Calls come as center's director, Biden's secretary of state nominee, undergoes Senate confirmation process
A good-government watchdog is calling on secretary of state nominee Antony Blinken to disclose any foreign-funding sources for the University of Pennsylvania’s Penn Biden Center, where Blinken served as director, as part of his Senate confirmation vetting process.
The National Legal and Policy Center (NPLC) is arguing thatany foreign money that made its way into the Penn Biden Center could pose a conflict of interest for Blinken, who served as the center’s director from 2017 to 2019 and received a more than $79,000 salary, according to his financial-disclosure records. The watchdog group said the university also saw a significant spike in contributions from China after the Penn Biden Center opened in 2017, raising questions about whether the funding had any connection to the policy center.
While President-elect Joe Biden has vowed to tighten ethics standards for his incoming administration, the Penn Biden Center’s lack of financial candor raises questions about the Biden cabinet’s commitment to transparency as Blinken testifies before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Tuesday afternoon.
“The Penn Biden Center is the poster child for revolving-door conflicts of interest,” said Tom Anderson, director of the NPLC’s Government Integrity Project. “It’s time they disclose their donors and allow the American people the opportunity to evaluate whether any lines have been crossed.”
The Penn Biden Center was founded by Joe Biden at the University of Pennsylvania in 2017. Biden’s other policy-research institute at the University of Delaware has faced similar criticism over a lack of transparency and has no plans to disclose its donors after the president-elect takes office. Both organizations have served as cabinets-in-waiting, employing former Biden advisers who are now expected to join his administration.
Stephen MacCarthy, a spokesman for the University of Pennsylvania, told the Washington Free Beacon that the Penn Biden Center “is funded entirely with University funds” and doesn’t engage in fundraising.
“The University has never solicited any gifts for the Center. Since its inception in 2017 there have been three unsolicited gifts (from two donors) which combined total $1,100. Both donors are Americans,” said MacCarthy.
MacCarthy declined to discuss additional details of the center’s funding, or the sudden spike in donations from China, on the record.
Foreign contributions to the University of Pennsylvania tripled since the Penn Biden Center’s soft opening in March 2017, rising from $31 million in 2016 to over $100 million in 2019. The largest foreign contributor was China, which significantly increased its gifts to the university after the Penn Biden Center opened.
The University of Pennsylvania took in around $61 million in gifts and contracts from China between 2017 and 2019, according to records from the Department of Education. This was a substantial uptick from the prior four years, when the university received $19 million from China.
Many of the Chinese contributions were listed as coming from “anonymous” sources, according to the university’s disclosure records. Between March 2017 and the end of 2019, the university received a total of $22 million in anonymous gifts from China—a spike from less than $5 million during the preceding four years.
Blinken’s work outside of the Penn Biden Center also involved China and university funding.
Blinken cofounded the consulting firm WestExec, which helped U.S. universities raise money from China without running afoul of Pentagon grant requirements, the Free Beacon reported last month. WestExec scrubbed the details of this work from its website over the summer.
Anderson said his group is preparing to file a supplement to a Department of Justice complaint filed against the University of Pennsylvania last year.
The NLPC’s complaint asked the DOJ to look into whether the University of Pennsylvania or the Penn Biden Center violated the Foreign Agent Registration Act by accepting foreign funding in exchange for promoting the interests of foreign governments. Anderson said the new complaint will include Blinken’s work assisting universities that receive funding from China.
Sen. Robert Menendez (N.J.), the senior Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, told reporters that the committee will likely vote on Blinken’s confirmation on Monday.
A coalition of conservative leaders has written a letter to House Ways and Means Committee Chair Rep. Richard Neal (D-MA), pointing out that since he had stated the need for investigating criminal wrongdoing by public officials, he should ask for former Vice President Biden’s bank records.
In December 2019, Neal, who had been calling for President Trump to release his tax returns, released eight years of tax records, saying that the move came “in the spirit of transparency, as the chair of the committee with jurisdiction over taxes.”
George Landrith, president of Frontiers of Freedom, Richard Manning, president of Americans for Limited Government, Andrew Langer, president of the Institute for Liberty, Seton Motley, president of Less Government, Horace Cooper, Co-Chairman Project 21, Saul Anuzis, president of 60 Plus, and Dick Patten, president of the American Business Defense Council, began their letter stating:
“Your recent comments about the need to investigate criminal wrongdoing by public officials and the importance of transparency to American government have not gone unnoticed. As you know, allegations of just such wrongdoing and the lack of transparency have arisen over the last two months based on emails found on a personal computer belonging to Hunter Biden — the son of Vice President Joseph Biden — a computer whose authenticity has been established by the FBI.”
After delineating alleged acts by former Vice President Biden, the letter continues, “We hope that you would welcome the chance to assist Vice President Biden in laying to rest any allegations that he was using his office and official travel to influence foreign governments or entities to benefit his son’s businesses. And to answer this question: Was any of that income received by Vice President Biden or other family members?”
How do you make a case against capitalism while appearing to defend consumers’ rights and values? You make a movie called The Social Dilemma.
The movie is cleverly done. It purports to oppose manipulation by Big Tech of social media users, calling out advertisers who manipulate people for profit. At the same time, the movie engages in its own manipulation. How does it do so? To quote Elizabeth Barrett Browning, “let me count the ways.”
State the credentials only of the people on your side
Throughout the ninety-four-minute movie, various commentators argue that social media have done great harm. In every case but one, the commentators criticize social media, warning us of its many harms. The movie states quite prominently, without exception, the credentials for all the negative commentators, and the credentials are impressive. The main commentator throughout is Tristan Harris, identified as a former design ethicist at Google and also as president of the Center for Humane Technology. Another commentator is Sandy Parakilas, identified as a former platform operations manager at Facebook and a former product manager at Uber. Yet another is Justin Rosenstein, whom the movie identifies as a major player at Google and then Facebook. A fourth is Shoshana Zuboff, an emeritus professor at Harvard Business School and author of The Age of Surveillance Capitalism. That’s not a complete list.
In the whole movie, only one person expresses skepticism about the idea that manipulation by social media is sui generis. He expresses this view at a panel in which he challenges the aforementioned Tristan Harris. This skeptic points out that newspapers and print media also played on people’s addictions and ability to be influenced. He notes that when television came along, it did so as well, but in different ways. This, according to the skeptic, is just the next thing.
Here’s what’s most interesting about this skeptic. Only because I’m an economist do I know who he is. “That’s Kevin Murphy,” I said to my wife, who was watching the movie with me. Who’s Kevin Murphy? You wouldn’t know from watching the movie. You had to pay close attention even to know it was Kevin Murphy. I had to pause and rewind and only then did I notice that he had a name card in front of him. Probably not one viewer in fifty notices that, and probably not one viewer in a thousand knows who he is. So let me tell you. Kevin M. Murphy is a star economist at the University of Chicago. He won the John Bates Clark Medal in 1997, given in those days only once every two years to the most outstanding American economist under age forty. He’s the only business school professor ever to win a MacArthur genius award. But the movie tells you none of that.
That’s how the movie deals with controversy: allow only one person to challenge the narrative and don’t even tell the viewer who he is. The basic narrative is that Facebook, Google, and other social media manipulate us. But when it comes to manipulation, those media have nothing on the makers of The Social Dilemma.
Hint at the problem without ever showing the problem
The bad actors in the movie’s narrative are advertisers and the wealthy social media firms. At one point in the movie, Parakilas states, “It’s not like they’re [the social media companies] trying to benefit us. Right? We’re just zombies and they want us to look at more ads so they can make more money.” What’s the problem with that? You might think in a standard-length movie, the critics would try to say why. Here’s the amazing thing: they don’t.
So let’s fill in the missing reasoning. Think about why companies would pay social media firms to advertise. It’s to get people to buy their products. If advertising on social media were seen as completely ineffective, companies would pay precisely zero for advertising. The fact that they keep paying and that social media companies get rich by selling advertising, month in, month out, means that advertising is effective.
Wouldn’t you want the critics in the movie to then point to how advertising manipulates our tastes for products, causing us to buy things we don’t “really” want? Amazingly, they don’t.
The closest the movie comes to making a case is near the end of the movie, when Rosenstein states:
Corporations are using powerful artificial intelligence to outsmart us and figure out how to pull our attention to what they want us to look at, rather than the things that are most consistent with our goals and our values and our lives.
But why would they do that? Isn’t it easier to sell us things that are consistent with our goals, our values, and our lives?
The critics point out numerous times that the companies are continuously refining their algorithms to learn more and more about you. They imply that that’s bad without ever saying why. There’s an old saying whose origin is unknown that goes as follows: “Half the money I spend on advertising is wasted, and the trouble is I don’t know which half.”
I think we can all agree that waste is bad. So isn’t it good rather than bad that advertisers and social media are continually honing their tools to put in front of your eyes items that you really have a high probability of buying? They aren’t there yet. Sometimes when I Google an item I’m thinking of buying, within what seems to be minutes an ad for that item shows up on my Facebook page. It’s almost always mildly annoying, either because the advertised item is a brand I don’t want or because I was just exploring and have decided that I don’t want that item at all. Which means that not half, but perhaps 90 percent, of that advertising was wasted on me.
Some people find it creepy that advertisers know so much about us. I don’t, although I understand the feeling. But think back to how advertisers tried to reach us before social media existed. Imagine that you live in a Jewish household. Which kind of advertising by mail would you dislike more: mailers premised on the assumption that you’re Jewish or mailers premised on the assumption that your household is Muslim, Catholic, or Buddhist?
Make up history
In one segment of the movie, Harris contrasts social media with previous innovations, claiming that no one objected to bicycles on the grounds that those who used them would spend less time with their families. Neither he nor the movie presents any evidence for his claim. But here’s what I found with just a little search (on Google, by the way) about early attitudes toward the bicycle. In a 2001 book titled The Ride to Modernity: The Bicycle in Canada, 1869–1900, author Glen Norcliffe quotes an essay by Heather Watts on early cycling in Nova Scotia. Watts writes:
At a time when higher education, women’s suffrage, and the movement for dress reform were all topics of heated discussion, the bicycle became one more liberating influence on the restricted lifestyle of Victorian women. . . . This element of freedom and independence greatly appealed to women. They were no longer left at home, but could go on outings with their women friends or accompany their young man on an equal basis. Once tasted, the new freedom was hard to abandon.
If bicycling was a liberating force for women, and if women were able to ride with their women friends, is there much doubt about whether some critics at the time claimed that bicycling women would spend less time with their families?
Play up the downside of social media with little attention to the upside
I do think the movie scored a direct hit on a huge downside of social media: the purported effects on people between the ages of ten and nineteen. It presented some disturbing data about the effects on young girls, especially those ages ten to fourteen, of media such as Instagram that encourage them to compare their faces and bodies with what seem to be regarded as ideal body types. Here are two shocking statistics about what has happened since 2011, when Facebook and other social media had become widespread: the number of girls aged ten to fourteen per 100,000 who are admitted to hospitals for cutting themselves or harming themselves in other ways has risen 189 percent, and the number of girls aged ten to fourteen per 100,000 who have committed suicide has risen 151 percent.
One critic, Jonathan Haidt, a psychology professor at New York University’s Stern School of Business, gives a straightforward solution: set an age below which your child is not allowed to use social media and limit your child’s use of such media. To say it’s straightforward is not to say it’s easy. It’s probably hard, but parenting is hard.
To their credit, the critics do mention some upsides to social media. Harris says you can get on your smartphone and have a car show up quickly. Critic Tim Kendall, identified as the former president of Pinterest, notes that social media have helped people find long-lost relatives and organ donors. That’s pretty big.
But there are many more upsides. I can find some half-forgotten poem from high school when I remember only one sentence. That happened just last month with this poem. We can check a fact, we can follow friends, not just family, with whom we had lost touch, and we can compare airfares and make airline reservations in minutes, without either the use of a travel agent or even a phone call. I’ve just scratched the surface.
Discuss the upside as if it’s the downside
Critic Bailey Richardson, an early team member of Instagram, says that when the Internet first started, it was a weird, wacky place with lots of creativity. She recognizes that creative things still happen on the Internet, but now, she says, it feels like a “giant mall.”
That’s bad? Some people whom I’m close to have restricted diets because of various ailments. For them, shopping online has been wonderful. One person in particular needs to keep gluten out of her diet. And she is able to find appealing, tasteful, gluten-free items online much more easily than if she had to shop in her semi-urban, semi-rural part of the country. Imagine if she lived in, say, rural Nevada. Shopping online could be a godsend.
Attack wealth when it’s not that of your allies
At many points in the movie, the critics point out disdainfully how wealthy the social media companies are. That raises two questions. First, is there some chance they got that way by making things we want more available? Answer: yes. Second, how wealthy are these critics? Answer: very. Critic and investor Roger McNamee, for example, is a billionaire. Justin Rosenstein’s net worth is $150 million. The other critics are multimillionaires. Honestly earned wealth is not a mark against the wealthy, whether the wealthy be social media critics or social media firms.
Lay out your real agenda, with no evidence, at the end
Near the end of the movie, probably many viewers are hooked. Then we get to what seems to be the agenda of the critics and the movie makers: to end, or highly regulate, free markets.
Zuboff states, “These markets undermine democracy and undermine freedom and they should be outlawed.” The movie director possibly forgot to insert a sentence or two telling us which markets Zuboff is referring to. Whatever markets she wants to end, that would be a major hit on capitalism.
Rosenstein complains that social media corporations go unregulated “as if somehow magically each corporation acting in its selfish interest is going to produce the best result.” One gets the idea that he’s never read Adam Smith, who indeed did arguein The Wealth of Nations that “it is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own self-interest.”
Rosenstein also says mining the earth and pulling oil out of the ground are bad for humans. He claims as evidence of a warped, for-profit system that trees and whales are worth more dead than alive. And then he jumps the shark, or maybe I should say the whale, by saying “we’re the tree; we’re the whale.” How exactly social media companies kill us and how exactly they gain from dead consumers he leaves as an exercise for the viewer.
Various friends told me that The Social Dilemma would upset me. It did. As noted, I found the facts about young girls very disturbing. The biggest upset, though, is that a bunch of critics and a movie director manipulate viewers into not knowing that there is another side to this debate, understate the benefits of social media, and use the movie as a vehicle for a rant against capitalism. Other than that, the movie was great.
Last month, I wrote a column highlighting how Elon Musk’s lack of transparency with issues surrounding Tesla and SpaceX would likely lead to more fatalities and security concerns in the years to come.
At the time, front and center in the news was Elon Musk’s short-circuiting of a National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) investigation into a fatality-causing Tesla Model X crash, as well as the ostensible three-year cover-up of the reasons for a massive SpaceX explosion. As any regulatory policy analyst will tell you, there are always reasons for fearing sunlight, and they are generally never good ones.
As the breaking news of the day from this week has shown, the case of Elon Musk is of no exception.
Reports from last night indicate that on Tuesday night, two teenagers were killed in Fort Lauderdale due to their Tesla Model S bursting into flames. This incident marks the third Tesla fatality in months.
The NTSB is again investigating the situation. This time, it would be best for Elon Musk to cooperate with their wishes, refraining from hanging the phone up on them or posting non-NTSB vetted crash information on his website. The billionaire can continue posting information that leads readers to think the fault lies with the drivers, not Tesla itself, but with each passing incident, his story will have fewer and fewer believers. There seem to be clear quality control issues on the corporate side. The sooner Musk allows regulators to do their job uninterrupted, the sooner these fatalities will likely come to an end.
The ostensible consequences that come with Musk self-investigating his problems on the Tesla side are bad enough, but things do not get any better when analyzing the recent news surrounding SpaceX’s possible transparency problems.
While Musk’s internal review found a supplier-provided strut, not personal imprecision, was to blame for one of his many rocket explosions, a NASA report that came out three years later contradicts Musk’s reasoning. It seems to blame SpaceX for using a lower-grade part without adequate screening and testing.
Even worse, a Washington Post report from this week demonstrates how Congress and NASA safety advisers fear that a tragedy of equal or worse magnitude will occur with astronauts on board – a milestone that SpaceX still plans on achieving by the end of the year.
SpaceX has been adamant about getting more propellant for its buck by shrinking the fuel in cold temperatures so more can be loaded in tanks, but according to experts, the company may do so at the expense of human lives. For Musk’s plan to work, SpaceX will need to load the propellant just before launch time while astronauts are on board – a huge problem when considering the reasonable possibility of it sparking and exploding. As a result, A NASA advisory group cautioned that Musk’s “load-and-go” strategy is “contrary to booster safety criteria that has been in place for over 50 years.” Another expert stated that NASA “never could get comfortable with the safety risks” because “when you’re loading densified propellants, it is not an inherently stable situation.” Yet Musk is still carrying on as if nothing happened, just as he is with Tesla despite the egregious concerns that come with it. Just how different would the unsettling events in Musk’s orbit be if the NTSB and NASA managed to conduct investigations promptly and without political pressure? We may never know, but the state of play would almost certainly be better than it currently is.
With each passing week, more and more lives continue to become jeopardized by Musk’s companies. Policymakers and auditors must begin addressing the problems at hand with a greater sense of urgency before yet another tragedy occurs. What’s done is done, but that does not mean these problems cannot be rectified now before the start of darker, gloomier chapters. The American people deserve better.
Few individuals would take comfort in Wall Street spearheading an investigation into its own misuse of bailout funds or Congress self-investigating itself for political corruption. Why then do so many tech enthusiasts look the other way each time Elon Musk unapologetically takes part in similar grotesque conflicts-of-interest?
At the end of last month, a Tesla Model X self-driving car crashed, causing a fatality and prompting an investigation from the National Transportation Safety Board. Given how his company’s stock price recently plummeted due to its high debt, numerous vehicle recalls, and credit downgrade, Musk had clear reason to privately seek prompt closure of this report. But instead of letting this critical investigation run its course, the Tesla CEO irresponsibly acted on impulse and short-circuited the NTSB’s incomplete analysis.
Through a statement, Tesla alleged last week that the driver received several warnings before the crash and had enough time to put his hands on the wheel — essentially, putting blame on the deceased victim and little to none on itself. This move prompted Continue reading
By Margot Cleveland • The Federalist
For six years, the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform has fought for the release of documents related to Operation Fast and Furious — the botched gun-running sting that put nearly 2,000 firearms into the hands of criminals and Mexican drug cartels members, including the semi-automatic rifle used to kill Customs and Border Patrol Agent Brian Terry.
Attorney General Jeff Sessions committed Wednesday to release the requested documents and to “conduct a new search” of government databases and to provide previously withheld responsive documents or to “certify the completeness of the preceding production.” The Trump Administration’s promise to redo the search of government files likely sought to assuage the House Oversight Committee, which said during litigation with the Obama administration that it did not have “sufficient trust” in the Department of Justice to take the agency’s word it had complied.
“The Department of Justice under my watch is committed to transparency and the rule of law,” Sessions said in a statement announcing the DOJ’s conditional settlement agreement with the House Oversight Committee. “This settlement agreement is an important step to make sure that the public finally receives all the facts related to Operation Fast and Furious.” Continue reading
New details on the Administration’s spin and stall strategy.
The IRS targeting of conservative groups has now become a story about the cover-up. More than a year after the scandal became public, the most transparent Administration in history has done everything in its power to spin the story, stymie Congressional investigators and run out the clock.
Take the latest moment of hilarity, er, clarity from the Justice Department, in which a communications aide to Attorney General Eric Holder mistakenly called Republicans on the HouseOversight and Government Reform Committee when he meant to call Democrats. The aide, Brian Fallon, told staffers he was calling to see if they could leak information to friendly reporters and give the Justice Department a chance to comment before the majority got their hands on it. Continue reading
by CJ Ciaramella • Free Beacon
A government watchdog group announced Monday that it is suing a dozen federal agencies for improperly delaying Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests for White House review.
Cause of Action is suing 10 cabinet agencies, as well as the Internal Revenue Service and White House Office of Management and Budget, for failing to release documents regarding how the White House reviews agency FOIA requests.
Cause of Action uncovered an April 2009 White House memo that instructed federal agencies to consult with White House Office of General Counsel on “all document requests that may involve documents with White House equities.”
Seeking more information, the watchdog group filed FOIA requests with numerous federal agencies for their policies on White House equities. The agencies named in the lawsuit delayed responding to the watchdog by eight months—and some as long as 14 months—according to the lawsuit.
Cause of Action alleges that the White House review amounts to an improper effort to block and delay FOIA requests. Continue reading
The White House is aggressively monitoring and reviewing Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) disclosures, causing significant delays in some cases, a study by the watchdog group Cause of Action found.
FOIA documents obtained by Cause of Action show White House reviews delayed responses to investigative journalists, watchdog groups, and even congressional investigations.
One White House review delayed response to a FOIA request by a Los Angeles Times reporter by at least two years.
The study, based on records obtained from four federal agencies, found at least 18 FOIA requests were sent to the White House for review between 2012 and 2013.
Cause of Action is still waiting for responses from 16 other agencies. Some of those requests have been pending for more than 200 days.
As previously reported by the Washington Free Beacon, transparency advocates and journalists worry increased review of FOIA requests is politicizing the process and slowing it down. Continue reading
Toni Townes-Whitley, Princeton class of ’85, is senior vice president at CGI Federal, which earned the no-bid contract to build the $678 million Obamacare enrollment website at Healthcare.gov. CGI Federal is the U.S. arm of a Canadian company.
Townes-Whitley and her Princeton classmate Michelle Obama are both members of the Association of Black Princeton Alumni. Toni Townes ’85 is a onetime policy analyst with the General Accounting Office and previously served in the Peace Corps in Gabon, West Africa.
When I entered Congress, I swore an oath to support and defend the Constitution, and I have followed through on that promise. The political elites of both parties don’t like what I’m doing. They have a vision of government that is very different from the vision laid out in the Constitution. As the elites see it, the American people are their subjects, and a benevolent privileged few—standing above the law—must watch over the rest of society.
History and logic show us that no matter how “good” the leaders are, unrestrained government invites corruption and cronyism. On the whole, government power always benefits the wealthy and well-connected at the expense of others. Some of the reasons are just common sense. It costs a lot of money to lobby Washington. Even the best-intentioned government official cannot sort out what’s right when he spends most of his time hobnobbing with one percent of society.
Wherever government power has proliferated, societies have become poorer, crueler, and less productive. The extreme examples are found in Communist states, but we need not look that far. Europe is wracked by economic chaos and civil strife because decades of big government bred dependence, resentment, and division among its peoples. In my own state of Michigan, bankrupt Detroit is a victim of the corruption and failed incentives that accompany too much government. Continue reading
President Barack Obama and, for that matter, most of America seem woefully ignorant about a scandal unfolding at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. As hard as it is to believe, outgoing Administrator Lisa Jackson actually appears to have had agency personnel create a fictitious employee by the name of “Richard Windsor” so that Jackson could appropriate the Windsor’s email address for her own purposes.
We’re not talking about some alias to be used for personal correspondence but a totally false identity in whose name official business was allegedly conducted created specifically to avoid federal record-keeping and disclosure requirements. And none of this would ever have been uncovered were it not for the courage of a still anonymous whistleblower and the Competitive Enterprise Institute’s Christopher Horner, an attorney with the legal smarts and experience needed to unravel it all. Continue reading