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Friday, 31 August 2018

Netflix vs Amazon Prime Video

For several months, I've been wondering whether to cancel my Netflix subscription. I'm getting a little bored with Netflix. Its supply is ginormous but finding pearls is (very) difficult. Moreover, Netflix content ratings are rather unreliable compared to IMDb. Unfortunately, Netflix algorithms often suggest content beyond my scope of interest.

The solution is simple: (i) decimate Netflix supply, (ii) use IMDb ratings for publishing Netflix content, (iii) expand / improve the Netflix browsing function rather than using "secret" genre codes, and (iv) use channels to separate content (eg, children, documentaries). The Netflix "one size fits all" approach is counterproductive given its ginormous content.

I do realise that the Netflix subscription fee more or less equals going to the movies once a month. However, for most new Netflix content, I would not have paid and/or visited a movie theatre. Occasionally, new Netflix content warrants its monthly subscription fee. I am looking forward to watching another Marvel film on Netflix: Black Panther.

Last Monday, I noticed an interesting offer from Amazon Prime Video: 30 days for free, then a 1 month membership fee of 3.99 euro, and afterwards a recurring monthly membership fee of 5.99 euro. This is significantly lower than the monthly Netflix HD subscription fee of 10.99 euro. Since Monday, I've been watching Amazon Prime Video.

Amazon Prime Video has 3 internet speed settings. The best one appears to offer HD quality. Amazon appears to have slightly more "buffering" issues than Netflix. Buffering is a technical term for reading content ahead of showing content. Buffering usually solves temporary internet speed issues.

Browsing on Amazon Prime Video mirrors the default browsing functionality on TV's (eg, TED Talks, YouTube) and thus offers even less functionality than Netflix. Fortunately, the current Amazon content is just a fraction of the ginormous Netflix content. I did not notice mediocre Amazon content unlike on Netflix. Most Amazon content appears to be popular within its genre.

As of 31 August 2018, Amazon Prime Video will show Jack Ryan, the fictional character in the so-called Ryanverse. I probably have all of these Tom Clancy novels as he is one of my favourite writers. Several Jack Ryan films were blockbuster movie hits. I must admit that this is the primary reason why I signed up for Amazon Prime Video.

In 2019, Disney will start competing with the streaming video platforms of Amazon and Netflix. All Marvel, Modern Family, Pixar, Star Wars, and X-Men content will then move from Netflix to Disney. Forbes, 14 December 2017: "Unlike its competitors, Disney has a fount of proven assets from Star Wars to Pixar that people want to watch."

I am inclined to agree with a June 2017 Forbes article: "Television Is Dead? Here's How Digital Streaming Is Actually Making It More Relevant".

Video Killed the Radio Star (1979) by The Buggles

Note: all markings (bolditalicunderlining) by LO unless stated otherwise

Thursday, 30 August 2018

When is a relationship a relationship? (2)

My recent blog (When is a relationship a relationship?) did not address the cause for this question. I think, feel and believe that this question relates to our changing perception on Freedom. I addressed this issue before in my 2016 blog: Togetherness: "Over the years, my concept of togetherness has evolved from 'restrictive freedom' to just 'freedom' and then to 'freedom in unity'."

In my memories, activities in a relationship have always been jointly. My excuses for not joining such activities were usually not appreciated. In 2009, I enjoyed my first "solo" vacation at the age of 49: a visit with a colleague to a former colleague, who was living in the USA. 

I have noticed that many people (myself included) cherish their freedom once they are separated, divorced, or single for a long time. The freedom to do what you want, when you want it, and how you want it. It's (very) difficult giving up that freedom once you face a new relationship. Hence, the question: When is a relationship a relationship?

To be entirely clear, I have no answer to that question. To some extent, the question is semantics: a relationship is a relationship once you both deem it a relationship. This is similar to the Duck-test: "If it looks like a duck, swims like a duck, and quacks like a duck, then it probably is a duck."

This changing perception on Freedom within relationships, coincides with phase 4 of the main phases (see my 2017 blog on Individualism) of Liberalism:

  1. Philosophical view on freedom for (certain) humans (eg, Aristotle, Marcus Aurelius); 
  2. Economic view on free markets (eg, Adam Smith, John Maynard Keynes); 
  3. Political view on the (free) rights of citizens vs the State (eg, Johan Rudolph Thorbecke);
  4. personal libertarian view on freedom and the right to do whatever you want, whenever you want (eg, divorce rights, feminism, LGBT rights).

When I discussed the topic of this blog (ie, freedom within a relationship) with my girlfriend, she immediately asked me whether I would agree with her going on a solo vacation. In our discussion, the following arguments were mentioned (in alphabetical order): 
  • agreement based on disinterest in the affairs of the partner; 
  • agreement based on granting any request to a partner (based on Love);
  • non-agreement based on jealousy and/or insecurity of the other partner;
  • agreement based on relationship status (eg, no "formal" relationship); 
  • agreement based on solitude for the other partner;
  • agreement based on mutual trust between the partners.
I would have agreed based upon a mix of nearly all of the above arguments.

Me and Bobby McGee (1969) by Kris Kristofferson
artist, lyrics, video, Wiki-1, Wiki-2

"Freedom's just another word for nothin' left to lose"

Note: all markings (bolditalicunderlining) by LO unless stated otherwise

Wednesday, 29 August 2018

Does the UK export chaos?

The new Australian Prime Minister is the 5th PM in 5 years, and the 7th PM in 11 years (list). One politician publicly stated: “This revolving door of prime ministers has got to stop”. A recent FT article stated: ‘Brutal’ Australian politics behind demise of PM Turnbull", and it referred to "instability fuelled by hyper-partisan culture, ideological spats and structural weakness".

My mother (83) often mentions that the UK shipped its convicted felons to its former colonies: some 162,000 to Australia (1788-1868) and some 52,000 up to 120,000 to USA (1610s-1776). In her view, this must have influenced the mindset of the inhabitants of Australia and USA. I have some sympathy for these historical arguments.

The FT article mentions a more contemporary argument for the Australian chaos: "Rupert Murdoch’s stable of News Corp Australia titles wield immense power in the country, which some critics blame for destabilising Mr Turnbull and previous Labor governments."

In May 2018, Joris Luyendijk made a similar comment in the Guardian: "To kill any remaining longings for a return to the UK I then go online once more to browse the billionaire-owned Brexit press. This is my way of reminding myself just how psychopathically vile and mendacious most of the UK press still is."

The role of the media in the 2016 presidential election is interesting. Even the liberal media gave Donald Trump lots of airtime, without much criticism. Forbes-2016: "Out of all the networks, CNN seemed to give Trump the most air-time and treat his campaign like a reality show". In 2016, Polito Magazine even featured an article: Did We Create Trump? This 2016 Politico article also states: "Even Obama has blamed the press for giving Trump free and uncritical exposure."

In a highly bipartisan political climate, the media is bound to make a choice between Conservatives vs Labour (Australia, UK), and/or Democrats vs Republicans (USA). The more relevant parties, the less likelihood of (strong) media bias.

From a historical point of view, this bipartisan structure was more successful than European coalition governments as these were more likely to defeat themselves. This has changed. This change coincides with the end of the Left-Right Divide, and the rise of Nationalism vs Internationalism (a.k.a. Globalism). Also see my 2016 blogGeopolitical Futures-2017Project Syndicate-2017, and Pew Research Center-2018.

The demise of Labour in Continental Europe and the UK is a consequence of not making a choice between Nationalism versus Internationalism. At the Conservative side, some parties opted for Nationalism (UK) and others for Internationalism (Europe). A Conservative choice for Nationalism has, however, often resulted in chaos (eg, Australia, Hungary, Poland, UK, USA).

Do You Feel It? (2014) by Chaos Chaos (formerly Smoosh)

Note: all markings (bolditalicunderlining) by LO unless stated otherwise

Tuesday, 28 August 2018

China vs Taiwan

China is actively persuading countries to stop acknowledging Taiwan's existence as a separate state. Taiwan News, May 2018: "Over the past 18 years, Taiwan has lost a total of 14 diplomatic allies due to pressure from China in an attempt to diminish Taiwan's sovereignty, leaving the island with only 18 allies around the globe." In August 2018, El Salvador switched diplomatic ties from Taiwan to China (NYT). China expects Swaziland to follow soon (Reuters).

According to China, Taiwan is a province of China. Until 1971, it was the other way around: China was a province of Taiwan. Wiki: "As a founding member of the United Nations, the Republic of China (a.k.a. Taiwan) represented China at the UN until 1971, when it lost its seat to the People's Republic of China (a.k.a. PRC)." Note LO: quote amended for clarification purposes.

China's continued push to alienate Taiwan - diplomatically, economically and militarily - have raised strategic concerns in the U.S. since 2000. These concerns explain the Pentagon's annual reports on the Chinese military (2018 PDFprevious years). Since 2017, U.S. Congress has introduced 16 bills as a pushback against China (eg, GovTrackNYT-2018).

"In June [2017], the [U.S.] Senate Armed Services Committee passed an amendment to the fiscal year 2018 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) that would require U.S. Navy warships to conduct port calls in Taiwan — that is, to regularly dock, contrary to current practice, at Taiwanese ports for extended visits." (BI-2017, also see Taiwan News)

On 8 December 2017, a Chinese diplomat in the US (allegedly) threatened: "The day that a U.S. Navy vessel arrives in Kaohsiung, is the day that our People’s Liberation Army unites Taiwan with military force." (eg, Australia NewsBIDiplomatTaiwan News)

Developments have accelerated ever since:

Page 118 of the August 2018 Pentagon report on the Chinese military caught specific attention: "The PLA has long been developing air strike capabilities to engage targets as far away from China as possible. Over the last three years, the PLA has rapidly expanded its overwater bomber operating areas, gaining experience in critical maritime regions and likely training for strikes against U.S. and allied targets." (PDF-page 118JanesROC NewsSputnik News)

China's response arrived within days: "China has voiced strong opposition to a report by the US Defense Department on China's military and security developments, saying it misinterprets China's strategic intentions and hypes a so-called Chinese military threat." (China Daily, GS). 

Unfortunately, China expressed similar denials regarding the militarization and the nuclearization of the (territorially disputed) Spratly islands in the South China Sea.

Wishful Thinking (1983) by China Crisis - artists, lyrics, video, Wiki-1, Wiki-2

Note: all markings (bolditalicunderlining) by LO unless stated otherwise

Monday, 27 August 2018

The Self-concept

Our self-view is often limited by our senses, like (i) looking in the mirror, (ii) listening to our (weird) voices in messages, (iii) smelling or tasting our sweat, and (iv) touching our body parts. Others only see fragments of us, and (usually) have no clue what we are thinking. Moreover, these fragments often coincide with our roles in life, like employee, parent, spouse, and/or student.

We do not view ourselves the same way as others do because we know what we are thinking. This explains the (very) many terms that start with "self-", like self-control, self-esteem, self-confidence. I now realise that I was writing about the Self-concept long before adding that label to my blog (eg, my blogs on self-control, self-esteem).

I am quite sure that I perceive myself different from how other people see me. Moreover, in each role, I show a different me. Sometimes, I even joke that my name is an abbreviation of chameleon. I suppose that the mere fact that we are 24/7 privy to our thoughts, is likely to cause confusion in our mind. If only because we often have conflicting thoughts. This internal confusion might be a root cause for the difference in opinion(s) between others and ourselves.

We have many tools for external confusion by tweaking the main 5 senses of others: eyesight (eg, automobiles, brands, clothing, colours, glasses, make-up, wigs), hearing (eg, posh accents), smell (eg, perfume), taste (eg, spicy / sweet food), and touch (eg, gloves). And - if everything else fails - we have reverse psychology & projection to confuse their minds about us.

My diagram explains how I view the Self-concept. The main parameters are How, What, When, Who and Why. The Self-concept is about the eternal question: Who am I?

Four of these 5 parameters are input: Others, Purpose, Talents, and Time. These 4 drivers reflect Nature and Nurture.

The 5th parameter is output: Who am I? Also see my 2018 blog for this eternal question.

The Self constitutes of 3 underlying concepts: Body (eg, appearance), Mind (eg, personality, reverse psychology) & Soul (ie, good vs evil). Also see my related blogs.

The Self-concept can be illustrated by these 2 legendary quotes:
Quote 1: "If you can’t beat them, join them" (eg, group versus Self);
Quote 2: "If you can’t convince them, confuse them" (eg, others versus Self).

Me Myself I (1980) by Joan Armatrading - artist, lyrics, video, Wiki-1, Wiki-2

Note: all markings (bolditalicunderlining) by LO unless stated otherwise

Sunday, 26 August 2018

Kremlin Sources Go Quiet, Leaving C.I.A. in the Dark About Putin’s Plans for Midterms (NYT)

"WASHINGTON — In 2016, American intelligence agencies delivered urgent and explicit warnings about Russia’s intentions to try to tip the American presidential election — and a detailed assessment of the operation afterward — thanks in large part to informants close to President Vladimir V. Putin and in the Kremlin who provided crucial details.

But two years later, the vital Kremlin informants have largely gone silent, leaving the C.I.A. and other spy agencies in the dark about precisely what Mr. Putin’s intentions are for November’s midterm elections, according to American officials familiar with the intelligence.

The officials do not believe the sources have been compromised or killed. Instead, they have concluded they have gone to ground amid more aggressive counterintelligence by Moscow, including efforts to kill spies, like the poisoning in March in Britain of a former Russian intelligence officer that utilized a rare Russian-made nerve agent.

Current and former officials also said the expulsion of American intelligence officers from Moscow has hurt collection efforts. And officials also raised the possibility that the outing of an F.B.I. informant under scrutiny by the House intelligence committee — an examination encouraged by President Trump — has had a chilling effect on intelligence collection.

Technology companies and political campaigns in recent weeks have detected a plethora of political interference efforts originating overseas, including hacks of Republican think tanks and fake liberal grass-roots organizations created on Facebook. Senior intelligence officials, including Dan Coats, the director of national intelligence, have warned that Russians are intent on subverting American democratic institutions.

But American intelligence agencies have not been able to say precisely what are Mr. Putin’s intentions: He could be trying to tilt the midterm elections, simply sow chaos or generally undermine trust in the democratic process.

The officials, seeking to protect methods of collection from Russia, would not provide details about lost sources, but acknowledged the degradation in the information collected from Russia. They spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to reveal classified information. A spokesman for the C.I.A. declined to comment.

To determine what the Russian government is up to, the United States employs multiple forms of intelligence, including intercepted communications and penetrated computer networks.

The United States continues to intercept Russian communication, and the flow of that intelligence remains strong, said current and former officials. And Russian informants could still meet their C.I.A. handlers outside Russia, further from Moscow’s counterintelligence apparatus.

But people inside or close to the Kremlin remain critical to divining whether there is a strategy behind seemingly scattershot efforts to undermine American institutions.

Spies and informants overseas also give American intelligence agencies early warning about influence campaigns, interference operations or other attempts to compromise the United States. That information, in turn, can improve the ability of domestic agencies, like the Department of Homeland Security and the F.B.I., to quickly identify and attempt to stop those efforts.

Because clandestine meetings can take months to set up and complete, a lengthy lag can pass before the C.I.A. realizes a key source has gone silent, according to former officials. It is rare for the agency to discover immediately that informants have eroded or are running scared. Only after several missed meetings might C.I.A. officers and analysts conclude that a source has decided it is too dangerous to pass information.

In 2016, American intelligence officials began to realize the scope of Russia’s efforts when they gathered intelligence suggesting that Moscow wanted to use Trump campaign officials, wittingly or not, to help sow chaos. John O. Brennan, the former director of the C.I.A., testified before the House Intelligence Committee in May 2017 about a tense period a year earlier when he came to believe that Mr. Putin was trying to steer the outcome toward a victory for Mr. Trump.

Mr. Brennan described the broad outlines of the intelligence in his congressional testimony, and his disclosures backed up the accounts of the information provided by the current and former officials. “I was convinced in the summer that the Russians were trying to interfere in the election. And they were very aggressive,” Mr. Brennan told lawmakers.

This year, Mr. Coats issued a series of warnings saying the Russian government, and Mr. Putin in particular, is intent on undermining American democratic systems.

At an appearance this month at the White House, Mr. Coats said intelligence agencies “continue to see a pervasive messaging campaign by Russia to try and weaken and divide the United States.” He added that those efforts “cover issues relevant to the elections.”

But officials said there has been no concrete intelligence pointing to Mr. Putin ordering his own intelligence units to wade into the election to push for a certain outcome, beyond a broad chaos campaign to undermine faith in American democracy. Intelligence agencies do not believe Mr. Putin has changed his strategy; instead, officials believe they simply do not have the same level of access to information from the Kremlin’s inner circle.

Intelligence collection appears to have suffered after Russia expelled officials from American diplomatic outposts there in retaliation for the United States removing 60 Russian officials this year, said John Sipher, a 28-year veteran of the C.I.A. who served in Moscow in the 1990s and later ran the agency’s Russia program.

The C.I.A.’s Moscow presence, according to former officers, was always small, at least in light of the importance of the target, the difficulty of spycraft and the amount of counterintelligence the Russians dedicated to thwarting American spies.

“The Russians kicked out a whole bunch of our people,” Mr. Sipher said. “Our station in Moscow is probably really small now and they are under incredible surveillance.”

Mr. Putin has also said he is intent on killing so-called traitors, comments he made just ahead of the high-profile assassination attempt of the former Russian intelligence officer, Sergei V. Skripal.

“The Russians are very focused and upset,” Mr. Sipher said. “They have shown they are willing to kill sources.”

Informants close to Putin are very rare, according to current and former officials. The United States, in recent years, has had only a few, and at times been reliant on only one or two for the most important insights on Mr. Putin, according to former officials. If those people go silent for their own protection, it can make it very hard for the agency to look inside Moscow.

The United States still should have a clear view of Mr. Putin’s strategies and intention to interfere in Democratic elections, said Michael Carpenter, a Russia expert and former Obama administration official. He pointed to fake social media accounts created as part of Russian intelligence operations that have drummed up support for white nationalists and the Black Lives Matter movement, and have supported far right, far left and pro-Russian candidates in the United States and in Europe.

“Clearly Russia is playing both sides of controversial issues precisely to sow chaos. But that said it is not just chaos, there are certain candidates Russia prefers to see in office,” said Mr. Carpenter, now at the Penn Biden Center for Diplomacy and Global Engagement. “The Russians are trying to support anti-establishment and pro-Russian candidates, not just in the U.S. but everywhere.”

Still, there is little doubt about the crucial nature of informants, said Seth G. Jones, who leads the transnational threats project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a policy research organization.

“It is essential to have sources coming from inside the government. It was during the Cold War and it is today,” Mr. Jones said. “There are multiple ways to collect intelligence against your adversary, in this case the Russian government. But sources can provide you things you might not otherwise get, like documents, intelligence assessments.”

Sources can provide photographs of Russian documents and intelligence that are hard to intercept electronically, and that can help the United States figure out what Russia is targeting, not just with its election meddling but with its attempts to infiltrate financial systems, the power grid and other critical infrastructure, Mr. Jones said.

The full reasons the sources have gone silent are not known. But current and former officials also said the exposure of sources inside the United States has also complicated matters.

This year, the identity of an F.B.I. informant, Stefan Halper, became public after House lawmakers sought information on him and the White House allowed the information to be shared. Mr. Halper, an American academic based in Britain, had been sent to talk to Trump campaign advisers who were under F.B.I. scrutiny for their ties to Russia.

Current American officials said there is no direct evidence that the exposure of Mr. Halper has been cited by overseas informants as a source of concern.

But the officials said that some allies have cited the exposure of the informant and other intelligence leaks in curbing some of the intelligence they share. And former spies believe that, long-term, the exposure will hurt overseas collection.

“Publicizing sources is really bad for the business,” Mr. Sipher said. “The only thing we can offer people is that we will do anything in our power to protect them. And anything that wears away at that trust, hurts.”

A version of this article appears in print on Aug. 25, 2018, on Page A1 of the New York edition with the headline: U.S. in the Dark On Russia’s Plan For the Election."


Saturday, 25 August 2018

Modern love (The Economist)

Subtitle: "The internet has transformed the search for love and partnership"

"THE internet has transformed the way people work and communicate. It has upended industries, from entertainment to retailing. But its most profound effect may well be on the biggest decision that most people make—choosing a mate.

In the early 1990s the notion of meeting a partner online seemed freakish, and not a little pathetic. Today, in many places, it is normal. Smartphones have put virtual bars in people’s pockets, where singletons can mingle free from the constraints of social or physical geography. Globally, at least 200m people use digital dating services every month. In America more than a third of marriages now start with an online match-up. The internet is the second-most-popular way for Americans to meet people of the opposite sex, and is fast catching up with real-world “friend of a friend” introductions.

Digital dating is a massive social experiment, conducted on one of humanity’s most intimate and vital processes. Its effects are only just starting to become visible (see Briefing).

When Harry clicked on Sally

Meeting a mate over the internet is fundamentally different from meeting one offline. In the physical world, partners are found in family networks or among circles of friends and colleagues. Meeting a friend of a friend is the norm. People who meet online are overwhelmingly likely to be strangers. As a result, dating digitally offers much greater choice. A bar, choir or office might have a few tens of potential partners for any one person. Online there are tens of thousands.

This greater choice—plus the fact that digital connections are made only with mutual consent—makes the digital dating market far more efficient than the offline kind. For some, that is bad news. Because of the gulf in pickiness between the sexes, a few straight men are doomed never to get any matches at all. On Tantan, a Chinese app, men express interest in 60% of women they see, but women are interested in just 6% of men; this dynamic means that 5% of men never receive a match. In offline dating, with a much smaller pool of men to fish from, straight women are more likely to couple up with men who would not get a look-in online.

For most people, however, digital dating offers better outcomes. Research has found that marriages in America between people who meet online are likely to last longer; such couples profess to be happier than those who met offline. The whiff of moral panic surrounding dating apps is vastly overblown. Precious little evidence exists to show that opportunities online are encouraging infidelity. In America, divorce rates climbed until just before the advent of the internet, and have fallen since.

Online dating is a particular boon for those with very particular requirements. Jdate allows daters to filter out matches who would not consider converting to Judaism, for instance. A vastly bigger market has had dramatic results for same-sex daters in particular. In America, 70% of gay people meet their partners online. This searchable spectrum of sexual diversity is a boon: more people can find the intimacy they seek.

There are problems with the modern way of love, however. Many users complain of stress when confronted with the brutal realities of the digital meat market, and their place within it. Negative emotions about body image existed before the internet, but they are amplified when strangers can issue snap judgments on attractiveness. Digital dating has been linked to depression. The same problems that afflict other digital platforms recur in this realm, from scams to fake accounts: 10% of all newly created dating profiles do not belong to real people.

This new world of romance may also have unintended consequences for society. The fact that online daters have so much more choice can break down barriers: evidence suggests that the internet is boosting interracial marriages by bypassing homogenous social groups. But daters are also more able to choose partners like themselves. Assortative mating, the process whereby people with similar education levels and incomes pair up, already shoulders some of the blame for income inequality. Online dating may make the effect more pronounced: education levels are displayed prominently on dating profiles in a way they would never be offline. It is not hard to imagine dating services of the future matching people by preferred traits, as determined by uploaded genomes. Dating firms also suffer from an inherent conflict of interest. Perfect matching would leave them bereft of paying customers.

The domination of online dating by a handful of firms and their algorithms is another source of worry. Dating apps do not benefit from exactly the same sort of network effects as other tech platforms: a person’s friends do not need to be on a specific dating site, for example. But the feedback loop between large pools of data, generated by ever-growing numbers of users attracted to an ever-improving product, still exists. The entry into the market of Facebook, armed with data from its 2.2bn users, will provide clues as to whether online dating will inexorably consolidate into fewer, larger platforms.

While you were swiping
But even if the market does not become ever more concentrated, the process of coupling (or not) has unquestionably become more centralised. Romance used to be a distributed activity which took place in a profusion of bars, clubs, churches and offices; now enormous numbers of people rely on a few companies to meet their mate. That hands a small number of coders, tweaking the algorithms that determine who sees whom across the virtual bar, tremendous power to engineer mating outcomes. In authoritarian societies especially, the prospect of algorithmically arranged marriages ought to cause some disquiet. Competition offers some protection against such a possibility; so too might greater transparency over the principles used by dating apps to match people up.

Yet such concerns should not obscure the good that comes from the modern way of romance. The right partners can elevate and nourish each other. The wrong ones can ruin both their lives. Digital dating offers millions of people a more efficient way to find a good mate. That is something to love."


Friday, 24 August 2018

Germany and US Grapple With Wealth Inequality (GPF)

"Domestic problems are affecting German and U.S. behavior in eerily similar ways. In both countries, a widening gap in wealth inequality is creating the conditions for potentially radical political change. This trend is creating serious political problems: In Germany, Chancellor Angela Merkel is cobbling together a coalition after German voters turned outside the mainstream to voice their frustration with the status quo. In the U.S., the government is squabbling with itself rather than efficiently solving problems, whether at home or abroad.

Of the 28 countries that report wealth distribution data to the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, Germany and the United States stand out. In Germany, the bottom 60 percent of the population possess just 6.5 percent of wealth in the country, the lowest figure in Europe. In the U.S., the bottom 60 percent possess just 2.4 percent – the lowest figure of any reporting country. The top 10 percent of both countries, on the other hand, account for a disproportionate amount of wealth – nearly 60 percent in Germany and nearly 80 percent in the U.S., the two highest figures of reporting OECD countries. (Note: bold markings by LO)

In the case of Germany, this seems particularly mystifying. The country is enjoying record-low unemployment rates, and by all accounts, its economic growth has exceeded even the more optimistic projections (full disclosure: ours was not so optimistic). But these figures tell only part of the story. The real issue is inequality, in terms of household wealth and real income. Germany may be a rich country – the average net wealth per household is about 214,000 euros, or $265,000 – but the median net wealth per household in Germany is about 61,000 euros. For reference, that’s about 4,000 euros less than it is in Greece, which Germany almost kicked out of the EU for its profligacy. On a per household basis, the bottom half of households in Germany possess less wealth than the bottom half of households in Greece.

And things are getting worse. While unemployment has steadily decreased since 2009, jobs are not translating into increased wealth for the lower and middle classes. From 2009 to 2016, unemployment declined in Germany by roughly 2 percent. At the same time, the relative poverty rate – defined by Germany’s Federal Statistical Office as the “percentage living in households with an income below 60 percent of national average” – rose about 2 percent. That is not so much a measure of increased poverty as it is increasing wealth for Germany’s top wage earners, as more and more Germans find that the same salary they made a few years ago now puts them below the poverty level.

Income inequality is a much older issue in the United States. Modern income and wealth inequality in the U.S. has been creeping upward since the 1970s. President Donald Trump’s surprising electoral victory in 2016 was at least partly a political expression of that underlying dynamic. It is no coincidence that in the years before Trump’s election, the share in total income of the top 10 percent of all U.S. earners rose to just under 49 percent – a share surpassing that of any time during the Great Depression. This type of wealth inequality is a refrain in U.S. economic history that produces massive political change, of which Trump is likely just a precursor.

The 2008 financial crisis aggravated the problem. The median income in the United States is at a record high – but when you look at median wealth figures divided by lower, middle and upper income, you see that only the upper income levels have recouped the wealth lost during the financial crisis. Lower- and middle-income U.S. households are still doing worse today than they were in 2007. Like Germany, the United States is also enjoying low unemployment rates – 4.1 percent in December 2017, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Again, though, employment doesn’t tell the whole story. The Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis noted in a report this past month that the net increase in jobs created since 2000 – roughly 17 million jobs – has been among workers 55 and older. Jobs don’t help if they don’t pay enough and don’t create opportunities for young workers.

These problems demand Washington’s full attention, and the government is too preoccupied by its own political affairs to do much abroad. Meanwhile, Germany has no government, and whatever government it eventually forms will be weak and hypersensitive to domestic concerns about inequality and immigration. The U.S. government is bickering with itself instead of solving some key problems at home or abroad. In that sense, it is working the way the Constitution designed it in 1789: without the rest of the world in mind. In 2018, that has global ramifications."

Date of publishing: 1 February 2018

The Long Death of America’s Middle Class (The Casey Report)

"The American middle class is dying.

In 2015, it dipped below 50% of the population for the first time since data collection started on the issue. It’s now an official minority group.

Meanwhile, nearly half of Americans don’t have enough money to cover a surprise $400 expense. Many are living paycheck to paycheck, with little to no cushion. And US homes are less affordable than they’ve been in decades—possibly ever.

I’ll tell you why this is happening and how to secure your spot among the “haves” in a moment. But first, let’s take a look at the America that was.

The Largest Middle Class in World History

The late 1950s was the golden age of America’s middle class.

This isn’t nostalgia talking. The US really did have robust Main Streets and thriving small businesses.

Back then, the US produced three-quarters of the world’s cars and airplanes. Americans produced most of the world’s steel and built the majority of the world’s skyscrapers.

Plus, the US stock market held the bulk of the world’s total stock market capitalization.

All this productivity gave the average American an unusually high standard of living.

Around then, a husband could support his family on an average income. He and his wife likely owned their own home, as well as their car. They had multiple children—and didn’t think much of the cost of having more. Plus, they had money to save.

The Bleak Situation Today

Compare that to the average family today. Both spouses likely have to work—whether they want to or not—just to afford the same basic lifestyle.

Plus, it now costs well over $200,000 to raise a child, on average. And that doesn’t even include college costs. Back in 1960, it cost roughly $25,000.

This hefty price tag is one of the main reasons middle-class families are having fewer children… or none at all.

In short, the average American’s standard of living has taken a huge hit over the past generation or so.

For example, consider a typical high school teacher’s financial situation.

In 1959, the median annual salary for a US high school teacher was $5,276, according to the Department of Labor. Meanwhile, the median US home value was $9,627, according to the US Census Bureau.

That means a teacher made enough money each year to cover over half of the price of a middle-class home. Or 55%, to be exact.

Take a minute and think… How does your annual income compare to the price of your home? I’d bet many people make far less than 55%.

Today, the median purchase price of a US home is $241,700. To maintain the 1959 income-to-home price ratio, a high school teacher would need to make $132,935 annually.

Of course, the average high school teacher doesn’t make nearly that much. Not even close. He or she makes around $48,290—just enough to cover 36% of the median home price.

It All Went Downhill in the 70's

The high school teacher’s predicament is only one example of a broader trend. In fact, circumstances are actually worse than it lets on.

As you can see in the chart below, the median income-to-home price ratio is just a hair above 20% now. That’s a historical low. And a far cry from the 58% peak it hit in the late 1950s.

Notice that the downtrend starts in the 1970s. More on that shortly…

Clearly, home prices have risen much faster than income levels since 1970.

Of course, Americans haven’t stopped buying homes. They’ve just gone deeper and deeper into debt to do it.

That debt has helped hide the slump in the average person’s standard of living.

Cars are another large expense for Americans. Debt has helped camouflage a big price increase there, too.

Americans are now over $1.1 trillion in auto debt. This figure has skyrocketed 2,954% since 1971.

Americans have also racked up more than $1 trillion in credit card debt. This debt explosion also started in the early 1970s. Credit card debt is up 14,281% since 1971.

The Work-Wage Divide

So why are Americans going deeper and deeper into debt?

It’s simple: The cost of living for the average middle-class family has risen dramatically faster than its income.

Since 1971, there’s been a dramatic—and growing—split between work and wages. As the next chart shows, the average person’s real wages have more or less stagnated since the early 1970s.

With higher expenses and stagnating wages, people have made up the difference with debt.

It All Went Downhill in the ’70s

It’s no coincidence that things started to go downhill for the middle class in the early 1970s. August 15, 1971, to be exact.

This is the date President Nixon killed the last remnants of the gold standard.

Since then, the dollar has been a pure fiat currency. This allows the Fed to print as many dollars as it pleases. And—without the gold standard to hold it in check—it does precisely that.

The US money supply has exploded 2,075% since 1971.

There’s an important lesson here: The Federal Reserve is the mortal enemy of the common man.

The Four Tenets of Lasting Wealth

Eventually, I think this trend will lead to a genuine crisis. And it won’t be pretty.

In the meantime, a perfect storm of economic pressures will further hollow out the middle class. Tens of millions of Americans will be kicked down the ladder.

As Doug Casey puts it:
Most middle-class people will end up joining either the upper or lower classes—mostly the lower—and that’ll be a moral disaster for the country."
[text deleted]

Date of publishing: 17 May 2018

I deleted the 4 personal finance recommendations (ie, the "four tenets") as they seem irrelevant given the above gloomy picture for the (remaining) American middle class.

The end of the middle class: Why prosperity is failing in America (Big Think)

Big Think, 22 August 2018: "'Middle class' doesn't mean what it used to. Owning a home, two cars, and having a summer vacation to look forward to is a dream that's no longer possible for a growing percentage of American families. So what's changed? That safe and stable class has become shaky as unions collapsed, the gig economy surged, and wealth concentrated in the hands of the top 1%, the knock-on effects of which include sky-high housing prices, people working second jobs, and a cultural shift marked by 'one-percent' TV shows (and presidents). Alissa Quart, executive editor of the Economic Hardship Reporting Project, explains how the American dream became a dystopia, and why it's so hard for middle-class Americans to get by. Alissa Quart is the author of Squeezed: Why Our Families Can't Afford America."

The end of the middle class: Why prosperity is failing in America by Alissa Quart
Alissa Quart, bookvideo, Wiki

Alissa Quart: "So, we used to think of the middle class as this safe category, it was 40-hour work weeks, pensions, people worked who were teachers, professors, lawyers even. And now it’s a shakier category and that’s why I called it the “middle precariat,” as in precarious.

Now to be middle class you might not be able to have a summer holiday. You might not be able to own your home. You certainly wouldn’t have two cars. What interests me is also we have this idea of the middle class as this solid thing, and now it’s a shaky thing.

We also have this idea in the middle of the 20th century of it as a hum-drum boring thing that we wanted to escape, kind of like Revolutionary Road, Richard Yates; and now it’s everybody just wants to get into it, into the American dream of the middle class that’s now so unstable.

So one of the things that happened was unions weakened. It used to be that 30 percent of employees were in unions in the '60s, and now it’s seven percent in the private sector, and that’s a pretty huge drop-off. And at the same time you’re seeing a lot of workforce become gig-ified or turned into freelance contingent, et cetera, not stable, not with healthcare, not with the promise of security and long-term employment.

There are other reasons why the middle class has been under siege. One is the concentration of wealth. Since 1997 the income of the top one percent has grown 20 times the rest of us.

They’re an “ownership class” so they tend to own many of the corporations that are, say, creating the Uber economy, are hiring people to drive part-time or the companies that employee people at [odd] hours, which means that they can’t take care of their children, hours in the middle of the night or odd hours in the early morning, as I write about that in my book.

So that kind of wealth concentration also empowers people to have multiple addresses and to not really invest in their neighborhoods. The fact that they’re able to pay so much more than the rest of us for houses and apartments raises the rents and the cost of homeownership astronomically in fashionable cities.

Another one was 'one-percent TV', which describes people, including myself, who watch shows like Billions or Downtown Abbey or even Mad Men that sort of extol the wealthiest kind of ethically challenged wealthy people.

There’s something about one-percent television that I find pretty harmful in that we are asked to identify—and we do identify—with the very richest in this country rather than middle-class people or struggling people. And that does show our ethical problems—in Klieg lights, as it were.

And I think one of the things that one-percent television does is it makes a case for the deserving ultra-rich. Like these are people who are brilliant or talented like a show like Empire with the hip-hop mogul, they could have terrible, terrible values, “but they work hard,” and they have some kind of genius so they “deserve” to have this excess and this wealth and be drinking champagne out of flutes.

A lot of reality television shows work on the same principle. Of course, what exactly they’re doing that makes them deserving is always questionable, but the shows are making an argument that yes, they are the deserving ultra-rich.

And in fact our president, I think, is very much a product of one-percent television if we think about The Apprentice, which I think started in 2004, and that was sort of venerating this kind of empty wealth and harsh edicts to employees, “You’re fired!” and that in itself was the beginning of venerating that wealth without any criticism on reality television.

So my book is very much about a divided society where we’re just not in touch with one another. And one of the drivers of that is something I don’t really write about but I work on in the organization I run called The Economic Hardship Reporting Project and that’s spatial inequality, which is that people in cities and in rural areas and all kinds of places are very divided from each other by class, that it’s very stratified, and so you’re very unlikely now to run into people from different walks of life in big cities. You’re far less likely than you were in the past.

I’m optimistic in certain ways because I’ve started having conversations with people, partially around the book about self-blame, about them saying to themselves “what’s wrong with me” and feeling stigmatized.

And I feel like if this book achieves anything or these conversations achieve anything it’s de-shaming people scrambling to stay in the middle class, say “it’s not your fault; this is happening to other people.”

The job numbers may look like they’re up but first of all they often speak to how many jobs people are having, multiple jobs, which is not a great state of affairs for a lot of people. People now have more jobs. Each person has more jobs than they did in 2016 like individuals; it’s up by two percent or something like that so it’s substantial.

You can be looking at these job announcements and you could be thinking what’s wrong with me? Why can’t I figure it out? Why can’t I get that second or third gig? But the point is, why should we have to have all the side hustles? Why should we have to have second acts then we’re 42?

And so I’m optimistic that the conversations people could have can start to bring about self-awareness, solidarity, a better sense of themselves.

And I’ve already heard from people saying “I’ve read your book and it said ‘no stigma,’ and I told my husband when he couldn’t get his second assignment as a freelancer—his second job, not his first job—‘no stigma.’” And to me that could be just, at least, instead of a gloomy revolution, which as I write, kind of an emotional mini revolution where people talk more honestly about their situation."


Thursday, 23 August 2018

Cambridge University embroiled in second Facebook data scandal (Telegraph)

"An app created by Cambridge University academics has been shut down amid concerns it was improperly harvesting Facebook users’ data. Four million to receive Facebook warning.

Around 2012, quiz app “mypersonality” became a hit with Facebook users. After adding it to their profile, it asked several questions in return for a personality scoring which gave insight into the kind of person they were.

Little did users know, but the app was simultaneously collecting personal information from their Facebook profile and interactions.

The game was the work of Cambridge University's Dr Stillwell but was linked to Dr Aleksandr Kogan, who infamously created an app that mined the data of an estimated 87m people and sold it to Cambridge Analytica, the political consultancy.

Facebook will notify the roughly 4 million people who chose to share their Facebook information with myPersonality that it may have been misused.


Facebook launched an investigation into apps on its platform in March, after the scale of the Cambridge Analytica scandal emerged.

It has investigated thousands of apps since and suspended more than 400 over concerns about how the developers who built them used the information.

In the case of Cambridge Analytica, the Facebook data was bought with the purpose of targeting specific groups of people with political campaigns.


It is unclear whether the mypersonality app passed on any of the data on the four million Facebook users to a third party. Facebook said it is unsure whether the information of Facebook users’ friends was also collected - but will notify victims if that is the case.

The Cambridge University academic behind the app have refused to work with Facebook employees to conduct an audit. However, Facebook said it will continue to investigate exactly what was going on.

Most of the data collection happened between 2007 and 2012, when the app became a viral hit."



"This just in…

The story | Apple says it has removed an app created by Facebook that claims to keep people’s internet browsing private, because it collected too much information on other software that customers had installed on their phones. [CNBC]

Telegraph take | Facebook has just announced a ban on an app over data collection concerns. Now it is accused of creating an app that collects data on the apps installed on its customers’ smartphones. The irony will not be lost on Mark Zuckerberg, we're sure."

Facebook is rating the trustworthiness of its users on a scale from zero to 1 (WaPo)

“Facebook has begun to assign its users a reputation score, predicting their trustworthiness on a scale from zero to 1.

The previously unreported ratings system, which Facebook has developed over the past year, shows that the fight against the gaming of tech systems has evolved to include measuring the credibility of users to help identify malicious actors.

Facebook developed its reputation assessments as part of its effort against fake news, Tessa Lyons, the product manager who is in charge of fighting misinformation, said in an interview. The company, like others in tech, has long relied on its users to report problematic content — but as Facebook has given people more options, some users began falsely reporting items as untrue, a new twist on information warfare for which it had to account.

It’s “not uncommon for people to tell us something is false simply because they disagree with the premise of a story or they’re intentionally trying to target a particular publisher,” Lyons said.

Users’ trustworthiness score between zero and 1 isn’t meant to be an absolute indicator of a person’s credibility, Lyons said, nor is there is a single unified reputation score that users are assigned. Rather, the score is one measurement among thousands of new behavioral clues that Facebook now takes into account as it seeks to understand risk. Facebook is also monitoring which users have a propensity to flag content published by others as problematic and which publishers are considered trustworthy by users.

It is unclear what other criteria Facebook measures to determine a user’s score, whether all users have a score and in what ways the scores are used.

The reputation assessments come as Silicon Valley, faced with Russian interference, fake news and ideological actors who abuse the company’s policies, is recalibrating its approach to risk — and is finding untested, algorithmically driven ways to understand who poses a threat. Twitter, for example, now factors in the behavior of other accounts in a person’s network as a risk factor in judging whether a person’s tweets should be spread.

But how these new credibility systems work is highly opaque, and the companies are wary of discussing them, in part because doing so might invite further gaming — a predicament that the firms increasingly find themselves in as they weigh calls for more transparency around their decision-making.

“Not knowing how [Facebook is] judging us is what makes us uncomfortable,” said Claire Wardle, director of First Draft, a research lab within Harvard’s Kennedy School that focuses on the impact of misinformation and that is a fact-checking partner of Facebook. “But the irony is that they can’t tell us how they are judging us — because if they do, the algorithms that they built will be gamed.”

The system Facebook built for users to flag potentially unacceptable content has in many ways become a battleground. The activist Twitter account Sleeping Giants called on followers to take technology companies to task over the conservative conspiracy theorist Alex Jones and his Infowars site, leading to a flood of reports about hate speech that resulted in him and Infowars being banned from Facebook and other tech companies’ services. At the time, executives at the company questioned whether the mass reporting of Jones’s content was part of an effort to trick Facebook’s systems. False reporting has also become a tactic in far-right online harassment campaigns, experts say.

Tech companies have a long history of using algorithms to make all kinds of predictions about people, including how likely they are to buy products and whether they are using a false identity. But as misinformation proliferates, companies are making increasingly sophisticated editorial choices about who is trustworthy.

In 2015, Facebook gave users the ability to report posts they believe to be false. A tab on the upper right-hand corner of every Facebook post lets people report problematic content for a variety of reasons, including pornography, violence, unauthorized sales, hate speech and false news.

Lyons said she soon realized that many people were reporting posts as false simply because they did not agree with the content. Because Facebook forwards posts that are marked as false to third-party fact-checkers, she said it was important to build systems to assess whether the posts were likely to be false to make efficient use of fact-checkers’ time. That led her team to develop ways to assess whether the people who were flagging posts as false were themselves trustworthy.

“One of the signals we use is how people interact with articles,” Lyons said in a follow-up email. “For example, if someone previously gave us feedback that an article was false and the article was confirmed false by a fact-checker, then we might weight that person’s future false-news feedback more than someone who indiscriminately provides false-news feedback on lots of articles, including ones that end up being rated as true.”

The score is one signal among many that the company feeds into more algorithms to help it decide which stories should be reviewed.

“I like to make the joke that, if people only reported things that were false, this job would be so easy!” said Lyons in the interview. “People often report things that they just disagree with.”

She declined to say what other signals the company used to determine trustworthiness, citing concerns about tipping off bad actors.


Wednesday, 22 August 2018

President Trump’s Claims of No Collusion Are Hogwash by John Brennan (NYT)

Subtitle: "That’s why the president revoked my security clearance: to try to silence anyone who would dare challenge him."

"When Alexander Bortnikov, the head of Russia’s internal security service, told me during an early August 2016 phone call that Russia wasn’t interfering in our presidential election, I knew he was lying. Over the previous several years I had grown weary of Mr. Bortnikov’s denials of Russia’s perfidy — about its mistreatment of American diplomats and citizens in Moscow, its repeated failure to adhere to cease-fire agreements in Syria and its paramilitary intervention in eastern Ukraine, to name just a few issues.

When I warned Mr. Bortnikov that Russian interference in our election was intolerable and would roil United States-Russia relations for many years, he denied Russian involvement in any election, in America or elsewhere, with a feigned sincerity that I had heard many times before. President Vladimir Putin of Russia reiterated those denials numerous times over the past two years, often to Donald Trump’s seeming approval.

Russian denials are, in a word, hogwash.

Before, during and after its now infamous meddling in our last presidential election, Russia practiced the art of shaping political events abroad through its well-honed active measures program, which employs an array of technical capabilities, information operations and old-fashioned human intelligence spycraft. Electoral politics in Western democracies present an especially inviting target, as a variety of politicians, political parties, media outlets, think tanks and influencers are readily manipulated, wittingly and unwittingly, or even bought outright by Russian intelligence operatives. The very freedoms and liberties that liberal Western democracies cherish and that autocracies fear have been exploited by Russian intelligence services not only to collect sensitive information but also to distribute propaganda and disinformation, increasingly via the growing number of social media platforms.

Having worked closely with the F.B.I. over many years on counterintelligence investigations, I was well aware of Russia’s ability to work surreptitiously within the United States, cultivating relationships with individuals who wield actual or potential power. Like Mr. Bortnikov, these Russian operatives and agents are well trained in the art of deception. They troll political, business and cultural waters in search of gullible or unprincipled individuals who become pliant in the hands of their Russian puppet masters. Too often, those puppets are found.

In my many conversations with James Comey, the F.B.I. director, in the summer of 2016, we talked about the potential for American citizens, involved in partisan politics or not, to be pawns in Russian hands. We knew that Russian intelligence services would do all they could to achieve their objectives, which the United States intelligence community publicly assessed a few short months later were to undermine public faith in the American democratic process, harm the electability of the Democratic candidate, Hillary Clinton, and show preference for Mr. Trump. We also publicly assessed that Mr. Putin’s intelligence services were following his orders. Director Comey and I, along with the director of the National Security Agency, Adm. Michael Rogers, pledged that our agencies would share, as appropriate, whatever information was collected, especially considering the proven ability of Russian intelligence services to suborn United States citizens.

The already challenging work of the American intelligence and law enforcement communities was made more difficult in late July 2016, however, when Mr. Trump, then a presidential candidate, publicly called upon Russia to find the missing emails of Mrs. Clinton. By issuing such a statement, Mr. Trump was not only encouraging a foreign nation to collect intelligence against a United States citizen, but also openly authorizing his followers to work with our primary global adversary against his political opponent.

Such a public clarion call certainly makes one wonder what Mr. Trump privately encouraged his advisers to do — and what they actually did — to win the election. While I had deep insight into Russian activities during the 2016 election, I now am aware — thanks to the reporting of an open and free press — of many more of the highly suspicious dalliances of some American citizens with people affiliated with the Russian intelligence services.

Mr. Trump’s claims of no collusion are, in a word, hogwash.

The only questions that remain are whether the collusion that took place constituted criminally liable conspiracy, whether obstruction of justice occurred to cover up any collusion or conspiracy, and how many members of “Trump Incorporated” attempted to defraud the government by laundering and concealing the movement of money into their pockets. A jury is about to deliberate bank and tax fraud charges against one of those people, Paul Manafort, Mr. Trump’s former campaign chairman. And the campaign’s former deputy chairman, Rick Gates, has pleaded guilty to financial fraud and lying to investigators.

Mr. Trump clearly has become more desperate to protect himself and those close to him, which is why he made the politically motivated decision to revoke my security clearance in an attempt to scare into silence others who might dare to challenge him. Now more than ever, it is critically important that the special counsel, Robert Mueller, and his team of investigators be allowed to complete their work without interference — from Mr. Trump or anyone else — so that all Americans can get the answers they so rightly deserve."

John O. Brennan was director of the Central Intelligence Agency from March 2013 to January 2017.


Tuesday, 21 August 2018

Signs of Trump-Putin collaboration, starting years before the campaign? (WaPo)

"Of all the allegations contained in the “Steele dossier,” the urtext of President Trump’s possible ties to Russia, one has long stood out as the most compromising, because it would be evidence of a political and business relationship between Trump and Russia that predated his campaign for the White House.

“An intelligence exchange,” former British intelligence officer Christopher Steele writes, “had been running between” Trump’s team and the Kremlin, with the direct knowledge of Russian President Vladimir Putin. “Within this context Putin’s priority requirement had been for intelligence on the activities, business and otherwise, in the US of leading Russian oligarchs and their families. Trump and his associates duly had obtained and supplied the Kremlin with this information.”

The precise nature and location of that “intelligence exchange” have never been fully explained. But journalist Craig Unger thinks he may have found it, running out of the offices of Bayrock Group, a real estate development company that operated in Trump Tower in Manhattan in the early 2000s and partnered with the Trump Organization.

Based on his own reporting and the investigative work of a former federal prosecutor, Unger posits that through Bayrock, Trump was “indirectly providing Putin with a regular flow of intelligence on what the oligarchs were doing with their money in the U.S.”

As the theory goes, Putin wanted to keep tabs on the billionaires — some of them former mobsters — who had made their post-Cold War fortunes on the backs of industries once owned by the state. The oligarchs, as well as other new-moneyed elites, were stashing their money in foreign real estate, including Trump properties, presumably beyond Putin’s reach.

Trump, knowingly or otherwise, may have struck a side deal with the Kremlin, Unger argues: He would secretly rat out his customers to Putin, who would allow them to keep buying Trump properties. Trump got rich. Putin got eyes on where the oligarchs had hidden their wealth. Everybody won.

Thus Trump succeeded in business with Russia by what could most charitably be described as willful ignorance. Take the money. Don’t ask too many questions.

And he’d had a lot of practice at that, Unger writes. Trump’s burgeoning real estate empire was fueled in the 1980s by another privileged class, Russian gangsters who appear to have used Trump properties to launder their ill-gotten gains, Unger alleges.

It is this nexus between Trump, Putin, and wealthy mobsters and oligarchs — often the same people — that is Unger’s fixation in his latest book, “House of Trump, House of Putin: The Untold Story of Donald Trump and the Russian Mafia.”

That subtitle is a bit misleading. There is much in Unger’s thoroughly researched narrative that has been told, including in the pages of The Washington Post. Close followers of the byzantine Trump-Russia saga will recognize many of the names and events that fill the pages of Unger’s book.

And yet the story Unger weaves with those earlier accounts and his original reporting is fresh, illuminating and more alarming than the intelligence channel described in the Steele dossier.

Unger believes that Trump was compromised by Russia as early as the 1980s, when the Russian money laundering through his properties probably began. “It’s hard to imagine Donald Trump had no knowledge whatsoever about what was going on,” Unger writes, as hundreds of millions in Russian investment flowed into Trump’s coffers. Trump evinced an “eagerness to turn a blind eye to practices that allowed the Russian mob to launder money,” Unger continues.

There’s never been a proven allegation that Trump was involved in or knew of money laundering through his businesses. But remember, Unger implores, Trump worked at the upper end of Manhattan real estate development. That’s not to say he engaged in organized crime, but he certainly knew what it looked like.

The richer Trump got, the deeper he sank into the Russian criminal underworld, which after the fall of the Soviet Union rose up to form the ruling class, now under Putin’s control.

Unger spends much of his story connecting the dots between Trump and individual alleged Russian mobsters, such as David Bogatin, the pioneer of a gas tax scam, who bought five apartments in Trump Tower in 1984 for $6 million.

Not all the connections run so directly. One famous gangster, Semion Mogilevich, who was renowned for his talent of making dirty money look clean, looms over the entire narrative like an orchestra conductor. Mogilevich, whom FBI agents have called the “boss of bosses,” directed the expansion of the Russian mob into the United States in the early 1990s. And although there is no definitive evidence connecting him directly to Trump, according to Unger, a mountain of facts places him in Trump’s corner of the real estate business.

As Unger tells it, Trump can’t be totally unaware of the criminality surrounding him, and even if he were, that ignorance is no defense. Trump allowed himself to become compromised by Russia, years before he seriously entertained running for public office.

The men who used Trump for their illicit purposes ensnared him. “They had ensured that he was beholden to Russia’s money, and its power,” Unger writes. “All largely unseen. With deniability.”

There is abundant evidence in Unger’s book that Trump made his business infrastructure — his condos, his developments, his very name — available to criminals and oligarchs trying to hide their ill-gotten gains, whether from tax collectors, investigators or the president of Russia. And that’s a form of collusion, too.

Unger sees the Kremlin’s intervention in the 2016 presidential election, which U.S. intelligence officials have said was ordered by Putin himself, as the latest manipulation of Trump by Russia, and the most consequential. Again, readers will find no evidence that Trump knew of or participated in the Russian campaign, which every U.S. intelligence agency has concluded aimed to help Trump win.

But Unger is convinced that the Russians succeeded in their goal because they had a willing target, who seized on false news stories, propaganda and unflattering Democratic emails that Russia disseminated. Trump weaponized Russian disinformation without ever questioning its provenance. He even asked for more when he publicly told Russia to “find” Hillary Clinton’s personal emails.

“Given Trump’s narrow victory in states such as Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, and Michigan — states that were predicted to vote Democratic but were won by Trump with a margin of less than 1 percent, and which put him over the top in the electoral college, it is more than likely that the Russian interference made the difference,” Unger writes.

If that’s true, then Trump the politician has replicated his business model with profound results: Both he and Putin have come out winners."