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Monday, March 2, 2015

Follow up to class today: DOJ Tax Division's Offshore Compliance Initiative

For everyone interested in numbers surrounding the offshore accounts debate today, the DOJ Tax Division's Offshore Compliance Initiative provides a basic overview and links to a 2008 Senate hearing report title Tax Haven Banks and U.S. Tax Compliance.*

The background section from this report (page 17), begins with "Each year, the United States loses an estimated $100 billion in tax revenues due to offshore tax abuses. These funds represent a substantial portion of the annual U.S. tax gap, which is the difference between what U.S. taxpayers owe and what they pay, most recently estimated by the IRS at $345 billion."

The footnote to the first sentence cites numerous studies that were used to construct the $100 billion estimate. Perhaps someone with a bit more time/interest would follow that rabbit hole and determine the legitimacy of that estimate. For others interested in how tax avoidance/money laundering works this source provides a helpful explanation (Who's Watching Our Back Door, page 26).

On another note, if you go to the Homeland Security & Governmental Affairs' Permanent Subcommittee on Investigation's and search for "offshore accounts" a report titled Offshore Tax Evasion: The Effort to Collect Unpaid Taxes on Billions in Hidden Offshore Accounts from a 2/26/2014 hearing will pop up.* I skimmed the executive summary and it discuses US policies directed at and actions taken against Swiss Banks, which is another facet of the tax avoidance conversation.

*I can't link to the actual PDF's so hopefully these directions will help you find them.

Bias I

Affective Bias

Informational Bias

Ideological or Partisan Bias

First Filer

At Mullings, Rich Galen writes:

  • I love Twitter. With the advent of Twitter I can follow the major (and even some minor) national reporters and get 127 versions of what all of them have just seen, heard, and thought.
  • For someone like me, that is a significant time-saver and a major money saver.
  • ...
  • Given Twitter, cable news, instantaneous updates to stories previously filed on the websites of major (and even some minor) news organizations' websites there is a serious competition to file first.
  • If that new posting can include some tidbit that no one else had yet, written with a Matt Drudgeian breathlessness (BREAKING!) then the First Filer might not just get a mention on other websites but pats on the back in the bar (PBBs) at the end of the working day.
  • What that has led to is a situation in which journalists don't just report what they're seeing and hearing; but declaring it is the beginning, the end, the rebound, or the end of one campaign or another.
  • This is like watching a pre-season football game in August and having the color man in the booth telling the play-by-play guy (and the audience) not just whether a play worked or not; but declaring the ultimate winner of the Superbowl the next February, based on that play.

Sunday, March 1, 2015

The Return of House of Cards

Over the weekend, Netflix released the third season of its original content juggernaut, House of Cards. The saga of Frank Underwood has been wildly popular with audiences, largely due to its fast pace, high stakes, and the captivating performance of leading man Kevin Spacey (so I'm told, anyways -- I've never seen it). The show is particularly popular with students at CMC, who often use it as a reference point for discussing the logic of politics and the culture of Washington D.C (it has even been mentioned a handful of times in this class).

But the release of the new season has been met with some ire -- specifically, from a Washington Post entertainment blogger who wrote an opinion piece entitled "'House of Cards' insults our intelligence." In her analysis, critic Alyssa Rosenberg lambastes the show's "faux-sophistication," arguing that: 

"[i]f “House of Cards” mistakes the Underwoods’ emotional decision-making for hard-headed manipulation, it’s also strangely inconsistent on the subject of political real talk. During Claire’s confirmation hearing, she actually appears surprised when senators object after she accuses them of grandstanding, assuming that they will prioritize her substantive answers over gaffes. In that moment, her view of the world makes Leslie Knope look as conniving as Lyndon Johnson."
This is not the first time these charges have been levied against House of Cards; similar claims were made last year in an article by Grantland staff writer Andy Greenwald in response to the show's second season. Like Rosenberg, Greenwald argued that, while some observers may regard Beau Willmon's show as a serious and pithy take-down of American politics, the reality is that "House of Cards doesn't reveal anything about Washington, D.C; it merely revels in its worst tendencies.

Greenwald's statements about the show's relationship with the American political news media are particularly pertinent to our class; at one point, Greenwald compares the show's political mindset to that of Politico, saying that both portray the government "with all the nuance of a box score." Later, he criticizes various American media personalities for their choice to validate the show's provocative portrayal of D.C. by making cameo appearances:

"[W]hat truly rankled about House of Cards this year was the way its cynical water was carried throughout by a truly impressive stream of real-life journalists. Was there a single prominent political reporter able to resist the siren song of his or her own ego and refuse an invitation to cameo? From industry exemplars like CBS’s Morley Safer and CNN’s Candy Crowley to ideological opposites Sean Hannity and Rachel Maddow, dozens of would-be truth seekers raced enthusiastically for the chance to revel in fiction. That the show cast them all as eager matadors, waving in futility as the facts bullied past them, is an irony that was apparently beyond their collective investigative acumen.

Or perhaps it wasn't an irony at all. Unlike the show’s crusading inventions Zoe Barnes, Janine Skorsky, and this season’s Ayla Sayyad, the goof troop of actual reporters, by their very presence, offered an effective endorsement of the type of D.C. journalism that dominates our discourse today: One that is obsequious in the presence of power and deferential to celebrity, one that privileges faux-sober 'even-handedness' at the expense of truth. It’s a journalism that is loath to rattle institutional cages lest it cost someone a seat at the table. By inviting the likes of John King and Soledad O’Brien inside the joke, House of Cards allows would-be gadflies to reaffirm their preferred role as gatekeepers. They’re not important, but they play important on TV."

Implicit in Rosenberg's argument (and, via the discussion on HBO's vulgar but outstanding comedy Veep, explicit in Greenwald's argument) is the assumption that, while television and film about politics may ostensibly be "just entertainment," they have the capacity to illustrate complicated political processes, present nuanced and deep case studies in political theory, and heavily influence the way we understand our government. What is so odious about House of Cards, according to these two critics, is that the show doesn't do any of that -- it merely acts under the pretense that it does, and in doing so it perpetuates an image of Washington which is cheap, cynical, and ultimately detrimental to the national discourse.

Now, with all that being said, I'd like to restate that I've never actually watched the show; but I have heard people at CMC heap praise upon House of Cards, and I thought it might be interesting to present a couple contrasting opinions. I also would enjoy any arguments from fans in the class who would want to respond to these criticisms (especially Greenwald's criticism of the news media's fondness of the show).

GOOD news sells?

We've been reading a lot about how negative news tends to be widely reported and one of the most popular methods to get attention for publications.

The New York Times published an article early last week that suggests there's a different side to this story, however: the article, called According to the Words, the News is Actually Good  suggests that there tends to be more positivity in written sources than we expect.

The Times cites a study that "used a computerized algorithm called the hedonometer to gauge the emotional content of words in news articles, books, websites, music lyrics, television shows, movies and social media posts. [Resarchers] analyzed sources in English and nine other languages, including Spanish, German, Russian, Arabic, Chinese, Korean and Indonesian".

Overall, the article suggests that "despite all the grim news stories and all the social media snark, journalists and the rest of the world’s chatterers are more likely to use upbeat words like “healthy” and “friend” than downers like “suffering” or “idiot.” "

The study analyzes the words themselves, and doesn't account for factors such as the placement of articles (which matters especially in newspapers and on webpages), but nevertheless offers a different perspective to what we've been reading.

Potential Biases in Keystone Coverage

Over the week, I watched this segment of "Meet the Voters with Chuck Todd" on those affected by the Keystone XL pipeline.

After reading the Graber, I thought of number of possible affective biases contained within the piece. Although I appreciated the variety of viewpoints presented, I thought the information was episodic and maybe even sensationalized, as they interviewed only those with definite opinions on the issue. \

Once woman from Nebraska whose family farm is in the pipeline's proposed path is against the measure. "There isn't enough money on earth to pay us to believe in this project," she says.

On the other hand, a man who accepted the payment from TransCanada, the energy company contracted to work on the pipeline, does not understand opposition. He recounts, "They sent us a check and that took care of it...I can't see why they're complaining about it."

In addition, the local Sioux tribe remains skeptical. According to one memeber, "The land is like our grandmother." They simply cannot sell of or risk their land.

I worry with this coverage, though it is balanced, people will only identify with the opinions with which they already agree. None of the interviewees were truly conflicted, and that is part of the media's affective bias for episodic and sensational coverage. The way the piece is structured may lead prevent viewers from putting together a thematic narrative, allowing for action. Moreover, the spinets may perpetuate divergent views, leading to polarized opinions on the issue.

Saturday, February 28, 2015

A Retraction in The Daily Beast

From The Daily Beast:
CORRECTION AND RETRACTION: A Daily Beast college columnist at the University of Wisconsin based this article off a Jezebel posting which was incorrectly reported. Jezebel updated their post on Saturday with the following after USA Today published a story debunking Jezebel's account and clarifying Gov. Scott Walker's position. "UPDATE: After Jezebel ran this item yesterday, a spokesman for the University of Wisconsin came forward—over two weeks after the budget was released—to clarify: the University requested that Gov. Walker delete the requirements because efforts were redundant with their compliance of the Cleary Act. Scott Walker's camp assures that he's committed to protecting victims.”
When The Daily Beast contacted Republican Wisconsin Attorney General Brad Schimel for comment on Friday, his office expressed reservations about Walker’s proposal. His office told The Daily Beast in a statement that the Attorney General “is concerned about some of the provisions in the budget that may reduce information provided to college students and take away reporting requirements. He will work with representatives from UW and the Governor’s office to determine what prompted these changes and to ensure that we provide all of the protection we reasonably can for our college students,” but it is unclear if Schimel’s office was aware of the stated purpose of the provision in question. The Daily Beast is committed to covering the news fairly and accurately, and we should have checked this story more thoroughly. We deeply regret the error and apologize to Gov. Walker and our readers. Our original story should be considered retracted.