A historic tax heist

In an editorial, the New York Times says: With barely a vote to spare early Saturday morning, the Senate passed a tax bill confirming that the Republican leaders’ primary goal is to enrich the country’s elite at the expense of everybody else, including future generations who will end up bearing the cost. The approval of this looting of the public purse by corporations and the wealthy makes it a near certainty that President Trump will sign this or a similar bill into law in the coming days.

The bill is expected to add more than $1.4 trillion to the federal deficit over the next decade, a debt that will be paid by the poor and middle class in future tax increases and spending cuts to Medicare, Social Security and other government programs. Its modest tax cuts for the middle class disappear after eight years. And up to 13 million people stand to lose their health insurance because the bill makes a big change to the Affordable Care Act.

Yet Republicans somehow found a way to give a giant and permanent tax cut to corporations like Apple, General Electric and Goldman Sachs, saving those businesses tens of billions of dollars. [Continue reading…]

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After a tax crackdown, Apple found a new shelter for its profits

The New York Times reports: Tim Cook was angry.

It was May 2013, and Mr. Cook, the chief executive of Apple, appeared before a United States Senate investigative subcommittee. After a lengthy inquiry, it found that the company had avoided tens of billions of dollars in taxes by shifting profits into Irish subsidiaries that the panel’s chairman called “ghost companies.”

“We pay all the taxes we owe, every single dollar,” Mr. Cook declared at the hearing. “We don’t depend on tax gimmicks,” he went on. “We don’t stash money on some Caribbean island.”

True enough. The island Apple would soon rely on was in the English Channel.

Five months after Mr. Cook’s testimony, Irish officials began to crack down on the tax structure Apple had exploited. So the iPhone maker went hunting for another place to park its profits, newly leaked records show. With help from law firms that specialize in offshore tax shelters, the company canvassed multiple jurisdictions before settling on the small island of Jersey, which typically does not tax corporate income.

Apple has accumulated more than $128 billion in profits offshore, and probably much more, that is untaxed by the United States and hardly touched by any other country. Nearly all of that was generated over the past decade.

The previously undisclosed story of Apple’s search for a new island tax haven and its use of Jersey is among the revelations emerging from a cache of secret corporate records from Appleby, a Bermuda-based law firm that caters to businesses and the wealthy elite. [Continue reading…]

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Paradise Papers leak reveals secrets of the world elite’s hidden wealth

The Guardian reports: The world’s biggest businesses, heads of state and global figures in politics, entertainment and sport who have sheltered their wealth in secretive tax havens are being revealed this week in a major new investigation into Britain’s offshore empires.

The details come from a leak of 13.4m files that expose the global environments in which tax abuses can thrive – and the complex and seemingly artificial ways the wealthiest corporations can legally protect their wealth.

The material, which has come from two offshore service providers and the company registries of 19 tax havens, was obtained by the German newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung and shared by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists with partners including the Guardian, the BBC and the New York Times.

The project has been called the Paradise Papers. It reveals:

[Continue reading…]

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U.S. denies request for Puerto Rico shipping waiver

Reuters reports: The Trump administration on Tuesday denied a request to waive shipping restrictions to help get fuel and supplies to storm-ravaged Puerto Rico, saying it would do nothing to address the island’s main impediment to shipping, damaged ports.

The Jones Act limits shipping between coasts to U.S. flagged vessels. However, in the wake of brutal storms, the government has occasionally issued temporary waivers to allow the use of cheaper, tax free, or more readily available foreign flagged ships.

The Department of Homeland Security, which waived the act after hurricanes Harvey and Irma, did not agree an exemption would help this time.

On Monday, U.S. Representative Nydia Velázquez and seven other representatives asked Elaine Duke, acting head of Homeland Security, to waive the nearly 100-year-old shipping law for a year to help Puerto Rico recover from Hurricane Maria.Gregory Moore, a spokesman for Customs and Border Protection, an office of Homeland Security, said in a statement that an assessment by the agency showed there was “sufficient capacity” of U.S.-flagged vessels to move commodities to Puerto Rico.

“The limitation is going to be port capacity to offload and transit, not vessel availability,” Moore said.

The government’s rationale for a waiver after the storms hit Texas, Louisiana and Florida was to ease movement of fuel to places along the U.S. East Coast and make up for temporary outages of high capacity pipelines.

“The situation in Puerto Rico is much different,” Moore said in the statement, adding that most of the humanitarian effort would be carried out with barges, which make up a large portion of the U.S. flagged cargo fleet.

Puerto Rico has long railed against the Jones Act, saying it makes the cost of imported basic commodities, such as food, clothing and fuel, more expensive.

“Our dependence on fossil fuel imports by sea is hampering the restoration of services,” said Juan Declet-Barreto, an energy expert at the nonprofit group the Union of Concerned Scientists. The refusal to allow the waiver “is raising fears on the island that they are going to be left behind in this disaster.” [Continue reading…]

Nelson A. Denis writes: After World War I, America was worried about German U-boats, which had sunk nearly 5,000 ships during the war. Congress enacted the Merchant Marine Act of 1920, a.k.a. the Jones Act, to ensure that the country maintained a shipbuilding industry and seafaring labor force. Section 27 of this law decreed that only American ships could carry goods and passengers from one United States port to another. In addition, every ship must be built, crewed and owned by American citizens.

Almost a century later, there are no U-boats lurking off the coast of Puerto Rico. The Jones Act has outlived its original intent, yet it is strangling the island’s economy.

Under the law, any foreign registry vessel that enters Puerto Rico must pay punitive tariffs, fees and taxes, which are passed on to the Puerto Rican consumer.

The foreign vessel has one other option: It can reroute to Jacksonville, Fla., where all the goods will be transferred to an American vessel, then shipped to Puerto Rico where — again — all the rerouting costs are passed through to the consumer.

Thanks to the law, the price of goods from the United States mainland is at least double that in neighboring islands, including the United States Virgin Islands, which are not covered by the Jones Act. Moreover, the cost of living in Puerto Rico is 13 percent higher than in 325 urban areas elsewhere in the United States, even though per capita income in Puerto Rico is about $18,000, close to half that of Mississippi, the poorest of all 50 states.

This is a shakedown, a mob protection racket, with Puerto Rico a captive market. The island is the fifth-largest market in the world for American products, and there are more Walmarts and Walgreens per square mile in Puerto Rico than anywhere else on the planet. [Continue reading…]

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Zinke says 30 percent of Interior ‘crew’ are not ‘loyal to the flag,’ as he promotes oil drilling and logging on public lands

The Associated Press reports: Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke said Monday that nearly one-third of employees at his department are not loyal to him and President Donald Trump, adding that he is working to change the department’s regulatory culture to be more business friendly.

Zinke, a former Navy SEAL, said he knew when he took over the 70,000-employee department in March that, “I got 30 percent of the crew that’s not loyal to the flag.”

In a speech to an oil industry group, Zinke compared Interior to a pirate ship that captures “a prized ship at sea and only the captain and the first mate row over” to finish the mission.

“We do have good people” at Interior, he said, “but the direction has to be clear and you’ve got to hold people accountable.”

Zinke’s comments echo complaints by some White House allies that a permanent, “deep state” in Washington has sabotaged Trump’s efforts to remake the government.

Zinke did not go that far, but he lamented a government culture that prizes analysis over action, saying: “There’s too many ways in the present process for someone who doesn’t want to get (a regulatory action) done to put it a holding pattern.”

To remedy that, Zinke said he is pursuing a major reorganization that would push much of the agency’s decision-making outside Washington and move several agencies, including the Bureau of Reclamation and Bureau of Land Management, to undetermined Western states.

The moves follow military strategy, Zinke said: “Push your generals where the fight is.”

While details remain largely under wraps, Zinke said he was excited.

“It’s going to be huge,” he said in a speech to the National Petroleum Council, an advisory committee that includes leaders of the oil and gas industry. “I really can’t change the culture without changing the structure.”

Besides moving employees, Zinke said he wants to speed up permits for oil drilling, logging and other energy development that now can take years. [Continue reading…]

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Who’s the world’s leading eco-vandal? It’s Angela Merkel

George Monbiot writes: Which living person has done most to destroy the natural world and the future wellbeing of humanity? Donald Trump will soon be the correct answer, when the full force of his havoc has been felt. But for now I would place another name in the frame: Angela Merkel.

What? Have I lost my mind? Angela Merkel, the “climate chancellor”? The person who, as German environment minister, brokered the first UN climate agreement, through sheer force of will? The chancellor who persuaded the G7 leaders to promise to phase out fossil fuels by the end of this century? The architect of Germany’s Energiewende – its famous energy transition? Yes, the very same.

Unlike Trump, she has no malicious intent. She did not set out to destroy the agreements she helped to create. But the Earth’s systems do not respond to mission statements or speeches or targets. They respond to hard fact. What counts, and should be judged, as she seeks a fourth term as German chancellor in the elections on Sunday, is what is done, not what is said. On this metric, her performance has been a planetary disaster.

Merkel has a fatal weakness: a weakness for the lobbying power of German industry. Whenever a crucial issue needs to be resolved, she weighs her ethics against political advantage, and chooses the advantage. This, in large part, is why Europe now chokes in a fug of diesel fumes.

The EU decision to replace petrol engines with diesel, though driven by German car manufacturers, predates her premiership. It was a classic European fudge, a means of averting systemic change while creating an impression of action, based on the claim (which now turns out to be false) that diesel engines produce less carbon dioxide than petrol. But once she became chancellor, Merkel used every conceivable tactic, fair and foul, to preserve this deadly cop-out. [Continue reading…]

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Google is coming after critics in academia and journalism. It’s time to stop them

Zephyr Teachout writes: About 10 years ago, Tim Wu, the Columbia Law professor who coined the term network neutrality, made this prescient comment: “To love Google, you have to be a little bit of a monarchist, you have to have faith in the way people traditionally felt about the king.”

Wu was right. And now, Google has established a pattern of lobbying and threatening to acquire power. It has reached a dangerous point common to many monarchs: The moment where it no longer wants to allow dissent.

This summer, a small team of well-respected researchers and journalists, the Open Markets team at the New America think tank (where I have been a fellow since 2014), dared to speak up about Google, in the mildest way. When the European Union fined Google for preferring its own subsidiary companies to its rival companies in search results, it was natural that Open Markets, a group dedicated to studying and exposing distortions in markets, including monopoly power, would comment. The researchers put out a 150-word statement praising the E.U.’s actions. They wrote, “By requiring that Google give equal treatment to rival services instead of privileging its own, [the E.U.] is protecting the free flow of information and commerce upon which all democracies depend.” They called upon the Federal Trade Commission and Department of Justice and state attorneys general to apply the traditional American monopoly law, which would require separate ownership of products and services and the networks that sell products and services.

Google has been funding New America for years at high levels. Within 24 hours of the statement going live, Google representatives called New America’s leadership expressing their displeasure. Two planned hires for the Open Markets team suddenly were canceled. Three days later, the head of the Open Markets team, the accomplished journalist Barry C. Lynn, received a letter from the head of the think tank, demanding that the entire team leave New America. The reason? The statement praising the E.U.’s decision against Google was, according to New America President Anne-Marie Slaughter, “imperiling the institution.” (As of this writing, Slaughter has denounced the story as false, claiming that Lynn was dismissed for failures of “openness” and “collegiality.”) [Continue reading…]

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Irma price gouging highlights sad truth: Consumer fleecing is the new normal

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Many accused Delta, shown here over Tampa in 2014, and other carriers of price gouging ahead of Irma, but it’s just business as normal.
Drew Horne/Shutterstock.com

By Ramsi Woodcock, Georgia State University

Since Hurricane Irma put Florida in its sights, there have been thousands of reports of price gouging on everything from water to gasoline.

The most notable complaint was not, however, the one alleging a US$72 charge for a six-pack of water. Rather, it was the $3,200 reportedly asked by Delta for a ticket out of Florida.

That’s because it wasn’t actually hurricane-related price gouging. Airlines were charging similar fares to last-minute buyers two weeks ago – and have been for years – long before Irma became a threat.

The fact is that airlines have made it a routine practice to jack up prices at moments of peak demand, such as right before a flight, when Americans dealing with family or business emergencies are willing to pay almost anything to get on the next plane out of town.

By bringing desperation to so many, Hurricane Irma is revealing a sad fact about many American companies, and not just airlines: that they have come in recent years to embrace taking advantage of desperate consumers as a central part of their business models.

The practice, called dynamic pricing, is intended to ration scarce goods and services, yet, as I show in a recent paper, it primarily harms consumers by making it easier for companies to fleece them.

[Read more…]

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The bad new politics of big tech

Ben Smith writes: The blinding rise of Donald Trump over the past year has masked another major trend in American politics: the palpable, and perhaps permanent, turn against the tech industry. The new corporate leviathans that used to be seen as bright new avatars of American innovation are increasingly portrayed as sinister new centers of unaccountable power, a transformation likely to have major consequences for the industry and for American politics.

That turn has accelerated in recent days: Steve Bannon and Bernie Sanders both want big tech treated as, in Bannon’s words in Hong Kong this week, “public utilities.” Tucker Carlson and Franklin Foer have found common ground. Even the group No Labels, an exquisitely poll-tested effort to create a safe new center, is on board. Rupert Murdoch, never shy to use his media power to advance his commercial interests, is hard at work.

“Anti-trust is back, baby,” Yelp’s policy chief, Luther Lowe, DM’d me after Fox News gave him several minutes to make the antitrust case against Yelp’s giant rival Google to its audience of millions. [Continue reading…]

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Company Town captures ‘quiet tragedy’ of community polluted by big business

 

The Guardian reports: The documentary Company Town opened in New York City on Friday night, for a short run at Cinema Village on East 12th Street. Introducing a sold-out screening, New York state attorney general Eric Schneiderman said co-directors Natalie Kottke-Masocco and Erica Sardarian had captured one of the “quiet tragedies that are taking place all across America all the time”.

The film tells the story of Crossett, Arkansas, a small town dominated by a huge Georgia-Pacific paper mill owned by the Koch brothers, Charles and David, hugely influential Republican donors with a deeply contentious – activists would say appalling – record on the environment. People who live in Crossett blame the mill for the heedless dumping of cancer-causing chemicals they say pollutes drinking water and shortens already straitened lives.

“This is a story that never gets told,” Schneiderman said, “and it takes tremendous commitment to get to the quiet tragedies that are taking place all across America all the time.

“The environmental movement really has not done as good a job perhaps as we should have done carrying the essential message that people who are poor and without power are always on the front lines of pollution and environmental justice.” [Continue reading…]

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Facebook, Google and Amazon wield power over us all, and everyone should be worried

Scott Cleland writes: The economic and social problems caused by the exceptional unchecked power of three companies — Google, Amazon, and Facebook — has created a rare bipartisan opportunity for the right and left to come together around common interests: holding abuses of unaccountable power accountable.

As both conservatives and progressives have learned through experience, these hyper-concentrated market and political powers can effectively censor, exclude, or ban people or entities at any time, for any reason — and without any explanation, due process, or real recourse.

Conservatives understand how unchecked online hyper-power can threaten individual liberty with tyranny: Facebook wields its social power to censor news and filter unacceptable opinions; Google denies advertising to conservatives with which it disagrees; and Amazon ignores pirated goods sold on its marketplace to force the rightful owner of the product to distribute its goods on Amazon on Amazon’s terms, to protect its brand, property, and business.

Progressives understand how automated autocracy can threaten participatory democracy: Google recently threatened the New America Foundation’s funding to force it to fire Barry Lynn and its anti-monopoly researchers for supporting the EU’s $3 billion fine against Google; Facebook and Google have sparked widespread outrage as the prime purveyors of selling highly profitable fake news in last year’s election cycle; and Amazon is seen unfairly undermining competition, and threatening jobs and communities. [Continue reading…]

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Amazon warehouse employees are the most important workers in America

Hamilton Nolan writes: The Amazon warehouse worker is the face of the future of American work. No, everyone a decade from now will not work in a warehouse, and every warehouse worker a decade from now will not work for Amazon. But these workers sit at the place where the most powerful trend in employment meets the most powerful company in retail. They are the prototypical job of the near future. And how good that job is will represent how well the coming American economy is able to solve its current problems: Low, stagnant wages, lack of job stability, and rampant inequality.

How is Amazon doing on those measures so far? Horribly. Those warehouse jobs offer low wages, little job stability (bolstered by the fact that many of the jobs are seasonal or subcontracted rather than full time), and meanwhile the guy who runs Amazon is one of world’s richest humans. Amazon is in fact the embodiment of every bad trend in the workplace. If we are to make the prototypical job of the future something less than dystopic, we have a lot of work to do.

So, to get to the fucking point of all this: The only realistic way for the future of work not to suck is through the power of organized labor. Either Amazon warehouse workers will organize and unionize and assert their (considerable, latent) collective power to raise their own wages and improve their working conditions, or the future of work will continue to be just as bleak as the present. Let me state this in an even clearer way: There is nothing—NOTHING—more important for American unions to do right now than to unionize Amazon warehouse workers. Unions in America represent a paltry 7% or so of private sector workers, which is a “Prime” (heh) reason why we have the problems that we have in the first place. Power in the workplace has shifted drastically to the side of corporations and away from you, the human. If we ever want to stem inequality, we need unions to get stronger. And if unions ever want to get stronger, they need to move into where the economy is going, rather than spending all their time wallowing in the jobs of the past. Where is the economy going? Into the Amazon warehouse. And do our nation’s most powerful unions have a comprehensive plan to organize all of these workers, thereby saving both the workers and the unions themselves?

Not at all. Not even a bit. [Continue reading…]

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Walmart’s CEO joins widening group to rebuke Trump over Charlottesville

The New York Times reports: Walmart’s chief executive has issued a strong rebuke of President Trump’s response to the protests that turned violent in Charlottesville, Va., saying the president “missed a critical opportunity to help bring our country together.”

The criticism came in a statement that the retailer’s chief executive, Doug McMillon, emailed to employees Monday evening, which was reviewed by The New York Times. The statement was later posted on a company website.

“As we watched the events and the response from President Trump over the weekend, we too felt that he missed a critical opportunity to help bring our country together by unequivocally rejecting the appalling actions of white supremacists,” he wrote.

Mr. McMillon’s statement came amid a backlash against the president for what critics viewed as a tepid initial response to violence at last weekend’s rally of white supremacists and right-wing extremists, which left one counterprotester dead. On Monday, the chief executives of Merck, Under Armour and Intel said that they would step down from a presidential advisory council for manufacturing.

On Tuesday, a fourth executive, Scott Paul, president of an organization called the Alliance for American Manufacturing, announced via Twitter that he would resign from the presidential council because “it’s the right thing for me to do.” [Continue reading…]

Quartz reports: The real question, according to former US Treasury secretary Larry Summers, is why any CEOs still remain. At this point, it’s clear that Trump isn’t listening to their advice, and making the case that staying on his advisory councils will have a positive influence no longer holds water. “No advisor committed to the bipartisan American traditions of government can possibly believe he or she is being effective at this point,” Summers, an economist who was also president of Harvard, argued in the Financial Times. [Continue reading…]

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Under Trump, coal mining gets new life on U.S. lands

The New York Times reports: The Trump administration is wading into one of the oldest and most contentious debates in the West by encouraging more coal mining on lands owned by the federal government. It is part of an aggressive push to both invigorate the struggling American coal industry and more broadly exploit commercial opportunities on public lands.

The intervention has roiled conservationists and many Democrats, exposing deep divisions about how best to manage the 643 million acres of federally owned land — most of which is in the West — an area more than six times the size of California. Not since the so-called Sagebrush Rebellion during the Reagan administration have companies and individuals with economic interests in the lands, mining companies among them, held such a strong upper hand.

Clouds of dust blew across the horizon one recent summer evening as a crane taller than the Statue of Liberty ripped apart walls of a canyon dug deep into the public lands here in the Powder River Basin, the nation’s most productive coal mining region. The mine pushes right up against a reservoir, exposing the kind of conflicts and concerns the new approach has sparked.

“If we don’t have good water, we can’t do anything,” said Art Hayes, a cattle rancher who worries that more mining would foul a supply that generations of ranchers have relied upon.

During the Obama administration, the Interior Department seized on the issue of climate change and temporarily banned new coal leases on public lands as it examined the consequences for the environment. The Obama administration also drew protests from major mining companies by ordering them to pay higher royalties to the government. [Continue reading…]

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Can the tech giants be stopped?

Jonathan Taplin writes: I would date the rise of the digital monopolies to August 2004, when Google raised $1.9 billion in its initial public offering. By the end of that year, Google’s share of the search-engine market was just 35%; Yahoo ’s was 32%, and MSN’s was 16%. Today, under Alphabet, Google’s market share is 87% in the U.S. and 91% in Europe. In 2004, Amazon had net sales revenue of $6.9 billion. In 2016, its net sales revenue was nearly $136 billion, and it now controls 65% of all online new book sales, whether print or digital. In mobile social networks, Facebook and its subsidiaries (Instagram, WhatsApp and Messenger) control 75% of the American market.

This shift has brought about a massive reallocation of revenue, with economic value moving from the creators of content to the owners of monopoly platforms. Since 2000, revenues for recorded music in the U.S. have fallen from almost $20 billion a year to less than $8 billion, according to the Recording Industry Association of America. U.S. newspaper ad revenue fell from $65.8 billion in 2000 to $23.6 billion in 2013 (the last year for which data are available). Though book publishing revenues have remained flat, this is mostly because increased children’s book sales have made up for the declining return on adult titles.

From 2003 to 2016, Google’s revenue grew from about $1.5 billion to some $90 billion as Alphabet. Today, it is the largest media company in the world, collecting $79.4 billion in ad revenue in 2016, according to Zenith. Facebook is a distant second, with $26.9 billion.

The precipitous decline in revenue for content creators has nothing to do with changing consumer preferences for their content. People are not reading less news, listening to less music, reading fewer books or watching fewer movies and TV shows. The massive growth in revenue for the digital monopolies has resulted in the massive loss of revenue for the creators of content. The two are inextricably linked. [Continue reading…]

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Corporate surveillance in everyday life

Cracked Labs reports: In recent years, a wide range of companies has started to monitor, track and follow people in virtually every aspect of their lives. The behaviors, movements, social relationships, interests, weaknesses and most private moments of billions are now constantly recorded, evaluated and analyzed in real-time. The exploitation of personal information has become a multi-billion industry. Yet only the tip of the iceberg of today’s pervasive digital tracking is visible; much of it occurs in the background and remains opaque to most of us.

This report by Cracked Labs examines the actual practices and inner workings of this personal data industry. Based on years of research and a previous 2016 report, the investigation shines light on the hidden data flows between companies. It maps the structure and scope of today’s digital tracking and profiling ecosystems and explores relevant technologies, platforms and devices, as well as key recent developments.

While the full report is available as PDF download, this web publication presents a ten part overview. [Continue reading…]

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America’s CEOs fall out of love with Trump

Politico reports: The relationship between corporate America and Donald Trump’s White House has chilled.

The regular parades of business titans into the West Wing are gone. A gathering of executives led by Blackstone CEO Stephen Schwarzman initially planned for next week fell apart amid scheduling conflicts.

Tesla CEO Elon Musk and Disney CEO Bob Iger quit as outside advisers to President Donald Trump following his rejection of the Paris climate accords. Dozens of other executives also publicly rebuked the White House over the decision, including Goldman Sachs CEO Lloyd Blankfein—a former colleague of many top administration officials—used his first-ever tweet to criticize the Paris decision, calling it a “setback for the environment and for the U.S.’s leadership position in the world.” [Continue reading…]

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EPA dismisses scientists from major scientific review board

The New York Times reports: The Environmental Protection Agency has dismissed at least five members of a major scientific review board, the latest signal of what critics call a campaign by the Trump administration to shrink the agency’s regulatory reach by reducing the role of academic research.

A spokesman for the E.P.A. administrator, Scott Pruitt, said he would consider replacing the academic scientists with representatives from industries whose pollution the agency is supposed to regulate, as part of the wide net it plans to cast. “The administrator believes we should have people on this board who understand the impact of regulations on the regulated community,” said the spokesman, J. P. Freire.

The dismissals on Friday came about six weeks after the House passed a bill aimed at changing the composition of another E.P.A. scientific review board to include more representation from the corporate world.

President Trump has directed Mr. Pruitt to radically remake the E.P.A., pushing for deep cuts in its budget — including a 40 percent reduction for its main scientific branch — and instructing him to roll back major Obama-era regulations on climate change and clean water protection. In recent weeks, the agency has removed some scientific data on climate change from its websites, and Mr. Pruitt has publicly questioned the established science of human-caused climate change. [Continue reading…]

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