court.) The PI also turned up at least one eviction attempt in New York City, as well as multiple federal and New York state tax liens.

There was more. After Abel had complained to SabbaticalHomes.com, the site’s founder, Nadege Conger, alerted several other users whom Peritz had been in touch with and blocked his account. When he created a new account with a different email address, that was blocked, too. Conger also connected Abel with a New York City couple, both professors, who’d threatened Peritz with a lawsuit when he stopped paying rent while subletting their apartment in 2015. When the couple returned from a six-month trip, they claimed Peritz owed them approximately $5,375. Photos show that their apartment was a mess: Furniture was broken, paintings had gone missing, and the floors had been stripped from what looked like repeated scrubbing. (Peritz had told them in an email that he’d been mopping frequently to keep down the dust from construction next door.) The couple didn’t write a negative review of Peritz because they didn’t think it would make much of a difference, and they didn’t contact his supervisors at Sarah Lawrence—a small liberal arts college in nearby Westchester County—because they feared a lawsuit.

Armed with this information, Abel reached out to people who knew Peritz—colleagues at UC-Berkeley, old classmates, anyone who might have some insight into his motivations. Some of his longtime friends agreed to try to convince him to leave her house, and soon.

As May stretched on, an anonymous blog called David Peritz—Unlawful Detainer popped up. “Do Not Rent Your Home to David Peritz,” the site blares; Peritz’s official headshot is stamped “Serial Evictee.” It’s not clear who made it; Abel says she had nothing to do with it. (“I wouldn’t know how to, first of all,” she told me.)

Abel eventually reached out to Sarah Lawrence to see if it might investigate Peritz’s behavior. In a brief, apologetic response, Dean of the College Kanwal Singh wrote that the school “cannot take any action in this case as it has nothing to do with the College.”

Abel’s colleagues at UC-Berkeley, on the other hand, weren’t shy about getting involved. She had seen that Peritz had a copy of a book by political scientist Wendy Brown; figuring that he might admire Brown’s work, Abel asked her and her longtime partner, renowned gender theorist Judith Butler, if they’d mind contacting him. They agreed.

Butler sent Peritz two epic, eviscerating emails. The first began, “I have recently become aware of your scurrilous behavior—effectively squatting in the home of my colleague, Elizabeth Abel. If you are not out of that apartment within five days time, I will write to every colleague in your field explaining the horrible scam you have committed.” The second, written less than a week later, bore the subject line “your miscalculation” and included this withering coup de grâce:

…please accept the fact that you have painted yourself into a corner, and that you have to leave promptly, and with an apology and a payment plan, in order to avoid any further destruction to your professional and personal world. Your itinerary of self-destruction is a stellar one.

Brown’s email was equally harsh. “It’s past time for you to leave. And in case you are wondering whether there are any future possibilities of teaching at Berkeley, the answer is an emphatic no,” she wrote. “The game is up.”

 

I’ve reached out multiple times to Peritz to get his side of the story. In his response to my initial email, he denied “the veracity of most of what is said about me” on the blog about him. He said he would meet with me, if only to correct the record. He then stopped responding to my emails and phone calls. After a later exchange of messages to set up a meeting, Peritz said his lawyer had “strongly advised” him against commenting further. He ultimately responded to just one of the many questions I emailed him and his attorney.

Without hearing from Peritz, it’s impossible to know why he’s jumped from one messy rental fight to another. Some of his old friends shake their heads at his situation but will not speculate on the record about his motivations. One longtime acquaintance declined an interview request, writing in an email, “David Peritz was once a friend of mine, and I am reluctant to play a part in a story that would make his life more difficult.”

As news of his run-in with Abel has spread among the academic community, it has trickled into his professional life. While Peritz was in California over the summer (and part time in the fall), he gave lectures in a number of continuing-education institutes and at area senior centers. A group of students pushed to cancel his continuing-education classes at UC-Berkeley and other Bay Area universities. Acknowledging the buzz about Peritz’s rental history, the director of San Francisco’s Fromm Institute, a nonprofit offering classes to retirees, told a group of colleagues in an email that he’d written Peritz to assure him that “attempts to besmirch your reputation will have no bearing on our mutually rewarding relationship.” (The director, Robert Fordham, responded to a request for comment by writing, “Prof. David Peritz continues to be a teacher at the Fromm Institute who is highly evaluated by his students for his work in the classroom with them.”)

Peritz returned to Sarah Lawrence to teach this past fall; a college spokeswoman declined to comment for this story. But it appears that he will continue to live at least part time in the Bay Area through the spring. He told me in an email that he was making frequent trips between New York and California to help care for his mother, who has Alzheimer’s disease. “I will continue to do so so long as I am able to,” he wrote. “I have done some teaching in the Bay Area to help offset the costs of my trips.”

According to the course registry for San Francisco State University’s continuing-education program, he’ll be teaching a class there starting in January. The name of the course: “Ethics and Politics of New Technology.”

 

In late May, a superior court judge ruled in Abel’s favor: Peritz had to vacate her house by 4 p.m. on Memorial Day and pay what he still owed her starting in the fall.

When the day came, she gathered across the street with a few friends and neighbors, watching Peritz slowly load his truck. At four o’clock, Abel crossed the street, walked up to Peritz, and asked for the keys. He handed them over, and, after a testy back-and-forth about his belongings that were still inside the house, Abel’s friends hauled them out to the curb.

When Peritz drove off, Abel popped open some champagne and her friends toasted his departure. He was finally gone.

Moving back into her house, though, wasn’t without incident. First of all, Abel had to move all her furniture back into her house from her office and basement, where Peritz had stored it. And when she went to put her pictures back on the walls, Abel realized she couldn’t figure out where exactly they’d previously hung: The nails had been removed, the holes had been spackled over, and the walls had been repainted.

Abel holds out hope that her experience could lead to a change in California’s eviction laws, or at least keep someone else from being duped. And while her trust in people was “radically challenged” by her encounter with Peritz, she says she has felt that soften as time has gone by. “I still feel that most people are trustworthy,” she says. “It’s something about my temperament and inclination to believe what people say.”

According to the terms of their settlement, Peritz was scheduled to begin paying Abel his back rent at the end of September, though she resigned herself to never seeing that money. But one night, Abel returned home to find an envelope containing an $800 money order—his first settlement payment. It had been slipped through the mail slot in her front door. “He does manage,” Abel told me the next day, “to keep one off-guard.”

Source: Mother Jones Politics

2016 Was a Really Bad Year. These Folks Made It Better.

2016 was certainly a bad year. The planet continued to get hotter (spelling doom for future habitants of Earth), natural disasters wreaked havoc all over the world, white nationalists and neo-Nazis stopped hiding on the fringes of society, and Prince, David Bowie, and Carrie Fisher left us way too soon. But before we consider 2016 as being totally bleak, let’s pause and remember a few folks who made a bad year better. From smart kids to activists and politicians, here are some of the bright spots.

Sarah McBride: Sarah McBride made history this year when she became the first transgender woman to speak at a major-party convention. “Will we be a nation where there is only one way to love, only one way to look, and only one way to live?” McBride, the national press secretary for the Human Rights Campaign, asked fellow Democrats gathered to nominate Hillary Clinton. “Or will we be a nation where everyone has the freedom to live openly and equally?” Growing up in Wilmington, Delaware, McBride didn’t think she could live authentically as herself while achieving her professional goals in politics. Since coming out in 2012, she’s been proving her younger self wrong, breaking down barriers and fighting for transgender rights. As an intern, McBride became one of the first transgender people to work in the White House, and she played an instrumental role in getting transgender rights legislation passed in Delaware. She also made waves this year when a bathroom selfie she took in North Carolina went viral after state lawmakers approved legislation barring transgender people from using the bathroom of their choice.

Mari Copeny: Mari Copeny is better known as Little Miss Flint. In 2014, her hometown’s water was poisoned with lead when the city of Flint, Michigan, changed to an improperly treated water supply. It took months to warn Flint residents, and as a result thousands of children in the city tested positive for high levels of lead in their blood. Mari sent a letter to the White House asking President Barack Obama to visit, and Obama responded and visited Flint a few weeks later. Mari’s mother operates a Twitter account for the young girl where she continues to tweet about the ongoing water crisis.

Lindy West: In a year when some of the worst corners of the internet gained new power, Lindy West’s accounts of confronting trolls provided badly needed evidence that you can stand up to cyberbullying and win. In her debut novel, Shrill, West describes what fat shaming really means, a perspective that This American Life host Ira Glass and others have noted changed their perspective on the issue. West’s book, which is a New York Times bestseller, is a delightful yet heart-wrenching collection of essays, spanning subjects from sexism in comedy to finding love. A columnist for the Guardian, she has also argued that objectifying men at the Olympics was not a real issue, and she’s called on everyone to dispense with verbal contortions and just call white nationalists Nazis. (West spoke to Mother Jones earlier this year about internet trolls, fat shaming, and rape culture.)

Tammy Duckworth: The 2016 election wasn’t kind to Democrats, but there were a few winners. Tammy Duckworth will move from the House of Representatives to the Senate, after her defeat of Republican Mark Kirk in the closely watched race for Illinois senator. She is a double amputee and a disabled Iraq War veteran, and she’ll be only the second Asian American to serve in the Senate. During the campaign, Kirk took flack for making a racist comment about his opponent’s family during a debate. Duckworth, who has an American father and a Thai mother, noted that her family has served in the military since the Revolutionary War. Kirk responded by saying, “I had forgotten your parents came all the way from Thailand to serve George Washington.” The Kirk campaign issued a statement attempting to defend his comments, but the embattled senator was met with a barrage of criticism before he tweeted out an apology. Duckworth has also supported accepting more Syrian refugees in the United States.

 

Michelle Obama: Real talk: Michelle Obama makes every year brighter. But this year especially, she was a force to be reckoned with on the campaign trail. Though she was a fierce critic of Donald Trump from the outset of the election, even the hot-headed president-elect knew better to go after the hugely popular first lady. In an impassioned speech after the release of an audio recording of Trump in which he talked about grabbing women “by the pussy,” Obama lambasted the Republican nominee for “actually bragging about sexually assaulting women.” Not only was she a champion on the campaign trail, but who can forget when Renaissance (her Secret Service code name) appeared on Carpool Karaoke?

The Reverend William Barber II: William Barber II, a charismatic orator and the founder of the Moral Mondays movement in North Carolina, is probably best known for his work in voting rights and economic justice in the state. In 2013, Barber led a group of activists and clergy into the state Capitol building in Raleigh and blocked the doors to the Senate chambers to express his frustration with the Republican-majority Legislature for implementing voting restrictions, blocking Medicaid expansion, and cutting unemployment benefits. He was eventually arrested. This year, at the Democratic National Convention, Barber spoke out against injustice—from voter suppression to police brutality—and his movement has been credited with helping defeat Gov. Pat McCrory in North Carolina. The reverend shows no signs of stopping his work in voting rights and economic justice in 2017.

#NoDAPL activists: The water protectors of Standing Rock, as they call themselves, braved security guards using pepper spray, attack dogs, water cannons in freezing temperatures, and rubber bullets in order to stop the completion of the Dakota Access Pipeline and its threat to the water supply and cultural sites of the Standing Rock Sioux tribe. The tribe opposed to the project and pointed out that pipeline developers had initially planned to follow a different route but rejected it due to concerns about contaminating the water supply to another community. It looked like nothing was going to stop the project, but in November the US Army Corps of Engineers halted construction of the pipeline, calling for research into environmental risks. The win is cause for celebration, but the final battle may lie ahead: President-elect Trump has invested between $500,000 and $1 million in the company with the contract to build the pipeline.

Marley Dias: Marley Dias is a 12-year-old girl who is already tired of reading books about white boys and their dogs. She impressed the world in January when Philly Voice reported that the New Jersey girl was starting a project called #1000BlackGirlBooks to collect books where black girls are the protagonists and not just background characters. The book drive was part of the GrassROOTS Community Foundation, an organization co-founded by Janice Johnson Dias, Marley’s mother, that she uses for a social action project every year. Marley hit her target of 1,000 books by February.

Chris Murphy: One lawmaker who confronted Republicans in Congress this year was Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn). After the mass shooting at the Pulse nightclub last June, Murphy refused to let Republicans avoid voting on two gun control measures, one that banned suspected terrorists from buying guns and another that required background checks for sales at gun shows and over the internet. Murphy lead a 15-hour filibuster on an unrelated spending bill until the issue was brought to the floor. He has become one of the leading voices in the Democratic Party on gun control since the 2012 tragedy at Sandy Hook, Connecticut, in which 20 children and six adults were killed by an assailant with two guns. Prior to the election, Murphy explained to Mother Jones why Trump is more radical than the National Rifle Association.

Kamala Harris: The race to replace retiring California Sen. Barbara Boxer came down to two Democrats who were also women of color: Rep. Loretta Sanchez and state Attorney General Kamala Harris. After beating her opponent by 25 points, Harris, who was born to a Jamaican American father and an Indian American mother, became only the second black woman elected to the US Senate. (Carol Moseley-Braun represented Illinois from 1993 to 1999.) After the election, Harris spoke out for undocumented immigrants by vowing to fight Trump’s immigration policies at every turn. “You are not alone, you matter, and we’ve got your back,” she said to immigrants and activists at the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles after her victory.

 

Khizr and Ghazala Khan: The Khans’ son, Humayun Khan, was killed during the Iraq War in 2004. At the Democratic National Convention, Khizr Khan sharply and movingly criticized Trump for his proposal to ban Muslim immigration. “Donald Trump, you’re asking Americans to trust you with their future. Let me ask you, have you even read the United States Constitution?” Khan asked while pulling out a pocket-sized copy of the Constitution. “I will gladly lend you my copy. In this document, look for the words ‘liberty’ and ‘equal protection of law.'” Khan went on to note the sacrifice his family and other families like his have made:”Have you ever been to Arlington Cemetery? Go look at the graves of brave patriots who died defending the United States of America. You will see all faiths, genders, and ethnicities. You have sacrificed nothing—and no one.” Trump responded by criticizing Ghazala Khan for remaining silent while standing next to her husband, saying that she wasn’t allowed to speak because of the couple’s faith. He also claimed he made sacrifices by building “great structures.” His treatment of the Khans earned him widespread criticism from both sides of the aisle. Thanks to Khizr Khan, the American Civil Liberties Union ran out of pocket Constitutions less than a week after his speech.

Source: Mother Jones Politics

Black Immigrants Brace for Dual Hardships Under Trump

Two days before the presidential election, Donald Trump traveled to the deeply segregated city of Minneapolis to make a final pitch to voters. He didn’t spend any time discussing Minnesota’s racial wealth gap—according to one study, the state’s financial disparity between races is the highest in the country—or the fatal police shooting of Philando Castile during a traffic stop in the state four months earlier.

Instead, he talked about Minnesota’s Somali population, larger than in any other state. “Here in Minnesota, you’ve seen first-hand the problems caused with faulty refugee vetting, with very large numbers of Somali refugees coming into your state without your knowledge, without your support or approval,” Trump said in the November 6 speech. “Some of them [are] joining ISIS and spreading their extremist views all over our country and all over the world,” he added.

A thousand miles away in New York City, the speech left Amaha Kassa worried. In 2012, Kassa founded African Communities Together, an immigrant rights group that connects African immigrants to services and advocates for immigration policies beneficial to people coming from Africa. “When our community sees a group of African immigrants being targeted in that way, then that gives cause for concern about what we are going to see from the administration,” he said of Trump’s Minnesota speech. “The fear is that [under President Trump] it is going to get worse.”

In the weeks after Trump’s stunning electoral upset, discussions of what the incoming administration could mean for immigrants have largely focused on the concerns of undocumented Latinos—an unsurprising development given the size of that population and its vocal activism in recent years. But other immigrant communities have also begun to question exactly how the Trump administration will affect their lives. And the country’s growing black immigrant population, which advocates say has borne the brunt of some of the country’s harshest immigration policies, fears that it could suffer particularly severely under Trump.

Advocates point to Trump’s call for a restoration of “law and order,” his focus on “criminal aliens,” and his proposal to make nationwide use of “stop and frisk,” the highly controversial New York practice that targeted minorities disproportionately and was eventually found ineffective and unconstitutional. (Trump has since walked back his stop-and-frisk proposal after criticism.) Immigrant groups worry that these policies could prey on black immigrants, given widespread evidence of prejudice that causes people to equate blackness with criminality and black immigrants’ existing struggles in the immigration enforcement system. Trump has also used harsh rhetoric about refugees, causing concern among groups that have fled disaster and conflict zones in Haiti and parts of Africa.

Recent policy proposals to assist immigrants have focused largely on Latino groups, leaving some black immigrants to feel that their concerns aren’t being addressed by lawmakers. “People don’t look at particular communities and how they benefit within the overall immigration system,” says Francesca Menes, the policy and advocacy coordinator for the Florida Immigrant Coalition and a member of the Black Immigration Network. “When you’re black and you’re coming from a black country it is much harder for you to come into the US.”

The United States’ black immigrant population has grown considerably in recent decades. According to a report released earlier this year by the Black Alliance for Just Immigration and the New York University School of Law’s Immigrant Rights Clinic, black immigrants now account for nearly 10 percent of the nation’s black population, up from roughly 3 percent in 1980. The majority come from Africa and the Caribbean, with immigration from African countries seeing a particularly sharp increase in recent years in response to a number of humanitarian crises. While black immigrants are more likely to be in the country lawfully than some other immigrant groups, the undocumented black population is growing at a faster rate than the overall foreign-born black population. The roughly 600,000 undocumented black immigrants currently living in the United States may have cause to be especially concerned about Trump’s plans for deporting large numbers of undocumented immigrants.

“Being undocumented and black, we have the traditional issues that come with being undocumented,” says Jonathan Jayes-Green, a founder and coordinator of the UndocuBlack Network, a group that advocates for the black undocumented community. “But because we are also black we deal with the ways in which blackness is criminalized in this country.”

The Black Alliance for Just Immigration report found that black immigrants, like the black population overall, were more likely to have criminal convictions, and that as a result they were more likely than other immigrant groups to be detained by immigration officials and to be deported due to a criminal record. Although less than 8 percent of the noncitizen population in the United States is black, more than 20 percent of immigrants in deportation proceedings on criminal grounds are black. The report notes that in 2013, “more than three quarters of Black immigrants [who were deported] were removed on criminal grounds in contrast to less than half of immigrants overall.”

“The voices of black immigrants were not being heard in migrant rights, even as some of the most violent aspects of migration were impacting black immigrants the most,” says Ben Ndugga-Kabuye, a research and policy associate with the Black Alliance for Just Immigration. Ndugga-Kabuye attributes much of the expansion of immigration enforcement and detention to the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act of 1996, a bill passed as part of the Clinton administration’s tough-on-crime agenda. “The criminal justice system became the welcome mat into the immigration system, and the issues of racial profiling in the criminal justice system are replicated in the immigration system,” he says.

Many of the issues black immigrants face in the immigration enforcement system are not new. Advocates note that the focus on immigrants with criminal records intensified during the Obama administration and could become even more of an issue once Trump takes office. While the president-elect’s exact policy plans remain unclear, he has frequently discussed his desire to deport undocumented immigrants en masse and has more recently settled on the goal of deporting as many as 3 million “criminal aliens” during his first hours in office. He has also suggested that he would give more leeway to police. During the campaign, he frequently characterized black protesters reacting to instances of police violence as anti-police.

“I think our communities were already in a state of emergency under a Democratic president,” says Jayes-Green. “We are already not in the best of places, so as we think about the next administration, our community has gone into a sort of crisis control.”

Source: Mother Jones Politics

The Rise of Pesticide Giants and Other Food Stories to Watch Next Year

Well, that was weird.

But now 2016 is nearly over, and it’s time to look ahead to the food politics stories of the coming year. For the first time since George W. Bush exited the White House in 2009, the Republican Party owns the presidency as well as solid majorities in the US House and Senate. That gives them vast potential to overhaul food policy with little threat of gridlock. But since the president-elect himself is a walking chaos machine who has expressed few coherent opinions about food policy and has clashed often with party elites, uncertainty cloaks the food policy space like gravy on a chicken-fried steak. Here are some stories I’ll be tracking in the coming year:

• Mind-bending agribusiness deals. For more than a decade, the global market for seeds and pesticides was dominated by five massive companies. Very quickly after taking power, Trump’s Department of Justice will be tasked with vetting two mind-bendingly complicated deals that  could reduce that number to three: German chemical giant Bayer’s takeover of US seed titan Monsanto and the Dow-DuPont merger. If the deals pass regulatory muster here and in Europe, three behemoths—the above two combined firms, plus Syngenta (itself recently taken over by a Chinese chemical conglomerate)—would sell about 59 percent of the globe’s seeds and 64 percent of its pesticides. Here in the United States, the concentration would be even more intense. Bayer-Monsanto alone would own nearly 60 percent of the US cottonseed market; between them, Bayer-Monsanto and Dow-DuPont would sell 75 percent of the corn seeds planted by US farmers and 64 percent of soybean seeds.

Allowing just two companies that level of market share would harm farmers and, ultimately, consumers, says Diana Moss, president of the American Antitrust Institute. It obviously gives these firms leverage to charge farmers higher prices for seeds and pesticides—and indeed, prices for both have risen dramatically in recent years. Combining their R&D departments means less “innovation competition,” Moss adds—fewer competitors in the market means less incentive to come up with effective new products. And the combination of huge seed, pesticide, and genetic modification divisions would mean more incentives to devise seed products designed to work only with a company’s own proprietary pesticides, limiting farmer choice, she adds. Eventually, higher costs for these vital farm inputs will be passed on to consumers.

Recently, the Obama administration has shown its sensitivity to these concerns. In August, the Department of Justice blocked John Deer’s acquisition of Monsanto’s precision planter business—a unit that produces devices allowing farmers to plant corn, soybeans, and row crops at up to twice the speed of a conventional planter, without sacrificing accuracy. The deal would have given Deere at least 86 percent of the market for the devices and the power to “raise prices and slow innovation at the expense of American farmers who rely on these systems,” the DOJ declared.

While Trump’s DOJ might have to force Bayer-Monsanto and Dow-DuPont to sell off certain parts of their seed business because the market share numbers are so stark, Moss says she expects the deals to be greenlighted.

• A Dickensian school lunch bill? Every five years, Congress and the president are supposed to cobble together something called the Child Nutrition Reauthorization (CNR), which funds subsidized lunches in public schools for students from low-income families. The spending levels are miserly: The federal government pays schools $3.16 for each free meal they serve, the bulk of which goes to overhead expenses. The total outlay is about $13 billion annually—equal to about 2 percent of annual defense spending. Back in 2010, President Barack Obama signed a CNR that only increased funding by a tiny amount but did significantly raise standards, requiring more whole grains and more fruits and vegetables. Ever since, conservative lawmakers and their food industry backers have been trying to roll back the reforms, which were famously championed by first lady Michelle Obama.

Congress was supposed to pass a new CNR back in 2015. It failed to do so because Democratic lawmakers refused to go along with rollbacks on healthy food standards as well as a measure, promoted by GOP stalwarts in the US House, designed to undermine universal free-lunch programs for many high-poverty schools (more here on that). Earlier this month, a last-ditch congressional attempt to pass a CNR failed. The reason? “House Republicans felt entitled to a much more conservative bill after sweeping GOP victories in the election,” Politico reports. In 2017, they’ll have much more leverage to get their way.

• CRISPR Unleashed. CRISPR, short for “clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats,” is a gene-editing tool that has gotten massive hype in recent years. It allows plant breeders to tweak a crop’s genome by removing, adding, or altering sections of the DNA sequence. In a momentous decision in August, the Obama US Department of Agriculture declared it did not have the authority to regulate new crops designed with the technology, opening the door to a barrage of CRISPR-derived products to enter US farm fields without oversight. (See background on the USDA’s tortured position as a regulator of gene-altered crops here.) This is one Obama policy that the Trump administration is unlikely to challenge.

Researchers have already used CRISPR to develop mushrooms that don’t brown as quickly when sliced and tomatoes that ripen on the vine two weeks earlier than normal. In September, Monsanto signed a licensing agreement with the Broad Institute—the MIT-Harvard research group that claims to have developed CRISPR—allowing the agribiz giant the right to use the technology on crops. But despite the regulatory free-for-all, recent research suggests that CRISPR may not be quite as precise as its champions claim. I’ll be extremely curious to watch whether we see a barrage of new CRISPR crop products this coming year, and also to monitor emerging research.

• The Fight for $15 heats up. The movement to raise wages for low-income workers—the bulk of whom toil in the food and farm industries—flowered in the Obama years, generally with the support of the president. It will be fascinating to see how the movement reacts to a new president who insists US workers are overpaid, and whose chosen labor secretary, Andrew Puzder, is a fast-food magnate who opposes minimum-wage hikes and whose company has been accused repeatedly of withholding overtime pay. Fight for $15, a campaign financed by the Service Employees International Union to improve wages for fast-food and other low-wage workers, has vowed to expand its reach “beyond the urban working poor” and target a broader range of “working-class Americans frustrated by an economy that is no longer producing the middle-class jobs they or their parents once held,” the New York Times reports. On November 29, Fight for $15 organized protests and work stoppages across the country, resulting in scores of arrests, Reuters reports. Expect more of the same—as well as more efforts to raise minimum wages at the state and local levels.

• The internal Trump battle over immigration. Trump ran as a xenophobe, vowing to expel millions of people and build a wall to block Mexicans from crossing the border. But his top agriculture advisers have been pleading with him to “overhaul immigration laws in a way that protects farm workers already in the U.S., while ensuring employers can reliably hire new workers, since U.S. agribusinesses face major labor shortages,” as Politico recently reported. And as a fast-food exec, Department of Labor appointee Puzder comes from an industry that relies heavily on immigrant labor. “I have firsthand knowledge of the vital role immigrants play in growing US businesses, spurring innovation and creating jobs, he wrote in a 2013 op-ed for the San Diego Union-Tribune. Puzder went on to defend the Dream Act, which has provided conditional permanent residency to immigrants who arrived in the United States as minors and graduate from US high schools. He even called for “legislation that creates a path, perhaps an arduous one, to a form of legal status for undocumented immigrants,” because “as a nation, we’re never going to deport more than 10 million people with families, friends, jobs and homes in our communities.” So within the Trump White House and in the GOP-dominated Congress, anti-immigrant zealots will be pushing one way, and  immigration-reliant business interests will be pushing the other.

Source: Mother Jones Politics

(2016/09/20) Building momentum, making progress (Money in Politics) (Repost)

Edition #1043

Today we look at some of the structures of money in politics and how the tide is beginning to turn

Be part of the show! Leave a message at 202-999-3991

Show Notes

Ch. 1: Opening Theme: A Fond Farewell – From a Basement On the Hill

Ch. 2: Act 1: The Truth About Citizens United – Follow the Money #8 – Represent.Us – Air Date: 1-26-16

Ch. 3: Song 1: Addiction – Medina


Ch. 4: Act 2: @DerekCressman on Free speech vs paid speech with guest host @AngieCoiro – Bradcast from @TheBradBlog – Air Date 5-31-16

Ch. 5: Song 2: Buy My Vote – The Haymarket Squares


Ch. 6: Act 3: How To Destroy The Corrupt Political Establishment – @theyoungturks – Air Date: 04-20-16

Ch. 7: Song 3: Welcome To the Machine – Pink Floyd


Ch. 8: Act 4: @USRepDavidJolly on The STOP Act Part 1 – @RalphNader Radio Hour – Air Date 8-27-16

Ch. 9: Song 4: Moneytalks – Vitamin String Quartet


Ch. 10: Act 5: Steve Israel on Congressional Fundraising – @LastWeekTonight with @iamjohnoliver – Air Date 04-04-16

Ch. 11: Song 5: Money Grabber (Live @ KEXP) – Fitz and The Tantrums


Ch. 12: Act 6: @USRepDavidJolly on The STOP Act Part 2 – @RalphNader Radio Hour – Air Date 8-27-16

Ch. 13: Song 6: Changes – Langhorne Slim & The Law


Ch. 14: Act 7: Rhode Island Demands Money Out Of Politics – @theyoungturks – Air Date: 06-21-16


Produced by Jay! Tomlinson

Thanks for listening!

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Source: Best of the Left

This American Fought ISIS. Now He's Trying to Get Washington to Untangle Its Syria Policy

“This reminds me of when I was fighting ISIS,” Robert Amos told me, improbably, one sunny September day as we rode in a white Jeep through the streets of downtown Washington, DC. The vehicle was packed with four elderly Kurdish passengers in sweaters and suit jackets, members of the American Kurdish Information Network, a nonprofit organization. They complained in their native Kurmanji dialect about the broken air conditioner, and Amos occasionally chimed in with phrases that he learned during six months he spent as a soldier with the People’s Protection Units, or YPG, the predominately Kurdish militia that controls a 200-mile stretch of territory in northern Syria known as Rojava.

Amos, who is 30 and Jewish and grew up in West Virginia, has hair the hue of desert sand, and he wore big black granny sunglasses. “We’d always be driving through the desert in cars like this,” he said. “One time, during a battle, ISIS guys came streaming out of a tunnel at the bottom of a hill and I thought we were going to die. My friend kissed me on the cheek and said ‘goodbye.’ I survived, but he didn’t.”

Today Amos is fighting a new war. Since returning home in late 2015, he’s formed the American Veterans of the Kurdish Armed Forces, a group that aims to increase visibility and support for the YPG as well as the approximately 200 Americans who have joined them. The Pentagon has provided Special Forces troops to advise the YPG and airstrikes to assist them on the battlefield. But Amos believes this isn’t enough, and his group has lobbied the Obama administration to provide more military assistance. It now plans to do the same with the incoming Trump administration, whose policy toward the Syrian Kurds remains—like most things Trump-related—wildly unpredictable. “Obama, Trump—none of them know what’s going on over there,” Amos said.

Amos’s inspiration for the group was an incident on August 24, 2016, when Vice President Joe Biden flew to Istanbul, where he and Turkish President Recep Erdogen reprimanded Kurdish fighters for being too effective against ISIS. “Move back across the Euphrates River,” Biden said at a joint press conference, referring to the YPG’s recent capture of Manbij, a strategic city north of Aleppo, from ISIS. (Three Americans died in combat during the two-month battle.) Soon after the meeting, 20 Turkish tanks, accompanied by 1,500 Syrian Islamists and aerial support from the US Air Force, rolled into Rojava. When they clashed with the YPG, the dizzying contradiction of the mission became clear: One US-sponsored force (Turkey and the Syrian rebels) was killing another US-sponsored force (the YPG).

A video, later posted on YouTube, showed a group of Syrian jihadists who’d participated in the Turkish invasion chasing 25 US Army soldiers out of the village of Al-Rai, where the Americans had gone to offer assistance to the pro-Turkey troops. On the tape, the Syrian rebels call the troops who’ve come to help them “dogs and pigs.” “Christians and Americans,” another man shouts, as the Americans flee, “have no place among us!”

Some Middle East experts have expressed outrage at the August invasion and the Obama administration’s support for it. Turkey’s attack on the YPG, said US Army Special Envoy Brett McGurk, was “unacceptable and a source of deep concern.” The incursion would be the beginning of “Erdogen’s Waterloo,” wrote David L. Phillips, a former adviser to President Barack Obama and director of Columbia University’s Institute for the Study of Human Rights, in the Huffington Post. By backing Turkey’s invasion, he believes, the United States wasn’t just facilitating attacks on its own soldiers and allies, but inadvertently enabling jihadists to carry out those attacks. “Slipping into Syria’s quagmire is not in America’s interest,” Phillips wrote. “Nor is being played by Turkey.”

In response, on September 1, Amos put on the olive fatigues he’d worn in Syria and drove six hours from Indiana, where he was living, to Parma, Ohio, to confront Biden. “Why did you tell the YPG to go back?” Amos shouted, as the vice president gave a speech to Hillary Clinton supporters at a union hall. An MSNBC segment called Amos “Biden’s heckler.” In the clip, his voice cracks as he cries out, “My friends died! My American friends!”

“If you’re serious,” Biden says, interrupting his speech, “come back after and talk to me about this. You have my permission.”

“Biden slipped out the back door,” Amos told me as our driver, Jay Kheirabadi, an Iranian Kurd who lives in Maryland, weaved erratically between lanes of traffic, as if dodging land mines. He honked and shouted out the window. “I think I have a perspective the vice president could learn from,” Amos said. “I just want to talk.”

The Jeep parked in front of Biden’s house at Number One Observatory Circle, near Massachusetts Avenue. Separated from the white Queen Anne-style mansion by stands of poplar trees, a steel fence, and a police checkpoint, the five men set up two large signs facing the road. One read, using a somewhat inscrutable reference to Turkey’s support for jihadist groups in Syria, “Joe Biden supports Diet ISIS.” The other read, “Kurds are fighting ISIS tooth and nail. America will you help them?”

Two other YPG veterans had promised to come but never arrived, and the lackluster turnout put Amos in a melancholy mood. Still, the protest’s modesty underscored its message: US support of both Turkish and Kurdish groups who are killing each other in Syria is a danger to American interests, but no one is paying much attention. This point was made dramatically on November 24, when Turkish airstrikes killed the first American YPG volunteer in Syria, an anarchist from California named Michael Israel. Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirim said Americans fighting alongside the YPG would be treated as “terrorists…regardless of whether they are members of allied countries”.

A passing car honked. A man gave the middle finger out the top of his convertible. An Italian woman whizzed by on a mountain bike and shouted “Bongiorno!

When I asked Azad Kobani, a former Syrian parliament member who now lives in Virginia, if American volunteers like Amos were crazy for risking their lives fighting in his home country, he said, “Fighting for democracy is never crazy. Not realizing Turkey doesn’t represent the US’s best interests is what’s crazy.”

Two Secret Service members crossed the street, playing Frogger against traffic. They rubbed their chins and stared down Amos, who is 6 foot 2, a little plump, and who, in his sunglasses and YPG fatigues, appeared a bit deranged. “I fought ISIS,” Amos told the agents. “Biden promised he’d speak with me. He lied.”

“He does that,” one agent said, sarcastically.

 “We went over there and fought and died,” Amos said after the agents had left, “and it’s like nobody cares.” Moments later a woman in a black SUV drove by, rolled down her window, and yelled an expletive at Amos. “Well,” he said, sighing, “I guess I need to keep fighting.”

Support for this article was provided by the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.

Source: Mother Jones Politics

Dr. Orange: The Scientist Who Insists Agent Orange Isn't Hurting America's Veterans

This story originally appeared on ProPublica and the Virginian-Pilot.

A few years ago, retired Maj. Wes Carter was picking his way through a stack of internal Air Force memos, searching for clues that might help explain his recent heart attack and prostate cancer diagnosis. His eyes caught on several recommendations spelled out in all capital letters:

“NO ADDITIONAL SAMPLING…”

“DESTROY ALL…”

“IMMEDIATE DESTRUCTION…”

A Pentagon consultant was recommending that Air Force officials quickly and discreetly chop up and melt down a fleet of C-123 aircraft that had once sprayed the toxic herbicide Agent Orange across Vietnam. The consultant also suggested how to downplay the risk if journalists started asking questions: “The longer this issue remains unresolved, the greater the likelihood of outside press reporting on yet another ‘Agent Orange Controversy.'”

The Air Force, Carter saw in the records, had followed those suggestions.

Carter, now 70, had received the 2009 memos in response to public records requests he filed after recalling the chemical stench in a C-123 he crewed on as an Air Force reservist in the years after the Vietnam War. He’d soon discovered that others he’d served with had gotten sick, too. Now it seemed he’d uncovered a government-sanctioned plan to destroy evidence of any connection between the aircraft, Agent Orange and their illnesses. And the cover-up looked like it had been set in motion by one man: Alvin L. Young.

Carter had gotten his first glimpse of “Dr. Orange.”

Young had drawn the nickname decades earlier as an Air Force expert on herbicides used to destroy enemy-shielding jungle in Vietnam. Since then—largely behind the scenes—the scientist, more than anyone else, has guided the stance of the military and U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs on Agent Orange and whether it has harmed service members.

Young tested the weed killer for the Air Force during the war, helped develop a plan to destroy it at sea a decade later—a waste of good herbicides, he’d said—then played a leading role in crafting the government’s response to veterans who believed the chemicals have made them sick. For a while, he even kept a vial of Agent Orange by his desk.

Throughout, as an officer and later as the government’s go-to consultant, Young’s fervent defense hasn’t wavered: Few veterans were exposed to Agent Orange, which contained the toxic chemical dioxin. And even if they were, it was in doses too small to harm them. Some vets, he wrote in a 2011 email, were simply “freeloaders,” making up ailments to “cash in” on the VA’s compensation system.

Over the years, the VA has repeatedly cited Young’s work to deny disability compensation to vets, saving the government millions of dollars.

Along the way, his influence has spawned a chorus of frustrated critics, including vets, respected scientists and top government officials. They argue that Young’s self-labeled “investigations” are compromised by inaccuracies, inconsistencies or omissions of key facts, and rely heavily on his previous work, some of which was funded by Monsanto Co. and Dow Chemical Co., the makers of Agent Orange. Young also served as an expert for the chemical companies in 2004 when Vietnam vets sued them.

Alvin Young

Alvin Young, the government’s oft-used Agent Orange consultant, speaks to the Armed Forces Pest Management Board in 2014. Armed Forces Pest Management Board/Flickr

“Most of the stuff he talks about is in no way accurate,” said Linda S. Birnbaum, director of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, part of the National Institutes of Health, and a prominent expert on dioxin. “He’s been paid a hell of a lot of money by the VA over the years, and I think they don’t want to admit that maybe he [isn’t] the end all and be all.”

Birnbaum, whose agency studies how environmental factors affect health, questions how Young’s training in herbicide science qualifies him to draw some conclusions. “He is not an expert when it comes to the human health effects,” she said.

Others complain that Young spent years using his government authority to discount or resist new research, then later pointed to a lack of research to undercut vets’ health claims.

“For really almost 40 years, there has been a studious, concerted, planned effort to keep any study from being done and to discredit any study that has been done,” said Jeanne M. Stellman, an emeritus professor at Columbia University. Stellman, a widely published Agent Orange researcher, has repeatedly clashed with Young and the VA.

There’s a reason. In an era in which the military and the VA are facing a barrage of claims from vets alleging damaging chemical exposures, from burn pits in Afghanistan to hidden munitions in Iraq, Stellman said Young provides a reliable response when it comes to Agent Orange: No.

Anyone who set foot in Vietnam during the war is eligible for compensation if they become ill with one of 14 cancers or other ailments linked to Agent Orange. But vets with an array of other illnesses where the connection is less well established continue to push for benefits. And those vets who believe they were exposed while serving elsewhere must prove it—often finding themselves stymied.

It’s not just the vets. Some of their children now contend their parents’ exposure has led to their own health problems, and they, too, are filing claims.

In recent years, Young, 74, has been a consultant for the Department of Defense and the VA, as well as an expert witness for the U.S. Department of Justice on matters related to dioxin exposure. By his own estimate, he’s been paid “a few million” dollars over that time.

“He’s an outstanding scientist,” said Brad Flohr, a VA senior advisor for compensation, defending the agency’s decision to hire Young in spite of the controversy surrounding his work. “He’s done almost everything there is. He’s an excellent researcher into all things, not necessarily just Agent Orange.”

In an interview and emails, Young defended his role. To date, he said, there’s no conclusive evidence showing Agent Orange directly caused any health problems, only studies showing a statistical association. It’s an important distinction, he says.

“I’ve been blamed for a lot of things,” Young said. He likened the criticism he faces to Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump’s smearing of “Crooked Hillary” Clinton after 30 years of public service: “They say, ‘Crooked Young.'”

Young said he believes most sick vets are simply suffering from the effects of old age, or perhaps war itself, rather than Agent Orange. It’s a point even critics say has some validity as vets have grown older during the benefits battle. His critics, he said, are as biased against the herbicide as he is accused of being for it. “Who’s an impartial expert? Name one for me, by all means.”

When Carter came across Young’s name, he knew nothing of the controversy that surrounded him. He also had no need for benefits related to Agent Orange: He was already receiving full disability compensation from the VA for a back injury suffered during the first Gulf War.

Reading the memos after his 2011 cancer diagnosis, it seemed clear there was a link between Agent Orange and illnesses plaguing those who’d flown aboard C-123s.

But to get answers—and to help others get benefits—he’d have to take on Dr. Orange.

In the summer of 1977, a VA claims worker in Chicago took a call from the sobbing wife of a veteran claiming “chemicals in Vietnam” had caused his cancer. The woman mentioned a mist sprayed from above to kill plants on the ground. The claims specialist, Maude DeVictor, called the Pentagon and was transferred to Capt. Alvin Young, who knew more about the chemicals used in Vietnam than perhaps anyone.

By then, Young, who’d gained an appreciation for herbicides on his family’s farm, had a doctorate in herbicide physiology and environmental toxicology and had spent nearly a decade studying defoliants for the Air Force. In 1961, the U.S. began spraying millions of gallons of herbicides across Vietnam’s thick jungles. Then, in 1971, it halted the effort after the South Vietnamese media reported a surge in birth defects in areas where the chemicals had been used—a political decision, according to Young, who didn’t believe the claims.

DeVictor peppered Young with questions on the phone that day. Within weeks, she’d identified more than two dozen other vets who believed their contact with Agent Orange had made them sick. DeVictor prepared a memo on what she had learned and shared her findings with a reporter, spurring national media attention on Agent Orange for the first time.

“Dr. Young was very helpful. Without him, I wouldn’t have known anything,” said DeVictor. She was later fired by the VA; she claimed for speaking out about the herbicide.

Young publicly refuted many of the comments attributed to him—especially those suggesting Agent Orange might have harmed vets—and criticized media reports that he felt sensationalized the risks. But the episode was a turning point, moving Young from the Air Force’s internal herbicide expert to public defender of Agent Orange.

Over the next decade, as concern grew about the effects of Agent Orange, Young was repeatedly promoted to positions of increasing influence, despite public clashes with prominent politicians and some federal health experts. In 1980, an exasperated Rep. Tom Daschle, D-South Dakota, who later became the Senate’s Majority Leader, challenged Young’s testimony before a House subcommittee by rattling off recent studies and media reports that suggested vets had suffered because of Agent Orange. “I really find it somewhat interesting,” Daschle said, “that they are all wrong and he is correct.”

Moments earlier, Young had said he didn’t doubt the competency of other authors, they just couldn’t match his 12 years of analyzing records. “It is a very complex issue,” he said.

Young’s genial, almost folksy style belied a resolute confidence that while his listeners’ opinions might differ, no one knew Agent Orange as well as he did.

In a 1981 Air Force research paper titled “Agent Orange at the Crossroads of Science and Social Concern,” Young questioned whether some vets were using Agent Orange “to seek public recognition for their sacrifices in Vietnam” and “to acquire financial compensation during economically depressed times.” The paper earned him an Outstanding Research Award from the Air Force’s staff college.

The same year, the Air Force assigned Young to serve as director of the VA’s new Agent Orange Projects Office, in charge of planning and overseeing initial research into emerging health claims. Here, too, he attracted congressional ire. Sen. Alan Cranston, R-California, warned the VA’s chief medical director in 1983 that Young’s dismissive comments about possible health risks might cause the public to doubt the “sincerity of the VA’s effort.”

Soon after that, the White House tapped Young to serve as a senior policy analyst for its Office of Science and Technology Policy, giving him broad influence over the nation’s policy on dioxin. Over the next several years, the Reagan administration was accused of obstructing, stalling and minimizing research into Agent Orange.

In 1986, another House committee faulted Young for undermining a planned study of chemical company workers exposed to dioxin. Young maintained that previous studies conducted by Monsanto and Dow of their workers “might have been enough,” the panel’s report said.

Young recently denied interfering with that research but took credit for helping to shut down a major Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study of Vietnam vets in 1987 that sought definitive evidence of a link between health issues and Agent Orange. Young said data on who had been exposed wasn’t reliable enough, though others argued that military records on spray missions and troop movements would have sufficed.

In the end, answering the question of who was exposed was taken out of the hands of the scientists. Under pressure from vets and their families, Congress passed the Agent Orange Act. Signed into law by President George H. W. Bush in 1991, it presumed that all vets were exposed if they set foot in Vietnam during the war or traveled in boats on its rivers. And it provided compensation for them if they had certain conditions linked to exposure.

In Young’s view, the vets won; the science lost. By his final years at the White House, he was tiring of the battle. Young said emotions had risen so high he began “receiving threats to my family, threats to me.”

Carter didn’t serve in Vietnam and thus wasn’t covered by the Agent Orange Act. His connection to the herbicide began in 1974, when for six years he served as a crew member on a C-123 as part of his reserve duty at Westover Air Reserve Base in Massachusetts.

During the war, C-123s criss-crossed southeast Asia, mostly ferrying troops and supplies. A few dozen were modified for spraying herbicides and insecticide. Back home, most were stripped of the spray gear, cleaned and put into service with the Air Force reserves.

For Carter, the planes were an exhilarating break from his civilian marketing gig—even though when they flew through rain clouds, water seeped into the cabins and they were always too hot or too cold. He often flew on a C-123 that had been nicknamed “Patches” because it was hit almost 600 times by enemy bullets in Vietnam—then patched up with metal. Over the years, he served as an aeromedical evacuation technician, flight instructor and flight examiner.

Even then, Patches’ former duties in Vietnam worried Carter and other reservists, who complained about the overpowering odor coming from it. But after an inspection, he said, “the wing commander assured us that the aircraft was as safe as humanly possible.”

Patches was sent in 1980 to the National Museum of the Air Force near Dayton, Ohio, where it was displayed outside because of its chemical odor. Then, in 1994, during a restoration attempt, Air Force staff toxicologists said samples from the plane showed it was “heavily contaminated” with the dioxin TCDD, an unfortunate byproduct of manufacturing Agent Orange. Later, other planes were also found to be contaminated.

But no one alerted Carter or any of the 1,500 to 2,100 reservists who’d flown them at least two weekends a month plus two weeks a year, often for years. Instead, most of the contaminated planes were quarantined in Arizona at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base, a sprawling airplane graveyard nicknamed “the Boneyard.” In 2010, at Young’s recommendation, they were destroyed.

One year later, when Carter learned he had prostate cancer, his best friend from the reserves found out he did, too. With a few phone calls, Carter quickly tallied five from his old squadron with prostate cancer. The sixth he called had died. His squadron commanders and others tied to the planes also had Agent Orange-related illnesses.

“Nearly two months into this project,” Carter wrote on a blog he kept, “it seems I have trouble finding crewmembers who don’t have AO-illnesses!”

Decades after the last of the military’s Agent Orange was supposedly incinerated aboard a ship in the Pacific Ocean, Army vet Steve House went public in 2011 with a surprising claim: He and five others had been ordered in 1978 to dig a large ditch at a U.S. base in South Korea and dump leaky 55-gallon drums, some labeled “Compound Orange,” in it. One broke open, splashing him with its contents. More than three decades later, House was suffering from diabetes and nerve damage in his hands and feet—ailments that researchers have associated with dioxin exposure.

Around the same time House came forward, other ailing vets recounted that they, too, had been exposed to Agent Orange on military bases in Okinawa, Japan.

The Pentagon turned to a familiar ally.

“I just heard back from Korea and the situation has ‘re-heated’ and they do want to get Dr. Young on contract,” one defense department official wrote to others in June 2011, according to internal correspondence obtained by ProPublica and The Virginian-Pilot through the Freedom of Information Act.

By then, Young had established a second career. From his home in Cheyenne, Wyoming, he and his son ran a sort of Agent Orange crisis management firm. His clients: the federal government and the herbicide’s makers—both worried about a new wave of claims.

In 2006, under contract for the Defense Department, Young had produced an 81-page historical report listing everywhere Agent Orange had been used and stored outside of Vietnam, and emphasizing that even in those places, “individuals who entered a sprayed area one day after application … received essentially no ‘meaningful exposure.'” Among the scholarly references cited were several of his own papers, including a 2004 journal article he co-authored with funding from Monsanto and Dow. That conflict of interest was not acknowledged in the Defense Department report.

In an interview, Young said the companies’ financial support essentially paid the cost of publishing, but did not influence his findings. He and his co-authors, he said, “made it very clear” in the journal that Dow and Monsanto had funded the article. “That doesn’t mean that we took the position of the companies.”

The Pentagon also hired Young to write a book documenting its history with herbicides. Published in 2009, the book made Young Agent Orange’s official biographer.

In 2011, facing the new claims involving South Korea and Okinawa, the Defense Department asked Young and his son to search historical records and assess the evidence. In both cases, they concluded that whatever the vets thought they’d seen or handled, it wasn’t Agent Orange. Young’s son did not respond to a request for comment.

Alvin Young dismissed the claims of House and other vets from Korea, saying he found no paperwork that showed the herbicide had been moved to their base. “Groundless,” Young told the Korea Times newspaper in 2011.

In Okinawa, Young was similarly dismissive, even after dozens of barrels, some labelled Dow Chemical Co., were found buried under a soccer field. The barrels were later found to contain high levels of dioxin. But Young told the Stars and Stripes newspaper, they were likely filled with discarded solvents and waste.

Young never spoke to the vets in either case.

“Why would I want to interview the veterans, I know what they’re going to say,” Young told ProPublica, saying he focused on what the records showed. “They were going to give the allegation. What we had to do is go and find out what really happened.”

In 2012, Young’s firm was hired again, this time by the VA, in part to assess the claims of other groups who believed they’d been sickened by their exposure to Agent Orange. One was led by Carter, a man whose determination appeared to match Young’s.

“Mr. Carter,” Young recalled recently, “was a man on a mission.”

From almost the moment Carter came upon Young’s name in the Air Force documents, he’d been consumed by the scientist’s pivotal role. He began documenting Young’s influence on a blog he’d set up to keep fellow C-123 reservists informed. “Memo after memo from him showed exquisite sensitivity to unnecessary public awareness … what he calls ‘misinformation’ about Agent Orange. Best to keep things mum, from his perspective,” Carter wrote in a July 2011 post.

An Agent Orange activist who heard about Carter’s efforts sent him an email exchange between Young and a veteran named Lou Krieger. Krieger had been corresponding with Young about herbicide test sites in the United States and had mentioned that he believed the controversy over the C-123 aircraft represented “another piece of the puzzle.”

In a flash of anger, Young had written back, “The only reason these men prepared such a story is that they are hoping they can cash in on ‘tax free money’ for health issues that originate from lifestyles and aging. There was no exposure to Agent Orange or the dioxin, but that does not stop them from concocting exposure stories about Agent Orange hoping that some Congressional member will feel sorry for them and encourage [the VA] to pay them off.

“I can respect the men who flew those aircraft in combat and who made the sacrifices, many losing their lives, and almost all of them receiving Purple Hearts,” Young wrote, “but these men who subsequently flew them as ‘trash haulers,’ I have no respect for such freeloaders. If not freeloading, what is their motive?”

Young’s response offended Carter. He pressed his Freedom of Information Act campaign with renewed vigor, requesting a slew of new records from the Air Force and the VA. He later filed lawsuits, with the help of pro-bono lawyers, against the agencies for withholding documents. The government eventually gave him the records and paid his lawyers’ fees.

Carter worked the non-military world as well, soliciting letters from doctors, researchers and government officials who had expertise with toxic chemicals, some of whom had clashed with Young in the past. Several responded with letters supporting his cause, even a few who worked for federal agencies.

The head of the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, a part of the CDC, wrote in March 2013 that based on the available information, “aircrew operating in this, and similar, environments were exposed to TCDD [dioxin].”

And a senior medical officer at the National Institute for Environmental Health Sciences wrote, “it is my opinion that the scientific evidence is clear” that exposure to dioxin is not only possible through the skin but has been associated with a number of health conditions, including cancer, heart disease and diabetes.

Carter also found support in Congress from Sen. Richard Burr, R-North Carolina, and Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Oregon, who began writing the VA regularly to advance Carter’s cause.

He sent missive after missive filled with his findings and the letters of support he’d received to the prestigious Institute of Medicine, a congressionally chartered research organization hired by the VA to assess the science behind the claims of Carter and other C-123 vets. If the VA was going to grant them benefits, Carter realized, he had to first convince this group of researchers that he was right.

“It didn’t take long to realize that the VA had a lot of resources working against us and we found none working for us,” he said.

One of those resources was Young, whom the agency had given a $600,000 no-bid contract to write research reports on Agent Orange.

Young had approached the VA in 2012, offering to assess vets’ claims that they’d been exposed to herbicides outside of Vietnam and weren’t covered by the Agent Orange Act.

Over the next two years, Young and his son wrote about two-dozen reports examining issues such as whether vets who served in Thailand, Guam or aboard Navy ships off the coast of Vietnam could have been exposed. In most cases, they concluded exposure was unlikely. The reports buttressed the VA’s rejection of claims by members of those groups, just as Young’s Pentagon reports were cited to deny those of individual vets.

In November 2012, Young turned in the first of several reports discounting the claims of Carter and his group. “All the analytical and scientific studies suggested that if they were exposed, that exposure was negligible,” he wrote. Although some samples taken from the C-123s showed minimal traces of dioxin, it was nothing to be concerned about, Young wrote, since dioxin sticks to surfaces and was unlikely to affect anyone who came in contact with the planes.

Though Young dismissed the vets’ claims, Carter’s campaign clearly bothered him. In a June 2013 email to a VA staffer, Young criticized the Air Force for releasing all of his correspondence to Carter.

A couple months later he wrote: “You and I knew that the preparations of these investigative reports were going to show that in most cases the allegations are without any evidence. We can expect much more media interest as more and more veteran claims are rejected on the basis of the historical records and science.”

Young’s contract with the VA and emails were later disclosed to Carter as a result of his FOIA requests and a lawsuit against the VA. The emails showed that Young had also discounted the opinions of other experts, including the VA’s own researchers when they linked Agent Orange to prostate cancer.

“It is clear the VA researchers do not understand what really occurred in Vietnam,” he wrote in May 2013 to several VA leaders, “and that the likelihood of exposure to Agent Orange was essentially negligible.”

For three years, Carter and Young had circled each other. Carter in his blog and in at least one intemperate email; Young in dismissive reports and notes to the VA. Finally in June 2014, they were face to face in Washington D.C. where an Institute of Medicine panel would weigh the evidence to determine which man was right.

They lived just 45 minutes apart—Young in Wyoming and Carter in Colorado—but had never met. Now they sat next to each other to deliver testimony.

Carter, who was now in a wheelchair, told panel members that their task should be straight-forward: Did the evidence show—more likely than not—that he and his crewmates had been exposed? “I’m probably the only bachelor’s degree person in this room, but I know the airplane,” he said.

Young, who followed him, gave a rundown on the planes’ uses during the Vietnam War and their return to this country. He then defended the destruction of the planes, leaving out his role as the consultant who told the military to do it.

“Those aircraft had been out there for almost 25 years. How long do you maintain an aircraft?” he said, adding later, “Those aircraft had a stigma.”

Young had been at odds with the IOM before. An earlier panel had embraced a method to estimate troop exposure to Agent Orange, angering Young and his allies who didn’t believe it was possible.

But the hours-long hearing on C-123s, in which an array of experts spoke, ended with no hint of which way the panel was leaning. As the months wore on without a decision, Carter began to wonder if he had wasted the past few years of his life. “I wasn’t a grandpa or a retiree or a hobbyist or a churchman, the things that usually follow in retirement,” he said. “I was ill and I was tired. It’s a lot of money. Every time I went back to Washington, there goes another fifteen hundred bucks.”

Finally, on a crisp January morning in 2015, the IOM was ready to announce its decision. Carter and his wife Joan had flown in and now they sat holding hands in a conference room. Joining them were VA and Air Force officials, members of the IOM staff and journalists. Four lawyers who had helped him showed up too, as well as supportive congressional aides. Young, the man who’d fueled his quest, wasn’t there.

At the front of the room, Emory University’s nursing school dean began to deliver the results of the institute’s report. Carter heard the words “could have been exposed,” and knew he’d won. “That was the moment that I really understood.” Carter and his wife squeezed hands, then hugged with happiness and relief when the meeting ended.

The committee had rejected Young’s position that the dioxin residue found on interior surfaces of the C-123s would only have come off with a chemical wipe, dismissing that claim as “conjecture and not evidence-based.” His argument that dioxin wouldn’t be absorbed through a crew member’s skin was also wrong, the committee determined, and appeared to be based on an irrelevant Dow-funded study of contaminated soil. Further, Young’s overall description of the chemical properties and behavior of TCDD, a dioxin contaminant, were “inaccurate.”

Joan Carter said it was her husband’s most meaningful mission, “a kind of a legacy of some good work, some definitive good work that he could leave behind.” It allowed him to help “a far greater circle of fellow veterans, most of whom he never met.”

Within weeks, Young protested to the IOM that it had “ignored important historical and scientific information … some material was misinterpreted, and there was a failure to focus on the science instead of who or what agency provided the information.”

The IOM stood by its findings, and several months later, the VA approved disability benefits for the ailing C-123 veterans. In a statement, VA Secretary Robert McDonald called it “the right thing to do.”

In an interview, Young said the IOM panelists got it wrong—a retort he’s used for decades whenever his findings have been challenged.

“Unfortunately,” he said, they “did not have a good handle on the science.”

The IOM’s dismissal of Young’s findings has not dampened the military’s reliance on him.

The Pentagon once again has signed Young on as a consultant, this time to track where herbicides were used at bases in the United States.

Pentagon officials declined to answer detailed questions about Young’s work, including how much he’s been paid. Spokesman Lt. Col. James B. Brindle would only say that Young is the “most knowledgeable subject matter expert” on Agent Orange and that his personal views “are not relevant to the historical research he was contracted to perform.”

While the VA didn’t renew Young’s contract when it expired in 2014, a VA official said the department wouldn’t hesitate to hire him again if he was the most qualified person. Flohr, the VA senior advisor, said Young was chosen for his expertise—not his position on the vets’ exposure. “It was purely scientific, the research he did,” he said, “no bias either way on his part or our part.”

In a subsequent statement, the VA said it makes decisions on Agent Orange “only after careful and exhaustive reviews of all the medical/scientific evidence. … Our obligation remains to the veterans we serve.”

Young’s continued work for the government comes as a surprise to those who squared off against him a generation ago. “As a physician, as a dioxin scientist, as an Agent Orange researcher, as a Vietnam-era veteran, I’m just appalled by that personally,” said Dr. Arnold Schecter, who has written a major textbook on dioxin and who has feuded with Young.

Today, despite his loss to Carter, Young is unwavering in his belief that his research is “great.” Among his few regrets: Putting controversial opinions—such as calling C-123 reservists freeloaders—in emails that could be obtained through public records requests.

Young said he, too, was exposed to Agent Orange while testing the chemicals over the years, and in that way has a deeply personal interest in the research.

“Give me some credit,” Young said. “Hell, I’ve got 40 years working out there on these issues. I have a great deal of experience. … Am I wrong? I could be wrong. I’ve always said I don’t understand it all.”

Source: Mother Jones Politics

(2016/12/23) The War on Christmas™ Dispatch 2016

Edition #1067

Today we look back on the decade-long War on Christmas™ to understand how we got to now as well as the uphill battle we Christmas Warriors now have in the face of a Trump presidency

Be part of the show! Leave a message at 202-999-3991

Show Notes

Ch. 1: Opening Theme: A Fond Farewell – From a Basement On the Hill

Ch. 2: Act 1: Progressives War On Xmas and O’Reilly’s Response – Young Turks Air Date: 2010

Ch. 3: Song 1: War On Christmas – The Enablers & Friends


Ch. 4: Act 2: The War on Christmas: Sam’s Big Chance to Further the Cause – Majority Report – Air Date: 11-25-15

Ch. 5: Song 2: The Holidays Are Here (and We’re Still at War) – Brett Dennen


Ch. 6: Act 3: Genesis of Bill O’Reilly’s War On Christmas – Jimmy Dore Show – Air Date 12-6-13

Ch. 7: Song 3: War Medley: Onward Christian Soldiers / I’m On the Battlefield / Keep On the Firing Line – Sanders Family


Ch. 8: Act 4: Megyn Kelly: Don’t Worry Kids, Jesus and Santa Are White!! – Majority Report – Air Date: 12-13-13

Ch. 9: Song 4: The War On the War On Christmas – Macarone


Ch. 10: Act 5: Sarah Palin ‘War on Christmas’ Book Flops – David Pakman Show – Air Date: 12-06-13

Ch. 11: Song 5: War On Christmas Is Over – Steve Goodie


Ch. 12: Act 6: Right Wing’s Fake War on Christmas Started Nearly 100 Years Ago – Majority Report – Air Date: 12-19-13

Ch. 13: Song 6: Christians and Pagans – Dar Williams


Ch. 14: Act 7: Christians Very Offended By Starbucks Holiday Cups – @theyoungturks – Air Date: 11-10-15

Ch. 15: Song 7: War on Christmas – Jamie Kilstein and the Agenda


Ch. 16: Act 8: War on Christmas Update: Congressional Resolution Phase – Majority Report (@majorityfm) – Air Date: 12-16-15

Ch. 17: Song 8: War On Christmas Day – Tim Di Pasqua & Tom Anderson


Ch. 18: Act 9: Fox News: Corey Lewandowski Appears On Hannity & Announces War On Christmas Victory! – Majority Report (@MajorityFM) – Air Date: 12-8-16

Ch. 19: Song 9: Tiny Tree Christmas – Guster


Ch. 20: Act 10: Right Wing leaders assume Republican gullibility w _Obama_s War on Christmas_ deception – @AllInWithChris Hayes – Air Date 12-8-16

Ch. 21: Song 10: White Wine in the Sun – Tim Minchin


Ch. 22: Act 11: Jesus Is a Liberal Democrat – Colbert Report – Air Date: 2010


Ch. 23: Final comments on todays activism and preparing for next years war

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These Professors Make More Than a Thousand Bucks an Hour Peddling Mega-Mergers

This story originally appeared on ProPublica.

If the government ends up approving the $85 billion AT&T-Time Warner merger, credit won’t necessarily belong to the executives, bankers, lawyers, and lobbyists pushing for the deal. More likely, it will be due to the professors.

A serial acquirer, AT&T must persuade the government to allow every major deal. Again and again, the company has relied on economists from America’s top universities to make its case before the Justice Department or the Federal Trade Commission. Moonlighting for a consulting firm named Compass Lexecon, they represented AT&T when it bought Centennial, DirecTV, and Leap Wireless; and when it tried unsuccessfully to absorb T-Mobile. And now AT&T and Time Warner have hired three top Compass Lexecon economists to counter criticism that the giant deal would harm consumers and concentrate too much media power in one company.

Today, “in front of the government, in many cases the most important advocate is the economist and lawyers come second,” said James Denvir, an antitrust lawyer at Boies, Schiller.

Economists who specialize in antitrust—affiliated with Chicago, Harvard, Princeton, the University of California, Berkeley, and other prestigious universities—reshaped their field through scholarly work showing that mergers create efficiencies of scale that benefit consumers. But they reap their most lucrative paydays by lending their academic authority to mergers their corporate clients propose. Corporate lawyers hire them from Compass Lexecon and half a dozen other firms to sway the government by documenting that a merger won’t be “anti-competitive”: in other words, that it won’t raise retail prices, stifle innovation, or restrict product offerings. Their optimistic forecasts, though, often turn out to be wrong, and the mergers they champion may be hurting the economy.

Some of the professors earn more than top partners at major law firms. Dennis Carlton, a self-effacing economist at the University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business and one of Compass Lexecon’s experts on the AT&T-Time Warner merger, charges at least $1,350 an hour. In his career, he has made about $100 million, including equity stakes and non-compete payments, ProPublica estimates. Carlton has written reports or testified in favor of dozens of mergers, including those between AT&T-SBC Communications and Comcast-Time Warner, and three airline deals: United-Continental, Southwest-Airtran, and American-US Airways.

American industry is more highly concentrated than at any time since the gilded age. Need a pharmacy? Americans have two main choices. A plane ticket? Four major airlines. They have four choices to buy cell phone service. Soon one company will sell more than a quarter of the quaffs of beer around the world.

Mergers peaked last year at $2 trillion in the US The top 50 companies in a majority of American industries gained share between 1997 and 2012, and “competition may be decreasing in many economic sectors,” President Obama’s Council of Economic Advisers warned in April.

While the impact of this wave of mergers is much debated, prominent economists such as Lawrence Summers and Joseph Stiglitz suggest that it is one important reason why, even as corporate profits hit records, economic growth is slow, wages are stagnant, business formation is halting, and productivity is lagging. “Only the monopoly-power story can convincingly account” for high business profits and low corporate investment, Summers wrote earlier this year.

In addition, politicians such as US Senator Elizabeth Warren have criticized big mergers for giving a handful of companies too much clout. President-elect Trump said in October that his administration would not approve the AT&T-Time Warner merger “because it’s too much concentration of power in the hands of too few.”

During the campaign, Trump didn’t signal what his broader approach to mergers would be. But the early signs are that his administration will weaken antitrust enforcement and strengthen the hand of economists. He selected Joshua Wright, an economist and professor at George Mason’s Antonin Scalia Law School, to lead his transition on antitrust matters. Wright, himself a former consultant for Boston-based Charles River Associates, regularly celebrates mergers in speeches and articles and has supported increasing the influence of economists in assessing monopoly power. “Mergers between competitors do not often lead to market power but do often generate significant benefits for consumers,” he wrote in The New York Times this week.

A late Obama administration push to scrutinize major deals notwithstanding, the government over the past several decades has pulled back on merger enforcement. In part, this shift reflects the influence of Carlton and other economists. Today, lawyers still write the briefs, make the arguments and conduct the trials, but the core arguments are over economists’ models of what will happen if the merger goes ahead.

These complex mathematical formulations carry weight with the government because they purport to be objective. But a ProPublica examination of several marquee deals found that economists sometimes salt away inconvenient data in footnotes and suppress negative findings, stretching the standards of intellectual honesty to promote their clients’ interests.

Earlier this year, a top Justice Department official criticized Compass Lexecon for using “junk science.” ProPublica sent a detailed series of questions to Compass Lexecon for this story. The firm declined to comment on the record.

Even some academic specialists worry that the research companies buy is slanted. “This is not the scientific method,” said Orley Ashenfelter, a Princeton economist known for analyzing the effects of mergers. Referring to one Compass study of an appliance industry deal, he said, “The answer is known in advance, either because you created what the client wanted or the client selected you as the most favorable from whatever group was considered.”

In contrast to their scholarship, the economists’ paid work for corporations rests almost entirely out of the public eye. Even other academics cannot see what they produce on behalf of clients. Their algorithms are shared only with government economists, many of whom have backgrounds in academia and private consulting, and hope to return there. At least seven professors on Compass’s payroll, including Carlton, have served as the top antitrust economist at the Department of Justice. Charles River Associates boasts at least three.

“There are few government functions outside the CIA that are so secretive as the merger review process,” said Seth Bloom, the former general counsel of the Senate Antitrust Subcommittee.

One evening in 1977, University of Chicago law professor Richard Posner hosted a colleague from the economics department and a young law student named Andrew Rosenfield at his apartment in Hyde Park. The leading scholar of the “Law and Economics” movement, Posner wanted to apply rigorous math and economics concepts to the real world. “Why not see if there are some consulting opportunities?” he mused. The three of them agreed to form a firm, throwing in $700 for a third each. They called it “Lexecon,” combining the Latin for law with “econ.”

The trio then shopped their services to a dozen law firms, which all turned them down. “If you had to value the firm at the end of the tour, you’d have to say it was zero,” said Rosenfield.

They went back to their academic work. Not too long after, AT&T called Posner to ask if he could consult on its antitrust defense. The government was trying to break up Ma Bell. Posner agreed. So began a long and mutually beneficial relationship between AT&T and Lexecon.

Soon after its founding, Lexecon hired one of Chicago’s most promising young economists: Dennis Carlton. He had grown up in Brighton, Mass., earning degrees from a trifecta of elite local institutions: Boston Latin High School, Harvard, and MIT, where he would later endow a chair. He played basketball in his spare time. “Backaches have temporarily sidelined me from embarking on my second career as a basketball player in the NBA,” he joked in a 40th reunion report to his Harvard classmates in 2012. (After a short interview with ProPublica, Carlton subsequently declined comment, citing client confidentiality.)

Ronald Reagan appointed Posner to the federal bench in 1981. Posner left Lexecon. “Andy and I were young,” Carlton said. “Gee, we wondered: Is the firm going to survive? Not only did it survive, but it did very well.”

Lexecon capitalized on the Eighties merger explosion. M&A was rising to cultural prominence as the domain of swashbucklers. Corporate raiders enlisted renegade lawyers and brash investment bankers to take on stalwart names of American industry.

Behind the scenes, the less-flamboyant economists gained influence. From the time antitrust laws began to be passed, in the late 19th century, until the 1970s, courts and the government had presumed a merger was bad for customers if it resulted in high concentration, measured at thresholds much lower than the market shares for the dominant companies in many sectors today.

Led by University of Chicago theorists, a new group of scholars argued that this approach was overly simplistic. Even if a company dominated its industry, it might lower prices or create offsetting efficiencies, allowing customers more choice or higher quality products. In 1982, William Baxter, Reagan’s first head of the Justice Department antitrust division, codified the requirement that the government use economic models and principles to forecast the effect of mergers.

Lexecon seized the opportunity. “We were not just going to talk about economic theory but show with data that what we were saying could be justified,” Carlton said. By the late 1980s, the top four Lexecon officers were each making $1.5 million a year, according to a Wall Street Journal article.

Any merger over a certain dollar size—currently, $78 million—requires government approval. The government passes most mergers without question. On rare occasions, it requests more data from the merging parties. Then the companies often hire consulting firms to produce economic analyses supporting the deal. (Sometimes the government hires its own outside academic.) Even less frequently, the government concludes it can’t approve the merger as proposed. In such cases, the government typically settles with the two companies, requiring some concession, such as sale of a division or product line. Just a handful of times a year, the government will sue to block a merger. Recently, the Obama administration has filed several major suits to block mergers, as companies in already concentrated industries propose bigger and bigger deals. According to a tally from the law firm Dechert, the government challenged a record seven mergers last year out of a total of 10,250.

Recent research supports the classic view that large mergers, by reducing competition, hurt consumers. The 2008 merger between Miller and Coors spurred “an abrupt increase” in beer prices, an academic analysis found this year. In the most comprehensive review of the academic literature, Northeastern economist John Kwoka studied the effects of thousands of mergers. Prices on average increased by more than 4 percent. Prices rose on more than 60 percent of the products and those increases averaged almost 9 percent. “Enforcers clear too many harmful mergers,” American University’s Jonathan Baker, a Compass economist who has consulted for both corporations and the government, wrote in 2015.

Once a merger is approved, nobody studies whether the consultants’ predictions were on the mark. The Department of Justice and the Federal Trade Commission do not make available the reports that justify mergers, and those documents cannot be obtained through public records requests. Sometimes the companies file the expert reports with the courts, but judges usually agree to companies’ requests to seal the documents. After a merger is cleared, the government no longer has access to the companies’ proprietary data on their pricing.

The expert reports “are not public so only the government can check,” said Ashenfelter, the Princeton economist who has consulted for both government and private industry. “And the government no longer has the data so they can’t check.” How accurate are the experts? “The answer is no one knows and no one wants to find out.”

Compass Lexecon itself is the product of serial M&A. A Michael Milken-backed company bought Lexecon for $60 million in 1999. Then it sold Lexecon to FTI Consulting, an umbrella group of professional consulting service firms, in 2003 for $130 million. In the deal, Carlton received $15 million through 2008 in non-compete payments, according to a Chicago Crain’s Business story. He also has held an equity stake in the firm. In 2006, FTI bought Competition Policy Associates, another consulting firm that had also built itself through combination, merging it with Lexecon to form Compass Lexecon. FTI Consulting had $1.8 billion in revenue in 2015, of which $447 million came from economic consulting. The economic consulting division has 600 “revenue-producing” professionals who bill at an average hourly rate of $512 an hour, the highest of all the company’s segments. Charles River Associates brought in about $300 million in revenue last year, led by antitrust consulting.

So few top consulting firms and leading experts dominate the sector today that economists wonder mordantly whether excess concentration plagues their own industry. In 2013, the government granted a waiver to Joshua Wright, the law professor and economist who was a consultant for Charles River. The waiver permitted him to serve as an FTC commissioner and review deals his former consulting firm advised on, as long as he didn’t deliberate on matters that he had directly worked on. Otherwise, the commission’s business might have ground to a halt because Charles River was involved in a third of all merger cases that came before the agency. Wright declined to comment.

Jonathan Orszag, senior managing director of Compass Lexecon, came up with a solution to allow Compass experts to work on more mergers. He is a well-known figure in Washington circles, and the brother of Peter Orszag, the vice chairman of investment bank Lazard and former high level Obama administration official. Jonathan’s social media teems with his globetrotting adventures. Brides magazine featured his destination wedding in the Bahamas. In August 2015, he celebrated on Twitter that he had played on all of the top 100 golf courses in the world. Although he does not have a Ph.D. in economics, he serves as an expert himself and is respected particularly for his expertise on global deals. He declined to comment on the record to ProPublica.

At Orszag’s urging, the firm relaxed its conflict of interest rules, according to multiple people who have worked with or for Compass. Now, Compass Lexecon experts can, and do, advise both sides in disputes. (Under Compass policy, the parties need to consent to such arrangements.) Separate teams of staffers, who cannot communicate with the opposing side, run the cases. The arrangements require on occasion that experts with adjacent offices must stop talking to each other during cases.

Compass economists can reach very different answers to the same question, depending on who is paying them. In 2012, the federal government and a group of states sued Apple for conspiring with several major publishers to fix prices on e-books.

The states hired American University’s Jonathan Baker, the Compass economist, as one of its experts. Baker’s report concluded that e-book prices cost 19 percent more than they should, as a result of the price-fixing. Another government expert arrived at the same 19 percent estimate, and calculated that consumers had been overcharged by $300 million.

Apple later hired Orszag, also of Compass, to do the same calculation. Orszag first came to the conclusion that the effect on prices was lower than the government side’s estimate, around 15 percent. Then he argued there were offsetting benefits to consumers that knocked the number all the way down to 1.9 percent, or just $28 million.

“The actual harms suffered by consumers … are modest,” Orszag concluded.

A federal judge slapped Orszag down for that work. Denise Cote, of the Southern District of New York, threw out part of Orszag’s report in the Apple case. The judge assailed Orszag’s study as “unmoored” from facts and “unsupported by any rigorous analysis,” criticizing a calculation of his as “jerry-rigged.”

Lawyers for the states found out Orszag was working for Apple only when he filed his expert report in the case. The news shocked them, two of the lawyers said, because they felt Orszag had been privy to their legal strategy. Orszag had personally negotiated and signed the contract when the states retained Compass and Baker to do the expert work attacking Apple, now Orszag’s client. The contract prohibited Compass from working on both sides of the case without permission, which had not been obtained.

The states, which had paid Compass and Baker $1.2 million for their work, later sued Compass for breach of contract. They found out that two of its staffers, an administrative assistant and an entry level researcher, had worked for both of the opposing economists. In a deposition, Orszag defended his firm, saying that he believed the Compass contract with the state governments “had been suspended” when he signed on to work for Apple.

Compass settled with the states, paying back some of the money. A person familiar with Compass’ position says that its conflict-of-interest rules didn’t apply to the low-level employees who helped both economists.

The premier economists in the field move back and forth from consulting firms to the top positions at the Justice Department and the Federal Trade Commission. In 2006, Carlton joined the Bush Department of Justice for a 17-month stint as the highest-ranking department economist, before returning to the firm.

Carlton and the other luminaries in the field keep busy. From 2010 to 2014, Carlton consulted on 35 cases, according to his declaration in one case. That total includes his help for companies not only in front of the government but also in private litigation. Mostly he works on the defense side, fending off accusations of price-fixing or anti-competitive behavior. His clients have included Verizon, Honeywell, Fresh Del Monte, and Philip Morris. Because top experts get bonuses based on what the firm generates in billings, their annual incomes can run up to $10 million in a very good year.

Like other top consultants, Carlton devotes hundreds of words in his expert reports to describing his academic credentials, scholarly publications, and journal affiliations. Corporate clients value him not just for his prestige and point of view but for his skill as a witness. Unlike some of his colleagues, he is never bombastic or arrogant. With small eyes, puffy cheeks crowding his soft, wide nose, and hair that sweeps above his brow, Carlton looks as intimidating as a high school guidance counselor. But his calm, unassuming demeanor, even under intense cross-examination, makes him the perfect champion for his corporate clients.

“If you needed one guy for one deal and price didn’t matter, I’d take Dennis,” said a partner at one top New York corporate law firm. “He is the best.”

Carlton also knows just how far he can go. When he speaks, he proceeds deliberately, in a nasal accent, displaying a wariness that comes from decades of being questioned in court. Economists often argue that a merger will produce efficiencies, allowing companies to make more widgets for less money, an overall boon for society. But for an efficiency to count as an argument in a merger’s favor, it must be a result of the merger itself. Carlton sometimes says the cost-savings are “merger related,” according to a former Justice Department economist. “He is very careful about language. He won’t say ‘merger specific.'”

An off-the-cuff comment at a recent conclave illustrated Carlton’s prominence in the hidden world of antitrust proceedings. One evening in April, lawyers, government officials, and economists gathered in Washington for the spring meeting of the American Bar Association’s Antitrust Section. Held at the JW Marriott on Pennsylvania Avenue, the gathering is the prime marketing event of the year for the economic consulting industry.

After a mind-numbing day of panels on issues like “Clarifying Liability in Hub-and-Spoke Conspiracies,” the consultancies hosted competing cocktail receptions. The Charles River Associates event featured a generous spread of Peking Duck. Berkeley Research Group hired a live jazz band. Justice Department staffers sipped drinks with once-and-future colleagues now at white-shoe law firms, and Ivy League economists.

Earlier in the day, during a discussion of new theories about the damage caused by concentration in the airline industry and the overall economy, antitrust attorney John Harkrider shrugged at his fellow panelists. “I’m sure if you paid Dennis Carlton a million bucks, he’d blow up all these things,” he remarked.

Carlton’s rosy forecasts about the impact of proposed mergers haven’t always proven accurate. In the summer of 2005, Whirlpool, the appliance giant, decided to take over Maytag, a storied name that had gradually faded. The combination would leave three companies—the other two being GE and Electrolux—in control of more than 85 percent of the market for clothes washers and dryers. They would have 88 percent of the dishwasher market and 86 percent for refrigerators. In addition to the namesake brands, the newly enlarged Whirlpool would own Amana, KitchenAid and Jenn-Air, and manufacture many Kenmore appliances. The companies hired top law firms to persuade the Bush administration Justice Department to allow the deal. And the firms brought in Carlton.

Despite the combined entity’s powerful position, Carlton argued in his report that it still faced a threat from foreign competition. The possibility that a big box retailer might switch to LG or Samsung would prevent the newly combined company from raising prices, he asserted.

The companies did not persuade Justice Department officials, who proposed blocking the merger. An outside economic expert of their own, University of California at Berkeley’s Carl Shapiro, backed the staff’s analysis. The Bush appointee who headed the antitrust division, Assistant Attorney General Tom Barnett, resisted the staff’s conclusions. Right after Shapiro provided his analysis, Barnett wrote to the companies’ law firms, outlining the arguments that Shapiro and the staff made against the merger. Barnett, who declined comment, provided a roadmap to how to respond to the government’s claims, a person familiar with the letter said.

After months of deliberation, in March 2006, Barnett overruled the staff recommendation, allowing the merger to go through with no conditions. Shapiro and American University’s Baker later called it a “highly visible instance of under enforcement.”

Carlton’s predictions did not pan out. Whirlpool raised prices. Five years after the deal, Princeton’s Ashenfelter and an economist with the Federal Trade Commission found that, contrary to the Compass Lexecon pre-merger forecasts, the takeover resulted in “large price increases for clothes dryers” and price increases for dishwashers. In addition, the companies reduced their offerings, giving consumers fewer choices. By 2012, LG and Samsung had grabbed some market share mostly from second-tier players. Whirlpool and Maytag’s combined shares dropped just over two percentage points in washers and dryers, according to Traqline. But the competition had not brought down prices. Antitrust experts say that a scenario in which companies raise prices despite losing market share to competitors can be evidence that a merger hurt consumers.

The Whirlpool-Maytag merger was revisited in 2014 when GE tried to sell its appliance division to Electrolux, a Swedish manufacturer. Electrolux hired Jonathan Orszag. In December 2015, government officials questioned Orszag’s expert report on the possible effects of the GE-Electrolux merger. Contradicting Ashenfelter, Orszag had submitted a study asserting that the Whirlpool-Maytag merger had not raised prices, conclusions he based mainly on the washer and dryer market.

Justice Department staff economists studied backup material to his analysis and they found something troubling. Buried there was an acknowledgment that the Whirlpool-Maytag merger had resulted in price increases in cooking appliances, the very sector of the market that government officials worried might be affected by the GE-Electrolux combination. The Justice Department filed suit to stop the deal and GE pulled out during the trial.

In a speech in June, outgoing deputy attorney general David Gelfand warned about gamesmanship by economic consultants. While much economic work is good, “we do see junk science from time to time,” he said. As an example, Gelfand pointed to the GE-Electrolux case, though he did not name the company or Orszag. He said the inconvenient data “should have been disclosed and presented with candor” in the expert report supporting the merger.

Orszag did allude in a footnote to the other data, and provided backup materials that disclosed the higher prices in cooking appliances. He contended in his testimony that these price increases were due not to the merger itself but to other factors such as rising costs of raw materials. He said that Ashenfelter’s conclusions were wrong because, unlike Orszag, the Princeton economist did not have access to Whirlpool’s costs for making appliances.

Ashenfelter stands by his study. “My concern with Orszag’s deposition as evidence is that all this is done behind a curtain of secrecy. None of us know just what he did, how the cost data were constructed,” he wrote in an email to ProPublica. “Orszag’s results would only have been presented if they favored his client. Our paper had no clients and we would have been happy to find no price effect.”

In a bright conference room at Fordham Law School on a warm day this past September, an economist realized she had made a mistake in a deposition.

A WilmerHale partner seized on the error. A group of people, seated at blond wood tables in sleek, ergonomic black chairs, took notes as light streamed into the room, reflecting off the columns of Lincoln Center across the street. The economist, Michelle Burtis of Charles River Associates, turned to the audience and, letting out a laugh, broke character.

“And at this point, I would definitely start obfuscating,” she said, smiling.

Burtis was presenting a mock deposition to train lawyers and economists on the pivotal role economists can play in antitrust matters. Charles River and another consulting firm, Cornerstone Research, sponsored the conference.

Burtis, who has short, chin-length brown hair, oversized glasses, a friendly demeanor, and a doctorate in economics from the University of Texas at Austin, continued to guide the attendees toward “what is helpful in a situation like this,” where the economists had erred but still needed to push the client’s line. “You’re never going to get me to admit this is a mistake,” she explained.

The government’s reliance on economic models rests on the notion that they’re more scientific than human judgment. Yet merger economics has little objectivity. Like many areas of social science, it is dependent on assumptions, some explicit and some unseen and unexamined. That leaves room for economists to follow their preconceptions, and their wallets.

Economists have an “incentive to get a reputation as someone who will make a certain type of argument. People will hire you because they know what testimony you will give,” said Robert Porter, an economist from Northwestern who has never testified on behalf of a corporation in an antitrust matter.

In a 2007 interview, Carlton maintained an expert witness shouldn’t be biased. “It is the job of the economic consultant to reach an expert opinion in light of all the evidence, both the good and bad. I think it destroys an expert’s credibility to present only the supportive evidence,” he said.

Economists who do a lot of consulting on antitrust cases say it is not in their long-term interest to shill for a corporate client. Carlton says consulting is tougher than writing for peer-reviewed journals. For scholarship, “it’s not required for the editor to re-run your numbers. In litigation, the expert on the other side has reviewed to make sure I haven’t made errors. The scrutiny is good and leads to a higher quality of report,” he told Global Competition Review, an antitrust trade publication in 2014.

While the data is hidden from outsiders, what matters to Carlton is that there are no secrets between the companies and the government. “When economists are speaking to each other, it’s transparent. They are discussing the economics. The data is turned over to the other side. It’s your model vs. theirs,” Carlton told ProPublica.

Several former employees of consulting firms describe their jobs differently. They say they understood that clients wanted them to reach favorable conclusions. The job was “to go through analyses of market data and try to suggest that this merger doesn’t raise antitrust concerns,” said David Foster, who left Compass Lexecon in 2014, after working as a young analyst there for a year and a half.

The companies and lawyers that rely on economists as witnesses aren’t looking for neutrality. At the Fordham conference, a panel moderator asked Katrina Robson, a lawyer at O’Melveny & Myers, what she sought in an expert. “To be able to be an advocate without seeming to be an advocate,” she replied.

Companies and their lawyers shop around for amenable economists, looking for the reports that provide the answers they are looking for. Karen Kazmerzak, a partner at Sidley Austin, told attendees that she likes to hire two economists if the client can afford it. “It often comes out that one economist is not prepared to deliver the conclusions you need them to deliver,” she said. In those cases, the law firm can fire one economist and go forward with the other, more malleable consultant.

When an expert concludes that a merger won’t pass muster with the government, the corporate client typically either backs out of the proposed deal, figures out concessions to offer the government, finds a more supportive economist at the same consulting firm, or switches firms. Sometimes, according to a prominent antitrust lawyer, unwelcome predictions are locked in a drawer, protected by attorney-client privilege, never to be seen by the government or the public.

On occasion, Carlton has told companies that their deals are unlikely to be approved. He’s walked away from at least one merger: H&R Block’s 2011 takeover of TaxAct, a software firm. The government challenged it, and Carlton pulled out a few months before the trial. The companies hired a new expert from a competing firm, who defended the merger in court. The Justice Department used Carlton’s departure to cast doubt on the credibility of the new consultant and won the case.

In 2011, when AT&T sought to take over the cell phone company T-Mobile, the government balked. T-Mobile, a smaller and scrappier rival, often tried out new and innovative offerings to keep cell service costs low. Carlton represented AT&T. Based on data the company provided, he predicted that the cost of cell phone service would explode if AT&T couldn’t take over T-Mobile and use its network to meet rising demand. Without the acquisition, Carlton and his Compass colleagues concluded, AT&T would be forced to charge higher prices.

When government officials looked closely at Carlton’s model, they realized that it was implying that prices would rise so high without the merger, the cell phone market would shrink by 90% within a few years. Justice Department officials viewed this as wildly implausible. “We find that the applicants’ economic model is deficient,” the government wrote of the work by Carlton and other Compass Lexecon consultants. Soon after the companies announced their deal, the Department of Justice sued to block the transaction and after several months of wrangling, the companies dropped the transaction in late 2011.

Even though AT&T was not able to complete its takeover, cell phone usage in the US has not collapsed by 90%.

Shortly after AT&T withdrew its offer for T-Mobile, the top economist at the Justice Department, Fiona Scott Morton, held a dinner at the Caucus Room, a Washington eatery, for several economists who worked on the deal. The restaurant provided an intimate and comfortable setting for a post-mortem. “Everyone is friends,” recalls one attendee. “It was fun.”

They debated who had the better case. Carlton conceded that AT&T and T-Mobile would have found it hard to win at trial, according to an attendee. But he wished it had gone to court. He was eager to try out a new and provocative argument for mergers: That even though prices would have risen for customers, the companies would have achieved large cost savings. The gain for AT&T shareholders, he contended, would have justified the merger, even if cell phone customers lost out.

Carlton’s expert report predicted that T-Mobile was doomed to failure without the merger. “Our review indicates that T-Mobile USA’s competitive significance is likely to decline in the absence of the proposed transaction,” he and two other Compass Lexecon economists wrote.

Five years later, T-Mobile’s stock price and market share are up and its colorful CEO, John Legere, has been credited by the business press for “singlehandedly dragging the industry into a new era” with innovations such as abolishing cellular contracts. In 2014, Bill Baer, then the head of the antitrust division at the Justice Department, claimed victory: “T-Mobile went back to competing to win your business,” he said in a speech. “And T-Mobile’s competitors were compelled to respond.”

Today, AT&T’s much grander takeover of Time Warner will be an early test case for president-elect Trump, who feuded during the campaign with CNN, a Time Warner property. It will also be a boon for Compass and the small army of academic economists mobilizing for the multi-front battle waged by the government, competitors and the merging companies.

Source: Mother Jones Politics

This May Be Trump's Most Frightening and Dangerous Tweet Yet

With one tweet on Thursday, Donald Trump proved how dangerous and unstable his presidency could be.

Out of the blue, Trump weighed in on one of America’s most important national security issues: nuclear weapons. He tweeted:

In just 118 characters, Trump seemed to be reversing decades of bipartisan policy aimed at stopping the spread of nuclear weapons around the world. For decades, the United States has worked with Russia, the other major nuclear power, to reduce both nations’ nuclear arsenals. Richard Nixon, Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama have each negotiated treaties with Russia reducing nuclear stockpiles. Today, the United States and Russia  each possess about 7,000 nuclear weapons, and there continue to be efforts to shrink these stockpiles.

Yet with a single tweet, Trump suggested he would move in the opposite direction and expand the US nuclear arsenal. To what end? Trump did not follow up with any other thoughts. But many experts contend that nuclear weapons will not bring greater security to the United States, given that the greatest risks these days come from nonstate actors, crises in the Middle East, and cyberwarfare.

Moreover, global efforts to prevent the proliferation of nuclear weapons—as enshrined in the international Non-Proliferation Treaty—are predicated on Washington and Moscow collaborating to downsize their nuclear arsenals. By declaring that the United States would enlarge its nuclear arms collection, Trump was undermining the attempts to stop the spread of these weapons throughout the world.

The Trump team’s response did not make the situation any better. Spokesman Jason Miller issued a statement saying Trump was referring to “the threat of nuclear proliferation and the critical need to prevent it—particularly to and among terrorist organizations and unstable and rogue regimes.”

Uh, no, he wasn’t. And, still, this was an illogical point. Adding more nukes to the US stockpile will hardly stop terrorists or rogue regimes from seeking to acquire nuclear weapons. Miller was replying with a non sequitur.

Joe Cirincione, president of the Ploughshares Fund and a nuclear arms expert, says, “Can a tweet start and arms race? This one just might have.” He adds, “There are groups like Heritage [Foundation] arguing to expand our nuclear arsenal. If Trump was reflecting their thinking for not just new weapons but more weapons and new missions, we are entering new and very dangerous territory.”

With this tweet, Trump gave new fuel to two questions: whether he intends to drastically change US policy on nuclear arms control, and whether he and his team are capable of handling serious matters. It doesn’t get much more serious than nuclear weapons, and here was Trump seemingly shooting from the hip, without any apparent deliberation, on a critical national security matter—and with his staffers then forced to issue a nonsensical statement to back him up. It was clown time…with nuclear weapons.

Trump has suggested in years past that he believes a nuclear war is inevitable. So any tweet from him on this subject deserves great scrutiny—at least as much as his tweets about Alec Baldwin, SNL, and the musical Hamilton. The posting of this tweet, and his staff’s inability to explain it, are frightening signs that Trump is not ready for the task of controlling weapons that can destroy the world.

Source: Mother Jones Politics