Human beings are wreaking havoc on the Earth’s biodiversity

Human beings are wreaking havoc on the Earth’s biodiversity
Many animals are being driven to extinction, as humanity imperils the world’s natural resources
By The Economist
Sep 28 2020

“HUMAN BEINGS have overrun the world.” So laments Sir David Attenborough, a world-famous nonagenarian naturalist, in his new film, “David Attenborough: A Life on our Planet”. The film charts the “devastating changes” that humans have wrought on the planet’s biodiversity. All told, we have driven at least 680 vertebrate species to extinction since 1500.

Sir David and his followers have cause to be worried. The Living Planet Report, published in September by the WWF, a conservation organisation, found that the world’s populations of wild mammals, birds, amphibians, reptiles and fish have fallen by an average of 68% since 1970. Using data on 20,811 populations of 4,392 animal species, WWF estimated that animal populations fell by 94% on average in Latin America and by 65% in Africa (see chart).

Part of the reason why so many animals (and plants, for that matter) are imperilled is that humanity overspends its “biological budget”. The Global Footprint Network, a think-tank, calculates this in terms of the amount of land and sea required to produce the quantities consumed; in the case of greenhouse gases emitted from burning fossil fuels, the impact is expressed in terms of the amount of land needed to absorb those emissions. Since 1970 humanity’s ecological footprint has exceeded the planet’s natural rate of renewal. According to the think-tank, people currently consume 1.6 times more resources than the Earth can regenerate. Most of the impact comes from carbon usage, which accounts for 60% of people’s ecological footprint. Repurposing land for crops (19%) and cutting down trees for fuel, pulp and timber (10%) also contribute to the ecological deficit (see chart).

Rich countries are the worst offenders. The report calculates that the average person in the world uses around 2.5 hectares of land or sea to sustain their consumption habits (a sustainable amount would be 1.6 hectares each). But much of Europe, North America and Australia use an average of more than five global hectares per person, whereas India and much of Africa use less than 1.6.


40% of world’s plant species at risk of extinction

40% of world’s plant species at risk of extinction
Race against time to save plants and fungi that underpin life on Earth, global data shows
By Damian Carrington
Sep 29 2020

Two in five of the world’s plant species are at risk of extinction as a result of the destruction of the natural world, according to an international report.

Plants and fungi underpin life on Earth, but the scientists said they were now in a race against time to find and identify species before they were lost.

These unknown species, and many already recorded, were an untapped “treasure chest” of food, medicines and biofuels that could tackle many of humanity’s greatest challenges, they said, potentially including treatments for coronavirus and other pandemic microbes.

More than 4,000 species of plants and fungi were discovered in 2019. These included six species of Allium in Europe and China, the same group as onions and garlic, 10 relatives of spinach in California and two wild relatives of cassava, which could help future-proof the staple crop eaten by 800 million people against the climate crisis.

New medical plants included a sea holly species in Texas, whose relatives can treat inflammation, a species of antimalarial Artemisa in Tibet and three varieties of evening primrose.

“We would be able not survive without plants and fungi – all life depends on them – and it is really time to open the treasure chest,” said Prof Alexandre Antonelli, the director of science at the Royal Botanical Gardens, Kew, in the UK. RBG Kew led the report, which involved 210 scientists from 42 countries.

“Every time we lose a species, we lose an opportunity for humankind,” Antonelli said. “We are losing a race against time as we are probably losing species faster than we can find and name them.”

The UN revealed last week that the world’s governments failed to meet a single target to stem biodiversity losses in the last decade.

The researchers based their assessment of the proportion of species under threat of extinction on the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Red List. But only a small fraction of the 350,000 known plant species have been assessed, so the scientists used statistical techniques to adjust for biases in the data, such as the lack of fieldwork in some regions.

They also used artificial intelligence to assess little-known areas. “We now have AI approaches that are up to 90% accurate,” said Eimear Nic Lughadha, a senior research leader at RBG Kew. “These are good enough to say, ‘this area has a lot of species that haven’t been assessed but are almost certainly threatened’.”

In 2019, Nic Lughadha reported that 571 species had been wiped out since 1750, although the true number was likely to be much higher.

The 2016 State of Plants report found one in five were threatened, but the new analysis reveals the real risk to be much higher. The main cause of plant losses is the destruction of wild habitat to create farmland. Overharvesting of wild plants, building, invasive species, pollution and, increasingly, the climate crisis are also important causes of losses.

Billions of people rely on herbal medicines as their primary source of healthcare, but the report found that 723 species used as treatments are threatened with extinction. These include a type of red angel’s trumpet in South America used for circulatory disorders that is now extinct in the wild and an Indian pitcher plant traditionally used for skin diseases.

“Only 7% of [known] plants have documented uses as medicines and therefore the world’s plants and fungi remain largely untapped as potential sources of new medicines,” said Melanie-Jayne Howes, a research leader at RBG Kew. “So it is absolutely critical that we better protect biodiversity so we are better prepared for emerging challenges to our planet and our health.”

Prof Monique Simmons, who researches the uses of plants and fungi at RBG Kew, said nature was a key place to look for treatments for coronaviruses and other diseases with pandemic potential: “I am absolutely sure going forward that some of the leads for the next generation of drugs in this area will come from plants and fungi.”

The report also highlighted the very small number of plant species that humanity depends on for food. This makes supplies vulnerable to changes in climate and new diseases, especially with the world’s population expected to rise to 10 billion by 2050. Half the world’s people depend on rice, maize and wheat and just 15 plants provide 90% of all calories.

“The good news is that we have over 7,000 edible plant species that we could use in the future to really secure our food system,” said Tiziana Ulian, a senior research leader at RBG Kew.

These species are all nutritious, robust, at low risk of extinction, and have a history of being used as local foods, but just 6% are grown at significant scale.

Potential future foods include the morama bean, a drought-tolerant South African legume that tastes like cashew nuts when roasted, and a species of pandan fruit that grows from Hawaii to the Philippines.

Stefano Padulosi, a former senior scientist at the Alliance of BiodiversityInternational, said: “The thousands of neglected plant species are the lifeline to millions of people on Earth tormented by unprecedented climate change, pervasive food and nutrition insecurity, and [poverty].

“Harnessing this basket of untapped resources for making food production systems more diverse and resilient to change should be our moral duty.”

The report also found the current levels of beekeeping in cities such as London was threatening wild bees, as there was insufficient nectar and pollen available to support beehive numbers and honeybees were outcompeting wild bees.


America is now a mafia state

America is now a mafia state
A conversation with Sarah Kendzior, scholar of authoritarianism and vindicated alarmist
By Anand Giridharadas
Sep 29 2020

When your time comes to speak out against the threat of authoritarianism, do not be overdue for a haircut.

On November 29, 2016, I went on “Morning Joe” to talk about the recent victory of Donald Trump. Thanksgiving had just passed, and I shared that, for the first time since my parents immigrated to America in the 1970s, our family felt profound fear simply to exist in the country as brown Americans. What unfolded was a pointed and memorable back-and-forth, mostly between Joe Scarborough and me, about whether I was being “irrational” to be afraid before Donald Trump had even been sworn in.

Had I known the segment would go viral, I would have first arranged a much-needed haircut, with or without a tax deduction. But here we are. A prominent moment on television, and I look like the Heat Miser.

@DailyCaller @MSNBC he looks like the Arab Heat Miser.
But it was the discussion that mattered, right? Right? That’s what I try to tell myself. And the discussion, at its heart, was about vigilance in a democracy — in this case, in the context of a threat by Trump to strip the citizenship of Americans convicted of flag burning. What Joe and I were really debating was: When do you sound the alarm? How much do you trust the existing institutions? Do you jump at the first threat of demagoguery and authoritarian tendencies or wait for things to bloom?

JOE: Hitler is not coming back.

ANAND: No one said Hitler is coming back. But this is how many places that went in dark directions, many places — this was one of the ways in which it started.

SCARBOROUGH: Okay be careful. And be careful not to spread fear if it’s not rationally based.

I was, I say proudly now, an early alarmist about the coming of Trumpism. In my case, it might have had something to do with the new freedom I had gained two months earlier to say whatever I wanted, however I wanted, without worrying about consequences for colleagues, after an involuntary separation from The New York Times. And of course a lot of people were early alarmists alongside of me. Many were women; many were not white. Being on the wrong end of certain power equations perhaps trains you to be an early-warning system for tyranny. We didn’t need to wait for the hysterectomy concentration camps and the separated children and the Muslim ban and the plague deaths to call out Trump as a singular authoritarian menace.

And a dean of our early alarmist ranks was Sarah Kendzior, who stood out from Trumpism’s dawn for the force, bravery, detail, and prescience of her warnings.

A journalist and scholar of authoritarianism, Sarah quickly established herself as one of the few voices who could situate Trumpism in two distinct longer arcs: that of American institutional decay, and that of foreign experiences of the onset of autocracy.

Now, with the election just around the corner and Trump’s authoritarian, criminal, fascistic, kleptocratic, and buffoonish tendencies on fleek, I was eager to talk to Sarah, who is the author of, most recently, “Hiding in Plain Sight: The Invention of Donald Trump and the Erosion of America” and co-host of the weekly podcast “Gaslit Nation.” I wanted to know how she sees this moment and what she thinks we can do to escape it.

It IS happening here

ANAND: To start at the end, you’ve been warning about the authoritarian threat of Donald Trump for years now. Given the president’s comments in recent days, where do you think we stand?

SARAH: We’ve been living through what I’ve called a “deja news” cycle where the same stories appear again and again, but they are stripped of the context that reveals their full horror or impact. The latest iteration of this is Trump saying that he may not accept the election results and stoke violence if he doesn’t win. This is literally the same thing that Trump — and Roger Stone — threatened in 2016, but the media is calling it “unprecedented” and making no reference to Trump’s 2016 statements, despite that one of them was said at a debate and was widely covered at the time.

This bizarre selective amnesia is tremendously damaging. The American people need chronology and context to understand the threat. Also, the fact that he threatened this in 2016 should have made officials prepared with a response should he threaten it again in 2020. They should have assumed he’d do it, this time with the backing of the state, and should have come up with a plan to combat it. Instead, they feign shock to avoid accountability. So we stand at a dangerous precipice, but it’s made far more dangerous by the refusal of so many people to admit how we got here.

ANAND: The new disclosures about Trump’s tax evasion and faux success are, on one level, same old, same old. And on another level, potentially a big deal. How do you understand them in the context of this moment? And do you worry that the more likely criminal prosecution gets in his post-presidency, the more desperate we can expect to see him, the more willing he will be to steal the election or incite violence, to avoid jail?

SARAH: We knew Trump hadn’t paid taxes. Hillary Clinton said this during one of the debates, but there was little follow-up to her claim. There was also little follow-up on a series of documents from the Czechoslovakian security services revealed in 2016 which stated that in 1977 Trump had entered a bizarre agreement with the federal government to not pay taxes until 2007. We do not know the terms of this arrangement, but the documents are indeed real. UK journalist Luke Harding investigated them, and I wrote about them and their ramifications in “Hiding in Plain Sight.” It’s a big untold part of this story, especially when you connect Trump to his four decades of dealing with transnational organized crime and corrupt U.S. government officials, which is what I did in my book.

As for the debt and other information revealed in the NYT piece, none of this is surprising, but people need to learn how to interpret it. People should review his mentor Roy Cohn — Trump’s tax-dodging, mobbed-up, media-savvy lawyer who was the biggest influence in his life. Cohn dreamed of dying owing the US government enormous amount of money, and in 1986, he did. Acquisition of wealth is not the goal for either Trump or Cohn; debt is not a problem for them. A luxurious lifestyle, powered by fraud and threat and untouchable by law, is the goal. People need to examine not only Cohn and Trump’s crimes but the complicit actors that enabled them, which in this case includes the I.R.S., the Department of the Treasury and other broken U.S. institutions. Trump and Cohn are symptoms of a broader disease.

Trump will continue to try to steal the election. That was always the goal, and the tax stories don’t change that. The revelations about his taxes also won’t affect his base in the way some pundits claim. Trump doesn’t care if they know that he doesn’t pay taxes because he thinks taxes are for suckers. His base will also see it this way. What I do wish his base (and everyone else) would understand is that the reason Trump doesn’t pay taxes is because he is a key part of the so-called “deep state” and “DC swamp” and “NYC elites” that his base claims to despise.

But in terms of the election, the focus should be on the mechanisms of rigging — domestic voter suppression, foreign interference, insecure machines, the destruction of the U.S. Postal Service, and so on — and what to do if he cheats and is caught or refuses to concede, both of which are likely. No one should ever compromise in holding him and his crime cult accountable.

ANAND: Now, to go back to the beginning, what was the training and thinking you’d done that shaped your way of seeing Trump when he arrived on the presidential scene?

SARAH: I have a Ph.D. in anthropology. My research was on authoritarian politics in post-Soviet independent states, particularly Uzbekistan. When Trump began campaigning in 2015, I immediately saw parallels between him and the flamboyant Central Asian kleptocrats I had long studied. The deeper I looked into Trump’s past, I found that his connection to corrupt actors from the former Soviet Union was not only metaphorical but distressingly literal. This became particularly clear when he appointed Paul Manafort, long-time oligarch and Kremlin lackey, as his campaign manager.

I was also alarmed by how easy it would be for his campaign to exploit social media. As a graduate student studying Uzbekistan at a time when the internet was relatively new, I was interested in how digital media affected trust, and what I found was that it increased paranoia and fractured the fledgling bonds among Uzbek exiles scattered across the world who were, thanks to the internet, able to communicate regularly for the first time. This was a controversial observation when I was in grad school — between 2006 and 2011 — because conventional wisdom was that the internet was an inherently liberating technology that would further the spread of democracy. To say otherwise made you a heretic, but I’ve gotten used to being that. A heretic is just a person who tells the truth too early. 

I was also watching how authoritarian rulers like Vladimir Putin or Ilham Aliyev were purposefully leaving the internet open just enough to bombard the population with propaganda instead of censoring it all together. This approach, which Rebecca MacKinnon called “networked authoritarianism,” became the model not only for authoritarian states but for crumbling democracies over the past decade.

Trump’s savvy use of digital media was aided by his skill at manipulating print and cable media, which he has successfully done for four decades, whether through tabloids, reality TV, or Twitter. My first job out of college was at the New York Daily News. I worked there from 2000-2003, so I got an inside view of how the media is made and what kind of narratives New York journalists swallow and spit out. I knew Trump’s real backstory, and I knew how he would rewrite it.

I also had another unique vantage point: I live in St. Louis, a city that never recovered from the economic crash of 2008. This region was and remains in tremendous economic pain, and Trump was skilled at exploiting that pain in 2016, though, of course, he had no interest in remedying it. Many journalists missed this because they live in wealthy coastal enclaves and believed that the “recovery” was real. I strongly oppose the “real America” vs. “false America” dichotomy — or the “red state” vs. “blue state” dichotomy for that matter — because it’s bullshit. Like I wrote in my book, America is purple — purple like a bruise. But it’s true that media is an insular profession dominated by people who tend to be out of touch with everyday American life. However, they’re just as out of touch with everyday people in New York City or D.C. as they are with everyday people in Missouri. The gulf isn’t about geography so much as it is about wealth and networks, though obviously where you live reflects that somewhat. Anyway, I have no interest in being part of that world, and I think my aversion to it helped me tell the story of Trump honestly.


Trump Lies, and the Media Abides

Trump Lies, and the Media Abides
He says his executive order will protect people with preexisting conditions, no matter what happens to Obamacare. That’s not true.
By Libby Watson
Sep 28 2020

Whenever I mix up words or forget what I was trying to say, I make fun of myself by saying “words are my craft, you know.” It’s funny because it’s true: I have one job, and it is to use words well, which doesn’t seem like much of a tall order. Yet political reporters seem to struggle with this constantly, having been confounded by President Trump’s unprecedentedly wily ways: He lies all the time and is also quite dumb. Four years in, journalists still struggle with this norm-smashing combination of absolute ballsiness and the possibility that he doesn’t know when he’s wrong; hence the general reluctance to call Trump a liar, even after all this time, even when it is the only correct word to describe what he’s doing.

This is how we end up with stories about Trump’s latest attempt to look busy on health care that fail to convey exactly how little he’s accomplished. A Washington Post story last week reported that Trump “capped his fruitless four-year journey to abolish and replace the Affordable Care Act”—alright, a good start!—“by signing an executive order Thursday that aims to enshrine the law’s most popular feature while pivoting away from a broader effort to overhaul the nation’s health insurance system.”

Ah. No. Not quite. The executive order did not aim to enshrine Obamacare’s most popular feature, the protection of preexisting conditions. It simply stated that it “has been and will continue to be the policy of the United States to give Americans seeking healthcare more choice, lower costs, and better care and to ensure that Americans with pre-existing conditions can obtain the insurance of their choice at affordable rates.” Obviously that first part will be news to millions of Americans who still pay hundreds of dollars a month for health care that would wipe out their bank balance if they actually tried to use it. But the latter part is the non-news here: In no way can it accurately be said that this executive order aimed to enshrine the ACA’s protections on preexisting conditions.

You have to read quite a bit further down the Post story to find out what turns the executive order from pointless into fraudulent: The ongoing lawsuit, filed by the Trump administration and 18 Republican states, that seeks to invalidate the entire ACA, preexisting condition protections and all. The executive order Trump signed would not magically protect patients if that lawsuit is successful at the RBG-less Supreme Court; that is not how law works. It cannot be said, therefore, that the executive order aims to protect those patients. What it aims to do is deceive them.

Why is the president and his party so determined to lie to the public on the ACA, helped along by a media that struggles to accurately explain what is happening? It’s quite simple: The party is committed to repealing the ACA because it fundamentally does not believe that insurers, even as they make hundreds of billions of dollars a year, should be restricted in how they make money. But it recognizes that Americans are overwhelmingly in favor of protecting themselves from losing coverage. It recognizes that it cannot possibly defend making things so much worse, because the situation as it stands now is already so utterly intolerable. So it squares the circle in a very neat way: by lying, all the time.

The Republicans’ attempt to actually repeal the ACA once they got in power was a catastrophic political decision. After spending all of Barack Obama’s two terms fuming that his health care plans were Marxist death panels, Republicans only barely failed to repeal the law entirely, and spent the 2018 midterm elections claiming they had actually always loved protecting preexisting conditions. They were punished by voters for this, though many Republicans who had embraced this particular lie still won. The lie has persisted to this day: While the GOP is trying to repeal the law that protects preexisting conditions, its members up for reelection claim the party will protect them. How is that possible? Sorry, can’t hear you, going into a tunnel now.

The politics of the ACA have undergone a fascinating shift in recent years. As the Post wrote, Trump’s executive order was an example of “rebranding” rather than repealing the law—that is, he has decided to co-opt the law rather than reject it. “Obamacare is no longer Obamacare, as we worked on it and managed it very well,” said Trump, adding that “we got rid of the worse part of it—the individual mandate.” Trump has done many things to undermine the law, including expanding the sale of “junk” health plans that cover almost nothing. Republicans did not exactly “get rid of” the mandate: The 2017 GOP tax bill zeroed out the penalty for lacking insurance, setting up conservative litigation to invalidate the law entirely: The Supreme Court will hear the case this fall. Moreover, the elimination of the mandate penalty has not had the catastrophic effect that Republicans hoped for and Democrats feared: As the Times reportedearlier this month, there has been no “death spiral” in the Obamacare marketplaces, as health insurance coverage held steady in 2019.


Revealed: Trump campaign strategy to deter millions of Black Americans from voting in 2016

Revealed: Trump campaign strategy to deter millions of Black Americans from voting in 2016
By Channel 4 News
Sep 28 2020

Trump’s election campaign wanted to deter millions of Black Americans from voting in 2016. The ‘Deterrence’ project can be revealed after Channel 4 News obtained the database used by Trump’s digital campaign team.

Millions of Americans in key battleground states were separated into eight categories, so they could be targeted with tailored ads online.

One of the categories was named ‘Deterrence’, which was later described publicly by Trump’s chief data scientist as containing people the campaign “hope don’t show up to vote”. 

Analysis by Channel 4 News shows Black Americans – historically a community targeted with voter suppression tactics – were disproportionately marked ‘Deterrence’ by the 2016 campaign.

In total, 3.5 million Black Americans were marked ‘Deterrence’.

Overall, people of colour labelled as Black, Hispanic, Asian and ‘Other’ groups made up 54% of the ‘Deterrence’ category. Meanwhile, categories of voters the campaign wished to attract were overwhelmingly white.

The investigation reveals the Trump campaign targeted Black Americans with negative ads on Facebook and social media – despite the campaign’s denials.

For more details:

Investigations Team: Job Rabkin, Guy Basnett, Ed Howker, Janet Eastham, Heidi Pett

News Production Team: Sola Renner, Michael French, Josh Ho, Matthew Cundall, Tim Bentham, Tony Fryer, Dani Isdale, Anna-Lisa Fuglesang

Video: 21:39 min

Re: The IRS Tried to Take on the Ultrawealthy. It Didn’t Go Well.

[Note:  This comment comes from reader Randall Head.  DLH]

Subject: Re: [Dewayne-Net] The IRS Tried to Take on the Ultrawealthy. It Didn’t Go Well.
Date: September 28, 2020 at 7:38:55 PM EDT

In 1982 I was hired as a teller by a rural S&L in Western Kentucky.   

Almost immediately after that, the Feds showed up on a Friday afternoon at closing time.  They told us to not bother balancing our drawers, just leave everything as it was, and we would be contacted when it was time to return to work.

When I came back to work, a banner was hung over the Lincoln Federal name on the front of the building (this was not the famous Lincoln Federal, which failed, but instead was a much smaller Lincoln Federal S&L – Which failed).

We were told that Lincoln Federal Savings and Loan had been merged with Greater Louisville S&L, which wanted to get control of Lincoln Service Corporation, our Loan Servicing division with HQ in KY but with its main operations based in California.

When Lincoln failed, it was discovered that there had been a not-insignificant amount of criminality in the loan-servicing company. A few people went to prison for a few years.

Five or six (maybe as many as eight) auditors moved into the Conference Room with boxes upon boxes of paper records.

When I left there to go to law school in 1984, those auditors were STILL there, trying to unwind a little bit of criminality in a mere billion-dollar organization.

Five to eight auditors.  Two years.  For a billion dollar company, most of which was not fraudulent.

JPM Chase has $2.68T.  Two million, six hundred eighty thousand times larger than the little fraud that took 5-8 auditors two years to unwind.

There are not enough auditors on the planet to audit JPM Chase, or Bank of America, or Citibank, or any large operation like that – they are not just too big to fail, they are too big to audit.

It is important to remember that the vast majority of Lincoln Service Corporation’s business was not fraudulent.  Trump’ s morass is probably not a lot larger – but it would take a large team of dedicated Fraud Analysts at least a couple years to audit it fully.  As the NYT piece notes, one aspect of a $79M tax credit Trump claimed, long ago, is still being audited, for the last nine years.

The IRS Tried to Take on the Ultrawealthy. It Didn’t Go Well.
Ten years ago, the tax agency formed a special team to unravel the complex tax-lowering strategies of the nation’s wealthiest people. But with big money — and Congress — arrayed against the team, it never had a chance.
by Jesse Eisinger and Paul Kiel
Apr 5 2019

New document reveals scope and structure of Operation Warp Speed and underscores vast military involvement

[Note:  This item comes from friend Steve Goldstein.  DLH]

New document reveals scope and structure of Operation Warp Speed and underscores vast military involvement
By Nicholas Florko
Sep 28 2020

WASHINGTON — When President Trump unveiled Operation Warp Speed in May, he declared that it was “unlike anything our country has seen since the Manhattan Project.”

The initiative — to accelerate the development of Covid-19 vaccines and therapeutics — lacks the scale, and the degree of secrecy, of the effort to build the atomic bomb. But Operation Warp Speed is largely an abstraction in Washington, with little known about who works there other than its top leaders, or how it operates. Even pharmaceutical companies hoping to offer help or partnerships have labored to figure out who to contact.

Now, an organizational chart of the $10 billion initiative, obtained by STAT, reveals the fullest picture yet of Operation Warp Speed: a highly structured organization in which military personnel vastly outnumber civilian scientists.

The labyrinthine chart, dated July 30, shows that roughly 60 military officials — including at least four generals — are involved in the leadership of Operation Warp Speed, many of whom have never worked in health care or vaccine development. Just 29 of the roughly 90 leaders on the chart aren’t employed by the Department of Defense; most of them work for the Department of Health and Human Services and its subagencies.

Operation Warp Speed’s central goal is to develop, produce, and distribute 300 million doses of a coronavirus vaccine by January — and the military is intimately involved, according to Paul Mango, HHS’ deputy chief of staff for policy. It has already helped prop up more than two dozen vaccine manufacturing facilities — flying in equipment and raw materials from all over the world. It has also set up significant cybersecurity and physical security operations to ensure an eventual vaccine is guarded very closely from “state actors who don’t want us to be successful in this,” he said, adding that many of the Warp Speed discussions take place in protected rooms used to discuss classified information.

“This is a massive scientific and logistical undertaking,” said Mango. “We are weeks away, at most, a month or two away from having at least one safe and effective vaccine.”

Despite the military’s dominance, the chart also includes Nancy Messonnier, the director of the CDC’s National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases who was almost fired by Trump in February for warning the publicabout the growing Covid-19 pandemic. Public health and drug industry officials told STAT that Messonnier and Gen. Paul Ostrowski, her direct superior, serve as the initiative’s main contacts on all questions related to the distribution of an eventual vaccine. One public health official said that Ostrowksi, an expert on military acquisition, defers to Messonnier on matters of public health.

The military’s extensive involvement in the development and distribution of a vaccine is a departure from pandemics of the past, but it is fitting for Trump, who has gushed about his love for “my military” and “my generals.” While the military was tangentially involved in public health crises like the H1N1 pandemic of 2009, some public health leaders have raised concerns about what they see as their marginalization during the pandemic.

One senior federal health official told STAT he was struck by the presence of soldiers in military uniforms walking around the health department’s headquarters in downtown Washington, and said that recently he has seen more than 100 officials in the corridors wearing “Desert Storm fatigues.”

“Military personnel won’t be familiar with the health resources available in a community,” said John Auerbach, CEO of Trust for America’s Health, a group closely aligned with public health departments. “They don’t know who the doctors are or where the community health centers are located or what resources they have. They don’t know where the pharmacies are. Public health people do know, that’s part of what they do.”

Military officials, however, contend that the U.S. Army excels at complex challenges — like distributing vaccines that might need to be transported at subzero temperatures.

“You know the old joke about, ‘You and what army,’ right?” said Andrew Hunter, a Defense Department expert at a Washington think tank, the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “They routinely do things that are more complex, even than this vaccine job, all the time.”

Mango told STAT the operation has kept some key personnel information under wraps out of concerns for the security of the entire vaccine supply chain, from the warehouses storing vaccines to the computer systems being used to coordinate the effort.

“The secretary has given us the order of being as transparent as we possibly can with one caveat: That we are not compromising anything that has to do with national security,” he said.

An HHS spokesperson declined to comment directly on the chart, citing precedent that the agency does not comment on leaked documents. But the spokesperson noted that at least 600 HHS officials are involved in Warp Speed. The majority of those employees are not captured by the chart obtained by STAT. Among the decision makers not included in the chart are Mango and HHS’ Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response, Bob Kadlec. Mango told STAT that he and Kadlec personally sign off on every business agreement made by HHS for Operation Warp Speed.

Mango also added that the vast majority of scientists working on Operation Warp Speed work for the companies the effort is funding.

“There’s really not a need for anyone to place scores of scientists inside HHS or DOD to get this done,” Mango said. “Quite honestly, we are not conducting any science whatsoever inside the government to support Operation Warp Speed, none.”

He also defended the military’s involvement in the initiative, though he insisted that it is primarily supporting efforts led by public health officials at the CDC.

“There are quite honestly certain logistical elements of this that the CDC has never, ever been asked to do, and why not bring the best logisticians in the world into the equation?” Mango said.

Beyond obtaining the internal document from a federal official, STAT interviewed companies funded by Warp Speed and more than a dozen key officials who have worked closely with the organization’s leaders. The reporting sheds light on the high degree of organization and specialization within the organization, as well as the extreme demands the initiative is placing on the companies it funds.

Operation Warp Speed’s central goal is to develop, produce, and distribute 300 million doses of a coronavirus vaccine by January. The initiative has poured $10 billion into the clinical development and manufacturing of potential vaccine candidates, and it has stockpiled hundreds of thousands of doses of as-yet-unproven immunizations. Warp Speed has deals with six major drug companies hoping to develop Covid-19 vaccines and may seek more, the group’s chief adviser, Moncef Slaoui, told STAT earlier this month.

Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute for Allergy and Infectious Diseases, approvingly called Operation Warp Speed a “talent show.”

“If you go through the organizational boxes of Operation Warp Speed, they’re very, very impressive,” Fauci told STAT in an interview Friday.

Tom Inglesby, the director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, with whom STAT shared the organizational chart, agreed that the initiative appears well-positioned to achieve its ambitious goals — and under a tight timeline.

“There is deep knowledge of science and on how to manage complex government operations,” said Inglesby. “It’s clearly operating in a challenging pandemic and political environment, and we won’t know if we have a safe and effective vaccine until the trials are finished. But it’s a highly competent group of people working to make it happen.”

Though HHS Secretary Alex Azar and Defense Secretary Mark Esper are at the top, the two key leaders are Slaoui, the formal civilian leader of the project, and Gen. Gustave Perna, the military lead who is the chief operating officer for Operation Warp Speed.

Under Slaoui are two major pillars, “Vaccine” and “Therapeutics.” Under Perna are three pillars, for “Plans, Ops and Analysis,” “Security and Assurance,” and “Supply, Production and [Distribution].”

But the complexity of the organization makes it difficult as an outsider to discern who is reporting directly to who, experts in business management who reviewed the chart told STAT.

“It’s confusing for sure,” said Robert Huckman, the chair of Harvard Business School’s health care initiative, who studies health care management and organization. Huckman added that the chart was more complex than most he’s seen. “It is more complex, but it’s a more complex endeavor, too … it may be that it simply reflects the complexity of what Operation Warp Speed is trying to do.”


The IRS Tried to Take on the Ultrawealthy. It Didn’t Go Well.

The IRS Tried to Take on the Ultrawealthy. It Didn’t Go Well.
Ten years ago, the tax agency formed a special team to unravel the complex tax-lowering strategies of the nation’s wealthiest people. But with big money — and Congress — arrayed against the team, it never had a chance.
by Jesse Eisinger and Paul Kiel
Apr 5 2019

On June 30, 2016, an auto-parts magnate received the kind of news anyone would dread: The Internal Revenue Service had determined he had engaged in abusive tax maneuvers. He stood accused of masking about $5 billion in income. The IRS wanted over $1.2 billion in back taxes and penalties.

The magnate, Georg Schaeffler, was the billionaire scion of a family-owned German manufacturer and was quietly working as a corporate lawyer in Dallas. Schaeffler had extra reason to fear the IRS, it seemed. He wasn’t in the sights of just any division of the agency but the equivalent of its SEAL Team 6.

In 2009, the IRS had formed a crack team of specialists to unravel the tax dodges of the ultrawealthy. In an age of widening inequality, with a concentration of wealth not seen since the Gilded Age, the rich were evading taxes through ever more sophisticated maneuvers. The IRS commissioner aimed to stanch the country’s losses with what he proclaimed would be “a game-changing strategy.” In short order, Charles Rettig, then a high-powered tax lawyer and today President Donald Trump’s IRS commissioner, warned that the squad was conducting “the audits from hell.” If Trump were being audited, Rettig wrote during the presidential campaign, this is the elite team that would do it.

The wealth team embarked on a contentious audit of Schaeffler in 2012, eventually determining that he owed about $1.2 billion in unpaid taxes and penalties. But after seven years of grinding bureaucratic combat, the IRS abandoned its campaign. The agency informed Schaeffler’s lawyers it was willing to accept just tens of millions, according to a person familiar with the audit.

How did a case that consumed so many years of effort, with a team of its finest experts working on a signature mission, produce such a piddling result for the IRS? The Schaeffler case offers a rare window into just how challenging it is to take on the ultrawealthy. For starters, they can devote seemingly limitless resources to hiring the best legal and accounting talent. Such taxpayers tend not to steamroll tax laws; they employ complex, highly refined strategies that seek to stretch the tax code to their advantage. It can take years for IRS investigators just to understand a transaction and deem it to be a violation.

Once that happens, the IRS team has to contend with battalions of high-priced lawyers and accountants that often outnumber and outgun even the agency’s elite SWAT team. “We are nowhere near a circumstance where the IRS could launch the types of audits we need to tackle sophisticated taxpayers in a complicated world,” said Steven Rosenthal, who used to represent wealthy taxpayers and is now a senior fellow at the Tax Policy Center, a joint venture of the Urban Institute and Brookings Institution.

Because the audits are private — IRS officials can go to prison if they divulge taxpayer information — details of the often epic paper battles between the rich and the tax collectors are sparse, with little in the public record. Attorneys are also loath to talk about their clients’ taxes, and most wealthy people strive to keep their financial affairs under wraps. Such disputes almost always settle out of court.

But ProPublica was able to reconstruct the key points in the Schaeffler case. The billionaire’s lawyers and accountants first crafted a transaction of unusual complexity, one so novel that they acknowledged, even as they planned it, that it was likely to be challenged by the IRS. Then Schaeffler deployed teams of professionals to battle the IRS on multiple fronts. They denied that he owed any money, arguing the agency fundamentally misunderstood the tax issues. Schaeffler’s representatives complained to top officials at the agency; they challenged document requests in court. At various times, IRS auditors felt Schaeffler’s side was purposely stalling. But in the end, Schaeffler’s team emerged almost completely victorious.

His experience was telling. The IRS’ new approach to taking on the superwealthy has been stymied. The wealthy’s lobbyists immediately pushed to defang the new team. And soon after the group was formed, Republicans in Congress began slashing the agency’s budget. As a result, the team didn’t receive the resources it was promised. Thousands of IRS employees left from every corner of the agency, especially ones with expertise in complex audits, the kinds of specialists the agency hoped would staff the new elite unit. The agency had planned to assign 242 examiners to the group by 2012, according to a report by the IRS’ inspector general. But by 2014, it had only 96 auditors. By last year, the number had fallen to 58.

The wealth squad never came close to having the impact its proponents envisaged. As Robert Gardner, a 39-year veteran of the IRS who often interacted with the team as a top official at the agency’s tax whistleblower office, put it, “From the minute it went live, it was dead on arrival.”

Most people picture IRS officials as all-knowing and fearsome. But when it comes to understanding how the superwealthy move their money around, IRS auditors historically have been more like high school physics teachers trying to operate the Large Hadron Collider.

That began to change in the early 2000s, after Congress and the agency uncovered widespread use of abusive tax shelters by the rich. The discovery led to criminal charges, and settlements by major accounting firms. By the end of the decade, the IRS had determined that millions of Americans had secret bank accounts abroad. The agency managed to crack open Switzerland’s banking secrecy, and it recouped billions in lost tax revenue.

The IRS came to realize it was not properly auditing the ultrawealthy. Multimillionaires frequently don’t have easily visible income. They often have trusts, foundations, limited liability companies, complex partnerships and overseas operations, all woven together to lower their tax bills. When IRS auditors examined their finances, they typically looked narrowly. They might scrutinize just one return for one entity and examine, say, a year’s gifts or income.

Belatedly attempting to confront improper tax avoidance, the IRS formed what was officially called the Global High Wealth Industry Group in 2009. “The genesis was: If you think of an incredibly wealthy family, their web of entities somehow gives them a remarkably low effective tax rate,” said former IRS Commissioner Steven Miller, who was one of those responsible for creating the wealth squad. “We hadn’t really been looking at it all together, and shame on us.”

The IRS located the group within the division that audits the biggest companies in recognition of the fact that the finances of the 1 percent resemble those of multinational corporations more than those of the average rich person.

The vision was clear, as Doug Shulman, a George W. Bush appointee who remained to helm the agency under the Obama administration, explained in a 2009 speech: “We want to better understand the entire economic picture of the enterprise controlled by the wealthy individual.”

It’s particularly important to audit the wealthy well, and not simply because that’s where the money is. That’s where the cheating is, too. Studies show that the wealthiest are more likely to avoid paying taxes. The top 0.5 percent in income account for fully a fifth of all the underreported income, according to a 2010 study by the IRS’ Andrew Johns and the University of Michigan’s Joel Slemrod. Adjusted for inflation, that’s more than $50 billion each year in unpaid taxes.

The plans for the wealth squad seemed like a step forward. In a few years, the group would be staffed with several hundred auditors. A team of examiners would tackle each audit, not just one or two agents, as was more typical in the past. The new group would draw from the IRS’ best of the best.

That was crucial because IRS auditors have a long-standing reputation, at least among the practitioners who represent deep-pocketed taxpayers, as hapless and overmatched. The agents can fritter away years, tax lawyers say, auditing transactions they don’t grasp. “In private practice, we played whack-a-mole,” said Rosenthal, of the Tax Policy Center. “The IRS felt a transaction was suspect but couldn’t figure out why, so it would raise an issue and we’d whack it and they would raise another and we’d whack it. The IRS was ill-equipped.”

The Global High Wealth Group was supposed to change that. Indeed, with all the fanfare at the outset, tax practitioners began to worry on behalf of their clientele. “The impression was it was all going to be specialists in fields, highly trained. The IRS would assemble teams with the exact right expertise to target these issues,” Chicago-based tax attorney Jenny Johnson said.

The new group’s first moves spurred resistance. The team sent wide-ranging requests for information seeking details about their targets’ entire empires. Taxpayers with more than $10 million in income or assets received a dozen pages of initial requests, with the promise of many more to follow. The agency sought years of details on every entity it could tie to the subject of the audits.

In past audits, that initial overture had been limited to one or two pages, with narrowly tailored requests. Here, a typical request sought information on a vast array of issues. One example: a list of any U.S. or foreign entity in which the taxpayer held an “at least a 20 percent” interest, including any “hybrid instruments” that could be turned into a 20 percent or more ownership share. The taxpayer would then have to identify “each and every current and former officer, trustee, and manager” from the entity’s inception.


The 1619 Project Is Wrong On The 1965 Immigration Act

The 1619 Project Is Wrong On The 1965 Immigration Act
Nikole Hannah-Jones gives the credit for ending quotas to civil rights reformers. The truth is a bit more complicated.
By Zaid Jilani
Sep 21 2020

In the opening essay of the New York Times’s 1619 Project, Nicole Hannah-Jones highlights many of the contributions African Americans made to our country’s democracy. She rightly notes that, thanks to the Civil Rights Movement, we live today in a country that guarantees full rights to all of its citizens, regardless of the color of their skin.

The sacrifices of men and women like John Lewis, Andrew Young, Fannie Lou Hammer, and Pauli Murray ensured the passage of the Voting Rights Act and Civil Rights Act, legislation that gave the federal government the power to combat racial discrimination and unequal treatment under the law. 

But she also posits this movement as the central force that liberalized America’s immigration laws; she uses this as an argument to imply that Asian Americans owe a special debt to African Americans, and suggests that there is something untoward about Asian Americans objecting to admissions systems that may discriminate against themselves:

But the laws born out of black resistance guarantee the franchise for all and ban discrimination based not just on race but on gender, nationality, religion and ability. It was the civil rights movement that led to the passage of the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, which upended the racist immigration quota system intended to keep this country white. Because of black Americans, black and brown immigrants from across the globe are able to come to the United States and live in a country in which legal discrimination is no longer allowed. It is a truly American irony that some Asian Americans, among the groups able to immigrate to the United States because of the black civil rights struggle, are now suing universities to end programs designed to help the descendants of the enslaved.

There is some truth to Hannah-Jones’s description of events. The Civil Rights Movement did help move the conscience of America in a more progressive direction, one that helped soften the hearts of lawmakers in a way that made the passage of the Immigration and National Act (INA) of 1965 more likely. Importantly, the Civil Rights Act barred discrimination by national origin; the passage of the INA helped bring America’s immigration controls into line with the spirit of the Civil Rights Act. Thus, it cannot be argued that the Civil Rights Movement was unrelated to the passage of the INA. It certainly played a role.

But is it true that it was solely because of “black Americans” that “black and brown immigrants from across the globe are able to come to the United States”? 

A good way to start investigating this question would be to read a book written by another Times journalist, Deputy National Editor Jia Lynn Yang. Her book One Mighty and Irresistible Tide: The Epic Struggle Over American Immigration, 1924-1965, offers insight into the forces that shaped the immigration reform debate in the United States. One passage in particular deals with the relationship between civil rights and the INA:

To the extent that the  law’s significance has been discussed at all in recent years, it is typically treated as a footnote to the landmark civil rights legislation of the same era, and assumed to have been swept into existence by the undertow of the fight for black equality. While the civil rights movement did popularize a moral framework and contribute political momentum for the law, the Immigration and Nationality Act was the culmination of a distinct, decades-long struggle with its own set of players: the descendants of Jewish, Irish Catholic, and Asian immigrants who saw the country’s immigration system as a painful system of of nativist prejudice.

She goes on to list a few individuals who formed the basis of this group. They included liberal congressional lawmakers like Emanuel Celler and Herbert Lehman, as well as the Kennedys. Also included among this group were immigration activists “including Japanese-Americans whose families suffered in shameful internment camps during World War II.” Contra Hannah-Jones’s telling, the groups who advocated for the INA were diverse, and included even the Asians she implies are so indebted that they should accept discrimination in college admissions.

Americans of Italian and Eastern European descent formed a core contingent of immigration reform activists because the pre-1965 system was designed to benefit Northern Europeans, the descendants of people who founded the United States. That pre-INA regime was based on what was called the nation-origins quota system; under this system, immigration visas were doled out “to two percent of the number of people of each nationality in the United States as of the 1890 national census,” and excluded Asian immigrants altogether.

Italian-Americans made overturning this system a priority for their community, organizing themselves through the American Committee on Italian Migration (ACIM). Americans of Eastern European descent, Jewish Americans, and others organized their own efforts, demanding a change to a system that was preventing their friends and family from joining them in the United States. 

In January of 1964, President Lyndon Johnson, who ultimately signed the act into law, met with immigration reform activists, he made sure to note how unfair the system was to Europeans outside of Northern Europe; he pointed out that Britain had a quota of 65,000 immigrants but had used less than half while Italy had a quota of only 5,645 and had a backlog of almost 300,000 people; Greece had a quota of just 308 with a backlog of over 100,000.

Long-time immigration journalist Margaret Sands Orchowski offers a more precise look at the forces that shaped the INA in her book The Law that Changed the Face of America: The Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965.

“It took years for civil rights to build into the nationwide public and political movement that eventually led to the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the many associated acts of the Great Society in 1965,” she writes. “But immigration reform was not really a part of that movement. Even today in all of the historical events commemorating the Civil Rights Act and LBJ’s great society, the INA is hardly ever mentioned.” 

Orchowski highlights the aforementioned Celler, a Jewish congressman who was leader of the House Judiciary Committee for around 40 years. “He did more than anyone to lobby for the repeal of the National Origins Quota Act,” she writes, pointing to the restrictive regime that governed the country prior to the passage of the INA. In addition to being Jewish himself, Celler represented a district with a large Jewish population, and the laws that prevented many Jews from fleeing Germany’s lethal anti-Semitism by coming to the United States weighed on his heart. 

One day, a rabbi in a black hat and long coat appeared at his home. “Don’t you see, can’t you see?” the rabbi asked. “Won’t you see that there are millions—millions—being killed? Can’t we save some of them? Can’t you, Mr. Congressman, do something?” 

Celler told him there was nothing he could do. The rabbi replied, “If six million cattle had been slaughtered, there would have been greater interest.” The congressman began to weep when told this.

For years, immigration issues had been handled in Congressional committees dealing with labor—immigrants were seen largely as a labor pool. Celler helped change that.

“Manny Celler managed to get immigration into the Judiciary committee,” Orchowski told TAC in an interview. “That changed the whole focus on immigration from a labor thing to a justice [thing].”

Following the conclusion of the war, Celler worked to liberalize American immigration laws. He helped pass a bill that allowed 339,000 Displaced Persons to come to the United States, including many Jews. 


In Praise of PBS, a True Democratic Institution

In Praise of PBS, a True Democratic Institution
Next month will mark 50 years of television that aims to educate and unite.
By Margaret Renkl
Sep 27 2020

NASHVILLE — On Oct. 4, 1970, the Public Broadcasting Service entered the airwaves with an episode of “The French Chef.” I was not quite 9, too young for Julia Child and too old for “Sesame Street.” PBS became the television constant of my life anyway.

I was still a child when I watched “The Six Wives of Henry VIII” on Masterpiece Theater and developed a lifelong love for British period drama. Shows like “Downton Abbey,” “Call the Midwife,” “Last Tango in Halifax” and “Wolf Hall” are still my favorite form of escape, public television’s version of a guilty pleasure. When “All Creatures Great and Small” airs next year, it will be appointment television for me.

My conservative father had no use for Tudor bedroom drama, but he loved the political drama of “Firing Line” and could do a fair imitation of the show’s longtime host, William F. Buckley Jr. This was the sardonic voice Dad deployed to question political pronouncements he disagreed with. At our house there were many: All three of my father’s children grew up to be liberals, and just as inclined to fierce debate as he was.

But “fierce” never meant disrespectful. It was founded in a conviction that the person voicing the opposing view was neither stupid nor mean. Perhaps that was the real gift of “Firing Line”: It set a standard for civil debate, for engaging rather than dividing.

During the summer of 1973, when the United States Senate investigated the Watergate break-ins, PBS aired the complete hearings, all 250 hours of testimony. The television at our house was tuned to PBS for every one of them. My parents had voted for President Nixon, but Dad saw the Watergate committee’s Republican co-chairman, Howard Baker of Tennessee, as a true hero: a Republican unafraid to seek the truth about a Republican president and protect the rule of law.

PBS’s unprecedented complete coverage of the Watergate hearings was anchored by the journalists Jim Lehrer and Robert MacNeil. Two years later, the station began airing “The MacNeil/Lehrer Report,” and Dad never missed it. Today the show is known as “The NewsHour,” and my husband is the one who never misses it. From the very first notes of the show’s theme music, a feeling comes over me that thrums of safety. Of home itself.

Our sons surely feel the same way. When they were still children, the strict screen time rules in this house tended to be less strict where PBS was concerned. They grew up on “Sesame Street” and “Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood,” the same programs my baby sister watched from the very earliest days of PBS, but also “Reading Rainbow,” “Kratts’ Creatures,” “Zoom” and “Bill Nye the Science Guy” — educational programs all.

PBS is the successor to National Educational Television, and its roots in education still anchor it today. There’s now a 24/7 broadcast just for children, as well as a website that extends educational programming beyond the airwaves: PBS Kids offers educational games, podcasts and videos, as well as advice for parents. PBS Learning Media, for classroom teachers, links to programming that is both grade-appropriate and searchable by state and national curriculum standards.

These resources are especially crucial to families without access to broadband internet, and it has been a huge boon during the Covid quarantines. It’s not too much to say that PBS was “built for the pandemic,” as the documentary filmmaker Ken Burns put it in a phone interview last week. “We had the materials. We had the relationships. We didn’t have to retool.”

Public television today enjoys unmatched public trust — at a time when those two words have become almost an oxymoron — perhaps because PBS is an inherently democratic institution. The United States is “a big, complex, contradictory, controversial, majestic republic,” Mr. Burns said, “and at PBS we’re trying to include everybody.”

But not by glossing over differences. As with its comprehensive coverage of the Watergate hearings, PBS is not afraid to address the most contentious divisions of regionalism, race, class, religion and politics. “The NewsHour” is not just an in-depth rundown of the day’s events; it’s also a careful exploration of the full panoply of issues surrounding those events. “Sesame Street” is not just an entertaining way for small children to learn numbers and letters; it’s also a way for them to find out about the many cultures that make up American life.

Perhaps the clearest picture of our communal experience comes from Mr. Burns’s own films. From their wide-ranging subjects (the Brooklyn Bridge, the Civil War, baseball, jazz, the Dust Bowl, national parks, cancer, the Vietnam War, country music, etc.) to their diverse central figures (the Roosevelts, Mark Twain, Huey Long, Jackie Robinson and others), this body of work is, collectively, nothing less than the story of the country itself. And it could have found a home only on PBS. “I’ve been making films about the U.S. for more than 40 years, but I’ve also been making films about us — that is to say, the lowercase two-letter plural pronoun,” Mr. Burns said. And when you fully invest in that, you understand that there’s only us. There’s no ‘them.’”