Monday, January 21, 2019

POLITICS - American and Britain Competition

PICS OF THE WEEK - American Politics

IN PICKS - American Politics, Native American View

OPINION - Brooks and Marcus 1/18/2019

"Brooks and Marcus on shutdown stagnation, Michael Cohen report" PBS NewsHour 1/18/2019


SUMMARY:  New York Times columnist David Brooks and Washington Post deputy editorial page editor Ruth Marcus join Judy Woodruff to discuss the week in politics, including the historic government shutdown, a report that President Trump instructed Michael Cohen to lie to Congress, and the growing list of possible Democratic candidates for President in 2020.

Judy Woodruff (NewsHour):  So, the shutdown was just one of a handful of major stories this week to rattle Washington and point directly to the Oval Office.

To help make sense of it all, the analysis of Brooks and Marcus.  That's New York Times columnist David Brooks and Washington Post columnist Ruth Marcus.  Mark Shields is away.

Hello to both of you.

Ruth Marcus, Washington Post:  Hi.

Judy Woodruff:  So, the shutdown.

David, they were it again this week, but no movement.  Is one side — we saw what the poll results are saying, but is one side winning this, or not?

David Brooks, New York Times:  No.  They're all losing.

It's gone from like junior high food-fight to nursery school sandbox fight.  I don't know.  It just gets worse.

And, weirdly — I don't want to get too grandiose, but it reminds the World War, the lead-up to World War I, where each side thinks the other side, surely, they will cave.  But neither — and they're both vastly misestimating the other side.  And neither side thinks they're going to cave.  They both took the other side will cave.

And so it gets worse and worse.  I have been moderately hopeful in the last couple weeks.  That's all evaporated for me.

And I blame Trump, mostly.  I blame the Republicans in the Senate a lot.  I really think, if there's a key leader who can get us out of this gridlock, it's Republicans taking some control in the Senate and saying, we're going to go forward with something.  If Pelosi and Trump want to come with us, that would be good.

There has to be some way forward to get out of just the gridlock.

Judy Woodruff:  But Mitch McConnell, Ruth, has he's not going to touch this until he knows what the President would sign.

Ruth Marcus:  Indeed.

And he — his view is, let everybody else work it out.  I — when I was negotiating that — and finding deals, that was with a Democratic President.  So now let the Democratic leader in the Senate, Chuck Schumer, let him handle it.

Nobody wants to be involved in this, because it's so — it's both solvable and intractable at the same time.  It's solvable for all the reasons that caused David's optimism, and it's intractable because there is nothing to gain with your own base that you have to worry about by solving it.

And you started out by saying that nothing happened this week.  But I think, as David said, actually, something did happen this week.

Judy Woodruff:  Well…

Ruth Marcus:  It got worse.

Judy Woodruff:  All right, forgive me.


Ruth Marcus:  We're worse off this week than we were a week ago.

Judy Woodruff:  Yes.

And now, we are told, the President is going to make a — quote, unquote — David, "major announcement" about all this tomorrow.  Somebody was speculating maybe he's going to announce an emergency, the government's going to take over this and do the wall itself.

But a lot of — there's some reason to think he might not do that.

David Brooks:  Yes, I hope he doesn't.  I think he won't.

Often, major announcements are only major in the minds of those doing the announcing.  They seem like just restatements of the same position over and over again.  So, we could see that.  Who knows.  I don't know.

I would be surprised if he did the emergency thing.  That — there's just so much upset, even in the Republican Party, about that.  That — if there's anything that would lead to the weakening of the Republican-being-stuck-with-Trump position, that would do it.

Judy Woodruff:  But, Ruth, you don't see any inkling that one side is feeling more heat than the other side?

Ruth Marcus:  I don't.  I think they are each dug in.

They want the solution, but they want the other person on the other side to blink first.  I thought I — earlier today, I was worried that I was being too negative.  So I did a round the phone calling on the Hill.  And what I discovered was that I simply wasn't being negative enough, that I talked to folks who were like, I have been around for all these shutdowns, and this is the worst I have seen it, and I don't see the way out of it.

I almost wonder if there wouldn't be some element, as much as people would balk at the notion of declaring the emergency at this point, since it seems so bleak, to get out of it, if they wouldn't give a little bit of a pass for that.

I think that — I'm not encouraging that.  I think it would be dangerous and constitutionally dangerous.  But we have to find some way out of this also.

Judy Woodruff:  So maybe it is World War I all over again.

So, the other thing that happened overnight, David, is, you have this report — only one news organization so far — but BuzzFeed is reporting, they're quoting law enforcement sources as saying that the investigators have evidence that the President told his former attorney Michael Cohen to lie to Congress.

David Brooks:  Yes.

This is significant for a couple reasons.  One, it's a felony the President allegedly committed while being President, unlike all the previous stuff.  And then it is a bit of a — he's President of the United States or running for office, and he puts the U.S. national interest behind his own interest in getting a Trump Tower built in Moscow.

And so these are both very serious things.  David French of "National Review" pointed out that, in Michael Cohen's sentencing agreement months and months ago, this was right out there in the open for all of us, that Cohen's lawyers said he did — he lied to Congress because person number one, Donald Trump, told him to do it, and he didn't have the strength to resist.

And so that suggests there's some meat to this.  BuzzFeed is a real news organization, it should be said.

And the final thing, the thing that is of interest to me in the BuzzFeed report, you can't tell whether they have written evidence.  They say there's a trove of documents.  They say there's a trove of e-mails and texts.  But is there an actual piece of paper with Donald Trump saying, lie to Congress?  That would be pretty explosive, if that exists.

Judy Woodruff:  Or a recording.

Ruth Marcus:  Or a recording.  'Lordy, let there be tapes,' as somebody said.

If true, this is beyond explosive.  It's not just an impeachable offense, but an offense that you could actually imagine even this Republican Congress not just impeaching the President for, because, of course, that's up to a Democratic House, but convicting him and removing him from office for.

But it would require not only for it to be true, but for it to be evidence that's more than simply a swearing contest between one person with a history of less than truth-telling, the President, and another person who is an admitted liar, Michael Cohen.

So, not the — not the best witness for the prosecution or the impeachment prosecution.  But if you had evidence to back it up, this is really, really a serious allegation.

Judy Woodruff:  But it looks as if, David — I mean, talking to Jamie Raskin, who's involved in House leadership few minutes ago, it looks as if at least the Democrats are talking about an investigation, whether they move on to the impeachment.

David Brooks:  Right.

And a lot of this is about putting the Republicans — the Democrats where they are — where they — are we really going to impeach, or are we not?  Where does their emphasis go?

This is an interesting debate on the left.  Do we want this guy impeached, or do we want to vote him out?  Which is better for the country?  I think voting him out would be better for the country.

But if — as the evidence mounds, you really have no choice.

Ruth Marcus:  It's interesting.

I know many Democratic members of Congress who believe, as David said, they would be better off running against Donald Trump than against whoever the Republicans would put up in his place.

But this is, as Jamie Raskin was suggesting, an insult to the very constitutional system, the notion that you could, as a sitting President, suborn perjury, about an — not just about a general matter of government, but tell somebody to lie in order to protect your own business interests and your own private conduct.

That cannot be allowed.  The reason we know it can't be allowed is that Bill Barr, the nominee for attorney general…

Judy Woodruff:  Said so.

Ruth Marcus:  Said so in hearings with questions that now sound prescient.

NEWSHOUR SHARES - Maine River Ice Disk

"Giant ice disk forms in Maine river, enthralling residents" PBS NewsHour 1/18/2019


SUMMARY:  In our NewsHour Shares moment of the day, an unusual phenomenon has appeared in a river in Westbrook, Maine: A giant ice disk that spans about 100 yards across and spins counter-clockwise.  The disk is a natural although uncommon occurrence documented in other parts of North America as well as in Scandinavia.  Julia Griffin, in collaboration with Maine Public Television, has the story.

THE INVESTIGATIONS - Trump Ordered Cohen to Lie?!

"What it means for Trump if he ordered Cohen to lie to Congress" PBS NewsHour 1/18/2019


SUMMARY:  BuzzFeed reported Friday that President Trump personally directed Michael Cohen, his former lawyer, to lie to Congress about a potential Trump hotel project in Moscow.  In response, some congressional Democrats said ordering a subordinate to commit perjury "is an impeachable offense."  Judy Woodruff is joined by Rep. Jamie Raskin (D-Md) a member of the House Judiciary Committee, to discuss.

Editor's Note: After this story aired, a spokesman for special counsel Robert Mueller's office released a statement: “BuzzFeed’s description of specific statements to the Special Counsel’s Office, and characterization of documents and testimony obtained by this office, regarding Michael Cohen’s Congressional testimony are not accurate."  BuzzFeed editor-in-chief Ben Smith said the organization stands by its reporting.

IMMIGRATION - Family Separation Numerical Error?!

"Report: Number of families separated at the border unknown due to bad bookkeeping" PBS NewsHour 1/17/2019


SUMMARY:  The Inspector General at the Department of Health and Human Services paints the most detailed picture to date of the Trump administration's actions to separate immigrant families at the southern border.  The report found that the government was separating children long before it announced its policy; thousands more may have been separated than previously reported.  Amna Nawaz joins Judy Woodruff.

TECH INDUSTRY - "Curse of Bigness"

"Why tech industry monopolies could be a ‘curse’ for society" PBS NewsHour 1/17/2019

aka "Trump Government Run by Big Corporations"


SUMMARY:  In the early 20th century, Standard Oil was broken up because of its vast power.  Today, many think Facebook, Google, or Amazon present similar threats, but they proceed unchallenged.  In "The Curse of Bigness," law professor Tim Wu argues that America has abandoned antitrust enforcement and left us with an economy dominated by de facto monopolists.  Economics correspondent Paul Solman reports.

Judy Woodruff (NewsHour):  At his confirmation hearing this week, William Barr, the nominee to be Attorney General, told senators — quote — "A lot of people wonder how such huge behemoths that now exist in Silicon Valley have taken shape under the nose of the antitrust enforcers."

U.S. SUPREME COURT - Veteran's Appeal on Defense Contractors Case

"Supreme Court declines to hear case about toxic burn pits on military bases overseas" PBS NewsHour 1/16/2019


SUMMARY:  The Supreme Court declined to hear an appeal from veterans who had sued defense contractors over claims that toxic smoke from open burn pits in Iraq and Afghanistan caused them serious health problems.  One of the contractors, KBR, countered that waste elimination procedures were directed by the military itself.  As Hari Sreenivasan reports, the afflicted soldiers have no remaining legal recourse.

SYRIA - Deadliest Day to Date

"After deadliest day for U.S. forces in Syria, withdrawal could get more complicated" PBS NewsHour 1/16/2019


SUMMARY:  ISIS claimed responsibility for a deadly attack in northern Syria's Manbij that killed four Americans, countering the Trump administration's assessment that the terrorist group had been defeated.  While Vice President Pence repeated that the U.S. is now able to "hand off" that fight to allies, other officials expressed concern that withdrawal plans have enlivened the enemy.  Nick Schifrin reports.

MEMORIAM - Carol Channing 1921-2019

"Remembering Carol Channing, theater star who didn’t let life pass her by" PBS NewsHour 1/15/2019


SUMMARY:  Carol Channing passed away Tuesday at the age of 97.  The Broadway legend won fame as Dolly Levi in "Hello, Dolly!" and performed it more than 5,000 times.

Hello, Dolly! - Carol Channing (1979)

UNITED KINGDOM - Brexit Goes Down in Flames

As I've said before, Brexit was a very bad idea promoted by extreme nationalism.

"Parliament rejects Brexit deal, leaving May to scramble for a plan B" PBS NewsHour 1/15/2019


SUMMARY:  Just 10 weeks before Britain is due to leave the European Union, Prime Minister Theresa May vowed to press ahead despite the overwhelming rejection of her Brexit deal in Parliament on Tuesday.  If the UK leaves the EU without an agreement, many worry it could plunge the economy in recession or worse.  Special correspondent Ryan Chilcote joins Judy Woodruff for more.

TRUMP ADMINISTRATION - Nominee for U.S. Attorney General

The question, is William Barr really a Trump stooge?

"William Barr Has a Long History of Abusing Civil Rights and Liberties in the Name of ‘National Security’" by Manar Waheed and Brian Tashman, American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) 1/14/2019

On Tuesday, the Senate Judiciary Committee will begin hearings on William Barr’s nomination to be the next attorney general of the United States, offering senators an opportunity to scrutinize his record and views.

Such scrutiny is especially crucial in the Trump era.  As we’ve seen throughout his time in office, from imposing the Muslim ban to the recent shutdown fight over border wall funding, President Trump has tried to use “national security” as a pretext to justify discriminatory or otherwise illegal policies.

That’s why his nomination of William Barr should concern everyone — because Barr has a long record of doing the same thing during the George H.W. Bush administration.  If confirmed to be Trump’s attorney general, Barr could enable the President to act on many of his worst instincts.

Defending discriminatory profiling

In the lead up to the Persian Gulf War, the FBI questioned hundreds of Arab-Americans.  It claimed these interviews were to solicit information about terrorism.  Barr, who served as deputy attorney general at the time, defended the FBI’s actions, insisting that they were needed “to solicit information about potential terrorist activity and to request the future assistance of these individuals.”

Community activists said that the FBI was singling them out and questioning their loyalty because of their identity.  Many of the people who were questioned said that they were interrogated about their political views and travel plans and if they personally knew terrorists — based not on actual evidence, but on national origin.  As an official charged with upholding the law, Barr should know not only are such practices offensive, ineffective, and a waste of limited resources, but they also undermine the very constitutional rights he swore to protect.

Supporting secret military trials

And Barr’s history doesn’t stop there.

Following the 1988 Lockerbie Bombings, Barr floated the idea of the President convening secret military tribunals to try people accused of involvement with suspected terrorist activities.  Barr revived the idea of secret military trials after the 9/11 attacks and testified in support of President George W. Bush’s decision to order them without congressional authorization.

Barr told the Senate that the President has the power to order such trials as long as he cites “national defense” interests.  Barr said that “no war need be declared for this power to come into being,” and that there is “no geographical limit” for the President to exercise such powers.  Anyone declared a foreign adversary, he said, “is not entitled to constitutional protections.”

More recently, Barr’s belief that the President has virtually unchecked security powers is also seen in his defense of the first version of Trump’s Muslim ban.

Such beliefs are in keeping with his sweeping views of executive power.  Indeed, Barr has said that “the real threat to domestic liberties is the artificial restriction of our powers of national defense by gratuitously expanding constitutional guarantees beyond their intended office.”

Endorsing detention and denying rights

Barr’s nomination should trouble anyone worried about executive overreach, especially as Trump is trying to go beyond his authority to ban asylum-seekers and expand detention, including the separation of parents from their children.

During the George H.W. Bush-era, Barr endorsed the administration’s use of the U.S. Naval Base at Guantanamo Bay to detain Haitians seeking asylum in the U.S., denying them access to legal advice during their asylum proceedings.  A federal judge rebuked the government for indefinitely detaining the Haitians and denying them access to legal counsel.

The Trump administration, meanwhile, has announced that it will force asylum seekers to wait in Mexico while their claims for protection are processed.  And right now, the President is threatening to formally declare a national emergency in order to build his border wall without congressional approval or appropriations.

As Trump leads attacks on civil liberties and the rule of law, often by making false claims about national security, senators must ask Barr about his troubling record and make sure that he will not become a rubber stamp for the President’s unlawful actions.

"Barr pledges to protect Mueller probe from partisanship and ‘personal interests’" PBS NewsHour 1/15/2019


SUMMARY:  In his confirmation hearing, William Barr wasted no time declaring independence from the President who nominated him.  President Trump's pick for attorney general vowed not to fire -- without just cause -- special counsel Robert Mueller, nor interfere with the probe into Russian election meddling.  Yamiche Alcindor reports.

"Klobuchar ‘very concerned’ about Barr’s independence in light of Mueller memo" PBS NewsHour 1/15/2019


SUMMARY:  Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn) said she has serious concerns about Attorney General nominee William Barr’s stances on the Mueller investigation, but that it was positive to hear him say he would let the probe run its course.  The senator joins Judy Woodruff to discuss Barr’s answers on obstruction of justice, voting rights, his rhetoric on immigration and more from Tuesday’s hearing.

"Barr’s Mueller probe memo shouldn’t be disqualifying, former deputy says" PBS NewsHour 1/15/2019


SUMMARY:  Lots of lawyers have thoughts about the special counsel’s investigation into Russian interference, said former Deputy Attorney General George Terwilliger, and the fact that Attorney General nominee William Barr shared his thoughts isn’t “really unusual.”  Terwilliger joins Judy Woodruff to discuss the confirmation hearing, including immigration issues wrapped up in the government shutdown fight.

TRUMP SHUTDOWN - America Hostage Crisis

"As shutdown drags on, Trump tries to reassure farmers feeling burned" PBS NewsHour 1/14/2019


SUMMARY:  On Monday [Day 24], President Trump said he is hesitant to declare a national emergency to fund a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border, and that Congress should resolve the "simple" disagreement that's keeping the government partly closed.  He also said he had rejected a proposal by Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) to reopen the government temporarily.  Yamiche Alcindor reports on the shutdown's latest impacts.

"Shutdown comes at a ‘tough time’ to be an American farmer" PBS NewsHour 1/14/2019


SUMMARY:  President Trump promoted his trade policies Monday at the American Farm Bureau Federation.  But the government shutdown has hurt farmers seeking loans needed for upcoming crop seasons, and certain provisions in the newly signed Farm Bill cannot be administered until USDA offices reopen.  Farm Aid’s Joe Schroeder joins John Yang to discuss how the shutdown has come at a "tough time to be a farmer."

"Native American tribes are ‘starting to feel the impact’ of shutdown funding delay" PBS NewsHour 1/14/2019


SUMMARY:  The government shutdown has affected Native American tribes who rely on federal funds allocated by treaty rights.  For the Stockbridge-Munsee Band of Mohican Indians in Wisconsin, funding goes towards services like public safety and elder healthcare.  Now the tribe is awaiting more than a million dollars owed by government.  Marisa Wojcik of Wisconsin Public Television reports.

"Shutdown takes a bite out of business in South Florida" PBS NewsHour 1/15/2019


SUMMARY:  [Day 25] The gates are open at the Everglades National Park, but with no one to collect entry fees, business is drying up.  The partial government shutdown couldn't come at a worse time for the region, which depends on tourists and is suffering its second bad season in a row.  From TSA officers to hurricane scientists, John Yang reports on how residents are hurting.

"How the State of the Union became ‘leverage’ in shutdown debate" PBS NewsHour 1/16/2019

IMHO: Trump childish behavior.


SUMMARY:  [Day 26] House Speaker Nancy Pelosi requested President Trump’s State of the Union be postponed for safety reasons related to the shutdown, although the Department of Homeland Security countered it is able to handle the event.  Meanwhile, President Trump met with a bipartisan group of lawmakers to negotiate, as another payroll deadline approaches.  Judy Woodruff talks to Yamiche Alcindor and Lisa Desjardins.

"These 2 cities illustrate the shutdown’s profound national impact" PBS NewsHour 1/16/2019


SUMMARY:  While lawmakers in Washington, D.C., battle over whether to reopen the government, the ripple effects of the shutdown are extending far beyond the Beltway.  Two mayors, Republican David Holt from Oklahoma City, Oklahoma; and Democrat Michael Passero of New London, Connecticut, tell Judy Woodruff how the stalemate is affecting their cities' federal workers and even their populations as a whole.

"New to Capitol Hill, Reps. Riggleman and Spanberger face shutdown’s added pressure" PBS NewsHour 1/16/2019


SUMMARY:  Two new House members, Rep. Denver Riggleman (R-Va), and Rep. Abigail Spanberger (D-Va) belong to the largest congressional freshman class in decades.  Even before their offices were fully set up, these Capitol Hill newcomers had to cast votes on how to handle a government shutdown that's stretched on for weeks.  Lisa Desjardins accompanies Riggleman and Spanberger on their first days in Congress.

"With much of the EPA closed, industrial safety and pollution inspections come to a halt" PBS NewsHour 1/16/2019


SUMMARY:  Andrew Wheeler, the EPA's acting head, appeared before a Senate committee for confirmation hearings in his bid to keep the position on a permanent basis.  But the government shutdown has brought many of the EPA's daily operations to a halt, so most safety and pollution inspections are skipped.  Judy Woodruff looks at reporting by Coral Davenport of The New York Times and the AP's Ellen Knickmeyer.

"Trump’s move to cancel congressional trip during shutdown raises debate" PBS NewsHour 1/17/2019


SUMMARY:  On day 27 of the partial government shutdown, President Trump rescinded approval for a military plane, effectively canceling a trip to Afghanistan planned by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and a congressional delegation.  The move comes after Pelosi asked to postpone the President’s State of the Union Address over safety concerns.  Lisa Desjardins joins Judy Woodruff for an update on the shutdown.

"Why many stores can’t accept food stamps during the shutdown" PBS NewsHour 1/17/2019


SUMMARY:  While so far there have been no major lapses in benefits for the nearly 39 million people who depend on food stamps amid the partial government shutdown, 2,500 retailers around the country are unable to take any form of SNAP EBT payments.

"Shutdown’s lost pay, dwindling business send more people to D.C. food banks" PBS NewsHour 1/18/2019


SUMMARY:  [Day 28] The government shutdown has stifled business in the nation's capital.  Many contractors are barely getting by without their paychecks, and unlike permanent federal workers, they will never recover the income they lose.  Food banks are experiencing spiking demand, even though some visitors feel guilty about asking for help.  And local shops and caf├ęs sit empty.  Lisa Desjardins reports.

"Trump’s proposal to end shutdown still includes $5.7 billion wall" PBS NewsHour 1/19/2019

"Temporary" protections for a "permanent" expensive wall (or whatever you want to call it)?


SUMMARY:  President Trump offered on day 29 of a partial government shutdown what he described as a proposal to end the impasse, but it was one that House Speaker Nancy Pelosi had already rejected before his announcement.  NewsHour White House Correspondent Yamiche Alcindor talks to Hari Sreenivasan about the latest.

TRUMP - Russian Agent?

"Denying he ever worked for Russia, Trump calls the question a ‘disgrace’" PBS NewsHour 1/14/2019


SUMMARY:  On Monday, President Trump denied being a Russian agent after The New York Times reported the FBI opened a counterintelligence investigation into whether he was acting on Russia’s behalf.  He called the FBI officials who launched the inquiry “scoundrels” and “dirty cops.”  But questions remain about his interactions with Russian President Vladimir Putin.  Nick Schifrin reports.

"Sen. Warner [D-Va]: ‘Legitimate questions’ need to be answered about Trump and Russia" PBS NewsHour 1/14/2019


SUMMARY:  The New York Times reports that the FBI launched a counterintelligence investigation into whether President Trump was working on behalf of Russia after Trump fired FBI director James Comey.  Today, the President denied being under Russia's influence.  Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va) tells Judy Woodruff whether he believes Trump and what we still don’t know about Trump’s meetings with Vladimir Putin.

"‘Plenty’ is still unknown about Trump’s interactions with Putin, says former NSC staffer" PBS NewsHour 1/14/2019


SUMMARY:  Questions remain about President Trump's meetings with Russian President Vladimir Putin, as well as about Trump's broader ties to Russia.  To analyze why the corresponding counterintelligence investigations are 'unprecedented,' Judy Woodruff sits down with Andrew Weiss a former National Security Council staffer, and David Kris previously the Justice Department's top national security official.

"‘I really don’t’ believe Trump acts in ways that help Russia, Sen. Risch [R-Idaho] says" PBS NewsHour 1/15/2019


SUMMARY:  Sen. Jim Risch (R-Idaho) the new Chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said that there is no feeling that he knows of, in Washington, that Russia can be trusted or embraced.  Risch talks with Nick Schifrin about why he sees China as the U.S.’s “largest concern,” the pain for American farmers caused by the President’s trade war, the American commitment to Kurdish forces in Syria and more.

SOCIAL MEDIA - The Threat of Intelligent Machines

"How to keep AI from turning into the Terminator" by Mark Surman, CNN Opinion 1/15/2019

On GPS: The threat of intelligent machines (video link)

Editor's Note: Mark Surman is the executive director of the Mozilla Foundation, a global community devoted to keeping the internet open and free.  The views expressed in this commentary are his own.  View more opinion on CNN.

Artificial intelligence (AI) has long occupied an outsized role in our collective imagination, in everything from pulp science fiction novels to James Cameron blockbusters.  When AI is the antagonist, it is corporeal and impossible to overlook, like the Terminator.  Even in the real world, discussions about rogue technology tend to focus on the overt and dramatic, such as Elon Musk's exhortations on Twitter that the dangers of AI rival the dangers of nuclear weapons.

Perhaps humankind is moving toward an oppressive artificial superintelligence.  In the meantime, artificial intelligence is already woven into our everyday lives.  It provides us with things we love and need, from productivity advice to movie recommendations.  Yet, when we don't carefully consider its impact on our democracies, our justice systems and our well-being, we open ourselves up to real risks.

The AI of today is invisible to most of us, yet ubiquitous.  One example we interact with frequently is recommendation engines on the internet -- the code recommending that next video on YouTube or a post on Facebook.  These algorithms pull together vast amounts of our personal data to learn about us and curate our experience online.  In this case, AI is simply your personal data mixed with the data of people with similar interests -- and then pointed back at you.

The result can be serendipitous and delightful.  It can also be dangerous.  Last year, Silicon Valley moguls opened up to New York Magazine about how today's social media is designed to addict users.  Using our data to manipulate us to stay on a site may or may not be pernicious in its own right.

But even if you don't worry about it for yourself, there is growing evidence that these systems tend to radicalize and polarize.  Last year, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill researcher Zeynep Tufekci dubbed YouTube "the Great Radicalizer": view one anti-vaccination video, and YouTube will suggest a second; watch one factually incorrect political video, and YouTube will recommend a sequel.

Further, these algorithms can be gamed by humans to sow even more discord.  Data for Democracy researcher and Mozilla fellow Renee DiResta uncovered how anti-vaccine activists exploit Google's algorithm to spread dangerous disinformation.  How?  By publishing reams of misleading articles peppered with popular keywords and search terms.  She also recently testified before Congress about how Russian operatives manipulated Facebook's AI to influence American voters by posing as American news outlets and American voters.  (Note: Mozilla, a nonprofit, is the creator of the open-source Firefox browser, a competitor of Google's Chrome browser.)

Of course, the problem isn't technology, per se -- AI isn't inherently malicious.  But it does replicate and amplify human bias.  Computer programs are made by humans who bake in certain design goals and draw on certain data sets.  Inside all of this are the normal contradictions of humanity: generosity and greed; inclusion and bias; good and evil.

Think about it: If the goals and incentives of a set of programmers are to increase advertising revenue, it's not surprising that the content recommendation algorithms they create keep people watching videos for as long as possible.  And, since these algorithms learn and adapt to get better at their goals, it's not surprising that apps like Facebook, YouTube, and Instagram are becoming what Professor Ronald J. Deibert, who has hosted past Mozilla fellows, dubbed "addiction machines" in a recent paper titled, "Three Painful Truths About Social Media."

Further, this technology is developed by a small handful of companies -- names like Facebook that you know and others, like Palantir, that you probably don't -- with little transparency.  Public officials, investigative journalists, and civic-minded citizens can't peer at the code to uncover problems.  Put simply: "The public doesn't have the tools to hold algorithms accountable."

The question we really need to be asking is: how do we make AI responsibly and ethically?  Fortunately, there is a growing cadre of people and companies asking this question.

Researchers like Tufekci and DiResta are vital voices.  Groups like the Center for Humane Technology are examining how the "addiction economy" works.  Organizations like New York University's AI Now Institute are examining the ways AI impacts essential liberties.  Even established players like Microsoft and startups like Element AI are calling for regulation.

Others are stressing the need for more engineers and product designers who consider responsibility and ethics when building AI.  Imagine a social app designer who asks: How do I both grow profits and keep users safe?  People who create drugs and automobiles ask these questions; why not developers?  With this in mind, Mozilla (my company), Omidyar Network, Schmidt Futures, and Craig Newmark Philanthropies are leading the Responsible Computer Science Challenge, a $3.5 million initiative to integrate ethics into undergraduate computer science curricula.

Finally, it is worth noting that a handful of governments are starting to step up, too.  In 2018, the New York City mayor's office announced an AI watchdog panel.  More recently, the governments of Canada and France announced a joint initiative to examine the intersection of AI and ethics.  And, in Finland, the government is training 1% of the population in AI basics, such as when it is deployed and the definitions of terms like "machine learning" and "neural networks."

As artificial intelligence becomes more pervasive, it's critical to foster a better public understanding of its impact on society.  Hulking robots make for good cinema but aren't accurate representations of how AI can and does do harm today.  We need to focus on real solutions, like planning for ethical and responsible technology at the drawing board, not after the fact.

Bottom line: We need to anticipate and eliminate bias in AI before it reaches millions of people.

Saturday, January 19, 2019


Robert Reich
The Five Tactics
  1. Distract us
  2. Divide and conquer
  3. Lie and distort
  4. Conger up conspires
  5. Accuse the accuser

Friday, January 18, 2019

SAN DIEGO - San Diego Women’s March 2019

Participants in the 2018 San Diego Women’s March carried signs as they walked on Pacific Highway.
(Hayne Palmour IV U-T file)

"Women’s March looks to move past controversies" by John Wilkens, San Diego Union-Tribune 1/18/2019

(NOTE: From e-newspaper therefore no link)

Trademark dispute, anti-Semitic remarks cause rift in groups

The third annual Women’s March arrives in San Diego Saturday with local organizers distancing themselves from national leaders, who are embroiled in controversies over anti-Semitic remarks and other issues.

Women’s March San Diego and Women’s March Inc. are separate organizations,” the local group’s executive board said in a home-page statement on its website.  “We do not benefit financially from, and are not governed by Women’s March Inc.”

Similarly, the North County Women’s March, which is hosting an event in Oceanside Saturday, calls itself “a grassroots organization inspired by, but independent from” the national group.

The statements come after months of turmoil surrounding what started as a massive show of unity.  On Jan. 21/2017, millions of women took to the streets in response to the previous day’s inauguration of President Donald Trump.

People carried signs, wore pink hats and chanted, and the energy at some 600 marches around the country helped fuel subsequent protests, the #MeToo movement, voter-registration drives and a record number of women elected to Congress.

But questions of inclusivity have dogged the Women’s March from its outset, and they’re getting louder after a year of controversy about the treatment of Jews, financial transparency and an effort by national leaders to trademark the event’s name.

In Washington, D.C., where the national group is again staging its main event Saturday, a competing march is planned by a splinter group.  Multiple marches are taking place in New York and Philadelphia, too.  In some places, the agitation over diversity has contributed to cancellations of marches.

High-profile supporters have backed away from the national event, including the Democratic National Committee and the Southern Poverty Law Center.  According to The Daily Beast, less than half of the nearly 550 partners who supported the 2018 march signed up this year.

March backers attribute some of the trouble to inevitable growing pains.  But much of it stems from ties between the national group’s leadership and Louis Farrakhan, leader of the Nation of Islam, whose criticism of Jews has included calling them “termites.”

Tamika Mallory, one of the group’s four co-chairs, posted a photo of herself with Farrakhan at a Nation of Islam event.  She’s credited the group with helping her after a relative was killed.  Under the photo, she called Farrakhan “the GOAT” (greatest of all time).

She has since denounced anti-Semitism in writing and apologized for any harm she caused: “Every member of our movement matters to us.” But she has declined to condemn Farrakhan, which in some places has only fanned the flames of controversy.

“Jewish supporters of the Women’s March who are willing to overlook these egregious issues need to grow a moral backbone and confront evil whenever they see it rising,” Rabbi Michael Leo Samuel of Temple Beth Shalom in Chula Vista wrote in a commentary published last week in San Diego Jewish World.

On its website, Women’s March San Diego’s five-member executive board said, “We condemn anti-Semitism and any form of race or religion-based hate and will continue to work toward a more positive and just future.”

They added, “Since our inception, Women’s March San Diego has oriented our mission of harnessing the political power of diverse women and their communities toward creating transformative social change.  We believe our diversity makes us stronger, and that working together is the best way to effect change.”

There has been some criticism of the local board’s makeup — “We don’t need another event that centers (on) white people,” one women wrote on Facebook — and the directors note on their website that “While diverse, we acknowledge there are essential voices missing from our table.”

San Diego leaders also oppose the attempt by the national organization to trademark the name “Women’s March,” which would give it control over how the brand is used.

National directors said they want to ensure a unified message for the dozens of like-named offshoots around the country, but many of the branches fear having to adopt national rules, being barred from using the name, or having to pay a fee for it.

Saturday’s rally and march here are scheduled to start at 10 a.m. at Waterfront Park in San Diego.  Speakers include elected officials of various races, Native American leaders, a transgender advocate and a rabbi.  North County San Diego Women in Solidarity is hosting a rally at the Oceanside Civic Center starting at 9:30 a.m.  Participants are scheduled to march to the North County Transit Center before departing on the Coaster or a chartered bus at 10:30 a.m.  to join the march in San Diego at noon.

And considering the turmoil surrounding the national organization, this year’s theme may carry added meaning: “Truth to Power.”

The Washington Post contributed to this report.

PHOTOGRAPHY - Cat Photographer


Thursday, January 17, 2019


"How Illinois Bet on Video Gambling and Lost" by Jason Grotto and Sandhya Kambhampati (ProPublica Illinois) and Dan Mihalopoulos (WBEZ), ProPublica 1/16/2019

Legalizing video poker and slots was supposed to generate billions of dollars for the state.  A decade later, that hasn’t happened.  Now, legislators want to double down on gambling.

This story is a collaboration between ProPublica Illinois and WBEZ Chicago, co-published with the Chicago Sun-Times.

WITH THE LAST STREAKS OF DAYLIGHT fading on a mild October evening, the cars pulled up in waves at Piero’s Italian Cuisine, an old-school Las Vegas hotspot known for its osso buco.

Cadillacs with tinted windows.  Taxis and rideshares.  A black Bentley limousine and a white minivan.  Men and women emerged, most casually dressed, there for the first of a series of posh, private events hosted by the video gambling industry during the 2018 Global Gaming Expo, North America’s largest gambling trade show.  They included gambling executives, lobbyists — and about a dozen Illinois lawmakers.

The politicians had flown to Las Vegas to learn about the latest developments in the gambling industry and to discuss its expansion in Illinois, including proposals that would, among other items, license six new casinos in the state, legalize sports betting and increase the wagering limit on video gambling machines.  The plans, lawmakers have said, would brighten the state’s gloomy financial picture without having to raise taxes or cut spending.

It wouldn’t be the first time Illinois has placed a big bet on gambling.  Nearly a decade ago, state lawmakers legalized video gambling.  Today, more than 30,000 video slot and poker machines operate outside casinos here, more than any other state in the country.

The machines, which legislators said would generate billions of dollars in revenue for the cash-strapped state, are spread out over 6,800 establishments, dotting highways and towns from Winnebago County in the north to Alexander County in the south.  Step outside the borders of Chicago, where video gambling remains illegal, and you will see feather flags, billboards and neon signs advertising video slots and poker in bars and restaurants, truck stops and storefront gambling parlors.

Illinois now has more locations to legally place a bet than Nevada.

But the meteoric rise of video gambling has proven to be little more than a botched money grab, according to a ProPublica Illinois investigation of a system that has gone virtually unchecked since its inception.  Based on dozens of interviews, a review of thousands of pages of state financial records and an analysis of six years of gambling data, this unprecedented examination found that far from helping to pull the state out of its financial tailspin, the legalization of video gambling instead accelerated it and saddled Illinois with new, unfunded regulatory and social costs.

Meanwhile, video gambling companies have exploited the deeply flawed legislation to reap hundreds of millions of dollars in profits, while the cities and towns that bear the brunt of the social costs related to gambling receive a fraction of those proceeds.

At every key point, state officials made decisions that undercut taxpayers and helped the companies that market video gambling.  Lawmakers accepted a far smaller share of the profits than what’s charged in other states, giving the companies a much larger piece.  They went forward with the program assuming the machines could be installed in Chicago — they couldn’t.  They ignored the inevitable regulatory and social costs.  And they did not anticipate the extent to which video gaming would cut into casino profits, which are taxed at a higher rate.  The net effect: People in Illinois gambled a lot more, but most of the additional money ended up in the coffers of the companies behind video gambling.

As states and cities across the country consider gambling expansions to stabilize wobbly finances, Illinois’ experience with video gambling stands as a cautionary tale, a lesson that has become even more urgent since the U.S. Supreme Court in May opened the door to the spread of legalized sports betting.

Illinois lawmakers from both parties passed the Video Gaming Act in 2009 with little debate and unrealistic revenue projections.  They did so during the depths of the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression, promising video gambling would help fund a $31 billion building program to create jobs and upgrade the state’s infrastructure.

Within months of the law’s passage, the state began borrowing hundreds of millions of dollars against the anticipated revenue.  Bond documents claimed video gambling machines would raise $300 million each year to help cover the debt payments.

It wasn’t until 2017, eight years after the legalization of video gambling, that the state came close to collecting that amount.  By then, video gambling had brought in less than $1 billion to pay the bond debt, $1.3 billion short of what lawmakers anticipated.

But the costs of video gambling had already exacted a heavy toll on the state.

As gambling moved outside casinos, tax revenue earmarked for state education funding dropped, resulting in a $70 million decline in education funding between 2013 and 2017.

The regulatory expenses for video gambling proved far higher than anticipated, forcing the state to divert $83 million from casino taxes to support the work of the Illinois Gaming Board, run by five part-time members.

In recent years, the gaming board has been plagued by accusations of questionable conduct, including bid-rigging and violations of the Open Meetings Act.  Current board officials said that their legal issues stem from conflicting and often vague statutes and that there was never an intent to violate the law.

Not surprisingly, problem gambling has become a major issue in the state, one that affects hundreds of thousands of people with little response from Springfield.  Numerous studies from around the world have found that access and density of gambling options drive addiction.  Yet Illinois is one of only two states with legalized video gambling — the other is West Virginia — that has never conducted research to measure the prevalence of gambling addiction.

Despite pledges to increase funding for addiction services to match the massive growth in gambling outlets, the state spends less today than it did before legalizing tens of thousands of algorithm-driven machines so adept at making people play faster and longer they have earned nicknames like “electronic morphine” and “the crack cocaine of gambling.”

More often than not, these machines are found in lower-income communities, according to a ProPublica Illinois analysis of demographic and gaming board data.  Devices can be found in Berwyn but not Oak Park, Waukegan but not Lake Forest, Harvey but not Palos ParkIn fact, as the average income level of a municipality decreases, the average number of machines increases.

The companies that own and operate the machines, called terminal operators, have reaped nearly $2 billion in revenue since video gambling went live in September 2012.  Recently, that largess has become concentrated in a handful of companies, with the top five terminal operators controlling nearly 50 percent of the video gambling market, according to internal gaming board reports.

The companies have made those profits in no small part because their trade group, the Illinois Gaming Machine Operators Associationwhich picked up the tab for the Las Vegas dinner — wrote the Video Gaming Act.  The group declined comment for this story.

The General Assembly passed the legislation without scrutinizing the details, including the low tax rate on the machines.  At 30 percent, with 25 percent going to the state and 5 percent to local governments, it’s much lower than most other states with video gambling.  In West Virginia and South Dakota, video gambling is taxed at 50 percent.  In Oregon, where the state owns and operates video gambling machines through the state lottery, the tax rate is 73 percent.  Pennsylvania, which recently legalized video gambling but hasn’t yet gone live, has set a tax rate of 52 percent.

Even casino gambling here is taxed at a higher rate, with a progressive formula that can reach as high as 50 percent.

State and local politicians have benefited from video gambling.  In 2010, the year after the Video Gaming Act passed, the industry’s lobbying arm contributed $131,205 to political campaigns, five times that of the previous election cycle.  The group’s donations now total more than $830,000 since 2009.  One company, Effingham-based terminal operator J&J Ventures, has contributed an additional $600,000 to state and local races, the most of any terminal operator, according to an analysis of state campaign contribution records.

Video gambling has been a boon for bars, restaurants, truck stops and some fraternal organizations as well, providing additional revenue that has undoubtedly helped proprietors and created or maintained service industry jobs.  But while some individual businesses have made money from video gambling, the municipalities that have welcomed it haven’t fared as well.

That’s because the Video Gaming Act allocates just 5 percent of the revenue from the machines to local governments, even though they shoulder the bulk of the social costs related to gambling.  Since 2012, the roughly 1,000 towns, cities and counties with video gambling have received $283 million in tax revenue, according to an analysis of gaming board data.

A ProPublica Illinois review of local financial records shows that even in towns saturated with video slot and poker machines, the devices in most cases accounted for roughly 1 percent to 3 percent of local revenue in 2017.

Rockford, for example, brought in nearly $1.6 million in tax revenue from the machines that year, more than any other local government.  That amounted to about 1.3 percent of the city’s $129 million in general revenue, according to financial data submitted to the comptroller’s office.

In 2013, 63 percent of the state’s population lived in communities that banned the industry, mirroring statewide polls that repeatedly showed a solid majority of residents were opposed to it.  By 2017, industry lobbying efforts and tight local finances had flipped the percentages so that 63 percent of the state’s population lived in communities with video gambling.

Despite all the broken promises of video gambling, some lawmakers are now pushing for another big bet on the industry, with some members of the General Assembly eyeing an expansion vote in the early days of Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s administration.  Many Chicago politicians also want to open the city to gambling; all the front-runners in the city’s Feb. 26 mayoral primary support some version of a casino, and some want to bring in video gambling as well.

That’s why the crowd gathered at Piero’s in October, enjoying dinner at the iconic, white tablecloth restaurant featured in the Martin Scorsese mobster film “Casino.”  Among them was the co-owner of the industry’s primary lobbying firm, which shepherded the Video Gaming Act through the legislature in 2009: Joseph Berrios, former chairman of the Cook County Democratic Party and the longtime county assessor until being voted out of office last year.

Berrios is an ally of House Speaker Michael Madigan, the lead sponsor of the Video Gaming Act in the House before ceding that role to Democratic Skokie Rep. Lou Lang.  Lang was a staunch gambling proponent before he resigned from the General Assembly this month.

As he stepped from the cab that October night, wearing a white guayabera, Berrios paused for a moment before entering the restaurant.

“We’re an industry running strong,” he said.  “After January, we’re going to be looking at a bunch of things to make us a lot stronger and a lot better.”

A Rushed New Law

On the afternoon of May 21, 2009, the crowd packing the gallery overlooking the ornate Illinois House chambers, with its gilded ceiling and crystal chandeliers, became so raucous that Rep. Art Turner, the Chicago Democrat presiding over the session, had to issue an admonishment.

“I’d like to ask if we could tone down the noise and also remind the guests in the gallery that we do not allow clapping and shouting,” he reprimanded the gambling supporters and labor leaders who had gathered to watch the final vote on a bill to generate revenue for a $31 billion spending plan, dubbed Illinois Jobs Now!

Less than 48 hours earlier, a five-page proposal tinkering with an obscure provision of estate tax law had morphed into the 280-page bill now before the House.  Included in the revenue-generating legislation was the Video Gaming Act, the largest gambling expansion in Illinois since the creation of the state lottery in 1974.  Lawmakers were counting on video gambling to generate nearly a third of the revenue for Illinois Jobs Now!

It was a critical period for the state and its politicians.

For more than a decade, Illinois’ fiscal issues had prevented the General Assembly from funding infrastructure projects.

The 2010 election loomed, and the state was reeling amid the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression.  Unemployment had reached double digits.  Homes were being foreclosed.  Public sentiment across the country had soured on incumbents, giving rise to the Tea Party movement and making politicians from both parties skittish.

Months earlier, Gov. Rod Blagojevich had been arrested on corruption charges and impeached, becoming the fourth governor since the 1970s — both Democrat and Republican — to be indicted.

Supporters of the gambling law told their colleagues it would help fund the $31 billion building program to create jobs while repairing roads, constructing schools and completing other infrastructure projects across the state.

Illinois Jobs Now! gave incumbents positive news to run on.

Introduced by Senate President John Cullerton, a Chicago Democrat, the bill represented a rare display of bipartisanship in Springfield, with Republican leaders signing onto the proposal as lawmakers heaped praise upon one another for working across party lines.

The bill passed both chambers by large margins.

Along with legalizing video gambling, the bill increased sales taxes on a host of products, including candy and liquor, while boosting fees for vehicle licenses and registrations.  Bond documents show that legislators projected $1 billion overall in annual revenue, with $300 million coming from video gambling.

The gambling industry had spent years lobbying to legalize video gaming, but opponents — a coalition made up largely of church leaders — had managed to block previous efforts.  This time, the lobbyist for anti-gambling forces only learned of the bill that day, leaving opponents just an hour before the measure was introduced.

The Illinois Gaming Board, the state agency tasked with regulating the new industry, didn’t receive much more notice.  It had learned about the legislation the week before — even though the law would increase the complexity of its work and exponentially expand the number of entities it oversees without providing any additional funding or staff to do it.

We were not consulted prior to its passage, so we had no knowledge of what was in the bill,” said Aaron Jaffe, a former state legislator and Cook County Circuit Court judge who was then the board’s chairman.

Madigan declined a request for an interview for this article.  Cullerton could not be reached.  Tom Cross, the House minority leader when the Video Gaming Act passed, said he voted for it but is not a staunch supporter of video gambling.

“It’s not something that I think is good for the state,” he said.

Former Senate Minority Leader Christine Radogno, who was part of the leadership team that negotiated the Illinois Jobs Now! legislation, said lawmakers should have spent more time examining the video gambling industry.

“Certainly, in hindsight, it should have been studied more,” she said in an interview.  “My personal assessment is that it seems like a very lonely and unhealthy thing to be doing.  I have no doubt that it preys on problem gamblers and vulnerable people.”

Pat Quinn, who had become governor less than six months earlier, after Blagojevich’s impeachment, had previously denounced video gambling as “a bad bet.”

Running for re-election, Quinn reversed course and signed the bill into law on July 13, 2009.

In a recent interview, Quinn said the need to stimulate Illinois’ economy during a historic economic downturn trumped his reservations about video gambling.  He added that he insisted on an “opt-out” clause that would allow municipalities to block video gambling in their towns.

“I wasn’t particularly excited about video gambling,” he said.  “It’s very hard to get legislators to vote for funding.  I had to make a decision, and it was imperative to get people back to work.”

Unintended Consequences, Immediate Shortfalls

The speed and lack of planning that marked the legalization of video gambling created a cascading series of unintended consequences that continue to plague the state today.

The legislature assumed video gambling would be up and running within a year of the bill’s passage, to quickly begin generating revenue.  Instead, it took three years.

The liquor industry, which bristled at the tax increase for alcohol also contained in the bill, tied up the legislation in court, claiming the General Assembly had violated the state constitution by passing multiple substantive measures in a single bill.  Regulatory hurdles also contributed to delays.

And lawmakers had counted on tens of thousands of machines being installed in Chicago to meet their revenue projections.  But they somehow failed to take into account a century-old ordinance that banned gambling in the city without a referendum, which then-Mayor Richard M. Daley never embraced.

The General Assembly borrowed against the projected revenues anyway.  Within a year, Illinois had issued nearly $2.5 billion in general obligation bonds — loans backed by state revenues — before it had received a single penny from video gambling.

By the time video gambling machines were turned on and players could start betting, in September 2012, the state had borrowed more than $5 billion.  Debt payments reached about $340 million that year.  Yet video gambling brought in just $30 million to cover them.  The shortfalls meant the state had to draw from other sources.

With the budget already running massive operating deficits, the failure of video gambling to generate projected revenues exacerbated the state’s fiscal woes.  Credit rating agencies began downgrading Illinois’ debt.  That increased borrowing costs as pension payments and unpaid bills butchered the state’s balance sheet.

The state’s financial picture became so bleak it borrowed more than $1 billion between 2010 and 2013 to cover debt payments for capital projects that had been completed years earlier, spending future tax dollars to pay old bills — plus interest.

“The way the General Assembly constructed the capital program, by relying on video gambling revenue that failed to materialize, accelerated the state’s financial crisis,” said Laurence Msall, president of the nonpartisan Civic Federation, a government research organization.

Though lawmakers said money from video gambling and other new taxes and fees for Illinois Jobs Now! would fund $31 billion in building projects, those revenue streams have accounted for $10.5 billion in spending.

Video gambling revenue, plus other taxes and fees included in the law, was supposed to go into a special fund to pay down debt from Illinois Jobs Now! Legislators even passed a separate measure that required it.  But records from the state comptroller’s office show that through 2017, just over half of the $4.8 billion collected in the capital projects fund actually went to cover the debt for Illinois Jobs Now!

Legislators wrote other laws to divert more than $600 million to pay down debt for an earlier building program, Build Illinois, which itself was supposed to be covered by sales tax revenue.  An additional $1.5 billion went directly to the general fund, which is used to pay for the state’s day-to-day operations.

The legalization of video gambling also triggered another shift in the state’s revenues, one that led to a drop in education funding.  While the bulk of video gambling revenue goes to fund Illinois Jobs Now!, most of the state’s casino revenue flows into the Education Assistance Fund, which provides grants to public elementary and secondary schools, colleges and universities for building projects and other expenses.

But when video gambling became legal, gamblers no longer had to travel to the state’s 10 casinos to place a bet.  Between 2013 and 2017, state revenue from casinos in Illinois declined 15 percent, from $462 million to $393 million, as income from video gambling machines grew nearly 900 percent, from $30 million to $300 million, state records show.

The cannibalization of casino revenue contributed to a 22 percent decline in the amount of money going to the Education Assistance Fund between 2013 and 2017, leaving fewer dollars for the state’s struggling schools.

In fact, video gambling has caused the overall percentage of gambling industry profits going to the state to fall.  That’s because the state levies a progressive tax on casinos that can reach as high as 50 percent.  The more casinos make, the higher their tax rate.

Video gambling is taxed at a flat rate of 30 percent regardless of how much the industry makes.  As more gamblers turned to video slots and poker, the state’s cut of gambling profits dropped.

In 2007, when casino revenue peaked at $1.9 billion, the industry paid about $819 million in taxes, a rate of 42 percent.  By 2018, revenue from casinos and video gambling brought in $2.8 billion, up 42 percent, but the state’s share of the money was $891 million, up just 9 percent.

Much of the growth in gambling revenue came as the country began one of the longest economic expansions in U.S. history and as video slot and poker machines saturated the state, more than tripling between 2013 and 2018.

Researchers say it is unwise to count on gambling revenue to remain steady over time because it is a form of discretionary spending.  That’s especially true if the economy slows.

“You cannot count on revenues from gambling; they are highly volatile and often deteriorate quickly,” said Lucy Dadayan, a senior research associate with the Urban-Brookings Tax Policy Center at the Urban Institute, who has spent years examining state and local gambling revenue around the country.  “If we hit another recession, then definitely gambling revenue is going to be one of the first to be hit hard.”

Underfunded, Overwhelmed Regulators

Before the introduction of video gambling, the Illinois Gaming Board’s duties were limited to licensing and regulating the state’s 10 casinos.  Each casino has a cap of 1,200 “positions,” the number of places to make a bet inside, including slot and poker machines.

Six years later, the board oversees more than 30,000 additional positions, the equivalent of 25 more casinos.  And those positions are scattered across more than 6,800 locations in nearly every corner of the state.

Yet when the General Assembly passed the Video Gaming Act, it set aside no money for additional staff or resources to implement the law and oversee the industry.

Jaffe, then the chairman of the gaming board, opposed video gambling, in no small part because he felt there was no way to regulate the industry, he said.

“It’s just too big of a job,” Jaffe said.  “In order to regulate it, you need a bigger board and more people.  It’s absolutely ridiculous to think you can do a proper job with the resources available.”

Long before a handful of legislators and lobbyists decided it was time to legalize — and tax — video gambling, the industry had been thriving illegally.

For decades, bars, restaurants, bowling alleys and fraternal organizations housed video slot and poker machines billed as “simulated gambling devices.”  Most had amusement tax stamps from the state revenue department and didn’t pay out.  Instead, the machines produced printed slips showing how much was “won” or “lost.”

But the machines were widely known to be used for illegal gambling, with payouts coming from envelopes of cash stashed under the table or behind the bar.  In most cases, operators split profits 50-50 with establishment owners, just as they do under the Video Gaming Act.

Known as “gray” machines, for their nebulous legal status, video gambling had long been associated with Chicago-area organized crime.  Less known were the tight-knit groups of amusement companies from other parts of the state that ran “gray” machines while providing establishments with jukeboxes, pool tables and other coin-operated devices.

Lobbyists for these amusement operators drafted the Video Gaming Act, according to industry insiders and lawmakers, creating licensing guidelines and determining how profits would be divided among operators, establishments, local governments and the state.

Those operators also began entering into video gambling contracts with their existing clients well before the board could set up a regulatory structure or conduct the thousands of investigations needed to make licensing decisions.

Once the law passed, the gaming board was tasked with sorting out these relationships while attempting to keep unsavory operators — including those with ties to organized crime — out of the industry.

The board estimated it would need a staff of 350 to do the job, according to internal agency reports.  Yet the number of workers has never topped 286 and dipped as low as 233 in the past three years, even as the industry has grown.  At one point, the board had a single lawyer to help regulate what has become a highly litigious industry.

Often, the board must face off against companies that have more resources, time and expertise than the state.  One reason for the lack of resources: The Video Gaming Act fails to provide enough money to cover the regulatory costs.

The law designates 75 percent of licensing and administrative fees to pay for investigators and attorneys to vet licensing applications as well as write and enforce rules.  But those fees are much lower than other jurisdictions.  Pennsylvania, for example, charges $25,000 to apply for a terminal operator’s license.  The price in Illinois: $5,000.

The owners of licensed establishments, such as bars and restaurants, pay just $100 annually to maintain a license and, until December, paid nothing at all to apply for it, even though the board expends extensive resources on licensing decisions.  Last month, legislators passed a law instituting a $100 application fee.

“We clearly have some fees that are shockingly low,” said Illinois Gaming Board Chairman Donald Tracy, a Springfield attorney, appointed by former Gov. Bruce Rauner in 2015.  “Why would you do that if you’re trying to get revenue for the state? I guess you have go back and ask who drafted this legislation.  If it’s gaming lobbyists, maybe that explains why the fees are so low.”

Lang, the Skokie Democrat who sponsored the bill, overestimated how much fees would bring in, telling fellow lawmakers they would provide $4.5 million a year for regulatory expenses.  Instead, fees have never generated more than $3.4 million.  Lang did not respond to a request for comment.

Even if the administrative fees had met projections, regulating video gambling has turned out to cost far more.  Legislators never studied how much it would cost to regulate video gambling, even though board members say the industry now makes up the vast majority of the agency’s work.

In 2013, the first full year of legalized video gambling, state financial reports show the board spent $15 million regulating the industry.  Those costs reached $17 million by 2017.  Yet fees set aside for regulatory expenses averaged just $2.9 million during that time, leaving a total shortfall of more than $83 million over five years.

Filling in the funding gap: casino revenue.  Yet casino revenue has been in decline.  That decline, coupled with the state’s budget woes, caused the gaming board’s budget to fall more than 6 percent between 2013 and 2017, despite rapid growth in the number of video gambling machines and locations around the state.

“My view is that there should be some kind of professional study to review the licensing fees and the taxes, and I have suggested that,” Tracy said.

What’s more, a month before the Video Gaming Act passed, Quinn signed an executive order removing the board from under the Illinois Department of Revenue and making it a stand-alone agency.

Jaffe, then the board chairman, had requested the move, arguing the Revenue Department’s control of the gaming board slowed hiring and other moves the board wanted to make.  But when he made the request, Jaffe was unaware the board’s responsibilities would soon greatly expand.

One of state government’s largest agencies, the Revenue Department provided oversight and supplemented policy decisions with an army of analysts, lawyers and technical experts.

Without that support, an underfunded agency overseen by five part-time board members — who receive $300 a meeting — found itself regulating a sprawling industry with little supervision.  The vague law and its weak administrative rules made licensing and contract decisions seem arbitrary, leading to a series of missteps.

In at least two cases, the board reversed decisions to permanently bar people from the industry whom it deemed unfit, after court challenges claimed the moves exceeded the board’s legal authority.

A ProPublica Illinois review of meeting minutes and interviews with two board members, including Tracy, found the board’s former administrator entered into a legal agreement with a video gambling operator from Louisiana without board knowledge or approval.  The former administrator, who left his position in March after 16 years, declined to comment.

And in May, a Cook County Circuit Court judge ruled in a lawsuit that the board had violated the Open Meetings Act by improperly going into a closed session, then misrepresented what happened in meeting minutes.

ProPublica Illinois has filed a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit seeking a recording of the closed session at the center of that case.

In a statement, Tracy disputed the judge’s ruling but said the board has changed its procedures for going into closed session.  He also said that conflicts between the Video Gaming Act and the Open Meetings Act have made the board vulnerable to lawsuits from the well-funded industry.

“We have a statute that is somewhat sparse, to be kind.” Tracy said in an interview.  “And we’re talking about high-stakes licenses that have tremendous potential value.  As a result, when we say no, we get sued.”

In another lawsuit, a Cook County judge froze an exclusive state contract to test video gambling machines and ordered the board to reconsider the contract after evidence suggested gaming board staff gave preferential treatment to a New Jersey-based company.  The contract was rebid, though Tracy denied the board had shown preferential treatment.

The board’s government attorneys often have little expertise in gambling litigation compared to the industry’s more experienced, high-priced lawyers, Tracy said.

“There’s just so much money in this industry,” he said.  “We are litigating against people with the very best lawyers, companies that can put unlimited amounts of time into these cases and spend hundreds of thousands of dollars litigating against us.”

Another Push to Expand

The rush to legalize video gambling in hopes of generating quick, painless revenue battered the state’s finances, left unfunded social and regulatory costs and exposed the gaming board to a barrage of legal challenges.

None of that has stopped some members of the General Assembly from pushing yet another massive gambling expansion bill as they continue to forage for ways to bring in revenue without raising taxes or cutting spending.

In the more than nine years since the Video Gaming Act passed, the influence of the industry has only increased.  And lawmakers seem ready to make many of the same mistakes.  At hearings last fall on a new gambling expansion bill, there was no discussion about whether the gaming board can handle a larger workload and little acknowledgment of the social costs of gambling.

Now, as newly sworn-in legislators open the 101st General Assembly, with a rookie, billionaire governor who was a longtime investor in Elgin’s Grand Victoria Casino, here’s what lies on the table: sports gambling; six new casinos; and, for the video gambling industry, higher wagering, bigger payouts and even more machines.