• There’s Something the Intelligence Community Wants You to Know

    John Middlebrook/CSM via ZUMA

    This report from the New York Times is getting a lot of attention tonight:

    Two weeks before his inauguration, Donald J. Trump was shown highly classified intelligence indicating that President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia had personally ordered complex cyberattacks to sway the 2016 American election. The evidence included texts and emails from Russian military officers and information gleaned from a top-secret source close to Mr. Putin, who had described to the C.I.A. how the Kremlin decided to execute its campaign of hacking and disinformation.

    Long before he was inaugurated, it was widely reported that Trump received classified briefings about the Russian cyberattacks. But it wasn’t reported that certain parts of the briefings were based on a top-secret source close to Putin:

    Ultimately, several human sources had confirmed Mr. Putin’s own role. That included one particularly valuable source, who was considered so sensitive that Mr. Brennan had declined to refer to it in any way in the Presidential Daily Brief during the final months of the Obama administration, as the Russia investigation intensified. Instead, to keep the information from being shared widely, Mr. Brennan sent reports from the source to Mr. Obama and a small group of top national security aides in a separate, white envelope to assure its security.

    But wait. After a year and a half of keeping the existence of this super sensitive source closely held, why make it public now?

    The American intelligence community has been on edge over Trump practically from the start. But after Helsinki their hair must be on fire. This is basically a declaration of war against Trump, a public accusation that he’s known all along Putin ordered the election interference. One way or another, this is not going to end well.

  • Vladimir Putin Has a Few Little Questions For You

    ITAR-TASS/ZUMAPRESS

    From the Wall Street Journal:

    The White House is reviewing a request by Russian President Vladimir Putin to allow Russian investigators to question a number of Americans they say are implicated in criminal activity, including a former U.S. ambassador, a spokeswoman said. The White House decision to weigh the proposal rather than dismiss it outright prompted alarm among former diplomats and on Capitol Hill.

    And who are these Americans? Well, one of them is Michael McFaul, a former US ambassador to Russia. Why interview him? Because of his alleged connection to Bill Browder, the architect of the Magnitsky Act. If the others are ever identified, don’t be surprised if they supposedly have some connection with Browder too.

    The fact that President Trump would even think twice about giving his goons access to American citizens is straight up spine-chilling. But Vladimir Putin is obsessed with the Magnitsky Act, and I guess that means Trump is too.

  • Lunchtime Photo

    This is Los Angeles City Hall, with its famous mausoleum-inspired ziggurat top piece. Locals will notice the absence of both the Hahn building and the GSA building in the background. That’s because I erased them. You should think of this as a noir version of City Hall, showing what it looked like back in the 30s and 40s before a bunch of other stuff got built up around it. It’s the city hall of Raymond Chandler and Billy Wilder, not of Quentin Tarantino or Joan Didion.

    June 22, 2018 — Los Angeles
  • Are Black Drivers Searched Unfairly In North Carolina?

    Over at the Monkey Cage, John Sides interviews Frank Baumgartner, Derek Epp and Kelsey Shoub, authors of Suspect Citizens, a book about traffic stops based on an enormous dataset from North Carolina. Here’s an excerpt:

    A key topic in the book is who is targeted for traffic stops. What did your findings reveal about racial disparities in both who gets stopped and what happens during the stop?

    ….Just by getting in a car, a black driver has about twice the odds of being pulled over, and about four times the odds of being searched.

    ….You note in the book that these racial disparities would be less noteworthy if they were simply due to underlying differences in criminality. But that’s not the case, correct?

    It certainly does not appear to be the case. African Americans are much more likely to be searched after a stop than white drivers, but less likely to be found with drugs, guns, alcohol or other forms of contraband after discretionary searches….Contraband hit rates are 36, 33 and 22 percent for whites, blacks and Hispanics, respectively.

    This is very misleading. Take a look at the following illustration. Each square represents a car and each red X represents a car with contraband. The shaded squares show traffic stops:

    In this example, blacks and whites both have the same amount of contraband: 12 cars out of 100. However, because the police pull over more black drivers, they find contraband in six cars instead of four. The higher contraband rate is evidence of nothing but unfairness. It’s only higher because police are randomly pulling over more black drivers. But there are actually two plausible explanations for this:

    • Black and white drivers have about the same amount of contraband.
    • Police officers aren’t pulling over cars at random. They have a pretty good sense of who’s carrying contraband and who isn’t, and for both blacks and whites they have a hit rate of about one-third. In other words, they’re treating both blacks and whites with a similar sense of suspicion, and the result is that they’re searching four times as many black drivers and finding four times as much contraband.

    We would need more evidence to know which of these is true. But in terms of how “strictly” North Carolina cops apply their contraband sense, it appears to be about the same for blacks and whites, thus the similar percentage of contraband found. In raw numbers this means they’re finding four times as much contraband per car for blacks vs. whites, but this might be because black drivers have a lot more contraband.

    In any case, these numbers by themselves don’t prove anything one way or another and we shouldn’t pretend otherwise. However, there is one exception: Hispanics have a much lower contraband hit rate than either blacks or whites. This really does suggest that police are applying a stricter sense of “suspiciousness” to Hispanics, and it’s not panning out.

  • US Media Accurately Reports Effect of New Dark Money Rules

    Over at National Review, Charles Cooke is annoyed at our nation’s media. You see, under new IRS rules certain nonprofit groups will no longer have to report the names of donors over $5,000—groups like the NRA, the Koch Brothers, various chambers of commerce, and so forth. But wait:

    The change applies to every single 501(c)(4) in America. CNN could just as easily — and just as misleadingly — have placed the story under the headline, “NAACP will no longer need to identify their donors to the IRS.” Or it could have mentioned, say, Planned Parenthood. Or SEIU. Or Everytown for Gun Safety. Or the Sierra Club. Or . . .

    Hmmm. That seems like a good point. Let’s see how the Murdoch-owned Wall Street Journal reported the story. They’ll give it to us without a bunch of liberal bias:

    Some of the largest groups affected include an arm of the National Rifle Association, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and Americans for Prosperity, a group tied to billionaires Charles and David Koch….For the past few years, Republicans have been examining the Schedule B requirements, questioning how useful the information is to the IRS and arguing that donors could face harassment if the information is inadvertently released.

    In 2016, the House passed a bill to eliminate the requirement, but the Obama administration opposed it and it didn’t become law….“The IRS’s decision is a move in the right direction to end activist regulators’ culture of intimidation to silence political speech,” said Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R., Ky.) “More and more states were using these documents to chill political discourse, rather than encourage it.”

    Democrats blasted the decision and warned that the IRS would have one less tool to figure out whether groups are complying with the law. Sen. Ron Wyden (D., Ore.) said he will vote against President Donald Trump’s pick to run the IRS unless he promises to reverse the move. “President Trump’s late-night giveaway to shady donors and interest groups makes dark money even darker,” said House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D., Calif.) “The NRA and other special interest groups can now fully operate in the shadows and push their corrupt agendas without any transparency or accountability.” Democrats have warned that changing the disclosure requirement could allow foreign money into U.S. politics without notice.

    So it appears that (a) the biggest beneficiaries are conservative groups, (b) Republicans tried to repeal the reporting requirement in 2016, (c) Obama opposed it, (d) Mitch McConnell is in favor of repeal, and (e) Nancy Pelosi is against it. Reading between the lines, conservatives are all in favor of repeal and liberals are all opposed to repeal because it’s conservative groups that don’t want anyone to know who their big donors are.

    So I guess that explains that. CNN and other media outlets covered it the way they did because they were telling the truth.

  • Keep an Eye on the Magnitsky Act

    ITAR-TASS/ZUMAPRESS

    Back in 2016, when Russian attorney Natalia Veselnitskaya met at Trump Tower with Donald Trump Jr., Jared Kushner, and Paul Manafort, the alleged topic of conversation was the Magnitsky Act.

    Now bear with me here. The Magnitsky Act is named after Russian tax accountant Sergei Magnitsky, who discovered a $230 million fraud among Russian tax officials back in 2009. Naturally Magnitsky himself was arrested, since the powers-that-be in Russia don’t abide these kinds of accusations, and he was eventually beaten to death while he was in prison. His friend Bill Browder was outraged and publicized what had happened, which led to Congress passing the Sergei Magnitsky Rule of Law Accountability Act in 2012 by a vote of 92-4. Russia, as expected, was infuriated, because it targeted the country’s most powerful oligarchs in the only way that really hurts them: by freezing their money and their travel overseas. Julia Ioffe explains:

    The first decade of Putin’s rule was a bonanza for state security structures. Using tactics similar to those used in the Browder-Magnitsky case, government officials, especially those in Putin’s native FSB, enriched themselves….They pillaged and nearly wiped out small and medium-sized businesses in Russia, jailing many of their owners in the process. Government programs and projects were dreamt up not to be built or actualized, but to allow their proponents to pocket parts of the state budget.

    ….Back then, a Russian businessman told me it felt like “the day before Pompeii,” with everyone stealing as much as they could as quickly as possible—and then whisking it out of the country….The families of the Russian elite often don’t live in Russia. They live in Paris, in London, Geneva, New York, Los Angeles. That’s where their money lives, too, and where their children go to school and where their families seek medical treatment—which is one of the reasons the Russian education and medical systems are falling apart, robbed by corruption of what little resources they had.

    ….What made Russian officialdom so mad about the Magnitsky Act is that it was the first time that there was some kind of roadblock to getting stolen money to safety. In Russia, after all, officers and bureaucrats could steal it again, the same way they had stolen it in the first place: a raid, an extortion racket, a crooked court case with forged documents—the possibilities are endless. Protecting the money meant getting it out of Russia. But what happens if you get it out of Russia and it’s frozen by Western authorities? What’s the point of stealing all that money if you can’t enjoy the Miami condo it bought you? What’s the point if you can’t use it to travel to the Côte d’Azur in luxury?

    So far, 49 of Russia’s richest and most powerful oligarchs, all of them friends of Putin, have been targeted by the Magnitsky Act:

    1. DROGANOV, Aleksey O.
    2. KARPOV, Pavel
    3. KOMNOV, Dmitriy
    4. KHIMINA, Yelena
    5. KRIVORUCHKO, Aleksey
    6. KUZNETSOV, Artem
    7. LOGUNOV, Oleg
    8. PECHEGIN, Andrey I.
    9. PODOPRIGOROV, Sergei G.
    10. PROKOPENKO, Ivan Pavlovitch
    11. SILCHENKO, Oleg F.
    12. STASHINA, Yelena
    13. STEPANOVA, Olga G.
    14. TOLCHINSKIY, Dmitri M.
    15. UKHNALYOVA, Svetlana
    16. VINOGRADOVA, Natalya V.
    17. BOGATIROV, Letscha
    18. DUKUZOV, Kazbek
    19. LITVINOVA, Larisa Anatolievna
    20. KRATOV, Dmitry Borisovich
    21. GAUS, Alexandra Viktorovna
    22. TAGIYEV, Fikret
    23. ALISOV, Igor Borisovich
    24. MARKELOV, Viktor Aleksandrovich
    25. KLYUEV, Dmitry Vladislavovich
    26. STEPANOV, Vladlen Yurievich
    27. KHLEBNIKOV, Vyacheslav Georgievich
    28. AKHAYEV, Musa
    29. SUGAIPOV, Umar
    30. KRECHETOV, Andrei Alexandrovich
    31. DAUDOV, Magomed Khozhakhmedovich
    32. ALAUDINOV, Apti Kharonovich
    33. GRIN, Victor Yakovlevich
    34. STRIZHOV, Andrei Alexandrovich
    35. ANICHIN, Aleksey Vasilyevich
    36. KIBIS, Boris Borisovich
    37. URZHUMTSEV, Oleg Vyacheslavovich
    38. LAPSHOV, Pavel Vladimirovich
    39. ANTONOV, Yevgeni Yuvenalievich
    40. PLAKSIN, Gennady Nikolaevich
    41. LUGOVOI, Andrei Konstantinovich
    42. KOVTUN, Dmitri
    43. BASTRYKIN, Alexander Ivanovich
    44. GORDIEVSKY, Stanislav Evgenievich
    45. MAYOROVA, Yulia
    46. KATAEV, Ayub Vakhaevich
    47. PAVLOV, Andrei
    48. SHESHENYA, Alexei Nikolaevich
    49. KADYROV, Ramzan Akhmatovich

    So what’s the point of all this detail? Just this: Britain passed its own version of the Magnitsky Act earlier this year. Ditto for the Netherlands. Estonia too (“we won’t leave such unfriendly steps without a due response,” Russia threatened). There’s even a move afoot to pass an EU-wide Magnitsky Act, which would truly be a disaster for Russia’s elite. So perhaps it’s no surprise that at the Helsinki summit Putin specifically called out Bill Browder, the man who’s probably more responsible than anyone for getting the original Magnitsky Act passed. Here’s what Putin said:

    Business associates of Mr. Browder have earned over $1.5 billion in Russia. They never paid any taxes, neither in Russia nor in the United States, and yet the money escaped the country. They were transferred to the United States. They sent huge amount of money, $400 million as a contribution to the campaign of Hillary Clinton. Well, that’s the personal case. It might have been legal, the contribution itself, but the way the money was earned was illegal.

    This is not the kind of personal shout out we usually get from Putin at these events. But he’s desperate. So with all this out of the way, let’s go back in time to the Trump Tower meeting and ask again: what was that all about? Well, it was about the Magnitsky Act, which the Russians urgently want repealed. But it was also about delivering dirt on Hillary Clinton. And this is the dirt: $400 million in sketchy campaign contributions from Bill Browder and his cronies. That didn’t work out—largely because it wasn’t true—but not for lack of trying. No matter where you turn, the Magnitsky Act is staring you in the face. If there’s any single thing that Vladimir Putin is pissed off about, this is it.

    So what did Putin and Trump talk about in their secret 2-hour meeting with no aides present? If I had to take a guess, I’d say it was the Magnitsky Act. Keep an eye on this over the next few months.

  • Too Much of the World’s Math Talent Is Going to Waste

    If you’re an NFL-caliber football player, there’s a pretty good chance you’re going to end up playing in the NFL no matter where you come from. But what if you’re an Olympic-caliber mathematician? There are such things, and you can identify them every year at the math combine International Mathematics Olympiad for late teenagers. So what happens to them?

    Via Alex Tabarrok, Ruchir Agarwal and Patrick Gaulé gathered together a dataset to figure this out. Of the partipants competing between 1981-2000, about 8 percent won gold medals, 16 percent won silver medals, and 24 percent won bronze medals. Unsurprisingly, these medalists mostly go on to earn PhDs in mathematics, and they tend to be more productive than their fellow PhDs who didn’t win medals. Bottom line: these are really super smart math folks.

    But there’s always a but, isn’t there? It turns out that although rich countries are pretty good at shepherding these young geniuses into top PhD programs, poor countries aren’t:

    Agarwal and Gaulé draw the following conclusion:

    Our results suggest that the quantity of lost knowledge production arising from cross-country differences in the productivity of IMO participants is sizeable, and that this lost knowledge production is not easily replaceable by that of other mathematicians….It may be a loss to mathematics if individuals who are in the extreme right tail of ability (some of whom are IMO participants and some of whom are not) drop out of mathematics.

    ….The lost knowledge production arising from the under-utilization of developing-country talent is more palatable (or perhaps even desirable) if talent from developing countries is used to produce other types of knowledge. We have shown that while developing country IMO participants are slightly more likely to do a PhD in a discipline other than mathematics, this far from offsets the difference observed in getting a mathematics PhD. We cannot rule the possibility that developing country talent end up in valuable occupations (outside mathematical and non-mathematical knowledge production) where they might make distinctive contributions. However, if we think of IMO participants as having a strong natural comparative advantage in one very particular activity (mathematics) — as we do — this makes it more likely that the current allocation is inefficient.

    Just because you’re a math genius doesn’t mean you want to dedicate your life to math. That’s fine. However, Agarwal and Gaulé’s results pretty strongly suggest that in low-income countries there are lots of mathematical superstars who do want to dedicate their lives to math but aren’t able to, for one reason or another. This is an enormous loss for both the host country itself and for the world at large. It’s a cliche to say that we might be missing the next Albert Einstein right under our noses, but it’s a cliche because it’s true. Global income inequality hurts everyone, not just those at the bottom

  • Donald Trump Is a Pathological Liar

    I would like to take this opportunity to remind you that everything Donald Trump says should be treated as a lie until proven otherwise.

    This is not a joke. At this point, anyone who makes even occasional exceptions to this rule is wilfully being a chump.

  • OK, How About Novichok? Maybe It’s Novichok.

    Yui Mok/PA Wire via ZUMA

    So here’s my theory. Maybe Putin has told Trump that if he doesn’t play ball his kids will end up in the morgue. See, they all have microscopic Novichok capsules buried in their bodies that are hooked up to dead-man switches. If anything happens to Putin, or if Trump gets out of line, a capsule breaks and one of Trump’s kids dies. And just to keep this uppermost in his mind, every once in a while someone overseas mysteriously drops dead from Novichok poisoning and the police are notified.

    No? Why not? I’ve seen stuff like this in James Bond movies that were way better written than the Trump presidency. Frankly, I wouldn’t put much of anything beyond the schlocky writing staff of this show.

  • Lunchtime Photo

    Yesterday, MarkH suggested that I was featuring a few too many nighttime pictures. And it’s true. Thanks to the evil dex I’ve been going out on lots of late-night photo excursions but not very many daylight ones. I’m afraid that imbalance is now baked into the queue, but I do still have plenty of morning and afternoon pictures to choose from. For example, here’s a photo of a very cooperative Red Admiral butterfly from our trip to Ireland last year. He just sat there as I got closer and closer, seemingly without a care in the world.

    This is a nice enough picture, but I was really hoping to get a picture of the Peacock butterfly. No such luck, though. I saw half a dozen Red Admirals, but nothing else of any note at all.

    September 17, 2017 — Westcove, Ireland