07/03/2014 archive

Victory in the East

A Range from Centrist to Conservative

Obama Consults a “Wide Variety of Economists” – Just Not Those Who Got it Right

William Black, New Economic Perspectives

July 3, 2014

Obama is already well into the lame duck phase of his presidency, so this is simply a PR exercise.  The message Obama wants to send is the same one he has sounded throughout his presidency.  He is open to economic views from the parts of the political spectrum that range from the hard right to the mild left.

Obama is not open to hearing the economic views of anyone who got the crisis correct or anyone his advisors consider to the left of Paul Krugman (who is mildly left in economic terms).  James Galbraith (.pdf) captured the first point brilliantly in an essay about a Krugman column.  Krugman was making the correct point that conservative economists had gotten the crisis wrong and, in passing, mentioned less than a handful of economists he considered to have gotten it right.  Galbraith stressed Krugman’s lack of interest in what economists got the crisis right and Krugman’s failure to list the economists who had actually gotten it right and had theoretical explanations for the causes of the crisis that had proved accurate in multiple crises.

Obama’s current set of luncheon meetings with economists includes economists that range from the hard right to Krugman on the “responsible” left.  The article portrays this as “tapping a broad array of ideological views.”  It fails to “tap,” however, anyone who actually got the crisis correct and anyone remotely as far left as the economists Obama chose to speak with on the hard right.  Economists such as James Galbraith were once on the fringes of Obama’s economic team (pre-inauguration).  Galbraith is a bit to the left of Krugman, but he is nowhere near as far from the center as are several of the hard right economists Obama chose to talk with about economic policy.  The same is true of Dean Baker, Randy Wray, and Stephanie Kelton.  Our friends at U. Mass. – Amherst are about as far to the left as folks like Kevin Hassett are to the right.  The real difference, the thing sure to exclude Galbraith, Baker, Wray, and Kelton from Obama’s luncheon list, is that they have committed the unforgivable sin of having been proved correct (again) about big finance and the crisis.  There is, of course, no chance that Obama will ever invite any of us, much less our friends at Amherst, to lunch to discuss economic policy.

Blackwater: Security Firm Becomes the Threat

Back in 2007, a Blackwater security team, which was contracted by the Department of State to provide security for its personnel in Iraq, was setting up a roadblock near Nisoor Square in western part of Baghdad after a bomb has exploded in another part of the city. Six of the guards opened fire into a crowd, killing 14 Iraqi civilians and injuring 18 others. A six year old by was among the dead.

After an extensive investigation by the Department of Justice, the six Blackwater guards were arrested and charged in 2009. That case was dismissed by a district court judge on the premise that the criminal case was based on sworn statements of the guards given under a grant of immunity. Then in 2011 that ruling was overturned and the charges were reinstated. Four of the original six are now on trial in Washington, DC

What has now come out is that even before the shooting in Nisoor Square, there was an investigation into Blakwater’s operations in Iraq that was squashed by American embassy personnel who sided with Balckwater claiming that the investigation was disrupting the embassy’s relationship with the security firm. The investigators were then ordered to leave the country.

The real reason is far more nefarious. One of Balckwater’s top managers threatened to kill the government’s chief investigator and bragging that no one could do anything about it because they were in Iraq.

The State Department declined to comment on the aborted investigation. A spokesman for Erik Prince, the founder and former chief executive of Blackwater, who sold the company in 2010, said Mr. Prince had never been told about the matter.

After Mr. Prince sold the company, the new owners named it Academi. In early June, it merged with Triple Canopy, one of its rivals for government and commercial contracts to provide private security. The new firm is called Constellis Holdings.

Experts who were previously unaware of this episode said it fit into a larger pattern of behavior. “The Blackwater-State Department relationship gave new meaning to the word ‘dysfunctional,’ ” said Peter Singer, a strategist at the New America Foundation, a public policy institute, who has written extensively on private security contractors. “It involved everything from catastrophic failures of supervision to shortchanging broader national security goals at the expense of short-term desires.”

Even before Nisour Square, Blackwater’s security guards had acquired a reputation among Iraqis and American military personnel for swagger and recklessness, but their complaints about practices ranging from running cars off the road to shooting wildly in the streets and even killing civilians typically did not result in serious action by the United States or the Iraqi government. [..]

It did not take long for the two-man investigative team – Mr. Richter, a Diplomatic Security special agent, and Donald Thomas Jr., a State Department management analyst – to discover a long list of contract violations by Blackwater. [..]

On Aug. 20, 2007, Mr. Richter was called in to the office of the embassy’s regional security officer, Bob Hanni, who said he had received a call asking him to document Mr. Richter’s “inappropriate behavior.” Mr. Richter quickly called his supervisor in Washington, who instructed him to take Mr. Thomas with him to all remaining meetings in Baghdad, his report noted.

The next day, the two men met with Daniel Carroll, Blackwater’s project manager in Iraq, to discuss the investigation, including a complaint over food quality and sanitary conditions at a cafeteria in Blackwater’s compound. Mr. Carroll barked that Mr. Richter could not tell him what to do about his cafeteria, Mr. Richter’s report said. The Blackwater official went on to threaten the agent and say he would not face any consequences, according to Mr. Richter’s later account.

Mr. Carroll said “that he could kill me at that very moment and no one could or would do anything about it as we were in Iraq,” Mr. Richter wrote in a memo to senior State Department officials in Washington. He noted that Mr. Carroll had formerly served with Navy SEAL Team 6, an elite unit.

“Mr. Carroll’s statement was made in a low, even tone of voice, his head was slightly lowered; his eyes were fixed on mine,” Mr. Richter stated in his memo. “I took Mr. Carroll’s threat seriously. We were in a combat zone where things can happen quite unexpectedly, especially when issues involve potentially negative impacts on a lucrative security contract.”

He added that he was especially alarmed because Mr. Carroll was Blackwater’s leader in Iraq, and “organizations take on the attitudes and mannerisms of their leader.”

Mr. Thomas witnessed the exchange and corroborated Mr. Richter’s version of events in a separate statement, writing that Mr. Carroll’s comments were “unprofessional and threatening in nature.” He added that others in Baghdad had told the two investigators to be “very careful,” considering that their review could jeopardize job security for Blackwater personnel.

Somebody in the State Department needs to do some explaining.

Punting the Pundits

“Punting the Pundits” is an Open Thread. It is a selection of editorials and opinions from around the news medium and the internet blogs. The intent is to provide a forum for your reactions and opinions, not just to the opinions presented, but to what ever you find important.

Thanks to ek hornbeck, click on the link and you can access all the past “Punting the Pundits”.

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Trevor Timm: The surveillance state can’t even keep track of how many people it’s spying on anymore. Time to close the loopholes

A government authorized to search innocent people. Multiple agencies seeking a backdoor into your data. It’s all coming to a head – and internal reports aren’t going to cut it

The blowback against the National Security Agency has long focused on the unpopular Patriot Act surveillance program that allows the NSA to vacuum up billions of US phone records each year. But after a rush of attention this week, some much deserved focus is back on the surveillance state’s other seemingly limitless program: the warrantless searches made possible by Section 702 of the Fisa Amendments Act, which allows the NSA to do all sorts of spying on Americans and people around the world – all for reasons that, in most cases, have nothing to do with terrorism.

The long awaited draft report from the independent Privacy and Civil Liberties Board (PCLOB) on this subject was finally released Tuesday night, and it gives Americans a fairly detailed look unclassified at how the NSA spies through its notorious Prism program – and how it snoops “upstream” (a euphemism for the agency’s direct access to entire internet streams at telecoms like AT&T). The board issued a scathing report on the Patriot Act surveillance months ago, but oddly they went the opposite route this time around.

David Cay Johnston: ‘Obama and Holder are not our friends’

Lowell Bergman argues that journalism is under attack from government and corporate power. He’€™s right

At the largest-ever gathering of investigative journalists – more than 1,600 watchdogs from America and 40 other countries, in San Francisco last week – one of the best, Lowell Bergman, gave a speech Saturday that everyone in America should know about. [..]

“I’m here today to tell you that we’ve been living under an illusion,” Bergman’s keynote began.

“We thought that after the Bush-Ashcroft-Gonzales years that Barack Obama and Eric Holder were our friends,” Bergman said. “They are not. While the president has said he supports whistleblowers for their  ‘courage and patriotism,’ his Justice Department is prosecuting more of them for allegedly talking to the press or ‘leaking’ than all the other presidents in the history of the United States.”

Such strong-arm tactics to control information are being cheered on, Bergman said, by executives and directors of many multinational corporations who have plenty to hide about commercial bribery, deadly practices and products as well as the ruthless exploitation of workers at home and abroad.

Jessica Valenti Nick-naming women ‘Beyoncé voters’ is exactly why we don’t vote Republican

All the single ladies now make up a quarter of potential voters. If this is the new ‘war on women’ in the age of Hobby Lobby and Hillary, we’ll be the best thing conservatives never had

Female voters in the US have been called “soccer moms” and “security moms”. In 2004, single women were “Sex and the City voters”. Now – because apparently women can’t ever just be “citizens” or “voters”, or more likely because conservatives prefer to call us names instead of delving too deep into women’s issues – we are “Beyoncé voters”. Bow down, bitches.

Most single ladies would generally be thrilled with a comparison to Queen Bey in any way, shape or form, but the cutesy nicknames for politically-engaged women need to stop. Surely pundits and the political media culture can deal with the collective electoral power of the majority voting bloc in this country in some better way than symbolically calling us “sweetheart”, complete with head pat.

Diane Ravitch: Do Teachers’ Unions Have Any Friends in the Obama Administration?

In the past, Democratic administrations and Democratic members of Congress could be counted on to support public education and to fight privatization. In the past, Democrats supported unions, which they saw as a dependable and significant part of their base.

This is no longer the case. Congress is about to pass legislation to expand funding of charter schools, despite the fact that they get no better results than public schools and despite the scandalous misuse of public funds by charter operators in many states.

The Obama administration strongly supports privatization via charters; one condition of Race to the Top was that states had to increase the number of charters. The administration is no friend of teachers or of teacher unions. Secretary Duncan applauded the lamentable Vergara decision, as he has applauded privatization and evaluating teachers by the test scores of their students. There are never too many tests for this administration. Although the president recently talked about the importance of unions, he has done nothing to support them when they are under attack. Former members of his administration are leading the war against teachers and their unions.

Richard (RJ) Eskow: 10 Mind-Bending Questions About the ‘Hobby Lobby’ Decision

Judge Ginsburg certainly got it right when she said that the Supreme Court’s Hobby Lobby decision is going to create “havoc.” And as the repercussions mount, so do the questions, in areas that range from economics and taxation to theology and philosophy.

There are those who might say that these questions are disrespectful to believers. But it is the Court which has arguably transgressed here, by declaring that a bloodless corporation is capable of belief. It has suggested that an economic and legal entity is capable of sharing in the profound and uniquely human phenomenon that is the spiritual experience. That notion could be described as disrespectful toward humanity.

Some might even call it blasphemy.

Robert Reich: Freedom, Power, and the Conservative Mind

On Monday the Supreme Court struck down a key part of the Affordable Care Act, ruling that privately-owned corporations don’t have to offer their employees contraceptive coverage that conflicts with the corporate owners’ religious beliefs.

The owners of Hobby Lobby, the plaintiffs in the case, were always free to practice their religion. The Court bestowed religious freedom on their corporation as well — a leap of logic as absurd as giving corporations freedom of speech. Corporations aren’t people.

The deeper problem is the Court’s obliviousness to the growing imbalance of economic power between corporations and real people. By giving companies the right to not offer employees contraceptive services otherwise mandated by law, the Court ignored the rights of employees to receive those services. [..]

The same imbalance of power rendered the Court’s decision in “Citizens United,” granting corporations freedom of speech, so perverse. In reality, corporate free speech drowns out the free speech of ordinary people who can’t flood the halls of Congress with campaign contributions.

Freedom is the one value conservatives place above all others, yet time and again their ideal of freedom ignores the growing imbalance of power in our society that’s eroding the freedoms of most people.

A Charitable Scam

To be fair, what the Red Cross will tell you is that if they have excess donations for a particular crisis they feel free, morally justified even, taking those funds and re-purposing them to fill needs just as urgent but less popular.

Now you may agree or disagree with that position on it’s own merits but what those of us who have been in the charity game know is that they spend lavishly on their own pet priorities and compensation and perks for their professional staff and board memembers.

And if you don’t believe me why are they acting like scam artists?

Red Cross: How we spent Sandy money is a “trade secret”

Justin Elliott (ProPublica), Salon

Saturday, Jun 28, 2014 08:00 AM EST

Just how badly does the American Red Cross want to keep secret how it raised and spent over $300 million after Hurricane Sandy?

The charity has hired a fancy law firm to fight a public request we filed with New York state, arguing that information about its Sandy activities is a “trade secret.”

The documents include “internal and proprietary methodology and procedures for fundraising, confidential information about its internal operations, and confidential financial information,” wrote Gabrielle Levin of Gibson Dunn in a letter to the attorney general’s office.

If those details were disclosed, “the American Red Cross would suffer competitive harm because its competitors would be able to mimic the American Red Cross’s business model for an increased competitive advantage,”  Levin wrote.

The letter doesn’t specify who the Red Cross’ “competitors” are.

Why Is the American Red Cross Acting Like Big Business and Not a Charity?

By: BrandonJ, Firedog Lake

Friday June 27, 2014 10:41 pm

The Red Cross is also under investigation by New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, who said last year 42 percent of donations, at the time, raised by 89 different charities-the Red Cross among them-did not go victims of Hurricane Sandy. Schneiderman, along with others, was able to apply pressure to the Red Cross to donate an additional $6 million to the victims.

As mentioned in the article by Elliot, the use of “trade secrets” by the Red Cross is a peculiar argument by the foundation since charities ordinarily would not be expected to use the exemption. Indeed, the Red Cross is so protective of its structure that it hired Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher, the law firm New Jersey Governor Chris Christie hired to investigate the”Bridgegate” scandal, ultimately exonerating most of Christie’s staff after the questionable investigation.

The use of their “business model” is alarming considering this model failed after Hurricane Sandy hit the Mid-Atlantic region. Journalist Sam Knight covered its failures during Hurricane Sandy relief in a recent article highlighting the power Occupy Sandy held during the crisis. In one example, Knight revealed how the Red Cross failed to help move a 90-year-old woman to a warm place, yet it provided a hotel in Manhattan for its volunteers, costing $181,000.

Knight continued on the problems the Red Cross had when distributing aid to the residents affected by the hurricane.

“Just outside the church, another scene of clumsily administered relief was on display. At the nearest intersection, a Red Cross van announced, via megaphone, ‘hot soup!’ to no one in particular. Two blocks in either direction, locals were ladling warm meals to anyone seeking a hearty eat. The truck left not long after arriving. It fed no one,” Knight wrote.

It is difficult to believe any other charity would emulate the “business model” of the American Red Cross in future disasters considering its most recent failure. In fact, they would follow what Occupy Sandy did, as journalist Allison Kilkenny mentioned when reporting on their efforts.

What about Schneiderman’s investigation?

Well, what about it?

New York’s Schneiderman Accepts Red Cross’ “Trade Secrets” Excuse to Hide Sandy Spending

by Yves Smith, Naked Capitalism

Posted on July 1, 2014

It’s not clear what to make of an attorney general who opens an investigation and then accepts lame excuses for maintaining secrecy from its target, in this case, the American Red Cross. We’re flagging this example because it exemplifies an effort by organizations to use “trade secrets” as a pretext for hiding more and more of their dealings with governments. This is absurd, since the premise of Federal and state Freedom of Information Act laws is that government records should be open to the public, and that includes records of entities doing business with government agencies. In other words, if you want to have government bodies as your customers, one of the costs of doing business is having your formal interactions with them subject to public review.

The Red Cross has come under repeated criticism for poor performance at its core mission, disaster relief. The charity has an unusual quasi-public role by virtue of obtaining a Congressional charter in 1905 develop a system of emergency relief and disaster prevention. Thus, the Red Cross, as a charity, has long been a monopoly provider of national first/early responder services. No other charity has a similar stature or scope. While the Red Cross also receives a limited amount of funding from FEMA, the far more important aspect of its relationship with government is the considerable prestige and competitive advantage it has gained through its charter, which it had obtained through able performance under its founder Clara Barton in providing assistance in major calamities in the 19th century, such as the Great Fire of 1881 and the Jonestown Flood of 1889. The Red Cross also has a formal role in conjunction with FEMA in providing “mass care, emergency assistance, temporary housing” and other services.

Proof of the Red Cross’ de facto monopoly position comes through the fact that there is no organization to take over its role as its performance has faltered. The Red Cross was criticized for slow responses and waste of funds in 9/11 and Katrina. Congress forced governance changes on the Red Cross in 2007, but that was insufficient to lead to better results in Hurricane Sandy. As New York City readers may know, Occupy Sandy ran rings around the Red Cross in the hardest-hit areas here, particularly Staten Island.

That of course raised the obvious question: the Red Cross had solicited aggressively for funds during and shortly after the hurricane. Where did the $300+ million go? Why weren’t the relief services delivered well?

But the troubling part is that Schneiderman, who has proven repeatedly to be an overly cautious prosecutor, took any of the Red Cross’ claims seriously. “Trade secret” status is based on the ability for competitor to do economic damage with the information. The only information in general that a charity possesses of this nature is related to donor giving: who the big donors are, what their giving patterns have been, and what sort of success they’ve had with various types of fundraising campaigns. Particularly for an organization as large and presumably as sophisticated as the Red Cross, that sort of know-how might be valuable, if it really were unique, as opposed to well-known and widely used solicitation and donor-grooming methods.

But with the Red Cross, you have to look at its monopoly provider status. Who can compete with them? The idea that some other organization is hot on its heels and eager to copy its methods is barmy. The closest direct competitor is Médecins Sans Frontières, which is not a player in US disasters, and local charities, which lack the clout and reach. So any claims regarding possible competitive harm should be regarded with extreme skepticism.

Yet Schneiderman took way too much of the Red Cross’ demand for special treatment at face value, and agreed to shield material related to “business strategies, internal operational procedures and decisions, and the internal deliberations and decision-making processes that affect fundraising and the allocation of donations.” I guarantee that like the private equity descriptions of their business strategies in limited partnership agreements that were released to the public, that there’s no special sauce in that, nor in anything else save possibly fundraising. The experts ProPublica quoted in its article also though the Red Cross claims were indefensible.

The good news is that fighting disclosure seems to have backfired on the Red Cross. As Barry Ritholtz at Bloomberg wrote.

As poor as the Red Cross’ conduct is, it should also be shame on Schneiderman for enabling this unjustifiable position. His knuckling under to the Red Cross extends the bad precedent of having private equity contracts with government investors exempted from public scrutiny. Contract bids and terms are also competitively valuable, yet heretofore, no one would have thought it acceptable to keep them from the media and interested citizens. But public officials like Schneiderman are all too willing to accede to private sector secrecy demands, no matter how ludicrous, which will make it easier for these organizations to hide incompetence and looting.

Now don’t get me wrong.  They do a great job at collecting blood and Water Safety instruction, but looting is not too strong a word.

The Breakfast Club (Start of Holiday Edition)

Welcome to The Breakfast Club! We’re a disorganized group of rebel lefties who hang out and chat if and when we’re not too hungover  we’ve been bailed out we’re not too exhausted from last night’s (CENSORED) the caffeine kicks in. Join us every weekday morning at 9am (ET) and weekend morning at 10:30am (ET) to talk about current news and our boring lives and to make fun of LaEscapee! If we are ever running late, it’s PhilJD’s fault.

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This Day in History

Breakfast Tunes

On This Day In History July 3

This is your morning Open Thread. Pour your favorite beverage and review the past and comment on the future.

Find the past “On This Day in History” here.

Click on images to enlarge.

July 3 is the 184th day of the year (185th in leap years) in the Gregorian calendar. There are 181 days remaining until the end of the year.

On this day in 1863, Battle of Gettysburg ends

On the third day of the Battle of Gettysburg, Confederate General Robert E. Lee’s last attempt at breaking the Union line ends in disastrous failure, bringing the most decisive battle of the American Civil War to an end.

Third day of battle

General Lee wished to renew the attack on Friday, July 3, using the same basic plan as the previous day: Longstreet would attack the Federal left, while Ewell attacked Culp’s Hill. However, before Longstreet was ready, Union XII Corps troops started a dawn artillery bombardment against the Confederates on Culp’s Hill in an effort to regain a portion of their lost works. The Confederates attacked, and the second fight for Culp’s Hill ended around 11 a.m., after some seven hours of bitter combat.

Lee was forced to change his plans. Longstreet would command Pickett’s Virginia division of his own First Corps, plus six brigades from Hill’s Corps, in an attack on the Federal II Corps position at the right center of the Union line on Cemetery Ridge. Prior to the attack, all the artillery the Confederacy could bring to bear on the Federal positions would bombard and weaken the enemy’s line.

Around 1 p.m., from 150 to 170 Confederate guns began an artillery bombardment that was probably the largest of the war. In order to save valuable ammunition for the infantry attack that they knew would follow, the Army of the Potomac’s artillery, under the command of Brig. Gen. Henry Jackson Hunt, at first did not return the enemy’s fire. After waiting about 15 minutes, about 80 Federal cannons added to the din. The Army of Northern Virginia was critically low on artillery ammunition, and the cannonade did not significantly affect the Union position. Around 3 p.m., the cannon fire subsided, and 12,500 Southern soldiers stepped from the ridgeline and advanced the three-quarters of a mile (1,200 m) to Cemetery Ridge in what is known to history as “Pickett’s Charge”. As the Confederates approached, there was fierce flanking artillery fire from Union positions on Cemetery Hill and north of Little Round Top, and musket and canister fire from Hancock’s II Corps. In the Union center, the commander of artillery had held fire during the Confederate bombardment, leading Southern commanders to believe the Northern cannon batteries had been knocked out. However, they opened fire on the Confederate infantry during their approach with devastating results. Nearly one half of the attackers did not return to their own lines. Although the Federal line wavered and broke temporarily at a jog called the “Angle” in a low stone fence, just north of a patch of vegetation called the Copse of Trees, reinforcements rushed into the breach, and the Confederate attack was repulsed. The farthest advance of Brig. Gen. Lewis A. Armistead’s brigade of Maj. Gen. George Pickett’s division at the Angle is referred to as the “High-water mark of the Confederacy”, arguably representing the closest the South ever came to its goal of achieving independence from the Union via military victory.

There were two significant cavalry engagements on July 3. Stuart was sent to guard the Confederate left flank and was to be prepared to exploit any success the infantry might achieve on Cemetery Hill by flanking the Federal right and hitting their trains and lines of communications. Three miles (5 km) east of Gettysburg, in what is now called “East Cavalry Field” (not shown on the accompanying map, but between the York and Hanover Roads), Stuart’s forces collided with Federal cavalry: Brig. Gen. David McMurtrie Gregg’s division and Brig. Gen. Custer’s brigade. A lengthy mounted battle, including hand-to-hand sabre combat, ensued. Custer’s charge, leading the 1st Michigan Cavalry, blunted the attack by Wade Hampton’s brigade, blocking Stuart from achieving his objectives in the Federal rear. Meanwhile, after hearing news of the day’s victory, Brig. Gen. Judson Kilpatrick launched a cavalry attack against the infantry positions of Longstreet’s Corps southwest of Big Round Top. Brig. Gen. Elon J. Farnsworth protested against the futility of such a move but obeyed orders. Farnsworth was killed in the attack, and his brigade suffered significant losses.