RIP Rowdy Republican

A large Facebook page, Rowdy Republican, has been using incendiary right-wing memes to push dangerous misinformation about diabetes to millions of Facebook users. Nearly three months after the page's tactics were exposed by Popular Information, Facebook has finally taken down the Rowdy Republican page, and a related page called A Conservative Nation. 

Here is how the operation worked. Rowdy Republican, which had nearly 800,000 fans before it was removed, would post a right-wing meme to attract engagement -- likes, shares, and comments. Here's a post that was live on the Rowdy Republican page earlier this week. 

Initially, the post would have no mention of diabetes, presumably to encourage maximum engagement. But a few hours after posting, once the meme was rocketing around the Facebook platform, the post would be edited to include a link to a diabetes scam. 

The links lead to the "The Big Diabetes Lie" website. As I reported in September, that website's "fundamental message is that if you have diabetes and listen to your doctor's recommendations, you will die a painful death." Here's an excerpt:

It doesn't matter if you follow your doctors recommendations and dosages exactly as prescribed. This isn't a question of IF, but WHEN. Your health will get worse. The drugs you take will fail. The insulin injections you take will also fail.

If you have diabetes, you simply cannot continue this way - sooner rather than later you WILL die; either from diabetes, its complications, or side-effects from the drugs you take. And it won't be quietly in your sleep either. Getting rushed to the hospital while the paramedics break all of your ribs giving you CPR will be hell on earth.

This fate can be avoided if you purchase a $55 paperback book. 

Dr. David Goldstein, one of the nation's top experts on diabetes, told Popular Information that doctors now "know how to prevent all diabetes complications." Nevertheless, patients run into problems because they don't follow their doctor's recommendations or "watch crazy videos" like the one featured on "The Big Diabetes Lie" website. He described the information on the website as extremely dangerous.

Nevertheless, the Rowdy Republican page was extremely successful on Facebook. Over 30 days in August and September, the Rowdy Republican page outperformed USA Today (8 million followers), the Los Angeles Times (2.76 million followers), BuzzFeed News (3.02 million), and Vox (2.43 million).

The A Conservative Nation page operated in the exact same way but had about 125,000 fans, and reached a somewhat smaller audience. 

In September, Popular Information told Facebook about the Rowdy Republican page's tactics and asked if the company would take any action. Facebook did not respond. A few days later, however, all the diabetes-related links were removed from the page

Soon, however, the Rowdy Republican page began posting links to the same scam. Facebook took no action until I contacted them again on Tuesday. On Wednesday afternoon, the Rowdy Republican page and the A Conservative Nation page were removed from Facebook.

"These Pages violate our spam policy and we have removed them from the platform," Facebook spokesperson Andy Stone told Popular Information.

What Rowdy Republican teaches us about Facebook

The operator of the Rowdy Republican page was Alan LeStourgeon, an affiliate marketer. LeStourgeon was able to reach a massive audience on Facebook by posting pro-Trump memes. His success illustrates how incendiary pro-Trump propaganda, which elicits a strong emotional reaction, is ideal content for the platform. 

It also shows that Facebook still struggles to identify and remove bad actors. The Rowdy Republican page was not obscure. It was a large page reaching a massive audience of millions. Facebook was unable to identify the page on its own and, even after it was flagged by Popular Information, continued to allow Rowdy Republican to operate for three months. 

In this case, the failure of Facebook to act was not just polluting political discourse but endangering people's health.


Merry Christmas, except if you are poor and hungry

Just in time for the holidays, the Trump administration has finalized a rule that will result in 700,000 destitute Americans losing access to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, commonly known as food stamps. Before the new rule, "able-bodied adults without dependents can receive SNAP benefits for a maximum of three months during a three-year period," unless they are working at least 20 hours a week or are enrolled in a training program. But states were able to request waivers of this rule to account for local circumstances. Thirty-six states, many with Republican governors, currently have waivers

Under the new rule, states can only apply for a waiver if the state unemployment rate is over 6% and is 20% higher than the national average. (That means that if national unemployment spikes to 8%, a state with a 9% unemployment rate would not be able to request a waiver.) As a result, hundreds of thousands of people struggling to make ends meet will soon be kicked out of the food stamp program. The rule will go into effect in April 2020.

The people impacted by this change are very poor. According to a study by Mathematica Policy Research, "Ninety-seven percent of the SNAP participants who would be affected live in poverty, and 88 percent have household incomes at or below 50 percent of the poverty level or less than $600 a month."

"The policy targets very poor people struggling to work — some of whom are homeless or living with health conditions. Taking away basic food assistance from these individuals will only increase hardship and hunger, while doing nothing to help them find steady full-time work," Stacy Dean of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities told NBC

The only safety net

The Trump rule targets able-bodied adults without kids. Most of the people in this group "are ineligible for any other form of government financial assistance because they aren’t elderly, severely disabled, or raising minor children." The Trump administration is taking away "the only assistance they can receive to help make ends meet." 

The cost, in context

The Trump administration estimates that by taking food benefits away from struggling adults, it will "save hardworking taxpayers $15 billion over ten years." That sounds like a lot, but the Trump administration also signed in a tax cut, mostly benefiting corporations and the wealthy, that is estimated to cost $2.3 trillion over ten years

That means the cost of the SNAP waivers being eliminated by the Trump administration is 0.6% of the cost of the tax cuts. In part because of Trump's corporate tax cuts, in 2018, Amazon paid nothing in federal income taxes on more than $11 billion in profit. If Amazon paid just a 14% tax rate on its profits, it would pay for the entire SNAP waiver program. The Institute for Taxation and Economic Policy estimates that 60 Fortune 500 companies paid nothing in federal taxes last year. 

A broad assault on SNAP

The latest rule is part of a broad assault on the SNAP program. In July, "the Trump administration published a proposed rule that would end the ability of states to automatically enroll low-income families." The move will "kick 3.1 million people off of the SNAP program, according to the USDA."

Automatic eligibility "allows families in some states to make up to 200% of the poverty line — and even have modest savings — and still be eligible for SNAP." There are 43 states that take advantage of the program. Under the Trump proposal, "a worker earning $12.50 an hour with two kids" who receives a 50 cent raise would no longer be eligible for food stamps. 

In October, the Trump administration advanced a proposal that would limit how SNAP beneficiaries could use heating costs to offset income. The move would "cut benefits for 19 percent of households" on food stamps -- and kick 8,000 families off of the program entirely. 


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Damning

On Tuesday, the House Intelligence Committee released a report summarizing the results of its impeachment investigation. It is a devastating indictment of Trump. 

This is the most important part:

Donald J. Trump, the 45th President of the United States—acting personally and through his agents within and outside of the U.S. government—solicited the interference of a foreign government, Ukraine, in the 2020 U.S. presidential election.

That's all you need to know. This fact is not in dispute and is established by a call summary that was released by the White House. Using the power of the presidency to enlist a foreign government to help you win the next election is a quintessential impeachable offense.

Here is how the report describes that document: 

At the center of this investigation is the memorandum prepared following President Trump’s July 25, 2019, phone call with Ukraine’s President, which the White House declassified and released under significant public pressure. The call record alone is stark evidence of misconduct; a demonstration of the President’s prioritization of his personal political benefit over the national interest. In response to President Zelensky’s appreciation for vital U.S. military assistance, which President Trump froze without explanation, President Trump asked for “a favor though”: two specific investigations designed to assist his reelection efforts.

The call summary also illustrates why the election is not a substitute for an impeachment inquiry. Trump is abusing his power to tilt the 2020 direction in his favor. Even after the impeachment inquiry had begun, Trump publicly urged China to investigate his political opponents. "China should start an investigation into the Bidens," Trump said.

That said, the report is 300 pages long and establishes that the misconduct by Trump and his subordinates was much broader. "[T]his telephone call was neither the start nor the end of President Trump’s efforts to bend U.S. foreign policy for his personal gain," the report states. 

So let's dig into it. 

The three amigos and Giuliani

It's bad enough for a president to ask a foreign leader to investigate his political opponents. But Trump went beyond that. He Pressured Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky to launch the investigation by withholding two things Zelensky wanted: 1. A White House meeting, and 2. $391 million in aid. This has been shorthanded as a "quid pro quo." 

Trump never explicitly said to Zelensky: "I am demanding a quid pro quo." (Although he came close when he asked Zelensky for "a favor though.") Here is how it worked. Trump ousted the respected ambassador to Ukraine and replaced her with the "Three Amigos" — Secretary of Energy Rick Perry, EU Ambassador Gordon Sondland, and Special Representative for Ukraine Negotiations Ambassador Kurt Volker.

The Three Amigos all attended Zelensky's inauguration and were impressed. They visited Trump in the White House and asked if they could set up a meeting between Trump and Zelensky in the White House. Trump had other ideas:

President Trump reacted poorly to the suggestion, claiming that Ukraine “tried to take me down” in 2016. In order to schedule a White House visit for President Zelensky, President Trump told the delegation that they would have to “talk to Rudy.” Ambassador Sondland testified that he understood the President’s instruction to be a directive to work with Mr. Giuliani if they hoped to advance relations with Ukraine. President Trump directed the three senior U.S. government officials to assist Mr. Giuliani’s efforts, which, it would soon become clear, were exclusively for the benefit of the President’s reelection campaign.

This isn't complicated. Trump said he would only give Zelensky what he wanted if Giuliani got what he wanted. And Giuliani, acting as Trump's personal attorney, was demanding Ukraine to open the investigations. That's the quid pro quo. 

"Mr. Giuliani was expressing the desires of the President of the United States, and we knew these investigations were important to the President," Sondland testified. 

Two plus two equals four

Soon, Sondland had made an agreement with White House Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney "that the White House visit would come only after Ukraine announced the Burisma/Biden and 2016 Ukraine election interference investigations." 

At the same time, the White House was withholding aid from Ukraine, which Sondland realized was also contingent on the announcement of the investigations because "two plus two equals four." No one offered an explanation for why the aid was being withheld, and Sondland knew that Trump wanted an announcement about the investigations. 

Sondland testified that, after speaking directly with Trump, his understanding that the aid was conditioned on a public statement was reaffirmed. In an October 17 press conference, Mulvaney confirmed aid was withheld to pressure Ukraine to announced the investigations. 

According to Mr. Mulvaney, President Trump “[a]bsolutely” mentioned “corruption related to the DNC server” in connection with the security assistance during his July 25 call. Mr. Mulvaney also stated that the server was part of “why we held up the money.” After a reporter attempted to clarify this explicit acknowledgment of a quid pro quo, Mr. Mulvaney replied: “We do that all the time with foreign policy.” He added, “I have news for everybody: get over it. There is going to be political influence in foreign policy.”

Ukranian officials were aware of Trump's demands, and that the demands were a prerequisite to a meeting because Sondland explicitly told them. Sondland stressed that Trump required a public announcement of the investigations by Ukraine, which would impose maximum political damage on Biden. 

Volker and a Ukranian official traded drafts of a public statement to be made by Ukraine. But they couldn't agree on one that would appease Giuliani. 

The scheme unravels

The scheme unraveled on September 9 when the Inspector General of the Intelligence Community informed Republicans and Democrats on the Intelligence Committee of a whistleblower complaint and Congress began an investigation. The aid was released two days later.

The (attempted) coverup

The investigation has uncovered detailed evidence of extraordinary misconduct. But the Trump administration also engaged in an unprecedented effort to withhold relevant information from Congress. 

Donald Trump is the first President in the history of the United States to seek to completely obstruct an impeachment inquiry undertaken by the House of Representatives under Article I of the Constitution, which vests the House with the “sole Power of Impeachment.” He has publicly and repeatedly rejected the authority of Congress to conduct oversight of his actions and has directly challenged the authority of the House to conduct an impeachment inquiry into his actions regarding Ukraine. 

In this respect, Trump's defiance has far exceeded Nixon, who permitted his aides to testify and produce documents. 

Remarkably, "not a single document has been produced by the White House, the Office of the Vice President, the Office of Management and Budget, the Department of State, the Department of Defense, or the Department of Energy in response to 71 specific, individualized requests or demands for records in their possession, custody, or control."

In addition, "twelve current or former Administration officials refused to testify as part of the House’s impeachment inquiry, ten of whom did so in defiance of duly authorized subpoenas." Those refusing to testify include Mulvaney, Perry, and former National Security Adviser John Bolton. 

The White House attempted to block any former or current administration official from testifying as part of the impeachment inquiry. But the inquiry was able to collect valuable information because several officials decided to testify anyway. Those that did were subject to public attacks by Trump before and after their testimony. The report describes Trump's attacks as "witness intimidation."

Nunes is neck-deep

The ranking Republican on the House Intelligence Committee is Devin Nunes (R-CA). He is supposed to be someone investigating Trump's scheme. But the report uncovered substantial evidence that Nunes was part of the scheme, including numerous communications with Giuliani at critical times.

These call logs, according to the report, were acquired not from Giuliani  or Nunes, but from AT&T.

What's next?

The report will be sent to the House Judiciary Committee, which is tasked with drafting the articles of impeachment.


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The Democratic free-for-all

There is a growing rift in the Democratic primary over the issue of free public college. There is a consensus that some kind of free public college program would help level the economic playing field, making higher education more attainable and freeing young people from crippling debt.  

South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg, who is surging in polls in Iowa and nationally, proposes offering free tuition at public colleges to children in families with incomes below $100,000. Buttigieg is also criticizing plans by Senators Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren that would make tuition at public colleges free for everyone, regardless of income. 

Lis Smith, a top aide to Buttigieg, articulated this critique, arguing that Sanders and Warren's plans would force workers to pay for the tuition of "millionaires and billionaires."

Smith's argument has some inherent appeal. If public benefits are targeted at the population that needs them most, Buttigieg  argues, the government can do more with less. In a new ad, Buttigieg says Sanders and Warren's plans are a giveaway to the rich and would turn off "half the country before we even get into office." 

But the argument on how to most effectively structure public benefits did not start in 2019. We have concrete examples of public benefits in the United States that are means-tested, and those that are offered universally. 

There has also been a rigorous academic debate on the topic. In 1992, Amartya Sen, winner of the Nobel Prize, wrote a seminal paper on means-testing called "The Political Economy of Targeting." While mean-testing makes for compelling soundbites, Sen lays out the problems with targeting public benefits and the advantages of universality. 

The costs

The primary argument advanced by critics of a universal public college benefit is the cost. Why should the working class pay for the college of "millionaires and billionaires." The actual savings from excluding millionaires and billionaires from a universal public college benefit is quite small. Mike Konczal estimates that the children of the very wealthy would comprise just "1.4 percent of the total spending of free public higher education." This is because the total number of children in this category is relatively small, and many of them will choose to attend elite private institutions. 

Billionaires, in particular, are extremely unlikely to take advantage of free public college. There are only 600 billionaires in the United States. And the savings for billionaires from free public college, about $25,000, is equivalent to the cost of a movie ticket for the average American. 

But excluding millionaires and billionaires would not actually save even 1.4% of the total costs. Sen explains that, while universal programs are easy to administer, means-tested programs require "substantial administrative costs." It also subjects potential recipients to "losses of individual privacy and autonomy" because of "extensive disclosures" required to prove eligibility. Often, these procedures amount to "treating each applicant as a potential criminal."

It's also not true that whatever benefits the wealthy do derive from a universal program would have to be paid for by the working class. Under a progressive system of taxation, the wealthy pay more in taxes than they receive in public benefits. The Trump administration cut taxes for the wealthy and corporations, but there is no reason that this couldn't be adjusted to support a universal public college benefit. Warren's proposal, for example, is paid for exclusively by her proposal to tax the wealth of ultra-millionaires. 

Rewarding cheating

When you means-test a benefit like free public college, Sen argues, you provide incentives for families to cheat. Families with incomes above $100,000 could receive the public benefit if they were able to conceal a portion of its income. This creates a system that rewards deception and punishes honesty. 

It also creates a problem with enforcement. If you impose strict requirements to crack down on cheaters, you will "make mistakes, leave out some bona fide cases, and discourage some who do qualify from applying for the benefits to which they are entitled."

Economic distortion

A means-tested public benefit also creates undesirable economic distortions. A wage-earner in a family earning $85,000 per year, may not want to pursue a promotion that would raise the family's income to over $100,000 and put access to free public college at risk. 

It's theoretically possible to reduce this distortion by providing a phase-out of the subsidy, but it's not possible to eliminate it. And a complex phase-out formula may be difficult to understand and not change the decision-making of families near the cutoff. 

The stigma

Means-tested programs carry a stigma, and universal programs do not. Consider the public perception of welfare versus that of social security. Welfare, which is means-tested, is viewed by many as a giveaway to people who are lazy. Social security, which is universal, is a beloved program that is viewed as creating economic stability for all older Americans. 

Means-testing also impacts the perceptions of people who benefit from the program. "Any system of subsidy that requires people to be identified as poor and that is seen as a special benefaction for those who cannot fend for themselves would tend to have some effects on their self-respect as well as on the respect accorded them by others," Sen notes

Moreover, the beneficiaries of means-tested programs "are often quite weak politically and may lack the clout to sustain the programs and maintain the quality of the services offered." That's why "[b]enefits meant exclusively for the poor often end up being poor benefits." 

The Trump administration, for example, has sought to decimate two means-tested programs, Medicaid and food stamps, but largely left social security alone. 

Let's get meta

Buttigieg's plan is less about saving money and being practical and more about sending a message to voters that he is moderate and practical. Afterall, Buttigieg's base of support is upper-middle-class voters -- people who earn more than $100,000 per year but are not millionaires. His means-tested program would specifically exclude this group. 

It's hard to believe Buttigieg's supporters prefer a program that specifically excludes them. But that is likely the case because they believe it makes Buttigieg more electable. The core point of Buttigieg's ad is not that his education program is better, but that Warren and Sanders are too radical to be elected. 

Pursuing a more moderate policy platform overall, Buttigieg makes himself more attractive to large donors. These donations have financed a wave of advertisements that, along with his considerable political talents, have helped fuel his rise in the polls. 

Will it be enough for Buttigieg to capture the Democratic nomination? We'll find out in a few months. 


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