The Daily Parker

Politics, Weather, Photography, and the Dog

Bankruptcy laws in the US

Whether the US bankruptcy code intended to create a new indentured class of university graduates, its prohibition on discharging student-loan debt has done so.

But the code really helps badly-run businesses, and not just at the criminal scale of Sears. The private-equity fund that owned a grocery store chain in Indiana has done very well under the code, while destroying the future of the chain's retirees:

The anger arises because although the sell-off allowed Sun Capital and its investors to recover their money and then some, the company entered bankruptcy leaving unpaid more than $80 million in debts to workers’ severance and pensions.

For Sun Capital, this process of buying companies, seeking profits and leaving pensions unpaid is a familiar one. Over the past 10 years, it has taken five companies into bankruptcy while leaving behind debts of about $280 million owed to employee pensions.

The unpaid pension debts mean that some retirees will get smaller checks. Much of the tab will be picked up by the government’s pension insurer, a federal agency facing its own budget shortfalls.

“They did everyone dirty,” said Kilby Baker, 70, a retired warehouse worker whose pension check was cut by about 25 percent after Marsh Supermarkets withdrew from the pension. “We all gave up wage increases so we could have a better pension. Then they just took it away from us.”

Truly, the law is a ass. It's also working as its Republican authors intended.

How sellers use Amazon's monopsony power against each other

Via Bruce Schneier, a report on how third-party Amazon sellers use Amazon's own policies to attack their rivals:

When you buy something on Amazon, the odds are, you aren’t buying it from Amazon at all. Plansky is one of 6 million sellers on Amazon Marketplace, the company’s third-party platform. They are largely hidden from customers, but behind any item for sale, there could be dozens of sellers, all competing for your click. This year, Marketplace sales were almost double those of Amazon retail itself, according to Marketplace Pulse, making the seller platform alone the largest e-commerce business in the world.

For sellers, Amazon is a quasi-state. They rely on its infrastructure — its warehouses, shipping network, financial systems, and portal to millions of customers — and pay taxes in the form of fees. They also live in terror of its rules, which often change and are harshly enforced. A cryptic email like the one Plansky received can send a seller’s business into bankruptcy, with few avenues for appeal.

Sellers are more worried about a case being opened on Amazon than in actual court, says Dave Bryant, an Amazon seller and blogger. Amazon’s judgment is swifter and less predictable, and now that the company controls nearly halfof the online retail market in the US, its rulings can instantly determine the success or failure of your business, he says. “Amazon is the judge, the jury, and the executioner.”

An algorithm flags sellers based on a range of metrics — customer complaints, number of returns, certain keywords used in reviews, and other, more mysterious variables — and passes them to Performance workers based in India, Costa Rica, and other locations. These workers choose between several prewritten blurbs to send to sellers. They may see what the actual problem is or the key item missing from an appeal, but they can’t be more specific than the forms allow, according to Rachel Greer, who worked as a fraud investigator at Amazon before becoming a seller consultant. “It feels like it’s a bot, but it’s actually a human who is very frustrated about the fact that they have to work like that,” she says.

The Performance workers’ incentives favor rejection. They must process approximately one claim every four minutes, and reinstating someone who later gets suspended again counts against them.... When they fall behind...they’ll often “punt” by sending requests for more information....

Scary. And an example of why monopolies are bad. As Schenier says, "Amazon is basically its own government—with its own rules that its suppliers have no choice but to follow. And, of course, increasingly there is no option but to sell your stuff on Amazon."

Note that I say this while watching an old TV show on Amazon Prime, waiting for Amazon to deliver a replacement Fitbit band, and on and on.

Party like it's 1879

Atlantic editor Adam Serwer draws a straight line between the ways the Redemption court of the 1870s paved the way for the Gilded Age and Jim Crow, and how the Roberts court now (and especially with Brett Kavanaugh on it) is returning to those halcyon days:

The decision in Cruikshank set a pattern that would hold for decades. Despite being dominated by appointees from the party of abolition, the Court gave its constitutional blessing to the destruction of America’s short-lived attempt at racial equality piece by piece. By the end, racial segregation would be the law of the land, black Americans would be almost entirely disenfranchised, and black workers would be relegated to a twisted simulacrum of the slave system that existed before the Civil War.

The justices did not resurrect Dred Scott v. Sandford’s antebellum declaration that a black man had no rights that a white man was bound to respect. Rather, they carefully framed their arguments in terms of limited government and individual liberty, writing opinion after opinion that allowed the white South to create an oppressive society in which black Americans had almost no rights at all. Their commitment to freedom in the abstract, and only in the abstract, allowed a brutal despotism to take root in Southern soil.

The conservative majority on the Supreme Court today is similarly blinded by a commitment to liberty in theory that ignores the reality of how Americans’ lives are actually lived. Like the Supreme Court of that era, the conservatives on the Court today are opposed to discrimination in principle, and indifferent to it in practice. Chief Justice John Roberts’s June 2018 ruling to uphold President Donald Trump’s travel ban targeting a list of majority-Muslim countries, despite the voluminous evidence that it had been conceived in animus, showed that the muddled doctrines of the post-Reconstruction period retain a stubborn appeal.

Roberts wrote that since the declaration itself was “facially neutral toward religion” and did not discriminate against all Muslims, it did not run afoul of the Constitution. In doing so, he embraced the logic of decades of jurisprudence from his predecessors on the high court, whose rulings ensured that the Constitution would not interfere with the emergence of Jim Crow in the American South. The nation’s founding document is no match for a dedicated majority of justices committed to circumventing its guarantees.

He lays out that in the Roberts court at least they're not vociferously white supremacist. But the deference to corporate rights, he points out, almost guarantee another generation of increasing wealth disparities in America.

Unless we win all three branches of government and pass an amendment or two. But it'll have to get a lot worse before we do that, if history is any guide.

Update: Longtime reader MB sent this: "At every crossroads on the path that leads to the future, tradition has placed 10,000 men to guard the past."—Maurice Maeterlinck

When you think it can't get stupider...

President Trump, after hearing a report on Fox News that Google search results on his name aren't totally flattering, now believes that Google is part of the conspiracy against him:

The Trump administration is “taking a look” at whether Google and its search engine should be regulated by the government, Larry Kudlow, President Trump’s economic adviser, said Tuesday outside the White House.

“We’ll let you know,” Kudlow said. “We’re taking a look at it.”

The announcement puts the search giant squarely in the White House’s crosshairs amid wider allegations against the tech industry that it systematically discriminates against conservatives on social media and other platforms.

Greg Sargent sees this as Trump once again, by instinct or design, trying to inflame his rump supporters:

Trump’s claim is, of course, absurd: As Daniel Dale explains, this is based on a bogus right wing media claim, and all it really means is that when you google about Trump, you are likely to initially see stories from major news organizations that are legitimately reporting aggressively on Trump, rather than from conservative opinion sites that are putting out propaganda on his behalf.

But while this might seem like typical Trumpian buffoonery, at its core is some deadly serious business. These attacks on the media — which are now spreading to extensive conspiracy-mongering about social media’s role in spreading information — form one part of an interlocking, two-piece Trumpian strategy (whether by instinct or design is unclear) that serves to underscore the urgency of this fall’s elections.

Trump is unleashing endless lies and attacks directed at the mechanisms of accountability that actually are functioning right now — the media, law enforcement and special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s investigation — to persuade his supporters not only that they shouldn’t believe anything they hear from these sources, but also to energize them and get them to vote, to protect him from those institutions’ alleged conspiracy against him.

At the same time, that campaign of lies is designed to get Republican voters out for the purpose of keeping in place the mechanism of accountability that is not functioning right now — the GOP-led Congress — preventing a Democratic takeover of the House, which would impose genuine accountability.

At the same time, Republicans in Congress have circulated a list of all the scandals Democrats want to hold hearings on as soon as they win a majority in either legislative house:

The list hints at the overflowing sewer of Trumpian corruption and incompetence, and the refusal of congressional Republicans to investigate any of it. Oddly enough, this list is being circulated by Republicans in Congress. The list, composed of Democratic requests for hearings that Republicans have blocked, is meant to warn of what Congress would look into if Democrats win the midterms. Axios reports that Republican “stomachs are churning” at the mere thought that any of the items on the list could receive a public hearing.

The list includes the kinds of policies a normally functioning Congress would probe, including “Election security and hacking attempts,” “White House security clearances,” and “Hurricane response in Puerto Rico.” (Congress held bipartisan hearings on the government’s response to Hurricane Katrina, but has not done so for the response to the hurricane in Puerto Rico, where hundreds of Americans died.) But most of the cases listed focus on corruption: “President Trump’s tax returns,” “Trump family businesses — and whether they comply with the Constitution’s emoluments clause, including the Chinese trademark grant to the Trump Organization,” “Trump’s dealings with Russia, including the president’s preparation for his meeting with Vladimir Putin,” and on and on.

Probably the most picayune item on the list would be “White House staff’s personal email use,” though of course it might be difficult for Republicans to dismiss this issue given that they based their entire campaign on the premise that the use of personal email constitutes a grave criminal defense and continue to demand the imprisonment of Hillary Clinton for this very offense.

The most predominant theme of the list is corruption.

In other words, the Republican Party has completely abandoned its previously-held beliefs in the rule of law, and are now openly running on a platform of supporting the rule of Donald Trump.

We have 70 days until the Mid-Terms. Can't wait to see how bad it will get before then.

Don't be fooled; Sessions is reactionary and dangerous

Despite President Trump's Tweets deriding the man, Attorney General Jeff Sessions has done much of what he set out to do in office. He's partying like it's 1959:

Since taking office, Sessions has installed a punitive agenda based on the “Massive Resistance” strategy followed by attorneys general throughout the Deep South during the segregation era to use the law to thwart justice. The aim then was to hobble the civil rights movement, limit the number of black elected officials and impose sentencing guidelines that fell most harshly on black lawbreakers and white citizens guilty of lifestyle “crimes” like recreational drug use and “deviant” sexual behavior. This, of course, is the same legal agenda now being pursued ferociously by Sessions. Far from being “missing in action” as Trump claims, the much-ridiculed Sessions is bent on a root-and-branch revision of federal law enforcement.

Sessions’ connection to this living tradition of punitive law enforcement is well documented. As an U.S. attorney, he selectively prosecuted black elected officials in the Alabama Black Belt for voter fraud. Later, as Alabama attorney general, he opposed the funding of gay and lesbian student associations as a threat to his state’s sodomy laws. While his alma mater, the University of Alabama Law School, did produce some white civil rights champions like federal Judge Frank M. Johnson and former Alabama Attorney General Bill Baxley, it mainly schooled the lawyer-politicians who ordered poll taxes and phony literacy tests to keep blacks from voting. This latter tradition seems to have shaped Sessions’ thinking; witness his abolition earlier this year of the Justice Department's Office for Access to Justice, devoted to equal justice for persons in need. The once energetic Civil Rights Division now labors under what the Atlantic magazine calls the Sessions Doctrine, which aims to “erase many of the legal gains of modern America's defining movement.”

This is the Jeff Sessions story writ short. He has made Alabama’s tradition of weaponizing the legal system against minorities, immigrants and political opponents into the official policy of the United States Justice Department and its legal and prosecutorial agencies. And a nation transfixed by presidential misdirection seems hardly to have noticed.

It's not just the authoritarian and reactionary disaster in the White House from which we will take a generation to recover; Sessions' work will make it harder to get started.

Why all the optimism?

Washington Post columnist Anne Applebaum, watching the Manafort trial unfold, wonders why anyone thinks our institutions are up to the challenge of stopping the Trump organization:

America’s federal institutions are not the only ones designed to prevent someone like Trump from undermining the Constitution. We have other kinds of institutions, too — legal organs, regulatory bodies, banks — that are supposed to prevent men like Trump from staying in business, let alone acquiring political power. The truth is that many of these equally important American institutions failed a long time ago. Trump is not the cause of their failure. He is the result.

Nearly 40 years ago, in 1980, Trump employed 200 illegal Polish workers to destroy the Bonwit Teller department store, a historic building on Fifth Avenue, to make way for what would become Trump Tower. The men earned half the union wage and worked 12-hour shifts without hard hats; at one point, their contractor stopped paying them. Eventually they sued. In 1998, Trump paid $1.375 million to settle the case.

Trump broke immigration law and employment law, and he violated union rules, too. Yet neither immigration authorities nor employment regulators nor union bosses put him out of business. Why not? Why were the terms of that settlement kept confidential? Why, with his track record, was he allowed to get a casino license? Building permits? Wall Street banks did, it is true, stop lending to him. But when he began looking abroad for cash — doing extremely dodgy deals in Georgia and Azerbaijan, for example — no one stopped him.

She's right. A country with functioning legal institutions would have stopped this guy long ago. The Russian government has had so much success undermining our faith in democracy because we'd already eroded it ourselves.

States can charge sales tax on Internet purchases now

The Supreme Court handed down its ruling in South Dakota v. Wayfair, Inc. this morning:

Brick-and-mortar businesses have long complained that they are disadvantaged by having to charge sales taxes while many of their online competitors do not. States have said that they are missing out on tens of billions of dollars in annual revenue under a 1992 Supreme Court ruling that helped spur the rise of internet shopping.

On Thursday, the court overruled that ruling, Quill Corporation v. North Dakota, which had said that the Constitution bars states from requiring businesses to collect sales taxes unless they have a substantial connection to the state.

South Dakota responded to Justice Kennedy’s invitation by enacting a law that required all merchants to collect a 4.5 percent sales tax if they had more than $100,000 in annual sales or more than 200 individual transactions in the state. State officials sued three large online retailers — Wayfair, Overstock.com and Newegg — for violating the law.

Here's a really interesting bit: "KENNEDY, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which THOMAS, GINSBURG, ALITO, and GORSUCH, JJ., joined. THOMAS, J., and GORSUCH, J., filed concurring opinions. ROBERTS, C. J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which BREYER, SOTOMAYOR, and KAGAN, JJ., joined."

Ginsburg siding with Thomas and Alito against Roberts, Sotomayor, and Kagan? That's just weird.

I am shocked—shocked!—by this event

New York State has sued the Donald J. Trump Foundation for—wait for it—self-dealing and general corruption:

The lawsuit, which seeks to dissolve the foundation and bar President Trump and three of his children from serving on nonprofit organizations, was an extraordinary rebuke of a sitting president. The attorney general also sent referral letters to the Internal Revenue Service and the Federal Election Commission for possible further action, adding to Mr. Trump’s extensive legal challenges.

The lawsuit, filed in State Supreme Court in Manhattan, culminated a nearly two-year investigation of Mr. Trump’s charity, which became a subject of scrutiny during and after the 2016 presidential campaign. While such foundations are supposed to be devoted to charitable activities, the complaint asserts that Mr. Trump’s was often used to settle legal claims against his various businesses, even spending $10,000 on a portrait of Mr. Trump that was hung at one of his golf clubs.

The foundation was also used to curry political favor, the lawsuit asserts. During the 2016 race, the foundation became a virtual arm of Mr. Trump’s campaign, email traffic showed, with his campaign manager Corey Lewandowski directing its expenditures, even though such foundations are explicitly prohibited from political activities.

The attorney general’s referrals to the I.R.S. and the F.E.C. could add another wrinkle that might slow the foundation’s dissolution. The agencies are not known for their expeditious handling of enforcement actions, and the lawsuit notes that the foundation cannot legally complete its wind down “until the complaints to the Internal Revenue Service and Federal Election Commission have been resolved and it is determined if any penalties or fines will be imposed on the foundation.”

Trump immediately blamed "New York democrats," because of course he did.

Pass the popcorn.

New Chicago gang map released

The Associated Press has obtained the latest edition of the Chicago Crime Commission's "Gang Book." It shows the turfs claimed by 59 gangs, including many small areas formed as groups split off from other groups after top leaders go to jail. The book also highlights how social media make gang disputes worse:

Gangs put a premium on retaliation for perceived disrespect. In the past, insults rarely spread beyond the block. Now, they’re broadcast via social media to thousands in an instant.

“If you’re disrespected on that level, you feel you have to act,” said [Rodney] Phillips, employed with Target Area, a nonprofit group that seeks to defuse gang conflicts.

Police say there was a gang connection to most of the 650 homicides in Chicago recorded in 2017 — more than in Los Angeles and New York City combined. Homicides so far in 2018 are down around 20 percent. Police partly credit better intelligence and the deployment of officers to neighborhoods on the anniversaries of gang killings.

So integral is social media to gang dynamics that when Englewood-area pastor Corey Brooks brokered a truce between factions of the Black Disciples and Gangster Disciples in 2016, he insisted they agree to refrain from posting taunts. The gang truce lasted longer than most — 18 months.

Some gangs provoke enemy gangs by streaming live video showing them walking through rival turf. Others face off using a split-screen function on Facebook Live and hurl abuse at each other.

I kind of want to see that map. And I kind of don't. Chicago Public Media has an online, interactive map that doesn't reflect the 2018 changes.

Good ol' Indiana spirit

Chances are, that bourbon you're drinking came from an industrial distillery in southern Indiana:

In just the last 10 years, the number of craft distilleries in this country has ballooned from around 100 to more than 1,400. That growth is a product of consumer demand, but it’s also due to the easing of state distillation laws and the availability of sourced whiskey from suppliers like MGP in Lawrenceburg, Indiana.

Templeton Rye — marketed as Al Capone’s favorite whiskey and proud product of Templeton, Iowa — is also distilled by MGP. Tincup Whiskey, a self-described “mountain whiskey” replete with commercials conjuring a frontiersman image and Rocky Mountain ethos, is mostly MGP, too.

Those brands aren’t alone in their Indiana provenance. Even super-premium brands like High West and Whistle Pig have sourced from MGP at some point in their respective histories. And the list goes on.

MGP isn’t a household name in bourbon, but it’s well known among industry insiders and connoisseurs. With distilling operations headquartered in the old Seagram’s Distillery in Lawrenceburg, Indiana, MGP is one of the largest whiskey sourcers in the industry.

So why do so few people know MGP’s name?

For one, it maintains strict confidentiality agreements with all of its customers; the purchasing brand only has to reveal MGP as its source if it wants to — an option many decline.

In addition, labeling regulations only require that the bottler list in which state the liquid was distilled — easily done in tiny print on the back of the bottle.

This is why I've got Trader Joe's $15 "Kentucky Bourbon" at home instead of $60 Whistle Pig. It's the same whiskey.

Single-malt Scotch, on the other hand, is by UK law exactly what it says on the bottle.