August 20, 2019 / by 

 

Was Facebook Biased or Was It Manipulated?

[Notez bien: Cet essai n’a pas été écrit par Marcy ou bmaz mais par moi. Merci. Oh, and some this is speculative. /~Rayne]

Facebook has been in the news a lot this last two weeks with regard to its sneaky surveillance of competitors and users by paying teens for their data as well as its 15th anniversary.

But that’s not what this essay is about.

This is about the 2016 election and in particular a claim I thought was peculiar when it was first reported.

Gizmodo, a former Gawker Media outlet, published two stories claiming that Facebook’s news feed was biased against conservative news based on feedback from contract editors.

It struck me as odd at the time because

  • the first story was published within the week that Trump became the presumptive nominee for the Republican Party;
  • conservative news outlets weren’t complaining about being suppressed by Facebook;
  • the story broke at a troubled outlet via a relatively new technology editor at a lesser technology outlet.

It’d already struck me as bizarre that Trump wasn’t using traditional campaign media practices to reach his base. He wasn’t spending money on ad buys and other media like a new-to-politics candidate would. The commercial media was all over him providing him enough coverage that he didn’t have to buy more. Media coverage of Trump suffocated the rest of the GOP field in addition to swamping coverage of Democrats’ primary race.

So why were these contract editors/curators complaining about Facebook’s bias if so much of the media was focused on a Republican candidate?

Gawker, as you may recall, had been under siege by billionaire Peter Thiel after its founder Nick Denton had allowed Thiel’s sexuality to be outed in an Valleywag article. Thiel helped former professional wrestler and celebrity Terry Bollea, a.k.a. Hulk Hogan, sue Gawker for invasion of privacy, intentional infliction of emotional distress, negligent infliction of emotional distress, publication of private matter, and violation of the right to publicity. Gawker ultimately lost the case in March 2016 in a Florida court; it filed bankruptcy on June 10.

When Gawker lost to Bollea it was clear the media outlet suffered a mortal blow. Bollea won $115 million in compensatory damages and $25 million in punitive damages and Gawker didn’t have that much in cash or assets. It was only a matter of time before Denton would either fold or sell Gawker.

In that nebulous period when Gawker’s fate hung in the balance, Gizmodo ran two stories about Facebook’s alleged anti-conservative bias within six days’ time.

Why would Facebook’s contract editors reach out to an affiliate of troubled outlet Gawker? Facebook was the largest social media platform in the U.S.; why wouldn’t they have gone to a major U.S. newspaper instead of beleaguered Gawker?

One reason could have been Gawker’s financial vulnerability. A hungry outlet might publish any clickbait-y story when they have little to lose but paychecks.

Another reason might be inexperience. The reporter/editor whose byline appears on the Facebook stories didn’t have years-deep experience in technology reporting, unlike folks at competing dedicated technology journalism outlets. The journalist joined the organization in January 2016 and stayed with Gizmodo through Gawker’s subsequent acquisition; they left for another technology outlet mid-2017. Were they approached by sources because they were relatively inexperienced and working at a distressed outlet?

The journalist’s departure doesn’t appear to be neutral based on the observation a Gizmodo sister outlet, io9, published on his exit (cached copy). Perhaps it was a grumbly “break a leg” farewell a la Larry Darrell’s character in The Razor’s Edge (1984), but this doesn’t appear to be a regular practice at Gizmodo or other Gawker affiliates.

Once Gizmodo published the story, other outlets picked it up and repackaged it as original content. The New York Times stepped in and did more digging, treating this almost like Clinton’s emails with five pieces on Facebook and political bias inside May alone:

09-MAY-2016 — Conservatives Accuse Facebook of Political Bias
10-MAY-2016 — Political Bias at Facebook?
10-MAY-2016 — Senator Demands Answers From Facebook on Claims of ‘Trending’ List Bias
11-MAY-2016 — Facebook’s Bias Is Built-In, and Bears Watching
19-MAY-2016 — Opinion | The Real Bias Built In at Facebook

The story of Facebook’s alleged anti-conservative bias in news editing exploded with a huge push by NYT. (It didn’t stop in May; NYT published at least four more pieces before the election focused on Facebook and political bias though not all reflected negatively on Facebook.)

One outlet published a story based on Gizmodo’s second story seven hours after Gizmodo: the Observer, formerly known as The New York Observer, a small print and online media outlet based in New York city.

At the time it ran its story on Facebook’s alleged bias, it was owned by Jared Kushner.

The media editor’s story at the Observer noted the Gizmodo story trended on Facebook.

Facebook ‘Supression of Conservative News’ Story Is Trending on Facebook‘ published at 5:15 p.m. (assume this was local time in NYC).

Was it possible the Gizmodo article had been elevated by conservative news outlets and blogs rather than normal Facebook users’ traffic from reading the article itself, especially if the contract editors on assignment that day were still applying anti-conservative filters as alleged?

The last update to the Gizmodo article included this excerpt from a statement by Vice President of Search at Facebook, Tom Stocky:

…There have been other anonymous allegations — for instance that we artificially forced ‪#‎BlackLivesMatter‬ to trend. We looked into that charge and found that it is untrue. We do not insert stories artificially into trending topics, and do not instruct our reviewers to do so. …

If Facebook could not detect foreign interference at that time — and it was known by September 2017 the Black Lives Matter content on Facebook had been elevated by Russian troll bots — would Facebook have been able to detect any artificial elevation of the Gizmodo stories?

Was it possible pro-conservative contract editors set up this scenario in order to skew Facebook’s content so that it would be easier for the Russian Internet Research Agency to amplify what appeared to be conservative content?

Or were the Gizmodo articles used to identify conservative outlets based on their liking the article?

Or was this scenario a proof-of-concept revealing Facebook’s inability or unwillingness to detect artificial manipulation of content?

Was it possible the Observer’s media page had been prepared to cover this development long before other east coast and national news outlets?

The timing of the Gizmodo stories is awfully convenient:

26-APR-2016 — GOP primaries/caucuses in CT, DE, MD, PA, RI, all won by Trump.

03-MAY-2016 — GOP primary in IN won by Trump.

03-MAY-2016 — Gizmodo article published: Want to Know What Facebook Really Thinks of Journalists? Here’s What Happened When It Hired Some.

03-MAY-2016 — Ted Cruz withdrew from race.

04-MAY-2016 — Trump became presumptive GOP nominee.

04-MAY-2016 — John Kasich withdrew from race.

09-MAY-2016 — Gizmodo article published at 9:10 a.m.: Former Facebook Workers: We Routinely Suppressed Conservative News.

09-MAY-2016 — Gizmodo updated article noting the piece had begun to trend with pickup by conservative sites; time of update not specified.

09-MAY-2016 — Gizmodo posted a second update at 4:10 p.m., posting Facebook’s initial response to TechCrunch, BuzzFeed, other unnamed outlets inquiries; the social media company denied suppression of content by political ideology.

09-MAY-2016 — Observer article published at 5:15 p.m.: Facebook ‘Supression of Conservative News’ Story Is Trending on Facebook.

10-MAY-2016 — Gizmodo adds final update at 8:10 a.m. with a statement from Facebook denying again any suppression by political ideology.

10-MAY-2016 — GOP primaries in NE, WV won by Trump.

17-MAY-2016 — Guardian-US published an op-ed by a Facebook contract curator pushing back at earlier Gizmodo stories. The article does not stop a steady number of stories repeating the earlier claims of anti-conservative bias.

17-MAY-2016 — GOP primary in OR won by Trump.

24-MAY-2016 — GOP primary in WA won by Trump.

26-MAY-2016 — Trump attains 1,237 total delegates, minimum required to win nomination — after CO, ND, and PA unbound delegates pledged to support Trump.

And by the end of May the race for media coverage isn’t a fight on the right among a broad field of GOP candidates but just Trump against Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders for the next 10 days.

The too-convenient timing creates so many questions. It’d be nice to know if Facebook traffic showed an uptick of troll or bot interest promoting the Gizmodo story but Facebook has been less than forthcoming about traffic even though its business integrity was questioned.

It’d also be nice to know if the Observer had been tipped off ahead of the Gizmodo story trending and if the Observer’s report had other connotations apart from being a random story about social media.

But just as the Gizmodo journalist/editor who wrote the May 3 and May 9 stories moved on, the Observer journalist left their job, departing in late July 2016.

And the names of the Facebook curators/editors never appeared in subsequent coverage. Non-disclosure agreements may be the reason.

The kicker is another interesting bit of timing bookending Gizmodo’s stories:

19-APR-2016 — A domain for DCLeaks was registered.

. . .

06-JUN-2016 — Clinton attained 2383 delegates, the minimum threshold needed to earn the Democratic nomination.

08-JUN-2016 — A fake American identity posted a link in Facebook to a Russian GRU-associated website, DCLeaks, sharing content stolen from American servers including the DNC. The site “had gone live a few days earlier,” sharing small amounts of hacked material.

10-JUN-2016 — Gawker filed for bankruptcy.

By the time DCLeaks’ content was promoted by a fake account, the conservative commentariat from news sites to blogs had been primed to watch Facebook for a change in their coverage and Gawker as we’d known it under Nick Denton was on life support.

One other oddity about the Gizmodo stories about Facebook’s biased curation and the Observer piece observing Gizmodo’s Facebook pieces?

Trump’s name isn’t mentioned once in any of the three articles though his name had swamped all other media.

Hmm.

 

Treat this as an open thread.


KonMari-ing the Confederacy’s Son

[NB: Check the byline — this is a different kind of ‘trash talk’. /~Rayne]

You may already have heard the buzz about Japanese organizing consultant Marie Kondo and her branded decluttering technique, KonMari. Perhaps you’ve even seen her on Netflix which now features a series called Tidying Up with Marie Kondo.

She set off a furor across the internet among book lovers when she suggested getting rid of all of one’s books except for those few that spark joy — which is her guiding philosophy to thinning everything one possesses. When one considers a particular personal belonging, what feelings does it inspire? If joy, keep it and store it carefully; if not, release it.

This doesn’t work for books. Some of the most horror-inspiring books may be essential favorites whether fiction or non-fiction. And many book lovers whether readers, authors, or editors thrive in an environment of tsundoku, the weight of unread books providing a wealth of promise rather than oppressive dread.

The hullabaloo about her approach to books forced a reconsideration of the KonMari technique. It doesn’t work uniformly for everyone; what sparks joy for one rouses sadness in others.

But people do share universal values; if we focused on happiness and peace arising from observing these values, there might be a way to reconcile the disparity between ditching books and keeping them whether they spark joy or not.

Looking at our universal values — those we share as humans regardless of our gender identity, race and ethnicity, religious heritage, or country of origin — we have to ask ourselves about much more than whether to keep the tatty high school-issued copy of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein or well-thumbed Naomi Klein’s Shock Doctrine.

What is it we should jettison if we are truly keeping that which is honest and trustworthy, responsible, respectful, caring, and fair?

Why worry about an excess of books and holey stray socks when our lives are thrown into chaos every day by people who are not living these shared values?

It could be said the repudiation of Governor Ralph Northam is an example of this kind of purging by Democrats in Virginia and beyond. Has Northam changed since the mid-1980s? Sure — we all have and hopefully for the better, but Northam’s failure to be open as a candidate and now as an elected official about the context of his medical school’s yearbook is a lapse of under universal ethics even if we believed his claims.

Now the people of Virginia wait for Northam to come to grips with the sorting he’s been through.

But as a country we’re not done with our reassessment. What are we keeping that holds us back from realizing our best selves as citizens?

A substantive number of readers will surely suggest impeaching and removing Trump and they’d be right. He’s the antithesis of  honesty and trustworthiness, responsibility, respect, caring, and fairness in nearly everything he does. Decluttering processes have already been set in motion — the Special Counsel’s Office plays a role in them even if its mission isn’t removal per se.

Trump isn’t the only human obstruction to realizing our communal universal values, though.

This needs to go. This should have been KonMari’d more than a dozen years ago, pared out of government. Don’t even think about trying to recycle it, either, it’s beyond redemption. The tradition manifest here has no worth because it disrespects the innate value of fellow humans while elevating a small number of people because of that disrespect.

Kentuckians need to clean their house beginning with this Senate seat. McConnell can’t possibly inspire happiness and peace in their hearts when his actions deny so many their human dignity.

Republicans should do likewise, beginning now with removing McConnell from the majority leadership role. They need to ask themselves if doubling down on their pursuit of power, throwing values to the wind to this end, really sparks joy in their hearts and souls. Do their efforts generate genuine authority, lay claim to authentic leadership, when fellow humans must be denigrated in the process?

Failing to be honest with themselves and respectful of the public will eventually set off other kinds of sparks. Just ask Ralph Northam.

 

Treat this as an open thread.


A Good Walk Foiled

[NB: You should check the byline as always, though nobody else here at emptywheel is stupid enough to write about golf but me. /~Rayne]

The title of this post is an homage to an informative piece of work about the business of golf, A Good Walk Spoiled, written by sports writer John Feinstein. The book was published in 1995 before Tiger Woods turned pro, driving golf into a boom in tandem with the dot com explosion and the crazy amount of expendable income a certain class of people had to spend on the sport.

A Good Walk Spoiled also preceded the rise of Trump-owned and branded golf courses by a few years. Trump built his first course in 1999, the Trump International Golf Club, West Palm Beach, Florida. On brand with Trump’s litigiousness, the land was acquired after a lawsuit against Palm Beach County. Without pulling up the relevant suit and land records it’s hard to tell exactly how Trump obtained the 350 acres which became Trump’s first course. It’s certainly not clear from this interview:

In 1985 you bought Mar-a-Lago (Trump’s Florida home, a landmark that had been the estate of cereal heiress Marjorie Merriweather Post, wife of E.F. Hutton). How did that happen?

Mar-a-Lago was on the market for about five years, but they wouldn’t sell it to me. Now, they had already sold the beach in front of Mar-a-Lago–stupidly sold it–so I bought that, and then the other potential buyers didn’t want the place so much. Especially after I announced a horrendous project for that beach: big houses between Mar-a-Lago and the ocean. Did I really plan to build those houses? No. But it worked. Once I had the beach, I had them, and they sold me Mar-a-Lago. I got a good deal.

After I got it, I was annoyed by the planes going over to Palm Beach International Airport. So I sued the county. They wound up settling, and I got 350 incredible acres–the land that’s now Trump International Golf Club (An attorney for Palm Beach County says the settlement was unrelated to the land). Which has a quite expensive exit from the highway, by the way. The state’s spending $400 million on a highway (Widening and improving interstate 95), but didn’t build me an exit, and I put up quite a fuss about that. They ended up building a $30 million exit (Florida Department of Transportation says the exit cost even more $40 million) that goes to my $45 million course.

Right from the beginning of his current 17-course golf empire, the means and methods by which he operated them were sketchy.

It doesn’t help that the media has given him a pass so many damned times, even in this particular bit of sports writing. What was the settlement really about? How did Trump really acquire the land? It’s waved off in fourteen words enclosed in parentheses and that’s it. The same kind of wave off The New York Times gave him in coverage of their interview with him yesterday, 11 years after Trump’s bullshit explanation to Golf.com.

And I do mean bullshit. Read the rest of that Golf.com article and see if your eyebrows don’t elevate from the reek.

Especially the bit about playing golf with a banker.

Trump is playing golf right now, unsurprisingly, having traveled to his resort Mar-a-Lago for the weekend. I’m disappointed in one of his golf partners. Jack Nicklaus is a Republican and therefore no surprise as one of Trump’s playmates today. But Tiger Woods? Really, Tiger?

I get that Tiger may feel an affinity for someone who loves golf as much as Trump does, but you’d think Tiger would be smart enough to see the handwriting on the wall and the risk to anyone’s personal brand if they’re too tight with Il Douche.

Maybe Tiger’s going along to get along as far too many people have with Trump all his adult life.

In which case today’s round is just a good walk foiled.

Treat this as an open thread.

ADDER — 2:22 p.m. ET —

His moochery bilking us of our tax dollars to promote his golf course disgusts me to no end.

I hope he is counting his golf swings. It would be sweet justice to see one or more of his courses seized if investigations reveal he has defrauded us.


A Neoliberal Argument for Medicare for All

[NB: Note the byline, as always. /~Rayne]

The old white billionaire dudes lipping off about “un-American” expectations of fairness and equity in income distribution jogged something loose in me.

I’m so damned angry about their willingness to complain their ability to buy yet another fucking yacht may be diminished because the average working American has the chutzpah to demand health care for everyone on top of a living wage.

What really cheeses me off is the utter stupidity of these so-called business geniuses.

WHY ARE THEY IN THE HEALTH CARE BUSINESS AT ALL??

Let’s pick on Mr. Luxury Beverage’s business. His core competency is preparing beverages to meet Americans’ tastes in an appealing environment.

Why has he spent any of his corporation’s human resource dollars on health care programs? His corporation’s expertise is NOT health care or insurance; they’re only providing health care because competition for stable, healthy employees is tight and turnover costs a butt-load of money.

I know you’ll love that technical term ‘butt-load’ but seriously, turnover in low-wage jobs in which employers have invested considerable training eats away at profit margins. It can take a year or two for low-level employees to reach maximum productivity — like pouring the optimum level of crema on a double espresso and know the entire menu by heart while operating at full-speed during rush hour.

What does it cost the Luxury Beverage business if workers leave inside that first year because they can get health care elsewhere?

Ditto for Mr. Business News Provider. His core competency is gathering, reporting, distributing timely news preferred by businesses ahead of the rest of the competition; time matters greatly if stock trades on this corporation’s work product. Why is his corporation in the health care business at all?

And yet both disparate businesses — beverage purveyor and news distributor — expect a comparable level of health among their workforce. They aren’t factoring into SWOT analyses the possibility a competitor’s workforce might be more healthy and fit.

If we look at other industries like the automotive industry or construction, healthy workers who can handle physical demands becomes mission critical. Only so much work can be automated or eased with technology and equipment.

And yet the cost of negotiating and providing health care for their employees can be the difference between profitability and business failure.

The challenge is greater when competing with companies overseas as automakers do.  Health care costs for the Big Three here add a significant percentage to the cost of goods sold — far more than $2 billion a year — while their foreign competitors pay less because the costs is absorbed across all of society instead of their businesses’ experience. The costs are based on a population which has had uniform access to health care throughout their lives.

So why are industries which aren’t delivering health care in the business of providing health care at all?

It’s in the best interest of the country and its industries to use economies of scale to acquire good health care at lower cost, provide it to the entire country, so that the country’s businesses can focus solely on their core competencies as well as the features which differentiate them positively from competing overseas products.

This is exactly what the neoliberal “strong but impartial state” is for in concert with “free enterprise, the system of competition,” to provide what the people know is needed to establish economic justice, insure domestic peace, provide for the common defense against health and employment insecurity, promote the general welfare of all citizens and workers, while securing an optimum opportunity for businesses to compete.

The U.S. is going to spend $3.5 trillion on health care this year under this current system. This is nearly two times what comparable countries spend on average. It’s inflating the cost of everything we make and sell. Imagine the profits corporations could make and keep if they didn’t have to spend valuable time and resources on health care benefits management.

But, but socialism! — this is the immediate refrain offered as push back against institutionalizing health care as a federal program to be provided to all.

Do you see either Mr. Luxury Beverages or Mr. Business News Provider complaining about the federal government’s role in assuring baseline education across the country through its K-12 public school system? I would argue this is the most American federal program we have now or have ever had since its inception with the Pilgrims.

But socialized K-12 education!

Imagine having to argue as a presidential candidate that we can’t have education for all though this program has already directly benefited every business and our common defense in some way.

Imagine American corporations, each independently in isolation, spending billions each year on human resources to research and negotiate education programs as an offering for employees and their families. Ridiculous, right? It’d suffocate so many young businesses on the verge of scaling up.

But these old white male billionaires don’t see any problem with publicly-funded education for all which helped make them what they are today.

I can’t believe I’ve had to argue a neoliberal case for publicly-funded health care for all because a guy who grew up in public housing thinks such health care is “un-American.”

 

Treat this as an open thread.


Let Them Eat (Starbucks’ Coffee) Cake

A couple of older billionaire white dudes have been shooting off their mouths. One of them is partially clued in. The other one apparently lives on a different planet where the sky is a groovy coffee-colored plaid.

I’m sure I’m preaching to the choir when I point out these facts:

The links above include scolding by financial experts who say Americans need to do a better job of saving. But…

Don’t get me started on what college tuition and subsequent debt does to Americans’ ability to save.

We all know that health care costs have not improved and remain the leading cause of bankruptcy in the U.S. even though more Americans have health insurance under ACA.

And rich older white dudes are completely, utterly, hopelessly out of touch about the financial facts of life for nearly half of Americans let alone the next 2-3 deciles.

Like Wilbur Ross — our Commerce Secretary who lied about his assets and clearly knows nothing about Americans’ daily commerce — struggled to comprehend why federal employees might need to use a food bank after missing a paycheck.

Just get a loan, Ross thinks. Sure, sure, banks give signature loans to people without any collateral let alone a source of income all the time. Come on, Wilbur: would you invest in a bank offering those kinds of terms to the average Joe/Josephine off the street?

And then there’s Trump, who thinks we can just ask the grocer to extend some credit for an unspecified period of time. Right — a nationwide grocery chain clearing 1-3% a year in profits can afford to extend credit.

So goddamned clueless he is. I’m only surprised he didn’t tell furloughed federal workers he’d give them a 5% discount to play golf at one of his courses during their free time.

76-year-old billionaire Michael Bloomberg, who thinks he’s still young enough to run for president in 2020, trashed Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s wealth tax proposal as “probably unconstitutional,” thereby revealing his brain’s atrophy. If taxing higher levels of income wasn’t unconstitutional under Hoover, Roosevelt, Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, Carter, then it probably isn’t unconstitutional.

And then Seattle coffee magnate Howard Schultz popped off at Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’ proposals to increase marginal tax rates on the uber-wealthy, calling her “a bit misinformed” and her proposal “un-American.”

Except the U.S. had higher tax rates on the wealthy, for most of the 20th century. The country could afford to build more infrastructure; it built a successful public school system and went to the moon. How nice for Schultz that he could grow up and become a young entrepreneur in that economic environment.

(Put a pin in here for future reference, as a reminder that Schultz not only called AOC “un-American” but Sen. Kamala Harris, too. It’s as if he has a problem with women of color…)

Schultz thinks he has become a billionaire all on his own, as if the increasingly fascist political system with its active suppression of younger, marginalized citizens played no role in his wealth accumulation.

As if the last two decades of stagnant wages due to employment monopsony, repressive Federal Reserve policies, and the real estate market haven’t helped line his pockets by assuring low-wage workers get locked in and unable to move to better paying jobs.

Schultz has been able to accumulate massive amounts of wealth on the backs of people who aren’t being paid living wages, out of the wallets of those whose limited resources allows them to buy a coffee but not a house or health care. He’s rolling in a sea of cash because minimum wage workers are living in little more than indentured servitude.

You know what’s really un-American?

An ungrateful and narrow-minded billionaire white dude who doesn’t think living wages and health care for everyone are fair, who thinks that higher taxes after his first $50 million are theft.

A purveyor of luxury beverage products unable to grasp the unselfish commitment it will take to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty for all the people.

At least Bloomberg sees the danger Schultz’s presidential candidacy poses to this country.

But Schultz isn’t in it for the country’s benefit. He’s in the race for himself. It’s clear he’s done the number crunching and determined that it’s cheaper to run for POTUS even if he were to cause Trump to win re-election. (I’ll bet he’s even figured out how to write off his exploratory trips around the country as a business expense.)

Because the campaign expenses are less than the cost to his personal wealth if he were taxed at a higher rate and if he were also forced to pay living wages to his workers.

What a pity Schultz hasn’t calculated how much more overpriced, excessively roasted coffee minimum wage workers can buy if they didn’t have to worry about health care expenses on top of their rent.

 

Treat this as an open thread.


Golf for Fun and Profit(eering)

Before reading too far along into this post, take note: this is NOT a post by Marcy or bmaz and it’s speculative.

It’s also the closest thing I may come to Trash Talk on a sunny Saturday afternoon here in the great white north where outdoor temperatures hover in the single digits. Going outside one risks frostbite and snowblindness.

In other words it’s a perfect day to indulge in flights of fancy, imagining a stroll over the velvety greens and fairways of a lush, high-end golf course, pondering the moola one might rake in from an imaginary money laundering operation at the same time.

I spent some time with a friend who works in the golf industry talking about all the ways one might profiteer from running a golf resort. Neither of us are criminals so our ideas might not make the most sense to seasoned professional crooks. But after looking at the myriad ways in which one could make an unreported (read: illicit) profit and clear money out the door, I don’t know why I don’t buy a golf course because DAMN. There’s a lotta’ gold in them thar sand traps.

We asked ourselves this simple question: if one owned a luxury private golf course club or resort, how could they launder money or make unreported income?

Membership fees

  • Charge member fees only certain people can afford to pay, the kind of people who expect to pay a lot for golf, who can afford it, and who may desire a certain amount of privacy and service incumbent with such fees.
  • Social membership fees for non-golfers who want to participate in club events, high enough to keep out all but the class of people who fit with the golf and corporate members.
  • Corporate member fees assessed to businesses who want to treat their management class employees. Assess them at a slightly higher level because the business benefits from access to members.
  • Overseas member fees, again at a higher level for a different class of service (ex. foreign language staff).
  • Phantom fees assessed to false identities.

That last one is pure gravy. Who’s going to check on whether these memberships are attached to real people or fronts?

Member minimum purchases
Membership-based clubs charge a monthly minimum purchase fee in order to support operations like their cafe and restaurants when course business is slow. If a member doesn’t buy minimum of $200 worth of meals or drinks in a month, for example, they will be charged that amount. It encourages buying more than the minimum for value-sensitive members.

But it’s also a means to keep out certain people while offering an opportunity to make easy money. Think about that phantom member — let’s say they paid $50,000 to join the club. They also have to pay $200 per month in minimums. Different and higher level of membership? Different, higher level of minimum monthly purchases fees.

Premium services
Come on, think about it. Certain classes of members can ask for almost anything, especially if they wave some cash around. Who’s going to monitor whether any of these services are legal or otherwise?

Club or Course Events
First you must be a member. Then you have to pick from a menu of services you want provided for your Acme Corporation Annual Golf Outing. Of course you can only choose from the club’s or course’s list of pre-approved vendors, from hospitality tents to extra waitstaff. There are set-up and breakdown fees.

And it’s all made so very easy for a member to pay with one check, wire transfer, or crypto-currency transaction.

Again, who’s going to check this for legitimacy? To a bank it looks like a pretty typical event charge, no need to submit a Suspicious Activity Report (even easier if you do business with ‘friendly’ banks).

Oh, it’s a pity, too, when your event fees are non-refundable in case of rain.

Operating Expenses
Every product or service a course needs from sprinkler maintenance to grass fertilizer, golf cart repair to staffing, janitorial services to kitchen equipment, can be purchased from a (shell) company which manages all the contracts — so to speak — and then invoices the course.

Naturally the convenience of working with a single third-party might cost anywhere from 10 to 100% more but who’s counting?

Golf Course Adjacent Real Estate
A luxury course helps retain property value; who doesn’t want to wake up every morning and look out onto a fabulously maintained expanse of greenery, assured of quiet, likely within a secure, gated community? Buyers will pay a premium for this, especially for just the right house, and they’re the kind of people who pay in cash.

Insurance
Sh-tuff happens all the time in a business where clients engage in sports and where alcohol is served. A business needs insurance. What a coincidence there are many ways to benefit from having ‘good’ insurance.

These are the obvious ways one might use to make a little something extra through golf course and club ownership. But a special kind of owner might also have a few more opportunities.

What if some of the members’ personal information could be collected and sold? What if those same members could be induced, shall we say, to part with some cash to keep personal information private?

What if access to certain members and their businesses could yield a finder’s fee, for lack of a better term? Or maybe a percentage off the top of every transaction once new business partners paired up and began transactions?

We never call it kickbacks or inflated invoicing, of course.

This is all we came up one snowy afternoon, daydreaming about golf.

But the one most important factor about owning a high-end golf course and club for profit? There’s very little regulation.

Not like hotels — you can see the amount of regulation on room rentals on the back of most hotel room doors.

The course might have to adhere to state and federal regulations regarding chemicals applied to the greenery but if a course owner has sufficient pull those regulatory inconveniences won’t be a problem.

Same with undocumented staff or contractors.

Can’t get too carried away with insurance matters but again, clout will help.

And the average rich dude has a minimum expectation from food and beverage service well above the minimum a state or local agency might expect.

But who’s going to insist on looking at the books if the business pays some taxes based on its reported income and the income doesn’t look out of line with other businesses in its class?

Even when the total number of golfers has plummeted by 20-25% over the last 10 years?

Now imagine what one could rake in if they could afford to buy multiple golf courses.

All I can say is FORE!

 

Treat this as an open thread.


End Of Year/New Year’s Bad Boy Trash Talk

It is yet another end of the year. On a weekend, that, with the New Year holiday, will stretch out. So this will likely be the Trash Talk post that takes us through all that.

Speaking of an end of the year compendium, do go read Alex Pareene’s on the Huff Po. It is pretty spectacular.

Before we get to football, let us get to some historical level of skiing by Mikaela Shiffrin. Lindsay Vonn, appropriately, has the love and attention of the public attuned to skiing, but Mikaela Shiffrin deserves the same amount. If not more. What she has done, and is doing, is beyond remarkable.

Mikaela Shiffrin became the most successful female slalom skier in the 52-year history of the World Cup by winning the final race of 2018 on Saturday.
….
Only Swedish great Ingemar Stenmark has won more World Cup slaloms. He claimed victory in 40 events between 1974 and 1987.

By winning Saturday, Shiffrin also became the first skier, male or female, to win 15 World Cup races in a calendar year, moving one victory past men’s overall champion Marcel Hirscher of Austria, who has won 14 times in 2018.

Ms. Shiffren is only 23. She has quite a game changing future ahead of her.

Give Ms. Shiffrin a little attention. These are world class and historical level feats she pulls off every day.

Back to football. The games come up as this – First, there are the critical BCS games: Notable to this blog, the Gators and Wolverines are about to tangle in the Chik-fil-A Peach Bowl. This is literally Marcy versus Jim thing, will either one of them weigh in?

Later, of course, are the BCS semi-final games. First up is Oklahoma versus Bama. Oklahoma has an offense that only a team like Alabama might contain. I think the Crimson Tide rolls on, but it is no given, because Kyler Murray is scary good. In the other semi-final, Clemson, who would have been a heavy favorite against a Notre Dame team that arguably should not even be here, has three players suspended at the last minute. The most prominent of which is on defense, Clemson’s offense will be okay. Is that enough? Probably, but if you want to bet an upset, this could be it.

Off to the pros: The Colts at Titans is literally a play in game. The winner goes to the playoffs and the loser goes home. Captain Andrew Luck seems healthier than Marcus Mariotta. It is really hard to discount the extremely plucky Titans. But the Colts seem to have found some magic in the second half of the season. So, against some instincts, I will take the Colts to win even in Tennessee, though I am no where near sure of that. The next most winner take it game is Bears at the Vikings. Bears trying to find a way to a first round bye, and Vikes looking to clinch a wild card spot in the playoffs. The Bears sure look like the better team at this moment, but it is in Minnesota, not Soldier Field, so this looks to be a really interesting tossup.

Raiders are at Chefs. Chucky had a nice little PR spot with that win over the Donkos on the MNF closer for the year, but it is pretty hard to see them winning in KC. Chargers at Broncos is a far harder call. The Bolts look to be a far better, and healthier, team right now. If the Iggles beat the Skins, and the Vikes lose to Da Bears, Nick Foles and the Eagles slip back into the playoffs, as improbable as it may be.

Lastly, and curiously, maybe most interesting, is the Brownies at the Ravens. The once Cleveland Browns versus the now Cleveland Browns. With the playoff hopes of the old Brownies,and now Ravens, on the line. This is simply precious. And, in case you have not been watching, Baker Mayfield and the Browns have been on a roll. This should be an incredible game, irrespective of how it plays out.

This post has music from some lads from Liverpool. Bad Boy is one of their more under appreciated tracks. Behave yourselves!


The Ghosts Of Christmas Eves Past

Here we are, heading into Christmas. Everybody, is slowing down and heading into the holidays. We all are. Things often get a tad scarce this time of year, but we would like to say Hi, Happy Holidays, Merry Christmas, Happy Hanukkah, Mele Kalikimaka and any other greeting applicable. Thank you for being here with us.

It has been a couple of years…I think…since I have done the remembrance section at this time of year. Many of you are old-timers going back to when we were at TNH, even before the FDL years, but so many are new and really do not know the history. We have been at this a good long while now. The years float by, but the people are what sticks.

In that regard, I want to return to thanking those that contributed much, but are now gone. If you are new here, you never would have known the names of Mary, Bob Schacht, Mad Dog, Free Patriot, Skdadl and a host of others that were not only our blog friends, but that we often met and knew in real life too.

They are gone, but not forgotten heading into this Christmas Eve. But this always, at least for me, I think Marcy too, comes back into focus on this date because of our friend and beloved colleague, Mary Perdue. Mary passed away on Christmas Eve 2011. She, like all the others, was the best of what this blog had, and has, to offer. So, in memory of all who are gone, but not forgotten, here is the original in memorium for Mary.

You all, each and every one, rock. Thank you for being here and supporting us. Happy Holidays everyone:

…………..

The internet is a strange and wonderful thing. Just about everyone and everything in the world is on it, even though it is nothing but data in the form of binary computer code traversing by random electrons. Yet thought is crystalized, and friendships born and nurtured, through commonality of interest and purpose. And so it is here at Emptywheel, where many of us have been together since the days at The Next Hurrah, through years at Firedoglake, and now at our new home. Just because it germinates via the net does nothing to detract from the sense of community, friendship and admiration for each other gained over time.

With profound sadness, I report we have lost a true friend, and one of our longest tenured contributors, Mary. Mary Beth Perdue left us on Christmas Eve, December 24, 2011.

Mary Beth Perdue, 52, of Robards, KY, formally of Newburgh, passed away at her home.

She graduated Order of Coif from University of Kentucky Law School and from University of Evansville with an accounting degree. She was a member of the Indiana Bar Association. She was in house counsel at Mid-Central Land Services, Inc. and served as an attorney for firms in Indiana and Kentucky. She owned and operated the Horse and Hound (a pet supply store) in Newburgh. Mary was a lover of all animals with a special place in her heart for horses, dogs and cats. She was involved in numerous equestrian sports and organizations.

Here at Emptywheel, she was just Mary; and she was so much more than a simple obituary can convey. She was funny, kind, and, most of all, razor sharp in analysis of extremely complex issues surrounding torture, indefinite detention, international human rights, illegal wiretapping and executive branch overreach. Mary had a steel trap index in her mind for even obscure torture and rendition cases and facts. To the day she died, Mary was one of the very few people commenting in America that remembered, and would never miss a chance to point out, how the children and extended families of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and Aafia Siddiqui were used and/or disappeared by the US as pawns in our immoral torture in the name of the so called “war on terror”. Mary’s dissection of Jack Goldsmith terrorist detention policy, complete with with a comparison to the Ox Bow Incident, was a thing of passion and beauty.

One of Mary’s favorite, and most important, hobby horses was the seminal case of Ex Parte Milligan, on which she beat the drum loudly long before the critical 2008 decision in Boumediene v. Bush and the 2009 release of the torture memos. She was, as usual, right. Here she is taking John Yoo apart at the seams over his intellectual duplicity regarding Ex Parte Milligan. And then there was Mary’s three part opus on the history and meaning of Ex Parte Milligan (Parts One, Two and Three), which is one of the best primers anywhere on the case that has finally come back into renewed significance in the critical issues of the war on terror. Mary played a part in keeping that significance alive, and in the discussion mix, until it took hold again.

Mary did not talk much about her real life family and work, and as another still practicing attorney, I can fully understand the maintenance of that separation. It is quite likely, like me, that her friends and family had little idea of the true depth and importance of her knowledge and dedication to the interests she expressed here, both in front page posts authored, and in her consistent critical contribution in the discussion comments. But, make no mistake, Mary was not just an invaluable contributor, and affected not just me and Marcy, but key players in the larger discussion. I know for a fact, because I talk to the different people and discussed it with them; Mary’s posts and comments were seen and known by actors from the ACLU, to EFF, to other think tanks and attorneys in the field. She left a mark.

As I said at the start of this post, the internet is a curious, if compelling and wonderful place; in all the furiously teeming milieu of people and issues, it is easy for one voice to not be missed for a brief time. All of us take time away every now and then, and Mary was no exception; often being scarce for a period due to pressing duties with work and her beloved horses and land.

I had not talked to Mary since a few days before Christmas. With the rush of the holidays, and a busy work schedule for me in January I have been a tad scarce myself and I had not particularly noticed Mary’s absence. A little over a week ago, I emailed her some irresistibly cute pictures of the one of a kind racehorse Rachel Alexandra and her new foal. Mary loved Rachel Alexandra. Realizing she had not responded to that catnip, I checked yesterday and found the terrible news. There are a lot of things Mary might be too busy with real life to respond to, but not that. And so life became a little less full and enjoyable. Mary’s family has indicated:

In lieu of flowers, memorial contributions may be made to a local humane society or other animal rescue.

And that would indeed be Mary, and fit her, to a tee. Here is a secure link to do so for the national Humane Society; but by all means, if so inclined, give to your local chapter and let them know it is for Mary.

Emptywheel will not be the same without Mary Beth Perdue, but her work and memory will live in our hearts, minds and archives as a testament to who and what she was and stood for. We shall close with the picture Mary never got the opportunity to see, but would have been the epitome of the horses, animals and children which she truly loved, Rachel Alexandra and foal.

Vaya con dios Mary, you will be missed.

….

Cheers to all, and to all a good night and wonderful Christmas Day.


Three Things: Can’t Keep Quiet


This was the unofficial anthem of January 2017’s Women’s March. I needed the reminder this Monday after the insult of Kavanaugh’s nomination.

Speaking of insults…

~ 3 ~

It must be the current propaganda theme common to both Republicans and the Kremlin to mock women who stand up for themselves.

Senator McConnell thinks he and his white gerontocracy were attacked by mean old feminists, telling the audience at a press conference in Kentucky, “I couldn’t be prouder of the Senate Republican Conference. We were standing up for the presumption of innocence in this country . . . And secondly, we were literally under assault . . . There was a full-scale effort to intimidate.”

Oh Turtlehead. You are so feeble and an insult to the state of Kentucky.

Meanwhile Russian media has been pushing a fake video showing women attacking men for ‘manspreading’. The video spread rapidly but goodness knows how much of that is bot traffic. The intent is incitement of anger and violence against feminists specifically and women at large though the truth is the overwhelming majority of women would never attempt anything like that in the fake video for fear of immediate physical reprisal by men.

There’s really no need for incitement. Women are far more likely to be attacked as one woman was this weekend outside Detroit, shot after she refused a man’s advances. Three women die each day in the U.S. of domestic violence.

But McConnell and GOP senators were under assault. Right.

~ 2 ~

After songwriter, musician, and singer Taylor Swift posted on Instagram against GOP senate candidate Marsha Blackburn, another clueless old white dude came out to taunt and insult her and her fans.

Swift’s 28 years old; she’s been a number one hit performer for the last dozen years. The majority of her fans range in age from tweens to retirees, in no small part because she began her career in country music rather than pop rock. She has nearly 84 million followers on Twitter alone and I’m sure there are far fewer bots as a percentage than there are following Trump. Swift’s got one hell of a microphone.

But do go ahead, Huckster Huckabee, and mock them. I’m sure this will persuade them to vote for Blackburn.

~ 1 ~

The only nit I have with Swift’s social media plea to vote for Democratic candidate Phil Bredesen (and not Blackburn) is that she should have done this a week or more ago. There are many states with deadlines for registration TODAY and TUESDAY this week. Celeste_pewter has the details in this Twitter thread.

If you haven’t registered, drop everything and do so now. If you know of someone who hasn’t, drop everything and help them right now.

Pay particular heed to college students living on campus and those who are stuck at home due to disability and illness. Help them with registration and obtaining an absentee ballot.

What are you waiting for? Another insult?

~ 0 ~

This is an open thread.


Contra Kavanaugh, Redux

[NB: CHECK THE BYLINE.]

I wanted to put this post up earlier for the purposes of an open thread to accompany today’s political theater — I mean, the next Kavanaugh hearing.

Unfortunately I have been too upset to touch my keyboard. It was Rachel Mitchell’s grilling of witness Dr. Ford, treating her like a criminal instead of a victim, which flipped my switch.

Oh I am wholly enraged now. Do NOT fuck with me today.

I can see all the women in my multiple social media timelines equally upset and angry, swaying back and forth between crying and raging at the Republican assholes seated as Senate Judiciary Committee members.

Even now Grassley is interrupting the hearing’s flow to insert his own testimony of the timeline to questioning Dr. Ford, thereby reducing the amount of time the Democratic members have to question Dr. Ford. It’s a filibuster and he can’t yet explain why he didn’t ask for an FBI investigation.

Absolutely enraging.

The nomination of Brett Kavanaugh and the subsequent abuse of Dr. Ford has been a gross unforced error on the part of the Republican Party and the Trump administration. The questionable election of admitted sexual abuser Trump encouraged the largest number of women ever to run for public office. The 116th Congress will be very different because of this ongoing pink wave, first seen in the streets the day of the 2017 Women’s March.

This hearing and everything that led up to it will trigger an avalanche, a tsunami.

Get your rage on, let it out here. Burn it down and salt the earth, pave the way for that massive wave to come.

“In exchange for fire we women
Were made, another fire, greater
Much harder to fight.”

“We are women: in some things, we hesitate.
But in others, no one can surpass our courage.”
— Euripides

Gods help Kavanaugh when he appears later today. Gaia may slip her axis if he and the GOP senators fuck up any more badly than they have with women.

UPDATE: Kavanaugh’s performance today proved he does not have the appropriate judicial temperament appropriate to his current job let alone the Supreme Court.

CALL YOUR SENATORS NOW and tell them to vote NO on Kavanaugh.

Congressional switchboard: (202) 224-3121

If their D.C. line is busy or their mailbox is full, try contacting your senators’ local office numbers. Time is of the essence given the Republicans are meeting this evening to tally votes.

Copyright © 2018 emptywheel. All rights reserved.
Originally Posted @ https://www.emptywheel.net/culture/page/3/