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Undocumented Immigrant Bravely Calls Out His Racist Employer, Donald Trump

"I know I could lose my job for just talking about Trump but it doesn’t make me proud every day to go to work under his name."

| Wed Aug. 19, 2015 3:52 PM EDT

In a new series for New Left Media, a 24-year-old undocumented immigrant who works as a busser at Donald Trump's Soho hotel recently opened up about what it's like to work for a man whose immigration platform rests on characterizing Mexican immigrants like himself as criminals and rapists.

"I know I could lose my job for just talking about Trump, but it doesn't make me proud everyday to go to work under his name," Ricardo Aca said in a video profile.

Aca reveals that he crossed the border at the age of 14 with his family and has been living in the Bushwick neighborhood of Brooklyn for almost ten years. He went to high school in New York City and earned an associate's degree in commercial photography. Having been here for most of his adolescent to adult life, Aca has grown accustom to the negative stereotypes many have against immigrants.

"I feel like Republicans think Mexicans are lazy, but I personally work three jobs, my stepfather works two jobs," Aca said. "Everything that my family has we have earned it by working."

While other Republican presidential hopefuls have attempted to distance themselves from Trump's anti-Mexican rhetoric, Aca said their own immigration platforms aren't much different from those of the real-estate mogul.

"I may have an accent, but I'm not stupid," he said.

Aca's bold statements provide a personal spotlight on the growing anxiety some immigrants are experiencing as they witness Trump maintaining his position as the Republican front runner.

"We don't know if we should laugh or if we should cry,” Mexican columnist Guadalupe Loaeza told the Washington Post earlier this week. "We think he's really a nightmare."

But Aca offers a more hopeful outlook, saying he doesn't believe most Americans share the same views as Trump. After the video's publication, the payroll department at Trump's hotel restaurant ordered Aca to bring the renewal of his working permits. When he walked entered through the kitchen, he told the Times his fellow co-workers, sushi chefs, and line cooks applauded him.

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Emailgate Continues to Be a Nothingburger

| Wed Aug. 19, 2015 2:05 PM EDT

Bob Somerby on emailgate:

Yesterday, Candidate Clinton said it again, during a press avail:

“No matter what anybody tries to say, the facts are stubborn. What I did was legally permitted, number one, first and foremost, OK?”

It certainly wasn’t OK on today’s Morning Joe! In that program’s opening segment, everyone said that statement was false—without naming the law or regulation Clinton had violated.

Meanwhile, there’s that passage from the New York Times’ front page, two Sundays ago:

“When she took office in 2009, with ever more people doing government business through email, the State Department allowed the use of home computers as long as they were secure...There appears to have been no prohibition on the exclusive use of a private server.”

We never assume the Times is right concerning such matters. But as is always the case in these matters, the heated discussion of “emailgate” begs for clarification—a service the national press corps is rarely equipped to provide.

I'm perfectly willing to believe that Clinton's use of a private server was unwise. It probably was, something that I think even she's acknowledged. And Clinton has certainly provided some dodgy answers about what she did, which naturally raises suspicions that she might have something to hide. This kind of chary parsing on her part may be due to nothing more than her longstanding distrust of the press, but that only makes it understandable, not sensible.

That said, even when I do my best to take off my tribal hat and look at this affair dispassionately, I just don't see anything:

  • Using a private server was allowed by the State Department when Clinton started doing it.
  • Removing personal emails before turning over official emails appears to be pretty standard practice.
  • None of the emails examined so far has contained anything that was classified at the time it was sent.
  • There is no evidence that I know of to suggest that Clinton used a private server for any nefarious purpose. Maybe she did. But if you want to make this case, you have make it based on more than just timeworn malice toward all things Clinton.

What am I missing? I don't begrudge the press covering emailgate. Republicans are all over it, which makes it a newsworthy issue whether we like it or not. And there has been an inspector general's investigation, as well as an ongoing FBI investigation. That makes it newsworthy too.

But I still want to know: what exactly is being investigated at this point? If you just want to argue that Clinton showed bad judgment, then go to town. That's a legitimate knock on a presidential candidate. But actual malfeasance? Where is it?

Social Security Cuts Are Fairly Popular If You Talk About Them Right

| Wed Aug. 19, 2015 1:12 PM EDT

Paul Krugman writes today that Republicans are engaged in an act of "political self-destructiveness." They consistently support entitlement cuts, including cuts to Social Security, despite the fact that only 6 percent of Americans want to cut Social Security while 51 percent want it increased. Why are they doing this? Krugman suggests that it's because they're trying to curry favor with wealthy donors, who generally favor cuts.

I want to push back on this a bit. Krugman's comment is based on a post by Lee Drutman, which in turn is based on data from the 2012 National Election Studies survey. But there have been lots of other polls about Social Security too. Here are three taken at random from PollingReport.com:

Opinions about Social Security are very sensitive to question wording. If you flatly ask "Do you think we should cut Social Security benefits?" almost everyone will oppose it. But if you preface it with a question about the solvency of the system, more people are in favor of cuts. And if you ask about, say, raising the retirement age, you get even more people in favor—because most of them don't automatically associate that with "cuts."

This is the context for understanding the Republican position. First, they talk loudly and endlessly about how the system will collapse unless changes are made. Second, they make sure never to propose changes for retirees already receiving benefits. Third, they don't talk overtly about cuts. They talk about raising the retirement age. They talk about slowing the growth of benefits. They talk about means testing. They talk about private accounts.

None of this is to say that cuts to Social Security—even when couched in veiled terms—are popular. They aren't. But support is a lot higher than 6 percent. Usually it's somewhere between 30-50 percent, and it's often a substantial majority among Republican voters.

So that's how Republicans get away with this: they appeal to fellow Republicans and they're careful about how they frame their proposals. In other words, politics and salesmanship. But I repeat myself.

POSTSCRIPT: Why did I bother writing this post? Because it's important not to kid ourselves about what the public really thinks. Opinions aren't shaped in a vacuum. They're formed in the context of time, place, tribal affiliations, external events, and framing. Simple, isolated questions don't capture any of that.

We do ourselves no favors if we blithely assume that Republicans are committing obvious suicide without understanding exactly how they maintain support for a position that seems pretty unpopular at first glance. The answer is that they do it very skillfully, and if we want to fight back we have to understand that.

China Seems to Be Lying About Its Unemployment Rate

| Wed Aug. 19, 2015 12:00 PM EDT

What's the unemployment rate in China? Last month it was 4.1 percent. The month before it was 4.1 percent. Last year it was also 4.1 percent. And in 2013? That's right: 4.1 percent.

A new NBER paper calls this "abnormally low and suspiciously stable," which seems like a fair judgment. So the authors, their suspicions piqued, used a nationally representative household survey to calculate the actual unemployment rate. Unsurprisingly, it turns out to differ substantially from 4.1 percent. The chart above (modified from the paper to show the two series more clearly) shows data through 2009, which is as far as the household series goes. The actual unemployment rate has been above 10 percent ever since 2002, and is likely even higher than that now, given the sputtering economic problems in China.

As of 2009, unemployment was highest among young, non-college educated women (about 17 percent). It's lowest among older college-educated men and women. But college is no longer a job guarantee for the young: the unemployment rate among young, college-educated men is 8 percent. Among women it's about 10 percent.

"Keep an eye on China and don’t be surprised by the unexpected," says Alex Tabarrok. "In China it’s not just the unemployment rate that is more volatile than it appears."

In Fort Benning, US Army Shuts Down Misogynist Trolls

Haters just can't handle the fact that two women will graduate from Army Ranger school.

| Wed Aug. 19, 2015 11:31 AM EDT

This coming Friday, two female lieutenants will become the first women to graduate from the US Army's grueling Ranger program—an honor that requires all candidates to complete an intense, 62-day training course at Fort Benning in Georgia.

Training includes running at least five miles several times a week, swimming for miles in a combat uniform, finishing a 15-mile march carrying a 65-pound pack, and doing an astonishing number of push-ups in two minutes. Women had been historically excluded from Ranger school because it was thought they lacked the strength and stamina to complete the program.

Like clockwork, Kristen Griest and Shaye Haver's history-making achievements have prompted skeptics to question whether their training might have been tweaked to defer to their feminine frailties. Did Griest and Hayer receive favorable treatment? Is the whole thing just some politically correct publicity stunt?

Thankfully, the individual behind the US Army Fort Benning's Facebook account is proving to be quite the dauntless social media staffer, expertly shutting down the misogynist trolls who have been commenting on the page.

(h/t @nycsouthpaw)

In Shocking News, Scott Walker's Health Care Plan Screws the Poor

| Wed Aug. 19, 2015 11:08 AM EDT

This is going to be the most anticlimactic blog post ever, but can you guess how Scott Walker's health care plan compares to Obamacare for the poor? And how it compares for the upper middle class and the wealthy?

Damn. You guessed. But just to make it official, here are a couple of charts that show how the subsidies in the two plans compare at different income levels. I used the Kaiser calculator to estimate Obamacare subsidies and Walker's written document to calculate tax credits under his plan. The chart on the left shows a 3-person family with 30-year-old parents. The chart on the right shows the same thing with older parents.

And have no fear: I chose $30,000 as the minimum income level because most families below that level qualify for Medicaid. And you guessed it: Walker's plan slashes Medicaid too. So the poor and the working class get screwed by Walker no matter what their income level is.

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Donald Trump: The 14th Amendment Is Unconstitutional

"We have to start a process where we take back our country. Our country is going to hell."

| Wed Aug. 19, 2015 10:57 AM EDT

After launching his presidential campaign by calling Mexican immigrants "rapists," Donald Trump is now following up on his nativist rhetoric by taking aim at the Constitution.

On Tuesday, when Bill O'Reilly challenged the presidential hopeful's proposal to end birthright citizenship in light of the 14th Amendment, Trump hit back: "Bill, I think you're wrong about the 14th amendment and frankly the whole thing about anchor babies."

"I can quote it, you want me to quote you the amendment?" O'Reilly responded. "If you're born here you're a citizen. Period!"

But Trump insisted he and his lawyers have found some disturbing holes in the amendment, which unequivocally states that anyone born in the United States is in fact an American citizen.

"What happens is, they're in Mexico, they're going to have a baby, they move over here for a couple of days, they have the baby," Trump said, while trying to break down his legal take. "Bill, [lawyers are] saying, 'It’s not going to hold up in court, it’s going to have to be tested.'"

"I don't think they have American citizenship, and if you speak to some very, very good lawyers, some would disagree," Trump added. "But many of them agree with me—you're going to find they do not have American citizenship. We have to start a process where we take back our country. Our country is going to hell. We have to start a process, Bill, where we take back our country."

O'Reilly pointed out that if Trump wanted to end birthright citizenship he could push for an amendment to the constitution—a position held by the former reality TV show star's fellow GOP presidential candidate Scott Walker—but in a slight capitulation, Trump acknowledged that that would probably "take too long" and said he'd rather use his potential presidency to "find out whether or not anchor babies are citizens."

New Monsanto Spray Kills Bugs by Messing With Their Genes

But plenty of technological and regulatory obstacles are holding back the new pesticides.

| Wed Aug. 19, 2015 6:05 AM EDT

In a fascinating long piece in MIT Technology Review, Antonio Regalado examines the genetically modified seed industry's latest blockbuster app in development—one that has nothing to do with seeds. Instead, it involves the industry's other bread-and-butter product: pesticide sprays. But we're not talking about the poisonous chemicals you convinced your dad to stop dousing the lawn with. The novel sprays in question are powered by a genetic technology called RNA interference, which promises to kill specific insects and weeds by silencing genes crucial to their survival, while leaving nontarget species unscathed.

RNAi, as it's known, is an emerging science; the two US researchers who discovered it brought home a Nobel Prize in 2006. Regalado describes the process like this:

The cells of plants and animals carry their instructions in the form of DNA. To make a protein, the sequence of genetic letters in each gene gets copied into matching strands of RNA, which then float out of the nucleus to guide the protein-making machinery of the cell. RNA interference, or gene silencing, is a way to destroy specific RNA messages so that a particular protein is not made.

If you can nix RNA messages that exist to generate crucial genes, you've got yourself an effective bug or weed killer. And GMO seed and pesticide behemoth Monsanto thinks it has just that. Robb Fraley, the company's chief technology officer and a pioneer in creating GM seeds, told Regalado that within a few years, RNA sprays would "open up a whole new way to use biotechnology" that "doesn't have the same stigma, the same intensive regulatory studies and cost that we would normally associate with GMOs." Fraley described the novel technology as "incredible" and "breathtaking."

A Monsanto exec describes the novel technology as "incredible" and "breathtaking."

It's not hard to see why the veteran agrichemical and biotech exec is so amped for something new to load into a crop duster. Monsanto's GM herbicide-resistant and insecticidal traits still dominate the highly lucrative US corn, soybean, and cotton seed markets, but these cash-cow products are victims of their own success, so widely used that weeds and pests are rapidly developing resistance to them. The company's flagship herbicide, Roundup, still generates about $5 billion in sales annually, but it went off-patent years ago, and it was recently declared a "probable carcinogen" by the World Health Organization—a finding Monsanto disputes.

Such concerns are widely seen as the reason Monsanto is so hotly pursuing a takeover of its rival, Syngenta, which focuses much more on pesticides than novel seeds. Syngenta, too, is developing RNAi technology, reports Regalado—back in 2012, it spent $523 million to buy Devgen, a company that had been developing the novel sprays.

However, there's no reason to assume crop dusters will be strafing farm fields with gene-silencing sprays anytime soon. As Regalado notes, they're very little studied outside of corporate labs. "So far, only a few scientific publications even mention the idea of RNA sprays," he writes. "That makes it hard to judge companies' claims."

The first obstacle is technological—the problem of "how to get a large, electrically charged molecule like RNA to move through a plant's waxy cuticle and into its cells," Regalado writes. That's crucial, because the technology works like this: A targeted bug—the one drawing attention now from Monsanto is the Colorado potato beetle—chomps on a leaf that's been sprayed by RNA solution and then, fatally, gets critical genes turned off. To make that happen, you have to get the RNA material into the leaf.

The most promising solution so far is to "encapsulate the RNA in synthetic nanoparticles called lipidoids—greasy blobs with specialized chemical tails," Regalado reports. "The idea is to slip them into a plant, where the coating will dissolve, releasing the RNA."

The EPA's current methods of evaluating new pesticides, which were designed to vet chemicals, might not apply to gene-altering sprays.

This nanotech booster to Monsanto's new bug killer won't likely raise red flags from government overseers. As I've shown before, both nanotechnology and adjuvants—the compounds mixed with pesticides to help them break into plants—are lightly regulated.

However, the RNAi compound itself will have to be reviewed by the Environmental Protection Agency, which vets new pesticides before they reach farm fields. Early indications suggest the going will be bumpy. Last year, the EPA convened a scientific advisory panel to assess the human health and ecological risks posed by emerging RNAi crop technologies.

The panel concluded there's "no convincing evidence" that RNAi material poses a threat to humans or other animals—the digestive process likely destroys it before it can do harm. But for nontarget insects in the field, they concluded, it's a different story. The technology's boosters claim the technology can target particular pests and leave everything else in the ecosystem alone. The independent scientists on the EPA panel were not convinced. They noted "uncertainties in the potential modes of action in non-target species, potential for chronic and sublethal effects, and potential unintended consequences in the various life stages of non-target organisms." As a result, they found  "sufficient justification to question" whether the EPA's current methods of evaluating new pesticides, which were designed to vet chemicals, apply to these gene-altering treatments.

And the technology is so novel that figuring out what those tests should be will be hard— it "cannot be done without a better understanding" of exactly how the technology works, the panel concluded. US Department of Agriculture entomologists Jonathan Lundgren and Jian Duan raised similar concerns in a 2013 paper.

"This is surprisingly reminiscent of Monsanto's assurances in the '90s that weeds would be very unlikely to develop resistance" to Roundup, said one critic of the new technology.

One particular concern for the EPA panel was the amount of time RNAi material stays intact after it's sprayed. Monsanto says not to worry, because "when the company doused dirt with RNA, it degraded and was undetectable after 48 hours," Regalado reports. But he adds that Monsanto "wants to develop longer-lasting formulations," noting that another RNAi spray it's developing for trees was shown to persist for months. "What's more," Regalado notes, "Monsanto's own discoveries have underscored the surprising ways in which double-stranded RNA can move between species"—not exactly a comforting aspect of a technology Monsanto hopes to see widely used on farm fields.

A Monsanto geneticist told Regalado that the company hopes to get its first RNAi spray, one targeting potato beetles, into the market by 2020. The company is also working on an RNAi product to add to its failing Roundup herbicide—one it hopes can turn off the resistant genes in the superweeds now rampant on US farm fields. But that's well behind the potato beetle product in Monsanto's development timeline, a company spokeswoman told me.

In addition to its sprays, Monsanto has an RNAi-enhanced corn crop in the pipeline: a corn type engineered to contain RNA that was designed to kill a common pest called the rootworm. It's "currently pending approval from the EPA," the Monsanto spokeswoman said. "We are planning for a full commercial launch by the end of the decade, pending key regulatory approvals."

Doug Gurian-Sherman, a plant pathologist by training who covers biotechnology for the Center for Food Safety, echoed the EPA panel's concerns."These are very complex biological systems, and their interactions evolve, and are not static," he said. "So it is really impossible to predict all the things that could go wrong. That does not mean we should be paranoid about them, but we should be at least reasonably cautious and skeptical about claims of both safety and efficacy, since there is little experience or research to rely on."

He also questioned Monsanto's claim, reported by Regalado, that insects won't likely develop resistance to the RNAi treatments, as they have to most chemical treatments in the past. "This is surprisingly reminiscent of Monsanto's assurances in the '90s that weeds would be very unlikely to develop resistance to the glyphosate [Roundup] herbicide…and now we have an epidemic of glyphosate resistant weeds," Gurian-Sherman said. 

Chart of the Day: Here's Why the Recovery Has Been So Weak

| Tue Aug. 18, 2015 8:59 PM EDT

I don't really have any good hook for posting this chart, but it's one of the most important ones you'll ever see. It's from the Wall Street Journal and it shows total government spending (state + local + federal) during the recession and its aftermath:

For about a year following the Obama stimulus, total spending was a bit higher than average for recession spending. But after that, spending fell steadily rather than rising, as it has after every previous recession. The result: a sluggish recovery, persistent long-term unemployment, and anemic wage growth.

Instead of responding to a historically bad recession with a historically strong stimulus, we responded with the weakest stimulus ever. Government spending is now more than 25 percentage points lower than normal. If you want to know why the recovery has been so feeble and unsteady, this is it. Republican presidential candidates, please take note.

The FDA Just Approved "Viagra for Women"

Should women be rejoicing?

| Tue Aug. 18, 2015 8:35 PM EDT
Flibanserin, a drug to treat low sexual desire in women.

More than 17 years after it ushered in Viagra, the Federal Drug Administration approved the first women's sex-drive drug, flibanserin, earlier today.  Sprout Pharmaceuticals will manufacture the drug, which they've named Addyi, and sell it to women with low libido, or hypoactive sexual desire disorder (HSDD).

While the pill has garnered much attention under monikers like "pink Viagra" or "Viagra for women," its purpose and mechanism have little in common with the famous blue pill for men. The drug will not physically bring blood to parts of the body to assist arousal, but instead will alter chemicals in the brain to increase sexual desire.

Is this a victory for women after decades of being ignored by biased pharmaceutical researchers?

Well, not necessarily. As we reported in June:

Women who took the drug in trials reported no more than one additional "sexually satisfying event" per month than women who received a placebo.

Not a great track record. Many health experts and academics doubt the existence of HSDD and believe Big Pharma is fabricating a disorder and exploiting gender imbalances to create a new market. Private investors staked some $50 million on flibanserin's approval, according to Forbes.

The FDA's decision came after two prior rejections of the drug because of side effects like dry mouth, fatigue, nausea, and fainting. On the bright side, consumers of Addyi ready to jump into bed will be relieved to hear that the side effects have apparently been diminished.