American public to President Trump: Leave our national monuments alone

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The comment period for the Trump administration’s national monument review has officially ended, and the administration if facing stiff public backlash over its attempt to downsize national monuments across the West.

President Donald Trump signed an executive order in April directing the Department of the Interior to review two decades’ worth of national monument designations in an effort to decide whether to rescind, modify, or maintain their designations. The review encompasses 21 monuments, mostly located in the Western United States, from New Mexico to Washington.

Image: Patrick Whittle, Associated Press

The review’s public comment period, which lasted for 60 days, elicited more than 2.5 million responses. According to a Center for Western Priorities analysis of the 654,197 comments that had been processed by Interior Department staff as of Monday morning, 98 percent were supportive of maintaining or expanding current national monument boundaries, while just 1 percent supported the idea of shrinking monuments.

Several recently-designated monuments have been the target of Republican lawmakers, primarily the Bears Ears National Monument in Utah, which President Obama designated in December of 2016. The designation, which was granted after a proposal from five indigenous tribes, meant that oil and gas companies would not be allowed to drill or mine for minerals in some 1.35-million acres of the state. On June 13, Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke released a recommendation calling for Bears Ears to be downsized, which Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-UT), a fierce opponent of the national monument, called “ an unquestionable victory for Utah.”

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Trump Creates a ‘Voter Fraud’ Commission, Taps a White Supremacist to Lead It

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President Trump has signed an executive order to create a commission to address voter fraud. This is a nonexistent issue tied to Trump’s fallacious, unsubstantiated claims that millions of people voted illegally in the 2016 election and cost him the popular vote. The measure is part of a larger effort at voter suppression, to deny Black people and others the franchise and to deprive them of their voting rights — a cause of concern among civil rights and civil liberties groups. One of the leaders of this newly created body is a driving force behind voter suppression and anti-immigration laws across the nation and a figure with white supremacist sentiments and ties to white nationalist groups.

On May 11, Trump established a “Presidential Advisory Commission on Election Integrity,” which is charged with identifying the following:

(a) those laws, rules, policies, activities, strategies, and practices that enhance the American people’s confidence in the integrity of the voting processes used in Federal elections;

(b) those laws, rules, policies, activities, strategies, and practices that undermine the American people’s confidence in the integrity of the voting processes used in Federal elections; and

(c) those vulnerabilities in voting systems and practices used for Federal elections that could lead to improper voter registrations and improper voting, including fraudulent voter registrations and fraudulent voting.

The election integrity commission will have a staff to carry out its mission and will engage with federal, state and local officials and election law experts. Vice President Mike Pence is the chair of the commission, while Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach is the vice chair. The selection of Kobach raises red flags and speaks to the insidious motives of the commission.

Kobach, who was once considered a contender to head the Department of Homeland Security, according to Politico, has gained a reputation for his controversial anti-immigration stance and for supporting draconian voter suppression laws that federal courts have struck down for discriminating against nonwhite voters. According to civil rights advocacy groups, Kobach is a racial extremist with white supremacist ties. According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, the Yale-trained lawyer who also has degrees from Harvard and Oxford is a “central figure” in the nativist movement and the author of Arizona’s “papers please” law, SB 1070, which amounted to a racial profiling law for Latinos. The U.S. Supreme Court found most of the measure unconstitutional in 2012. Kobach also played a key role in enacting similar legislation in Alabama, Georgia and South Carolina.

Since 2004, Kobach has served as counsel to the Immigration Reform Law Institute (IRLI), the legal arm of the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR). FAIR, according to SPLC, has “historical ties to white supremacists and eugenicists” and has received $1.2 million from the Pioneer Fund, an organization founded by Nazi sympathizers. Kobach was a supporter of birtherism during his run for Kansas secretary of state, and called for President Obama to release his “long-form” birth certificate to answer questions about his birthplace. SPLC reported that in 2014, Kobach also led an effort to purge voter rolls known as Interstate Crosscheck. The program compiled a master list of the names of one-seventh of all Black voters in 27 states, people who officials alleged were suspected of voting twice in the same election, as Al Jazeera America reported. In 2015, Kobach also gave himself the power to prosecute voter fraud, making Kansas the only state allowing its secretary of state with such authority. Kobach has urged states to require not only photo identification as a requirement to vote, but proof of citizenship, including a birth certificate or passport. This draconian measure had its impact in Kansas in 2015, where 37,000 people who attempted to register to vote were placed on a “suspense list” barring them from voting unless they provided documentation, as The Washington Post reported.  That year, Kobach was a featured speaker at The Social Contract Press, a white nationalist writers’ workshop created by FAIR.

Kobach’s ties to the organization led to his defeat in a 2004 race for Congress.  In a statement opposing Kobach and calling him unfit to serve and his appointment “nothing less than an outrage,” SPLC said Kobach “is a longtime lawyer for far-right extremist groups with ties to white nationalists” and “a leader in the movement to suppress the votes of minorities.” The statement added that voter suppression is the real threat to democracy.

During the 2016 presidential campaign, then-candidate Trump claimed the election was rigged, and that if he lost, his defeat would be attributed to rampant, nonexistent voter fraud and so-called illegal immigrants voting. After he won the Electoral College in November, he then said the margin of his deficit in the popular vote was due to voter fraud. Without providing a shred of proof of his allegation, Trump tweeted on November 27 that “in addition to winning the Electoral College in a landslide, I won the popular vote if you deduct the millions of people who voted illegally.” As FiveThirtyEight reported, Trump misused research from an Old Dominion University study to falsely claim that 14 percent of noncitizens were registered to vote.

I will be asking for a major investigation into VOTER FRAUD, including those registered to vote in two states, those who are illegal and….

even, those registered to vote who are dead (and many for a long time). Depending on results, we will strengthen up voting procedures!

Last week, the ACLU filed a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request with the Vice President’s office demanding evidence to back up Trump’s claims of voter fraud in the 2016 election. Dale Ho, director of the ACLU’s Voting Rights Project, said the commission is a “boondoggle” and part of Trump’s plan to “spread his own fake news about election integrity” as The Hill reported.

“The president … has alleged that ‘millions of votes’ were ‘illegally’ cast ‘for the other side.’ No concrete evidence has been provided thus far to support the president’s serious indictment against American democracy. Yet the president’s allegations are the basis of an executive order … to establish a ‘Commission on Election Integrity,’” the FOIA request from the ACLU read. “This FOIA demands that the government release the factual basis and evidence supporting the president’s allegations.”

In its FOIA request, the ACLU noted that Trump has suggested he will enact new voting restrictions based on a Department of Justice investigation. The civil liberties group stated that for 150 years since the ratification of the 15th Amendment in 1870 to today, “politicians have consistently perpetuated unsupported claims of widespread voter fraud to justify discriminatory restrictions on the right to vote.” The request added that if federal and state governments plan to rely on the Department of Justice investigation to justify voting discrimination, “then the health of our democracy urgently demands that the public know the bases for such potential discrimination immediately.”

Sherrilyn Ifill, president and director-counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, has noted that the issue has been studied and widespread voter fraud does not exist in the U.S. “But there is no evidence that millions, thousands or even hundreds of instances of in-person voter fraud occur in the United States,” she wrote in a Washington Post op-ed in February. “One of the most reliable studies found only 31 instances of fraud in more than 1 billion votes cast over nearly 15 years. A person is more likely to be struck by lightning than to commit voter fraud.”

Trump’s executive order comes as the U.S. Supreme Court announced that it will not reinstate North Carolina’s draconian voter ID law, which was regarded as one of the most restrictive in the nation and designed to discriminate against African-Americans.

By David Love/AtlantaBlackStar

Posted by The NON-Conformist

Donald Trump’s Executive Order Will Let Private Equity Funds Drain Your 401(k)

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DONALD TRUMP’S FEBRUARY 3 executive order enabling financial advisers to continue ripping off their clients could prove a lifeline for a surprising beneficiary: the private equity industry.

The Department of Labor’s fiduciary rule would have forced investment advisers in workplace retirement plans like 401(k)s to operate in their clients’ best interests, rather than recommending high-cost, high-risk products that offer the advisers kickbacks and perks.

The Obama White House estimated in a 2015 report that conflicts of interest cost retirement savers $17 billion annually, though that figure has been challenged.

The fiduciary rule, finalized last year, was to go into effect in April. But the new order directs the Labor Department to review the rule, which is expected to initiate the process of rescinding it.

As Gary Cohn, former Goldman Sachs president and director of the National Economic Council, put it, the fiduciary rule “is like putting only healthy food on the menu, because unhealthy food tastes good but you still shouldn’t eat it because you might die younger.”

Why Trump thinks individual workers must have the freedom to choose poison for their retirement funds is unclear. But one reason could be that his friends in private equity have long sought to add their particular form of junk food to that menu.

And to break into the 401(k) market — especially with financial products that are high-risk, high-cost, and often make their money from ripping established companies apart and selling the pieces — private equity funds would need a lot of help from the advisers who guide ordinary investors in the process. And that would require the ability to offer those advisers considerable perks and kickbacks.

On the same day that he issued his fiduciary rule executive order, Trump met with his White House jobs panel, headed by Steven Schwarzman, CEO of the world’s largest private equity firm, Blackstone.

“We’re getting rid of your regulations,” Trump told Schwarzman and his colleagues on Friday.

Late last month, Schwarzman stressed his craving for Blackstone to get into the 401(k) market. “In life you have to have a dream,” Schwarzman said on an analyst call, “and one of our dreams is our desire and the market’s need to have more access at retail to alternative asset products.”

Traditional pension funds invest heavily in private equity; this makes up about one-quarter of total private equity capital. But defined contribution plans like 401(k)s have traditionally not invested in the asset class. Because 401(k) holders choose how to invest their money and can move in and out of funds quickly, they don’t fit mechanically with private equity, which locks in investors over several years. Also, private equity usually asks for large minimum investments, not less than $5 million, to open their funds to investors.

But with pension plans now a rarity compared to defined contributions retirement plans, private equity wants to crack the 401(k) market to unlock trillions of dollars in potential capital. Americans hold $6.8 trillion in individual retirement plans like 401(k)s. The Wall Street Journal describes this as “something of a Holy Grail quest” for the industry.

Large firms like Carlyle, Blackstone, Partners Group, and Kohlberg Kravitz Roberts (KKR) have developed a series of 401(k)-friendly products over the past couple years. Most enable plan advisers to offer private equity stakes to investors as part of a “target fund,” in a diversified portfolio with other investments. “That’s where we believe private equity should go,” said Kevin Albert, global head of business development for Pantheon Ventures, on a Wall Street Journal podcast.

If plan advisers take this up, it would flood more money into private equity. “Five percent of the estimated $6.8 trillion and growing in 401(k)s is $340 billion — a nice chunk of change,” said Eileen Applebaum, senior economist at the Center for Economic and Policy Research and author of Private Equity at Work.

But these investments are far riskier than most 401(k) offerings. Contrary to popular belief, private equity firms do not outperform the market. Fees are also often opaque and much larger than those in passive funds, usually extracting 1 to 2 percent of the total capital invested and 20 percent of the profits. A 2014 SEC study found that over half of the private equity firms examined shifted costs to benefit themselves, like billing investors for legal and compliance costs without their knowledge, or forcing investors to pay for “consultants” who are actually former employees of the companies. Giant fees guarantee private equity profits regardless of the performance of their portfolio.

Last week, Pantheon introduced a new performance-based offering to plan advisers, with Pantheon only benefiting if they outperform the benchmark S&P 500. Albert claimed this would relieve the threat of class-action lawsuits over high fees. Pantheon will also partner with KKR and other firms to ensure they have sufficient funds to invest in companies, regardless of whether 401(k) investors pull their money out on a moment’s notice.

But private equity has been accused of deliberately reporting exaggerated returns to harvest fees. And even if the returns were legitimate, this would still throw millions of retirement dollars into an industry that has been sharply criticized for its predatory version of capitalism.

Private equity firms buy out companies and load them with unsustainable debt, forcing severe cost-cutting to maintain survival. Because private equity serves as manager and investor, they favor short-term gain over a company’s health, whether through using bankruptcy, favorable tax strategies, or monetizing assets. Workers often get left behind, with lower wages, lost jobs, or restructured union contracts.

The destruction of the Mervyn’s department store chain provides a salient example. Once a major retailer with 30,000 employees, Mervyn’s was bought out in 2004 by a consortium of private equity firms, who split off the company’s real estate assets and forced stores to pay exorbitant rent to service $800 million in debt. Within four years, Mervyn’s liquidated the entire operation in bankruptcy. The private equity managers, however, earned profits through the real estate deals and came out ahead.

Individual investors would therefore be using retirement dollars to fund an industry that terrorizes workers and sucks value from their employers.

How does sidelining the fiduciary rule facilitate this? Plan advisers would not be required to act in the best interest of their clients when promoting target funds, enabling them to include private equity, regardless of the fee structure or threat of losses.

“It could put retirement income at risk and may be more costly than the individual investor recognizes,” said Eileen Applebaum. “The financial adviser will know, but they’re now under no obligation to divulge.”

Advisers could also receive hidden kickbacks for including these investments in the target funds. There’s already a large cottage industry of perks for financial advisers, most of them obscure to individual 401(k) subscribers. Few would be able to outbid wealthy private equity firms for the privilege of peddling complex financial products to ordinary investors.

According to a study from researchers at Indiana University, the University of Texas and the Federal Reserve last October, plan advisers routinely present limited choices to 401(k) investors, to steer them into unnecessary or risky options. This favoritism benefits affiliated funds, and with private equity perks in the waiting, advisers would have yet another incentive to tout their products.

By David Dayen

Posted by The NON-Conformist

Does a Minimum Wage Increase Come With a Price?

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As promised in his 2014 State of the Union Address, President Obama signed an executive order raising the minimum wage to $10.10 an hour for a portion of federal contractors. Obama has also pressed Congress to raise the federally mandated minimum wage as well.

Obama reassured raising the minimum wage won’t cause harm, but will “boost” the economy. Few economists would go this far however. Instead, most agree there is mixed evidence.

For instance, economists have found evidence that raising the minimum wage can lead to businesses laying off workers, hiring fewer workers, and reducing business expansion. Others have found that it raises prices of good and services many low-income Americans depend on, and may even discourage workers from receiving further training and education.  In their meta-analysis of over 100 studies, economists David Neumark and William Wascher conclude “the minimum wage leads to economic distortions and often has unintended adverse consequences for the employment opportunities of low-skilled workers.”

Is it really that hard to believe that raising the minimum wage is going to cost somebody something?

Nevertheless, other economists have failed to detect significant costs. For instance in Hristos Doucouliagos’ and Thomas Stanley’s meta-analysis of 64 studies, they conclude there are no “meaningful adverse” effects on employment. Although even economist andNew York Times columnist Paul Krugman suspects that setting a minimum wage high enough, say at $20 and hour, “would create a lot of problems.”

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Posted by The NON-Conformist

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