Proposals to use the tracking capabilities of our cell phones to help fight COVID-19 have probably received more attention than any other technology issue during the pandemic. Here at the ACLU, we have been skeptical of schemes to use apps for contact tracing or exposure warnings from the beginning, but it is clearer than ever that such tools are unlikely to work, and that the debate over such tracking is largely a sideshow to the principal coronavirus health needs.
We have said from the outset that location-based contact tracing was untenable, but that the concept of “proximity tracking” — in which Bluetooth signals emitted by phones are used to notify people who may have been exposed — seemed both more plausible and less of a threat to privacy. Indeed, a number of serious institutions began working on this concept early in the pandemic, most notably Apple and Google, which have already implemented a version of the concept in their mobile operating systems.
Some of the problems with tech-assisted contact tracing have been apparent from the beginning, such as the social dimensions of the challenge. Smartphone ownership is not evenly distributed by income, race, or age, threatening to create disparate effects from such schemes. And even the most comprehensive, all-seeing contact tracing system is of little use without social and medical systems in place to help those who may have the virus — including access to medical care, testing, and support for those who are quarantined. Those systems are all inadequate in the United States today.
Other problems with technology-assisted contact tracing have become more apparent as the pandemic has played out. Specifically, such tracing appears to be squeezed from two directions. On the one hand, a tool shouldn’t pick up every fleeting encounter and swamp users with too many meaningless notifications. On the other, if it is confined to reporting sustained close contacts of the kind that are most likely to result in transmission, the tool is not likely to improve upon old-fashioned human contact tracing. Those are the kinds of contacts that people are likely to remember. And those memories, relayed to human contact tracers, are more likely to identify a patient’s significant past exposures than an automated app that can’t determine, for example, whether two people were separated by glass or a wall.
A difficult disease to trace
The first problem — the danger of generating far too many “exposure notifications” — is considerable. As one commentator put it, “actual transmission events are rare compared to the number of interactions people have.” Swamping users with false notifications would be useless and annoying at best, and seriously disruptive and counterproductive at worst. Ultimately, people will stop taking the notifications seriously, or just uninstall the app.
That problem is made worse by the fact that COVID-19 is a more difficult disease to trace than many. As a group of prominent epidemiologists from the University of Minnesota explained in a report on contact tracing, contact tracing is less effective when:
1. Contacts are difficult to trace, such as when a disease is transmitted through the air. Respiratory transmission appears to be the primary way COVID-19 is transmitted. Compared to the kind of contact tracing that has long been done with HIV, where transmission takes place through sex or blood, the virus that causes COVID-19 is much harder to track. One cough or sneeze from a stranger may be enough to infect an unlucky passerby — as can sharing an interior space with a “super-spreader” who is on the other side of a large room.
2. The infection rate in a community is high. In the U.S., as of this writing (July 2020), there are currently around 50,000 new coronavirus cases being identified every day. As the Minnesota report puts it, “contact tracing is most effective either early in the course of an outbreak or much later in the outbreak when other measures have reduced disease incidence to low levels.” The U.S. may someday reach the point where cases are once again sporadic rather than widespread, but for now experts recommend concentrating contact tracing on contacts within households, healthcare and other high-risk settings, and case clusters — an approach much more amenable to manual contact tracing.
3. A large proportion of transmissible infections are from people without symptoms. In May the CDC estimated that 40 percent of new COVID-19 infections come from asymptomatic carriers.
The Technology is Not Reliable Enough
These factors increase the risk of generating too many exposure notifications to be useful. Serious technical challenges with using smartphones for contact tracing also increase that risk. One of the biggest questions has always been how to use Bluetooth to judge which encounters are worthy of being recorded as potential transmission events. Judgments have to be made about how close a person needs to be, and for how much time, to meet the warning threshold. That becomes even trickier since Bluetooth can’t reliably measure distances. The strength of a Bluetooth signal varies not only with distance, but also from phone to phone, and from owner to owner. The frequency at which Bluetooth operates (2.4 GHz) is one that is easily absorbed by water, including the water in the human body, which means that signal strength can vary significantly depending upon whether a person has their phone in their front or back pocket, and how much that person weighs.
Complicating matters is the fact that existing contact-tracing apps are being thrown together very quickly. Google and Apple moved from concept to a finalized product in less than 12 weeks. They should be commended for stepping up in an emergency, but we shouldn’t expect it to work well anytime soon. As is clear to any experienced software developer, their product is basically an early prototype that’s being pushed into production. In a normal world, they would be testing their app on groups of hundreds and then thousands of people in cities and a variety of other real-world situations. Through no fault of Apple and Google, there simply hasn’t been the opportunity to do the kind of engineering development and refinement that a project like this really needs.
And of course, what is true of software developed by Apple and Google is even more true of apps developed in a rush by state governments like North Dakota and Rhode Island, or other nations like South Korea. South Korea has been lauded for its high-tech coronavirus response. But the quarantine app the country has been using put people’s names, locations, and other private information at risk by failing to follow basic cybersecurity practices.
While effective technology-assisted contact tracing apps must avoid generating too many exposure notifications, they must also establish that they can improve upon or significantly augment old-fashioned human contact tracing.
Epidemiologists emphasize that contact tracing has always been a tricky and sensitive job. Getting people to trust any official enough to open up about their potentially privacy-sensitive whereabouts and contacts is a skill — one that requires “training and development of a specialized skill set” as well as “consideration of local contexts, communities, and cultures.”
That is especially true since those who are identified as having been exposed to the coronavirus are asked to self-quarantine for two weeks — putting much or all of their life on hold, and possibly risking the loss of a job or income, necessitating the finding of new caregivers for dependents, and imposing various other costs. That’s something that a friend will be reluctant to impose upon another friend by giving their name — especially where no social support is provided to those asked to self-quarantine. As the Minnesota report warned, “If people perceive the economic, social, or other costs of compliance with contact tracing are greater than its value, it won’t be successful.”
There are many reasons to doubt that these tricky issues can be navigated better through technology. As report co-author Michael Osterholm put it, “Having been in public health for 45 years, and having cut my teeth in surveillance in many different ways — I don’t think most people would comply. If I got notifications that I’d been exposed to [someone] with COVID, would I self-isolate for 14 days at home, because I got a text on my phone?”
The sensitive privacy and trust issues that human contact tracers face are likely to be amplified in the technology realm. People who are reluctant to tell contact tracers where they’ve been are likely to be even more reluctant to let an app carry such information. By building tools with very strong, cleverly constructed privacy protections, Apple, Google, and others have created the best possible chance of engendering trust in those apps, but those protections still have gaps. People who refuse to wear a mask are unlikely to deliberately install tracking software on their phone, whatever privacy assurances they are given. Nor are many members of Black, Brown, and immigrant communities for whom “trust in the authorities is non-existent.”
Some experts have estimated that at least 60 percent of a population would have to run an app for it to become effective. Others think apps can be modestly helpful even with much smaller adoption rates. But aside from trust issues, the number of people willing to participate seems to have gone down since the first months of the outbreak, as “social distancing fatigue” has set in and public panic over the virus has given way to a more measured caution (and in too many cases, an abandonment of all caution whatsoever).
The bottom line is that there are too few reasons to think that apps will prove more helpful than human memories elicited by experienced contact tracers. The promise of exposure notifications lies in the space between the large pool of incidental contacts that people have, and the smaller number of significant contacts that they remember. The apps promise to track contacts that are close and sustained enough to pose a serious risk of exposure yet beyond the subject’s memory. For most people, that space may simply not be large enough to be useful.
Real-World Experiences in States and Other Countries
Unsurprisingly, given these problems, the states and countries that have experimented with using technology-assisted contact tracing have not been met with much success. The use of technology by China and some other Asian countries has received a lot of attention, but as the Minnesota epidemiologists point out, “we don’t know exactly what methods were used, how many cases were involved, and what the estimated impact was in reducing transmission since other mitigation strategies were employed at the same time” in those countries.
That lack of measurement is true throughout the world. An MIT survey of global digital contact-tracing efforts found 43 countries in some stage of offering a product. Ten of those countries are relying on the privacy-preserving Apple/Google protocol, with the rest a jumble of different architectures and policies. It may not be quite true, as UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson declared on June 24, that “No country in the world has a working contact tracing app” — Germany has launched an app that has been downloaded over 14 million times so far, and India claims 131 million downloads for its app and 900,000 users who have been contacted and told to self-isolate. But we don’t know if those numbers represent a high enough proportion of the populations to actually have an impact on slowing the disease in Germany and India, let alone in countries with lower adoption rates. We also don’t know how effective it is to simply tell people to self-isolate, in the absence of social support for them to do so.
It’s also worth noting that in some countries such as China and India, digital tracking is imposed in authoritarian ways that would cause most people who value civil liberties to recoil.
In the U.S., a few states have attempted to launch apps, including Utah, where things went so badly that one program was shut down within 72 hours of its launch, and another one had not led to any contract tracing a month after its launch. An app in North and South Dakota ran into trouble quickly when it was revealed to be sharing data with a private location-data company. Overall, state efforts so far have been plagued by “technical glitches and a general lack of interest by their residents.” A survey by Business Insider found that only three states planned to use the Apple/Google technology. Others had not decided, but 17 states reported that they had no plans to use smartphone-based contact tracing at all.
Those who have worked on privacy-preserving exposure notification apps should be commended for stepping up. They have dedicated their skills toward trying to save lives and restore people’s freedom, and they did a very good job creating a privacy-preserving approach that was not only the most likely to be trusted and effective, but also the least likely to permanently change our world for the worse.
Nevertheless, it does not appear to be working out. “A lot of this is just distraction,” Osterholm concluded of all the talk over digital contact tracing. “I just don’t see any of this materializing.” Given what we know about the technology, we are inclined to agree.
Proposals to use the tracking capabilities of our cell phones to help fight COVID-19 have probably received more attention than any other technology issue during the pandemic. Here at the ACLU, we have been skeptical of schemes to use apps for contact tracing or exposure warnings from the beginning, but it is clearer than ever that such tools are unlikely to work, and that the debate over such tracking is largely a sideshow to the principal coronavirus health needs.
Caleb BrennanIn the district where George Floyd was killed, Omar Fateh wants to bring the progressive wave to the state legislature.
The post The Next Progressive Insurgent You Haven’t Heard of Yet appeared first on The Nation.
Robert L. BorosageThe wrangling over the Covid-19 stimulus package is boiling down to the president’s petty grievances and the Republicans’ small-government hobbyhorses.
The post The Complete Dysfunction of the GOP Is on Full Display appeared first on The Nation.
A massive explosion rocked Beirut on Tuesday, flattening much of the city’s port, damaging buildings across the capital and sending a giant mushroom cloud into the sky. More than 100 people are feared dead and thousands injured, with bodies buried in the rubble, officials said.
It was not clear what caused the blast, which struck with the force of a 3.5 magnitude earthquake, according to Germany’s geosciences center GFZ, and was heard and felt as far away as Cyprus more than 200 kilometers (180 miles) across the Mediterranean. Lebanon’s interior minister said it appeared that a large cache of ammonium nitrate in the port had detonated.
The sudden devastation overwhelmed a country already struggling with both the coronavirus pandemic and a severe economic and financial crisis.
The Associated Press captured the following images of the unfolding tragedy:
The post Apocalyptic Scenes from the Site of the Deadly Beirut Blast appeared first on MintPress News.
Since June of 2020, activists have been subjected to an increasingly aggressive crackdown on protests by federal law enforcement. The federal response to the movement for Black Lives has included federal criminal charges for activists, door knocks by federal law enforcement agents, and increased use of federal troops to violently police protests.
The NLG National Office is releasing this resource page for activists who are resisting federal repression. It includes a link to our emergency hotline numbers, as well as our library of Know-Your-Rights materials, our recent federal repression webinar, and a list of some of our recommended resources for activists. We will continue to update this page.
If you are contacted by federal law enforcement you should exercise all of your rights. It is always advisable to speak to an attorney before responding to federal authorities.State and Local Hotlines
If you have been contacted by the FBI or other federal law enforcement, in one of the following areas, you may be able to get help or information from one of these local NLG hotlines for:
- Portland, Oregon: (833) 680-1312
- San Francisco, California: (415) 285-1041 or firstname.lastname@example.org
- Seattle, Washington: (206) 658-7963
If you are located in an area with no hotline, you can call the following number:
- National NLG Federal Defense Hotline: (212) 679-2811
The NLG maintains a library of basic Know-Your-Rights guides.
- Know Your Rights During Covid-19
- You Have The Right To Remain Silent: A Know Your Rights Guide for Encounters with Law Enforcement
- Operation Backfire: For Environmental and Animal Rights Activists
WEBINAR: Federal Repression of Activists & Their Lawyers: Legal & Ethical Strategies to Defend Our Movements: presented by NLG-NYC and NLG National Office
We also recommend the following resources:Center for Constitutional Rights Civil Liberties Defense Center
- Grand Juries: Slideshow
On Tuesday, Axios released an interview with President Donald Trump in which he falsely claimed South Korea was lying about its coronavirus deaths, complained that the late Congressman John Lewis didn’t attend his inauguration, and once again crowned himself as the greatest president of all for Black people. Aside from the exhibitionistic shuffling of papers, the president did not depart from his usual script, although the interview was notable for the moment when he folded like a slice of Kraft American cheese after he was asked the most basic follow-up question.
On Wednesday, I woke up and as part of my job (or so I tell myself) I quickly logged on to Twitter and saw a bunch of tweets about Trump rambling through his greatest hits in an interview. It was all there. The virus would just “go away.” The only reason the United States has so many coronavirus cases is because it does so much testing. He has been the best president for Black people. Wait, I thought, was the Axios interview running again and again? Had I missed something? As it turned out, this was a different interview. The president had done yet another star turn on the very friendly Fox & Friends. In doing so, yet again he reinforced the fact we were all trapped in America’s pandemic time loop, with Trump as our horrifying MC.
There’s a new movie that unintentionally captures that very same feeling. Palm Springs opens with Andy Samberg as Nyles waking up with his beautiful and perky girlfriend, Misty. She seems ready for the wedding they’re about to attend, but Nyles lies in bed exuding the same amount of joy one gets from eating a soggy ham sandwich. At the wedding, we meet Cristin Milioti as Sarah, the maid of honor and the sister of the bride. Nyles and Sarah hit it off right away, escape to the desert for some alone time, and are just two rogue wedding guests until a man comes out of the hills and shoots Nyles with a bow and arrow. As Nyles gives every impression of bleeding to death, he crawls towards a cave, but warns Sarah not to follow him. She chases after him anyway and gets sucked into the light.
Sarah wakes up the next morning, and once again it’s the day of her sister’s wedding. Panicked, she finds Nyles casually relaxing in the pool. “Tell me what the fuck is going on!” she yells. “This is today, today is yesterday, and tomorrow is also today,” Nyles explains calmly. “It’s one of those infinite time loop situations you might’ve heard about.”“This is today, today is yesterday, and tomorrow is also today. It’s one of those infinite time loop situations you might’ve heard about.”
Damn, I thought to myself while sitting on my couch on yet another Friday night during the pandemic, I feel that.
Since March, when the coronavirus really took off in the United States, each day has felt like being trapped in a nightmare but your alarm clock never wakes you up. On the one hand, it keeps getting worse and worse: more deaths, more infections, more discrediting of science, more destruction of our institutions, more Trump spewing nonsense in interviews and press conferences. On the other hand, the days seem exactly the same.
For Sarah and Nyles, over and over they wake up on her sister’s wedding day. And every day, America wakes up and faces a growing public health and economic disaster with no end in sight. Donald Trump, his administration, and his Republican enablers have mishandled the pandemic so badly they attempt to camouflage their lack of meaningful action by re-litigating the same culture wars over wearing masks, ignoring science in favor of politics, and trying to exert some political damage control in the wake of the president’s often meandering, always uniformed, and generally destructive public comments.
Trump’s botched handling of the pandemic is the underlying theme of the Palm Springs-esque moment the entire country is in. If Trump’s public statements were a game of Bingo, we would all be multiple winners. In the early days of the pandemic, Trump’s coronavirus briefings were marked by an assault of infuriating denial, during which he’d claim the virus would magically disappear, he referred to it as the “China virus,” promoted unproven medical treatments, and, in one memorable instance, suggested injecting bleach as effective treatment. After his bleach cocktail earned him widespread ridicule, the briefings stopped—for awhile. For reasons that don’t make sense to anyone who has been paying attention—aside from his delusional conviction that the best remedy for his tanking poll numbers is for the American people to enjoy even more exposure to their commander in chief— the briefings are back. Once more, he is saying all the things he’s already said—including one of his favorite lies, which is that the virus is just going to “go away.”
Consider the mask mandates. After some initial confusion over how effective they were and the desire to reserve medical-grade masks for health care workers, the Centers for Disease Control recommended that everyone wear some type of masks when venturing out. In April, many state and local elected officials issued mask mandates of their own, to varying degrees of success. But the fight over masks continues. It feels as if every single day, a brief scour through the internet will yield plenty of anti-mask warriors, repeating the same bogus science about how masks will kill you, or they’re secretly a tool that will lead to Sharia law. And as the staunchest anti-maskers, including the president, came around to grudgingly acknowledging their importance, even their words sounded familiar.
BREAKING: Mississippi Gov. Tate Reeves issues statewide mask mandate.
"I want to see college football. The best way for that to occur is for us all to realize is that wearing a mask, as irritating as that can be & I promise I hate it more than anyone watching, is critical."
— Ashton Pittman (@ashtonpittman) August 4, 2020
Wear a mask so we can have college football? Isn’t this just the same as the calls to wear masks we all heard in April, and May, and June…
And still the number of cases are growing. In April, Surgeon General Jerome Adams warned that we were approaching a peak death count. “This is going to be the hardest and the saddest week of most Americans’ lives,” he said. Back then, New York’s hospitals were overwhelmed, tests were few and far between, and every day seemed to drag on. But really, with the exception of replacing what happened in New York with what has been happening in Texas, Florida, and Arizona, was “the hardest saddest week” in April any different from all the subsequent hard, sad weeks?
Months later and everything still feels the same. Cases in Florida, Arizona, and Texas skyrocketed and a death toll thought unimaginable a few months ago is a reality. It’s still taking weeks to get coronavirus tests results back to patients, rendering them mostly useless except as a metric. There’s still no comprehensive plan for nationwide testing, sending children safely back to school, or providing a safety net for the millions facing economic calamity.Trump’s response to the American clusterfuck is to double down.
Trump’s response to the American clusterfuck is to double down. He’s still downplaying the virus. He’s still demanding that schools and businesses reopen, safety be damned. He’s still blaming China for his incompetence. His failures have an iron grip on the country, forcing us to live the same grim reality every day. Internally, we all may be joining Sarah as she screams, “Tell me what the fuck is going on!” But in the stark light of these days, the reality is what Nyles so eloquently described: “This is today, today is yesterday, and tomorrow is also today. It’s one of those infinite time loop situations you might’ve heard about.”
In the movie, Sarah at first attempts different strategies to escape from her imprisonment. Then she accepts their new reality and the two form a bond. A montage of Sarah and Nyles going for a swim in a stranger’s pool, shooting comically large guns in the desert, and flying a plane (and dying in a fiery crash) illustrate their chosen time-loop activities. For at least a little while (How many days? Who knows. What does it matter?) Sarah almost seems comfortable in their infinite state. But then she has a jarring realization, one that gives her a single-minded purpose: She has to get out of this madness. And with imagination and focus and being willing to take a big risk, she does.
America can set itself free too. And it probably requires those same ingredients. In our pandemic days that seem to be both long and short, speeding by and dragging on, by summoning the single-minded determination and creativity that Sarah brought to finding a way to break free, metaphorically speaking, we can too.
There are signs that this is beginning already. Support for the Black Lives Matter movement has exploded over the last several months. More and more Americans agree that systemic racism is a widespread problem in this country. Long-shot candidates like Cori Bush in Missouri and Jamaal Bowman in New York unseated longtime incumbents with a wave of support from voters who are finally fed up with the status quo. As Congress twiddles its thumbs and millions of Americans face evictions, protests to stop them have popped up in New York City, New Orleans, and Hyattsville, Maryland. Americans are finally fed up, they want out of the loop, and are acting to make a change.
When Axios‘ Jonathan Swan asked Trump about the 158,000 and counting deaths that happened on his watch, the president responded flatly, as of course he would, “It is what it is.” Indeed, but not for long.
A study released by the Institute for Policy Studies (IPS) through its Program on Inequality and the Common Good, titled “Gilded Giving 2020: How Wealth Inequality Distorts Philanthropy and Imperils Democracy” examines the reality behind the ostensible charitableness of the billionaire donor class and the disturbing trend of charitable organizations and foundations relying more and more on fewer and fewer wealthy donors; funds which “end up in family foundations and donor-advised funds that could legally exist in perpetuity,” while donations from lower and middle-income sources are disappearing.
In particular, the paper looks at The Giving Pledge initiative started in 2010 by a few dozen U.S. billionaires and led by Bill Gates and Warren Buffet. The professed goal of the initiative was to have the wealthiest people in the world pledge to give at least half of their fortunes away to charitable causes before their death. The study found that contrary to the stated purpose of the philanthropic commitment of the organization, a full 75 percent of participants have actually increased their net worth in the ten years since they made their charitable vow.
More concerning is the finding that a growing share of “high-end” donations never ends up in organizations that do any kind of altruistic work. Rather, they go to tax-privileged private foundations designed to serve as tax shelters for the very wealthy, which then only disburse a small percentage of their assets to charitable non-profits; a particularly galling fact considering how much more wealthy the one-percenters have gotten over the course of the pandemic in contrast to the 54 million Americans who’ve filed for unemployment in that same span of time.
Among its key findings, the study notes that giving intermediaries like donor-advised funds (DAFs) like Fidelity Charitable Gift Fund (the largest in the country), and private foundations have grown dramatically over the last few years, with assets ballooning 118 percent between 2005 and 2019. The number of private foundations has multiplied as well by a whopping 68 percent over the same period.
In addition, IPS found that there has been a “marked increase in mega-gifting,” or donations of $50 million or more. The trend highlights one of the main risks identified by the study, characterized in the paper as “Top-Heavy Philanthropy,” which “poses significant implications for the practice of fundraising, the role of the independent nonprofit sector, and the health of our larger democratic civil society.”
These risks associated with top-heavy philanthropy are clearly illustrated in their case study of the Gates/Buffet Giving Pledge, exposing it as a vehicle for the “concentration of taxpayer-subsidized private charitable power.” In other words, the majority of donations given to the organization end up “sequestered” in private foundations and DAFs, guaranteeing that donors and their heirs will retain control over the very assets they ostensibly donated to the greater good.
Remarkably, the study found that a vast majority of the foundation’s 62 billionaire pledgers substantially increased their wealth in the span of the ten years since their initial donations. Only 11 saw their fortunes dwindle due to “aggressive charitable giving” or market conditions. Nine of the mega-wealthy donors saw their collective riches swell by an average of 200 percent. Among the charmed list, Mark Zuckerberg saw the largest surge by an outlandish 1,783 percent.
The significance for U.S. taxpayers of these and other factors analyzed are revealed by a hypothetical calculation made by researchers regarding the tax-subsidy, which DAF-parked donations represent for the average American. According to July survey by Forbes magazine, U.S. billionaires currently hold $971.9 billion in assets; if the top 100 gave away half their wealth to foundations like these, the U.S. Treasury would lose roughly $360 billion in tax revenue.
While researchers admit that it is difficult to determine the “exact amount of taxpayer subsidies for these donations,” the reality is that the wealthiest among us are using these foundations to reduce their “taxable estates” by millions and even billions of dollars, while the resources that actually make it to organizations doing charitable work dwindles. Such a state of affairs combined with the economic recession unfolding as a result of the pandemic and tax-breaks for the rich poses serious challenges to charities, in general.
The Tax Cuts and Jobs Act (TCJA) passed in 2018 drastically reduced income tax rates for top earners and doubled the standard deduction, both of which reduced incentives for charitable giving. Meanwhile, non-profit charitable organizations whose mission does not fall into the sectors related to the pandemic, itself, are suffering financially resulting in program cutbacks for 64 percent of these, according to an April survey by Charity Navigator and Reuters.
In February 2020, the Chronicle of Philanthropy published a list of the top 50 philanthropists in the United States. 42 percent of those contributions, which totaled $15.8 billion, went to DAFs. Most of these were to the donors’ own private funds and nearly 30 percent went to colleges and universities, leaving actual charitable causes very low in the philanthropic totem pole.
Feature photo | American investor Warren Buffett, left, and Microsoft Corp. co-founder Bill Gates, right, talk during their visit to a Dairy Queen in Beijing, China, Sept. 30, 2010. Alexander F. Yuan | AP
Raul Diego is a MintPress News Staff Writer, independent photojournalist, researcher, writer and documentary filmmaker.
The post Study: Billionaires That Donated to Gates-Buffet Giving Pledge Now Richer Than Ever appeared first on MintPress News.
New York state Attorney General Letitia James (D) on Thursday filed a lawsuit charging the National Rifle Association with financial misconduct and seeking to dissolve the organization. The NRA “has persistently engaged in illegal and unauthorized activities in the conduct and transaction of its business,” James alleged in the complaint. For more than a year, James’ office has been investigating the NRA’s nonprofit status, after the group’s inner turmoil and allegations of financial impropriety spilled into public view in 2019. During a press briefing announcing the lawsuit, James said that misconduct at the NRA “is so broad” that a total dissolution of the nation’s oldest gun rights group is necessary.
The groundbreaking lawsuit takes aim at the NRA as a whole but also names four current and former members of its leadership team—executive vice president Wayne LaPierre, former treasurer Wilson “Woody” Phillips, former chief of staff Joshua Powell, and general counsel John Frazer—. In a statement, James said these individuals were personally responsible for mismanaging the organization’s funds and “failing to follow numerous state and federal laws.” The lawsuit details dozens of examples of the defendants allegedly using millions of dollars in NRA funds for exorbitant personal purposes—including for trips for their families to the Bahamas, private jet travel, and expensive meals. In one instance detailed in the lawsuit, the NRA’s director of security “procured an armored vehicle for LaPierre without notifying the Purchasing Division or complying with the NRA Purchasing Policy.”
“The NRA’s influence has been so powerful that the organization went unchecked for decades while top executives funneled millions into their own pockets,” James said in her statement. “The NRA is fraught with fraud and abuse, which is why, today, we seek to dissolve the NRA, because no organization is above the law.”
In response, the NRA said Thursday that it had filed a countersuit against the New York attorney general. “The NYAG’s actions are an affront to democracy and freedom,” LaPierre said in a statement provided to Mother Jones. “This is an unconstitutional, premeditated attack aiming to dismantle and destroy the NRA—the fiercest defender of America’s freedom at the ballot box for decades. The NRA is well governed, financially solvent, and committed to good governance. We’re ready for the fight. Bring it on.”
In a statement provided to Mother Jones, NRA board member Tom King blamed New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) for James’ lawsuit, despite the fact that the New York attorney general operates independently of the governor. “I was told Cuomo would use every resource to pursue his lifelong dream of defeating the NRA, and an ‘investigation’ of our Association was on the horizon,” King said.
The dam broke for the NRA in April 2019, just before its annual meeting and convention in Indianapolis, when the New Yorker and The Trace published a bombshell report detailing alleged self-dealing, gratuitous spending, sweetheart deals, and other financial improprieties among the group’s executives, contractors, and vendors. At the meeting, then-NRA president Oliver North—of Iran-Contra fame—unsuccessfully tried to force LaPierre’s resignation over the latter’s handling of the group’s finances. The NRA board—including members who were allegedly secretly benefitting from NRA funds—stood behind LaPierre and instead forced North’s resignation. North then leaked financial documents in an effort to expose self-dealing and misuse of NRA money. That sparked James’ investigation into the group, as well as calls from House and Senate Democrats for the IRS to revoke its nonprofit status.
James wasn’t the only official to sue the NRA Thursday. Washington, DC, Attorney General Karl Racine filed a complimentary lawsuit against the group, accusing it of misusing its charitable funds to support wasteful spending by its executives. Racine’s lawsuit alleges that the NRA Foundation—the group’s tax-exempt charitable arm established to issue grants to outside entities like ROTC programs and the Boy Scouts of America—was, in fact, used to funnel money into the main NRA organization, including a $5 million dollar loan that the NRA never repaid. Racine’s lawsuit seeks the return of “the charitable funds improperly wasted on the NRA to the Foundation and a court order imposing changes to the Foundation to ensure it is operated independently and fulfills its charitable purposes,” Racine’s office said in a statement.
The pair of lawsuits marks a new low point for the 148-year-old gun-rights organization, which has long exerted outsize influence in American politics. In 2016, the group spent an eye-popping $54 million backing GOP candidates, $31 million of which directly supported Donald Trump’s campaign. But the group has been suffering ever since, thanks to its recent scandals, which contributed to a sharp decline in membership.
“Tens of millions of Americans have at one time or another joined the NRA to protect their Second Amendment rights,” says Richard Feldman, a former lobbyist for the NRA and president of the Independent Firearm Owners Association. “The squandering of members’ resources for the benefit of a few insiders has been known for years, but overlooked in the interests of power, prestige and politics.”
After it proved to be such a powerful ally to Trump in 2016, there’s been much speculation about the role that the NRA might play in the president’s reelection efforts. With less than 100 days until the election in November, the group has spent just $900,000 on federal elections this cycle—a drop in the bucket compared to the pro-gun-control group Everytown for Gun Safety, which had earlier pledged to spend a whopping $60 million.
Earlier on Thursday, the Washington Free Beacon reported that the NRA is, in fact, planning to spend “tens of millions” to support Trump’s reelection and pro-gun Republican candidates in key battlegrounds. But with a series of pricey lawsuits on its hands and a precarious financial situation, it remains to be seen whether the group will be able to replicate the massive campaign it waged four years ago.
You can read the full lawsuit here:
Scott Wiener is used to being targeted for his legislation. The California State Senator represents San Francisco, and has long championed the kind of progressive reforms that have attracted the ire of right-wing culture warriors and their online trolling.
Over the past few days, the harassment Sen. Wiener has endured has gotten much worse. QAnon troll accounts have sicced their rabid followers on him, latching on to a bill he’s introduced to reform California’s sex offender registry.
Current California law gives judges the discretion to not add people of certain ages to the registry who may technically be in violation of statutory rape laws. The leeway allows judges to determine that in certain circumstances—say a 19 year-old having sex with a 17 year old—it would be inappropriate to add a person to the registry. But the law only allows such discretion for people accused of vaginal intercourse with a minor; judges have no say in instances of digital penetration, anal, or oral sex.More people than ever are jumping on the QAnon bandwagon, and the conspiracy’s biggest influencers enjoy rapt audiences and ready troll armies.
LGBTQ advocates argue the situation unfairly penalizes people who do not engage in penile-vaginal intercourse, a problem that Sen. Wiener’s legislation aims to fix. But low-level conservative blogs have written up misleading and exaggerated stories about the legislation saying that it would protect pedophiles and falsely claiming that it would mean a 22-year-old found to have sexual contact with a 12-year-old would not be placed on the registry. The existing law does not automatically keep people off the registry. It only allows judges additional discretion in making such decisions, and it does not apply to anyone found to have had sexual contact with someone younger than 14. Wiener’s proposed legislation wouldn’t change anything regarding ages, but would allow judges to treat different sexual acts equally.
Since Friday, Weiner has received thousands of messages targeting him for the bill, according to Catie Stewart, his communications director. While some have come via email, most of the harassing messages are being sent through Instagram, both as private direct messages and as public-facing comments posted to his own Instagram account.
“It’s a noticeable uptick,” Sen. Wiener said in a phone interview, noting that about a month ago he had gone through a slightly less involved harassment campaign over the same legislation. “The comments are gross. There’s a ton of them. They’re much, much nastier than what I’ve received before.”
The private messages he shared are indeed gross. “You’re dead. Dead. Dead. Dead. I’ll publicly execute you. I’m gonna embarrass you. Pedophile,” wrote one Instagram user. “I’ll come cut your head off and deliver it to your mom if you even considering introducing your ‘bill.’ Got it?” another read.
Many others posted publicly on Instagram are a little milder but still libelous and often anti-Semitic. Users frequently accuse Sen. Wiener of being a “pedophile” and have lobbed other insults referencing his Jewish heritage.VideoRelated: How QAnon Is Mutating for 2020
Sen. Wiener said that he feels frustrated that Facebook, which owns Intsagram, is letting this happen.
“Social media platforms need to do a lot more to deal with toxicity that is so damaging to society. I know it’s hard. I get that they don’t want to be thought police. Not everything is clear cut, but some things are. What’s happening here is clear cut, when you have all these comments calling me a pedophile, when you have all these homophobic, anti-Semitic remarks,” Wiener said, adding that he feels like he’s at a disadvantage as it is illegal to block people on social media as a public official.“Social media platforms need to do a lot more to deal with toxicity that is so damaging to society.”
A Facebook spokesperson declined to comment for attribution on the incident or the company’s response, citing their potential personal risk of QAnon harassment.
The specific sources inciting harassment against Sen. Wiener are mostly unclear, but the patterns and characteristics of the harassment indicate that it’s being driven by conspiracists, including supporters of QAnon, the sprawling theory that holds that a cabal of liberal elites has been running a massive pedophile ring that Donald Trump is working to take down.
One of the telltale signs of QAnon related harassment is a focus on child-trafficking and pedophilia—usually in the absence of any evidence. At least one account with over 50,000 followers that Sen. Wiener’s campaign identified as attacking his account is run by a woman who lists her name as Denise Marie, and regularly shares posts indicating she is an ardent supporter of Pizzagate and other QAnon-styled pedophile conspiracy theories, along with other conspiracy theories about the coronavirus and 5G.
One of her posts attacking Sen. Wiener has shown up in other smaller conspiracy-posting accounts’ stories, including accounts run by people backing QAnon. It’s likely that other well-followed QAnon accounts posted about Sen. Wiener as well, but the splintered, image-based structure of Instagram makes it hard to track how information flows across the platform.
Another potential source of harassment against Sen. Wiener is an article that appeared on a website called The California Globe, which purports to be a news site but posts conservative-slanted headlines like “Sacramento: Typical Of Poorly Run Blue-Mayor Cities.” A February 2019 article from the site with the headline “CA Democrats Author Bill To Protect Sex Offenders Who Lure Minors” has recently been making the rounds of right-wing Facebook pages and groups, according to CrowdTangle, a Facebook-owned social media analytics tool. Facebook pages like “Republicans Take Back California” and “Recall Gavin Newsome” started posting about it to their tens of thousands of followers towards the end of July. A QAnon Facebook group with almost 23,000 followers also posted about it on July 24, just about a week before QAnon supporters started targeting Sen. Wiener.“Targeted harassment has been a core feature of QAnon almost since its inception.”
Another factor could be that more people than ever appear to be jumping on the QAnon bandwagon. Under the coronavirus, by every metric, there has been a marked increase in interest around QAnon. Twitter mentions of the conspiracy, Google searches related to it, and Wikipedia page views for QAnon topics have all seen massive spikes since mid-March when coronavirus lockdowns started in the U.S. And different types of people, using different tech platforms, are jumping in too. Wellness influencers and anti-vaxxers have glommed onto QAnon child trafficking conspiracies, giving it an even wider base. (Stewart said she had noticed many anti-vaxxers joining in the harassment against her boss.)
With more eyes on Q than ever before, the conspiracy’s biggest influencers enjoy a rapt audience and have a ready troll army to unleash on their enemies. Correspondingly, more and more people in the public eye and businesses have found themselves on the receiving end of QAnon harassment campaigns. The contemporary moral panic has recently incited waves of harassment against Oprah, the online furniture seller, Wayfair, and even Chrissy Teigen. Each has been baselessly accused of being wrapped up in different child trafficking schemes, and Teigen’s case falsely linked to Jeffery Epstein.
But QAnon’s history of doing these sorts of things stretches back further. Travis View, an independent conspiracy theory researcher who co-hosts the podcast QAnon Anyonymous, explained that while what Wiener is going through is extreme, “targeted harassment has been a core feature of QAnon almost since its inception.” View recalled 2018’s “Operation Mayflower,” in which Q followers regularly organized on Facebook to run coordinated harassment campaigns against perceived adversaries.
“A consequence of the fact that there are more QAnon followers than two years ago is the intensity of the targeted harassment is even greater now then back then,” View added.
Sen. Wiener thinks it’s a serious problem that the technology companies have given conspiracy theorists and anyone willing to abuse their platforms a weapon, particularly when it is targeted to influence democracy.
“Whether its QAnon or Russian troll farms, these are factories of false info designed to undermine democracy and public discourse. And also to send a message to elected officials that if you pursue unpopular progressive change to help marginalized groups like queer kids, ‘We’re going to target you,'” he said.
In early April, the Rikers Island jail complex in New York City suffered its first coronavirus death: Michael Tyson. Mr. Tyson, 53, had been arrested in late February not because he had committed a crime, but for a technical violation of his parole. As a retired federal probation officer, I can tell you that incarcerating someone for a technical rule violation should be a last resort. But during a pandemic, it should be ceased completely. Our federal, state, and local probation and parole systems should act immediately to protect public health and safety and choose alternatives to unnecessary incarceration.
For 22 years of service as a probation officer, I saw first-hand how difficult it is for individuals to follow all the technical rules of supervision. These conditions range from adhering to a curfew to abstaining from cigarettes and alcohol, meeting with parole or probation officers regularly, keeping treatment appointments, and maintaining employment. They regulate daily behaviors that most of us take for granted, which in many cases leads to failure. People with drug addictions are required to test negative, even though experts agree that it is normal to relapse multiple times before successfully entering recovery.
Mr. Tyson is not the only person who may have received a death sentence for a technical violation. In Arizona, where the ACLU has filed COVID-related lawsuits against both a federal and a local jail, many of the detainees are there for these types of technical violations. One person at the CoreCivic federal facility in Florence, Arizona was sent back to prison for smoking a cigarette in the hallway of their halfway house.
Probation and parole officers are taking a heavy-handed response to minor infractions in Arizona and across the country. One recent study found that 45 percent of all state prison admissions were a result of probation and parole violations, and 25 percent were due to technical violations — the same kind Mr. Tyson allegedly committed.
In normal times, these are troubling statistics. In the middle of a pandemic, they are deadly. Social distancing and other important safety practices like handwashing and wearing masks are not happening in correctional facilities. Jails and prisons account for most of the country’s worst hotspots for COVID-19.
Unnecessary incarceration is dangerous not only to incarcerated people and corrections officers but to all of us. People in jail are usually there less than a month, plenty of time to contract the virus and bring it home with them. The phenomenon has been documented: In Illinois, one in six of all coronavirus cases were linked to people who were jailed and released from the Cook County jail in Chicago.
This is a fixable problem. Parole and probation officers have vast discretion in responding to technical violations. Now more than ever, officers should not register formal violations that result in incarceration for technical violations. We can also stop issuing violations for minor infractions and work with our agencies to design a series of graduated responses that do not jump straight to incarceration.
The current approach to community supervision is putting all of us at risk. To stop more avoidable deaths like Mr. Tyson’s, probation and parole officers and our agencies should take immediate action and suspend the use of incarceration for technical violations. It is our responsibility and duty to guard against the unique dangers of this pandemic and to protect the community.
Congressional Republicans and White House officials have argued against extending the weekly $600 unemployment boost, which expired at the end of last month, by claiming that it paid people more than they were making at their jobs. A study released Wednesday suggests that for most Americans, that isn’t true.
In June, Larry Kudlow, director of the National Economic Council, called the $600 checks a “disincentive” to work—a word later repeated by several GOP senators and by the president himself. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell called the checks “a bonus not to go back to work.” Central to Republican claims is a study from University of Chicago economists, published in May, which found that 68 percent of unemployment recipients would earn more with the $600 weekly benefit than they did at their jobs. Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) cited the Chicago study in a June press release, in media interviews, and on the Senate floor this week, as did Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin in a Sunday interview.
But an analysis published Wednesday by the left-leaning Groundwork Collaborative and the National Employment Law Project (NELP) finds that the majority of recipients are likely making less than before because they’re now paying for benefits that were previously offered by their employers, including health care, leave, and retirement benefits. The Chicago study did not factor these benefits into its analysis, instead looking exclusively at earnings.
“Our inclusion of non-wage compensation is driven by our concern that measures of wage compensation do not paint a complete picture of all that workers lose when they are laid off,” write the study’s authors, Michele Evermore of NELP and Marokey Sawo of the Groundwork Collaborative.
The pair used Bureau of Labor Statistics data that tracks the previous industries of unemployment recipients, as well as BLS data that estimates the total cost of workers to employers in both salary and benefits across industries. With these data sets, they were able to calculate the average hours of work per week in different industries, what sort of total compensation (salary and benefits) workers in these industries would have made on the job, and how that amount compares to the average benefit unemployment claimants are now receiving.
After crunching these numbers, they found that about 60 percent of unemployment claimants had worked in industries where the average total compensation was higher than what they’re collecting through unemployment. “In short, the majority of unemployed Americans could be doing worse, not better, financially in unemployment,” write the authors.
“We know for a lot of workers, your wages aren’t the only way you get compensated,” says Sawo. “If you look at overall economic wellbeing, [unemployment] benefits are not this great windfall that we’ve been saying to justify the disincentives argument.”“In short, the majority of unemployed Americans could be doing worse, not better, financially in unemployment,” write the authors.
Theirs is just the latest study to poke holes in the notion that the $600 unemployment boost is a work disincentive. Research by Yale University economists found that the extra payments did not deter people from returning to work. Another analysis by economists at the University of Pennsylvania, the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, and work search company Glassdoor found that employers did not have greater trouble finding workers to fill their vacancies after the passage of the extra $600—in fact, applications per vacancy increased.
Congress continues to negotiate a coronavirus relief bill this week, with unemployment benefits as one of the biggest sticking points. Last week, Republicans proposed lowering the $600 benefit to $200 per week temporarily, and then even further after September. After additional debate with Democrats, they are now reportedly considering a package that would make the benefit $400 per week. Democrats don’t want to budge on the $600, and most senators are likely to leave Washington on Thursday, leaving the deal-making to party leaders and the White House. The last $600 payments went out to unemployment recipients last week. Whatever numbers Congress eventually settles on will take weeks to work their way into aging and overwhelmed state unemployment systems and eventually household bank accounts.
NELP’s Evermore says this delay in benefits, coupled with the fact that, per their findings, many people were already making less on unemployment, will require families to make difficult spending choices that can cause long-term damage.
“This is exactly what we see happen in recessions, particularly when we cut off aid too quickly,” says Evermore. “People make decisions now that end up hurting them for the rest of their lives, because they’re given a series of bad things to pick from: Do I not pay rent and maybe get kicked out? Or do I take my medicine?”
Here’s the coronavirus death toll through August 5. Note that the US number increased quite a bit from yesterday. This is because Johns Hopkins incorporated the increased count from New Jersey and I followed along. However, that affects only the cumulative total, not the trendline of the past few weeks. The raw data from Johns Hopkins is here.
As the world grapples with the devastation of the coronavirus, one thing is clear: The United States simply wasn’t prepared. Despite repeated warnings from infectious disease experts over the years, we lacked essential beds, equipment, and medication; public health advice was confusing, and our leadership offered no clear direction while sidelining credible health professionals and institutions. Infectious disease experts agree that it’s only a matter of time before the next pandemic hits, and that could be even more deadly. So how do we fix what COVID has shown was broken? In this Mother Jones series, we’re asking experts from a wide range of disciplines one question: What are the most important steps we can take to make sure we’re better prepared next time around?
Asha George is a public health security expert who spent four years a congressional staff member with the House Committee on Homeland Security before working as a government contractor for the Department of Homeland Security. As the current executive director of the Bipartisan Commission on Biodefense, she helped prepare a blueprint for how the nation should plan for and respond to an infectious disease outbreak, whether from a naturally occurring pathogen or a biological weapons attacks. She shared some of those recommendations with Mother Jones.
On the need for a stratified hospital system: You know how we have our national trauma hospital system? Every hospital has an emergency room—if you get into an accident, they’re going to take you there. But if you need higher-level treatment, they’re going to fly you to a hospital with a high-level trauma rating. They get reimbursement from Medicare and Medicaid, and then the rest of the health insurance providers follow along with that, too. So we have a system in place for that.
We need to do the same thing for biodefense. Every hospital should be able to take in patients with whatever disease we’re talking about, but if they need more advanced care, there should be other hospitals that can provide that advanced care, and they should get reimbursement for that care from Medicare, Medicaid, and all the other health insurance providers.Hospitals wound up spending way more than they ever would have if they’d have been prepared.
When COVID-19 arrived in the United States, all the hospitals wound up self-selecting and arranging themselves into a stratified biodefense hospital system. This is the backwards way to do it. First we have a disease, and then all the hospitals have to respond, and they all kind of sort themselves out. And then somewhere months later, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services decides, okay, so now we’ve decided we’re reimbursing.
I would like CMS to say to hospitals, in order for you to be accredited, you have to maintain a certain level of preparedness for pandemics, for disease events, for emergencies, and so forth. You have to have a certain number of respirators and ventilators. You have to have a certain number of gowns and loves. I think that these emergency preparedness requirements need to be included in their standards. It is an expense, but look at what happened. They wound up spending way more than they ever would have if they’d have been prepared.
On private sector involvement in a biodefense strategy: There’s this whole debate about overdependence on foreign countries for stuff we need, but we have to get used to the notion that we live in a global economy. We do need to increase our capacity in terms of manufacturing here in the United States, so that we’re not entirely dependent on foreign countries for things we need.
In this case with the ventilators, that meant getting the auto manufacturers to produce ventilators instead of cars. That obviously they could do that, and they did do that, but don’t you think it would have been better if they had been prepared in advance to do that? They should be part of that planning.
On government preparedness: The federal government needs to get back on the stick when it comes to the national defense strategy. I think the government needs to stop being in denial about the recurrence of infectious disease outbreaks and pandemics. We need a robust, supported entity inside the White House—not just one person, but a group of people whose job it is to make sure that we are preparing and we’re doing everything we can and managing the entire federal government so that when the next pandemic occurs, when the next biological attack occurs, the federal government can swing into action.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
On the 75th anniversary of the Hiroshima bombing, when the United States became the only country ever to use nuclear weapons in warfare, we look at how the U.S. government sought to manipulate the narrative about what it had done — especially by controlling how it was portrayed by Hollywood. Journalist Greg Mitchell’s new book, “The Beginning or the End: How Hollywood — and America — Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb,” documents how the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki triggered a race between Hollywood movie studios to tell a sanitized version of the story in a major motion picture. “There’s all sorts of evidence that has emerged that the use of the bomb was not necessary, it could have been delayed or not used at all,” says Mitchell. “But what was important was to set this narrative of justification, and it was set right at the beginning by Truman and his allies, with a very willing media.”
On the 75th anniversary of when the United States dropped the world’s first atomic bomb on the Japanese city of Hiroshima, killing some 140,000 people, we speak with Hideko Tamura Snider, who was 10 years old when she survived the attack. “The shaking was so huge,” she recalls. “I remember the sensation, the color and the smell like yesterday.” Tamura Snider describes her harrowing journey through a shattered city, suffering radiation sickness following the attack, and her message to President Trump.
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