President Donald Trump plans to take action on a what he sees as a broad array of national security risks presented by software connected to the Chinese Communist Party, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said Sunday.
Pompeo’s remarks followed reports that Microsoft is in advanced talks to buy the U.S. operations of TikTok, which has been a source of national security and censorship concerns for the Trump administration. The potential deal would be a victory for both companies, making Microsoft Corp. a major player in the social media arena and providing relief to TikTok and its parent company, Bytedance Ltd., a target of President Donald Trump’s.
“These Chinese software companies doing business in the United States, whether it’s TikTok or WeChat — there are countless more … are feeding data directly to the Chinese Communist Party, their national security apparatus,” Pompeo said on Fox News Channel’s “Sunday Morning Futures.”
“Could be their facial recognition patterns. It could be information about their residence, their phone numbers, their friends, who they’re connected to. Those — those are the issues that President Trump has made clear we’re going to take care of,” he said.
TikTok’s U.S. user data is stored in the U.S., with strict controls on employee access, and its biggest investors come from the U.S., the company said Sunday. “We are committed to protecting our users’ privacy and safety as we continue working to bring joy to families and meaningful careers to those who create on our platform,” a TikTok spokesperson said.
Trump had said on Friday that he would soon ban TikTok in the United States. A federal committee is reviewing whether that’s possible, and its members agree that TikTok cannot remain in the U.S. in its current form, because it “risks sending back information on 100 million Americans,” said Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin.
“We all agree there has to be a change … everybody agrees it can’t exist as it does,” Mnuchin said Sunday on ABC’s “This Week.”
As speculation grew over a ban or sale of the social media’s U.S. business, TikTok posted a video on Saturday saying: “We’re not planning on going anywhere.”
TikTok’s catchy videos and ease of use has made it popular, and it says it has tens of millions of users in the U.S. and hundreds of millions globally. Its parent company, Bytedance Ltd., launched TikTok in 2017. It bought Musical.ly, a video service popular with teens in the U.S. and Europe, and combined the two. It has a similar service, Douyin, for users in China.
But TikTok’s Chinese ownership has raised concern about the potential for sharing user data with Chinese officials as well as censorship of videos critical of the Chinese government. TikTok says it does not censor videos and it would not give the Chinese government access to U.S. user data.
“The President, when he makes his decision, will make sure that everything we have done drives us as close to zero risk for the American people,” Pompeo said. “That’s the mission set that he laid out for all of us when we get — we began to evaluate this now several months back. We’re closing in on a solution. And I think you will see the president’s announcement shortly.”
The debate over TikTok parallels a broader U.S. security crackdown on Chinese companies, including telecom providers Huawei and ZTE.
There have been reports of U.S. tech giants and financial firms being interested in buying or investing in TikTok as the Trump administration sets its sights on the app. The New York Times and Fox Business, citing an unidentified source, first reported Friday that Microsoft is in talks to buy TikTok.
TikTok issued a statement Friday saying that, “While we do not comment on rumors or speculation, we are confident in the long-term success of TikTok.”
On Saturday it posted a short video from its U.S. General Manager Vanessa Pappas saying that “We’re not planning on going anywhere.”
ByteDance launched TikTok in 2017, then bought Musical.ly, a video service popular with teens in the U.S. and Europe, and combined the two. A twin service, Douyin, is available for Chinese users.
TikTok’s fun, goofy videos and ease of use has made it immensely popular, and U.S. tech giants like Facebook and Snapchat see it as a competitive threat. It has said it has tens of millions of U.S. users and hundreds of millions globally.
But its Chinese ownership has raised concerns about the censorship of videos, including those critical of the Chinese government, and the potential for sharing user data with Chinese officials.
TikTok maintains it doesn’t censor videos based on topics sensitive to China and it would not give the Chinese government access to U.S. user data even if asked. The company has hired a U.S. CEO, a former top Disney executive, in an attempt to distance itself from its Chinese ownership.
U.S. national-security officials have been reviewing the Musical.ly acquisition in recent months, while U.S. armed forces have banned their employees from installing TikTok on government-issued phones. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said this month that the U.S. was considering banning TikTok.
These national-security worries parallel a broader U.S. security crackdown on Chinese companies, including telecom providers Huawei and ZTE. The Trump administration has ordered that the U.S. stop funding equipment from those providers in U.S. networks. It has also tried to steer allies away from Huawei because of worries about the Chinese government’s access to data, which the company has denied it has.
The Trump administration has stepped in before to block or dissolve deals on national-security concerns, including stopping Singapore’s Broadcom from its $117 billion bid for U.S. chipmaker Qualcomm in 2018 in an effort to help retain U.S. leadership in the telecom space. It also told China’s Beijing Kunlun Tech Co. to sell off its 2016 purchase of gay dating app Grindr.
Other countries are also taking action against TikTok. India this month banned dozens of Chinese apps, including TikTok, citing privacy concerns, amid tensions between the countries.
The U.S. government’s poor track record in bolstering Americans’ data privacy more broadly lessens its credibility in taking on Chinese-owned companies, according to Susan Ariel Aaronson, a professor at George Washington University and a data governance and national-security expert. The federal government has not passed broad privacy or data-security legislation despite efforts to do so last year, and the Justice Department has tried to undermine encryption – which makes sure only a sender and receiver can see content they exchange – for law-enforcement reasons. Tech companies have pushed back against that.
“I continue to be wary of forcing a sale of TikTok without data protection laws they could try to follow,” Alex Stamos, the former chief security officer at Facebook who now studies internet security at Stanford University, tweeted on Friday. He added that Microsoft “has one of the best child safety teams, which is a larger risk on TikTok right now.”
Microsoft, which owns LinkedIn, is the No. 4 digital ad company in the U.S., after Google, Facebook and Amazon. Still, buying TikTok would be a significant change of direction from Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella’s focus on workplace software that makes people more productive, said technology industry analyst Patrick Moorhead of Moor Insights & Strategy.
Unlike Google or Facebook, which dominate the digital advertising industry, Microsoft hasn’t been under the intense scrutiny of U.S. politicians and antitrust regulators lately over its market power. Moorhead said that might make it easier to swoop in and acquire TikTok, which poses a competitive threat to social networks like Facebook, Instagram, Google’s YouTube and Snapchat. It’s an interesting irony that it was Microsoft at the center of the landmark antitrust case 20 years ago.
If the deal goes through, “it would definitely make Microsoft a much more competitive advertising system in years to come,” said eMarketer analyst Ross Benes.
Tali Arbel, Anne D’Innocenzio, and Zeke Miller in Washington contributed to this Associated Press story.
In 1890, as the Russian Flu raged, a conspiracy emerged, linking the disease to the suspicious new electric light technology. If there is a vacuum in scientific or political authorities’ accounts, conspiracies fill the void. This happens with increasing frequency whenever there is a gap in trust in the process of scientific endeavor.
“People have an epistemic need to know the truth and they also have an existential need to feel safe,” Karen Douglas, a professor of psychology at the University of Kent who studies conspiracy theories, told Forbes in May.
The current outbreak of COVID-19 has elevated, among other bad suppositions, the notion that the 5G technology emanates the disease. Such conspiracy theories have contributed to some Americans’ reluctance to buy into public health measures. Skeptics and those on the fence hesitate to accept social distancing measures and mask mandates, or outright spurn them.
This “general anti-science, anti-authority, anti-vaccine feeling” has hampered the United States’ ability to control the outbreak, Anthony Fauci, the long-serving director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, told CNN in June.
Indeed, the U.S. continues to break records for new cases of COVID-19, even as many other nations have seen declines.
Science and anti-science
Dr. Fauci’s comment highlighted the connection between science, public health, and power structures, drawing on the increasingly apparent fact that anti-science sentiment has become increasingly visible in the United States in recent years.
This anti-science feeling has historical parallels in the U.S., and carries certain consequences.
The 1960s saw a wave of anti-science sentiment. In his 1970 text “Modern Physics and Antiphysics,” Adolph Baker traces the backlash of the anti-science movements of the sixties to the funding model of most scientific research which relied upon the apparatus of the state (in other words, military research).
In the minds of the protesters, according to Baker, military tech and science were interchangeable. This, similar to how the modern anti-vaccination movement objects to the public-private partnerships of the medical establishment, created a general skepticism of science. Anti-war protestors, in this account, viewed the lack of critical engagement by scientists on political matters to be synonymous with complicity in pro-war activities.
Following the 1960s protest period, it was conservatives and churchgoers who lost faith in scientific endeavors. Between 1974 and 2010, as Gordon Gauchat, at the time affiliated with the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, explains in a 2012 research paper, conservatives became “increasingly distrustful of science,” while public faith in science across America generally was stable.
During the Obama and Bush administrations, a major concern of institutions like the National Academies of Science became preserving the “cultural authority” of science. The early 2000s was seen as a period in American life in which scientific inquiry was very polarized. Indeed, Professor Gauchat’s study “[calls] into question whether the cultural authority of science can provide the political consensus it once did in the 1960s.”
American conservatives came to see science as a politically-loaded endeavor. They were skeptical of climate science, and some fundamentalist quarters rejected scientific theories like evolution by mutation and natural selection. This was not a clean break with science but a gradual separation, and it is not necessarily explained by a lack of education as is sometimes suggested. In Professor Gauchet’s view, scientific literacy is not as much of a problem as is the unwillingness to accept scientific authority on cultural and political matters.
A matter of trust
The relationship between science and the powers that be influences the way we view science in general, which in turn impacts our likelihood of accepting public health policies. Moreover, those who distrust public institutions tend to distrust science. High polarization and low institutional trust equals low trust in expert opinions.
Scientists in the U.S. are at the mercy of public views about U.S. institutions when they do not actively engage in the policy sphere. Science is not necessarily a value neutral venture, as scientists like Stanford neuroscientist Robert Sapolsky and the late Harvard evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould have pointed out. The political implications of science can alienate people who begin to view their ideology as at odds with scientific enterprise. In times of crisis conspiracy theories can claim the gaps in authority in the public consciousness.
Contrary to the U.S., New Zealand has received praise for its response to the coronavirus outbreak. The first confirmed case in the country was documented on February 28th. Since mid-April, the country has averaged less than ten new cases a day, and has, as of this writing, a total of 1,204 confirmed cases. The country publicly estimates a total of 1,560 confirmed and probable cases.
One factor that may have played a role in the success of the country’s attempt to eliminate the virus is the buy-in to cultural authority on the matter. In recent years, New Zealanders’ trust in government has been on the rise, even during the pandemic.
If we had more scientific input on science-heavy policy matters, perhaps the United States would have had a better response to the virus.
A 2015 survey of 3,748 American-based scientists by Pew Research Center revealed that the majority, 87%, agreed with the statement that, “Scientists should take an active role in public policy debates about issues related to science and technology.” Science communicators like astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson have made the case that scientists should engage in politics more.
“If we go forward allowing people in charge to cherry-pick science, that is not an informed democracy,” Dr. Tyson told one interviewer. “We should fear the future of our nation in all the ways that science matters to that future… if that is how people are making decisions.”
Perhaps the way forward is to have scientists more actively and openly involved in policy debates. That may make it harder for officials to cherry-pick, and more difficult for the public to accept junk theories.
It’s the question many voters ask themselves every four years: Why elect America’s president with a system as arcane as the Electoral College? For an institution so unpopular, it has proved surprisingly durable – surviving more than two centuries of complaints and confusion.
Alexander Keyssar, a professor of history and social policy at Harvard Kennedy School, attempts to answer that question in his book “Why Do We Still Have the Electoral College?” Narrating its history from the U.S. Constitutional Convention to today, Professor Keyssar explores how the system came to be, and how it has lasted.
With the country approaching another election in November, Professor Keyssar spoke with the Monitor about his book.
Q: In the book, you discuss why the Electoral College still exists – not whether it should. Why take that approach?
There have been many, many books and articles on the pros and cons, and I don’t think that I or anybody else has much to add to that debate. What grabbed me was the question that is the title of the book: Given how problematic the Electoral College is, how has it endured? It’s also the question I think several hundred million Americans ask themselves every year – why do we still do this?
Q: If it’s so unpopular, how did we get the Electoral College in the first place?
When they gathered in Philadelphia in 1787, the framers really didn’t know how the president should be chosen. The default position was that Congress would choose, but all sorts of other ideas were proposed. One proposal was to have the governors choose the president. Another was to have some sort of independent electors. They also discussed the possibility of a national popular vote. But they couldn’t come to an agreement.
At the end of the summer they took a week’s vacation and left a committee in charge of straightening it out. It was that committee which came up with the idea.
Q: How long did it take for people to start looking for something better?
Even in the 1790s, the first elections, there were signs that what they had designed was not working smoothly. What was also happening right away was the formation of [political] parties. And when you start getting these partisan interests, they start gaming the system – for example, shifting from winner-take-all votes to district elections. The dissatisfactions with the system were so great that between 1813 and 1826, constitutional amendments to significantly revise the electoral system were introduced in every Congress. Four of those constitutional amendments were actually passed by the Senate by the requisite two-thirds majority. One year it was passed by the Senate and failed by just a couple of votes in the House.
Q: Why has the Electoral College survived despite so much pushback?
There are three pieces to the answer and they’re all important. One is that partisan factors intervened repeatedly. Parties who thought they had an advantage with one system didn’t want to get rid of it. The second factor is that the institution was sufficiently complicated that changing any one part meant that you had to change other parts. That made it more difficult to reach consensus. The third factor is that between the 1870s and the 1970s, the white South fiercely opposed the adoption of a national popular vote because its leaders were convinced that would reduce their power and jeopardize the system of white supremacy they had put into place.
Q: What do you make of the partisanship that helps to keep the Electoral College alive?
As polls have shown since the 1940s, the American people have been significantly more in favor of reform than their political leaders. There is a common-sensical view among people in a democratic country that the person who wins the most votes should become president. The resistance to reform comes much more from the professional politicians who are calculating their partisan interests. Politicians who have thrived in a particular electoral system are often the people least likely to want to change the system.
Is Afghanistan witnessing a change in thinking that could finally yield progress toward peace? Analysts point to a new coalescing of calculations focused by renewed U.S. pressure and leavened by the recognition there may be a limit to leverage gained by violence.
After five months of delay and continued killing, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani announced Tuesday that the government would soon complete a mass prisoner release and that direct talks with the Taliban would start in a week. The Taliban stated Thursday it would complete its own release of prisoners before starting a three-day cease-fire to mark the Eid holiday, which begins Friday.
To be sure, skepticism abounds. The Taliban are highlighting the cease-fire “as the greatest favor they can give to people,” says Orzala Nemat, a Kabul-based analyst. What the United States has gained so far is more exit strategy than real peace, she says. “It’s nothing close to peace, because where is the sign of peace?” she asks.
Yet a virtual stop to U.S. airstrikes against Taliban targets since March 1 has led Rahmatullah, a veteran Taliban fighter, to reconsider his earlier commitment to permanent war. “If we think logically, we really need peace,” he says. “Now I am thinking about my kids’ future; we should do something for them.”
Afghanistan’s need for peace is a realization that has been dawning on one diehard Taliban fighter ever since the United States and Taliban leaders signed a withdrawal deal Feb. 29.
The stocky, bearded Rahmatullah has done his part to keep up the pressure on government forces. Just last Friday, he says, he led an attempt to destroy his local Afghan National Army base, southwest of Kabul.
That attack failed, leaving one jihadist dead and three wounded.
Yet while that battle in Taliban-controlled Wardak Province adds one more datapoint of violence nationwide, it comes amid broader changes – in the thinking of some frontline fighters, like Rahmatullah, as well as among top leadership on both sides – that could finally yield progress toward peace.
For reasons for cautious optimism, analysts point to a new coalescing of political calculations that are focused by renewed U.S. pressure and leavened by the recognition that there may be a limit to leverage gained by protracted violence.
After five months of delay and waffling – marred by the killing of more than 4,300 Afghan soldiers and civilians alone – President Ashraf Ghani announced Tuesday that the government would soon complete a mass release of 5,000 prisoners, and that direct talks would start in a week. The Taliban stated Thursday it would complete its own release of 1,000 prisoners before starting a three-day cease-fire to mark the Muslim Eid holiday, which begins Friday.
In keeping with steps laid out by the U.S.-Taliban deal, such releases pave the way for direct intra-Afghan talks, which were meant to begin in March, lead to a more durable cease-fire, and eventually a peace agreement.
U.S. envoy Zalmay Khalilzad has been in Kabul and Doha, Qatar, as part of a five-nation tour to pressure all players to move quickly. He is reported to have suggested extending the cease-fire.
For its part, the U.S. had by mid-June already withdrawn several thousand troops, bringing forces levels down to 8,600, as specified in the deal, with further reductions dependent on lower levels of violence and the Afghan talks.
That has meant a virtual stop to U.S. airstrikes against Taliban targets since March 1 – removing a threat that has made Rahmatullah reconsider his earlier commitment to permanent war.
“If we think logically, we really need peace,” says the veteran Taliban fighter, whose nom de guerre of Mullah Sarbakhod means one who rushes forward wildly, helter-skelter.
Before the U.S.-Taliban deal, “our life was like an animal’s life, we didn’t have a specific address, didn’t have enough food for us and our children,” says Rahmatullah, interviewed in the Wardak provincial capital of Maydan Shahr. Now he “feels good positive changes” and that he can “achieve my goals” because he can move freely and work on his land. He is digging a well in his garden – a task impossible before the easing of U.S. air strikes, he says.
“In these five months, we feel we should work for our community and stop war, because war will never bring prosperity,” says Rahmatullah. “Now I am thinking about my kids’ future; we should do something for them.”
The Taliban fighter’s talk of peace today is far from the hard-line position he articulated in late February, on the eve of the U.S.-Taliban deal. At the time he told The Christian Science Monitor he rejected peace attempts as “useless, because our Prophet, our fathers, our grandfathers … were always in jihad, so that’s our only way, to continue jihad.”
Even today Rahmatullah says he will keep fighting as long as American forces are in Afghanistan. “I am still against that [U.S.-Taliban] deal, but I will agree and be optimistic when intra-Afghan dialogue becomes successful.”
Reaching that point will be the test of the upcoming three-day cease-fire – the third official cessation of hostilities since June 2018 – and what comes after. It is not clear how many Taliban fighters may have recently shifted their thinking about peace, much less accepted the view that their “victory” over the U.S., NATO, and Afghan security forces may yield, at the negotiating table, only a power-sharing deal with a Kabul government they deem as “un-Islamic.”
U.S. exit strategy?
“The Taliban are building a huge PR out of the cease-fire, by highlighting it as the greatest favor they can give to people, that they won’t kill civilians and target Afghans, again,” says Orzala Nemat, the Kabul-based director of the Afghanistan Research and Evaluation Unit, a think tank.
“What is more important here is to see any serious step toward kicking off the intra-Afghan dialogue,” says Ms. Nemat. “Any single day that we delay this process is making anyone in charge responsible for losses of human beings on either side. The Taliban and the government, they become the owner of any life we lose because of violence.”
And that price is high. President Ghani said this week that 3,560 members of the Afghan security forces and 775 civilians had been killed since signing the U.S.-Taliban deal. Afghans “are increasingly seeing the continuation of carnage instead of a peace dividend,” he said.
First Vice President Amrullah Saleh berated the Taliban’s Eid message, saying on Twitter that the jihadist cease-fire meant “no killing” for three days only, then required Afghans to “surrender to a medieval way of life or face bloodshed.”
What the United States has gained so far is more exit strategy than real peace, Ms. Nemat says. “It’s nothing close to peace, because where is the sign of peace?” she asks. “Releasing killers and suicide bombers is not peace, it’s a deal.”
The Taliban have nevertheless been making adjustments – such as the recent inclusion of four arch-conservative members in their negotiating team in Doha, Qatar – that appear designed to ease concerns among lower level commanders and fighters that their interests may be sold out by leaders they accuse of preferring luxury over the trenches.
At the same time, the Taliban are “giving a longer leash to the most aggressive Taliban commanders to keep fighting,” says a Western official based in Kabul, who asked not to be further identified. One young fighter in eastern Afghanistan told the Washington Post earlier this month, for example, that the Taliban would “only accept 100 percent of power” in the country. His commander claimed the goal of talks was “complete destruction” of the government.
“Victory for all Afghans”
The Taliban are used to simultaneously talking and fighting, but this time are carefully calibrating the scale of violence by mounting constant attacks while taking little new territory.
The result is they are keeping up pressure, “but not putting so much pressure that things might break,” says the official. “Right now, if they wanted to, they could overrun several districts, but they have held back.”
Those conducting such attacks include a Taliban deputy district chief, Suleiman Roostami, who a week ago led strikes against a string of small bases in Wardak Province, killing nine Afghan police and detaining seven others.
He told the Monitor last February how tired he was of the war, and how constant fighting often had little result.
“There are not changes in our life … every day fighting, every day conflict, the only change is before we targeted U.S. forces, but now we target only Afghans,” the young-faced militant and father of four says now. He notes that Taliban fighters have become “very strong” during the past five months of training without the fear of U.S. airstrikes.
An American departure would be a “big victory” for the Taliban and worthy of celebration, he says. But he also hopes for national reconciliation.
“Personally, I want peace because I am really tired of this bad condition,” says Mr. Roostami. “If peace comes that will be a big victory for all Afghans, not only the Taliban, because all Afghans need peace, and we will enjoy our life.”
Reporting for this story was contributed by Hidayatullah Noorzai in Maydan Shahr, Afghanistan.
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The last month, I’ve not updated the site here and thats a rarity. Ive not gotten lazy, actually the opposite. Ultimate SEO LLC has had a long history of hiring contractors who wanted to learn SEO and weren’t that tech knowledgeable on day one. We’d provide them with a Windows laptop (at least dual core with 8 gb memory) a job and tasks that weren’t too hard but offered exposure to the business.
This past February, pre Coronavirus, a nonprofit thats now a 501c3 was formed with Ultimate SEOs funding and Matthew Leffler’s direction. LFI which has a web site at LFIKY.org is attempting to address a complex and super difficult problem. 17,000 young adults in Louisville are unemployed and not in school. They’re often nearly homeless or homeless.
Of the young adult homeless population 40% identify as LGBTQ. That is astounding since LGBTQ make up less than 10% of the population.
The single largest factor cited for why they are homeless is family rejection.
Matt Leffler, is a member of the local LGBTQ chamber of commerce and the national NGLCC. But 20 yrs ago if family rejection had happened to him its anyone’s guess what life would be like now, a family can make all the difference. Bell Labs did research and found the single biggest indicator of someones success is their network.
These young adults are starting out with no network. LFI wants to change that trajectory these few thousand people are on in Louisville. First we need to get them safe shelter. Second they need skills to support themselves long term. Third career skills and development.
It’s not as easy as just opening a shelter. In Louisville, if more than 3 people are unrelated and live together they need a permit or they need to be students. The permit is highly restricted in an effort to slow down housing options for those in need. But if they need to be students, then students they shall be.
LFI, a tech training nonprofit, 501c3 has created a new program … Kentucky Technical University which is its own nonprofit corporation that is seeking 501c3 status as well. LFI has earned Guidestar.org’s Gold Star for Transparency, it’s been accepted into Google for Nonprofits, received the Google Ad Grant, part of the Paypal Giving Fund and is available as a charity on Amazon Smile.
Its official name is Leffler Foundation Inc, not named for Matt Leffler but for his father who supported his technical aspirations, even after Matt came out as LGBTQ.
We’ve created the KTUC course catalogue as required by the state. It’s available through Amazon for just $6 … basically the cost of shipping if we self made the catalogue. The digital version is free and available for review at KTUC CC Digital
KTU’s site https://kytech.university is still under development but a lot of progress has been made. KTU is the short name of the Kentucky Technical University Corporation which has a corporate site at https://ktuc.org
These are part of the state’s licensing requirements as well as a school surety bond and a blank agent bond. Ultimate SEO has paid for those bonds.
KTU offers credit for courses taken largely from other accredited universities through Coursera.com whom KTU has a license for over 3,800 courses. The courses include stuff like Harvard University’s Intro to Computer Science or MIT’s Intro to Algebra.
Students who are homeless or show need can receive 100% of their tuition discounted off. Even the students not showing need are charged no more than $1300 a term … making KTU one fourth the cost of any instate school.
Whats ahead? Well…completing the licensing process and then enrolling a small student population. Additional corporate sponsors would be awesome and don’t forget that your donations are tax deductible.
Theres more to share but at this point, you should have enough to take up some time for you to research this all more on your own.
Americans hunkered down at home early in the COVID-19 pandemic found beef and pork nearly as hard to buy as toilet paper.
The culprit: Outbreaks of the coronavirus among workers caused shutdowns at a handful of huge processing plants, which prompted calls for antitrust investigations from President Donald Trump and lawmakers in both parties.
Just how few companies dominate the U.S. meat industry would not surprise readers of two books offering liberal critiques of the threats posed by economic concentration.
The top four hog producers control two-thirds of the market while four companies control 85 percent of the beef industry, notes David Dayen, the executive editor of the liberal American Prospect magazine, in “Monopolized: Life in the Age of Corporate Power.”
Meanwhile, three processors control the sale of almost every chicken in America, points out Fordham University law professor Zephyr Teachout, at the start of “Break ‘Em Up: Recovering Our Freedom from Big AG, Big Tech, and Big Money.” In June, the Justice Department brought criminal price-fixing charges for pre-pandemic conduct against four poultry executives, including the CEO of Pilgrim’s Pride, one of the biggest U.S. chicken producers.
Meat shortages are just one example of why Dayen and Teachout could not have picked a better time to publish books advocating for more aggressive policing of monopolies.
Even before the pandemic, the rising power of Big Tech giants had already made antitrust a mainstream political issue for the first time in nearly a century, one resonating with populists on both the left and right. On July 29, members of Congress grilled the CEOs of Amazon, Apple, Facebook, and Google, asking whether they squelched competition.
Democratic Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts promised to break up major technology companies during her presidential bid.
Every week brings new headlines about ongoing antitrust probes by the Justice Department, Federal Trade Commission, and state attorneys general led by Republican Ken Paxton of Texas. Earlier this month, for example, the Wall Street Journal reported the Federal Trade Commission is considering whether to take sworn testimony from Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg and COO Sheryl Sandberg.
Dayen and Teachout detail how monopoly power extends well beyond Big Tech into every corner of the economy and our daily lives, from concert tickets to military contractors and rental houses to funeral homes. The resulting damage includes the “murder” of American journalism as Teachout puts it, middle class wage stagnation, and woefully inadequate rural Wi-Fi.
Teachout, a three-time progressive candidate for elected office in New York, uses particularly colorful language to describe the perpetrators. She equates Big Tech “monopoly bosses” with the mafia and singles out Amazon as “a vast infrastructure machine with an ambition to take over the body and soul of the country.”
Dayen focuses much of his fury on Wall Street bankers and their legal advisers who, along with executives and shareholders, get rich together off the “corporate money hose” of mergers and acquisitions.
Teachout argues that simply adopting an ethos of “ethical consumerism,” and boycotting Amazon isn’t enough. What’s needed is “a major, grassroots anti-monopoly movement” designed to “radically reshape our economy and democracy in the service of human needs,” she writes.
Teachout would bar companies from controlling more than 10 percent of their respective markets, break up Big Tech companies and regulate the pieces as public utilities. In her epilogue, Teachout lays out her vision of a glorious monopoly-free future in which Google has been cut up into 57 smaller pieces by 2040.
It is every writer’s nightmare to have a book overtaken by events pre-publication, and perhaps one or both of these authors might update their work before the paperback version comes out to reflect the ways the world has changed due to Covid-19.
All signs so far suggest the big are just getting bigger as consumers flock to the likes of Walmart, Amazon, and Target. Big Tech companies are taking advantage of the moment, using their cash stockpiles to buy smaller, weaker rivals. Amazon boasted of hiring 175,000 people due to surging orders and announced plans in June to buy Zoox, a driverless vehicle startup, that could help the company eliminate delivery drivers one day.
Government antitrust enforcers may prove even more willing to allow mergers between giant airlines or hotel chains suffering from the travel shutdown, for example, if the alternative is letting companies fail altogether.
Or perhaps the pandemic will herald the third great period of trust busting in American history, akin to the Progressive Era and New Deal. After all, given how this year has gone so far, anything is possible.
The best audiobooks of July include a new adventure for a beloved detective, a memoir about learning to surf, and two novels that explore assumptions about race using the lens of humor.
“Sherlock Holmes: The Voice of Treason” by George Mann and Cavan Scott
Full cast recording; Audible Studios; eight hours
At the heart of this entertaining romp is a plot to kidnap Queen Victoria and eventually undermine the entire British Empire. In a fine ensemble of voice actors, Nicholas Boulton is a standout as Holmes, boasting an authoritative manner and sense of the dramatic. This story is reminiscent of an old-time radio drama, complete with sound effects, lots of voices, and music. Expect twists and plenty of intrigue in a tale that is very close to Arthur Conan Doyle’s original mysteries. Grade: A-
“Rockaway: Surfing Headlong Into a New Life” by Diane Cardwell
Read by the author; Houghton Mifflin Harcourt; eight hours and 10 minutes
Diane Cardwell has a comfortable, inviting style that makes it easy for listeners to slide into this story of loss and renewal. Her narration does not do her words justice, as she is more than a little unpolished, but her journey is a delight. In midlife, after a divorce, Cardwell moved to Rockaway, a community in the Queens area of New York. She learned to surf, bought a bungalow, survived Hurricane Sandy, and found an authentic circle of friends among the bohemians and surf enthusiasts living by the beach. Grade: B+
“Members Only” by Sameer Pandya
Read by Sunil Malhotra; Houghton Mifflin Harcourt; 10 hours and 30 minutes
Sameer Pandya uses humor to examine and deconstruct American racism in this fictional narrative. Bombay-born Raj is a U.S. citizen juggling marriage, parenthood, and a difficult work environment – all while trying to devote time to his tennis club, where he and his family are the only people of color. His life implodes when he inadvertently makes a racist joke while interviewing an African American couple for prospective membership at the club; eventually, the white members blow everything out of proportion and turn on him. Narrator Sunil Malhotra perfectly captures the warmhearted, fumbling, frustrated protagonist at the heart of this insightful debut novel. Grade: B+
“Black Card” by Chris L. Terry
Read by Leon Nixon; HighBridge Audio; six hours and 20 minutes
Author Chris L. Terry deserves credit for skillfully juggling pathos, humor, and anger in a novel that captures the pigeonholing experienced by biracial people trying to fit into a society that looks for either/or categorization. Terry’s nameless narrator, born to a Black father and a white mother, has ginger hair and green eyes and can “pass” for white. While playing in a punk band, he tries to find his footing as a Black man in a country that would have him camouflage into white culture; listeners will note certain similarities between Terry’s life and the journey of his fictional narrator. The story is powerful and entertaining, and Leon Nixon smoothly delivers Terry’s sly humor, perfectly capturing the roiling emotions of a young man searching for his truest self. Grade: B+
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Last month, Chinese citizen Tang Juan suddenly stopped her research at the medical school of the University of California, Davis. U.S. officials allege in court documents filed last week that she sought refuge in the Chinese consulate in San Francisco. Federal prosecutors allege Ms. Tang is an active member of the People’s Liberation Army and was recruited to enter the United States as a researcher, tasked with stealing American intellectual property and research. Ms. Tang was expected to appear in federal court Monday charged with visa fraud.
Ms. Tang’s tale is part of the unfolding crackdown on Chinese spy activities in the U.S. In a symbol of deeply troubled U.S.-China relations, the U.S. ordered the closure of the Chinese consulate in Houston, and China ordered the closure of the U.S. consulate in Chengdu.
Many say it was long past time for the U.S. to move beyond rhetoric and dialogue with China to action. Some China experts in the U.S. agree Beijing has been targeting American intellectual property using Chinese citizens in the U.S. The difference they see now is that the Trump administration is more willing to confront Beijing.
Like many visiting researchers in the United States, Chinese citizen Tang Juan seemed to lead an uneventful life at the Davis campus of the University of California, not far from the state capital of Sacramento.
According to the FBI, however, that image was far from the reality.
Last month Ms. Tang – perhaps spooked by a visit from FBI agents – stopped her research at the UC Davis medical school’s department of radiation oncology. U.S. officials allege in court documents filed last week that she fled to San Francisco to seek refuge in the Chinese consulate.
Federal prosecutors allege Ms. Tang is an active member of the People’s Liberation Army, a branch of the Chinese military. She was recruited by her government to enter the U.S. as a researcher, the Department of Justice alleges, with the objective of gaining access to and stealing American intellectual property and sensitive research.
In other words, according to the U.S. government, Ms. Tang is a spy. Last Thursday, Ms. Tang turned herself over to federal officials, and on Friday the graduate of a Chinese military university was jailed. She was expected to appear in federal court Monday charged with visa fraud.
Ms. Tang’s tale is one piece of the unfolding crackdown on Chinese spy activities in the U.S., an operation that also led to last week’s ordered closing of China’s consulate in Houston. Beijing retaliated by ordering the U.S. consulate in Chengdu to shut down.
The extraordinary tit-for-tat closures – unusual even by Cold War standards – illustrate an accelerating deterioration in U.S.-China relations that some worry could lead to dangerous missteps, as well as to a further weakening of the two national economies as well as the teetering global economy.
“The closing of consulates is a major step,” says Dean Cheng, a senior research fellow specializing in Chinese military and political affairs at the Heritage Foundation in Washington. “Even in the darkest days of relations between the U.S. and the Soviet Union, the two sides typically expelled diplomats for spying,” he adds, “but here the Trump administration is going significantly further.”
The State Department anticipated China’s possible equivalent response to closure of the Houston consulate. What caught it off guard, some officials say, was the ordered closure of the U.S. consulate in Chengdu – the westernmost of five U.S. consulates in mainland China and the closest to Xinjiang and Tibet, two regions the U.S. has been closely monitoring, and speaking out about, for human rights violations.
Still, many say it was long past time for the U.S. to move beyond rhetoric and dialogue to action. Past administrations have focused on China’s efforts to gain access to American technology through American companies operating in China, some experts say, while paying less attention to China’s expanding activities on U.S. soil.
Some U.S. officials claim the Houston consulate had developed as a central command for a spy network made up of Chinese-military-linked graduate students and other Chinese nationals in more than two dozen U.S. cities.
Republican Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida tweeted on Thursday that “China’s consulate in Houston is not a diplomatic facility [but] the central node of the Communist Party’s vast network of spies & influence operations” in the U.S.
China’s “cyber and other theft in the U.S. have been a problem for a very long time,” says Shirley Kan, an independent China expert who until recently worked at the Congressional Research Service in Washington. “The difference is in how this administration fights back. Unlike some previous administrations, [this one] is not afraid of friction” with China.
Indeed Secretary of State Mike Pompeo laid out a stark vision in a speech last week at the Nixon Library in Yorba Linda, California.
“If we want to have a free 21st century, and not the Chinese century of which [Chinese leader] Xi Jinping dreams, the old paradigm of blind engagement with China simply won’t get it done,” he said. “We must not continue it and we must not return to it.”
Still, some wonder why, if U.S. action was “long overdue,” as Senator Rubio and others are saying, the administration has not acted until now.
“There certainly is good reason to confront China. My concern is, escalating this tension, is it really about confronting China, or does it have something to do with an election in four months?” Sen. Angus King, an independent who serves on the Intelligence Committee and caucuses with the Democrats, said on CNN last week.
President Donald Trump and his presumptive Democratic opponent, former Vice President Joe Biden, have recently hardened on China.
Others have wondered if the spy networks were watched but tolerated to avoid disrupting negotiations for Mr. Trump’s first-phase trade deal, reached in January.
Mr. Cheng says it’s a possibility the election is a factor. “But it’s also true,” he says, “that intelligence investigations take a long time, you have to be able to lay out evidence that can be presented in an open court.”
Ms. Kan notes that David Stilwell, assistant secretary of state for the Bureau of East Asian and Pacific Affairs, said in comments on the Houston consulate that research theft attempts had accelerated over the last six months and might be linked to efforts to develop a coronavirus vaccine.
She says the Department of Justice revealed the FBI was investigating links between the Houston consulate and what The New York Times reported were “attempts to illegally transfer medical research and other sensitive information from institutions in the area.”
Mr. Cheng says he hopes the Department of Justice proceeds to make public more information about the Houston consulate and the spying allegations.
“I think it helps our case to say, ‘We are a rule-of-law country, we don’t just randomly make accusations, and this is exactly why we are doing what we’re doing,’” he says.