Budget Austerity Treats Public-School Parents Like Criminals

Budget Austerity Treats Public-School Parents Like Criminals
By Jeff Bryant
Jul 20 2017
https://ourfuture.org/20170720/how-budget-austerity-puts-public-school-parents-on-par-with-criminals

In researching an upcoming article I’m writing about the St. Louis school system, and the district’s ongoing funding crisis, I came across an astonishing example of who wins and who loses in current approaches to government budget balancing.

As a local St. Louis reporter tells it, during a public meeting about a proposed new $130 million 34-story apartment building in the city, alderman Joe Roddy used a slideshow to make a case for why the city should give the developers 15 years of reduced property taxes, a $10 million subsidy, in exchange for some additional retail space and 305 high-end, luxury apartments downtown.

In a slide show titled “How the City Makes & Spends Money,” Roddy, a Democrat mind you, laid out a hierarchy of those who “make money” for the city at the top and those who cause the city to “spend money” at the bottom.

At the top of his slide were businesses. In the middle were residents with no children and retirees. And at the very bottom – in the tier of city dwellers who place the biggest financial burden on government – were “criminals and residents with children in public school.”

When told that some might take offense at equating families with children needing free public schools to criminals, Roddy countered that the project would “target tenants who are young professionals without children. Attracting that demographic to the city is crucial, he says, and after the tax abatement ends, the revenue windfall for the city will be significant.”

By the way, St. Louis has a history of extending tax abatements for developers to longer terms.

Winners and Losers

The thrust of Roddy’s remarks is well understood by all – in a budget environment of forced scarcity, there are increasingly strong demarcations between winners and losers, and parents who plan on sending children to free public schools are increasingly losers.

To be fair to Roddy, a great deal of St. Louis’s financial constraints, particularly in relation to the city’s ability to cover the cost of education, is the fault of the state of Missouri.

A 2015 accounting of state school funding found Missouri is “underfunding its K-12 schools by $656 million statewide, nearly 20 percent below the required level.” The budget situation for families with children has not improved a lot since then, with this year’s installment cutting spending on school buses, higher education, and social services.

Missouri is one of 27 states that spends less on education than it did in 2008.

The severity of Missouri’s budget austerity seems specifically targeted at districts like St. Louis that happen to be stuck with lots of low-income families with children (Where would they fall in Roddy’s hierarchy?).

A 2016 study conducted by NPR found that St. Louis schools on average spend considerably less per student compared to the highest spending districts in the St. Louis area.

Another more recent analysis by EdBuild finds St. Louis schools have a cost adjusted revenue per student that is nine percent below Missouri’s average. The district gets only 35 percent of its revenue from the state even though the district is challenged to educate a student population in which 68 percent are eligible for free or reduced-price lunch, a common measurement of poverty.

The trend of financial inequity for St. Louis schools is worsening, according to Rutgers University professor Bruce Baker, who finds that the district, since 1995, is increasingly at a funding disadvantage compared to the rest of the state.

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“Set aside Putin and follow the money”: a Russia expert’s theory of the Trump scandal

[Note:  This item comes from friend Robert Berger.  DLH]

“Set aside Putin and follow the money”: a Russia expert’s theory of the Trump scandal
Why the collusion story begins with money, not politics.
By Sean Illing
Jul 18 2017
https://www.vox.com/2017/7/18/15983910/donald-trump-russia-putin-natalia-veselnitskaya-collusion

“To understand the roots of the collusion, set aside Putin and follow the money.”

That’s what Seva Gunitsky, a politics professor at the University of Toronto and the author of Aftershocks, told me in a recent interview. I reached out to Gunitsky on Monday after he posted a short but incisive thread on Twitter about the financial roots of the Trump-Russia collusion case. 

Gunitsky, who was raised in Russia, has followed the evolving relationship between Donald Trump and Russia for more than a decade. He says the prevailing narrative about Putin interfering in the American election in order to undermine democracy is wildly overstated.

Putin is happy to sow confusion and distrust in America’s system, of course, but to assume that’s the basis of this operation is to overlook a much simpler motive: money. 

The financial connections between Trump and various Russian banks and oligarchs (business elites with ties to the Kremlin) stretch back decades, which is likely a big reason why Trump won’t release his tax returns. Trump’s election, Gunitsky contends, presented Russian oligarchs with an opportunity to recoup losses and leverage Trump’s debts for political gain. 

I asked Gunitsky to lay it out for me as clearly as possible, and to explain the financial dealings between Trump and his Russian business partners. 

Here’s what he told me. 

Sean Illing

This collusion story gets more convoluted by the day. But you seem to think it’s pretty straightforward. 

Seva Gunitsky

I think it’s justifiable for you to say that it seems impossibly convoluted, but I would say it’s still much simpler than this idea that there’s a global conspiracy designed to bring down democracy. I’m not saying the political dimension is unimportant — surely it is. But if we’re talking about the roots of the collusion, we have to look at where Trump’s links with Russia begin. And it begins with money. [These roots] don’t start with the election; they start with money, and namely Russian oligarch money. 

Sean Illing

So walk me through the trail. Where does the money lead?

Seva Gunitsky

Again, this doesn’t start with the election; it starts with Russian oligarch money pouring into Trump’s real estate and casino businesses. Many of them Trump has been working with for years, well before he developed any serious political ambitions. And we’re not talking about small change here; we’re talking about hundreds of millions of dollars. Possibly even enough to keep Trump out of another bankruptcy. 

Sean Illing

And we know this how, exactly?

Seva Gunitsky

We know because they’ve told us. We can talk about specific cases in a minute, but Donald Trump Jr. has already admitted the importance of Russian money to their business ventures. He said publicly in 2008 that “Russians make up a pretty disproportionate cross-section of a lot of our assets. We see a lot of money pouring in from Russia.” It doesn’t get much clearer than that.

[snip]

Global Police Spring a Trap on Thousands of Dark Web Users

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

Global Police Spring a Trap on Thousands of Dark Web Users
By Andy Greenberg
Jul 20 2017
https://www.wired.com/story/alphabay-hansa-takedown-dark-web-trap/

When AlphaBay, the world’s largest dark web bazaar, went offline two weeks ago, it threw the darknet into chaos as its buyers and sellers scrambled to find new venues. What those dark web users didn’t—and couldn’t—know: That chaos was planned. Dutch authorities had already seized Hansa, another another major dark web market, the previous month. For weeks, they operated it as usual, quietly logging the user names, passwords, and activities of its visitors–including a massive influx of Alphabay refugees.

On Thursday, Europol and the US Department of Justice jointly announced the fruits of the largest-ever sting operation against the dark web’s black markets, including the seizure of AlphaBay, a market Europol estimates generated more than a billion dollars in sales of drugs, stolen data, and other illegal goods over its three years online. While Alpabay’s closure had previously been reported as an FBI operation, the agency has now confirmed that takedown, while Europol also revealed details of its tightly coordinated Hansa takeover.

With Hansa also shuttered as of Thursday, the dark web looks substantially diminished from just a few short weeks ago—and its denizens shaken by law enforcement’s deep intrusion into their underground economy.

“This is likely one of the most important criminal cases of the year,” attorney general Jeff Sessions said in a press conference Thursday morning. “Make no mistake, the forces of law and justice face a new challenge from the criminals and transnational criminal organizations who think they can commit their crimes with impunity by ‘going dark.’ This case, pursued by dedicated agents and prosecutors, says you are not safe. You cannot hide. We will find you, dismantle your organization and network. And we will prosecute you.”

The Sting

So far, neither Europol nor the Department of Justice has named any of the administrators, sellers, or customers from either Hansa or AlphaBay that they plan to indict. The FBI and DEA had sought the extradition from Thailand of one AlphaBay administrator, Canadian Alexandre Cazes after identifying him in an operation they called Bayonet. But Cazes was found hanged in a Bangkok jail cell last week in an apparent suicide.

Still, expect plenty of prosecutions to emerge from the double-takedown of Hansa and AlphaBay, given the amount of information Dutch police could have swept up in the period after Alphabay’s closure.

“They flocked to Hansa in their droves,” said Interpol director Rob Wainwright. “We recorded an eight-times increase in the number of new users on Hansa immediately following the takedown of Alphabay.” The influx was so large, in fact, that Hansa put up a notice just last week that it was no longer accepting new registrations, a mysterious development given that Dutch police controlled it at the time.

That surveillance means that law enforcement likely now has identifying details on an untold number of dark web sellers—and particularly buyers. Europol claims that it gathered 10,000 postal addresses of Hansa customers, and tens of thousands of their messages, from the operation, at least some of which were likely AlphaBay customers who had migrated to the site in recent weeks. Though customers on dark web sites are advised to encrypt their addresses so that only the seller of the purchased contraband can read it, many don’t, creating a short trail of breadcrumbs to their homes for law enforcement when they seize the sites’ servers.

[snip]

Healthier living could reduce worldwide dementia by a third, report says

Healthier living could reduce worldwide dementia by a third, report says
By Tara Bahrampour
Jul 20 2017
https://www.washingtonpost.com/local/social-issues/healthier-living-could-reduce-worldwide-dementia-by-a-third-report-says/2017/07/19/e40438be-6cc0-11e7-96ab-5f38140b38cc_story.html

Up to one-third of the world’s dementia cases could be prevented by addressing factors such as education, hypertension, diet, hearing loss and depression over the course of a person’s lifetime, according to a new report presented Thursday at the Alzheimer’s Association International Conference in London. 

The report was compiled by the first Lancet Commission on Dementia Prevention and Care, which brought together 24 experts from around the world to review scores of studies and synthesize them into a model showing how lifestyle modification could reduce dementia risk. 

Around 47 million people have dementia worldwide, and that number is projected to triple by 2050. The global cost of dementia in 2015 was estimated to be $818 billion, a figure also expected to rise with the number of cases. 

The report identifies nine risk factors over a person’s lifespan, including years of education before age 15; hypertension, hearing loss and obesity in middle age; and smoking, depression, physical inactivity, social isolation and diabetes in late life. The Lancet team considered each factor separately and also looked at how they related to one another to calculate how much modification of each could potentially affect a person’s dementia risk. 

In the past decade, research has increasingly pointed to controllable lifestyle factors as integral to reducing the risk of cognitive decline. Researchers believe that, as with heart disease, combating dementia is likely to require a multipronged, or “cocktail” approach combining drugs and lifestyle changes.

“The message is that conditions like dementia are not immutable and are substantially modifiable by the environment,” said Lon Schneider, professor of psychiatry and the behavioral sciences at the Keck School of Medicine at the University of Southern California and a co-author of the Lancet report.

Noting that modifying all nine factors could reduce the risk by 35 percent, he said, “Compare that to how we’re developing drugs to treat dementia. Dementia is not a condition that’s ever going to be such that a single drug can be considered a cure for the illness.” Lifestyle modification is inexpensive, he said, adding that a 35 percent reduction of risk is “far larger than anything you can ever expect for drugs.”

Last month a report by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine took a more cautious approach to the effects of lifestyle modification, finding that evidence of their efficacy derived from randomized controlled trials “remains relatively limited and has significant shortcomings.”

[snip]

PET scans show many Alzheimer’s patients may not actually have the disease

PET scans show many Alzheimer’s patients may not actually have the disease
By Tara Bahrampour
Jul 19 2017
https://www.washingtonpost.com/national/health-science/brain-scans-show-many-alzheimers-patients-may-not-actually-have-the-disease/2017/07/18/52013620-6bf2-11e7-9c15-177740635e83_story.html

A significant portion of people with mild cognitive impairment or dementia who are taking medication for Alzheimer’s may not actually have the disease, according to interim results of a major study underway to see how PET scans could change the nature of Alzheimer’s diagnosis and treatment.

The findings, presented Wednesday at the Alzheimer’s Association International Conference in London, come from a four-year study launched in 2016 that is testing over 18,000 Medicare beneficiaries with mild cognitive impairment (MCI) or dementia to see if their brains contain the amyloid plaques that are one of the two hallmarks of the disease.

So far, the results have been dramatic. Among 4,000 people tested so far in the Imaging Dementia-Evidence for Amyloid Scanning (IDEAS) study, researchers from the Memory and Aging Center at the University of California at San Francisco found that just 54.3 percent of MCI patients and 70.5 percent of dementia patients had the plaques.

A positive test for amyloid does not mean someone has Alzheimer’s, though its presence precedes the disease and increases the risk of progression. But a negative test definitively means a person does not have it.

The findings could change the way doctors treat people in these hard-to-diagnose groups and save money being spent on inappropriate medication.

“If someone had a putative diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease, they might be on an Alzheimer’s drug like Aricept or Namenda,” said James Hendrix, the Alzheimer Association’s director of global science initiatives who co-presented the findings. “What if they had a PET scan and it showed that they didn’t have amyloid in their brain? Their physician would take them off that drug and look for something else.”

For decades, diagnosing Alzheimer’s has been a guessing game, based on looking at a person’s symptoms rather than testing for definitive evidence of the brain disorder. A firm diagnosis was not possible until an autopsy was performed.

Now, a spinal tap or PET scan can detect the telltale amyloid deposits, and researchers are trying to develop a simple blood test that would do so. PET imaging can quantify the amount of amyloid and also show where it is in a person’s brain.

But spinal taps are invasive, and PET scans cost $3,000 to $4,000 and are typically not covered by insurance. In 2013 the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) declined to cover the tests, citing insufficient evidence that they would make a difference for patients with a disease for which there is no cure and limited treatment available.

But CMS agreed to fund the bulk of the $100 million IDEAS study by reimbursing participants for their PET scans, and researchers hope positive results will persuade them to cover it in the future.

Over 400 physicians enrolled their patients in the study, and they initially filled out forms describing how they would care for them based on their clinical symptoms. After seeing the PET imaging results, they changed their care plans for two-thirds of the patients in the study.

“We thought we would be able to see about a 30 percent change, but we’re getting a 66 percent change, so it’s huge,” Hendrix said. “We see high percentages of people who are on a drug and didn’t need to be on those drugs.”

[snip]

I’m a scientist. I’m blowing the whistle on the Trump administration.

I’m a scientist. I’m blowing the whistle on the Trump administration.
By Joel Clement
Jul 19 2017
https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/im-a-scientist-the-trump-administration-reassigned-me-for-speaking-up-about-climate-change/2017/07/19/389b8dce-6b12-11e7-9c15-177740635e83_story.html

Joel Clement was director of the Office of Policy Analysis at the U.S. Interior Department until last week. He is now a senior adviser at the department’s Office of Natural Resources Revenue. 

I am not a member of the deep state. I am not big government. 

I am a scientist, a policy expert, a civil servant and a worried citizen. Reluctantly, as of today, I am also a whistleblower on an administration that chooses silence over science.

Nearly seven years ago, I came to work for the Interior Department, where, among other things, I’ve helped endangered communities in Alaska prepare for and adapt to a changing climate. But on June 15, I was one of about 50 senior department employees who received letters informing us of involuntary reassignments. Citing a need to “improve talent development, mission delivery and collaboration,” the letter informed me that I was reassigned to an unrelated job in the accounting office that collects royalty checks from fossil fuel companies. 

I am not an accountant — but you don’t have to be one to see that the administration’s excuse for a reassignment such as mine doesn’t add up. A few days after my reassignment, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke testified before Congress that the department would use reassignments as part of its effort to eliminate employees; the only reasonable inference from that testimony is that he expects people to quit in response to undesirable transfers. Some of my colleagues are being relocated across the country, at taxpayer expense, to serve in equally ill-fitting jobs. 

I believe I was retaliated against for speaking out publicly about the dangers that climate change poses to Alaska Native communities. During the months preceding my reassignment, I raised the issue with White House officials, senior Interior officials and the international community, most recently at a U.N. conference in June. It is clear to me that the administration was so uncomfortable with this work, and my disclosures, that I was reassigned with the intent to coerce me into leaving the federal government. 

On Wednesday, I filed two forms — a complaint and a disclosure of information — with the U.S. Office of Special Counsel. I filed the disclosure because eliminating my role coordinating federal engagement and leaving my former position empty exacerbate the already significant threat to the health and the safety of certain Alaska Native communities. I filed the complaint because the Trump administration clearly retaliated against me for raising awareness of this danger. Our country values the safety of our citizens, and federal employees who disclose threats to health and safety are protected from reprisal by the Whistleblower Protection Act and Whistleblower Protection Enhancement Act. 

Removing a civil servant from his area of expertise and putting him in a job where he’s not needed and his experience is not relevant is a colossal waste of taxpayer dollars. Much more distressing, though, is what this charade means for American livelihoods. The Alaska Native villages of Kivalina, Shishmaref and Shaktoolik are perilously close to melting into the Arctic Ocean. In a region that is warming twice as fast as the rest of the planet, the land upon which citizens’ homes and schools stand is newly vulnerable to storms, floods and waves. As permafrost melts and protective sea ice recedes, these Alaska Native villages are one superstorm from being washed away, displacing hundreds of Americans and potentially costing lives. The members of these communities could soon become refugees in their own country.

Alaska’s elected officials know climate change presents a real risk to these communities. Gov. Bill Walker (I) and Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R) have been sounding the alarm and scrambling for resources to help these villages. But to stave off a life-threatening situation, Alaska needs the help of a fully engaged federal government. Washington cannot turn its back.

[snip]

There’s literally a ton of plastic garbage for every person on Earth

There’s literally a ton of plastic garbage for every person on Earth
By Darryl Fears
Jul 19 2017
https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/energy-environment/wp/2017/07/19/theres-literally-a-ton-of-plastic-garbage-for-every-person-in-the-world/

More than 9 billion tons of plastic has been produced since 1950, and the vast majority of it is still around.

A new study that tracked the global manufacture and distribution of plastics since they became widespread after World War II found that only 2 billion tons of that plastic is still in use. Seven billion tons is stuck on Earth as garbage in landfills, recycled trash or pollution in the environment, including deep oceans, where it’s been discovered in the mouths of whales and the bellies of dead seabirds that mistook it for food. A small amount is eliminated in incinerators.

As plastic becomes near-indestructible mountains of garbage on land and swirling vortexes of trash on the high seas, humans keep making more. Half of the plastic that people mostly use once and toss away was created in the past 30 years, the study says.

Plastic’s most lucrative market is packaging commonly seen in grocery stores. It could be in front of you right now, in the form of a water bottle, a carryout lunch container, or an iced-coffee or tea cup with its disposable straw.

It’s a miracle product that’s also in your office chair, phone and computer keyboard. The pipes that move water in your building are often plastic. You probably touch plastic to switch on the car radio on the foam plastic dashboard. Plastic is pretty much everywhere humans are at any part of the day, anywhere in the world.

In 1960, plastic accounted for just 1 percent of junk in municipal landfills across the world. As single-package containers led to an explosion in convenience and use, that number grew to 10 percent in 2005. A recent study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences estimated the amount of plastic debris floating in the open ocean at 7,000 to 35,000 tons.

“If current trends continue, the researchers predict over 13 billion tons of plastic will be discarded in landfills or in the environment by 2050,” the American Association for the Advancement of Science said in a statement announcing the new study’s release Wednesday. It was published in the journal Science Advances.

“I think for me that’s the single most surprising thing, the implication of the large growth rate,” said Roland Geyer, one of the authors. Another surprise, he said, is how far the United States lags behind China and Europe in recycling plastic material.

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