Tag Archives: december

Most Ohio conservatives want to pay for renewables and stop propping up coal.

Here’s the idea: Build underwater barriers in front of the glaciers most vulnerable to collapse, keeping warm ocean water from sloshing in to melt them.

Princeton glaciology postdoc Michael Wolovick presented this concept at the American Geophysical Union conference in December, as the Atlantic reports.

The Antarctic glaciers Wolovick studies are subject to disastrous feedback loops: The more they melt, the more they are exposed to melt-inducing seawater. Recent studies have suggested these massive stores of ice could collapse much faster than previously thought, potentially raising sea levels by 5 to 15 feet by the end of the century (that’s seriously bad news for coastal cities).

Wolovick has been researching the feasibility of slowing that collapse with ‘sills’ constructed out of sand and rock along the fronts of these vulnerable glaciers. Unlike a seawall, they would be entirely underwater, but would keep warm ocean water from reaching a glacier’s vulnerable base.

That could stall glacial retreat dramatically, and maybe even reverse it. In Wolovick’s virtual experiments, even the least successful version of the sills slowed a glacier’s collapse by 400 or 500 years.

It’s all still a huge if, Wolovick admits, that requires more research. But if it works, it could buy some crucial time against sea-level rise.

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Most Ohio conservatives want to pay for renewables and stop propping up coal.

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The Kushner Backchannel Story Is Hard to Make Sense Of

Mother Jones

Last night the Washington Post and the New York Times both reported that Jared Kushner buttonholed the Russian ambassador last December about setting up a secret communications backchannel with Moscow. This was during the transition period, six or seven weeks before Trump was inaugurated. The stories differ in the details they provide:

The Times reports that the purpose of the backchannel was for Michael Flynn to discuss Syria, but doesn’t report how the backchannel would work.
The Post reports that Kushner proposed using secure facilities in the Russian embassy, but doesn’t report what Kushner wanted to talk about.

The White House has not denied this story. It has simply refused to comment.

What do we make of this? Even after pondering it for several hours, I’m not sure what to think. I assume the Post has good sources for its report that Kushner wanted to use Russian embassy facilities, which suggests he was looking for a channel that was safe from monitoring—and leaking—by American intel agencies. In fact, the Post directly asserts this. But if the Times is right about Syria, that doesn’t make sense. There have been a lot of leaks recently, but not last December. And certainly there was no reason to suspect that any intel agency would leak conversations about Syria.

So maybe they really wanted to talk about something else. But what? It would need to be something that was (a) highly sensitive, and (b) dodgy enough that some do-gooder in the intel community might feel like it needed to be leaked. There’s been plenty of speculation about what that could be, but nothing grounded in reporting.

Also unknown: did Trump know about this? Or were Kushner and Flynn freelancing?

Also: what was the rush? In a few weeks Trump would have access to all the secure comms he wanted. Why was it so urgent to have galactic-class secure comms right away?

And: who wrote the anonymous letter that first tipped off the Post in mid-December?

The whole thing will remain something of a mystery until we know more about it. However the Post reports that the Russian ambassador was taken aback by Kushner’s naivete in thinking that Russia might agree to expose its embassy facilities to an American. Subsequent commenters have used stronger terms than naivete.

Also, everyone agrees that Kushner’s multiple meetings with various Russians were withheld from his security clearance application. That’s not good.

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The Kushner Backchannel Story Is Hard to Make Sense Of

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Jared Kushner Is Reportedly Under FBI Scrutiny for Meetings With Russians

Mother Jones

Jared Kusher, the husband of President Donald Trump’s daughter Ivanka and one of the president’s top advisers in the White House, is “now a focus in the FBI’s Russia investigation,” according to a Washington Post report published Thursday evening. And NBC News reported, “Investigators believe Kushner has significant information relevant to their inquiry, officials said. That does not mean they suspect him of a crime or intend to charge him.”

Kushner’s December meetings with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak and the head of a Russian bank from Moscow are being looked at by investigators probing Russian meddling in the 2016 US presidential election and examining possible ties between Trump associates and Russia, according to the Post. Former national security adviser Michael Flynn and former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort have also been under scrutiny for their contacts with Russians or pro-Russian Ukrainian politicians.

From the Post:

In early December, Kushner met in New York with Russian ambassador Sergey Kislyak, and he later sent a deputy to meet with Kislyak again. Flynn was also present at the early December meeting, and later that month, Flynn held a call with Kislyak to discuss U.S.-imposed sanctions against Russia. Flynn initially mischaracterized the conversation even to the vice president — which ultimately prompted his ouster from the White House.

Kushner also met in December with Sergey Gorkov, the head of Vnesheconombank, which has been the subject of U.S. sanctions following Russia’s annexation of Crimea and its support of separatists in eastern Ukraine.

In addition to the December meetings, a former senior intelligence official said FBI agents had been looking closely at earlier exchanges between Trump associates and the Russians dating back to the spring of 2016, including one at the Mayflower Hotel in Washington. Kushner and Kislyak — along with close Trump adviser and current Attorney General Jeff Sessions — were present at an April 2016 event at the Mayflower where then-candidate Trump promised in a speech to seek better relations with Russia. It is unclear whether Kushner and Kislyak interacted there.

As reported by the New York Times in April, Kushner failed to disclose several meetings with Russian officials, an omission Kushner’s lawyers have characterized as a mistake. Jamie Gorelick, one of Kushner’s attorneys and a former deputy attorney general during the Clinton administration, told the Post Thursday that Kushner volunteered to share information about his contacts with the Russians with investigators.

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Jared Kushner Is Reportedly Under FBI Scrutiny for Meetings With Russians

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Jared Kushner Is Puzzled That CNN Hasn’t Fired All Its Anti-Trump Commentators

Mother Jones

Jonathan Mahler has a piece in the New York Times Magazine today about the love-hate relationship between Jeff Zucker, the president of CNN, and Donald Trump, the president of the United States. It’s mainly about how both men thrive on politics as gossip, entertainment, and conflict, but it includes one interesting tidbit at the very end. It’s about a breakfast meeting Zucker had last December with Ivanka Trump’s husband, Jared Kushner, who has become an increasingly important Trump advisor in the White House:

Kushner wanted to know why CNN still hadn’t fired anti-Trump commentators like Van Jones and Ana Navarro, who said on CNN in October that every Republican would have to answer the question of what they did the day they saw a tape of “this man boasting about grabbing a woman’s pussy.”…Zucker tried to explain that even though Trump won, the network still needed what he described as “a diversity of opinion.”

I’m not sure if I’m supposed to take this literally or seriously. Did Kushner really think that this was how a news organization was supposed to work? That once Trump won, all the folks who didn’t like Trump would be fired in some kind of Stalinesque purge?

Apparently so. Welcome to the Trump Show.

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Jared Kushner Is Puzzled That CNN Hasn’t Fired All Its Anti-Trump Commentators

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Scott Pruitt is making nice with EPA employees, but big changes are to come.

In December, when Musk got stuck in traffic, instead of leaning on the horn or flipping off the other drivers, he decided to build a new transportation system. An hour later, Max Chafkin writes in Bloomberg Businessweek, “the project had a name and a marketing platform. ‘It shall be called The Boring Company,’” Musk wrote.

Musk told employees to grab some heavy machinery and they began digging a hole in the SpaceX parking lot. He bought one of those machines that bores out tunnels and lays down concrete walls as it goes. It’s named Nannie.

Musk is the grown-up version of the kid who decides to dig to China: He doesn’t pause to plan or ask what’s possible, he just grabs a stick and starts shoveling. Maybe that’s the approach we need. As Chafkin points out, “Tunnel technology is older than rockets, and boring speeds are pretty much what they were 50 years ago.” And Bent Flyvbjerg, an academic who studies why big projects cost so much, says that the tunneling industry is ripe for someone with new ideas to shake things up.

Musk is a technical genius. But the things that make tunnels expensive tend to be political — they have to do with endless hearings before local government councils and concessions to satisfy concerned neighbors and politicians. For that stultifying process, at least, Musk’s new company is aptly named. If Musk figures out how disrupt local land-use politics, it would mean he’s smarter than anyone thinks.

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Scott Pruitt is making nice with EPA employees, but big changes are to come.

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Racism was a big factor in the Flint water crisis, a new report explains.

In December, when Musk got stuck in traffic, instead of leaning on the horn or flipping off the other drivers, he decided to build a new transportation system. An hour later, Max Chafkin writes in Bloomberg Businessweek, “the project had a name and a marketing platform. ‘It shall be called The Boring Company,’” Musk wrote.

Musk told employees to grab some heavy machinery and they began digging a hole in the SpaceX parking lot. He bought one of those machines that bores out tunnels and lays down concrete walls as it goes. It’s named Nannie.

Musk is the grown-up version of the kid who decides to dig to China: He doesn’t pause to plan or ask what’s possible, he just grabs a stick and starts shoveling. Maybe that’s the approach we need. As Chafkin points out, “Tunnel technology is older than rockets, and boring speeds are pretty much what they were 50 years ago.” And Bent Flyvbjerg, an academic who studies why big projects cost so much, says that the tunneling industry is ripe for someone with new ideas to shake things up.

Musk is a technical genius. But the things that make tunnels expensive tend to be political — they have to do with endless hearings before local government councils and concessions to satisfy concerned neighbors and politicians. For that stultifying process, at least, Musk’s new company is aptly named. If Musk figures out how disrupt local land-use politics, it would mean he’s smarter than anyone thinks.

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Racism was a big factor in the Flint water crisis, a new report explains.

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Foreigners Are Fleeing From Treasury Bonds, But It’s Probably Not Trump’s Fault

Mother Jones

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Bloomberg reports that foreigners are tripping over themselves to unload their holdings of US treasuries:

In the age of Trump, America’s biggest foreign creditors are suddenly having second thoughts about financing the U.S. government.

….From Tokyo to Beijing and London, the consensus is clear: few overseas investors want to step into the $13.9 trillion U.S. Treasury market right now. Whether it’s the prospect of bigger deficits and more inflation under President Donald Trump or higher interest rates from the Federal Reserve, the world’s safest debt market seems less of a sure thing — particularly after the upswing in yields since November. And then there is Trump’s penchant for saber rattling, which has made staying home that much easier.

….Combined with the unpredictability of Trump’s tweet storms, interest-rate increases in the U.S. could further sap overseas demand….Right now, it’s just “much easier to stay home than go abroad,” said Shyam Rajan, Bank of America’s head of U.S. rates strategy.

Hmmm. The age of Trump? According to the Treasury Department, the selloff started in June:

Preliminary figures from Japan suggest that December will be much the same as November, which means foreigners will have sold off nearly a half-trillion dollars worth of treasuries in six months. That’s 7 percent of their total holdings. The only other time there’s been a selloff this sustained was at the tail end of the dotcom boom.

But is it Trump’s fault? Nobody thought he had a chance of winning until November, so it’s hard to see how he could have caused uneasiness with federal debt back in June. I don’t imagine Trump has done the US debt market any favors, but on this score, at least, I suspect he’s getting more blame than he deserves.

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Foreigners Are Fleeing From Treasury Bonds, But It’s Probably Not Trump’s Fault

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This Insider Trading Case Raises Troubling Questions About Trump’s Commerce Secretary Nominee

Mother Jones

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Wilbur Ross, Donald Trump’s pick for commerce secretary, is a legendary corporate raider who made billions of dollars buying failing companies and flipping them for a profit. But as he built his $2.5 billion fortune, Ross and his private equity firm, WL Ross & Co., have faced several lawsuits and regulatory actions accusing them of financial misconduct, including breach of fiduciary duty and fraud. His controversial business record received some scrutiny during his confirmation process. But one recent lawsuit involving Ross has garnered little attention. And it raises serious ethical questions about the business dealings of the billionaire who, if confirmed by the Senate, will be in charge of promoting job creation and economic growth.

The case, filed in a Florida federal court, involved a publicly traded mortgage company called Ocwen Financial. Ross served as a board member for the firm. In 2013 and 2014, state and federal regulators targeted the company over allegations that it engaged in a variety of improper practices. Ocwen’s stock plummeted, and shareholders suffered major losses. Its stock peaked in 2013 at about $56 per share, and the company is currently trading at about $5. But Ross managed to avoid millions in losses by off-loading his holdings in the company in two curiously timed trades that came shortly before damaging news was revealed that sent Ocwen shares into a tailspin. In the suit, shareholders accused Ross and other company directors of using inside information to enrich themselves and of leaving “ethics, integrity, and fair dealing by the wayside in their quest for ever higher revenues and thus, higher compensation and ever more lucrative incentives for themselves.”

The White House press office and Invesco (which is a corporate parent of WL Ross) did not respond to multiple requests for comment. Ocwen spokesman John Lovallo declined to respond to questions from Mother Jones, but he provided a statement about the company’s corporate governance practices. “Today, the composition, structure, experience and diversity of Ocwen’s Board, which consists of eight members, seven of whom are independent directors, is as strong as any comparable financial services company,” Lovallo wrote. “Ocwen is recognized as the industry leader in responsible home retention through foreclosure prevention.”

Ross’ ties to Ocwen date back to October 2012, when the Atlanta-based company announced plans to acquire mortgage-servicing firm Homeward Residential Holdings from WL Ross & Co. for $766 million in cash and preferred stock. Six months later, Ross joined Ocwen’s board.

The Homeward deal came during an Ocwen buying spree, as the company rapidly scooped up the mortgage-servicing units of big banks and other financial firms following the housing crisis. (Mortgage services are not lenders, but they collect loan payments and initiate foreclosure proceedings if homeowners default.) Ocwen’s business practices—including allegations that it had prematurely foreclosed on homeowners and mishandled loan modifications—placed the company on the radar of regulators, including the New York Department of Financial Services (NYDFS). The agency held up the Homeward sale until December 2012, when Ocwen agreed to two years of independent monitoring to ensure that “reforms are implemented and homeowners have a real chance to avoid foreclosure,” according to the agency’s head, Benjamin Lawsky.

In their lawsuit—a consolidated version of several previously initiated lawsuits was filed in federal court in March 2016—the Ocwen shareholders presented a timeline that they claimed supported their allegations. Through the sale of Homeward, Ross and his firm had received $162 million in Ocwen shares. In September 2013, Ross, on behalf of his private equity firm, sold more than 3.1 million Ocwen shares, at $50.19 a share, netting almost $158 million. Three months later, in December, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau announced that Ocwen had agreed to pay $2.1 billion to settle charges of mortgage-servicing misconduct dating back to 2009, including hitting homeowners with unauthorized fees and deceiving consumers about foreclosure alternatives and loan modifications. As part of the settlement, Ocwen did not admit to or deny the CFPB’s allegations. Soon afterward, Ocwen’s stock had dropped to $44.14 per share, and it continued its downward slide from there.

The following year, WL Ross sold another large block of Ocwen stock. Once again, the sale came shortly before negative news was announced that sharply affected Ocwen’s stock. On July 14, 2014, WL Ross sold nearly 2 million Ocwen shares back to the company at about $37 a share, netting $72.1 million. On July 31, the company reported poor quarterly returns and within days its shares fell in value by more than 20 percent. Ocwen blamed its subpar earnings on the rising costs of complying with NYDFS’ required monitoring. On August 4, the NYDFS announced it was probing Ocwen for requiring homeowners to pay for “forced-placed insurance”—insurance that is taken out by the lender. By the end of December, Ocwen stock had sunk to about $15 per share. Due to the timing of his trade, Ross and his company avoided $18 million in losses. (The NYDFS investigation led to a broader December 2014 settlement, in which Ocwen agreed to pay a $150 million fine.)

Other Ocwen shareholders were not as lucky as Ross and his firm. Three Ocwen shareholders subsequently filed lawsuits against Ross and other company directors. The subsequently consolidated lawsuit alleged that Ross and two other members of the board of directors ignored “systemic and ongoing” wrongdoing by Ocwen. It claimed that the misconduct had ultimately cost the company more than $2 billion, and that Ross and his co-defendants “sold their personal holdings of Ocwen stock…while having knowledge of material, adverse inside information, in violation of state and federal law and in breach of their fiduciary duties to the Company.” And the suit charged that Ross, his firm, and its related funds “profited handsomely at the Company’s expense and thereby unjustly enriched themselves.” Ross, the suit maintained, was in a particular position to know about Ocwen’s mounting regulatory issues because he was not just a company director but a member of the board’s compliance committee.

Ross and fellow members of this committee had “total access to all documents and information bearing upon the Company’s operations,” the complaint alleged. And they were “personally aware or should have been aware that the Company was not in compliance with legal and regulatory requirements, including…applicable state and federal consumer protection laws and regulations and the multiple agreements and consent decrees made with Ocwen’s regulators, which were regularly breached by the company.”

Despite their knowledge of the company’s financial condition, mortgage-servicing misconduct, and ongoing regulatory actions, Ross and other company directors signed their names to a Securities and Exchange Commission filing in March 2014 affirming that Ocwen was successfully managing its regulatory obligations and reiterating the company’s “previously-announced financial results and financial positions,” according to the complaint.

Ocwen settled the suit in December on behalf of Ross and the other directors, agreeing to pay up to $2.2 million in attorney’s fees and other expenses and to institute a range of corporate governance reforms. As part of the settlement, Ross and the other defendants did not deny or acknowledge wrongdoing.

Lawrence Harris, one of the Securities and Exchange Commission’s chief economists during the George W. Bush administration and now a finance professor at the University of Southern California’s Marshall business school, said that because the Ocwen case was settled instead of going to trial, it is unclear what Ross knew at the time that he made his trades. “When confronted with the fortuitous timing of his sale, careful observers will certainly ask themselves whether Ross had knowledge as to what was going to happen,” Harris says. “If his knowledge was obtained through his insight, then he’s simply a disciplined investor. But if his knowledge was obtained through his position as director of the firm, of course there would be substantial concerns of the ethics of his subsequent sale.”

Harris says Ross’ combined history leaves lingering questions.

“If you had two otherwise identical candidates for commerce secretary, one has this record, the other one doesn’t, there’s no question that you would prefer the candidate who doesn’t have the record,” he says. “At some point you have to ask yourself, if you have a candidate with this type of record, who exactly are we dealing with?”

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This Insider Trading Case Raises Troubling Questions About Trump’s Commerce Secretary Nominee

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Home Buyers Are Paying a $600 Trump Tax on New Mortgages

Mother Jones

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Matt Yglesias tweeted yesterday about mortgage interest rates going up after the election, and that got me curious about just how quickly they spiked upward after we all learned that Donald Trump would be our next president. The chart on the right shows the answer: pretty darn quickly.

On November 8, the average 30-year fixed mortgage was available at a rate of 3.53 percent. Within two days it had gone up 21 basis points, and within a week it had gone up 43 basis points. Adjustable mortgages spiked upward too, though not as dramatically, and both rates continued to drift upward until December 14. Then they spiked upward again thanks to the Fed’s decision to increase interest rates.

So what does this mean for your ordinary working-class joe who voted for Trump? Well, for a 30-year fixed mortgage on a $200,000 loan, the monthly payment has increased from about $900 to $950. That’s an extra $600 per year.

Generally speaking, this spike was due to the fact that everyone panicked after Trump won, causing treasury bond yields to jump 35 basis points in a week. More specifically, however, is it due to China selling US treasuries in greater quantities than usual? Maybe! But whatever the cause, if you waited until after the election to buy a house, you’re paying a pretty stiff Trump penalty.

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Home Buyers Are Paying a $600 Trump Tax on New Mortgages

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Signs of the Times

Mother Jones

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The view from the bottom:

The Los Angeles Unified School District has set up a hotline and opened “extended support sites” to respond to a high level of student anxiety about the election of Donald Trump as president.

And the view from the top:

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Signs of the Times

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