Tuesday, February 06, 2018

Cruising the Web

Yesterday's largest single-day drop in the stock market should be a lesson to Trump and all politicians not to brag about the growth on Wall Street. It's almost as if the gods of Wall Street decided to send in a thunderbolt to punish Trump for his hubris. There is so much on the economy he could be bragging about without trying to take credit for increases in the stock market, because who knows what will happen the next day? The president isn't responsible for the increases, but if he's going to take credit for that growth, he'll have to take the blame for its slumps. And that isn't his fault either.

However, Jay Carney beclowned himself by tweeting that the Obama administration "NEVER boasted about the stock market." Stephen Miller just went to the Obama White House archives to find several times when Obama did take credit for the growth of the stock market.



Carney had to backtrack, though he's still bragging about not boasting about the stock market in the first year of Obama's administration.

Politico has found another argument against the Republican tax reform law - it will lead to more divorces this year.
Republicans may pride themselves on upholding family values, but their new tax law could soon lead to a surge in married couples calling it quits.

Lawyers are counseling couples considering divorce to do it this year — before a 76-year-old deduction for alimony payments is wiped out in 2019 under the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act.

“Now’s not the time to wait,” said Mary Vidas, a lawyer in Philadelphia and former chair of the American Bar Association’s section on family law. “If you’re going to get a divorce, get it now.”

Potential divorcees have all of 2018 to use the alimony deduction as a bargaining chip in their negotiations with estranged spouses.

The deduction substantially reduces the cost of alimony payments — for people in the highest income-tax bracket, it means every dollar they pay to support a former spouse really costs them a little more than 60 cents.

The change is an example of how the tax law is having far-reaching consequences beyond its corporate and individual tax cuts, in some cases by quietly overturning decades of tax policy.
Of course, couples that are planning to separate would be the ones to consider this tax benefit - it's not that the law is making people divorce. So the main headline for the story: "Why Trump’s tax plan may spur more divorces" is pretty deceptive. And, as the story points out, there are good reasons for removing the deduction.
A spokesman for House Ways and Means Chairman Kevin Brady (R-Texas) said, “This is one of the many provisions of the law that removes special rules applicable only in certain circumstances in order to help simplify the code and reduce tax rates for all Americans.”

The break has also long been criticized as a burden on the IRS because, if the alimony amounts ex-spouses report paying and receiving don’t match, it can force the agency to audit two people who may already be feuding. In 2010, there was a $2.3 billion gap between the reporting, according to the Treasury Department’s Inspector General for Tax Administration.

Alimony has been deductible since World War II. Added to the code in 1942, lawmakers have long believed it was unfair to tax people on the alimony they paid when the money was not available for them to spend.

The deduction is a big deal to splitting couples because if someone who earns, say, $250,000 — which puts them in the 24 percent income tax bracket under the new law — agrees to pay $4,000 per month, it really costs the person about $3,000 after taking the deduction into account.
But Politico still wants us to worry about what this change will lead to.
Without the break, many people will agree to pay only what would have been their after-tax amount — in this case, about $3,000.

More couples will end up fighting in court because they won’t be able to agree on alimony terms, predicts Madeline Marzano-Lesnevich, head of the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers.

“It helps settle cases,” she said. “Without this, we will have husbands saying, 'I'm not paying you that much.'”

That will have wives asking, “How do I live?” said Marzano-Lesnevich. Many will say, “Get me before a judge so I can plead my case.”
And there is no real evidence that people will speed up their divorces to get them in before the deduction goes away. In fact, as the article points out, many people won't be rushing their divorces.
Not necessarily everyone will be in a hurry to finalize their divorces, Vertz said.

Because people receiving alimony next year won’t have to pay taxes on it, some may figure they’re better off waiting, even if their exes complain about losing the deduction.

“Some spouses may think they have an advantage by delaying,” Vertz said. “The payer wouldn’t have a tax deduction, it’s true, but that won’t necessarily motivate the recipient to demand less.”
So basically, Politico has no real idea of what people are going to do and how this will affect marital decision-making, but they decided to run with their story anyway.

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Larry O'Connor points out that the FBI had lower standards for using the Steele dossier than the media did.
One of the more disconcerting revelations from the long-anticipated FISA memo released by the House Intelligence Committee Friday was that the FBI had barely begun a verification process of the Russian dossier when they used it to justify a FISA surveillance warrant on Carter Page. Meanwhile the media refused to publish the dossier allegations because they could not be verified.

In short: The media had higher standards than the Federal Bureau of Investigation....

The dossier, a compilation of political opposition research compiled at the behest of the Hillary Clinton for President campaign, was peddled to multiple media outlets in the waning months of 2016. No surprise there. This was the sole reason millions of dollars was paid to political slime machine Fusion GPS in the first place. The whole reason the dossier was compiled so Hillary’s henchmen could float stories to journalists in the final weeks of the presidential campaign to damage Donald Trump.

The sad thing for all that money Hillary spent (rather than on a couple visits to Wisconsin and Michigan) was that hardly any publication would print the unverified and salacious details in Christopher Steele’s magnum opus. Other than a late hit by left-wing activist David Corn at Mother Jones and an article by Michael Isikoff of Yahoo News, mainstream media outlets refused to bite on the Fusion GPS dirt.
But not the FBI when it came to submitting the warrant application to the FISA court!

I've heard a lot of analysts of the Nunes memo talking about how the FBI was investigating Carter Page as far back as 2013. However, as Chris Reeves points out, DOJ records filed from a sealed complaint by Special Agent Gregory Monaghan, saying that Page was part of their investigation because he was targeted by two Russian Foreign Service Intelligence Service agents.
Monaghan did not recommend that any charges be levied against Page. In fact, the section of the document discussing Page never characterizes him as a conscious spy or security risk, instead framing him as a victim of Sporyshev and Podobnyy, who expressly denied that Page knew about their status as intelligence agents.
Monaghan also detailed how Page actually cooperated with FBI officials by telling them about his contacts with one of the Russian agents. The DOJ and FBI used Page's information to charge the agents with conspiracy to violate the Foreign Agents Registration Act. So saying that Page had been investigated by the FBI back in 2013 mischaracterizes what actually happened. From his desire to work with Putin's government, Page doesn't sound like the type of guy any presidential candidate. It demonstrates how pitiful Trump's stable of advisors were during his campaign and what poor judgment Trump demonstrated in the people he allowed to get close to him. However, it doesn't demonstrate that Page was doing anything illegal at the time.
Based on the information provided above, it seems perfectly plausible that Page thought he was developing a relationship with someone who was a legitimate business contact. If Page had illegally or unethically shared sensitive information with Podobnyy, why would Monaghan have omitted this given that such an action by Page would have strengthened the FBI’s case against Sporyshev and Podobnyy?

Another question raised by these documents concerns why Comey’s FBI would have considered Page to unquestionably be a Russian agent: If Page cooperated with the FBI in 2013 and provided them information that ultimately aided the DOJ’s successful prosecution of a third Russian spy who had worked with Sporyshev and Podobnyy (Evgeny Buryakov), why would Russian intelligence have trusted Page enough to hire him as an asset in a major intel operation directed against the U.S. government and one of its major political parties? Wouldn't Russian intelligence have put out a notice to avoid Page as an unreliable and potentially dangerous contact?
As many of us have been saying for a while now, the solution is to release the classified materials that led to the FISA application so we can judge.

Here are two lawyers whose honesty I respect reaching different conclusions about the memo. Critics are trumpeting the fact that there is a footnote in the FISA application that indicates that the source is "political," although it still doesn't explain that it came from the DNC and Clinton's campaign. Hugh Hewitt, who has worked in the DOJ reading many FISA warrant applications, thinks that this doesn't matter and that the source should definitely have been made known to the court.
Upon publication of the Nunes memo, a retired federal judge emailed me: “There is not an officer of the court in the land who in the context of this particular application to the FISA court should not have identified the source of the information as having been the [Democratic National Committee] and the Clinton Campaign. If I had granted the application and then subsequently learned that the information was sourced to the DNC and the Campaign, I would have rescinded the authorization and issued a show-cause order to the Government to explain who and why this sourcing was not made known to the court. The fact (if it be that) that the Government told the court that it was a political source, but did not identify who, in this particular instance, is highly probative that the Government purposely misled the court.”

The FISA court to which the application was made might well have issued the warrant even if it knew the provenance of the intelligence. We will never know. But the non-disclosure was a breach of trust, and it will have long-term consequences for the warrant application process.
Hewitt goes on to say that, if the application was prepared by a staffer and Comey and his deputies didn't really read and review the application then that is perfectly understandable since there are so many such applications being written all the time. However, if because this was so politically sensitive, someone may well have deliberately decided to mislead the court and that is very serious.
But if the omission was specifically discussed and approved by a senior official, then there should be accountability. What was the preparing case officer thinking? What was anyone thinking who reviewed it and noticed the missing specificity? They should be thinking like a corporate lawyer reviewing a Securities and Exchange Commission filing on behalf of a publicly traded company. Material omissions or misstatements in those filings also go by the name of “fraud.” Imagine a public company declaring an income stream is flowing, but not noting that it is coming from sketchy factories that may not be compliant with labor standards, reports of which have come to the attention of the company and which are being investigated. It’s highly unlikely that investors or the SEC would be very forgiving of an initial public offering that left out facts as important as what was omitted from this warrant application.
All the more reason why there should be an investigation of who wrote and who checked over the application before it was submitted. And what sorts of discussions were held about the content.

However, David French, who is a lawyer and has served in the military, writes to argue that "the memo doesn't make its case."
Indeed, it gets less persuasive — and the material omissions more glaring — with each successive read. It might disclose the existence of troubling FBI misconduct, but the fair-minded reader has no way of knowing whether it does.
He doesn't like that they didn't quote Andrew McCabe's words directly on the relative importance of the dossier in asking for the warrant. He finds numerous elements that have gone further in explaining the context and what was said or written in these instances. He concludes,
I could elaborate more on all these points, but after reading the memorandum, I’m struck by the fact that I literally cannot objectively discern whether there’s a scandal here. After all, it’s not by itself scandalous to review political opposition research — a politically motivated person is no more suspect than the terrorists and criminals who routinely provide information used to support even the most intrusive warrants. When I was in Iraq, we were constantly aware that our sources had their own axes to grind. They didn’t want to defeat their opponents in an election. They wanted them to die in a hail of gunfire.

Biased sources are an inherent part of intelligence-gathering. Good investigators take that bias into account when evaluating evidence and make material disclosures to the court to help the court make its probable-cause determination. After reading this memo, I simply don’t know whether that happened. I only know that the GOP claims that it didn’t.

It is entirely possible that a thorough review of the evidence will reveal that politically motivated senior leaders in the Department of Justice intentionally and willfully misled the court and knowingly used bad information to launch its surveillance of Carter Page. It’s also possible that senior leaders in the Department of Justice acted on good faith in response to information from a person who’d done valuable work in the past — information that supplemented other evidence raising suspicions about Page’s activity. Or the real story could lie somewhere in between.

But the bottom line is clear. The truth awaits greater transparency. The ball is in your court, Mr. President. Spare us the memos. Let’s see the evidence.

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With all the constant discussion of how partisanship has led to gridlock in Washington, there is one bipartisan triumph that hasn't received much attention.
Fully known as the VA Accountability and Whistleblower Protection Act, this bill brought bipartisan reform to a major government agency that has often failed to serve perhaps the most cherished group of American citizens. The bill was only the first step in a long reform process, but it has already made a meaningful difference.

For decades, veterans have traded stories of VA incompetence like they were military-exclusive baseball cards. We were told to wait for months for medical appointments, and resolving other problems was nearly impossible. The VA billing office was infamous for almost never picking up the phone, even after veterans spent hours on hold. Yet calling was your only option, as the VA treated email like an alien technology from a distant future.

Multiple news stories confirmed veterans’ complaints were not just whining. Not only were wait-times egregious, but several VA offices had falsified records to meet scheduling goals. Several veterans died awaiting medical appointments that were never coming. The level of callousness was shocking, even to those of us with experience in the VA system.

Yet for years, these scandals were not enough to prompt meaningful change.

Previous reform efforts had stalled due to complaints from unions public sector unions about changing the rules regarding which VA employees could be fired. Instead of protecting VA employees from unfairness, these rules made them invincible. Commit an armed robbery while working for the VA? Not only was your job safe, you were entitled to a years-long appeal process against any punishment, and to be paid – including bonuses – the entire time that your case was tied up in the system, including the time you spent in jail before pleading guilty.

Instead of rewarding employees who exposed secret lists of patients who never got appointments, the VA punished them more harshly than those who created the lists in the first place.

More common bureaucratic mistakes, such as losing paperwork, were even harder to deal with. Morale at the agency was among the lowest in the U.S. government, partly because hard-working VA employees were forced to watch incompetent and indolent coworkers escape any consequences. The agency had trouble filling open positions, both for medical providers and those that aid them in providing effective care.

The VA reform legislation put an end to the worst aspects of this farce. It codified the agency’s office to protect whistleblowers and mandated training on the subject for all employees. It also gave the head of the VA more flexibility to discipline senior leaders and expedite the removal process for those being fired. As a result, over 1,500 underperforming employees have been let go, and more than 70 whistleblowers have been protected against retaliation for speaking out.

This is bipartisan reform that has worked. Perhaps that is why, outside of a brief mention in the State of the Union speech, neither side is touting it — the credit would have to be shared. But VA reform was a noteworthy achievement on an important issue, and it should be remembered as such, especially as Congress struggles to find bipartisan solutions to the country’s many challenges.
It's a shame that we don't hear more about such accomplishments.

Arthur Schaper, an opponent of DACA, relays his experience of being interviewed by Jimmy Kimmel and how Kimmel tried to portray him and other opponents as heartless racists, but eventually got so angry at their refutations of his arguments that he just resorted to cutting them off and calling them names. Unfortunately, these activists didn't insist on making their own videotape of the session so they could post it on the internet and expose Jimmy Kimmel.

Is this really what we need to be worrying about for our Olympic team - how diverse it is?
The U.S. Olympic Committee says it’s taking its most diverse team ever to a Winter Games, an impressive and deserved boast that requires a caveat of sorts.

Yes, USOC officials are pleased the team includes more African Americans and Asian Americans — and even the first two openly gay men — than recent winter squads. But they also realize this year’s U.S. Olympic team, not unlike those of most other nations gathering in PyeongChang this week, is still overwhelmingly white.

“We’re not quite where we want to be,” said Jason Thompson, the USOC’s director of diversity and inclusion. “. . . I think full-on inclusion has always been a priority of Team USA. I think everybody’s always felt it should represent every American.”
Sports are one of the most meritocratic activities we have, but the government, apparently, is very concerned about getting a diversity scorecard.
The Ted Stevens Act requires each sport’s governing body and the USOC to send a report to both Congress and the president every four years that, among other things, details participation of minorities, women and people with disabilities. In a step toward even more transparency, the USOC now requires each sport’s governing body to submit a diversity scorecard each year. While the reports include benchmarks and goals, the results offer statistical snapshots of each sport, and especially for the winter offerings, underscore the areas that are lacking.
We have diversity in sports such as figure skating, speedskating, and bobspledding, but the ski and snowboard competitors are distressingly white. Given that some sports are regional, it is not surprising that there might not be such diversity in those who get involved in the sport. And there are definitely economic barriers. There are programs to help those who face economic barriers to practice and competition.
A handful of grass-roots programs across the country try to make winter sports more accessible — perhaps with free ice time to P.E. classes during the school day, transportation to ski lifts or ice rinks, donated equipment and free instruction.
But that isn't necessarily a racial problem. There are plenty of white athletes who also face economic challenges in developing Olympics-level skills. Just as I support affirmative action based on economic status rather than race, I'd support such programs to help aspiring athletes. But let's not complain about lack of diversity in an activity that is based solely on merit.

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Oh, gosh! Justin Trudeau is the sanctimonious jerk you wanted to pop in the mouth when you were in middle school. Here he is mansplaining to a woman who used the work "mankind" in a question to him that she should use "peoplekind," because, apparently, he's so full of himself that he won't even use "humankind," perhaps because it has the word "man" in it.



As of yesterday, the Berlin Wall has now been down longer than it was up. Boy, that makes me feel old. Here are some Before and After pictures of locations in Berlin.

Just what women need - gender-specific Doritos. Gosh this is stupid.
Indra Nooyi, the CEO of global giant PepsiCo, says her company is trying to solve women's "least favorite things" about Doritos by developing a version of the snack designed specifically for women.

In a recent interview with WNYC's Freakonomics, Nooyi discussed the different ways that men and women eat chips. Men "lick their fingers with great glee, and when they reach the bottom of the bag they pour the little broken pieces into their mouth, because they don't want to lose that taste of the flavor, and the broken chips in the bottom," Nooyi said.

"Women would love to do the same, but they don't," she continued. "They don't like to crunch too loudly in public. And they don't lick their fingers generously and they don't like to pour the little broken pieces and the flavor into their mouth."

Freaknonomics host Stephen Dubner asked Nooyi if her company is developing a "male and female version of chips." Nooyi responded,

"It's not a male and female as much as 'are there snacks for women that can be designed and packaged differently?' And yes, we are looking at it, and we're getting ready to launch a bunch of them soon. For women, low-crunch, the full taste profile, not have so much of the flavor stick on the fingers, and how can you put it in a purse? Because women love to carry a snack in their purse."
Personally, I am happy to eat Doritos and happily lick my fingers afterward. And who wouldn't love their crunch? Maybe this is a concern for lots of women so it makes sense to for the company to try to fill that niche. But the whole thing does seem incredibly silly.