August 7, 2018

Posted by orrinj at 1:17 PM


Technology helped America's economy way more than we thought (Lydia DePillis, 8/03/18, CNNMoney)

At the end of July, when the Bureau of Economic Analysis released its blockbuster 4.1% economic growth rate estimate for the second quarter, few noticed another announcement from the statistical agency: A total revamp of its gross domestic product calculations, going back decades.

Deep in the guts of what makes up the GDP, the agency had incorporated new information about cloud computing, cell phones, and other rapidly evolving technologies. And while the updated calculations only changed overall economic growth by a tiny bit each year, total business investments climbed by almost a whole percentage point on average for each year between 2002 and 2017.

That's a big jump, and presents a brighter picture of economic activity after the recession than the one we had before last Friday, the agency said in a briefing with reporters.

Such adjustments aren't new. Every five years, the federal government's economic number crunchers announce that they were a little bit off, because of changes in business practices that they couldn't track in real time.

Accelerating inflation in the 1960s prompted better measurement of price changes, for example. In the 1980s, IBM helped the agency understand how computers were getting cheaper and better at the same time.

"When BEA does one of these benchmarks, they try to target one of these areas where they know there's been a lot of technological advance that hasn't been captured in the numbers," says Brent Moulton, who recently retired after a 30-year career split between BEA and the Bureau of Labor Statistics. "When the decision was made that software really should be counted as part of investment along with hardware, that led to a large increase in growth rates over the 1980s and '90s."

But it's become harder to keep up with those changes lately, as new technologies have diffused through workplaces in ways that statisticians still don't fully understand.

That mismeasurement could be part of the reason why growth numbers have been disappointing in recent years. If federal agencies haven't been able to capture all new economic activity, that's a lot less concerning than the idea that America is really becoming a less dynamic nation.

"One question is whether it accounts for the slowdown that we've had in productivity," says Erik Brynjolfsson, a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, who studies the impact of technology on the economy. "I think we're probably missing more and more over time because more of the economy's becoming digitized."

Posted by orrinj at 12:45 PM


How Trump Radicalized ICE: A long-running inferiority complex, vast statutory power, a chilling new directive from the top--inside America's unfolding immigration tragedy (FRANKLIN FOER  SEPTEMBER 2018, The Atlantic)

Settling into a sense of safety is hard when your life's catalog of memories teaches you the opposite lesson. Imagine: You fled from a government militia intent on murdering you; swam across a river with the uncertain hope of sanctuary on the far bank; had the dawning realization that you could never return to your village, because it had been torched; and heard pervasive rumors of former neighbors being raped and enslaved. Imagine that, following all this, you then found yourself in New York City, with travel documents that were unreliable at best.

This is the shared narrative of thousands of emigrants from the West African nation of Mauritania. The country is ruled by Arabs, but these refugees were members of a black subpopulation that speaks its own languages. In 1989, in a fit of nationalism, the Mauritanian government came to consider these differences capital offenses. It arrested, tortured, and violently expelled many black citizens. The country forcibly displaced more than 70,000 of them and rescinded their citizenship. Those who remained behind fared no better. Approximately 43,000 black Mauritanians are now enslaved--by percentage, one of the largest enslaved populations in the world.

After years of rootless wandering--through makeshift camps, through the villages and cities of Senegal--some of the Mauritanian emigrants slowly began arriving in the United States in the late 1990s. They were not yet adept in English, and were unworldly in almost every respect. But serendipity--and the prospect of jobs--soon transplanted their community of roughly 3,000 to Columbus, Ohio, where they clustered mostly in neighborhoods near a long boulevard that bore a fateful name: Refugee Road. It commemorated a moment at the start of the 19th century, when Ohio had extended its arms to accept another influx of strangers, providing tracts of land to Canadians who had expressed sympathy for the American Revolution.

Refugee Road wasn't paved with gold, but in the early years of this century, it fulfilled the promise of its name. The Mauritanians converted an old grocery store into a cavernous, blue-carpeted mosque. They opened restaurants that served familiar fish and rice dishes, and stores that sold CDs and sodas imported from across Africa.

Over time, as the new arrivals gave birth to American citizens and became fans of the Ohio State Buckeyes and the Cleveland Cavaliers, they mentally buried the fact that their presence in America had never been fully sanctioned. When they had arrived in New York, many of them had paid an English-speaking compatriot to fill out their application for asylum. But instead of recording their individual stories in specific detail, the man simply cut and pasted together generic narratives. (It is not uncommon for new arrivals to the United States, desperate and naive, to fall prey to such scams.) A year or two after the refugees arrived in the country, judges reviewed their cases and, noticing the suspicious repetitions, accused a number of them of fraud and ordered them deported.

But those deportation orders never amounted to more than paper pronouncements. Where would Immigration and Customs Enforcement even send them? The Mauritanian government had erased the refugees from its databases and refused to issue them travel documents. It had no interest in taking back the villagers it had so violently removed. So ice let their cases slide. They were required to regularly report to the agency's local office and to maintain a record of letter-perfect compliance with the law. But as the years passed, the threat of deportation seemed ever less ominous.

Then came the election of Donald Trump. Suddenly, in the warehouses where many of the Mauritanians worked, white colleagues took them aside and warned them that their lives were likely to get worse. The early days of the administration gave substance to these cautions. The first thing to change was the frequency of their summonses to ice. During the Obama administration, many of the Mauritanians had been required to "check in" about once a year. Abruptly, ice instructed them to appear more often, some of them every month. ice officers began visiting their homes on occasion. Like the cable company, they would provide a six-hour window during which to expect a visit--a requirement that meant days off from work and disrupted life routines. The Mauritanians say that when they met with ice, they were told the U.S. had finally persuaded their government to readmit them--a small part of a global push by the State Department to remove any diplomatic obstacles to deportation.

Fear is a contagion that spreads quickly. One ice officer warned some Mauritanians sympathetically, "It's not a matter of if you'll be deported, but when." Another flatly said, "My job is to get you to leave this country." At meetings, officers would insist that the immigrants go to the Mauritanian consulate and apply for passports to return to the very country whose government had attempted to murder them.

One afternoon this spring, I sat in the bare conference room of the Columbus mosque after Friday prayer, an occasion for which men dress in traditional garb: brightly colored robes and scarves wrapped around their heads. The imam asked those who were comfortable to share their stories with me. Congregants lined up outside the door.

One by one, the Mauritanians described to me the preparations they had made for a quick exit. Some said that they had already sold their homes; others had liquidated their 401(k)s. Everyone I spoke with could name at least one friend who had taken a bus to the Canadian border and applied for asylum there, rather than risk further appointments with ice.

A lithe, haggard man named Thierno told me that his brother had been detained by ice, awaiting deportation, for several months now. The Mauritanians considered it a terrible portent that the agency had chosen to focus its attention on Thierno's brother--a businessman and philanthropically minded benefactor of the mosque. If he was vulnerable, then nobody was safe. Eyes watering, Thierno showed me a video on his iPhone of the fate he feared for his brother: a tight shot of a black Mauritanian left behind in the old country. His face was swollen from a beating, and he was begging for mercy. "I'm going to sleep with your wife!" a voice shouts at him, before a hand appears on-screen and slaps him over and over.

In 21st-century America, it is difficult to conjure the possibility of the federal government taking an eraser to the map and scrubbing away an entire ethnic group. I had arrived in Columbus at the suggestion of a Cleveland-based lawyer named David Leopold, a former president of the American Immigration Lawyers Association. Leopold has kept in touch with an old client who attends the Mauritanian mosque. When he mentioned the community's plight to me, he called it "ethnic cleansing"--which initially sounded like wild hyperbole. But on each of my trips back to Columbus, I heard new stories of departures to Canada--and about others who had left for New York, where hiding from ice is easier in the shadows of the big city. The refugees were fleeing Refugee Road. [...]

Approximately 11 million undocumented immigrants currently live in this country, a number larger than the population of Sweden. Two-thirds of them have resided in the U.S. for a decade or longer. The laws on the books endow ice with the technical authority to deport almost every single one of them. Trump's predecessors, Barack Obama and George W. Bush, allowed for a measure of compassion, permitting prosecutors and judges to stay the removals of some defendants in immigration court, and encouraging a rigorous focus on serious criminals. Congress, for its part, has for nearly two decades offered broad, bipartisan support for the grand bargain known as comprehensive immigration reform. The point of such legislation is to balance tough enforcement of the law with a path to amnesty for undocumented immigrants and the ultimate possibility of citizenship.

Yet no politician has ever quite summoned the will to overcome the systematic obstacles that block reform. Democrats didn't make it a top priority when they briefly controlled Congress during Obama's first term, and Republican reformers have again and again been stymied by anti-immigration hard-liners in the House. A comprehensive reform bill passed the Senate in 2013 by a resounding 68-32 margin, but then-Speaker John Boehner refused to allow it a vote in the House. The 2016 GOP presidential hopeful Marco Rubio went from staking his political identity on immigration reform to suggesting that he'd never truly supported the reforms in the first place.

Under the current administration, many of the formal restraints on ice have been removed. In the first eight months of the Trump presidency, ice increased arrests by 42 percent. Immigration enforcement has been handed over to a small clique of militant anti-immigration wonks. This group has carefully studied the apparatus it now controls. It knows that the best strategy for accomplishing its goal of driving out undocumented immigrants is quite simply the cultivation of fear. And it knows that the latent power of ice, amassed with the tacit assent of both parties, has yet to be fully realized.

Now the Trump administration wants to limit citizenship for legal immigrants: The most significant change to legal immigration in decades could affect millions of would-be citizens, say lawyers and advocates. (Julia Ainsley / Aug.07.2018, NBC News)

The Trump administration is expected to issue a proposal in coming weeks that would make it harder for legal immigrants to become citizens or get green cards if they have ever used a range of popular public welfare programs, including Obamacare, four sources with knowledge of the plan told NBC News.

The move, which would not need congressional approval, is part of White House senior adviser Stephen Miller's plan to limit the number of migrants who obtain legal status in the U.S. each year.

Whenever someone defends Donald this is why they do so.
Posted by orrinj at 12:38 PM


New Details About Wilbur Ross' Business Point To Pattern Of Grifting (Dan Alexander, 8/07/18, Forbes)

A multimillion-dollar lawsuit has been quietly making its way through the New York State court system over the last three years, pitting a private equity manager named David Storper against his former boss: Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross. The pair worked side by side for more than a decade, eventually at the firm, WL Ross & Co.--where, Storper later alleged, Ross stole his interests in a private equity fund, transferred them to himself, then tried to cover it up with bogus paperwork. Two weeks ago, just before the start of a trial with $4 million on the line, Ross and Storper agreed to a confidential settlement, whose existence has never been reported and whose terms remain secret.

It is difficult to imagine the possibility that a man like Ross, who Forbes estimates is worth some $700 million, might steal a few million from one of his business partners. Unless you have heard enough stories about Ross. Two former WL Ross colleagues remember the commerce secretary taking handfuls of Sweet'N Low packets from a nearby restaurant, so he didn't have to go out and buy some for himself. One says workers at his house in the Hamptons used to call the office, claiming Ross had not paid them for their work. Another two people said Ross once pledged $1 million to a charity, then never paid. A commerce official called the tales "petty nonsense," and added that Ross does not put sweetener in his coffee.  

There are bigger allegations. Over several months, in speaking with 21 people who know Ross, Forbes uncovered a pattern: Many of those who worked directly with him claim that Ross wrongly siphoned or outright stole a few million here and a few million there, huge amounts for most but not necessarily for the commerce secretary. At least if you consider them individually. But all told, these allegations--which sparked lawsuits, reimbursements and an SEC fine--come to more than $120 million. 

Posted by orrinj at 4:12 AM


There's Little Confusion About Trump's Regulatory Record (Cass R. Sunstein, August 6, 2018, 1Bloomberg)

In late 2008 and early 2009, I worked on Barack Obama's transition team, scrutinizing President George Bush's regulations to see what we might want to abandon. We were surprised to find that we were pretty comfortable with much of what Bush had done. Even when we didn't love it, we often concluded that it wasn't worth the time and effort to change it.

There has been a lot of noise since January 2017 about how Trump is obliterating Obama's regulatory legacy. That view is false. Most areas show continuity.  [...]

[T]he system has important safeguards against excessively abrupt changes. Regulators listen carefully to the private sector, and when companies value stability, they are not shy about saying so. 

Would-be deregulators are sometimes amazed to learn that companies have adjusted to the rules of the road, even if they opposed them vociferously in the first place. And officials are unlikely to work on behalf of deregulation when companies don't want it.

Sure, companies often want to remove regulations that have not yet gone into effect. Trump's proposed weakening of the fuel-economy standards is a case in point (though automobile companies are divided). 

But even if you don't like the Trump proposal (and you really shouldn't), it's noteworthy that his regulators did nothing to affect the Obama administration's fuel-economy standards through 2020. And before the president's proposed freeze can go into effect, he will have to deal with a host of objections, and undoubtedly a serious legal challenge. 

The overall picture shows a lot more regulatory continuity than people think, even across administrations with dramatically different views.

Posted by orrinj at 4:00 AM


Immigration "loophole" that Trump bemoaned returns after zero tolerance rollback (DAVID YAFFE-BELLANY AUG. 7, 2018, Texas Tribune)

As the United States' immigration policies continue to shift, the procedures that dictated the fates of asylum-seeking families as recently as a few weeks ago already seem like ancient history. A head-spinning sequence of events -- chaotic procedural changes, followed by furious public outcry and abrupt policy reversals -- appears to have put the Trump administration back where it started: running an immigration enforcement system in which migrant families who cross the border illegally are allowed to stay in the country while the government processes their asylum claims.

"The administration has backed off," said Laura Lynch, senior policy counsel at the American Immigration Lawyers Association. "The procedures that we're seeing at the border are those that were previously conducted, prior to the announcement of zero tolerance."

Under the zero-tolerance policy, which the Trump administration announced in May, Border Patrol officers handed migrant parents who crossed the border illegally to the U.S. Department of Justice for prosecution. That process resulted in thousands of family separations, as immigrant children -- who the government cannot detain for longer than 20 days under a 1997 consent decree known as the Flores Agreement -- were transferred to shelters while their parents went to detention centers.

But in late June, after President Donald Trump issued an executive order ending family separations, Border Patrol Commissioner Kevin McAleenan announced that agents had temporarily stopped referring adult migrants with children for prosecution. A Border Patrol spokesman confirmed last week that a "temporary suspension" remains in effect as the agency works with the Justice Department to "maintain family unity while enforcing prosecution efforts."

The administration's retreat from "zero tolerance" was on full display at McAllen's bus station last Tuesday as a long line of recently released immigrant parents arrived with tracking devices strapped to their ankles. Among them was Carla Molina, 27, who said she paid smugglers $7,000 to help her and her 6-year-old daughter travel to the border from Honduras.

Molina said she and her daughter were headed to San Antonio, where they plan to stay with friends.

"I always trust in God," she said. "With God, anything is possible."