Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Monday, November 13, 2017

Automation Anxiety

Analyzing Trump's Approach

Read it. And weep?

 From the Institute of Policy Studies

  • The three wealthiest people in the United States — Bill Gates, Jeff Bezos, and Warren Buffett — now own more wealth than the entire bottom half of the American population combined, a total of 160 million people or 63 million households. 
  • America’s top 25 billionaires — a group the size of a major league baseball team’s active roster — together hold $1 trillion in wealth. These 25 have as much wealth as 56 percent of the population, a total 178 million people or 70 million households. 
  • The billionaires who make up the full Forbes 400 list now own more wealth than the bottom 64 percent of the U.S. population, an estimated 80 million households or 204 million people — more people than the populations of Canada and Mexico combined. 
  • The median American family has a net worth of $80,000, excluding the family car. The Forbes 400 own more wealth than 33 million of these typical American families. 
  • One in five U.S households, over 19 percent, have zero or negative net worth. 
  • “Underwater households” make up an even higher share of households of color. Over 30 percent of black households and 27 percent of Latino households have zero or negative net worth to fall back on.

Looking for a job

Brett Talley, a deputy assistant attorney general, has been nominated by Trump to a federal district judgeship. Talley would be able to hold this position for life, which, he being 36-years-old, could be quite a long time. One 'slight' problem with this nomination is that he has never tried a case. Further, he was unanimously deemed “not qualified” by the American Bar Association. 

He is the fourth judicial nominee under President Trump to receive a “not qualified” rating from the bar association and the second to receive the rating unanimously. Since 1989, the association has unanimously rated only two other judicial nominees as not qualified. 

Just another indication of Trump's management talents.

Suing for payment of student loans

Student loans are very big business; they are the largest source of household debt outside of mortgages. With the increase in loans comes increasing defaults. And there are companies that specialize in trying to collect on defaults. One of the largest, Transworld Systems, has filed more than 38,000 lawsuits in the last three years on behalf of a single client, the National Collegiate Student Loan Trusts. However, many of these cases were flawed. In the words of Richard Cordray, the director of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, Transworld “sued consumers for student loans they couldn’t prove were owed and filed false and misleading affidavits in courts across the country.” In some cases Transworld employees swore that borrowers’ loans had been purchased by investors on dates that were months or even years before the loans were actually made.

Saturday, November 11, 2017

The toilet the world is waiting for

It's made of 24 different Louis Vuitton bags plus one of his suitcases. It was designed by artist Illma Gore; it took her three months. You can buy it for $100,000.  

From our Florida correspondent

An appropriate article for Veterans Day

William Rivers Pitt writes about the Sacred Soldier at Truthout. He, too, questions how we deal with the voluntary Army. Some excerpts:

  • After so very many years of condensed war –seven decades and counting since Pearl Harbor and the National Security Act, with the inevitable violent blowback hitting us where we live -- the United States has fully adopted the siege mentality necessary for the implementation of a permanent state of conflict. That mentality has poured out of the Pentagon and down onto Main Street everywhere, patrolled by armored police driving through communities of color with tanks and sporting military-grade weaponry that came to them at a steep discount from the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. The nightly footage from the local news and the international news looks more and more similar by the day.
  • The fault lies with politicians who glorify and take advantage of the Sacred Soldier in equal measure, even as they slash funding for real soldiers who desperately need it. The trauma of multiple deployments, combined with the deliberate undermining of the national economy for the benefit of the wealthy, has made for a hard homecoming for many of those real soldiers. Their reward -- to be used as advertisements for the vast payday of permanent war whether they like it or not -- is beneath contempt, and profoundly dangerous.
  • Many soldiers today do not even want you to thank them for their service. They wish simply to come home, to heal, and to find their parcel of normal after a season in Hell. This is the most reasonable expectation imaginable, and the fact that this country still struggles to fulfill even this small measure of solace tells you all you need to know about our national priorities. Any nation that does not care for its war veterans has no business making new ones.

Friday, November 10, 2017

Hiding their money

The Paradise Papers focus on secretive offshore investments. Surprisingly to me, colleges - especially the upper crust - engage in this activity. I can understand why companies or individuals use these secret, low tax investments, as their job is to maximize profits within certain humanitarian limits. I find it hard to see why such activity can be considered morally correct for colleges. It is true that when schools earn income from enterprises unrelated to their core educational missions, they can be required to pay a tax that was intended to prevent nonprofits from competing unfairly with for-profit businesses. But, isn't their first obligation to their students? Could they not use that money to lower tuition? Which would result in lowering the massive debt many of these students assume.

Thoughts on Veterans Day

This is a reprint of a post of mine from November 2015.

When I was a kid in the 1940s, it was pretty obvious that this nation was at war.  Everyone was involved in some activity to help the war effort. I and my friends collected aluminum foil.  My sisters knitted.  We went to the market with ration book in hand.  Every so often we prepared for an air raid.  My brothers served in the Battle of the Bulge and other combat.  All of my male cousins and most of the men I knew were drafted.  I learned to read via the headlines and the lead stories of the war that the newspapers carried every day.  I practiced my writing by writing letters to my brothers.  All of the men in East Cambridge were drafted.  It was pretty obvious why we should celebrate their efforts.  Hardly anyone was against the GI Bill.  I can fully understand why in the '50s and '60s Armistice Day was a big deal.  And, I can readily understand why Eisenhower renamed Armistice Day to Veterans Day in 1954.

However, I find it very hard to understand the brouhaha that is now made of Veterans Day.  When Nixon abolished the draft in 1973, people now had a choice as to whether they wanted to join the military or not, as they always had a choice whether they should join the police, become a teacher, practice medicine, fight fires, etc.  There are many professions where the goal is not making a dollar.  Soldiers are not the only ones risking their lives.  Police and firefighters also risk their lives.  The military is not the only important profession that keeps this country whole.  Where would we be without teachers or policemen?  Why don't we have a teacher's day or a policemen's day?

The fact of a volunteer army makes us more susceptible to go to war, especially because we know so few of the volunteers. As I said above, many of the people I knew in the '40s were drafted and risked their lives defending this country.  Some of my relatives served in Korea.  Friends served in Vietnam or moved to Canada.  Coffins landed in the military base in Bedford, MA almost every night.  We were all involved in these wars and realized their cost.  The President didn't tell us to avoid the fact that we were at war, we were all helping the war effort.  That was our duty as citizens, no matter our age or circumstances.

It is interesting that most of the politicians that will be speaking on Veterans Day have not served in any capacity in the military.  I'll end with a comment from Aaron O'Connell, a professor at Annapolis, "Uncritical support of all things martial is quickly becoming the new normal for our youth. Hardly any of my students at the Naval Academy remember a time when their nation wasn’t at war."

Learn about bots and trolls

Thursday, November 09, 2017

Growing Planes

Killing the State Department

In the nine months of Trump's presidency 60% of the career ambassadors in the State Department are no longer there. Also, there is a freeze on lower level hiring which affects the future. Career diplomats are not political appointees; they do not change with every White House administration. We need them and their experience. 

It seems as though President Trump refuses anyone who opposed his candidacy, as did most of the Republican foreign policy establishment. When asked about the vacancies, Trump said, "I'm the only one that matters."

First steps to a new mode of transportation?

Wednesday, November 08, 2017

Mass Shootings

Everytown for Gun Safety, a nonprofit focused on understanding and reducing gun violence, analyzed every mass shooting it was able to identify in the United States from 2009-2016. Here are their findings:

  • From 2009-2016 in the U.S., there have been 156 mass shootings—incidents in which four or more people were shot and killed, not including the shooter. These incidents resulted in 1,187 victims shot: 848 people were shot and killed, and 339 people were shot and injured. In addition, 66 perpetrators killed themselves after a mass shooting, and another 17 perpetrators were shot and killed by responding law enforcement.
  • The majority of mass shootings—54 percent of cases—were related to domestic or family violence.
  • Mass shootings significantly impacted children: 25 percent of mass shooting fatalities (211) were children. This is primarily driven by mass shootings related to domestic or family violence, in which over 40 percent of fatalities were children.
  • In nearly half of the shootings—42 percent of cases—the shooter exhibited warning signs before the shooting indicating that they posed a danger to themselves or others. These red flags included acts, attempted acts, or threats of violence towards oneself or others; violations of protective orders; or evidence of ongoing substance abuse.
  • More than one-third of the shootings—34 percent—involved a shooter who was prohibited from possessing firearms.
  • Only ten percent of incidents took place in “gun-free zones”, or areas where civilians are prohibited from carrying firearms and there is not a regular armed law enforcement presence (armed security guards, for example). The vast majority of incidents—63 percent—took place entirely in private homes.

The Biggest Navy Scandal

440 active-duty and retired sailors are currently under scrutiny for possibly violating ethics rules in their dealings with Glenn Defense Marine Asia. The owner of the company, Leonard Glenn Francis or "Fat Leonard", is in jail for bribery and fraud. He overcharged the Navy by around $35 million. 69 of those being investigated are admirals. Charges have been filed on 29 thus far.

It seems that Leonard didn't have to do much to sway the admirals - fancy meals, post-dinner romps that sometimes included prostitutes, and lots of alcohol. For this, he was able to overcharge for “fuel, tugboats, barges, food, water, and sewage removal,” for almost ten years.

Use cars as a model?

Nicholas Kristof has an interesting approach to our gun violence problem. He looks at the issue of car safety. In 1946 there were 9.6 deaths per 100 million miles traveled; last year that number was down to 1.18. Why? The effect of such things as seat belts, federal safety standards, a national speed limit, car safety ratings, air bags, mandatory reporting of defects. 

His suggestions for addressing the gun problem: 

  • Background Checks - 22 percent of guns are obtained without one 
  • Protection Orders - Keep men subject to domestic violence protection orders from having guns 
  • Ban Under-21s - A ban on people under 21 purchasing firearms (this is already the case in many states) 
  • Safe Storage - These include trigger locks and guns and ammunition stored separately, especially when children are in the house 
  • Straw Purchases - Tighter enforcement of laws on straw purchases of weapons, and some limits on how many guns can be purchased in a month 
  • Ammunition Checks - Experimentation with a one-time background check for anybody buying ammunition. 
  • End Immunity - End immunity for firearm companies. That’s a subsidy to a particular industry 
  • Ban Bump Stocks  - A ban on bump stocks of the kind used in Las Vegas to mimic automatic weapon fire 
  • Research ‘Smart Guns’  - “Smart guns” fire only after a fingerprint or PIN is entered, or if used near a particular bracelet.

Make sense to you?

Turning urine into gold

Meditation on Daylight Saving Time