Instead of Trashing Homeless Camps, This City is Providing Them With Trash Pickup

It’s cleaning time at one of the several encampments set up in the shadow of the elevated MacArthur Freeway in West Oakland, California. More than two dozen tents in various states of repair sit in the musty space beneath the stark overpass. Axel, a black man in his late 40s who lives along the camp’s outskirts, pushes a broom across the sidewalk that serves as a front porch for his tarp-draped tent. After a few minutes of sweeping, the trash he has arranged into a neat pile is collected by Abby Harrison, who places it into one of the five shiny Waste Management trash cans circulating in the camp. In a little while, the cans will be arranged on the street bordering the camp’s southern edge, where they will wait to be emptied by a garbage truck.

The cleanup continues by the camp’s two portable toilets, where a man is gathering used toiletries for disposal and clearing the path for a pumper truck to back in. The truck arrives a few minutes ahead of schedule, and the driver hops out to quickly clean and service the porta-potties. The driver is gone after a few minutes of pumping and wiping, much to the relief of another man patiently waiting to use the facilities.

In many respects, this homeless encampment is like hundreds of other camps that have mushroomed in cities across America, especially in the West. But what distinguishes the camp beneath the 580 freeway is that rather than being targeted for removal, it’s receiving public services from the city of Oakland. Instead of razing the encampment, Oakland and Alameda County policymakers set up a pilot program that offers basic services to some unsheltered residents. This includes not just waste pickup and porta-potties, but a mobile health clinic and the placement of large concrete barriers to protect the camp from traffic. Oakland has also directed its social services and relief employees to work with the residents of the MacArthur Freeway camp to help them find permanent housing. Since the pilot started in October, city officials report that 17 of the camp’s 42 original residents have moved into stable living situations.

Garbage cans sit by an encampment beneath the MacArthur Freeway in Oakland. Matt Tinoco

This approach is unique, especially as many cities double down on anti-camping laws and controversial “sweeps”, often conducted under the guise of protecting public health. The process is familiar: Homeless people set up a camp, bringing with it trash, human waste, and sometimes crime. Neighbors complain, and, before long, the local government serves the camp’s residents with a notice to vacate. The camp is cleared, but it either moves or returns after a few weeks.

San Francisco’s municipal authorities cleared out a large camp of 250 people from beneath one of the city’s freeways earlier this year. In November, the city’s voters passed Proposition Q, which prohibits assembling a tent on a public sidewalk. As Supervisor David Campos explained in a September statement, “encampments are not a solution to homelessness. They are unhealthy for homeless people, and they are unhealthy for residents and businesses around them.” Yet homelessness advocates note that clearing out camps is often little more than a cosmetic solution.

Like Oakland, other cities have also experimented with an approach that moves away from simply removing homeless people. Though sweeps still occur in Seattle, the city has set up a partnership with religious organizations that allows some homeless people to live on the organizations’ property. (Nevertheless, 2015 motion that would have authorized city services like waste pickup at encampments died after Seattle residents objected.) Santa Barbara, California, has a “safe-parking” program that allows people who live in vehicles to park in public parking lots without threat of citation.

The Oakland pilot project is based on the understanding that if unsheltered residents have, at the very least, a reliable and sanitary place to pitch their tents, they can devote more time and energy to finding a more stable place to live. “Breaking camps apart takes them farther away from permanent housing,” says Alex Marqusee, a legislative analyst for City Council President Lynette Gibson McElhaney, the chief sponsor of the project in Oakland. “It’s opposite of the direction we want to go.”

“It’s like, where am I going to go?'” says Harrison, a black woman in her early 40s who lives under the MacArthur Freeway. “When I have to move it messes everything up. I get them people up in their nice houses not wanting to see any of this. I don’t want to see this. But I need to live, and it’s not like I want to live here.”

Source: Mother Jones Politics

Trump's Treasury Pick Excelled at Kicking Elderly People Out of Their Homes

This story originally appeared on ProPublica.

In 2015, OneWest Bank moved to foreclose on John Yang, an 80-year-old Korean immigrant living in Orange Park, Florida, a small suburb of Jacksonville. The bank believed he wasn’t living in his home, violating the terms of its loan. It dispatched an agent to give him legal notification of the foreclosure.

Where did the bank find him? At the same single-story home the bank had said in court papers he did not occupy.

Still OneWest pressed on, forcing Yang, a former Christian missionary, to seek help from legal aid attorneys. This year, during a deposition, an employee of OneWest’s servicing division was asked the obvious question: Why would the bank pursue a foreclosure that seemed so clearly unjustified by the facts?

The employee’s response was blunt: “You’re trying to make logic out of an illogical situation.”

Yang was lucky. The bank eventually dropped its efforts against him. But others were not so fortunate. In recent years, OneWest has foreclosed on at least 50,000 people, often in circumstances that consumer advocates say run counter to federal rules and, as in Yang’s case, common sense.

President-elect Donald Trump’s nomination of Steven Mnuchin as Treasury Secretary has prompted new scrutiny of OneWest’s foreclosure practices. Mnuchin was the lead investor and chairman of the company during the years it ramped up its foreclosure efforts. Representatives from the company and the Trump transition team did not respond to requests for comment.

Records show the attempt to push Mr. Yang out of his home was not an unusual one for OneWest’s Financial Freedom unit, which focused on controversial home loans known as reverse mortgages. Regulators and consumer advocates have long worried that these loans, popular during the height of the housing bubble, exploit elderly homeowners.

The loans allow people to benefit from the equity they have built up over many years without selling their houses. The money is paid in a variety of ways, from lump sums to a stream of monthly checks. Borrowers are allowed to stay in their homes for as long as they live.

The loans are guaranteed by the US Department of Housing and Urban Development, meaning the agency pays lenders like Freedom Financial the difference between the ultimate sale price of the home and the size of the reverse mortgage.

But the fees are often high and the interest charges mount up quickly because the homeowner isn’t paying down any of the principal on the loan. Homeowners remain on the hook for property taxes and insurance and can lose their homes if they miss those payments.

A 2012 report to Congress by the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau said that “vigorous enforcement is necessary to ensure that older homeowners are not defrauded of a lifetime of home equity.”

ProPublica found numerous examples where Financial Freedom had foreclosed for legally questionable reasons. The company served several other homeowners at their homes to let them know they were being sued for not occupying their homes. In Florida, a shortfall of only $0.27 led to a foreclosure attempt. In Atlanta, the company sought to foreclose on a widow after her husband’s death, but backed down when a legal aid attorney sued, citing federal law that allowed the surviving spouse to remain in the home.

“It appears their business approach is scorched earth, in a way that doesn’t serve communities, homeowners or the taxpayer,” said Alys Cohen, a staff attorney for the National Consumer Law Center in Washington D.C.

Since the financial crisis, OneWest, through Financial Freedom, has conducted a disproportionate number of the nation’s reverse mortgage foreclosures. It was responsible for 16,200 foreclosures on government-backed reverse mortgages, or 39 percent of all foreclosures nationwide, from 2009 through late 2014, even though it only serviced about 17 percent of the loans, according to government data analyzed by the California Reinvestment Coalition, an advocacy group for low-income consumers. While some foreclosures were justified, legal aid attorneys say Financial Freedom has refused to work with borrowers in foreclosure to establish payment plans, in contrast with other servicers of reverse mortgages.

Experts say the companies are not entirely to blame for the wave of foreclosures. HUD oversees standards on most reverse mortgages. In the years after the housing crash, HUD’s rules evolved, creating a miasma of confusion for mortgage servicers. Companies say the new federal rules required them to foreclose when borrowers fell far behind on property and insurance costs, rather than work out payment plans.

OneWest’s rough treatment of homeowners extended to its behavior toward borrowers with standard mortgages in the aftermath of the housing crash. In 2009, the Obama administration launched a program to encourage mortgage servicers to work out affordable mortgage modifications with borrowers. OneWest, weighed down by several hundred thousand souring mortgages, signed up.

It didn’t go well. About three-quarters of homeowners who sought a modification from OneWest through the program were denied, according to the latest figures from the Treasury Department. OneWest was among the worst performing large servicers in the program by that measure. In 2011, activists protested OneWest’s indifference at Mnuchin’s Bel Air mansion in Los Angeles.

“We’re in a difficult economic environment and very sympathetic to the problems many homeowners face, but under the government’s program there’s not a solution in every case,” Mnuchin told the Wall Street Journal in that year.

Despite the controversy, Mnuchin and the other investors in OneWest made a killing on their purchase. In 2009, Mnuchin’s investment group bought the failed mortgage bank IndyMac, which had been taken over by the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation after the financial crisis, changing the name to OneWest. They paid about $1.5 billion, with the FDIC sharing the ongoing mortgage losses. George Soros, a Clinton backer at whose hedge fund Mnuchin had worked, and John Paulson, a hedge fund manager who also supported Trump, invested alongside Mnuchin in IndyMac.

In 2015, CIT, a lender to small and medium-sized businesses, bought OneWest for $3.4 billion, more than doubling the Mnuchin group’s initial investment. Mnuchin personally made about $380 million on the sale, according to Bloomberg estimates. He retains around a 1 percent stake in CIT, worth around $100 million, which he may have to divest if confirmed.

CIT has found the reverse mortgage business to be a headache. Recently, CIT took a $230 million pretax charge after it discovered that OneWest had mistakenly charged the government for payments that the company should have shouldered itself. An investigation of Financial Freedom’s practices by HUD’s inspector general is ongoing.

Yang’s lawyers at Jacksonville Area Legal Aid fought his foreclosure for a year. Though Yang had run a dry cleaning business in Florida and roamed the world as a missionary, working in North Korea, China, and Afghanistan, the bank’s torrent of paperwork had overwhelmed him. Yang didn’t speak English well. OneWest claimed it had sent him forms to verify he was living at his home, but that he never sent them back.

Under HUD rules, OneWest was required to verify that each borrower continued to use the property as a principal residence. It is a condition of all the HUD-backed loans in order to help ensure the government subsidy goes to those who need it.

But Yang can be forgiven for thinking that OneWest could not have doubted that he was still in his home. During the same period that OneWest was moving to foreclose on Yang for not living in his home, another arm of the bank regularly spoke and corresponded with him at his home about a delinquent insurance payment, according to court documents.

A Financial Freedom employee testified in the case that the department that handled delinquent insurance payments and the department that handled occupancy did not communicate with each other in those circumstances.

Source: Mother Jones Politics

Can’t keep your New Year’s resolutions – try being kind to yourself

Making New Year resolutions? Kalyan Kanuri, CC BY-SA

Many of us will start out the New Year by making a list of resolutions – changes we want to make to be happier such as eating better, volunteering more often, being a more attentive spouse, and so on. But, as we know, we will often fail. After a few failures we will typically give up and go back to our old habits.

Why is it so hard to stick to resolutions that require us to make effective or lasting changes?

I would argue the problem isn’t that we try and we fail –– the problem is how we treat ourselves when we fail. I study self-compassion, and my research and that of others show that how we relate to personal failure – with kindness or harsh self-judgment – is incredibly important for building resilience.

From early childhood, we are taught how we must succeed at all costs. What most of us aren’t taught is how to fail successfully so we can change and grow.

One of the best ways to deal with failure is to have self-compassion.

What exactly is self-compassion?

I define self-compassion as having three main components: self-kindness, common humanity, and mindfulness. Self-kindness refers to the tendency to be caring, understanding, and supportive toward ourselves when we fail or make mistakes rather than being harshly critical or judgmental.

Common humanity involves recognizing that all humans are imperfect, and connecting our own flawed condition to the shared human condition so we can have greater perspective on our shortcomings.

Mindfulness involves being aware of the pain associated with failure in a clear and balanced manner so that we neither ignore nor obsess about our faults. The three together combine to create a self-compassionate frame of mind.

Mindfulness is one component of self compassion.
Jack Ricchiuto, CC BY

A large body of research shows that self-compassion results in greater emotional wellbeing. One of the most consistent findings in this research is that greater self-compassion is linked to less depression, anxiety and stress.

In addition to reducing such negative mind states, self-compassion appears to enhance positive mind states such as optimism, gratitude, and curiosity. By meeting one’s suffering with the warm embrace of self-compassion, positive feelings such as happiness are generated at the same time that negative emotions are alleviated.

Self-compassion has been found to be an important source of coping and resilience in the face of various life stressors such as divorce, chronic health conditions, or military combat. It also reduces body dissatisfaction and even leads to healthier eating behavior (relevant to many New Year’s resolutions!)

Misgivings about self-compassion

If self-compassion is so good for us, why aren’t we kinder to ourselves?

Perhaps the biggest block to self-compassion is the belief that it will undermine our motivation. In parenting circles we no longer hold to the adage “spare the rod spoil the child.” When it comes to our own selves, however, many of us think that sparing the rod of harsh self-criticism will turn us into lazy, self-indulgent ne’er-do-wells. This theme constantly comes up in the workshops I teach.

Of course, the dynamics that go into motivating our children and motivating ourselves are quite similar. Let’s say your teenage son were to come home with a failing English grade. You have two ways to motivate him to try harder and do better next time.

You could admonish him and tell him how stupid he is and that you are ashamed of him. The other is, knowing how upset he is, you could give him a hug and gently ask him how you could support him in doing better next time. This type of caring, encouraging response would help your son maintain his self-confidence and feel emotionally supported. The same goes for how we respond to ourselves when we fail.

How does self-compassion increase motivation?

A growing body of research indicates that self-compassion is linked to greater motivation. Self-compassion has been associated with increased personal initiative –– the desire to reach one’s full potential.

Self-compassionate people are also more likely to adopt “mastery goals”, which focus on learning and mastering material to increase competence, and less likely to adopt “performance goals,” which are primarily concerned with succeeding to make a favorable impression on others.

While self-compassionate people have performance standards that are as high as those who are harshly self-critical, they don’t get as upset when they don’t reach their goals. As a result, self-compassionate people have less performance anxiety and engage in fewer self-defeating behaviors such as procrastination.

Not only are self-compassionate people less likely to fear failure, when they do fail they’re more likely to pick themselves up and try again.

A series of experiments by psychologists Juliana Breines and Serena Chen from the University of California at Berkeley examined whether helping undergraduate students to be more self-compassionate would impact their motivation to change.

In one study, participants were asked to recall a recent action they felt guilty about – cheating on an exam, lying to a romantic partner, saying something harmful, etc. –– something that still made them feel bad when they thought about it.

Next, they were randomly assigned to one of three conditions. In the self-compassion condition, participants were instructed to write to themselves for three minutes from the perspective of a compassionate and understanding friend.

The second condition had people write about all their positive qualities, and the third about a hobby they enjoyed. These two control conditions helped to differentiate self-compassion from positive self-talk and positive mood in general.

The researchers found that participants who were helped to be self-compassionate about their recent transgressions reported being more motivated to apologize for the harm done and more committed to not repeating the behavior than those in the control conditions.

Sustaining motivation through kindness

Another study in this same series of experiments explored whether self-compassion would directly translate into greater efforts to learn after failure. Students were given a difficult vocabulary test they all did poorly on.

This new year, try being kind to yourself.
Gexydaf, CC BY-NC

One group of students were given an instruction to be self-compassionate about their failure. The instruction said,

“If you had difficulty with the test you just took, you’re not alone. It’s common for students to have difficulty with tests like this. If you feel bad about how you did, try not to be too hard on yourself.”

Another group was given a self-esteem boost, which said,

“If you had difficulty with the test you just took, try not to feel bad about yourself — you must be intelligent if you got into Berkeley!”

A third group of participants were given no additional instructions.

The students were next told that they would receive a second vocabulary test, and were given a list of words and definitions they could study for as long as they wanted before taking it. Study time was used as a measure of improvement motivation.

The students who were told to be self-compassionate after failing the first test spent more time studying than those in the other two conditions. Study time was linked to how well participants actually performed on the test. These findings suggest that being kind to yourself when you fail or make mistakes gives you the emotional support needed to try your best, and to keep trying even when discouraged.

Kindness is the engine that drives us to keep trying even after we fall flat on our face. So this New Year, when you make and inevitably break your resolutions, instead of beating yourself up and then giving up, try being kind to yourself. In the long run you’ll be more likely to succeed.

The Conversation

Kristin Neff 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

This Bible Belt Abortion Provider Is Looking Beyond Trump

Abortion providers have had a rollercoaster year. On the one hand, a landmark abortion rights case in Texas saw an affirmative ruling from the Supreme Court, overturning restrictions that aimed to put clinics out of business across the United States. At the same time, conservative statehouses pushed through legislation that aimed to decrease abortion access and defund Planned Parenthood, the largest women’s health provider in the country. Months after the Supreme Court ruled in Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt that the restrictions in Texas qualified as undue burdens and were therefore unconstitutional, Donald Trump was elected president, assuring voters of his staunch support for anti-choice legislation and deflecting allegations of sexual assault.

The week after the election, we called Dr. Willie Parker—a Harvard-educated OB-GYN from Alabama in his 50s who has been providing abortions full time since 2009. He practices in clinics in Alabama, Georgia, and Mississippi, has confronted demonstrators blocking his access, and sued the state of Mississippi to keep the sole clinic in that state open. We wanted to hear how abortion providers are preparing for the next chapter of the battle against reproductive rights. As board chair for Physicians for Reproductive Health, Parker has been at the forefront of the national fight to preserve a woman’s right to choose. Here’s what he had to say about the likely new realities in women’s health during the future Trump administration.

What’s the conversation like among providers right now?
Most people can’t even talk. We’re still figuring it out. But I think people are trying to think beyond and say, “OK, given the inability to overturn the election, and given our ability to prognosticate based on how he’s operated politically, most of us have to think worst-case scenario.” But there’s also really no way of knowing what he’s going to do—he’s been sufficiently vague in his policy positions. We can take some prognostic indication from some of the things that he’s said, like in his 60 Minutes interview where he talked about his intention to appoint a pro-life justice to align the court to overturn Roe. I think [of it] as a low-hanging fruit. He has every intention to repeal the Affordable Care Act, as much because it’s known as Obamacare [as because he wants] to try and deconstruct the legacy of President Obama. But that has implications that mean women who were accessing family planning and contraception as a preventative service with no co-pay will lose access to that coverage. We [will] only see an exacerbation of the things we were engaged in trying to prevent—like unplanned pregnancy and the need for abortion, which creates a societal dilemma. If you’re making abortion illegal and undermining the various things that will allow the prevention of that need, it can only be a situation that goes from bad to worse.

There are a lot of misconceptions around contraception and abortion care, not only in the general public, but also among our lawmakers. Do you think there will be an uptick in anti-science attitudes?
There’s a saying that you can’t awaken somebody who’s pretending to be asleep. I’m full of clichés—I was raised by a Southern black woman, and they had a saying for everything.

I get you, I’m from Tennessee and Mississippi, I grew up on those sayings too.
Oh, so you’re my homegirl! [laughs]

There’s a willful ignorance. We indulge people who are willfully misrepresenting the facts. I don’t think those [anti-choice] congress people are as much benignly misguided as they are intentionally and willfully ignorant of the facts of reproduction. That lends itself very well to them being ideologically driven and carrying out agendas that, if they were to be really be honest about the facts, would be a tougher sell. But I think anti-intellectualism can be rewarded by the outcome of the election that’s going to result in people being appointed who can reinforce that agenda. We’re going to see more of that willful ignorance if we don’t push back and fight. The worst thing we can do is to assume that the electoral college [votes] resulting in the election of Donald Trump represents a mandate. It does not. He did not get the majority of the popular vote; that went to Hillary Clinton. That means those votes represent the consciousness of the nation, which is that abortion should be legal, that contraception and family planning are health issues and prevention, that a woman’s right to reproductive privacy is the law of the land and should remain such.

Have any of your patients expressed any fear since the election?
I’ve seen patients once since the election, and then, it was only abortion patients. But certainly, my friends and the common narrative is people are trying to shore up their own lives with regards to family planning and reproduction. I know people who were previously considering IUDs are considering them again. I know the requests for those kind of visits are up. People are concerned about how much control over their reproductive lives they’re going to lose as a result of this election outcome.

Do you think this puts states that are down to one clinic, such as Mississippi, in even more danger?
The fight in Mississippi will be more protracted. I’m the physician plaintiff in the lawsuit that keeps the Mississippi clinic open, and we prevailed twice in the Fifth Circuit—once with just the three-judge panel and once with the full Fifth Circuit panel. Despite that, the state tried to push it up to the Supreme Court, but the Supreme Court did not take that in lieu of the Texas case. So the definitive nature of the Texas case should have made things OK in Mississippi, but the state of Mississippi has decided to go forward. Now, I think their hope will be rekindled and renewed around the fact that potentially there will be an overturning of Roe, and there will be the appointment of a conservative justice who alters the balance of the court. There now will be a political hope based on the change in the presidential administration—hope that maybe wasn’t there before the election. But I don’t think anything will change immediately. President Obama, in his first remarks since the election, in order to reassure people and help them understand how government works, said the US government is like an ocean liner, not like a speed boat. It’s harder to turn around than people might think. Hopefully, many of the decisions have been structured in a way to make them resilient, so they’re not as vulnerable to the capricious whim of political administrations.

So what would you say to women who are worried about what a Trump administration could do to their reproductive health?

I just want to remind people that the task of those who support reproductive rights and reproductive justice didn’t change based on who is in the White House. We have leadership that is not supportive of what we’re trying to do, but the demand for justice shouldn’t be modulated. We can take that as a notion that we don’t know exactly what [President-elect Trump] is going to do, but we can’t afford to take a position of waiting around to see. We have to work under the assumption that the things that we fought hard for to protect women will be under assault, and we have to bring all our creativity and our energy to bear to preserve those things. No matter who is in the White House.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

Source: Mother Jones Politics

(2016/04/01) The battle to reorganize the economy (Sharing Economy vs. Coops) (Repost)

Edition #1003
Today we take a look at the raging battle for the soul of the new economy. The age of working at the factory for decades before retiring with a pension and gold watch is well behind us but what’s coming next? A world where everyone is completely on their own, scraping together work one gig at a time? Or an economy of worker-owners who are compensated fully for their labor and have a voice in the direction of their companies?
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: How Good is the Sharing Economy at Sharing? – KQED News – Air Date: 2-4-16

Ch. 3: Song 1: The Sharing Song – Jack Johnson


Ch. 4: Act 2: Chris Mackin: Creating Economic Democracy – @theLFshow w/ @GRITlaura Flanders – Air Date: 7-22-14

Ch. 5: Song 2: RazorWire-Remastered – Chris Priest


Ch. 6: Act 3: Uber isn’t nearly as new of an idea as you think – Economic Update w/ @profwolff – Air Date: 3-22-15

Ch. 7: Song 3: Capitalism Is Tearing Us Apart – sole


Ch. 8: Act 4: Uber Wants to Reorganize the Economy? Workers, too Can Play at that Game – The F Word w/ @GRITlaura Flanders – Air Date: 2-17-15

Ch. 9: Song 4: Working Poor – Horse Feathers


Ch. 10: Act 5: David J. Thompson on the superiority of cooperatives – @RalphNader Radio Hour – Air Date: 8-1-15

Ch. 11: Song 5: Cooperation – Jim Valley


Ch. 12: Act 6: Nationwide Next System Teach-Ins via @TheNextSystem – Best of the Left Activism

Ch. 13: Song 6: Right to Complain – Trombone Shorty & Marc Broussard


Ch. 14: Act 7: Paul Mason – Postcapitalism: A Guide to Our Future – Majority Report (@MajorityFM) – Air Date: 3-3-16



TAKE ACTION:

Activism Resources: 

Find a Next System Teach-In near you or register to host one where you live at http://teachins.thenextsystem.org 

Learn more about the The Next System Project and sign their statement.

Follow The Next System Project on Twitter @TheNextSystem for the latest updates and use ‘#NextSystem’ to join the conversation.

Further Reading:

Not Cool Uber (via Dave Craige on Medium.com)

Sharing Economy Isn’t About Sharing – The Dark Reality Behind This Major Workplace Shift (via Alternet) 

Uber on the Road to Nowhere – Uber Drivers are getting creative in their fight for basic workplace rights (via American Prospect)  

Latest News/Actions: 

Seattle Passes Law Letting Uber, Lyft Drivers Unionize (via Reuters) 

Fed up Uber Drivers Aim to Disrupt Super Bowl 50 – With their Own Mobile App (via Mother Jones)

Jakarta Taxi Drivers Protest Against Uber and Grab  (via BBC)

Hear the segment in context:

Episode #1003: http://www.bestoftheleft.com/_1003_capitalism

Written by BOTL Communications Director Amanda Hoffman 


Produced by Jay! Tomlinson

Thanks for listening!

Visit us at BestOfTheLeft.com

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Source: Best of the Left

How to get ready for the economic recession coming in 2017

Time to stock up? Canned goods via www.shutterstock.com

My outlook for 2017 and beyond is that the U.S. economy will likely see another recession.

Yes, the economic picture currently looks wonderful. The Dow and S&P 500 are at record levels. Unemployment is well below 5 percent of the labor force. Inflation is still tame. The U.S. dollar is strong.

The U.S. economy has grown dramatically over the long run. GDP has increased by one-third since the beginning of the 21st century, even after adjusting for inflation.

However, capitalist economies do not simply grow steadily larger. Instead, their long-term growth is periodically punctured by downturns.

The record of all economic ups and downs over the last century and a half shows the U.S. economy has experienced 33 recessions. This means recessions occur roughly once every five years.

Our present economic expansion has lasted far longer than five years. The Great Recession ended in June 2009, about seven and half years ago. Even though many indicators look amazing today, if history is any guide, we are due for another economic downturn.

In which case, it’s a good time for a primer on recessions and how to prepare for them.

Recession, explained.

Who calls a recession?

The dates of when recessions in the U.S. begin and end are declared by a nonpartisan organization called the National Bureau of Economic Research, or NBER. Within the NBER, a small committee, currently comprising nine professors, officially decides when a recession has occurred usually months after the fact.

The group does not use two quarters of falling GDP as their guide, a common rule of thumb journalists and others employ to describe recessions. That’s in part because GDP figures are often revised by the U.S. government. Deciding when a country is or is not in a recession based on numbers that are constantly moving is not sensible.

Instead the committee uses many factors beyond GDP such as employment, income, industrial production and retail sales.

How long are the longest expansions?

In U.S. economic history, no economic expansion has lasted more than a decade.

The current economic expansion is the fourth-longest on record. This record stretches all the way back to the 1850s.

The three longer booms all occurred since John Glenn orbited the Earth. The third-longest expansion started in 1982 and lasted close to eight years. The second-longest began in 1961 and lasted a bit less than nine years. The longest expansion we’ve experienced started in 1991 and lasted a decade, until the dot-com bubble burst in 2001.

This means that the current period of growth is entering the economic history books as something special. In just a few months it will overtake the 1982 boom and become the third-longest U.S. expansion on record.

How much longer can it continue?

No one knows why economic expansions end. It could be a sudden trigger like the collapse of Lehman Brothers in late 2008 or just a general loss of confidence.

Economic theories, such as works by economist Hyman Minsky, explain that the longer an expansion continues, the more likely a recession becomes.

The length of an expansion matters because banks lower their lending standards over time. At the end of very long expansions, banks and finance companies are willing to lend to almost anyone because they become overly optimistic. Some of this willingness to lend carelessly is currently seen in U.S. car loans.

In Minsky models the economy is like a game of musical chairs at a party. Everyone has a wonderful time until the music stops and everyone wants to sit down simultaneously. Then suddenly “the euphoria becomes a panic, the boom becomes a slump.”

Whatever the reasons that expansions end, the fact that the U.S. has never had an expansion that lasted longer than a decade does not bode well for the current one lasting much longer.

Keep it well stuffed.
Piggie bank via www.shutterstock.com

What should you do?

No individual has the power to stop a recession. However, by planning you can mitigate the impact an economic downturn has on you and your family.

Right now most people are enjoying good economic times. They will not last forever. Save some money now. Pay down credit card debt and other loans. Give yourself a financial cushion that will protect you in the event of an economic downturn.

How much you need to save depends on your risk tolerance. One guide is that over the past century and a half, the typical recession has lasted less than 1.5 years.

Recessions do not come like clockwork, however. The data suggest no clear pattern of how long expansions last. But since only three expansions since the 1850s have beaten the one we are currently living through, it’s best not to be overconfident that the current one will continue forever.

Instead, make some plans now to mitigate the next downturn. Even if I am wrong, the worst thing that will happen is that you will have less debt and more money saved. Is that so bad?

The Conversation

Jay L. Zagorsky 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

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

Fighting Corporate Socialism Since Reagan Confused Catsup and Trees