Elizabeth Warren’s truth in sentencing bill for corporate crime just passed the US Senate – Updated by Matthew Yglesias on September 22, 2015, 6:05 p.m. ET

The US Senate today passed a bill by Elizabeth Warren that will force federal regulators to fully disclose the terms of any settlement or deferred prosecution agreement that they reach in a major case.

Her concern is that regulators — in particular the ones responsible for monitoring Wall Street — often announce a tough settlement with an eye-popping dollar figure to grab good headlines, while quietly burying the news that the real penalty is significantly less impressive. Most people don’t know, for example, that these settlement fees are usually tax deductible, so a profitable company can slice a third of the price of the fine right off the top. Settlement agreements also at times “credit” companies being penalized for continuing to do things that they are already doing.

Warren’s proposed rule would force federal agencies to post settlement agreements on their websites, and require agency press releases and other written material to fully explain tax and credit issues. Senator James Lankford of Oklahoma joined Warren in sponsoring the bill, giving it enough bipartisan support to pass the Senate while Majority Leader Mitch McConnell tries to figure out what to do about averting a government shutdown next week.

There’s little indication the bill has a chance of passing the House. But there’s also little indication that the bill becoming law would make a huge practical difference.

Rather, like many recent Warren initiatives she is trying to dramatize a point — the regulatory cops on the beat, she feels, are simply not aggressive enough in penalizing financial misconduct. The bill is a way of putting agency heads on notice that political hay will be made out of business-friendly settlement provisions — and she’s hoping that will tilt the incentives more in the direction of the tougher approach she prefers.


Inside Amazon: Wrestling Big Ideas in a Bruising Workplace – By JODI KANTOR and DAVID STREITFELDAUG. 15, 2015

SEATTLE — On Monday mornings, fresh recruits line up for an orientation intended to catapult them into Amazon’s singular way of working.

They are told to forget the “poor habits” they learned at previous jobs, one employee recalled. When they “hit the wall” from the unrelenting pace, there is only one solution: “Climb the wall,” others reported. To be the best Amazonians they can be, they should be guided by the leadership principles, 14 rules inscribed on handy laminated cards. When quizzed days later, those with perfect scores earn a virtual award proclaiming, “I’m Peculiar” — the company’s proud phrase for overturning workplace conventions.

At Amazon, workers are encouraged to tear apart one another’s ideas in meetings, toil long and late (emails arrive past midnight, followed by text messages asking why they were not answered), and held to standards that the company boasts are “unreasonably high.” The internal phone directory instructs colleagues on how to send secret feedback to one another’s bosses. Employees say it is frequently used to sabotage others. (The tool offers sample texts, including this: “I felt concerned about his inflexibility and openly complaining about minor tasks.”)


Amazon is building new offices in Seattle and, in about three years, will have enough space for about 50,000 employees. Credit Ruth Fremson/The New York Times 

Many of the newcomers filing in on Mondays may not be there in a few years. The company’s winners dream up innovations that they roll out to a quarter-billion customers and accrue small fortunes in soaring stock. Losers leave or are fired in annual cullings of the staff — “purposeful Darwinism,” one former Amazon human resources director said. Some workers who suffered from cancer, miscarriages and other personal crises said they had been evaluated unfairly or edged out rather than given time to recover.

Even as the company tests delivery by drone and ways to restock toilet paper at the push of a bathroom button, it is conducting a little-known experiment in how far it can push white-collar workers, redrawing the boundaries of what is acceptable. The company, founded and still run by Jeff Bezos, rejects many of the popular management bromides that other corporations at least pay lip service to and has instead designed what many workers call an intricate machine propelling them to achieve Mr. Bezos’ ever-expanding ambitions.

“This is a company that strives to do really big, innovative, groundbreaking things, and those things aren’t easy,” said Susan Harker, Amazon’s top recruiter. “When you’re shooting for the moon, the nature of the work is really challenging. For some people it doesn’t work.”

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Today this is happening in Zambia…tomorrow it will be next door – John Vidal Saturday 1 August 2015 17.30 EDT

‘I drank the water and ate the fish. We all did. The acid has damaged me permanently’

Farmer Langsu Mumbelunga in his polluted field near the Mushishima stream, Zambia. Photograph: John Vidal for the Observer

Farmer Langsu Mumbelunga in his polluted field near the Mushishima stream, Zambia. Photograph: John Vidal for the Observer

You can’t see the old Chingola copper mine, with its smelter and refinery, from the village of Shimulala. It’s miles away, beyond 300ft-high hills of waste tailings, the leach plant, the main pollution control dam and the 1,600ft-deep open pit that is one of Africa’s largest holes.

But you can smell and taste the pollution from the biggest copper mine in Africa. If you pump a glass of water from the borehole outside the little church in Shimulala, you will see it is bright yellow, smells of sulphur and tastes vile.

Mining giant Vedanta’s subsidiary company KCM drilled the borehole in 2010 for the village after the Mushishima stream was turned into a river of acid when mining chemicals spilled into it. But a leaked company letter says that chemists who tested borehole water there in 2011 found it tainted with copper residues, acid and minerals, and said it was unfit for consumption. Now the villagers must use the stream too.

1,800 people from Shimulala, Hippo Pool, Hellen and Kakosa villages took their complaints to the high court in London in a case that could last years and make giant mining companies working in developing countries address local pollution more seriously.

The villagers say acid spills and contaminated water in their streams, rivers and boreholes are getting worse. “The frequency and severity of spills is higher and more consistent. Before we could not smell [the pollution] but now we can. The ground is contaminated, our crop yield has dropped, the maize crop is about half what it was,” said Leo Moulenga of Shimulala. “When there is a spill, the air is very acidic. Last week they spilled a lot. It was awful. In the future we don’t think people will be able to live here. It is becoming uninhabitable. The pollution has been incremental. Now it’s getting worse.”

Floribert Kappa, of Hippo Pool, said: “I used to go to the Kafue river to draw water and started drinking it as normal. I saw that fish had died and were floating on the river. We ate the fish and soon everyone started crying with stomach pains. I was given some medicine, but the pains got worse. I collapsed and was taken to a hospital. The diagnosis was that I had drunk or eaten something acidic which had caused damage to my chest and intestines. I was told the damage was permanent. Now I live on painkillers. Everyone here has been affected in some way. We all use the same water. We have tried chlorinating and boiling the water but it still smells acidic.”

Last year Vedanta/KCM made up to £320m profit from the mine but engineers who have worked there say that its pollution treatment works have been pushed beyond their limits by the company to maximise output.

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Walmart is a cultural sickness – KYLE SCHMIDLIN TUESDAY, JUN 2, 2015 03:00 AM PDT

How the American workplace is enriching the wealthy — and destroying everyone else

Walmart is a cultural sickness: How the American workplace is enriching the wealthy — and destroying everyone else

At a time when so many Americans are struggling just to earn a decent living and find adequate employment, it may seem counterintuitive to indict the work people are doing as one of the biggest problems facing the country. But when you take a look at what our work is turning us into and what it’s actually accomplishing, it becomes clear that our priorities are all out of whack.

In his 2015 State of the Union address, President Obama spoke about important labor issues like unequal wages for women and a lack of paid sick and maternity leave. He called on Congress to pass legislation raising the minimum wage and requiring employers to guarantee at least seven days of sick time a year to their employees. He had to do this because, remarkably, nearly 40 percent of the American workers have no sick time at all, nor is there any requirement for their employers to provide any – a regressive distinction the United States shares with only two other countries, Papua New Guinea and Oman.

Hopefully these important issues will be brought to light as the 2016 presidential race heats up, especially with Bernie Sanders running. The anti-family nature of U.S. labor law should make it a logical target for any values-oriented crusader; but predictably, Republican politicians oppose reform. While hiding behind a defense of small businesses, the Republican agenda is really a handout to mega corporations.

Walmart, for instance, has been exposed for its discrimination against pregnant women, forcing them onto unpaid leave or firing them outright if they become unable to perform certain duties. In April 2014, activists and employees forced the company to modify its policy, allowing for a “reasonable accommodation” to be made for women with “a temporary disability caused by pregnancy.” This weak and ambiguous concession leaves women with healthy pregnancies in the lurch, even though they still may require modified job duties.

Congress could intervene and establish better protections for pregnant women, but it doesn’t. The 1978 Pregnancy Discrimination Act – the last such act passed on the federal level – is so feeble that a Walmart spokesperson in 2014 could truthfully say, “We’re proud of our new policy. It is best in class and goes well beyond federal and most state laws.” That reveals at least as much about federal and state laws as it does Walmart. The Waltons are among the wealthiest people on the globe, yet their business won’t guarantee American workers the fundamental dignity of having a child without fear of repercussion. And so it goes with workers’ rights across sectors of the economy.

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Notorious Astroturf Pioneer Rick Berman Is Behind Business Group’s Anti-Labor-Board Campaign – —By Molly Redden | Wed Mar. 25, 2015 6:30 AM EDT

Washington’s “Dr. Evil” has been working with a group of CEOs to help companies avoid legal liability for their franchisees.

“I’ve worked hard and played by the rules to make my franchise business a success,” Ganahl said in an ad that ran on all three networks, as video showed her fawning over a golden retriever. “Now, unelected bureaucrats at the National Labor Relations Board want to change the rules. As Americans, we deserve better. Tell Washington, ‘No.'”

Bankrolled by a free-market advocacy group called the Job Creators Network, the ad painted a sympathetic picture of a business owner struggling against onerous regulations imposed by the NLRB, the agency that enforces labor law and has long been a conservative target. But lurking behind the anti-NLRB campaign is a notorious PR operative and astroturf pioneer who encourages his corporate clients to “win ugly or lose pretty” and who says he wakes up each morning trying “to figure out how to screw with the labor unions.”

The consultant, Rick Berman, is well known in political circles for funneling anonymous corporate money into vicious ad campaigns attacking various advocacy groups, such as Mothers Against Drunk Driving and the Humane Society of the United States, which he has accused of spending a minuscule amount of their donations on their stated missions. Berman, who heads the DC-based communications firm Berman and Company, typically launches his offensives through a network of front groups. He has used these organizations to fight regulations governing food safety, animal cruelty, workplace safety, secondhand smoke, and even tanning beds, and in the process keeps his corporate funders anonymous.

“We run all of this stuff through nonprofit organizations that are insulated from having to disclose donors,” Berman bragged in an October speech that was secretly taped and shared with the New York Times. “There is total anonymity.” His brash M.O. has earned him a nickname—Dr. Evil—that Berman appears to relish.

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How Big Oil and Big Tobacco get respected scientists to lie for them – Updated by Julia Belluz on March 21, 2015, 9:30 a.m. ET

By the 1950s, Big Tobacco knew smoking caused cancer. By the 1960s,  the companies knew nicotine was addictive and that smoking could lead to heart disease. But three decades later, tobacco executives stood up before Congress and, under oath, denied the facts.


The same story has played out with other major scientific issues of our time, from climate change to the health harms of various chemicals. As scientists build consensus, industry tries to obscure their findings outside the ivory tower, turning non-debates into ginned-up controversies.

A new documentary, Merchants of Doubt, shows exactly how for-profit players covertly shape popular thinking about the biggest science questions of the day. The movie helps explain that the fight about climate change — and smoking, and environmental chemicals — is actually about political ideology and questions of how people should live and govern themselves.


Naomi Oreskes, a historian at Harvard. (Barry Berona/ Sony Pictures Classics)

The documentary was inspired by the research of Naomi Oreskes, a historian of science at Harvard University. She coauthored the 2010 book Merchants of Doubt after stumbling on an amazing discovery: in all the journal articles on global climate change published between 1992 and 2002, there was complete consensus among researchers that the warming of the planet was caused by man. Yet somehow this monolithic agreement wasn’t making it out of the annals of research. Oreskes wanted to figure out why.

I spoke to her about how the hidden lessons in her research can be applied to current debates in science, what the public, scientists, and journalists can learn from her work on Big Tobacco and Big Oil, and how we can avoid repeating history.

Julia Belluz: In your research, you’ve looked at how scientists come to consensus. This is really interesting in the context of debates about climate change or the effects of tobacco because many of the people who tried to communicate the consensus to the public early on were derided and attacked, and treated like fringe lunatics amid disinformation campaigns being organized covertly by industry. What’s the lesson here? 

Naomi Oreskes: If someone casts doubt on science, there are two questions we should ask. Number one: Who are they? Do they have a vested interest in challenging the scientific knowledge for some reason that has nothing to do with science?

instead of talking about HOW the sea level is rising, we can fight about the politics

The second question is: how well has the scientific community been studying this? In lots of cases, scientists do change their minds, especially in the early stages of investigation. So it’s important for us to look at the process by which scientists come to their conclusions and whether, after studying for some period of time, they have come to some kind of general agreement. And if someone is challenging that consensus, we have to be questioning who this person is and what is their interest.

JB: We in the media are encouraged to find the new and counterintuitive study, the miracle pill or procedure. But often times, these one-off findings don’t in any way reflect what’s known in research. What have you learned about the disconnect between what science says and how it’s depicted by media? 



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GOP stands in way of Obama gambit for offshore corporate cash – by Ben Piven March 12, 2015 5:00AM ET

President proposes to tax companies’ foreign profits for half-trillion in revenue but faces tough congressional fight

Screen Shot 2015-03-12 at Mar 12, 2015 3.16

Under a plan baked into the White House’s budget for 2016, U.S. corporations would theoretically be forced to pay hundreds of billions in new taxes on money kept abroad.

Levying fees on the $2.1 trillion in funds largely held by shell companiesthrough an accounting trick called deferral, the move, which President Barack Obama announced last month, is aimed at raising cash for desperately needed public works programs and infrastructure improvements. If he is successful, companies would no longer have a legal way of avoiding the 35 percent corporate tax by indefinitely investing funds outside the U.S.

But analysts say it’s unlikely such a tax haven windfall will materialize, because it depends on being included in budget legislation drafted and passed by a Republican-controlled Congress. In that sense, the proposal — part of a larger fiscal document outlining where the White House stands on important questions — is seen as a starting gambit in tax reform negotiations.

Republican politicians have vowed to scupper the plans when they come before Congress, where the GOP has a four-seat majority in the Senate and overwhelming control of the House after midterm elections last year from which they emerged victorious and emboldened.

“For six years the president has pursued higher taxes and higher spending, and our economy has paid the price. This budget is simply more of the same,” said House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Paul Ryan, R-Wis.

Yet behind such a stance lie powerful business interests that have long stored cash offshore rather than paying U.S. taxes. Representing hundreds of multinational companies, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and Business Roundtable successfully defended against more modest tax reforms in Obama’s first term.

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