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#561

Snarky yes…clever though

What in the world is George Conway III really doing? ultimately CYA, and his family’s.

George T. Conway III is a lawyer in New York and an adviser to the Lincoln Project, an anti-Trump super PAC.

I believe the president, and in the president.

I believe the Senate is right to acquit the president. I believe a fair trial is one with no witnesses, and that the trial was therefore fair. I believe the House was unfair because it found evidence against him. I believe that if the president does something that he believes will get himself reelected, that’s in the public interest and can’t be the kind of thing that results in impeachment.

I believe former national security adviser John Bolton has no relevant testimony because he didn’t leave the White House on good terms.

I believe the president’s call was perfect. I believe he is deeply concerned about corruption in Ukraine. I believe the president can find Ukraine on a map.

I believe Ukraine interfered with the 2016 election, and that the intelligence community’s suggestion otherwise is a Deep State lie. I believe the Democratic National Committee server is in Ukraine, where CrowdStrike hid it.

I believe President Barack Obama placed a “tapp” on the president’s phones in 2016, and that the Russia investigation was a plot to keep him from winning, even though the plotters didn’t think he could win.

I believe former special counsel Robert S. Mueller III was conflicted because he quit one of the president’s golf clubs, and that he and his Angry Democrats conducted a Witch Hunt to destroy the president. But I believe Mueller’s report totally exonerated the president, because it found no collusion and no obstruction.

I believe it would be okay for the president to say he grabs women by their p-----s, because he is a star, and stars are allowed to do that. But I believe he didn’t say that, even though he apologized for it, because I believe the “Access Hollywood” tape was doctored, because he said it was.

I believe E. Jean Carroll lied when she accused the president of rape, because he said she’s not his type. I believe the dozens of other women who accused him of sexual misconduct are also lying, because he would never think of grabbing them by their p-----s or anything else.

I believe the president didn’t know Michael Cohen was paying off porn star Stormy Daniels, and that Cohen did it on his own, because the president had no reason to pay her off. I believe the president was reimbursing Cohen for his legal expertise.

I believe the president is a good Christian, because TV pastors say so, and that it’s okay he doesn’t ask for God’s forgiveness, because he doesn’t need to, since he’s the Chosen One. I believe the president knows the Bible, and that two Corinthians are better than one.

I believe the president wants to release his taxes but has not because he’s under audit, which is why he has fought all the way to the Supreme Court not to disclose them. I believe he will disclose them when the audit is over, and that they will show him to be as rich and honest as he says he is.

I believe the president is a very stable genius, and that he repeatedly tells us so because it’s true.

I believe the president can spell. I believe any spelling mistakes he makes are because he’s a very busy man who doesn’t watch much TV, or because he’s intentionally triggering the libs.

I believe Hurricane Dorian was headed straight for Alabama. I believe the president’s map wasn’t altered with a Sharpie, and that if it was, he didn’t do it, since he didn’t need to because he was right.

I believe the president didn’t call Apple’s CEO “Tim Apple,” and that he said “Tim Cook of Apple” really, really fast, but that if he did say “Tim Apple,” it was to save words, which he always tries to do.

I believe windmills are bad and cause cancer. I believe there was a mass shooting in Toledo and that there were airports during the Revolution, because the president said so.

I believe the president is defeating socialism, despite the subsidies he’s paying to save farmers from his protectionism and the $3.2 trillion he’s added to the national debt during his term.

I believe the president has made tremendous progress building the wall, that Mexico paid for it in the trade deal, that the wall will soon run from San Diego to the Gulf of Mexico, that it will stop those caravans cold, and that it won’t fall down.

I believe the president has a 95 percent approval rating among Republicans, and that there’s no need to cite polls for that.

I believe the president had the largest inaugural crowd ever, regardless of what any photos from liberal bureaucrats might show.

I believe there is no longer a nuclear threat from North Korea.

I believe China pays all tariffs levied on imported Chinese goods.

I believe the president is truthful. I believe the Fake News media lied each of the 16,241 times they have said he has made a false or misleading claim.

I believe the president is selfless, and always puts the nation’s interests first. I believe he isn’t a narcissist, but he’d be entitled to be one if he were one. I believe the president would never exercise his presidential powers to advance his personal interests, but if he did, that would be okay, because whatever is in his personal interests is necessarily in the nation’s interests as well.

I believe Article II of the Constitution gives the president the right to do whatever he wants.


(David Bythewood) #562

A good article that explains “sadopopulatism”, or how the Trump justifies policies that hurt their own people by “fighting their enemies”.


#563

Powerful words from Ambassador Marie Yovanovich, who just resigned from Foreign Services, after being ousted as Ambassador of Ukraine. She took her job seriously and her patriotism to heart.

We did this because it is the American way to speak up about wrongdoing. I have seen dictatorships around the world, where blind obedience is the norm and truth-tellers are threatened with punishment or death. We must not allow the United States to become a country where standing up to our government is a dangerous act. It has been shocking to experience the storm of criticism, lies and malicious conspiracies that have preceded and followed my public testimony, but I have no regrets. I did — we did — what our conscience called us to do. We did what the gift of U.S. citizenship requires us to do.

Unfortunately, the last year has shown that we need to fight for our democracy. “Freedom is not free” is a pithy phrase that usually refers to the sacrifices of our military against external threats. It turns out that same slogan can be applied to challenges which are closer to home. We need to stand up for our values, defend our institutions, participate in civil society and support a free press. Every citizen doesn’t need to do everything, but each one of us can do one thing. And every day, I see American citizens around me doing just that: reanimating the Constitution and the values it represents. We do this even when the odds seem against us, even when wrongdoers seem to be rewarded, because it is the right thing to do.

I had always thought that our institutions would forever protect us against individual transgressors. But it turns out that our institutions need us as much as we need them; they need the American people to protect them or they will be hollowed out over time, unable to serve and protect our country.

The State Department is filled with individuals of integrity and professionalism. They advance U.S. interests every day — whether they are repatriating Americans vulnerable to a pandemic, reporting on civil unrest, negotiating military basing rights or helping a U.S. company navigate a foreign country. As new powers rise, alliances fray, and transnational threats require international solutions, our diplomats are more than ready to address these challenges.

But our public servants need responsible and ethical political leadership. This administration, through acts of omission and commission, has undermined our democratic institutions, making the public question the truth and leaving public servants without the support and example of ethical behavior that they need to do their jobs and advance U.S. interests.

These are turbulent times, perhaps the most challenging that I have witnessed. But I still intend to find ways to engage on foreign policy issues and to encourage those who want to take part in the important work of the Foreign Service. Like my parents before me, I remain optimistic about our future. The events of the past year, while deeply disturbing, show that even though our institutions and our fellow citizens are being challenged in ways that few of us ever expected, we will endure, we will persist and we will prevail.


#564

An Unsettling New Theory: There Is No Swing Voter

“If you think of independents as a fixed pool of voters that change preferences,” she says, “well, that has implications for how you campaign after them. But if you are talking about the preference of independents changing because the pool of independents changes, well that is a different fucking banana.”

This is fas-cin-at-ing.

Ok the new political theory is that the group of voters traditionally defined as independent, are not the same set of voters changing their minds each election. Instead they are just a pool of different voters each time, like contestants left out of a game of musical chairs. Dr. Bitecofer goes on to explain how it’s more about activating certain groups to vote vs. persuading them.

What do you all think of this new theory?


(David Bythewood) #565

I think there will be some overlap, but it’s not surprising that you get people who vote sporadically. Those less involved are likely to drift in and out of the process depending on what catches their attention or drives them, and let’s face it: there’s quite a large pool of the population that doesn’t vote regularly.


#566

It’s an interesting point of view. Is it really possible to see which different people turned out to vote in each election? And it dovetails into the get out the vote rhetoric in each election. I do agree that more people vote against a candidate than for a candidate.

I need to think about this some more. I’m mentally debating with myself. :blush:


#567

Thought provoking for sure…

My takeaway is that elections are dependent on surges in turnout alone…Voters - perhaps no longer termed Swing Voters are pretty much motivated by what’s at stake…2018 being a big turnout for both Dem’s and R’s (FL, GA)
and the Dem’s like the Tea Party-ers were motivated big time to get rid of the R dominated Congress.

2018 also had more college-educated voters who wanted that Congressional change more than the non-college educated who wanted the same Administrative set up.

One would think that 2020 will be a huge turnout because much is at stake for a larger slice of the population - Women, College-educated and more minorities (but not sure what that looks like in the Electorial College vote)

The real “swing” doesn’t come from voters who choose between two parties, she argues, but from people who choose to vote, or not (or, if they do vote, vote for a third party). The actual percentage of swing voters in any given national election according to her own analysis is closer to 6 or 7 percent than the 15 or 20 most analysts think are out there, and that larger group, Bitecofer says, are “closet partisans” who don’t identify with a party but still vote with one.


#568

:boom: That’s the kicker right there, maybe these people don’t realize, they only vote when properly motivated.


(David Bythewood) #569

That’s kind of what I was talking about. Some folks don’t vote unless something, or somebody, grabs them. It’s hard to predict at times what or who that will be. Americans also don’t always answer polls on their affiliations truthfully, if at all, which can make gauging real numbers difficult.


(David Bythewood) #570

I like this attitude.

To Sway Swing Voters, Try Empathy

A Brooklyn organization trains canvassers to engage with prospective voters about their hopes and disappointments, not just give them a candidate’s talking points.


#571

Message: Suck it up Dems…agree to disagree (on which candidate is best) but back the leading contender.

NYTimes:
The Question All Democrats Need to Ask Themselves

Moderates worry that Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren aren’t just wrong on big issues, but too left wing to get elected. Progressives worry that Pete Buttigieg, Joe Biden, Amy Klobuchar and Michael Bloomberg are uninspiring centrists who resemble recent presidential losers and wouldn’t solve America’s problems even if they won.

My message to panicking Democrats is: Take a deep breath, and don’t make your job harder. Neither side of the party can ensure that its preferred candidate will win the nomination. But both can help avoid the outcome they fear most — Trump’s re-election.

The current moment, when everybody is wearing a veil of ignorance about the nomination, is a good time for Democrats to ask themselves a question: If the primaries don’t turn out as you hope, will you still do everything in your power to deny Trump a second term?


(David Bythewood) #572

A long but worthwhile read.

We’re in the Golden Age of White Collar Crime

1 A Slow-Motion Looting

OVER THE LAST TWO YEARS, nearly every institution of American life has taken on the unmistakable stench of moral rot. Corporate behemoths like Boeing and Wells Fargo have traded blue-chip credibility for white-collar callousness. Elite universities are selling admission spots to the highest Hollywood bidder. Silicon Valley unicorns have revealed themselves as long cons (Theranos), venture-capital cremation devices (Uber, WeWork) or straightforward comic book supervillains (Facebook). Every week unearths a cabinet-level political scandal that would have defined any other presidency. From the blackouts in California to the bloated bonuses on Wall Street to the entire biography of Jeffrey Epstein, it is impossible to look around the country and not get the feeling that elites are slowly looting it.

And why wouldn’t they? The criminal justice system has given up all pretense that the crimes of the wealthy are worth taking seriously. In January 2019, white-collar prosecutions fell to their lowest level since researchers started tracking them in 1998. Even within the dwindling number of prosecutions, most are cases against low-level con artists and small-fry financial schemes. Since 2015, criminal penalties levied by the Justice Department have fallen from $3.6 billion to roughly $110 million. Illicit profits seized by the Securities and Exchange Commission have reportedly dropped by more than half. In 2018, a year when nearly 19,000 people were sentenced in federal court for drug crimes alone, prosecutors convicted just 37 corporate criminals who worked at firms with more than 50 employees.

With few exceptions, the only rich people America prosecutes anymore are those who victimize their fellow elites. Pharma frat boy Martin Shkreli, to pick just one example, wasn’t prosecuted for hiking the price of a drug used to treat HIV from $13.50 to $750 per pill. He went to prison for scamming investors in a hedge fund scheme years before. Meanwhile, in 2016, the CEO whose company experienced the deadliest mining disaster since 1970 served less than one year in prison and paid a fine of 1.4 percent of his salary and stock bonuses the previous year. Why? Because overseeing a company that ignores warnings and causes the deaths of workers, even 29 of them, is a misdemeanor .

Construction magnate Bruce Karatz provides an infuriating case study of how the criminal justice system treats wealthy defendants. In 2010, Karatz was convicted of failing to disclose in a financial statement that he had secretly “backdated” his stock options (think Biff with the Sports Almanac in “Back to the Future II”) to boost his pay by more than $6 million. Prior to his sentencing hearing, his lawyer submitted letters of support from former mayor of Los Angeles Richard Riordan and billionaire philanthropist Eli Broad. Prosecutors recommended six-and-a-half-years in prison; the judge gave Karatz five years’ probation and eight months of house arrest in his Bel Air mansion. After two years, the judge terminated the remainder of the sentence. Karatz later received a civic award from The Malibu Times for volunteer work he did to make a good impression for his sentencing hearing.

Country-club nepotism and Gilded Age avarice are nothing new in America, of course. But the rich are enjoying a golden age of impunity unprecedented in modern history. “American elites have become more brazen than they were even five years ago,” said Matthew Robinson, a professor at Appalachian State University and the author of several books on “elite deviance”— all the legal and illegal social harms caused by the wealthy.

Elite deviance has become the dark matter of American life, the invisible force around which the country’s most powerful legal and political systems have set their orbit. Four members of the Sackler family, the owners of Oxycontin maker Purdue Pharma, have retained the services of former SEC head Mary Jo White as their personal lawyer. Epstein’s dinner party guest lists included Harvard professors, billionaire philanthropists and members of political dynasties in at least two countries. In 2017, the pharmaceutical company Novartis spent about 14 percent of its annual lobbying budget on payments to a shell company controlled by ex-Trump lawyer Michael Cohen.

And this clubbiness has human costs. Tax evasion, to pick just one crime concentrated among the wealthy, already siphons up to 10,000 times more money out of the U.S. economy every year than bank robberies. In 2017, researchers estimated that fraud by America’s largest corporations cost Americans up to $360 billion annually between 1996 and 2004. That’s roughly two decades’ worth of street crime every single year. As the links between corporations and regulators become increasingly incestuous, the future will bring more crude-soaked coastlines, price-gouging corporate behemoths and Madoff-style Ponzi schemes. More hurdles to suing companies for poisoning their customers or letting bosses harass their employees. And more uniquely American catastrophes like the opioid crisis and the price of insulin.

Perhaps the greatest myth about white-collar crime is that Americans struggle to understand it—as if chemical companies toxifying rivers or insurance executives gouging their customers fail to stimulate our moral intuitions. In fact, surveys consistently show that the vast majority of the population considers white-collar crime more harmful than street crime and powerful offenders more odious than common criminals.

Those intuitions are correct: An entrenched, unfettered class of superpredators is wreaking havoc on American society. And in the process, they’ve broken the only systems capable of stopping them.

2 An Increasingly Desperate Pantomime Of Legal Enforcement

EVERY YEAR, AT BRANDED COCKTAIL receptions and bloated buffet breakfasts, government agents spend two days hobnobbing with the tax-haven attorneys they spend the rest of the year investigating.

The Offshore Alert conference takes place in Miami each spring, in London each fall and in “key offshore jurisdictions” all year round. Officially, participants come to discuss “wealth creation, preservation and recovery.” Less officially, the tax lawyers come to learn what the feds will crack down on next year. The government investigators come to fish for future jobs. Imagine a yearly picnic where sheriffs give drug dealers tips on hiding baggies from pat-downs and leave with a new set of endorsements on LinkedIn.

In person, the conference is even more surreal than it sounds. From across a cologne-scented hotel lobby, I watched tanned attorneys fresh off flights from the Caribbean mingle with ashen IRS agents who bring business cards from Kinko’s because the agency won’t pay to get them printed anymore. I listened to officials from the FBI and SEC lay out enforcement priorities as cryptocurrency investors and Russian bankers took notes. At lunch, I talked “Game of Thrones” with a Senate advisor, a government auditor and a Bahamanian lawyer who later offered to set me up a shell corporation for $5,000.

The finance types were frosty during the day—an investor who appeared to be wearing monogrammed slacks wouldn’t tell me his first name—but they loosened up at the happy hours. An offshore tax advisor bragged that he could take his clients’ tax rates from 49 percent to 15 percent and complained that they were constantly pushing him to go lower. Another told me that most of his clients aren’t trying to hide money from the government but from their second or third wives. “The first one raised their kids so they feel like she’s entitled to something,” he explained. “It’s the trophy wives they want to lock out.”

Jack Albertson is a government investigator—that’s not his real name and he won’t let me get more specific about his job description—who has been coming to Offshore Alert for years. When I ask him how this cops-and-robbers conflagration even exists, he tells me I’m thinking about it the wrong way. He, like all the other investigators here, knows that many of the lawyers who attend are hiding their clients’ money sketchily or outright illegally. He even knows how they’re doing it. The tactics for hiding money from tax authorities are not particularly sophisticated and have barely changed in the last 50 years. Set up a shell company and buy an appreciating asset—Iowa farmland, a London apartment, a New York pizzeria, something common enough that it won’t attract attention.

Contrary to the “Catch Me If You Can” myth, Albertson said, solving financial crimes is not a cat-and-mouse game between cunning investigators and slippery con artists. Most of the time it is simply the blunt application of resources to a series of unimaginably tedious tasks. “Investigators can already crack almost any offshore account if they have enough time and money,” he said. “The problem is that they only get that for a few cases a year.”

Over the last four decades, the agencies responsible for investigating elite and white-collar crime—roughly speaking, the IRS, SEC, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, the Environmental Protection Agency and FBI—have seen their enforcement divisions starved into irrelevance. More than a third of the FBI investigators who patrol Wall Street were reassigned between 2001 and 2008. Enforcement funding at the IRS has fallen by 23 percent over the last decade. And, worst of all, every time a scandal exposes the government’s inadequacy, Congress steps in to squeeze the regulators even harder.

The most instructive case of this deliberate stunting is the Consumer Product Safety Commission. Founded in 1972, the CPSC’s job is to make sure the things you buy won’t pierce, poison or burn you. In the 1980s, Ronald Reagan slashed its budget as part of his crusade against bureaucratic waste. In the 1990s, Clinton instructed the agency to produce more data as part of his push for government accountability. No matter which party was in power, every administration gave the CPSC more to do and less money to do it with. By 2007, it had shrunk from its initial 786 employees to just 420.

That same year, Mattel announced a recall of more than 1 million⁠ of its children’s toys that had been contaminated with lead paint. Despite the company’s sophisticated international operations and billions in revenues, it had never bothered to inspect the Chinese sub-contractors. By then, the CSPC had fewer than 100⁠ inspectors to monitor all imports to the United States. The Los Angeles-area ports where a chunk of the tainted toys arrived was overseen by a single part-time inspector.

Congress responded to the scandal by compounding the mistakes that had caused it. Lawmakers agreed to double the CPSC’s budget and increase its staff, but also obligated the agency to carry out dozens of new activities, including the creation of a public database to track safety hazards for every single product sold in the U.S.

The new mandate swallowed up all the agency’s new funding and more. Soon, the CPSC was dedicating nearly all of its time to lead abatement in children’s toys, neglecting millions of products that posed far greater risks to children, like flammable blankets or dangerous table saws. The product database filled up with unconfirmed complaints and spammy comments. Mattel, meanwhile, faced no consequences for manufacturing the lead-tainted toys beyond a $2.3 million fine—roughly 0.006 percent⁠ of its net income. According to Rena Steinzor, the author of “Why Not Jail? Industrial Disasters, Corporate Malfeasance, and Government Inaction,” the same cycle has repeated itself across every form of elite deviance, from tax compliance to financial regulation to environmental protection. In 2010, following a series of tax-haven scandals, the IRS set up a “wealth squad” to investigate the ultra-rich —but only staffed it with enough agents to perform 36 audits in its first two years.

After the Enron-led avalanche of corporate bankruptcies in the early 2000s, Congress gave the SEC enough funding to hire 200 new auditing staff. At the same time, however, lawmakers obligated the agency to review the filings of every publicly traded U.S. financial firm every three years—a mandate far larger than the agency’s new staffing levels. Then, after the financial crisis, it happened again: The Dodd-Frank act tasked the SEC with monitoring even more companies and trillions of new assets while increasing its enforcement staff by less than 10 percent.

This cycle has left America’s regulators with no choice but to engage in an increasingly desperate pantomime of white-collar law enforcement. On the outside, they report impressive performance statistics to avoid even more budget cuts. Behind the scenes, they’ve retreated to investigating only the defendants they know are guilty and the crimes they know where to find.

The primary beneficiaries of this shift are American elites. Rich people generate mountains of financial data. Millionaires can have over 100 bank accounts; billionaires’ tax returns run to 800 pages long. For people who earn most of their income from working (i.e. almost everyone), the IRS has an automatic system that compares individuals’ reports to the records submitted by their employers and banks. For the wealthy, who make much of their income from interest and investments, the agency has nothing to compare their reports against. The only way to tell if a rich person is cheating on their taxes is to sit down and go through them line by line.

“Let’s say you get a tip that some billionaire is hiding a bunch of money offshore and not paying taxes on it,” said Arthur VanDesande, who spent 25 years as a criminal investigator for the IRS. “And you manage to narrow the tax evasion down to 20 of his bank accounts. OK, now you have to prepare 20 subpoenas, get them signed by a judge and deliver them to the banks. But when you go to Bank of America, they say, ‘We don’t accept subpoenas at this location, you have to go to our authorized representative in Orlando.’ So then you go to Orlando and and you find out the money is linked to an offshore account. So then you have to write to the embassy…’”

Due to the IRS’ lean resources, VanDesande did most of this legwork himself. “You type your own shit, you make your own copies, you write every single affidavit. Sometimes you feel like, ‘I’m a senior-level person with a college degree. Why am I calling Wells Fargo and sitting on hold for 45 minutes?’”

Only some of this drudgery can be outsourced to lower-level staffers. White-collar cases involve understanding arcane laws, absorbing thousands of pages of documents, traversing international jurisdictions and coordinating a vast array of agencies from the Secret Service to the Post Office. They require investigators to be Jack Ryan, Magnum P.I. and Leslie Knope all at once. Even though auditing millionaires and billionaires is one of the most cost-effective government activities imaginable—an independent report estimated in 2014 that it yielded up to $4,545 in recovered revenue per hour of staff time—the IRS investigated the returns of just 3 percent of American millionaires in 2017.

In addition to reducing their caseload, America’s white-collar enforcement agencies have started prioritizing crimes they can prosecute in bulk. In 2017, the Department of Justice took on 889 prosecutions for identity theft (which, according to a 2010 survey, is estimated to cost individuals $371 out-of-pocket) and just 24 for antitrust violations. According to a ProPublica report, 43 percent of all tax filers audited by the IRS earn less than $56,000 per year. Roughly one in six of the SEC’s enforcement actions in fiscal 2019 were against financial firms for filing paperwork late—a six-fold increase since 2004.

Helen Richmond, a paralegal in a white-collar prosecutor’s office (that’s not her real name), said most of the defendants her office pursues are “either dumb or unlucky.” She’s worked on cases against money launderers who named stolen items on their wire transfers and fraudsters who sent emails with recipe-like details of their schemes. Criminals with even a scrap of sophistication, Richmond said, mostly avoid detection.

Another bargain-hunting strategy is to try cases in administrative proceedings rather than civil courts, an innovation that reduces hearings from months to hours. The downside, though, is that these cases largely play out in secret, resulting in fines rather than prison time and don’t compel defendants to testify, turn over evidence or admit guilt. In 2007, the SEC filed 60 percent of its settlements in civil courts. In 2015, that proportion was 17 percent. In 2014 and 2015, the agency didn’t file a settlement against a single U.S. Wall Street firm.

According to former OSHA assistant secretary David Michaels, these strategies are designed to achieve the all-consuming yet unstated goal of every regulation agency in America: Make yourself look more powerful than you are. The best way to do this is to focus on the cases that will yield the maximum deterrence for the lowest cost. At OSHA, Michaels said, “we would issue press releases announcing waves of random inspections so employers would look at their hazards. We never told them we only planned to do a few inspections.”

Similarly, the IRS has explicitly instructed agents to prioritize cases likely to generate headlines. (Ever wonder why so many B-list celebrities get busted for tax evasion?). Federal investigators go after media punching bags like Martin Shkreli, Martha Stewart and Fyre Festival scammer Billy McFarland to make the public think criminal prosecutions are routine. They’re not: In a case-by-case analysis of the 216 alleged large-scale corporate frauds discovered between 1996 and 2004, researchers found that the media uncovered twice as many as the SEC.

And so, after decades of operating in survival mode, white-collar enforcement agencies are better at reporting success than producing it. In a 2016 study, a Georgetown University School of Law professor named Urska Velikonja discovered that while the SEC reported a steady rise in prosecutions between 2002 and 2014, most of the increase was statistical padding. When a trader was charged with fraud and then lost her license to trade securities, for example, the SEC logged the sanctions as two separate cases. When the agency was in danger of posting sluggish performance stats for the year, investigators filed dozens of slam-dunk cases in September to catch up. As Velikonja put it, “they’re engaging in their own version of accounting fraud.” (The SEC declined to comment.)

For the agents charged with cracking offshore tax schemes and protecting consumers from lead-painted Elmo collectibles, this charade is profoundly demoralizing. “We killed a generation of agents,” VanDesande said. “If you investigate mom and pop grocery stores for 20 years, you lose the ability to do Bernie Madoffs.”

VanDesande has spent months building cases only to have the DOJ toss them with little explanation. Richmond, the paralegal, tells me federal and state prosecutors have been playing hot potato with one of her cases for months because they can’t justify an expensive prosecution for a fraud that adds up to the low six digits. During his first year on the job, Lewis Winters, an SEC examiner (and another government employee who couldn’t use his real name), had an investigation of a shady CEO rejected by the agency’s enforcement division. Even though he had found plenty of violations, the crimes just weren’t … grand enough for the agency to pursue.

“It felt personal,’” Winters said. “Why did I spend three months examining this guy if enforcement just goes, ‘meh’?”

3 Defining Deviance Downward

ENRON USED TO BE CONSIDERED the capstone to the Golden Age of white-collar prosecutions, a shining example of the system working like it’s supposed to. Weeks after the company filed America’s then-largest corporate bankruptcy, federal agents searched its headquarters and discovered a $63 billion game of three-card monte. Using an intricate network of off-the-books shell companies, Enron executives made loans look like income and debt look irrelevant. The year before the company collapsed, its leaders had falsified 96 percent of its net income and 105 percent of its cash flow.

Between 2002 and 2006, the FBI’s Enron Task Force filed charges against more than 30 architects of Enron’s fraud. Investigators discovered a “shred room” at the company’s financial auditor, Arthur Andersen, and convicted the company of obstruction of justice. Four Merrill Lynch bankers were found guilty of helping Enron falsify its financial returns by purchasing three Nigerian barges. Task force agents convinced the company’s chief financial officer to testify against his higher-ups by threatening to charge his wife with a felony. He flipped; they convicted her of a misdemeanor.

Eventually, after a five-year investigation, Enron founder Ken Lay and former CEO Jeffrey Skilling were convicted of securities fraud and a meal deal of lesser charges. Though Lay died at a rented mansion in Colorado shortly afterwards, Skilling got 24 years in prison. At the time, it was one of the longest white-collar sentences in U.S. history. Prosecutors called it a victory. Skilling’s lawyers called it just the beginning.

As soon as the nation turned its attention elsewhere, Skilling’s lawyers began quietly dismantling his sentence. They filed appeals objecting to the statutes used to convict him, the trial’s Houston location and the questionnaires filled out by potential jurors. In 2013, citing the “extraordinary resources” it had spent prosecuting and defending Skilling’s conviction, the Department of Justice agreed to cut ten years off Skilling’s sentence if he promised not to file any more appeals. He was released in February 2019 after serving less than half his original sentence.

The rest of the FBI’s victory has crumbled under the same blitzkrieg of high-priced lawyering. The Supreme Court overturned Arthur Andersen’s conviction in 2005. The convictions of three of the Merrill Lynch bankers were vacated after they convinced an appeals court that they were merely trying to “solidify business relationships” rather than acting for personal gain. In the end, just 18 people served prison sentences (by comparison, more than 500 served time for the savings and loan crisis of the 1980s and early 1990s). Fourteen of them served fewer than four years. Andrew Fastow, the mastermind of Enron’s network of shell companies, now makes his living lecturing business school students and fraud investigators about how he did it.

Nearly every high-profile corporate scandal has the same overlooked epilogue. The wealthy have always attempted to spend their way to lighter sentences, but in the last two decades, the American judicial system has become increasingly willing to let them.

“We’ve seen a concerted effort to define deviance downward,” said Paul Leighton, a professor at Eastern Michigan University and the co-author of “The Rich Get Richer and the Poor Get Prison.” “We’ve made felonies into misdemeanors, misdemeanors into torts and torts into regulatory offenses.”

Honest services fraud, for example, is the subsection of mail and wire fraud that prohibits companies from lying to customers to get their business and CEOs from lying to investors after they’ve already been hired. Think of a mechanic telling you that your perfectly functional transmission is busted, then telling you it will cost $2,000 to fix it. He hasn’t defrauded you exactly—he really will replace your transmission—but he used his position of authority to scam you into paying for something you didn’t need.

Since 1909, prosecutors have used the honest services fraud provision to go after companies that lie to boost their stock price and politicians who give golfing buddies lucrative procurement contracts. District Court Judge Jed Rakoff, a former white collar prosecutor, once referred to the statute as “our Colt 45, our Louisville Slugger, our Cuisinart.”

But over the last three decades, the Supreme Court has taken the law apart piece by piece. In 1987, the Rehnquist Court ruled that the statute should never have been used to protect the so-called “right to honest services.” In 2010, the court restricted its application to public-sector bribery and kickbacks. From now on, the lying mechanic is breaking the law only if someone else is paying him to scam you.

Based on that ruling, several white collar criminals—including, wait for it, Jeffrey Skilling—had their sentences or convictions vacated. This year, two former Chris Christie underlings will tell the Supreme Court that orchestrating the “Bridgegate” conspiracy, in which they deliberately orchestrated traffic jams to get revenge on a Democratic mayor, is no longer illegal under the new, narrowed definition. If the Supreme Court agrees, the law will get even weaker.

Other white collar statutes have suffered the same slow strangulation. In 2006, a district court judge reaffirmed the right of companies to pay the legal fees of their executives, effectively giving every C-suite defendant the same deep pockets as their corporate employer. Since 1996, the Supreme Court has consistently blocked plaintiffs from receiving punitive damages, arguing that large punishments deprive corporations of their due process rights. In 2016, the court ruled that federal bribery law only applies to politicians who traded official acts for personal benefit—the kind of immediate, explicit kickback that rarely happens outside of corporate HR training videos.

“Criminal law used to be more closely aligned to our moral intuitions,” said Will Thomas, a University of Michigan professor who studies corporate liability. “We still talk about it like it’s a guiding moral force, but it’s a much more administrative process now.”

Today, Thomas explained, judges are more willing to disregard the consequences of their rulings (like, say, an Enron-scale fraud going unpunished) in favor of resolving obscure procedural ambiguities. In 2017, for instance, a case against New York financier Benjamin Wey was dismissed after he successfully argued that the search warrant used to gather evidence against him was overly broad and vaguely worded.

The confounding thing about these challenges is that they often highlight real weaknesses in the criminal justice system. American law is a contradictory jungle of century-old statutes and arbitrary definitions. Lying to government investigators, for example, is prohibited by at least 215 separate laws, each with their own standard of proof. Mens rea , the concept of “guilty mind” central to establishing criminal liability, has more than 100 definitions across various statutes.

So of course wealthy defendants win cases by arguing that fraud statutes and insider trading rules are poorly written. They are. But so are the rest of the laws. (Numerous state anti-gang statutes, for example, define “gang” so imprecisely that they could apply to most sororities.) The only difference is that white-collar defendants have the ability to dispute every step of the process used to convict them—and a judicial system all too happy to oblige.

One of the most conspicuous aspects of white-collar cases is the doting, near-veterinary care with which judges try to prevent defendants from facing harsh punishment. In 2014, a Colorado judge ruled that two farm owners whose tainted cantaloupes caused a listeria outbreak and killed 33 people couldn’t be sent to prison because it would interfere with their ability to earn income for their families. As he announced a sentence of five years probation, the judge explained, “I must deliver both justice and mercy.”

According to a study by the Federal Judicial Center, four out of five judges in federal courts (where the vast majority of white-collar cases are decided) are white. A 2010 survey found that they have an average age of nearly 70. Their base salary is $210,000 per year.

It is, as one of those high-priced lawyers might say, improbable that these demographic and economic facts exert no influence whatsoever on judges’ rulings. In a 2012 review of sentencing data in Florida, researchers found that “high-status” white collar criminals, such as doctors scamming Medicaid, were 98.7 percent less likely to receive prison terms than welfare fraudsters. A 2015 study found that judges showed increasing mercy as fraud offenders moved up the income scale: Criminals who stole more than $400 million got sentences that were less than half of the minimum recommended by federal guidelines. Criminals who stole $5,000 or less served sentences well over the minimum.

“When you zoom out, you see all the ways that bias accumulates throughout the system,” said Justin Levinson, a University of Hawaii professor and the editor of “Implicit Racial Bias Across The Law.” Sentencing guidelines prescribe lighter punishments for first-time offenders and criminals who can afford to pay restitution. Evidence rules make it nearly impossible to seize records or computers from corporations. Jury selection weeds out the poor, the less educated and minorities.

And then there’s the matter of criminal liability. For many low-level crimes, prosecutors have to prove that a defendant should have known a crime was taking place. If a renter deals drugs out of her apartment, her landlord can be prosecuted. If you loan your friend your car and he commits a murder while driving it, you can be charged with murder, too. For executive-level crimes, however, the bar of criminal liability is set impossibly high: Prosecutors have to prove that defendants knew their actions were illegal and did them anyway. This myopic focus on intent means that white-collar trials often come down to the question of whether the defendant was the kind of person who would commit a criminal act.

John Lauro, an attorney who has represented healthcare and financial executives, said he always emphasizes the complexity of white-collar crimes to the jury— financial disclosures are so technical! How could my client possibly know that stock wasn’t going to pan out? He also plays up the upstanding-citizen angle. The first thing he does when he lands a new client, he said, is visit their homes and meet their families.

“I bring in things like their marriage, their kids and whether they coach little league,” he said. “The prosecution always wants to dehumanize them. They call my client ‘the defendant.’ I’ll call him by his first name until a judge tells me to stop.”

The only way to get around this, said Sarah Larkin, a securities fraud prosecutor in Manhattan (she couldn’t speak on the record, so that’s not her real name), is to make every crime seem as simple as possible. It’s lying, it’s cheating, it’s stealing. She structures every trial like a crash course, spending days explaining how the stock market works and what acronyms like SEC, CDO and GAAP stand for. Before she can convince jurors that the defendant lied on a financial statement, she has to do a week-long “Big Short” interlude to teach them what a financial statement even is—without the help of Margot Robbie in a bathtub.

“And after all that,” she said, “you still have to make the case for why this person who looks very upper-middle-class and has a family sitting in the back row should be branded a criminal. It’s a heavy lift.”

The near-impossibility of establishing white-collar defendants’ motives combines with the high standard of reasonable doubt to create a paradox. Most Americans have a visceral aversion to greedy executives in general . Introduce them to a single banker and a specific crime, however, and their moral outrage often melts away. As Sam Buell, a Duke University law professor, told me: “Put people on a jury and they’ll say, ‘Gee, it seems like this guy was doing his job, so I don’t think it was a crime.’”

Take the case of Brian Stoker, a Citigroup employee who was charged in 2011 with marketing risky investments (one trader called them “dogsh!t” in an internal communication) as safe bets. According to the SEC, the bank made $160 million while investors lost $700 million. In his closing argument, Stoker’s attorney showed the jury an illustration from a “Where’s Waldo” book. Their client was a nobody, he suggested, a scapegoat for the culture of high-stakes gambling that had taken over the entire financial sector. Why make him a patsy when everyone else was doing the same thing?

The jury declared Stoker not guilty. But in the same envelope as their decision, they included a handwritten note. “This verdict,” it read, “should not deter the S.E.C. from continuing to investigate the financial industry.” In other words: Keep trying to lock up greedy bankers. Just not this one.

And this is it, the Rosetta Stone for understanding why judges are so comfortable explaining away the misconduct of corporate executives; why Congress never strengthened the castrated white-collar statutes; why so few pharmaceutical executives have been imprisoned for the opioid crisis and only a single banker went to prison for the financial crash. American law is incapable of prosecuting crimes in which elites use their legitimate power for nefarious ends.

“The way businesses harm people is the same way they interact with them normally,” Albertson said. Banks collect debts and foreclose on homes every day. Banks give out home loans every day. When they entice customers into unaffordable mortgages or foreclose on borrowers tricked into signing loans they can’t afford, the courts can’t tell the difference.

This insight also explains why the legal system applies the opposite logic to organizations run by the rich and organizations run by the poor. Teenage gang members who argue that they committed crimes due to the culture of the Crips or the Latin Kings receive harsher sentences—stealing money for yourself is bad; stealing money for a criminal organization is worse. Corporate defendants who claim they committed crimes due to the internal culture of Goldman Sachs or HSBC, on the other hand, get lighter sentences—how could an individual possibly be held accountable for something everyone else was doing?

And so, as they lose the ability to prosecute high-level crimes and elite offenders, many of America’s criminal justice institutions have simply stopped trying. Of the 649 companies prosecuted by the Department of Justice since 2015, only eight were convicted in court. The rest either took settlements or negotiated themselves a deferred prosecution or non-prosecution agreement.

These arrangements, like so many other aspects of America’s white-collar enforcement apparatus, represent the cynical perversion of a benign idea. Deferred prosecution agreements were created in the 1930s to allow first-time juvenile offenders to avoid jail time if they followed probation rules and didn’t reoffend. Since the early 1990s, prosecutors began extending the principle to corporations: If you agree to investigate your own crimes, turn over evidence against your employees and change your internal policies, we won’t take you to court.

Since then, deferred prosecutions have become one of the primary engines of American impunity. They don’t require companies to explicitly admit guilt and don’t apply steeper punishments to repeat offenders. While courts often appoint independent monitors to make sure corporations comply with the terms of their probation, these reports aren’t released to the public. Since 1999, only three companies have ever been prosecuted for violating the terms of their agreements.

“Criminal law isn’t just about deterrence, it’s about moral education,” said John Coffee, the director of the Center on Corporate Governance at Columbia Law School. “You show the public that a crime occurred and how terrible its impact was. We’re missing that catharsis now.”

4 The Conundrum Of Overdue Consequences

FOR MULTINATIONAL GROCERY STORE CHAINS, self-checkout kiosks are a no-brainer. They save space, cut costs and speed up lines for shoppers. There is, however, one downside: Allowing customers to scan their own groceries dramatically increases the proportion of people who shoplift.

What self-checkout kiosks provide, researchers have found, is plausible deniability. If a security guard spots you slipping a pack of Tic-Tacs into your pocket, there’s no way to cast yourself as anything but a thief. If he catches you keying in a $10 bag of trail mix as a $2 bag of lentils, you can call it a mistake— oops, I must have typed in the wrong code! Perpetrators, especially middle-class white ones, know that if they get caught, everyone from the store manager to a small-claims court judge is likely to give them the benefit of the doubt. Self-checkouts turn shoppers into shoplifters by providing them with an opportunity to steal and a ready-made excuse to get away with it.

Nearly all criminological research indicates that crime rates depend more on environments and incentives than the intrinsic morality of offenders. It’s why shootings spike on hot days and drivers speed up on wider streets. People aren’t good or bad; they drift into good or bad behavior when one or the other is rewarded.

You can see where I’m going with this. Since the 1980s, Wall Street, Congress and the courts have systematically encouraged American elites to commit more and larger graft. “Corporate culture warps people,” said Mihailis Diamantis, a University of Iowa professor who specializes in corporate crime. “They’ve been placed in institutions that facilitate lawbreaking and predispose them to break the rules.” Since 2009, the percentage of employees at large companies who report that they’ve been pressured to commit ethical breaches has doubled. In a 2015 study, more than half the auditors for the country’s largest companies said they had been asked to falsify internal audit reports. In Ernst & Young’s 2016 Global Fraud Survey, 32 percent of American managers said they were comfortable behaving unethically to meet financial targets.

And just like those shoppers standing in front of that unmanned kiosk, the scriptures of corporate America discourage white-collar criminals from reckoning with the reality of their crimes. Larkin, the Manhattan prosecutor, said that when she used to prosecute murderers, they would strike a plea deal and then immediately open up—here’s why I stabbed him, here’s where I hid the knife. Once she switched to elite criminals, she was floored by their utter refusal to take responsibility. “They minimize and make excuses,” she said. “They believe in their own brilliance. They keep saying what they did wasn’t really wrong.”

Jack Blum, a former staff attorney for the U.S. Senate, calls this impunity “the most urgent issue in America.” In Russia and Ukraine, as government capacity deteriorated during the 2000s, oligarchs increased spending on bribes, lobbying and parallel systems of power—their own private security forces, their pet media institutions. The same thing is already happening here: According to a 2016 analysis, political lobbying and regulatory maneuvering have eclipsed research and development as the primary reason for rising corporate profits. In a country of declawed regulators and untouchable executives, dishonest companies will increasingly drive out honest ones.

So how do we stop this? The obvious temptation is to bring back the glory days of white-collar prosecutions, to lengthen the sentences for CEO dirtbags and finally arrest the bankers that got us into the financial crisis. It felt good to hear that Martin Shkreli cried at his sentencing hearing, damn it. America deserves the catharsis of overdue consequences.

But retribution has been the government’s approach for decades. Every corporate scandal since the savings and loan crisis has produced a wave of prosecutions and a sprint to strengthen white-collar punishments. The maximum penalty for the most common securities fraud charge is already 20 years in prison and a $5 million fine. Bernie Madoff is 120-odd months into a 150-year sentence. It might feel good, but there’s little indication that handing out life sentences for the bankers who caused the last crash will prevent the next one.

That’s because criminologists have consistently found that increasing the likelihood of punishment works better than increasing its severity. In a study of wastewater discharge from chemical plants, researchers noticed that managers who received large but inconsistent fines actually started emitting more toxic chemicals. The harsh penalty may have made them resentful for being singled out for something everyone else was doing—and the low probability of getting caught twice encouraged them to increase their lawbreaking to catch up with their competitors. Locking up one corporate criminal out of a million might make the other 999,999 feel even more entitled and invincible than they do now.

And yet elites, like everyone else, do change their behavior after experiencing immediate, reliable consequences. Three independent studies have found that when the wealthy get their taxes audited, they cheat less the following year. In 2008, Norway offered a “tax amnesty” to its richest residents. If they reported their overseas wealth and paid taxes on their hidden income, they would be immune from prosecution. For the next four years, the targets of the amnesty reported a 60 percent increase in their net worth and paid 30 percent more in taxes.

“If you follow a company over its life cycle, studies have found that most of them engage in some kind of lawbreaking and almost all of them reoffend,” said Sally Simpson, a University of Maryland professor and the author of “Understanding White-Collar Crime: An Opportunity Perspective.” “The way you get deterrence is by showing them they’re being watched.”

In a 2016 review of dozens of studies on corporate crime and deterrence, researchers found that nearly every individual strategy for punishing companies and executives had little to no deterrent effect on its own. The only thing that consistently worked was to combine them— warnings from government agencies, surveillance of the worst actors, harsher punishments for repeat offenders and, yes, at the top of the ladder, criminal prosecutions for corporations that refused to shape up.

This is hardly some exotic, untested concept. When it comes to every other form of crime, law enforcement agencies are perfectly comfortable cracking down on offenses at every level. This is the country that invented three-strikes laws and “broken windows” policing. When it comes to street gangs and drug distribution networks, the criminal justice system has no problem simplifying complex criminal liability questions into four simple words: You should have known .

“The law is just a way of saying that an immoral act is something we’re not going to tolerate anymore,” said Robinson. “It’s up to us to decide what’s a crime and what isn’t. We do it all the time.”

We’ve just never done it for the immorality of elites.


(David Bythewood) #573

The article itself has a number of pictures, graphs, videos, and interactive graphics.

Trump’s words, bullied kids, scarred schools

The president’s rhetoric has changed the way hundreds of children are harassed in American classrooms, The Post found

Two kindergartners in Utah told a Latino boy that President Trump would send him back to Mexico, and teenagers in Maine sneered “Ban Muslims” at a classmate wearing a hijab. In Tennessee, a group of middle-schoolers linked arms, imitating the president’s proposed border wall as they refused to let nonwhite students pass. In Ohio, another group of middle-schoolers surrounded a mixed-race sixth-grader and, as she confided to her mother, told the girl: “This is Trump country.”

Since Trump’s rise to the nation’s highest office, his inflammatory language — often condemned as racist and xenophobic — has seeped into schools across America. Many bullies now target other children differently than they used to, with kids as young as 6 mimicking the president’s insults and the cruel way he delivers them.

Trump’s words, those chanted by his followers at campaign rallies and even his last name have been wielded by students and school staff members to harass children more than 300 times since the start of 2016, a Washington Post review of 28,000 news stories found. At least three-quarters of the attacks were directed at kids who are Hispanic, black or Muslim, according to the analysis. Students have also been victimized because they support the president — more than 45 times during the same period.

Although many hateful episodes garnered coverage just after the election, The Post found that Trump-connected persecution of children has never stopped. Even without the huge total from November 2016, an average of nearly two incidents per school week have been publicly reported over the past four years. Still, because so much of the bullying never appears in the news, The Post’s figure represents a small fraction of the actual total. It also doesn’t include the thousands of slurs, swastikas and racial epithets that aren’t directly linked to Trump but that the president’s detractors argue his behavior has exacerbated.

“It’s gotten way worse since Trump got elected,” said Ashanty Bonilla, 17, a Mexican American high school junior in Idaho who faced so much ridicule from classmates last year that she transferred. “They hear it. They think it’s okay. The president says it. . . . Why can’t they?”

Asked about Trump’s effect on student behavior, White House press secretary Stephanie Grisham noted that first lady Melania Trump — whose “Be Best” campaign denounces online harassment — had encouraged kids worldwide to treat one another with respect.

“She knows that bullying is a universal problem for children that will be difficult to stop in its entirety,” Grisham wrote in an email, “but Mrs. Trump will continue her work on behalf of the next generation despite the media’s appetite to blame her for actions and situations outside of her control.”

Most schools don’t track the Trump bullying phenomenon, and researchers didn’t ask about it in a federal survey of 6,100 students in 2017, the most recent year with available data. One in five of those children, ages 12 to 18, reported being bullied at school, a rate unchanged since the previous count in 2015.

However, a 2016 online survey of over 10,000 kindergarten through 12th-grade educators by the Southern Poverty Law Center found that more than 2,500 “described specific incidents of bigotry and harassment that can be directly traced to election rhetoric,” although the overwhelming majority never made the news. In 476 cases, offenders used the phrase “build the wall.” In 672, they mentioned deportation.

For Cielo Castor, who is Mexican American, the experience at Kamiakin High in Kennewick, Wash., was searing. The day after the election, a friend told Cielo, then a sophomore, that he was glad Trump won because Mexicans were stealing American jobs. A year later, when the president was mentioned during her American literature course, she said she didn’t support him and a classmate who did refused to sit next to her.

“‘I don’t want to be around her,’ ” Cielo recalled him announcing as he opted for the floor instead.

Then, on “America night” at a football game in October 2018 during Cielo’s senior year, schoolmates in the student section unfurled a “Make America Great Again” flag. Led by the boy who wouldn’t sit beside Cielo, the teenagers began to chant: “Build — the — wall!”

Horrified, she confronted the instigator.

“You can’t be doing that,” Cielo told him.

He ignored her, she recalled, and the teenagers around him booed her. A cheerleading coach was the lone adult who tried to make them stop.

After a photo of the teenagers with the flag appeared on social media, news about what had happened infuriated many of the school’s Latinos, who made up about a quarter of the 1,700-member student body. Cielo, then 17, hoped school officials would address the tension. When they didn’t, she attended that Wednesday’s school board meeting.

“I don’t feel cared for,” she told the members, crying.

A day later, the superintendent consoled her and the principal asked how he could help, recalled Cielo, now a college freshman. Afterward, school staff members addressed every class, but Hispanic students were still so angry that they organized a walkout.

Some students heckled the protesters, waving MAGA caps at them. At the end of the day, Cielo left the school with a white friend who’d attended the protest; they passed an underclassman she didn’t know.

“Look,” the boy said, “it’s one of those f—ing Mexicans.”

She heard that school administrators — who declined to be interviewed for this article — suspended the teenager who had led the chant, but she doubts he has changed.

Reached on Instagram, the teenager refused to talk about what happened, writing in a message that he didn’t want to discuss the incident “because it is in the past and everyone has moved on from it.” At the end, he added a sign-off: “Trump 2020.”

Just as the president has repeatedly targeted Latinos, so, too, have school bullies. Of the incidents The Post tallied, half targeted Hispanics.

In one of the most extreme cases of abuse, a 13-year-old in New Jersey told a Mexican American schoolmate, who was 12, that “all Mexicans should go back behind the wall.” A day later, on June 19, 2019, the 13-year-old assaulted the boy and his mother, Beronica Ruiz, punching him and beating her unconscious, said the family’s attorney, Daniel Santiago. He wonders to what extent Trump’s repeated vilification of certain minorities played a role.

image

“When the president goes on TV and is saying things like Mexicans are rapists, Mexicans are criminals — these children don’t have the cognitive ability to say, ‘He’s just playing the role of a politician,’ ” Santiago argued. “The language that he’s using matters.”

Ruiz’s son, who is now seeing a therapist, continues to endure nightmares from an experience that may take years to overcome. But experts say that discriminatory language can, on its own, harm children, especially those of color who may already feel marginalized.

“It causes grave damage, as much physical as psychological,” said Elsa Barajas, who has counseled more than 1,000 children in her job at the Los Angeles Department of Mental Health.

As a result, she has seen Hispanic students suffer from sleeplessness, lose interest in school, and experience inexplicable stomach pain and headaches.

For Ashanty Bonilla, the damage began with the response to a single tweet she shared 10 months ago.

“Unpopular opinion,” Ashanty, then 16 and a sophomore at Lewiston High School in rural Idaho, wrote on April 9. “People who support Trump and go to Mexico for vacation really piss me off. Sorry not sorry.”

A schoolmate, who is white, took a screen shot of her tweet and posted it to Snapchat, along with a Confederate flag.

“Unpopular opinion but: people that are from Mexico and come in to America illegally or at all really piss me off,” he added in a message that spread rapidly among students.

The next morning, as Ashanty arrived at school, half a dozen boys, including the one who had written the message, stood nearby.

“You’re illegal. Go back to Mexico,” she heard one of them say. “F— Mexicans.”

Ashanty, shaken but silent, walked past as a friend yelled at the boys to shut up.

In a 33,000-person town that is 94 percent white, Ashanty, whose father is half-black and whose mother is Mexican American, had always worked to fit in. She attended every football game and won a school spirit award as a freshman. She straightened her hair and dyed it blond, hoping to look more like her friends.

She had known those boys who’d heckled her since they were little. For her 15th birthday the year before, some had danced at her quinceañera.

A friend drove her off campus for lunch, but when they pulled back into the parking lot, Ashanty spotted people standing around her car. A rope had been tied from the back of the Honda Pilot to a pickup truck.

“Republican Trump 2020,” someone had written in the dust on her back window.

Hands trembling, Ashanty tried to untie the rope but couldn’t. She heard the laughing, sensed the cellphone cameras pointed at her. She began to weep.

Lewiston’s principal, Kevin Driskill, said he and his staff met with the boys they knew were involved, making clear that “we have zero tolerance for any kind of actions like that.” The incidents, he suspected, stemmed mostly from ignorance.

“Our lack of diversity probably comes with a lack of understanding,” Driskill said, but he added that he’s encouraged by the school district’s recent creation of a community group — following racist incidents on other campuses — meant to address those issues.

That effort came too late for Ashanty.

Some friends supported her, but others told her the boys were just joking. Don’t ruin their lives.

She seldom attended classes the last month of school. That summer, she started having migraines and panic attacks. In August, amid her spiraling despair, Ashanty swallowed 27 pills from a bottle of antidepressants. A helicopter rushed her to a hospital in Spokane, Wash., 100 miles away.

After that, she began seeing a therapist and, along with the friend who defended her, transferred to another school. Sometimes, she imagines how different life might be had she never written that tweet, but Ashanty tries not to blame herself and has learned to take more pride in her heritage. She just wishes the president understood the harm his words inflict.

Even Trump’s last name has become something of a slur to many children of color, whether they’ve heard it shouted at them in hallways or, in her case, seen it written on the back window of a car.

“It means,” she said, “you don’t belong.”

Three weeks into the 2018-19 school year, Miracle Slover’s English teacher, she alleges, ordered black and Hispanic students to sit in the back of the classroom at their Fort Worth high school.

At the time, Miracle was a junior. Georgia Clark, her teacher at Amon Carter-Riverside, often brought up Trump, Miracle said. He was a good person, she told the class, because he wanted to build a wall.

“Every day was something new with immigration,” said Miracle, now 18, who has a black mother and a mixed-race father. “That Trump needs to take [immigrants] away. They do drugs, they bring drugs over here. They cause violence.”

Some students tried to film Clark, and others complained to administrators, but none of it made a difference, Miracle said. Clark, an employee of the Fort Worth system since 1998, kept talking.

Clark, who denies the teenager’s allegations, is one of more than 30 educators across the country accused of using the president’s name or rhetoric to harass students since he announced his candidacy, the Post analysis found.

In Clark’s class, Miracle stayed quiet until late spring 2019. That day, she walked in wearing her hair “puffy,” split into two high buns.

Clark, she said, told her it looked “nappy, like Marge off ‘The Simpsons.’ ” Unable to smother an angry reply, Miracle landed in the principal’s office. An administrator asked her to write a witness statement, and in it, she finally let go, scrawling her frustration across seven pages.

“I just got tired of it,” she said. “I wrote a ton.”

Still, Miracle said, school officials took no action until six weeks later, when Clark, 69, tweeted at Trump — in what she thought were private messages — requesting help deporting undocumented immigrants in Fort Worth schools. The posts went viral, drawing national condemnation. Clark was fired.

Not always, though, are offenders removed from the classroom.

The day after the 2016 election, Donnie Jones Jr.’s daughter was walking down a hallway at her Florida high school when, she says, a teacher warned her and two friends — all sophomores, all black — that Trump would “send you back to Africa.”

The district suspended the teacher for three days and transferred him to another school.

Just a few days later in California, a physical education teacher told a student that he would be deported under Trump. Two years ago in Maine, a substitute teacher referenced the president’s wall and promised a Lebanese American student, “You’re getting kicked out of my country.” More than a year later in Texas, a school employee flashed a coin bearing the word “ICE” at a Hispanic student. “Trump,” he said, “is working on a law where he can deport you.”

Sometimes, Jones said, he doesn’t recognize America.

“People now will say stuff that a couple of years ago they would not dare say,” Jones argued. He fears what his two youngest children, ages 11 and 9, might hear in their school hallways, especially if Trump is reelected.

Now a senior, Miracle doesn’t regret what she wrote about Clark. Although the furor that followed forced Miracle to switch schools and quit her beloved dance team, she would do it again, she said. Clark’s punishment, her public disgrace, was worth it.

About a week before Miracle’s 18th birthday, her mother checked Facebook to find a flurry of notifications. Friends were messaging to say that Clark had appealed her firing, and that the Texas education commissioner had intervened.

Reluctant to spoil the birthday, Jowona Powell waited several days to tell her daughter, who doesn’t use social media.

Citing a minor misstep in the school board’s firing process, the commissioner had ordered Carter-Riverside to pay Clark one year’s salary — or give the former teacher her job back.

Jordyn Covington stood when she heard the jeers.

“Monkeys!” “You don’t belong here.” “Go back to where you came from!”

From atop the bleachers that day in October, Jordyn, 15, could see her Piper High School volleyball teammates on the court in tears. The sobbing varsity players were all black, all from Kansas City, Kan., like her.

Who was yelling? Jordyn wondered.

She peered at the students in the opposing section. Most of them were white.

“It was just sad,” said Jordyn, who plays for Piper’s junior varsity team. “And why? Why did it have to happen to us? We weren’t doing anything. We were simply playing volleyball.”

Go back? To where? Jordyn, her friends and Piper’s nine black players were all born in the United States. “Just like everyone else,” Jordyn said. “Just like white people.”

The game, played at an overwhelmingly white rural high school, came three months after Trump tweeted that four minority congresswomen should “go back” to the “totally broken and crime infested places from which they came.”

It was Jordyn’s first experience with racism, she said. But it was not the first time that fans at a school sports game had used the president to target students of color.

The Post found that players, parents or fans have used his name or words in at least 48 publicly reported cases, hurling hateful slogans at students competing in elementary, middle and high school games in 26 states.

The venom has been shouted on football gridirons and soccer fields, on basketball and volleyball courts. Nearly 90 percent of incidents identified by The Post targeted players and fans of color, or teams fielded by schools with large minority populations. More than half focused on Hispanics.

In one of the earliest examples, students at a Wisconsin high school soccer game in April 2016 chanted “Trump, build a wall!” at black and Hispanic players. A few months later, students at a high school basketball game in Missouri turned their backs and hoisted a Trump/Pence campaign sign as the majority-black opposing team walked onto the court. In 2017, two high school girls in Alabama showed up at a football game pep rally with a sign reading “Put the Panic back in Hispanic” and a “Trump Make America Great Again” banner.

In late 2017, two radio hosts announcing a high school basketball game in Iowa were caught on a hot mic describing Hispanic players as “español people.” “As Trump would say,” one broadcaster suggested, “go back where they came from.”

Both announcers were fired. After the volleyball incident in Kansas, though, the fallout was more muted. The opposing school district, Baldwin City, commissioned an investigation and subsequently asserted that there was “no evidence” of racist jeers. Administrators from Piper’s school system dismissed that claim and countered with a statement supporting their students.

An hour after the game, Jordyn fought to keep her eyes dry as she boarded the team bus home. When white players insisted that everything would be okay, she slipped in ear buds and selected “my mood playlist,” a collection of somber nighttime songs. She wiped her cheeks.

Jordyn had long ago concluded that Trump didn’t want her — or “anyone who is just not white” — in the United States. But hearing other students shout it was different.

Days later, her English teacher assigned an essay asking about “what’s right and what’s wrong.” At first, Jordyn thought she might write about the challenges transgender people face. Then she had another idea.

“The students were making fun of us because we were different, like our hair and skin tone,” Jordyn wrote. “How are you gonna be mad at me and my friends for being black. . . . I love myself and so should all of you.”

She read it aloud to the class. She finished, then looked up. Everyone began to applaud.

It’s not just young Trump supporters who torment classmates because of who they are or what they believe. As one boy in North Carolina has come to understand, kids who oppose the president — kids like him — can be just as vicious.

By Gavin Trump’s estimation, nearly everyone at his middle school in Chapel Hill comes from a Democratic family. So when the kids insist on calling him by his last name — even after he demands that they stop — the 13-year-old knows they want to provoke him, by trying to link the boy to the president they despise.

In fifth grade, classmates would ask if he was related to the president, knowing he wasn’t. They would insinuate that Gavin agreed with the president on immigration and other polarizing issues.

“They saw my last name as Trump, and we all hate Trump, so it was like, ‘We all hate you,’ ” he said. “I was like, ‘Why are you teasing me? I have no relationship to Trump at all. We just ended up with the same last name.’ ”

Beyond kids like Gavin, the Post analysis also identified dozens of children across the country who were bullied, or even assaulted, because of their allegiance to the president.

School staff members in at least 18 states, from Washington to West Virginia, have picked on students for wearing Trump gear or voicing support for him. Among teenagers, the confrontations have at times turned physical. A high school student in Northern California said that after she celebrated the 2016 election results on social media, a classmate accused her of hating Mexicans and attacked her, leaving the girl with a bloodied nose. Last February, a teenager at an Oklahoma high school was caught on video ripping a Trump sign out of a student’s hands and knocking a red MAGA cap off his head.

And in the nation’s capital — where only 4 percent of voters cast ballots for Trump in 2016 — an outspoken conservative teenager said she had to leave her prestigious public school because she felt threatened.

In a YouTube video, Jayne Zirkle, a high school senior, said that the trouble started when classmates at the School Without Walls discovered an online photo of her campaigning for Trump. She said students circulated the photo, harassed her online and called her a white supremacist.

A D.C. school system official said they investigated the allegations and allowed Jayne to study from home to ensure she felt safe.

“A lot of people who I thought were my best friends just all of a sudden totally turned their backs on me,” Jayne said. “People wouldn’t even look at me or talk to me.”

For Gavin, the teasing began in fourth grade, soon after Trump announced his candidacy.

After more than a year of schoolyard taunts, Gavin decided to go by his mother’s last name, Mather, when he started middle school. The teenager has been proactive, requesting that teachers call him by the new name, but it gets trickier, and more stressful, when substitutes fill in. He didn’t legally change his last name, so “Trump” still appears on the roster.

The teasing has subsided, but the switch wasn’t easy. Gavin likes his real last name and feared that changing it would hurt his father’s feelings. His dad understood, but for Gavin, the guilt remains.

“This is my name,” he said. “And I am abandoning my name.”

Maritza Avalos knows what’s coming. It’s 2020. The next presidential election is nine months away. She remembers what happened during the last one, when she was just 11.

“Pack your bags,” kids told her. “You get a free trip to Mexico.”

She’s now a freshman at Kamiakin High, the same Washington state school where her older sister, Cielo, confronted the teenagers who chanted “Build the wall” at a football game in late 2018. Maritza, 14, assumes the taunts that accompanied Trump’s last campaign will intensify with this one, too.

“I try not to think about it,” she said, but for educators nationwide, the ongoing threat of politically charged harassment has been impossible to ignore.

In response, schools have canceled mock elections, banned political gear, trained teachers, increased security, formed student-led mediation groups and created committees to develop anti-discrimination policies.

In California, the staff at Riverside Polytechnic High School has been preparing for this year’s presidential election since the day after the last one. On Nov. 9, 2016, counselors held a workshop in the library for students to share their feelings. Trump supporters feared they would be singled out for their beliefs, while girls who had heard the president brag about sexually assaulting women worried that boys would be emboldened to do the same to them.

“We treated it almost like a crisis,” said Yuri Nava, a counselor who has since helped expand a student club devoted to improving the school’s culture and climate.

Riverside, which is 60 percent Hispanic, also offers three courses — African American, Chicano and ethnic studies — meant to help students better understand one another, Nava said. And instead of punishing students when they use race or politics to bully, counselors first try to bring them together with their victims to talk through what happened. Often, they leave as friends.

In Gambrills, Md., Arundel High School has taken a similar approach. Even before a student was caught scribbling the n-word in his notebook in early 2017, Gina Davenport, the principal, worried about the effect of the election’s rhetoric. At the school, where about half of the 2,200 students are minorities, she heard their concerns every day.

But the racist slur, discovered the same month as Trump’s inauguration, led to a concrete response.

A “Global Community Citizenship” class, now mandatory for all freshmen in the district, pushes students to explore their differences.

A recent lesson delved into Trump’s use of Twitter.

“The focus wasn’t Donald Trump, the focus was listening: How do we convey our ideas in order for someone to listen?” Davenport said. “We teach that we can disagree with each other without walking away being enemies — which we don’t see play out in the press, or in today’s political debates.”

Since the class debuted in fall 2017, disciplinary referrals for disruption and disrespect have decreased by 25 percent each school year, Davenport said. Membership in the school’s speech and debate team has doubled.

The course has eased Davenport’s anxiety heading into the next election. She doesn’t expect an uptick in racist bullying.

“Civil conversation,” she said. “The kids know what that means now.”

Many schools haven’t made such progress, and on those campuses, students are bracing for more abuse.

Maritza’s sister, Cielo, told her to stand up for herself if classmates use Trump’s words to harass her, but Maritza is quieter than her sibling. The freshman doesn’t like confrontation.

She knows, though, that eventually someone will say something — about the wall, maybe, or about how kids who look like her don’t belong in this country — and when that day comes, the girl hopes that she’ll be strong.


#574

Worth a read…

The Guardian has an excerpt from the 2018 book “How Democracies Die.”

Blatant dictatorship – in the form of fascism, communism, or military rule – has disappeared across much of the world. Military coups and other violent seizures of power are rare. Most countries hold regular elections. Democracies still die, but by different means.

Since the end of the Cold War, most democratic breakdowns have been caused not by generals and soldiers but by elected governments themselves. Like Hugo Chávez in Venezuela, elected leaders have subverted democratic institutions in Georgia, Hungary, Nicaragua, Peru, the Philippines, Poland, Russia, Sri Lanka, Turkey and Ukraine.

Democratic backsliding today begins at the ballot box. The electoral road to breakdown is dangerously deceptive. With a classic coup d’état, as in Pinochet’s Chile, the death of a democracy is immediate and evident to all. The presidential palace burns. The president is killed, imprisoned or shipped off into exile. The constitution is suspended or scrapped.

On the electoral road, none of these things happen. There are no tanks in the streets. Constitutions and other nominally democratic institutions remain in place. People still vote. Elected autocrats maintain a veneer of democracy while eviscerating its substance.

Many government efforts to subvert democracy are “legal”, in the sense that they are approved by the legislature or accepted by the courts. They may even be portrayed as efforts to improve democracy – making the judiciary more efficient, combating corruption or cleaning up the electoral process.

Newspapers still publish but are bought off or bullied into self-censorship. Citizens continue to criticize the government but often find themselves facing tax or other legal troubles. This sows public confusion. People do not immediately realize what is happening. Many continue to believe they are living under a democracy.

Because there is no single moment – no coup, declaration of martial law, or suspension of the constitution – in which the regime obviously “crosses the line” into dictatorship, nothing may set off society’s alarm bells. Those who denounce government abuse may be dismissed as exaggerating or crying wolf. Democracy’s erosion is, for many, almost imperceptible.

•••

How vulnerable is American democracy to this form of backsliding? The foundations of our democracy are certainly stronger than those in Venezuela, Turkey or Hungary. But are they strong enough?

Answering such a question requires stepping back from daily headlines and breaking news alerts to widen our view, drawing lessons from the experiences of other democracies around the world and throughout history.

When fear or miscalculation leads established parties to bring extremists into the mainstream, democracy is imperiled

A comparative approach reveals how elected autocrats in different parts of the world employ remarkably similar strategies to subvert democratic institutions. As these patterns become visible, the steps toward breakdown grow less ambiguous –and easier to combat. Knowing how citizens in other democracies have successfully resisted elected autocrats, or why they tragically failed to do so, is essential to those seeking to defend American democracy today.

We know that extremist demagogues emerge from time to time in all societies, even in healthy democracies. The United States has had its share of them, including Henry Ford, Huey Long, Joseph McCarthy and George Wallace.

An essential test for democracies is not whether such figures emerge but whether political leaders, and especially political parties, work to prevent them from gaining power in the first place – by keeping them off mainstream party tickets, refusing to endorse or align with them and, when necessary, making common cause with rivals in support of democratic candidates.

Isolating popular extremists requires political courage. But when fear, opportunism or miscalculation leads established parties to bring extremists into the mainstream, democracy is imperiled.

Institutions alone are not enough to rein in elected autocrats. Constitutions must be defended – by political parties and organized citizens but also by democratic norms. Without robust norms, constitutional checks and balances do not serve as the bulwarks of democracy we imagine them to be. Institutions become political weapons, wielded forcefully by those who control them against those who do not.

This is how elected autocrats subvert democracy – packing and “weaponizing” the courts and other neutral agencies, buying off the media and the private sector (or bullying them into silence) and rewriting the rules of politics to tilt the playing field against opponents. The tragic paradox of the electoral route to authoritarianism is that democracy’s assassins use the very institutions of democracy – gradually, subtly, and even legally – to kill it.

•••

America failed the first test in November 2016, when we elected a president with a dubious allegiance to democratic norms.

Donald Trump’s surprise victory was made possible not only by public disaffection but also by the Republican party’s failure to keep an extremist demagogue within its own ranks from gaining the nomination.

By the time Obama became president, many Republicans in particular questioned the legitimacy of their Democratic rivals

How serious is the threat now? Many observers take comfort in our constitution, which was designed precisely to thwart and contain demagogues like Trump. Our Madisonian system of checks and balances has endured for more than two centuries. It survived the civil war, the great depression, the Cold War and Watergate. Surely, then, it will be able to survive Trump.

We are less certain. Historically, our system of checks and balances has worked pretty well – but not, or not entirely, because of the constitutional system designed by the founders. Democracies work best – and survive longer – where constitutions are reinforced by unwritten democratic norms.

Two basic norms have preserved America’s checks and balances in ways we have come to take for granted: mutual toleration, or the understanding that competing parties accept one another as legitimate rivals, and forbearance, or the idea that
politicians should exercise restraint in deploying their institutional prerogatives.

These two norms undergirded American democracy for most of the 20th century. Leaders of the two major parties accepted one another as legitimate and resisted the temptation to use their temporary control of institutions to maximum partisan advantage. Norms of toleration and restraint served as the soft guardrails of American democracy, helping it avoid the kind of partisan fight to the death that has destroyed democracies elsewhere in the world, including Europe in the 1930s and South America in the 1960s and 1970s.

Today, however, the guardrails of American democracy are weakening. The erosion of our democratic norms began in the 1980s and 1990s and accelerated in the 2000s. By the time Barack Obama became president, many Republicans in particular questioned the legitimacy of their Democratic rivals and had abandoned forbearance for a strategy of winning by any means necessary.

Trump may have accelerated this process, but he didn’t cause it. The challenges facing American democracy run deeper. The weakening of our democratic norms is rooted in extreme partisan polarization – one that extends beyond policy differences into an existential conflict over race and culture.

America’s efforts to achieve racial equality as our society grows increasingly diverse have fueled an insidious reaction and intensifying polarization. And if one thing is clear from studying breakdowns throughout history, it’s that extreme polarization can kill democracies.

There are, therefore, reasons for alarm. Not only did Americans elect a demagogue in 2016, but we did so at a time when the norms that once protected our democracy were already coming unmoored.

But if other countries’ experiences teach us that that polarization can kill democracies, they also teach us that breakdown is neither inevitable nor irreversible.

Many Americans are justifiably frightened by what is happening to our country. But protecting our democracy requires more than just fright or outrage. We must be humble and bold. We must learn from other countries to see the warning signs – and recognize the false alarms. We must be aware of the fateful missteps that have wrecked other democracies. And we must see how citizens have risen to meet the great democratic crises of the past, overcoming their own deep-seated divisions to avert breakdown.

History doesn’t repeat itself. But it rhymes. The promise of history is that we can find the rhymes before it is too late.

  • This is an extract from How Democracies Die by Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt, professors of government at Harvard University, published in the UK by Viking and in the US by Crown

Further reading

– Harvard professor Stephen M. Walt has been keeping a “dictator” checklist since 2016. He revisited the list for Foreign Policy mag a few days ago. He wrote that “after impeachment, the president has been passing most of the checkpoints on the way to authoritarianism.”

– This 2016 piece by Vox has aged well: “The rise of American authoritarianism.”

“In many countries,” Anne Applebaum told me, "the end of democracy often begins with someone who mocks it, who makes fun of the institutions, who doesn’t treat his opposition as a legitimate opposition but rather as traitors.

Ripped from the headlines…

Quoting the watchdog group Freedom House : “Trump has assailed essential institutions and traditions including the separation of powers, a free press, an independent judiciary, the impartial delivery of justice, safeguards against corruption, and most disturbingly, the legitimacy of elections.” With that in mind, consider the headlines of the past week:

Separation of powers: Trump has been challenging the legislative branch’s power of the purse by diverting Pentagon $$$ to build more border wall.

Free press: His newest budget proposal would cut funding for PBS, NPR, and the military’s iconic Stars and Stripes newspaper.

Independent judiciary: Via Twitter he attacked a federal judge, the same woman who will be sentencing his friend Roger Stone .

Safeguards against corruption: He has been smearing the Ukraine whistleblower and those who testified about the scheme to the House.

Impartial delivery of justice: Look no further than the DOJ crisis. The NYT’s Sunday front page carried new concerns about political interference.

From Reliable Sources CNN
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(David Bythewood) #575

Interesting article about how Trump once again took a talking point all Republicans loved and scuttled it in favor of hatred and stupidity.

The Navy Takes a Back Seat to the Wall